By Joe Smith

His wife answers the door. Harry himself is out in the garden. Frail, bent over as though her head were heavy as a block of lead, she leads me through a long knotty-pine hallway lined with photographs to the back door. Harry waves to an invisible crowd, Harry raises a champagne glass. A blonde with Brigitte Bardot bangs pecks him on the cheek. Harry, his arm around a famous musician, grins a cock-eyed grin. Harry, eyes closed in concentration, cradles an electric guitar. Caught in the circle of a spotlight, the rest of the band in shadow, Harry hugs the guitar, his fingers spread along its slender neck. The guitar could be a baby. Harry could be burping it.

Harry, bundled in a winter coat, mixes mulch into the soil around his strawberry plants. The winter sunlight is so weak, the scene has the air of a sepia photograph.

"Earlibelle,” he says. “I hope they live up to their name.”

Before long, the nimble fingers digging in the mulch and dirt of the strawberry patch will be still. A few months, six at the most, say the doctors. That’s all for the quick, practiced fingers with the notes of seventh chords, diminished chords, embedded in their bones, for the heart pumping blood. For the tangle of guts, riddled now with cancer, sucking what nourishment they can from the fruits of the earth.

“The Sequoias and Ozark Beauties are over there, past the Pocahontas. Good for freezing, those Pocahontas.”

God’s bounty, some call it. Harry shakes his head. If it’s God’s bounty, why do we have to work so hard to make a strawberry grow? Why are there mites and weevils, white grubs, leaf spot, tarnished plant bugs? Why do the weeds grow so, hell-bent on choking the life from every blessed plant?

Harry claims not to believe in gods or prayers. If he did, he wouldn’t ask for much, anyway. Just one more summer, half a summer, so he could taste strawberries again. Not any strawberries. Only his own will do, the ones he coddles from flower to fruit, prunes with a surgeon’s skill and care, strawberries that go off in the mouth like juicy fireworks, like kisses so sweet and hot the eyes of the kissers naturally close to keep the kissers from going blind, or plumb crazy.

“Strawberries,” he smiles mischievously, “that remind me of her.”

Strawberries that bring her back, recapture the past as surely as stumbling on a flagstone path one night brought back to the aging Proust a madeleine dipped in tea on a distant morning of his childhood.

Harry thought he understood music, but until he met the blonde with the bangs, he was merely playing the notes. He knew at once she was the one. There was nobody who compared with her. If he were a cowboy, he would’ve given the silver belt buckle won at the rodeo for one wee little kiss. If he were a poet, he would’ve burned a stack of sonnets to warm her hands. To run a finger over the rosy nipples puckered beneath the sheer cloth, the firm breasts pushing the mother-of-pearl buttons of her shirt to the popping point.

Maybe she knew it at once, too. With those blue eyes a man could fall into about half of forever, maybe she knew the silk of her milky skin beneath his fingers was what would make the strings of his guitar really sing. Her coltish ways. Only when it was tongue-tied by her coltish ways could Harry’s heart speak. Wrapped in her arms in a rumple of sheets, laughing at a daisy or the moon’s antics on the dark heave of the midnight sea. Absent-mindedly toying with the ripcord of his parachute, Harry loved her every day and all the days, the lass unparalleled, the woman living way back of town, where only the lucky and the brave venture.

He thought he loved, but the weeds were steadily growing all the time. In truth he didn’t know a thing about love, or music, or anything. Not until those blue eyes were crying in the rain, angry and lost, crying for him, in the colorless rain streaming down on a colorless day, for the last time those blue eyes crying. Tossing her blonde mane, the back-of-town woman who treated Harry right and never would let him down walked away. Because he wasn’t satisfied, he had to run run run run, run around. She splashed through the puddles on the sidewalk, deep puddles, the water soaking her cute red pumps, staining them, dark stains on the crimson leather, drops of water on her milky white calves, bare.

“Funny,” he says, “how the closer we get to the answer, the farther we get from the truth.”

He rubs the sparse gray grizzle on his chin and looks off into the empty winter sky, the faded blue sky of winter. His fingers leave a little smudge of dirt.

“That’s when the true music started, when the singing and the pain found their way into my fingers, the rain and the sun, when I realized that you have to murder love to really know it.”

It’s hard to explain, but Harry figures the old Zen master Linji pretty much nailed it. If you meet the Buddha on the road, Linji advised his disciples, kill him. Don’t allow some idea of enlightenment to get in the way of enlightenment. Buddha is just another obstacle on the path. A slip-out. Kill him.

Same with love. It isn’t some cuddly thing. Love doesn’t cure all evils. It’s a four-letter word, right up there, or down there, with cunt and shit and piss and fuck. Dick and cock. Nasty. Don’t kneel down and pray to it. Kill it. Like the mustard seed, unless it dies, it can’t live.

“Better yet, let it kill you. Let it cut your heart up into paper dolls. Bleed. Let it bleed, let yourself bleed. Maybe then you’ll know it.”

Maybe. Together, without saying a word, we smoke a cigarette. The smoke is about the color of the sky. The shadows are lengthening in the garden. Harry tightens the scarf wrapped around his neck.

“She makes me wear it. Afraid I might catch cold,” he laughs. “Get sick and die. See you later.”

On my way back through the house to the front door I tell the hunched-over woman how Harry is hoping for strawberries, hoping for a particularly warm spring so they’ll ripen in time, plump and red, with lots of sugar.

“Strawberries,” snorts Harry’s wife. “Don’t be giving me any guff about strawberries.”

She knows what we’ve been talking about. Strawberries. Some strawberries. Harry’s wife pauses a moment in front of Harry and the blonde with bangs. She’s so bent, she has to crane her neck upwards to see the photograph hanging on the wall. She stands there a moment like a vulture, hands cocked on hips, her arms crooked like a vulture’s half-spread wings.

“Haven’t I been living in that woman’s shadow nigh on forty years?” she hisses. “Sure. Strawberries.”