I moved into this house six years ago and was still unpacking when the City decided to rip up all the old pipes in my neighborhood and replace them with new ones. Base camp was in my backyard, where city workers would sit on my cinder block walls and yell to one another over the pounding of jack hammers. This went on for three months, day and night, weekends too, and I knew why my neighbors didn't bring “welcome to the ‘hood” cookies to my door: they didn’t want to cross the “caution” tape strung from tree to bush to the front pillars of my home, and they probably didn’t own industrial-strength ear muffs either, like I did.
And then, a couple years ago, a freak hail storm pounded Phoenix; people were getting new roofs left and right due to hail damage. Everyone in my neighborhood got a new roof except me: that time, my house outsmarted the storm by having twelve impenetrable and buoyant layers of shingles on it, thanks to the previous owners. At first I was proud of my roof for shrugging off all the hail that could have earned us a new one…What a strong roof you are… but I soon recognized my naivety, as did my insurance company. No roof for you.
Finally—if anything is ever final—a wind storm blew through last week, culminating in my backyard of course, where all disasters do.
I watched from inside as it kicked up plastic watering pots and other lightweight stuff, until it apparently got bored and started to wrestle with my oleanders. My oleanders—planted in a row all the way around the inside of my backyard—are just now reaching the height where they're starting to offer the privacy that they were intended for. However, the wind had other ideas and pushed some of them over from the base, not breaking them—just showing them who’s boss.
I studied these bent-over oleanders for several days, wondering what to do. I went out to speak with them, asking if they weren’t ready to get off the floor and act like big boys, but they wouldn’t look at me. It seemed like a matter for their dad to handle, but they’d never really had a dad since I brought them straight home from the nursery when they were still in buckets. I would have to take the matter in hand myself.
Yesterday was the big day. I happened to have a ten-foot wooden post in my garage, along with a small sledgehammer and a three-step utility stool. I picked up all of these objects at the same time and started to make my way haltingly across the front yard in order to reach the back. I wasn’t five feet into this awkward journey when the pole drove a sliver into the pad of my thumb. The sliver was long and thick and black, running from my left thumb up to my elbow, right under the skin. I’d been splinted before injury—either a happy accident or a warning from God.
Unable to bend my left arm anymore, I swiveled my shoulder to shrug off my supplies and went to put gloves on. I picked up the stool, the pole and the sledgehammer and dragged everything over to the drooping oleanders.
I know one trick regarding the insertion of posts into the hard Arizona earth: you should water the dirt first to soften it up. I had indeed been watering the dirt, and felt confident that it was soft enough by then to happily receive the sharp end of a stake and keep it standing so that I could tie up my fallen oleanders. Me and my dirt, partners in crime.
I leaned the post against my cinder block wall, climbed up on my kitchen stool with the sledgehammer in my good hand, and—using my splinted left arm to hold the post straight—gave it a good tap. Nothing. I tapped it again from where I stood on the top step of my stool, but still nothing. Tap tap tap. I quickly realized that I didn't have the leverage or strength to pound that stake through the moist soil and into the hard clay that lay beneath it. I climbed down from the stool with my dad’s words ringing in my ears: Kathryn, you’re going to hurt yourself.
With the sun going down, I left my tools in the backyard and went to see about the “splinter” shoved under my precious layers of cells, resting tightly in there, all bold. This is what you get for trying to bury my family, it seemed to be saying.
Some slivers—if you get a good hold on them with tweezers—will slide right out. Not this one. The near end was buried too; I had to dig a hole in my thumb just to reach it (and no, I did not water it beforehand). Through the blood that bubbled from my thumb, I could see the black tip of the sliver, but I couldn’t get a grip on it. I took out all my excavation tools: sewing needles of various sizes, a razor blade, a nail file. I poked and prodded to no avail, blood everywhere, heart pounding. Stuck between fight or flight, I was my own enemy and savior at the same time. I knew that scenes like this have played out across America, and that sometimes movies are made based on the experience.
I finally took the razor blade and sliced through the top layer of skin that was keeping my splinter in place, screaming the whole time. It finally allowed me to grip it and pull it out. I named it Barry and propped it in the corner.
I filled the tub with hydrogen peroxide and got in, a red and frothy bath.
Since men are scarce these days, the next day I lured one of the construction workers from next door over to my house by showing him my gaping splinter wound, which had me wearing a bikini top because it was the only piece of clothing I could get into without having to bend my wounded arm. He motioned that he would be right over after he powered down his mud agitator. He strode into the backyard and assessed the stake situation in seconds. “Okay,” he said, a man of few words.
He grabbed the sledgehammer, climbed up the step-stool, grabbed the pole and slam, smashed the top with the flat side of the hammer. Smash he hit it again, over and over, splinters flying everywhere, siblings for Barry. In a frenzy, this man gripped the pole and whapped it over and over again, until finally it appeared to be getting shorter…finally penetrating the soil I had so diligently moistened.
The man climbed down covered in sweat. I started to prattle and he put a finger up, silencing me while he caught his breath. Heaving, with hands on his hips, he finally gasped, “You need…metal…Home Depot,” then he drew a figure in the gravel: a post pounder. I thanked him very much, and he returned to agitating his mud.
I stood in my backyard, looking at my stake standing up all by itself. I whispered to the lazy oleanders, “Don’t you want to stand up tall like the stake?” before calling it another Saturday night. I hope when I get out there today that the earth has gripped the stake as firmly as my flesh gripped the splinter. It would only be fair.
- Chandler, Arizona, USA
- May 03
- English Instructor
- Mesa Community College
- I'm from Minnesota, but have lived in Wisconsin, UP Michigan, Pennsylvania, Washington State, and Alaska. Now Arizona is home. I have a B.A. in English from Bemidji State University in Minnesota (um...go Beavers!) and an M.F.A. in creative writing (Arizona State, '94). I teach English at Mesa Community College in Arizona. Besides teaching, I write, read, bond with my cats Sara and Lucy and Leo, listen to music, tackle home projects, and travel when I can. Love a good roadtrip, but always looking for a reason to fly away. I am about to purchase my first camping equipment.
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