is an online magazine of the literary arts.
8 August 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 2
The summer I was ten we had a terrible heat wave. You could hear the transformers exploding on the other side of the tracks. Old people were dying in their sleep. Everyone was afraid the weed men wouldn't come and we would all be devoured by weeds. I had more faith. Nothing stoked the fire of a weed man's soul like a battle with the elements. I'll never forget the time I saw a weed man working in a thunderstorm, water up to his ankles, lightning felling trees a hundred yards away, and the weed man oblivious to all but the weeds.
The weed men did eventually come that summer, as they always came, by empty boxcar. Ours appeared in the last week of June, and not a moment too soon, for the weeds in our backyard were already taller than me. I saw him trundling down our street—a weed man's walk was unmistakable, a kind of ape-like waddle, his back hunched, his arms rowing the air, his head bobbing side to side with the beat of his music—and I ran into the house shouting, Weed man! Weed man!
"All right, Elba," Mother said. "Settle down."
Mother, like most people in the war years, held weed men in suspicion. She discouraged me from talking to them and never, under any circumstance, would she allow one into the house. Much of this was Papa's doing. He hated weed men. I don't know why. He never would have hired them if he'd known a better way to kill weeds. Papa was not alone in this respect. The general feeling in those days about men who could not or would not fight for their country was that they were not men at all. But the golden days of weed men had been drawing to a close long before the war, a time when mothers could leave their children alone with a weed man and know with certainty that angels would not make better minders. A rash of shocking murders and a series of army recruitment posters depicting a weed man hunched over a weed abutting the boot of a tall, handsome soldier had tarnished the weed man's image beyond repair. Powerful new chemicals and weeding tools, unintended fruits of the war, would eventually erase weed men entirely from the pages of history, forgotten by all but those like myself for whom summer could never be summer without a weed man in the yard.
"I'll make the lemonade!" I squealed and dashed for the kitchen.
"Day, ma'am," I heard a gentle voice say. "You wouldn't have any use for a good old-fashioned weed man, would you?"
I peeked around the kitchen doorway. The weed man was standing on our porch, a respectable distance from the screen door. He looked tiny beside Mother. He was on the old side for a weed man, a crop of white chest hairs sprouting from his overalls. On his head he wore a strange yellow hat made of straw. This hat had no crown, and the weed man's bald, sunburned pate loomed above the brim like the planet Saturn. He kept rubbing his chin with his weed-stained fingers, as if unsure. I was afraid he wasn't going to take the job. At one point he looked up and caught me watching him. I spun around into the kitchen and stood there with my back to the wall, heart pounding.
At last I heard the weed man accept Mother's terms. I smiled and finished stirring the lemonade and set the pitcher on the windowsill to soak up some summer.
That first day, as was the custom, the weed man took his time getting acquainted with the weeds. Our back yard, a quarter-acre lot surrounded by a rust-colored, pine plank fence, was nothing but dirt and weeds. At one time Papa had dreamed of planting crops back there and selling to the local grocers whatever we didn't eat, but as with most of Papa's get-rich-quick schemes, nothing ever came of it. The deathcamases and milkweeds were the tallest weeds by far, towering above all the stubborn little foragers—the dandelions and skunkweeds and dogbanes and scores of others whose names I have long since forgotten. Judging by previous years, there were probably more than a thousand individual weeds in our backyard that summer.
All day long, without a break, without so much as a sip of water, the weed man mapped his passages, the routes he would follow when the weeding proper began. I watched him from the porch swing with complete absorption. Careful to avoid treading on the stems, the weed man walked among the weeds, stopping often to digest what he observed. He squatted down and sniffed the leaves and stems and empty seedpods. When a smell confused him he moved to a different part of the yard and sniffed again until he was sure of the identity of the weed. He went down on his fingers and toes (never his knees) and scurried about like a crab, assaying the soil with his raw senses. He picked up a small snake and forced its mouth open and looked down its throat. He studied the flight patterns of ladybugs and aphids. He tore off leaves and chewed them and looked up at the sky thoughtfully.
By the time the weed man finally emerged from the weeds, a giant yellow moon was climbing the branches of our big walnut tree. He hobbled over to the porch and set one foot on the second step and rested a forearm on the raised leg and took a long gander at me. I was sitting sideways to him, my feet not quite touching the ground, the swing swaying gently.
"So you want to be a weed man, do you?" he said. His jaw moved in a little circle, as if he were chewing, or just savoring, some tiny morsel. Two jewels of sweat dangled from the tips of his long, gray sideburns. His eyes, sad and wise, were the grayish-green color of lake sludge.
"I'm not supposed to talk to you," I said.
The weed man chuckled. More a croak than a laugh. He braced his hands against his lower back and made his bones crunch.
"You'd make a passable weed man, I expect," he said, as if he couldn't see what I was. "Plenty of weed in you."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I said.
"Just what it sounds like."
"It sounds like nonsense."
"That's all right," the weed man said and smiled. "There's lots of things a man takes as nonsense until he sees them in himself."
"I ain't no man," I said.
"No sir," he said. "I guess you're not." He took a piece of hard green candy from his overalls pocket and held it out to me. When he saw that I wasn't about to accept candy from a stranger he set it on the railing.
"Tell your mama I'll be back before sun-up tomorrow morning, and the three days following," he said and walked away, his Jew's harp twanging softly as he went.
I took the candy and sucked it for a while then spit it out into the dirt. It tasted like a sugared onion. A few minutes later I went down and picked it up and tossed it over the fence. It might have hurt his feelings in the morning. The first cricket of evening let out a wary chirp.
Mother ran the fountain at Rexall that summer, making burgers and milkshakes for the old-timers. She wasn't known there for her charm. It was her first job. Papa had left the previous winter, leaving Mother to raise me by herself. She'd lost weight. Lines had come into her face, mostly around her mouth. All her dresses had gone baggy on her. After supper I'd rub her skinny feet like she used to do for Papa after work. Evenings were quiet without him and Josephine around. Gone was the thwack of leather against flesh. The slamming doors. The shattering glass. It was exactly what Mother and I had wanted for so long, peace and quiet, and it was awful. It was too hot to close the windows, and there was nothing but the radio to drown out the hypnotic vibrations of the night bugs. The screens were alive with thousands of tiny legs and eyeballs, searching for ingress to the light. The house itself made strange thumps and sighs like an old wooden ship at sea. We'd listen to the radio and play a board game. It chokes me up to think of those times. Mother all to myself in that big empty house. The ratty old sofa. My whole life ahead of me. She used to give me a sip of her warm beer.
"Mama," I said. "Did you have weed men when you were a girl?"
We were sitting on the living room floor—it was coolest there—playing a game of Scrabble. Scrabble wasn't invented until after the war, but there it is, on the floor between us, in my memory. The Nelson Bladgett Trio was on the radio, playing "Moon for Two."
"I don't want you bothering that weed man, do you hear?" Mother said.
"Yes ma'am," I said and waited a while before I spoke again. "But did you?"
"Yes," she said. "And they were just as dumb as they are today. Of course they did more than pull weeds. They scraped the crud off your shoes and beat your drapes and burnt your garbage. Whatever you needed them to do. It wasn't all this mumbo jumbo with weeds. God only knows what goes on out in them camps at night. Living like a bunch of gypsies in this day and age."
"Living like what?" I said.
"Are you going to make a word or not?"
I added an S and an H to her ARK then said, as if only curious:
"Has there ever been a woman weed man before?"
"A woman weed man?" Mother gagged. "A weed woman?"
"Yes!" I said with delight. "A weed woman."
"What civilized woman would waste her life pulling weeds? With her bare hands! Gads. I've never heard anything so silly."
"No. Now leave off the weed men and let's finish this game. I have to work tomorrow."
I awoke in the middle of the night and stood on my bed, staring through the screen at the moonlit weeds. Deep, dark blue, the weeds seemed noble out there alone in the night. I got down and went out to the back porch. The smell of the weeds was strong, a sharp green stink ripe with foreboding. As if they sensed their fate and were calling out for help. I walked down to the weeds and grabbed a stem, delicately so as not to prick myself, and held it for a while, trying to see in my mind the web of roots below. I felt a strong urge to pull it, but I resisted. I stayed there for a long time, holding the weed, wondering if what the weed man had said about me was true.
By the time I awoke the next morning, the weed man was already hard at work. I got dressed and went out to the porch to watch him through Papa's binoculars. He was way out by the back fence. All I could see was the hump of his back above the weed-tops. Every now and then I'd catch a glimpse of his pulling hand down near the ground, but that was all. He was still finding his rhythm. As anyone knows who has ever tried to pull a weed, if you don't pull just right you might as well not pull at all. Knowing how hard or soft to pull, at what angle from plumb, with what amount of mid-pull adjustment to ensure that every last fiber of root is unearthed, is a skill of the highest order. I hesitate to call it an art—that term is so abused these days—but there really was an element of performance in the weed man's craft. There was a moment after he grasped a stem and before he pulled, a pause in the otherwise seamless flow of step and grasp and pull, when he seemed to be listening to something deep inside the earth. A secret only he could hear.
It was late in the day when I called out to him.
"Hey, weed man. Don't you want something to drink? We got some lemonade, I made it myself."
The weed man straightened up as much as he could and looked at the sky, as if pondering something deeper than whether or not to quench his thirst with lemonade. With his big yellow hat on he looked like a human sunflower.
"Well bring it on out, why don't you?" he said.
I set the binoculars down and looked out across the weeds at the tiny figure, not much bigger than a weed himself.
"Out there?" I said. "In the weeds?"
Nothing angered a weed man more than someone clodding around in his weeds. If a weed got broken off too low, not even a master could get enough purchase on it to pull up the roots. The weed would grow back, the weed man lose his pay.
"Are you going