Save the Lettuce
by Natalie Sypolt
We saw the sky getting dark and Chris went out to cover the lettuce. He wanted the vegetables safe and unbruised, so tarps and buckets had been collected in the outbuilding for just such an occasion. He waited for storms.
When I was a kid, our garden had faced it all—rain, wind, hail. One summer we even thought a tornado was coming. Sometimes in early spring, before the warm had set in good, we’d put buckets over the little tomato plants at night, in case there was frost, but that was all. No heroics.
I’d learned not to ask if he wanted help: I asked and he thought it was because I figured he couldn’t do it himself. It wasn’t like that—or maybe it was, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t care anymore. When he went out to cover his lettuce, I watched from the kitchen window.
The clouds are rolling in fast now. I remember the time when I was ten and visiting my aunt in Illinois. We had a storm, what the news people said was a derecho. It was like a wall of hell—a horizontal tornado some said, but it rolled on more like a hurricane. It lasted a long time, and I was crying before it was over. When we looked at the sky, the layers of dark heavy clouds, I was sure it was the end of the world. But then finally it cleared, and people picked up, cleaned up, moved on.
The rain starts falling, fast and hard. I see Chris stoop, but he doesn’t want to sacrifice the tender lettuce. He’s put the tarp over some, and weighed it down with big rocks, but I know the tarp won’t hold. He’s put buckets over the tomato and pepper plants.
Then the hail comes. The pellets begin hitting the roof of the porch, tinny and loud. Chris tries to cover himself by holding his left non-arm up over his head, but still he doesn’t quit because now it is even more important. Some wives would run out then, grab an umbrella or a pot or something, but I stand and watch, wondering just how long it will take him to give in.
Before the storm came, I’d been grating carrots for a salad. Chris was now a vegetarian. This has irritated me from the beginning, not because I care about the food, but because it seems so predictable. That’s just like something that would happen in a movie, and that’s what this feels like sometimes. It’s not our real life but some melodramatic, made-for-TV movie. Boy goes off to war, sees unspeakable, loses left arm in IED explosion, can’t stomach the blood and the flesh of meat anymore. I can’t name any movie where that happens, but I’m sure it has. It’s not that I think this doesn’t happen—that it didn’t happen—or that I don’t have any compassion either. I was nothing but compassion, a giant pudding ball of compassion, until I couldn’t be anymore.
Today when I was grating the carrots with the sharp grater, the stainless steel one Chris’s mom gave us as a wedding present, I heard a car coming up the drive. Really, it wasn’t in our drive, just going slowly up the bumpy dirt road, but as I jumped to look, I slipped. The carrot nub flipped out of my hand, and my knuckles went down hard and fast across those sharp little teeth. It took a minute to sink in, you know, the way it does when you hurt yourself in some stupid way and you can’t look down for the fear of what you’ll see. Pictures flashed in my head of shredded skin, white knuckle bone shining through blood and gore. I grabbed a dishtowel and pressed it to my knuckles, but when I looked down I saw that a few tiny drops of blood had dripped into the salad bowl. The red was bold and hot against the orange of the carrots, and I knew that I should throw it all out. But vegetables are expensive and the big wooden bowl was full of tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and peppers. Throwing it all out would be wasteful.
This is how I told it to myself. And when I came back downstairs after washing my hand and putting Band-Aids around my knuckles, I mixed the carrot shreds up good so the bloody spots were gone. That’s what I did and I’m not sorry.
“Son of a bitch that came on fast,” Chris says when he comes banging in, soaking wet and dripping all over the kitchen floor. “I think I got it in time. I hope I did.”
“I’m sure you did,” I say, but I know I don’t have much in my voice to convince him. He doesn’t really notice, so I don’t try too hard.
“I don’t remember the weather man saying it was going to rain today, do you? Is it still hailing? You know what they say about hail.” Chris looks out the window, though we can still hear the ice bouncing off the porch roof. They say hail is sometimes a sign a tornado is coming, but I don’t know what Chris means anymore. He could mean anything.
“You’re dripping,” I say. “You shouldn’t track that mud upstairs. Just strip your clothes off here then go put on something dry.” His face goes a little funny because he doesn’t like the idea. “Come on, Chris. It’s a mess.”
“Fine,” he says. I cross my arms and watch as he pushes off his boots, then one-handedly undoes his buckle, button, and zipper; then he sloughs his wet jeans off like a snake losing its skin. His boxers are wet through too, but I decide not to push it. I wonder if he’ll leave the non-arm on as he tries to get his wet T-shirt off, or if he’ll release the contraption, which I hate. I see that he’s also wondering which would be best.
He doesn’t like for anyone to see his scars, not even me, and it’s not because of vanity. Chris is a good looking man, always has been, but doesn’t try too hard. No hair gel or fancy clothes. He still wears the same brand of drug store cologne that his mother bought him when he started shaving, even through the army, even still. I think he is afraid the scars and the stump and machine like parts of the non-arm make him look weaker. He already feels weak, even after all the months in physical therapy, even though his good arm is stronger than most two put together. Some men get to hide their damage, but Chris has to wear his, artificially flesh toned and creepily veiny, every day.
It took a little while, but now he can dress and undress himself, take care of all his bathroom things. He can do garden work and some of the farm work for his daddy, like drive the tractor. “Use the arm,” the therapists told him. “It’s not like the old prosthetics. These new pieces are incredible.”
At first, they wanted to give him a hi-tech, robot-like one that could grasp cups. It was an experimental model and they tried to tell me how it worked—something about nerves being re-routed, something about muscles in the chest learning to twitch in a way that would make the fingers move. I didn’t understand. When they showed me, I couldn’t stop staring at the icy silver of it.
“Chris would be able to hold your hand,” one therapist said. She was a young girl with bright eyes, a long curled ponytail, intricately applied make-up. She wasn’t that much younger than we were, but she seemed like it. She seemed like a kid. To her, the idea of Chris being able to hold my hand again probably sounded sweet, romantic.
I touched the robot hand and tried to imagine the cool fingers begin to tighten. I thought I felt a twitch and jerked away.
“What good is this doing?” Chris asked the girl. “I’ll never be able to feel her hand. Why would I ever do this in real life?”
My cheeks went red then, imagining real life and what he might do with his bionic arm. Images flashed in my head of our bedroom, of Chris saying, “Look how my chest muscles make my fingers close. Look how I can make them move on you.” I felt a sick quake in my stomach and had to get up. I was outside the door so quick, and slid down the wall.
The pretty girl couldn’t understand. She met men like Chris and wives like me every day, but then she went home to her own boyfriend who still had everything he was supposed to have. Some farm boy who still had his twinkle, who held her and undressed her and touched her with two warm hands.
“That’s the last time she’s in here,” I heard Chris say to the girl. “That’s it.”
Chris has a different sort of arm now. This one still fastens around his body with thick straps and is still incredible, but not quite as incredible as the robotic one. Chris thought that one scared me, and that I was embarrassed. He told the therapist that it just didn’t feel right, that maybe he wasn’t strong enough for that yet. So instead he has one that looks more like “the real thing” from the elbow down. The hand is always slightly bent, ready for gripping. The doctors tell him that the technology is improving all the time, especially now with such a demand. Chris tells me that he’s on a list to get a better arm permanently. I read about it on the Internet—the “Luke” they call it, after Luke Skywalker’s bionic arm in the Star Wars movies. I don’t know if I believe him.
I watch Chris struggle, trying to get the wet T-shirt up and over his non-arm. Normally he could do it, but the shirt is wet and stuck tight to his skin. “Okay, Jenny,” he says finally. “Help me.”
I peel from the bottom, gently, first over his good arm so he can help, then over the non-arm, then up over his head. I am close enough to him now that I can see the little welts on his shoulders and on his forehead, where the hail had hit him. That’s when I remember to listen, and hear that it has stopped.
“Just rain now,” I say, and realize that I’m holding the shirt still above his head and that our chests are touching. On my tiptoes I can just reach his lips because he is tall and I am not. I’m surprised that I kiss him because I didn’t think I would. My hand is in his hair, long now, grown out, so that I can grab it, wrap my hand up in it like he used to his in mine.
“Jen,” he says around my lips, but I keep my hand in his hair, and kiss him so hard that I taste blood in my mouth, but I don’t know if it’s his or mine.
If he would take off the arm, I would lick his scars. When he’s awake, he won’t let me touch them, doesn’t want me to look, but sometimes when he is asleep, I kneel on the floor beside the bed and run my finger around each purple crevice, each indention. I cup the missing piece. The pills make him sleep deeply and I’m glad, because if he woke to find me there, he would howl. He would push me and my kisses, my touch, away like he does every time. He won’t let me tell him.
I pull his hair, force his head back and kiss his throat.
“What’s gotten in to you?” he asks. He’s trying to move away, trying to laugh me off, but I don’t want to let him go.
How would the movie go? If we’re living out this thing, this drama, would he push me away now, again, or would this be the climax where Chris finally lets me unstrap his non-arm and lies down on the cold kitchen tiles? Would he cry? Just when I’m ready would the hail start again, or the lightning and the thunder, rolling over us?
Before, I loved those nights when the air would get thick with electricity. The thunder rolled around the house in waves, and the lightning showed Chris to me in flashes as it lit up the bedroom. Then, when it was over, there was just the slow, soft rain. We’d lie there together, so close. I knew everything then. There was no phantom pain.
With his good hand, Chris pats my shoulder. “Isn’t it about time for dinner?” he asks. “I’ll go get some dry clothes on. Okay?” He’s now using his hand to disentangle mine from his hair. He doesn’t want to hurt me. He just wants to go.
“Okay,” I say. Scene over.
I watch Chris gather his wet clothes from the floor. I think that I should get the mop and take care of the puddles, but I don’t. Instead I get the vegetarian lasagna from the oven; I get the salad from the refrigerator.
The storm has somehow circled around us, and when we sit down to eat, the rain is loud again; when the thunder comes, I can feel it in my whole body; the house shudders.
“Here it comes again,” Chris says. He’s wearing a blue T-shirt now, one from high school with the school mascot—a wildcat—on the front. His hair is in his eyes. He looks so young, so much younger than I feel. How unfair that he can look like that and that I have to feel like this. His non-arm is resting on the table. He’s waiting for me to serve him.
“This looks good,” he says as I cut the lasagna and scoop it onto his plate. I’m not a good cook, especially when it comes to dishes where delicate vegetables are expected to pull together and make something hearty.
I already know that after Chris goes to sleep tonight, I will sneak out of the house and drive the 45 minutes to Morgantown to get a greasy fast food cheeseburger. Maybe two.
“Have some salad first.” I use the plastic tongs to fill his bowl to the top. “At least I can make salad,” I say. I give myself some too.
I spear some salad with my fork but don’t put it into my mouth until I’ve watched Chris take a mouthful, mostly lettuce, with streaks of orange. He chews and when he sees me watching, he smiles again. I take my bite.
Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in West Virginia. She received her MFA in fiction from West Virginia University in 2005 and currently teaches writing at WVU. Her work has appeared in various journals, including Kenyon Review Online, Willow Springs Review, The Queen City Review, Flashquake, Potomac Review, Oklahoma Review, and Kestrel. Natalie’s writing has received several awards, including the 2009 West Virginia Fiction Award from Shepherd University, judged by Silas House, and the 2009 Betty Gabehart Prize, sponsored by the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Her stories have also been honored by writers Ann Pancake, Amy Greene, and Bobbie Ann Mason. Her story, “Love, Off to the Side” (published in Still: The Journal) has been short listed for the 2010 Pushcart Prize.