When I read the flyer for Meals on Wheels, I never thought I'd
be hauling a frozen goat out of my trunk and down a hole in the
ground. Plus I expected to be in kinda run-down neighborhoods,
since I figured it was poor folks mostly.
Ted's place was sandwiched in between two big brick houses
in a fancy, old suburb. You'd walk up to this wide flowering shrub
that kinda shot limbs out in all directions and hung back to the
ground. And right in front of the shrub was a rusted mailbox that
said Ted Skarburton.
I'd have to try and lug this cold goat under one arm and hold
back branches from the shrub til I could find the hole. Then I'd
get on my hands and knees and drop my legs down the hole, while
twigs and little buds and flowers got tangled in my hair.
I'd come out of the tunnel to his big cavern and yell, "Anybody
home?" The place reminded me of the bargain basement of a flea
market, because it was a huge, open room, maybe fifty feet across
the big circular hollow, and it was always kinda cold and musty.
And because there were thousands of trinkets on shelves all over
the walls. These mismatched shelves made out of fiber board and
old, gray plywood and corrugated tin poking out of the dirt walls
from every direction. The shelves were covered with German
cuckoo clocks and kissing Dutch tots and glass kittens cleaning
themselves and ceramic figurines of anorexic faeries holding flowers
and golden angels blowing trumpets and purple plastic Happy Meal
gorillas and three issues of Popular Mechanics and a broken remote
control for a TV that's been gone 15 years and more ceramic
figurines and glass hearts and fake orange flowers and wooden
And he would always stretch up right beside me from somewhere
I hadn't noticed, spookin the s**t outta me. But that's because
his skin was all sandy brown and scaly to hide in the earth. We
went through that thing when I first started bringing him meals,
where he wanted to feel my hair and he let me check out his skin.
He ate and lived among white folks all his life, so I was one of
the first blacks he'd seen in person. I tried to brush it off when
he first asked to feel my hair. I said, "Don't you get white people
asking weird things about you, treating you different? Like asking
to touch your skin or see your claws?"
But I was curious about him too, since he was the first troll I
had ever met.
"No, most times when humans treat me different over the years,
I eat. Them I eat. But you know, doctor says no more, most of them
give you worms. They all bad livers from drinkin, you know, lungs
fulla tar." He would cross his long arms, lick his chin and smile.
"I use to enjoy, now no more. Goats."
We talked about it for a while, but after the discussions of
race and class, I still wanted to touch his skin, so we exchanged
our curious, racially ignorant groping for a minute. His arms
looked like packed dirt with gravel and pebbles, but it was really
like a hard lizard skin or frog skin. Once in a while when I
stopped in, I'd catch him before he straightened up the lair, and
see his empty, molted skin lying on the rug. He'd always grab it
up quick and kick the little strips and flakes of skin into the
When he pressed a lock of my hair between his abrasive fingers
that time, he hummed and studied my hair and skin and eyes with no
shame for staring. "Good hair, looks very pretty tied as you have
done so. Why they make a big deal of how you black so different?
You skin no more tough or durable than pale skin. Clear to me that
you just camouflaged for different setting than those norwegian and
asian peoples. Bah! No matter. Very pretty hair and hips you
have. Strong girl if you carry goats for me."
He kept staring at my hair and smiling and scanning down the
buttons of my shirt to my legs and up again. I almost said
something, but he patted me gently on the shoulder and said, "Grow
you some babies soon, before you too old to enjoy them. Frowning
people make the world crowded, but never too many smiles like on
Ted was always real nice. He'd show me his shelves full of
angels proudly, reminding me of where he had gotten the pieces,
as if he hadn't told me the week before. I guess he was really
getting on in years, several centuries. He couldn't get around
very quickly, and apparently didn't have the money to buy food or
the strength to hunt anymore.
"And this kitty," Ted would say, "my heart's pride, real really."
It was a white ceramic cat with blue ear tips and paws and a face
that was too human. "Before Jimis Hendrik took this from a girlfriend, it was actually own by the sister of President Eisenhower."
His cavern slowly got smaller over the two years I delivered
meals to him. He was gradually filling it, so he could finally bury
himself when he grew too weak to go on.
He might still be there, though. I'd guess another year or two
before that den will be full.
When I'd finally pull myself away from Ted, I'd drive over to
the state park. It was a mile of tall pines and their orange
needles fallen along the roadside. I'd pull to the side of the
roadway to Gar Lake and grab a cupcake and a stack of newspapers
off the back seat. There was a jogging/hiking trail across the
road where I would make my way back through the pines and the
needle-covered forest floor. As the ground turned boggy and the
pines gave way to leafy trees and bushes and cat-tails coming out
of the mud, a sign stood two feet off the ground to identify the
patch of yawning green trumpet weeds growing nearby.
At the marker sign, I would turn off the path and walk toward
the edge of the swamp water. Within a few feet of the water,
depending on how much it had rained in recent weeks, was the dead
husk of a tree trunk, broken off a foot or two over my head, hollow
from top to bottom. In a small crevice at the base of the dead
tree was Kenny's crystal.
Every time I walked up, Kenny would say, "It's so good to see
you! God, I hope you can stay awhile today!" I'm pretty sure he
started crying on more than one occasion, but it was hard to see his
shrunken form inside the crystal.
And I did stay for long hours the first few times I visited, out
of pity. He couldn't go anywhere, and no one else came to see him.
I was the only one who would bring him cupcakes and newspapers. His
life force and all his powers had been confined within the crystal.
But he had a little residual magic that he could use to turn the
pages of newspapers lying on the ground near his crystal. And he
could slowly absorb cupcakes, some kind of magical telepathic
ingestion, I don't know how it worked. Anyways, he couldn't eat or
drink anything while he was trapped in the crystal, and he would
likely be there for thousands of years before they would let him out.
So tasting a real cupcake now and then was a special treat for him.
He would start flipping through the magazines and newspapers as
soon as I brought them, asking me if I knew more about the wars in
North Asia or the unicorn scandal that threatened to topple the
Canadian prime minister. "Man, I knew from the first time I saw
that guy Cretien, there was something hidden behind that glamorous
facade. Didn't you see it? I mean, the way he was always so
nervous, he couldn't help slurring his speech?"
"Uh, I just thought it was cause he was from Quebec."
Kenny would scold me for not keeping abreast of politics, as if
it was important for someone trapped in a crystal for twenty
lifetimes to know the political climate in Canada. I never paid
attention to that crap, but I'd try to tell him what little I heard
on the TV news about current events. Kenny would lean forward on
his seat to hear every tidbit, like I was a queen announcing a royal
decree. (Yes, on his little seat. He had conjured tiny armchairs
and bookshelves within the crystal, and his walls were hung with
paintings by Mondrian and Warhol. I'm not sure where he slept,
either the couch was a well-concealed futon, or maybe he conjured
his bed every night and sent it away every morning.)
"When I break free and the Old Gods reclaim their domination over
this world," Kenny would tell me, "I'm gonna do something special
for ya. I really mean it. Maybe a new car. They'll let me do that,
ya know. I'll have that much power if I help them return. . ." And
he would go off on his usual gripe about how life would have been
great if only he had succeeded in calling the Old Gods before getting
Usually that would cure my pity for him, when he showed how much
self-pity he still had. And I would look at my watch, or my bare
wrist, or otherwise make an excuse to leave. Kenny would rise from
his chair, as if he were seeing me to the door, and thank me for
coming. Sometimes he would be angry that I wasn't staying, and he
would turn his chair away from the crack in the tree trunk, picking
up a tiny book from his microscopic coffeetable. Like he had been
enjoying his stay in the tree trunk and my visit was a minor
distraction. He'd say, "Please see if you can find some back issues
of The Economist next time." Other days he would beg me to stay
with him a few minutes longer. Once he jumped out of his chair and
threw his arms out, screaming and waving his hands back and forth
and around in circles in front of him, and a green bud poked out of
the dirt in front of the dead tree and blossomed into a daisy. Then
he fell to the floor (the bottom facet of the crystal), panting.
"One day. . .soon. . .something special. . .just for you. . .new car
maybe. . ."
I took the daisy that time, said goodbye, and made my way back
through the bushes to the trail. When I got back to the car, the
daisy was wilted. As I opened the door and sat in front of the
steering wheel, my hands were empty.
My last stop was not as emotionally taxing as the others. I
often looked forward to it after long visits with Ted or Kenny. It
was a beautiful drive through the rest of the park, passing by Gar
Lake and into the countryside. Just farms and silos and old,
scattered farmhouses for a few miles. Then the road grew small
shops and businesses like moss along a stretch here and there, until
the moss became a series of fungal strip-malls. After a row of
warehouses, newly built condominiums with torn-up mud lawns, and a
strip of video joints and empty storefronts, I would turn off the
main road to Sunshine Court.
The trailers near the front of Sunshine Court were old but well-kept. Lawns mowed and porches neatly arranged with rocking chairs
and a few wind-chimes. As you drove back over the speed bumps
further, the lawns grew denser with car parts and old refrigerators,
stacks of salvaged lumber and crippled motorcycles. Near the back
corner of the trailer court was a dull yellow trailer with a cracked
plastic birdbath beside the front door.
I would park in that trailer's empty space, walk up beside the
dry birdbath and knock on the door. This place was just a standard
delivery, some generic dinner entree in a white styrofoam take-out
box. I would wait beside the wobbly concrete blocks that were
stacked into front steps to her door, looking over the few deprived
weeds that grew out of the hard-packed sand. It always spooked me
when the door opened and the lady appeared. Inside the trailer, the
shadows would hold her tight. Satin robe, maybe blue or brown but
you couldn't tell until she stepped into the light. The body of a
ballerina, and always the deathly serious lips. Her hair was
straight and black and her face was so white that sometimes I thought
she had answered the door in the middle of giving herself a facial.
Then she'd step into the light more, and I could see there was no
cold cream spread over her cheeks and forehead, just cold skin.
The problem was, she looked thirty, no gray in her hair and not
enough wrinkles on her face to be any older. I always wondered if
she was scamming the charity to get meals delivered to her for free.
I couldn't figure how she was a shut-in. The only hint was when I
would hand her the white box with roast beef and potatoes and gravy,
and her skin would brush my fingers as she reached for it. Her flesh
was like marshmallows, reminding me of my grandmother's skin, the way
she bruised so easily and felt like her skin would come off in puffs
of dandelion seeds if a strong wind caught her.
When the lady had to step down into the light, she stepped
slowly. Then I could see that she wasn't a lanky ballerina, just
about the same height as me. And in spite of her perfect stream of
hair and her sharp, royal face, her hips were more apparent. I don't
want to say she was unattractive because her hips were too wide, but
standing above you in the dark, you'd swear she could go get a
contract as a model, and you'd put some money on the probability that
she had some surgery to look that good. But when she stood next to
you, you'd see she was plain and real.
She'd receive the box of food with both hands, looking at the
ground as she whispered thank you. Then she would set a pink
slippered foot on the step and ease herself back into the trailer.
So many times I would stand there wanting to say, "Are you all
right? Is there anything else I can get you?" But the door would
click shut, and I'd stand there wondering.
I was too curious about her, so I finally asked one of the
veteran meal deliverers, this hippy dude that carried the boxes of
food in the sidecar on his Harley. He said she never talked to him
either, but he knew her story. His grandfather had told him about
the Temptress, the farm girl who had risen to Duchess of the
territory around the turn of the century. Back when the town had
wooden sidewalks and hitchin posts outside the dime store, back
before flying carpets went into mass production and "horseless
carriages" were driven by the tortured spirits of stallions that
wizards harnessed, instead of diesel six cylinders that Korean
She had found that those dangerous secrets known by only the
oldest, most powerful wizards could be available to her, if she made
herself available to them. It was much easier than the usual system
of being sorcerer's apprentice to some lout, gradually learning magic
over decades of study. As she mastered more spells, she drove off
the major warlocks within the township and then the county as soon as
they became useless to her. She rose to Duchess over half the
territory before she became bored and decided that political power
wasn't her bag.
Then she disappeared from public view, back to her little castle
in the woods. People heard stories about movie stars heading into
those woods, and one of the last tzars made a trip to visit the area.
President McKinley made a train stop in town for his campaign, after
which he was seen in a convoy of old Fords heading into the woods.
Some say he pissed off the Temptress, and that it wasn't for
political reasons that he was later shot. They said she had offered
herself to him and he had declined.
After that, there was less traffic into the woods. In the
'Fifties, a travelling salesman passing through town told people
about the demolished castle he had stopped at in the woods, and sure
enough, it had been smashed to rubble. She was later recognized as
one of the inhabitants in the new trailer park, but no one paid her
any attention after that. Still pretty, but somehow not enough.
She had lost her magic. She could still seduce the pizza boy, but
he wouldn't think of her as a mysterious woman to pledge his life to,
just the slut in the brown trailer.
Then again, when I was making those deliveries, I felt a pull
too. I wanted to stay and talk with her, give her some company.
I'd drive the long way home through the country, sometimes bring
an extra styrofoam box up to my apartment in the hillside and sit in
my kitchenette, eating cold roast beef and mashed potatoes under
jelled brown gravy. Looking out my window at the cars, I would
wonder what the Temptress watched as she ate.
What does she do with her days? Clearly she has a lot of them
left if she's been around a hundred fifty years already, according to
the biker dude, and still looks that good. Does she watch the Rosie
O'Donnell show and Oprah after a morning of soaps? Does she yell at
the guests on Sally Jesse Raphael? Does she listen to Josephine
Baker records all day and read books that she's read hundreds of
Or does she gather ingredients for ancient spells, poring over
disintegrating parchments and repeating the incantations over and
over, day after day, hoping she'll regain her lost power? Because I
can see her doing that, just sitting at a little kitchen table booth
that folds down into a bed, staring at the dried husks of paper and
concentrating until her head blossoms into a migraine. That's how she
always looked when she came out to get her food, like I had
interupted her from flogging herself.
When the leaves turn red and brown on the trees and the cold
winds blow the dead leaves off, I think of those times I took food to
the shut-ins. I know it's just autumn setting in, but I wonder how
many more years the trees have left, if they're shedding leaves for
the cold season, or for the last time.
(c)opyright 2000 by R. Northrup