Zale Dillon was a fixture in my neighborhood growing up, acknowledged by all as the unofficial “mayor” of our street. I knew him best as the retired, always-home neighbor whose door I could knock on when I wanted to play with a dog.
One April afternoon, Zale found me at the edge of the dunes that hugged the waterline below my backyard. I was building forts in the reeds, bending spiky poles and covering them in last year’s dead sea grass. In one hand he held a shopping bag and the leash of his terrier. He offered his other hand to help me stand. “I’m here for the asparagus,” he explained. “I’ll show you.”
For 7-year-old me, the swath of sea grass was the boring part of our little backyard ecosystem by the Jersey Shore. I could collect shells on the beach, hide in the reeds, wade in the creek, and swim in the Navesink River; the dunes didn’t factor into my play map.
Zale led me to spot after spot in the sea grass, pulling aside brown-gray thatch to reveal groves of bright green spears. He showed me how to pick them from the base, and when I wondered how he found them in what looked like an infinite quilt of overlapping dead grasses, he showed me the wooden stakes he’d placed the previous fall. “Watch for the ferns,” he said. I looked at the green shoots in the plastic bag, my confusion so clear he laughed. “Whatever is left after picking turns into tall green ferns,” he told me. “I’ll show you this summer.”
After we picked out his patches, he walked me back home, calling a greeting to my mother as he and I entered the kitchen. Zale split his pile of wild asparagus, handing me a bunch so big I had to grip it with both hands. That night I tried it for the first time. It tasted like spring smells — earthy and wet.
The wild asparagus became our special connection. Zale showed me the ferns in late summer, and I helped him mark new patches for the next growing season. Each spring, I ran down the back steps to join him in the harvest. It was a shared precious thing between the creek and the river — and us.
One year, playing by the creek, I noticed it was time to harvest, but I hadn’t seen Zale in weeks. I grabbed a shopping bag and visited our stakes, picking a giant bundle. I raced down the street, eager to share the crop with my friend.
Zale’s wife answered the door, and gratefully accepted the bag of green spears. Zale couldn’t come thank me himself, she said. He’d been in the hospital and was resting. I must’ve been 12 or so then, and I remember feeling confused and worried. Spring asparagus without Zale was just . . . wrong. The idea that our special secret harvest might not happen frightened me.
I wish I could say Zale was back out there staking ferns that fall, and cutting stalks with me the following spring. But he was not. I saw him sometimes walking his little dog, but he no longer ventured onto the uneven footing of the beach path. It was a hard lesson for me, that in real life there isn’t always a nice ending.
Zale passed away while I was in high school. I left home for college, then moved on to grad school, then to a professional life with kids. I forgot about how eagerly we two had watched for the first shoots of spring. But three years ago, my husband and I planted asparagus crowns in our garden on Cape Cod; last year, for the first time, we harvested a few delicious spears. They tasted like springtime, and reminded me of a kind friend who had taken me by the hand to show me the secret of the dunes.
Erin M. Fischell is a scientist and writer in Falmouth. Send comments to email@example.com. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.