Digging Up Mother: A Love Story (Audio Download): Johnny Depp - foreword, Doug Stanhope, Doug Stanhope and Friends. This audiobook is no exception. In what he refers to as the 'director's cut commentary,' Doug forgoes the confines of a straight-read and creates a truly unique listening experience, going off-script to riff throughout its. Sign-in to download and listen to this audiobook today! With digging up something she's found buried in the woods near her home. Short audiobook and through.
I turned from the altar, tiptoedto the kitchen, and quietly drew a spoon from a drawer. I filled my lunchthermos with water and reached into our jar of dried lima beans. Then I walkedoutside to the street.
The side walk was completelyempty. It was Sunday, early in April. An icy wind teetered trash cans andturned my cheeks to marble. In Vietnam we had no weather like that. Here inCleveland people call it spring. I walked half a block, then crossed the streetand reached the vacant lot.
I stood tall and scouted. No onewas sleeping on the old couch in the middle. I’d never entered the lot before,or wanted to. I did so now, picking my way between tires and trash bags. Inearly stepped on two rats gnawing and froze. Then I told myself that I mustsow my bravery. I continued farther and chose a spot far from the sidewalk andhidden from view by a rusty refrigerator. I had to keep my project safe.
I took out my spoon and began todig. The snow had melted, but the ground was hard. After much work, I finishedone hole, then a second, then a third. I thought about how my mother andsisters remembered my father, how they knew his face from every angle and heldin their fingers the feel of his hands. I had no such memories to cry over. I’dbeen born eight months after he’d died. Worse, he had no memories of me. Whenhis spirit hovered over our altar, did it even know who I was?
I dug six holes. All his life inVietnam my father had been a farmer. Here our apartment house had no yard. Butin that vacant lot he would see me. He would watch my beans break ground andspread, and would notice with pleasure their pods growing plump. He would seemy patience and my hard work. I would shop him that I could raise plants, as hehad. I would show him that I was his daughter.
My class had sprouted lima beansin paper cups the year before. I now placed a bean in each of the holes. Icovered them up, pressing the soil down firmly with my fingertips. I opened mythermos and watered them all. And I vowed to myself that those beans wouldthrive.
I lived over in Cleveland Heights for eighteen years, then Imoved back in to take care of my parents. That border moved too. Most all thewhites left. Then the steel mills and factories closed and everybody left, likerats. Buildings abandoned. Men with no work drinking from nine to five instead,down there in the lot. Always the sirens, people killing each other. Now I seefamilies from Mexico and Cambodia and countries I don’t know, twelve peoplesometimes in one apartment. New languages in the shops and on the street. Thesenew people leave when they can, like the others. I’m the only one staying. It’sso. Staying and staring out this same window.
This spring I looked out and I saw something strange. Down in the lot, a littleblack-haired girl, hiding behind that refrigerator. She was working at the dirtand looking around suspiciously all the time. Then I realized. She was buryingsomething. I never had children of my own, but I’ve seen enough in that lot toknow she was mixed up in something she shouldn’t be. And after twenty yearstyping for the Parole department, I just about knew what she’d buried. Drugsmost likely, or money, or a gun. The next moment, she disappeared like a rabbit.
I thought of calling up the police. Then I saw her there the next morning, andI decided I’d solve this case myself. We had a long spell of rain then. Ididn’t set eyes on her once. Then the weather turned warm and I saw her twicemore, always in the morning, on her way to school. She was crouched down withher back to me so I couldn’t see just what she was doing. My curiosity was likea fever inside me. Then one morning she was there, glancing about, and shelooked straight up at this window. I pulled my head back behind the curtain. Iwasn’t sure if she’d seen me. If she had, she wouldn’t leave her treasureburied long. Then I knew I’d have to dig it up before she did.
I waited an hour after she left. Then I took an old butterknife and my cane and hobbled down all three flights of stairs. I worked my waythrough that awful jungle of junk and finally came to her spot. I stooped down.It was wet there and easy digging. I hacked and jug, but didn’t find anything,except for a large white bean. I tried a new spot and found another, then athird. Then the truth of it slapped me full in the face. I said to myself, “what have you done?” Two beans had roots. I knew I’d done them harm. I feltlike I’d read through her secret diary and had ripped out a page withoutmeaning to. I laid those beans right back in the ground, as gently as sleepingbabies. Then I patted the soil as smooth as could be.
The next morning she was back. I peeked around the curtain. She didn’t look uphere or give any sign that she noticed something wrong. I could see her clearlythis time. She reached a hand into her schoolbag. Then she pulled out a jar,unscrewed the lid, and poured out water onto the ground.
That morning Ibought some binoculars.
“Get up here quick!” she says. I live on the ground floor and watch out for hera little. We’re the only white people left in the building. I ran up thestairs. I could tell it was serious. I prayed I wouldn’t find her dead. When Igot there, she looked perfectly fine. She dragged me over to the window. “Lookdown there!” she says. “They’re dying!”
”What?” I yelled back.
“The plants!” she says.
I was mad. She gave me some binoculars and told me all about the Chinese girl.I found the plants and got them in focus. There were four of them in a row,still little. They were wilted. Leaves flopped flat on the ground.
“What are they?” she asked.
“Some kind of beans.” I grew upon a little farm in Kentucky. “ But she planted ‘em was too early. She’s luckythose seeds even came up.”
“But they did,” said Ana. “Andit’s up to us to save them.”
It was a weekend in Mayand hot. You’d have thought that those beans were hers. They needed water,especially in that heat. She said the girl hadn’t come in four days-sick,probably, or gone out of town. Ana had twisted her ankle and couldn’t managethe stairs. She pointed to a pitcher. “Fill that up and soak them good. Quicknow.
School janitors take too muchbossing all week to listen to an extra helping on weekends. I stared at her onelong moment, then took my time about filling the pitcher.
I walked down the stairs andinto the lot and found the girl’s plants. You don’t plant beans till theweather’s hot. Then I was what had kept her seed from freezing. Therefrigerator in front of them had bounced the sunlight back on the soil,heating it up like an oven. I bent down and gave the dirt a feel. It was hardpacked and light colored. I studied the plants. Leaves shaped like spades in adeck of cards. Definitely beans. I scraped up a ring of dirt around the firstplant, to hold the water and any rain that fell. I picked up the pitcher andpoured the water slowly. Then I heard something move and spun around. The girlwas there, stone-still, ten feet away, holding her own water jar.
She hadn’t seen me behind therefrigerator. She looked afraid for her life. Maybe she thought I’d jump up andgrab her. I gave her a smile and showed her that I was just giving her plantssome water. This made her eyes go even bigger. I stood up slowly and backedaway. I smiled again. She watched me leave. We never spoke one word.
I walked back there that eveningand checked on the beans. They’d picked themselves up and were looking fine. Isaw that she’d made a circle of dirt around the other three plants. Out ofnowhere the words form the Bible came into my head:”And a little child shalllead them.” I didn’t know way at first. Then I did. There’s plenty about mylife I can’t change. Can’t bring the dead back to life on this earth. Can’tchange myself into a millionaire. But a patch of ground in this trashy lot-Ican change that. Can change it big. Better to put my time into that thanmoaning about the other all day. That little grammar-school girl showed methat.
The lot had buildings on threesides. I walked around and picked myself out a spot that wouldn’t be shaded toomuch. I dragged the garbage off to the side and tossed out the biggest piecesof broken glass. I looked over my plot, squatted down, and fingered the soilawhile.
That Monday I brought a shovelhome from work.
They don’t teach you that equation in school.Big Brain, Mr. Smoltz, my eighth grade math teacher, hasn’t even heard of it.It’s not in Gateway to Algebra. It’s Garcia’s Equation. I‘m the Garcia.
Two years after my father and I moved herefrom Guatemala I could speak English. I learned it on the playground andwatching lots of TV. Don’t believe what people say-cartoons make you smart. Butmy father, he worked all day in a kitchen with Mexicans and Salvadorans. HisEnglish was worse than a kindergartner’s. He would only buy food at the bodegadown the block. Outside of there he lowered his eyes and tried to get by onmumbles and smiles. He didn’t want strangers to hear his mistakes. So he usedme to make phone calls and to talk to the landlady and to buy things in storewhere you had to use English. He got younger. I got older.
He’d been a farmer, but here he couldn’t work.He couldn’t sit out in the plaza and talk-there aren’t any plaza here, and ifyou sit out in public some gang driving by might use you for target practice.He couldn’t understand TV. So he wandered around the apartment all day, in andout of rooms. Talking to himself, just liken a kid in diapers.
One morning he wandered outside and down thestreet. My mother practically fainted.
He doesn’t speak Spanish, just an Indianlanguage. I finally found him standing in front of the beauty parlor, staringthrough the glass at a woman with a drier over her head. He must have wonderedwhat weird planet he’d moved to. I led him home, holding his hand, the way youwould with a three-year-old. Since then I’m supposed to baby-sit him afterschool.
One afternoon I was watching TV, getting smarton The Brady bunch. Suddenly I looked up. He was gone. I checked the halls onall five floors of the apartment house. I ran to the street. He wasn’t in thebodega or the pawnshop. I called his name, imagining my mother’s face when shefound out he’d fallen through a manhole or been run over. I turned the corner,looking for the white straw hat he always wore. Two blocks down I spotted it. Iflew down the sidewalk and found him standing in front of a vacant lot, makinggestures to a man with a shovel.
I took his hand, but he pulled me through thetrash and into the lot. I recognized the man with the shovel-he was the janitorat my old school. He had a little garden planted. Different shades of greenleaves were coming up in rows. Tio Juan was smiling and trying to tell himsomething. The man couldn’t understand him and finally went back to digging. Iturned Tio Juan around and led him home.
That night he told my mother all about it. Shewas the only one who could understand him. When she got home from work the nextday she asked me to take him back there. I did. He studied the sun. Then thesoil. He felt it, then smelled I, then actually tasted it. He chose a spot nottoo far from the sidewalk. Where my mother changed busses she’d gone into astore and bought him a trowel and four packets of seeds. I cleared the trash,he turned the soil. I wished we were farther from the street and I was prayingthat none of my friends or girlfriends or enemies saw me. Tio Juan didn’t evennotice people-he was totally wrapped up in the work.
I was thinking about her one day, walking homefrom the grocery store on Gibb Street. Then I came to the vacant lot and sawthree people in different parts of it. I thought maybe they were looking fromoney. Turned out they had shovels, not metal detectors. When I saw they hadlittle gardens going, I said to myself, “I believe I’ll plant me a patch ofgoldenrod right here.”
There was a man standing and watching from thesidewalk and a girl looking down out a window. There were probably lots offolks who’d want to grow something, just like me. Then I studied all the trashon the ground. Don’t know why anyone called that lot “vacant.” The garbage waspiled high as your waist, some of it from the neighborhood and some dropped offby outside people. The ones who don’t want to pay at the dump, or got dangerouschemicals, or think we’re such slobs down here we won’t mind another load ofjunk. We can’t get City Hall to pick up our trash, but we got it delivered justfine. The smell’s enough to curl up a crocodile’s nose, especially in thesummer. The gardeners had made some trails through it. But I knew precious fewwould join ‘em until that mess was hauled away. Looking at it, I knew thiswasn’t a job for no wheelbarrow. This was a job for the telephone.
I marched on home. I’ve got two kids in a highschool that has more guns than books, so I know all about complaining toofficials and such about things that need changing. Next morning was Monday. Atnine o’clock I drank me a tall glass of water. I knew I’d be having to say thesame thing to fifteen or twenty government folks. I put Miles on the CD playersand stretched out on the bed. Might as well be comfortable when you’re on hold.Then I opened the phone book and started in dialing.
You ever watch a sax player close? They pushdown a key and way at the other end of the instrument something moves. That’swhat I was looking for-the key that would make that trash disappear. I triedthe City of Cleveland, then Cuyahoga County, then the State of Ohio, andfinally the U.S. government. Six and a half hours later I found out the lot wasowned by the city. But the people running Cleveland don’t usually come downhere, unless they take a wrong turn on the freeway. You can’t measure thedistance between my block and City Hall in miles.
Just the same, I kept working on it the nextday. That Citizen’s Information center told me to call the Public HealthDepartment. They sent me to someone else. They’re all trained to be slippery assnakes. And to be out to lunch, to not return messages, and to keep folks onhold till they get gray and die. I had the feeling I was getting farther fromthe key I needed instead of closer. Then on the third day, I thought on it.When people talk to you on the phone, you’re nothing but a voice. And whenyou’re on hold you’re not even that. I had to make myself real to ‘me.
That morning I took a bus downtown and walkedinto the Public Health Department. Told about the trash all over again to thisdolled-up receptionist. Let her see me up close and personal and hear me loudand clear. She just told me to sit down with the others waiting. I did. Then Iopened the garbage bag I’d picked up in the lot on my way.
It means “walked park”. I told the woman that.This time she gave me a little smile. I smiled back. That’s my occupation.
You’ve seen fishermen mending the rips intheir nets. That’s what I do, only with people. I used to try to patch up thewhole world. For thirty –six years I worked for different groups, promotingworld government, setting up conferences on pacifism, raising money, stuffingenvelopes. Not that I’ve given up the fight. I‘ve just switched battlefields,from the entire planet to this corner of Cleveland. Sometimes I think I’veactually had more effect on the world since I retired. What do I do? I smile atpeople, especially black people and the ones from different countries. I get ‘emlooking up at me instead of down or off to the side. I start up conversationsinlines and on the bus and with cashiers. People see I’m friendly, no matterwhat they’ve heard about whites or Jews. If I’m lucky, I get’em talking to eachother. Sewing up the rips in the neighborhood.
I hadn’t had a garden since I was a kid.I wanted one now, only this time I was seventy-eight to be exact, and in nocondition to dig up the soil. So I hired a teenager, Puerto Rican, who said heknew where he could get a shovel. He knew he’d have to do a good job to bepaid. He worked that soil until it flowered through your fingers like silk. Ipaid him well and offered him a row. He wanted to grow marijuana, to sell. Areal businessman. We discussed this. We finally compromised on pumpkins, afterI explained how much he could probably get for them a Halloween, not to mentionthe advantages of staying out of jail. He was new to the neighborhood. Wechatted back and forth. Squatting there in the cool of the evening, planting ourseeds, a few other people working, a robin singing out strong all the while, itseemed to me that we were in truth in Paradise, a small Garden of Eden.
Water aside, we had other problems. People inthe garden told friends and relatives. The lot was big, there was plenty ofroom. But newcomers joined, at least at the beginning, they could usually get aspot near people they knew. One Saturday, when the garden was fullest, I stoodup a minute to straighten my back. And what did I see? With a few expectations,the blacks on one side, the whites on another, the Central Americans and Asianstoward the back. The garden was a copy of the neighborhood. I guess I shouldn’thave been surprised. A duck gives birth to a duckling, not a moose. Each groupkept to itself, spoke, its own language, and grew its own special crops. Oneman even put up a pole and flew the Philippine flag above his plot.
Then there was the garbage. A few wellbrought-up people in the buildings around the lot still used it for a trashcan. Just couldn’t get out of the habit. They emptied their ashtrays out thewindows and tossed out all sorts of stuff. One day a bottle came down, like ameteor. A man picked it up and threw it back, straight through the window itcame out of. A minute later, five more flew out. Next, I thought to myself,come gunshots. Instead, thank God, it was only shouting.
That crazy homeless man, the one who used tosleep on the broken-down-couch-he also missed the lot being a dump. He showedup, saw his couch had been taken, and started ripping out people’s plants. Thepolice had to come. Some people started worrying, looking ahead to ripe beansand tomatoes and thinking about strangers coming in. That week, a man putchicken wire around his garden, five feet high, complete with a little gate andpadlock. The week after that someone built a board fence. Then came the firstKEEP OUT sign. Then, the crowning achievement -barbed wire.
God, who made Eden, also wrecked the Tower ofBabel, by dividing people. From Paradise, the garden was turning back intoCleveland.
My father drove a bus back in Haiti. Here he drives a taxi. That night he drovehimself way across town to borrow two shovels from a friend of his. The nextmorning was the first day without school. I was done with fifth grade forever.I’d planned on sleeping till noon to celebrate. But when it was still half darkmy father shook my shoulder. School was over, but that garden was juststarting.
We walked down and picked out a place to dig up. The ground was packed so hard,the tip of my shovel bounced off it like a pogo stick. We tried three spotstill we found one we liked. Then we walked back and forth, picking out brokenglass, like chickens pecking seeds. After that we turned the soil. We werealways digging up more trash-bolts and screws and pieces of brick. That’s how Ifound the locket. It was shaped like a heart and covered with rust, with abroken chain. I got it open. Inside was this tiny photo of a girl. She waswhite, with a sad-looking face. She had on this hat with flowers on it. I don’tknow why I kept it instead of tossing it on our trash pile.
It seemed like hours and hours before we had the ground finished. We rested awhile. Then my father asked it I was ready. I thought he meant ready to plantour seeds. But instead, we turned another square of ground. Then another afterthat. Then three more after that. My father hadn’t been smiling to himselfabout some little garden. He was thinking of a farm, to make money. I’d seen apackage of seeds for pole beans ad hoped that’s what we’d grow. They get sotall that the man in the picture was picking ‘em way at the top of a ladder.But my father said no. He was always asking people in his cab about now to getrich. One of ‘em told him that fancy restaurants paid lots of money for thisbaby lettuce, smaller than the regular kind, to use in rich folks’ salads. Thefresher it was, the higher the price. My father planned to pick it and thenrace it right over in his cab. Running red lights if he had to.
Lettuce seeds are smaller than sand. I feltembarrassed, planting so much ground. No one else’s garden was a quarter thesize of ours. Suddenly I saw Miss Fleck. I hardly recognized her in jeans. Shewas the strictest teacher in Ohio. I’d had her for third grade. She pronouncedevery letter in every word, and expected you to talk the same way. She was talland even blacker than my father. No slouching in your seat in her class or anykind of rudeness. The other teachers seemed afraid of her too. She walked overjust when we finished planting.
“Well, Virgil,” she said. “You seem to haveclaimed quite a large plantation here.”
That’s just what I was afraid of hearing. I looked away form her, down at oursticks. We’d put ‘em in the ground and run string around ’em, cutting our landup into six pieces. I didn’t know why, till my father stepped forward.
“Actually, madam, only this very first areahere is ours,“ he said. He had on his biggest smile. He must have rememberedher. “The others we have planted at the request of relatives who have no toolsor who live too far.”
“ Really, now,” said Miss Fleck.
“Yes, madam,’ said my father. He pointed at the closest squares of land. “Mybrother Antoine. My Auntie, Anne-Marie.”
My eyes opened wide. They both live in Haiti. I stared at my father, but hejust kept smiling. His finger pointed farther to the left. “My Uncle Philippe.”He lived in New York. “My wife’s father.” He died last year. “And her sister.”My mother didn’t have any sisters. I looked at my father’s smiling face. I’dnever watched an adult lie before.
“And what did your extended family of gardeners ask you to plant?” said MissFleck.
“ Lettuce,” said my father. “All lettuce.”
“What a coincidence,” she said back. She juststood, then walked over to her own garden. I’m pretty sure she didn’t believehim. But what principal could she send him to?
That lettuce was like having a new baby in the family. And I was like itsmother. I watered it in the morning if my father was still out driving. It wassupposed to come up in seven days, but it didn’t. My father couldn’t figure outwhy. Neither of us knew anything about plants. This wrinkled old man in a strawhat tried to show me something when I poured out the water. He spoke somelanguage, but it sure wasn’t English. I didn’t get what he was babbling about,till the lettuce finally came up in wavy lines and bunches instead of straightrows. I’d washed the seeds out of their place.
The minute it came up, it started to wilt. I was like a baby always crying forits’ milk. I got sick of hauling bottles of water in our shopping cart, like Iwas some old lady. Then the heat came. The leaves shriveled up. Some turnedyellow. That lettuce was dying.
My father practically cried, looking at it. He’d stop by in his cab when hecould, with tow five0gallon water container riding in the back instead ofpassengers. Then bugs started eating big holes in the plants. I couldn’t seeanyone buying them from us. My father had promised we’d make enough money to byme an eighteen speed bike. I was counting on it. I’d already told my friends.My father asked all his passengers what to do. His cab was like a library forhim. Finally, one of ’em told him that spring or fall was the time to growlettuce, that the summer was too hot for it. My father wasn’t smiling when hetold us.
I couldn’t believe it. I stomped outside. I could feel that eighteen-speedslipping away. I was used to seeing kids lying and making mistakes, but notgrown-ups. I was mad at my father. Then I sort of felt sorry for him.
That night I pulled out the locket. I openedit up and looked at the picture. We’d studied Greek myths in school that year.I out book, the goddess of crops and the earth had a sad month and flowersaround her, just like the girl in the locket. I scraped off the rust with ourdish scrubber and shined up that locket as bright as I could get it. Then Iopened it up, just a crack. Then I whispered, “Save out lettuce,“ to the girl.
When I wake up, I no more like to be with people, like before. Afraid ofeveryone, all the time. I don’t leave apartment for two months. Neighbor buysfood for me at store. I don’t open door if someone knocks, even friends-onlyfor food. Afraid to walk on sidewalk with people. I hire Korean man to run drycleaning shop. I ever go in. That happen two years ago. Very slowly, I getbetter. I go to store and by my food, but very fast. Then not so fast. Verylonely, but still afraid. Then I pass by garden.
Vietnamese girl was working there, picking beautiful lima beans. A man and awoman on other side, talking over row of corn. Hear man say his wife give himhoe for birthday. I want to be with people again. Next day I go back and digsmall garden. Nobody talk to me that day. But just be near people, nice people,feel good, like next to fire in winter.
Very hot and humid in July. Most people come early in evening, after work, whenair is cool. People watering and pulling weeds. Even if don’t talk to anyone,sound of people working almost like conversation, all around. People visitfriends. I listen to voices. Feel very safe. Then man walk over and ask aboutpeppers. I grow hot peppers, like in Korea. First time that someone talk to me.I was so glad, have trouble talking.
That man named Sam. He’s American man and talk to everyone. Very smart. Whenpeople all the time complain about carrying water, he start contest. He saidhow adults couldn’t solve problem, let children try. He say he give twentydollars to child under twelve who has best idea. He write this on paper andnail paper to post close to sidewalk.
Next day, thunderstorm. Cans almost full. Little girl there, very proud.Someone bring three old pots to scoop water out of cans. Hard to pour intonarrow containers. I quick go to store. Buy three funnels to make much easierfilling containers. I put one by each garbage can. That day I see man use myfunnel. Then woman. Then many people. Feel very glad inside. Feel part ofgarden. Almost like family.
You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.All that was five years ago. I’ve caught up with her now. Done fooling around.She was looking for a husband, and now I’m looking for a wife.
I moved back form Cincinnati in May and raninto her brother the first day. Said she’s still single. Same third-floorapartment. But when I came up to her on the street, she turned her back.Wouldn’t let me explain. Twice it happened. No chance for words. So I decidedto give her some deeds instead.
She lives straight across the streetfrom the garden. I staked out a spot right by the sidewalk, whereshe could look down and see it. Then I came home with six little tomatoplants in plastic containers. She had a serious thing for tomatoes. She’d put amonster slice on a piece of bread and call it a sandwich. She’d even bite into‘em, just like apple. Always talking about eating ‘em out of her aunt’s gardenwhen she was a kid and how she wanted to grow ‘em someday. She probably thoughtI forgot all that. I planted ’em right there in front of her eyes, to show herI hadn’t, that I was waiting for her.
I got the biggest - beefsteak tomatoes. Icould see ‘em in my mind, bright as traffic lights, flashing at her across thestreet. I’d never grown anything before. I got into it. Every day somethingnew. The first flower bud. Then those first yellow flowers. Then the tomatoesgrowing right behind ‘em. This old man with no teeth and a straw hat showed inhow to tie the plants up to stakes. Then someone else told me all theirdiseases. That got me worrying. What if all my plants started wilting? Orcaught blight and died? That wasn’t any message I’d want her to see.
I started coming straight from work to check‘em. I noticed every hole in every leaf. I picked off bugs, pulled out weeds,and I gave ‘em lots of that fertilizer called Tomato Food, like somebody toldme. From little green marbles, those tomatoes started growing. Then theystarted getting orange. Then they went to red. I kept looking up at Lateesha’swindow, wanting her to see it too. The only faces looking back were the drunksthat hang out under her place. That liquor store’s all boarded up, but theystill suck on their bottles there anyway. They liked to call me “field slave”and “share-cropper.” Ask how Massa’s crops is doing. I could have banged theirheads together and shut ‘em up, but I didn’t. That was part of the point of thetomatoes. I was showing Lateesha hat just cause I got muscles don’t mean I’msome jungle beast. I stopped working out and stopped going out with no shirt,no matter how hot it was. When some chicks would be walking by and see me thereand say “Looking fine,” I knew they meant me but I’d point to my biggest tomatoand say back “Sure is.” My homies all laughed to see me out there. Stoppedcalling me Ceps. Started in calling me Tomato. I just smiled.
Those tomatoes got big as billiard balls. Oneday when I checked ‘em, my biggest one, the one I’d been watching closest, wasgone. The next day, another one gone. It wasn’t insects that took ‘em. I wasmad. They weren’t even all the way ripe yet. My plants were fight there by thesidewalk. I put chicken wire around ‘em, and even on top, but people couldstill reach in if they tried. I couldn’t guard ‘em day and night. Then Royceshowed up, just in time.
I found him a place closer to my tomatoes buthidden by somebody’s corn, so the cops wouldn’t see him sacked out. I boughthim a brand new sleeping bag. I gave him money for food that week. Then Ipicked up a pitchfork for three dollars at a junk shop. His part of the dealwas that if he saw or heard anyone mess with my tomatoes, he’d come at ‘em fullspeed, holding the pitchfork.
That was my best shot protecting ‘em at night.For daytime, when Royce was gone, I painted a sign that said “Lateesha’sTomates.” It was big. I put it right there in front of the plants, facing thesidewalk. If people know something belongs to a person instead of the city orthe U.S government they’re more likely to leave it be.
When I’d pounded it in, I filled up my watercan. Walking back, I looked up at her window. As still as a cat, behind thatlace curtain, there was her face, staring down at the sign.
It was a midsummer morning and Iwas pushing his wheelchair up Gibb Street, A new route for us. The view, I‘lladmit, is less than uplifting. Half the storefronts seem to be empty. Mr. Mylesmust remember a very different scene. His landlady says he’s lived here manyyears. As he lost his speech with his second stroke, he can’t tell me himself.He’s a mystery. Lately his interest in the world had declined. I’d stop beforea store window to let him see himself- he has the dignified head of an Africanchief- only to find that he’d fallen asleep. I realized that his time might benear. And then, that morning, rolling along the sidewalk, suddenly his arm cameup.
He wanted to stop. I obliged himat once. To our left was a lot in which a few bold pioneers had planted garden.We remained several minutes, watching two Asian women hoeing then continued on.Immediately, back up went his arm. I came around and looked at him. He twistedand pointed toward the garden. I turned the wheelchair and headed back. I couldsee his nostrils taking in the smell of the soil. We reached the lot. His armcommanded me to enter. Over the narrow, bumpy path we went, his nose and eyesworking. Some remembered scent was pulling him. He was a salmon travelingupstream through his past. That first day we simply watched the others. Wemight have been strolling through a miniature city. Some plots sported brickpathways and flower borders, while others looked haphazard. One had a gate thatwas in fact a car door. Within bean climbed a propped-up set of bedsprings. Ahummingbird feeder, a barbecue grill, a gardening hat hanging from a nail-there were such domestic touches. I was entranced. I determined that Mr. Mylesshould do more than simply which, wheelchair or no.
I worked on the problem in myhead. Two days later, driving to his apartment, I stopped at the garden andunloaded a large plastic trash barrel and a shovel. I wheeled him up an hourlater, used my pocketknife to cut holes in the bottom of the barrel fordrainage, and built up a fine sweat shoveling in dirt. I’d brought with me adozen seed packets. Mr. Myles chose the flowers decisively, ignoring thevegetables. Was he recalling his mother’s flower garden? His history wasunknowable. I pushed him as close to the barrel as I could. Thirty minuteslater he’d planted hollyhocks, poppies, and snapdragons. Riding home afterward,he smelled the dirt on his fingers with satisfaction.
That small circle of earthbecame a second home to both of us. Gardening boring? Never! It has suspense,tragedy, startling developments- a soap opera growing out of the ground. I’dforgotten that tremolo of expectation produced by a tiny forest of sprouts.What a marvelous sight it was to behold Mr. Myles’ furrowed black faceinspecting his smooth-skinned young, just arrived in the world he’d shortlyleave. His eyes gained back some of their life. He weeded and watered withgreat concentration. A fact bobbed up from my memory, that the ancientEgyptians prescribed walking through a garden as a cure for the mad. It was amind-altering drug we took daily.
We were rather alone there, offto one side. Our most common visitors were the cats. They were attracted by thearoma of fish, the work of a child who’d copied the Pilgrims of old and buriedsardines with her seeds. Then our solitary status ended, as a result of adownpour. When the rain came that day, the other gardeners all ran in the samedirection, as if in a fire drill. We followed and found them sheltered beneatha shoe store’s overhang two doors down, apparently their customary refuge. Thesmall dry space forced us together. I fifteen minutes we’d met them all andsoon knew the whole band of regulars.
Most were old. Many grew plantsfrom their native lands- huge Chinese melons, ginger, cilantro, a green theJamaican call calaloo, and many more. Pantomime was often required to get overlanguage barriers. Yet we were all subject to the same weather and pests, thesame neighborhood, and the same parental emotions toward our plants. If wehappened to miss two or three days, people stopped by on our return to askabout Mr. Myles’ health. We, like our seeds, were now planted in the garden.
I told all this to out-of –townguests, then took them up Terminal Tower. We got off at the observation deck onthe forty-second floor to find that the garden, which loomed so large to itstenders, was hopelessly hidden from view by buildings. I looked at all thetourists, who’d no notion it existed, who thought they were seeing all ofCleveland, and restrained myself form point and shouting out, ” The Gibb Streetgarden is there!”
I wouldn’t actually care if youdid. In a way I’m already dead. I used to be really, really hot. Because of thebaby I’m as fat as a wrestler. I dropped out, I’ve been to exactly zeroparties, and I’ve been asked out exactly zero times, including by the scum whogot me pregnant. My parents were mad. They wanted me to graduate. But abortionor adoption- forget it. Then they got sort of excited about it. They both lovelittle babies. Not me. They started praying for it every night, while I wasbegging my body to miscarry.
It was already the middle ofsummer, so she had us plant radishes since they grow fast. All three of us hateradishes. As soon as the little green leaves came up a gopher or somethingwiped ‘em out. So much for the miracle of life. I didn’t tell Penny I washoping the same thing happened to my baby. She’s so cheerful I never could.She’s not puking or getting as bug as a blimp – no wonder she’s always smiling.
After the radishes came squash, then Swiss chard, which nobody knew how to eat.I was in my seventh month. I hated the bending. We all complained, but Pennyjust smiled. The rest of us called working there the Chain Gang. I hated thefeel of dirt under my nails. One afternoon Yolanda broke two of her fancy,painted, expensive nails and cursed out loud for then minutes. Penny couldn’tshut her up. Then another woman came over and gave us this long lecture aboutthe word “decorum.” I couldn’t believe my eyes –it was my old third-grade teacher,Miss Fleck. I prayed she wouldn’t recognize me, but naturally she did, andasked all the usual questions. I should have had the answers printed up on acard to hand out. The next week, when some man threw a can out his window,which landed about a foot from my head, Miss Fleck figured out what apartmenthe was in, walked up, and yelled at him like he was a kid. She treated thewhole world like her classroom.
Different people came to our part of the garden for different reasons. ThisPuerto Rican kid had these pumpkin plants that kept getting into ours. Whichgave him an excuse to walk right past me and talk to Dolores, who was fifteenand pretty and still didn’t look pregnant. I couldn’t wait for her to get huge.Sometimes this black guy ran through our garden. He couldn’t take time to goaround. He grew lettuce, or tried to. Most of it was dead. He’d drive up in acab, slam on the brakes like the Pope just stepped in front of him, run throughour squash, cut a bunch of lettuce, and run back with it in a bucket of water.Then he’d peel out, leaving lots of rubber. Then there were the people who cameby give us different things. Vegetables that they’d grown and thought we shouldeat, which we always gave away later. Advice on growing our stupid Swiss chard.Advice on giving birth and raising kids, which I turned out as soon as theystarted.
One day in August it was just me and Penny. This black woman, Leona, who had agarden and talked to us, came over and gave me some flowers she’d grown. Theywere yellow. She called ‘em goldenrod and she said if I made ‘em into tea itwould help me with the delivery. She knew I didn’t want to be pregnant. I couldtalk to her about it. That day it was almost too humid to talk. The windowsaround the garden were open and you could hear ten different TV’s and radios. Astorm was coming. The thunder was getting closer. And then it hit – bam! Thenall the TV’s and radios went off. So did the lights. It was a power failure.
When I saw the garden for the first time, so green among the dark brickbuildings, I thought back to my parents’ Persian rug. It showed climbing vines,rivers and waterfalls, grapes, flower beds, singing birds, everything a desertdweller might dream of. Those rugs were indeed portable gardens. In the summersin Delhi, so very hot, my sisters and I would lie upon it and try to pressourselves into its world. The garden’s green was as soothing to the eye as thedeep blue of that rug. I’m aware of color-I manage a fabric store. But thegarden’s greatest benefit, I feel, was not relief to the eyes, but to make theeyes see our neighbors.
I grew eggplants onions, carrots, and cauliflower. When the eggplants appearedin August they were pale purple, a strange and eerie shade. When my wife wouldbring out little son, he was forever wanting to pick them. There was nothingelse in the garden with that color. Very many people came over to ask about themand talk to me. I recognized a few form the neighborhood. Not one had spoken tome before – and now how friendly they turned out to be. The eggplants gave theman excuse for breaking the rules and starting a conversation . How happy theyseemed to have found this excuse, to let their natural friendliness out.
Those conversations tied ustogether. In the middle of summer someone dumped a load of tires on the gardenat night, as if it were still filled with trash. A man’s four rows of youngcorn were crushed. In an hour, we had all the tires by the curb. We were usedto helping each other by then. A few weeks later, early in the evening a womanscreamed, down the block from the garden. A man with a knife had taken herpurse. Three men from the garden ran after him. I was surprised that I was oneof them. Even more surprising, we caught him. Even more surprising, we caughthim. Royce held until the police arrived. I asked the others. Not one of us hadever chased a criminal before. And most likely we wouldn’t have except near thegarden. There, you felt part of a community.
I came to the United States in1980. Cleveland is a city of immigrants. The Poles are especially well knownhere. I’d always heard that the Polish men were tough steelworkers and that thewomen cooked lots of cabbage. But I’d never known one – until the garden. Shewas an old woman whose space bordered mine. She had a seven-block walk to thegarden, the same route I took. We spoke quite often. We both planted carrots.When her hundreds of seedlings came up in a row, I was very surprised that shedid not thin them – pulling out all but one healthy-looking plant each fewinches, to give them room to grow. I asked her. She looked down at them andsaid she knew she ought to do it, but that this task reminded her too closelyof her concentration camp, where the prisoners were inspected each morning anddivided into two lines- the healthy to live and the others to die. Her father,an orchestra violinist, had spoken out against the Germans, which had causedher family’s arrest. When I heard her words, in realized how useless was allthat I’d heard about Poles, how much richness it hid, liken the worthless shellaround an almond. I still do not know, or care, whether she cooks cabbage.
The garden found this out with Royce. He was young and black. He looked ratherdangerous. People watched him and seemed to be relieved when he left thegarden. Then he began spending more time there. We found out that he had astutter. Then that he had two sisters, that he liked the cats that roamedthrough the garden, and that he worked very well with his hands. Soon all themothers were trying to feed him. How very strange it was to watch people whowould have crossed the street if they’d seen him coming a few weeks before, nowgiving him vegetables, more than he could eat. In return, he watered for peoplewho were sick and fixed fences and made other repairs. He might weed yourgarden or use the bricks from the building that was torn down up the block tomake you a brick path between your rows. He always pretended he hadn’t done it.It was always a surprise. One felt honored to be chosen. He was trusted andliked – and famous, after his exploit with the pitchfork. He was not a blackteenage boy. He was Royce.
In September he and a Mexicanman collected many bricks firm up the street and built a big barbecue. I was inthe garden on Saturday when the Mexican family drove up in a truck with a deadpig in the back. They built a fire, put a heavy metal spit through the pig, andbegan to roast it. A bit later their friends began arriving. One brought aguitar, another played violin. They filled a folding table with food. Perhapsit was one of their birthdays, or perhaps no reason was needed for the party.It was beautiful weather, sunny but not hot. Fall was just beginning and thegarden was changing form green to brown. Those of us who had come to work feltthe party’s spirit enter us. The smell of the roasting pig drifted out andcalled to everyone, gardeners or not.
Soon the entire garden wasfilled.
It was a harvest festival, likethose in India, though no one had planned it to be. People brought food anddrinks and drums. I went home to get my wife and son. Watermelons from thegarden were sliced open. The gardeners proudly showed off what they’d grown. Wetraded harvests, as we often did. And we gave food away, as we often did also –even I, a businessman, trained to give away nothing, to always make a profit.The garden provided many excuses for breaking that particular rule.
Many people spoke to me thatday. Several asked where I was from. I wondered if they knew as little aboutIndians as I had known about Poles. One old woman, Italian I believe, saidshe’d admired my eggplants for weeks and told me how happy she was to meet me.She praised them and told me how to cook them and asked all about my family.But something bothered me. Then I remembered. A year before she’d claimed thatshe’d received the wrong change in my store. I was called out to the register.She’d gotten quite angry and called me – despite her own accent- a dirtyforeigner. Now that we were so friendly with each other I dared to remind herof this. Her eyes became huge. She apologized to me over and over again. Shekept saying, “Back then, I didn’t know it was you….”
I think of them when I see anyof the people who started the garden on Gibb Street. They’re seedfolks too. I’mtalking about that first year, before there were spigots and hoses, and thetoolshed, and new soil. And before the landlords started charging more forapartments that look on the garden.
I would have been in on thegarden for sure if it weren’t for this arthritis in my hands. Growing up out inthe country, I still miss country things. My husband’s from here. He doesn’tknow about the smell of a hayfield and eating beans off the vine instead offrom the store. I had to settle for being a watcher. I wasn’t the only one. I’dsee others on the fire escapes, or standing on the sidewalk like me. One day Ilooked up and saw a head in a window moving forward and back. It was a manwho’d pulled up his rocking chair. He was watching the gardeners like TV.
My grandmother‘s sampler, fromwhen she was a girl, said “ Be Not Solitary, Be Not Idle.” That was easy allthose years in the library. Being retired, it’s harder. So I try to take a walkevery day, which is how I found the garden to begin with. I’d always stopthere, to see what was new. I was just a watcher, but I was proud of thegarden, as if it were mine. Proud and protective. I remember how mad I got whenI was a man reach through someone’s fence by the sidewalk and try to grab atomato. I said ” How dare you !” He pulled back his hand and said he’d heard itwas a community garden.
It’s sad erery fall, seeing itturn brown. Fewer and fewer people there. That very first year was the hardest.It had been such a wonderful change to see people making something forthemselves instead of waiting for a welfare check. To see a part of theneighborhood better every day, and to smell those good smells of growingplants. The green drained away. Then the frost hit. You’d pass and hear thosedry cornstalks shaking in the wind as if they were shivering. The pumpkins wereabout the only color left, and then the boy sold them all. Some people cut uptheir old plants with clippers and dug them back into the soil. A few coveredtheir ground with leaves. But once that job was done, it was done. By Novemberthe cats were the only ones there.
You can’t see Canada across LakeErie, but you know it’s there. It’s the same with spring. You have to havefaith, especially in Cleveland. Snow in April always breaks your heart. I thinkwe had two April snows that year. Waiting for the snow to melt was like waitingfor a glacier to move. Finally, it was gone for good. The ground was back, andlast year’s leave, like a bookmark showing where you’d left off. It was a joyto get out again. Just to walk without wearing a heavy coat and boots felt likeflying. But the garden was still empty. I was still too early to plant. I beginto wonder if anyone would come. Maybe no one was interested. Or maybe the cityhad shut it down, or sold the lot. I was worried. Then one day I passed it –and someone was digging.
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It was a little Oriental girl,with a trowel and a plastic bag of lima beans. I didn’t recognize her. Itdidn’t matter. I felt as happy inside as if I’d just seen the first swallow ofspring. Then I looked up. There was the man in the rocker.
We waved and waved to eachother.