THE BASKET MAKER ON TUESDAY
I stared hard at the nurse behind the desk at the hospital, hoping to intimidate her enough to make her forget health care privacy laws. “Is the basket maker okay?”
“Are you family?”
“No, but – “
“Then I’m afraid I can’t release any information.” She smiled brightly and waited for me to leave because she knew the law and refused to be intimidated.
I leaned farther over the desk and stared harder in a bid to be even more intimidating. Maybe even threatening. Maybe it would work. “His name is Carl.” Hoping that would convince her my question should be answered because even though I wasn’t family, I knew him.
Actually I didn’t know him but the vendors at the Tuesday market had been talking about him and they’d mentioned his name. I hadn’t known it until then. But I knew it now and used that information. “Carl. He’s a friend.” Little white lies are acceptable in emergencies and this kind of qualified.
The smile turned into an expression of sympathy. “I’m sorry, I truly am, but the law is the law.” She turned away from me and began speaking with a couple who’d come to visit a relative. The nurse directed them to a room and then turned back to me, waiting pointedly for me to leave.
So I levered myself off the desk and turned to go, trying to figure how to find out about the basket maker at the Tuesday market while wondering in some corner of my mind why his health was so important to me that I’d break the law to find out about it. Why he was important.
I didn’t know him. Didn’t know anything about him. I hadn’t even known his name until I showed up that morning to watch him make baskets – as usual – and he wasn’t there and I asked why he was missing.
“You mean Carl? He’s in the hospital.” I’d sucked in my breath. “Been there a few days or so I heard.”
He was a fixture. Nothing could happen to the basket maker. I’d been watching him make beautiful baskets for weeks already. Every Tuesday. I’d admired how his elderly hands worked quickly and with skill. He’d never missed. Until today. “What happened?”
“Don’t know. Just that he’s not going to be here for a long time to come.” The speaker called to another vendor. “Hey, you heard anything about Carl?”
The other speaker shook his head. “Haven’t heard. Sorry.” A few more questions elicited the information that neither vendor knew exactly what was wrong with Carl or how long he’d be hospitalized.
That was when I decided to visit the hospital myself and see what I could find out about the elderly man with sun-browned skin and gnarled hands and the patience of a saint who made baskets every Tuesday and had buyers lined up for each and every one because they were that good. That beautiful.
Now, as I stomped away from the nurse’s desk, I realized that the specialness of both the man and his baskets was why I wanted to know about Carl. Unfortunately, this hospital knew about privacy laws and had a militant nurse guarding them so I couldn’t even find out what was wrong with him.
I hated the thought of leaving. Carl was nearby and I hadn’t got the information I sought. So instead of heading for the door I wandered over to the vending machines and stared at the selections, trying to decide what to eat while planning my next move.
I was so lost in my thoughts that I almost didn’t notice a man a few years my senior coming from the rooms I’d been denied access to. A familiar man, though I couldn’t place where I recognized him from.
Work? I was new in town, intentionally so after a miserable break-up and the decision never to fall in love again. Besides, I didn’t truly know anyone from work because I worked from home. If you don’t meet people because you don’t work with them, then you can’t fall in love and be jilted. So a work acquaintance was out.
Besides, he was wearing casual clothes and I knew he’d been wearing similar clothes each time I saw him. So not from work. Where was he from, then? And what was he doing in the hospital? Did he have a sick relative?
He approached the vending machines with the same intent as me. Something to eat or drink. Our eyes met. A line appeared on his forehead and I knew he was wondering the same thing about me that I’d been wondering about him. Where he knew me from. Because we knew each other somehow.
Then his eyes widened and I saw remembrance in them. “You’re the woman who watches my grandfather make baskets. You’re at the farmers’ market every Tuesday. You sit on the bench beneath the tree near his booth.” He looked around. “Do you have someone in the hospital too?”
“I came about your grandfather. I heard he was here.” I looked daggers at the nurse who’d forgotten I existed. “But they won’t tell me anything.” I felt tears starting at the thought of that nice elderly man lying in a hospital bed. “Is he okay? I’ve been so worried. Please say he’s okay.”
The man sagged a bit the way people do when they’ve pushed themselves as hard as possible. The way they do when they’ve reached their limit. “He’s doing well considering the stroke.”
“Is that what happened?” I could hardly breathe. “He had a stroke?”
“It wasn’t major. In fact the doctors said it wasn’t bad as such things go. But no stroke is good.” He looked away. “Especially if you use your hands and they were affected.”
He blinked away tears and looked like he needed to sit before he collapsed. “Come,” I said impulsively. “I saw a coffee shop in the hospital. Let’s get some. My treat.” Because he looked like he needed something good to happen. Anything good. Even coffee.
He followed me meekly into the coffee shop and we found a table for two in a quiet corner. I hoped that would be what he needed as I checked out what I guessed were new lines creasing his forehead. He sank into a chair and leaned back as if no longer able to sit straight and I knew my instincts were right.
“I will neither talk nor ask questions.” Though I wanted to know all about his grandfather this man desperately needed peace. “You look like you need quiet.”
He shook his head violently. “I want to talk. I need to.” He stopped, embarrassed at taking comfort from me, a stranger, then shrugged. “I need to get it out. To think out loud.”
“Okay, then.” I touched his hand on the table gently. “I’m a good listener and I promise not to interrupt.”
Our hands intertwined momentarily in his need for human touch. Then we separated and he told me how his grandfather had gone to the market the previous Tuesday as usual, gone home, taken out the ingredients for dinner, and then instead of turning on the stove had called 911. “He knew what was happening. That call made all the difference. The paramedics were there in minutes.” He shuddered and I understood. Minutes can be life or death.
Since I’d promised not to speak, I reached for both of his hands and held them in mine. They were warm and callused, the hands of a man who knew what work was like. How like his grandfather’s hands his must be.
He talked more, rambling sentences, a disjointed but loving patchwork of the life of the grandfather who’d raised him and even though the many portraits of his and his grandfather’s life weren’t smoothly connected, they formed a complete picture. Until he described the last week. The stroke and everything that followed. Those sentences were jumbled and confused and filled with pain. I listened intently and learned a lot about both the man across the table and the grandfather who’d taught him to make baskets.
When his sentences ended and silence reigned, I decided it was safe to speak. “I thought there was something special about him the first time I saw him make baskets. Now I know there is.”
“He’s special to me.”
“He’s special to anyone who appreciates beauty. His baskets are works of art.” I leaned over the table to be closer to this man I’d seen before but not known until today. “Did you say that you make baskets too?”
“Not as good as his. But yes, I make baskets because he taught me when I was a kid and I’ve never forgotten.”
An idea sprang full-blown in my mind. “Will you take his place at the Tuesday market while he recovers?”
His eyes widened as he caught my train of thought. “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about the market.” He turned the idea over in his mind. “Perhaps I should. He enjoys the market. The people. The weather. The baskets and the people who watch him make them. Someone should continue his work until he can return.”
“You should do it.” The more I considered the implications the more I knew it would be good for both him and his grandfather. “You should keep his place for him.”
“It would be a huge commitment.” He shook his head uncertainly. “There will be therapy for a long time. A longer time before he can make baskets again. If ever. The doctors don’t know how long the therapy will last.”
“I suspect if you make baskets and he can eventually get well enough to watch that he’ll be there as soon as he’s able. He’ll watch you like you’ve watched him in the past because he’s your grandfather. He won’t be able to stay away.”
“But I’m not good with people. I won’t know what to say when they ask questions and they always do. I’ll ruin everything.”
I waved aside his protest. “People are easy.” Then I knew what I should do. “Let me come too. I’ll do the talking. You make baskets.”
He smiled then, a tiny, brief lifting of his lips. “Maybe it would work.”
“It will work. I promise.” I held out my hand and once again our hands connected on that table top. He held my hand as if his life depended on it.
I rose because he was exhausted and needed a good night’s sleep. Or a week’s. “See you Tuesday. Be on time with everything necessary to make baskets.”
He rose too, his every movement showing his physical and emotional state but I thought there was also a glimmer of hope in the way he stood, straighter than when we first met. “Tell you what. Id you will truly deal with the public then I’ll repay you by teaching you how to make baskets.” His eyes glowed with good memories. “Exactly as my grandfather taught me.”
“I look forward to learning.” I meant it and I found myself eager for the coming Tuesday as I wondered how quickly my life had changed from the familiar routine of home and work to something unexpected. Different. I couldn’t see the shape of this changed routine but it felt good and I knew that the coming days would be good for both of us and, eventually, for his grandfather too.
We left the hospital together. Before separating, we introduced ourselves. I was Rhonda and he was Deon. Then we went our separate ways and didn’t see each other again until Tuesday rolled around and the sun rose and turned dew on a grassy field into millions of rainbows and vendors arrived and started setting up their booths and the Tuesday market came slowly into existence.
What I learned most that day was that I’m not a born basket maker. In fact, at the end of the day I looked sadly at my first attempt and knew I’d not even give it away to my worst enemy. Making baskets is an art and I was clearly not an artist.
Deon’s baskets, on the other hand, were art and there were almost as many people vying for a chance to buy them as had wanted his grandfather’s baskets. I slumped in weariness as Deon started putting things away and preparing to leave. “I’ll never learn.”
“Yes you will.” He stopped his work long enough to stoop beside me. “I thought the same thing the first time I tried making a basket. But I learned and you will too. Unless you’ve changed your mind.”
I sat up straight. “Never! I want to learn. Truly.” Then I looked at my pathetic basket and started to laugh. “I’m going to put this basket in the middle of my dining room table and it’s going to stay there in a place of honor until I can replace it with something better.” I turned it one way and another. “Anything better.” I looked at the last basket he’d worked on, one that was not quite finished and so hadn’t been sold. “Maybe that one.”
He dropped to the ground and without a word set about finishing the basket. When it was complete, he handed it to me. “It’s yours.” He reached for my basket. “And I want this one.” He examined it from several angles. “I like it. It speaks to me.”
I laughed harder. “Don’t even try to tell me what it says because I probably don’t want to know.”
He laughed too and we finished packing up in what had suddenly become an even more beautiful day. Laughter has that effect and I wondered if that was the first time since his grandfather’s stroke that he’d laughed.
Three weeks later my baskets were almost recognizable as things that could hold something. As we packed up that day I requested additional lessons. “In the evenings, maybe? If you have the time?”
Which was foolish of someone who didn’t want to be involved with people ever again in order to not suffer a bad breakup ever again. But I asked anyway. Because some day I wanted to make a beautiful basket.
He had the time and so started lessons at the house he shared with his grandfather and so I got to meet the man who’d piqued my interest in baskets. The man I thought of as ‘the great Carl.’ He turned out to be a nice man who was as talkative as his grandson was quiet.
“Nice to have someone to talk with,” he said, giving Deon meaningful looks. But Deon ignored him and I guessed this was a conversation they had often. One talked, the other was quiet. “Glad you’re at the market to talk with people. This guy would chase them away.”
As he spoke, he moved his hands expressively and I wondered how the physical therapy was going. He could wave his hands. “Can you make baskets yet?”
He snorted. “That therapist has me trying.” Another snort was followed by, “She says my baskets are wonderful.” A third snort of derision. “Which shows how much she knows about baskets because the ones I’m making now – trying to make — suck big time.”
“Come to the market next Tuesday. Help us make baskets.”
He glared at me. “Didn’t you hear what I said? My baskets aren’t fit for human eyes.”
“Neither are mine but I’m learning and getting better all the time, thanks to your grandson’s tutelage.” I glared right back at him. “You can be another student.”
He opened his mouth for a suitably sarcastic reply. Then he shut it again and thought long and hard. Then he said, simply, “Okay, I’ll be there and if I ruin the day it’ll be your responsibility because this whole ridiculous thing was your idea.” But his eyes were shining with the thought of once again making baskets at the Tuesday market.
That Tuesday was amazing. No, Carl didn’t suddenly regain his basket-making expertise. He worked slowly and painstakingly and at the end of the day had managed to get a start on one basket while Deon made two and I made a mess of the one I’d started the previous week because I was too busy watching them both to pay attention to what I was doing.
One thing I didn’t have to do was talk to people because Carl loved people and loved to talk and never gave me a chance to get a word in edgewise and I realized that part of his appeal had always been his penchant for sociability. Everyone wanted to hear the story of his stroke and he told it over and over again. They wanted to know if he’d continue making baskets and he said they should watch and see.
So they did. They watched. They asked questions. They talked with Carl and they to Deon teaching me. Since Deon wasn’t comfortable speaking to people, Carl told them what his grandson was doing. How he was doing it. Step by step. The history of basket making and the techniques he’d passed on to Deon that Deon was now passing on to me.
Those people were interested. Fascinated. They said Carl was an artist and knew how to make baskets and if he’d share his knowledge while Deon did the actual physical work, then they would remember and later they could make their own.
And so a basket-making class was born, unexpectedly, at the Tuesday market. Deon taught the class, I demonstrated everything and was very good because I was just as inexperienced and clumsy as the watchers so they could connect with me. Carl explained what was going on and why and told stories that held everyone in thrall. The man was a genius with more than baskets. He was also a people person of extraordinary talent.
Deon and Carl went home after each session and so did I, each to our own homes and we didn’t see one another until the next Tuesday. Then, as the weeks passed, the grass turned brown, the leaves turned yellow and red, the pumpkins turned into jack-o-lanterns. and the Tuesday market closed for the year.
The owners asked Deon and Carl and I to repeat our lessons the following summer. They begged. They said our basket-making had brought more people to the market than they’d ever seen before. We agreed, of course. We were a well-oiled machine by then and enjoyed our time together. I felt a lump in my throat at the thought of the sessions ending. What would I do with all that empty time during the winter?
I soon learned. As we packed everything away for the last time, Deon cleared his throat and asked, “Want to continue the lessons?”
“The market is closing.”
“At our place. Once a week? During the winter.”
Carl added, “Maybe by next summer you’ll actually be able to make a basket someone will want to buy.” He rolled his eyes. “If you work really hard.”
Behind him, Deon silently added his own request and I knew that he was thinking what I was. That Carl would improve faster if there was a reason for him to use his muscles and that would be most likely if there was someone to teach as he’d taught Deon all those years ago.
“I’d love to have you teach me.” I cleared my own throat and tried to sound innocent. “The finer points because I’ve learned a lot over the summer but my baskets leave a lot to be desired.”
Carl hooted and slapped his knees – and the fact that he was able to do so showed how far he’d come since his stroke – and then said that by the following summer if I wasn’t an expert he’d retire from the basket business.
So we shook hands on the deal and set up a schedule for me to come to their house two evenings a week instead of just one. I said I’d bring pizza and they said pizza two nights a week was too much so I only had to bring it once a week and they’d feed me the other time.
The sessions started with me doing my usual terrible job of making baskets and Carl struggling to come even close to his former skill level and Deon making great baskets and teaching me at the same time. Carl and I admired Deon’s ability to multi-task while bemoaning our ability to do even one thing well.
But as the weeks passed and the sessions continued, things changed. Not for me. I still created baskets I’d not consider giving to my worst enemy. But Carl’s baskets grew better and better as the days grew shorter and winter approached and then longer as spring came creeping quietly. Not only did they grow better, the time it took to make them grew less and less as his muscles remembered their former skill and he reacquired the art he’d known for most of his life.
My Christmas gift from them was a basket. Of course. They never said which of them made the basket and I couldn’t tell by looking at it because they both made similar baskets and their skill levels at that time was equal. They insisted it was a joint effort. Maybe it was.
But something else happened that began shortly after Christmas dinner. It wasn’t late, but Carl suddenly stood up, stretched, yawned, and said he was tired and thought he’d go to bed. We were surprised but said our good-nights and watched him head for his bedroom. Soon silence told us that he was asleep. Probably.
The same thing happened the next time I came for a class. And the next. And so on until his going to bed early became a routine thing. Deon was mystified. “He doesn’t go to bed early other nights. Just when you’re here.”
“Am I wearing him out?”
Deon shook his head. “I’m sure that’s not it. He likes you. He’s started telling me it’s time I settled down and he only says it on the nights when you’re coming over.”
We stared at one another. I said, “He’s match-making.”
“Yep.” Deon slumped. “The old coot.” His eyes rolled. “He’s told me many times that I should marry and have a kid while he’s still able to teach basketmaking.”
We stared at each other again. I knew my face was turning red and though the light wasn’t bright I thought Deon’s was too. Then we shook our heads and went on making baskets. Except it wasn’t the same.
We avoided touching each other and studiously avoided talking except about baskets. We watched the time and I was very careful never to stay too long lest he take it the wrong way and I was sure he breathed a sigh of relief when he could close the door after me.
Until I did stay longer and we didn’t avoid touching each other and we didn’t watch the time. And Carl noticed every little change and gloated each and every time. He started going to be even earlier. Way earlier than was normal. We told each other that when he was alone he probably rubbed his hands in glee and counted great-grandchildren. Then we laughed and agreed that we weren’t the right couple to grant him that particular wish.
We asserted strongly that we didn’t feel ‘that’ way about each other even though we were developing a fairly decent friendship and I was actually learning how to make baskets that were almost recognizable as baskets instead of piles of reeds thrown together in no particular order. For that amazing accomplishment I wasn’t sure whether to credit Deon or his grandfather. Both were excellent teachers though in different ways. And as time passed, Carl did more and more of the teaching because, as his muscle memory returned, so did his people skills.
But it was a long winter and gradually something changed between Deon and me. We noticed each other. We bumped into each other and pulled away too quickly and then avoided looking at each other for a long time afterwards.
Once I stumbled and he caught me. Just a small thing but as his arms wrapped around me and kept me from falling, I wished I could stay that way forever. And I did stay that way longer than was strictly necessary.
Another time I simply couldn’t weave the reeds correctly, couldn’t hold them right and the result was a loose weave when it should have been tight. Water-tight, his grandfather would say, or don’t bother making a basket. That time Deon came behind me and put his arms around me and then used his hands to guide mine. I could hardly breathe and was thankful that my hands didn’t shake because the way I felt at that moment, they should have.
And so the lessons continued until the day came that I stared at myself in the mirror before heading for their house and another lesson and admitted that I did feel ‘that’ way about Deon. I also told myself that though he liked me he’d given no indication of feeling anything more so I’d just better forget how I felt and get over it as quickly as possible. Remember, I told myself sternly, you’ve been through this before and look how it turned out. Awful.
But telling and believing weren’t the same thing. I found myself falling for Deon big time. I’d have stopped the lessons as a way of saving myself from future grief except for Carl. I wanted to watch him make baskets and I wanted to learn from a master. It was that simple. He was an artist and I was hooked on his art.
I was pretty sure he knew how I felt about his grandson but he never said anything. He just disappeared a little earlier each evening. Judging by the light beneath his bedroom door, he wasn’t sleeping. Probably stashed a good book under his pillow during the day to read behind that closed door. Or maybe he did the exercises his physical therapist recommended.
He did want to get back to his usual self so he exercised regularly. At first the exercises were exhausting and he was frustrated to the extent that it hurt to watch his struggles. But as time passed and his hands remembered how to make baskets, he mastered those first exercises and the therapist had to come up with harder ones. Until he mastered those too.
Then she came less often because he didn’t need as much help. “He’s coming along quite well,” she said as she dropped still another day with Carl from her schedule and informed him that he could come to the therapy center now instead of having at-home visits. I figured that was at the hospital I still hated but I reluctantly admitted that it had done good things for him so maybe I should reassess my feelings.
The long winter finally came to an end. Spring arrived, snow melted into dirty piles and early wildflowers peeked out of the mud. The trek to the basket-making lessons became a trek through not-quite-winter and then through early spring and then mid-spring and then later spring until it was time for the Tuesday market to open once more and this time both Deon and his grandfather would be there in Carl’s usual spot.
“Can I come too?”
“Of course,” Carl said. “You’re essential. I make baskets, Deon teaches, and you talk to people.” He waved a fist through the air, something he’d not been able to do after his stroke. “We’re a three-person team.”
He was once again making baskets. Plural. More than one. Maybe slower than previously and his every move was carefully thought through but his baskets were as impressive as ever.
I felt myself tearing every time he finished a basket and didn’t know whether it was because he’d had a stroke or because he was overcoming it. Once I caught Deon’s eye when we were both watching his grandfather work and he nodded imperceptibly that he understood.
I pondered that look of Deon’s. We three were attuned to each other, Deon and I and his grandfather. Every night when I went home I wished Deon and I were attuned to each other in the way his grandfather wanted us to be. But we weren’t.
The first day at the market was a preview of what the summer would be like and it wasn’t at all what either Deon or I expected though his grandfather knew exactly what it would be like because he planned the whole thing.
He stood up, stretched, and left.
“I think I’ll go see what’s going on.” With that statement, he simply strolled out of the booth. “Haven’t seen anyone, hardly, since last year. Lots to catch up on and lots to talk about.” And he disappeared in the crowd of early shoppers, leaving Deon and me staring blankly after him.
“What just happened?” I tried to wrap my mind around Carl leaving his booth.
Deon muttered darkly, “Great-grandkids. He thinks this will help.” And he shook his head and rolled his eyes because what else could you do with a schemer like Carl who deliberately threw his grandson at a possible wife every chance he got?
“He’s not going to give up,” I said because I couldn’t think of any other reply. “So maybe you should start dating.”
The thought startled him. His eyes went wide and he spoke without thinking. “Why?”
“So you can find someone to fall in love with and give your grandfather those great-grandkids and he’ll leave you alone.”
He blinked. When he opened his eyes again, thoughts were floating through his mind. I could see him thinking but couldn’t know what those thoughts were about. “You have a point,” He shrugged. “But I’m too lazy to go looking.”
“You won’t find anyone if you spend all your time sitting on your behind and making baskets.”
He blinked again. This time when he opened his eyes he smiled, a slow thing that started in the backs of his eyes and grew until it enveloped his entire face. Then his entire being. And still it grew until it seemed like the whole market was enveloped in the glow. “I will indeed find someone while sitting here making baskets.”
I looked around but we were at the far end of the market and it took forever for the first shoppers to reach us. They had to stop at all the other booths first and admire their wares, especially this early in the season when everything was new and interesting. So no one was there yet. “How? Who? Where?”
“Here.” His face flushed slightly and he bent over the basket he was working on, weaving the reeds in the time-honored way he’d learned all those years ago. “Right here.” Then he looked at me. Straight at me and I realized that I wasn’t the only one with feelings that were way beyond the ‘friend’ stage. “Right now.”
“Oh.” The one word was all I could manage as I peeked out of a corner of my eye to see if anyone was coming while hoping they weren’t because this was shaping up to be a pivotal moment in my life and I truly didn’t want any interruptions. But the coast was clear. So I said it again. “Oh.”
“Is that all you can manage? One word?” He put the basket down and came to sit beside me, exasperated. “I was hoping for something a little more emotional.”
“You first,” I said, putting down my own basket, not nearly as nice as his and not as far along either. But it was at least recognizable as a basket, thanks to months of lessons.
He looked around too, a couple times, and saw that no one was around. “What say we go for a walk and keep walking until we find a private place where we can talk?” He rose in one motion.
“Good idea,” I said, rising to meet his outstretched hand.
On our way towards a tiny grove of birch trees in one corner of the market where people had picnic lunches and went to be cool on hot days, we passed his grandfather. Deon called out, “Hey, Gramps, can you take over?”
His grandfather looked us over. Clapped his hands a couple times while his eyes danced so brightly that we could see the sparkle from where we stood. He hurried to our booth as fast as his elderly legs could carry him. “Glad to help out. Take all the time you want. All the time in the world.”
We reached the privacy of the birches before we came together in what turned out to be a very long kiss. Followed by another one that lasted even longer. After that there didn’t seem much need for words but we talked anyway.
“I always knew you were the one.”
“You never said anything.”
“I wasn’t sure how you felt.”
“Me? Couldn’t you see? Every time I came for a lesson, I had to make myself stop shaking.”
“Really?” He stood a bit taller after that and was a bit more smiley A lot more smiley. But so was I now that we knew how things were between us.
To make a long story short, we were there a long time – hours — and when we returned we didn’t have to tell Carl anything because he knew by the expressions on our faces what the future held. He merely winked as he handed one of his signature baskets to a woman who just knew she’d come into possession of a work of art.
We watched her carry it carefully as befits a thing of true beauty and knew she appreciated what she had. Then we slipped into the basket maker’s booth and finished the baskets we were working on.
They were lovely though mine took longer to finish than it should have because I was busy watching the elderly basket maker begin another work of art, his gnarled fingers working more slowly than the first time I saw one of his baskets come into existence but just as knowledgeable, just as patient, and just as good as ever.