In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
—William Blake, London
Saturday morning Gayle found me outside. I threw a ball. The dog brought the ball back. I threw a ball. The dog brought the ball back.
Saturday was the day Gayle slept most of the day. She never slept well during the work week, so she demanded to be left alone on Saturdays till mid-afternoon. I threw the ball. I wondered if I’d made too much noise. The dog brought the ball back.
“We’ve got to go, quick,” she screamed. I jumped. “Something’s wrong with Wendell.”
Wendell is the husband of Maxine, Gayle’s mother. Gayle is repelled by Wendell’s need to have her call him “Dad” though she was 34 when he married Maxine. Gayle also is repelled by her mother’s hypochondriac neediness. Gayle is repelled by Wendell’s happy need to take Maxine to doctors. When Maxine was diagnosed at age 65 with multiple myeloma, it was a joyful day for Wendell and Maxine.
But early, Saturday, the dog and I turned to see Gayle outside, worn jeans and sweater pulled hastily on and steaming in the cold. Her skin was pale blue in the wind. I could see faint blue veins snaking into trees and branches under her skin so that she seemed like she’d crack and shatter like ice shelves calving in the arctic.
“We’ve got to go, now,” Gayle said. And we went.
Wendell and Maxine live in Castle Heights. It is the neighborhood of Waco old money, social climbers and those who want their daughter to be the 18-year-old queen of the Waco Cotton Pageant with the king being some old rich guy. Yeah, it’s fairly racist and smacks of symbolic southern droit du seigneur.
Wendell and Maxine previously lived in the higher priced Santa Fe market. Through an unconscious bit of economic arbitrage, they sold their modest New Mexico house, and found that in Waco they could live with the cream of Waco society. Chip and Joanna Gaines briefly lived across the street before flipping their house on the way to Fixer Upper and Magnolia Market fame. The old Waco money tolerated Wendell and Maxine because Wendell addressed everyone as if they were the Waco house of English aristocracy. He also did old style horticulture bullshit with flowers and ivy and pergolas till they received the small Castle Heights Association sign Yard of the Month in their front lawn. With the Castle Heights stamp of approval, and Maxine’s “blood cancer” diagnosis, they had arrived.
Gayle and I arrived. Maxine swung open the door as we stepped on to the southern veranda style porch. She led us to a Mason jar standing in the kitchen window with four toothpicks holding a potato in murky green water. A vine had sprouted from the potato and curled over the sill across the sink and then over the counter. It terminated in a huge potato on the floor. A potato that was as large as a 1950s La-Z-Boy recliner. The skin was light brown with darker brown spotting its lumpy, rough surface.
“Yes,” I said. “You can grow a potato out of a potato.”
The potato trembled and we jumped.
“Wendell!” Maxine screamed.
“Shit,” I said.
“Alan,” Maxine said. “Language!”
“Get me a peeler.”
“Get me a damn potato peeler, Maxine.” She pouted a shocked pout as she rummaged through the kitchen drawers and finally found a peeler.
I took it and looked at the huge potato. A fear caught me for a moment: what if this was a disease, and was contagious? Then I gritted my teeth, and carefully peeled a thick strips of potato skin. As they fell on the floor in a pile, I noticed Maxine in my side vision busily getting a broom and dustpan.
“You’re making a big mess,” she said.
“Mom!” Gayle shouted at her.
I rose and went to the silverware drawer. I found a huge serving spoon, and went back to the titanic tuber. I made a careful transverse cut in the potato flesh, then carefully dug chunks of potato the size of my forearm out. Maxine pulled out a large cooking pot and placed it by me to catch the potato chunks.
Then I saw what looked like to be a long bone covered with pallid flesh. A femur. Wendell’s bony thigh connected to a bony hip ball and socket. He appeared to be curled up in a fetal position within the tuber. A gag reflex shook me.
“This is like some sort of weird Waco fairy tale,” Gayle said in disgust.
“Wacko Waco fairy tale,” I muttered, and moved to where the head must be. I started to pull out the bony little balding man. He was naked except for his black, horned rim glasses. I shuddered. His skin was wet, covered with a pale yellow, translucent potato film. I gave another pull and he slid out of the potato onto the floor like an odd, ugly baby from a vegetable womb. Maxine screamed a tiny, weird scream.
Now these events may seem inconsequential to you that since Putin and Trump were ripping apart the world as we know it. Yet this apparent glitch in reality seemed at home in a time when the world didn’t seem real anymore. I had removed Wendell from a giant potato in a house across the street where Chip and Joanna Gaines used to live.
Wendell’s eyes bulged horribly in surprise. It reminded me of a garden toad. He tried to speak. He coughed horribly, spraying bits of potato. I fought off another gag reflex.
“You’re not Billy,” he sputtered.
“Billy who?” I asked.
Wendell tried to focus. He took off his horn rims, rubbed potato out of his eyes, put his horn rims back on, and blinked.
“I dreamed Billy Graham was still alive,” he said. “And Billy Sunday. And we all were listening to the Baylor Religious Hour Choir.”
He looked at the potato clinging to his hands.
“What happened?” he asked.
“You were in the potato.”
“Oh good,” he said, relieved. “It’s so warm. So warm.”
Electric chills ran down my back. I pulled him up and carried him to the tub. I got a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and started pouring it all over him. The potato film foamed. Then I tossed Wendell a towel.
“Wipe yourself down,” I barked.
“I need help,” he whimpered.
“Goddammit, Wendell. Just start.”
“Why the profanity?” he whined, then began wiping as he saw my anger.
After he was wiped off, and wearing a terry cloth robe, I took him back to the kitchen and motioned at the huge, open potato.
“What happened here?” I asked.
Both Wendell and Maxine said nothing. I pressed. They glanced at Gayle, who usually softened my approach, to calmly intercede. She did nothing, flushed in crazy whirl of embarrassment.
“Do you think this was divine?” Maxine asked. Her eyes glistened.
“Divine potato intervention?” I said. “You believe God is Old McDonald on the farm?”
“Alan!” Maxine said, shocked as much as if I’d said fuck Trump. “We don’t talk that way around here.”
“You asked me if God put Wendell in a potato. What do you expect?”
“You just don’t talk that way,” Maxine said.
“You think this was decreed on high?”
“Alan, Gayle, we’re going to have to ask you to leave,” Maxine said.
“I’m not leaving till I find out why I just cut you out of an Idaho potato.”
“It’s not an Idaho potato. It’s Russett Burbank potato. The most widely grown in the states,” Wendell said.
“You can tell by the dark brown skin of the jacket, just a few eyes, and-” Wendell paused. He dipped his hand in the white potato flesh. “And the potato tissue itself is white, mealy and dry.”
Wendell, I remembered, took a horticulture degree at Texas Tech. But he was one of these people that went to church and believed whatever the latest internet rumor. Despite that belief sickness that blocked an ability to accept many things revealed by the scientific method, I knew he fancied himself a horticulturist.
“So why a potato?” I asked.
“This is a miracle,” Maxine said, raising her hand toward the ceiling. “Praise God. It must be part of his plan to make America great again. And you’re blaspheming.”
“He was in a fucking potato!” I said. “This is a brain buster.”
“Should we contact the pastor?” Maxine wondered. “Maybe the seminary at Baylor?”
“Or the produce section? Or the Texas Department of Agriculture?”
Gayle laughed, then glared at me. I nodded.
“I’m trying to understand,” I said to Wendell. “You were a horticulture major at Texas Tech. Is this some homegrown experiment of yours? So you’re a potato person now?”
“Alan!” Maxine squawked.
Gayle snickered. I grabbed a nearby trash can and started to gather up the peelings and potato on the floor.
“Stop,” Wendell said, his shout like a splinter of thought. “This stuff is important. It’s miraculous.”
“It could be toxic,” I said, noticing that Wendell’s skin had darkened since I pulled him from the potato. “Even important stuff is often dangerous. All of Marie Curie’s research materials and notes are too dangerous to examine because of their high level of radioactivity. They keep them in lead boxes.”
“You know,” Maxine said slowly, “you could roast this potato. I read a while back you can cut it a certain way to ensure the best roast. The Edge Hotel Potato method.”
“The potato is originally from Peru,” Wendell said.
“Does it have anything to do with the Potawatomi?” Maxine asked.
“No,” Gayle said. “No. Not at all.”
Gayle caught my eye. She shrugged. She’d grown up with Maxine as her mother.
“No one ever thanks me,” Wendell said. “You’re all thankless.”
“For being in a potato?” I asked.
“It’s a miracle,” Wendell said.
“Yes,” mooned Maxine. “A miracle.”
“It may be a miracle, but it’s absurd,” I said.
“Alan!” Maxine said, shocked.
“People just don’t understand how important potatoes are,” Wendell said. “The potato was crucial to Europe’s development.” He rubbed his arms. Some of the potato flesh flaked off. He shivered in his towel. “Is it cold?” he asked.
“You were in a tuber,” I said. “Technically, you were briefly a tuber. So, I guess you’re a cold potato.”
“Alan!” Maxine yipped like a poodle. “It’s a miracle. A miracle. You should fall on your knees and give thanks.”
“Should I? Thank the Potato God? What can I expect of this? To what end?”
“Such questions don’t have absolute answers but offer ways of glorifying our god.” Maxine said.
“Amen, “Wendell said. “I have been grieving the collapse of honor, ethics, a generous morality. This Potato Miracle gives me hope. This complete happiness was a gift from God.”
“So you, having got yard of the month award in the Castle Heights Neighborhood Association, have been rewarded by being encased in a giant potato?” I asked. “To what end? French Fries? Potato salad? Potato soup? Some sort of sacred starch that stores carbohydrates? A man size Mr. Potato head? Is this the end of Darwin’s warm pond? Where we have traveled traveled traveled from this moment of meditation on why Wendell has been blessed to be a potato? And why do you see this as a blessing and not a curse? A comment on the true nature of this state’s millions of gun toting, science denying, immigrant hating psychos. Do you think being a potato is a blessing?
“You don’t understand,” Wendell said. “The potato is 80 percent water, yet it’s very nutritious.”
“It’s not biblical,” Gayle pointed out. “No potatoes in the Bible that I remember. No French fries, no potato chips, no potato fritters. Joseph was in charge of the grain stores and livestock.”
“I don’t expect any of you to understand. None of you have been a potato,” Wendell said.
“I don’t expect you to understand and you have been a potato,” I said. “You are now a potato person. Oh god. Whatever mysterious form the future holds, I don’t you’ll ever escape that. You are the fairy tale of Waco. Awkwardly awaiting a confrontation with eternity or oblivion.”
Maxine, bewildered, mentioned a recipe for crock pot scalloped potatoes with cheese the Burleson Tribune years ago when she was named homemaker of the week. She grabbed a peeler and started cutting the skin off the slabs of potato flesh.
“Or was that Bacon Cheddar Twice-Baked Potatoes?” Maxine asked. “That sounds good.”
“What the hell are you talking about,” Gayle shouted. “The entire sense of your lives, of all our lives, is broken. Wendell was in a GIANT POTATO.”
For several seconds, the only sound was the wind rising outside, almost to a roar.
Wendell looked at her as his complete happiness started to spiral away like the peelings. Then he looked me, his little old man body spotted with sunspots that looked more like potato eyes. He adjusted his glasses, peering with his potato person eyes at the huge gaping potato as its moist flesh sloughed from the hole he emerged onto the pile of peelings scattered on the floor. He hunched over and pulled the towel tighter over his pale potato fleshed belly. He glanced at through the back window at the pergola he assembled on the deck he built last summer. I realized Wendell feared us. We are not potato people. We eat potatoes, and he is now a potato person. He fears everything.