There sits a garden in the backyard, but I haven’t tended to it in years. I can only look out at it through the kitchen window when I bother to keep the curtains open. It’s a pretty garden, to be sure. Nature has become its attendant. She isn’t picky about what inhabits that lowly patch of dirt, surrounded by unkempt grass, and opportunistic vines. Sometimes, whenever visitors come over, I let them into the backyard. These visitors of mine are slow and plodding. Often they only venture a few steps down the uneven, stone path pushing through the tall grass toward the garden. I always keep to the backdoor, watching as my visitors wonder silently to themselves why the yard’s in such a frayed state.
“Do you grow any tomatoes or cucumbers? How about peas or beans?” My visitors ask, though aren’t always sure what to say when they see my garden. Words stumble out of their mouths and I’m reluctant to pick them up. There was once a visitor who crossed her arms and muttered in a rather declarative fashion, “You’ve left the garden untended!” This was a very true and right thing to say. I was glad that she told me this. I was so glad to finally hear truth spoken about my messy, tangled, dishevelled garden.
This visitor was pretty in that unremarkable way that some people are. When I first spotted her in the grocery store, I almost left her in the dustbin of my imagination. She was in the vegetable aisle with a cart filled with sugar-loaded delights and bottom bargained items. The third wheel on her cart furiously spun and wobbled, resenting its current situation. I was standing only several feet in front of her, minding the tomatoes. The fruits were glossy and large. I handled a tomato gingerly, inspecting it for the tell-tale signs of predisposition to mould and decay. When I placed it back down, I could see the woman and her lopsided cart right beside me.
“I was hoping these would be on sale.” Her voice was just as unremarkable as her freckle-spotted face. Flat and dry, just like her long, brown hair. “But they never are.” She might’ve smiled at me, or she might’ve smiled at her precarious attempt at human interaction. Although I didn’t usually go to grocery stores to intermingle with my fellow denizens of over-stocked aisles and scuff-marked floors, I figured that I was due for a harmless conversation on the state of these artificial tomatoes.
“I like to get them on Wednesdays. The truck comes in Tuesday afternoon and the fruits are unloaded the next day. Always freshest to get them now.” I could feel my chest swell as I skipped through that conversational delight. My fellow interlocutor, inspecting the tomato that I put back in the display, didn’t respond right away. It was in her pause, in the interim of our introductory dialogue when I immediately took to her. Often, people are rushing to fill the silence. The vegetable girl, with her loaded cart and thin red lips, was content to simply let my words echo throughout the store. My words were to be unmoored to social conventions and obligatory meaningless, and for this they found no immediate harbour to rest in.
“I always come in on Wednesdays.” She left me with those words. I pondered and inspected those words as I kept by the tomatoes, staring down at the red, curvature of red tomato space. It was those words that would reinforce my habit of coming in early every Wednesday afternoon to the quaint grocery store.
Sometimes she would be there, other times it would just be me and the lonely aisles. Sometimes I would see the vegetable girl in the cereal channel, perusing the boxes with their sugary, gluten-loaded wonders. At other times I would walk in from the late summer heat, finding reprieve in the cool air of the grocery store air. She’d be at the counter already, checking out her overflowing cart. A few times after I missed our silent meeting, I began to note she always had four or six tomatoes of medium size and with the hint of ripeness in her cart. It was the tomatoes that would connect us once more. Every week my visits to the grocery store lasted longer and longer. I would wait by the tomatoes and call out to the cashiers and grocers who had grown to have names and personalities. Tom was the friendly one, Bella was the angry one, Frank was the timid one, and Don always had the air of exhaustion and barely concealed depression. They became my friends, along with the tomatoes, who were always red and bulbous.
It wasn’t until the warm air of August had been replaced by November’s chill that I finally spoke with vegetable girl again. Although we often saw one another, neither of us moved our pawns forward. She’d rattle down the aisles, usually opting for one damaged cart or another. While it was usually loaded with household food, this time her cart wasn’t nearly as full. In fact, the day that we reunited, her cart only kept a half a dozen, prime items. Golden shrimp rings and two bottles of wine, a pretentiously small box of crackers, and the baker’s choice of doughnuts and bagels. Still, I could tell it was her by the desperate motion of her cart, matched by the uncaring gliding of her steps. Were she not chained to the creaking cart, she’d be majestically striding down the aisles, picking up items and placing them gently in a dainty, green basket.
I was still standing by the tomatoes when her cart just nudged past me. “Sorry,” she shifted her cart a bit over, and looked up at me. This time, she said something more. Her voice wasn’t nearly as flat as it once was. Her lips, were fuller. Her hair was curly and bouncing now. I glanced away from the tomatoes and did my best to seem unconcerned by her cart touching the back of my warm, black jacket. It was a vicarious touch, and one that I would remember often as something almost messianic. “Oh, if it isn’t the tomato connoisseur, himself. I’ve been wondering if I would see you again.” Her laugh was one so unfamiliar and foreign to me. When I heard laughter, it was only canned and timed to the comedic beat of beautiful strangers trapped in my glowing box. This was a real laugh. Delicious, red, and juicy. Could I capture this laugh, myself? Perhaps I could take her and trap her in my glowing box, and whenever I looked out at the garden, I could play her melodious laughter and be reminded that some things couldn’t be entirely constrained.
I must’ve replied in a charming manner. She must’ve leaned against her cart, moving just a little bit closer to me. Her finger nails were long and red, digging into the plastic handle of her grocery cart. We must’ve spoken some more, and not only about the tomatoes. Our conversation had transcended the nativity grocery store. Now we were walking away from the tomatoes and down the aisle, conversing on topics pertinent to her life and mine. I remember this day in perfect detail, except for the conversation that shuttled her out of the store and into my bungalow. That conversation is lost in fragmentary echoes, perhaps still bouncing off the walls, confined to forever reverberate into indiscernible ripples in the closed air of that grocery store.
Vegetable girl became Cheryl. I got to see her more often than bi-weekly at the unnamed grocery store. Throughout the cold, snowless winter, she would arrive at my apartment in a lean jacket, and faded jeans. She never wore gloves, even though her hands were icy and frail. She’d slide out of her jacket and always placed it on the back of my leather, brown couch. For hours we kept ourselves occupied by the retrograde motion of our two, older, faintly warm bodies. We’d talk and converse as well, speaking in knowledgeable fashion on the state of our crumbling society. She had a tendency to disagree with me on nearly every facet of my strongly held positions. This too, was a joy. Her laugh was never mean or harsh, but rejuvenated my smile every time. She kept me sharp and on my toes. Her luminescent soul succeeded in brightening my home during those dark, frigid winter months.
During the winter, she never saw my garden. I kept my blinds drawn in a futile attempt to keep the wind from penetrating into my abode. All my windows were closed. Since it was the winter, she must’ve known that I had good reasons for keeping my house so fastened and dark. It wasn’t until the end of winter that she finally tugged on the curtains and peeked into my garden. The trees were becoming green once again. The grass was shooting up in frivolous, joyful fashion. Birds and insects sang above the treetops and fought against one another in the warming breeze. Seeds and dust filled the air, swirling in capricious eddies.
When Cheryl did step outside to inspect the garden, it had been several months into the warmth of spring. Perhaps it was even summer, and the grass and trees were in full bloom. My garden, which had waited patiently during the interim of winter, was stretching out its green, voracious arms. It sang into the air, calling forth the animals and the vines to join in its unbridled revelry. Cheryl had heard the call too, and stepped out the backdoor. “You’ve untended the garden!” She took a few steps towards it and I stood behind her and watched her walk amongst the grass and wildlife of my backyard bio reserve. Though my yard was dense, it was just a narrow square, held back by wooden-panelled sentinels. If I could knock down those fences, I would’ve. I would’ve knocked down those brown, drying watchers and let the garden out into the expanses of the bustling city. Unfortunately, we were all confined to our allotments of land, in which we could only hope to grow vertically, before gravity instructed us back downwards.
I attempted to laugh in the same manner that she always did, observing as she paced around the garden’s perimeter, trying to find an entrance into the heart of it. “We have to take care of this, you know. If you don’t want to, then I’m going to.” She marched back up the stone path to the back of my house, where I lazily leaned against the closed backdoor. I tried to look past her, and over the brown fence, but it was so tall and unrelenting in its protective stance. The paint had nearly all been chipped away by the retributive forces of nature. Someday, unless a good carpenter set to fixing them, those fences would be unable to contain anything. They would fall to the ground and rejoin their forbearers in the soil and dirt.
“Really, why don’t you tend the garden?” Cheryl had her arms crossed in the position of a criminal interrogator.
I didn’t answer right away. No, I didn’t like to talk about the garden and its wild, anarchistic nature. Finally though, after something unpleasant had been accomplished, I addressed her echoing question. “It’s not my garden, to tend anymore. I’ve been waiting for someone like you to tend it for me.” I took a few steps down the stone path, and then approached the garden. I leaned onto my creaky knees and bent down in front of the majestic chaos. This was the only other time I stepped into my backyard. I cupped a handful of dirt and tossed it aside. I relished the hard work of scooping out the dirt with my bare hands. The soil was at first warm and dry, but beneath the few inches of surface, there was that cool, wet loam that waited eagerly to be fed. And I so rarely fed it.
Cheryl lay on the stone path beside me, her lips were thin once more, smeared away of any red paint. Her hair was limp and frayed. I hadn’t dug too deep before I dragged vegetable girl off the stone path and into my garden. Her hair and limbs caught on the wild vegetation, but I wasn’t too concerned about that. Soon enough, all things would be rejoined to that lowly patch of dirt. I just barely covered her, leaving her arms and feet to stick out awkwardly. Though I loved her laugh, I had always enjoyed her silence more.
Now she, just like the others, would tend the garden.
It was in fact, what she had always wanted to do.