Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
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We should have known when we grew the baby that things would turn out the way they did. Earl and I, we never should have thought we could get away with having any kind of baby, never mind a giant baby like the one we grew out there in the garden. We never had any luck. Not in that garden of ours, at least. We planted tomatoes, and they turned into pomegranates. We planted corn, but the ears split and bloomed into cabbage leaves. And the carrots, oh, the carrots. Down in the ground we dug, and up came some of the longest and thickest cucumbers we’d ever seen.
Sometimes I forget that things aren’t the same for other people the way they are for Earl and me. Sometimes I even forget that there are other people out there, that they exist. People who don’t grow one thing and end with another. People who have no interest in seeds or don’t even have a garden. I forget that there is anyone but Earl and me now that the giant baby is gone. He was the one thing we grew that we had hope for.
It wasn’t that we didn’t love the giant baby or think of him as ours, as belonging to us. He didn’t grow inside me, the way most babies do, but this is a new world we live in. Some babies grow in dishes in labs, and some in the bellies of other women who then give the baby they’ve grown to its mother. There are all kinds of ways that babies grow, and so what if the way we grew ours wasn’t what you’d call “conventional?”
So what, we said, Earl and I. Who would possibly care that our baby was not grown inside a woman but in the garden where we had planted him?
He grew right out there in our yard near the raspberries that turned into radishes and the orange tree that collapsed under the weight of the pumpkins that sprouted among the leaves. Who would possibly care what we did in the privacy of our own yard? Who was anyone to say that what we did was wrong?
We grew the baby in the yard. We grew him, Earl and I, out there in that garden of ours, and we loved him—I think we really did—like he was ours because he was ours.
Until he wasn’t anymore.
It all started with the toes.
But I should explain. I have some explaining to do, just like Ricky used to say to Lucy on the old I Love Lucy show when Lucy got busted, always, for trying to find a part in one of Ricky’s cabaret shows where he sang the Babalu. That Lucy, always getting caught with fruit piled on her head or grapes between her toes trying to wind her way into being onstage with Ricky. And he caught her every time and would say in that accent of his that she had some “’splaining to do.” But I didn’t understand what there was to explain. Why didn’t Ricky get it? All Lucy ever wanted was more time with Ricky.
Earl and I were like Lucy and Ricky in that way, I guess. We were always trying to be together more, or more together somehow. I’d fallen in love with Earl the minute I’d heard his name.
“The name’s Earl,” he’d said to me that day at the vegetable stand when he reached for a carton of cherry tomatoes at the same second I had. I’d looked down at his hand there on top of mine, our two hands both covering the redness of the cherry tomatoes, and I’d blushed in a way I hadn’t blushed for years.
“Earl,” I’d said. “Earl.”
I’d repeated the name to him as if I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. I remember I let the name rest in my mouth as if I were tasting it. You don’t meet many men named Earl anymore. I’d always wanted to meet a man named Earl, I realized, standing over those cherry tomatoes that were the only things redder than my face, though I hadn’t known it until the second he’d said the name. Earl, I’d thought, such a solid name. The kind of name you could count on. What had happened to all the solid names of the past? Short bursts of man’s names like Chuck or Ed or Burt. Or Earl.
I said to myself that day, as I took the little basket of cherry tomatoes he handed to me, I’m going to fall in love with a man named Earl and grow a whole life with him someday.
And that’s just how it happened. We left that vegetable stand and have been together ever since. Even when Earl had to be away from me to work at the lumberyard, I could still feel him there inside of me. I thought of that feeling as the Essence of Earl, and it was that feeling we’d brought to this house we built and the garden we grew together. Sometimes I thought that if I could open Earl up and climb my way inside of him and stay in there, in the innards of Earl, I would. I would have found a way to get inside. At night when we slept, I’d curl up next to Earl and press my face into his back and whisper to myself, Oh, sweet Essence of Earl, let me get inside.
And Earl would press his back harder against me, as if he could feel it, too, and wanted me in there, the two of us folded over each other, skin over skin and bone to bone, muscle and heart and blood that pumped.
But that was before everything happened, when we were just Earl and Linda and no one else.
Earl had gone out to the garden that day without me, the way he did sometimes after they’d fired him from the lumberyard. Poor Earl had sold the wrong kind of wood to a couple building a deck that collapsed after a party. A highly intoxicated and obese man had done a cannonball into the pool that the deck surrounded. There had been a lawsuit. The obese man—they always said obese and not huge or fat the way they said intoxicated and not drunk—had splinters in places splinters are never meant to prick through, Earl said the day he was let go.
“The boss just looked at me and said, ‘Damn it, Earl, if you don’t know the difference between cedar and untreated pine by now, may God save your sorry soul,’” Earl said as we stood at the window that looked out over the backyard. We stared out at the tree that had broken in half from the weight of all the pumpkins it had sprouted instead of oranges.
I told him that, to my mind, no obese drunken man should attempt a cannonball without thinking of the consequences beforehand.
“Splinters or no splinters, that’s just downright irresponsible,” I said, and Earl pulled me closer and pressed his nose into my hair.
“Oh, Linda,” he said, “if only the whole world could see things the way you do. I’ve got no business selling wood, anyway, when all I want is to be out there with you, in the garden.”
We had pumpkin soup in bread bowls that night for dinner, and the very next day, Earl found the toes while I lay on the Barcalounger reading the seed catalogue. We hadn’t planted anything new in awhile, and for a time, we’d cut our losses. We’d taken the soil to the garden center nearby and had the soil tested; “pH perfect,” they pronounced it, nothing that showed too much acid or fungus or whatever it is they look for when they test people’s soil. Sometimes I wonder what makes a person decide to go into the business of soil testing, but then I remember: Who am I to judge? I grew a baby in my backyard.
I have no room to talk.
I had my tea on the end table next to me and my knees curled up under the coverlet. I was reading about flowers, thinking that maybe Earl and I would have a change of luck with flowers rather than fruits or vegetables. I imagined roses the size of lanterns, Earl and I out there trimming and weeding and tending the way we’d imagined we would when we’d started the garden years ago. I closed my eyes there on the Barcalounger and imagined Earl and me standing barefoot in the soil and the smell of roses so strong we had to cover our mouths to drown it out. I could almost feel it, the dirt under my feet, as I lay back in the lounger. The seed catalogue fell to the floor as I closed my eyes and thought of roses that would wind their way around my arms, my legs, up through my hair, the vines and thorns twisting my hair into braids.
When I opened my eyes, there was Earl with this look on his face. It was a look I’d never seen before, not even after the accident with the backhoe that had sealed our childlessness forever.
“For God’s sake, Earl,” I said, when I saw that look, “you didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”
I was worried about Earl. He hadn’t been the same since the firing, or even before that when the backhoe ruined him in ways a man shouldn’t be ruined. It wasn’t something we talked about, that day he’d gotten himself run over by the backhoe, but the memory of it lingered. It did. We hadn’t wanted babies all that much, and I was older now, too old. One day a woman from town had stopped me at the grocery store and told me that she hadn’t seen me looking this thin before, and was I dieting or working out.
“Working out?” I asked. And she said, “Yes, Linda, you know with weights and all,” and when I said that I hadn’t been, unless you counted being out in the garden on my hands and knees, but she said no, that gardening never made anyone look so lean.
“Oh, that’s it then,” she’d said. “You’re just getting old.”
I was thinking about that neighbor woman and the day Earl had been bloodied by the backhoe, the stitches and ice packs, when Earl sat down on the edge of the Barcalounger and told me to close my eyes.
“Promise me, Linda,” he said, his voice low as he leaned closer to me with his hands clasped, one on top of the other. “Promise me you won’t open them until I say.”
I pressed my hands into my thin arms and felt the muscle and bones sticking out of me, the veins, too, and thought that the neighbor woman was right. I was getting old.
“Earl, what is it?” I said. “You’re scaring me now.”
He kept his hands squeezed tightly and smiled with one side of his mouth slightly higher than the other, his best Earl smile, the one he gave only to me. To hell with that woman, I thought. I might have been getting old, but I still had this.
“Close your eyes now, just like I said,” and as I closed my eyes I could hear the breath in his chest moving in and out, the little hisses that had helped me to sleep for all these years.
“Don’t look,” he said. “Don’t look until I say.”
I closed my eyes and kept them closed. I kept my promise to Earl and did not open them again until he told me to. I don’t know what I was expecting to see that day there on the Barcalounger, but when I opened my eyes, I knew that whatever it was hadn’t prepared me for what I was about to see.
He told me to open my eyes, and when I did, he parted his hands and sat there cradling them.
Toes. Baby’s toes. Ten of them, not just bones but pink skin and impossibly tiny nails.
I looked up at Earl, and he at me, and I cupped my hands as he poured the toes into the palms of my hands.
“Are these what I think they are?” I whispered, and Earl nodded, folding his one hand over the two of mine.
“From the garden,” he said.
I just stared down into my hands at those perfectly formed miniature toes and felt them grow warm in my hands. Slowly I counted them over and over, one through ten, marveling at the shape of each toe, the plumpness of the big toes, the splendor of the pinkies.
“Our luck is about to change,” he said, and I didn’t answer him. I kept holding those toes in my hands and wondering what was going to happen to us now that the garden that we thought had turned against us had now risen up and sent us ten baby’s toes.
Of course we planted them.
Of course we did. What else would we do?
It was like that old saying, that when the world sends you lemons, you make lemonade. The world sent us baby’s toes, and we saw nothing to do but plant them.
We never thought of any other possibilities. I guess other people might have. Other people might have imagined horrible things about a baby cut up, dismembered, and thrown in our garden, but Earl and I had never been much like other people.
Lucy and Ricky would have planted them, too. I feel sure of that, even now when I watch reruns. If Lucy found toes in the earth in her garden, she would have called for Ricky. He might have said she had some ’splainin’ to do, but she would have planted them all the same.
The world sent us baby’s toes, and we never thought of sadness. The world sent us baby’s toes, and we rejoiced.
That next morning we woke up at dawn and got ready to plant. Neither of us had our morning coffee or even brushed our teeth. I picked up the shoe box next to the bed where I’d placed the toes the night before. I’d wrapped them in a pair of Earl’s socks to keep them safe. It had been hard to sleep with the toes there on the bureau next to me, but I’d kept my eyes closed and held onto Earl all through the night, pressing myself against his back.
We walked across the lawn in our bare feet. It seemed the right thing to do. If we were going to plant toes, there was no sense in wearing shoes. I felt the wetness of the grass under my feet as we made our way across the lawn. Earl held his arm around my shoulders, and I kept the shoe box close to my chest.
You might say I cradled it.
Earl opened the gate that he’d built from excess wood he’d taken from the lumberyard. I thought of the day he’d brought the wood home, the excitement we felt as he unloaded it from the pickup truck his boss had lent him. I thought of that lopsided smile of his as he’d gone about the business of hammering the wood into place, how he’d laughed when the gate swung back and forth just the way it was supposed to. I thought, too, of the day the backhoe had gone berserk, the blood running down the front of his cargo shorts. But then I stopped myself from thinking those thoughts and clutched the shoe box.
We got down on our knees together in the dirt as Earl dug with the spade. Neither of us was sure how deep the hole should be, and when Earl could press two fists and lean down so the dirt was level with his elbows, we agreed that was deep enough.
“Is there something we should say?” I whispered. Earl took the shoe box from me and unwrapped the toes from his pair of argyle socks. “I feel like we should say something.”
He held the toes in his hands and bowed his head.
“Maybe you should be the one,” he said.
“But you found them.”
In the end we did it together. I took five of the toes, and Earl took the other five, and together we scooped them into the earth. Together we told the garden that we loved it in spite of itself, that we welcomed the cabbage the size of soccer balls and the zucchini that wound its way into vines of sour grapes.
“And we promise,” I whispered to the garden as Earl covered the last of the toes with the soil, “to love whatever it is you decide to send us.”
Earl lay the spade down in the dirt and kissed me, hard, on the mouth.
“Amen,” he said.
I took Earl’s hand in mine and felt the dirt in his hand moving against the dirt in mine as if it were doing some sort of dance. I squeezed his hand so hard that he winced as he closed the gate behind us. I kept squeezing his hand even after we crawled back into bed and lay together with the soil still on our feet. The dirt made scratching sounds as Earl and I rubbed our feet together under the bedding. We fell into a fitful sleep that lasted three days. We held on to each other, pulling, squeezing each other even in sleep, as if we couldn’t get close enough no matter how tightly we held on.
While we slept I dreamed of babies. A sea of babies beneath us, holding us up, and Earl and I floating on the mattress above them. Hundreds of babies lifted us over their baby heads, Earl and I swimming on the mattress, kicking our feet in rhythm as we sailed in the bed above them.
“Holy crap, Earl,” I said in the dream, “would you look at all these babies?”
But Earl said nothing. I woke up several times in a sweat only to have Earl pull me closer, ever closer, as if he were the one trying to get inside me and not me inside Earl, the way it had always been. Every time I closed my eyes the baby dreams started up again until I woke up on the third day, finally, to the sounds of crying.
Looking back now, I wonder what we expected to find that day. We knew so little about babies, even when we were much younger and the possibility of having babies still sometimes lurked. It wasn’t that we didn’t want children, but rather that we just seemed never to get around to having them. We’d always liked things the way they’d been. Earl and me, me and Earl. Just us.
“Just us,” we’d say to the waitress at the diner in town when we’d head in on Sunday mornings for the special.
The waitress would smile and lead us to a booth in the back of the diner, quiet, far from the family tables up front filled with kids spitting straws at each other and babies banging spoons on the tables. The sound would ring out through the diner, but in the back room with Earl, we’d reach for each other’s hands across the table and sigh at the quiet.
“You two are not like other couples,” the waitress told us one Sunday when she’d brought us some cheese danishes to go in a box. “On the house,” she said. “You seem to really like each other.”
We laughed, but it was true, we realized, walking out of the diner that day as we looked at the other couples with the straw-spitting kids and banging spoons. We didn’t scowl at each other or sit in ugly silence. We didn’t have worry lines on our foreheads and between our eyebrows. We just did our best being us, because it seemed the one thing we knew how to do. We thought this every night as we climbed into bed and went about the business of trying to climb inside each other.
Until that terrible day with the backhoe when children became impossible. And of course, somewhere along the way, I’d gotten old.
That morning when the crying started we had to peel ourselves apart. My hands had glued themselves to Earl’s back and made a sucking sound when I pried them off. Earl’s head had somehow found its way into the crook of my shoulder, and when he pulled his head back, he screamed as a chunk of hair remained stuck on the upper part of my left arm.
I fell off the bed and stumbled to the dresser to grab a sweater and a pair of jeans. The crying grew louder the more we hurried into our clothes, Earl tripping over his sweatpants and landing flat on the carpet outside the bedroom.
“Earl, honey, take it easy now,” I said, scrambling to help him to his feet. “Whatever’s out there is going to wait for us.”
Pins and needles raced through my feet as I tottered behind him. Earl grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the back door.
“Do you hear that?” he said, almost in a scream. “That’s a baby’s cry. That is a baby crying for us, right now, right out there.”
He stopped and held his hand on the doorknob. We looked at each other and nodded. I felt my breath dry in my throat, a rawness there that ached every time another cry rang out.
A cry for us, I thought, the two of us running now, barefoot in the backyard, toward the gate in the distance. A cry for Earl and me.
The gate slapped back as Earl ran ahead of me, his feet tromping over the would-be tomatoes turned to radishes and the lettuce heads turned to watermelon vines. For a moment, in the space between cries, I felt a surge of panic in my chest. What if I didn’t know what to do, how to take care of it? What if that was the reason we’d never had children, Earl and me? What if we were unfit?
I thought of all these things as I shuffled after Earl, over the watermelon vines and toward the tree that had grown pumpkins. I stopped when I saw Earl in front of me, dropped to his knees.
“Oh, Linda,” he said, so softly I could hardly hear it, “oh, come and look.”
I closed my eyes. I’ll admit that much now. When Earl first accused me of not wanting to look at the baby that morning, I told him he had no right to judge me, and besides, his back had been turned. But now, after all that’s happened, I can admit that I wasn’t sure I was ready to see.
When I opened them, I dropped next to Earl on the dirt. There in the hole Earl had dug a few nights before lay the tiniest baby I’d ever seen. Of course I hadn’t seen or held many babies before our own grew, but I knew this one was on the smaller side. Tiny, but perfect, with round cheeks the color of the sunset and a crown of reddish hair that circled high above the palest of brows. I felt a pulling sensation in my middle as I looked at him—he was fully formed, tiny as he was—that made me want to shout out to the world that I was not old.
“Where are his feet?” I said to Earl, crawling around the other side of the hole to get a better look. “I can’t see his feet.”
Earl reached down into the hole and cupped the tiny feet in his hands. The baby had stopped crying now and breathed shallow bursts that made a sighing sound through his parted lips.
“He’s all here, don’t you worry,” Earl said, and together we counted his ten fingers and toes, laughing together as the baby sighed.
We sat cross-legged and stared down into the hole in the ground that the baby did not quite fill. Finally, when I’d had enough of looking and the stabbing in my stomach flared up again, I reached down into the hole.
“What are you doing?” Earl said
I laughed and clucked my tongue. I actually clucked it. So many times I’d heard mothers make this sound, a gentle clucking. It was as if to say, “What are you worried about? I’ve got this. Now and forever I’ve got this.” Until I made that clucking sound myself that day in the dirt, I hadn’t known that I’d been waiting to make it.
“Oh, Earl,” I said, “you act like you’ve never seen a baby before.”
We both laughed a little, quietly, but then as I reached one hand behind the baby’s head and the other under his back and moved to pull him up, we stopped.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
I tried again to lift the baby, and again the baby would not come.
“I don’t know,” I said, and moved to the other side of the hole. “Bad leverage, maybe.”
I switched hands, the left hand now under the head and the right supporting the body, and moved to lift again.
“No, he’s not stuck, just pull harder.”
“You try it, then.”
“All right, move over, I’ll get him out.”
“Be careful of his head, Earl, be sure to hold the head.”
“Jeez, Linda, I think I can figure out that much.”
“Here, let me help. On three. One, two …”
“You’re right. He’s stuck.”
“I told you he was stuck.”
Except he wasn’t stuck, or at least, not wedged in, as most people would think the word “stuck” means. Part of him was still attached to the ground, and only after we’d kept pushing and pulling and finally digging with our hands did we see the thin white vines that held him to the ground.
“Roots,” Earl said. “He’s rooted.”
I didn’t answer. I just sat in the dirt and held my stomach, which was now beginning to burn, a slow almost delicious burning that rose up from my belly and into my chest.
“Maybe we should pull harder,” Earl said, as I felt the tingling in my chest flare up and then disappear.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
I looked over at the half-collapsed pumpkin tree that was supposed to deliver us oranges. I thought about the first time we’d tried to grow anything in our garden, how we’d driven down to the garden center and bought some packets of herbs. Fresh basil leaves, guaranteed to grow, the packet read. I’d imagined myself cooking pasta for Earl on Saturday nights with basil fresh from our garden with cherry tomatoes as garnishes, a symbol of the way we’d come together that day at the vegetable stand. How happy Earl would look, how satisfied. Only our seeds had burrowed themselves into the ground and come up as thick bunches of celery with roots so deep they trailed halfway across the yard.
“That’s it,” I said, and reminded Earl of the celery roots that had torn through half of the lawn. “He’s not done growing yet. He needs some more time.”
“And what do we do in the meantime? Do we just leave him out here to grow?”
“I don’t know what we do, Earl,” I said. “I really don’t.”
We left him to grow. There was no other choice.
Laurie Foos is the author of five previous novels, among them Before Elvis There Was Nothing. Her sixth book of fiction (from which this work is excerpted), The Giant Baby, will be published in September by Open Door Gemma Media. Her seventh novel, The Blue Girl, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. Her short fiction has been widely published in magazines and anthologies including Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary XXperimental Prose. She teaches in Lesley University’s MFA program and in Goddard’s low-residency BFA program and lives on Long Island.
Originally published in
Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.