She watched him slide the cash card back into the machine. For the fifth goddamned time. The machine beeped again, flashed Unable to conduct transaction.
‘For Christ’s sake,’ she said, meaning to just think it.
The man turned. He peered at her from under the brim of a Yankees cap with eyes that were troubled, curious, and she was suddenly sorry. She imagined he saw her pain, that he would say something healing.
‘Screw you,’ he said, flipping her the finger and kicking the glass door on his way out. Heidi punched the buttons and withdrew her money and stepped outside, where there was a cool wind; she turned her face to it.
She was losing it, there was no doubt. Even Michael was fed up, and she couldn’t blame him. He used to dread his biweekly trips, used to say, ‘I’m missing all Bee’s firsts.’ Now he couldn’t pack his bag fast enough. While he was gone, she’d look around, at the house, the town⎯bank branch, fire and police, general store⎯and ask herself why she had let him talk her into moving out of Manhattan. Because of Bee, of course. But now that there was no Bee, what was the point?
The Hollistown General Store⎯actually more coffee shop/bakery/town gathering spot⎯consisted of clusters of up-ended barrels where the Hollistown Walkers, wearing green Seniors in Sweats track suits, sat around, drinking from styrofoam cups. When the door jangled behind Heidi, all heads jerked up.
They knew who she was; she knew it. A woman unraveling a sweet roll tried to make eye contact. Sympathetic eye contact. Heidi averted her eyes and bought a bottle of cold spring water and stood leaning against the pay phone drinking it.
Michael had liked Hollistown right from the start, mainly because of this place. He’d liked its pickle barrel, its checkerboards, its kid-high shelves of nickel candy, and Manhattan only an hour away. She thought of him before he left for L.A., and how calm his manner had been, how patient and insistent and irritating. ‘Get some help, go back to work, but do something,’ he’d said. She scanned the Hollistown Community Bulletin Board, its ads for hostess parties and playgroups and kittens. One message stood out, hand-printed in black block letters: Old-timer on last legs needs boy for garden help, weeding, some lifting. Ed Pride, 80 Farm Road.
Last legs. What kind of person referred to himself that way?
She turned to the sweet roll lady. ‘Who’s Ed Pride?’
On Farm Road, a boarded-up vegetable stand stood by the road like a ghost, Pride’s Produce printed on the side in faded red letters. The dilapidated farmhouse looked like a good wind would flatten it. Heidi eyed its collapsed front steps, went around to the back of the house, and banged on the door. Wind blew through the treetops, sending white petals fluttering to the ground, reminding her of last spring’s petal shower and how it had confused Bee. The lightness and softness of the petals, the way they hadn’t melted.
She banged louder, was about to leave, when the door opened and a cadaverous-looking man appeared, hanging onto the doorknob, wheezing so horribly that she pushed her way into the cluttered, dim, kitchen and asked could she get him some water. He waved his hand no and gestured for her to quiet down until he got his breath back.
‘Help you?’ he said.
She told him who she was and why she was there and one eye looked her up and down. The other⎯his left⎯wandered and settled on a spot beyond her shoulder.
‘Why d’you want the job?’ He paused to gasp. ‘I expected some kid.’ His voice was gravelly, as if the tar of a thousand cigarettes was lodged in his lungs. His cheeks had caved in, his chin was a grizzled stubble.
‘I want to learn gardening. At the general store, they said you ran the best produce stand for decades.’ It was the only answer she could articulate.
‘Humph. Well. That’s the truth.’
‘What’s wrong with you, anyway?’ She could match his rough tone.
‘Emphysema.’ Matter-of-fact. ‘Goddamn cigarettes.’ He looked her up and down again, gasped again. ‘It’s a lot of work.’
‘Will I run the stand, too?’
‘Don’t run it anymore.’ The back of his throat made a thick, clicking sound. ‘That sign’s up a week, you’re the only one’s come. Be here, six a.m. Four bucks an hour, but, like you said, you’ll learn a lot from me.’
‘All right, then,’ she said.
He turned to spit a great glob of yellow phlegm into the sink.
That first week, Heidi’s shoulders and neck were raw, but the physical labor made her sleep again⎯deep, unconscious sleep like she’d been able to sleep all winter. With Michael away, she could get to Ed’s by six. She didn’t ever leave before three, and generally slipped back at dinnertime if Ed wasn’t up to the evening watering.
Ed was a nit-picker, particular as hell about ‘his beds,’ which were arranged in large rectangular rows and spread out over half an acre. Through March and April, he’d managed to do his own prep work, but now he no longer had the oxygen to do much more than wheeze orders⎯‘Thin those seedlings, carefully, goddammit’⎯and point. In May, he said, everything needed attention. She’d need to get the carrot seedlings in, the corn in, hill up the potatoes, water and vent the cold frame lettuce. The asparagus bed he planted in April needed weeding, then mulching with salt marsh hay, and Heidi needed to go to the Agway and get that hay.
Ed had to explain everything and he was picky, grumbling when she didn’t get the temperature of the water just right for soaking the beet seeds, or when she damaged the root ball of a broccoli plant. The evening she’d worked for him a full week, she was hefting a bucket of his kitchen scraps down a narrow passage between beds to the compost pile when Ed started coughing and waving. ‘Hey, hey, watch what you’re doing.’ Heidi turned and he pointed to a trail of potato peelings she’d dropped.
‘If you’re on your last legs,’ she said, ‘and you don’t even run the stand anymore, why are you growing all this food?’
Ed fixed his good eye on her. ‘Because this is what we do. We work, and live off our work, come winter.’
‘Yeah well I spent last winter sleeping,’ she said, off-handedly, so he’d take the comment as a wisecrack.
But Ed nodded seriously. ‘It’s the season you crawl into and hide in.’
Heidi had crawled into winter. Crawled in and collapsed. Dragged herself to the kitchen each morning Michael was home. Watched him chew toast and drink coffee. Let him talk. Mostly his voice was just noise, a buzzing, but when she concentrated, she could hear him talking about the cracked foundation they would need to fix when warm weather came, about the patio they would lay in spring. She knew he didn’t care about those things, knew he was just trying to fill the silence.
Sometimes, he stopped mid-sentence and peered anxiously at her. ‘Can I do anything for you before I leave?’ She’d shake her head no, and force a smile, stretching her lips until they threatened to split. All she could think was, Would he ever leave?
Finally, after his car headed down snowy Ridge Road, Heidi would unplug the phone and climb the stairs, past their room with its unmade bed, past Bee’s closed door, up to the attic. There, on an old day-bed, she would pull a quilt over her head and sleep, dreamless, for hours. When she woke around two, groggy and vaguely distressed⎯another day wasted⎯she would stand under the shower, willing the spray to needle enough energy into her pores so she could pull on sweats and go out to pick up bread or mail bills⎯anything to wake up. Driving⎯a steely kind of open-eyed flashback⎯she imagined it happening again: the whining from the back seat, the soft leather-covered foot kicking, turning to yell, the last-minute jerking of the wheel, the tree coming at them, its silver-gray bark a thick, peeling mosaic that shattered the windshield and crushed the middle of the car.
They said Bee died instantly⎯information that comforted Michael, but Heidi wondered how they could know. From her hospital bed, she asked the young doctor who seemed to be in charge of her how they could be so sure.
He pressed his lips into a sympathetic line that Heidi imagined he had practiced. ‘The exam was conclusive,’ he said. Then he patted her on the arm and she wanted to swing it at him. ‘A two-year-old wouldn’t have known what was happening anyway.’
Bee would have known. Bee was an old soul, Michael used to say, when Bee fixed her steady gaze on him. Bee would have been watching, would have seen that tree coming for her. All winter, Heidi waited for trees to come for her, too, but the new Jeep always managed to get to the post office, or the bank, or the grocery store, intact. When she stepped out, she felt as if she were stepping outside herself, as if she should pinch her arm.
By the time she’d mailed the bills or picked up groceries, the winter sun had set and her brain had snapped awake again. Standing in front of the kitchen sink, her hands wet from rinsing the morning’s coffee cups, she’d think about moving back to Manhattan, or at least about working again, about shutting herself into her cubicle, losing herself in programming code the way she used to lose herself in jigsaw puzzles as a kid.
But every morning, it was the same, her body pulling her upstairs to the day-bed, the cushions calling her to curl up under the quilt and slip unconscious. Winter passed.
Spring forced itself on Heidi, when sunlight, filtering through the attic window, lost its winter weakness. She tried pulling the quilt over her head, but eye-biting light seeped through the threadbare patches. Birds were suddenly making a racket. On the day she could no longer sleep, she descended to the kitchen and plugged in the phone. The calendar read May 2. Seven months. She knew she should get back to work, but she couldn’t, and it wasn’t fair to Fletcher, to leave him hanging like this. She called him.
‘How are you?’ he said, his voice all careful concern.
‘Oh, Fletch,’ she said. ‘Give my job to someone else.’
Fletcher hired her entry-level years before and always treated her like a daughter, tugging the underside of his beard when they talked, as if every conversation with her was worth pondering. ‘No, no,’ he said now. ‘I told you, come back when you’re ready. This contractor, he’ll stay as long as we want him.’
She thanked him, made small talk. Hung up. Outside the picture window, house finches darted through branches. Michael had taken down the peanut butter-pinecone bird feeder that he and Bee had made together. (The day he had done it, the quiet way he had lifted it from the branch, the way he shut his eyes⎯it set everything inside of her to trembling, she couldn’t think of it.) He had closed the door to Bee’s room. All traces of Bee were shut away and Heidi could almost imagine there never was a Bee, never was that peculiar fierce rush of feeling that had so taken her by surprise.
Stop it, she thought. Put it away or go mad. She couldn’t go on like this. She needed to get back on track. She made her way into the living room and took a good look around. Things had gotten in a bad way. She wiped a finger through dust covering their books⎯Michael’s biographies, her histories. A stray board book of Bee’s. Teddy, Evermore. She remembered Bee laughing at the bear holding the soap between his feet, holding soap with her own feet in the bathtub, slipping underwater and coming up scared, eyelashes dripping. ‘You made me fall.’
And Heidi had laughed and scooped her up all wet and slippery and promised her safety evermore.
In the garden, Heidi searched the sky, streaked with red and the dissipating trail of a jet. Maybe Michael’s. He was due to return⎯a draining thought. He had started dropping hints about another baby.
‘So I guess I’m owed my first week’s pay,’ she said.
‘You didn’t need to say,’ he wheezed. ‘I don’t forget my bills.’ He gestured for her to follow him into his kitchen. Inside, he pulled crumpled tens and twenties from a stained fold-over wallet. Heidi looked at the worn, creased bills, at his shabby pants, at the ramshackle state of his house and felt a pang. Was she taking his social security? How could he afford to pay her?
‘I don’t trust you.’ He held out the money for her to take. ‘You some real-estate agent undercover? You want to cozy up to me, hope I’ll leave you the land or something?’ He smirked, but his good eye, watery blue, held hers. He laughed. ‘Maybe I’ll fire you.’
‘Maybe I’ll quit,’ Heidi said. She snatched the money and stuffed it in her pocket.
At home, the house had the sound of Michael again: radio tuned to classic jazz, sizzling coming from the kitchen. He hadn’t heard her come in, and she stood in the doorway watching him stir a wooden spoon around a pan of chicken strips and peppers, his bathrobe tied loose around his waist. Wet, his hair revealed how thin it was getting; there were creases on his neck she hadn’t noticed before. Soon, they would both be 36. They didn’t have a lot of time, he had been saying. Well, who did?
She took a deep breath. ‘Hey.’ She forced a smile to her lips and endured the embrace and the kiss and the way he held her by the hips and said she’d gotten even thinner. ‘I made your favorite chicken,’ he said and sat her down. He talked about how productive the trip had been, about the success they’d had in Guinea, and it occurred to Heidi how ironic it was that Michael developed family planning systems for Third World governments. Planning families seemed so unnatural now.
He set down two plates and she could see the eagerness in his eyes, the hope. What a kind, sad man, she thought. Didn’t he see how they were? On opposite sides of something. Something rushing between them.
She told him about her planting job, and it was alarming, the way his face lit up. He reached across the table for her hand. ‘Good for you,’ he said. ‘You must feel good about that.’ Heidi bore the touch until enough time had passed that she could pull her hand away and pick up her fork.
‘You’ll be a regular gardener now,’ Michael said, too quickly, his voice too full of relief. ‘Maybe we can get that patio going and you can do some plantings around it. Do you want to go to Windy Lo this weekend? Buy stuff?’
‘No,’ she said, a kind of claustrophobia setting in. She was at Ed’s to try and sort things out, not to become a happy gardener. ‘I’ll be at Ed’s.’
‘After work, then. And now that it’s not so cold, maybe we can head up to Quiachuat. We haven’t been canoeing in a long time.’
She pushed a pepper around the plate. Did he even realize the pressure he put on her? Did he really think life could return to normal?
‘Heidi? You said this job’s part-time.’ He smiled. The smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.
‘Technically. But I’ll be there a lot. He’s old, he’s dying.’
Heidi traced her finger round the rim of the plate. She knew Michael was studying her. It was a recent thing, this staring, and it irritated her. She glanced at him and he raised an eyebrow. ‘What exactly is up, Heidi?’
She hesitated, lifted the pepper with her fingers, and bit it. ‘Nothing is up. It’s just good, in a weird way, to be around someone who’s sick.’
‘I’m not sure about that being good.’ He faltered, put a hand to his forehead. ‘I don’t think it is.’
Once she had stood against a doorway, her fingers wrapped around the molding, and screamed and screamed. She had been vaguely aware of wanting him to join her, but he had pried her fingers from the doorway, he had tried to stroke her hair until she threw off his hands.
‘Sick people don’t bother you with small talk,’ she said. ‘Their expectations are different. I like that. Okay? I like it.’
He looked down at her hands, lying flat on the table.
Now was the time to say, I’m sorry, let’s just give this up. Separate ways. Now was the time to move back to Manhattan.
You don’t have to snap at me,’ he said.
‘Look,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I’m just trying to keep afloat, trying to move on.’
Move on. He used to comb Bee’s wisps of hair after her baths. He obviously didn’t have nightmares. Heidi had dreamed that Bee came to her, laughing and talking, not with the voice of a two-year-old, but with the assuring tone of an adult. ‘I’m fine. It was all a mistake, I’m OK now.’ And Heidi was horrified because Bee did not realize that it was too late, too late, that her chest cavity was empty, that they’d donated her organs. The heart beating somewhere. On the surface, that knowledge was a solace, but in reality it made her feel like she was freefalling.
She hadn’t planned on any of this, on marriage or children, had always known she was a solitary person. No one had ever cared to penetrate that solitude until Michael came along⎯by chance, after he’d met with Fletcher one day. He’d paused by her cubicle and gestured to her pictures of Quiachuat Lodge, in the Catskills.
‘You’ve been there?’
‘It’s my favorite place in the world.’
‘Mine, too,’ he said. ‘That’s amazing. Most people don’t even know about it.’
He had offered a life she hadn’t really considered. The company of someone else, a family. When she started to imagine children, she was surprised to realize she felt anticipatory, that she looked forward to sprinkling glitter on a pillow and spiriting a tooth away, looked forward to the way schoolchildren sound when they recite in unison. She envisioned young women and men, home from college, looking over-large and animated around a kitchen table, introducing their friends, talking about finals.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ Michael was saying. ‘Do you want me not to care? Do you want me to say I don’t want more children? What do you want?’
Heidi didn’t answer, and Michael turned and gazed out the picture window, his eyes loose in their sockets, his mouth slack, his reflection in the glass ghostly. Heidi watched him, rooted, miserable, silent. Another child seemed a betrayal. And once it was born, she would never relax, would she, she would always be on guard. Her pulse flattened just to think about it.
By July, Ed was wheeling a little oxygen tank around, its wheels caked with clumps of dirt and grass, thin tubes protruding from his nostrils. The heat by then was so intense, they worked only during the cool morning hours. July was payday anyway, Ed said, when all the hard work of spring paid off. Heidi harvested beans and corn and peppers and squash and cucumbers and tomatoes, an overwhelming amount of food. Ed couldn’t be up to canning, yet Heidi knew he would hate waste. He still had no interest in re-opening the stand, and claimed to have no problem cooking in the evening, but each week he gave Heidi more bags of vegetables to take home, plucking the cost out of the envelope he handed her each week.
Heidi humored him. She didn’t care about the money. It was the harvesting she liked, the kneeling in the beds, the plugged-up feel of dirt packed beneath her fingernails. Sometimes, pulling at weeds or diluting fertilizer, she’d have an astonished thought: A year ago at this time, I was at the playgroup. She’d done it for Bee’s sake, going half-time at work, spending mornings with those women who were so at ease with their membership in that club you were automatically enrolled in as soon as you had a child. Kindergarten was three years away but those women made it sound like a battlefield Heidi would have to be well armed for. ‘If you find out she gets Mrs. Hardy,’ one of them warned, ‘you must insist she be switched.’ Heidi hadn’t fit into any of it. Being with the other mothers left her feeling unsubstantial as shadow. ‘Doing it for you, Bee,’ she’d whispered.
August was oppressive, thick with haze that shimmered off the grass and blended into the horizon. Michael was gone, traveling most of the month and Heidi felt she was moving toward some end. Ed was deteriorating. His skin tone became bluer. He began asking her to pick up coffee and eggs, to take out his trash. She assumed, with no real basis for assuming, that she would be with him when he died, and the knowledge made her oddly calm, and expectant.
The heat forced Ed to take shelter under the porch, where he rapped his oxygen tank with a stick when he wanted Heidi’s attention. Finally, a cool day came and she carried an old padded kitchen chair to the carrot bed so he could sit beside her while she planted the fall crops. He complained that she hadn’t covered the rows with enough salt marsh hay; he reminded her three times that the crop had to be watered twice a day. When she finished, he said it was time to sow the fall carrots. She knelt by the bed, and he started to direct her, then stopped and waved his hand. ‘Ah, you know what you’re doing.’
The first nod of faith. With her rake, Heidi began to push and drag the soil. The sun was hot on her neck, but ripples of wind cooled her skin. And her muscles were strong. They’d never felt so good.
‘Carrots were the first crop I ever planted that did well,’ he said. ‘And fall radishes⎯taste so good. That spice, tip of your tongue.’ It wasn’t like Ed to chat. Heidi looked at him, but his face was implacable.
‘You’re the lady was in the wreck,’ Ed said. Heidi felt a buzzing in her ears. She scooped a cup of fertilizer from the big bag, sprinkled the soil and began working the mixture in with the rake.
‘Back in the thirties, I lost two brothers and a baby sister to TB. Just one sister left now. Edith. Lives in Albany.’ He pointed. ‘You need to mix some compost with that.’
Heidi picked up a bucket and headed for the compost pile, but Ed banged on his tank until she turned his way.
‘That’s the way it was then.’
Heidi nodded. When she was a girl, she’d read a story about a Victorian mother who had showered her first child with love, even though everyone warned her against it. So many children died then, and common wisdom held that it was best not to get too close. The daughter died, and the woman had more children, but she’d learned her lesson. She raised the others coldly. Heidi must have always remembered that story, somewhere in her subconscious. It must have stirred some fear she’d never contemplated, because when she was expecting Bee, she woke up cold one night, remembering it.
In September, Michael cut down on traveling. Mid-month, he took a week off and hung around the house. He read, he cooked. Heidi half-expected a big attempt at talk, she braced for it, but he kept to himself; she wasn’t sure if she was relieved or let down.
Toward the end of that week⎯a warm, windy night⎯he woke her by stroking the inside of her thigh. Amazing, she thought, how that had once felt nice. Now it was just irritating. She curled away, but he pulled her back. He lifted her t-shirt, pushed his tongue between her breasts.
‘I know you’re awake, Heidi.’ A shift, and his tongue moving down her ribs, a wet, cold trail. She shoved him away, felt him hard against her knee.
She lay quiet, struggling to hear over the wind, waiting for his breathing to become regular. She started to relax, to drift back to sleep.
‘I’m awake, Heidi.’
She lay still, straining to hear past the pulse thudding in her ears.
We’ve got to get things sorted out,’ he said. ‘I can’t carry on like this anymore.’
‘Okay.’ It was reasonable, she knew.
‘Everything I say irritates you,’ he said.
Heidi stared up into the black of a starless night, a distant streetlamp the only source of light.
Then a sound came from him, an alarming mix of sigh and sob. ‘We can’t even grieve together,’ he said.
She remembered cracking to consciousness in the hospital room, Michael’s face, swollen and red, the terror when he said, ‘Our Bee’s gone.’ Then his head on her chest, dampening her hospital johnny.
‘I was yelling at Bee,’ Heidi said slowly. ‘When I hit the tree. She was whining and kicking my seat.’ As she said the words, the moment became real again. Bee’s foot kicking the seat. What had she been whining about? Wanting to go home. Bee had wanted to go home and between the whining and the kicking, well⎯Heidi had just had it.
‘Have you been blaming yourself all these months?’ There was a gathering comprehension in his voice. He groped in the dark for her hand. ‘I know you loved Bee.’
‘I turned and yelled.’ She wanted him to know, wanted him to get angry. ‘I caused it.’
She waited, for reaction, for something, but he only squeezed her hand. It was the absent, bewildered gesture of an old man.
‘I caused the accident,’ she said, insistent.
He started to speak, stopped. Exhaled. ‘I’m a person who believes in fate, Heidi.’
Canoeing, they had passed languid hours mulling questions about fate, about the mystery of existence within time. But what was abstract then had become concrete. Now, she didn’t know what she believed. ‘Fate,’ she said, spitting the word through her teeth. ‘Fate makes it all so easy.’
‘Bee’s time with us was short for reasons we don’t understand. She’s somewhere, waiting for us.’
‘God, do you hear yourself? You sound like a priest.’
Silence for a long minute.
‘I’m on your side, Heidi.’ His voice so quiet.
‘You don’t know what my side is.’ Hers so cold.
I won’t answer, she thought.
‘You don’t, either.’
I’m not listening, not listening.
‘I’m trying to get through to you.’
Well, you can’t, she thought, and rolled away from him.
The silence seemed to tick. She could feel his eyes on her back. She twisted around and sat up, facing the slight strip of his forehead shining in the dark.
‘It’s like peeking through your hands at a horror movie,’ she said. ‘You can’t look too close, too clearly. Because for a split second, you can comprehend eternity, and the finality of being dead. You can.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know.’
‘I don’t want to think about where Bee is because I’m afraid she’s not anywhere.’ She wiped her cheeks; they were suddenly wet and itching. Disagree with me, she thought, prove me wrong.
Outside, the wind was picking up; branches scraped the house.
‘I know,’ he said. A voice disembodied by the dark. She lay back down and curled up tight. She squeezed her eyes shut. She wanted only to sleep.
In the morning, Heidi brushed her teeth and crept out of the house without showering. She didn’t want to wake him; she didn’t want more talk first thing.
The air was still and close. Driving to Ed’s, she rolled down all the windows. By the time she parked and got out, a yellow light was spreading across the lawn; the flowers entwined along the driveway had closed up tight. Heidi knelt down and touched a morning glory. Impossible to pry the petals open without damaging them. It was uncanny how they knew when the sun was gone, knew when a storm was coming.
Though some storms gave no warning. They came on so suddenly they took even plants by surprise, flattening them, battering them. Yet the petals still managed to hold the sun.
It was true that in the natural world you could find metaphors for everything.
This particular storm looked like it was going to deliver a lot of rain. She looked around for Ed. He was on his knees in the carrot bed, the green oxygen tank teetering beside him. Even from a distance, she could see he was rasping horribly. She ran down and reached for his shoulder to help him to his feet. ‘Ed, what do you think you’re doing?’
‘I’m weeding my own goddamned carrots!’ He flailed at her, whacking her hand with the trowel. The sound of metal to bone startled them both. She drew her arm away, blinking at the red welt that rose instantly on the back of her hand. Ed touched one shaking finger to the mark, leaving a trace of dirt that stung. ‘I didn’t mean that,’ he said.
This was it, she thought. Ed knew he was going to die; it was something instinctive; he was fighting it. But she didn’t feel the way she thought she’d feel. She felt sweaty, apprehensive. Her heart started to pound. She looked down at his carrot bed, at the green feathery fronds just surfacing. It seemed sad, sad and terribly alarming that his carrots didn’t know he was going.
‘Goddamn it to hell,’ he said. ‘I have to fire you.’
She stared at him.
‘I’m selling, moving to Albany.’
No, she thought, a kind of panic starting to form. She had to check the pH levels in the beds, start doing the fall soil preparation, vent the lettuce.
‘I can’t keep up anymore.’ He stopped to suck air. ‘Edith’s kids are coming this afternoon. To give me a hand. Got an agent for the house.’
That was it? No notice? No apology, no regret?
‘You knew,’ she said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘What’s it matter?’ He gestured to the beds. ‘Pick what you want,’ he said. ‘A bonus. For free.’
‘I don’t want your produce.’ She wanted to storm and cry.
Do you know why I took this job?’
‘I took it because I wanted to see you die,’ she said, and wished she could snatch the words back. How ridiculous she sounded, how spiteful. She tried to extricate herself, to justify what she’d said as intellectual interest, that there might be, possibly could be clues to evidence of afterlife revealed at the end. But there was no excuse for such a remark. She got tangled up in her words and stopped.
He didn’t even have the grace to get upset. ‘You’re a hoot if you think you’re going to find the meaning of life on my face.’ He was matter-of-fact. ‘And you know it.’
She didn’t know anything. She moved away, blindly, into the potting shed and emptied the bucket where she’d stored her things: gloves, a notebook. She threw the empty bucket against the seedling shelf, gratified, for a moment, to see the tiny pots fall to the floor, then feeling horrible, gathering them up and putting them in order.
Outside, a fine rain was falling; it filled the air with the smell of earth. Ed stood by the back door, leaning on his oxygen tank, money in hand. ‘Your pay,’ he said. There was something in his eyes. Some kind of wariness. It was almost as if he was hoping she would say something personal, something kind, but had erected a wall, just in case.
She didn’t care. ‘Good luck to you, Ed.’ She spoke briskly, dismissively, but the sound of his rolling tank followed her down the driveway.
‘You’re full of crap, you know.’
She shook the rain from her hair, she unlocked the car.
‘You took this job because you like gardening. And you’re pretty good at it, I’ll give you that.’
She refused to feel pleased. He was only acknowledging what he had known to be true for months now. She turned her face toward him, the rain like tiny needles hitting her skin. ‘So what? What’s so great about being good at it?’ The season was turning; already, she could see the signs. Soon, October would blow in and the gardens would be seeds, pods, brown stalks rattling, lettuce turned to slime. ‘It’s a stupid, thankless job,’ she said, ‘reminds me of that Greek who rolled the rock up the hill forever.’
She didn’t mean it even as she said it, didn’t mean to betray the plants she’d tended all these months, didn’t mean to insult this man’s life work.
Ed looked at his old boarded-up stand; he looked across the beds. Then he looked hard at her. He shook the handle of his tank. ‘Planting gets you more than rolling a rock up a hill,’ he said.
Rain dripped down his grey cheeks, behind his ears, the back of his neck. The streaks made it look like he was crying; he was not. But she saw—how had she not seen it before?⎯that the only reason he hadn’t told her he was selling his farm was because he didn’t want to face it. It had nothing to do with her.
Not everything was about her.
She looked down at her feet, at the dirty raindrops spattering her sandals. She was hurting everything. She was a destructive, uncontrollable force, and she’d had enough of herself. ‘God, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I don’t mean any of what I say. I’ve been so spiteful lately, hateful, running off at the mouth.’ The words that couldn’t come out for Michael coming out easily now, and the rain driving against her, soaking her hair, her skin, running down her face, taking over. ‘It’s been a bad time.’
He flapped an awkward hand that said he understood, that there was no need explaining. And then they stood there saying nothing so she said goodbye and got into the car and thought, this was what happened in life. People came into it and were such a part of every day that it seemed unthinkable to imagine a day without the person. Then circumstances changed. You had no control over the change, and no control over whether the person was a co-worker, a fellow student, a mother, a child. You had to adapt.
At home she stood in the back hall and shook the rain from her clothes. The house seemed quiet. At first. Then she heard distinct sounds of movement coming from above, from Bee’s room. She started up the staircase; Michael appeared in Bee’s doorway, clutching a dustrag.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I didn’t expect you.’ He stepped into the hall, his hand on the knob, shutting the door.
‘Wait,’ she said.
It had been nearly a year but there was the bed, the bureau, the yellow walls, the duck-shaped rug.
‘You’ve been keeping it clean.’ Somehow she had imagined cobwebs, shadows, indefinable horrors.
He held the rag to his chest, watching her, as if unsure how she was going to react.
‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘I’m okay.’
She wouldn’t be able to open the drawers or look at the animals on the bed, but it was good to be in the space. She walked over to the window and ran her finger along the sill. She lifted the window sash to let in the smell of rain.
Outside, the storm was abating, black clouds parting, a crack of light leaking through, a long, multi-fingered ray that looked like an illustration from a children’s bible, the kind of light, that as a child, she had thought revealed God’s hiding place.
She blinked. It was like that cracking to consciousness in the hospital; it was realizing she was coming to after a long while.