Newspaper Column “The Third Dimension” by Marigold Matton
The Sharper the Knife
May 27, 2013
Early every Memorial Day I take out my trumpet, clean it, and tune it. I practice for one hour. I do not want to scare any horses that may hear me.
I take the trumpet to my car with a folding chair, a package of shortbread cookies, a Thermos of hot water, and twenty small American flags. Before Google Maps I would drive out of the city to find a small country cemetery. If you know how to look, they are not hard to find.
These days I Google myself up a secluded cemetery. I always hope to find one next to horses in a field. This year, as always, I have my fingers crossed.
At my chosen cemetery I walk about reading headstones, finding implied stories and mysteries. Why did a boy of four and a girl of two with different last names die on the same day in 1882 and be buried next to each other?
On every military grave that I find I place a flag. Always I have more flags than military graves. I place the extra flags on the oldest women’s graves I can find. I sit my chair near the center of the cemetery and eat two of the cookies, never more than two. As I sip hot water I remember 1972. I remember my loving parents and a man to whom I sold Girl Scout cookies for three years. He was Arne Johnson. He was my neighbor, my Dr. Watson, my friend, a mystery, and my guardian angel.
Other people, not many, are out tending graves on Memorial Day, but most graves in out-of-the-way cemeteries are neglected. I talk to the people. They are curious about me. Who am I? Why am I here? I ask them about their departed loved ones. They ask me about mine. I tell them I have come to honor the memory of loved ones buried up on the Iron Range.
I take out my trumpet. “Would you mind if I play Taps?” I ask them.
I find the highest spot or the most central point in the cemetery. I play Taps three times. The first two times are for two classmates who died in junior high. They were not my friends, only my classmates, but their unexpected deaths were my existential moment.
The third time I play Taps I play for Arne Johnson, this time more slowly, holding the notes in a quavering tone. He was a fine old man, “nothing special,” he would have said. “Why are you fussing over me?” He was gentle, funny, and wise. He was a carver of wood, who taught me three important life lessons.
He taught me that not all things are understandable, a hard lesson for a demanding inquisitive thirteen-year-old girl. Some things you just accept, some on faith and some in ignorance. Not all questions can be answered. Mysteries are good things.
He taught me the wood carver’s wisdom that the sharpest knife is the safest knife. The better prepared you are for the task, the better it will come out for you. But there are no guarantees. You are more likely to hurt yourself if you don’t take care of your tools, watch your fingers, and do the best you can. But keep the Band-Aids handy. This lesson applies just as well to how you treat others.
Find the part to keep. Cut away everything else. Find the center, the part that matters. Keep the main thing the main thing.
She was inquisitive. Nosy said the old woman on the north side of her parents’ house.
She was intelligent. Too smart for her own britches said the old woman on the south side of her parents’ house.
She did not share the interests of other junior high girls. She did not like cliques. Unsocial said the school counselor.
She was an only child. Spoiled rotten said an aunt with five children, with perhaps a nip of truth.
She relished being outdoors and camping or hiking with her parents. A tomboy said the woman across the alley, meaning only a compliment.
She was impatient. Impatient said her father, feeling guilty for passing to her one of his faults.
She was assertive. Pushy said her sixth grade teacher. Snotty said her classmates.
She thought in three dimensions. Very visual said her art teacher, but not very artistic.
She was an imaginative reader. A dreamer said her mother, sometimes in pride and sometimes in exasperation.
She was pretty, said her father. “Who cares,” said she.
She was Marigold. Goldie. Maria to her father, as in “They Call the Wind Maria.”
At that moment—the leggy, stumbly, emotionally-unpredictable, child/woman summer before eighth grade—she was on a quest, meaning she was being nosy, a quest which she had been on since fourth grade, and she was going to complete it. Yes, she was. That was a promise to herself. She kept promises to herself. Yes, she did. Her target was the old man who lived two houses to the south. She had the basic details: retired, living in a house he built for his wife in which they raised three children, where his wife one morning a few years ago did not wake up, nor any time in the next week before she died in the hospital. Those details did not tell her about the man, nor, more importantly, about his carvings, the true focus of her quest. Carvings, in case you were not paying attention, are three-dimensional.
For three years in a row she had sold him Girl Scout cookies, ending two years ago in fifth grade. Since that first year in third grade when she had peeked into his house but not been invited in, as she had been for all but one of the other several old people in her neighborhood, she had wanted to see the carvings, which she had glimpsed among the books on the many bookshelves. The books could be interesting themselves, of course, but she doubted an old man read books like she read.
He was a nice man. You must be a nice man, wouldn’t you think, to buy every year a dozen boxes of cookies when you lived all alone with few visitors (she kept watch) and you were thin, except for that little paunch, which probably explained why he wore suspenders. She doubted, though, that he needed such wide thick suspenders, although she liked their bold orange and blue stripes.
In fourth grade, just as she was about to start sweet-talking all the old people into cookies, she noticed another Girl Scout at his door, an older girl, the sales champion, who must have been about the only sixth-grader still in Girl Scouts. A good customer lost! But, hold it! If she understood correctly, he had turned Miss Sales Champion away. Marigold waited five minutes to knock at his door, not the outer one into his cozy glassed-in heated porch, but the inner one, requiring her to walk over the wood chips on the porch floor. Every morning, you see, or rather, she saw, he sat on his porch first to read the morning paper, often shaking his head in displeasure, then to read his Bible, often shaking his head in a manner which she could not interpret, and then drinking a cup of coffee, which later she found out, once she breached his castle keep, was hot water, just hot water, with nothing in it. He was nice, but he was a bit eccentric, a word she liked because it meant “not in the center,” which made her imagine a record with its hole drilled in the wrong place spinning all wobbly on a phonograph. How would that make the music sound? Speed up and slow down, speed up and slow down. A tenor dropping to bass and then up to alto and then back to tenor. What about a record eccentric in three dimensions? Then the tenor would make it to soprano and basso-profundo. In what order would they occur? Not a routine sequence like tenor, alto, soprano, basso-profundo, bass, tenor. It would be in different orders. Eventually a pattern of those orders would emerge, would it not? She rapped on the inner door, which he opened immediately, as if he had been waiting for her. He smiled at her, a nice smile she thought, the smile of a man who would invite a sweet little fourth-grade girl into his house to see his carvings, which he did not. He told her, as he had the year before to order twelve boxes, a variety, whatever she chose.
She did not make entry, but she was pleased he wanted to buy cookies from only her; how could she not be pleased? A nice man. She asked her father, an avid reader, for another word to describe a nice person. He answered, “In fact nice did not originally mean what it does today. It meant rather the opposite. And don’t be impatient with me, Maria.” He laughed. “Well, let’s see. Polite, friendly, gregarious, sensitive, agreeable, well-meaning, lovable, socially-well-adjusted. How am I doing?” When she delivered the cookies to the man, she could see no more than she had seen before.
The third year, fifth grade, she stayed in Girl Scouts only for the cookie sales and then dropped out. She stayed not only for him. She liked knocking on doors, looking in houses, usually being asked inside. She lived, as you may have guessed by now, in an older neighborhood, older applying to the houses and to many of the residents. Most of the geriatric houses held two people, husbands and wives and a few with two women. Many were one woman. Only his was a one-man house, excepting maybe the home where no one answered her knock. Who lived there? That could be a quest. No. Not as interesting as the three-dimensional quest after his carvings. She would ask him about thinking in three dimensions. On the first day of cookie sales, when she came home from school, she saw him sitting on his porch. She had a strategy. She would catch him carving on his porch and ask him about thinking in three dimensions, which would lead to seeing the carvings in his house.
First she dropped her books and her trumpet at her house. She had chosen to play the trumpet for its shape. The delightful curls, the explosion of the bell, the buttons, and their vertical tubes plunging across the curled tube. No straight tubes for her. No dull clarinet or flutes, although flutes were interesting because they stuck out to the side, a different direction than every other instrument, but still just a straight stick. Saxophones only had two bends, which were a bit appealing. She liked the thought of the trumpet’s sound winding around, coming out sounding not at all curly but in bright brassy tones. Tubas were, as you might guess, more interesting from her point of view, as were sousaphones. She, however, was not about to lug around that much metal.
She threw her stuff on the sofa, drank some water, took out her Girl Scout materials, and went out the front door. However, Mrs., or was it Miss—she could never keep track of these things. Miss or Mrs. Hagen—the woman who wanted Goldie’s pants to be dumber—called to her as she passed with her Girl Scout materials in plain view. “Yoo, hoo, Marigold, are you selling those Boy Scout cookies?” Miss/Mrs. Hagen was as confused about the gender of cookies as Marigold was was about old women’s titles. Ms. for everybody would be so much simpler.
Marigold saw Mr. Johnson look up from his carving. Alas, poor Marigold. Her parents taught her to be polite. They taught in her in the worst way possible, by showing respect for her and for everybody else, especially each other. Marigold went to Miss/Mrs. Hagen’s house, which was a dull house indeed. As you and Marigold would expect, Miss/Mrs. Hagen dithered. “What do you call those puffy chocolaty ones?” “Why are they so expensive?” “What do most folks buy?” “Are there any new kinds?” “Would you like a glass of milk? No? I’ll just take a box of the shortbreads. My husband liked shortbreads.”
When she left Miss/Mrs. Hagen’s house, she saw Mr. Johnson had, alas, left his porch. Oh, well. Trudge on. She walked over his curly wood chips and knocked on his inner door while looking down at the chips, but her hand did not hit wood. It hit him right in the paunch. She looked up. He smiled down and took her hand to give it in a mock exaggerated handshake. She laughed. He laughed. She asked, “Mr. Johnson . . . eh, cookies. Your annual variety-pack dozen?”
“Yes. A good salesman . . . girl, knows her customers.”
“Any preferences? Any ones you like over the others, for the duplicate boxes, I mean? The Girl Scouts don’t have a dozen kinds, so which ones do you want as duplicate boxes?” Now she was dithering.
“No.” His hand absently scratched his wispy white hair. “You see, I don’t really eat them. As your knock on my stomach proved, I’d better not.”
“You don’t? My third-best customer does not even eat the twelve boxes!” A quandary to add to her quest.
He smiled at her feigned pique. “Just my usual. Double up on whatever you like. I have had no complaints so far. And I did catch your hint for me to buy more to move myself up to number one on your customer list. Just my twelve.” His non-smile meant he was teasing.
Who does eat them? Who might complain? Marigold quit being distracted and took the bull by the horns. “Mr. Johnson, I’ve seen you sit out here and carve. You do that often. I bet you have many carvings in your house?”
“They are the dust-collectors of my house.” His phone rang. “Excuse me, Marigold.”
“My friends and my family call me Goldie, except my father. He calls me Maria, you know, like in ‘Way out here we have a name for wind and rain and fire’ . . .” Alas. The door closed softly in her face right about when she said Maria.
Between the selling and the delivery of the cookies, she did not see Mr. Johnson on his porch. When the cookies finally came, which question would she ask first? “How do you think in three dimensions to carve?” or “Who does eat the cookies?” When the grand day arrived, she delivered Miss/Mrs. Hagen’s one box, then went back to her house for Mr Johnson’s dozen, giving herself time to practice asking such nosy questions politely. As she again passed Miss/Mrs. Hagen’s house practicing her questions out loud, the old woman decided Marigold was ready for the loony bin, or perhaps she herself was. At her age a person never knows.
No wood chips to walk across. Goldie rapped on the door. A woman answered, a young woman whom Goldie, as you might expect, thought was old. The woman said, “Ah, Girl Scout cookies. Arnie left a note telling me they would come. I think I’d better not eat any of these. Do you have extras?”
Goldie could think of no polite way to ask, “Who in blazes are you and what have you done with nice Mr. Johnson?” She told the woman that she had no extras and thanked her. “Would you leave him a note telling him I will not be selling cookies next year?”
“Yes, I will, sweetie.” The door closed softly.
Goldie spent sixth and seventh grade surviving school. Sixth grade she barely tolerated and seventh grade was worse. Mr. Johnson was back to carving on his porch. His head was always looking down. Goldie was in a funk coming home from school most days. Every so often they would wave at each other. Funk Girl and Carving Man. He bought cookies from a cute tiny fourth grade girl down the block whose mother accompanied her. It was the mother who knocked on Mr. Johnson’s door. When they reached her house, Goldie, home alone, did not answer. She wasn’t going to buy any Girl Scouts cookies. No, no, no.
Sixth grade was dull: dull lessons, girl cliques and feuds, short immature clumsy boys, and a teacher who looked askance at creative students. Goldie survived by playing mental 3-D tic-tac-toe while the teacher talked. To make it look as if she paid attention, she placed the middle of the twenty-seven cubes right on the teacher’s nose. Or she looked behind the teacher to cut up the Mercator projection world map so Greenland didn’t look like a white blob the size of India. Sixth grade history was Minnesota history, most of which she already knew. Her family traveled frequently around Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and Ontario. Her father made history a prime part of the trips, not that Goldie minded. Her father, a history nut, liked to make timelines. He had a Minnesota timeline, which, like most of his timelines, was long and too-detailed, written on a roll of sixteen-inch-wide paper, which made Goldie imagine a long pin struck right through the roll, like a random shot through history, a series of unrelated events all in a row. She once told her father that he should write the timelines backwards. Didn’t he want to start with now and explain how then explained now? He said he wasn’t sure humans were that logical. Could you really decide what caused this? Besides, he needed room to add on new events as they happened, the trick being to decide what events to add, importance often disguising itself as insignificance.
Her father said that timelines showed history was very cyclical. Goldie wondered: could she roll up a timeline so the repeated events were layered on top of each other? But history wasn’t that regular. Human history just didn’t conform to π.
Seventh grade proved school was cyclical. Repeated math, science, and American history, which they had studied in fifth grade. Seventh grade girls were the same as sixth grade girls, only worse, having honed their tongues and claws all through sixth grade. Seventh grade boys were somehow more immature and much clumsier, which made sense, the clumsy part, because they were catching up to and passing Goldie’s height. English had some new stuff. Dumb stuff, but a new angle on the old stuff, and I do mean angle—diagramming sentences. Goldie stared at the teacher’s nose and imagined ways to diagram sentences in 3-D. What if phrases came off the paper to the front and subordinate clauses out of the paper to the back? Seventh graders were not taught about subordinate clauses, but Goldie had figured them out in fifth grade. She asked the teacher how to diagram subordinate clauses. Mrs. Milosevich thought Goldie was a dweeb for asking. She did not say Goldie was a dweeb with words but with her expression. How would a person diagram expressions? That would take three dimensions, or a fourth dimension with seventh grade girls. Mrs. Milosevich did the next day show Goldie how to diagram subordinate clauses, after she looked it up in a senior high textbook, which she even admitted, which was cool. Goldie told the teacher that in 3-D you could diagram paragraphs, maybe just short ones. Sentences with the same subject or the subject in a different place in the next sentence, could intersect at that noun or its pronoun. Mrs. Milsovich’s face made her “you’re a dweeb” expression.
Math was just more math, all too obvious, with a little bit of 3-D geometry thrown in for a day here and there. Otherwise same old, same old. Science started with the solar system, like they had not been through that a few times! She showed the teacher the representation of the solar system in the book and asked why the earth never had the north pole at the bottom, just to show people that there is no up or down in space. He told her it was a cool idea. They did “experiments,” which meant they watched the teacher do demonstrations, the outcome of which were known, unless the teacher messed up, which he did a couple times, which was really more interesting to watch. “That was not an experiment,” she told the teacher, who did his version of the “you’re a dweeb look” and laughed. “Keep thinking,” he told her.
She wanted to tell the history teacher that some of the maps should have north at the bottom, but he was too busy worrying about coaching to “put up with her nonsense.” He’d been warned about her.
Then there was art, for the one quarter she had it, the third quarter in the middle of the long northern winter, which was a good time to have it because Goldie could stand a little dimensional stimulation, even if she did get frustrated because she had little art ability, at least not in two dimensions but maybe she would in three. First they did perspective drawings. Goldie imagined the lines of perspective going on forever. A very distant vanishing point would make the lines look parallel. Now that she thought about it, the two ends of a building, built with a level or a plumb bob, which she had watched a neighbor do building a garage, were not parallel. They met at the center of the earth. Right? And went on from there to the other side of the earth where maybe there was another building lined up with his garage. She imagined the buildings they drew continuing out of the back of the paper to the vanishing point and out the front, too. What was the opposite of a vanishing point? A cross-section of eternity? All of this thinking allowed her to ignore the other two girls at the table to which she was assigned. Then they did clay. They made figurines and glazed and fired them. Goldie’s two were not very good. Pshaw.
“Ahem. How do you think in three-dimensions, like to carve?” she asked the teacher on her way out of class while clutching her sloppy figurines.
“Heavens! No knives in here! Think what the boys would do with those!” Miss Potter answered.
“Boys!” Goldie answered. “Girls are worse! They don’t even need knives to stab each other.”
Miss Potter giggled. She was young, so young even seventh-graders thought she was young. “I bluffed my way through the three-dimensional classes in college. I’m more a paper or canvas kind of artist. I’ve never even thought about carving. Huh? Not at all like working in clay. Mistakes would be big, especially late ones. You’d have to see right through the wood or stone and picture the negative spaces to take out.”
“Then it’s funny that you have the name Potter, Miss Potter,” Goldie told her. Miss Potter giggled.
Junior high band was the best and the worst. She liked music, had a good feel for it. It made sense reading two-dimensional musical notes and turning them into 3-D sound. Sound was 3-D; Goldie knew that. She could see the sound from all the instruments going out and blending together. But all those immature boys with a legal weapon/noise-maker in their hands, tripping over music stands with their big dumb feet, sometimes knocking over several on one trip. Mr. Running was the best. Goldie was so glad she had chosen the trumpet. She was the only girl trumpet player so she was away from all the girls. At the beginning of band every day, Goldie went right to her seat right up on the highest tier right against the back wall right there in the middle looking right at Mr. Running. Right there. And she was the last to leave. Band ended the day, a nice way to escape.
The school library was lame. The seventh-graders had to use the school library for book reports, rather like extortion, one per quarter, one of which was an oral report, for which she chose a lame book because the girls would be listening with their claws unsheathed. For the first written book report she chose The Yearling and wrote the report in the dialect of the book. Mrs. Milosevich thought the report was “a clever idea and not badly done.” But Marigold needed to learn to write standard English. For the second quarter she read O Pioneers. The third quarter was the dull oral report on a dull book, the plot of which she forgot the second Mrs. Milosevich gave her an A- and said, “It was very good, but I know you could have done better.” Well, of course she could! Who wants to get an A+ on a dull oral book report. Not even Goldie was going to do an A+ in front of the class.
For the fourth quarter she read Dandelion Wine, well, she read it again, for maybe the umpteenth time, which they were not supposed to use for a book report, a book they had already read, but only Goldie knew she had read the book. The book wasn’t in the library, so the librarian ordered it. The book did not arrive in time; so the librarian told Mrs. Milosevich it had so Goldie could do the report. So maybe the library wasn’t so dull, or at least the librarian wasn’t dull.
Early on Memorial Day Goldie went with her parents to the cemetery outside of town to put flowers on the graves of a few ancestors. They always carried a bunch of little flags to put on graves of veterans. As they were walking between the rows of stones looking for military markers, Goldie spotted a grave that had wood chips on it. The gravestone read “Hilda Johnson.” Goldie noticed four small dents in the ground beside the headstone. The bulk of the wood chips were in front of the dents. Now that she looked, some of the chips were still fresh brown and curled. Others were gray and lying flat. Very small crumbs were scattered on the top of the headstone. She smelled them. Her father noticed her and came back. “What are you doing, Maria?”
“Mr. Johnson sits here and carves beside his wife’s grave. He’s been here this spring, but he did it last year, too. I think he feeds Girl Scout cookies to the squirrels or birds here.”
“How do you know?”
She pointed at the chips and the four dents and explained. She pointed at the crumbs. “Shortbread cookies, I think.”
Her father laughed. “Part of your summer reading should be Sherlock Holmes.” Which it became.
“Oh. Look, horses!” Goldie shouted. In a field next to the cemetery right beside Hilda Johnson’s grave were four horses. Big horses, draft horses. Horses! Excellent! Goldie ran to the fence and tried to call them over. They ignored her. Goldie liked horses. She did not want to own one or even ride one. She liked the way they looked standing or running. She wished she could draw them, but her horses always looked like long-necked cows or short-necked giraffes. She liked to talk to horses, when she got the rare chance, and to stroke their soft noses. They looked at her with wet warm brown eyes, like they cared, which they didn’t, of course, but Goldie was not above pretending.
School ended three days later. Phew!. (Goldie wondered, was there ever a time when people really said phew, ahem, or pshaw.) So, Goldie survived seventh grade. Ahead lay eighth grade, which was just Seventh Grade, Part II, as far as Goldie could tell. But school was out. She set her sights on Mr. Johnson: talking to him, getting into his house, asking him about 3-D thinking.
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017