Fiction selection from the 2009 issue
I Grow Potatoes
by Steve Himmer
I grow potatoes like my dad and his dad grew potatoes. What we know how to grow is potatoes but potatoes won’t grow any longer, not in the ground where we’ve grown them. The sun is too warm, the soil is too warm, the world is too warm for potatoes. Everything is too warm except this cold house, this house of ours built by potatoes. The windows are broken, the roof is collapsing, linoleum peeling and plaster walls pitted like eyes were carved out, and there aren’t the potatoes to fix it.
My neighbor since always gave up his potatoes. He planted peanuts because they grow underground, but they were so small in the harvest he crushed them all up with his big, spuddy hands. So he planted palm trees to grow coconuts, since they’re heavy and brown with pale flesh. Coconuts are tropical potatoes, he said, because he had to say something. Now he watches his trees and he waits for something to flower or fall or to do what it is coconuts do. Neither of us knows what to expect from a plant above ground. He watches and I watch him watching, I watch him wander round rough trunks in hard figure-eights, waiting for something to grow that is close to the heft of potatoes, that can stand up to a tough tuber’s life.
I still seed my soil with fingerlings, and I still wear down my fingers for a sad, hollow harvest, finding round rocks that might be potatoes as long as they stay underground. I shove my fingers down into the soil and it doesn’t feel any warmer to me. At night in the dark I stand out in my field and I chant, Potatoes, Potatoes, as if saying the word enough times will bring the crop back. I wonder how many times I have to say it and I go on chanting and chanting in case I’ve come close, afraid of stupidly stopping one word shy of magic. It rolls off my tongue like a round baby red, like there’s no other word in the world. So smooth that it’s hard to get out of the habit and I chant through all the long nights.
In daylight I’ve nothing to do anymore, nothing to harvest and nothing to plant, so I watch the birdfeeder and wonder what birds I’m now feeding. I’ve always known the birds at that feeder, the same ones in winter and the same ones in spring, stopping for the same kinds of suet and seed. Now all the birds have gone strange — strange colors, strange songs, strange southern birds strangely north, and I don’t know what to feed them so they’ve run out of food like I have.
Last night I drove my old flatbed out into the furrows and I spread it with shovels of soil, by hand because the loader is all out of gas and there’s only enough for the the truck and its journey. I spread out the soil and I planted potatoes from cab to taillights, I turned my flatbed into my field, chanting my only good word the whole while. And this morning I’m going to drive away north, I’m going to drive until I see birds I know, until I hear the birds singing Potatoes like they’ve always done. When I hear them I’m going to stop and pull over and get back to growing my crop. I’m going to drive until I get back to right where I’ve been all my life, until I find the new north and can get back to growing potatoes.