The Pharynx Plums / 31 October 1998
Jefferson Heskell made all of the right decisions except for one, and this was opting to play a game of backgammon with a total stranger in Emerson Park. The total stranger just sidled up to Jefferson while he was sitting under a tree and reading a book called The Unquiet Mind by one P. E. Altrecht, a book that detailed the life and times of a young woman with a rare mental disorder that caused her taste colors and smell textures. The total stranger had a small but exquisitely crafted backgammon case under one arm. He was in his mid-fifties, probably, well-groomed, delicately scented, outstanding posture. He cleared his throat almost imperceptibly and at first Jefferson Heskell discounted the noise as the rustling of leaves overhead and didn’t look up from his book until the third or forth throat-clearing. The total stranger excused himself and said something about recognizing Jefferson from his many visits to Emerson Park, and how he recalled him engaging in some rather cutthroat games of chess with the locals and would he like to play some backgammon? Jefferson was at a particularly riveting scene in his book and rather reluctant to put it aside and give even a moment’s attention to this total stranger, let alone engage in some game he wasn’t really adept at, but after a deep breath that cleansed his sinuses and once again made him aware of the world around him — clearing out the vestiges of little Emily X (she of the unquiet mind) — he figured, well, what better way to pass a warm Saturday afternoon?
So Jefferson Heskell and the total stranger retired to a nearby picnic table. The stranger pulled a tiny key, like the kind you’d use to open a padlock, out from his coat pocket. The sun bounced angrily off its brass surface as he worked it into the little lock at the front of the backgammon case. The lock popped open and the stranger spread open the case and started unloading the tokens and dice and tumblers. Everything was smooth and heavy and flawless. Jefferson took this time to quickly remind himself of the rules, having not played in many years. He assumed the finer details of strategy would come back to him as he played, and indeed they did.
The stranger was genial and chatty during the game, nodding in admiration at several of Jefferson’s moves, taking any setbacks with an agreeable sense of humor. It was a close race at the end, but Jefferson got lucky with the dice and won it at the last minute. The stranger congratulated him, shook his hand, said something about how he hoped they could play again someday, then packed up the game and wandered away.
Jefferson sat and enjoyed the sun for a little while, allowed himself a few mental pats on the back, then returned to the tree and his book.
It wasn’t until late the next afternoon, after an unseasonably hot day, that the kids smelled something funny and found Jefferson Heskell’s head buried only an inch or so under the ground, there where the roots of the tree spread downwards into the earth. His mouth was filled with white backgammon pieces. The following summer, when tiny, sour plums started to emerge from what was previously thought to be an apple tree, nobody remembered that this was Jefferson Heskell’s tree, that it was, in fact, the tree, because there were so many identical ones in that part of the park and people these days believe life is much more tolerable if you forget the events of yesterday and live purely in the present.
And so youngsters climbed the tree’s trunk, dangled from its branches, and plucked the plums to stave off their appetites during that long stretch between lunch and dinner. The flavor, lemony copper, made their teeth ache and their stomachs churn and filled the month of June with scraped knees, broken bones, dislocated shoulders, bloodied noses, swelling scabs, black eyes, mild concussions, and, in the case of one unfortunate toddler, the arrival of a rare mental disorder that caused her to taste colors and smell textures.