Compliments

Farmer Orville was mowing his vast lawn when I visited this morning. He turned off the machine and waved me toward the porch, where we sat in the shade and talked. The farm dogs, Ruby Puppy, Bud and Reba, reeking of stuff they had rolled in, in the north field, lay at our feet.

I told my friend about the finches in my yard being so tame, they land on my shoulders and sing, and I imitate them. Yet another finch nest has been built over my car in the carport roof, and soon baby finch poop will rain down.

“You know why they built there?” Orville said. “They are aiming for your bald head.” He slapped a knee and did his little sit-dance.

The half-acre of blackberry bushes was already pregnant with berries red and plumping up. In a couple of weeks, those sapid jewels will be ready for sucking and tongue smashing. Ninety tomato plants were rising up in wire cages and getting ready to flower. Cucumbers and squash were planted, and so was kale.

The barn cat strutted across the yard with a dead baby bluebird in its mouth. Orville shouted, “Hey, you, cat!” The cat dropped the bird and ran for the barn. Reba loped to the body, tossed it in the air, and swallowed it whole.

“I hate to admit it,” Orville said, “but you are a good writer. We liked that article on them Tuskegee Airmen.” By we, he means his wife Quilt Queen, who has decided that cookies aren’t just for winter anymore. She is baking for the Memorial Day weekend.

Quilt Queen teases me relentlessly about being a bachelor. She believes men need marrying. She decided Orville needed marrying just after he came home, from the Korean War. He had prospects in the heating and cooling industry. (We’ve driven together on I-270, as he points to building roofs where he installed the air conditioning. His favorite story is about fixing a furnace problem for a stark-naked woman who followed him around her house.)

Orville chewed on a toothpick and looked at me. “Don’t let my compliment go to your head.”

Midwesterners don’t approve of compliments. Compliments are unseemly, the recipient in danger of taking himself seriously and wanting more. My father was the anti-compliment giver. He preferred witticisms like, “You, worthless piece of shit.” This was intended to toughen me for life’s journey, and it worked. I hear that sentence every day of my life.

Orville is a humanist in Lutheran’s clothing. And he is my stand-in father. He knows it; I know it. Though, if I were his literal son, I would have been born when he was eleven.

Today, I walked home with a bloody arm scratch from Ruby Puppy, who believes that I should carry her fifty pounds of squirm, and a compliment firmly in my memory, from my stand-in father, confessor, story teller, tomato hater-tomato grower, and damn good friend.

There is no moral to the story. You might be tempted to call a friend and compliment him or her. It won’t compromise your inner “Babbitt” or convert you to godless Communism. Think of it, on Memorial Day, as putting a dab of spicy, liberal mustard on your conservative picnic sandwich, next to the deviled eggs and Beverly the Quilt Queen’s potato salad:

“Wow, Bev, you outdid yourself this time.” And Quilt Queen, awash in compliment, waves a dismissive hand, all the while aglow.

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