Undergrowth

By J. M. Kessler

When the landlord said that the rent included lawn care, I’d assumed that it also included a lawn.

To be fair, there was a small square of lawn in the front. But a paved walkway ran down one side of the house, and the other side was just a plot of dirt with four clumps of grass wilting under the blazing summer sun. It looked even more forlorn next to the perfect lawn of the neighboring house, which itself was bordered by a well-tended display of azaleas, rhododendrons, and some lilies – my favorite flower - that hadn’t yet bloomed. I’d have some work to do keeping up with the neighbor.   

But I was in a spot and agreed to take the place, a 992 square-foot house. A cute house. And it was even closer to the library, so now I could walk to work, if I could stand the heat. Well, after learning from my husband that he’d been having an affair, filing for divorce, and then moving out of my home so his young pregnant girlfriend could move in…I guess I could take the heat.

The movers had delivered all the furniture and heavy boxes. With that finished, I just had my car to unload. My neighbor didn’t come outside until I was just slamming the car door shut. She came down her front walk with a gracious smile and waving an arm in self-defeat.

“Oh, I was coming out to give you a hand.” Her sandals slapped against the sidewalk as she walked over to me at the curb, her auburn hair radiant in the sun. “Hi. I’m Phyllis.”

“Hi, Phyllis. I’m Brenda.” I adjusted the box and extended my hand as much as I could, grateful that the grey roots of my dusty brown hair were hidden beneath the bandanna I’d tied around my head.

“Oh,” she said with a giggle, and shook my fingers. I guessed her to be in her late fifties, my age, which I was feeling a lot more today than Phyllis was. She had a perky face that matched her voice, both of which grew perkier when she smiled. “At least let me get the front door for you.” She walked ahead of me. “This summer has been so hot, it’s a wonder that dirt doesn’t just up and blow away. There’s really nothing you can do with it.” She shook her head at the dried-up ground.

“Your flowers look beautiful,” I commented.

“Oh, thank you! They get watered by the sprinkler system every morning. I just love flower beds around a house.” 

I made my way past Phyllis as she held the door, and then dropped the box on the loveseat. “Thanks,” I sighed.

“It’s really a cute place,” she said looking around. “Really charming. So, is it just you and your husband?”

I had dreaded the question. I gave her a tight-lipped grin. “No. Just me.”

Discomfort flashed in her eyes and I noticed a quick catch in her breath before she replied. “Oh. I see.” 

Perhaps she disapproved of divorce. I didn’t know why, but it made me nervous. I shifted my weight and played absently at a chipped fingernail. Then her face lit up in a smile again and she continued the private welcoming party. 

“This is a wonderful neighborhood, easy to get around, lots of shops, friendly people. I’m sure you’ll be very happy here once you get settled in. Which you probably want to get started on right away, so I won’t be a bother. I just wanted to say welcome, Brenda. It’s nice to have you for a neighbor.” She stopped at the door. “If I can do anything for you, just let me know.” 

“Thank you, Phyllis, I appreciate that.”

And I really did. I wasn’t at my best that day, for quite a few days, but it was nice to be on a first-name basis with someone when you moved to a new place.

I spent the day unpacking essentials; dishes, bedding, bath salts, wine. I got takeaway for dinner from the Korean place nearby, then later settled into a soothing bath illuminated by a scented candle that I’d made years ago for an anniversary. 

He’d said it was too pretty to burn.

At 7:30 the next morning, I was back from a light jog around the neighborhood when I spotted a hose on the side of the house. I walked over to the bone-dry dirt, wishing I could kick my shoes off and walk barefoot in a long stretch of grass, when I noticed an area that looked as though someone had taken a shovel to it at one point, then gave up.

Whatever their intention, it undoubtedly proved harder work than expected. I turned to get the hose. At the very least, wet dirt looked better than dry dirt. And if nothing came of it, the lot would make a good graveyard display in October. 

Within minutes, Phyllis had her head out the kitchen window.

“I thought maybe it started raining,” she said with a laugh. She looked at the damp dirt, unsure of what to make of it. “Uh, are you planning on growing something?” 

I shrugged. “Maybe. I’d like to keep what little grass there is, anyway.” 

“Oh, sure.” She nodded, but seemed distracted by doubt. Then she smiled suddenly. “Did you get yourself settled in?”

“Mostly. Still a few things to unpack.”

“Oh, I know, the first week’s the hardest. Do you like strawberries?”

“Uh, yes, I do.” 

“Good. I’ve got some extra, I’ll bring them by later on. Looks good!” she said with a nod to the dirt, then disappeared from the window.

When I returned from work, Phyllis stopped by to deliver a stunning strawberry tart, the kind that gets photographed for magazine covers, the kind people always say looks too pretty to eat. My mother-in-law had said that about the ginger-peach preserves I’d made for her once. Two years later they were still sitting on her kitchen windowsill and I’d wondered if she would ever know how delicious they were.

I tore into the tart with a fork after dinner. 

Phyllis was right, the first week was hard, and not just on my muscles from all the arranging and rearranging of furniture. I was also rearranging a lifetime of memories. 

Late one night, I was going through photographs, letters, souvenirs from places we’d visited, and the pain, sorrow, and bitterness they now brought to the cliché ending of my marriage, when I came across sightseeing brochures from a librarian’s conference I’d attended many years ago. The one where I’d had an affair.  

I was stunned by the memory. The moral high ground I’d been riding caved in under me and my face flushed hard. “Oh, God,” I whispered.

It had been a meaningless, drunken slip-up I’d no intention of repeating, an uncharacteristic mistake no one would even believe me capable of making. Still, I’d made it. I’d been no better than my husband, and worse for hiding it. Convincing myself that it had never really happened was an act of self-preservation, and I’d buried it inside forever. Or so I thought. 

Of course, I could never admit to it, not now. Not even to myself. I couldn’t endure the guilt, the shame, even the thought that I was ever that woman. 

Which I wasn’t. Not really. 

Especially if there was no evidence. I tore up the brochures and grabbed the matches.      

It was dead quiet in the neighborhood. I took the small bowl of ashes and a large serving fork and all but crept outside like a thief to the far end of my dirt lot. I dug a hole with the fork, dumped in the ashes, and then smoothed the dirt back into place. I was patting down the ground when I heard a sound from Phyllis’s kitchen.

I stopped; no light came on. I brushed the dirt off my hands, grabbed the bowl and fork, and ran back into the house where I poured myself a whisky. Neat. 

*****

I made a routine of watering the dirt every morning, thinking about what I wanted my life to become now, and sometimes not thinking about anything at all.  

The following Monday I was outside watering the dirt (those clumps of grass were getting bigger) when the lawn care guy showed up. A quiet, friendly man, he introduced himself, Sam, and looked at the damp dirt with sparkling curiosity before getting to work. I liked him immediately. 

Before he left, he asked if I had a cat.

“No. Why, has one been using the property as a litter box?”

“No, no. I just wanted to warn you of the toxic plants around here if you did,” he said, nodding at Phyllis’s flower beds. “The previous tenant’s cat got sick from some plants. I think it even died.”

“Oh, that’s awful. So, those flowers are toxic?” 

“Yes, all of them. To cats, anyway.”

“Well, I won’t have to worry about that. I’m not really a cat person.”

Sam nodded with a smile. “I’ve got two Springer Spaniels.” 

Monday was my weekday off from the library. I decided to have coffee in my backyard, which was nothing more than a small stone patio. 

I heard Phyllis’s car pull up. A moment later she came around the side of the house.

“Hello? Oh, there you are. Sam thought you might be back here,” she said, apologizing for the intrusion. “I was at the farmer’s market and they had the most wonderful looking tomatoes, beefsteak, and so I got a whole bunch, and I thought you might like a couple.” She pulled two large tomatoes from her market bag and set them on the table next to me. Then she added two more. I was delighted and asked if I could give her something for them.

“Don’t even think about it,” she said, dismissing me with a wave of her hand and taking in the patio for the first time. “Oh, this is nice.” She seemed pleased with my arrangement of two chairs, table, and potted Hosta.

“I’m still working on it,” I smiled. “I’d like to get potted plants back here, flowers, so I can have some in the house. I just love that.”

“My lilies will be blooming soon,” she said in a faraway voice as she sized up certain possibilities with the patio. I noticed she had a nervous habit of playing with her fingers when she was thinking, something we had in common. 

“Oh, I love lilies,” I gushed. 

“Feel free to cut some for yourself when they come in. Just be careful, you know how the pollen leaves stains. That’s why I don’t really care for them. Well, I’ve got lots to do today,” she said as she gathered her bag of tomatoes. “You know,” she added with burgeoning inspiration, “you could do something like this out front, on the dirt I mean. Put down some nice pavers, some container plants, make a little garden area. Or even do a rock garden. And I could help you with it, I love to do that sort of thing.”  

“Well, that’s, certainly an idea,” I hedged. She must really hate looking out her window and seeing that dirt. For that matter, so did I. “I’ll, a, I’ll think about it.” 

“You do that, and let me know,” she smiled. Then she made an awkward half-turn to leave. “Er, by the way, I thought I heard something digging around last night.” She threw a cautious glance over her shoulder. “We used to have a cat in the neighborhood, and we have to be careful of raccoons. And of course, we wouldn’t want anything digging up that grass you’ve been growing,” she added with a light laugh. “Did you happen to see anything?”

By now I was staring at Phyllis with wide, unblinking eyes. “Um, no.” I shook my head. 

“Oh. Okay.” My answer was either disappointing or confusing. She nodded to herself and mentally ticked some boxes before brightening.

“Well, enjoy the tomatoes!” And she disappeared around the corner.  

There was a lovely sunset that evening. I made a pitcher of Prosecco and lemonade with fresh raspberries and invited Phyllis to join me on my patio. I wanted to reciprocate her kindness, and also it was nice to have someone to just sit and talk with. She made another pitch for her rock garden idea, and I listened, and then I changed the subject and poured our second glasses.

“I’m a widow.” She smiled as she took a sip, the light of the candles I’d set around the patio flickering on her face. “Oh, that is a lovely drink. Perfect for a night like this. Thank you for inviting me, Brenda.”

“My pleasure. It occurred to me that you’d never been over here before.”

Phyllis shook her head softly. “The previous tenant,” she confided, “he wasn’t neighborly. He seemed to prefer to be left alone. He couldn’t even be bothered with saying hello when we saw each other.”

“Some people are slow to warm up to being friendly,” I shrugged.

“It’d been ten years,” Phyllis impressed upon me. She sipped more lemonade. “And he never did anything about that dirt. Just left it, an eyesore in the neighborhood. I think we have a responsibility to keep our property aesthetically pleasing, or at least maintained. Nothing on you, of course,” she was quick to add. “You’re the one left to do something with it, which you are. Because you want your property to look nice, for yourself and for everyone. The previous tenant didn’t share that idea. Neither did his cat.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was most likely poisoned.” Phyllis had a long sip of her drink as she gazed at the last deepening hues of the sunset. 

“Poisoned?” 

"It’s not unusual. Lots of flowers and plants are toxic. And they like to dig around in them. He certainly dug around in my flower beds,” she stated with obvious annoyance. 

“The cat,” I said with relief, recalling what Sam had said. “Of course. I thought you meant…so, why did the previous tenant - what was his name, anyway?” 

Phyllis gazed into her glass, watching the Prosecco bubbles rise. “I never did know,” she murmured.

“We’ll call him P. T. Why did he leave so suddenly? The landlord said P. T. took off before the lease was up, and he left a lot of things behind.”

“Oh, I’ve no idea. Although, the cat went missing before Petey did. I remember hearing it wailing one night. It was awful.” Her eyes drifted into the middle distance and her fingers fidgeted absently with her glass. “And after that, it was never seen again. You know, I don’t think it’s healthy being alone all the time, it does things to people. It gives them a queer view of the world, and in turn, a queer view of themselves. They have nothing to relate to, and they can find themselves behaving rather oddly.” She paused before continuing. “No, I don’t trust people who spend all their time alone, it makes me uncomfortable. And Petey liked being alone.”

A silence ensued and I realized I was staring at Phyllis, and listening to my beating heart. Something in what she said alarmed me. Maybe the fact that I was living in the same house that creepy loner P. T. once occupied. 

I shook off my unease and declared, “Well, I’m a people person.”  

“Me too,” Phyllis cheered, returning from her thoughts. “I like to be out in the world and meet people, take part in life.”

“Here’s to people!” I said, raising my glass.

“And to neighbors!” We drained our glasses and finished the pitcher. 

And so, the weeks passed. Sam came by twice a month, and at least twice a week Phyllis and I got together for coffee or cocktails (sometimes both), and she always showed up with something that she had either bought or made in excess. And every morning I got up early and watered the grass and dirt. 

The grass clumps grew and connected, and then that patch grew and spread, and soon what was once mostly dirt was mostly grass. And a dry, desolate lot became a lawn of green. It wasn’t a perfect lawn like Phyllis’s, but I was proud of what I’d grown. And I was particularly pleased the week Sam acknowledged that it was indeed a lawn by mowing it. And of course, Phyllis was delighted. She made a lemon meringue pie. 

I was in my new home, on my own now, but I was content. I knew I’d still be sorting myself out for a while, that the period of adjustment would take interesting turns. But I also knew that I would be all right. This was a time for growth, a growth I didn’t expect, but, well, that’s life, and life finds a way.   
   
I was just back from my morning jog when I noticed Phyllis’s lilies had bloomed. They would look stunning in my living room, and I had the perfect vase for them. I got a pair of scissors from the kitchen (where I kicked off my shoes) and took advantage of Phyllis’s offer. I was cutting my final stalk when I noticed catnip growing among the flowers. It was growing everywhere, all through the beds. But, that didn’t make any sense. Why would Phyllis grow catnip if she didn’t want…Well, she must have had her reasons, whatever they were. I wasn’t going to waste time worrying about it, I was in too good a mood. She was so sweet to let me have these lilies. I gathered them, careful not to let the pollen touch me, and walked barefoot across my lawn to my home. 

© 2018 J. M. Kessler
 

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