Gently (With Tablespoons) [story] by Mark Wisniewski

He walked into the hardware store realizing that he hadn’t been in a hardware store in years, maybe since childhood, and that the smell of bird seed and fertilizer reminded him of his older brother Zach. A year earlier he’d rarely thought about Zach, but now that he knew Zach’s story he often imagined the symptoms of the syndrome in his own body, as if he and Zach were recently-detached Siamese twins.

He walked on and a parakeet perched on a coiled green garden hose (What was a parakeet doing loose in a hardware store?) faced him, head cocked. He nodded at the parakeet and an old woman beyond the parakeet nodded at him. The woman smiled and he smiled back as best he could, then walked on, past copper-colored rakes and shelves of clear plastic bags full of 1,000 lady bugs for $7.99, past green plastic watering cans (Zach once threw a steel watering can at him during a fight about who would be the first to use their father’s electric mower), and then he stopped (Zach had been first) beside a display of seed packets (like a greeting card display; he realized he could send Zach an Easter card). He told himself he would look at the packets for a few seconds only, the browsed through them, trying to absorb the brightness of their colors, noticing bachelor buttons (Zach, in the eyes of the surviving aunts who probably still met to celebrate Easter, was a bachelor: ha-ha), and he realized he hadn’t seen a bachelor button in at least twenty years, or, for that matter, “true” seeds (“Those big, wet things you see in sliced tomatoes have to die before they become true seeds”), and then he tried not to remember the February night Zach roused him after the lights were out—to discuss the Burpee seed catalog and carefully complete the order blank—and the March afternoon they were surprised by a box addressed to both of them (“Master,” both of them), and both of them collecting Styrofoam cups left over after the Easter celebration, where Aunt Bernice, who according to their father, had been courted by every boy in her neighborhood, sat widowed, bosom sagging, thighs gapped, talking until her breath ran out, only to tap her lungs and continue her sentences, some of them trailing off into Polish. Zach taught him how to dig dirt from between the cracks in the front sidewalk (“The best soil is whatever we can find that has never been used”), sift it into the cups,  press two seeds into each cup (“More than two and they won’t have room”), water the soil gently (with tablespoons), leave the cups in the basement until Chicago grew warmer, line the cups on the inside sills of the two garage windows that faced east (“Will exhaust fumes kill the seeds, Zach? Will the tomatoes grow up sick? Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?”), and forget about them until the evening their father walked into the house, late from work, the back yard surprisingly lit by the sun, and shouted, “Boys?”


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: Mark Wisniewski writes: My older brother was, and you could say still is, the late Dr. Ted Wisniewski, a medical doctor who dedicated his life to the service of AIDS victims only to succumb to AIDS himself. He founded an AIDS clinic in New Orleans that I believe is still named after him. In any case I learned of the imminence of his death in the early 90’s, not long after I’d found an agent for Confessions, a comic novel that made fun of my childhood, so all of a sudden things stopped seeming funny in the grand way they once had, and any drafting of fiction I managed had this new serious tone. Ted passed on in the Summer of ’93, and sometime around then I wrote “Gently (with Tablespoons)”—it flowed right out, odd as its style seemed compared to what I’d been writing. It’s probably the fiction that transitioned me to poems. Though what I’ll always like most about “Gently” was that after I wrote it, a streak of rejection persisted for months—doldrums were no doubt causing more doldrums—but then, one morning, after my distaste for the world led me to take a hovel of an apartment in Manhattan (same apartment where death visited in Show Up, Look Good, in fact), the phone rang, and, as usual back then, I didn’t pick up, and there on my machine was Judy Troy from Crazyhorse saying she loved “Gently” and wanted to run it. And I lay there, in this dingy, minuscule apartment, shades pulled expertly against the morning sun (which, as it would turn out, was as bright as any that September), wondering if Ted had somehow inspired Judy to make that call as a gift to me, because as it turned out, that day was my birthday. And to this day Ted has been here, in the back of mind, pretty much whenever I write, even when I try to be funny again. And “coincidental” signs of him intervening for the sake of my writing’s success have happened again and again since that birthday, to the point that now, when they do, I just smile a little—like I might if we’d both been lucky enough to be sitting here.

Image by Sherry Thai via Flickr Creative Commons

Mark Wisniewski’s third novel was recently sold at auction. His second is Show Up, Look Good. Wisniewski is also the author of the novel Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman and the collection of short stories All Weekend with the Lights On. His short fiction has appeared in magazines such as The Southern Review, Antioch Review, New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Yale review, Boulevard, The Sun, and The Georgia Review, and has won a Pushcart Prize and been anthologized in Best American Short Stories. His narrative poems are published or forthcoming in venues such as The Iowa Review, Post Road, Poetry International, Ecotone, Prairie Schooner, and Poetry. He’s been awarded two University of California Regents’ Fellowships in Fiction, an Isherwood Fellowship in Fiction, and first place in competitions for the Kay Cattarula Award for Best Short Story, the Gival Press Short Story Award, and the Tobias Wolff Award. “Gently (with Tablespoons)” first appeared in Crazyhorse, Spring 1995. Read more at