3 min read

Potato Blossoms

A short story for Mark Strand published in Portland Monthly Magazine's Summer Issue 2022.
Potato Blossoms
The image is of a young girl working in a garden. (Photo by Derek Owens.)

One summer, a poet traveled from Utah to USM in Gorham, Maine, to teach writing for a week. If I tell you his name, this becomes a different kind of story, so I won’t. The poet was a popular teacher and after the last class, his students brought many bottles of wine. He read from his new book and the afternoon became an evening that went long into the night.

The next morning, the poet sat at a table in the campus dining hall drinking tea and looking out an open window at an old oak. The warming breeze carried the acerbic scent of the tree.

A young woman sat down. She reminded him of her name, Elaine Porter, and told him that though she attended his classes, and wrote some song lyrics in the past, she was not a poet. She’d been traveling through town, saw his face in the newspaper, typed out five poems, lied on the application, and applied to attend. She told him she dropped out of community college.

The poet smiled his famous sly smile and said, “Guess you were supposed to be there.”

The woman was in her early twenties and wore the same clothes she wore all week. She spoke quickly, clipping her sentences into phrases that banged into each other. She asked him where he was going. He told her he was going to Prince Edward Island to visit family. She said she always wanted to see the island and if he had gas money, she could drive him there.

“Thank you,” he said, “but a friend is coming.”

“It’s just that I can’t go back,” she said.

“Are you in trouble?” the poet said in his usual calm way.

A broad-shouldered older woman in faded coveralls entered the dining hall and walked toward the table.

“I have to go,” Elaine said, but stayed at the table with her back turned to the approaching woman. When she was close, the poet saw a resemblance.

The woman looked at the poet and said, “You the reason she ran away? You’re older than I am.”

The poet said, “Elaine was a student in my poetry class.”

“Poetry?” She said, “What does that mean?”

“Poems, Mom,” Elaine said, “I wrote some poems and took his class.”

“The potato one,” the poet said, “I remember was good.”

Elaine’s mom said to Elaine, “Potatoes? You hate potatoes.”

“I hate living on a farm up in nowhere.”

“Is this true?” Elaine’s mother said to the poet.

“True as in she wrote a poem?” the poet said, “Or true in some other way? I remember she used the words ‘potato’ followed by ‘blossoms’. It sounds both comic and nostalgic. It reminded me of the white and pink flowers in the fields where I grew up.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Elaine’s mom said, “For God’s sake.”

The poet said, “Maybe Elaine’s a writer. Maybe she should go back to college.”

“College? She’s so dumb she used my credit card and the bank called me,” Elaine’s mom said, and sat down. “She can’t even run away right.”

“Maybe she wanted you to find her,” the poet said.

“She’s crazy,” Elaine’s mom said, “We can’t afford college.”

The poet said, “We should look into that.”

Summer wind came through the window touching their clothes and their faces.

The poet is gone. Elaine’s mother is gone. Elaine graduated from USM, traveled widely teaching English for the Peace Corps, retired from teaching high school in Portland, Maine, after 21 years, and passed away two years later. She was loved by her students and her memory is cherished by her daughter and her husband.

There are a few of us who know what the poet did for her. She never saw him again and thanked him in letters which are archived somewhere turning to dust.

There was Elaine Porter, young, hair streaked with rain, clothes smelling of wet soil, running away from her past, sitting before a battered typewriter in the Gorham Public Library writing her future with the words “potato blossoms”.


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