Black Walnuts
fiction by Jonathan Corcoran

I was too young to be sitting by myself on a bench at the quiet end of the park, but that’s what I did back in the fall of 2015. I’d just turned nineteen, and I had a job at the call center working Tuesdays through Saturdays. It was the good kind of call center, which meant that the customers rang you and asked for help–you didn’t call them trying to sell something. I’d slip away after my shift, riding on my bike from work to the park, and I’d plop down on that cold metal bench and not even look at my phone. I’d listen to the boys huff and cuss and holler as they shot hoops. I’d watch the squirrels bury their nuts and run their mad circles around the tree trunks. From September to October the leaves turned from a faded green to a hot red to a sunfire yellow. My mom had taught me this–this thing she’d never call meditation. We’d sat here at least twice a week from spring to fall, all through my childhood, right up to the end of high school. I’d be reading a book or watching the TV or playing a video game, and she’d turn to me and say, “Billy, you want to go for a sit?” We’d drive through Hardee’s, order two Diet Cokes, park the car, and then follow the asphalt path to the quiet side. 

The quiet bench was at the end of the park farthest from the downtown, the part that backed up against the historic neighborhood, against the Victorians built at the turn of the last century. They called it the City Park, just as they called our small town of six thousand people a City–some strange municipal rule that the state had written in stone a hundred years ago. What it meant was that quite a large number of folks in the town took themselves a little too seriously, thought themselves a little too important–the prime example of this self-inflation being those well-off people in their historic Victorians that abutted the park. Those people had special street signs–brown plaques with the name of the historic district embossed on top. The rest of us made do with our utilitarian green ones that announced our roads without filigree.  

What I cared about then was the money I made at the call center, was my efficiency apartment. The call center paid well for the area, which was to say more than minimum wage. They paid well because they couldn’t keep anyone for more than a few months. It was considered tedious work, and you had to have the right kind of attention span. I don’t know what it was–I’d been so shy in high school–but something about sitting in my cubicle, having people ask me for help, the people having no preconceived notions of the voice on the other end of the line–it sounds ridiculous to say now, but back then I would have told someone I’d found my true calling. My bosses loved me. My customers left positive reviews on the aftercall surveys. And at the end of the day, I could ride my bike to the park, and then I could ride home to my little apartment with my head clear and calm. For a little while, I could forget that she was gone.

That fall was when I started collecting black walnuts. If you’d ask anyone about the City Park, they’d mention the walking paths, the muddy grass, the orderly oaks. I doubt many ever noticed the black walnut trees. They were right there, nonetheless, scattered around the old oaks, just as tall and sometimes taller. They had silky green leaves that grew in frond-like bunches. They’d always looked vaguely tropical to my eyes. In September, they started dropping their prize–their pungent fruit, the black walnuts themselves. 

It was my mom who’d pointed them out. She’d always repeated the same stories, the same lessons. Her words came out by the month on the calendar. It was the robin snow in spring, the dog days of August. In the fall we’d be going for one of our sits, and she’d catch a whiff. “You smell that?” she’d say, and then her eyes would scan the ground, catch up with her nose. She’d bend over and find the thing she’d been looking for. 

“You want them to be a little past green,” she’d said, “but don’t grab them if they’re all black. By then they’re too far gone.”

I had no plans to use them; I wasn’t a forager, and I’d never grown anything in a garden. And yet the moment I smelled them that fall, I thought of her and knew I needed to collect them. I’d get off work, walk my bike along the paths. You didn’t have to look far–they seemed to drop by the hundreds. I couldn’t resist. I’d grab two or three dozen, load up my backpack, and then take my seat on the quiet bench, assess my five- or ten-pound haul. 

I’d sit there until the birds began their evening dance and warble. I’d hear the children screaming on the jungle gym, their happy chaos audible even from my bench on the opposite side of the park. I liked to sit and listen to the birds and the kids and the basketball hitting the rim, and I’d roll one of the nuts in my hand; the rolling seemed to activate its scent. And that’s what I loved about them most, what had made my mother stop in her tracks and take notice. The smell was some combination of citrus and resin. It reminded me of the ammonia she’d used to clean the linoleum floors in our old apartment–the kind of smell that either made you sick or made you high. And though I didn’t smoke and barely drank, I could sit there and roll one of those black walnuts in my hand, hold it up to my nose, and feel like I was on a different plane. I’d let the smell hit me, and the bits of evening sun would filter through the trees, and I’d close my eyes and remember what it had been like sitting here with her. 

I sat like that any day there wasn’t rain, from September until the cold part of fall descended. It was the first week of October when the old man came over. I was rolling one of the nuts in my hand, and he came marching over with the help of his cane, his click, click, click, moving just a little too fast. The cane appeared to be leading him, like an overly excited dog dragging its owner by the leash. By the time I’d registered that he was heading in my direction, that he was darting along that little used path to my quiet corner, he’d already sat down beside me.

“That’s better,” he said, and he lifted his feet up and down, like he was a kid trying not to be bored. “Now tell me about what you’ve got in that bag?”

I was young and I didn’t know how to act around old people. I had some vague notion that all elders were authorities, that when they spoke, I should listen; that when they asked a question, I should respond. I unzipped my backpack and reached into my bag, and I was about to offer him one, until I saw my hands. 

I wasn’t used to talking much after my shift. Outside of work, I never made small talk with strangers. There was something about the phone that switched something in my brain, that brought out a confidence I lost in face-to-face interaction. And here was this man I’d never seen before, sitting on this tiny bench, so close to me that I could tell he used some kind of fresh-scented fabric softener.

“Black walnuts,” I said defensively. 

“Let me have one,” he said.

I was young and I didn’t know how to act around old people. I had some vague notion that all elders were authorities, that when they spoke, I should listen; that when they asked a question, I should respond. I unzipped my backpack and reached into my bag, and I was about to offer him one, until I saw my hands. 

“They leave a stain on your skin,” I said, and I pushed out my right palm to show him. It was an oily brown. Each evening I’d go home and scrub my hands with rubbing alcohol until my skin cracked. My coworkers at the call center already thought I was a little odd–this kid who couldn’t hold a conversation in the break room yet five minutes earlier had come to life with a complaining stranger in Tallahassee–I didn’t want to give them any more evidence.

“Seems worth the risk,” he said, and so I gave him one. 

He held the nut to his nose and had evidently discovered that special smell.

“Aren’t you a man of the earth,” he said. “What’s your name?” 

“Billy,” I said.

“William,” he said.

“No, I go by Billy,” I said.

“And I go by William,” he said.

He was staring at me and smiling, one hand holding the nut and the other his cane, waiting for me to figure it out.

“Wait,” I said, “your name’s William?”

“I live over there,” he said, “the one with the big porch. I said to myself, ‘I’ve lived in this house for thirty years, and I’ve never seen anyone run around collecting things off the ground of the City Park. I need to know what that young man is collecting.’ And so here we are, and it turns out you’re not a squirrel. It turns out my eyesight is just fine.”

I’d looked at that house a hundred times, at least. I’d looked at so many of them in the historic district that I could probably draw them from memory. There was a walking path that started at the back end of the neighborhood, and when I was a kid, I’d cross town and get on the trail and find myself getting lost in the woods, daydreaming about what it would have been like to live in a big, old house, to have a backyard. Our apartment had been on the third floor of a brick and block complex right in the middle of the downtown. There were two bedrooms, and my mom gave me the bigger one. Our windows were all in a straight line and looked out over an alley of dumpsters. 

“It’s a nice house,” I said.

“It was the best house,” he said.

I felt a wave of anger hit my face. I wanted to argue the point, to show him my old view, to show him a picture of me sitting in a chair by my bedroom window with a book in my hand. I was never this defensive.

“So many memories,” he said, as if he were reading my mind.

I was about to get up and walk away, uncomfortable with his openness, his intrusion on my quiet afternoon, until my brain rewound and caught on to that was. He was speaking of the place in the past, and for a moment I wondered if he were dying. I’d never had a grandfather. My mother’s father died before I was born. And my father’s father–well, he was probably still out there somewhere, like my absentee dad.

“Was? You still live there, right?” I asked. 

“Yes,” he said, and the way he was looking at me, with that straight face, that near smile, suggested he was waiting for me to probe further.

“Do you live alone?” I asked.

“I’m a widower, of sorts. We never married–well, you know, it wasn’t legal back then. That doesn’t bother you, sitting here with me? You kids are so different, so accepting. Anyways, he always said I’d live to be a hundred. Still have a ways to go. I’m eighty-seven, still walking, and my doctor says I’m the picture of health, save these wobbly legs. But it’s off to Florida for me, to live with my baby sister for a while. She’s worried that I’ll fall. I think she’s lonely. We’re all a little lonely, right?”

Everyone thought I was gay because I was quiet, and everyone thought I was lonely because I liked to keep to myself. I wasn’t gay–though I’d questioned if others knew something about me, could see something I couldn’t–and for a long time, I was content with the company of my mother and my small handful of friends. When she passed away, when my friends scattered after high school, I realized for the first time that it wasn’t so easy navigating the world solo.

We sat there for a moment, listening to a flock of geese honking towards the south. 

“How old are you Billy?” he asked. 

I told him that I was nineteen.

“And when did you start collecting these black walnuts?”

I told him the story of my mother, of our time in the park. What I didn’t tell him was that my closet was stacked halfway to the ceiling with paper bags of black walnuts. What I didn’t tell him was that my mother had never actually collected the nuts when I was growing up, that she’d never taken them home, had never hulled and washed them. What she knew about black walnuts had come from stories she heard from own mother. It was an open question if anyone in my family had ever actually eaten black walnuts.

“And does she live in town, will you take these to her?”

Normally I evaded questions about my mother. I had learned to be diplomatic at the call center. I learned the act of misdirection, how to steer the caller away from frustration toward the limited solutions I had on hand. Maybe it was the strangeness of the situation–this man I’d never met or seen–or maybe it was that the turning leaves made me see the world a little differently. But I just blurted it out.

“She died last year,” I said. “A stroke.”

He was still holding onto the nut I’d given him, and now he was rolling it around in his palm, just as I’d been doing when he’d startled me out of my musing. 

“Nasty disease,” he said, and he handed me back my nut. “Are you in college?”

“No,” I said. “I thought I would go, but I don’t know. It kind of mixed everything up.”

I didn’t have to specify the it. He seemed to understand.

We sat there, and he chattered away as the sun began to go low against the horizon. What I could see were the trees in the park, the brick buildings of Main Street, the top floor of my old apartment building, and the autumn-toned mountains that surrounded the town. He told me everything, and I listened. He’d been a history professor at the college, and he told me about the classes he’d taught, how he’d spent his summers in Paris, in Tokyo, in Athens–how they’d gone to the museums and the temples and ruins. Each fall they became new people, he said. Now they were drinking sake; now they were eating baguettes with every meal. He was off to Florida next week, to go live with his sister. He was scared, yes, but change was inevitable. He hadn’t shared a space with someone in ten years. Would the house be sold? He couldn’t think about it yet. He was a talker, and in that way, he reminded me of her. After my father had left without warning–I was only six–she’d never shied away from telling anyone the truth of it. 

“You never told me the name of your partner,” I said.

“Partner!” he shouted. “That word always gets me. Forgive me, forgive me. Jamie. His name was Jamie.”

The park was mostly empty now. The kids had gone home for the evening. There were a couple of teenagers smoking cigarettes on a bench near the basketball court. I recognized them from school–they were a couple years younger than me, though I’d never spoken a word to either of them.

I wanted to tell him about what it had been like, losing my mother in the middle of my senior year of high school. I wanted to tell him what it had been like moving in with my aunt and uncle, letting go of the apartment we’d lived in together since I was six years old. I wanted to talk about getting a job, learning how to cook my own dinner, how she’d done everything for me–how she’d cleaned, she’d washed, she’d worked, she’d loved. But I couldn’t. The words just wouldn’t budge from my mouth. She’d been that, too–the only person I could really open up to.

“Billy,” he said, “the sun is setting and I am getting cold.”

It was true–it was getting late, almost 7 p.m., and I hadn’t yet eaten. On winter days, we’d sometimes go and grab a sub, and she’d park the car at the edge of the park, and we’d keep the heat and the radio on and look out at the snowy ground while recounting our days. 

He stood up, and I did too. I zipped up my backpack and put it on my shoulders–the bag heavy with the black walnuts. I grabbed my bike by the handlebars.

“Can I walk you home?” I asked, and when he started down the path, I assumed that was permission. 

He was slower this time, and as the sun hit from that golden angle, I could finally see his age–the spots all over his skin, the bruised skin on his arm, the tufts of hair in his ears.

We walked in silence the five minutes to his front porch. As he climbed up the stairs towards his door, I realized I would never see this man again. I parked my bike on the sidewalk, followed him up the stairs, and held out my backpack. I said, 

“Can I give you some of the walnuts?”

He said, “Sure, Billy.”

He opened his front door and said to wait just a moment; he was off to grab a bag. As he disappeared inside, I could see just a sliver of the foyer. He’d left the lights on. There were antique lamps and a glass chandelier, planked wood floors, worn rugs, carved balusters, faded art on the walls. There was a certain agedness to everything–but not the museum kind of old. Everything had been touched, handled, used. I wondered then what her stuff would look like to me now. My aunt had been kind–she’d said take your time. My mother’s belongings were waiting for me, stacked neatly against the back wall of my aunt’s garage.

He was back a few minutes later, and this time he came without his cane. He handed over a plastic bag. 

He had seen me peeking in. He said, “You know, we keep them with us however we can. We put our little figurines on the shelves and the posters on the walls. Everywhere I look, even now, I see us together.”

I put the nuts in the plastic bag and handed the bag back to him. I didn’t know what else to do, to say. All I could think was what she’d told me, what her mother had told her. 

I said, “First you crack the hulls–use a hammer. You’re going to want to do that soon. And then you wash them, and then you put them away to dry. You’ll want to keep them in a dry, dark place. Put them in a paper bag. You can keep them for a long time. Maybe a year, maybe more. When you’re ready, crack the shell. Smell them first. You’ll know if they’re still good.”

Jonathan Corcoran is the author of the story collection, The Rope Swing, which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards and long-listed for The Story Prize. His essays and stories have been published and anthologized widely, including in Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia, and Best Gay Stories. He received a BA in Literary Arts from Brown University and an MFA in Fiction Writing from Rutgers University-Newark. Jonathan teaches writing at New York University. He was born and raised in a small town in West Virginia and currently resides in Brooklyn.  

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