for Charles de Lint, and D. H. Lawrence
for my Grandma
& for anyone who has ever tended a garden with me
The garden is what ultimately sold me on that particular boarding house. I almost walked past the place, the first time I was down here – jet-lagged, trying to sort out the bus schedule of a new city while keeping the addresses I’d found on craig’s list (but neglected to write down) in my head. I was about to round the corner from Bacon Street onto Carey when the townhouse seemed to unfold itself out of my peripheral vision and into my tired consciousness, and beside me I realized was the sign proclaiming that here there was room for rent.
I had thought that that particular type of boarding house arrangement had gone extinct back in the 90’s – that all the downtown townhouses being rented now were either rundown or owned by men in their 30s hoping to turn a profit through remodeling and tax-funded urban renewal. Little old ladies who took in boarders after their husband’s death had, I thought, all passed away or retired to a doting daughter’s household or a nursing home. But Niata was still here, and she didn’t look old enough to be considering retirement yet. Now that I know her, I somehow don’t think she was ever married, either.
Niata’s nationality evaded deduction. She had a unique tone of nut-brown skin, not unlike whites get when they overtan, but hers was plainly natural. She was smooth despite her age – just a few wrinkles in her palms, at the base of her thumbs and elbows. Deep crows’ feet by her eyes, around her mouth – she once told me her laugh lines were longer than her life lines. They were certainly more pronounced. Most of the time she wore a dress and, if she was outside, a brown leather ‘aussie hat’ over her black hair, all locked in dreads loosely bundled to just below shoulder-length. When I signed the lease she shook hands in a clasp more callused than my whole body and said, “Well, Daniel Sommerset, I’m glad you’ve come.” She emphasized the word ‘glad’, like a warm grandmotherly landlady might to any new tenant, but at the time I couldn’t help feeling that there was something personal in it – that she was really emphasizing the pronoun, if I could just hear it right, like she’d been waiting.
Later I decided that that was just Niata’s way – she could make anyone feel more important, more wanted, than anyone else I’ve known. You had to be able to listen, though – listen enough to her to notice she was really listening to you.
For the first two weeks I was barely there, moving things in and out and running around when anyone else was awake, working mostly at night. I kept forgetting and referring to her as ‘Anita.’ But though Niata spoke fluent Spanish I don’t think she had much Hispanic blood in her. My only defense is that ‘Niata’ and ‘Anita’ are anagrams of one another, as is ‘Tiana’, which was the wrong name I used during the third week. ‘Tiana’ sounded like an African-American name to me, and Niata might have been half. Later, when I googled her name, I found out it was probably Greek – but even that seemed to fall short of Niata’s story.
I don’t know if Niata spoke Greek. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that she did – Niata seemed to speak every language. She could move between at least two dialects of Spanish, English, German, Creole, even the local brand of Ebonics. She was a wonder with accents, and would slide gradually into the same one whoever she was talking to spoke with. It was never so brusque they really noticed, but it seemed to make people more comfortable with her – like they were from the same place. I only got standard American English out of her – my accent was as close to that as growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. could make it. When I commented on her multilingual talent she told me it wasn’t a gift for tongues, just for talking with folk like they wanted to hear. I wondered about her, though. Once when I got in very early in the morning from meeting a courier at the airport, I found her sleepwalking in the downstairs foyer. As I opened the door she called out, in a voice she might have used to play a character in Roots, “You do it, mboy, you weed mah garden! If you don’t do it good, I’s gwon tell ‘em you’s old enough for de fields, and den you sees what real weedin’s like!”
I called her name, not knowing what else to say. She seemed to come awake then, and at the same time to faint. I caught her – mostly – and succeeded in rousing her at least enough that she could get back to bed before going upstairs myself. Her nightgown left the smell of rosewater on my dress shirt.
I still don’t know what to make of that night. Niata was certainly too young to remember that time, though not too young to maybe remember her own grandma saying something like that. Maybe she had been an actress of some kind. Or maybe she was just dreaming, her imagination tripping on some dramatization she’d seen on the History channel.
It must seem like I’m fixated on her, and I guess in a way I am. I’m realizing that I’d known her without knowing anything about her. At this moment I’m grasping for anything that might help explain why she did what she did when she died.
The house itself was oddly laid out – narrow and deep, with four floors and very steep staircases. At each landing, two doors opened diagonally into separate bedrooms that shared one bathroom. Niata lived on the first floor, occupying both apartments jointly. I never knew they weren’t separated like the upstairs floors until much later – while she was alive, Niata never left so much as a door ajar into her own rooms, and never asked anyone further in than we already were, as lodgers in her house. The upper floors had no hallways besides the staircases – after the landing, one either went up or down – but on Niata’s floor there was a hallway that wrapped around to the back door, and beyond the door was the garden.
It was a formal garden, which is an art form that’s gone the way of the personal letter. In the suburbs everyone seems to want free-form foundation plantings that only look good in pictures for real estate listings. Gardening, like letter-writing, is too inefficient to suit the contemporary lifestyle. Niata’s garden took up her entire plot, such as it was – a rectangle bordered and quartered by boxwood hedges and pebble paths, each quarter a little offset from the others by height and further subdivided into one- or two-plant sections. It was a specimen garden, really – boxwood used to accent a few types of flowering shrub. I loved it as soon as I saw it – not just for its own sake, but for what it said about the woman I’d be renting from.
See, there’s a big difference between a gardener’s yard and a landscaped yard. Often the gardener’s yard is less striking, not quite as well put together. That’s because a lot of gardeners follow the English garden model – intentionally natural, occasionally chaotic, even messy – rather than the more manicured French look that Niata had chosen. A landscaped yard, even when completed in stages, follows a preconceived plan and is eventually ‘finished’; all the work after that is ‘maintenance.’ A garden is an eternal work-in-progress. It grows, not always as intended, and is full of dabblings and side projects, new cultivars, experiments with cuttings, separatings, pottings, transplantings, loss and life. A garden takes spare time, spare change, spare pots from the store, spare plants from a neighbor, spare shoes that can be ruined with mud and squatting on the ground. It’s the place of connection between human and humus, and if Eden ever was then gardeners practice what is truly the oldest profession. When Niata showed me around the boarding house for the first time she took me to the garden last, and I felt instinctively that it was her favorite place. I knew then that we would get along.
I came back the next day to sign the rental agreement and move a few necessities out of the hotel and into my bare room. The hardwood floor, blank walls, and two round windows felt like the inside of a ship’s cabin. That would change soon, now that I could have my things taken out of storage and sent to my new berth. As she handed me the keys Niata sized me up with one eye narrowed, like she was trying to fit me into an analogy problem like they have on college entrance exams: “Blank is to blank as Daniel Sommerset is to …”
I’ve never been good at standardized testing. I’m convinced that my mediocre GRE scores are what kept me out of grad school, but I’m equally convinced now that that would have been the wrong path for me anyway. I said as much to Niata, early on in my tenancy when she asked me whether I planned to stay with my current job. I told her no, it was interesting enough but just a job, part-time at that, and the night-owl hours required when your immediate co-workers were half the world away got to me sometimes. Now that I was settled in-city, I would try to pick up another part-time gig waiting tables a couple nights a week – I’d been doing it since I was fifteen and had some high-class establishments on my resume.
“Funny thing about ways through life,” Niata replied, giving that same one-eye-narrowed look to the butterfly bush that took up the entire back right quadrant of the garden, “is that to grow like they want, people got to have their dead ends pruned.” She was holding a pair of shrub snips in her hand.
I chuckled. “Life itself does the pruning?”
“Sometimes,” she answered, still focused on the bush. After a pause she stepped in and dealt with a few offending branches. “Usually, though, you have to do it yourself.”
The tiled foyer had no decorations other than a cranberry-print wallpaper, and no furnishings other than an old-fashioned writing desk that stood against one angled wall. The lamp on the desk was the foyer’s only light, casting a silvery-gold puddle on the desk’s time-polished wood and the tiles beneath, leaving the stair and the back hallway in deep shadow late at night. That desk was built in the colonial style, so full of shelves and nooks and cubbyholes we were still finding things in it two months after Niata’s death. It was definitely an antique, complete with secret drawers and hidden compartments. The things Niata kept in them were odd, interesting – like three lines of poetry charcoaled onto an oak leaf pressed inside wax paper, or a little clay pot full of clear marbles. In one of the hidden compartments I found a small handmade dreamcatcher woven with black feathers and blue beads. Inexplicably, my hands trembled and my stomach turned nauseous when I held it. I burned it in the kitchen woodstove, and the whole house suffered from nightmares and insomnia for a straight week.
Odd as these things were, while Niata was alive the desk gave no sign of being extraordinary. The main cubbyholes served as mailboxes for her tenants, and she kept the writing surface clear except on tea days. Niata was a connoisseur of tea, a true aficionado; at least twice a week she set a large pot steeping with a new blend or an old favorite, and for sixteen hours a mismatched assortment of saucered cups and saucer-less mugs would litter the desk. The blends she found were exotic, aromatic, and like good coffee if it wasn’t good enough to drink black, she felt it wasn’t good enough to drink. Sometimes she’d set a bowl of smoking potpourri or a scented candle on the sideboard to augment the flavor, and we lodgers would stand around sipping her latest procurement in solitary peace or mingling murmurs, depending on when we got home. Judging from the heaviness of some of the steams and smokes rising from that desk, I’m not entirely sure that everything Niata brewed was legal, but I wasn’t one to ask questions.
I got to know my fellow lodgers only slowly. The townhouse had no common “hang out” area inside – the kitchen downstairs was too small for more than one person at a time, and standing in the foyer felt like standing in the doorway – a place to pause, perhaps, but not to relax. There was the garden, of course, but mostly we went out there when we wanted to talk to Niata, and those were usually two- or sometimes three-person conversations. We kept to our rooms when we were home, talking on the stairs or in the downstairs hallway when our comings and goings happened to coincide. Because my work schedule was the opposite of normal, for me those coincidences occurred less frequently than for the others.
On the top floor lived Stanley Georgian; the room across from him was vacant. Stan was an upper-30s to low-40s greencard-holder from Germany who worked with small electronics, designing the kind of gadgets that show up later on the shelves at radio shack. Why he lived with us, I don’t know – I’m sure his salary could have procured him a bigger place. Stan had Nordic blood in his body and Nordic blond in his hair; he wore glasses and an old-fashion haircut that made him look like a Nazi. Nobody could figure out how to tell him that gently, so the haircut persisted for awhile.
One Friday night I was up waiting to leave for the airport, standing half-in, half-out of that puddle of light the foyer lamp made, slurping down the last of the day’s tea with Niata before she cleared the desk and retired for the night. Stan and some cool night air stepped arm-in-arm through the front door, ushering before them the smell of cigarette smoke and cheap beer from his collared shirt. He accepted the final half-mug of tea that Niata offered him gratefully, cupping it between probably cold hands and letting the steam waft into his downturned face. I made a mental note to grab a sweatshirt before I went out.
“You know, Stan, there might be better places to meet a girl than the bars,” Niata suggested after a moment. Her tone was half-gentle, half-wry.
He gave a snort that leaned more towards disgust than comedy. “One does not meet women at American bars. Zeir bodies, maybe.” He shrugged expansively.
“Where you been then?”
Niata’s directness surprised me – it wasn’t her usual way.
“Bowling alley,” Stan answered. “I join ze local league last week.”
“Huh!” was all Niata answered, but as he slipped away into the shadow of the staircase she followed it up with, “Stan, erwäg dich deine Haare aufreizender schneiden zu lassen.”
He paused. “Mehr sexy?”
He disappeared upstairs, and I looked at Niata inquisitively.
“I told him he should try cutting his hair sexier.”
I laughed at that. “So, you don’t think he harbors a deep-seated passion for bowling?”
She gave me a look of mock-scorn as she piled the tea things onto a tray.
The right-hand room on the third floor was occupied by a couple, for sure married socially, maybe legally too, I never found out. Pete was from the Philippines, brought up Catholic and Spanish-speaking; Stephanie was U.S.-born Hispanic, first-generation American. She was gorgeous, and very attached to him; he was a little rough-spoken, and often discontent – not with her, I later learned, but with their situation. They both worked at the same big retailer a few blocks away. Every month, just before rent was due, they fought about money, just loud enough that any of us walking by the room would press an ear to the door to make sure shouting was all that was going on. They made us uncomfortable, those two, but I think they really loved each other, and deep down we must have sensed it.
Next to them lived Jenny Portham, a shy dark-haired girl whose features were very English and whose voice and manner were very American. Jenny worked in “entertainment” – that’s all anyone would tell me. Judging from the timidity she regularly displayed, I doubted her job was anything worthy of non-disclosure. She was rarely home except to sleep, which she did on a schedule normal to any nine-to-fiver.
My own floormate was a dark-skinned Italian man who had the echoes of that look of European sophistication that white American women found so irresistible during the heyday of international spy movies. Previous to reaching his middle age, I imagined he must have resisted female advances pretty strongly to be as successfully single as he was today. On the other hand, he went by the name Mario and loved to joke about similarities he had with Nintendo’s game character. He even grew a mustache. On Halloween he would don a pair of overalls, thrust a giant wrench through one belt-loop, and hand out candy at the front door. Between his thick accent and absurdist sense of humor, I was almost always taken aback when he said anything to me, but it wasn’t long before I looked forward to his jokes. He was a 911 operator by night and ran a one-man hairstyling business out of his room by day. Here his lingering allure must have come in handy – not that he did business very often, but many of his clientele were upper-middle-class women, as stereotypical as they come – overdressed, makeup haughty, fat by contemporary standards, alternately flirtatious and disinterested. Half the time they were accompanied by immaculately dressed children, and if so, it was likely the child who was destined for shearing. Mario left his room’s door open whenever he had customers; the rest of us tried to slip past on these occasions, to avoid the necessity of introduction.
The advantage of this to us was that he would cut and style our hair for free, and often noticed that it needed upkeep days before we might have. The only person whose hair he didn’t manage was Niata, who would get offended if someone touched her dreads. So when Stan asked him for “sexier” hair, Mario laughed and gladly snipped the blond strands until they were short and spiky. Stan complained at first that Niata’s advice had made him look like a student, but after a couple weeks we noticed he was sporting a little facial hair to match – apparently agreeing that the younger look was an improvement.
It didn’t work like magic. Stan still went bowling Friday nights, and no women were seen swooning in his presence. But at least he didn’t have the Nazi hair working against him.
Niata said it was like weeding – didn’t guarantee the plant would thrive, but at least it wouldn’t choke. She stepped back, hands on hips, to frown at the nandina she’d bought the day I moved in.
“What’s up?” I asked after a minute.
“See that–” she pointed.
A shoot of English ivy was wound around the nandina’s main stem.
“Must’ve come that way from the nursery,” Niata said. “I didn’t see it then. The roots are all intertwined.”
“Nandinas are pretty hardy,” I suggested, “what about digging it up and cutting out the ivy, roots and all?”
Niata shook her head. “I got this one on discount from the TLC section. It’ll be a month or more before I’m satisfied it’ll recover. Til then, I guess I’ll just keep the ivy’s leaves stripped and hope it gives up.”
I nodded – a plant advertised “Tender Loving Care” was nearly dead by the time it was sold. To an experienced gardener with a little time on her hands, a TLC represented thrift and challenge – potential that just needed time to mature.
And time seemed to do the trick – about three months after the haircut, Stan started bringing around a girl from his work, Jessika Parker – now soon to be Jessika Georgian. They’re talking about renting the empty room across from Stan as well, using one for their bedroom and converting the other into a sitting room / study. Their combined incomes could comfortably get them more space elsewhere, but I understand a little better now why they might want to stay. I wish Niata could have seen their wedding.
Later, much later, I thought – maybe that is like magic. I mean, who am I to know? I’ve been led, by stage performances and popular fantasy, to expect the instantaneous and showy. I’ve never seen the real thing, any more than the next guy… or maybe I’ve just never known what I was looking at. Maybe the quietness of it, the simplicity and the time involved, lulled me to conclude that it was all part of the commonplace.
Niata’s garden softened me, I think, eased the knot in my shoulders that came from doing too much hunched over at my computer by the blinking indicator light of a WI-FI adaptor while the city slept. It was a place of peace, Pax Niata, but since it was her place of peace we tried not to abuse its sanctuary. Still, whenever I was out there it loosened me up, lowered my inhibitions.
I remember this one time I brought a girl to the garden on a date. Lunch was about the only time our schedules aligned during the week, and I’d set up a table for two in the back corner – nice, but not fancy. It was my first October at Niata’s place, and she had two red maples, one in each corner, that were still mostly ablaze like candelabras. As I led Sharon towards my little setup a leaf more brown than red tumbled from the boughs and was swept square into my jaw.
“Thank you,” I said aloud, automatically, as I pulled the leaf away and let it whirl down to the gravel.
“For what?” Sharon asked, smiling.
“Hmm? No, it’s–” I was pointing at the maple.
“Did you just thank a tree for hitting you with a leaf?”
I decided I didn’t want to be teased about this. “Not for hitting me,” I said seriously. “For acknowledging our presence. By dropping that leaf, the maple was saying that it’s not too caught up in its own fall glory to be courteous.”
I studied her studying me for half a moment, trying to decide whether she liked this touch of whimsy in me.
“However,” I said, pulling her forward to the table, “that’s not nearly as important right now as food.”
She looked at the table, told me she liked it very much and it was very thoughtful and romantic, and kissed me full on the mouth. It took me a little by surprise, and in the half-instant before I kissed her back I saw, over her shoulder, that Niata was in the garden, finally excavating that nandina to weed the parasitic ivy root that threatened it. I decided her presence didn’t matter, and was locked in Sharon’s lips the next half-instant, one hand in her hair around the back of her neck and the other around her waist. We didn’t think about food, or anything else, until at least a few minutes later. The maple, meanwhile, avenged itself for my verbal dismissal by dropping a leaf onto my plate. I endured with good humor Sharon’s jibe about needing to polish my ‘Tree Whisperer’ skills.
Next day I sent Sharon an e-mail, trying to be responsible – that kiss in the garden had told me that we were maybe moving faster than anticipated. I wanted her to understand I didn’t yet know where I was headed in life, that I saw my current job as temporary and financial stability might be a couple years out for me yet. I’d learned the hard way, with someone back in college, that this was the kind of thing a girl liked to know before she started pinning hopes on you. Sharon wrote back saying we should get coffee that weekend to talk about it.
As it happened, our first kiss was fated also to be our last. Sharon told me, nicely enough, that she was looking for a more “serious” relationship and perhaps it would be better if we parted ways, at least for now. She was distant and chatty during that conversation, and as I trudged glumly home later I battled against telling myself bitterly that when a girl said “serious” relationship she really meant “moneyed” relationship. It made sense to want stability, I told myself, and besides, by the time the average girl had reached her late twenties like Sharon and I, she’d probably been in one too many relationships with guys who couldn’t get their act together and didn’t want to risk sticking around to see whether I would fall into that category. Drifters make bad emotional investments, I said to me, and you sir are a drifter. Or at least a wanna-be drifter. I shoved my hands in my pockets and wondered whether I’d eventually settle for a misfitted career because I was lonely. But then again, wouldn’t I just end up with a secret pocket of leftover loneliness from not pursuing my real calling, and wouldn’t that be a kind of time bomb for the relationship that accrued from the merely-tolerable career?
Instead of going home, I turned impulsively and got on a bus headed to the other side of downtown. I wasn’t due on shift for another three hours, but I went in to work anyway and sat down with the senior manager. Ten minutes later we left his office and went over to the baby grand piano in the corner, and I started playing. When I finished, it was to scattered applause from the restaurant’s few early-Saturday lunchtime patrons. When I left, I was holding a simple contract we’d just drafted – I’d get in on tip sharing by playing piano on nights when he didn’t have any performers lined up, or when performers dropped last-minute. He was disappointed at first when I said I couldn’t sing, but said he’d have my waiting schedule redone and mentioned that maybe, if the piano gig worked out, in the future they’d find a vocalist for me to accompany. I hadn’t noticed before, but as I made my way home to change into the white shirt, black slacks uniform for the afternoon’s shift my movements felt oddly free, as if I had gotten used to walking with something wrapped around my ankles and it was no longer there. I had finally taken a first step towards what, for a long time, I’d just idly dreamed about.
It was in early March, eleven months after I moved in, that Niata’s garden betrayed her. She tripped over a loose brick in the path and fell onto the butterfly bush, whose brittle but freshly-pruned branches broke under the impetus of her fall and then impaled her. Two branches slipped between her ribs and broke off inside, causing organ damage and internal bleeding. Mario saw her fall and dialed 911 immediately, but despite the hospital’s quick response she died in the ICU that evening.
In accordance with the last wishes outlined in her will, her body was cremated. There were no relatives to alert. There was no funeral. It was a Tuesday.
On Wednesday morning, all of us tenants stood squashed in half of a very small law office downtown. The other half was occupied by a very small lawyer and an oversized desk. We had, to our total surprise, all been named as Niata’s beneficiaries.
It seemed that, four months before she died, Niata had finished paying off her townhouse. Somehow, she had set it up as a trust, and I was the beneficiary on condition that I moved into the downstairs apartments, took over management of the property, and signed new rental agreements with each of the other tenants. In a state of mild shock, we examined the prewritten agreements. None offered the same rate as any of the others; instead, each had been revised with a deeply personal knowledge of each tenant’s financial means and pay schedule. Most of the rates had been significantly reduced; without a mortgage to pay, significantly less money was needed to maintain the house. Peter and Stephanie’s rent had been reduced to a mere $40/month. Stan’s had actually gone up by ten percent.
The lawyer told us we were required to decide before leaving the office. After a few minutes’ thought, everyone signed on and then went home quietly. I stepped outside to phone a friend of mine, a 3rd-year law student, who told me rather hurriedly that the arrangement sounded legit to him and hung up. I went back in and spent several hours dealing with my side of the paperwork, hoping the others – all of whom had been renting from Niata longer than I – didn’t resent me for her choice, which I understood no more than they.
* * *
In the first two weeks that followed her death, I left Niata’s garden to the spring weeds. Bulbs thrust themselves through the leaf mulch she had made of the maple hand-me-downs the previous fall, blooming in a riot of reds, yellows, and purples. The bushes and trees grew in any shape they pleased. I was still settling in, changing the name on the utilities and getting myself recognized as the property manager at Niata’s House – yes, we named it, and put a carved wooden sign out front – while closing out my night job and starting piano gigs at a fancy hotel downtown in addition to the restaurant. I was also negotiating with Jenny Portham on becoming a studio pianist, on call when a recording required piano tracks. It turned out that the ‘entertainment’ she worked in was a music studio.
One late afternoon I was standing out on the back step just outside the kitchen, staring out at the garden to keep from watching the pot that would boil soon enough. Through the open window above I was hearing Peter and Stephanie arguing, right on schedule – poor as they were, the drastically reduced rent merely allowed them the luxury of purchasing one more of several necessities they had, until then, lucked by without. My eyes swept the neglected beds, bright green with clovers and ground ivy and dandelion, while behind me the pot hissed like a cat. I really need to get to this garden soon, I told myself, it was her favorite place. The broken butterfly bush loomed like a set of shattered chimes fallen from a giant’s window in the back left corner, silently brown and starting to be overgrown; evidently it had not survived the winter.
I sipped the last from my wineglass and caught a glimpse of the garden through its crystal-like facets, the formal lines and hedgerows for a moment distorted; and I lowered the glass slowly, stunned by a sudden, odd idea. Putting the glass down on the kitchen counter, I ran down the hall to my room and grabbed a piece of paper from the printer and a pencil, then returned to the back door to sketch a rough outline of the garden’s shapes. It had occurred to me – and the sketch confirmed it – that Niata’s garden was laid out in a quadrant pattern after the floor plan of her house. The ground floor was the back left, where the now-dead butterfly bush lived; the back right quadrant was segmented exactly like the second floor, the fore right mirrored the third floor, the fore left was Stan’s floor. In the plot that represented his room, an immaculately pruned dwarf yew rooted; in the plot across from it, the vacant room, nothing was planted.
An escalating argument was spewing from the open window overhead – Stephanie’s voice was somewhere between a sob and a scream while Peter snarled and shouted. All the little things that Niata had said to me about gardening began to parade in my head, the analogies she’d drawn about life using her hobby as an illustration. I turned off the stove, my pot having by now boiled almost dry, walked down the crushed gravel path, and began to weed the plot that corresponded to Peter and Stephanie’s room; in it had been planted a lily of the valley and a cluster of exotic-looking elephant hosta. Soon there were more weeds in an uprooted pile on the path beside me than in the plot, and as I worked, the sounds of the argument above gradually lessened.
I looked at Niata’s garden now with fresh but inexplicable insight. Tomorrow, I knew, I would need to begin by digging up the remains of the butterfly bush and transplanting my nandina to the back right corner.