Fiction by Casey Bell
Juan Carlos replanted my hydrangeas and lilies into large clay pots on rolling casters so I could rearrange them on my own, so I could be sure they had the perfect balance of light and shade through summer and spring.
Or move them into the garage when it got too cold. But they were terracotta behemoths, even heavier with potting soil. I’d push with all my weight, which was mostly bone now. Honeybee, who’s on wheels now too, walked slowly alongside me whenever I moved the plants, her little front legs carting around her rear, her tail draping limp behind. She loves Juan Carlos as much as I do. Poor dear slipped a disk after jumping off the couch to greet him. All dachshunds have this problem, it’s genetic.
Juan Carlos worked magic on my bougainvillea. Magenta and lemon blossoms, two stories high, holy looking. He trained it to climb all the way up the back of the house, pruning it before each winter, making precision clips with his ear close to the vines like he was listening. The blooms looked whipped and soft like where cherubs might like to linger. It’s deciduous, bougainvillea. Which means parts fall away when they’re no longer needed.
Juan Carlos always comes to help me in the garden. I mean before he got too busy he did. Simple things I used to be able to do on my own, or that Roland would do if I persisted with frequent reminders. But he’d go above and beyond. He was intuitive. So eventually I let him start making decisions about what to plant, how things should look. He had an artist’s eye, so it wasn’t just that the plants were thriving, it was the attention to shape and texture and line. The balance between wild and controlled. He’d consult me out of courtesy, but he knew he had free reign and all of my trust too.
I’m not saying I had the same sense as Juan Carlos, but I’ve always been the kind of person who can tell what the garden wants, which is not always the same as what it needs. The problem is I’m not strong enough to do the physical labor anymore. I’m hollowing in my old age. I eat like a bird. Just a handful of peanuts or an apple for the day. It was always Roland who’d loved big meals. My clothes hang loose. The skin around my neck gathers and folds like drapery.
Some people say women who are never mothers don’t age as fast, but I haven’t found that to be true. I’m brittle is all I know. Breakable. But it is true that there are differences. I’ve read up on it. All those surging hormones that make things hospitable for the baby, for example, end up wreaking havoc on a woman’s body down the road. And the calcium needed for building the baby’s bones depletes the mother of her own supply, leeches it right out of her system. And did you know the volume of gray matter in her brain actually shrinks after childbirth? It’s proven.
Roland and I never had children. We didn’t even get married until I was 32. I was independent, which was seen as strange back then, though women now do it all the time. I’d worked as a receptionist and served tables on and off. I traveled around, drove out to California on my own in a rusty old convertible I’d saved up for. I met people. I stayed for a few days or a month whenever and wherever it felt right. Or if the transmission would start grinding. My mother was scandalized by it all. And then years later, when the thought of bringing a martini to another self-entitled suit who’d reach around and pat my bottom was unbearable, I went back to school to get my degree in art history. That’s when I met Roland. He taught classical studies. He was older. At ease and self-assured. Roland spoke in a warm baritone that made people instantly believe him. And he was always a little disheveled looking, with a shirt button misaligned or a tuft of hair jutting up on the side of his head, like he had bigger things to think about.
We’d tried a few years in, but it didn’t go the way it was supposed to. I’d miscarried four times. That last time, I was far enough along that we’d picked out a name and a color for the nursery. They’d had to do what’s called a dilation and evacuation. They put you under and then suction out your insides to prevent infection. It was grisly and clinical. I remember lying in bed when I got home, cramping like big hands were wringing out my organs. I looked out the window and there was a shiny black beetle trying to climb up the glass, but it kept slipping, over and over again, falling on the sill and rocking on its convex shell. I watched the struggle in a loop for what felt like hours. Roland brought me an enormous roast beef sandwich and a glass of milk, which I wanted nothing to do with, and said we could have a beautiful life just the two of us. We’d travel. We’d buy nice things for ourselves. Roland had been married before. He had a teenage daughter, Robin, who stopped speaking to him after he left her mother. He sent cards on her birthday and she’d return them unopened.
Roland and I weren’t wealthy, but between my salary working part time at the art museum and Roland’s tenure, we were able to summer in Paris every few years. We’d rent a closet-sized apartment in Montmarte, a five-floor walk up, and live off baguettes, wine, coffee and cigarettes for two glorious months. We took a cruise down the Rhine one year, The Gems of Western Europe tour. One year we went to Australia. We’d seen Alaska. Ireland. South Africa. And when we were at home, we ate out whenever we pleased. Slept indulgently on weekends, making love in the morning and lingering in bed until noon. We bought nice wine and beautified our home. I enrolled in pottery classes and took up watercolor. We turned the spare bedroom, which was always flooded in sunlight, into a little studio. We had no creatures to consider other than ourselves. We were free and able.
Still, sometimes when we were out, we’d see couples with young children and I’d get emotional. I’d think how much I loved Roland, and how much I felt he loved me. And I thought about what it would have been like if we could have brought a human into the world and given it all of that big love. Shown it every beautiful thing we knew. Roland would always listen, and he said he wondered the same thing. But we’d also have long conversations about how society only pushed women to make children instead of art so there’d be more consumers in the world, more workers. We were both always of two minds, Roland and I. Plus, he’d said, I’d always have him.
After Roland was gone, I’d needed help with the simple things. Mowing the grass, weeding the flowerbeds, watering the trees. Juan Carlos was an angel. He was there for me; he defended me. When the neighbor’s maple dropped all its leaves in my yard, he strapped the blower on and sent them all back across the property line. The day Honeybee hurt her back, he’d held her on his lap in the car, stroking her head gently and reassuring her all the way to the vet. He did odd jobs around the house too. Changing an occasional bulb, opening a jar of pickles. Always so kind, always so easy to smile. He’d ask how I was doing that day. We’d talk.
Once in a while he’d get a ride to the house from a friend. But Honeybee and I usually would have to pick him up in the car. She so enjoys riding with the window down, feeling her ears flap wild and free in the breeze. And I drive a coupe so Juan Carlos had to sit in the back. He never seemed to mind. His apartment was out past Market Street, not one of the best neighborhoods in Alamosa. Not that I’d ever mention that to him, of course. I’d always make him a strong pot of coffee when we got back to the house. And he likes these sweet rolls I make with candied fruits, so I tried to have some dough ready. Roland always loved those too.
It was Roland who hired Juan Carlos. After his first heart attack, when he’d retired. He’d been young when Roland met him. Bagging groceries at the Safeway. Roland liked the way he was careful to never put the tender greens at the bottom of the bag, or to put the avocados next to the milk carton with its hard edges. He’d asked the boy if he wanted to make some extra money and brought him home after his shift that same afternoon.
When you talked, he’d really listen. And if you asked, he’d tell you about the house where he grew up, outside Bogotá, surrounded by giant wax palms and mountains blanketed in forest. About his grandmother and her orchids and chrysanthemums. How he remembered being so little he was only as tall as the lilies. While they were out buying groceries, his parents were killed by the National Liberation Army, which was making a display of intimidating the general public. Juan Carlos was only three. So it was his grandmother who’d looked after him. She was the one who taught him the language the flowers and trees spoke. When he got older, she worried he’d be recruited or else taken hostage and so she sent him North.
Juan Carlos didn’t have a yard at his apartment, only a little landing on a metal-rung fire escape, which he’d covered with sprouting pots. I like to think it wasn’t just money that kept him coming back for so long. He was free to express himself. He’d seen seed grow to flower, protected, nurtured.
I was always amazed at how he just used simple things around the house, natural things. He’d asked to have the teabags from Roland’s empty mug and patted the wet tannins down on the roots of the ferns along the fence. And he’d kept the aphids away from the rose bushes by burying dried up banana peels around their base. He just knew. Any time he saw a slug or a snail, he’d douse it in salt right away, always on the offensive. Once, Juan Carlos sliced his forearm when he was reaching for the pruners. He cupped his hand under the gash and walked over to the budding peonies and let the blood soak into the roots. Afterwards, Roland dabbed a peroxide soaked cotton ball along the jagged cut and wrapped it in gauze. Those peonies bloomed the next morning. They were luminous.
He’d come to the house two or three times per week back then, when Roland was retired. Roland had developed a sloping belly. In his old age, he ate cakes and chocolates indiscriminately. And he finished each day reclined with a glass of bourbon, watching television or reading a book. When he’d drift off, he snored in loud, arrhythmic jags. I could hear him from my studio and sometimes I’d put the radio on to drown him out. But I’d always wake him up and we’d climb in bed together when I was finished painting. We’d bought a massive bed after retirement, a California King, it’s called. Now with just me and Honeybee there at night, it’s like drifting in the ocean alone.
When Juan Carlos told me he could only come once a week I was devastated. A lot had changed since we’d first met him. He’d gotten married, bought a little house. He’d gone to night school and earned his associate’s in business, and his wife’s father hired him at the bank. And of course I was happy for him. But you have to understand how it felt to start losing him.
The phonebook is full of men who’ll come to the house. To do repairs or work with machinery. And there were plenty of parts of the house that needed remodeling. I hadn’t updated anything since Roland. I started having the carpets professionally cleaned once a week. I had the windows replaced, new cabinets installed. I did the countertops, had the fireplace resurfaced. I kept my planner full.
Honeybee hated all of them. She’d shake with distrust. None of those men were very good conversationalists. You could make them coffee and just sit nearby as they work. Ask where they’re from, what they like to do in their spare time. But that doesn’t mean they’ll share anything worthwhile or real with you. I’d found it very humanizing to have conversations about how divine mother nature is, about leaving home alone and beginning a new life and feeling out of phase with the world. It wasn’t easy to find a connection. Saturdays were special.
# # #
When Victoria got pregnant, she told him she didn’t want him gardening for Nadine anymore on Saturdays. We’re not poor, she said. Why doesn’t she have friends or neighbors who can help her out if she’s so lonely? How could it be that she’s really so alone? Nice house and plenty of money? Why don’t you put more time into your own garden? Our garden.
Nadine was a white lady, but she had the same eyes as his grandmother. Wide and dark with creped lids, slow, so as to really notice things. When he was little, back in Bogotá, his grandmother would talk to him for long hours in the garden as she moved from plant to plant, bending and reaching in a slow, low-to-the-ground dance. He would touch the leaves, tracing his fingers along their shapes and lean close to smell them. She would explain to him how water enters through the stem and travels to the leaves. How soil cycles nutrients. At night when she tucked him in, he’d rest his head on her soft arm. She would sing and comb her fingers through his hair. Duérmete niño. Duérmete tú.
When Juan Carlos and Nadine would talk, sometimes out in the garden, while he worked and she studied her nails, or sometimes in the kitchen having coffee, they’d play a game Nadine called What Would It Be.
Imagine you float up to heaven and there’s a rule that God can only say one thing to you, what would it be? If you had to choose between the power of flight or invisibility, what would it be? If you could only swim in one body of water for the rest of your life, eat one dessert for the rest of your life, listen to one song for the rest of your life, what would it be? Roland had despised these questions, which Nadine would save for long car rides or waiting in lines.
Nadine, I don’t know. Why do I have to only pick one thing? Well, it’s hypothetical. You’re just supposed to speculate.
Roland would humor her for a few tortured rounds and then turn the radio on or ask about her latest painting.
Juan Carlos could answer Nadine’s questions for hours, though, and he volleyed his own back. If you could only smell one flower, read one book. If you could change just one thing about the world, what would it be? If you were God and you could talk down to the whole earth and tell us all one thing, what would it be?
They knew each other strangely in this way, but so specifically.
“Ms. Nadine,” Juan Carlos said to her through the open sliding door to the garden. The sun was setting and the angle cut half his face in shadow. Nadine looked up at him from her mixing bowl, sticky with sweet roll dough. “This is hard for me to say. But, with Victoria having the baby soon, I’m not going to be able to come by to help with the plants anymore on Saturdays. I just wanted to thank you for––”
“I can double your pay,” Nadine let the spoon drop to the countertop.
“It’s not about the money. And you doubled my pay when Mr. Roland passed. I have a family now.”
“Of course you do. You ought to be spending your time with them.” Little webs of bone flexed in Nadine’s neck.
“But we’ll keep in touch, okay? We could write letters. Send postcards maybe?”
“I think that would be lovely.”
They were both silent as Nadine walked down the driveway with him to his car.
“We’ll keep in touch, okay?”
“Don’t worry, you can’t get rid of me that easily.”
Juan Carlos placed his warm hand on Nadine’s shoulder. She moved in to hug him goodbye.
Victoria rang Nadine’s doorbell. She held the swaddled infant in her arms. Nadine invited her in, ushered her to the couch, poured her a glass of lemonade and sat next to her, peering into the blanket in delight. Juan Carlos had called two weeks earlier to announce the arrival of Sofia. Nadine didn’t want to push, but she’d been eager to see the baby.
“Victoria, she’s just beautiful. I couldn’t be happier for you both.”
Victoria propped the baby up so Nadine could see her face better. She was all cheeks. She had dark lashes and a head of brown downy fuzz. Her eyes squeezed shut against the sunlight through the window. “We’re very blessed.”
“May I?” Nadine opened her arms.
Victoria passed the bundle over and Nadine cradled her, careful and slow. So very fragile. Only slightly bigger than the submarine sandwiches Roland liked to eat for lunch.
“How is Juan Carlos?”
Victoria took a sip of lemonade and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Nadine, that’s actually one of the reasons I came by. I thought you might want to meet Sofia. But, I also wanted to ask you to please not send those post cards anymore. The ones with the weird questions. About death and God and food.”
“Oh. I’m sorry Victoria. I certainly didn’t mean anything by them.” Nadine was blindsided.
“It’s not that he doesn’t like them. He does. It’s just that I want him to think about our family now. I don’t want him dreaming about another world. I hope you can understand.”
# # #
It’s so hot today that Honeybee won’t come out from beneath the shade. She’s under the oak, panting. I tell her, I hear you, Babygirl. I feel weaker than usual today, slower. My heartbeat feels strange, syncopated. Like there are moths fluttering loose in my chest. I bring Honeybee a dish of cool water, ease my hips down to sit beside her and stroke her marvelous silk ears. The new gardener was here this morning. He’s always in a rush, distracted. He works with a little battery-powered radio clipped on his belt, dirtying the peace and quiet, the bird songs, the wind chime, with this harsh electric treble. He’s obsessed with sports scores. Juan Carlos was always so good to only remove the dead or damaged stems. I’ve told him exactly how I like the pruning done, but this man is always cutting too close to the collar. It’s brutish. No stopping to examine or really listen before using his blades.
This new man has hacked away at everything but the bougainvillea, which is overgrown, shaggy looking. It needs thinning out or it won’t flower right. All that undergrowth up there is a drain on the healthy blooms. It’s a resilient plant, but there are rules. I wrestle the stepladder out from the shed, and when I catch my breath I notice I’m feeling light headed, a little woozy. I realize I ought to go inside and rest as soon as I’m finished. I try to steady myself up on the ladder, holding one arm out for balance. I stretch to reach up into the dense tangled undergrowth, backlit in sun.
I can see the wax palms Juan Carlos told me about, towering trunks cresting the clouds. The orchid roots, looping above the surface of the ground like sea snakes, searching for a branch to coil. The black soil like coffee grounds, warm when squeezed between a small boy’s toes. Running through the grass, eye to eye with the lilies. Brushing past the sharp, stiff leaves of a bromeliad with bright angular flowers like red paper spades. The cloud forest off in the horizon, harboring pumas and monkeys, whose eyes glow at night. An iridescent, ruby topaz hummingbird, hovering mid-air, a blur of beating wings. The sideways sun, casting everything in gold with long slender shadows. And right before the light narrows to a pinhole, I see the marmalade bush, with powder soft folds of ginger flowers that spread everywhere and take over if you let them.
Casey Bell teaches first year writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she’s earning her MFA. She’s also the drummer of an indie-rock band called Fine Motor and is hard at work on her first short story collection, which explores motherhood, feminism, and plants.