April 12, Holy Thursday Cloud, windy, cool.
I’ve been drinking coffee and will not sleep much tonight. You find me propped up on my living room couch in the middle of the night. A small lamp spills its light across my page and I have much to tell after all this time.
Lent is the season for planting and preparation. This year I’m following instructions from neighbors here at Monnish Court, an odd little apartment complex in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where I have lived for about a month.
Earlier today I dug up a row of neglected azaleas from the front of our building. Had I known how firmly rooted the damned shrubs were I would never have taken them on. But I didn’t know. Then too, when having no purpose of my own, I’m easily manipulated.
“Freddy Monnish didn’t intend for those shrubs to stay there forever,” said Phoebe, an octogenarian neighbor who talked me into trying my hand at a small garden. At one time, each of the tenants had cultivated his or her own little garden.
“One year our tomatoes were the talk of Tuscaloosa,” she said.
I doubted this, but she showed me black and white photographs of well-tended plots before which posed the enthusiastic gardeners of another time. “That’s mine. I was good at herbs.” She pointed to a thin woman dressed in saddle shoes, high-waisted blue jeans and a man’s white shirt.
“Phoebe, you looked just as shy then as you look now,” I said.
She shook her head slowly. “Nobody changes much, but I wasn’t ever as shy as I let on.”
There was a look of anticipation in her face, as if the door to her life was in the process of opening. She was the kind of girl who would walk right through whatever door she approached. Yet seeing her now, I thought her doors seemed very much closed.
We were sitting on the 1930s-era porch chairs I’d bought at Spiller’s, a once prosperous furniture store in Tuscaloosa’s downtown that have evolved into an antiques mall. The chairs, heavy with wide arms and faded cushions, were not as portable as outdoor furniture from Walmart’s but are comfortable and "go" with their surroundings. After washing them down with soapy water, and covering the cushions with clean canvas, I set them out on the verandah where a warm wind dried them by afternoon.
As if on cue, Phoebe toddled over with her photo album and a tin of homemade cookies, thick and buttery. I produced a pitcher of iced tea laced with lemonade.
“And that’s Veronica?” I asked, pointing to a round, indecently innocent face. It belonged to my upstairs neighbor, a woman in her late sixties with the a startled naiveté in her eyes. In the photo she was sitting on the steps to our building. Behind her sat a lawn chair, almost identical to the ones we were sitting on.
“It is Veronica,” said Phoebe. “And here’s Elizabeth (who lives across the courtyard and could be seen pacing behind her living room blinds) and…” Her finger hovered over the image of a man posed where my garden will be. He looked full of chin and very proud. As well he should, his patch of garden was thick with what appeared to be foxglove, tomatoes and a mass of indistinguishable flowers. Probably marigolds. Behind him the azaleas I was attempting to uproot stood thick with leaves.
“Robert could never choose between flowers or vegetables, though he’d say he would,” she said with a thread in her tone that spoke of resentment. “So he mixed them both. He was always experimenting.”
I wanted to know more about him, but the bitter nostalgia in her voice inhibited me.
“What did Veronica grow?”
“Tomatoes and peppers, mostly,” said Phoebe, her voice crisp again as it always was when speaking of her. “She grew wonderful tomatoes. Better Boys and, oh, I don’t remember, an heirloom sort she had sent from home. She started half from seed and half from plants and by June we couldn’t tell which was which.”
“She looks so young.”
“About 20. A very young 20.”
We both studied the photo. Veronica’s cheeks were as big as biscuits; her teeth, like chips of buttermilk seemed to tear out of the page. She would have been a student then, majoring in social work. Phoebe, I knew, had been a math teacher at the public high school where she would stay, even through the sixties, when middle and professional class parents moved their bleached darlings to the private school they would open in the wake of de-segregation.
“It doesn’t look like anyone’s grown anything for a long time,” I said wondering how much sweat it would take to dig up the probably root-locked azaleas whose tips brushed our ankles.
“The trick is to take a couple of Advil before you even start,” she said.
So, using tools Phoebe borrowed from the church next door, I strained my arms digging up three miserable shrubs, or bushes, or whatever the hell azaleas are.