May 18th, a Saturday, Marcia drove to the Willesden Garden Center and bought a flat of impatiens, mixed colors, and a half flat of petunias, pale pink. She got home before ten, so she made a new pot of coffee and listened to "Car Talk" on NPR while she waited for the sun to dry her lawn.
"Talk to Phoebe yet?"
She shushed Ed without answering his question, hating to miss any of the Tap-It Brothers' chatter. Ed got up and left but only to check the drier. It was his week to do laundry.
"You thought you'd have a good chance this week to get a straight answer," he reminded her.
She shot him a look but only caught the back of his head as he bent over the kitchen table, folding the towels. He was such an obsessive-compulsive. She looked away, shivering. Why did she want to shake him just because he rearranged the same towel three times until he was sure that each segment was equal with the other two? Marcia wondered if he was showing off because he knew she was watching him.
No. That wasn't his style. And it wasn't fair. She couldn't win the argument that way: by stooping so low. If anybody ever strove to make life fair, it would have to be Ed. Back in the old days of their marriage, he'd argued for women's liberation more fervently than any of Marcia's female friends. One of the kids had even gotten into a fight with her best friend over the issue of whose job it was to peel potatoes and vacuum the carpets*the mommy's or the daddy's. Amy had argued for the daddy, of course; that's what she'd seen, what she knew. Ed minded far more than Marcia that Amy was staying home to raise her own four children rather than using her master's degree in child psychology out in the working world.
"Change the topic," Marcia told herself. She knew better than to think she could change Ed. Or herself. Having derailed her own train of thought, Marcia realize she'd missed a good line on the radio. Ed was laughing out loud. Darn it. Tommy and Ray could hardly catch their breath. She tried not to blame her distraction on Ed. Then the banjo plinked the theme song and her hour-long respite was over.
And Ed the indefatigable was back at it again. Still. "What did she say?"
"Who?" Marcia poured coffee grounds down the sink and dried her hands.
"Phoebe. Where do you stand? Would you have to pay any penalty if you cashed in your 401k a couple of years early?"
Marcia glanced at the clock. He'd been waiting. What? Forty minutes, to ask her again. Like a little kid driven to know how many days til Christmas, he had to have his answer.
"I didn't get a chance to talk to anybody in human resources last week," Marcia said. "We were all crazy-busy, getting ready for the auditors."
"See, that's just what I mean." Laundry basket in hand, Ed fell in step beside her.
What are we, Marcia wanted to ask, puppets attached to the same string? Was he going to follow her outside?
"They put too much on your shoulders. More each year. Isn't it time to get out from under the stress? You've already given them thirty years of your life. Let's take the rest, whatever we've got, for ourselves."
She said, "Listen, before we head out for lunch, I need to plant some of these flowers I bought this morning. Can you give me an hour or so?"
Ed looked confused, trying to find an answer in her question.
She did not let him.
Her brusqueness hurt his feelings; she knew it. Equally, though, Marcia knew what happened to her energy and enthusiasm by mid-afternoon on a Saturday. She did not want to find herself scrambling tomorrow to get the both flats planted, or if she didn't, have to baby the plants all week long until the next weekend. Besides, she'd already scheduled her weekends for the rest of the month, and she definitely wanted to get the flowers settled before the grandchildren arrived for Memorial Day.
She'd averted his questions by walking away from them, only to find that she'd left her basket of gardening tools in the mudroom with Ed and the washer and drier. He didn't acknowledge her re-entry until she was practically back out the door again. Then he tossed it off as if he were talking to himself.
"If you retired, you'd have a lot more time to spend with your flowers."
What good were twenty-six years of marriage if not to hone the art of communication? Whether making love or war, neither one of them needed foreplay anymore.
The kid Ed had hired to mow again this year was weed-whacking around the base of the trees in their back yard. Marcia had once suggested that since Ed had divested himself of almost all his share of the yard work (by paying others to do it for him), he could help her with hers. Ed had said, "Instead, why don't you just give yourself a break. Don't bother with flowers at all if you don't like to do it."
That had not been her point to quibble over of the fair division of their work. But it was like Ed to twist the story that way, and then it became yet another chapter in their story, the struggle to survive those basic features within each that still drove the other crazy. Marcia couldn't actually name Ed's flaws although she could describe everything he did that made her wild. Sometimes today she felt so defeated by their predictability that she thought about leaving him, even now, after all these years, with all their compromises and negotiations.
She had heard the pitch in his voice: You could spend more time with your flowers. He sounded jealous. No, he sounded like their son Jeremy when he gave them lip during his obnoxious adolescent phase.
Marcia shoved her fingers into the stiff canvas gardening gloves that she'd worn last, several weeks ago. Or was it longer? She tried to remember when she'd planted her spring pansies in the deck containers; she'd worn gloves then as much to keep her hands warm as to keep her fingernails clean. Now she had to rip out the pansies to make room for the petunias. Ed strolled past, check in hand, headed out to pay the boy for mowing.
"Pink?" he asked.
Marcia wiggled her fingers to see if she could supple her gloves. She should have washed the mud off them in March or else bought a new pair this morning. "Is there something wrong with pink?" she asked. "You'd prefer another color? Tell me now, before I put them in."
"Whatever you like, dear," he said, all amiability except he hadn't even turned his head to look or to answer.
Marcia snapped open the black plastic Hefty lawn-and-garden trash bag she'd brought and anchored it with a rock to the deck rail so she could drop the pansies in with one hand. She would have liked to heave the rock at Ed. She plunged her trowel into the potting soil instead.
In spite of a good early start, the pansies hadn't done much until the last couple of weeks. The weather had been consistently foul since March; now, finally, they were blooming and at their prime. The colors were so intense, they gave substance to the idea of "purple" and "yellow," a solidity that her new petunias lacked.
Normally pink petunias were the color of Pepto Bismal plastic pink, she'd called it. When she saw the fragile shade of these flowers at the garden center, she'd had to have them. The tag named this particular shade "apple blossom," and she'd thought it sweet to describe one flower with another. Now she reconsidered. She wondered why the ephemeral always created such longing in people. Like spring. Like today. A long wait couldn't in and of itself make something more special; surely it displayed more about those who wait, if only a lack of common sense.
"Seems a shame to rip them out now, doesn't it?" Her neighbor Alice spoke and startled her out of another daydream.
"But of course," Alice continued, "pansies can't take the heat, not like petunias can. And Lord willing, we'll warm up soon. I must say, it's been the coldest, wettest spring I can remember."
"Hey," Marcia smiled. "I haven't seen you in ages. You're right about the weather. Ick. Maybe things'll stay warm and we'll see more of each other." She would not let herself apologize for neglecting Alice; Alice wouldn't like it, anyway, even if she had begged Marcia to drop in over the winter when she had the time. That was the problem: Marcia never really felt she did.
She'd been dropping the pansies blossom, plant and root into the Hefty bag beside her. Alice reached out to intercept her latest victim. "Do you mind? They'll make a sweet bouquet." She plucked the stem off the plant, then reached into the bag and took the rest of the blossoms.
"Of course not! You're right. It's a shame to waste them."
She'd been avoiding Alice if only to avoid bringing up the subject Ed wanted her to discuss since she wouldn't let him do it. He'd complained a few times over the past couple of years about the state of Alice's lawn and how she was letting things get run down and overgrown. "If you aren't going to say something to her about it," he'd say, "then I will. It's affecting our property value, too, you know."
Marcia knew he wouldn't be rude, but she didn't want him to hurt Alice's feelings. Then, some time in April, a big storm had taken down half of a maple tree that belonged to Alice but grew right on the property line. Ed wanted to call the tree people himself, the very next day. Marcia made him wait. "Alice will get around to it," she assured him. "Just give her time."
The longer they waited, the more irritable Ed grew. He insisted that the whole tree needed to come down now; it was all dead or dying. He said the next time a storm came along, it was likely to blow the tree over on their garage, and how happy would Marcia be then? She wouldn't defend an old woman's right to putter around so long, then. Especially not if something happened to her precious Mazda Miata. Oh, no. Marcia'd be singing a different tune then.
Marcia hushed him. "Besides," she might have added, "it won't do any good to tell her to have the tree taken out. She won't listen. She knows the tree's half dead. She's been talking about it for a couple of years. She likes it that way. Says it's great for the birds because the dead wood is full of bugs for them to eat." In fact, Alice kept a pair of binoculars by the chair in her living room that she had turned to face out the window so she could sit for hours and watch those birds, all of whom she could identify on sight. The first time Marcia saw the change, she must have showed her surprise on her face because Alice had said, "I know it looks odd, turning one chair backwards. But I finally realized I'm old enough to do whatever I want. Who's going to argue with me?"
Alice would have lingered, but both women heard Ed calling Marcia. "Are you ready yet? I'm starving."
Marcia grinned at Alice. "Want to come out for lunch with us?" She expected Alice's "no, thanks so much." She might have tried to argue Alice into coming, but frankly, her own stomach was growling. She needed lunch, and didn't think she should keep Ed waiting, so they said good-by to each other and separated, Alice back to her own house and Marcia to the driveway where Ed was sitting behind the wheel of her Miata, the engine idling.
Over lunch, he dropped a few comments into their conversation to let her know that he'd made up his own mind about retirement. He was ready. Not just to retire himself, but for her to retire, too. "We might even be able to get by with one car instead of two," he was saying.
"Car. One car."
She remembered what she'd heard as soon as he repeated himself, but it was too late. Ed was irritated because she hadn't been paying attention. He accused her of avoiding the issue, of refusing to pay attention so she wouldn't have to make a choice.
"Which car would you keep? Mine or yours?"
He rolled his eyes at her for missing the point. He assumed she'd done it deliberately, trying to pick an argument over details rather than focus on the real issue.
She wondered why he always chose to drive her car, the Miata that he'd made fun of when she wanted to buy it, instead of his own Taurus. Which of the two cars would he think they should keep? The fun one or the responsible one? She didn't ask, if only because Ed was still talking.
"If we move into that condo community in Florida*the one in Naples that Fritz and Joanne like*we can walk lots of places. And there's a van that goes to the grocery store and a couple of medical clinics, Fritz was telling me*"
Marcia interrupted. "A van for old people! Too old to drive! I'm not ready for that yet!" She was sputtering and ready to describe each of her objections, but Ed now interrupted her.
"OK, so you can use the car to go shopping. What do I care? The condo sits right on the golf course, anyway. I could get a golf cart and just keep it in the garage. I assume every place has a double garage. I mean, with the price of the units.
"Just imagine." He switched directions fast before she could seize on another problem. "Wouldn't it be great to live in a warm climate, year round? You're the one who's always complaining about our lack of sunshine. The beach right across the road. Tennis courts. You really liked it there last winter when we visited. Remember?"
"For a week. I liked it for a week," Marcia said. "I never claimed I wanted to live there year-round." Was she shuddering? Bizarre. She needed them to change the topic before Ed noticed, too, how strongly she was reacting to this conversation and pushed her to acknowledge facts she preferred to leave unspoken.
On the way home, Ed noticed that the Miata was low on gas and he commented on it.
"I know," Marcia said. "I figured we could fill it up while we're out. Today."
This time it was Ed who shot her the look. She hated putting gas in her own car and said, not for the first time and not even for the hundredth time, "I miss the old days when somebody did it for me."
"What's to miss?" Ed said. "Somebody still does. Me." He didn't sound mad, but he twisted the wheel hard to the left to make a U-turn right there in the middle of traffic on the busiest part of Market Street with the mall only a block away and fast food chains lining the road here.
"Eeek!" She squawked. "Oh MY GOD!" She could see the little pug face on the bull dog that perched on the hood of the red Mack truck bearing down on her. A blur of traffic sifted and settled into that image, a still life of imminent death. The last image burned on her retinas?
Until she opened her eyes again because her body had been thrown against Ed's shoulder. He made a right, not quite as sharp as his first, U-turn. "Where are we going?" Somehow he and the truck driver had avoided a collision and now they were tooling down a side street Marcia didn't recognize.
"You need gas."
"Why didn't you just stop at the filling station on the corner of Market and Penn?"
"I can save a nickel a gallon here." He pulled into a Marathon station and stopped the car.
You nearly killed me, you idiot!" she said when he returned to the car. She had switched places while he was inside, paying. He didn't trust computers or technology so he never would pay at the pump with his credit card. "Give me the keys," she said. "I'm driving."
"Fine." He dropped into the passenger seat and pulled the visor down as if there were sun in his eyes. She understood the gesture, that it was meant to block her out, in fact. "Next time, you can get your own damn gas."
They did not speak again the whole way home, nor the rest of that day and the next, only addressing the unavoidable logistics of sharing the same living space. They had nothing else to say to each other.
So it would go if she let it. She wanted to yell at him for being so hard on the brakes but she knew what he'd say. She and Ed rarely fought, but more and more she heard a tone in his voice and in her own, and she didn't like it. She didn't know how to answer him except with a voice that matched his; why should he be any better able to rise above temptation? She thought, It's just a tone of voice. It's not a real fight. They hadn't had one of those in a long time. They both clearly were making the effort, biting their tongues instead of saying the one thing or anything at all that would rile the other. Because if when they did, things got ugly fast. Still, she wondered which was worse, a knock-down, drag-out? Or this. This what? A spat? Could she call it a spat? Whatever it was, it would last for days. Weeks, sometimes. Usually. And wouldn't end but simply peter out from exhaustion or boredom. She shivered.
"I heard you chatting with Alice," he said when he pulled into their driveway. "Since you haven't discussed your retirement with Phoebe or anybody else in HR, I assume you also haven't broached the topic of that tree?"
"You're right," Marcia said, "I haven't. But I did think I'd run over for a cup of tea. I'll talk to her then." He had her cornered; she had to try or else look a fool, in which case he wouldn't take her seriously, wouldn't even try to understand what she intended to do.
He barely avoided driving over the Hefty bag Marcia had left beside the garage door; she heard him swear under his breath. They needed a little space from each other, just like children who've played together too long.
Alice had taught her everything she knew about gardening. Sometimes the older woman had given her instructions or showed her what to do, but mostly Alice had simply patted the back of Marcia's hand and said, "There's only one way to learn. Or it's the way I had to learn*by trial and error. That's what makes a good gardener in the end," Alice said. "You've got to figure it out for yourself, and the only way you can do that is try it. Doesn't matter what the books say. Or what they tell you when they sell you the plant. Nobody can predict the weather, and nobody can tell what'll work in your soil, with the light you have in your garden. And you're the only one who gets to judge whether you succeeded or failed, in the end."
To her surprise, Marcia found that she had the motivation to plant that other flat now. It wasn't competitiveness ever since she broke her hip a couple of years ago, Alice hadn't been able to do much gardening. It was more inspiration that made Marcia tackle the job instead of going inside or straight over to Alice's house for a chat.
In its day, right up until a couple of years ago in fact, Alice's gardens had looked like something out of a book, a calendar illustration. She'd turned every inch of her property into a garden, the house little more than a foil or ornament incorporated into the structure of trees, shrubs, and flowers she'd arranged over the years. She told Marcia that she'd started with vegetables because she couldn't find yellow tomatoes to buy in the store, and the red ones gave her husband (long dead, now) mouth ulcers. Then she decided to build a stone wall to separate her vegetable garden from the lawn right behind her back door. From the wall, a rock garden had grown. She'd gone to Europe with her husband one summer and when she came home, she did a little research in the library and then taught herself to espalier fruit trees against her garage wall, and when she ran out of room, she'd built a long fence.
According to Ed, those trees were pulling the garage apart; nobody had properly pruned them for years so they were more sucker now than tree. Dill and mint had taken over Alice's herb garden, built in the Renaissance floral knot design. Alice said she'd double-dug the ground herself, and hauled truckloads of topsoil by the wheelbarrow load, one at a time, from her driveway to her garden. Her husband always gave her a load for Mother's Day, she said, although he'd never helped her move it. She'd made her own compost and inspired Marcia to try the same.
All the impatiens were set under the yews at the front of the house. Marcia shoved her trowel into the dirt and sat back on her haunches to push the hair out of her eyes. She stood and headed towards Alice's house. She needed a break, even if she wasn't done planting. Maybe she could coerce Alice to come outside; she'd find a lawn chair in the garage and set it out so Alice could sit in the sun and chat and keep Marcia company while she finished.
She knocked on the door and turned the knob at the same time, calling "Yoo hoo!" She and Alice always let themselves inside each other's houses. It's what alice told her to do, years ago, when Marcia and Ed had moved to the neighborhood. Years before the kids were born. Funny that Ann, Jeff, Mark, they were gone. But Alice was still here. The thought hurt and eased her hurt at the same time.
"Yoo hoo! Alice? Where are you?"
By now, Marcia had forgotten all about her original errand or, for that matter, Ed's annoyance. She'd been thinking about adding a couple of rose bushes to the side of the house where they'd get plenty of sun and wanted to ask Alice what kind she recommended*tea or shrub roses. Marcia almost went back to her own house to get the catalog so she could show Alice what she had in mind and get the other woman's opinion. Winters had gone so much more easily, if not necessarily faster, since Marcia discovered how much she liked to garden. As soon as Christmas was over, she used to fall into a deep depression even when Amy, Jeremy, and Mark were still children. She would count how many more years she had before they grew up and left home, and then her worst fears had come true. They did leave, and Christmas visits only reminded her of that brief season of her life when she'd been Mommy. Children learned that Santa Claus wasn't real; she'd learned that Christmas wasn't, either. Or that it was only temporary.
But gardening was different. Gardening she could control in the sense that she could choose to participate and through her own effort make it so. Before she took all the Christmas decorations down, she'd have a small collection of garden catalogs and some new books, and she looked forward to quiet, dark January nights when she could plan the coming season's activity. And nothing she did*no mistakes she made, to be specific*were ever permanent. There was always another year, another chance. Time to make a change, large or small. Or tear it all up and start again. She found that she had grown into gardening, into the soil that she and Ed had bought without a second thought because it came with the house they'd chosen very deliberately. Now she ignored both its best features and its flaws, that house that once had mattered so much. What she cared about now was outside the space, the opportunity that Alice had showed her.
If she were forced to admit it, she'd have to say that she didn't want Ed's help because he wouldn't do it her way. Wouldn't let her instruct him. He'd look for the fast way, the efficient way*and that wasn't necessarily the best way. Just like hiring that kid to do the mowing. He didn't care if he missed a section of grass any more than he noticed if he'd set his blade too low and shaved the grass right down to its roots. He was just a kid. Ed would never plant old-fashioned petunias like those that Marcia had set in pots this morning. He'd have gone for the wave petunias that didn't have to be pinched back; why bother with extra work even if the results were so much better? He just didn't get it.
Now he wanted to move to a condo in Florida and play golf, day in and day out, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, with only the odd day off for hurricanes or grandchildren's visits. As she tapped on Alice's back door, Marcia wondered how they'd grown so far apart, that they could dream such different dreams? When the old woman didn't answer, Marcia peeked through the glass in the door; she and Alice didn't stand on ceremony with each other anymore.
Sunday, she made Ed drive back to the greenhouse with her to pick out a tree.
"Yoo hoo! Alice? Alice, where are you?" The old lady had to be home; she didn't drive and, as she herself said, didn't know anybody but her neighbors anymore because all her friends were dead. Meals on Wheels didn't come on weekends, and neither did the Senior Citizen van that took her to the grocery and drug store every week.
Marcia made Ed dig the hole with her. They took turns; she didn't expect him to do it all himself, but she did tell him finally to stop messing around and just go ahead and get down on his knees in order to push the dirt back into the hole around the burlap-bagged root ball.
Marcia turned the door knob and made herself go in, continuing to call even though she knew better than to hope Alice was going to answer.
"For pity's sake," she said Sunday morning to her husband, "if you're going to have that tree taken down yourself, then we're damned well going to plant a new one."
Evann Garrison is a professor of English at Westminster College. She recently completed the MFA-Writing program at Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont. She is also working on a novel.
Copyright 2005, Evann Garrison. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.