I’m wondering if Loretta will remember me, though I’ve done clean-ups in her garden for more than fifteen years. Her neighbor Joanie, also her caretaker, made the arrangements. Loretta greets me at the door. If she’s confused, it’s well-covered.
“Well, here you are,” she says.
“That I am.”
She is wearing a blue housecoat and slippers. Her hair is brushed stiffly back and held there by a green plastic band. The house is warm and the trapped air impels me quickly toward the back door. The house of a person living alone (I’m one) acquires a unique smell. We don’t smell it ourselves unless we go away for a while. Hers has the ingredient of a lifelong attachment to dogs.
“You’re looking in the pink,” she says.
“I am in the pink. What about you, are you in the pink?” Her face is puffy. Her body no longer benefits from morning romps at Fort Funston with her dogs. She doesn’t drive now.
“Oh I don’t know, I don’t know you could say I’ve ever been in the pink.”
“How about in the beige?”
Loretta laughs. She still has her easy, appealing laugh. “Maybe so. Maybe you could say that. In the beige.”
The garden looks the way I expect it to look, overgrown and littered with leaves. The only surprise is the dead ‘Taylor’s Perfection’ camellia. Permanently out of the pink.
“Did you see that we have a goner in the corner,” Loretta asks.
“First thing I noticed,” I say. “I wonder why.”
A half minute later she asks again if I saw the dead plant, and a minute after that. “I’ll take care of it,” I say.
“Are you going to pull the weeds?”
“I’ll deal with them, too. One thing after another.”
“I like that. One thing after another. Is there any way I can help you?”
It’s worth a try. “Yes. Check and see if there’s dogshit lying around. I hate to step in it.” I don’t use any fecal euphemisms. I want not have to remind her three times, as I did the last time I was here. She says there isn’t any, hard for me to believe, but she may be right. I don’t see any.
And, as I begin the clean-up, there are indeed no unpleasant surprises. I begin to wonder if Bonnie the dog is a goner too. When I first started working for Loretta, Bonnie had a sister, Clara, They played Good Cop/Bad Cop. Clara was all kissy-kissy and Bonnie would lunge snarling at my ankle. Loretta would have to lock Bonnie up in the bedroom where Bonnie would bark nonstop.
I remove the dead camellia and drag the branches through the house, down the stairs to my pickup. A few leaves are strewn in the hallway. I collect them as Loretta watches. “You are queen of the forest,” I say.
Her face registers surprise. “Queen of the forest. Now that’s a very good title. I accept that.”
I return to the weeding, registering a distinct smell woven through the fresh morning breeze, a stink whose origin is vague, and it leads me to wonder, Does Bonnie lie under my footfall?
When Loretta next comes out of the house and remarks in wonder about the amount of foliage I’ve collected, four bags on the deck and four more in the truck, I ask, “Do you still have Bonnie?”
Again a look crosses her face, a kind of shunting to see if things line up, and she says. “I think I could make her appear if I open the bedroom door.”
Now I’ve done it. Sure enough here comes Bonnie. Not barking, not snarling. Her back legs are slightly splayed. She seems nearly blind. She walks back and forth, squats and pees, and then circles on wobbly legs the wet spot repeatedly.
“Why is she doing that?” I ask.
“I have no idea. Maybe she is getting ready to do something even more magnificent,” Loretta says.
For the next half hour Bonnie walks back and forth, into the house and out again.
Mortality is no joke. So I try elsewhere. “Loretta,” I ask when she next makes an appearance and remarks about the amount of foliage I’ve collected, “do you remember when you were young and went to dances and somebody tossed you around like this?” I grab the abelia which I’ve just finished clipping and make it gyrate like a hoop skirt.
Instead of laughter, a stricken look. “No I don’t because I never went to dances. I don’t like to dance.”
“Not at all?”
Confusion disables humor. A bit of reflection results: I joke to keep sorrow at bay. But who doesn’t?
“I’m amazed how good the garden looks,” she says as I finish carrying out the full bags of debris, “since I don’t do anything back here.”
The garden does look good. Its bones are pretty solid.