Thursday, June 14, 2012

Short Story #16... Martha's Garden

A few years ago, a fellow like Larry lived in our neighbourhood and startled Mary, my back door neighbour one morning. I took that event and wrote a happy ending for both Mary and Larry, in a writing club story from May, 2006. When I rediscovered it this week, I had completely forgotten the ending. The whole story still delights me, though I lost Mary to cancer in 2009, and Larry has long since left our neighbourhood.

Somehow, it seems fitting to share this today -- less time moodling means more time for me in the garden! Enjoy!

Martha's Garden

I was bent way over, as far as you can bend when you’re eighty-four, pulling grass out of the edge of my garden plot, contemplating planting cucumbers. It was a lovely, cool morning, and I was happy to be out in the garden in my just-out-of-bed hair and housedress and slippers. You can do that when you’re my age and not care who sees you. As I turned to reach for the dandelion digger, a loud shout came over my fence.
            “OH MY GOD!”
            I screamed. I didn’t mean to. I was startled and it just came out. I wheeled around and saw a brown face with matted brown hair passing on the other side of the fence. He seemed almost as surprised as me. I guess my scream startled him.
            “GOD ALMIGHTY!” he yelled. And he kept on walking.
            I stood there, heart pounding, thinking maybe I shouldn't go out in my just-out-of-bed hair and housedress and slippers after all. I went to the fence and looked down the alleyway behind the man. He was pushing a shopping cart loaded high with garbage bags, yelling, “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD!” and other things that included that F word and Jesus. Didn’t he know you’re not supposed to take the name of the Lord your God in vain?
            That was the first time I saw him, the man I labelled Lazarus, or the Shouting Man. Lazarus for the poor beggar at the gates of the rich man in one of Jesus Christ’s parables.
            The second time I saw Lazarus, he was under a tree across from my usual mailbox. I probably wouldn’t have noticed him except he happened to yell “GOD ALMIGHTY!” and a few other things I would never repeat. At first I was angry, thinking I should take him to task for yelling at old women, but then I realized he wasn’t looking at me, he was laying there looking up at the tree branches. Maybe he was yelling at God, I thought, and then I wondered if he was maybe angry at God or some such. His shopping cart was poking out between the spruce trees, and that’s when I realized he was probably homeless. That in itself would be reason enough to be angry at God.
            Not long after that, I passed him on my way to the mailbox. He was just standing on the corner with his shopping cart, and this time I got a really good look at him while pretending not to look. He was pretty clean for a homeless man, at least clothing wise, though his hair certainly could have used a brush. It was thick and curly, and there was grass in it. He didn’t make eye contact, just looked down at the pavement, and didn’t say a word. Not even “OH MY GOD!” though I was bracing myself in case he did shout.
            I felt a little nervous about passing him again on the way home. If he didn’t shout at me the first time, he might the second. So I kept walking to my old school chum’s house, where I stopped for tea.
            Martha is never surprised to see me. That’s because people our age have an unwritten rule about hospitality that says anyone can drop in on anyone, anytime. My daughter was horrified when I told her about that rule. She said, “I couldn’t let people in if my house wasn’t clean, Mother!” I just told her that people my age don’t visit to see the condition of other peoples’ houses. We just visit. Martha and I have known each other since first grade, and we always have reasons to visit.
            Martha made my tea the way I like it, strong with two splashes of milk. While we shuffled our way out into the garden with our tea cups and tea biscuits, I told her about the Shouting Man.
            “You must mean Larry,” she said.
            I almost choked on my tea biscuit. “You know him?”
            “Sure, he’s Alice’s son. You remember me telling you about Alice, the organist at church? The one whose son was seriously injured while working in construction? Well, he fell quite a ways off a roof one day, and when he came out of the coma, he saw both his legs in casts and said, “Oh my God.” And because of his brain injury, it stuck. And then someone told him where he was and what had happened, and he said, “God Almighty.” And it stuck, too. And then a nurse came in to adjust his position, and that was pretty painful, I guess, because he said a whole bunch of other things that stuck. So he swears a lot, and loudly, but he’s harmless.”
            I was quiet for a minute, thinking how I had heard Larry use all those words that stuck. And I was reminded how my mother had always told my brother not to make faces at me, because one day his face might get stuck as God’s justice. I always liked the idea of James stuck with his eyes crossed and his tongue out, but I didn’t like that Larry was stuck with the words he was stuck with.
            “So if he’s Alice’s son, why is he walking around like a homeless man?” I asked.
            “Well, he lives with Alice, but it’s hard on her, you can imagine, having her son just yelling like that all the time. So he goes out around the neighbourhood to give her poor nerves a rest. And he’s always looking for things to help pay his way, because her pension isn’t enough to support the two of them. That’s why he has the shopping cart. He collects bottles, and whatever fixable junk people put out with their garbage.”
            “Poor man,” I said.
            “You don’t know the half of it. Can you imagine what it would be like to be him?” Martha asked. “He can’t hold a job with all that shouting he does, not to mention the rest of the damage to his brain, and people are pretty afraid of him, and Alice just found out she has breast cancer, and she’s all worried about how he’s going to get along when she’s gone. I just tell her she’s too young for cancer to get her this time; she’s only sixty-eight, but she says something will get her eventually, and it’s hard enough for her to convince Larry he should keep on living without her illness as a worry on top of everything. She hasn’t told him yet.”
            I sighed. The difficulties some people live through.
            “So I asked Alice if I could get Larry to rototill my vegetable patch this week,” Martha continued, "and she said he'd be pleased to do it. I'll pay him as well as I can. I also called Marilyn at the church because they just lost their caretaker, and she hired Larry to do the church flowerbeds the day before yesterday. I explained Larry's situation, and told her the noise of the rototiller would drown his cursing out, and it did. Larry told her that it was funny, but after working with something that loud, his need to shout seemed to decrease. Alice said so, too. He slept without shouting that night.”
            I still hadn’t had my garden plot turned either. “Do you think he could till my garden, too?” I asked.
            “I expect he’d be happy do it. And come to think of it, Cora, and Myrt, and Irma, and Marge and Cliff will need their gardens done too.”
            “Why don’t we just start a neighbourhood rototilling service for seniors?” I mused.
            “I thought about that, but it's not enough. Of course, once rototilling season is done, there’s a lot of other things to be done. I wonder if Larry would mow lawns and trim hedges and things like that? I’m sure there are enough of us who would like that kind of help around the neighbourhood. Where did you see Larry? Maybe we should go find him and find out what he thinks of the idea.”
            So we did. We finished our tea, and went back the way I came, and sure enough, there was Larry, same intersection, just the opposite corner. Just standing there, looking at the pavement, shouting “GOD ALMIGHTY!”
            “Yoo hoo, Larry!” Martha called.
            Larry looked up and smiled when he saw her. Kind of a dopey smile, but it lit up his whole face. “GOD ALMIGHTY!” he said again.
            I was afraid to go closer, but Martha bustled right over. “Larry, my friend Anne and I were talking, and we think we have a good business idea for you, I mean, besides the stuff you collect. What would you think about doing yard work for us and our friends? We know lots of seniors who could use your services.”
            Larry said that F word connected to Jesus in the calmest voice I’d ever heard come out of him, and added, “You think that would be possible?”
            “Well, I need my lawn mowed. And Anne would like you to till her garden,” Martha said, turning to me.
            I nodded, saying, "And I wouldn't mind if you would push my lawnmower around, either."
            “O MY GOD! But won’t your friends get mad because of my language?” Larry asked Martha.
            “We can explain your situation. They’ll understand, and if I can get used to you, so can they, right Anne?”
            I nodded again, and forced myself to say, “We’ll all get used to you. It’s not like you’re swearing on purpose, is it?”
            “GOD ALMIGHTY!” said Larry. “Of course I don’t mean to swear. But I don’t have a lawnmower,” Larry said.
            “Most of us have our own lawnmowers, but if people don't, you can use mine,” Martha said, “and the rototiller, and all the garden stuff you need. I’ve got everything in my shed. Why don’t you come on over to my house right now and I’ll show you what’s there?”
            Larry agreed, so Martha turned back to her house, and I decided to go along, too, because I wasn’t sure I trusted the Shouting Man to be alone with my friend Martha. Larry followed after us with his shopping cart, shouting a fair bit of the way.
When we got to Martha’s house, Larry parked the cart under her front window and followed us around to the back yard. As he came around the corner, he stopped mid-shout, “GOD ALMI—”
I turned to see what was going on, and there stood Larry, his mouth wide open, nothing coming out. Puzzled, I turned to Martha.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” she said to Larry.
He sat down on the nearest bench, closed his mouth, and just looked and looked.
Martha’s garden was already a profusion of flowers for late May. There were yellow and orange poppies, purple periwinkles and violas, pink phlox and dianthus, blooming fruit trees and chives and stuff I had never really noticed, I was so used to Martha’s back yard. Her flower beds were terraced, and there were hanging pots dripping flowers under the trees and trellises that I took for granted. Larry didn’t. He looked and looked and looked.
“The vegetable plot and garden shed are behind the fruit trees,” Martha said, pointing, but Larry didn’t move, except for his eyes, all over the garden.
Finally, he got up, quietly, and followed Martha to see the garden tools.
The whole time he was in Martha’s garden, not a hint of a shout or a curse came out of the man. He stood with her as she took inventory, then he shook Martha’s hand, told her she had beautiful flowers, and thanked her.
“You’re most welcome, Larry. And anytime you want to spend time in my garden, you’re most welcome.”
            So that’s how the Shouting Man started spending some quiet time in Martha’s garden, and how he came to start a neighbourhood business. Martha was quite the business woman; I have to hand it to her. She got a slew of seniors from church and around the neighbourhood to hire Larry, and he had a full schedule of yard work for the whole summer. She did his books and wrote his receipts. Then when fall came, Larry had lots of yard cleanup work. And when the snow flew, you guessed it, he was in charge of clearing peoples’ walks.
Larry bought a rototiller that could convert to a snow blower with some of the money he made. At my suggestion, he called his business Shouting Man Enterprises, and for Christmas, Martha and I got him some good denim shirts and embroidered a little Shouting Man logo on the pockets. Funny thing, though – Martha said he never shouted once in her yard, winter or summer.
            Alice, Larry’s mom, had a mastectomy and chemo, and other than losing her hair and being sickish for a while, seemed to do alright. Larry’s business went quite well, and I didn’t see him out with his shopping cart very often anymore.
But then one afternoon, just over a year after I first laid eyes on the Shouting Man, my doorbell rang.
“GOD ALMIGHTY!” I heard, before I even got to the door. Larry never came to my house unless he had work to do, and I hadn’t scheduled anything, unless I had forgotten.
There he stood in his usual overalls and Shouting Man shirt. Perhaps I had forgotten. “Good afternoon, Larry,” I said.
“JESUS CHRIST! GOD DAMN IT! FUCK OFF!” In one fluid movement, Larry opened the door, grabbed my coat off its hook and said, “Come with me!”
“What? What’s going on?”
            Larry held my coat and pushed it onto me, saying, “GOD ALMIGHTY! No time!”
I grabbed onto his arm, and we rushed down the sidewalk towards Martha’s.
“Is Martha alright?” I asked breathlessly.
“OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD!” was Larry’s response.
“Is she hurt?” I tried again, feeling panicky.
“Larry! Should we call 911?”
That question only made him use other expletives involving the Son of God over and over, until he sounded like a hoarse dog barking.
I gave up and decided there was nothing for it but to hurry. Larry seemed so frantic that I was frightened to think about what we might find in Martha’s garden. It was the longest walk to Martha's I’d ever taken, our steps punctuated by Larry’s shouting. People stared as we went, but I didn’t care. If I could have run, I would have.
We turned the corner onto Martha’s street, and everything looked normal and quiet, other than a few extra cars parked near Martha’s. Had she died and no one told me? I hadn’t talked to her in a couple of days! My heart was pounding like never before, and I’ll never forget Larry’s wild eyes.
We turned up Martha’s sidewalk and around the side of her house, me puffing like a labouring locomotive. As we rounded the corner into the back yard, I was shocked to see Alice, Marge and Cliff, Myrt, Irma, and Cora, and a few other seniors I didn’t know very well holding a long HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner, and Marilyn the church secretary standing behind a table with a large cake.
I must have looked bewildered, because Alice came and took my hand and led me to see the cake. It was all decked out in flowers, real pansies and nasturtiums in the icing, and it said, "HAPPY 85th Birthday!"
“But Martha’s birthday isn’t until tomorrow,” I murmured.
“Larry wanted to have a surprise party for her today because he has a doctor’s appointment tomorrow afternoon. Unfortunately, he forgot to invite you until just now,” Alice explained.
“Well, for heaven’s sake, Larry, you scared me out of my wits!” I scolded.
Larry grinned. “GOD ALMIGHTY! Sorry,” was all he said.
A moment later, we were all shouting, “SURPRISE!” and Martha was standing on her back step, mouth open in wonder. Larry had pulled it off.
The next time Larry mowed my lawn, I heard the usual shouts and curses coming from my back yard over the buzz of the mower, along with the odd “SURPRISE!”

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