[Originally published in Dialogue Fall 2013]
“How much time do you spend gardening?”
My back fence neighbor's eyes are placid, patient,
riddled with cataracts, half blind.
They count the neat rows again.
His backyard is an Eden but with clothing.
An open-air produce department:
tomatoes, peppers, squash, carrots, and sugar peas.
An apricot and two peach trees.
And the grape vine climbing our common fence.
Which is a chain link line too porous
to hold back my personal collection:
crabgrass, clover, and a million gaudy dandelions.
Stinging nettle, nightshade, morning glory,
pigweed, gumweed, stinkgrass.
Natives I suppose—plants
that need no chemical encouragement,
no pruning or stakes.
Weed is a word for a strategy without flowers or fruit.
Without human approval.
They just want to grow here and can.
My neighbor kills them root and branch,
gathers their flaccid carcasses with a rake.
The handle is toil-oiled and smooth and
it's missing a few rust-eaten teeth.
He unfolds a leather-bound hand,
extracts a white handkerchief
from the bib-pocket of his dark blue overalls,
and blows his nose.
“About half,” he finally answers my question.
I picture the implacable circular sweep
of clock hands everywhere.
And calendars packed with pipe wrenches and pin-ups.
La Piedra del Sol.
Sundials and waterclocks.
A baboon fibula scored exactly twenty-nine times.
And a dagger of sunlight marking the summer solstice
passing through a neat line of windows
formed in ancient stacked-stone walls
piercing the inner chamber.
I contemplate the influence or entity
—I'm not quite sure what or how—
that synchronizes the time-pieces embedded in our phones.
Propelling us forward.
Urging us on to the next thing.
Pouring on the guilt.
For not being there earlier.
For not staying longer.
For not getting more done.
Because my children's childhood is fleeting
and rosebuds won't gather themselves
and the human brain shrinks as it ages.
Because I buy books I will never read and record shows
I will never watch.
And my elderly neighbor
has invented a new time-reckoning system.
He spends half of his time eating and sleeping
watching daytime TV; applying sunscreen and
walking his jet black cocker spaniel
visiting and being visited
ingesting a rainbow array of pills from a seven-chambered
plastic dispenser bearing the names of the days of the week.
And how much time does he spend gardening?
Another harvest and fall.
We never saw him after the hard frost.
Year after year,
he reemerged in the early spring.
Tulips and daffodils and him in heavy overalls.
A full-body coat, red flannel,
until this year.
He fell ill in October; by January he was gone.
I knew something was wrong months before we found out.
Deer—blundering car-dodgers down from the mountains—
winter hungry, the original occupants of our block,
had eaten his arbor vitae
from the ground to as high as they could reach.
Nobody wrapped them in his absence
and the snow melted to reveal two great piles of leaves.
No sign of his trusty rake.
His family didn't invite us to the funeral.
They didn't know about us.
They didn't know he had fed us bushels of
tomatoes, peppers, squash, carrots, and sugar peas
apricots. peaches, and grapes
from the vine climbing our common fence
Eden is weed fallen.
And the realtors and house-hunters never
stay long in the backyard.
They take pictures with their phones.
Their lips move, but I can't make out the words.
It's always something about work.
I see them through my departed neighbor's eyes.
I wave and give them a look that means
this garden place is not for you.
I can tell they are busy;
stretched thin; stress harried; time enslaved
distracted by goals and obligations and things.
Too much like us.