Do I Dare Eat a Peach? by John Jacobson
The ringing phone seemed to vibrate the thin walls of my tiny bedroom in our trailer. It was the middle of the night. I heard my dad stumbling into his coat and boots. He worked on the highway crew and was being called out to plow snow. When my alarm clock rang I struggled to wake up. In the kitchen I turned on the rectangular brown radio on the counter. Mom was hurrying to get ready for her eighteen-mile drive to work. I poured myself a bowl of Cheerios. I hoped school was closed.
A voice through the tinny speaker said, “This is Amos Finch coming to you from the top of Bear Spring Mountain in Walton, New York! On WDLA 1270 on your radio dial!” A steel guitar moaned. Bass and flattop guitar chords laid down a beat. Hank Williams’ sang,
There was no school closing announcement though. It was cold. I put a stick of wood in the stove and stood near it for a while. I brushed my teeth, put on my coat and went out into wind that whipped swirling clouds of snow across the old pasture and waited for the bus.
Mr. Hartshorne, our young English teacher stood in front of the blackboard. He held the thick English textbook in his right hand. He read slowly emphasizing rhythms of the lines,
He was handsome and elegant in an understated way in a pale blue shirt and green tie. His blond hair glowed beneath two rows of fluorescent lights under wide-toothed white grates that hung from the high ceiling. The room was pale green, somewhere between the color of pistachio ice cream and canned peas.
He read the next line,
My father and grandfather had worked hard. Things were not really working out the way either of them had envisioned. Neither of them spoke of this but intuitively I knew it. For years after my grandfather sold his cows, he raised heifers. He would truck them to the auction in spring. All winter there was hay to put out. There were fences to mend. Tractors and trucks needed fixing. My dad worked on all of this on evenings and weekends after work on the highway crew. I don’t remember him ever sitting down to read.
Sometimes we would go up the County Road to town in our 1969 Ford Galaxy 500. After I was sixteen I drove. Dad sat in the passenger seat. I remembered when the road was narrow between old maples and passed farm after farm. Now most of the farms were out of business. The trees had been cut and the road was widened. It was beginning to look like a different place. Amos Finch was still on the radio, though, playing Hank Williams songs. Dad liked the hard driving ones. He would sing along.
“How’s that?” he would ask.
We would laugh.
I was fascinated with motors. I helped my dad change spark plugs and points on our Ford. I timed the spark twisting the distributor while I watched the strobe of a timing light on whirling timing marks. I could rebuild a Briggs and Stratton engine. I knew how to build a barbed wire fence and keep the wire tight. I could mow and rake hay. I would take the carburetor apart on the big Allis-Chalmers WD-45 and get it running again when sediment from its rusting gas tank plugged the needle valve.
When my grandfather’s Chevy truck blew a head-gasket, I worked with Dad to fix it. My grandfather looked at the greasy boxes of parts, coffee cans of bolts and the six exposed pistons of the engine. He said, “Well, it’s not where you start, it’s where you stop that counts.”
I saw a picture of T.S. Eliot in a jacket, white shirt and tie sitting at his cluttered desk. He was educated at Harvard. I knew farmers and carpenters. They had short educations. None of them went to Harvard. They kept their emotions to themselves. They didn’t talk about rhyme and meter. They talked about work, weather, business and motors.
Mr. Hartshorne droned on,
The men I knew were tough, persistent and resilient. I didn’t remember any of them admitting vulnerability. They were not nearly as self-conscious as J. Alfred. He sounded frail, crippled by self-doubt and uncertainty. He was lonely.
Mr. Hartshorne went on,
As I stared out the window, I thought I wasn’t so different. I was skinny and wore thick glasses. I had dreamed of being on the baseball team when I was little. Now that I was old enough, I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t on the team. The girls seemed to mostly ignore me. I was too shy to ask any of them to the prom.
The men I knew growing up had found their own ways through selling family farms and enduring hard jobs. They had suffered losses. . . . I had no role models for this. I had to find my own way.
Mr. Hartshorne was still reading.
“Why does he ask ‘do I dare eat a peach,’ John?”
I startled. I turned back from the window. “Uh, what was the question?”
“Why does he ask ‘do I dare eat a peach’?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you read the poem?”
I sat dazed for weeks in a hard-white vinyl reclining Geri chair beside my wife Claudia’s intensive care bed in the spring of 2007. Pale blue corrugated tubing from a puffing ventilator was threaded into her throat. Doctors and nurses hurried by in the hallway outside the sliding glass door of her room. It felt like we had entered a surreal world. It seemed like we were on our own apart from everyone else. I couldn’t imagine Claudia’s terror at being unable to move, speak or breathe on her own.
The men I knew growing up had found their own ways through selling family farms and enduring hard jobs. They had suffered losses. I couldn’t remember any of them though who had spent so much time next to their wife in an intensive care room. I had no role models for this. I had to find my own way.
A nurse came in carrying a letter board and a pad.
“Here is how you can talk,” she said to Claudia. “John can point to a letter. You blink once for yes if that is the right letter. Blink twice for no. He can write each letter on this pad.”
The letter board had a row of numbers across the top. The alphabet was in order, A through Z below. It was printed on sturdy cardboard. Claudia blinked once for an I. I started out again at A. I pointed to letter after letter. Finally, I came to L. She blinked once. The next letter she blinked once for was O.
“I love you?” I asked.
Claudia blinked once.
I leaned down and hugged her. My eyes filled with tears.
As days went by the letter board that seemed wonderful at first became a frustration. Claudia grimaced as I pointed to letter after letter. One day her brother Stephen visited. I got out the letter board so Claudia could say something to him. He watched intently as I pointed out letters spelling “I love you Stephen.”
“Let me see that board,” he said.
I handed it to him. He paced back and forth looking at it. Finally, he said, “I’ll make you a better one.”
The next day he came back.
“I can’t stay,” he said. “Try this.”
Stephen’s letter board was printed on thick card stock. There was a row of numbers across the top like the other one. The letters below though were in a completely different order. The vowels were together. Consonants were in a row. Letters that frequently appear together like gh, sh, th and wh were in rectangular borders together. It was genius.
In this strange world where the only sounds for hours at a time were of a puffing ventilator, footsteps passing the sliding glass door and alarms ringing on Claudia’s monitor at every change in pulse or breathing, I was desperate for any comfort or relief.
I bought a thick paperback copy of The Poetry of Robert Frost. I would leaf through it randomly in the Geri chair. Since Mr. Hartshorne’s class I had loved “The Road Not Taken.” Now in this dim room surrounded by illness and mechanical sound I read it quietly, then whispered to myself.
I found it strangely comforting. The meter and rhymes reminded me of the King James Bible Reverend Wright read from on the pulpit at the front of the church when I was little. They gave shape to words that connected to me emotionally. Now, longing to hear Claudia speak again, I began to understand the importance of rhythm in speech.
I understood “The Road Not Taken” as being about regret. It was also about making the most out of the past choices made, to make the best of the present moment. Both “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and many of the songs of Hank Williams are about failures and regrets. They give voice to the self-doubt and vulnerability we all know. They wonder about what might have been.
Poetry is the language of religion and mystery. In her book Rules for the Dance, Mary Oliver says, “Poems speak of the mortal condition: in poems we muse (as we say) about the tragic and glorious issues of our fragile and brief lives: our passions, our dreams, our failures. Our wonderings about heaven and hell….”
Now, more than forty years later I am sitting in our living room in a brown leather chair. The sky is gray. The lilac bush outside our window is leafless. There is a dusting of snow on the ground. Chickadees and sparrows flit by the window as they gather around our bird feeders. Claudia sips coffee in her hospital bed. Her wheelchair is folded next to a tall white bookshelf. I take down The Norton Anthology of Poetry. It seems to fall open to T.S. Eliot.
“Have you ever read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?” I ask.
“No. I don’t think so.”
“We read it in English in school.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever read it,” Claudia says.
I start to read slowly like Mr. Hartshorne did.