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THE ASTRIGENT STYLE by Darby McDevitt

Gertie McMorris was on her knees in the treated mulch, snatching at the last of the dandelions. She had been working in her front yard since morning, uprooting weeds and pruning shrubs and snipping desiccated flowers from the tangle of flora that surrounded her front lawn like a wild and fragrant barricade. Shaggy bouffants of elderberry and juniper nuzzled bright rhododendron shrubs. Winking hoards of black-eyed Susans flirted with rows of gleaming daffodils. Radiant zinnias jostled imperial chrysanthemums in a supernova of scent and color.

         It was a sprawling Eden, labyrinthine and dense. But it lacked form, had no organizing principle or theme. The flowering chaos of its layout was a twenty-year record of Gertie’s wandering intuition. A map of impulse without velocity, inspiration without purpose. Like a giddy painter submitting to a surrealist whim, she obeyed her hunches and this was enough—it removed the pressure of performance and all risk of failure.

         Now it was early afternoon and the autumn air was arid but cool, the naked sun distant. Gertiepushed a pile of mulch into a dry crater where a dandelion once lurked. As she tamped the spot flat, someone called to her from the street.

         —Excuse me? Ma’am?

         Gertie sat back on her heels and looked around. A white man in his late fifties was standing in the street astride the curb, peering around the skirt of her largest juniper shrub. He had a melted look—moist with sweat and rubbery around the middle, with slouching shoulders and a wispy white hairline. He wore a navy polo shirt and khaki slacks. A red leash jittered in his hand, at the end of which danced a dog that Gertie could not see.

         —Was that to me? Gertie asked.

         —Yes, sorry. I don’t mean to interrupt, the man began. 

         Stepping onto the curb, he unfolded his biography. His name was Delano Ward. He lived nearby, just around the block, on Comstock Court Road. He had recently moved to the neighborhood and was unmarried. He enjoyed long walks with his beagle, Cannelle, and he admired Gertie’s garden immensely, calling it bold and lush and beautiful.

         —That’s kind of you, Gertie said. Do you garden yourself?

         —I do, Delano said, looking down and giving the leash a sharp tug. A vegetable garden. Tomato vines. Zucchini. Carrots. That sort of thing.

         Feisty Cannelle appeared at Delano’s feet, snuffling around the bark chips. Halting, she raised her leg against one of the junipers and relieved herself. Gertie’s lips tightened against her teeth.

         Delano shook the lead, tutting.

         —Ah ah, none of that.

         —Can I help you with something Mr. Ward? Gertie asked.

         Delano looked up, his face flushed.

         —The reason I stopped, he said, I saw you had a pair of quince bushes. They’re really filling out.

         Still on her knees, Gertie leaned to one side to view the bushes in question. Two unkempt shrubs, each the size of a reclining chair growing wild against the front left corner of her house. Their reaching branches sagged under the weight of numberless yellowy-green bulbs that looked like the result of a violent collision between an apple and a pear. Scattered around the base of the shrubs were two dozen fallen fruits in various states of decay.

         —You mean they’re ripe? Gertie asked.

         —Probably not yet, he said. That can take a while. But when they’re falling off the bush, that’s a good time to pick them.

         Gertie pressed her hands into the grass and pushed herself to her feet. Her knees popped and her ankles clicked and she wondered if she didn’t feel her age more than she looked it. Then she pulled off her gardening gloves and pressed them together and slapped the pair across her thigh.

         —You want a closer look? Gertie asked.

         Delano’s eyes brightened.

         —If you don’t mind.

         Gertie nodded and Delano pushed through the junipers and crossed the lawn, Cannelle bounding behind. Stuffing her gloves into her back pocket, Gertie waited for him and together they navigated the garden to the edge of the house. When he stood before the shrubs, Delano squeaked with delight. He knelt forward and picked up a dense fruit from the ground and sniffed it at the dimple of its stem.

         —Getting there, he said. Another couple weeks.

         Gerty crossed her arms and shook her head.

         —I planted these when the house was first built, she said. But I can’t for the life of me remember why. I wouldn’t do it again.

         Delano laughed and stood. He turned the fruit over in his hand, squeezing and prodding with gentle turns. In the dirt below them, Cannelle sniffed and snorted at Gertie’s soiled work shoes, giving them a quick, adventurous lick.

         Delano held the quince forward.

         —You’re lucky to have so many.

         Gertie held up her hand and shook her head.

         —I’m not sure they are quinces, to be honest.

         Delano’s eyebrows jumped an inch.

         —No?

         Gertie pressed her hands to her hips and squinted as a light breeze kicked up and sifted through the garden. The mass of hanging quince fruits wobbled like a string of live grenades.

         —You can’t know for sure, she said, staring at the bush. That’s my point. As I say, I can’t remember where I got them. They could be anything.

         A low chuckle hitched in Delano’s throat and dissipated. He held up the quince he had taken and tossed the fruit into the air and caught it. Then he gave it another deep sniff.

         —It’s definitely a quince, he said. My mother kept a few plants when I was growing up. Her favorite thing was to make a preserve. Jam usually. Or sometimes she’d mix them with apple and rhubarb into a compote.

         Gertie’s face fixed a sour smile.

         —That’s very interesting.

         Delano opened his mouth, another anecdote loitering there. But he said nothing. Beneath the skirt of the closest shrub, Cannelle pawed and scratched at the dry mulch, growling as she dug for some elusive prize.

         —She’s a curious one, Gertie said flatly.

         —Yeah, she’s a little rascal.

         Gertie stepped forward suddenly and offered her hand.

         —It was very nice to meet you, Mr. Ward. Thank you for the kind words.

         They shook briefly. Gertie stepped aside, expecting Delano to pass. He hesitated.

         —S-sorry, he stammered. But I have to ask….

         Gertie clasped her hands and dropped her chin, listening.

         —Yes?

         —Could I take them off your hands? he asked. If you’re not planning to eat them yourself.

         —Eat them? Heaven’s no. Why would I?

         Delano paused, reaching for his wallet.

         —I’d pay, of course, he added.

         Gertie stared at the man, reading his eager face, his clear and open eyes, searching for signs of intent in any direction. She looked down at the bushes and a wave of anxiety enfolded her suddenly. Twenty years of raising those plants, twenty years of watching them bear and ripen and discharge its fruit upon the fertile ground. Food for weeds and worms. And in all that time, she had never given them more than a moment’s consideration. Never cared what they were, or what they might be good for. They had always been a nuisance, useless yard waste, from their first fruitful season to their last. But now in a twist of fate, they were someone else’s prize. Someone’s lucky find.

         His wallet open, Delano flicked through a stack of ten crisp twenty-dollar bills.

         —How much would you say was fair?

         Gertie frowned, weighing Delano’s offer. It wasn’t jealousy she felt at that moment, nor resentment. It was something else.

 

***

 

Later that afternoon, Gertie was sitting in her living room on a burgundy, paisley-print sofa, thumbing through a stack of emails she had printed out the day before. A spiral ringed notebook lay open on the coffee table and she held a ballpoint pen poised and uncapped in her hand. A cup of Lipton tea steamed on the low table before her.

         Marking the mail with strokes and brief notes, Gertie immersed herself in the worried prose of the polity. The subject headings painted a picture of a country in crisis—a damaged world in need of rejuvenation.

         RE: Spokane Mayor Stevenson’s Ten Biggest Lies!

         FWD: License Tab Tax Increase — Just ANOTHER reason to KICK THE LIBERALS OUT

         FWD: FWD: FWD: Immigration policy OUT OF CONTROL and getting WORSE!

         FWD: GOP Caucus — NEW TIME AND LOCATION

         RE: New Study PROVES Vaccines Cause Autism … and MUCH MORE!

         ORGANIZE for ACTION! Stop Judicial Activism!

         Gertie studied these messages with careful concern. She liked to be informed, to be prepared. She liked to understand the challenges that lay ahead, for her and her children and her country. It wasn’t all edifying reading, of course. Some of the emails made her sigh and roll her eyes and question the sanity of the sender. Conspiracy talk, screeds against the most basic advances of civilization. But Gertie believed in being thorough. Every story had two sides, she believed. Every story was worth hearing.

         Halfway through her cup of tea, Gertie began to grow tired. Yawning, she set the pen and papers aside and lay back and she glanced out the front window. Her daughter Lindy was outside on the front lawn, wandering over the grass with a large oblong cardboard box worn on her head like an oversized helmet. Holding the box steady with both hands, Lindy stepped slowly, testing the ground with her toes, her head swaying from side to side like an aged horse in search of an overgrown trail.

         Gertie watched her daughter for a while, unable to comprehend the purpose of this performance. Then she looked skyward and took a deep breath. Clumps of spongy clouds now bloomed in the cool sky. Gertie stood and gathered her papers and went upstairs to her bedroom. She set the printed emails on her nightstand and crossed into her bathroom to draw a bath. As the tub filled she undressed and threw on a thick cotton gown. When the tub was full and steaming, she closed the faucet and opened the nearest window to bring in some fresh air.

         Voices stirred in the yard below. Her daughter and an older man.

         —You here about the quinces?

         —That I am. Delano Ward. Are you Mrs. McMorris’s daughter?

         —Yeah, Lindy.

         —Nice to meet you, Lindy. Is your mother home?

         —She’s inside. But you can go ahead, she knows you’re coming.

         Gertie darted back to her bedroom. She pulled on pants and a blouse and a cardigan sweater and trotted downstairs to the foyer. Cracking the front door, she stood and listened. Lindy and Delano were still talking, but their speech was muffled. Gertie eased the door wider and peeked out. Delano and Lindy were standing together, facing the two quince shrubs. Delano was on his knees with Lindy beside him, watching him pluck fruits from the bushes and drop them into one of three red buckets. Lindy’s cardboard box was on its side in the grass behind them.

         —Say that again, Delano said. A camera what?

         —Obscura, Lindy said. It’s for school.

         Delano glanced over his shoulder, his hands still moving.

         —How’s it work?

         Lindy turned and tapped the box with the tip of her shoe.

         —You put your head through the big hole there and make sure its really dark. Sunlight comes through a pinhole, and if you do it right, you can see what’s behind you reflected in the box. Like a movie on a screen.

         —Interesting.

         —Except it’s upside down.

         Gertie stepped onto the porch and cleared her throat.

         —Lindy, is your homework done?

         All the joy in Lindy’s face wrinkled away. She turned as Delano stood fast and looked around, searching for a better place to stand. Lindy gestured to the box at her feet.

         —I’m doing it now, duh.

         Gertie shook her head.

         —I’d like you to go inside, please.

         —But I need sunlight, Lindy said. It doesn’t work inside.

         —The back yard then.

         Lindy grunted. She hoisted the box to her shoulder and threw Delano a wave.

         —Nice meeting you, she said. Good luck.

         —Yes, you too.

         Gertie watched her daughter stomp across the lawn and disappear around the edge of the house. Delano stared down at his buckets.

         —I wasn’t aware you were here, Gertie said.

         —I’m sorry, I should have knocked, Delano nodded. Your daughter just let me loose.

         —It’s fine, Gertie said. She has a big project coming up. I need her to focus.

         Gertie scanned the half-stripped shrubs and smiled vaguely. Then she looked down at Delano’s buckets and his growing harvest.

         —You have enough space for all of it? she asked.

         —I think so, he said. If not, this’ll be plenty.

         —I have some grocery bags if you run out of room.

         —That’s kind of you.

         Delano knelt again and reached for the next laden branch, a long switch heavy with five bulbous fruits. He rattled it to get a feel for its weight. As the branch vibrated, one of the quinces broke free and plopped to the ground.

         —They practically pick themselves, Gertie said lightly.

         —It’s a good sign.

         Gertie pulled the edges of her cardigan together and held them closed as she watched Delano work. He was moving fast and efficiently, like a man born to the task. Gertie took a long slow breath and looked around her yard. The daylight had faded and now, under heavy cloud cover, the vibrancy of her garden had drained away. Yet still, the quinces glowed their sickly green, like the skin of a reptile or a phosphorescent paint.

         Looking down, Gertie noticed that a small fruit had fallen away and rolled into a nearby row of daffodils. She bent forward and picked it up. It was hard and smooth in her hand, like the leather of a new baseball. She lifted the fruit to her nose. It smelled of damp earth and maybe something else, something tangy.

         —You said your mother cooked quinces? she asked.

         —That’s right, Delano said, pausing briefly. She made quince jam. End of every summer.

         —Where did you grow up?

         —Idaho panhandle. Sandpoint.

         —Oh sure, lovely town.

         —It is. We had a house right on the lake. And four shrubs lined up against the house like this. When they started to fall, we’d scoop them up and throw them at passing boats. Or ducks. Or just see who could throw the farthest across the lake.

         —You and  your brothers?

         —Sisters. Two, both older. Always getting me into trouble.

         Gertie smiled and shook her head. She leaned forward and dropped the quince into one of Delano’s buckets.

         —That’s too bad, she said, wiping her hand across the seat of her pants.

         —Kids will be kids, he laughed.

         Gertie nodded without smiling.

         —I suppose that’s true, she said.

 

***

 

That evening, Gertie braised a pair of chuck steaks and boiled them in a pot with a stock of carrots, onions, and potatoes. She and Lindy had already begun to eat when her husband, Roger, entered from the garage.

         —Hey hey, Roger called out. What’s cooking?

         Gertie tapped her napkin against the corners of her mouth and rose from the table.

         —You said you’d be late.

         —Judge sent us home early. I was hoping we’d get a verdict by today.

         Setting his briefcase aside, Roger kicked off his shoes and slid into the kitchen, tugging at his necktie. Gertie went to the cupboards and took out another plate.

         —But the defense is playing games. Asked to call another witness.

         He kissed his wife on the temple and took his place at the table. Gertie forked a heavy slab of roast onto the plate and crowded it with boiled vegetables. Roger leaned across the table to get a good look at Lindy’s plate, steaming before her.

         —Leave some for your old Dad, he said.

         —There’s plenty more, Gertie said from the stove.

         Lindy snorted.

         —He’s joking, mom.

         Roger fell back and unfolded a napkin across his lap. Gertie set the full plate before him and sat down and they began to eat. The clink of silverware and the sloppy sound of teeth tearing at boiled meat and soggy root vegetables took the place of conversation.

         After a few hasty first bites, Roger sat back and looked around the table.

         —Anything exciting today?

         —Nothing to write the papers about, Gertie said, taking up a glass of milk.

         —A man came for our quinces, Lindy said.

         Roger squinted at his wife as she drank.

         —Who did what now?

         —Someone from the neighborhood, Lindy said. Mom knows him.

         Gertie set her glass down and laid her hands across her lap.

         —I know of him, she said. I’ve seen him before. Once or twice.

         —Who’s this?

         —He said his name was Delano Ward. He stopped by this morning and complimented my garden and asked about our quince bushes. He asked if I was going to eat them and I told him I wasn’t, so he asked if he could take them.

         Gertie paused there raising her fork and knife.

         —And you said he could? Roger asked.

         —I said he could.

         Roger stabbed at one of his potatoes and lifted it. He winked at his daughter.

         —This guy hitting on your mom? he said.

         Lindy laughed. —No. He was kinda fat.

         Gertie frowned.

         —Lindy, he was very kind.

         Roger shrugged and stuffed the potato into his mouth.

         —You never know, he said.

         —Stop it, Gertie said.

         Lindy sat up straight and laid her hands on the table.

         —I read there’s like fifteen kinds of quinces, she said.

         —Fourteen more than I heard of, Roger said.

         —Some you can eat right off the bush, Lindy said. But not ours.

         —You’d better not, Gertie said.

         —They’re … a-tris-gent, I think, Lindy said. Something like that.

         —Could you focus on your food? Gertie said.

         Lindy pulled out her phone and hammered the screen with both thumbs. Her father cleared his throat.

         —Lindy, put that away.

         —I’m not texting.

         —No phones at the dinner table.

         —Astringent! she said, laying her phone aside. It tightens tissue. Like the skin in your mouth. If you eat it.   

         —Sounds awful, Roger said.

         —You have to cook them for a while, Lindy said, turning to her mother. Can we keep them next year? Or grow something else, like apples?

         —Apples grow on trees, Gertie shook her head. You’d be in college by the time they had fruit.

         Lindy rolled her eyes.

         —You know what I mean. Something we can eat. Like tomatoes.

         —How about you eat what’s in front of you? Gertie said.

         Lindy’s face soured as if she had bitten into a raw quince.

         —Your garden is so boring, she sighed. You can’t eat rhododendrons.

         —No, you can’t, Gertie said. But they’re very nice to look at.

 

***

 

The following Saturday, Gertie was in her kitchen watering and pruning her potted ficus when the doorbell rang. Her brow furrowed and her cheeks flushed as she checked her watch. An unannounced guest after five o’clock was a bold infringement on her free time. She crossed the kitchen and poked her head into the living room. Through the window, she could see the back edge of someone’s coat. She waited, hoping the person would leave. The doorbell rang again.

         Gertie entered the foyer and pushed aside the curtain that hung beside her front door. Delano Ward was standing on her stoop, looking back over his shoulder at something in the street. In his hands was a paper plate with a bulging sheet of tinfoil pulled over its top. Gertie let the curtain fall back into place and unlocked the door.

         —Hello Mr. Ward.

         —Good evening! Delano said, holding up the foiled plate like a platter of exquisite gemstones. Brought you some quince cookies from my kitchen. As a way of saying thanks.

         —That’s very kind of you.

         Delano peeled back a section of the foil to reveal a loose stack of circular cookies, each the size of a poker chip. Brown, dense, and buttery with a saccharine button of glaze dolloped on top.

         —I baked a large batch, Delano smiled. Just like mom used to make. ‘Course she helped a little. It’s been years since we made these.

         —Is she here in Spokane?

         —She lives with me now, Delano said. Since my father died.

         Delano bent the foil back into place and tightened it around the plate.

         —She thought they were a little too sweet, he said, But you’ll be the judge.

         Delano paused. His gaze shifted and his face brightened.

         —Can never be too sweet, isn’t that right?

         Gertie turned. Lindy was standing at her elbow, eyeing the cookies.

         —They look good! Lindy said.

         Delano laughed and offered the plate forward.

         —I hope so. You let me know.

         Gertie took it with both hands. The foil crinkled and the plate bent under the weight of the cookies.

         —Careful there, Delano said. It’s just a picnic plate.

         Gertie smiled tightly.

         —Thank you for this, Mr. Ward, she said, backing into the house.

         —My pleasure, Delano said. This was fun. Brought back some memories.

         —You have a good day now.

         —Thanks again, he said waving.

         Balancing the plate in one hand, Gertie shut the door with the other. Lindy stepped in to lock it.

         —Can I have one? Lindy asked.

         Gertie ignored her and walked back to the entrance of the living room. Through her front windows, she watched Delano retreat down the front walk. He walked casually, at ease, casting long glances over Gertie’s lawn. Then he was gone.

         —Mom?

         Gertie pulled the plate to her chest and steadied it with both hands.

         —Is your room clean? she asked.

         —What?

         —Your room was a mess when I looked in this morning. I want it clean before you do anything else. Is that clear?

         —Come on, just one.

         Gertie set off towards the kitchen, walking slowly, her eyes fixed on the cratered hill of foil under her nose.

         —Clean your room and we’ll talk.

         Lindy stomped down the hallway, propelled by a sigh.

         —Don’t start without me! she shouted.

         Gertie said nothing and went to the kitchen. Stopping beside the sink she opened a drawer and pulled out a wooden spoon. She tore the tinfoil from the plate and crumped it into a rough ball and set it aside. In the daylight, the cookies looked like unfired bricks of adobe topped by a layer of epoxy glue. She sniffed them. A faint hint of sweetness, nothing more.

         Balancing the plate in one hand, Gertie leaned across the sink and turned on the water and let it run hot. When steam began to gather, she pushed the cookies from the plate into the open drain. Some fell through but most bunched up against the sides of the hole. Gertie flipped a switch beside the sink and the garbage disposal roared to life. With the wooden spoon, Gertie pushed the mass into the drain. The disposal gurgled and guttered as it devoured the cookies. In a few seconds, the entire batch was gone. Gertie ran the faucet long to wash the crumbs away. As the cookies broke down and washed away, the garbage disposal began to hiss.

         —What are you doing!

         Gertie turned. Lindy was standing at the door of the kitchen, her mouth agape, her eyelids fluttering.

         —Did you clean your room?

         —Of course I didn’t! What are you doing?

         Gertie opened the door beneath the sink and tossed the empty plate into a garbage bin. Then she clapped her hands together over the sink, brushing away any clinging crumbs.

         —Why did you do that?

         Gertie looked at her daughter, her eyes wet and shining, her expression serious.

         —We don’t know what that man is capable of, Gertie said. We don’t know a thing about him.

Darby McDevitt was born in Spokane, educated in Bellingham and Dublin, and sharpened in Seattle. Now, at 44 years old, he lives in Montreal, QC and works as a Narrative Director for Ubisoft Entertainment.

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