YOU DON'T KNOW
Originally appeared as “Ed” in
North American Review
IT IS SUMMER in this little town and my friend Alicia says we are all feeling it, we are all a little verdant and steamy here. Alicia is right, I think. It happens every year, no one is surprised, though we do spend such long winters in our down and our cableknit that sometimes by March a few of us lose hope.
Still, now it is July and near ninety some days and there is no denying it is summer. Mornings begin clear, soft, there are breezes. The grass is long and very green and wet against our ankles. Afternoons the water rises from these lawns, from our day lilies, the beech. Steam rises to meet steam, to hang heavy in the oaks that line the streets of this town. We become muted, heavy, tropical. Balsam and lobelia tumble from moss baskets. And it is fertile. We are the river banks of the Nile, we are the delta, rich and fecund. It is, Alicia says, an awful time to be single.
I myself try not to think of it of course. I try only to count a few blessings. My friends and I are healthy, we are employed, we are none of us mentally impaired. Still, I am thirty-nine this summer and the fact remains that I am single—something I have always been, though I do find myself in summers in this little town more single here than usual. I stay because I teach at the high school. They are good to me, they have renewed my contract. I cannot leave just because of the summers.
So I am on vacation now, though this is not normal. Normally in summers I take a course, I drive thirty miles round trip to a university, I keep my certificate current. But this May I change my mind, I decide I have had enough of college credit. For once, I think, I will get a tan, I will walk around in shorts and I will throw out all my stockings.
It is a mistake, this decision to stay home, I know it the first week. I live in a small townhouse, there are two floors, I have my own entrance. Still there is no yard, there is only asphalt for parking. And though I try, though I take a beach towel out to my parking stall, I lie for an hour every afternoon, nevertheless in one week I know. It is not possible, I cannot tan myself on asphalt all summer.
The fact is, I have time on my hands. And I should be thankful then, I think, that this June there is Ed. So again I try. I try to count Ed in my blessings.
Ed is twenty-eight, he is very tall and has a malocclusion. It is what I notice about him first, his long jaw, how it makes him look always so sad. Ed wears mostly bermudas, mostly plaid, it is the second thing I notice. And he is always in black socks and always the same canvas shoes. They are his yard shoes I know, but still I think he does not have to wear them with black socks.
Ed and I meet in the community garden in this town. We have plots next to each other, it is inevitable we should meet, although actually I am only filling in here. I do not really belong in this garden. I am only watering a plot for Alicia.
The garden is a beautiful place, there are willows nearby, a fountain, benches, and once you have a plot in this garden, you can keep it the next year. Most people here know each other, they call to each other, I have heard them trading eggplant for kohlrabi. And Alicia does not want to give up her land here, there is a waiting list, if she does not garden this summer they will give her place to someone else. Still, Alicia has had this same plot for five years, and she has tired, she says, of so much mud on her shoes every summer. So she has given me her place for June. It is forbidden, but the others will not object, Alicia says, if it is only for June.
I should tell Alicia no, I should tell her to find someone else to run her sprinkler. I agree, however, because as I have said, this summer I have time. But I have come late to this garden, I was not here for the planting, I don’t know all the rules. The others do not call to me from their plots, they do not offer to trade me their kohlrabi.
I am glad therefore when one evening Ed says hello. Ed has the plot to the north. He comes here generally in the evenings, when I do, and now off and on for two weeks, we talk. We turn on the sprinklers, and over the sound of the water Ed tells me about himself.
I learn a lot about Ed this June. I do already know about his shop, of course, Ed’s Body Shop, I have read his name on a sign outside of town. But I learn more. I learn Ed moved here just last year and this is his first summer in the garden, too. There was an opening, he was lucky, he said, he got in.
Ed rents a room in a house, only sixty-five dollars a month, kitchen privileges, though the house doesn’t have much of a yard. It’s why he’s here, he says, because the room doesn’t come with a garden. The woman who owns the house is named Inez, she is eighty-five years old and Ed says he gets the room so cheap because Inez doesn’t have to charge much. She doesn’t need the money, mostly she’s just renting the room so she’ll have company, she’ll have somebody there at night.
Inez is a little funny, Ed says. She asks him sometimes if he hasn’t just heard something. What did it sound like, Ed always says, but then Inez is never certain, she’s just checking, Ed guesses, she just wants to make sure she hasn’t missed anything. Ed worries about Inez, she isn’t very well he thinks. So he brings her things from the garden and she seems pleased when he does. He tries to take home some spinach for her each night. Soon, Ed says, there will be zucchini, maybe some tomatoes, and he just hopes Inez holds on till then, it would be a shame, he says, if she had to go to a home before the tomatoes were in season.
Ed tells me all this the first evening. He tells me because I ask. That is, first Ed says hello and he tells me his name. Ed, he says and offers his hand. So Sarah, I say, and we shake and it is a little odd then, our standing there shaking hands as though we have just agreed on something. I say finally well and what brings you to the garden, Ed, though I am not so much interested. I am only making conversation because I do not want to go on standing here with Ed, nodding and shaking hands. I have not meant to pry. But Ed doesn’t seem to mind, he tells me how he’s single, he just thought maybe he’d meet some people in this garden. And then he tells me other things.
Now this is something I have noticed myself about being single. You often tell people too much, once you get started, you cannot always stop. It is because generally you have no one much to talk to. There is no one when you come home after work and put down your lunch bag, there is no one that says so how was your day. It makes you save up the stories, sometimes you practice them, you say them over to yourself at night until you get them the way you want. And when you do see someone, you cannot always help yourself. You tell people things when they have not even asked.
So Ed tells me how he has this body shop, how when he moved here last spring, he bought the shop and last summer he had an open house. He put up a volleyball net in the back and he had a cake there too and balloons but then, Ed says, nobody came.
I don’t know what to say. I think I should say something but Ed just shrugs like it’s ok, it happens. Still, I feel bad, I think Ed really did want people to come. I think how he must have swept up the place, how he probably put fresh sand on the spots in his floor where oil had leaked.
We don’t talk much more that evening. And we only say hello the next night, but the following day Ed sends me a letter. It is a memo actually, two sheets of paper with carbon inbetween so you can write back and keep a copy yourself for your files. The memo has Ed’s Body Shop printed across the top and below this it just asks would I like to have coffee sometime.
I am surprised, I have never got a memo before, I’m not sure what to do with the second copy. I don’t know why Ed is even writing in the first place. But I think about it.
What I think is that it is kind of sad, a memo like this from someone I have just met. But then I also think how I do not at all want to go for coffee, I do not want to sit and watch Ed fool with the sugar packets on some cafeteria counter. And so that evening when I see Ed at the garden, I make up an excuse. I thank him for the memo but I say how I have these other commitments, I am sorry. Ed just says well so maybe some other time. It’s ok.
I don’t see Ed for a while after that. He doesn’t come to the garden and I think maybe he is hurt, I think maybe I will not hear from him again. But then in a couple of days I get another memo. Would I like to see a movie, Ed wants to know. Would I like to take a drive around a lake?
I don’t write back, I don’t see Ed at the garden, and in two more days Ed writes again. He’s been thinking and do I maybe need him to fix something on my car? He has this body shop, and well no charge for the labor, just parts. P. S. Only kidding about the parts.
I do not like all these memos, I think, and I decide I will tell Ed that when I see him. And then I will tell him about the address, it is maybe what bothers me most. Three memos now and Ed has got the address all wrong. I live at Woodlane Park Place and each time now Ed has written the memo Woodland Park Lane. It makes me angry with Ed, that he cannot seem to get the address right.
So the next night when I see Ed at the garden, I thank him for the memos, I correct him on the address, and then I say how he doesn’t need to write, he can just see me at the garden. You should save your memos, Ed, I say. But Ed only tells me not to worry, he can use as many memos as he wants, he has them printed by the box and he gets a good deal, he says, since he uses only one color ink.
The next day then I get another memo. This one just has a clipping stapled to it, a photograph Ed has cut from the Wednesday night paper. It is a picture of an old man with no teeth sitting on an iron cot, grinning and holding a white duck in his arms. I do not know why Ed has sent it to me. But I worry now. I worry Ed wants to be my boyfriend. I don’t know why else he would send me memos.
I tell Alicia about Ed. Alicia, I say after the last memo, what should I do? Alicia is my friend. I want to know what does she think, four memos in one week.
Alicia is sitting on a newspaper on my kitchen floor painting her toenails mauve, very big, she says, for summer, and I can tell she does not want to stop in the middle of the first coat. Still, Alicia thinks about it, she thinks about Ed. And she is willing to give him a second chance, I guess, because she tells me to write back. Save the carbon, Alicia says. Your grandchildren will have a good laugh.
Now here is the difference between Alicia and me. Alicia still assumes there will be grandchildren. Alicia is as old as I, she is as single, as childless. But Alicia assumes things for us both. Anything is possible, she says, you don’t know. And so Alicia grows her hair long, she curls the ends, she wears soft eyelet dresses in the summer. It is not right, I think, for a woman of thirty-nine to be so optimistic. Still, just yesterday Alicia bought a garter belt and lilac-colored stockings. Something may come of it, she says. You don’t know.
Though I don’t now think we have anything to discuss, I say but these memos, Alicia, they are just random, and I describe the old man holding the duck. What am I supposed to make of it, Alicia? I say. And then I tell her I don’t think I can go back to the garden. But Alicia is firm. She reminds me there is still one week left in June. I have, after all, agreed to the whole month.
The next evening I am back, Ed is too, so I turn on the water and I thank him for the memo. Ed doesn’t seem to hear, though, he is sitting on the ground next to where he has planted a new row of basil, and he is pulling at some weeds like his mind isn’t on his work. And so Ed, I say, is something wrong, and I turn off the sprinkler and I say here, Ed, let’s talk.
Ed doesn’t look up, he just says how it’s this garden, Sarah. What’s the point?
I say I am not sure what he means, and so Ed sighs, he keeps weeding, he doesn’t look at me. But finally he says how well it’s not easy to explain. I come out here, Sarah, he says. I plant things, I water, I take home spinach to Inez, I plant a second crop. But what’s the point, Sarah? I only take home a little spinach to Inez.
And here Ed stops, he looks up, he tells me it is very difficult, Sarah, you know. And I realize Ed means being single, it is difficult being single. Ed is telling me this because he thinks I will understand.
And so Ed, Ed, I say, you are twenty-eight, there is still time for you. And I say how maybe he just needs to get away. Maybe you need a vacation, Ed. It would do you good, I say, to go visit a national park.
But Ed just looks sad and shakes his head. And then he puts his head down on top of the row of new basil and says something into the ground so that I can’t hear him. I know for sure then we should talk, Ed and I. But I do not know what to do, I do not think I can carry on a conversation like this if Ed is going to sit with his head on the basil. So I just say Ed, do you need help?
Ed doesn’t say anything for a while, though finally he lifts his head. But he is large-eyed and gulping and I know we will not talk. I know Ed cannot for the life of him make a single sound.
We manage that last week, Ed and I. There are no more scenes and Ed only tells me about his shop again. He tells me how he’s planning an open house, he had one last year, he says, but nobody came. I say yes, Ed, I know. And I say how this year will be different. I’m sure of it, I tell Ed.
Then finally it is July and I stop coming to the garden and I don’t see Ed again. I do hear from him once or twice, though. Ed has the address right now and he sends me one more memo, it is a flyer actually, about the open house. I don’t go and a week later Ed sends me a postcard from a natural hot springs. He doesn’t ask where I’ve been.
So I decide that is that and I don’t think about Ed so much, though once in a while I think about the garden. I miss the cool evenings there. But now it is only hot, and in the afternoons I go back to sunning myself, I leave my townhouse, I take my beach towel to my parking stall again, I lie on my back on the asphalt. And sometimes I wonder about the garden. I close my eyes to the sun and I think how at this same moment in the black soil of that garden hundreds of new potatoes grow, small and silent inside their smooth skins.
Another two weeks go by, and it is late July. I no longer go out to the asphalt, I do not think about the garden, and there are no letters from Ed. So it is a surprise when one night, it is a Friday and very hot and I am in the living room of my townhouse listening to the radio with all the windows open wide, there is Ed at the screen door.
Hello Sarah, he says through the screen.
Well Ed, I say, and I sound as though I am glad to see him. This surprises me a little. But I think it is true, I am glad to see Ed. So I say come in, Ed. I turn down the radio and I ask him does he want an iced tea?
Ed stays behind the screen door, he does not seem interested in iced tea, he just stands with his arms down at his sides and he says well Sarah, you see it’s like this. And then still standing there he says how for a year now he has been living in one room of a house that an old woman of eighty-five owns. And I say yes, Ed, you have told me this. The woman’s name is Inez, you have already told me all this.
And Ed says well but you don’t know what it’s like living with an eighty-five-year-old woman. She has this smell to her, Sarah, he says, like chicken when you keep it too long on the counter.
I say yes, Ed, I have known people like that. And I say now don’t you want to come in?
It is making me uncomfortable, talking to Ed through the screen door. But Ed just says no, you don’t know, Sarah. You don’t know how it is. It’s real hot in that house, Sarah. Inez keeps the windows closed all day and sometimes I think I can’t go back there, not with the smell and the heat.
Ed, I say and I get up and I open the door. I have had enough of Ed standing there behind the screen. But I see Ed looks terrible, his face is longer than I remember, he looks very tired. It worries me so I say here, Ed, you sit here and I will go find us a couple of beers.
I bring back two bottles, the beer is cold and it seems to lift Ed’s spirits some. So we sit on my couch and we drink our beers and Ed tells me a little more about Inez, how she has failed a lot these last few weeks.
She gets these ideas sometimes, Sarah, he says. Last week she told me she didn’t want to see my shoes around all the time, I was leaving my shoes lying around the living room and it was beginning to bother her. But I don’t know where she gets that, Sarah. I’m a tidy man, I keep my shoes in a row in my closet. It worries me, Ed says.
And I say to Ed well yes, it would worry me too. It’s natural enough you should be concerned. It isn’t healthy, I say, coming home every night to someone who’s imagining men’s shoes.
I am only trying to help here but I’m not sure Ed has heard because he is on a new topic now, he says how she’s started talking to something in her dining room this past week. He doesn’t know what it is, he says, but she talks out loud almost all the time now to it and she won’t leave the dining room. She tells him she must stay and entertain. There is, she must think, some kind of party always going on.
So you see, Sarah, Ed says, I can’t go back there just now. Inez sits up all night and she talks to it, if I go back there now she’ll want me to have a talk with it too.
Ed does not then wish to discuss Inez anymore. He is tired of Inez, I can tell, he now just seems to want to sit on my couch. But he is so quiet, he looks so sad again that I am afraid it will be like the time in the garden by the basil. So finally I say look, Ed, would you like to spend the night?
It is getting late, I do not want just to go on sitting here with Ed. So it would be all right, I say. I would like you to stay, Ed. I mean, of course, only that he can spend the night on my couch, it is important that Ed understand this. I look at him to see what he is thinking.
Ed doesn’t say anything, he just stares at his beer. But I know he will stay. He doesn’t look like he has plans for going anywhere else.
And this is how it is.
Ed is lying on my couch, it is late and I am upstairs, I am in my own bed with the sheets rolled down and I listen to Ed breathe. It is slow and deep and loud below me. So I think about Ed lying there. I imagine him twitching once, it travels down his whole body and shakes the couch. Then Ed yawns and I think of him stretching his legs the length of my couch, I think how his feet hang over the end, that they are hairless and long-toed and very white. And then I know Ed is asleep. The breathing is deeper, not so loud, and it will be all right, I think, it will be all right.
I lie still. I feel there is a breeze, the day’s heat is beginning to lift. There is also a moon, mostly full, and I think of the garden again, how each day now in the thick circles of squash leaves the blossoms have begun, how they are fat and bright yellow against the green.
I hear Ed sigh in his sleep. He turns and the couch creaks and I know then I am falling asleep too because I only think how nice it is, having someone else here breathing all night long in my house. And maybe tomorrow, I think, I will tell Ed that. I will get up early, I will make Ed breakfast, and we will sit at my kitchen table and drink our coffee until noon.