Her hands were the color of the earth around them, ungloved like roots.
“We try too hard,” she had mumbled when I noted the bare skin. “Put too much work into keeping separate from anything alive.”
It was the longest sentence I’d ever heard in that dry-leaf voice. She was an orator of actions, and she had small interest in philosophies she couldn’t touch. In the month since I met the gardener, I learned that she had no love of talk, no interest in convenience, and no respect for weakness. A tree-hugging Spartan. If I had to be here, though, then I might sift through the antiquated, humorless delivery to salvage something like wisdom.
Presently, she scooped out a rock and threw it aside to split into chalky reddish layers. I recognized the shiny black shape she tossed out after it, swore when it landed by my shoe. My feet touched the ground again a few feet nearby.
“The hell are you doing?” I demanded.
“The hell are you afraid of?” she answered without looking up. My eyes narrowed with the suspicion that she was smiling. Outraged, the spider scrabbled a moment before regaining its dignity and creeping away in search of shade. I adjusted my assessment of the gardener’s wisdom, and not for the better. She held out a soiled palm expectantly. My complaints tumbled uselessly in the humid air as I handed her a clump of grass.
“We could just sod the whole space,” I said. I got no response.
She grunted, twisted around with the green bundle dangling in her grip.
“Break up the roots.” She kneaded her fingers through the tangled white strings until they hung freely before setting it in the hollow she’d dug.
I thought about the dispossessed black widow when I picked up rocks from around the plantings, checking below the larger ones as I collected them. The rocks dropped into the wheelbarrow with a sound like…rocks. The gardener told me before that simple things are better left alone, and rocks make simple sounds.
The gardener levered herself up and reached for the pickax. She pressed the tool on me and pointed to the next area of compacted ground and patches of concrete. The sun arced overhead. When I clambered into my rusting Jeep to rattle back home, the gardener was still there, hands submerged in broken dirt and sandstone.
The next day, I stepped into the empty block and looked around. There was the gardener, off to an early start as she always was. Beds of mixed grasses continued their march into the dead ground. Low, young bushes dotted the green incursion. There was an unintentional artistry in the irregularity of the gardener’s landscape, one that she genuinely tried to avoid. It seemed to me that she took satisfaction in it, though, no matter how she denied it.
The day passed like those before, leaving my neck burned redder and my hands rubbed rawer. People stopped sometimes to talk to the gardener, making me wonder if she was secretly able to carry a conversation. Occasionally they even lent a hand, but in the end she would shoo them away and tell them to find their own jobs.
I waved to Ben, the retired chef who never left without planting something.
“Oh, I like seeing you work!” he said in his smoker’s voice. A new patch of prairie grass tufted beside the scuffed Oxfords he wore.
I gave him a smile. “Anyone who isn’t you, right?”
Ben laughed, continued down the street. The gardener always seemed more reticent than usual after I talked to Ben or any of the other folks who dropped by. I figured the socializing was a drain on her.
A smear of cirrus clouds above the sun gave the impression of an egg cracked in the sky, dripping toward the horizon. We hauled the days collection of rocks and crumbling concrete to the corner of the lot for the city to pick up. The gardener glanced at her watch.
She signed my papers, handed them back. I glanced at the page.
“What happens when it’s all done?” I asked.
“City picks the next block.” She held out my pen. “Next week, first block’s ready to grow some trees.”
* * *
I rubbed the back of my neck, noticing the scratch of callus on the skin. Everything was drying out as the hot days rolled on, but the rehabilitated lots were intended to thrive without our intervention. It meant something, laboring all these hours. The three month sentence had stolen my summer away, but sweat and poor conversation was better than a cell block. God bless the system that trusted me to reform, the college kid from a good family who’d never been caught before. The gardener’s project would soon be behind me. Strange—these days I almost enjoyed it.
When my last community service hour was marked away, the gardener treated it like any other day. To my own surprise, I told her I’d volunteer a few weekends at the land rehabilitation project again. And I did.
My academic suspension ended in cooler air. I prepared to return to school for my final year. And I readied my words for the gardener who had taught me in spite of myself. The day came, and I set aside my shovel for the last time. I crouched and ran my hands, ungloved, through the clay-clogged soil, feeling the satisfaction of a day’s labor and dirt under the fingernails. I approached the gardener.
“This project... it started as something I was forced to do. It was a box to check before I went back to what I want, you know? But somewhere along the way, I learned—”
“Stop.” The rebuttal shocked me into silence. The gardener met my eyes, her expression bizarrely angry. “Don’t want to hear about your reform.”
I was at a loss.
“Look, it’s not just that. You taught me about hard work. You taught me about, um, community. And I just want to say thank you for that.”
“It’s not about you.” The gardener turned her back on me, went back to breaking up an old shed foundation. Stunned, I strove without success to move from surprise to outrage. I stood in a cold stupor while the chink, clank of the pickax jarred against my ears. Between swings, a sluggish breeze stirred the scarf around her graying hair.
The gardener realized I hadn’t moved and snorted mirthlessly.
“I used to talk more,” she continued. “Went to school for business, had a second major in biology.” She shook her head, turning to face me and leaning on the ax handle. “I traveled around, started working in conservation, researched dying neighborhoods like this one. An’ I figured out what keeps us from getting anywhere.”
She hefted the pickax and leveled it at me. “We do,” she said. “I went abroad and came back with experiences. I participated in conservation campaigns, and I fretted over the crises like everyone else. I studied poor and disappearing neighborhoods, listened t’ the people who ‘got out’ as if they succeeded. I felt good about trying to make a difference and I thought I was getting somewhere because what mattered was my damn story.” She tossed the pickax aside and turned to gesture to the green lot, or maybe to the world. “None of this is meant to teach us. Hell, it’s meant to erase us.”
I took a step back, wishing I had something to say.
“I love the people in this neighborhood, kid,” said the gardener after a long minute filled with wind. Exhaustion shaded her. “Just want to make things better around me.” With that, she gathered up her tools and walked home.
* * *
I never forgot the gardener. Years later, on a visit to the city, I drove back through the neighborhood to see the land rehabilitation project. A few of the blocks made up a thriving wildlife corridor, marked by a higher quantity of roadkill nearby. I approached the site of my first project lot, found it rezoned and sold as commercial property. Not thirsty but wanting a drink, I walked through smooth electric doors into the Dollar General there.
Fluorescent shelves hummed with borrowed light. I shifted a Coke from the cooler to the counter.
“That’s two forty-three,” said the cashier in bland Midwest tones. She didn’t wear a nametag.
The machine beeped tactlessly at me until I gave up on paying with my card. I fished out a wrinkled Lincoln under the worker’s indifferent stare.
When I emerged again, I paused to look at the sandy ground between the parking lot and the next building. I took a sip of soda and smiled at the memory of earth in my hands.