(Excerpt from the Hierarchy of Weeds)
Work was just that—work. It was as if Christmas never happened. People stomped into the clinic with their wet shoes and boots, their sore throats and runny noses and Purslane was there to check them in. She smiled and asked for names, co-pays and made return appointments as if on auto-pilot. The job required no real effort, no heart and certainly no soul, and Purslane–who usually hated that aspect of the work–relished in it on December 26. Her mind so full of other more important details, her heart so raw and wounded yet she did not fully understand why. Cherry sent the email as promised with a picture of the book cover. Purslane sighed heavily as she looked at the photo, a typical romance book cover with a handsome, bare chested man embracing a beautiful woman in a cleavage revealing dress. And there it was, Cherry’s name under the photo. Her friend is a published author.
Purslane was always the first to rise on the weekend. She made coffee and while it brewed she opened the slider to the back deck, filled the bird feeder with seeds and stood for a moment looking out at the cottonwood trees that formed the green belt behind her home. She listened to the trickle of the stream that meandered behind the wooden fence and heard the chickadees chirp and swoop near the feeder. The coffee maker beeped and Purslane heated her mug of water in the microwave, emptied the mug and filled it with coffee. She stood at the glass door in her fuzzy socks, faded black yoga pants and old sweatshirt. Her cold hands wrapped tightly around the cup of coffee as she took small desperate sips, anxious to feel warm but not wanting to scorch her lips and tongue. She thought about the dream. In her dream she was standing right where she is now, looking out onto the deck. She had the knowledge that there was a giant bird above her head but she couldn’t see it. Instinctively she knew the bird was enormous, with a wing span greater than the width of her house. She was covered in white but there was no feeling of revulsion. Maybe the white substance in her dream wasn’t bird excrement but something else. Purslane took a bigger drink of coffee and turned away from the sliding glass door, closing the drapes in a futile attempt at keeping the cold air out. She spotted the dream interpretation book on the kitchen table and picked it up, carrying it with her to the living room sofa. She sat cross-legged on the leather couch and shivered. “It could be milk, or paint…” She quickly turned the pages of the book and found an explanation for dreaming of milk. “Milk is an infant’s first food and dreaming of milk represents human kindness.” Purslane continued to read, “Milk can represent male sexuality as it may represent semen and ejaculation.” Clearly the first interpretation was the correct one and Purslane embraced the idea with passion. She closed the book and pondered on the words, “milk represents human kindness, milk represents human kindness…”
The next day Purslane read a newspaper article about a man who paid for his coffee in a Starbucks drive thru and also paid for the next 10 people behind him. It was a common theme that repeated itself in different venues and was known as ‘paying it forward’. Purslane loved hearing these stories and wrote an article to the local newspaper editor referencing the Starbucks story, and expanding on the idea by sharing her experiences in the clinic where she worked, hoping people might also be inclined to help a person by paying a $10 or $15 copay. She nearly cried with joy when learning that her own article (a less than 200 word commentary) would be published. Purslane purchased a copy of the paper and carefully turned the pages until her small commentary came to life in black and white. The editor had not needed to change a single word! Purslane prided herself on her careful editing and choice of words, but the most amazing thing, a most wonderful and moving coincidence, was the title under which her small response appeared in bolded letters, The Milk of Human Kindness.
December continued its cold and bitter roll towards the New Year. The sky above alternated its shade of steel gray to a gray white and the only sign that life existed in the winter’s desolation was in the busy activity of birds that fed at Purslane’s back deck feeder. On January first Purslane and Reggie awoke early. Their bedroom full of sunlight, the sky a welcome and nearly forgotten shade of blue. Purslane raised the window blinds and squinted her eyes against the brilliance. A glittery frost covered the rooftops and smoke rose from chimney stacks in a few of the older homes. She heard the coffee maker gurgling and knew it was nearly finished brewing. Purslane brought two steaming cups to their bed and carefully handed one to Reggie. Reggie was flipping through TV channels and stopped on a program about Tibetan Buddhists. They both listened to the narrator talk about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, about how Tibetan Buddhists believe that a person actually chooses his or her parents before birth. That parents are chosen specifically for whatever life lessons need to be learned, based on the premise of past lives and the journey toward enlightenment. “You must have really messed up in your former life, if you had to choose your mother.” Reggie kept his eyes on the screen and shook his head from side to side. Purslane looked at Reggie in disbelief, “But why would anyone choose a crazy alcoholic for a parent? What lessons could I learn from her? How not to work, how be dependent on the government your whole life? How not to trust anyone? To isolate yourself and hate your family—even your own kids?” Purslane kicked off the blankets and sat facing Reggie, her eyes, contemplative, hurt and angry.
“Hey, hey come here. I’m sorry,” Reggie said.
Purslane was standing at the edge of the bed, her brow furrowed and her arms crossed. Reggie took her hand and made an exaggerated motion of reeling her in, like he was catching a big fish. Purslane relaxed her shoulders and climbed back in bed, facing Reggie on her hands and knees. Her hair a morning mess, her face its usual blotchy ruddiness. She sucked in her cheeks and did her best imitation of fish lips. They both laughed and Reggie suggested they go for a drive. Reggie took Purslane to West Seattle and they drove along Beach Drive looking out across the Puget Sound, at the crisp purple outlines of the Cascade Mountains.
Purslane could not hold her thoughts to the present. Her heart ached with a nameless sorrow. A small painful seed had germinated in her core. Purslane fought to appreciate the day, reeling her thoughts in the way a fisherman pulls in his catch, but there were big holes in Purslane’s net and her thoughts escaped and swam back into dark waters.
“Where are you Purslane?” Reggie smiled and took her hand, “You’ve been gone since we left the house– and I’m guess I’m talkin’ to myself here.”
Purslane gave her husband a sad half smile and resumed staring out the window at something far off in the distance.
“I had lunch with Vance yesterday” Reggie continued, “He showed me Cherry’s manuscript. She got a book published Purslane—did you know? Vance is so proud of her!”
Cherry had come to her home on Christmas day with a secret and Purslane vowed to keep it secret. She had not said a word to anyone about Cherry’s book and would not. She thought about it but it was more like the thoughts sought her out, followed her and tried to consume her. Purslane imagined Cherry sitting at home writing her next story while she herself scheduled pap smears. The door had swung open for Cherry and she ran through it. The door Purslane couldn’t find, couldn’t see and feared she’d never even get close to. Cherry, who worked only part time for a little extra spending money– was now earning money by writing. Purslane met her husband’s eyes, smiling and waiting eagerly to talk about Cherry’s success. “I knew. I thought you did to.” Purslane lied and resumed her concentrated stare out the window.
It rained and the trees shook their branches, forcing new leaves to push forth and greet the soon to be spring. The gray sky would peel itself back to reveal blue and the frozen earth loosened and absorbed the rain, responding with daffodils and tulips. Purslane awoke every morning, filled the bird feeder, filled her coffee cup and felt her way through the work week the way a blind man feels his way around his home. But the comfort and ease of routine did not provide the escape Purslane wanted and needed. She operated on such a level of mental automation that her mind wandered and split itself in two. One part; the receptionist, scheduler and cashier, the other a frustrated writer, dreamer and loner seeking validation. At home she cooked, cleaned, laughed with Mariposa, made love with Reggie but longed for, sought after, prayed for and had nearly given up on getting any answers. She damn near forgot the question! So weary, she had become jaded by her own misery, her own secrecy. And so it was on a night when Reggie stayed late at the casino and her daughter was out with friends that Purslane decided to make peace. She opened a bottle of red wine. Purslane had other loves, other creative outlets and she would focus on those. She cleared the class coffee table in the living room, placed a large poster board on top, opened a box of pastels, took a sip of wine and went to work. Purslane loved the greasy feel of the pastels in her hands. Loved the way they could be easily smudged and blended. She drew three ovals that became faces, shading and shadowing the eyes and noses, weaving the strands of hair from the scalp to the shoulders and softly at the cheekbones. She drew herself and Cherry and Augustine. Mother and daughter leaning in, their heads softly tilted toward each other, their eyes full of love and admiration. Purslane’s self- portrait looked out of place. The look in her eyes; haunted. She poured herself another glass of wine and then another and another. The room grew colder as the hours ticked by. Purslane’s face flushed with drunkenness and she tried but could not fix the drawing. She should have drawn from the easel—the angle would have been better. It was difficult to draw this way, leaning over, sitting on the edge of the sofa but Purslane was too drunk and lazy to care about that now. She slid her butt off the sofa and awkwardly plopped down on the laminate floor. The cold sensation slapped her ass and thighs. She sat for a minute until the cold prompted her to move but the alcohol had affected her balance and as she tried to hoist herself back upon the couch she accidently brushed the glass of wine with her hand. Red spilled and flowed over the drawing, glass shattered and became a disconnected transparent kind of collage, the faces she had drawn, ruined and distorted. Purslane slowly picked up the glass pieces and held them carefully in the palm of her left hand. With her right hand she lifted the edge of the poster board and held it above the coffee table as the wine dripped and formed a puddle on the glass top. Purslane tossed the glass bits into the kitchen garbage can and forced the poster board in, folding it and shoving it deep into the container. She removed her hands and noticed a small L shaped gash in the center of her palm. It was a perfect cut in the shape of a backwards letter L. If she slapped her forehead with her hand she’d be marked with a scarlet letter. L for loser she thought and went upstairs to shower.