Patrick Madden

Aborted Essay on Plums

What abortions are these Essays! What errors, what ill-pieced transitions, what crooked reasons, what lame conclusions! How little is made out, and that little how ill!
—William Hazlitt “The Indian Jugglers”

Here is a memory: Elder Solomon and I standing on ladders and sitting on branches in the plum trees in Lemes’s yard in Paysandú. The sun warms and the breeze cools, toward a wavering equilibrium, suggesting that all is right in the world. Lemes is the branch president of the Mormons in the northeast, mostly rural, quadrant of the city. His first name may be Juan, though I don’t really remember. Nor do I remember his wife and children, not really, though he was married, as I recall. This must be early autumn, so, April, we’ll say, in this the Southern Hemisphere. I think we have stopped by unannounced and unanticipated to find Lemes (and family) harvesting their plums, and so, like all missionaries everywhere, fatigued of being a nuisance and always keen to be of service, we have clambered into the branches with buckets and bags. We laugh and share stories. We talk about missionary work in the branch. We give updates on our investigators.

Primarily Teresita and José, whom I inherited when I arrived last December, a month before Elder Solomon, and about whom I still know so little, but that they’re living in a shed and raising chickens. Teresita is pregnant, precariously, as she’s miscarried before, so she’s on bed rest, but she’s often up and about, shuffling not hustling, but still. I think José does changas and Teresita may sometimes make pasteles to sell to the neighbors. They were married last month, which was our doing, given that our church won’t baptize them if their union is not properly authorized by the local bureaucracy. They were OK with this, mind, but it was us missionaries who made the arrangements downtown, and it was the local members who baked a cake and brought gifts and bought a lilac dress for Teresita. José forgot to shave. He wore an unbuttoned button-down shirt. None of their extended family attended. Somewhere I have a curling photo of José hunched over signing the marriage register, Teresita looking on smiling, Solomon (in all his glory) raising an eyebrow as if to underscore the cultural differences between his neatly ordered life back in Utah and this.

And what is this, exactly?

This, friends, is an essay, a translation of memory into words and an attempt to find something of significance without preaching, which, truth be told, was our missionary charge, preaching was, more so than picking plums to help someone who didn’t really need our help. But Lemes accepted it graciously and perhaps with relief that he could get rid of some, sending us on our way with a plastic bagful. Isn’t that always the problem? Timing and distribution? If trees would produce their fruits regularly and evenly, there would be no waste, no rot, and we would always be sated.

But this, back then, was two people within an economic system so harsh (and so cold) that they struggled to provide for their most basic necessities. This was a child on the way, fated to a difficult life, faced from birth with challenges I’d never had to overcome. This was Teresita’s lisp and slow speech, José’s stares into the distance. Also an openness, a humility so sweet, so guileless. The stumps we sat on in the yard as we read from the Book of Mormon and answered questions, as the chickens pecked and fluttered. Somewhere I have a curling photo of me hunched over my triple combination, page opened to somewhere in 3 Nephi, I would suppose, smiling wryly at the camera, glancing sidelong at the white chicken perched on my arm.

Soon, amidst our contented conversation, our methodical picking and putting away, the sun dropped low across the river, past Colón, past San José. Solomon and I had had our fill of plums, they were delicious, and we wondered if we’d eat them all before they went bad. We hopped on our bikes, strapped on our helmets, and kicked off, the plastic bag of plums dangling from my handlebars, beating a chaotic staccato against my front fork. Our route home took us past Teresita and José’s shed, so we decided to knock and cast in of our abundance. It’s true that they needed food. Yet it is also true that I cannot recall ever bringing them food before this moment of convenience. We brought them memorized lessons, mostly, and checkups. How was the reading going? Would they be attending church this Sunday? When no one answered our knock, we left the bag hanging from their door handle, no note, no anything. We smiled, imagining their surprised gratitude. Though they might suspect, we would not claim the good deed; we would remain anonymous.

Forgive me, I want to say now.

I awake, residually tired but comfortable, thousands of miles and days from Paysandú, pull on my slippers and shuffle about in the quiet house, descend the stairs, round the corner, open the cupboards and refrigerator, pour a bowl of cereal for breakfast. In quiet moments I sometimes recall Teresita and José, wonder idly about them, revisit in hazy summary our briefly overlapping lives, feel a tug of fellow-feeling (I will call it, though no words I can find seem to fit), as I resist what I would call pity. I can’t even remember their last names, and I am sure there is no way to find them now, short of returning to Paysandú and asking around. They would not be on Facebook. They didn’t even have a phone. Teresita was baptized. José was not, I don’t think. Their daughter was born prematurely and with severe disabilities. I visited them after I was transferred to another area. Perhaps I visited several times. I no longer recall. They were glad to see me, it seemed, and we acted as if all were right in the world. I skirt the edges of wondering just who needed saving, believing such reductions and reversals too thin to hold the weight of my thought.

But these moments of memory and contemplation are rare. As you read of it, you were probably half caught up in the idea-scene, half skeptical of it. The truth is, I am not now eating my breakfast; it is near lunchtime, on a Friday in early December, and there is snow on the ground outside. I am sitting in my office, surrounded by books, typing at my computer, having just written the word computer (now again, in italics). This is an essay, a document of recollected past experiences and extrapolated present interpretations. I began writing it weeks ago, spurred by a flash of memory: gathering Lemes’s plums, leaving them for Teresita and José. I didn’t know why this memory returned nor where writing from it might take me, which connections I might uncover and which ideas I might discover.

Another memory returns to me now: Mostly we sat outside in the shade, but once I peeked inside the shed and saw the lumpy bed, the whole-year calendar pinned to the wall, the plywood table, the pair of spindly chairs, the icebox, the whole place orderly and dignified, each spare item arranged and cared for. Teresita and José didn’t let on about their dire situation, so that I often wondered if they realized it, by which I mean not just “were aware” of it, but, from the Spanish, if they “made it real.” Perhaps the problems I saw didn’t exist, because they went unrecognized as such. That season when Solomon and I visited every few days, taught our lessons, asked our questions, sat on stumps hunched over scriptures among the trees and the chickens that were in the yard, our reality was not Teresita and José’s reality, I believe now. The plums we left dangling from the door handle disappeared from our view, and while I can imagine that Teresita and José found them, appreciated them, ate them, were nourished and pleased, I never heard about them. To my recollection, they never mentioned the plums or figured out that we’d left them. This was as it should have been, though I suspect now that in my immaturity I felt cheated of the credit. The anticlimax was not then satisfying, though now it is.

I have eaten many plums since, mostly without sparking any memories or regrets, mostly without realizing a connection to my past fraught gesture. But a memory may arrive of its own accord, it seems, without warning, without apparent cause, and strike us dumb as its vibrations resound in harmony with our whole unfinished lives, necessitating an essay, which itself will not finish anything either. This is just to say that nothing is simple; nothing is finished; nothing is alone.

 

Patrick Madden is the author of two essay collections, Sublime Physick and Quotidiana, and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. He curates www.quotidiana.org and, with David Lazar, edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press. A Fulbright and Howard Foundation fellow, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. While he’s matured enough to enjoy European chocolates and other such finery, his favorite sweet is the classic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

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