We’re renters, so we’ve a great many potted plants on our front porch. This is actually something I started when living with my grandfather, because people neglected then tired of and threw so many plants to the curb. I’d pass something on my way home that, however bedraggled or shriveled, seemed to show potential–meaning if it seemed even half of half-alive, I’d decide to bring it home and try my hand, investing nothing more than time. So I learned certain things grow quite well with a little encouragement: impatiens, begonias, things that I still don’t yet know the names of, only that I can coax forth some small, bright glory from a bit of dirt and a bit more attention. Snap frosts throw things off, especially when I winter north. Here, now, it’s hard rains. Rain will mangle blooms or cause some flowers to simply drop, which also means watering can, and does.
Even weeding the yard, here, though, is a pleasure. Not just because it’s nice to rip and cut and pull, and come up smelling of grass or sap. There are 3 hydrangea bushes, 2 of which promise to be fully monstrous, but still no hint of white or violet, blush or blue; several iris; some goldenrod Narcissus of a hue similar to that dash of color at the center of the aforementioned flower (the signal); and an abundance of what look like whorls of calla lily leaves that seem to spring-up nightly around of our front steps. Several, several of them. Throughout the yard are clutches of spiderwort, increasing numbers of which J painstakingly mows around to preserve because I asked him to. Those under the shade of the elder crepe myrtle stay open the longest, and on overcast days they all almost glow. A rich, deeply saturated tone, serene without being soft.
We also have a fabulous dogwood and possibly a honeysuckle vine. Most of these weren’t apparent when we first saw the place. It was winter, still; the prior tenants’ dog had done wonders for the backyard and someone had come through and cut everything–just everything!–down everywhere else. There was a stump that now throws its confused profusion of new growth forth; so where there once was a decent fig tree, there’s a shadeless patch and that bush. There’s a similarly tangled spray of what should be a lilac along the fence. Even the spiny palm was hacked to bits. But things grew, so I watered them. Weeds grew, so I pulled and culled and chose carefully, and came-up smelling of torn leaves in the bright afternoons.
But our containers: the aubergines are in bloom, I’ve some dragonwing begonias about to open, and our tiny fig has begun inflorescence–tonight I noticed at least 4 syconia. There’s an already gorgeous asian pair and a row of peppers, too, but the unguessed delights are the tomato bushes. So verdurously musky! Just laden with oils. So delightfully rough and strong. You can touch them! A lot! I’d no idea I’d enjoy tending them so. They’ve bloomed their modest yellow blossoms and are producing fruit, now, as well.
The tiny fig actually came with a red maple which I’ve attempted to transplant to a spot in the backyard. I dug through the thinnest layer of topsoil imaginable and into tons of sandy loam, which was like playing in an abandoned anthill. Hopefully it will take. I centered it away from the nearest trees in our neighbors’ yards, somewhat away from the power-lines and well away from the struggling oak that is the centerpiece of ours. I don’t know if that was struck by lightning or if it’s diseased, but I convinced myself I saw budding leaves along one tract of branches in February. Small, stunted foliage that did not last, alas. Oaks are weird, anyway, changing color seemingly out of season and dropping their leaves in the spring! But this one, at least the birds still enjoy it, though its barren skeletal crown glowers at us somewhat threateningly, even midday, like the tree in Poltergeist.
Fortunately J’s room is on that side the house, not mine.
The other tragedy–also out back–is an old rose bush. It bloomed so beautifully, but after we finally got our sudden deluge of, oh, for years everyone’s prefaced it with “much-needed” rain, the inevitable black fungus made an appearance. Because humidity here, hot damn it. This rose is too old to be a resistent strain. I asked around, and looked online, and the standard advice is to cut-off any infected canes, but I’m not willing to remove most of the plant. I did attempt to treat it, but, of course, it rained again. “So needed!” A sudden mid-afternoon storm after a painfully warm morning. Summers here are ruinous, I swear. So I’ll watch it struggle, like a lecher, unable not to look.
All of this sounds vacuously idyllic, I’m sure. Allow me to introduce the context: we live in a working-class neighborhood, which I liked a lot more while the girl up the road kept a pygmy goat with her two dogs, because they’d all come bounding over to the gate when she came home. With only the chickens that cross and cross the road, the stray cats and plastic lawn turkeys, though, it’s begun to lose its charm. (That, and people keep their dogs inside.) Or perhaps it’s simply my neighbors next door? These gents… oh, these. They are something having read Dickey might’ve prepared me for, had I liked reading Dickey more. But I did not. So this was something, and, like a mistake or reading the bible, something I’d prided myself on avoiding.
(Because I grew-up Catholic. If you ask me about my relationship with god, I’ll share the allegory of when my parents left a little girl outside a vacant–as in locked–church the one Sunday it snowed in Houston. Maybe this was a gift, maybe it was a lesson; either way I decided I was done with The Church. Or was it vice-versa? The point is there’s no point in asking.)
My first exposure, then. Returning from NY toward the end of January, their yard… was full of some attempt at a certain something Christmas–I don’t know how to describe it. Because I wasn’t happy to be back south, however glad I was to finally see J, I paid as little attention as possible to these effects, which took some doing, please. Possibly also because some mornings before 9, the guys were out back, already or still completely lit and being bawdy in almost remarkably unremarkable ways, but because I can spare you, you know. The nicest I might say is that these are people who’d enjoy an “Adult Novelty Shop” rather than find that somewhat disappointing. These are not my kind–although it does kind of please me, at times, to look from my bathroom window and see their life-sized cross of J E S U S C H R I S T leaning sideways along the ground now, near the ladders and odd bits of rail–perhaps more mundane, but of a piece and shared fate. Weathered despite a ramshackle village of not even lean-tos but flat roofed shanties in back. J E S U S C H R I S T , from the ground up, front and off-center, all caps, in mailbox stickers on the would-be lateral board, with a frayed swatch of once white percale. There should be a word for the color of dust and pollen. Most people reference only one, and that’s a shame.
If you’re the type of person for whom such descriptions more naturally produce sympathetic (yet insulting) comparisons to children or things “child-like”, while you attribute only the best of intentions to them, please figure-out you don’t like me now, do. These are grown men, and men who are as nearly innocent as they are close to god. They are not harmless. I may not know what motivates them to make large white crosses–perhaps tradition? But it is not compassion, or charity, or “goodness”–whatever the hell that means.
And, without as within, they are also kind of grotesque looking. They’re proportioned like obese preschoolers, nearly penguin, save penguins have a specific economy of form these fellows have long surpassed. They are big, fat, and practically sexless. Their heads are at once flat but too round. Like a ball of dough that got slapped to a counter so it wouldn’t roll. The first day I met them, within 10 minutes, the largest one lifted his t-shirt above his distended gut to show me a scar in reference to another surgery he was about to undergo. Not that I’d expressed scepticism, or even interest, no. This was purely on impulse. Or perhaps he was trying to disgust me? Then: could someone who’s now had the same procedure performed twice over mean to do so? So my normally vicious view of the world was momentarily displaced by raw wonder. A halfwit and too clever by half.
But to return to my flowers. I, in the evening, on my porch, inspecting my plants, almost to the point of exclusion, almost lost, almost; but the men are on the roof of their house. Our tiny, old, always working-class houses–are stronger than they look! And I hear, as I have heard for over an hour–whether out or indoors–a sound like breaking pottery followed by a thud so deep or hard it seemed it had to be explosive. Now I could see the men breaking the chimney, and dropping large chunks of debris down the side of the roof, to the ground. Chip, scrape, boom. I wondered a bit about the dog sniffing around the pile-up, and hoped it was smart enough to… move, but I was able to forget about that, to think instead of ants tending aphids and figs and the smell of tomato leaves. Eventually… but eventually seems so long. Soon. Soon the men were talking, back on the ground. “I get it, I get it, I get it,” with a long, high-pitched “I” each time. The father spoke clearly, emphasizing things just so. “You had James come round, and I don’t want him round, he don’t…” discussing work that was to be done, properly, by one of the boys, I suppose; I tried not to listen.
It wasn’t until the youngest began; once he began, he never finished. He was going through the things he had for their work, as if someone had questioned him, but most of what he said was met with silence. Again, I tried to not hear it, except as I tried to sit, not listening, my back to them, my gaze wandering from blade to leaf to branch, all I could imagine was a thin stream of loose stool flowing from my neighbor’s mouth. He went on and on, and he was loud–although not angry–and though not angry, his every other word was either fuck or damn. In a list. Without anger. Tourette’s ? “I got, I got the damn wood and I got the damn nails, and I got the fucking, the….” He said fuck and damn the way most girls might say like or you know, without meaning anything, and I realized what offended me was not what I heard but what I didn’t hear; that absence of intent, an effacement. Damn this, damn it, and fuck that fucking thing they needed, that he’d already gone to Lowe’s for and had.