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At the garden store one day, I turned around and Tom was gone. The panic I felt was outsized. He could hardly be lost in a garden store.
I found him deep among rows and rows of giant, whispering plants.
“Tom. Don’t wander off like that.”
He looked at me, scratching his nose. “I didn’t wander, I’m right here. Do you like this one?”
I recognized the plant. “Bamboo,” I said.
“It makes a cool sound.”
I listened. Nothing for a second, and then with a slight breeze, a sound like water.
“For up near the fence,” he said.
I had told him about the neighbor’s eyesore shed and he’d gone looking for a solution today. What a great kid.
The plant people told us how to mulch around the roots of the bamboo plants. Tom kept saying mulch under his breath. The soil should be moist, but we must allow it to dry between waterings.
“The leaves curl up and let you know,” the plant girl with pigtails told us.
With her help, we wrestled six tubs of bamboo into the car and drove home with a jungle at our backs. I glanced over at Tom. “Is your grandma taking care of you? I’m still waiting for that note.”
“Nope. My dad’s here now.”
We carried and dragged the bamboo tubs up the steps and around the side of the house. And there were deep holes to dig, watering to be done. By the end of the afternoon, we were both streaked with dirt.
He washed up, but his clothes were dirty, too. And he was tired. He was dirty and tired and what’s more, I’d forgotten lunch today. I let this kid work for me without a word from his parents, or his grandma, or whoever was in charge up there.
I stood over him. “Tom?”
He glanced up, squinting. “What?”
“Are you sure your family knows what you’re doing?”
He lowered his head, taking care in wiping his boots.
“Tell you what. I’ll write a note. I should’ve done it before.”
A twist of the mouth. “Okay.”
“Wait here.” I went inside and wrote my name and contact information, then:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goodman, Tom has been working with me in our backyard this summer, mostly weeding. I pay him a $3 an hour. Is this OK with you? Tom is an excellent worker.
But when I carried it out back, Tom was gone.
Next morning I met him at the gate. “Not until you take this home and I get an answer, Tom.”
He left with the note, scuffing the toes of his boots all the way across the patio.
Less than an hour later, he was back, paper fluttering in his hand. With round, clear eyes, he extended it.
Yes, he told us–glad to hear he’s a good worker. And thanks.
Followed by an illegible signature. I remembered that the father was a doctor.
We returned to the garden. Long days, silence punctuated by ticking sprinklers, the mailman, dogs barking, the Good Humor truck, screen doors slamming. Each with a chore to do. From time to time, one of us broke the silence.
Tom said he was going to Tahoe with his dad. I said that sounded great. Hot there. He agreed. Your mom’s not going, I said. Nope, he said.
One morning he didn’t come. I paced, I even considered going up to the castle. In the end, I did nothing.
Next morning, still no Tom. He must’ve left for Tahoe. Kids were like that, collapsing time, not singling out specifics. I stayed with my project, weeding and watering, exploring other plants. At the garden store, they spoke of erosion. I added Rosa nutkana to discourage it.
Then one day I stepped outside and tasted smoke. Fall. Classes, faculty meetings, burnt coffee. And rain. Soon it wouldn’t be possible to work out here at all. I picked up tools and gloves and began where I’d left off.
An hour or two later, I heard the gate click and turned to see Tom. “Well look who it is. You went to Tahoe?”
“Yep.” He lingered behind one of the patio chairs, tilting it back, plucking at the webbing.
“Was it fun?”
He scowled, continuing to pick at the webbing. “My parents are getting divorced.”
“They told me they weren’t. They promised.”
“I’m so sorry.”
His eyes slid off mine and he let go of the chair.
I thought of my marriage. Jack. But this was not about my marriage, this was about Tom. I climbed down the steps to join him on the patio. “Are you thirsty?”
He nodded. I went inside to get what we had, a diet root beer, and then I stood at the window, almost afraid to go out there.
But I went, and we talked about the Rosa nutkana and how the bamboo was thriving. “I saved one of them for you to do.” I pointed to the container I’d left, somewhat superstitiously, for the possible return of Tom.
“Cool.” He climbed the rockery, nimble as a goat.
As we worked, he told me about his dad’s girlfriend. Her cabin at Tahoe, supercool and made of logs. The lake too cold for swimming. Going into town in her candy-apple-red convertible, guarding the car while she gambled and then made him promise not to tell. And she won, too. He was starting a garden down there with the money he’d earned, because he’ll be living there part time. Unless it was too late to plant some stuff.
I sat back as he talked, and I saw the garden as if for the first time.
“Look, Tom,” I said. “Look what you made.”