It was only 103 degrees by eleven a.m. in the morning. The nursery truck pulled up two hours after she was told it would arrive. But Em didn’t care. She left the dog bumping into his own barks in the house and flip flopped down the driveway. The salesman had told her the truck would just leave all the plants and trees clumped together, pretty much inside the yard – if she was lucky. The thought of carrying four not too small trees, seven shrubs, ten plants, and three Murphy’s Agave (were these shrubs or plants?) all by herself made her tired.
Grinning at the man climbing out of the cab, she said “nice day” and realized he knew street numbers, not English. This was probably for the best, saved him from her inane habit of chatting with anyone in her proximity these days. When he opened the side gate she grabbed the nearest tree and hauled it from the truck. He protested but she forced another grin and waddled away, as if pregnant with the tree. He followed with another and in fifteen minutes the trees stood hopeful by their perspective placements, the plants were huddled beside the porch and the shrubs lined up like soldiers guarding them.
She walked the driver back to the truck; he was the last in-person human contact she’d have until she went to the store. He pulled himself up and into the vehicle and nodded. Em listened to the grind of the gears engaging and watched the truck roll around the corner, waiting until the mumbling of its engine faded before turning away. Looking at the back yard, Em drew in a deep breath and briefly wondered how much extra it would have cost if she’d paid to have all this stuff planted.
The Mesquite in the corner.
She had planned to wait until evening to start planting (like the salesman suggested) but the wind kept blowing the tall, skinny tree over. She was afraid it would feel unloved and die. So, shovel tip to dirt she stood poised at 11am – a long way from human evolution on Attenborough’s clock. She thought of the PBS series where he said that if the evolution of life on earth took place in one day, beginning at 12am, that mankind wouldn’t show up until a minute before midnight. “Well, here’s to evolution!” She mentally toasted her yard. Heaving all her weight into the implement she managed to cut a slit in the ground and just catch herself before eating dirt.
Holding the shovel like a rigid dance partner, Em side-stepped around the intended circle and jabbed at the earth’s literal crust. It hadn’t looked this hard in the science book illustrations she remembered from junior high. It had seemed a darker brown in those pictures, kind of like chocolate, not the sun-baked beige of this backyard. An hour later, however, she had successfully pierced the exterior of the planet. A hole not quite large enough for her to curl up in… unfortunate because she was pretty sure she might be overheating.
She’d not thought to wear a hat and the sun was drawing all the moisture from her very thoughts, leaving her mind feeling hollow. She pictured her brain like an oval, papery hornet’s nest. Husband out of town on business, no friends yet, a dog afraid of his own tail, a cell-phone that seemed to drop calls before they were even made… She’d lie out here until mummified – baked like the earth but not appetizing enough for the dog to eat.
Em dragged her companion shovel to the back of the house and sat on the cement edge of the porch. She was new enough to the area to wonder if scorpions were going to dart out from the hole at the foundation and jab at her ankles. She hosed her feet down, making sure to fill the space at the bottom of the cement with a good dose of water. As she splashed her arms and face she noticed the dog standing nervously off to the side of the yard. His normally upbeat tail, like an arrow pointing toward his head, hung mournfully close to the ground. That was her fault. She’d sprayed him with the hose when he was a puppy digging up her ferns and Bleeding Hearts. Hoses were eternally doomed to be suspicious and feared in his sad brown eyes. Maybe she’d be able to re-Pavlov him.
“It’s okay, puppydog.”
His tail lifted a notch, flicked to one side in hopes of a good wag. A sudden crash into the fence behind him shocked him into action, bouncing up and down and barking madly at the source of the disturbance. It sounded like someone was throwing a bowling ball at the chain link fence but it was only the neighbor’s smallest dog hurling herself silently into the privacy strips. Frankly, Em was surprised the creature hadn’t died of some sort of cerebral hemorrhage since its fence attacks were regular and enthusiastic.
Break over. She was thinking about the instructions to put mulch in with the tree. Champion gardener – she didn’t want to spend the money and really wasn’t sure what mulch was, fertilizer perhaps. Considering she had to clean it up anyway, it seemed like a good use of resources to shovel the dog piles into the hole while planting the tree. (She’d regret this later on because of the faint odor of poop that rose from the ground whenever she watered this one.) Of course, every decision she’d ever made seemed like the right one at the time. Husbands, bad haircuts…. at one time they all seemed like a good idea.
She welcomed the mesquite to her yard, asked it not to fall over, and felt thankful that trees came in enough sizes that she could afford to buy four.
Sitting on the porch, Em admired her first planting and wondered how long it would take to grow. One had to have patience to nurture a garden. Back in Chicago, she’d put up a stockade-style privacy fence, lay down one ton of Rock River slate in the back yard, and planted container gardens. She’d made it a safe place in the city, it would never be quiet but it was hers. She’d sat outside nights throwing sticks for the dog and listening to buses passing, sirens squealing, neighbors’ fervent conversations over ranchero music, and occasionally the pop of a hand-gun.
The house in Chicago ended up feeling oppressive. She was glad it was a thousand miles away. She looked at the expanse behind her new house. The old one would fit into it five times. The sellers had told them that it was a true desert yard but in reality it was just bleak – a quarter acre of dirt bleached white by the sun. It was too empty to be desert, the only living things were the occasional geckoes that ran through the backyard like it was a trail to some place more promising. Often they scooted into holes in the concrete blocks of the small out-building that hugged the back fence. The old garage stood hopeful, perhaps looking forward to being a guest house some day.
She looked at the dog, now panting by the back door.
“Okay, boy, let’s go in.”
The Palo Verde by the porch.
Once the sun hung itself on the mountains of the western horizon, Em faced the yard with renewed enthusiasm. But flooding a selected area only led to a torturous navigation of mud-soaked rocks and created a minor pond that made digging even more difficult. Her shovel clanked against rocks the size of gift bread loaves. She felt like she was digging up an ancient, fossilized bakery.
Wiping the back of her mud-laced hand across her brow she stretched and stood back to look at the two piles by the growing hole; one, a dripping heap of mud and the other, her new geology collection. She sure didn’t know why rocks weren’t a problem with her first effort. Her muscles twitched at the thought of all the other stones, and perhaps boulders, she could encounter. Eyeing the Palo Verde in the pot, she rubbed the tip of the finger that learned the tree had thorns. It seemed like everything in the desert had pointy, camouflaged warnings to stay away. Bristles that weren’t initially apparent. This was an environment that wouldn’t let you lie down or lean against a tree – you’d no choice but to stand in the sun while your blood boiled dry in your veins.
The dog came over and sniffed the tree as if it knew what she was thinking. The other day she’d had to pull a cactus thorn from over his eye. His skin had stretched out about an inch from his bony forehead and snapped back when the minute hook lost its grip. The poor guy had stood so still – one of the few times he didn’t look worried about what might come next. Sometimes it was good to think that what comes next won’t be a bad thing. Maybe this was the way to live in a desert. Em smiled and shook the tree from its container, trying to work the mass of roots and dirt from the flimsy plastic pot without injury to herself or the tree.
She leaned as far back from it as she could while centering it in the hole, finally standing up to push the mud into the space around it with her flip-flopped foot. The mud sucked at her sole as she pushed it down. A part of her felt like she wasn’t interacting enough with the Palo Verde – that she shouldn’t slant away from it, sending in just a few brave toes to do the work. She thought about when she’d first moved in with her husband, there was a honeymoon period when everything between Em and her new children seemed like a new and exciting experience. She had spent entire afternoons preparing dinners from one of her many, up to then, unused, cookbooks. The kids would come home, they’d sit around the table together, talk about their days, eat, and then she’d watch T.V. with them. Jack would come home later and she’d eat again, talk some more, and they’d hang out. Em smiled at the tree and her thoughts.
At some point, though, the kids stopped viewing her as a guest and she was pulled into a mix of responsibilities: homework, laughter, and tantrums. She found herself based in the back porch office, kitchen, and their bedroom. The kids would visit her in one of these rooms or she’d visit them in the dining room, living room, or their bedrooms – as if they were neighbors. Wasn’t that like just using the ball of your foot to push the soil down around a new planting? With kids you had to get dirty, it was the only way to make sure they were firmly in the ground. Even so, it was neat when they visited her in the back half of the apartment; she felt a little special then because they wanted to talk.
But things changed. The kids grew and she graduated college and began teaching. Stress pulled at each of them in different ways. Em was drawn into hopeless screaming matches that flowered under the indelicate nurturing of teens who told her she didn’t count. (Even thinking about it ten years later racked her with guilt.) She was lost because she didn’t know the right and perfect things to do. Demands through tears that she keep out of lives because she wasn’t anyone who mattered managed to send her reeling back to the awkwardness of youth – that time when she had no control over her position in the intricate society of her own high school years. She’d even had those dramatic, “I should just kill myself!” thoughts, which thankfully, she’d never said aloud. It was as if she was rediscovering her interior teenage drama queen. But even then, Em knew, there was some sort of reason behind things.
“What about you?” She asked the Palo Verde. Its thorns were obvious, unlike those of adolescents.
The thick night of an unlit neighborhood pressed around her. The stars were startling as they swept across the sky like glistening pebbles scattered by God’s hand. The negative shapes of the South Mountains seemed to be cut out of the firmament – a chain of paper mountains stretching from East to West. It seemed that a creator’s loving touch was apparent in everything. Why did mankind forget this?
Little Leaf Mesquite #2 at the other end of the porch. (Really a bit in front of it.)
With the floodlights on, Em felt she now had a handle on how to approach the rocky ground. Chop, chop, chop, with the shovel’s point until she could wedge it under a rock and pry it out of its mother’s tenacious grip. This was going well until she almost broke into the terra cotta gas line. Wow. What would the headlines have been? Woman Blows her Top, Woman has a Gas in Phoenix, or Woman Pries Open Gas Line: She Thought it Was a Rock! The last, of course, would have some stupid tabloid picture with the wrong head glued to her body… or maybe popping off of it. Peering at the dog she wondered… after all he was an animal and she couldn’t blame him for an epicurean interest in her remains if she’d been roasted. A dog was a dog – even if at this point he was actually one of her best friends. Her only best friend.
“Good boy Jupes.” He glanced over when she said his name and she considered him as he posed in the center of the yard, his To Bark or Not to Bark stance. He’d already completed something like twenty perimeter patrols and having found nothing frightening, was ready to be brave. “Ay…” Em sighed. “Are we really that similar?”
She thought of her first night in the house. Her husband had to go out of town the day before so she’d left the animals at the corporate apartment and supervised the movers. It had been a weird drive back from the corporate place – her car stuffed with every possible thing that would fit, including cat and litter box and dog. That night, once the sun had gone down, she’d flicked on the lights and took Jupiter out into the back yard. There they stood, both afraid to leave the porch and step into the darkness fringing the porch light, two sailors uncomfortable on their first watch.
Hoisting the shovel to her shoulder she turned in place to select a new spot for the tree. Sweat fingered down the side of her head and she scratched it away, conscious of rubbing dirt into her hair. She squinted at a few different spots before eyeing the tree. This Mesquite slanted crookedly out of its flimsy pot, seeming aware that it’s planting was delayed. “Kinda like losing an apartment you were hoping to get, huh?” Her voice sounded oddly loud, either in her head or alone with her in the back yard. The tree, fortunately, didn’t respond.
The adrenaline rush from her brush with the gas line had her digging like a mole, well, except for the shovel part. And once it was embedded in the ground she felt the full strength of her exhaustion. Letting the shovel drop with a shallow bounce on the packed earth, she walked to the porch and dragged a chair to the best place for admiration of the three planted trees.
She could feel her muscles stiffening, her joints fusing. It was the same way she’d felt after the packers had left and she sat perched on the corner of a box in their old home in Chicago. A sense of exhilaration came with the completion of the job, yet a tugging sadness crept in too.
Tipping her head back Em stared at the huge night sky. Even with the floodlights pouring into the darkness she felt small. Tiny and alone. The edges of everything blurred and the sense that she missed everyone gripped her. Pressing her lips together she rose, slapping her palm on her dirt-crusted pant leg. Brave Dog Jupes tore to her side, apparently also feeling tiny and not wanting to be alone. Going inside she flipped off the floodlights and double-locked the door.
The next morning, the Ironwood waited patiently by the back fence. She wanted it in the ground with the others and growing so they would fill her yard like they’d done in Chicago. Everyone who first stepped into their Chicago yard had paused because of the enchanting quality of six trees lining and arching over that small back yard, Corkscrew Willows, Ash, and Mulberry. She could almost not get wet when it rained. Some days, opening the back door was like stepping out of the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Em thought she tried to recreate that world that had gotten her through childhood. Talking animals, magical beings, and the essence of God laced through every living thing.
Standing in the afternoon heat, with the tarp-covered back fence catching the bulk of the sun’s slanting rays, Em was already forgetting what a cool drizzle felt like on a cloudy day. Jupiter stood beside her as she considered the Ironwood.
She looked at Jupiter, his tail slapped the air and he made a snorty sound. She collected the long and short shovels, dragged them behind her, bumping over the well-packed ground as she headed toward the tree. The dog walked beside her, casting a few disinterested sniffs to either side until drifting away after an interesting scent.
Em started jabbing the ground at the center point of the back fence. It seemed receptive. This was good because her arms were still pretty cranky about all their work four days before. They remembered the routine and Em dutifully followed the pain – chip, chip, clink (pry out the rock), chip, chip, clank (pry out the larger rock), chip, chip, klonk (pry out an old brick). Leaning into the bloom of the hole, Em pulled out anything she could that interfered with progress. It was a pain in the butt, she smiled to herself, if only life were that easy.
After nearly an hour of chain-gangian effort, Em stood back and smiled at the Ironwood. It was crowded with crooked branches. Her palms stung from the tiny thorns. “Welcome home,” she whispered.
Brushing her grimy hands on her shorts, she returned to the house, tossing a rock here and there on the way. The dog ran barking and snapping at them, pausing to look up – tongue hanging out a mile, tale swatting back and forth before his whole body contracted and he launched in the direction of another tossed rock. Stopping at the back door she turned to look at the Ironwood, safely ensconced in the ground. Someone had told her they were endangered. She didn’t know if that was true. But she liked the thought of growing something that was at risk of disappearing, she liked the idea that she could contribute to its successful resurgence on earth.
Baja Fairy Dusters, Mexican Birds of Paradise, Yellow Bells.
Em had found a sort of pattern. She’d drive to Starbuck’s every morning, then come home and read a book while she waited for dusk.
When the afternoon sun edged just under the top of the back fence she dove back into the dirt. She had tried pointing at the ground and asking Jupiter “What’s that? Get it!” but he just twirled in place barking and didn’t dig at all. It was a shame, really, she knew dogs that would dig all night and day. Her arms felt stronger though and digging, while a definite chore, didn’t seem as difficult as that first week.
The Mexican Birds of Paradise found a home at the opposite end of the porch from the Yellow Bells, two feet from the house. She squinted at the remaining Fairy Dusters and Yellow Bells, the Rocky Point Ice Plants and Brittle Bush. Two Agaves were guarding the front yard because the experience of planting the one in back was a bit traumatic (the salesman had told her the ends of the leaves were like nails and he hadn’t been lying). She figured that if they could sit in pots at the nursery she didn’t have to kill herself trying to get them in immediately—just had to water them every day. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like the Ice Plants would make it – the birds seemed to like eating them.
She looked at the dog, standing at the edge of the porch with a rock in his mouth. “Hungry?”
A month later she’d five new Brittle Bush plants that had been waiting patiently in small pots. “Today’s your lucky day fellas.” Em had decided they needed to be placed along the side wall of the non-guest house along the back fence. Rude as its interior was, the geckoes seemed to like it so, Em supposed, it was a guest house of sorts. The small concrete building was like an art form to her, its white-washed walls a backdrop for the Baja Fairy dusters, one Agave, two Aloes a neighbor had given her and the six, now dead, Ice Plants. She’d found an old lawn roller (which weighed about 3,000 pounds) and didn’t get a hernia pushing it to the front of the structure as a garden ornament. The Brittle Bush would complement it nicely.
Em fingered the stalk of one of them. Wondered if they were called Brittle Bush because the stalks are tough. They were supposed to do well in reflected light, which seemed a redundant statement—seeing that this was the Sonoran desert.
She hoped they wouldn’t die. Sighed. She didn’t have a good history with plants that weren’t incredibly hardy. It seemed though, that all desert plants had brave constitutions. She hoped she would develop this capacity for endurance too... it was something she could learn from her garden.
© 2010 Sara Kuhns