The sign on Sixth
Street announcing the nursery wasn't much larger than a doormat. It was
faded and rusty and seemed to pose the question of whether the enterprise
still existed, since nothing more than overgrowth was visible near the
sign. And, turning into the gravel drive, I didn't immediately find any
support for the sign's claim. But I knew there was a Bitsche’s. I
had gone to hardware stores and nurseries all over town looking for asparagus
roots, and one nursery-man finally suggested I try Bitsche’s.
The name itself is intriguing. Bitsches . . . how do you pronounce it?—Beeches, Bitchies, Bishes? The man who'd sent me in that direction had said "beech-ez." I had once overheard a conversation about the family, the name. One son had said, "We're all just sons-of-Bitsches," with pronunciation halfway between the Germanic and the not-so-complimentary. But that was all I knew about name or family.
The gravel lane wound past a house that couldn't have been much more than a shack even in the days when it had been lived in and cared for, then past a trailer that showed signs of life but not prosperity—a beaten dirt track to the door, windows open, a red, ‘63 Ford pickup in the yard. Further on the trees opened slightly to reveal several weathered and swaybacked structures. Around them piles of old tires, scrap iron, and other junk were nursing weed growth.
I got out of my car, and a dark, nondescript dog raised up from the drive and approached me with mild tail-wagging interest. I heard voices, and following them, I found an open door to a shed. Inside, past a dingy office and shop area, I wandered into the end of a long greenhouse that had to predate at least the Eisenhower administration. Two men in work clothes stood discussing pickles—methods of pickle-making, whether or not to use celery seed, alum, syrups, and dill. They paid no attention to me. I strolled past flats of tomato plants, peppers, and eggplant, several flats of melon seedlings, and any number of plant species I couldn't identify. It was a cloistered place of greenery and dampness, of old wood challenged —and sometimes overcome—by moisture. Glass and translucent fiberglass panels close overhead passed on a dim, featureless light. Only muted hints of the outside world penetrated the womb-like atmosphere. A wood- or coal-burning stove stood at rest in a clearing about midway down the center row. I had to stoop beneath the roof, returning along an outside aisle to the front of the greenhouse and the pickle conference which showed no signs of letup.
I recognized Larry Roberts from my farming days. Otherwise I wouldn't have known who was client and who proprietor. Although after a moment I noticed a cordless phone antenna poking out of the front hip pocket of the other man’s overalls.
At a quick glance, I might have guessed the man was thirty-five, but closer up I realized he was at least fifty. Sandy, curly hair erupted from beneath a cap advertising a local lumberyard. His teeshirt looked to be nearly disintegrated from much laundering. Judging by his expression, pickles were the world’s foremost concern, yet he seemed fully relaxed. His face was weather-wrinkled, and his sideways stance suggested either arthritis or a private system of gravity. His speech gave the impression that every word was wrought carefully and individually, the vowel sounds broad and untouched by nasal twang. "Well, Mother always boiled the syrup once a day for a week before she processed her pickles, and I've just gone ahead and done the same."
Larry gave another twist to the neck of a small paper sack. He glanced at his watch, toward me, and then at Mr. Bitsche, who said, "Let me know how you make out with the ok-ree.” (okra) Pickles had apparently been a tangent.
"What can I do for you?" he asked, giving his attention to me.
"I'm looking for asparagus roots—any chance you might have some?"
"Why yes, I have got aspara-grass roots. How many was you needing?" He had turned, and I followed out the door toward another greenhouse. Each step of his gait seemed to involve some eight or ten distinct movements, ending with his hands' seeming to lift air out and away.
"Oh, twelve or fifteen, I guess, would do me."
We stopped at a flat-full of three-inch-square plastic planters, each topped by an asparagus fern or two. All but a few looked robust. "Are these first-year roots?" I said. In the past when I'd bought asparagus roots, they'd been bare roots, moist and wrapped in plastic; I didn’t know what to make of the top-growth.
"Yes, I get them in bulk early in the spring, and then I set them out.”
"How much do you get for these," I asked.
I had figured on spending roughly ten dollars, and a quick calculation told me fourteen plants would be ten-fifty. He selected fourteen of the better specimens and set them in a flat. I tortured my mind to figure the sales tax (an old habit)—eight-and-a-fraction per-cent times ten-fifty would be . . . I was somewhere between eleven-thirty-five and eleven-forty-something when he said—
“That'll be eleven dollars.” All I had was a twenty, so we went back toward the office for change. I liked this guy. "It's been a cold spring," I said.
"Yes, it has. I ain't yet planted my okree, and usually it's up several inches by now. But the ground’s just now getting warm enough for okree. I don't pay no attention to that goddamn weather-man—I don't know how he measures soil temperature, but I just dig down several inches and feel of it, and I can tell when the temperature's right for okree. It's like cotton, you know, it just won't do worth a damn until the ground warms up, and then it grows like hell." He fished a bank pouch out of some corner of the office, and counted out a five and four ones to me.
I could have left then, but looking around at the accumulated junk and artifacts in the office, I wasn't ready. I was standing beside a box of well-thumbed paperback westerns with a sign reading: 50¢ or trade. Elsewhere were pruning shears, gloves, magazines, an ancient adding machine, and boxes of stuff. You couldn’t tell, looking, if this stuff had been used yesterday or hadn’t been touched in forty years. On one wall was a bank calendar from 1967.
I suppose I could have asked how long they'd been in business, but I didn’t. I said, "Well, I was over at my old neighbor's place in Anadarko yesterday, and his cabbage is just now beginning to make a head. Usually they're eating cabbage by now."
“Mine's the same way,” he said. “And mine's in good ground, too. I worked up a spot that ain't been used for three years now—just been letting the grass clippings pile up there, and I turned all that stuff under—and you know what ground like that will do. I spent three and a half, four hours working up that garden spot, here some time back. It wouldn't have taken but about two hours, really—my brother was going to help me, but he didn't show up—but just me alone, why it took nearly four hours to work up that spot. I worked all afternoon one Saturday on it. That kind of ground, you know, it'll really grow stuff.”
“You've got quite a place here,” I said. “I couldn't find asparagus roots anywhere else in town today.”
“We always keep them on hand. You'll want to dig down pretty deep, prepare your ground good underneath them, now. Cover up the crowns about six inches deep, and make them come up through that dirt—that'll make them stronger.”
“I'll do that,” I said. “I'd better get to it, then.” I started out the door, and he followed. It was mid-morning, and I wanted to be done planting by noon.
“Yeah,” he said, “I done watered everything inside, already. I'm going to the house to get some tea. And then I'll water the stuff outdoors." All this time he had been holding onto a snap-on-lidded plastic coffee-cup with a Texaco logo, a cup that looked as if it had spent the first half of its life on the floor of a Texaco station.
As I got into my car, he was laboring uphill through the trees along a path that was worn down to packed red dirt.
Late that evening, my neighbor, Allen, wandered out of his garage as I came around the corner of my carport. “Well, did you get it all planted?” he said. He's been keeping an eye on my garden progress.
“Just asparagus roots, so far,” I said. Then, knowing Allen to be a repository of local intelligence, I added, “I got them at Bitsches.”
Allen grinned and brightened. “Did it cost you six dollars?”
I had to think a moment. "No—eleven bucks, 75 cents each."
"That ain't bad," he said.
"Do you know that guy?" I asked.
"Not too well, but I've traded with him several times."
"I wouldn't have guessed he was even in business anymore, but he's got quite a place back there."
"He does more business than you'd think," Allen told me. "A lot of people's been trading with him for years. But here's the thing—and Hazel will back me up on this—everything I've ever bought from him cost six dollars. I looked at a shrub and asked him, How much for that? And he said,"—and here Allen's voice dropped to Bitsche tone and cadence—“Six dollars. I pointed to another bush, and asked him how much. Six dollars.
“And old LG," (Lowell-Gene Jansen, who used to live in my house) "he bought a bunch of flower bushes there, and every damn one of 'em cost six dollars. I just call him Ole Six Dollars.” It made me wonder if maybe I got a bargain, since I seemed to have bought closer to two six-dollars'-worth.
Allen told me about Bitsche's tree-trimming work. “During cold weather, when things is slow in the nursery business, he's out there trimming shrubs for people. He does all the work for the schools—they won't use no city crew—nope, they get Ole Six Dollars.
“And he will not use power-tools. He only uses hand-clippers and shears and such. But he's the best hand at tree-trimming and shrub sculpture.
“He'll take a pair of them hand-shears to a cedar or a yew or such,"—here Allen mimed two hands scissoring quickly upward—“and he'll chukka-chukka-chukka right along and shape any bush or shrub into whatever you want it to look like. And when he's done, it'll look right." Allen laughed and shook his head.
One evening as I pushed a shopping cart toward the checkout counter at Homeland, there was Mr. Bitsche. He had on dirty jeans, a dirty tee shirt with a hole that revealed a tablespoon of hairy white belly, and a sweat-stained, once-red, ball-cap. He had bought a pack of cigarettes, and as he left the checkout counter he was saying something conversational to the young cashier. He moved away slowly, walking half-turned and speaking over his shoulder and smiling toward her. He didn't seem hurried.
When the world is overfull with name-brand-swathed, computer-submerged, technoid millionaire twenty-somethings, it's comforting to know his kind is still around. Maybe I'll get some tomato plants next week.
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