Four years ago Patrisha fled the wolf pack of bullies. She was an easy target. The predator smells its prey.
Patrisha was poor. She was shy. She stammered. She developed large breasts early on her short body. While other girls wore tight clothing, she tried to hide her body with loose tops and long slacks. Her mother, who had wanted Patrisha to be a social queen, bullied her at home and told her that her breasts were an asset she should use. Her father said little, long ago brow-beaten into silence and into the bottle.
In a small school it was impossible to escape her predators. They called her Pa-trips because she was awkward or Pa-tricks, spreading lies about her as an easy sex partner. Her only havens were reading and English class. She wrote well and with imagination. Her ninth and tenth grade English teacher, a kindly overweight older man, encourage her writing, talked her into joining his speech team, from which she lost her stammer, except when the wolf pack circled. It was the English teacher who had suggested a move to a larger school. She wrote to her great aunt Fiona, who had been a kindly benefactor to Patrisha in the past. Fiona invited her to move to her town in Northeastern Minnesota.
It was not a large school, but it was a different school. Here she found the two things she wanted: to be ignored by classmates and to be nurtured as a writer. Again she had the same teacher two years in a row, Ms. Bachmann, a young woman who taught with passion, if not yet having all the skills she needed to be a master teacher, which could come in time. For the moment Ms. Bachmann was all Patrisha needed, a willing reader and listener. Ms. Bachmann gave the sort of feedback Patrisha craved—kind but demanding and incisive.
In January of Patrisha’s senior year, Fiona had a stroke and was moved to a nursing home. Even though Fiona could no longer speak, Patrisha visited her almost daily, reading her stories and poems, sometimes her own writing. Fiona’s children said the house would have to be sold. It was a 1960’s era home with decent value on the smarter south end of town. Fiona’s children told Patrisha that she was welcome to live in the house until it went on the market in June. They would cover the utilities and pay for Patrisha’s food. However, she would have to have an adult check the house daily. Ms. Bachmann was willing. She sometimes slept in the house instead of in her cramped soulless apartment. Patrisha called her Kate outside of the school buildings.
Patrisha could not make a decision about life after school. All the choices were too daunting; most daunting of all was moving back to her parents. The guidance counselor glanced at her grades and was surprised she had not been in before to apply for college. Patrisha explained her situation. He suggested she apply for the community college in town. Where would she live? How would she pay for it? The counselor’s wife worked in admissions at the college. She helped Patrisha apply for admissions and for aid. She arranged for Patrisha starting in June to rent a room with an older woman who wanted a companion as much as a boarder. An old downtown diner hired college students to work, but in summer it was hard for the owner to find good employees. Patrisha interviewed and was hired to start part-time now and full-time in the summer as dish-washer and kitchen help. In the fall Patrisha could take a lighter coarse load and work thirty-five hours a week.
In early May the school was surprised to discover that Patrisha would be the class salutatorian. From envy and turf-protection, the students zeroed in on Patrisha and how she lived. She asked the counselor not to list her as salutatorian. She told him it was unfair because she had only attended the school for two years. He said the numbers were fair and required her to fill the role. The wolf pack kept circling. Rumors were spread of an improper relationship between her and Ms. Bachmann. Patrisha invented an acceptable excuse for not attending graduation—the fictitious death of her mother. Student number three gave the salutatorian speech. Ms. Bachmann resigned, driven out by the rumors and the exhausting and unrewarding challenge of teaching. She went back to southern Minnesota to work in the local bank and find a husband
Patrisha had a good freshman year at community college. The wife of the high school counselor steered her to the best English professor and checked on her twice a month. All her classes went well; writing was her solace. In need of a science, she took Introduction to Biology. The bearded young instructor showed her the beauty and diversity of the forest life. The forest, he taught the class, has ways to endure and, when the season is right, to thrive. Patrisha had enough money only to endure. She avoided social interchange with other students, so well, in fact, that she did not know another student by name. Because most other students had money to thrive, she was isolated, and happily so, without any bullying. Her landlady was pleasant but distant. Patrisha walked from the house to the campus to the diner to the house, covering five miles a day, even in the extreme cold. On Saturdays she and her landlady drove to shop. Patrisha worked Sunday mornings and cacooned herself in her studies on Sunday afternoon and evening.
In April the owner of the cafe moved her up to waitress. She preferred the secrecy of the kitchen, but the better pay was a strong incentive. He offered her the early morning shift, a rougher crowd but more willing to tip a pretty young girl. She knew what he meant by pretty. He told her she needed a name tag. Patrisha was too long a name for a morning waitress. He wrote “Tish” on a tag and handed it to her to wear. The Tish did not bother her as much as the quotation marks. She took the job and endured the jokes and crude humor. Often a tip was handed directly into her hand with words such as “bigger tits mean bigger tips.” How much larger her tips were because of her body, she had no way to calculate, nor did she want to, feeling half a prostitute as it was. The better money allowed her to edge a little beyond endure into thrive. She bought a battered old pickup, which was a cheap buy from her landlady’s nephew. She knew why he gave her the better deal, making it as tainted as her tips.
The general ed. credits awakened her to other worlds; English still held her soul.
On a warm April day, wishing to rid herself of the greasy smell of the diner and the oily come-ons of some customers, she ditched classes. Freeing herself from the weight of the tips by dumping them in the ash tray, she headed out of town, looking for a place to walk in the warm sun. Coming back into to town she noticed a sign in the signature brown wood with yellow letters of the DNR. The sign announced a Swamp Walk.
It’s a new-fangled sort of park which sits upon a prehistoric piece of ground. The sign in the parking lot invites you to walk a boardwalk raised a few inches over the swamp. You are invited to see a biome which, until now, you have perceived as wasted ground—smelly, inert, and ugly. You are invited to see something near to the Creation, in whatever terms you envision the Creation. You are invited for a short time to step away from the human world which occupies the higher and drier ground, to step away from one-upsmanship of house, job, child, car, and accouterments. The swamp, too, is a competitive field, such as among the ducks into whose spring boudoirs you almost step. Their one-upsmanship is for territory, nesting site, food, and breeding. If you are alone when you meet someone who is also alone on the narrow fake-wood pathway, you must make a decision. You can keep silence by pretending to be rapt in the reeds around you and the murky water under your feet. Or you can talk to the person who passes you by. This stranger and you will intrude in each other’s space for several more seconds than when two strangers pass on the street. Here you walk slowly. You do not come here to be in a hurry. Those in a hurry have other places they must be, which is not to say that those who frequent the park are not driven here by a need as well. Swamps filter and clear water. They are fertile grounds for life, and now this park can be fertile ground for clarity and for friendship.
Patrisha hesitated at the the parking lot, which was still banked with brown snow, but she saw a safe place to park. She took and held a deep breath as she she parked her pickup.
The boardwalk had icy patches and small drifts, through which she stepped carefully in her canvas shoe, often holding her breath. She found a bench, which the sun had cleared of winter. Inhaling and holding the awakening scents, she spun a slow circle and then sat. Her breaths coming easily, she felt at peace, cleansed of the diner, alone in the world. After fifteen minutes she was chilled. Only when she stood did she notice the one visible house. It was a pimple on her pleasure, but it could be ignored. Four times a week she had an hour or more between work and her first class. She returned as often as she could to watch the swamp awake, to be alone, and to be cleansed.
In early May she skipped a day at the swamp to talk to her counselor. They planned for her to fulfill her two-year certificate with summer classes and the fall semester. Her prime focus for the summer would be creative writing, which she had anticipated for two years. The next day the boardwalk was for the first time free of snow and ice. In her waitress uniform, a pants outfit, for which she was grateful in the swamp and in the diner, Patrisha walked along the loop contemplating topics for creative writing, stopping often to write in her little notebook that she carried everywhere. She took notes on the sensual rebirth of the swamp and described the colors of mallard drakes. She was inspired with ideas for creative writing, stories with strong dialog between interesting characters, none of whom would be drawn from her life. She had so far mostly endured college. She was ready to thrive.
When she turned the corner of the loop, she saw a man invading her solitude. She knew that with warmer weather others would come. Why today, when her mind was flowing? At first she was afraid he was a diner customer who had followed her here. But none of the customers used a walker or was that short and round. She turned and walked back on the outer arc of the loop, hoping he would soon be gone. She noticed for only the second time the house, which she again erased from her image of the swamp. When she turned back again, the man was still there, now sitting on the first bench, which she must pass from either end of the loop. Holding her breath, she rushed past him. He nodded at her but only in a polite way, with no real interest. The next day he returned, forcing her to pass again. He nodded politely, which she again ignored. The third time, she nodded back. Other people were coming to the swamp as well, making her both more and less comfortable. On their sixth meeting, he watched her as she drew near. He read her name tag, “Tish. Sounds like air coming from an inner tube.” On their next two passings, he greeted her with the sound of air escaping between his tongue and upper teeth. She resolved not to return. Why did the bullies always find her?
But return she did, craving the cleansing and stimulation from the swamp. For two days he was gone, giving her hope. But he returned to his bench. For three passings he came out of his reverie to say, “A fine day to you, Tish.” The next time it was, “Fine day to you, young Tish,” with a smile. She wondered where he purchased bib overalls that round in the middle and short in the legs. She would make of him a fictional character named Bibs. The name tickled her fancy. He would be a lecher who gets his comeuppance from a slim tall attractive promising young writer
On their next meeting he was smiling as she approached, making again the escaping air sound before he wished her a fine day. Despite herself, she laughed as she nodded back. It was only teasing and nothing malicious. She felt guilt for having thought otherwise.
At their next passing he sat on his walker leaving the bench free. As she passed he monotoned, “Spring has sprung, the grass has riz. I wonder where the birdies iz.”
“My great aunt Fiona used to say that, when she could still talk.” Now she felt guilty about not visiting Fiona as often as she had the previous year..
“Fiona Begich, born Fiona Meadows. Husband was Artie Begich, railroad superintendent. 42-long suit coat, 34-inch waist, 36-inch inseam. He was a tall man. Wore a suit elegantly.”
“Let me guess,” Patrisha answered, despite her innate fear. “A haberdasher.”
“Haberdasher? Where did one so young learn such an old-fashioned word?”
“I like words. I’m an English major.”
“My customers were more than numbers to me. How is Fiona? She is in the nursing home, to which I assume I am bound one day.”
“She is not well, but she lives on. I must go visit her and read to her.”
“I come here to stare into dark waters. Why do you come, Young Tish?”
She sat down on the bench, not knowing it was a momentous decision, not realizing she was venturing out of her isolation. She told her story truthfully, leaving out the bullying. She asked about him. He told her the boardwalk was her stage and not his, which he had decided when he watched her write in her little notebook. She was afraid he would ask what she wrote. He did not ask. He waited for her to talk.
She told him, “You have kindly eyes. I cannot see their color behind the tinted lenses.”
He took off the glasses. “I have old eyes, which need shelter from the light.”
“You have kindly eyes, small and deep.” Why, she wondered was she being so personal? He reminded her of the gentle English teacher whom she had in grades nine and ten, which seemed a decade ago
He put the glasses back on and pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his bib overalls to wipe his eyes. “See, the sun does bother my eyes.”
She looked at her watch. “I have class. I must leave.”
“A fine day to you, Young Tish, a fine day of learning and loving.”
The next day they talked again. He asked her about college and her dreams in life.
He listened fully to her answer, his eyes never leaving her eyes. “Being a writer must be hard work, but you have the face of a hard worker. Your uniform says you work at Ben Clune’s dinner downtown. But what of love and family, Young Tish?”
She dodged his question by excusing herself as late for class, which she was. At their next meeting she asked about him.
He dodged her question. “I know all the easy stuff about everyone, none of the important things.” He told her what he knew about the other people who came to the boardwalk, wondering why they came, especially the banker’s wife who sat and read on the other bench. “Why do you come, Young Tish? It is for more than exercise?”
“Do you drink coffee?” He did. “Do you like muffins?’ He preferred blueberry. “I cannot be here tomorrow. I will bring coffee and muffins next time?”
“Tell me next time over coffee and muffins what brings you to our swamp.” Which she did. She told him in halting words about the bullying and what happened with Ms. Bachmann. He took her hand in sympathy, a gesture he was to repeat several times over the summer and fall. She loved his gentle touch. No one had touched her in love for as long as she could remember.
“My name is not Tish, you know. It is Patrisha. Don said my name tag could only show one syllable. He gave me the name.” She told him about the diner and its customers and their tips. She did not explain about her breasts, knowing by now he would know without being told.
“Patrisha is a lovely name. I shall now call you Patrisha.” He rolled the name richly on his tongue.
She laughed. “No. To you I am proudly Tish. To only you. You have not told me your name. You, I shall call Bibs.”
“Bibs, I am, but only in the swamp with you.”
“Next time you will explain why a haberdasher wears bib overalls.”
“Not tomorrow. I see my doctors. But the day after. A fine day to Young Tish, a fine day of learning and loving.”
At their next meeting she waited for him to bring up the subject while they watched the ducks come and go. When the muffins were eaten, she demanded of him, “Bibs! About the bibs!”
“It is simple, actually. I have grown fat. None of my fine clothes fit me any more. I wore them really for my wife. I was famous for my colors, which she chose. I would have worn dark blues and grays. She went blind three years ago from diabetes. She died a year ago. It was cheaper to order these, which come with long legs. I was once a tailor. I can make then fit.”
“So it’s a love story,” she said, taking his hand.
“I suppose it is. What is your love story, Young Tish?”
After a pause she clinched his hand tighter. “You, Bibs. You are my love story.”
They both laughed at the absurdity of it. “You will be a writer of comedy,” he told her as she gathered up to leave. “And a fine day of learning and loving, Young Tish.”
Through the summer it went, meeting most days, sometimes coming to find the other absent, but trusting a return the next day. They talked of the swamp, her life and dreams in detail, his life in dribs and drabs. Bibs, they both knew, was too old to dream. She read to him from her poems, and stories. He always replied, “Enchanting. You are a born spinner of tales.”
Once while staring into the dark water, he asked, “How was the world created, Young Tish? Was it, as they say, by luck in a swamp? Was it by the hand of God?”
“Do you believe in God, Bibs?”
“I do, which was how I was raised. I do not eat pork, although the smell of sausage and ham were very enticing from the old butcher shop downtown. My friends and I say Kaddish for my wife, when we can scrounge up ten willing people. Women are now included. I help them when they need ten for Kaddish. God made the world, I believe, maybe from a swamp.”
Before she left, she took his hand and squeezed it.
In the fall she took a second creative writing class. She had a favor to ask. “May I tell the story of your life for my class?”
“It is a dull old story. How much better it would be in fiction. You do not really know me, how mean and small I could be. Make it fiction. Make me a better person than I was.”
She looked him long in the eyes, but he could not look at her. “Your eyes are tearing. Is it the sun?”
“No,” he replied.
She waited. “It will be fiction.”
For the rest of September and deep into October, she read to him from her story, a funny story about people who frequent a seedy diner. She had never written comedy before, but the story was funny. Bibs was her Thalia, her comic muse. He told her to make the waitress a young woman who keeps a secret notebook on the customers. The fictional Bibs, also named Bibs, was a man who cooked the early shift and then sat alone in a corner booth eating delicious blueberry muffins he made only for himself and the waitress. He drank pressed coffee while making quiet cutting remarks that only the waitress could hear to jot in her little notebook. Many of the remarks were about the customers’ lack of sexual prowess. To her surprise, Bibs, the real one, was good at making funny cutting remarks about people in her story.
“How will it end?” he asked Patrisha.
“How do you want it to end?”
“A love story.”
“But I will have to rewrite parts of the story for that to work.”
“Do not lose the laughter. Never lose the laughter, Young Tish. Have a fine day of laughing and loving.”
She stayed up until 4:00 a.m. reworking the story. She made the fictional waitress older, and the fictional Bibs younger so they could find romance. In a bold move, she decided to name the waitress Trixie and make her the secret owner of the restaurant and other local businesses.
Tish struggled through the morning shift, not even hearing the rude remarks. She rushed to the boardwalk to read it to Bibs, the real Bibs. He did not come. Nor the next day. Nor the next. Until one day a thin bent-over old woman from the house she had erased from her sight came to talk to her. The next day the woman left the sad news on the bench and invited Patrisha to the house by the swamp. The woman said her name was Abe, which was odd, but Patrisha was not in a mood to question. She turned in the story with the title “My Sweet Bibs,” switched from “Blue-Plate Love.” She did not much care what grade it received. Abe laughed loud and hard at the story. The instructor gave her a grudging A-, telling Tish it was funny but the romance was trite.
Tish often visited Abe for weak tea and dry biscuits or lumpy muffins. She spent Christmas with Abe, both of them visiting Fiona later in the day. Abe agreed to visit Fiona often after Tish moved to St. Cloud on December Twenty-Ninth.
Her last morning of work, Tish erased the specials from the blackboard and wrote, “None of you could even get it up.”
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017