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The gnomes I’ve known


A tiny pipe for smoking marijuana, also know as a one-hitter, is just one of the many odd things I’ve seen or found while mowing the grass at an apartment complex in North Liberty, a small town a few miles from Iowa City, where we live.
Technically, I wasn’t mowing the day I came across the pipe. Instead, I was making it easier and safer to mow by trimming the low, dead branches off a row of pines that flank one edge of the property. Nothing ruins a day like being poked in the eye. I looked up and spotted the pipe hanging on a small twig protruding from the tree’s trunk. Made of glass, it was three inches long and featured an exquisitely blown green tree frog on one end.
Old, water-soaked softballs are another odd thing that I find time to time under the pines but I have an explanation for how they get there. Across the street sits the vacant Home Plate Lounge. When it first opened nearly 35 years ago it was quite the drinking hole, den of iniquity and softball players’ mecca. Owners Sean and Conor Murphy were alcoholics. The twin brothers drank up the profits so quickly that they often had to pass a hat among patrons to finance the next keg. On the backside building, the boys laid out a softball diamond, including an extra tall emerald outfield fence called the Green Monster that challenged the big sticks to clear for a home run. Behind the now-collapsed fence, Muddy Creek flows or, more accurately, trickles through dense weeds, under the street and behind the row of pines that sprout drug paraphernalia where I mow.
This is Iowa, where if you don’t like the weather you wait a few minutes. The occasional downpour quickly turns a trickle into a gully washer and sends sections of faded green plywood from the fence as well as long lost homeruns down the creek. The water pools up under the trees and maroons the artifacts when it recedes. I take the wood to the dump and toss the balls back into the creek to let faded glory bubble up again downstream another day.
Sometimes I wonder why I go to the trouble, the dozen-odd trees are on the backside of the property and few would notice if I stopped. When I took over the job, dead limbs hadn’t been removed in years, and tall, dense weeds had marched up from the creek and taken over the area. It was while clearing the weeds that I found something else odd: a paper bag containing a half full bottle of Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey laying near a small burned area in the grass. Perhaps some teenager living in the complex was sneaking out for a nip and a play with matches?
The bottle didn’t go to the dump or back into the creek. The reader can guess what became of it.
But by far the oddest things I come across are the porcelain gnomes that pop up in various places around the building. So far I’ve seen about a half-dozen of them, but never two at the same time. They’re all dressed alike in black boots, blue pants, faded red shirt, blue suspenders and a green hat. They also look alike: red, chubby cheeks and nose peaking out from gray furry eyebrows, mustache and beard.
Where they come from I haven’t a clue.
All I know is that I come around a building or look in an unexpected place like behind the garbage dumpster and there’s one of the little fellas. While they look and dress alike, each has its own unique pose. The one by the dumpster, for example, stood cross-legged with hands behind back, eyes rolled up to the sky and lips pursed as if to whistle. Another, I found as if frozen in mid stride while running, one foot on the ground, one hand out front and the other behind. And that’s the other odd thing about the gnomes, I always feel like I see them moving out of the corner of my eye before I turn my gaze their way.
Then last week, I found one laying face planted in the dirt under the hydrangea bushes on the front side of the property. I picked him up and found yet another pipe, near identical to the one I discovered in the tree, lying underneath him. When I pulled him close to brush off leaves and dirt I was greeted with the distinct smell of Irish whiskey.