Petunia, Sally Toner
My name is Petunia, and I sit in a pecan tree. It spreads in the back of the yard, kissing the chain link fence. The neighbor boy on the other side, his father built a swing set with a yellow plastic slide and rings hanging from the top where he does all kinds of flips and twists and turns.
My father says those things break. They sour and rust and must be dismantled to save us from tetanus. So why bother building one?
Besides, I can hide up here, in my tree. I told my mother I’d shell some nuts so she can bake her pie. She is making the crust by hand as I nestle inside my secret spot. Two branches, the bottom one just broad enough to hold my weight, for now. I fear the morning I climb up to sit and hear it start to crack. I hope I hear it, anyway. The wax in my ears is thick, and I won’t sit still long enough for mother to clean them out after my bath.
Another branch a foot behind makes the perfect back to the seat as I place the yellow Tupperware in my lap and crack the shells. I use my fingernails to scoop out the halves of a thousand pecan brains. When I’m finished, the bowl will be full. I’ll have to be careful not to spill as I scramble down one handed. Mother will clip my nails, filthy black and green on the undersides, down to the nubs. I’ll have to wait for them to grow to shell again.
I say my day spent high up in the leaves is for the pie, all fresh and warm, molasses sticky and sweet. But it’s truthfully an add on to my prayers—for the neighbor boy whose playground I thought I wanted—prayers for him and me.
I was over there last week, on the other side of the fence, and he was teaching me the cherry drop. At the end of that contraption there’s a monkey bar his father fixed in the earth, just high enough to hang on by the knees and swing. When the neighbor boy gets going fast enough, he reaches the peak of his arc and says he can see the red of his back door. Then he lets go, and his feet hit the ground.
But I was scared. I swung and swung and swung, saw the door, but I couldn’t release. I couldn’t release, that is, until the man we’d seen around unlatched the fence and walked inside the yard, stood a few feet from me, and watched for a while.
The neighbor boy watched him from the top of the slide, having stopped his tease—the chant of “Scaredy cat, scaredy cat, Petunia’s not a pig who kisses Porky but a scaredy cat.” He and the man watched me silent for a while. Then the stranger, about my father’s age, but smaller, broader somehow—with less hair and crooked bottom teeth, a jacket of suede that was nice enough (no stains) but still strange for him to be wearing in May—he finally spoke.
“You have the height,” he said. “Here, let me spot you.”
I stopped and stared at him. I was upside down, so the ground, and his shoes, were in the air. His sneakers were white and clean.
“Just start swinging again.”
I did as he commanded, faster and faster and faster until I saw the red of the neighbor boy’s back door. The man had stepped beside me and put one hand on either side of my middle. I saw the door, he held me up, and I let go.
My feet hit the ground and, as I straightened my buckled knees, the neighbor boy began to clap. I turned around to thank the man, but he had already walked back through the gate, latched it again, and begun to shuffle to the sidewalk in front of my neighbor’s house on Gosland Street.
I can hide up here. This is a place I’ve never shared with anyone—not even the neighbor boy who is my very best friend. My father mentioned at breakfast that they found a bag of bones and blood—the carcass of a cat, a neighborhood stray we hadn’t seen around in a while. It was tossed on a pile of bicycle tires behind my school.
“So strange,” my mother said. “Like somebody did it on purpose.”
“Maybe so,” Father replied, turning his attention back to the mug of coffee between them.
Now, I hide high in the leaves of a pecan tree because I haven’t seen the neighbor boy in a couple of days. He could have the flu. We go to different schools and mainly play outside only when the weather is warm. But the weather is warm today while I shell for mother’s pie, listening in case my seat, this branch, begins to crack. My friend, he should be on the other side of the chain link fence doing all kinds of flips and twists and turns—or cherry drops from the rotting metal pounded soundly into the ground.
That’s the other thing that I remember now—how the man paid the swing set a compliment as he helped me fly.
“It’s so sturdy,” he said—
you’d need a shovel to dig it up.”
Sally Toner is a High School English teacher who has lived in the Washington, D.C. area for over 25 years. Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in Northern Virginia Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, Watershed Review, and other publications. She lives in Reston, Virginia with her husband and two daughters.