It has been one of those weeks, the sort that has left Keith incapable of doing much more than boiling water for tea and finding a sunny spot to sit and drink it in. Before he can get comfortable, I hand him a bucket.
“The walnuts,” I say. “We’ve been stumbling over them all month. Go pick some up and give them a good whack with a hammer. You’ll feel better.”
“I doubt it,” he tells me, though I suspect a little distraction will do him good. And in ten minutes he’s back to his sunny spot and his tea with a bucket full of black walnuts, his grandfather’s cobbler’s hammer hooked over the rim.
I’m on a mission to keep the deer from destroying our smaller trees by hanging bars of Irish Spring from their limbs, but I go by to check on him. “Is that how your Uncle Herman did it?” I ask.
He stops, the hammer in mid air. “I have no idea,” he tells me. He sounds peeved, so I shake my head at him and head off for the Japanese maples.
He probably is peeved—at himself. For at least the last fifty years of his life, his Uncle Herman gifted Keith’s parents, and eventually, us, with a quart jar of black walnuts for Christmas. Every fall, he’d drive his Ford tractor to a stand of walnut trees near the ferry and rake them into the bucket. Night after night, he’d get up from the supper table, head to the basement, and shell those walnuts. Keith knew his uncle did this because it was the sort of thing his Aunt would complain about:
“Herman? Oh, he’s down to the basement. Left me with all these dishes to do.” But the fact is, Keith never saw it for himself, and it never occurred to him to ask his uncle how he did it.
Not until now, of course, when he’s no longer around to answer the question.
After twenty minutes of shattering walnuts that contain absolutely no nuts, Keith is beginning to suspect that his laziness has gotten the better of him: He only picked up the walnuts that already had lost their hulls, figuring they surely must be the ripe ones. Wrong! I watch him trek back over to the walnut grove, where he discovers that if he stomps on the ones with the brown hulls and then rolls them with the ball of his foot, the hull breaks away completely. He takes a dozen of these back to the concrete stoop to whack them.
They do have nuts inside them. Unfortunately, they look like shriveled batwings. And here he comes again.
“Any luck?” I ask.
He is curt. “Nope,” he tells me.
“You could go check the Internet,” I say. “Somebody out there knows how to tell when walnuts are ready to crack.”
“That’s like telling a lost man to ask for directions,” he growls as he walks back to the grove.
He has only two choices left: the really green ones or the sort of green ones. He opts for the latter, choosing nuts whose hulls are loose but not brittle.
Back at the stoop, he holds his breath as he hits the first one. The hammer connects with more of a thud than a whack, suggesting that what’s inside is still moist. The shell splits neatly in half, and for the first time, he sees something that actually looks like a walnut. When he taps a half on its point, the shell splits away cleanly, and he holds in his hand a nut that is white as an egg inside and brown as tooled leather outside.
He hollers at me. “I got one!” He waves and smiles, and as soon as he knows I’ve seen the proof, he eats it. There’s plenty more where that one came from.
If he hits them on the narrow end, they halve and quarter fairly symmetrically. A few more taps breaks the wooden membrane that separates them, and the nutmeats are his. By this time next week, he’ll have a pint or so.
But first, he thinks he’ll call the kids to tell them to stop by.
You know, so they can see this for themselves?
*Re-read Housman’s poem (which is, of course, about cherry, not walnut, trees) online at http://www.bartleby.com/123/2.html.