American Soil by Andrea Boll

After my boyfriend betrayed me, the only thing that made me feel better was to dig in the dirt, which is how I ended up working for Khalil on an urban farm in the lower 9th ward. On my first day, he explained that his dream was to grow enough food for the community and simultaneously make enough money to live. I knew he sold weed to about half of New Orleans because my friend was one of his dealers, which is how he could afford his farm, but he didn’t know I knew and we never talked about it. He had a few acres, and when I started in early September, they were filled with okra, mustard greens, basil, and the last of the cucumbers.

Sometimes we stayed silent hauling dirt and building beds, but other times, he told me about fleeing Kuwait during Desert Storm when he was nine with his parents and four other siblings after his father became collateral damage from a suicide bomber. They ended up in Oakland, and his mom assimilated to America by no longer preparing Masgouf or Mujaddara, but by buying shitty American food like chicken nuggets and chicken pot pies.

When he was 16, his mom died of cancer, and Khalil was convinced that the processed American food with its industrial origins is what poisoned her body. And so actually, his urban farm was his way of avenging her death.

Of course I started to fall for him. How could I not? He too composted his sorrow into soil and vegetables. Not to mention, he was handsome with a body strong from farmwork and healthy eating.

He did not feel the same way. In fact, I watched as he fell for someone else, an artist who contacted him for help on her next project: to create a series of 6’ x 9’ gardens of flowers as a way to raise awareness of solitary confinement at Angola Prison. Each of the squares represented the size of the cells. She had received a massive grant, but lacked the gardening skills, which is how I found myself tilling the land for her art installation while she and Khalil flirted on the edge of the lot. For lunch, she brought us organic, free range chicken tamales that she assured Khalil she had not prepared because she was on her cycle and knew that may be “haram” since Khalil was Muslim. He said it was not and seemed flattered even though he told me he hadn’t been a practicing Muslim in years. Later, back at the farm, he told me that her mother had also died when she was 16, but of suicide. He sounded wistful and sad.

It took me a week to till the entire lot, which spanned almost two acres. By the time I finished, I could see they were in love. Of course I was disappointed, but their love seemed inevitable. Not only did they look alike with curly brown hair, blue eyes, and golden olive bodies, but they had matching sorrow I could never understand.

Later, my dealer friend confided in me that it was the artist who convinced Khalil to give up his weed empire, so scared she was to lose him to prison. I imagine this choice left him with significantly less cash to invest in his urban farm, but all he told me was that he couldn’t afford to pay me anymore. After a while, I stopped seeing him at the farmer’s markets and later I heard he had given up the farm completely. I also heard the artist’s solitary gardens were a huge success, but I never went to see them.

But that’s not what this story is about. It is about a bomb that someone made and buried in the artist’s back yard. Khalil and the artist were married by then and living in an old house in the 7th ward. It had been years since I had seen him.

When I read about his death in the paper, the artist/wife explained how Khalil was mowing when she heard a terrifying boom. She ran out to investigate and Khalil lay on the grass, bleeding and unconscious from pieces of the exploded lawnmower deep in his chest. Nobody knew why the bomb was there, who made it, or even how long it had been there, only that it lay waiting, a mine in American soil.

ANDREA BOLL — Andrea is a writer and educator who lives in New Orleans.  You may find other stories of hers featured in Eye Rhyme, Rio Grande Review, Gravel Magazine, New Orleans Review, and most recently in the anthologies Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans and Monday Nights: Stories from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans.

Art by DAEGAN LUNSFORD — Daegan is a multidisciplinary artist living in Canada. He currently works in gouache and egg tempera, as well as many other unconventional mediums. His artwork focuses on delight, nostalgia and Americana.