Waking the Garden


 Linda Woolford, Fiction

 

Virginia had not looked at the garden, really, since William had passed. Summers, he'd spent more time there than with her, tending his rows of corn, peas, borders of thyme and rosemary, hands stained and brimming with berries and tomatoes. When he came into their bed, he brought the smell of sweat mixed with spring onion until she badgered him into taking a shower. Then she'd lie where he'd lain, restless, breathing in the oddly stirring mixture. Teasing, he would try to talk her, an old woman, into lying down between the rows of corn. And even as she teased back, calling him a lecherous, flirty old man, she'd imagine the earth beneath her head, damp, cradling, and above, green leaves falling onto his shoulders, drifting down his narrow white back as he settled onto her.

Now the garden lay ruined, pink tearose buds poking through the veil of weed.

Pain tweaked Virginia's shoulder as she gave a final shove to the window, and saw that the sash cord had frayed through. Like many things at the Paul Revere Continuing Care Community for Seniors, including the air conditioning, the window was broken. Right in the middle of a heat wave. Rubbing her shoulder, she tried to remember if she'd taken her bone medicine. Not that it was doing any good; she could barely lift her arms chest high. She should check the bottle, she thought, but instead walked onto her balcony. The hot air was ripe with the smell of manure, so familiar from her rural Virginia childhood. No cows that she knew of in this crowded Boston suburb, but the smell was clearly charging up from the lawn. Or what had been lawn but now surrounded the brick buildings like a seedy pasture. When she and William moved in, the place had been beautifully maintained. Was it her imagination that things started falling apart soon after he died, two years ago?

Hazy light shimmered onto the remnants of William's garden, its mixed-up jungle of plants, and she looked further down the slope to where cattails surrounded a murky, man-made pond, their dense copper plumes thrust high. She hoped Marilou had enough sense to stay out of the sun today, but a red sneaker emerging onto the path from behind a cluster of cattails told her otherwise. Marilou came into full view trailed by her old dog, Grey.

"It's too hot, Marilou," Virginia called, waving. "You'll get heat prostrated." She didn't think her voice carried, but Marilou looked up and smiled, white hair straggling about her shoulders. "I've got ice tea," Virginia urged.

"Grey needs a little more exercise," Marilou said.

"That hound's already half dead. Get on up here."

Marilou laughed. "Crack the ice, we'll be up."

The heat was having a bad effect on Marilou, her judgment deteriorating. She shouldn't be in public with her hair undone, Virginia thought. In weather like this, hairpins, nets, hairspray, razors were sometimes all that kept people a step above the animals. Even down home, the crudest farmer's wife wouldn't be caught dead wandering around like a heat-crazed Medusa. Virginia's own father had had a full head of hair that threatened to climb down his temples and engulf his mouth. But beard and hair were clipped tidy as the grass in their front yard. And her mother, a slender woman with steely demeanor—the town's only word on deportment—wrestled her own dark hair into a rigorous chignon at the nape of her neck. But that darkness had a wayward side, pushing like a coal smudge along her jawbone until it flared into a thin but definite mustache. She took her husband's straight edge to it, hardly ever nicking herself.

The doorbell rang and Virginia crossed her small living room. "That was quick," she said, opening the door. "Oh—I was expecting Marilou."

Paul Earles leaned on his cane in the doorway, musty air drafting around him. Most nights he camped out in the small cocktail lounge and as Virginia made her way to the dining room, he'd often beckon with elaborate pantomime.

"I must look awful." Virginia stretched the flimsy material of her red muumuu to hide her bony shoulders.

"You look fine," Paul said. Behind him, a few other residents wandered aimlessly, flushed from their apartments by the heat. "Lovely, in fact." Despite the cragginess of age and drink, he maintained a certain handsomeness, his nose and upper lip long and elegant. "May I come in?"

"I don't have much to offer," Virginia said. "Just mint tea."

"Invigorating." He stepped past her and produced a handful of wilting black-eyed Susans. "From my secret garden," he whispered, and winked.

She took the bouquet and sniffed, hiding a smile. Someone had been stealing yellow daisies from the lobby, driving Management wild.

"Have a seat. Marilou should be up soon."

"My place is an oven," Paul said. "You've got more windows. Thought you might be making out better. Guess not." He grasped the oiled arms of William's favorite chair and Virginia resisted the urge to tell him to sit elsewhere.

"I'll get the drinks." Virginia plunked the flowers into a half-drunk water glass and ducked into the bathroom. She looked into the mirror, raking clipped grey bangs across her forehead, then spied her underarm hair. In the last few months since it had become so hard to lift her arms, she'd not shaved and now the hair was as long and dark as her mother's. It was as dark as her own pubic hair had once been, before it thinned and greyed, the hair that William had loved, poking up thick and bristly around his face as he grinned at her from between her legs. She'd only let him do that twice, maybe three times in their narrow bed, teetering on the edge of something, a clumsy bird, waiting for the wind to gather force and flap her into the sky—her arm dropped, the offending hair quickly hidden. How, with Paul Earles just on the other side of the door, could she be thinking these things? Virginia's eyes snapped silver-blue as she leaned close to the mirror and applied lipstick with trembly fingers.

Paul appeared to be sleeping when Virginia brought the sweating glasses of iced tea into the room. His face looked vulnerable, the skin aggrieved as if he'd shaved recklessly, impatient to be out of his apartment, in order not to be alone. She touched a cold glass to his hand and he blinked bloodshot eyes.

"Bit of the devil today." He took the glass and slurped. "Becoming dress, Virginia. Fiery."

Instinctively her hand found the damp hollow of her collarbone. "Not my usual garb, but with this heat..."

"Heat loosens us up. Makes us more natural." Paul grinned, exposing a slight gap between large, white teeth. It pleased her that they were his own.

"Reminds me," Virginia said," of when William and I first came North about forty years ago. Hot as Hades. You Yanks were going quite insane. We stopped at Revere Beach and I've never seen such flesh billowing across the sand." She laughed. "And they say New Englanders are such prudes."

"Blazing heat's a natural disaster. Disasters bring people closer." Paul plucked his pant legs, exposing naked ankles. Spidery veins crisscrossed the bones.

Once she'd licked William's ankles, and worse. Virginia crossed her arms and sniffed. "Does it smell like a barnyard around here, or am I plain mad?"

"Does a bit," he said. "Probably coming from the pond. I bet those lily roots've killed whatever's living in there and the heat's sending the stink to kingdom come."

"It's been over a week. How hot does it have to get before the air conditioning's fixed? I bet Management hasn't even called a repairman yet."

"Yet? It's a plot to kill us off so they can fill the vacancies from the waiting list and raise the rent."

"Waiting list, this place?"

"Schroeder'll be the first to go. You watch."

"What?"

"This morning, heat crazed, ran right in the middle of the pond. Got stuck in the mud. Poor old guy rutting around, bellowing like a bull."

Virginia's eyes widened as she stared at Paul. But when he put his hands on his knees and shook his hips slightly, she laughed.

"They had to get one of those hinged cherry-pickers to pluck him out of that mess," Paul continued.

"Oh Paul. I didn't hear a thing," she said, still laughing. "Besides, Bill's the meekest of men, so well-behaved."

"Like I said, heat's a natural disaster." He leaned closer and touched her hand. Virginia smelled lavender and well-worn clothes, the heady scent of wine. "It can undo the meekest of men, Virginia," he said softly, "and the strongest."

Her cheeks flushed, sweat sprouting above her lip. "I'd like to shoot Management," she said. She slipped her hand out from beneath his and fanned her damp face.

"Would this help?" Paul pulled a flask from his back pocket and looked apologetically at her.

"Hardly. But you go ahead."

The flask trembled above his ice tea, but he replaced the cap without pouring. "I'll leave it for later then. Of course, if you change your mind..." He pocketed the bottle and looked towards the balcony. "Should we sit out? Shade's come. Might be a bit cooler."

Paul had been a lawyer in Boston, disbarred, Virginia had heard, for drinking. Most of the time he kept himself in check, but sometimes his wildness flared. Like the night, some years before, when he'd burned Louisa Wilcox's mattress. Rumor had it he wooed her into bed, cigarette smoldering between drink-numbed fingers. Later, they were forced naked into the hallway, running, trailing smoke like a loose blanket. Controlled and proper, Louisa was like Virginia's mother and Virginia had felt sorry for her, her need so foolishly, cruelly exposed. Louisa left and bought a unit in a continuing care community further north, and Virginia began to watch Paul with interest, wondering how he'd made Louisa throw caution to the wind. Paul quit smoking and retreated into the bar. The year before William died, he and Paul had become friends and some nights after her husband had been in the cocktail lounge, he brought a new smell to bed of berries gone to fermentation.

Paul pushed hard against his bamboo cane and walked towards the porch, hips swaying. He went out the door and crossed the balcony to the black railing. Virginia followed. A shadow had fallen but offered no relief.

"There's Marilou." Paul pointed.

Marilou was sitting on a bench by the pond, dog at her feet, wide-necked dress fallen down a brown shoulder. She leaned forward and piled her hair high on her head. Marilou's exposed neck looked as vulnerable as the inside of a woman's thigh.

"Your secret garden," Virginia teased, "that it?" She nudged his shoulder and pointed down a matted slope, not far from William's garden, to where grass lengthened into vines and grasshoppers rattled across tips of dried vegetation.

"A shame," he said, "to see it go like that. I should've asked your permission to work it. He did give me a few tips, you know."

Orange day lilies and the brambles that now replaced William's corn rows caught Virginia's eye and instead of her husband, she imagined Paul stealing in to gather up the bright lilies for her.

Virginia breathed in Paul's musky scent and sighed.

Paul touched her hair, bending his fingers to the curve of her skull. "There, there," he said. William had touched her like that, and for a moment she relaxed and leaned her head into Paul's palm, marveling that she was ever able to hold such a heavy thing aloft. From the kitchen the refrigerator's motor whined and struggled against the heat. "So soft," Paul murmured, stroking her hair. His eyes were squeezed shut, brows bundled, as if touching her caused exquisite pain. How would it be to kiss him? She felt her insides soften, slip, saw Paul coming for her with the lilies. Heart beating hard, she pulled away, confused. She grabbed the railing, nails clinking the metal.

"Marilou!" Virginia's voice broke. She cleared her throat and yelled louder.

Below, Marilou turned slowly.

"Quick. We have a guest," Virginia said, watching Marilou twist her hair into a bun.

"She should let it flow," Paul said, and leaned over the railing as Marilou walked towards the entrance. "I miss her," he said, his voice suddenly tinged with regret.

"Miss her?"

"Louisa. I used to take her hair down. Now I never hear from her. All my letters returned." Paul opened his hands as if to show Virginia how empty they were.

Mention of Louisa startled her, and she looked guiltily over her shoulder, as if Louisa and William were in the next room playing canasta. But the idea that Paul may have really cared for Louisa filled her with tenderness. "I know how it is," she said, touching his arm in quick sympathy.

"Foolish at our age to let fear, embarrassment, get in the way. I would've taken care of her. Passion is a gift. At any age. Don't you think?"

She closed her eyes and saw a flash of Louisa's naked backside scurrying down the smoky hallway, everyone staring after her, alarms blaring. "It's really that simple?"

"Why not? She had a chunk of life in her—when she let it out," Paul said. "Like you. Maybe it's your Southernness. Blowing that warm charm into the cold heart of this place."

Virginia laughed to cover her embarrassment, her pleasure. "I've been here so long I'm an honorary Northerner. I've even forgotten how to survive the heat."

"There's a languor to your movement, a poetry," Paul said softly.

"Don't be ridiculous. I'm so stiff and creaky I can hardly walk at all."

"No." He put his hands on his hips and slid them wide-fingered until they met in the middle of his belly. "It comes from deeper, from down in here."

Heat flashed between her breasts, dampening them, leaving her slightly breathless as if she were still going though the Change. Passion? she wondered. Paul pulled the flask from his pocket and took a gulp, then offered it to her. Summer nights, she and William had passed bottles before going inside, their lawn loungers pressed close. It loosened her up. He'd wanted to do it right there on the porch and she'd considered, imagining their naked bodies for all the universe to see. But they never did. She lifted the flask and took one burning swallow, and then another.

"I want to show you my garden," Paul said.

"There really is one?" She felt a stir of excitement.

"Outside," he said.

"But Marilou..." she began.

"Tell her I had an emergency."

"I don't think so."

He led her through the apartment, out the door, she still protesting. Pressing a finger to his lips, he looked up and down the hallway and then took her hand. She followed him reluctantly to the elevator. They waited, hidden behind a large potted palm. Through the filigreed leaves, they saw Marilou coming towards them. The elevator bonged open and Paul bundled Virginia into it.

They whirred down to the first floor and Paul led the way outside. A hot breeze blew from all directions, the smell of manure and swamp almost overpowering. Reeds swayed by the pond, cattails bent in a brown wave. Paul walked into the matted grass, beating the weeds down with his cane.

"Careful," she called.

He turned and waved her on, using his whole arm as he had done so often to try to draw her inside the cocktail lounge. Virginia stood at the edge of the walkway and watched the bright sail of his shirt. Paul ambled up a short slope towards the northside of the building complex. Anxious she would lose him, Virginia plunged forward into the grass.

Paul rounded a corner of the building, his disappearance so final that suddenly she didn't know which way to go. She was adrift and unbalanced in the bristly grass, afraid she might fall. She almost turned back. But the remnants of William's garden lay to her right, and she felt his presence then, as if he were on his knees in the dirt, urging a shy raspberry vine onto a stake.

Paul reappeared at the crest of the slope and waited. When she reached him, he cupped her elbow and led her around the building to where it recessed several yards. In the wedge of shade that cut from one corner of the building, big green tomatoes hung from a few drooping plants, the dirt surrounding them muddy, as if just watered. Daisies with hairy centers, parched rosemary and sage bordered the tomatoes. Flanking the opening, the central air conditioning unit sat broken, the grillwork silent. Next to it, Virginia saw a small patch of black-eyed Susans.

"My garden," Paul said. "I've been working on it all summer."

The easy abundance that had been William's garden shamed this one, and she was disappointed, embarrassed. Still, the damp earth yielded the same heady smell as her husband's garden, the aroma of rosemary and tearose intoxicating, and when Paul put a hand on her shoulder, palm warm against her skin, she leaned into him. He wrapped his arms around her, the breeze lifting damp hair from her forehead. Holding each other they trembled, their knees beginning to quake. They settled clumsily onto a tomato plant, squashing the fruit into the soft dirt. A sharp, green odor pierced the air. They lay down and pressed together, resting, and then his fingers trickled down her long neck, across her shoulder and along her arm until he was caressing her hip. His hand traveled the length of her thigh while she held her breath—the sun, the air, his hand turning her body loose and fluid. He wriggled onto her and suddenly she wanted to make love, here in the garden, the way William had always wanted her to, to do it in the garden, to lick his toes, to lick every part of him out of the earth, to taste his warm, living skin. Beneath her closed lids, day lilies flashed their brief brilliance, opening to the sun, the way she was now opening to him, and she nuzzled his mouth to make him open to her. But his weight was beginning to cause her hips to ache. She tried to ignore it, caressing his back, straining to kiss him. When he pushed, her thigh bones flattened painfully against the ground, a tomato stalk pressing rudely into her buttocks. He spoke her name and she opened her eyes slowly and looked at the sky. The sun burned dry and harsh. And on top of her, not William, but a man she hardly knew fumbling with her flattened breasts as if trying to resuscitate her heart.

I'll be just like Louisa, she thought, and tried to slide out from under him. As if mistaking her movements for passion, Paul pressed harder, his lips against her neck. She pushed him, her arms as light and useless as twigs. Holding her breath, summoning strength, she pushed again. Groaning, Paul rolled off onto his hands and knees. Virginia leaned on an elbow and slowly sat up. Pain flashed through her, lodging into her shoulders. They sat in the dirt, breathing hard. Virginia looked wildly around, afraid they might be seen. But there were no windows at this end of the building and the big, aluminum air-conditioning box protected them from view on the other side. She leaned against the building and pressing the brick hard, struggled to her feet. Paul sat with his head down, back bowed, legs askew as if broken.

"I thought you'd want it," he mumbled. "He told me about the smell of tomatoes and mint. I even planted rosemary. He said it made you crazy as a cat in catnip." Paul shrugged. "Damn stuff dried up in the heat."

Virginia brushed tomato leaves from her hair. "What on earth are you talking about?" But even as she asked, she could smell William coming into their bed from his garden, the mint on his hands as he rubbed a finger across her lips, teasing her mouth open.

Paul looked beyond her towards the pond. "He told me about the garden. You lay there once, in the middle of the day, everybody gone to lunch." He talked as if in a trance, as if she weren't there. "Your hair was long then." Paul looked up at her, his brown eyes dreamy. "He told me how much you liked it."

He reached up towards her as she stepped away. "Don't go," he said.

She tried to spit at his hand, but her mouth was dry. Her whole body was dry.

"It's lonely, you know." Paul's voice was full of reproach as he unscrewed the cap on his flask.

Virginia tried to set out straight across the yard towards her building. But the pitch of slope was too much, and she drifted towards William's garden. Before she could veer off, she had crossed the line of orange day lilies that marked the border. Raspberry vines snared her ankles, the prickers scratching, the berries gone to rot in the hot sun. Everywhere she looked, small, pink tearose blooms poked from beneath the snarl of grass.

"Liars," she hissed. "Liars."

William's betrayal waved through her and she sank unsteadily to her knees. Sweat rolled down her sides and pressing a hand under her arm, she fingered the hair, thinking how William would have loved it, how he had often urged her to let it go, let it go, the way they do in France. How could he have done such a thing? She missed him so. She sat back into the grass, trying to slow her breathing, and stared at the pond beyond. Such a small, bland thing in winter, exposed, its wildness died back, waiting. Now in the throes of summer, transformed by cattails, reeds, lilies, the pond had become mysterious, treacherous even, like the strange current she now felt moving beneath the anger and shame, beneath the regret—a shiver of surprise that she had created such passion, in William, in Paul. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her hand hard against her rib cage, trying to contain herself. The vexing smell of thyme and roses, cow dung and wild basil, flooded the air.