The Stalks of Wrath by Mic Mulicka

“Frankly, the prognosis is uncertain. At this point, given the nature of the injury, we  don’t know how much function you’re likely to restore in that index finger until the operation is done and you get a few weeks into physical therapy.” The surgeon’s words smacked me in the center of the forehead. Bloody hell, my productivity is virtually proportional to my typing speed. I better get on this pronto! How did I get myself into this, anyhow?

***

“Well ma, I got my vegetable garden ready for planting,” I said proudly. “Great! I’m glad you had the time to get an earlier start this year.” What’s the plan?” she asked. “Well, since the raised beds are only four feet wide, the full twelve foot length of the first one will be tomatoes and peppers of several varieties. Eight feet of the second bed already holds asparagus, which will be in its second year. I haven’t decided what to do with the last four-by-four foot plot. I know that you and the kids were kicking around possibilities – carrots, eggplant, or whatever. Any ideas?” “As a matter of fact, yes. I was hoping that you’d plant these for me.” She went over to a kitchen drawer, retrieved a little envelope and handed it to me. Printed on the front were beautifully colored plants, and the label read ‘Rainbow Swiss Chard’ in elegant gold lettering. “Wow, these look pretty fancy,” I said. “I love them,” she replied. “Oh, and they’re SO nutritious. They’re full of vitamins, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, fiber…” “Yeah, OK. Well, I’ll plant them anyway,” I cut her off. She smiled a curiously full smile, as though she was particularly satisfied.

***

I love practical jokes. I’ve played many fun pranks over the years and will go to almost any length to pull one off. Some are pretty spontaneous, like when I put my stepdad Al’s prized possession, his baby-blue Cadillac, up for sale one Thanksgiving Day. All that took was for me to repurpose one of his real estate signs early in the day with some paint and stencils, using only the words “Must Sell – Best Offer” and his phone number. I just waited for him to arrive at my grandparents’ house for dinner, then slipped outside and planted the sign next to his car. The look on his face when he came outside later that night was precious, and his grousing at me for all the calls he had to take starting the next day was good for laughs well into the future.

Some jokes take a bit more effort, but the results are usually quite gratifying. Once, my uncle George flipped a cigarette butt onto my lawn after I warned him not to, then quickly drove off before I could do anything about it. Or so he thought. I wrote up a warning letter from a fictitious government office on public hygiene, printed it with a very official looking seal the top, and then sent both the letter and the butt to my uncle by certified mail. Since he worked during the day and wasn’t home to take delivery, and he couldn’t very well ignore a certified letter, he had to make a trip to the post office on the weekend to sign for it. I only wish I could have been there when he opened it. From what he shouted at me the next time we met, his reaction must’ve been pretty hilarious.

Some jokes took several months and tons of prep work but in the end, they were worth it. I must acknowledge however, that the very best practical jokes are the ones that you get people to play on themselves. I’ve seen it done with spectacular results, but it’s typically not easy to do and takes a very well-conceived plan. In fact, it’s too cerebral a job for me – I can’t be bothered. One day though I was blessed by Loki, the Norse god  of mischief, for being a faithful disciple through the years and a rare opportunity just fell into my lap. Literally no incremental effort. I just sat back and watched the story unfold as it provided a sustained sequence of belly laughs that lasted for almost two years, with a hysterical climax into the bargain.

When my mom lived in Bethlehem, she had a beautiful wooden house sign hanging on her lamp post. Engraved in the wood was a tree silhouetted by an oversized full moon, all painted in lovely heritage colors. The house number, 1724, was tacked on in raised metal numbers. I pulled up in front of her house one Sunday afternoon and proceeded to get the kids out of the car. As I did, I stood right in front of the sign and happened to notice that it was showing some pretty serious indications of deterioration. The paint  has chipped, the wood cracked, and the hardware rusting. On the spur of the moment I said to the kids, “Hey, how about we fix up this sign for grandma?” I removed the sign from the post and tossed it into the car without much thought. We went inside and everyone was quickly occupied; grandma and the kids were chatting and playing, and I engaged myself with a few menial chores. After a nice visit, we said our goodbyes, I loaded the kids into the car and we headed home. I had no idea that by simply forgetting to mention the removal of the sign to my mom, I had just played the best practical joke of my life.

The next Sunday I came back for my weekly visit, this time by myself. Shortly after arriving I noticed that mom was a bit unnerved. As I got settled she promptly poured me a cup of coffee and then, before I could ask why she seemed irked, she unloaded.  “You are not going to believe what happened this week!” she blurted. “Someone stole my house sign!” I loved that sign. Had it made special.” I started to reach toward her to settle her down and explain, but before I could she continued her rant. “Damn college kids, that’s what. I will bet you anything that it’s one of those damn fraternity initiation stunts.” At this point, I had to back off and just let her go. “Well, these kids don’t know what they’re in for. I already filed a police report. I’ll drive around campuses until I find that sign, and when I do they’ll know who they’re dealing with.” It was at the precise moment that she uttered the word “police” that Loki spoke to me, “This is beautiful! You couldn’t have done this as well if you’d actually tried.  All you have to do is . . . nothing! All it takes is for you to be quiet.  Her repressed Vallera genes will do it all.”

This joke was the epitome of a gift that just keeps on giving. For the first couple of months I received weekly updates during which I saw my mom ticked off and determined like never before. At times I even felt like I was talking to my dear grandmother, Mary. Mary would display these personality traits often, but never my mom… until now. Each Sunday I would listen to the status, and then offer helpful suggestions as to next steps. “Did you talk to any of the campus police yet? If you could get them working together with the city police, you might get better insight into how these hooligans operate.” After a series of such helpful recommendations I had to admit that I had little left to offer, so I suggested that mom review the case with Jerry, her son-in-law and the family FBI agent. “Mom, I’m no pro, but I bet Jerry would know how to get results on this.” It was all I could do to keep a straight face, but once I got in the car and drove around the corner, I laughed my ass off. And this I did regularly, for over a year.

In the ensuing months, I painstakingly restored the sign to its original glory. I stripped it, repaired all the cracks, renewed the engraving, meticulously repainted every detail, and installed new hardware. When it was done, I stepped back to admire the finished product. “Not bad at all,” I thought. “Now what?” I considered. “Hmm… I think it would be best if I just hang this up in the basement to age for a while.”

One magnificently sunny and warm spring Sunday, the birds were singing and the flowers budding. I decided that this time of renewal was appropriate to take the joke to stage two. I retrieved the sign from my basement and headed for my mom’s. Upon arriving for my visit I quietly cased the joint and, once I was satisfied that the coast was clear, covertly hung the restored sign back on the lamp post. I proceeded inside, we had our visit as usual, and I left. Mom didn’t notice the sign. Perfect.

The next day she called me and, without even saying hello, she excitedly reported with astonishment in her voice, “This is the most incredible thing! I just can’t believe it! You’re not going to believe it! I just can’t get over it!” “Whoa, ma, calm down a bit. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” “My sign. Remember my house sign – the one that was stolen over a year ago?” ” Yeah, what about it?” “It’s back! It’s hanging on the lamp post just where it used to be!” “Wow, that IS amazing. Whatta ya think happened?” “Well, of course I don’t know for sure, but I think that maybe the kids that took it finally felt sort of guilty, decided that they had no use for it anymore, and returned it. But the most amazing thing is… it’s restored! It’s just gorgeous!” “Wow, artistic young thieves with a conscience – very rare indeed, I tittered.” At this point, I thought I’d come clean but, as happened before, Loki intervened. Before I could explain mom continued, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. You better never again question my religious convictions. I’ve been praying to St. Anthony every night for that sign. I knew he’d come though if I kept the faith.” At that moment I realized that ma had invoked every authority she could, from the campus to the municipal and beyond to the spiritual.  Again Loki whispered to me, “Don’t ruin her joy, let her bask in it for a while and share her happiness with friends and family.  Not only will she have something to feel good about, but you’ll be able to ride this out indefinitely.  Stage three will be as good as stage two.  Pick a time to reveal the truth after the excitement wears down and you can see her reaction in person.” I never defy Loki.  After this inspirational pause, all I said was, “Yeah ma, that St. Tony’s a helluva guy. I’m just glad that you got it back and that you’re happy…” Mom excitedly interrupted, “I’ll talk to you later. I have to call Nancy and tell her about this…”

For the next eight months, I patiently waited things out, mentioning nothing to anyone. Mom shared her wonderful story of loss, recovery and reinforced devotion liberally, and I continued to enjoy an abundance of warped pleasure watching her do so.

It was Christmas Eve dinner when I decided to give myself a little present and divulge the facts. I figured that after almost two years, I’d given the prank enough time to settle down sufficiently such that the punch line would have optimal impact. I wasn’t disappointed. Drink in hand, I sat down by my mom and nonchalantly introduced the sign into the conversation, suggesting that Christmas might be a good time to send St. Anthony a special thank you. “Oh, don’t worry. I thank him regularly,” she said. “Well, I’m not so sure about it at this point, but you might want to thank me, too,” I replied. “You? What do you mean? Why you?” “Well, I have a bit of a confession to make. I paused momentarily and then, looking her in the eyes, confessed, “It was me.” She just stared at me blankly as though I’d spoken Greek. “Wait… what?” “It was me. I took the sign, restored it and returned it. I was gonna tell you when I first did it, but when you reacted so quickly with the police and everything, I thought I’d ride it out for a laugh.” For several seconds, she just sat there, quiet, while her face slowly contorted into a look that combined surprise, anger, confusion, and disbelief. Finally, reluctantly, she started laughing and hitting me at the same time. “Oh, you – I should have known!” Then she announced to the room full of family, “Listen to this. Can you imagine what this kid did to me?!” As she proceeded to explain I received a series of reactions from the family that ran the gamut from “that’s hysterical” to by far my favorite, “you’re just evil.” After she was done she closed with, “What other son would do this to his mother? How did I end up with you?” “You’re obviously just one lucky lady, ma,” I teased.

I sat there, feeling pretty smug, reflecting on my accomplishment. I’d pulled the ultimate practical joke – I got her to fool herself. My personal best, and with virtually no effort. “This one’s really good,” I thought to myself. Little did I suspect that as I sat there steeping in self-satisfaction, my mom was having a few thoughts of her own, “Laugh now my child.  Laugh loud and laugh strong as you reap the fruit of your crafty scheme.  But when you remember this time also remember, I like to laugh, too.  My harvest time shall come.”

My mom is often described by people to me as “cute, warm, kind, etc.,” but I bet they have no idea just how sinisterly hilarious she can be. I had no idea either, but I was about to find out. Mom’s harvest time was about to arrive. Ironically, it turns out that I have my mother to thank for my genetic predilection towards mordant humor.

***

As a gardener, I certainly have a long way to go. I’m keen but I have a lot to learn. What I do know is mostly what I took from my grandparents and uncle about growing tomatoes, complemented with various bits from gardening books and web sites. I pick up the rest as I go along and get by with a little help from my friends. For example, two years ago I planted asparagus crowns like they were potted plants. When my neighbor, Joe, a good-natured, kind, old Italian man, saw me proudly watering the asparagus crowns poking out of the ground like tiny Medusa’s heads, he politely pointed out that the crowns were root cuttings and should be planted entirely underground. Who knew? I expressed my gratitude repeatedly as he helped me bury the crowns properly.

This year the plan was tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, and of course my mom’s Rainbow Swiss Chard. I knew absolutely nothing about Swiss chard, so that was to be my learning experience for the year. My mom hadn’t given me any instructions beyond handing me the envelope of seeds and courteously requesting that I plant them. All the envelope said was to sew them just under the top of the soil, in rows about a foot apart. When I opened the envelope and poured the seeds into the palm of my hand, I was amazed at how tiny they were. I was a bit worried that I didn’t have enough to fill the four-by-four foot plot allocated to them, but decided to just go with what I had. If it wasn’t enough, I’d add more next year. I divided the seeds into three equal portions, sewed them in three rows, brushed a little soil over them, and then watered them generously. When I stood back to look at my freshly planted garden, I found the Swiss chard plot to be a bit disconcerting. Although the rest of the garden had small, healthy plants placed in neat, staggered rows, the Swiss chard plot was just dirt. Feeling a bit anxious, I thought, “Man, I hope I did this right. I don’t want to disappoint my mom with a small crop.”

Over the first few weeks I found much to my relief that everything seemed to be growing just fine. The asparagus was spreading, the peppers were filling in, and the tomatoes established strong vines. As for the chard, well, I was pleasantly surprised. It shot up stalks that immediately began showing their colors and they were really pretty. As they matured, the colors became bright and intense – almost iridescent. Deep vibrant amber, electric ruby red, and a distinctive green-tinged ivory. As the plants grew, the colors of the stalks spread out as contrasting veins through dark green leaves. A rainbow indeed, the chard burst into the most stunning part of the garden.

One Sunday a couple of more weeks into the growing season, my mom casually inquired, “How’s the garden coming along?” “Really well,” I happily replied. “And you’ll be glad to know that your chard is growing nicely. Ma, it’s so beautiful! Thanks so much for asking me to plant it. I just love the sight of it.” Mom said nothing, but instead just slowly broke into a coy smile.

Asparagus and chard are vegetables, which are a whole different story. It’s not as obvious when to reap, and harvesting can actually be done in different ways depending on what you’re going to use the vegetables for and how you want the plants to develop. I’d done my research on the asparagus the prior year and decided that I would let those plants mature for the first two seasons without harvesting in order to establish a strong root system. They’re fascinating to watch; what you know as asparagus stalks poke through the ground and then very quickly rocket into furry fronds that fill in as dense bushes about five feet tall. They grow so fast that during peak season, you can actually grab a drink, sit in the garden and watch them grow. Captivating. I had no idea that any plant could grow that fast.

Being my first experience with chard I needed to do some research on how to harvest properly, so I pulled out my trusty go-to gardening reference, “The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible.”  It didn’t say much on the subject, but the instructions seemed pretty straightforward:

Start harvesting when the plants are about six to eight inches tall. There are two methods: (A) Cut only the outer stalks, and the plants will offer a continuous supply of food over several months; (B) Cut the entire plant about one inch from the soil and another plant will grow from the crown to provide a second harvest.

Cool. The plants were already more than tall enough, so I thought I’d take some to start experimenting with ways of cooking and preserving them. The idea of having a continuous supply appealed to me so I decided to start with method (A). I got out my snips and, being careful not to damage any of the interior stalks, cautiously cut away the outer ones from most of the plants. I ended up with what I thought was quite a haul – a large bundle around which I had to wrap both arms to carry inside.

Now it was time to cook. I wanted to keep it simple and highlight the flavor of the chard so that I could get a taste for how to use it. From what I’d previously read, the tender leaves were the most prized part, but the stalks could be used as well if they were from young plants. The taste was described as “somewhat bitter,” which was OK with me because I like that taste and I think it’s actually underused in western cuisine. I decided to go with the tried and true Italian staple, sauté in oil with garlic.

I cut the leaves from the stalks, then chopped the stalks into one inch pieces. Once the oil was hot I added the garlic and the chopped stalks and let them cook until the stalks were becoming translucent and the garlic was just beginning to turn golden. Then I tossed in the leaves. It was at about this time that I began to notice a weird smell, a bit like sulfur. Not thinking much of it, I turned on the range hood, added some salt and pepper, and continued cooking. The dish was finished in just a couple of minutes during which the leaves cooked down to almost nothing. My big armful of chard leaves was reduced to about a cupful. “Geez, these cook down more than spinach,” I thought. I love fresh spinach and consider it worth the trouble, so I was hopeful that the chard would be similar.

I sat down for the initial trial. The smell was a bit off-putting, but that didn’t concern me too much.

After all, there are plenty of things that don’t smell particularly great but that taste wonderful. To begin, I took a mouthful of the stalks. “Wow, these are really odd,” I thought. I gave myself a moment to more fully absorb the experience. Not ready to pass judgment, I took another, albeit smaller, bite. This time, it was clear: the taste wasn’t great, but the texture was downright bad – stringy and slimy at the same time. Plainly, the stalks were not for me. Still I wanted to hold my verdict until I tried the leaves which, according to various recipe web sites, were generally considered to be much more palatable. Taking a taste I was certainly impressed, but in the worst possible way. The texture was nowhere near as bad as the stalks but not only were they bitter, they were grassy and almost moldy tasting. The remainder of my first try went into the garbage, as I thought, “I had to have done something really wrong. No one would eat anything like this. I have to try them again but definitely with a different cooking technique.”

A couple of days later I decided it was time for the next attempt. As I walked up to the garden to harvest some more chard, I was a bit surprised. Although I had previously cut away an armful, it looked like I hadn’t taken anything at all. In fact, there was more chard there than there was just those two days before. “I guess when they said that you can harvest this stuff continuously they weren’t kidding,” I thought. Maybe I didn’t cut as much as I thought last time. Well, in any event, mom should have plenty.” I got out my snips and again meticulously cut away the outer stalks taking care not to harm the plants. I reaped twice what I did before. After making the second trip into the house, I just looked at my sink, an oversized 45-by-18-inch chef’s model overflowing with chard, in amazement. “Well, it’s not going to prepare itself,” I murmured. I put Louis Prima on the stereo and got to work. This time I retained only a few of the stalks and stripped the leaves from the rest. Within about an hour or so, I was ready to cook. This time it was to be soup and, to ensure that mine was not the only one, I was going get opinions from the family.

Marge, Tanya and Meg arrived home at different times during the early evening. As they’d walk through the kitchen, each one would ask, “What’s cooking?” “Soup. I’m using some of my mom’s Swiss chard from the garden.” “It smells really, uh, different,” they’d discern. This brought me back to a day long ago when I walked into my grandmother’s kitchen when she was boiling tripe and how I thought that smelled really “different,” too. When I served it to them, words like, “different, interesting, unique and unusual” dominated the feedback. Since they know that I take it seriously, my family is much too polite to openly criticize my cooking, so I long ago learned how to decipher their euphemisms. These descriptions undoubtedly indicated universal dislike. This confirmed it. No, it wasn’t just me – Swiss chard was just plain awful.

dictionary.com:

     chard [chahrd] noun

     1. A variety of beet, Beta vulgaris cicla, having leaves and leafstalks that are used  as a vegetable.

Vulgaris. How apt. Vulgar is synonymous with “foul.” This stuff smells like rotten eggs and tastes like a compost heap. In hindsight, I’m ashamed of myself because I should’ve absolutely been able to anticipate it. The instant my mom described it as “nutritious” should’ve been the tipoff. Nutritious my ass! Here’s a news flash for those of you not familiar with health food lingo: “nutritious” is a code word for “disgusting.” When someone wants to get rid of a bunch of obnoxious weeds that took over their field and that no sane person would put in their mouth, they market them as “nutritious,” give them a high price and sell them to all the health-nut dupes who are already convinced that something can’t be good for you if it tastes good, too. Now that I’m completely aware of just how exceedingly “nutritious” Swiss chard is, it’s definitely off of the menu at casa Mulicka.

Nonetheless, I was committed to bringing in a full crop. Just because Swiss chard wasn’t a hit at my house doesn’t mean that my mom doesn’t actually like it. After all, there is no accounting for taste, and we’re talking here about a woman who savors garbage dipped in chocolate (if you don’t believe me, just ask her to scrounge up some orange peels for you). I figure this is some form of PDSD (Post Depression Stress Disorder) that prevents her from throwing anything out, or possibly a kind of Italian Catholic self-flagellation of the palate. Whatever the reason, mom never asks for much and if she wanted chard, she was gonna get chard.

The next week, I was away on business. I travel for work a lot and often I’m not home during the week at all. I typically leave very early Monday and get home late on Thursday night; and this week was no different. Friday morning I grabbed a cup of coffee and looked out the window to see how the garden was coming along. The beefsteak tomatoes looked kind of dreary, but everything else seemed fairly OK. The asparagus was thickly filled in and was over five feet tall, and the peppers and the rest of the tomatoes had another round of fruit ready for picking. But the chard was in its own class. Even with the asparagus towering over it, I could see that it was higher and thicker than ever. “I better get to harvesting as soon as I’m done with work today,” I thought. That evening, I went outside to do just that. As I approached the garden, it became obvious that the chard was even fuller than I’d seen from the window. Every plant in every row was big and robust, and many of them had stalks over two feet tall, “Man, the Vegetable Gardener’s Bible wasn’t kidding when it said “continuous harvest.” This was continuous like, “you better not miss a few days” continuous. I already had my hands full with the tomatoes and peppers, so I decided to harvest and process them immediately, and dedicate the next morning to the chard.

After breakfast Saturday morning, I went right out to the garden. I considered how rapidly the chard had filled back in and decided that it was time for me to change my harvesting strategy in order to buy some time between harvests. On half of the plants, I snipped the outer stalks as before to preserve the continuous growth. On the other half, using my razor sharp ten inch butcher knife, I cleanly cut the entire plant to an inch above the soil to restart the growth from its crown.

After several trips, I had collected all the chard in the kitchen. It covered literally every horizontal surface. Not only was the sink overflowing, but there were massive stacks of it on every countertop. Once again, the sound of Louis Prima filled the house as I turned to my chore… and some chore it was. First I had to make space to work, so I removed most of the cuttings from the counters and stuffed them into a 30 gallon contractor’s garbage bag that I had left over from doing house renovations. Then the real fun, the six-step preserving process, began:

1. Using a very sharp knife, strip the leaves from the stalks

2. Wash the leaves and tear them into manageable pieces

3. Cook down the leaves in batches

4. Cool them, then squeeze out excess water

5. Portion the cooked leaves for use in recipes, about eight ounces each

6. Vacuum seal the portions and place them in the freezer

The whole ordeal lasted through rest of the morning and well into the afternoon. When I was done cleaning up, I took a moment and reflected, “All that chard – all that work – and all I got was eight flippin’ portions. Somebody’s gotta be kidding me.” I quickly and consciously moved the thought to the back of my mind and headed for my local hangout, the Wilson Borough Republican Club, for some much deserved relaxation.

Following my routine, I arrived at home the next Thursday night from another busy week away at work. The next morning, as had become my habit, I poured a cup of coffee and looked out at the garden. This time, I was absolutely gobsmacked. It was back. All of it. I didn’t even notice the tomatoes anymore, nor the peppers, nor the asparagus. All I could take in was… IT. Swiss chard was everywhere. The plants that I’d trimmed were taller than before, and the ones I’d cut to the ground had fully grown back. I didn’t even really know what to do. I didn’t have time to spend another day in the kitchen processing chard, but I couldn’t really just let it go, either. I decided to process what I could and just cut down the rest in an attempt to stay ahead of it.

Much to my dismay, this situation became a weekly occurrence. One Sunday, my mom again asked about the garden. Instead of a perky reply like I made when the garden was young, this one was almost exasperated. “Oh ma,” I began. “Most of it’s OK, but it’s a lot of work. I’m having trouble keeping up. The most exhausting thing is the chard. I can’t believe how fast and full it grows. It just keeps coming back and I can’t stay ahead of it. I don’t know what to do. To be honest, I can’t stand the sight of it anymore. I already have plenty in the freezer for you. If you get a chance, feel free to harvest some yourself.” “I’ll do the best I can to make a little time, but you know how busy my schedule is. What with singing and dancing and writing and painting and mahjong and cards and… Well, I’ll try to make a little time. Maybe I can skip one of my ‘yoga for novelists’ or ‘skateboarding for seniors’ classes.” Mom said nothing more, but then broke into one of those coy smiles again.

As weeks passed, the routine morphed. What in the beginning was a happily anticipated labor of love deteriorated into an anxiously dreaded torture session. No longer slightly concerned about harming the plants, I would just hack them to the ground. Then I had to figure out what to do with them. I really hate to waste, but I  couldn’t stand the thought of processing anymore chard. Reminiscent of the Seinfeld episode where no one, not even the dump, would take Elaine’s muffin stumps, Waste Management refused to take the cuttings. “Sorry man, yard waste. No can do,” was the terse explanation the trash man offered. Bethlehem Township has an ordinance against  burning garbage, and even if they didn’t I couldn’t very well set this stuff on fire without making the neighborhood smell like a landfill incinerator, which would surely not endear me to my neighbors. In the end, all I could really do was pile it up in a fairly well concealed nook around the back of the house. “How suitable,” I thought. “This stuff tastes and smells the same whether you cook it or pile it in the yard. Either way, its compost.”

More weeks passed. I began harvesting in early June, and now it was late October. Five months had gone by. The tomatoes and peppers were just about at an end and yet IT, the seemingly immortal chard, showed absolutely no signs of slowing down. I shuddered just thinking about it, and sometimes I felt like I was going just a bit loopy. Like the poor soul obsessed with the old man’s vulture eye in The Tell Tale Heart, I felt myself drifting into a morbid fixation on that chard.  At this point, I just wanted – no, I needed – to get rid of it before I went quite mad.

Sunday, November 2nd, 2015, was a brisk but sunny autumn day.  I was quite happy because my cousin Rich and I had previously made arrangements to have breakfast together. He arrived at my house at about mid-morning, and we had a delightful time sharing casual conversation. We continued on for a couple of hours and at one point the garden came into the discussion. I mentioned that I had one more harvest to do, and that it would really be great if he would take some produce because I had more than I could use. He agreed, and we headed outside to reap. As I started snipping some peppers from their stems he said, “What are those?” He was pointing to the chard. “Those? Those are fucking weeds,” I scoffed without missing a beat. He laughed as he further inquired, “No, really. What are they? They’re really colorful.” “Those, my dear cousin, are Rainbow Swiss Chard plants. I rue the day that they entered my life. They’re the MRSA of the vegetable world. They’re absolutely revolting, incredibly virulent, and resistant to all reasonable forms of control. Yet some people, including my mom apparently, actually eat them,” I huffed. “What are they like?” he kept on. “Somewhat bitter, and certainly quite ‘different’,” was my truthful reply. “If you really want to know, take some with you and judge for yourself. Maybe you inherited the same genetic mutation as my mother and you’ll actually like them,” I suggested. “Sure, why not,” he replied. I went inside, got a kitchen garbage bag, returned to the garden and started hacking away. “Yo, hang on! What am I gonna do with all that?” he exclaimed. “Trust me, this is going to reduce to nothing,” I calmly countered as I continued filling the bag. As we finished our visit, I explained how to prepare the cuttings and offered some suggestions for finding recipes on the web, then I bade him farewell. As he drove away I felt a pang of guilt because I had just stuck him with a bagful of garden waste that even the garbage man wouldn’t take.

After Rich left, I went inside and glanced at the clock. Yikes! Almost 1:30. This is an hour past when I usually arrive at my mom’s on a Sunday. I called her to let her know that I was on my way. Just as I hung up it occurred to me that I should really take one more crop of the chard. This would be the final harvest, after which I would dig them up and be done with them for good. I could take the cuttings to her house and process them as we visited – that wouldn’t be so bad, and she’d have a little more for her freezer. I grabbed a contractor garbage bag and jogged outside. If I was going to do all this work it was going to take considerable time, so I wanted to get there as soon as possible.

When I got back out to the garden, something came over me. As I started cutting down the stalks, I felt a deep, warm satisfaction well up within me. I found myself getting genuine pleasure in scything down these… these “things” that had been a blight on my otherwise fine garden for five months. There was finally light at the end of the tunnel, and the harder I slashed, the happier I felt. Within moments, without even realizing it, I’d thrown caution to the wind and was furiously slicing through that chard like a delirious Edward Scissorhands. Grab a plant, cut it to the soil, and throw it into the bag and out of sight. It was great! Then, suddenly… thunk! The knife hit something hard. I paused, and an instant later I was returned to reality. I knew exactly what had happened. When I looked down, it was immediately apparent that Edward Scissorhands, I was not. The blade of my butcher knife was sunk straight into the bone atop the middle knuckle my left index finger.

I instinctively grabbed the bottom of the finger to stem the flow of blood and went inside to evaluate the damage. Marge was in the kitchen and saw me come in and head straight for the bathroom. “Is something wrong?” she asked. “Bit of an accident. Probably nothing. I’m just having a look now,” I said in a steady tone. She came into the bathroom just as I began rinsing the wound. I turned the water off, then started to inspect the finger. When I bent it to determine the nature of the cut, I briefly saw the bone before blood once again flowed copiously into the sink. Knowing that I’m not one to go running to the doctor too quickly, Marge said in a quiet yet urgent tone, “Please get that looked at.” This was one time that I didn’t need too much convincing. It was immediately apparent that this was not something that I was going to fix with a Band-Aid. Marge poured on some hydrogen peroxide and applied a combination tourniquet/bandage with some gauze. She wanted to accompany me to the clinic, but I insisted that she should just stay home, because the wait would probably a long one and the injury wasn’t serious. She continued to protest, but I didn’t budge and finally she reluctantly acquiesced.

Sitting in the Express Care clinic, I called my mom to report in. “Change in plans, ma. I’m afraid I won’t be over there today.” “OK, no problem. Something’s not wrong, I hope?” her maternal instinct began probing. “Not really. Just a small cut on my finger, but I thought I should have it looked at.” Without even waiting for the details, she instantly launched into full “mother” mode, shifting her worry into overdrive, bombarding me with the million things that could go wrong and what I should do to counteract each one. “Ma, hang on. Please. It’s just a cut. I think it might take a stitch or two, that’s all. Please calm down,” I pleaded. After she settled down a little, I said goodbye and went back to waiting for the doctor.

Doctor Bill, a middle-aged man wearing a Patriot’s jersey and training shoes, took enough of a break from poking around in the NFL app on his iPhone to quickly examine me. “No big deal. Four stitches should do it,” he stated abruptly. That was the extent of the consultation. He left the room and a few minutes later returned with a young man in a white coat. “This is Chad,” Dr. Bill announced. “He’ll be doing the stitches if that’s OK with you.” Before I could wonder much as to why it wouldn’t be OK, Dr. Bill continued, “Chad’s a medical student at DeSales University. It’s important for him to get experience like this.” Actually, I didn’t mind this at all. Everyone’s got to learn, and after all, I figured that Dr. Bill would be supervising the entire time. “No problem at all. Nice to meet you, Chad.” I extended my hand to his and he shook it somewhat reluctantly while managing an anxious smile. It was obvious that this kid was really nervous.

The next twenty minutes were not what I expected them to be. Dr. Bill flitted between the football game on the TV in the hall, the NFL app on his iPhone, and the room in which I was about to get sewed-up. He would stay with us long enough to point out to Chad what he was doing wrong in his preparations and how he had to adjust, then fly out again for a while. This certainly did nothing for Chad’s confidence. By the time the preparation was done, Chad was almost reduced to tears. I tried to maintain a steady dialog, calming and encouraging him, and introducing a little humor when I could to lighten the mood. Once he felt somewhat more comfortable, he confided, “Thanks a lot for letting me do this. Most people won’t. This is the first time I’m actually doing stiches on a person. Up until now, it’s just been hogs.” I didn’t let Chad see me chuckle as I thought, “This is too funny! Ya just can’t make this stuff up.”

Dr. Bill did the first stitch while Chad observed. He then handed the forceps with a needle clamped on the end to Chad, saying simply, “OK, let’s go.” Until now, the whole “student” thing really hadn’t bothered me at all. The only problem was, it was still visibly bothering Chad. Although he had previously settled down a bit, once he took that needle in his hand he started shaking like a leaf on a tree. The sight of this guy shaking violently with a needle in his hand that was intended for mine didn’t exactly thrill me. Again I assumed the role of counselor, “Listen man, this is no biggie. You did a great job with the anesthetic, so I can’t feel a thing. You’re gonna be fine.” I thought maybe Dr. Bill would add a few words of advice, but he was too busy reviewing the latest NFL alerts on his phone. Still, Chad seemed put at ease by my reassurance and began stitching. Actually, everything was fine. Four stitches, a new bandage, a new splint, and off I went. Two weeks later I was to have the stitches out.

During those two weeks, the finger seemed to be healing fine. It was stiff and swollen, but I expected that. I had the stitches removed and got the all clear from the clinic to resume normal activities.

That weekend, the time finally came for me to rid myself of my vegetable arch-nemesis, that damn chard. I grabbed my pitch fork from the shed and headed for the garden. Of course, IT had grown back. There it was, tall and full. I swore that I could hear it sarcastically laughing in the wind, “Still here, Mic,” as it waved at me. I plunged the pitchfork into the ground right at the root of the first plant, and levered it downward to pop up the plant and expose the root. With immense satisfaction, I ripped the plant from the soil and tossed it into my wheelbarrow as I blurted, “Take that, you nefarious bastard.” I continued down the row, and into the next. With every plant that I killed, I felt a stronger sense of relief flow over me. When I’d removed the last plant, I just stood here and stared at the plot for a while. I think that subconsciously I was fearing that new chard plants would spontaneously pop up, and I had to gaze at it long enough to convince myself that my painful ordeal was truly at an end. I wheeled the chard to the back of the house, and dumped it with the rest of the compost. “It’s finally over,” I exhaled.

As the next couple of weeks passed, I began to become concerned about my finger. It was not quite as swollen, but it was still stiff and it had begun turning upward from the middle knuckle to the fingertip in an unnatural way. I couldn’t fully straighten it, nor could I bend it beyond 90 degrees. Within another week, I realized that something was definitely wrong. The unnatural backwards bend became more pronounced. When I tried to bend it forward, my finger looked like a goose’s bill perched atop its long neck. “I better get to the doctor,” I said to Marge. She didn’t hesitate to encourage me to do so.

My primary care doctor, Dr. Asha, took all of two seconds to agree that something was wrong and that I needed to see a specialist. She recommended a surgeon that specialized in hands, a Dr. Ivan. Even with an urgent referral, it took a week for me to get into see him. When we finally met, he took one look at my finger and said, “Ah, a boutonniere deformity. I’ll give you the overview, and then if you want more detailed information, google it when you get home.” He then asked for the background and I explained about the accident. “Well,” he started, “when you cut your finger you also severed a tendon. Unless it’s repaired, it’s going to get worse, become a permanent disfigurement, and will be chronically painful. When did it happen and how did you address it?” I explained about seeing Dr. Bill and Chad at the Express Care on November 2nd.  “Well, instead of just sewing it up he should’ve sent you straight to the hospital to get attended to by a plastic surgeon. The problem is that this particular injury becomes rapidly more difficult to fix as time goes on.” He then politely explained that he’d be happy to operate on it for me, but since he didn’t take my insurance plan, he strongly suggested that I find another plastic surgeon who did.

After doing some research, I made an appointment with Dr. Marshall, a plastic surgeon in Allentown. Another week passed before I could see him. After examining me and getting the history, he said, “Well, I can operate on it for you, but truthfully I’d rather not. It’s been six weeks since the injury and those tendon fragments have retracted like rubber bands. You really need to see someone who does nothing but hands.” He was kind enough to call a hand specialist, Dr. Larry, explain the situation to him, and expedite an appointment for me. I was able to see Dr. Larry later the same day.

When I arrived for the consultation, Dr. Larry was matter-of-fact, “This type of injury should be repaired within no more than three weeks. It’s been six. It’s going to be tough for me to stretch that severed tendon back. I think I can connect the link back together by using a couple of pins and tying to them.” “OK, but I should still be able to function normally, right?” I anxiously inquired. “Frankly, the prognosis is uncertain. At this point, given the nature of the injury, we won’t know how much function you’re likely to restore in that index finger until the operation is done and you get a few weeks into physical therapy.” The surgeon’s words smacked me in the center of the forehead. Bloody hell, my productivity is virtually proportional to my typing speed.  I better get on this pronto! How did I get myself into this, anyhow?”

How did I get myself into this, indeed? Having landed back at the Republican club, I was sulking over my beer, reflecting on the whole situation. I knew very well how. That goddamn chard, that’s how. Man, that fuckin’ chard was a class A, number one, pain in my ass. And for what? A few ounces of some disgusting wilted leaves. The more I thought about it, the more irritated I became. Chard – a black magic “vegetable” that looks like a rainbow, smells like rotten eggs, tastes like compost, grows like Jack’s beanstalk, and requires massive amounts of work to produce precious little results. It was like some sort of wicked joke. Who would plant this stuff? Then it dawned on me – nobody would plant this stuff. “This is not something that you plant, it’s something that you get somebody else to plant,” I snickered to myself. Uttering those words was like flipping a switch in my head. Suddenly, the last six months were played back to me in a rapid succession of images. I remembered that day in May when I asked my mother if she had any ideas for the garden. I clearly recalled my mom quietly retrieving the packet of chard seeds from her kitchen drawer. I vividly saw the satisfied grin on her face when I agreed to plant them. I recalled her explaining her busy schedule to me when I timidly suggested that she harvest a bit, and now I understood the context. Instantly it was crystal clear . . . This wasn’t like some sort of wicked joke, it was a wicked joke.  I’d been punk’d! By my mom!! Not only that, it was better than any practical joke I’d ever done – even the sign. Not only did she get me to fool myself, I actually asked her for the privilege! All she had to do was buy 39 cents worth of demon seeds and wait. Less effort than the sign joke. Suddenly I began laughing uncontrollably and loudly in admiration. Since there was nothing obvious going on, the folks at the bar were looking at me as though I’d lost my wits. “You OK?” asked Colleen the barmaid. “Never been better, hon. I just realized what a rip my mom is,” I said as I pushed my glass forward for a refill.

Once I had this revelation, I decided to do a bit more research. When I first looked up the definition of “chard,” I shouldn’t have stopped at dictionary.com. These days, new meanings for words creep into the vernacular more quickly than ever before. Before you think that you have all the definitions for a word, you might want to check out urbandictionary.com, a reference for current and emerging lingo. It turns out that ma’s cleverness is layers deep:

urbandictionary.com:

     chard [chahrd]

     1. verb. To twist events so that an unwitting party will comply with your demands.

     2. noun. An idiot at work who often messes things up.

Of course, I love my mom to pieces and respect her in many ways. Now, I have newfound respect the cunningly sardonic humor she hides behind her quiet, gentle façade. I didn’t think she had it in her, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I just hope that each time she takes some of that garbage out of the freezer and tosses it in a pot, she gets a well-deserved laugh.

Nicely played, mom. Nicely played indeed.

***

Of course my mom had nothing whatsoever to do with my stupid accident, and I don’t want to imply in any way that she did. The finger surgery was finished successfully last week. With the help of a couple of pins and a few months of physical therapy, I should be fine. Each time I do my finger-bending exercises, I can’t help but smile.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Stalks of Wrath by Mic Mulicka

  1. It is almost 1:30 in the a.m., and I can hardly keep my eyes open, but, I just had to finish this story. Five stars to you, cousin Pam, this was as funny as any book or TV show ever. AND, to Mic, this is the story of a lifetime. You can tell this at parties, weddings, funerals, etc. I bet you’ll get a good laugh every time. cu

  2. Pingback: Fellow Foodies/Writers | mmm mmm mmm

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