(Note: I am inspired this week by roses and their magic. In Portland, we celebrate our annual Rose Festival; it has begun this week. The Pacific Northwest is entirely hospitable for rose growing and we have the honor of having the International Rose Test Gardens here. The Peace rose is my favorite of all, the name, its beauty and intoxicating fragrance. The story is entirely made up, of course. Enjoy!)
“Let me tell you about the back yard. Something strange is happening there.” Erika held her breath, considering how to begin. But too long a breath, it seemed. She coughed lightly with hand over the receiver.
“You need to get back out there, Mom, shape things up. It’s not like you’re bedridden now, and it used to be your favorite place. My yard is about four by four, made of that terrible, uneven pockmarked brick but you know it works for me. If only there was a fountain, that would make all the difference in reducing traffic noise at night. And give it some charm. My one chair and a fountain. Did I tell you I got really expensive ear plugs? They fit so well I feel deaf with them on. But I can still hear people or raccoons rummaging in garbage and the sirens, let me tell you.”
“It keeps changing. I mean, there is always something I didn’t notice before.”
“The seasons do that, Mom, really, you need to get out more in general, enough of this malaise following that vicious bronchial infection. It lingered so long your body has forgotten how to function on a reasonable basis, you know? Maybe your thinking…Anyway, I checked online for fountains and just need to see them in person, maybe Home Depot?”
Erika could see her daughter sucking on the end of a pen as she corrected students’ papers, one eye on a pot of simmering homemade soup. Multi-tasking, made possible by ear buds used to talk on her phone. Jen would use her feet, too, if she could, to accomplish more. Probably had. She used to clean up clothes from the floor as she sat on her tattered fuchsia armchair while leisurely reading sci fi, lifting items deftly with clenched toes and tossing it onto her bed.
“I woke up to something yellow out there today. Northeast corner. I thought it was gold sunlight flashing through leaves but it wasn’t.”
“Maybe it was Mrs. Rosselini’s canary that got loose.” She emitted her snorting laugh. That bird took off in 1999, when Jen was a kid. Everyone suspected it was Mr. Rossellini, who couldn’t bear its ridiculously cheerful singing as it only sang for his wife. For years people thought they had spotted that bird; they suspected he’d forced its freedom.
“Jen, don’t be ridiculous–that was so long ago. But it wasn’t any bird. It was a pot of lilies.”
“From last year, then? They grow from bulbs, right?”
“Calla lilies, they’re mini calla lilies. Mine are the other sort. Tiger lilies. They’re now opening up, too, it seems.”
“So are you getting out there to check on things, cut the grass, trim the bushes and so on? Or getting Joe Hanes to come by with his push mower? Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about that, here. But I am thinking of getting a community garden plot. You should see those, the things people plant and successfully raise! Urban farming, a miracle. I could eat very well from a smallish garden.”
“Yes. Well, no, I’m not out there much and yes, Joe cut the grass last week-end.” Erika gazed across a shadow-splashed street as the creaky porch swing swung to and fro. It made a nice breeze and lifted the hair off her neck. The neighbors’ yards were bountiful with flowers, empty of people. Lights were turning on, soft blurs of life moving between window frames. She closed her eyes and hummed.
Jen found the humming alarming, It was what her mother did when she was spacing out, feeling low. She had been sick so long there was worry that she’d tip into critical illness but it was thankfully only four days in hospital, then back home. Still, four months that upended her usually active life. And Jen lived four hours away, only got to visit three times.
“Mom? The yard–you were saying?”
“Oh, nothing, Jen. The calla lilies have good company in that jungley mess. I’ll let you go now, but try lettuce and a tomato plant to start.”
“Fresh tomatoes…! I do have a ton to get done tonight, and tomorrow and tomorrow…” She snorted again. So much to do, so much life to live, a surfeit of activities and goals–how could she complain? She would not, not to her mother, at least not yet. “You’ll call if you need me to come see you sooner than end of the month?”
“Okay, good, such a relief. Love you.”
“Love back. Good night, dear.”
Erika left the front porch, walked around to the back yard’s fence with gate and unlatched it. In the corner sat a large green pot of sunny mini calla lilies. Gingerly, as if her footsteps might jar the earth and disturb the plants, she moved closer, then knelt to look them over. She pinched a stem to assure herself they weren’t fake. The blossoms glowed in the opalescent air of a mild June evening. She had no idea how they got there. She felt her yard was not quite her own this year, that her neglect had taken it out of her hands. It unnerved her enough that she sneezed three times then coughed, so left the outdoors to its own devices. Whatever those might be.
“Fran? Sorry to bother you but I know you’re usually awake late…”
“Erika, that you? It’s 2 a.m. Insomnia again?” She patted her mound of unruly hair as if they were face- to-face. She could now be seen without warning–all this technology.
“I heard something outdoors.”
“Did you call Joe and ask him to bring his hatchet? Probably nasty raccoons again, he’ll make good work of them.”
“What a friend–you are too awful! I don’t want to disturb him this time of night. I went downstairs with both big flashlights. Looked out the back door. Nothing. I checked all the locks again. But it gave me a chill. I should make some chamomile tea.”
“Naw, get your book and start reading, You’ll be asleep before you know it.”
“That doesn’t work for you.”
“Nothing works for me but the serious will to sleep four fair hours or so a night.” She yawned. “The callas still shining out there?”
“Where else would they be? Sneaking off to the next yard?”
“You never know.” Fran reached for her tablet, switched it on. “We could watch a movie together. What your pick?”
Erika fell silent and leaned back on two pillows. Listened hard. Nothing to speak of but the chimes swaying in a gust, sonorous tones soothing to her tense mind. She was too tired to keep this up so hoped the raccoons visited Fran or Joe a couple nights for a change. She hummed a corny love song to calm herself.
“Erika? You humming?”
“I don’t want to watch a movie until 3, but thanks for your friendly offer. I want to sleep a deep blessed sleep. I want my back yard to stay the same until I get back to it.”
“Those calla lilies–I bet someone wanted to get rid of them so dumped the pot at your place when you were out. Say, Carol Whitaker? She usually puts her puny plants at the curb. She could start an entire nursery with her rejects.”
“A whole sad nursery of rejects, yeah. Poor Carol, she tries hard but her thumb is nowhere near green.”
They both laughed and Erika felt relief at last. She also felt Fran winding up, ready to talk gardening tall tales and she just wasn’t up for it. She didn’t even want to think about her garden yet. Couldn’t it just rest this year? Like her, take a leisurely summer break? She still felt so weary.
“It’s so good to hear you in more fighting form again, Erika. Let’s get back to our hikes this summer.”
“Well, wait–in time. Right now I want to sleep off the remains of this day. That worthless conversation with Jen.”
“Oh, Jen and her intentions. She’s got a good life. But keep your phone bedside–you can call any time.”
“I know, my friend. Happy movie watching.”
She turned out a bedside lamp with the crafty pressed-flower shade. Lowered her eyelids. She just hadn’t recovered fully, her mind was jumpy after feeling so powerless, felled by illness last part of winter and into the spring. Turning over, she pulled the white coverlet up to her ears, then up to her forehead and dropped off into an abyss of fretful dreaming.
She shaded her eyes against sudden revelation of sunshine. When she’d risen, the air was moist and thickened with fogginess. Two mugs of strong coffee later, her mind and the sky were much clearer. Her tricky neck ached and she rubbed it with both hands, then stepped onto the stoop and descended steps into the back yard.
Then stumbled backwards.
There was a small palm tree in the northwest corner, its big spiky leaves greeting her, the fuzzy trunk straight and strong in a huge clay pot. Astonished but curious, she went to it. She had never observed a palm up close; how funny yet attractive it was. How out of place in this Northwest habitat. Unasked for and alien on her property. And how did this get to be in her yard? Who entered without her permission?
That was what she had heard last night. She felt her heart drum hard as she walked about the grassy perimeter. The latch on the gate, that was the little sound. Yet no one and nothing was out of the norm when she’d swept the brilliant beam of her flashlight over each bush, tree and plant the night before. There was without a doubt an intruder hiding from her, that was the issue beyond an undesired palm and surprise calla lilies. She’d install a sturdier lock on the gate today; she’d always left it open but no more. She’d have motion detection lights installed on the house. All these years living in an established neighborhood that was unremarkable, just friendly and quiet. Now this–this felonious trespasser!
Had he or she taken anything? She canvassed the area carefully, found nothing altered. Just a palm tree and lilies. What next? She ate a rushed breakfast and dressed and was almost out the door when Fran called.
“I thought I’d better check on you, make sure you are still with us! You sure were nervous last night.”
“Well, I was left another unwanted gift and I’ve had enough.”
“What? Something good, I hope.”
“Fran, it isn’t funny. I got up this morning hoping for the best and there it was– a damned useless palm tree!–a real California palm! Well, I think.”
Fran chortled as she lounged in a fluffy robe on her porch around the corner. She could just picture Erika–stern-faced, brushed out and dressed well as always, confronting that errant palm tree.
Erika held the phone away from her ear, looked at it with serious impatience. When Fran caught her breath, she said, “I have to see it.”
“I’m putting it out n the street. A firm message to the intruder.”
“No–they cost too much to set it out like ole Carol does! Just wait in that. I’ll take it if you have to dump it. But why not just see what’s next? I mean, this is not plant thief, Erika, it’s a plant giver! Someone who maybe even cares!”
But Erika took off for the hardware store to get a good lock for her gate and to inquire about flood light systems. She was going to catch this planter person, an invisible trespasser, and get things back to normal.
“A palm tree? That’s wild, Mom–though they do make hardy ones that do alright here. Why not plant it?”
“Oh my gosh, you, too. I don’t want the stupid tree. I don’t want the flowers. They aren’t mine, they don’t belong and someone is sneaking into my yard! Doesn’t that worry you a little?”
“I think it’s kind of cool. I might even defend the culprit. How exciting, a bona fide mystery!” She paused. “Mom? If you’re scared, call Joe next door tonight. He’s getting a bit decrepit but he’s a good neighbor, he’ll give you back up.”
Erika moaned–Joe could barely push the mower around– and mumbled a hasty goodbye. She found her gardening gloves and visor and bucket of gardening tools, then set to work in the yard. It was high time. She’d get weeding done and see what she had to do to salvage her once-beloved refuge. And dump those calla lilies– and drag that crazy palm tree to the curb. If she could move it after all the weeding, and if she had breath left that didn’t trigger new wheezing.
It was 1:07 when Erika’s eyes flew open. She knew she was not alone when the back of her sore neck tingled and hairs on her forearms stood up. She picked up the heavy duty flashlight and her cell phone. She did not switch on the light yet but peered between the muslin curtains of her window into the quasi-dark yard. A three-quarter moon cast a cool, clean glow across thick grass and huddled bushes.
The gate was closed but that meant nothing to her. Erika stilled herself, waited. Instinct dictated she not barge out the back door but listen, feel things out, see what moved, what else was different. She wet her dry lips and tried to tune in. There it was. A rustle of a bush, ever so slight but where exactly? Were those footsteps?–were they of man or beast?
She yanked on jeans and a hoodie, opened her bedroom door, slunk to the kitchen where the back door led to the stoop. She studied her faintly lit phone, with shaking fingers found the keypad, ready to call 911 when there came another sound, soft but unmistakable, a guttural clearing of a throat. She pressed back against the door, braced her feet. And froze.
She could hear the soft grating sound of metal against dirt and stones, like someone was digging up a part of her yard. That did it. She unbolted the door, rushed out, the torch beam bouncing its glare off every nook and cranny. And then off a face, then hands held high and in one of those hands was what appeared to be a rose bush. Pink and yellow roses. The person stood next to a small hole in the ground.
‘Stop where you are, you are illegally on my property and I’m calling the police right now!”
“Wait, wait! It’s me, Erika!”
“Who would even dare do all this? Speak your name now or I’m dialing the cops!”
“It’s just Antony, your old neighbor! Antony Rossellini!”
He was beating his chest now with smudgy hands, advancing toward her, dark eyes wide and desperate. She wanted to believe he was telling the truth. It was Antony, alright, in worn overalls that hung from his wiry frame over a dark t-shirt, with his Padres baseball cap and rubber flip flops slapping against his heels with eqch tentative step forward.
“Antony! What on earth…?” She aimed the beam downward so they could both see better as they met up in the middle of her yard. The one he was not supposed to be in whatever and not in the middle of night.
He wiped his perspiring forehead with a dirty palm and it left a streak so he took off his cap and used a forearm to wipe again, then smashed down his thick, damp salt and pepper hair. grooming in the midst of madness. Trying to present himself as less than trespasser, more as foolish but harmless neighbor.
“I don’t rightly know how to explain, Erika. I was just seized by this idea of doing something anonymously…of making things nicer. I sure didn’t meant to upset you…”
He shrank away from her with embarrassment, hung his head with hat in hand, and went mute.
Erika considered this man she had known for about twenty years now. He was older or perhaps only seemed older in his manner, and had been married to a woman who shuffled about as though she carried a hard burden, which she had, being a refugee from Cambodia. Then she died of cancer not long after Erika’s divorce, when Jen was fifteen. he lived down the street from her house; they had chatted in passing, during summer block parties. But when she had died Erika taken him fresh bread and her homemade strawberry jam. Had sat awhile with him. He’d seemed quite nice even after that but a man to himself, working long hours as a manufacturing manager. Keeping a tidy yard with its blossoms bright and abundant.
“Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?” she asked.
“They’re Peace roses, Erika! My favorite. Tea? Well. Sure.”
The two mugs steamed so they blew on it, sitting across from each other at the breakfast nook. She realized she had never had him in her house before. Very few neighbors, come to think of it. Now that she worked part time–not her own choice, a downsizing of sorts at the health clinic–she had become more aware of her neighbors comings and goings. But she rarely saw him out and about and heard little about him. Nothing had likely changed for years. Or she imagined.
“I wanted to do something nice for you,” he repeated. “I knew you had been ill–we all learn of each others’ crises sooner or later on this block– and I know you love yard work. I got this idea of a surprise. I didn’t want any thanks or refusal, not anything.” He toyed with his cap, his voice nearly a whisper. “You were so kind when Channay died. Not just your great bread and jam but your hug and words.”
“You just said: ‘I’m sorry. You were good to her; she will always love you. I’ll say a prayer for you.'” He looked at her with far-off eyes. “I believed you; it felt genuine for a change. You know some people just do things out of courtesy. So it sure helped me.”
“So little to do, really, Antony.”
She recalled sitting with him, making a small pot of coffee in his overloaded, messy kitchen, cutting bread for him and spreading a piece with jam. He had left it on the plate but sipped the coffee while she did hers. They had talked about nothing much, winter rains, their yards flooding, when Channay’s service was to be, her nearly non-existent family–long ago murdered by Pol Pot’s regime. They had just sat and listened to the storm beat upon the roof, the wind rattling branches like bones. He lit an amber candle, saying it reminded him of her. After a half hour or more she had left him to himself, and much later they chatted amiably now and then. She had wondered, though, how he had managed afterwards. If the smile given her way was mere civility as he’d said if others or if he did feel happier again. If he maybe felt friendly towards her. But time was packed with pressures and needs and years passed.
“No, it’s never too little to be considerate. And I never got over to see if I could help out when I knew you were so ill. So, one day a couple weeks ago I thought how you love your yard and garden. I decided to just add a couple new plants–for variety, I guess. But I didn’t want any thanks or issues, you know, I didn’t want you to think…anyway, it was impulsive of me, I know that. Foolish!”
Erika sighed, took a drink as did he. “Impulsive, yes. Unusual, I would say! But not really foolish. I think it’s good of you to think of cheering me up, of helping me out. In fact, I could really use someone to help me weed and plant anew… I am way behind.”
His black and white eyebrows lifted and his eyes sparked with hope. “Easy deal. To make up for my errors.”
She lifted her mug to his. “How about to starting a proper friendship?”
He clinked his mug against hers. They shared a smile, relaxed, congenial.
“I guess I should go, though. It’s late.”
“It is. Hey, thanks for those roses…”
“I’ll come back, alright? Properly plant the bush tomorrow evening if you’d like.”
“Please come to the front door this time, and before so late.”
He gave a quiet laugh that was almost a sigh of relief, waved good bye at the door. Erika locked it behind him, then laid her hand on it a moment.
Jen called on her lunch hour.
“Mom, did your intruder leave anything new?”
“Not exactly, a few tracks in the dirt and palm and lilies remain. We’ll see what happens from here on out.”
“Well, that’s it? All the fun has ended just like that? Rather sad.”
“Yes, I guess. What are you up to, dear?”
Erika called Fran after she lay awake well past 1:00, thinking of pros and cons to beginning a friendship with an older man, a widower who loved gardens but had also gate-crashed her life. Maybe in the best possible way.
“Are you waiting for more shenanigans?”
“You could say that.”
“Ah. Wait, what do you mean, Erika? Out with it.”
“It was Antony.”
“Antony Rossellini? He left the lilies and palm? Oh, my. What is that about, do you think?”
“Not sure. Guess I’ll find out. He said he had a kindly impulse…”
“Huh! Kind of weird, but downright intriguing.”
Erika checked beyond the open window after she hung up. She looked for a sign of something but there was none she could find so she lay down, rolled over, resigned to a return to normal and stared hard at her blank blue wall. There was a swell of silence in her house, waves of it, and she had begun to drown in it the past winter. Sickness makes some things more obvious. It stripped things down to the truth. She felt cleaner and edged toward freedom even now, slowly resurrecting a more goodly life. But she occupied these roomy spaces that were most often constrained by daily continuity and predictability. Time shaped by common tasks and expected comforts– and a forgetting of the extraordinary. As she watched shadows knit themselves along tiny cracks and in corners, she became drowsy, let herself give in to rest but she w wondered over what her life might become–and what was too late to search for and find.
Then from a distance she heard the metallic jostling, a small rustling of leaves or pant legs, perhaps the sound of the latch being jimmied and a man stealing across her yard. She pressed eyelids tightly closed, hugged herself: Peace roses, perhaps, come the morning.