Love in a kitchen garden
douglas lawson • Winter/spring 2017
My house is a small one-story box clad in low maintenance vinyl siding and green asphalt shingles. It sits on a corner lot, which is actually a lot and a half. The half is divided from the rest by a low concrete wall, really only a step down, and is about a foot lower than the main lot. The main lot is covered with lawn. It is separated from my neighbor to the north by a wall of overgrown rhododendrons and patches of scrub raspberry vines. To the east is my cedar fence, six feet tall, and the alley. On the southeast corner is a plum tree and a tall hedge protects the south side of the half lot, stopping at the driveway. The main lot and house are unprotected by fence or hedge, except the rhododendrons to the north. For the rest I rely on an austere lack of hospitality, which is insufficient to protect me from traveling salesmen and religious enthusiasts, but works pretty well with the neighbors. The half lot I keep as a garden, where I grow various edible things: tomatoes always, sweet corn sometimes, root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips, strawberries, cabbages, lettuce, etc. I don’t find it economical to grow onions; peppers, for reasons unknown to me, do not prosper. I have no knowledge of gardening or plants and I’m too lazy to tend them properly. Still, I get more out of the garden than I put into it and it saves on the grocery money, which is important. I have little money—barely enough to avoid working—and that little comes from a small pension on account of my disability. I have ECI—Extreme Chronic Irritability—and, because of an episode some years ago involving an employee of McDonald’s hamburger corporation who seemed unable to grasp the definition of sauce, I have almost completely lost my voice. I speak, when I speak at all, in a raspy whisper. So I live on my pension and I wouldn’t even have the house had it not been left to me by my great uncle Everhart. It came as a surprise for we were never close. He was an all right guy but we lived in different states and had not much to do with one another. He evidently took a liking to me, though, or perhaps he couldn’t think of anyone else to leave it to. Anyway, when I was informed of my inheritance I moved right to Tacoma and took up a life of idleness. Tacoma has no mosquitoes, unlike the last place I lived, and the taxes are low. My neighbors, while perhaps fonder of cars and American flags than is seemly, leave me alone.
Because of my poverty, and my disability, I frequent craigslist.org, especially the free stuff section and the erotic services section. I don’t patronize the purveyors of erotic services—even if I wanted to I couldn’t afford them—but I like to look at the pictures and the ads improve my knowledge of my fellow man and reinforce my misanthropy. The free stuff section runs mostly to fill dirt and unwanted pets but occasionally you find a good thing, like the ad I found three months ago:
FREE LIVE MAIN LOBSTERS TO GOOD HOME
The misspelling of Maine is typical of craigslist users, many of whom are subliterate and not a few of whom are downright crazy, usually in some way involving computers. After the usual exchange of emails I visited the fellow in his home, and, sure enough, he had two largish live Maine lobsters in a glass tank. He wanted them to go to a good home, being fond of them because they once saved the life of his daughter by tapping on the wall of their habitat during a household fire and waking the little girl before she succumbed to smoke inhalation. He had to get rid of them because he was moving to Alabama, which forbids the importation of foreign crustaceans. I satisfied him of my good intentions by caressing the creatures and addressing them in as close as I could come to a coo, given my disability, and he let me take them home. I reflected, as I dropped them in a pot of boiling water, on this amazing information superhighway that allows even a poor man to dine like a king.
It is on the free stuff section that I see the following:
GARDEN NGOMES FREE TO GOOD HOME
The good home clause is, in this case, facetious. Having no sense of humor, I don’t appreciate the joke but each man to his taste. As I view the attached pictures, two things occur to me. While I am not into lawn ornaments, my neighbors are and having the things might drape about me the mantle of belonging, such that when the big quake comes and the grocery stores close, my neighbors will see me as one of them, rather than an outsider to be killed and eaten in lieu of their customary Ball Park franks. And, they’re free.
When I have the trio in the car on the way home, I notice that their expressions, which seemed jolly in the photographs, are not nearly so jolly up close. Their plump red cheeks and squinty eyes are not so much indicative of incipient laughter as they are of barely suppressed rage and there is a cruel twist to their brightly-painted lips. No matter. Maybe they’ll scare off the slugs with whom I engage in constant warfare to protect my vegetables. I place them in the garden thus: the first in the northeast corner facing the cedar fence, the second so that it appears to be urinating on the plum tree, and the third on the concrete wall so one encounters it as one enters the garden. All facing away from the garden, you see, because they are not there for my edification, but for the passersby.
A feature of operating a kitchen garden is that one becomes familiar with those individual vegetables on the plant that are just about ripe. Those two tomatoes are ripe, I’ll have them for lunch tomorrow, that row of carrots is not getting any bigger, must be something in the soil, might as well harvest them, I’ll likely have a mess of zucchini in three days. In the morning I like to have my coffee, read a little and ease myself into the day. Along about noon I wander into the garden, pluck a few weeds if I’m feeling ambitious, destroy whatever slugs have not retired from the heat of the day and pick the vegetables that are ready to be eaten. The morning after acquiring the gnomes some of my vegetables were missing.
It was neighborhood children, no doubt, filthy little swine. My garden is not entered casually. You have to go around by the side of the house, cross the lawn, step down off the concrete wall. You have to have intent. They have robbed me, taken food out of my mouth. Odd, though. It’s never happened before. And children, if they pick your vegetables, generally throw them at the house, they don’t take them away. Children don’t value vegetables. And they’ve rearranged the garden gnomes, or at least turned them so they’re facing the garden. Why do that? You’re trespassing on someone’s property, stealing their stuff, surrounded by fence and hedge with only one egress; you might be discovered at any moment. Do you stop to play with statuary? Not if you’re a local. Not unless you have remarkable sang-froid. It was the homeless. It’s the fashion these days to blame the homeless for every inexplicable crime, or drug dealers, but drug dealers wouldn’t take my vegetables. I can empathize. If I were hungry, I wouldn’t hesitate to take someone’s vegetables. But, while I may be rich by homeless standards, I can’t afford to lose any more vegetables, so I install some lights on the side of the garage. They’re not real flood lights but they suffice to throw some light on the garden and, as important, let whoever it is know that I missed the vegetables and that I care.
The next morning more vegetables are missing. Only the ripest, ready to pick vegetables are gone. I am seething with rage. I examine the ground carefully, looking for clues. Nothing has been trodden on but there is a faint depression near the tomato plants about the size of a toddler’s foot—or a garden gnome’s. I look at the gnomes. They haven’t been moved again. They still face the garden. Their ceramic faces sneer back at me. Ludicrous. The garden gnomes haven’t been stealing my vegetables. The garden gnomes are inanimate objects. Someone’s playing with my mind. Actually, considering the indistinct quality of the footprint, maybe I’m playing with my mind.
But one thing is sure—my vegetables are missing. I consider calling the police but the Tacoma police, while large in number, are small in ambition. They can barely muster the energy to pursue murderers and rapists; they certainly aren’t going to be interested in my vegetables. I make myself a thermos of coffee, root the air rifle out of the back of the closet and set myself up comfortably in the garage at the window overlooking the garden. These homeless people, or whoever they are, are going to feel the sting of my wrath. It is a long night. The lights on the side of the garage cast a dim glow but it is adequate. I’ll certainly see anyone who enters my garden. The rifle is pumped up and ready, a lead pellet in the chamber. I lurk in the darkness of the garage. The plum tree waves in the breeze, casting shadows from the street lights. A cat wanders through my garden without pausing. The neighbors on the other side of the cedar fence have a screaming, knock down, drag out fight at three in the morning, which resolves itself into sobbing and then bitter silence, and I sense that the female of the pair is not too happy either. Occasional cars burble by, their occupants on nocturnal errands.
At dawn I leave the garage feeling drawn out and old from lack of sleep but content that no one has entered my garden.
More vegetables are missing.
I don’t know whether to rage or despair. I settle on cold resolution and go back to the house to get some sleep. They must have come while I was visiting the bathroom, getting rid of the coffee. An extraordinary coincidence but there you are. It won’t happen again.
In the evening I wake refreshed and prepare myself a good breakfast. There is another long night ahead of me but I am still full of resolve. I take an empty jug into the garage so I won’t have to leave the window.
Dawn comes and I leave the garage to check my garden. No vegetables are missing. I should be feeling relieved, or triumphant, but I’m not. Instead I feel a creepy sense of dread. It was no coincidence; they knew when I left the window for the bathroom and they knew when I was there all night without leaving. Who could have me under such close observation when I’m behind a dark window with the lights shining out into the garden? The answer was obvious. I’m not superstitious but you don’t have to slap me in the face with a wet fish. I return to the garage and get the rifle. Outside I walk up to the gnome on the concrete wall and point the rifle at his face, the end of the barrel inches from his nose.
“Any more of my vegetables go missing and you’ll find out just how fragile ceramic is,” I rasp.
I hear a sharp intake of breath and turn to look through the hedge. There is a woman there, with a child in a stroller. She looks terrified and hurries on down the sidewalk.
And it does no good. The next morning a tomato and a zucchini are missing. I pretend not to notice but I turn the gnomes to orient them as I had them in the first place—facing away from the garden. I am beginning to wonder about my own sanity, but I know what to do. A hypodermic syringe is not hard to come by in Tacoma; in the right neighborhoods the difficulty is in avoiding them, not finding them. Nor is poison hard to obtain. I don’t use them myself but my late uncle was evidently a firm believer in pesticides. There are a number of boxes and bottles in the gardening cubby at the side of the house and plenty of rat poison in the basement. I settle on the rat poison, believing that some garden pesticides are relatively innocuous. I’m not sure that one can assume a creature made of ceramic is necessarily a mammal but I’m hoping for the best. I load the syringe and stroll casually into the garden. Keeping one eye on the gnomes, as best I can, given their arrangement, I bend over, as though inspecting the plant and inject the plumpest ripest tomato with what I hope is a deadly dose. I work in the garden for some time to lull their suspicions. There are plenty of weeds to be pulled and slugs and beetles to be squashed. When you get right down to it all of gardening is a matter of murder and mutilation. It sounds better to say weeding and pruning and mowing but any gardener knows what it really is. Even the things you want to grow and prosper you do not nurture. The earth does that. What the gardener does is wholesale destruction.
In the morning one of the gnomes—the one next to the plum tree—is lying on its side. Next to it is a half digested tomato in a small pool of vomit.
I don’t know. I’m not sure. There are some facts and a lot of questions. Did I poison a garden gnome or did whatever I poisoned, staggering away, knock the gnome over and vomit next to it before crawling off to die? My vegetables stopped disappearing. A thing I noticed just recently is that one of the gnomes, the one next to the cedar fence, while superficially resembling the others, differs from them in that it does not have a beard. Some months later some vandal placed three more garden gnomes in my half lot. They are much smaller than my gnomes and beardless, too. I left them alone.
Was there some sort of love triangle going on? Have I been used in some complex plot? Am I not, in fact, one of the primaries in a dispute but rather a secondary character in someone else’s drama?
I prefer not to think about it.
DOUGLAS LAWSON: Born in South Carolina, lived in Illinois, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Washington state. Spent time in every state except Hawaii. Currently living with his wife and a cat on a sailboat in Seattle.