The last house on the block
It was the last house on the block. Not the house at the end of the street, not the only house left after the fires or dope houses, not the last to be sold or occupied or moved into. His was the last house with a garden. A real garden where it rained and things grew. Where the sun shined and plants grew upwards. Where dirt clods crumbled with human fingers and the garden grew, somehow, with the old man.
He felt the same sunshine and was nourished by the same soil. They were his fingers crumbled the clods and his face felt the sunshine. His lips, his tongue, his rain. And unfortunately, he thought, his garden. It was unfortunate because it was only his. Owned by name and title, stored not even on paper made from pulp, but in zeros and ones in a computer someplace downtown. He would have imagined it to be dark where this information was stored, if the old man cared to imagine such things.
But at the moment thoughts swam in his head like Sunday bathers joyous with the morning sun. He opened his back door without a creek, for he had oiled the hinges. But he never had the time, or was it the heart, to paint it. The brown paint peeled off in strips, curled and hanging like flowers left unwatered in the August sun. He stepped past the blue wheelbarrow, long since upturned, and eyed the bush next to the door, taller by double than the old man. Left to its own whimsy it would soon devour the door in its arrogance.
He no longer needed to watch his feet for chickens, who once plucked the ground of worms like tiny dinosaurs. They were gone. He gave a tip of his hat to his scarecrow Wendy, whose moods changed with the time of day. He liked her best in the dewy morning when she was most a towheaded, gap-toothed southern girl straining above the corn to become a lady. He gave her a wink and a nod before caressing the damp tendrils of an orchid, growing, and choking in their caressing, of a low fern.
He picked his way among Hibiscus and Burdock, Queen Anne’s Lace and Wild Grapevine, still the same to him after all these years, living. And like a homerun fastball hit through the center pane of a big bay window, he was pricked by the little yellow rose of desire– in this case a little yellow rose. A drop of his own red life appeared at the tip of his forefinger. He found it shiny in its roundness and beautiful in its morning color. He contemplated the discovery as if it didn’t come from him; not as a part of his body dislodged but as a secret out in the open, no longer kept in its rightful place of constant, hidden movement. He enlarged the speck into a globe with pressure from his thumb and regarded the offending flower.
The little yellow rose shivered in defiance, proud of its nakedness. It seemed to stand just a bit straighter for its small victory in the morning sun. He looked once more to his puncture, then, rising his head, to his home: The long upturned wheelbarrow, the lazy fan in the attic window, the peeling asphalt shingles protecting the clapboard underneath for better days. It’s a shame, he thought, there’s never ever anything under vinyl siding two words he always said in his head with a nasal tinge.
It reminded him of better days and he thought to his childhood in the country, still pinching his finger. He thought about the stars and how they looked like God himself had cast a handful of sand onto an upturned mirror. He and a girl—not a girlfriend but a girl he loved all the same– would drive to an empty park on a country highway and lay atop the hood or sit on the roof and question the vast universe and their own small universe as teenagers. Heritage Park it was called. You’d have to hold up over your head the chain that blocked the entrance at night so your car could pass beneath. The radio antenna never quite made it, and it would thwang against the chain aloft, the gravel driveway crackling its applause underneath the tires.
Thoughts like this had lead him to the idea of a planetarium. And he built one. He conceived it sitting in this very garden at the wrought iron table when the lines in his face weren’t so deep and his hands never got quite so clean. With all of the country life they could manufacture in the city, even in those days, they could never fake real stars. He said he was building the planetarium for the neighborhood children, who bounded about the garden like rabbits. And it was in part. But in truth he built it to impress his wife. It was to impress her before the yellow dog and the tawny garden cat; before the house any serious photographer taken with Americana would spend hours behind; before the screen door slamming behind children; before she was his wife.
He had built it for her and her poet’s sensibility. He built it out of bedsheets and tentpoles, picture frame wire and an old projector he borrowed from a neighbor. You had to crawl in through a flap on the back. Once inside it was sublime and ragged, determined to stand against gravity and the wind’s ripples, and 15 clumsy neighborhood children in awe. The old man had found a dusty tape with space sounds, or what someone thought would be the sounds of space, and clicked the player on before he would let anyone see what was inside. They “oohed!” in the dark with delight at the pirouetting planets and they were amazed, if momentarily, at the sweeping purple narration and expansive drama. The children lay eyes wide on the grass floor, reverent in the beginning, literally In The Beginning. They laughed and pointed at the speed of Mercury and the size of Jupiter. They crawled and prodded one another in jubilation like a litter of puppies discovering the stars in a planetarium the old man built in the back yard.
A buddy had helped him build it, his next door neighbor. A friend he could tell the score to, a friend whose hands couldn’t get quite clean either, whom he could mention living, and the kind, pretty girl lying amongst the children in the deep, glowing dome he had built for her pleasure. When she looked over at him in the half light and smiled, her eyes warm and knowing, he was the friend who later smiled with the old man.
Thomas was his name. Thomas Jefferson Terleski. The son of Poles, grown American. He was the friend who brought home the yellow dog, the friend who lifted the long roof rafters, the friend who bent over the open hood of his son’s truck to get a better look and got his hands dirty all over again. Tom was the friend who understood when he couldn’t be the best man, quietly accepting that a wordless promise had been made long before they first shook hands. He was the friend who shared the bittersweet smile and shed with the old man the bittersweet tears of her death. The old man looked around the garden to the silent hives she had once cared for, for the bees that had once pollinated this garden he stands in. The old man failed to notice how well his blue trousers, white shirt and brown skin complemented the gaping green of the garden. He, no longer holding the wound on his finger but hands at his sides, head raised to the sky. The hives are now empty, the gestation of the garden left to chance and transient insects.
He thinks of her now and again, serene and beautiful as the bees whirl about her in turbulence. She delicately opens each hive, unprotected but by a sundress and a deep sense of calm. She examines each hive for evidence of health or decay and how much honey they could expect to enjoy over the next, long, winter. She had looked after even the bees, and even with the bees she was tender. Now she has gone too. The way of the French, by way of the Jews and then the Italians, by way of the Poles and the blacks, each represented in the architecture of the last house on the block with a garden. His little brown house with the little brown door, behind the upturned wheelbarrow pecked by the chickens long since gone.