The Islander and the Gardeners

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Sometimes I hated taking these jobs, which was ridiculous because anyone would give their eye teeth to get a job one like that. But it was also nuts how much money people could spend on lawn maintenance. How fussy they could be. While most of our customers required basics like a good sprinkler system, regular trimmings and mowings with fertilizing and weed eradication, the Howes required painstaking edgings and hands-and-knees labor. Had to oust those mosses and tiny sprouts of grass that persisted between cobblestones and so on. I wondered if we were hired to beat back a pesky beast named Nature, lest it creep up, pry open their massive front door and invade the family. I told Rudy this was the last time. I was getting tired of worrying about unattainable perfection.

“Of course it isn’t the last time, Cassie,” he said good-naturedly. “You know we count on these customers.”

He was boss despite the fact we were married; it was his business first. It had grown enough to add two employees since I came on, I reminded him at times. I got a pat on the back and a vacation of my choice when we did really well. With Rudy, of course. My best friend, business partner, lover.

We went to the Howes’ every Friday around ten. Not earlier, or it would annoy the Mrs. The Mr.’s first name was Brent but we called him Mr. Howe. His personal name on the check he signed each month almost made him feel more approachable but not quite. I thought he was an oral surgeon, or was it an investment banker? I couldn’t keep him straight from the other well-off customers on the West side of the city. It didn’t much matter. It might never have mattered if Mrs. Howe hadn’t been in my view every Friday. If she hadn’t made him matter.

She’d appear like clockwork around the time we got there. The second story sleeping porch was outside, I assumed, their bedroom. I guessed she got up, got ready for the day and ate before we arrived. Then she promptly sat in her white wrought iron chair and table overlooking the side yard and she’d get to work on something–reading, calculating something, writing?–while drinking a cup of coffee or tea.

The first time I saw her was when carefully going over the lawn’s requirements with Rudy. Mr. Howe had left a voice message that one spot was on the verge of being water-logged and there was a bit of a spongy area, that was true, but earth’s density wasn’t necessarily uniform. There might be an issue, maybe not much of one.

I heard the door open with a homely squeak, then shut with a thud. I thought it needed a squirt of WD40. Mrs. Howe looked over our heads and across the street, pressed a flyaway strand of light brown hair behind her ear. She wore it back in a ponytail, low and sleek like those women pictured atop fancy horses. She saw me but turned to the table and sat down.

We walked the yard talking about saturation and soil types and readjusted the gauges and pressure for the sprinkler system. All seemed okay overall, time would tell. Rudy got started on edging; I started on the ivy, taking out the lowest vines, hard to do as they were so tenacious.

It was interesting about the ivy. It was considered a nasty invader by and large, yet many building and home owners let it creep in and up for decorative effect. It seemed to endear itself to some. Mr. Howe said he was wanted to vote for full removal but his wife liked it latching onto the trunk of an old red oak tree. Typical of herbera hibernica, it would take over entirely so we were meant to try to contain it as best we could.

“Mrs. Howe thought ivy–a different sort–was beautiful when growing up and residing in the Azores the last three decades,” he said with resignation. “So it stays for now.”

Rudy smiled at him blankly, then squinted his eyes as he tried to think.

“There are nine of the islands. Just west of Portugal.”

I had read of them so jumped in. “I’ve heard it’s beautiful there, a little like Hawaii.”

Mr. Howe smiled back at me, lips closed over his teeth. “Yes. Their ivy is a symbol of heartiness and loyalty, she says– the romance of it is what she likes. As long as it’s growth can be reasonably curtailed, I’ll try to live with it.”

“Yes, sir,” Rudy said. They strolled about, talked of other needs as I studied the plantings of flowers, the richly dispersed colors, and planned out what needed what.

I gave a brief thought to the Azores. How exotic its name, how far from home Mrs. Howe was now.

“He isn’t going to be my favorite customer but it’ll be fine,” Rudy said during break.

“Why?”

“Maybe a little arrogant. Not the first time.”

“I thought the same.”

“It’s only work,” Rudy said and offered me a bite of his apple.

He could put things in such a simple, clear perspective. He was like the Buddha of Northwest gardening; I’d thought about renaming our business “Zen for All Gardens” but he’d dismiss it with a chortle.

******

The second week, Mrs. Howe was on the porch by the time we arrived a bit early. She was bent over the table again. This time it was clear she was writing as she raise a hand with a pen or pencil in it. Sometimes scratched her head with it. I’d look up every now and then to see if she was gone but she remained rooted in that spot the two hours we were there. It threatened rain, and we worked more quickly. Right before we finished I glanced up again and saw she had disappeared inside. I wiped the sweat from my neck and face with a big white handkerchief and wondered what it was like to write and relax on a breezy porch, then do more of the same in air conditioning the rest of the day. I had done physical labor most of my life and it suited me well. I couldn’t imagine sitting that long except at end of day when my muscles held a righteous ache, when my body got refueling and rest.

I wondered if she had kids but that didn’t seem so. She was younger than he was, for sure, closer to my age. Maybe Mrs. Howe worked the other days and on Fridays she was home. And that’s why we came then, so she could watch over our activities. But she hadn’t spoken to us and seemed unconcerned about what we did. And so I put her out of my mind, didn’t think about the Azores, either. You could never really know about customers–your employers. Do the job well, then be done with it.

“I’m already a little tired of Mr. Howe’s griping about the bushes,” Rudy said the fourth week. “First he wants them left alone, then he wants them trimmed and wonders why I didn’t suggest it. Well, he said no to start with. We’d better get on with it.”

I heard the porch door behind us as we wielded pruning shears, knife and saw. There was much to do, but she hesitated, leaned against the porch railing and looked right at us. Then me, eyes sliding over my features and away. Her hand lifted from the railing just a little, a shy wave that was mostly flattened fingers, then she sat down at her round table.

The gesture got to me a little; it was as if she let me know she knew I was aware of her. And she paid attention to me–us–from up there.

“Come on, Cassie, they’re having a shindig tonight,” Rudy said under his breath, “so we have to get it all done right and on time.”

“A party? That’s so nice–such a gorgeous day. I can just imagine that wide, deep back yard, the patio strung with fairy lights…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He gave me a quick rub on the shoulders. “We have our own little oasis, too.”

“That’s true,” I agreed. A patio hemmed in by a shed and garage and  lots of potted plants, a koi pond smack in the middle. All Rudy’s ideas; it had been his house before I arrived. I did like it, it just wasn’t expansive and filled with lush flowering bushes and giant trees–all that we kept in great shape. And they had that blue-tiled pool by the southern exposure property line.

I could smell the jasmine hanging in the air, its rich sweetness cloying, saw magnolias’ waxy whiteness glow in the sunlight. The pink and yellow roses would be perfection in moonlight. I daydreamed as I clipped back the rhoddies.

“Hey, how about we invite Sandy and Gina over for steaks tomorrow? We’ll stop by the butcher’s, grab extra beer on the way home. But we’ll have to clean up the patio.”

“Sounds good. Maybe they’ll hogtie Jim and bring him so he and Roger can play video games.”

Roger, our son (mine, now also his), aged fifteen, was aggravating when he had to stay home for more than an hour or two at a time. We were waiting for him to morph back into the person we knew he was and could be again. There were sporadic signs of hope.

I studied Mrs. Howe as I worked. There was a slump in her thin shoulders, a deep curve in her long neck as she scribbled away in a journal or sketchpad, it was hard to tell. I wondered if she was excited about her party and what food she was making–or maybe it would be catered. I thought not, something special from her islands, and imagined the light conversation, scrumptious food and glittering pool.

The next week as I worked on ivy again, Mrs. Howe sat at her table but watched me awhile, then stood and paced. She sipped from her cup and stretched and twisted to loosen kinks, I guessed. She had a lithe figure, not like mine. I was of medium build but very strong, my thigh and arm muscles getting a bit massive from all the lifting, pulling and reaching we did. I felt healthy, was certain Rudy liked my looks. He moved to the back yard as he handed me clippers, directing me to another spot.

“Cassie? So sorry…is that your name?”

I looked up. Her voice was a gentle eruption, her accent filling out the words. She smiled and it changed her small face from sad and pinched to more open, even lively. Though her shoulder-length hair was light, her brows were darker and dramatically emphasized deep-set eyes.

“If you and Rudy are thirsty, please help yourself to fresh lemonade on the porch.” She pointed below and to the front. “On a table, left of the bench swing.”

“Oh, nice, ” I stammered, surprised she spoke so much to me.

She tentatively raised her fingers, a timid gesture, as she had before, then sat and got back to writing with renewed focus, left hand pressed against her head to prop it up.

The drink was homemade, wafer-thin lemon pieces floating in it. Cool, crisp, sweet and tart like my grandmother used to make it. The pale green glass was etched with vine and floral design. The many miniature ice cubes clinked like they wanted to clamber out I pressed the cold surface beaded with moisture to my hot forehead, then finished it off. When I went back to thank her, she was gone.

Did she write about the Azores? Her life before and after? Did she write about dreams, her friends here or abroad? Maybe it was a long letter, the start of a memoir as an Azorean–was that the right word? I’d read it.

I sometimes wrote about my dreams when I awakened. They were good, mostly, but not always, so then I wrote about them to get them out of my head. It worked.

******

It was August already, nearly the end. And boiling, so hot that my brown t-shirt stuck to my chest and back. I was more wet than dry. Rudy didn’t sweat like I did. He tended to be cool and collected physically and mentally as I shoved saturated curls back under my baseball cap and scoured my face with a handkerchief, which was already damp just from hanging out in my pocket.

There were moles, Rudy suspected, so he was off to investigate their tunneling in the back,look for more dirt-filled holes. He was good at ridding yards of the solitary insectivores but often said if every one had a cat it’d be less of an issue and cheaper. The byways they made fascinated him. I was getting ready to manicure the lawn and fired up the mower for the front. Heavy clouds were piling up in the southwest behind a line of black walnut trees. Warm rain would arrive soon.

Mrs. Howe was on the porch; I stifled an urge to wave. She made sure there was a pitcher of iced water, lemonade or limeade on the porch for us now. She was barefoot. I could see that because her legs were stretched out, arched feet atop the railing. A wide brimmed straw hat shielded her from the sunshine and obscured her face. Her shoulders trembled, then rocked ever so slightly. I stood there ready to start the mower but couldn’t move. She was weeping, I thought, yes, she was definitely crying and not easily. I hesitated as she bent over the table with face in both hands, then I started it up anyway. It wasn’t my business, after all, was it? I was a bit embarrassed for her, wanted to offer her cover. She remained there but I turned my back worked away. The lawn was huge. It took a lot to get it just right but the wind came up to cool me, a boon.

We wrapped things up, raindrops spitting, Rudy hefting things into the truck, I was gathering up a couple stray tools and it was then I saw her. I was in the back yard a moment and she was carrying out a small pile of notebooks in a rush, and opened a big trash can, opened up a tied off bag and shoved them in. Then she smashed the lid down tight, leaning on it with her full weight, as if it must never come open again. And then stood with arms dangling at her sides, head tilted up to sudden heavy rain, hat slipping down against her back. Her eyes were closed and she swayed, leaned back as if gravity was pulling her. I stepped forward, afraid she would fall and hard. But she jerked her head back down and looked around the yard. Then saw me.

“This rain is a blessing.” She held her palms up as it splashed all over her. “It reminds me of…well, it’s just good.”

“Sure is,” I said.

“I better get in and let you go.”

Mrs. Howe entered her big house, closed the back door tightly, her face and a hand pressed briefly against one small, rectangular window. Then she disappeared.

I didn’t think about a thing, I just walked to the trash can, opened it, tore open the smaller garbage bag, took out the notebooks, crammed them under my loose, wet shirt and walked fast to the truck. I wondered if there was anything disgusting on them but kept moving. Rudy was coming around the other corner. I beat him into the cab, stuffed three notebooks under the seat.

He jumped in, slammed to door, fired up the engine. “No cook-out tonight!”

“No, but we can order out.”

He leaned over and kissed me on the tip of my nose and then a long one on my rain-wet lips. I kissed him right back but knew I would be reading notebooks that night, not much else.

******

Roger was at his friend’s house so would be home tomorrow. Rudy was sleeping, his arm flung above his head, a light burr of snoring emitted from the slit formed between his lips. Part of me wanted to wake him up and tell him things. Part of me said that was foolish, let him rest. I listened to the sensible part.

Downstairs I curled up on the couch, turned on a small lamp and opened a notebook. This was the second time I’d read them, the first being a fast look as I took my nightly soak before dinner. The pages were a little damp but nothing was obscured by fragrant bubbles.

In late June she wrote:

He is not just the man he shows to others, he is someone today that he will not be tomorrow. I cannot keep track of who he is. Two nights ago he was attentive, found me inviting and lovely and we played a word game–he loves those and is good at them. I won but only once and he was alright with that. Later we ate cold roast beef with Italian bread and drank wine on the sleeping porch and he said he wished we had sleeping bags and a lantern. He said it was the best roast beef he’d ever eaten and thanked me. He held me so close I felt we dissolved into the night. I felt this was bliss, I could never love him that much again.

I was right. Today he told me I had better learn to cook, entertaining was critical to his career and he wasn’t going to always hire a caterer. And it wasn’t about my Portuguese heritage and what my mother taught me, it had to be sophisticated, damn it, why didn’t I know this? He threw out the roast beef, said it was badly seasoned and stick to fish, which I should know, being from “that island.”

I turned a page to July:

And when he is late–three hours too late for our usual seven o-clock  supper–he tells me he was with Harold and Jim to discuss another case but then there was a receipt. I was washing his shirts and there it was, 21 Club, charged a lot of drinks and food. I looked it up. It is not where he would talk about cases, cocktail waitresses dress little and badly, the  place is a misery. I can’t ask him. He’ll shrug it off, say that it was just a late business  dinner, he had called me and I didn’t answer and so what? He works hard, I need to lay off.

He is right. I didn’t answer. I was angry as the food grew cold on the terrace, I was watching television in desperation. He is late more often but this? I didn’t expect it, that’s all. He is always so the gentleman. For three years of marriage he has portrayed an example of respect and commitment to work, to the community. I thought–well, not recently–to me.

Except that I have been wondering awhile: what else, what else is there, who is this mystery man? I am afraid of what isn’t known. How to know even as I do not want to know…or how to make it work, still.

Two weeks later in July:

This time he says I have a terrible memory, he never said that and sometimes wonders if I even listen well and what is my problem that I can’t do that?

Why does he say one thing, then later completely deny it? It keeps happening.

We were talking about jury duty, how I have to go. He said it was the most boring thing, he hated it, a sad waste of time. But last fall he said how much he enjoyed it, that it was fascinating to hear the arguments, that being part of a jury was so important. I told him he told me differently before and repeated what I recalled. He looked at me as if I was acting absurd; he’d never say that and it was obviously wrong. He sure would not say it was a great experience. A civic obligation, yes, but not of personal interest to him. He laughed harshly.

I felt so confused, maybe he was right and I was wrong. I went to bed long before he did and pretended I was asleep when he came in. But I can recall that conversation a year ago as clearly as if it was yesterday. I have an excellent memory. It is he who is wrong or is living some other reality. Or something…

Two weeks ago, August:

This is the most daring thing I have done since marrying Brent. Told some of  the truth in these pages. But I know these notebooks are dangerous in this house, in my reality. I don’t know why I do it. I just have to put it in real words, I guess.

Today I mentioned that it’s his father’s birthday. I suggested he call him, that’s all, tell him happy birthday and have a good update. Brent’s practice has gotten so strong and I feel his father will appreciate that. They aren’t close, I know. Todd lives so far away; he travels a lot since his wife–my mother-in-law– died. I barely knew her, six months and she was dead. I didn’t like her very much and feel guilty about it but she wasn’t kind like my mother.

Brent suddenly lost it,  yelled at me. I can’t bring up his father as he is “a witless little man who made his fortune leeching off others, including Mother.” I started to leave, said I was sorry, but he grabbed my arm, squeezed it til it hurt, repeated that his father was a fool and a weakling, he learned from that, at least.

His voice and eyes went cold: “He’s nothing to me. I made myself who I am without him–alone. Don’t forget that.”

I slipped away when he let go and got his drink, then started reading the paper. It was like–a furious storm…it was over and it was nothing to him.

Shaking. I am quivering. Shaken more each day.

Where is that man who visited Ponta Delgada and swept me off my feet? My family was so happy for me, proud of my coming here to start a new adventure. He’s a stranger to me.

All I can think of is the ocean breezes, the taste of fire-grilled fish, the laughter of aunts and uncles, my mother and father, all of us around the big table on our stone terrace. The stars were so lively, the breezes sweet and savory, salt and honey. What was I thinking? That money would mean more?

I will go mad if I stay, I can feel it–worse is ahead.

I have been warned enough.

I turned out the light, felt wildly awake so waited for dawn to arrive, for sadness to drift off. I had known something was wrong from the start at the Howes’ elegant house. As I watched her write and write. I felt a muddled secret clawing its way out. But I was only the gardener, not a friend. Not even a well-meaning neighbor.

And then: I’m a thief, anyway, and what can a thief do? I had knowledge I could not even use, could not share without unhappy repercussions.

And my last thought before sleep found me: How fortunate I am, with Rudy and Roger–this simple life.

******

“Hey, I forgot to tell you that Brent Howe called last night to cancel the rest of the month. Said he won’t need us awhile, in fact. He may get back in touch later.” He paused work on a wild juniper bush.

I clutched an empty planter I was carrying. “Really? Why?”

“Says he’s cutting expenses a bit, some sort of legal issue, I guess, with his oral surgery practice.”

“Oh. Did he say anything about his wife?”

Rudy looked up. “As a matter of fact, he said she was leaving for somewhere tomorrow morning, a vacation maybe? Anyway, I had said she was a nice lady and he said thanks for our hard work.” He surmised my response. “Why do you ask?”

I made a little moue. “Oh, she said something about missing her homeland. Seemed sad to me.”

“Huh, I never talked to her once.” He shook his head and smiled. “You get attached to our customers, Kay. That makes things more complicated…but that’s my girl, an open heart.”

As soon as we got home from work I bathed, then took out my laptop. I looked up flights to the Azores the following day, a Friday. One at six a.m. I closed the laptop and felt relief wash over me like a cool wave.

“Kay, there’s an actual letter here for you!” Rudy called up the stairwell.

I went down, snatched the pale blue envelope from his hand. The spaghetti sauce he had started made my mouth water. Calmed me. No return address. I ripped it open, then sat on a stool at the counter as he hummed and made a mess cooking.

Dear Miss Cassie (aka Mrs. Rudy Blair…),

You were there. As I wrote on the porch, as I thought about things. I wondered if you might say something to me, but you never did, you were busy with gardening, you had a job to get done. You were careful, discreet.

But you SAW me. You watched, suspected something, I didn’t know just what but I even wanted you to see me. And finally you noticed I tossed the journals. I sat in the kitchen plotting my escape as you looked in the trash. Stole my journals! I almost ran out and grabbed you, said those were my property, who were you to invade my privacy? But in the end it didn’t even matter as you could sense my fear, I knew it. My misgivings. And that was some relief, like safety offered me in a pit of heartache and confusion. It was almost like having my sister, though we didn’t even get to be friends.

I thought: how is it I cannot speak aloud these things? But my own family and friends are not here. Only the gardener knows, she is a stranger.

So you are the only one who knew some truth. It was bad, but I am leaving it behind. Please destroy the journals, they are useless now. I am returning to our pretty wine-stemmed Canary ivy, a stubborn heart-shaped sort that claims a wall along my mother’s house. Back to my rapturous sea, to my tiny island. To those who know and deeply love me.

Miss Cassie, I am leaving so soon. He now lets me  go. I would make trouble for him if I stayed!

If you ever want to visit the Azores, contact me at the email or address below. Contact me, in fact,  anytime. I would like to hear from you, how you are doing with that gardening and your life. You are quite good at both, I think, you with your pleasing Rudy.

Thank you for not letting me be invisible. It gave me strength. A small gift to hold onto as I prepare to depart.

Atenciosamente,

Lucia Galanos 

(soon no longer Howe)

A big sigh escaped, one of relief and satisfaction as I pressed the letter into the envelope, folded and put it in my pocket. Patted it twice. Swallowed hard.

Rudy’s low bushy eyebrows were up high and on hold; I knew he was wondering. But Roger burst through the kitchen door.

“What’s for dinner?” he said, his voice warbling, then cracking.

My husband would have to wait, maybe for a long while. I sort of liked having a good secret–not the theft, I felt embarrassed, knew it was bad–and savoring Lucia’s good words even after I stole those glimpses. There were tons of pages I never dared to read; I’d seen enough, felt Brent Howe’s dark shadow pass over me. And I already had hauled them off to be shredded with my own recyclable paper products.

“How can I help, good  lookin’? How about a salad?”

Rudy tossed me a tomato and onion and I grabbed the cutting board. Roger snagged the Italian bread and tore off a hunk to gnaw as he joined in a simple everyday conversation, a major score–for us all, as I saw it.

 

11 thoughts on “The Islander and the Gardeners

  1. Once again a compelling read, a story beautifully told. I felt the heat of the sun in that garden, tasted the cool lemonade, felt the pain of the lonely woman on the porch, relished the secrets known only by the gardener…

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