In addition to the 300 word pitch for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, I need to provide a 3,000-5,000 word excerpt. What follows is the portion of the story I am planning on submitting as my excerpt. I’ve always though that the best excerpt should be the beginning. This is not the beginning of Weed Therapy. Instead, it is where Father Santos provides his first lesson. There are other pieces of the story I wish I could include in an excerpt, but such is life. They’re not here.
Let me know what you think …
I woke to the first rays of light coming in through a window. It was one of only two small windows. The one above the table that let the western light in as the sun drops and this one, above the cot, allowing the morning sun to make its subdued entrance each day into Father Santos’ room. When I had first walked in the evening before I thought the place was a hovel. In the early morning glow I took a second look. While it certainly contained virtually none of the creature comforts I was used to, I could see that it provided the minimum necessities for a man of few needs. A cot, a table, a stove, and a dresser with two drawers. One drawer was open enough for me to be able to see that it contained only a few items of clothing. A tattered, threadbare rug covered the middle of the floor. On the walls, a hand drawn image of Jesus in a cheap frame graced one wall, and next to the door, a small cross hung from a nail.
Before I had too much time to sink back into the misery of why I was there, I heard a quiet rapping at the door and then a girl on the other side, speaking quietly, said, “Padre? Padre?” That I understood, but it was followed by a stream of quickly spoken Spanish that far exceeded my limited understanding of the language.
I looked in the corner where Father Santos had curled up the night before and noted his absence. Throwing the thin blanket off me, I got up and walked to the door. When I opened it, the glare outside, with the sun reflecting off the hard, dry earth and the walls of the church across the yard, momentarily blinded me. The brightness was much harsher than the few rays that made their way through the small windows of the priest’s home.
Before I could really focus, the girl let out another stream of rapid Spanish. Once I was able to look at her, she was kneeling down and placing a tray on the ground. She stood once she realized I had opened the door and looked at me. Immediately, she dropped her eyes and looked down. Another impenetrable torrent of Spanish filled the air between us.
She was no girl, but instead was a young woman, probably in her early twenties. Her eyes were a deep brown, almost black. Her skin, a complexion of brown, and her hair another shade of the same color. Those three features – her eyes, hair and skin – and the shades of color in them, mirrored the colors of the world of Santo Cielo. The dried earth and its tan shade matched her skin. The darker brown of the mud brick and adobe buildings matched her hair.
When she finished speaking, she began to back up. “Wait.” That one word in a language she didn’t seem to know any better than I did her own had the opposite of my intent. She turned and began to walk rapidly down the hill towards the village. She almost stumbled once and gasped, but she was able to remain on her feet. When she got to the gate in the fence that surrounded the church, she glanced back at me and then turned back, her hair whipping around to follow the quick flip of her head, and passed through the gate.
For the first time, I noticed that a small boy had been playing in the dirt there. She grabbed him by the hand and pulled him down the hill with her. He looked back at me as he stumbled and reached back towards me. His face broke out in a smile and he waved to me. Once. Twice. I waved back and then they were out of sight, down the hill.
I was taken by the simple beauty of the young Mexican woman. For the few seconds she had looked at me in the doorway of Father Santos’ home, I saw a depth in the dark brown of her eyes. A range of emotions were reflected in her eyes and the furrow of her brow. For the briefest of moments I allowed myself to imagine that when she looked back at me as she passed through the gate, she was throwing some of that back at me. It was very possible, if not virtually certain, that I was deluding myself, reading more into her actions than was really there. I was certainly desperate enough to think she might have been trying to send me a message. I couldn’t help but wonder and then think about what I felt I was missing.
I think there was a time when Holly, my wife, might have looked back at me like that. With a look that said without words that she hoped I was still watching her. But I have no memory of it. Over the years, I saw plenty of hurt. In her eyes. In her voice. In the way she ignored me and, at times, refused to look at me. There had been way too much hurt. Enough hurt that I wondered if there was anything else that we felt for each other, the hurt having buried everything else.
Any memory of such an event had been washed away by the time that had gone by. Days of neglect. Weeks of going through the motions. Months of lack of effort. Years of treading water.
I hoped, believed, that our relationship had started with a spark, but I simply could not remember it and, in light of the events of the years that followed, I couldn’t imagine such a spark ever existed. Too many dirty diapers. Too many sleep-deprived nights. Too many arguments over meaningless trivia. Too little time devoted to each other. If there had ever been a spark, why was it so difficult to recapture it, to wave our hands over its ember and revive the fire?
Of course, there’s a question. Why did I need that fire? Aren’t relationships supposed to mature into something where the fire isn’t needed anymore? Isn’t being comfortable something to strive for? Those things may all be true, but there came a time when I needed more. Comfort wasn’t enough to counteract the hurt and neglect. Feeling like a comfortable old shoe was just that and nothing more. A little passion would have gone a long way towards healing the scars caused by the traumas of any relationship. If those embers had glowed just a bit I probably wouldn’t have found the need to flee to a church led by a priest who wasn’t really a priest in a dusty, little village on the edge of Baja California
I had never experienced it with Holly. With no recollection of passion or desire, as the years rolled by, I came to believe that our love was a love of convenience and always had been. We met at a time when we were both ready to be married and start a family. For a time, we worked well together and I’m sure that Holly loved me, but I felt it was nothing more than the love she felt for her parents or our kids. Shouldn’t a man and a woman, brought together as husband and wife, feel something for each other different than what they feel for others in their lives?
Call it intimacy, maybe. Not just of the physical kind. But mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and, yes, sexually, isn’t that what a marriage is about? Two people brought together by a desire to share something that they share with no other. A touch on the arm. A long hug. A passionate kiss for no other reason than to just kiss. Time alone, laughing, giggling, talking, crying.
Did we ever have that fire, the passion, the need for each other? Were Holly and I ever really intimate in a deeper, meaningful way? Was there ever a time where we just wanted something very basic to human nature, almost animal? A carnal need that the other met?
If there was, I had missed it entirely, while wanting it desperately. I needed a memory of Holly showing that she wanted me for more than just my pay check and my willingness to mow the lawn. I wanted somebody, anybody, but preferably the woman I had married and had two kids with to walk up to me one day and whisper in my ear, “I want you, right here, right now,” and then take the steps to make sure she got what she wanted right there and right then. I wanted to be able to look at my wife and know that she didn’t just love me, but that she loved me! That she wanted to share everything there was in life with me. The good things, the bad things, and everything in between.
With a fleeting glimpse, she was gone, leaving me with my memories–or lack of them–and idle thoughts of her hips swaying as she walked down the hill and the brief glimpse of a glitter in her eye that was more than likely unrelated to the thoughts that swirled in my head.
I picked up the tray from the ground where the young woman had left it and turned back into the room. It smelled like breakfast, but I resisted the urge to lift the towel that covered the tray, choosing instead to leave it on the table. Without Father Santos, it would have been disrespectful to start eating. Instead, I went in search of him.
The old priest was in his church, kneeling at the altar with his head bowed so low it was a wonder he hadn’t fallen forward onto the cool stone surface that spread out between him and the display at the front of the church. A single candle burned on the ground before him. I leaned against the door frame and waited for Father Santos to finish his prayers. In the still of the morning, I heard his muttering and whispering. Every once in awhile he crossed himself and looked up at the figure of Jesus on the cross. Then, he would bow his head again and resume his pleas to his god. For a man who claimed not to be a real priest, he seemed to be playing the role rather well.
Just as my stomach rumbled for the first time, the old priest rose from his knees. His voice rose slightly with a sharp word or two, no doubt brought about by the pain in his joints. I could hear the creaks and cracks all the way at the back of the church. He stood for a few more seconds with his head bowed, crossed himself one more time, and turned to walk down the small aisle between the pews.
“Ah, Señor Rockwell.” He smiled and walked past me on his way out the door. Before he got too far, he turned back and looked again at me. “Do you need to pray?”
“Uh. No. No, that’s okay.”
“Bueno. The church is always open for your prayers.” He turned back and walked towards the little house behind the church. When he opened the door, he made a show of sniffing the air. “Isabella must have come, no?”
“A woman brought a plate of food.”
“Was she beautiful?”
“Well,” I hesitated. Here was a priest, real or not, discussing the looks of a woman who was many, many years younger than him.
“It is okay. I am still a man,” he chuckled.
“Yes. She was beautiful.”
“Then it was Isabella. In little Santo Cielo, there is no other like her.” I could definitely agree with Father Santos that Isabella was beautiful.
“Come. Let us eat, if you have not already done so,” Father Santos said, crossing the threshold into his home. Father Santos sat at the table and lifted the towel. “Ah, you have much more patience than I.” On the tray were two plates piled with scrambled eggs and bacon. Another towel-wrapped bundle no doubt held more of Isabella’s tortillas. In a bowl in the center was a diced orange fruit.
“Please. Sit.” As I did so, Father Santos bowed his head. “Something I should have done last night, but I manage to forget now and then,” he said with a grin. Another stream of quiet Spanish followed as he clasped his hands together. With a clap of his hands, he finished and ordered, “Eat.”
We were silent while we ate, except when I asked Father Santos what the fruit was. “It is mamey sapote.
“It’s very good.” It tasted almost like pumpkin but was very sweet. “I’ve never had it before.”
“Mamey sapote is native to this land. Maybe, tomorrow, if you are still here, you will try sapodilla or cherimoya. They are sweet like nothing you have ever had before. Better than candy.”
We ate in silence for a few more moments. A silence broken only by the old man’s lips smacking together as he ate and the scrape of our forks on the cheap ceramic plates. Once our plates were clear–I used the last tortilla to wipe everything off my plate to make sure I got it all–Father Santos piled the plates on the tray and put it by the door.
“Come,” he said. I followed him out the door. From the side of the house, he took a pail and handed it to me. “The garden needs to be weeded.” I looked at the flowers that nestled up against the house and could see barely a sign of a weed. I looked at Father Santos questioningly.
“Por favor, look. There are weeds. Debe desherbar su jardin cada dia.” He returned my gaze and placed a fist to his forehead. “Señor, you must weed your garden every day, so that what weeds there are do not have a chance to spread.” I bent down and could see, in a few places, small shoots of green just beginning to break the surface of the dirt. “Otherwise, your garden will not grow as it should. The flowers will not be as beautiful.”
I put the pail down in the dirt next to the flowers and knelt down. I began pulling the weeds from the dirt and throwing them in the pail. “Bueno. Good, good,” Father Santos said as he walked down the path towards the church. “Pull them all. My flowers need the room.”
I was grateful that Father Santos had not begun the day by questioning me anymore. I didn’t think my heart had opened up to allow me to talk with him about my life. I preferred the idea of weeding in solitude. I began to comb through the plants, looking for the telltale sign of invaders lurking in the shadows of the flowers, full of color and life.
As the sun rose and the air warmed, I pulled my shirt off. Within an hour, I began to look much like the old man at the bar probably had all those years before. Sunburned. Probably close to the color of a strawberry. Sweating. But, hopefully, not with the paunch the old man had. I liked to think I had managed to avoid the spare tire around my waist.
I went through the flower bed once and then went back through it again, trying to find and pull every sign of a weed. I pulled them out the way my mom had taught me. Frequently over the hour or two it took me to perform my task, I could hear her in my head.
When I was young, probably no more than six or seven, I pestered her to let me help her with her yard work. With an abundance of patience, she allowed me, but tried to teach me in the process. “It doesn’t do any good to pull a weed, unless you get the root,” she would say while demonstrating the fine art of digging into the dirt with a weeder or small shovel, while grabbing the weed as far down as she could push her fingers into the dirt. I’m sure I left far too many roots in the dirt, roots that would shoot up a bigger, stronger weed in the days that followed, but she never criticized my work.
I dug down into the soft dirt of the priest’s flower bed and pulled every weed out with as much of the root as I could get. Every little sprout of green that didn’t belong came out. While I worked, I pondered Father Santos’ words. It wasn’t just a garden that could become weed-filled. It wasn’t just flowers that could get the life choked out of them.
Almost fifteen years into our marriage, during one of our countless conversations about the issues we confronted, she told me she wasn’t comfortable with me. As a result, she could not find the words to tell me how she felt or to show me through action that she loved me. She could not make the gestures of love and affection I so desired. I thought that was one way you kept the weeds at bay. Small acts of affection, randomly displayed. But Holly rarely bothered. Or didn’t even know how. Which led me inevitably down the path of believing that she didn’t feel about me how I needed my wife to feel about me. If she did, she wouldn’t need to “know how” to show me affection. It would just happen because it was truly felt.
I couldn’t figure out if it was my fault she was not comfortable. I wracked my brain to identify the cause, but could come up with nothing. I couldn’t remember ever rejecting her so that she felt unwanted by me. I couldn’t remember ever belittling or bullying her so that she might feel I didn’t respect her feelings. I thought I had always treated her with respect and could think of nothing I might have done to lead to her not feel comfortable with me. And neither could Holly. It was just a simple statement. “I’m not comfortable with you,” and as with so many of our conversations, there was really nothing left to it. I said a few more things. She said, “Okay,” and we went about our business.
What she did was the equivalent of what my mom told me not to do when pulling weeds. Instead of getting her hands dirty, Holly just made a quick grab at the green sticking out of the dirt. Not only did she plant the weed, when it came to pulling it out she left the root behind, lurking in the soil of our marriage ready to shoot up a bigger, stronger weed.
After all the years together, she confessed essentially that she didn’t know how to relate to me and then didn’t show a willingness to try to figure it out. Why bother then? Why continue working at it?
That’s what I did, I stopped trying, too. Instead of talking to her or suggesting we get counseling, I stopped caring. I didn’t see the point. Oh, there was a time when I suggested counseling. Holly agreed with a look of fear on her face and a tone of terror in her voice. I waited to make the call though. We had a vacation planned and I thought I’d wait until we got back. When we did, I had lost the motivation to seek counseling. It wasn’t that the vacation had resulted in a door opening on our relationship. No. Instead, I had returned to not caring. The interesting thing is that Holly never brought it up. Counseling, that is. I have no doubt she was thrilled I never made the call.
Instead of pulling this weed that Holly had identified, by not caring, I watered it. I fertilized it. I let the little weed she planted grow into a life-sucking thing in the middle of our marriage. If, after all the years together, after two kids, and everything we had been through, she couldn’t find a way to be comfortable with me and didn’t seem to think it was worth an effort on her part, why the hell should I care? Through my own inattentiveness and lack of consideration, I helped the weed grow. Why the hell should I be the only one who pulled the fucking weeds?