The Quotable

Can’t See the Fence for the Weeds

It wasn’t my rock that hit the retard in the face. I told my mother that after she picked me up from the county sheriff’s office in the middle of the night, and I told the judge that after the woman who lived in that house brought charges against me. I mean, I threw stuff, but I didn’t break any windows. It didn’t make much difference, though, because my mom didn’t believe a word I said and the judge still called my offense battery. Way I see it, the woman just had it in for me, turned her porch light on and saw me running away down the gravel road with my girlfriend and thought I was as good a target as any. Maybe thought she could scare some money out of my mother so I wouldn’t get sent to the Center.

Everyone in our tiny-ass town knows her house is a dump. What’s one or two more dents in the siding or windows to replace in rooms with nobody living in them? I’m feeling in a piss poor mood, too, so when the judge asks why I was out at the end of town throwing rocks at Ms. Samson’s house, I stand up, my mother behind me with her hand firmly clamped on my shoulder, and I tell him that he’s never given a shit about Ms. Samson’s property before. My mother’s red nails dig into the muscle just above my collarbone.

“Young man,” the judge speaks in a watery deep voice, “your actions not only cost Ms. Samson another window, but it cost her boy a broken nose and a concussion. If you don’t see anything wrong with that then I’m sure I’ll be seeing you back in this courtroom real soon.”

“Concussion ain’t gonna hurt him,” I mumble not quietly enough, “he’s already a fuckin’ SpEd.”

Ms. Samson draws in a loud sharp breath, her eyes raging and her face screwed up and wrinkled like a bulldog. She turns to the judge. “Your honor,” she says, her voice rasping like rubbing together two pieces of sandpaper, “since the boy’s a minor and he sadly can’t do no hard time, I’d like to ask his community service sentence be served with me.”

The judge leans forward on his bench, folding his hands in front of him.  “Ms. Samson, this doesn’t happen all too often,” he says, “but this is a small town and we all go back a long ways. As per your request, I’m willing to grant a pretrial diversion for the boy.”

The judge turns his eyes to me, continuing, “That means, young man, that you will knowingly and willingly enter a guilty plea. However,” he says, raising a finger, “since you are a juvenile and a first-time offender, you will serve your sixty hours of community service with Ms. Samson who will send the sheriff and me a daily report as to your work and behavior. You will be checked on at Ms. Samson’s property by a deputy once a week. If you complete these sixty hours satisfactorily without a repeat offense, your guilty plea will be expunged, you will not do time at the Juvenile Center, and your mother will not have to pay the hefty fine I would otherwise bestow on you.”

I try to spin around and plead with my mother, make her see that Ms. Samson will probably devise ways to kill me while I’m out there doing useless shit at her command, that anything was better than this. My mother’s hand just keeps gripping my shoulder, though, and I’m pulled to face front, my mother whispering to me that I’m going to take what punishment I’m given because whatever it is, I deserve worse. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my girlfriend sitting tense and scared two rows back, knowing full well that the wrong person is getting punished. I stare blankly at the dark wood paneling on the judge’s bench, my shoulder sagging under the weight of my mother’s hand, and somewhere in the distance I hear the judge telling Ms. Samson that she’ll need to provide me with a lunch every day.

“I am happy to oblige,” Ms. Samson says, “and I have a perfect job in mind for him, too, that’ll keep him the right amount of busy and bored. He’ll learn his lesson.”

“So be it.”

As the judge finishes delivering the orders for my community service, sitting his ass up high in his bench, I watch Ms. Samson glower at me, her grey hair hanging in greasy strings in front of red, puffy eyes and her muumuu stained the color of hard Georgia clay.



Ms. Samson’s house is three stories tall. Don’t know why she keeps living in it. It’s just her and her messed up son, rattling around the first floor because the second and third floors are too unstable to walk on, I guess. The window that broke, the one the Samson boy was standing in front of, is to the left of the front door, a big bay window. The bay window sits underneath eaves that hang low and crooked and, if the person throwing the rock knew what they were doing, would be easy to get a rock in.

I show up that first summer morning at ten o’clock, dropped off by my mother who don’t trust me to get there on my own. Ms. Samson stands on the front porch, waiting for me, and I suddenly feel like all those ants I fried under a magnifying glass. My mother gives her a quick nod and turns the car around, leaving me in a cloud of dust and alone with a woman who’s received countless bags of flaming dog shit on her porch throughout the years. I feel retribution burning down on me like the sun on my neck.

“Well,” Ms. Samson calls from the shade of her front porch, “c’mon inside and we’ll get you started.”

There’s no front yard to Ms. Samson’s home; the gravel drive runs in a smooth curve right in front of the porch steps. The house is sided with dark, unpainted wood, some cracked and peeling away with age. A rusted pickup truck off to the right of the house sits like a prisoner, grimy and overworked, its wheels fitted into two deep tire grooves in the dirt. My sneakers squeak as I scuff up the front steps, the weak and rotted wood sags just a little under my weight. The porch is disgusting, rotted leaves packed along the house in soggy, dew-damp heaps, dead spiders and cockroaches dried-up, their legs folded around their bodies in death, none of it ever swept off the porch even though a broom gathers cobwebs leaning against the siding to the right of the door. Ms. Samson eyeballs me from inside the doorway, motioning with a tilt of her head and a flick of her chin that I should get a move on. I step inside.

“Your name’s Jimmy, right?” she asks over her shoulder, moving off in to the gloomy foyer.


“Yes, ma’am,” she says.

“Yes, ma’am,” I answer, leaning on the word “ma’am” in a way so she knows I hate it. She just keeps walking down the hallway. There are no lights on in the house and though it’s sunny outside, none of the daylight seeps through the windows. The foyer leads in to the kitchen at the back of the house, past a few closed doors with God knows what behind them. I guess I thought the kitchen would be as filthy as the porch, but I walk into a room that’s surprisingly neat and even cozy. The counters are yellow with age but wiped clean. A stack of dishes with an orange trim dry in a rack by the sink. The refrigerator sits in the left corner of the kitchen and is a moldy green color, but the magnets on it remind me of farmhouses: roosters sitting on a barn roof, a small magnet that reads “Mama’s Kitchen,” and, weirdest of all, one of those hand-print turkeys children make for Thanksgiving all covered with glitter and glued-on macaroni. The handprint is bigger than mine.

Ms. Samson takes a seat at a table in a small breakfast nook right in front of me. A grown man, who looks to me to be about thirty, is sitting at the table eating a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. He looks up as I enter the room, spoon midway between the bowl and his mouth, and smiles widely, his mouthful of oatmeal dribbling out the corners of his lips and splat-splatting into his lap. I try not to let my face show disgust, but feel the corners of my mouth pull up anyway. Tears start welling in the man’s wide-set brown eyes as he looks from his lap to his mother and back again. He sets the spoon back in the bowl as Ms. Samson silently picks up a dishtowel and begins wiping his face and lap clean. The man has a horribly split lip, bandages over his nose, and a bruise the size of a fist purpling his left cheekbone. Fuck, his face got hit worse than I ever could have pictured.

“This is Robert,” Ms. Samson said, not looking at me as she gently patted her son’s mutilated face. “He ain’t smart, that’s for sure, but he’s a harmless boy and he’ll keep you company while you work.”

“Work at what?”

“My backyard. Can’t see the fence for all the weeds. You’re gonna clear it out for me.” Ms. Samson motions to a door to the right of the breakfast nook. Robert, forgetting his spilled oatmeal, gets up from his chair and walks toward the door. His movements are awkward, his feet turn in, and his arms remind me of puppets’ limbs with no one to pull the strings. He opens the door, turns to look at me. His eyes meet mine and he grins, wide and goofy, showing all his teeth. Pieces of dried oatmeal flake off around his chin, his split lip cracks wide and blood begins to bead there.

“I show you how,” Robert said. The break in his nose makes his tenor voice sound congested. Robert leads me on to a small porch overlooking a wilderness. I stare in dumb-shock at the thicket of tall grass and weeds, overgrown up to my hip.

“You want me to clear all that out? You off your fucking rocker!” I call over my shoulder in to the dim kitchen. Before I have time to turn and walk back into the house to say fuck this shit, Ms. Samson is behind me. I feel the heat coming off Ms. Samson’s body, trapped between the small space between us. The smell of unwashed teeth and oily hair rolls around me and I feel a swirl of bile and puke rise in my throat. When she speaks, her words are too close to my ear.

“You listen to me, boy, you listen good,” she whispers, “you got a problem with the punishment you deserve, I get it, but if you ain’t going to do what I say then it’s a report to the judge that won’t make your sentence any less. You messed with my home and the only family I got left. I ain’t ever asked for anything from anyone. You’re going to pay for what you did, starting with this backyard and ending when I say. The more you complain the more I will heap on you till, by God, you got so much shit to work through you’ll feel like you’re swimmin’ in a septic tank.”

I swallow hard. “Yes, ma’am.” My words come out quiet, humbled, and I feel my guts twist a little. Robert stands silently as Ms. Samson speaks, swaying softly from side to side, one finger pointing straight at the sky, his eyes watching the clouds.

“Robert, show him where the tools are,” Ms. Samson leans away from me, turning back in to the house and shutting the door.

Robert beckons with a dirty hand, “C’mon dis way.”

In the corner of the small wooden porch Robert throws back a tarp that covered a pile of various tools. I count eight screwdrivers, a rusted out lawnmower, three pairs of large garden shears, a hammer, and a small can of nails. The grass is too high to try using the lawnmower. Furious, I grab a pair of shears.

“Fuck this stupid shit. Honestly? A fucking forest against a pair of garden shears? Fuck this!”

“Heh…heh…’fuck,’” Robert pokes at the lawnmower, “fuck…fuck…fuuuuuck.”

“Yeah, you got it, big guy.” I sling the shears over my shoulder and walk to the edge of the porch, stepping down one or two steps to begin cutting as low as I can at the weeds.

By noon, I made a small semi-circle about a fifteen foot radius round the base of the porch steps, cutting the grass down so that I might use the lawn mower to finish it later. Robert stays outside with me the whole time, braving past my semi-circle of shortened grass and leaping in the long grass like he’s jumping on a trampoline. I ignore him, but know he’s always there by the little high-pitched nasal giggles echoing around the yard. Finally, Ms. Samson calls to me from the kitchen that she’s fixed a lunch and to call Robert, too.

I whistle to Robert like I whistle to my dog, “Time for lunch, big guy!” As he comes bounding back through the tall grass, I let out a low groan. Fuck my life. Robert’s legs, bare past the knee, are covered in small black dots. Ms. Samson, standing on the porch, shrieks when she sees her son.

“Damn it, Robert! Look at all them ticks on your legs! Why’d you go out there wearing shorts? All them ticks!” Robert looks smaller suddenly, cowed, only now she rounds on me and I shrink, too, beneath her words. “Why didn’t you watch him? You know ticks coulda been out there! Don’t you understand he’s like a child? The hell is wrong with you, boy?” She grabs Robert’s hand and yanks him on to the porch, him grinnin’ like a fool, and me standing there like one. Ms. Samson retrieves a chair from inside the house and sits Robert down facing her as she brandishes a pair of tweezers.

“Mama?” Robert’s voice rises with apprehension as the woman kneels close to her son’s hairy legs.

“Hush and you hold still.” She begins digging at her son’s flesh with the tweezers, getting as deep as she can before yanking at the heads of the ticks that lay burrowed and feeding beneath his skin.

One by one, I watch Ms. Samson pull ticks from her son’s legs. Ten ticks…fifteen…and still more to go. My eyes are fixed in horror on Robert, who begins crying in a way that only toddlers do, loud like skin is being pulled from bones, like he’ll feel the pain of ticks being yanked from his legs the rest of his life. Panicked, Robert begins to push his mother away from his shins with violent swats of his big hands.

“Boy!” Ms. Samson snaps. I rip my eyes from Robert’s agonized face and she says, “Jimmy, grab his arms. I can’t get the ticks with him wailing at me. Grab his arms and hold ‘em down tight!”

I take the four steps up to the porch in two long strides and hesitantly approach Robert’s thrashing arms. His cries echo around the yard, bounce off the tall grass, reach up to the hot, blue sky like someone will save him. I stand behind his chair; I see his pale scalp up close through short dark hair. His left arm comes swinging around close to my ear and I grab it by the wrist, holding it tight enough to feel the tendons beneath his skin flex as he tries to get loose. A few more seconds and I have his right arm pulled up above his head, too.

Robert tips his head back to look at me, kicking his legs out straight and knocking his mother over. She scrambles back to a squatting position, lifts his ankles on her knee and clamps an arm tight around his sneakered feet. With the other arm she begins digging again at his legs, little spots of blood appearing where she yanks indiscriminately at skin, hair, and tick. I look at the man’s face upside-down, his wails blasting me full in the face, the bruise on his cheekbone puffed and his split lip bleeding freely. Snot dribbles from his nose and flows to his mouth, so that each time he cries for his mother to stop picking at his legs, a mixture of mucus, tears, spit, and blood form strings between his lips. Ms. Samson’s mouth is set and she ignores her son’s howling, though I couldn’t help but see her eyes, those eyes that only saw me in anger, grow watery listening to her son’s cries.

Only when she finally pulls all the ticks from Robert’s legs, all thirty-two of them, and crushes them each by grinding them in to the wooden porch with the edge of the tweezers, does she acknowledge her son’s incessant crying, pulling his wrists from my hands, soothing the red marks my fingers left, holding him at arm’s length by his shoulders and gently hushing him.

“It’s alright now,” she coos. She hugs her son gently and over his shoulder she tilts her head up to look me in the face. I am frozen behind the chair like an ugly statue. She nods only once to me, quick and almost invisible, before she closes her eyes and pats her son softly on the back, his sobs and hiccups slowly dissolving into tired little whimpers.



Thirteen days into my community service sentence, four hours a day spent with Ms. Samson, I’ve somehow cut to a manageable height the tall grass in her backyard. Ms. Samson knows I’m taking it easy, my own way of saying I still don’t give a flying shit, but she don’t say nothing and lets me cut the grass in my own time and at my own slow pace. In the process I’ve found twelve softballs, a rake, and a moldy teddy bear. I had to cut about a hundred feet back before I hit any sort of fence. I remember thinking, half way through, that I was never going to find the fence, I was just going to keep hacking at grass, hauling the chopped down bits to a pile in the corner of the yard, never going to find the sign that I could quit. Robert keeps me company every day still, but after his incident with the ticks, he refuses to leave the porch even after I’ve shorn the grass down so the lawnmower can handle it.

The afternoon of my thirteenth day it’s nearly too hot to work outside. I’m working on fixing the lawnmower, making sure all the parts work, because I sure as hell ain’t going to clip grass with a pair of shears anymore. My hands are covered in oil as I dig around the insides of the machine; it seems like it’ll all work but it sure won’t look pretty. Ms. Samson walks on the back porch, I see her shadow just past my shoulder as I put the sparkplug back in the mower.

“You done good work,” she said finally. “How’s about you take a break and do something else for me?”

“Then it ain’t a break, is it?” I mumbled. My comments, as usual, are ignored.

“How old are you?”


“You can drive a manual?”

“As good as anybody.” I stand up straight, interested for the first time in what Ms. Samson might ask me to do, wipe my greasy hands on my sweaty shirt.

“Take Robert with you down to the store. Mind you be good with him, you hear? Don’t know why, but the boy has taken some kind of liking to you. Likes to be out here and watch you work. It’ll be a bad report to the judge if you let anything happen to him, hear? Pick me up the things on this list. I reckon if you haven’t tried to skedaddle off just yet, you won’t do now.”

She flicks her wrist, sends the keys to the truck sailing through the air towards me. I catch them no problem, loving how the keys ring nice and sweet in my fingers, and walk up the porch steps, past Ms. Samson, and into the kitchen. Robert stands there waiting for me, smiling his grin and clutching the shopping list and a ten dollar bill in his hand like a used tissue.

“Give it here, big guy, and we’ll get going.” I hold out my hand and Robert places the crumpled pieces of paper in my palm. I cringe as I realize the paper’s soggy with his spit.

“Can’t believe this shit,” I mumble, making my way back through the house not caring if Robert’s behind me. Know that he has to be ‘cause of his big echoing footsteps anyway. The truck sits in exactly the same place as on the first day I was here. The door squeaks as I open it and rust falls from the hinges on to the browned grass. Robert bounds around to the passenger side and hops in with one hearty jump. The truck cranks up no problem, and in minutes, we’re cruising bumpily down the gravel road towards town, the wheel spinning easily in my hands. I grin wide and giddy like Robert does. Robert’s sitting on his hands, leaning forward in his seat taking in all the mundane detail as if he’s seeing diamonds.

“Mama don’t let me out the house a bunch.” Robert surprises me by speaking, and I turn to him to find his cow-dumb eyes already on me. I have nothing to say.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. Mama say I’m better at home with her.”

“Well,” I struggle for words, “it’s just a quick trip anyway.” Robert smiles and turns his gaze back out the window. About ten minutes later, I park the truck in front of the small-town grocery store. I always kind of liked the grocery store ‘cause it reminds me of those general stores in the Old West movies: wooden shelves, old advertisements hanging everywhere, a counter with candy in glass jars. Still, it wasn’t until we reach the grocery store that I realize I actually have to walk in there with Robert. My stomach knots itself in nervous twists and I dread the thought of someone I know seeing me with him.

“Okay Robert,” I say before opening my door, “we’re gonna go in there and you’re gonna stay right with me and not wander off, okay? We’re gonna go get the stuff for your mom and then we’re going to stand in line and not move until I’ve paid and we can go, okay? You tell me you understand.”

“Yeah,” Robert answers, his fingers moving in the air like writing on an invisible chalkboard.

“Okay, let’s go.”

We enter the grocery store, knocking the cowbell that hangs on the door frame. No taking back our arrival now. Robert stays close to me the entire time I pick up the groceries, finding the few items Ms. Samson needs quickly: bread, peanut butter, frozen peas, oatmeal. He doesn’t touch anything or speak to anyone, just stays with me and breathes loudly, but I can’t help but notice everyone we pass giving us a wider circle of space than necessary, eyeing Robert with a kind of distrust I sort of feel like he don’t deserve. Robert doesn’t notice, but I feel again like being a bug under a microscope, something disgusting that still has to be poked at with a stick.

“Whatever. To hell with ‘em,” I say to Robert, though I suppose it was mostly for me to just hear out loud.

As we stand in line, the thin metal handles of the basket cutting into the crook of my elbow, I notice the man behind the cigarette counter waving me over.

“I can check you out here, man. No reason to stand in line when you got just those few things.”

“Hey, thanks man. Appreciate it.” I move to place my items on the counter, calling casually over my shoulder for Robert to come with me.

The clerk rings up the items, I pay with Ms. Samson’s still-soggy ten dollars, grab the single paper bag and begin walking towards the door. Make it almost to the exit before I check to make sure Robert’s behind me. Shit.

Turning around to find him, I have a moment of panic when my eyes don’t fix right away on his slobbery face. Shit shit shit. I lost Robert in a grocery store. And then, there he is. Standing in the line I left when the cigarette clerk called me over. He looks so out of place, standing third in line to the check-out, one arm bent so his wrist rests under his chin, a bandage still over his purple nose, and split lip that won’t heal ‘cause he keeps smiling. No basket with food, no money, no clue.

“C’mon big guy, let’s go.” From the door, I motion with the hand not holding the grocery bag. His eyes flick uncertainly to me, but Robert keeps standing there, looking more confused than usual, shifting his weight from left foot to right foot and back. I try again.

“Robert, I’ve paid now, let’s go.” The people in line behind Robert notice for the first time that he doesn’t actually have groceries. The cashier is a girl my age who looks nervous, like if Robert actually came up to her, she might turn the other way and run.

“Robert,” I say more forcefully, “let’s go.”

Robert drops his arm, takes a step closer to the person in front of him, a woman with her child sitting in the cart. The woman must sense Robert’s closeness because she doesn’t turn to look at him, just hunches her shoulders over her child a little protectively. I walk to Robert, ignoring the gazes of the two people in front of him and the new line forming behind him. I get right close to his ear, notice it hasn’t been cleaned in a long time.

“Robert. Big guy. We gotta go now. I got the stuff. Let’s go.”

“Go?” Robert’s eyes are transfixed at some unknown point on the wall, but he speaks to me like he understands. I turn and walk away again, satisfied that he’ll follow, but pausing after about ten steps to double check he’s there anyway. He’s not. The dumbass is still standing in line and now everyone else but me is giving about a four foot area of dead space between the man and themselves. God damn it.

“Robert,” I call from the door, “Robert let’s go now. Right now. Let’s go!”

I can’t understand why he won’t move but now everyone at the front of the store is looking first at me, then at Robert, like we’re the same. Both too damn stupid to know how to fix the situation. The anger, the resentment, builds and boils in my stomach till I can’t take it anymore. My vision blurs with fury at my helplessness, being punished by a woman who just needed a landscaper, my mother who drops me off every morning like a child, my girlfriend who threw the damn rock with her weak arm, my girlfriend whose shitty aim, whose sobs convinced me to cover for it all, take it all like it was mine because I talked her in to going out there in the first place.

“God damn it, Robert!” I yell. Robert jumps at the force of my words and actually takes a step backwards, tears leaking over his lower eyelids, “We’ve got to get back to your mother because lord knows if anything happens to you it’s my hide’s gonna pay for it so get the hell moving!” It is only now, panting with the effort of my rage, that I notice everyone in the store is staring at me instead of Robert. If I could collapse upon myself and vanish, I would. Sighing, I step towards Robert again. He flinches as I approach and the other customers in line lean back even farther from me now.

“Robert,” I coax, freed of my frustration, “let’s get you home now. To your mama.” I reach down with my free hand and gently touch Robert’s fingers. His hand is soft, hasn’t seen a days’ work ever, and the idea blooms in my head that Robert has never been to school, either, never played on a playground, or roasted marshmallows in a backyard fire pit, or snuck out of his house to make-out with his girlfriend and to practice unhooking her bra, or thrown rocks at a house that everyone treats as abandoned even though two people still rattle around on the first floor.

Slowly, I place my hand in Robert’s huge palm and pull at his arm. He follows at last and I lead him gently away from the line of strangers who will never forget us.


Tarah Gibbs obtained her B.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing in 2009 from Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia.  She followed immediately with a M.A. in Secondary Education from the same institution.  Since then, Tarah has involved herself in community workshops aimed at marrying creative writing and the high school classroom.  In the fall of 2010, Tarah began an M.F.A. at Old Dominion University with a concentration in Fiction.  She is now in her second year in the program and continues to work as much as possible with children, their writing, and her writing.

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Issue 4 - Beginnings and Endings