He came by on the second day. A neighbor boy, vaguely familiar. Towheaded and skinny—maybe eight?
I said hi. He looked at me, then left without a word. I returned to the rose bushes.
The third day I wakened to light rain. I stood at the window and stared out at the roses I’d neglected for fifteen years and had now decided to try to save. Something was definitely drawing me to this work. I’ve never been able to meditate, so perhaps it filled that vacancy.
I took a break at noon, and when I went outside again later, the boy was standing on our patio.
I said. “You’re back.”
“Are those dead?” He pointed to the roses.
“Those? I hope not. Otherwise I’m wasting my time.”
He frowned. “What happened to them?”
“Neglect. Looks like some sort of blight. See? Here?”
He leaned forward. “They’re not yours?”
“Well, technically, they are. But I’m not a gardener.”
“What are you?”
“A teacher. Have you heard of the Bertel School?”
“Nope.” The p in his Nope was percussive. “How come you’re not teaching now?”
“Low enrollment due to the economy, they tell me. I go back in the fall.” I was running out of small talk and my legs felt crampy from yesterday.
“Where are your kids?”
“Kid. A lone chick, all grown up and gone away.” I glanced at the roses. I’m not good with kids not my own. And anyway, where were his friends? Nobody lets kids wander. They run in packs, or are shunted about by adults.
He didn’t move. Finally, I took off my gloves and joined him on the patio. “How old are you?”
“Ten.” His eyes shifted. “In October.”
“That would be nine then. What’s the matter with nine?”
“What are you doing with your summer?”
He shrugged again. “Playing games, I guess.”
“On your computer?”
“Yeah. But it gets boring like, after four hours.”
“My son used to get bored.”
“Where is he now, exactly?” He said exactly with great precision. I was beginning to like this kid.
“Writing code in Oregon. Are you thirsty? How about some lemonade?”
He nodded. “Can I get it?”
I watched through the glass sliders as he retrieved the pitcher and poured two lemonades to the brim with a look that said he’d better not spill a drop. He carried them outside with that same grave attention.
“Have a seat.” I took one chaise and he took the other. We sat there like a couple on a cruise.
I asked him where he lived.
He said, “Do you know the castle?”
“Sure.” Everyone knew the castle. The lone Tudor in a neighborhood of Craftsman and ranch styles, it had a turret with diamond-paned windows.
He snatched up a twig from the patio and began to prod at moss in a crack.
“What about your friends? Gone away on vacation?”
He scrunched his face into a small fist. “Sometimes they come over to swim and stuff.”
“You have a pool up there?”
He nodded, prodding some more. “My dad put it in last year. My dad’s a doctor.”
“What do you want to be?”
“I want to race bikes. Or cars. I gotta go.”
He was on his feet and around the edge of the house before I stood. He paused to call, “Thanks for the lemonade.”
I didn’t mention my visitor that night when Jack came home. He was late. He’s had problems at work with procrastination over the years, or so he’s told me.
He heated leftovers and poured himself a tumbler of scotch.
What is so special about you that I should bend my life to yours? I thought as I watched him. And why don’t you stop drinking? I must’ve had such thoughts before, but I didn’t remember, and they stunned me into silence now.
He looked up. “What?” he said.
I shook my head. “Nothing.” He finished his drink and poured another, and I went to bed before him. The thoughts I’d had earlier returned, cold and clear as dry ice.
Next day was warm but not bright, a good day to work outside. I had already finished a row when the boy came.
I sat back on my heels. “Hello. I don’t know your name.”
“Tom.” He wore flip-flops and lifted one, investigated it. “Ouch,” he said, picking out a burr. “Goodman. Can I like, help?”
“You mean here? You’re not dressed for it.”
He let go of his foot, but remained standing on one leg.
“I’ll go get boots. I’ve got some at my house.”
“I bet your parents could use your help.”
“Nope. Anyhow, they’re not there. My mom’s at work. She’s a nurse. My grandma’s there.”
“Then you could help grandma.”
He shook his head, still standing on one foot, which was beginning to seem like a joke between us.
“Well I can’t have you work here without your parents knowing, Tom. What’s their number, I’ll call.”
“You don’t need to call because, guess what? I’ll tell my grandma when I get the boots. I could also text. Or if I had a phone, I could.” He grinned. His teeth were big and very white. He pointed at the remaining weeds. “What are those called?”
“Those are weeds. They have to be pulled. Like that pile there I just did. See?”
He put his foot down at last and rested his chin in a hand. “Hmm. I could like, shovel the dirt around them, so it’s easier?”
I looked at the weeds, back at him. “You’re on,” I said, surprising myself. “How much an hour? How about three bucks. Since you’re basically learning on the job.”
He sped around the corner of the house without a word. He’d either reappear, or I’d never see him again. I climbed back down the rockery and went inside to take a break.
By the time I’d come out again, Tom was standing in the weeds in a blue and green Seahawks 12 sweatshirt and big rubber boots.
“My grandma says okay. Can you take a picture of me working?”
Friday night Jack was early and we had a silent, candlelit dinner. He grilled salmon and I did the rest. The room smelled of roses. Though the leaves were still spotted, I’d brought some buds in, including one bloom that had survived the blight.
We spoke of our son. His emails, job crises, money shortages. Or I spoke and Jack nodded. He must have done this for years, but now it was just us.
He poured wine. I put my hand over my glass when he went to pour a second.
Then I told him about the garden. How it had drawn me that first day in June when I found myself alone in an empty house. What I’d accomplished, and finally, how I now had a helper. A boy. Tom Goodman. From up the hill? The castle?
He listened with the usual pained patience until I said boy, and then his head came up and it began: Liability . . . What if he fell? Got hurt helping me back there?
It was as if he’d put his hand over my mouth.
I looked around the familiar room. Nothing pleases me, I thought. I looked at the roses and wondered if the buds would ever bloom. And if they didn’t, should they be pulled out like weeds, replaced with something that wanted to live?
Tom was at the sliders before I had finished my coffee. “Tom. So early.”
“I was thinking,” he said. “I can maybe get that one whole row done today.”
As we worked, something odd began to happen. Tom seemed to be listening in on the silent arguments I was having about marriage. I looked up at him shoveling soil, and I thought, he has my back.
Around noon, we went to the garden store for instructions and products. The clerk assumed Tom was my son and I didn’t correct him. We stopped at Dairy Queen for a burger on the way home, and Tom also had a Blizzard.
I returned to the roses, working the soil around the roots as I’d been instructed. He shoveled weeds and filled the holes from the piles of dirt he’d made. He told me about visiting Yellowstone, where he got stung by bees. I spoke of family trips. Or we were silent, with the occasional clink of shovel hitting rock.
By the end of the third week, I began to feel uncomfortable about not speaking to the parents, or the alleged grandma. I’d put the burden on Tom by telling him each afternoon to be sure and bring a note next time.
But then morning would come and Tom with it, empty-handed. I’d look at him in his boots and garden gloves and I’d think, where’s the harm.
Besides, I’d begun to notice that Tom was not happy. His eyes had the stunned look of kids in war photos. I didn’t want to add to what was making him sad by saying he couldn’t work anymore.
Then one morning he arrived flushed and feverish. I said he had to go home until he was better. He screwed up his face but he went. He was back the very next day, insisting he was better and wanted to work.
I watched him fill holes and thought of what Jack would say. I didn’t feel guilty. I felt instead that airy sense of doing good and being misunderstood.