Her being quiet; I should be appreciative after Marianne. The hidden stuff will come out when it’s due. Maybe if she never talks it will be for the better. So she’s not beautiful but you can see how she might have been. There’s a crease going down both of her cheeks, and deep ones on the back of her neck. She told me she used to do field work.
You’re being a pig, Marianne would say if she heard me thinking this way. I have to stop thinking about Marianne.
I want her to stick around, I’m pretty sure. No red flags last night, unheard of for a first sleepover. She’s jumpy but no wonder after what she’s been through. What I imagine she’s been through. She hasn’t talked about it. I have to let her know there’s nothing to be afraid of here.
I wish the damn gardener had let me know he was coming. I thought someone was breaking in, hearing the door slam and him tromping up the side stairs. Maybe I forgot. I need to talk to him and pay him. I tell her to wait inside, that I won’t be long, but she follows me out. It’s like she’s scared to be in the house alone.
It’s a warm morning; the sun feels good. I introduce her to the gardener and neither says a word which doesn’t surprise me.
I ask the gardener to name the plants so I know what they are. I want to be sure none will turn into beasts like the ones Marianne planted in Biloxi. I count the list when we’ve finished. Eighteen varieties. Is that normal, so many? She mumbles something, something about a palm. How it would be a good idea to have a palm.
She thinks a palm would be nice, I say to the gardener, knowing he won’t like the idea. He’s thinks he’s a great artist. He always scowls when I suggest something.
Where, he asks, and then after a few seconds, says, Pygmy date. It could work.
Pygmy date. What’s that supposed to mean? I change the topic.
What are those two plants over there? Those two we didn’t count?
The sun. It hardly ever comes out and when it does, it’s too much. Too bright. You can stay inside, he says, but I want to be next to him. Not because we have grown close. Because if I don’t stay next to him the little cracks will heave open. We need stillness and we need time.
Sex. It always seems to hinge on it, but maybe not this time. I’m lying to myself. I don’t have illusions. If he doesn’t either, it could work.
I dreamed I was a comet and crashed into a puddle. I awoke. He said, It’s only the gardener. I know what he must think. I mostly manage the fear but I heard the heavy tread on the step. They are coming, I said.
It’s only the gardener, he said again. He has a key.
The garden is too naked. Don’t they see this? I don’t know why but I think of the lobby of the Imperial Hotel with the big brown pots crowded with palms where Lucas and I played. Sometimes we hid there. I tell him a palm tree would look good with the other plants. He tells this to the gardener. I wish he hadn’t.
Where? the gardener wants to know. He pretends not to be annoyed. He is a nasty old man in a nasty straw hat.
Anywhere, dig a hole, I almost say, but that won’t do. I point to the bare spot near the fence.
Here? he stands over the spot. Why can’t he figure it out for himself?
I turn away. The garden needs more plants. Anyone can see that.
This man like a schoolboy looks at his notes. Now he says he will look up the palm the gardener mentions. Look up a palm? There are a hundred kinds. He clearly doesn’t want my suggestion, this schoolboy, this person, and that’s the way it is, but is it the way it will be? He crowds me but he takes me to dinner and then here to this house half built, smelling of sawdust and wet concrete and unhappiness.
The gardener comes toward me. He has picked a sprig. He hands it to me. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it.
I don’t catch the name when they come out of the house. Anna, maybe. A new girlfriend. Just off the boat. Or maybe a girlfriend he hasn’t mentioned. We’re not friends, why would he mention her? I was friends with his ex.
They climb the steps to the garden and sit on the bench, facing me as I weed. He starts asking me questions, what that plant is, what that one. This is new. He has never expressed this kind of interest. Or any kind. I figure he is doing it to convince her he is a man of managerial skills, a man of diligence and capacities. He writes down names. His frameless glasses ricochet two pebbles of sunlight off her bare arms. For a second he looks twelve, but soon reverts to the egg-white fifty-year-old he is. Some plant names I fudge because I can’t remember them.
Why should I? He isn’t going to look them up. Outside the house is a junk heap of discarded sinks, fractured plasterboard, mangled pipes, plastic buckets. Inside is a storm of papers, garments, and bags excreting other bags. Maybe she will change all this. Good luck with that.
She does not look her best, she knows it. Slack brown hair. Bleary lips. Maybe hungover. She keeps her gaze in left field, still in dreamland, or maybe she does not understand our language. Life has pressed upon her features. Only when I turn back to weed does she look my direction.
She says something, in English I think. He transmits. She proposes planting a palm tree.
Where? I say.
She flinches, her gaze flits off. She rallies and points to a spot near the fence. The bed is too narrow, but it could be made to work. She makes an open hand gesture. A fan palm. He says he will look up the pygmy date palm that I mention and let me know.
Ha. I will not hold my breath.
I will buy the next dwarf blue fan palm I find and plant it there. He may or may not notice. I don’t care. He pays his bills. Maybe I’ll buy two.
What are those? he asks pointing. Those two we didn’t count?
Oh that’s lavender.
It’s mid-autumn. A few blossoms remain. I snap one off and hand it to her, just to break the mood. Thank you very much, she says in a childish voice. She lifts it intact to her nose. Why? There is no smell if it’s not crushed.