The Garden

After Tommy died, she found that she rather preferred the company of her roses to that of her old friends – or anybody else, really.  It wasn’t that she was depressed as such.  In fact, she secretly took pride in the moment she’d told the doctor she wouldn’t need any medication to help her sleep, or to help with the sadness of losing him.  It was neither that she wasn’t sad.  Tommy was her other half, an extension of herself, and while he took a piece of her when he died, she had known he was not long for the world and that somehow prepared her for the greatest loss of her life. She wept, and she didn’t clean for the first few weeks, hoping she’d somehow keep him in the house so long as his scent, his shaving cream (which he hadn’t used for months before he died), and his dirty clothes remained.  One morning in early March, when the sun shone brightly, she simply felt it was time.  She did the laundry and rang the local Salvation Army, placed it all into bags and carried it outside (where it would remain until the following Thursday, when they came to do pick-ups).  She placed her hands on her hips, surveyed the world around her and realized the remainder of her journey would be solo, and though she continued to talk to him before bed every night, she no longer sobbed herself to sleep, and life went on.

Her friends came at first, bringing food and good whiskey and stories about old times.  But she found she was no longer much of a conversationalist, and she had the most bizarre sensation that they expected her to be frailer, more vulnerable.  And whether or not that was the case, or it was just her imagination, it put her off of socializing, and she found herself counting the minutes until her friends would make an excuse to leave and be on their way.

She ate well mostly, but fancy food was Tommy’s thing, and she found solace in her simple nightly ritual of a baked potato with butter and salt, an egg for breakfast and a simple salad for lunch.  The house began to feel a bit crowded with all the old furniture and the sad memories they bore (a dent in this arm chair from where he used to fall asleep, a burn mark on the table from where he let his cigar burn all those years ago).  Piece by piece the rooms became scarcer as she rang the Salvation Army to take it all away.  She had no need for it anyway:  her friends had stopped calling on her by now and it felt burdensome.  The small breakfast table with its two chairs, her sofa and end table in the living room, the record player and the shelves with all their albums, and in their bedroom, their bed and chest of drawers remained.

In the morning she would rise early, with or against her will, she never knew, because she simply woke at the same time without thinking about it.  Most often she saw the sun rise as she sipped her coffee and fried her egg.  Tommy had always wanted his scrambled.

Once, the boorish wife of one of Tommy’s more boorish friends said to her, “I only wish you had children…they’re such a comfort in times like these.”  At the time she just smiled, wondering, if she was a louder woman, how she would have liked to react. But as the days and weeks wore on, she often reflected upon the idea, and found that she felt relief knowing that she had no one with whom to share her grief.  She felt possessive over it: in much the same way young lovers feel no one could possibly know how deeply they love, she felt no one could miss him as she did – no one deserved to grieve as her equal.  She was queen of her kingdom of mourning, and that meant no one could tell her how to do it properly.

And in the spring that followed, as soon as the sun was up, she was dressed in her oldest, ugliest clothes, with a straw hat upon her head and tools in her hands.  She started with fruit trees, giddy with the macabre thought that the first cherries and peaches and apples that would fall from their branches would be sweet in the mouths of children she would never meet.  She put rosemary at the gate, hoping that passers-by would sneak branches for romantic dinners when she wasn’t looking, and honeysuckle and jasmine by the front door so that the living room smelled almost sickly sweet by late April.  By early May, with the help of her neighbor’s son, she had started a vegetable patch – the first she’d had in more than a decade – and she found that the seeds were as familiar to her fingertips as the calluses on his hands once were.

When night fell she was exhausted, and collapsed in her bed mumbling to Tommy about her day.  She slept on her side, with one pillow tucked tightly behind her, her hands clasped lightly on her pillow by her face, and she breathed deeply the smell of soil and weeds that never seemed to go away, no matter how much she washed her hands, and she slept soundly, quite often with a gentle smile on her face.

As the weeks pressed more deeply into summer, the weather became unbearably hot by noon, and so her afternoons were spent sitting on her porch, sometimes with an iced tea, others with an iced Dewar’s, surveying the products of her labor.  Her front lawn, once covered in grass that certainly wasn’t terrible to look at, was now a bouquet of deepest reds and purples, brightest greens and yellows, and the rich darkness of soil, spotted with saplings that stood as proudly as they might on their thin trunks, stationary, but somehow reminiscent of colts finding their feet.  When the sun set she would don her gloves and gently kneel alongside her petunias or her strawberries or her zucchini, weeding until it was too dark to see.

The days passed like this until they became weeks, and then months, with one or two visits from a friend or neighbor, or one of their children, because they happened to be in the neighborhood, because they were just passing through, and they would stay, sometimes, for a drink before leaving.  Apart from the mailman, though, she saw no one regularly and no one saw her, except her plants, to whom she’d begun to talk because she read somewhere that they liked that, and she liked being able to talk as and when she pleased about what she liked, without all the furrowed brows and consoling tones to contend with.

One day, late in August, she had to stop weeding not because the sun had set, but because it began to rain quite suddenly and quite fiercely, and she made her way as quickly as she could to get inside.  Over the next several days the rain didn’t let up, and though it was warm she could not go outdoors, and so sat by the window with her drink, willing her trees to avoid the lightning that struck several times a day.  The mailman told her it was to be an Indian summer, and so she waited patiently until the rain stopped, and when it did she made her way out to her garden, elated to find it swamped but not destroyed, every last tree standing in triumph.

But before long the days began to get shorter, and cooler.  She harvested her squash and jarred her tomatoes in the evenings but found that she grew tired far earlier, and her nights were more fitful.  Getting up in the morning was never a problem, but by mid-morning she was exhausted, and she began taking catnaps on the sofa.  At first she sat upright: just resting my eyes, she’d think.  But before long she began to lie down and sleep more deeply.  And, as the days became colder she slept longer in the mornings, until she was waking up just in time for lunch, which she didn’t really care for anymore and so she often ate only at dinner.  In the evenings she would play a record – usually one of Tommy’s – and sit by the window, dreaming about what the garden would look like come spring.  But sometimes she would find herself drifting off there, by the window, and would wake up in the middle of the night wondering where she was.

The nights became so much more difficult, too, tossing and turning because she wasn’t really tired, and in fact she was hungry.  Warm milk in the wee hours of the morning was increasingly accompanied by a slice of bread, and quite often she would simply feel too awake to go back to bed.  So she decided to follow her body’s rhythm, and while she dressed and showered and breakfasted in the morning, she generally slept throughout the day, and spent her nights listening to Tommy’s records, sipping whiskey or hot tea, and flipping through the old copies of his favorite magazines she’d decided to keep at the last minute once when the Salvation Army came for a pick up.  She also decided to take up smoking again.

Of course, sleeping all day meant she had to do her shopping at night, and she counted herself quite lucky that the small grocery two blocks away was open all night.  Apart from a neighborhood drunk or an occasional police officer, her shopping went uninterrupted, until she ran into the son of that boorish woman one night, who drunkenly greeted her and asked what she was doing out at this ungodly hour, to which she refrained from asking what he was doing driving in that ungodly condition, and simply replied that she was doing the shopping and smiled.

The next day, just as she was lying down on the couch, her half-full glass of whisky beside her on the floor, his mother came knocking at her front door, peering in through the window before she could sit upright.  She came to the door and invited her in for a drink, but as usual conversation was lilted and broken and her guest thankfully made her way not long thereafter.

But the same afternoon she had a visit from a local social worker.  He was very short but still somehow seemed to loom over her as he asked if he could come in, and while she deeply wished she had the strength to turn him away, she’d never done anything like that in her life, and so opened her door and smiled.  “I’m sorry – I seem to have interrupted your nap,” he said to her, eyeing her sofa in a way she didn’t quite like, and she told him it was fine, and would he like a cup of tea?  “No thank you – I can’t stay long.  If you don’t mind though – is this all of your furniture?”  And she explained to him that she had donated it to charity – that this was all she needed.  “I see,” he mumbled as he scribbled down notes on a worn pad of paper.  “I have to be honest, I have concerns about your living arrangements,” he said, and she found herself speechless, because she couldn’t understand why he should have anything to say about her living arrangements, and she also wondered if he had perhaps not seen her garden as he came in.  “Ma’am?  Do you understand?”  And she suddenly felt quite nervous and anxious, and she told him about her garden, and all the trees she had planted, and the vegetables she’d harvested, and asked him if he wouldn’t like to take some tomatoes with him when he left.  Instead he said he would like to come see her the next day.

After he left she paced the house.  She had no appetite, and while she felt too exhausted to prepare a meal, she couldn’t seem to sit still for a moment.  She hadn’t slept at all that day, and night was nearing.  She couldn’t go for a walk outside as autumn had settled in and the wind made her bones ache terribly.  She looked out the window several times each hour, not knowing what she expected to see.  She tried to soothe her nerves with a glass of whisky, but it tasted rancid and made her stomach turn.  As the sun rose she began to feel nauseous – she knew she needed to eat and so went to the kitchen, intending to force herself to make an egg and coffee.  But her hand shook when she picked up the cast iron skillet her mother-in-law had bought them 40 years before, and she dropped it on the tiles, narrowly missing her toe and smashing four tiles to bits.  And for the first time in several months, she began to cry, but not for Tommy.  It was 8:00.

She walked to the hall closet, intending to get the broom and dustpan, but was stopped in her tracks by the knock at the door.  Before she could feign being asleep, the social worker had peered into her window, where he saw her standing, weeping, shaking, in the same clothes she’d worn the day before.  She opened the door and with her head hanging she tried to explain, feeling like a criminal or a naughty child, that she’d just felt quite nervous since he came, and she had the tiniest accident, but she could tell by the look in his eyes that he didn’t hear her – not really – and only heard the story he’d already told himself about her.

She remembered him asking her to sit down, but could not remember later what they had said.  She remembered that he had taken out his cell phone, but couldn’t remember who he’d called or why.  And then she remembered him walking with her to her room, and finding her suitcase (she had kept that?) tucked neatly behind her chest of drawers, and she remembered watching him reach into her drawers, removing her things to fill it up, and although she remembered that he spoke to her the whole time, and that she nodded her head as the tears rolled freely down her cheeks, she couldn’t remember what he talked about.

Everything else seemed so far away, now that she sat in this white room, with a couple of pieces of her furniture – the breakfast table, the shelves with their records – crowding the tiny space she had left.  Her precious silence was now broken continually by beeping and rolling and chatting and laughing and shouting and other people’s footsteps.

Sometimes, though, when she was left to sit for a couple of hours, as the white snow fell over the grounds outside her window, she imagined that the ground beneath it was covered in petunias, daffodils and tulips, that the vegetable patch was just over there, and all those big trees were hers, grown now and ready to blossom as soon as the snow melted in February or March.

But she was tired.  She was tired of being made to eat when she wasn’t hungry, to take pills that upset her stomach and – she thought – that made her forget too many details about her home, about her Tommy. And it was on one of those precious mornings, when the nursing home staff left her to stare out her window into the snow that held so much potential, she decided she didn’t want to be around to see if those flowers would replace the snow in spring.  She closed her eyes and opened them, and spoke to Tommy for the first time since arriving at the nursing home.

“I’m coming, Tommy.  I’ll see you soon.”  And she closed her eyes again.





4 thoughts on “The Garden

    1. Ann says:

      thank you, alex…lots of important people came to mind as i wrote it…no matter what we think, we’re never alone…we’re always with the people who’ve made us who we are, for better or worse. miss you.

  1. ron says:

    ann, yet another compelling character. her story provokes an emotional response and steers well clear of the maudlin. i really enjoyed reading this story.

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