The old man was never good with names. Or kids.
He is excellent at flowers. That’s why the bus stops in front of his garden. The neighborhood thinks it makes them more distinguished and tempts the children away from their electronics. Gives them “a real sense of nature” as if nature could be learned in the eight to fifteen minutes waiting for the yellow behemoth. As if gardening was as simple as “stick it in the ground, add water.” They don’t appreciate the art, the precision of sun and shade, the correct soil, the right neighbors, perfect pruning. And even then, no control. The frost may come, the rain may not. It is a strange thing, growing things, so much precise care and yet so humbling. A reminder that man was called to rule the world but he would never be its Maker.
He always looks up when the children come.
Rose, straight-backed, comes ten minutes early. Her shirt is repeated, worn, but clean and her voice is sharp. She tells him “Good morning” and stares enviously at his lilies.
Clematis never walks by herself. She’s always touching, backpacks, hair, bumping shoulders.
There are other children: Clover, Mint, Hollyhock the basketball player.
He’s heard their real names before, but they always slip from his mind. They haven’t bothered to learn his name, so he doesn’t feel guilty about it. They call him, “Mister,” “Old Man”, “Sir.” But they don’t talk to him that much.
There’s one he remembers, Aiden, probably because he’s heard it screamed so often. He’s almost always late, unzipped jacket flapping, pencils and papers spilling, laces untied.
Aiden likes the clump of dandelions outside the fence, loves blowing the seeds and watching them float off. For that, the old man lets that clump be, although he decisively executes any that come closer.
When the children were young, they always waved. They came running off the bus, like overripe jewelweed, bursting into swinging limbs and exploding with news. At that age, it was more about the telling than the listening. The world was so big and filled them until they spilled. Tales of puppies, teachers, friends and not-friends, all tangled and spreading like the mint roots in his first garden, before he knew to keep them contained.
Now, they walk on with a nod and maybe a wave. He nods and waves back.
Clematis drapes herself over her fence and informs him of her latest boyfriend. The names are always changing.
They grow up. The bus now picks up new children.
Clematis is pregnant and the father is gone. If only she was Rose, she would have never allowed it. Lonely girl with broken fences. Perhaps if he had talked back to her…
Rose has made it. She makes more money than she can keep. Her siblings are always asking and she keeps on giving. Her car is used but capable, and she’s lost that hungry look. He offered her a pot of his lilies. She thanked him but said she was too busy.
Some of them have moved away.
He knows Aiden is still in the neighborhood, sees the rusty green car pass by him every morning. He’s still not consistent but he’s not late anymore.
That’s why he’s surprised to see Aiden at 2 pm on a Thursday, striding wildly.
“Holiday?” he asks, although that is clearly no vacation face.
Aiden’s shoulders slump and he runs his fingers through his hair. “Just needed some fresh air, I’ve been filling out applications all day.” He stares at the dandelions on the crack. “I wasn’t fooling around. Seven alarms, I had seven alarms to make sure I made it. I worked hard. And it didn’t matter.”
“Economies change,” the old man says, “you’ll find something.”
Aiden plucks a dandelion, blows it away from the old man’s garden, watches the seeds whirl and scatter like a thousand wishes.
“You’ll push through.”
Aiden finds a new job next week, boring at first, but it’s work and it comes with a paycheck. And it makes a difference. He leaves a sack of black soil on the old man’s porch in thanks. The old man uses it for his orchids.
Aiden walks past with his girlfriend, his yellow hair shaking with laughter. She’s a poppy, bright, exotic, with a sheer skirt. It won’t last. Poppies are intoxicating but fragile, they wither too quickly.
He could tell the boy but he doubts he would be believed. He has no experience in love, never got married. He just knows flowers. But they seem happy, so he keeps his mouth closed.
He’s just easing onto his knees to attack the bindweed, when Aiden leans over his fence. He had slipped two months ago and his left knee was never the same. The foam pad does not help that much. That was the way of life, it only took one thing, just a few inches of porch that he forgot to salt and now his irises and snapdragons were completely invaded.
“I love her,” he said, rubbing a gold ring. Poor fellow, he hasn’t made it to past tense yet. “You ever been married?”
“No,” he grunts, stabbing his trowel in the ground.
“I’m too selfish.”
“I’d do anything for her. I offered. She won’t even tell me what’s wrong. I said maybe therapy…”
Of course, he would hang on.
“Seems to me, that’s a two-person job. And she’s already made her choice.” The whole neighborhood knew. Poppies were wind-tossed but never subtle. He grunts again.
“What are you doing?”
“Weeding. Had a fall earlier, haven’t been able to get out to it properly yet, and this infernal bindweed’s everywhere. It’ll choke the life out of them unless I get to it.”
“Can I help?”
He hesitates. It’s his garden and he’s touchy about it but his knee hurts and the young man needs this. Weeding’s not a chore but a release. To ravage the earth, dig fingers deep and claw the soil, to untangle, destroy the unwanted, and bring order.
Aiden has his knees wet in the dirt. “What should I pull?”
“It’s not about what you should pull, it’s about what you want to keep.”
Aiden stays until the job’s done and all the stolen dirt been shaken out of the roots and the interlopers are in a pail to die in tomorrow’s sun.
“What about the dandelions?” he asks, dusting off his hands on his jeans. His ring is covered with mud and the old man is glad that he ignores it.
“The ones on that side of the fence? Those I keep.” The old man lumbers to his feet and puts his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “You’re going to push through this.”
“Don’t see how. This is a little bigger than a job. There’s no applications I can fill out to fix this.”
“Don’t know. Probably will take some time. But you will. You always do.”
The old man's gone now. The garden has fallen into ruin. The yard is yellow with dandelions. A girl reaches out and plucks one growing outside of the fence, just like her father, and braids it into her hair. Aiden thinks the old man wouldn't mind.