Compost

by Arthur Vibert


Harry awoke early Saturday morning because he had a lot to do around the house. His wife Lorraine had taken the kids to her mother’s for a couple of weeks and he had planned to get some chores done that he’d been putting off. He was making coffee, staring blankly out the kitchen window when he noticed what appeared to be a thirty-foot-in-diameter jellyfish lying in his backyard.

Damn, he thought. How am I going to prune the roses? Already there was a problem and it wasn’t even 7 a.m. yet. He hated it when his plans didn’t work out exactly as he wanted them to. He poured coffee into his favorite mug and stepped out through the sliding glass door that led from the kitchen to the deck to get a better look.

The jellyfish glistened wetly in the early morning light. It was translucent and he could see colorful organs arrayed symmetrically within. It was, he reflected, beautiful. But it really annoyed him that it was in his garden. He’d heard about how sometimes toads would drop out of the sky, or rocks. He couldn’t recall ever hearing about jellyfish doing it, though.

Picking up a rake that was leaning against the side of the house he poked at the jellyfish to see what would happen. Get a sense of its consistency. The thick, rubbery flesh pulled away from the rake handle immediately, surprising him so much that he dropped the rake and spilled the coffee he held in his other hand.

The jellyfish was alive.

He went back inside to get some more coffee and think about this new development. While he was at it he decided he was hungry and fixed himself some bacon and scrambled eggs. He loved scrambled eggs, but his wife wouldn’t prepare them the way he liked them, so he looked forward to the times when he could do it himself.

He broke the eggs directly into the hot skillet and let them cook a while. Then he broke the yolks with the spatula and scrambled them some, but not too much. The trick with scrambled eggs was to still be able to differentiate the whites a little from the yolks after they were cooked. It infuriated him when people whipped the eggs into a yellow froth before they went into the pan, something he considered more of a failed omelet.

He ate his scrambled eggs and bacon slowly, savoring every mouthful. When he was done he washed up, trying not to look at the jellyfish through the window over the sink, but it was no good. The jellyfish was still there.

A dull anger throbbed deep inside him. A dead jellyfish was one thing, but if it was alive did that make him somehow responsible for it? Was he going to have to feed it or care for it? He hadn’t the slightest idea what jellyfish ate. He didn’t know where the mouth was, or if it even had a mouth. Maybe it just absorbed nutrients through its skin. He considered spraying it with MagiGro, like a plant, but then decided it probably didn’t need the same things as, say, a rose.

He looked at his watch and saw that it was getting close to 8:00. Which meant if he left now on foot, he could arrive at the hardware store just as it opened. He carefully locked the house and put on the shapeless cap he wore whenever he was outside for an extended period. His wife was worried about skin cancer, what with his thinning hair and exposed scalp.

He arrived at Friese’s Hardware a couple of minutes after it opened. Jim Friese was still cranking up the awning as Harry nodded to him in casual greeting and went in.

Harry wandered aimlessly around the musty interior, searching for inspiration. Friese’s store was an unusual mix of ancient and modern. Rusty objects that had probably been really useful at one time now seemed more like artifacts from a lost civilization, their original purpose forgotten forever. Next to these were displayed shiny chain saws and ViseGrip pliers. You really had to rummage around to find anything.

In the back, where concupiscent young women leered lustily at him from dusty yellowed calendars in the service of spark plugs and lug nuts he found what he was looking for. A poster showing safety tips for handling explosives. This could work, he thought. He looked for Friese, finally finding him by the nail counter sorting through his stock.

“Jim, I’d like to blow something up.” Friese looked at him critically for a moment, as though he’d been speaking a foreign language.

“What did ya have in mind? To blow up, I mean,” Friese said.

Harry didn’t want to talk about the jellyfish, so he spoke in more general terms.

“A really big piece of meat.”

“Like a steak, maybe. A porterhouse or somethin’?” Friese was trying to understand. “Y’know, most people’d just use the barbecue for somethin’ like that.”

“No, this is too big. It’s thirty feet in diameter.” Not admitting it was a jellyfish was making this harder, Harry realized.

“Harry. There is no steak that big. Even I know that.” Friese looked annoyed.

“Alright. It’s a jellyfish. A thirty-foot-in-diameter jellyfish in my backyard. On my roses.”

“Well why in hell didn’t you just say so instead of all this tomfoolery about a giant porterhouse?” Friese shook his head in disgust. Then he said, “I don’t think blowing it up will work.” Harry raised his eyebrows. “Why not?”

“Few years back it seems a whale beached himself and died somewhere in Oregon. So they thought they’d blow him up, get him out of the way. Whale’s pretty big, though. Rained rotten whale meat all over that town. Dented cars. Put a couple people in hospital. Killed a dog.” Friese shrugged his shoulders.

Harry thought about that for a moment. “Any other suggestions?”

“You could chainsaw it into pieces and haul it to the dump. Lot of work, though.”

Harry pictured the jellyfish writhing in agony as he stood knee-deep in goo wielding a chainsaw, and decided against it. “No. I’ll think of something else.” He left the store in frustration and walked back home.

He was out of his league. He needed professional help to deal with this and he needed it now. He thought for a moment about who to call. His first instinct was to call the university, but it was Saturday so there probably wasn’t anyone there. Finally settling on the local aquarium, he tried to find the phone directory. But Lorraine or one of the kids had taken it out of its place and not put it back. He hated paying to use directory assistance, especially when the phone book was free. But this was an emergency. There wasn’t time to search for the missing directory.

He got the number, called, and after several false starts finally got through to someone who sounded like they might know what they were talking about.

“This is Dr. Weltschmerz. How can I help you?” The voice on the line seemed awfully young to Harry. Too young to be a doctor of anything.

“Yes, I’m calling to report a jellyfish in my backyard.”

“A jellyfish.”

“That’s right. A really big one. It wasn’t there when I went to bed last night but it was when I woke up this morning. And it’s still alive.”

“You do know that jellyfish live in the sea, Mr...”

“Weaver,” Harry said.

“Mr. Weaver. And you also know that Iowa hasn’t had any beachfront property for at least 10 million years?” Dr. Weltschmerz was tired of crank calls. And while he had to admit this one was original, it was still a crank call and needed to be dealt with accordingly.

“I know that. I’m just trying to figure out how it got here. Messing up my roses and everything.”

“It’s probably just a large mushroom. Sometimes an enormous fungus can grow overnight. It’s really quite common.”

“Look, Weltschmerz. If I had a thirty-foot-in-diameter mushroom I would have called a mushroom guy. I’ve seen jellyfish and this is definitely—” Harry heard a muffled curse and a click. Weltschmerz had hung up.

Harry slammed the handset down and stood by the phone table. He ran his hand through what remained of his hair and looked down the hall and out the kitchen window. The jellyfish, implacable, was still there.

Harry heard the shouts of children and went back outside to investigate. Several young boys were hanging over the fence throwing rocks at the jellyfish. It quivered as each projectile landed. Some of the rocks actually stuck in the outer skin. Waves of motion traveled through the enormous body, but no amount of shaking could dislodge the stones.

“Hey, you boys. Get out of here. Stop that.” He waved his arms to drive them away. They stopped throwing rocks but they didn’t leave. They had no fear of Harry and anyway they were curious.

“What is this, mister? Where’dja get it?” asked one of the boys Harry recognized as a troublemaker.

“What’s it look like? It’s a jellyfish. Any fool can see that!” Harry reached for the hose and spray attachment. He turned the water on and stood ready to spray the boys at the first sign of impudence.

“Jellyfish live in the sea, mister. This is Iowa.” The boys turned and left, bored now. Harry considered spraying them anyway, then decided it wasn’t worth the effort. The boys would tell their mothers and he’d have to explain. The thought of it almost overwhelmed him. This was all getting to be too much. He sprayed the jellyfish instead. It cringed under the impact of the hard jet of water.

“You stupid jellyfish. You’re supposed to like water!” Harry threw the hose down in disgust and stalked back into the house.

He picked up the phone to call Lorraine but set it back down again before he dialed. What was he going to tell her? She wouldn’t believe there was a thirty-foot-in-diameter jellyfish in the back yard but she’d probably think he’d taken to drinking. Or that he had a brain tumor and was experiencing hallucinations. In fact, he thought, she’d probably believe just about anything but the truth in this situation. She would definitely come home, though. And that was one thing he didn’t want. He wasn’t going to give up his two weeks of solitude for this. No, he was going to have to get through this jellyfish thing alone.

He looked at his watch and saw that it was already almost one o’clock. He had missed lunch, something he never did. A man couldn’t think clearly on an empty stomach and he needed his wits about him.

He looked in the fridge to see what was there. A plate of cold sausages caught his eye so he took it out along with a jar of mustard. He needed something to drink and a beer sounded good. Refreshing. Normally he wouldn’t drink any beer until after 5, when the “sun was over the yard-arm” as his father used to say, but he was temporarily a bachelor so it was okay.

He considered dipping the sausages directly into the mustard jar but decided that being a bachelor had its limits.

Instead he spooned some onto the plate and, holding a sausage daintily between thumb and forefinger, dipped it into the tangy yellow sauce. He took a bite and grimaced. Chicken-apple sausages. He hated chicken apple sausages. He believed a sausage wasn’t a sausage unless it contained pork, but his wife didn’t want him consuming too much red meat. And she didn’t buy his “America’s other white meat” argument.

Still, he was hungry so he finished all three of the sausages, making a mental note to take this up with Lorraine when she returned. The beer was good, though. He washed away the sausage taste with the last gulp and cleaned up.

Outside again he looked at the jellyfish. The July sun was high in the sky and it was getting good and hot. Harry didn’t think that was going to do the jellyfish any good, since it was supposed, as everyone kept reminding him, to be in the sea. He noticed that some sparrows were pecking at the edges of it. Working off little bits of it and flying away and then coming back for more. The jellyfish was barely reacting to the birds.

Maybe it was dying.

* * *

That night Lorraine called him. They spoke for a while about how she was, and how her mother was, and what the kids had gotten up to today. When it came time for him to tell her about his day he was at a loss for words. He’d spent the whole day on the jellyfish issue and hadn’t managed to get anything else done. He tried to pass it off as a lazy day but she knew him too well and wasn’t fooled.

“Harry,” she said, “are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine. Fine.”

“What’s going on? You’re hiding something.”

“What if,” he said, “I told you there was a thirty-foot-in-diameter jellyfish in the backyard?” He could never keep anything from her. He hadn’t wanted to tell her and now here he was doing just that.

“On the roses?”

“Yeah. Just lying there. Dying, I think.”

“Does it smell? I mean, think of the neighbors.”

“It just smells like the ocean,” he said. “It’s kind of nice.”

“Oh, well, that’s good.”

They talked vaguely for a while longer and then hung up. He sat in the big, overstuffed easy chair in the tiny living room, thinking about the day. You’d think thirty-foot-in-diameter jellyfish dropping out of the sky onto your roses was a common occurrence here in Iowa. Or anywhere, for that matter. He couldn’t seem to make anyone understand how bizarre it was. It was like he was talking about getting a new Skil saw or a new set of tires. He wanted to grab people and shake them, shouting, “I HAVE A THIRTY-FOOT-IN-DIAMETER JELLYFISH IN MY BACK YARD!” Until their eyes finally focused and they said, “You do? Wow!”

He went outside in the warm night and stood over the jellyfish. It wasn’t looking good. Its flesh was dull in the moonlight and it wasn’t as plump looking as it had been that morning. He put his hands on its skin. It was cool, and he could feel it moving gently, reacting to his touch.

He stayed that way for a while, fireflies flickering around him, the sounds of distant voices occasionally rising up over the rhythmic sawing of the cicadas. Heat lightning glimmered intermittently on the horizon and the heavy, humid summer air wrapped around him like a blanket.

He felt kind of bad for the jellyfish. It had spent its life in the ocean happily doing whatever jellyfish do. And suddenly it found itself in Harry Weaver’s rose garden in the middle of Iowa. It probably wasn’t going to make it back to the sea.

The roses didn’t really matter, Harry thought. They’d never been all that great anyway. His friend Bruce always grew spectacular roses, the bushes virtually exploding with cabbage-sized blooms. Harry’s were small and unremarkable, the bushes straining to produce four or five blossoms a season. No amount of fertilizing or spraying made a difference. He could never figure it out.

He rummaged around in his small garden shed which was built against the side of the house and came up with some duct tape and a couple of stakes. He jammed the stakes into the ground and taped the hose and spray head to them. Carefully, he adjusted the nozzle until the jellyfish was bathed in a fine mist. Then he went to bed.

* * *

He was awakened the next morning by a thump at the front door. That was the Sunday paper, which meant it was 6:15. Milo, the paperboy who was actually 73, was nothing if not consistent.

Harry pulled on a pair of pants and a t-shirt and ran downstairs to check on the jellyfish. He was confronted by a pool of yellowish, viscous fluid and a few fragments of flesh hanging in the rose bushes. There was nothing else.

* * *

Several Sundays later Harry sat at the kitchen table reading the paper while Lorraine prepared scrambled eggs. Jeff, who was 8, and Rusty, who was 6, tore past him on some urgent mission involving loud noises and lots of them. He looked over the top of the paper and out the kitchen window. Lorraine followed his gaze.

“I don’t know what you did while I was gone, Harry, but those roses have got to be the most wonderful this town has ever seen.” She was right, Harry thought. They were even better than Bruce’s. Huge, fragrant, multi-colored blossoms so dense it was impossible to see where one bush stopped and the next started. He smiled with satisfaction. They were magnificent. That was the only word that could describe them.

Lorraine put his breakfast in front of him and sat down across the table holding a steaming mug of coffee so she could smell the rich, brown aroma. He started eating.

“How are your eggs?” she said.

“Good,” he said. “They’re good.”

And they were.


Copyright © 2007 by Arthur Vibert

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