They had spotted it from the first hilltop. Ed was breathless from another climb followed by a steep descent. His shoulders were hunched forward in muted excitement. Layla had fallen behind though she was supposed to lead the way. She knew how to get to her own house, didn’t she? The vicinity, overgrown as it was, became more familiar with each step. The trouble was, her legs didn’t want to carry her further, nor did her mind. What they had seen was both so familiar and foreign that she balked at the idea, after all. In fact, her entire being recoiled.
It had come up at the twenty year class reunion last night, of course. Miller had accosted Layla with two drinks in hand, waving them at her as if he was selling something she needed. Perhaps she did; Ed was preoccupied at another table, easy Ed, always a friend to anyone who talked back. She appreciated his outgoing nature–it had made the reunion easier so far–but now she wished he’d look her way.
It was not an event she had willingly attended. They’d been getting ready to have a real vacation in the mountains when he’d convinced her it would be a good thing to do this year.
“For me to see what your roots were. For you to wish old friends good stuff and share a couple of laughs. And put it all of it behind you once and for all.”
Why had she listened to him?
Miller bent over her (had he been so tall in high school? sweaty? and had they really dated a whole six months?); his cologne and the alcohol draped over her. Layla coughed.
He muttered, “Not what you’d expect, eh, Layla? All of us much older and more tired than we’d planned! Present company excluded, of course.” He’d handed her a glass and grinned at her in the same way he had in tenth grade, all teeth and rotten heart. “Have you anything to say for yourself, girl?”
Of course she did but she held her tongue. “Well, this was a stopover, soon we’ll be languishing in a mountain lodge eating salmon and strawberries and all will be forgotten. You?”
“I make these every ten years. There are cousins and old buddies to drink with, there are basketball trophies to recall, there are some very lovely women.” He lifted his glass to her and drank. “I got out, you got out–among a half dozen others. Who has the better tale?”
“Please tell me, Miller, I always knew you had a mini-spark of genius…”
“Well, what could I do with a lawyer father and an author mother? Fail? Indeed not. I own a tech company, TorchWare .”
“Sounds like a program for arson. Good for you, gives an outlet for that wayward bent.”
“Yes, it illuminates everything simply and well for those in dire need. And I reap fine benefits. And you? You got into Seattle University, didn’t you? English major, was it?”
His small teeth glinted at her. He breathed heavily; she recalled that he’d always had an inhaler at the ready. Or was that ill-placed lust?
“Funny you’d recall that. Yes, and also met Ed.” She pointed at her chatty husband at a nearby table. You’d have thought it was his reunion. “But I turned into a ceramicist and am unexpectedly good at it, while he teaches engineering at U of W.”
Miller lifted scraggly eyebrows and sipped. “How’s all that working out for you–I mean, as a pretty but shy daughter of a rather derelict lumberjack father and a nurse, fortunately, for a mother? Though you sure speak up now! Don’t get me wrong, my own parents weren’t all that honorable despite impeccable appearances…”
“You know, I think I’ll use my big new voice to finally let you know–”
“Quite well, I’d say, it is all working perfectly. Wouldn’t you agree, Layla?” Ed said as he took her elbow and started to steer her away.
“He wasn’t derelict, you fool, he was ill–now dead from MS complications, Miller. Haven’t you learned basic human decency or even good manners yet?”
Miller snorted. “Everyone said he accidentally burned down the house to collect on insurance. It didn’t work as you well know. In fact, it’s still standing. Barely, I suppose.”
“Not worth it, darlin’.” Ed grabbed her wrist just as she lifted her half-full glass to douse Miller who, shaking his head as if in pity, walked away.
The drink spilled on her new navy pumps and she glared at him.
“The house, he had to mention Dad and the house. Do you see now why I never come to these? The villains still wait around to attack the unsuspecting and weaker.”
“Except you are not weak. You’re a bit tipsy, I think, and tired of being here. Let’s say goodbye to the ones we do like before I go punch the fool–then let’s make a run for it.”
Layla put her drink on a table, wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tight. “Good plan, smart guy.”
“You and all the smart guys…I see them looking your way.”
“Yeah, but you won out and you’re a good guy, too, so lucky me.”
“Ed, this is not a great idea.”
He turned to her, held out his hand. “You’re the one who says that if there’s a noise in the dark you need to get up to check it out. This has been bumping every night in your adult life. Time to take a look.”
She grabbed the proffered hand but pulled him back a little. “There’s nothing much to see, just rotting wood. You know I came back for Dad’s funeral before we got married. Mom left town that very night. No one was interested in the property, not even to tear it down. I took a quick look from the hilltop then. It just emanated all their miserable life. Our life.”
Ed studied her face, how tight the petal soft jaw, how pale her pressed lips, eyes narrowed against whatever might be seen. His throat constricted; he had to look into treetops, reassure himself the blue sky was up there; they’d get done with this. Maybe he had made a mistake insisting they come. But then she started to walk and he right along with her, down another hill, across the gravel road, right to the property line, if there was one. The lot was so overgrown with tangles of blackberries, spindly weeds and hulking bushes that nothing could have made its way to the front door except for the creatures. Foxes, mice, snakes or insects, whatever had claimed it and moved in.
The front door was torn away under the sagging roof, she could see this through the brush and wondered where it was. Perhaps someone long ago needed a door. She remembered how she and her mother painted it fern green, the radio blaring from the living room, paint dripping, getting on them, her father in his wheel chair that day but directing them. The dirty white of the house seemed less an affront with that new door. The door might have burned. All windows were agape, of course, the fire ruined them, too. The moss overtook the shingles, weakening them, and the insects, took, must have lunched on many seedlings and the birds must have pecked away the bits they could. All like vultures tearing at a carcass. It looked hideous.
“I don’t like seeing all this, Ed.” She released him, though, and put up her hand to indicate she wanted to proceed a ways without him. He shifted from foot to foot as she waded through high grasses.
Layla worried that she’d be able to smell the smoke still, even after all the years. She’d been in college when she got the news from her mother, that the house had burned enough that it was not salvageable. So they had moved to an apartment right on Main Street, a better place than the house had been but small. It was an ancient kerosene lantern that toppled in the living room–her father had a thing for old stuff collected in younger years and he’d lit it and somehow knocked it off the table. Then he panicked and rolled his wheel chair into the yard.
It was pure luck that her mother had gotten home before the fire engines came, applied the fire extinguisher to wide swaths of area. But people talked because her father was not the most open or pleasant man, not even a reasonable man, they’d decided. He was hard on his wife and his daughter since MS had finally taken his legs and made things so taxing for them all. The truth was, he was never an easy man, one who could move through life on good will and a sense of hope. He had a hard edge to him that just got sharper as he got sicker.
But as Layla walked around the falling-down house she heard his voice wind through the place with a beckoning tone and stepped in at the back, the screen door hinges rusted and wrenched, the door nearly hanging to the dry dirt and brittle grass. Beer bottles and soda cans lay about, a torn and faded girlie magazine, a dirty plastic spoon and fork by a rank container, a torn up tennis shoe half chewed by perhaps a passing dog. Layla wished she had a trash bag but to what purpose? No one cared. Not even, really, herself.
But she stepped around the mess and indoors. She saw the living room, desolate, still filthy with fire’s carbon from so long ago, the wooden stairs having fallen down so she couldn’t go up to her room even if she had wanted to take a look. There was no parental bedroom; the wall had burned. The one third-charred kitchen with its stained farm sink was ruined, counters scratched and torn, even the walls though smudged by the fire seemed to be moldering in winter rains and summer heat. The appliances were long taken, maybe even sold as is. Fire had swirled through most of the lower level like a storm, then was defeated. But it was a bad omen. What was to come for her parents was worse than they’d known before.
But as she lingered she knew what lay beneath the rubble. Once this room had been almost cheery, yellow curtains with tiny green ferns on them; a ceramic rooster on the counter for cookies; a small oak table by a wall with convenient folding ends. They had enjoyed breakfast there, even Dad when he was up to it though he said little more than “Another day, damn it.” Each morning, before school and her mother’s work at the hospital, they had that half hour or more just to sit together, talk about the headlines or drink coffee without words uttered but the radio playing something tuneful and easy. It helped them, that music.
They could also see out the south side yard all the flowers her mother and she had planted and tended. Rose, irises and tulips, a few gladiolas, later the zinnias, geraniums and marigolds, three types of lavender, petunias and pansies, too, and more, so much she could not recall. They came to her as if someone threw back a curtain and she could see them: flashy and happy to be growing there. For the family of three. Even her father loved that garden, messy and simple as it was. But sometimes he became morose, lamented that he’d once been such a lumberman, how he missed the scents and feel of wood and dirt on his hands, the outdoors in his veins. Layla recalled him as he was once: standing so straight, barrel chest high and arms muscled. She had often wondered over his loss. And how it had hurt them all. How he felt so diminished it was a burrowing beast that dug deeper in him each year.
She decided one time–despite her mother’s warning look–to put into his unwilling palms a little pile of fresh soil and tender roots for him to close his big fist over and hold. He had wept a long moment. But it passed and he shook his head at her when she tried it another time. He just sat there each day he could manage it, after they rolled him out and let him be, and he read or drowsed or watched squirrels race about or listened to birds calling. Stellar jays, a favorite, and he always watched for deer at the far edge of the woods at dusk and called to his wife and daughter to see how they stood graceful, proud.
Did he long to be free like the creatures were? Did it anger him to see them work the garden? He was silent much of the time he wasn’t gritting his teeth or snarling. Her mother said once, “He loves me most, you know, when I am deep into gardening, my hair a mess, sweat ruining my shirt, my hands full of bugs and blossoms. I see it in his eyes. ”
And Layla could understand this, knew it meant more than most things to her, even his rough hug or kiss. He was not easy to love, and he was not gifted at it himself though her mother tried to show him and she, too, offered him her hugs that wanted to soothe him. Which he often pushed away. Maybe he knew things he taught her mother, too. They made what they had work; she stayed until he passed. But Layla wanted happiness, not just partnership.
He taught Layla that if helplessness and disappointment seem like the toughest enemies, family and nature are balm. And she wished she could lay her head on his shoulder one more time. She might call her mother, set up a visit but she now lived in Boise with a man Layla found wanting.
She wandered out and around the corner of the house.
“Ed! Come here!”
He ran to find her, glad she called him, praying she had not found things to pain her more. He found her staring , mouth agape, at the end of the lot. Inside the leaning, towering trees, past broken branches and bushes out of control and wild grasses and blackberry vines, there was something more.
Layla pointed straight ahead. “Look!”
“What on earth…?”
The garden was still alive, and it was in summer’s peak bloom.
“It’s me,” said a small voice. “I done it when I could, hope that’s okay with you.”
She was bent over, nearly the size of a child, with wrinkled face and white hair that was piled atop her head with a pencil. A hunched back, as it always had been but worse.
“Mrs. Stanish!” Layla went to her and, bending over, put her arms about her. “You! But why? You and dad never got along too well, as I recall, he didn’t like your dogs getting into our yard and such.”
“Well, that’s so.” She patted Layla’s hand and nodded at Ed. “Your husband, I see. I saw the newspaper notice all those years ago. And your mother, she told me, too.”
He took her hand into both of his. “This is wonderful, really amazing.”
Mrs. Stanish walked into the garden with them. “Oh, he now and then could be sour. I understood sourness with my bad scoliosis. How much pain tries to ruin you, how nosey people think they know things they don’t. I said I’d tend their garden after the fire. If it survived, and it mostly has. Sorta. But never break a promise if you can help it.” She smiled up at them, deep blue eyes wreathed in folds of flesh.
They caught up some then shared brief hugs.
“Thank you for keeping it going, It means a great deal to me.”
Mrs. Stanish gave them a once over. “You see, life does as good as it can, we just got to help it along. You two be nice to each other.” And off she shuffled to her equally aged husband.
“I suspect they’re in their late eighties or early nineties now. Incredible,” Layla remarked.
Ed and she climbed back up the hill. She turned back a last time and he did, too.
“Incredible that they are still alive, married or maintaining the garden as promised? Or that you found a few good memories there?”
“Yes,” was all she said and waved goodbye to that old broken-down house, where once her family had worked, suffered, loved as they could. “Let’s get to the mountain paradise before the sun goes down.”