1 Nonfiction Story
by Carolyn Dekker
Thursday, the first of October. My parents arrive tomorrow. I should be home, cleaning the house of dog hair and empty coffee mugs and drifts of clean laundry, removing the signs of my bachelor disorganization. Instead, I am searching the town of Hancock, Michigan for pomegranates. As with most food products whose scarcity provokes my self-mocking frustration (quinoa, fresh basil, vegetarian bullion), I finally find them at the food co-op.
Tomorrow my first-year writing classes are discussing Andrea Scarpino's “Self-Portrait as Pomegranate” and “Madonna of the Pomegranate.” The Upper Peninsula's poet laureate has chosen as one of her favorite motifs a fruit that is nearly impossible to obtain in this northern clime, so far from money and markets.
I take the pomegranates to the counter. They are organic, and somewhat paltry. They cost $1.79 each. I hope four will be enough. I think of other things I have bought for my classroom and know I cannot spend seven dollars on every lesson. But at some checkouts, $1.79 might buy a king-sized candy bar. What tawdry royalty—when here it buys Eve's temptation, Adam's lust, Persephone's journey to the underworld.
“She be headed down there soon,” says one of my students, laughing, after we've pooled our knowledge of the myth. I love and encourage this kind of alert rowdiness in my classroom.
He's right about Persephone. The days are still hot, but the mornings have the bite of coming frost. If I'm going to get my garage roof replaced before the snow closes in, this is the weekend. This is why my father is coming to visit.
I ask a student to read the first poem. While she does so, I unsheathe my hunting knife, withdraw a plate from my bag, hold a pomegranate above the plate, and cut. First I make a delicate ring. Then with one plunge and a twist of the wrist, I open the fruit with hardly any spatter. I wish someone would look up to see me flourishing the luminous seeds, but my students' eyes track Scarpino's words across the page. When they finally look up, I have the fruit in eighths on the plate and someone asks, “What is that?”
It's a question I anticipated. It's why the pomegranate is here.
“You've never seen a pomegranate before?” another student asks.
“It's okay,” I say, “Me neither, until I got to college.”
I do not often stand upon blue-collar pedigree, but, determined to normalize this unfamiliarity with exotic commodities, I turn to the board and mutter comically, “Construction worker's kid, what do I know about a pomegranate?”
“See? Yeah!” says the first student.
This is close to the red heart of the thing. When I arrived in college fourteen years ago, a pomegranate was as mythical to me as a unicorn.
The first pomegranate I saw was in the small, fine hands of my friend Masha, someone I couldn't have imagined before she appeared in my life, living across the hall from me in my freshman dorm. A Russian émigré from a Boston suburb, her parents used to visit and bring her elaborate deliveries of food from home, things you wouldn't find in that tiny western Massachusetts town: soft powdery cookies and pies—long homemade flat bread filled with cabbage. There were Russian grocery items, too: malted drinks; sweet halva made from sunflower seeds; black, thin-sliced rye bread, and, yes, pomegranates. Masha's mother was an educator but also a theatre director, and she spoke easily of Vladimir Nabokov and David Foster Wallace. Her father was a software designer, her grandmother a physicist. I had never guessed at such progenitors.
Masha's mother had told her that the fruit of a pomegranate is red and iron-rich, something a young woman ought to eat while menstruating. As Masha extended a sliver of that fruit to me, a sliver of that caring, I knew I was glimpsing a kind of mothering, a frank loving of a daughter or a friend in her whole body, a category of love whose existence in the world I hadn't guessed at.
Masha and I might have been lovers, at least in the until-graduation tradition of small New England colleges, if I could have found a sexual vocabulary for my fascination at where she came from, my admiration for her taste in literature, fashion and punk music, for her creativity and her sharp, sarcastic wit, and the heart-thrilling way her small shoulders fit under my arm. I grew up too slowly. Did I miss something that would have bound us closer?
On the roof, my father works with casual power: twice as smooth, twice as fast as me. When we begin to tear off the old roof, he strips half of the first side by himself while I putter back and forth, throwing shingles on the tarp, bagging the brown paper flour sacks that some homeowner half a century ago thriftily substituted for tarpaper.
Sixty-two and with one hip replaced, he walks with a limp—not so much from the surgery as from too many years spent bracing himself against pain. This is my roof, and I have been an intensely physical person all my life, but here he is, protecting me from the real and brutal work of it.
Finally, I take the pitchfork. He counsels aggression, says to push the tines hard into the rows of shingles from the side, and lift fast to pop the nails. There are three layers of shingles, and thrice the nails make for hard stabbing and hard lifting. He roves the planks he's cleared with a hammer and small pry bar, removing nails with two-handed grace. Later, taking up the same job, I pull what I can one-handed and hammer the pry bar under the stubborn nails. One, two, three, five taps. Without looking up, I can hear him working, and know he gets each nail with only three. It's not his strength, really, that tells on this work, but the confident, coordinated knowledge in his hands.
After lunch, we work down from the ridgeline onto the south side of the roof. I find I prefer the flat shovel to his pitchfork, so we both attack the same task, gouging away at the layered asphalt from above. For a little while, I am almost keeping pace. Then somehow he is beside me, helping on my side again.
That night, I tell a friend how thoroughly I have been outworked. Trying to comfort me, my friend compares my father's build to that of a Kodiak bear, but my father was once as young and willowy as me. This was long ago, when he was fewer years at a desk removed from that first decade-and-a-half of physical labor, those years that left their legacy of cracked vertebrae, bulging discs, and a quiet confident knowledge of how to rebuild or repair every part of a home that can weather, rot, or wear out. I think of a childhood photograph of him holding me on his hip. He is wearing the soft light gray sweater I reach for on chilly mornings twenty-five years later.
If my father works me under the table, it is not because he has the build of a Kodiak bear. It's with the heart of that willowy young man who swung his daughter aloft, who carried boards, hung drywall, took the debris of old Philadelphia apartments and that wrecked house in Dover and made them all bright and new.
I want to tell my father about my life here, what it means to me to live on this northern edge of beyond, to teach these students of Detroit, Calumet, and Escanaba, to tell him why I will stay. In my imagination of this project, we have long talks on the roof. In reality, the closest we come is the two-hundred mile journey to buy shingles, tarpaper, flashing and trim. We depart before dawn on Sunday, and the rising sun reveals pillars of fog marching across Keweenaw Bay, and then touches flame orange in the trees. The banks of cloud stand over Marquette like a mountain range.
On the way home, I tell myself. On the way home, we can talk.
Two hours later, I'm huddled in my coat, highway noise in my ear, ten feet of aluminum flashing speared through the car and poking out the window above my shoulder. It's too loud to speak. I turn up the volume on the car stereo and then doze off with my chin on the pile of lumber, the scent of fresh pine in my nostrils.
Wednesday is the longest day. I rush home from the classroom and find my father already on the roof, slowly nailing down the fourth row of shingles.
My father loves craftsmanship in all its forms. I have seen him wax rhapsodic over a well-tied fly, a wood turned urn of mesquite and bloodwood on a museum pedestal, a perfect darkroom exposure, and the best bulldozer driver he ever saw. His love of doing a task right has led him to cut a small piece of trim as a spacer, and to use scrap plywood to build a frame to guide me as I cut the shorter shingles that begin each row.
I change back into my tarry work clothes and tear open more bundles of shingles. After a moment's hesitation about how best to use me, he lets me take the spacing block from him.
His facility with the nail gun, even on uneven planking, keeps me working at full tilt, sliding each shingle in front of him. I hold it steady until the second nail goes in and then I reach for the next one. Occasionally, after I scurry for more shingles or another coil of nails, I nudge the next shingle with the spacer and answer “Yep” to the unasked question of “Ready?”
When we fall into wordless, efficient rhythm, the neat rows of shingles grow steadily under us. I feel happy and proud.
We work until dark, and then, knowing it will rain tomorrow, we get headlamps and work beyond it. I haul the last bundles of shingles onto the roof to spare him trips up and down the ladder. We do not talk. But maybe the work is the heart of it.
In the last of my classes on that Friday before my parents arrived, I reached for the final pomegranate, but as I cut it, it fell open too easily. Instead of an intricate ruby treasure, I found brown paste inside. Quickly, I hid it back inside my bag, wiped the knife blade, and divided and divided again until I made one pomegranate do for fourteen students.
As I walked the rows, handing out the fruit, my heart was on the plate alongside it. But then my heart is always trembling outstretched in this room, saying to my students, this is what college should be. This is what I want for you. Eat the mythical foods, discuss poetry and Greek mythology and Italian Renaissance paintings, the whole world yours and all its jeweled fruits.
is a professor of English at Finlandia University in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She holds a BA in Biology & English from Williams College and PhD in English from The University of Michigan. This essay is part of a larger nonfiction project, a pedagogical almanac that blends a seasonal memoir of life in the Keweenaw with meditations on teaching.