As suggested by a good friend of mine, Shawn Richison, I’ve decided to post some of my shorter fiction. This one has been through several revisions and I know this latest incarnation is incomplete. The melody is written, but perhaps it’s being played by the wrong instruments at an unsettling tempo. Please, listen carefully and tell me how you’d play this song.
We bought our first house from an old man, identified as “a motivated seller” in the classified section. He didn’t have a broker and arranged a visitation for me over the phone in less than a minute. The next day I drove over on my lunch hour. Before introducing myself, I sat in the car and watched him take seeds from a pouch hung around his waist and carefully place them in the earth. He leaned over his suburban field, enraptured by renewing life through wrinkled fingertips, and didn’t look up as I shut the car door or open the swinging steel gate. Sunlight refracted off a pantheon of metal animals decorating the front yard. Frogs made of thin black plates were resting underneath the belly of a hollow deer—a cylinder of twisting aluminum strips. I paused in front of this strange creature to run my fingers over the warm antlers.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “She doesn’t bite.” He smiled and held out his hand. I felt the inside of my bones as he clasped my fingers. “Come on, I’ll show you the inside.”
His house smelled of rotting vegetables and old beer bottles. Apparently, he couldn’t be bothered by the insignificance of household chores during the spring and summer months. This man had absolutely no intention of living inside those walls or even giving the house an illusion of hospitality. After a brief tour of the bedrooms, a bathroom, and the basement, he led me into the backyard.
Large rocks jutted out and disfigured a curving path leading from the front door, tombstones migrating across the lawn. The old man looked disappointed after watching me stumble through the last portion of the walkway.
“Been meaning to take those out for years,” he said.
I told him not to worry. These were only minor anomalies, insignificant aberrations found in his fragment of the universe: a domestic jungle, a forest of wild flowers confined to a rectangular grid, exploding in front of my eyes. I instantly claimed ownership over the property; an irrational sense of vanity compelled me to catalogue and appraise every aspect of this creation at once. The old man carefully pointed out his favorite species, as if spontaneously giving them names: Dame’s Rocket, Prairie Smoke, Blazing Star. A spacious trellis filtered the sunlight into a diamond patchwork; its six wooden columns were twined with grape vines. A row of young cherry trees, planted on the edge of the property, obscured the fence and made it possible to believe that the garden gave way to an immense forest. White blossoms contrasted with the red, yellow, and purple of countless flowerbeds arranged in circular patterns. Everything appeared orchestrated when viewed as a whole.
He leaned against his shovel and studied my reaction. We shook hands once again. I told him that I was very interested in buying the property. He grinned and continued his work.
On the drive to work I could smell the soil trapped in my soles. Instead of preparing for a meeting with the comptroller, I stared at my narrow fingers. Then the walls of my office transformed into sculpted hedges, charging horses and planets enclosed me in a dark, yet verdant world. I noticed the night sky, then the old man sleeping underneath his artificial grove. The moon passed over his tired body, shining between the leaves on its silent course. He slowly breathed the purifying air, awakened before the sunrise, and started digging in the twilight. My vibrating cell phone infected the garden; within seconds everything withered into the beige carpet.
I stared at an open spreadsheet, a budget that needed drastic revisions. Fortunately, my personal accounts were in order. We had the money and the house was for sale. No great mystery could be found within that certainty. But something was growing inside my body. Vines and roots began taking the place of veins.
A month later we bought the house and I agreed to help the old man move his possessions. He never married, and his only surviving relative was a sister living in Calgary. We piled everything into the trunk and backseats. After we loaded up the last box, I asked about a dilapidated shed behind the house. He opened a rusted padlock and showed me his most valued items: rakes, shears, and shovels which he once used to work the land.
“Won’t need anything in there,” he said, closing the door. “I know you’ll put them to good use.”
I drove him to a retirement complex about twenty kilometers away. He only brought a couple plants with him. As I pulled out of the parking lot, he hung a small flowerpot from his balcony. He waved and watched me as I drove away.
We moved into the house a week later. I immediately noticed the absence of rocks in the walkway, what remained were irregular footprints that traced the path of a drunken demigod leading away from the house. Removing them would have been a tremendous task, even for a man with stone hands. The heaviest of the rocks were the size of small children.
I awoke in the early morning. Unable to fall asleep again, I walked to the bedroom window and looked over the garden. I listened to the sound of my wife sleeping before heading downstairs and out through the front door.
I stood in the driveway of a still neighborhood, silent except for a transformer buzzing atop a telephone pole. Waves of electricity were pulsing and sending messages somewhere else. The drooping lines stretched along the street and into a blackness that extended beyond my sight. I needed to be among the old man’s creations.
In those seconds, before the night air became too cold to ignore, I found the seeds he left in the soil: planted memories among the emerging buds pushing upwards in search of light. I promised myself that I’d preserve the perfect rows of plants, even though I could never keep them alive. He forgot to teach me that. Even now, in my mind, he is always there, plunging his fingers into the earth and pulling out weeds in the waking hours.
I wanted to be there on his last day, as he awoke before dawn and pulled part of his death from the ground. I would have studied his motions, held my breath as he rested in the burning sun and touched the bottom of the stones, brushing away the loose dirt and scattered insects.
The coolness of their imperfect surface was a gift only he could enjoy.