Friday 6 May 2022

May by James Bates, lemonade

This year Mother’s Day fell on May 9th, the same date as Andy’s birthday. When I left for work, I hugged Meg. “Happy Mother’s Day, sweetheart.”

            She hugged me back. “Thanks.” Then she held up Allie, who’d she’d been holding. “Kiss Daddy.”

            “Bye, Daddy,” she said.

            I gave her a slobbery raspberry smooch, which she loved. “Bye, bye, Goofy One,” I told her.

            She crossed her eyes and made a face. “Goofy, goofy,” she said, and scrambled out her mother’s arms. It took one second for her to gear up to top speed as she began running around the room yelling, “Goofy, goofy, goofy’, at top of her lungs.”

            “Thanks for that,” Meg said. But she was laughing. She and Allie had a special bond.

            Kind of like me and Andy.

            Speaking of…I looked around. “Say, where’s the Birthday Boy by the way?”

            “In the back by the garage, building a fort or something.”   

            “Okay, I’ll touch base with him on my way out.” I kissed Meg again. “The party still on for four this afternoon?” Our friends Jack and Linn and Arnie and Amber and their kids Samantha and Willow were all coming over for a dual Mother’s Day/Andy’s birthday celebration. The weather was pleasantly mild in the sixties, and we were going to fire up the grill and do venison steaks that Jack was bringing and filleted walleye from Arnie. I was going to do up a big salad, bake some potatoes and steam some pea-pods. For dessert we’d have Andy’s homemade birthday cake that Linn was bringing.

            “Yep, we are,” Meg said, chasing after Allie. “Watch out! Mommy’s coming to get you!”

            Allie screamed and ran laughing into the bedroom she shared with her brother. “Nooooooo!”

            Meg and I both smiled at each other, silently sharing the same thought: It was nice to see our daughter so happy. We shared a quick hug.

            “Okay,” I said. “I’m off. See you a little after three.”

            “Have a good day.”
            “I’ll try.”

            I’d been working at Esker Quik-Stop for a couple of weeks. It had taken about a month to find the job and get hired after I’d found out that Zylon Labs, the company where I’d been a research scientist for the last six years, had closed its doors for good. The conclusion I’d eventually come to after bemoaning my loss of employment for about a day? That’s life. Get on with it. So, I did.

            Of course, Meg was a little more direct. “It’s no time to feel sorry for yourself, Lee.” Looked me in the eye and spoke in that direct way she has when she wants me to be perfectly clear I understand the point she is making. “Time to move on.”

            Message received. I started looking the next day.

I usually worked two or three days a week at the station, most often from ten in the morning until three in the afternoon. I was paid ten dollars an hour. It wasn’t much, but having a little extra cash never hurt.

            Meg was making good money as an editor for Charlotte’s Press, a small independent publishing company, but I wanted to contribute. With the onset of warmer weather, we didn’t need as much firewood to heat the house, so with less wood to cut, I had some extra time.

The Quik-Stop station was two blocks west of us on the corner of our highway and country road 2. It’d had a sign in their window that we’d seen coming home from getting our second Pfizer shot a few weeks ago.

            I’d pointed it out to Meg. “What do you think?”

            She’d slowed and read it as we drove past. “You working at a gas station?”

            “Yeah. We could use the money, right?”


            “You don’t sound too enthusiastic.” I thought for a moment or two. “Is it because of the extra kids?” In addition to Andy and Allie, Meg was now watching Linn and Amber’s girls, Samantha and Willow.

            “No, that’s not it. I love those two little ragamuffins.”

            “So, what is it?”

            “I don’t mind you working at all.” She turned and smiled as she pulled into the parking space behind our cabin and near the garage. “In fact, it’ll be nice to have the place to just myself and the kids.” She joked. I think. “I’m concerned about you being around so many other people.” She waved her hand arbitrarily. People up here aren’t the safest you know when it comes to Covid.”

            She was right. Mask wearing and social distancing was still frowned upon by the vast majority of rural Minnesotans. But by being conscientious and masking up and social distancing and avoiding crowds we had managed to stay healthy and keep the kids from getting sick with Covid for the nearly five months we’d been up here.

            “I see your point,” I said, helping the kids get out of the car. I watched them run laughing to the cabin. I pointed and commented, “It’s nice to see how well the kids have adjusted.”

            “It is.”

Meg took my hand as we followed behind. The wind was warm blowing through the pine trees. The ever-present crows were around squawking up a store. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. It was a pretty day. “The kids are doing great.” She hugged me. “We all are.” She sighed. “I just want you to be careful. That’s all.”

“Don’t worry. I will be. I’ll wear my mask and use hand sanitizer. Plus, they’ve got a plexiglass barrier between me and the customers.” I smiled and opened the door for her to go inside. “So, you’re okay if I apply.”

            She shrugged. “I know you’ll be safe. Sure, go ahead.”

            So, I did. The next day. Mr. Sven Jorgenson, the manager, hired me on the spot. So far it had worked out fine.

I checked my phone as I went out the back door. I still had some time before I had to leave. “Hey, Andy,” I waved. “How you doing?”

            He waved back. “Fine, Dad. I’m building a fort. Come look.”

            “I will.”

            “I found something.”

            “Cool,” I said, not really thinking about what he’d found, but more to the point, thinking about getting to work. It was only my second week and I wanted to make a good impression. Plus, I was one of those people who was obsessed with being on time. I checked my phone as I walked across the worn yard that at one time probably used to be grass but was now mostly dirt and low growing weeds.

            He was playing with some of the boards that were part of the collapsed garage next to the single car one that we could have used if it were empty of junk. Which it wasn’t, hence us parking the Honda Fit outside. The garages were about a hundred feet from the cabin.

            On the way, I eyeballed the last of the wood Gladys our landlady had left for us in January. The pile was tiny compared to the ten-chords that had originally been there. We’d used most of it up, but still had enough to take the chill off any cold nights or days. I made a mental note to cut it all up, split it and store it on the porch in the next week or two to clear the yard. Maybe then we could plant a garden.

            With those thoughts in mind, I walked up to Andy. He was squatting down with his back to me looking at something.

            “Hi, buddy,” I said. He was dressed in a dark blue sweater under worn bib-overalls. He had on rubber boots because the ground was soft and muddy in a few places. And on his head, he worn a Minnesota Twins baseball hat. His hair was long and curly and spilled down to his shoulders.

            He turned and grinned. “Hi, Dad.” Then he pointed. “Look what I found.”

            I put my phone away. “What?”

            He stood up and pointed. “There.”
            I bent close and looked. “Where?”

            “Under that board.”

I squatted down and looked underneath. “I don’t see anything.”

            Andy got on his hands and knees next to me and lifted the board.

            “Oh, my god!” I yelled, scrambling backwards and falling over myself to get away. It was a twisting, writhing, mass of snakes.

            Andy laughed. “What? You don’t have to be afraid. They just gardener snakes.”

            Now let me tell you something about me and snakes. It won’t take long, and it’s not a pretty story. Nor one I’m proud of. My mom was terrified of them. So was my dad. Together they instilled a reptilian fear of them in me while I was growing up that not only filled my days with terror, but my nights with nightmares. “They’ll come in your sleep and eat you,” Mom sometimes said.

            “Or crush you to death by suffocation.” Dad would add.

            Thanks, Mom and Dad.

            The idea was to fill me with a fear so great I would stay away from them. Done and done!

            But as I got older and I started to rethink that thinking. A friend of mine in college was a herpetologist, a snake guy, and he said to me once, “If you fear snakes, that means everything you know about snakes is wrong.”

            Rational thinking to an emotionally charged fear, that was true. And, I have to say, I tried. He taught me about the good they did for the environment and their place in the ecosystem. He even got me to hold one, a harmless, four-foot-long bull snake. (Harmless!). All well and good, but I was unprepared for the thousands (at least) of the withering writhing snakelets (or whatever they were called) that my son was so proudly showing me.

            As a mature adult and a father who wanted to set a good example for the younger generation, I tried to rally. “Those are nice, son,” I said, trying to keep the quivering quaver out of my voice.

            “I know, Dad. They are so cool.” He wrapped his arms around my waist and hugged me. “This is the best birthday present every.”

            I cleared my throat. “You know we can’t keep them.”

            “Oh, I know.” He grinned at me. “I just like knowing they’re here. I can study them.”

            Wow. And here I thought the book I got him about strange Grimm’s Fairy Tales would be a hit. (It actually was.) But I have to admit, it was wonderful to see him so excited.

            I hugged him, steering clear of the snakes. “Well, I’m glad you like them,” I said. Your mom and I had nothing to do with it, but I’m glad you’re happy.”
            “Oh, I am, Dad. I really am.”

            I hugged him some more. He really was a great kid. “I’m glad.”

            I left then and went to work. Later that afternoon, we had a great Mother’s Day/Andy’s Birthday and everyone had a super good time. Andy enjoyed showing off the den of gardener snakes to Jack and Linn and Arnie and Amber and Sam and Willow. The common consensus was that they were “Awesome!” In fact, I was the only one who had the willies over them. But I did my best to hide my it. After all, not only was it Andy’s birthday, but, as my rationally minded son keeps telling me, “Dad, don’t worry about them. They’re completely harmless.’

            He’s right. They are harmless. And I’m trying my best to get on board and come to grips with the snakes my son so adamantly admires. In fact, he and I go out there every day to check on them. Each day it gets easier, so maybe it’s working. It’s been over a week now, I haven’t even had any nightmares.

About the author 

Jim is an award-winning author who lives in a small town in Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in over three hundred online and print publications. His collection Resilience was published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing. Additional stories can be found on his blog:

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