He came by on the second day. A neighbor boy, vaguely familiar. Towheaded and skinnymaybe 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?”

He shrugged.

“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.

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.”

“Oh, Tom.”

“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.”

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