EYE ON THE PRIZE
Before I dreamt of growing prize-winning tulips, it never dawned on me that there might be other beings in this universe with twisted ambitions. They might not walk on two legs or speak with a mouth, but believe me they are just as dangerous. I came upon this realization last year during my quest to convert my weed-infested backyard into a wondrous flowerbed. It seems like only yesterday I was mired in the yearlong process of composting and tilling my nitrogen-challenged soil to bear the fruits of breath-taking horticultural beauty. If my mission was to achieve perfection, you could say I was an over achiever. I not only cultivated the most beautiful tulip I ever saw. I created a flower with a higher intelligence.
When my Pink Impression Darwin Hybrid Tulip first spoke to me, initial shock quickly segued into fascination. Big deal, I said. I was not arrogant enough to believe humans were the only ones capable of speech. So was I going to freak out over a talking tulip? - not on my last calloused finger. Interspecies dialog was bound to happen one of these days I told myself on more than one occasion. If people believed they could talk to the dead, then why would it be so bizarre to converse with a living entity like a cat or a dog? What I found to be alarming was the way the tulip communicated.
Maybe I should share in both the blame and celebration of my unique and ground- breaking creation. It was me who spread my self-aggrandizing motives into the universe just like fertilizer. I cannot fathom how else my tulip could become so possessed with the envy, greed and jealously I shared with the rest of my flawed humanity. It was these very motives the flower chose to define its character. I could not help thinking the flower was simply mirroring my own dark psychology. Consequently, I should own up to the responsibility of not only making it, but also shaping its outlook on life. Now I truly understand why they say beauty is really only skin deep. It seemed we both had a dark underbelly.
At first, I was elated with my success. Who could blame me? There were plenty of pessimists only too happy to say I could never procure greenery in such a harsh environment. They were wrong and it was my duty to put them in their place. Lab tests told me my soil consisted mostly of clay and acid – two mortal enemies of plants. The data analysis was presented to me in a matter of fact way by the ecology department at the local university. The news I had anxiously waited for was contained in a simple manila envelope. I tore at it with the veracity of a mother who's waiting to see if her unborn child will be male or female. My hopes were dashed in those fast and furious seconds. In simple terms, the results stated my soil was not viable for produce of any kind. There were no apologies. I stood dumbfounded with only raw data at my disposal. I began to rant at the envelope as if it were a person. “We are not infertile,” I cried out in defense of my pathetic garden.
My obsession ebbed gradually from a slow leaking faucet to a hydro-charged waterfall. There must be a way to convert my soil into a healthy setting for the most elegant and noble flowers to take root. I was not going to be satisfied growing azaleas in my acidic soil. I wanted beautiful flowers, damn it. After all, my garden was in New Jersey – The Garden State. Failure was not going to be an option for me. Not this time. I had too many setbacks throughout my life. As a consequence, thoughts pervaded my mind in the wee hours of the morning, robbing me of much rest. There just had to be a solution, I said to myself, because life couldn't be that UNFAIR! I feverishly scanned web sites for the cure. I found many gardeners were praising the results of something called composting. The benefit of humus rich soil not only results in a better environment but in healthy vegetable plants, lush lawns and vibrant flowers, they proclaimed.
All I had to do was gather up the vilest remnants of garbage. Along with leaves and paper, this mixture could convert itself into the type of nutrient my flowers would need to grow up strong and healthy. Most of the elements required contained carbon. Wow, I thought almost everything consists of carbon! Even me! There's still hope.
I vigorously engaged in the confiscation of table scraps to the dismay of my 21-year-old daughter. “Are you going to eat that?” I asked Leah, taking the potato skin or shred of lettuce from her plate before she had time to reply. After meals, my daughter would often find me staring with glee at my rotting concoctions. I combined these decomposing goodies into plastic tubs the local recycling center had expressly sold for this purpose. When I didn't stop talking about the garden – which was almost always – my daughter would carefully inch herself out my front door on the way back to her apartment. “And you wonder why I choose to live independently,” she said underneath her breath.
I love my daughter with all my soul but she must understand I will never yield to her disapproval. She could shake her head in disgust all she wanted. But when she laid her eyes on my award-winning garden she would come around, I told myself.
I also had to ward off the evil eye of my dear old mother despite the thousands of miles that separated us. The advent of video mail blessed me with a real time image of the screwed up face she would make each and every time I happened to mention the word: compost.
“Why would anybody want to smell up their yard in that fashion?” her voice would squawk through my tiny computer speakers. I suffered in silence during her commentaries. Her colorful, but profane use of the English language, also diligently reminded me time was marching on. “If I didn't act soon,” she warned, “I may wind up all alone like her.” So I was divorced, and between boyfriends, along with almost every other female who walked the northern hemisphere of this planet. Couldn't she find some small admiration in my quest? Here I was, devoting myself to a goal. Psychiatrists maintained this was a much healthier lifestyle than spending each and every day pining for a man to come along and change your life. I held destiny in my two hands like reigns. I didn't need anyone else's help to guide my charging stallions.
Even my best friend, Kira, felt obliged to “help” me.
“Put away that smelly bucket of banana peels and egg shells and go get yourself dressed for the town,” she demanded one Saturday evening. The “town” she had in mind was a singles dance. Given the choice, I would have opted for a trip to the dentist instead.
I preferred good old-fashioned pain to public humiliation anytime.
I stood my ground and refused to budge from my kitchen despite her best efforts to tempt me with the promise of many balding, Pillsbury Dough Boy look-alikes one usually finds at such events.
In a final act of frustration, Kira tossed the remains of her half-eaten protein bar into my compost bucket. “Misery loves company,” she declared before she bravely departed for the social. I wondered if she held half the contempt for me as she had felt for her snack. Kira complained the nutrition supplement tasted like rat turds dipped in saccharin. I mulled this over and decided my future flowers probably wouldn't appreciate this kind of taste treat either. Removing it from my collection, I flung it out for the birds.
My compost education had fed my mind as well as my soil. I learned exactly what to put in – and what not. Bones were a no-no. But bring on the coffee grinds. I no longer had to suffer the guilt of my caffeine indulgences. I was doing it for the environment!
During the course of the winter, I amassed the kind of steaming hot compost most gardeners can only dream of. Utilizing my thermally insulated garbage pail, I stirred the concoction to perfection. I immersed my tulip bulbs in the mixture and slept well at night knowing that Sheryl Alicia Owens just might win first prize at the Cranburytown Horticultural Festival next spring after all.
Those first few weeks of spring were the worst. Nothing was stirring. Not even a mouse. Well, that was a good thing. I protected my unborn flowers from rodents with garlic and mothballs. No one was going to mess with my tulips. Not the disparaging counter clerk at the home garden center or any member of my family. My soil's ph level was at an optimum 6.5. I felt like I was about to convert a pack of losers into World Champions. Any day now, I would exact my revenge. Yes, any day now....
* * *
And just like that. On one glorious spring afternoon, I discovered a beautiful pink tulip had sprung from my backyard.
I marveled at its simple elegance. My digital camera was ablaze. I snapped hundreds of photos. The first one hundred would go to my mother. The next set would be for Leah. And oh, don't forget Kira! I would show them all.
Life was perfect. Well, at least for a few days. That's when the flower began conversing with me.
Its voice penetrated my mind. It seemed polite enough. Its first query was to ask me if I was having a nice day.
“I'm on top of the world, if you must know,” I replied.
“Things could be better for me,” it said before I had a chance to ask.
“I'm so sorry,” I answered. What could I say next? I suddenly realized it could hear my thoughts as well.
“Don't worry, Sheryl. You can still do plenty for me. I'm truly grateful for my creation. I really mean that. I know all about the hours of work and ridicule you had to endure to grow me. And I bet your bones still ache from digging up the backyard.”
I tried not to lose my composure. I will just play along with it for a while, I reasoned to myself. I'll act like it’s a small child making some ridiculous demand and find a way to appease it. I used to do this with Leah when she was five. I can certainly do it again.
“I don't want to bother you anymore today,” the tulip said. “We'll talk again tomorrow.”
I backed off from the flower slowly and returned to the house. I went to lie down but couldn't close my eyes. The tone of the flower had really gotten underneath my skin. Just keep your eye on the prize, I told myself. In a few weeks, you may be picking up a blue ribbon for this tulip.
The next day, I waited for the paperboy to come. I would coax him to take a look at the tulip and surreptitiously inquire if he happened to hear any strange noises coming from the backyard.
I talked with Bobby the paperboy for nearly twenty minutes about the flower. His expression remained placid. If he heard the flower talk, he didn't convey it. I believed this would be a next to impossible task for a 12 year old to accomplish. Kids of his age lived to tell the next exciting story. He finally left after telling me the tulip had really added some “bling” to my backyard. In adult speak; I believe the compliment translated to an aesthetic evaluation. So Bobby hadn't heard anything, I concluded. I began to walk towards the house with the hope I still retained a hint of sanity. Maybe I had only imagined yesterday's conversation.
“Not so fast,” the flower intervened. “We have some unfinished business.”
The tulip described the neighbor's flowerbeds innocently enough at first. I could not discern a trace of malice in the voice that permeated what was left of my mind. He/she
(Or maybe it?) gave me a blow-by-blow account of what was growing in the Mueller's and Mikasa's gardens, both located adjacent to my home. His tone remained very clinical, as if he was providing a diagnosis.
I tried to remain calm although my brain felt like it had been dunked in the Mueller's backyard pool. The tulip not only told me what was taking root next door to me, but what was procuring in every garden on Cynthia Lane. Even if the tulip had eyes, how could he see that far down my road? I had been guilty of sneaking peeks in almost every yard during my nightly walks. Was the flower simply scanning my unconscious mind?
“Now that I've given you all the pertinent information,” the flower said, “you can begin your mission.”
“What?” I replied with a slight cry in my voice.
“Stop the act, Sheryl. You want them all dead as much as I do.”
It took a moment for me to realize the tulip was talking about the eradicating every other flower on the block. This horrible epiphany also reminded me the tulip was the only flower to spring from my garden thus far.
“So you want to eliminate all the competition,” I concluded.
“Do you want to take a chance on losing the ribbon?” he asked indignantly.
The tulip told me to meet him again the same time tomorrow. I staggered into my house, grabbing onto my bedroom door to retain my balance. I lay on my bed for a few minutes until I realized the pattern of my comforter portrayed a bed of roses. Catapulting myself off the bed, I ran for the kitchen. I reached for a cup to pour some tea. However, the ceramic container was also adorned with vines and sunflowers. Flowers were all I had dreamt of the last 12 months. And now I found I was in a bad relationship with one of them.
* * *
I slept in my bed sans comforter later that night. I made sure my blinds were securely shut so this contemptuous flower could not spy on me. He had violated my mind and I knew I was powerless to stop it. But I sure as hell wasn't going to give him a ringside seat to my bedroom. A few minutes later I scolded myself for my child like fears. The flower's petals would most likely be shut at night. Tulips are not nocturnal, I proudly reasoned like the science geek I was. I retrieved a flashlight from my nightstand and crawled on my hands and knees into the kitchen. From this vantage point I could shine a light into my backyard to confirm my theory.
I shuddered when the light illuminated my creation. Its petals were open. It also looked like it had grown several inches since the afternoon. And worse, I swore the tulip had inched itself closer to the Mueller's backyard.
* * *
I slept terribly the remainder of the night. However, I must have drifted off for a few minutes of slumber because I recalled having this terrible nightmare. The roots of the tulip had become intertwined with the brain of a deceased body buried a few feet beneath it. I could not make out whom the body belonged to. But the deceased wore her hair in much the same fashion as I did. She even had the same blond highlights running through her brown, shoulder-length mane. The roots of the tulip were ablaze from the connection. Her synapses must have still been firing, because electric bolts of lightning were making the roots jump sporadically like a young kitten. The dream ended abruptly, leaving me no choice but to make this conclusion. I was the one who was exposing this flower to its dark side.
The next morning I headed out to my garden with tape measure in hand. I would mark the current location of my rebellious tulip. If it did indeed have the capability of travel, I would be all over it like the flies on my compost dump.
I bent down and began my measurements. The flower started its usual rant in an attempt to rattle me.
“Why don't you take the tape measure and see how much I've grown over the night?” it suggested. “I've helped you complete your dream, now be a good girl and return the favor.”
“If you're suggesting murder, I won't be your accomplice. I don't care how many awards you think you can win.”
“You and I both know that's a lie. You can almost taste the victory.”
“We can taste the victory by winning the ribbons, fair and square,” I retorted.
“That's not acceptable. I want you to begin my plan. Your first task will be to scatter birdseed in the Mueller's garden. The pests I hear chattering in the woods all night will only be too happy to oblige us. The can snack on the seeds and munch on the daffodils and lilies for dessert.”
“You're crazy,” I charged.
“Who do you think gave me these ideas in the first place, Sheryl?”
“I never wanted to win a contest by cheating.”
“Oh, but you did. Remember all those science fairs you entered? Each time you lost, you came home swearing to your mother that next year you would sabotage all the other kid's projects.”
“I'm going to end this right now!” I yelled. I threw down the tape measure and headed past the flower for the tool shed. Beads of perspiration suddenly poured from my forehead in a torrential outburst, blearing my vision. My hair attached itself to the sweat, conspiring further to impede my advancement.
“Stop it,” I muttered helplessly. I truly believed the tulip could control my actions. A clear, dry morning had now segued into a muggy afternoon with 100% humidity. Maybe the flower had the power to manipulate the weather as well. How else could it have grown to these optimum conditions? Was its unbridled growth solely due to my composting?
I was now only a few feet away from the shed, fighting the flower's capability of controlling my will. I whipped my head back towards the flower in defiance only to discover a pounding rhythm beating at my temples. “And by the way,” I shouted, “What did you do with rest of my bulbs!” I demanded. I hoped this distraction would allow me to proceed to the shed. To my surprise, the deflection had worked. I was standing right in front of the shed. Using all my might, I slid the door open and switched on the inside light.
“I'm the only one you need,” the tulip replied. Its voice was now shaking.
I surmised it was losing its control. I had to act quickly before I became entranced in its spell. Grabbing a pair of hedge clippers from the barn, I began to charge the flowerbed.
The ground tipped at 90 degree angles with each step I took giving me a severe bout of vertigo. Meanwhile, the beads of sweat continued to sting my eyes.
I wiped my shirtsleeve across my face and attempted to take another step. I staggered and fell. Groveling on my knees, I discovered the flower was laughing at me.
“You don't want to provoke me,” I warned.
“I should have known you couldn't kill those other flowers. You're too weak. You couldn't even kill me, if you're life depended upon it.”
The flower had unwittingly given me the last burst of adrenaline I needed. I leapt to my feet and ran at it, while the blades of my clippers snapped viciously at the moist air.
I was only a few feet from the flower, when I noticed its petals were closing. Its stem was also beginning to retract itself back into the ground.
“I brought you into this world, and I'll take you out of it,” I ranted like an escapee from the Cranburytown mental asylum.
I dove at the flower headfirst. Just before it could pull its petals back into the ground, I sheared its stem. The flower fell lifelessly to the ground; and the voice in my head ceased its chatter.
* * *
For the seventh straight year, I didn't win a prize at horticultural festival. I guess it’s hard to win when you don't even have an entry. But that's all right. The breathtaking snapdragons, carnations and tiger lilies in my neighbor's yards are all safe. And next season, I'll admire the flowers from a safe distance at the county arboretum.