Saturday, early August.
The whole world is wilting.
Shriveling. Giving up. Dying.
Maybe not the whole world. Somewhere, I guess, it’s not ninety-one degrees at four in the morning. I would like to be in that place. I would like to be somewhere, anywhere, that life feels possible and not smothered under a layer of heat and hopelessness. I’m tired of waking up every two hours in a puddle of sweat, and tired of every day discovering there’s something else that’s ruined or broken or falling apart. Yesterday it was the TV. Today, it’s the ceiling fan in my room, the brokenness of which I discovered when I woke up wondering where the air went. I slipped out the sliding glass door into the backyard hoping for a miracle of something below eighty, and I now realize I can add the yard to the list of minor tragedies that make up my life these days.
The solar luminaries my dad put in last summer give just enough light that I can see the disaster it’s become in this heat wave. Except I can’t completely blame the heat. Honestly, it’s looked like this for a long time. Dad’s momentary burst of involvement via the luminaries and also painting the lawn furniture was just that — momentary. For about seventeen minutes last summer our family worked the way it’s supposed to. The problems with the yard are just a symptom, really.
Everything out here reminds me of something. I can almost see the outline of my mom crouched at the base of the apple tree, mulching the roots, her blond hair held back with a blue bandanna; the curve of her neck, elegant. Even just a few months ago, when she was passing-out drunk, she still had that elegance. Classy is the word for my mother.
The clothesline strung up between a fence post and the metal eyebolt my dad screwed into the tree makes me think of the way he looked at her, laughing, when he said, “I can just imagine your undies flapping in the breeze on this thing, for all of Pineview to see. Your bra size will end up in the church newsletter if you’re not careful.”
“That would be funny if it weren’t true,” my mom said, but she smiled, too, and I know she liked it, Dad teasing her that way. “Dad,” I said, acting embarrassed. “Please.” But I liked it, too. That summer it wasn’t too hot, and when the heat did climb there was iced tea on the back porch, my parents playing cribbage together after the sun went down, the game board balanced on my mom’s tan thighs and my dad laying cards down on the arm of the chaise. None of that lasted long. Probably all my good memories of the last year add up to three days.
I walk through the yard, making a mental checklist of what needs fixing. The two butterfly bushes have grown into each other and taken over the spot where my mom once had an herb garden, back when she still cared about things like cooking. The Mexican sage has completely run amok. The hollyhock plant that looked okay a few weeks ago has fallen over from its own weight, and lies across the fl agstone path like a corpse. I step over to it, sweat trickling down the inside of my tank top and to the waistband of my pajama shorts. I try to get the hollyhock to stand up and stay up, but it fl ops back down over my bare feet.
I’m glad my mother isn’t around to see this. Instead, she’s got the residents’ garden of New Beginnings Recovery Center, neatly xeriscaped with drought-resistant plants that never ask for more than you can give them. Her room is neat. The cafeteria is neat. The visiting area is neat. She’s been lifted, as if by the hand of God but in truth by the long arm of the law, out of this messy life.
I could make this yard look like the one at New Beginnings. All it would take are some supplies and time and maybe a book from the library telling me how to do it. Then, when she comes home, she won’t have to see the same dead and dying things that were here when she left.
Excerpted from Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr. Copyright © 2009 by Sara Zarr. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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