Yesterday at the farmers' market, a vendor sold a box of tomato bedding plants gone yellow with heat and stress, two for a dollar. Today, they're going into a freshly turned bed. With some extra care, maybe they'll make it.
The fork sinks into the top few inches, then grates abruptly against the harsh soil, dried into stiff clumps. It takes an hour to turn it all over a fork's full depth. Coffee grounds harvested from Starbucks, a pile of rotted manure a sack of sheep and peat and a few handfuls of blood meal are dumped over the gray, rocky dirt.
As I bend over to dig and mix the soil, the sun burns the back of my neck. Cool drips of sweat roll from ear to chin, from hairline to eyebrow. In a far corner of the bed, I turn over a chunk of dirt with a cluster of pink earthworms clinging to its bottom. The area closest to the fence holds water longest and these survivors have found the last remaining dampness of this subterranean wasteland. I sprinkle them with damp soil and carefully set them aside in a shady spot, then go back to digging.
Earlier this morning when I came out to water, I found a water-stained yellow sheet from a legal pad, wadded up and blown into the garden. Nosy as the day is long, I sit down now on the porch step to rest, flatten it out against the sharp concrete edge and try to read it.
It is a list, neatly printed in capital letters, each line accented by a bullet point neatly drawn on the middle red line of the left margin. The title is completely washed out.
Here is what I can read:
WHAT SHOULD I DO _______________________
STOP & ___________________ ONE SHOULD BE FREE
ONLY _____________________ REGRETS? NOT TRYING
__________________________ THE LAST BIG ONE/ SHOULD'VE
YOU ALWAYS A LADY ME ALWAYS A GENTLEMAN
I REMEMBER OUR DRIVE
NEED TO DO. NEED TO KNOW. HOPE ITS SOON.
NEED TO LOVE FREEDOM AND HAPPYNESS
Some phrases are carefully underlined. Some are marked through with a single black line, checked off as if done, complete.
Are these notes in preparation for a love letter -- a long, elaborate love letter written later? Did the letter ever get written, or did the writer wad up his notes and toss them out the car window in anger before ever writing it? Did he decide it wasn't worth the effort? Did he give it to her, winning back her heart? Did she find the notes in his glove compartment and toss them out the car window with a laugh, remembering the silliness of their breakup?
It is a piece of someone else's life, but it doesn't seem right to throw it away. Reading it, scrutinizing it, analyzing it doesn't seem exactly right either. But I am cursed with nosiness, eager always to read someone else's words. And after all, they ended up in my garden, buried beneath the leaves of the coneflower, sheltered from the wind, as if planted there.
I take up the hoe and smash the hard clumps of dirt, mixing gray with black, turning the soil until it is pliable and even. Each tomato plant is set into a freshly dug and watered hole, carefully covered, then watered again. The worms are returned to their home beneath the surface.
Hands washed, tools returned to the shed, the heat of the day weighing on the top of my head, I go inside and climb the stairs for a nap. The sheets are cool. Shadows of Venetian blinds line the south wall. I try to read but sleep deeply instead, my dreams populated by the voices in the yellow note.
The next day, the tomatoes get an early morning watering. They are standing straight, their fuzzy leaves perked upward, already turning from yellow to green.
That afternoon, storm clouds hover over the city, thunder breaks and finally, after weeks of deadly dryness, the rains come. White clots of hail mix with the downpour. From my desk at work, I wonder if the tomatoes will make it.
Back home at twilight, the showers have ended and late afternoon sun paints the clean sky. The tomato plants have taken on a true deep green, although one is bent at its base, crushed by the storm. I prop it up with a stick and, from the corner of my eye, notice something pink moving on top of the rich black bed. The worms have surfaced for air.