The Smoke Gardener's club

Carol Bensimon

a NOVEL EXCERPT

Translated from the portuguese by zoë perry

 

 

T here was so much he wanted to understand. Blood moon. The San Andreas Fault. That thing that looks like smoke and they call the Milky Way and that you can see when you’re far from the city lights. Sand flies. Taxes on tips. Certain tattoos. A female surfer with a silver-haired ponytail. Cyclists in day-glo outfits traveling down Highway 1. Bumperstickers that say “Vietnam Vet.” Cannabidiol and endocannabinoids. Really understand. Places where suddenly all the trees die. His mother’s death. The girl who makes jewelry and her pressing message about karma. Spirituality.

Arthur is sitting inside a car on the North Coast of California. He paid eighteen hundred dollars for it, two weeks ago, in Los Angeles. A huge gold Grand Marquis with imitation woodgrain trim, a car owned by people soon to be too old to drive. There’d been a sign scrawled in big letters stuck to the rear windshield with blue tape: “For Sale, all money goes to my girlfriend.” And the girlfriend was actually there as Arthur counted out the hundred-dollar bills, the chubby man holding her hand, either out of happiness or despair, the three of them standing in an empty street, a little too close to Skid Row, where meth addicts lived in dome tents.

He is unable to think very clearly about Los Angeles right now, or about Brazil or his dad or Elisa, because he’s in this other place, at Point Arena pier in Mendocino County, and this place has swallowed up everything else. He continues to sit there, in the parking lot. In front of him is a small beach, sandwiched between monstrous cliffs by geological processes unknown to him. Sheer gashes in the rock at least make it clear that none of it happened peacefully. “The Earth doesn’t dance,” he declares, scowling at himself, aware he’s already fallen prey to a Californian frame of mind his cynicism wants desperately to reject. The Earth expels, devours, convulses. Sometimes it all works out, sometimes not.

It’s a quarter to three in the afternoon and not a cloud in the sky. This is a town of fewer than five hundred inhabitants. People entertain themselves with what they have. Nearly the entire southern end of Point Arena is abandoned. East Ridge Realty, with sheets of plywood on the doors and windows. Gianinni’s Italian restaurant, with a “For Sale” sign next to an oil portrait of Jesus Christ. The senior center. The Sea Shell Inn with its bare rooms and two whales graffitied on the wall.

Arthur is there waiting for his three o’clock appointment. He can’t exactly feel at ease when he’s about to meet someone he’s never seen before. Tamara was the one who set it all up for him. She said: “there’s somebody I think can help you.” Being helped is another thing that makes him uneasy, so Arthur would rather not think about it in those terms, as someone begging to be taught, but perhaps as an exchange, a fair and equitable exchange, though he doesn’t have a clue what he might have to offer a seventy-year old guy named Dusk.

He chuckles at the name as he gets out of the car. Dusk. So California. He feels like part of that landscape, because the warmth of the sun suddenly hits his arms, and the wind is blowing, wreaking havoc on the hair of two girls taking pictures with a cell phone. The two of them glance at Arthur as he walks toward the lone building on the small beach, with the exception of an abandoned building covered with sheet metal, up ahead, near the highway. He reaches the long wooden structure which houses a handful of shops and businesses, two or three of which are for rent. As he walks up the stairs to the Chowder House, he wonders if Dusk will look like a hippie, a tough guy, or a mixture of both. Number three. This is Mendocino County, after all, and the entire country knows what that means.

 

 

Some aging faces seem to cling to their versions from forty years ago, as if rubbing in just how relative time can be. Dusk has that kind of face. He dips his spoon into the still-steaming soup. Arthur can picture him perfectly, leaving Texas back in 1971 with a backpack and those same glasses.

“I wasn’t prepared for free love or septic tanks in my early twenties,” Dusk said. “Nobody was.”

Droplets hang in his bushy gray mustache. Dusk wipes his mouth with the cloth napkin. Arthur tries his enchiladas. Three bites and the whole inside of his mouth turns into a fiery cave crying out for something cool. This was the last time he’d give enchiladas a shot. Maybe any Mexican food.

He asks the waitress for more water. He still hasn’t managed to put his question to Dusk. He’s letting the old hippie speak freely, about how he went to San Francisco and all he found was sorrow there, so he packed up his things again and went up Highway 1 with a bunch of spaced-out mystics who founded a commune. No one knew how to do anything. Saw. Dig. Plant. Fish. The more Dusk talks, the quieter Arthur grows.

“Nobody knew where the line was between the collective and the individual. Anybody who started to make a little art was automatically rejected by the group, like ‘you shouldn’t get wrapped up in your little bourgeois traumas.’”

“Were you some sort of artist?”

“Nah. I mean, I tried my hand at sculpting. I even showed some talent, but I was lousy at the human form. I liked owls. You know the one with the white face like a heart?” He laughs. “I was sort of obsessed with owls. But there you go. In the commune, I felt guilty for even thinking about why that was.”

“What you needed was a therapist, not a hippie commune.”

This time Dusk didn’t laugh. Maybe he’s the kind of guy who only laughs at his own jokes. Arthur couldn’t know for sure, but all this talking without almost a single question does at least reveal a tendency for embarrassing narcissism, something akin to the conviction that his experience on Earth is proving much richer than that of most humans.

“How long did you stay there?”

“1995. Then I went back after everybody else left and stayed until 2013. Yeah.” Dusk leans back in his chair as if ready to leave. “Time plays tricks on you.”

The waitress places another pitcher of water on the table. Arthur fills his glass.

“Are you driving a gold Grand Marquis?” Dusk asks.

Arthur feels the entire lining of his mouth burn. He shouldn’t have tried the enchiladas again.

“How did you know?”

He takes a drink of water.

“Cops drive that car.”

He’d heard remarks like that before. The police really did use that car for many years. You could see it in the movies, even in Brazil. The car. The cop eating donuts in the morning. The cop getting out with his aviator sunglasses and asking to see someone’s license and registration. But what was the big deal, anyway?

“Look, I didn’t have much time to choose.”

“Were you in a hurry?”

“I just don’t really care, you know? It’s just a car.”

“I know what you mean. I don’t give a damn about mine. It’s all scratched up.”

“Did you see me pulling in?”

“Oh, no. No. This is a small town.”

Arthur snickers.

“Well that’s weird, because I’m not staying in Point Arena. I only came out here to meet you.”

“I know, I know. Motel in Fort Bragg, right? It’s a small county.”

Dusk looks at Arthur’s plate, and points to the tortillas buried beneath a thick, red sauce. “Looks like you didn’t care too much for that.”

 

 

Out in the parking lot, the sun beats down on him again. He can hear the sound of the ocean and the hoarse barking of a dog. Dusk walks in front. The silver hair pulled back into a scrawny ponytail is still the same tangled blonde hair from 1971. That man lives alone now, somewhere about ten miles outside of town, in the mountains. No doubt a simple house, with some second- and thirdgrowth redwoods, accessible by a dusty road, posted “Private.” It’s probably protected by a wooden privacy fence, with no gaps. Maybe there’s a greenhouse in the back.

“Wait,” Arthur says.

Dusk turns around.

“I need to ask you something.”

He has the look of someone who isn’t exactly curious.

“Tamara said you could show me your garden. Harvest season starts in the next few weeks, right? I can help. See, I want to learn to grow. I’ve got some experience, I grew a little back in Brazil, got caught, it’s a long story.”

“I thought you were a teacher.”

Arthur laughs.

“I am. You know better than me that’s not exactly a paradox around here.”

The old hippie takes the car key from his pocket, which Arthur interprets as a bad sign. He’s going to leave. Something went wrong.

“What do you teach?”

“History.”

“And don’t you have classes to teach in Brazil?”

Arthur doesn’t know exactly what to say. He would have, if he hadn’t lost his job because of the pot plants. But maybe it’s not a good idea to talk about that now, standing there in the middle of the parking lot. Plus he’d never mentioned to Tamara that the school where he worked had fired him overnight, and that that’s directly related to why he’s there, in Northern California.

“Not anytime soon, let’s put it that way. I got involved in a messy situation. A major injustice.”

“Sounds like you’re full of long stories.”

Arthur feels the tension defuse and cracks a smile. Too soon.

“I’m gonna be honest, Arthur. I don’t think I’m the person you should be looking up. All I grow are tomatillos. Any chance you want to learn to grow tomatillos?”

Tomatillos?”

“Do you know what tomatillos are?”

“Is that some sort of code?”

Dusk chuckles.

“Is that how you plan on talking to folks around here? Good luck, man.”

And the next minute, Dusk climbs into a pickup truck that looks like a war relic, backs up, and disappears down one of the those little county backroads.