Roman Sturgis Take care of each other and make good decisions.

January 15, 2010

Home and Garden

Filed under: Fiction — Roman @ 6:37 pm

Home and Garden
28,800 words
By Roman Sturgis

One

It was six o’clock on a humid Thursday evening in May. Martin Matishak, a middle-aged man in his early forties, a tall and clean-cut blond, came home from work to find his wife, Alicia, sitting on the concrete stoop leading to their kitchen. She had a glass of red wine at her side and her cell phone pressed to her ear.
When he had opened the tall rickety gate, made from the same wooden slates as the fence in their back yard, she had barely looked up. The gate squeaked shut behind him, and he crossed an unkempt and dying lawn to sit down on the steps next to her. He left his black shoulder bag on the brick patio, which extended from the stoop about ten feet. The muggy heat in Northern Virginia was enough to keep most suits in the safety of their air-conditioned offices except for lunch breaks, but now that the sun was dropping, a nice breeze was picking up. The perspiration dried on Martin’s face as he watched several brittle leaves that had fallen from a parched holly bush swirl in miniature cyclones, rustling across the uneven brick.
Alicia answered yes to a question over the phone. She was tall for a woman, though she still only came up to Martin’s chin, and her long legs were tucked under her jaw as she listened to the person on the other end. He slid his hand under her dark pony tail to scratch between her shoulder blades. Under normal circumstances she would lean towards him with closed eyes and utter a pleasant sigh. But when Martin’s hands touched the light gray cotton of her paint-spattered tee-shirt, she was unresponsive and said into the phone: “Well he just got home, so I’ll talk to you later. Yes, you too. Ciao, Rose.”
She closed the phone with a snap and turned to him. “Hey,” she said with out a smile. “How was your day?”
“Terrible. How about you?”
She leaned back, bracing her elbows on the step. “Let’s try that again. How was your day, honey?”
“Barry changed his vote on the farm bill. Farmers Union went ballistic. It was a nightmare.”
“I tell you, consulting. Hold on.” She stood up and the screen door eased shut behind her.
“When did you get home?” he called towards the kitchen.
“Thirty minutes ago!”
“Are you coming back out? Or am I coming in?”
“Just give me a minute!”
She returned with a second glass, which she gave to him, and the bottle. She poured for him, twirling the bottle at the end of the pour, as she’d learned how to do working in restaurants throughout college and much of her early career as a painter. When she sat down, she placed the bottle behind her on the stoop.
“Was that Rose-Rose?” He raised his glass. “Cheers.”
Alicia nodded. “We’re finalizing my trip in August. She said I can have the studio as long as I want it.”
Martin did not prefer to think about his wife’s upcoming departure, but he knew it was a compromise he had to make. Since finishing school, Alicia had traveled almost every summer to Florence, Italy to study and paint with her mentor. When Martin had first met Alicia two years ago, she had just returned from a three-month stay. She had come back to the States with rolls and rolls of canvases and a brilliant, radiating enthusiasm for her art; it gave her a renewed sense of purpose and Martin knew these trips were non-negotiable. She had been very clear when they first started dating that Rose and Florence were important for her work, and that she couldn’t give them up.
“How was your class?” he asked. “Did you get over to the studio like you wanted to?”
Alicia blew a strand of hair out of her face. “Class was good. I’m giving them an extra week to paint in place of a final.”
“They love you for that.”
“They do.”
“How about you?”
“What? Do I love me for that?” She swirled her glass, watching the clear thin edge drip slowly down the sides.
“No, babe. Your painting. How about you?”
“Oh, I went.” She took a sip. “I can’t get the nose the way I want it and it’s driving me nuts. I made a mess today.”
“I really think you should find a studio closer to home. Driving to Baltimore is such a pain in the ass. I bet you spend almost as much time in traffic as you do painting.”
“I like my studio. I’ve been there six years.”
He felt a pang of regret for saying it, compounded by the larger feeling of frustration for his wife’s stubbornness. It was this stubbornness, he was sure, that was the root cause of their recent ugliness with one another. Last Saturday he had taken her out to a nice restaurant, to have a good meal, and hopefully afterwards, a romantic evening. The night had ended in a screaming match about…what had they fought about? He reached out put his palm over her knee, rubbing slowly. “Leesh, this is the umpteenth time you’ve told me how unhappy you are with the painting. What if it’s the studio? Wouldn’t a change in scenery be good? Besides, you know how I feel about Baltimore.”
“Martin, it’s my space. And stop that. I’m not in the mood.” She jerked her knee away.
Martin, not to be deterred, scooted closer to her on the step, but refrained from touching her. “Hear me out. I was thinking about it—what if we converted the guest bedroom.”
“What about when the boys come over?”
He hadn’t thought it through. There were two children from his previous marriage. They lived with their mother in Northwest and came over most weekends. It wasn’t a court-ordered visitation schedule—he and Sarah were on good terms. Martin’s work schedule fluctuated with the political climate; Sarah understood this, now, it seemed, better than she had before. The past winter had been very busy, but now that summer was approaching, he expected to have much more free time. This would naturally lend itself to more time with his boys.
“Well, how about the office then? I never use it anyway.” He was referring to the room directly above them, which looked out into the back yard.
Martin watched her take a another sip of wine and mull it over. She had studied painting at Rhode Island School of Design and had moved to DC six years ago to find an easier market to break into. Though she had sold well at every major festival between Baltimore and Atlanta, she hadn’t yet secured the all-important gallery showing. Part of this was due to what she wanted to paint, which was not, he knew, the same as what sold well. Her conceptual pieces, large format canvases of stone men and ghost children were too big for festivals and most galleries, but she had told him that Tuscan landscapes and portraiture sold like hotcakes, especially as prints. “People don’t want to invest $3,000 in an original painting, anymore,” she often said. Every now and then she did get some commission work, almost always for a portrait, usually of someone’s child.
When Martin had met her, she was serving hor d’oeuvres on a platter, moving around a lobbyist dinner at the Potomac Grille with her long black hair pulled back into a shining bun, speared with dark wooden chopsticks. She had asked him with the sexiest smile he had ever seen directed at him if he would like a “lamb chop lollipop.” He had been quietly divorced for almost three years at that point, and she had not been on a date for months. All her free time went to painting, he learned. Her skin had still been olive toned from the sun.
Their romance was kind and gentle, and soon she was sleeping over more nights than not. After Sarah, Alicia was a completely new experience: unrestrained, full of passion, and yet comfortable folding his laundry. She moved in with him in March of last year, after they had gotten married in the British Virgin Islands—a vacation that he had paid an embarrassing amount of money for. They had chartered a motor-boat named Simba, as neither of them knew how to sail. For a week, it had been just the two of them. They cruised around Tortolla and Jost Van Dyke, eating grouper and sipping rum drinks. Anchored in quiet harbors, away from the other boaters, they made love every night, listening to the water lapping against the hull. When she fell into a part-time faculty slot last fall, teaching studio I and II at American University (Martin knew the Dean), she quit the restaurant. She had confided in him that she worried that would be it; she may never get the gallery opening she wanted. Maybe she was destined to make her living as a painter on the festival circuit and as a teacher. Once, she had told him that her conceptual work was not what it used to be. He told her that 32 was still very young for an artist and that she shouldn’t compare herself to the great master’s who had been met with success at a young age. Van Gogh, he had said more than once, was 27 when he picked up a brush for the first time. This never seemed to have the effect on her that he desired. He wanted her to take the pressure off. He was sure it was stifling her creativity.
Martin tried touching her shoulders again, and this time she didn’t shrug him off. She tucked her knees back under her chin and Martin wrapped his arm around her. He whispered in her ear, “What if we turned that office into a studio? Didn’t you say once that it had the best light in the house?”
Alicia nodded.
“Well, why not?” he went on. “Let’s do it. What would it take? Emptying the room and moving all your stuff in?”
“The ceiling isn’t very high.” She wrapped her arms around her legs.
Martin sucked on his teeth, then said, “Well, what about painting outdoors?”
“Tricky. Besides, where would I go?”
“How about back here?”
“Are you kidding me? Martin, it’s disgusting back here. I can’t paint looking at this,” she said gesturing with her wine glass. She kicked her feet out to stretch. “No way.”
“No, you’re right,” Martin said, looking around the back yard. A rusted grill that hadn’t had a full propane tank in months was the only decoration amongst the weeds and poison ivy that snaked along the fence. Martin looked down at a crack in the step and an ant crawling towards the edge. It disappeared over the step and reappeared next to the bottle for a moment to feel the cool green glass with its antennae. Then it moved on, over the bottom step to the brick patio where he lost it amongst the dirt and leaves.
“I think we should do it,” he said.
“I don’t know. I like my studio.”
“Then you should keep it. But what if we made the upstairs a second studio? Just some place you could paint in the mornings before going to AU? You could go to Baltimore when you had the whole day free. And we can do something with this,” he said, hitching a thumb towards the patio. “Wouldn’t it be great to have a nice yard back here?”
Alicia chuckled. “You got a green thumb I don’t know about?”
Martin shook his head. “We could do it. We could transform this place. It’s a good spot.”
Alicia stared at the fence.
“We could make it look real nice,” Martin said. “Get a new grill. Have some parties this summer. You could paint your big stuff back here when the weather was nice. You could even keep the canvases in the laundry room. It’s big enough in there, right? Come on, Leesh.” He shook her knee a bit as insect began to chirp. “We could grow our own tomatoes. Tell me you don’t want home grown tomatoes.”
“Mmmm. What about sunflowers?”
“Sunflowers, tomatoes. What else?”
“How about pansies? And irises.”
“Irises?”
“Oh, and tulips! Can we plant tulips, too?” She sat up straight, and they each imagined a new back yard. Alicia saw a flagstone path from the gate to the patio lined with black-eyed Susans and a whole new set of garden landscapes that a gallery owner she knew might consider for her space on King Street. Martin saw himself cooking burgers with his wonky friends on a sparkling stainless steel grill.
Martin leaned towards Alicia and kissed her on the corner of the mouth. “We can do whatever we want,” he said in-between smooches. “Maybe the boys will even want to help.”
“Oh, reminds me,” Alicia said, pulling back. “Sarah called. She said she’s bringing them over Saturday afternoon for the night. You just want to do a movie or what?”
“We’ll figure it out,” he said, trying to sneak a hand around her waist.
Alicia pushed him away. “I’m getting hungry. Let’s eat.”

Two

The following morning, Friday, Alicia went out for an early walk, and Martin had the kitchen to himself before he left for work. He browsed gardening webpages on his laptop while he drank his first cup of coffee and slurped down a bowl of cereal. Irises and tulips, he learned, were usually planted as bulbs in the fall, but could be “forced” in the spring. Later at work, he read that sunflowers could be grown anytime in the spring or summer. After a day fielding spin from Barry’s vote, he turned his work cell phone off and left the office at 4:30. He drove his black Audi to a Home Depot that he had passed many times, but had never visited. In truth, Martin was not a handy person, and was more likely to use the phone book for anything more complicated than a clogged toilet.
Friday afternoon commuter traffic around the beltway was obscene and he scanned the radio through the stop-and-go to pass the time. As he listened to world news on the BBC, he thought of Alicia being gone for the fall. She was planning on returning to Florence, where Rose owned a villa with ample studio space. Martin pictured Alicia’s half open mouth smiling back at him over her shoulder, and thought about something she had told him the last time they’d made love, maybe a month ago now. He was filled with desire to do something for her. She wouldn’t let him pay for the trip. She had always financed them with herself, and this was a point of pride for her. He would make this garden happen, he decided, and it would be spectacular. She would love it. It would show her that he supported her art, and that he believed in her.
The parking lot was full, and Martin noticed that his sports car was remarkably out of place amongst the battered work vans and dusty pick up trucks that populated most of the spaces closest to the doors. In the front of the store he found magazines and a book on gardening and he scanned the contents for inspiration. High above him, a sparrow chirped from its perch on a dusty I-beam. Martin watched as it dropped off the side, freefalling with wings cocked, gathering speed, until it opened to full extension and soared the length of the store, over wide aisles of industrial-strength shelving that tiered every kind of widget and chisel imaginable. How many houses could you build with the contents of a Home Depot, he wondered. If you put a Home Depot on a boat to Africa, could you build a modern village? He tucked these thoughts away for a speech he’d write for Barry about the upcoming import/export tariff bill. In America, we sometimes take for granted the ability to buy certain things. A roll of duct tape, for example. What would the market value of one roll of duct tape be in a poor village in Zimbabwe? $10? $20? A goat?
The store was busy with activity as Martin turned in a circle looking for some sign of where to go next. He put the book back on the shelf and walked towards a pair of sliding glass doors, and a bright orange sign above them that read: GARDEN CENTER. When the doors opened, cold air blasted down from an AC unit above. The heat outdoors mixing with the cold air-conditioning inside created a gust of breeze that kicked up bits of grit, and some got caught in his eyes. He stopped for a moment to rub them. Tearing slightly, he recognized tools against the wall, shovels and rakes and hedge clippers. He picked up a shovel with a flat blade. It had a long straight handle and a rubber grip at the end. It seemed too long, so he put it back. When it clanged against several others and slid across the edges of the wire corral, he flinched, expecting the whole display to come down, but the bundle of wooden stems eventually resettled.
He flagged down a man in an orange apron. “Excuse me, sir?” Large block letters were printed in black marker across the man’s apron bib. “Er, Ray? Hi there. I was wondering if you could help me figure out, uh…”
Ray stood very still and didn’t say anything. Martin was unnerved by this and his eyes searched the man’s face for some kind of clue. Ray’s hair was a thick brown mess, standing straight up, with bits of dandruff on the shoulders of his work shirt. His back was slightly bent, as if he wasn’t standing straight. “Shovels?” Martin tried.
“They’re right behind you, sir.”
“Ray, here’s the thing. You mind if I call you Ray?”
“That’s my name.”
“Okay, great. My name’s Martin, by the way.” Martin extended his hand. Ray looked down at it and then back at Martin.
“Hi, Martin.”
“Hm,” Martin said withdrawing his hand. “So here’s the thing. My wife and I, we’re planning a garden.”
“And you need a shovel.”
“Yes!” Martin leaned a bit closer and Ray leaned back. “Sorry Ray, but I know nothing about shovels.”
“What’s there to know?”
“Are there different kinds?”
“Well, you got your flat ones and your round ones.”
“Which one do I use for gardening?”
“I’d say a round shovel will do you good for digging. Use the flat ones for other stuff like gravel. Round ones got more bite to it in the dirt. You know?”
Martin had no idea what Ray was talking about, but he knew a round shovel when he saw one. He grabbed one from a hook on the shelf. “Like this?”
“Yeah, that oughtta do. Said you’re planting a garden?”
“That’s the plan.”
“Well I like that short one you got there for doing work on my knees, but if you’re doing a lot of digging, I’d get a longer one so you can stand up. Save your back.”
“Thanks.” Martin made a good effort to smile before walking away. Something else about Ray had caught him by surprise. Had he blinked once during their conversation? He didn’t think he had. He replaced the short shovel, selected a longer one and walked the aisles of the nursery, looking at flowers and ferns, tiny potted cactuses and all sizes of shrubs in green plastic containers. He looked for sunflowers and tomatoes. Ray’s orange apron caught his eye again. Martin watched him water a row of flowers with a hose, moving the showerhead from plant to plant.
“Excuse me, Ray?”
“One minute, please.”
Martin leaned on the shovel and the rough concrete floor scratched the fresh enamel on the tip of the round blade. Ray turned around. “How can I help you, sir?” Martin gave the man a second look. He noticed a small silver earring and the way his crooked teeth came together in a point. Martin said, “I was wondering if you could give me some advice.”
“I don’t know about giving advice.”
“It’s about gardening. My wife and I, we don’t know the first thing about it.”
Ray scratched the side of his nose and snorted, clearing his sinuses.
“Maybe there’s a book you can show me? Have you read any of them?”
“We got a few here.”
“What do you think?”
“They got nice pictures.”
Martin turned a bit, so he wasn’t squaring off with Ray face to face. It was a tactic he’d learned through many years of managing people on the Hill. “Do you think you could help me? Just point me in the right direction?”
Ray sighed heavily and pulled his pants up with his thumbs. “What do you want to grow? You planting flowers or what?”
“Flowers, vegetables. And sunflowers.”
“Like what kind of veggies?”
“Tomatoes.”
Ray, almost a foot shorter than Martin, stared back with a firm face. “Tomato ain’t a vegetable.”
“Excuse me?” Martin said as politely as he could.
“Tomato ain’t a vegetable. It’s a fruit.” Ray snorted again, deep, and gulped down the phlem.
“Really?” Martin tried not to make a face.
“Got seeds. Fruits got seeds. Vegetables don’t.”
“What about peppers? Peppers are vegetables, right?”
“I hadn’t thought of peppers, but I guess you’re right.”
“Ray, you seem like a knowledgeable guy. I’d really appreciate it if you just walked me through the steps, you know?”
“I’m not an expert. You can talk to my manager if you want to.”
Martin put his hand on Ray’s arm and said, “I’m sure you have more expertise than I do.”
“Well I don’t know. Where you putting it, huh?” He looked down at Martin’s hand until it was removed from his arm.
“Sorry,” Martin said. “We’re doing it in the back yard. We’ve got a little brick patio with some dead grass around it.”
“What’s the sun like?”
“Sun?”
“The light. What kind of light does it get?”
Martin hadn’t thought of this, but it made sense. “That’s a good question,” he said. “Truth is, I don’t spend much time back there, so I don’t know.”
“See, some stuff needs a lot of sun. Vegetables, for instance, they’re full sun.”
“I think it’s pretty sunny back there. We don’t have any trees.”
“You fixed the soil up yet?”
Martin began to think that this was going to be much more involved than digging a few holes. “No, no. I don’t even know what that means.”
Ray sniffed and looked over at the plants he’d been watering. “Well, how big is it back there?”
“Oh jeez, I don’t know. Put it this way, I could probably park four cars back there. If there wasn’t a fence.”
“You got four cars?” Ray’s eyes went wide as he looked Martin up and down.
“No, Ray. No, I’m saying I don’t know distances very well, but it’s big enough to park four cars. If the fence wasn’t there.”
“Oh, I get you now. So maybe you’ve got twenty by thirty, that sound right? Maybe a little bigger?” His tone had changed. Martin believed he was making progress.
“Sure,” he said trying to picture the dimension. “Sounds right.”
“So the first thing is to get the soil ready.”
Martin switched the shovel from one hand to the other. “And how do I do that?”
“Kill everything you don’t want with a pesticide. I use Roundup. We got it on special over there.”
“Then what?”
“You said they was dead grass?”
“Most of it.”
“What, you ain’t been watering?” Martin thought he saw him flinch.
“We haven’t been doing much of anything back there except collecting the recycling.”
“You maybe want to re-sod the grass? You want a yard or what?”
“No, we just want to grow some flowers and some tomatoes and stuff.”
“All right, well cut the grass out where you want to plant. That’s easy.”
“And then?”
“See that shovel you got there? You want to break up the soil real good and check it for rocks.”
“Rocks?” Martin asked, thinking he should have brought a notebook in with him.
“Take out all the rocks. Then you want to spread lime. Limestone powder. Makes the dirt sweet.”
“Limes?”
“But first you got to kill all the weeds with Roundup or whatever, and cut them out, and get the rocks.”
“Okay, so what do I need to get today, Ray? Can you just point it all out to me?”
Ray bent his neck from side to side until it cracked loudly. Then he said, “we should get something to pull it all.”
Martin was full of hope and excitement. He checked his watch and wondered what Alicia would do when he got home with all their new supplies. Ray led him out the front gate of the garden section to a long line of orange plastic carts. Martin struggled to hold onto the shovel and wrestle a cart out of the stack, but Ray stopped him by saying, “one of these flat beds ought to work better,” and Martin turned to see Ray pulling a long platform on caster wheels.
“You from around here, Ray?” Martin asked as they walked back into the nursery, the flatbed clattering behind them.
“Chester county, originally.”
“How long you been up this way?”
“Bout a year now.”
“You seem to know a lot about gardens, Ray. How’d that happen?”
Ray wheeled the cart along a massive shelf of different mulches and potting soils and sand, and they stopped at a pallet of powdered lime in thick brown paper sacks a little bit bigger than a bag of flour from the grocery store. “I know some,” Ray said as he lifted a bag from the pallet onto the cart. “You said twenty by thirty, right?”
“I guess so,” Martin said as he reached for one as well. “My God, that’s heavy. How many do I need?”
“I’d say two is enough. Now we got the Roundup over there,” Ray said, pointing, and lugging the cart behind him.
“Here, why don’t I pull that?”
Ray shook his head. “No, sir. That’s fine. I pull these all day.”
The world contracted for a second and all Martin could see was Ray’s meek face mumbling, “No, sir. I pull these all day.” Who was this man? Working on Capital Hill with smooth politicians and bleach-toothed lobbyists, Martin had never once come across someone like Ray. Maybe at the gas station, if he didn’t feel like getting out and pulled up to full service.
“I really appreciate your help, man. Maybe I can say something to your manager afterwards?”
Ray stiffened a little, and stopped the cart short. “Here’s the Roundup, and you might want to get a rake, too. Help move the soil around. You have a nice day, sir.” Ray shuffled off, hitching his pants again, and disappeared between the sliding doors. Martin watched him go, and thought about calling Alicia. He looked at his watch; it was almost seven.
He checked out as quickly as he could and had some trouble loading his car. The trunk was full and hung heavy, and he cursed when he bottomed-out on a speed bump. He tried calling Alicia on his way home, bumping his elbow on the rake, which lay between the seats over the armrest, but she didn’t pick up.

When he did get home she was lying on the couch reading a woman’s magazine. A bag of tortilla chips and some salsa were arranged on the coffee table.
“Where you been, bucko?” she said without taking her eyes from the article she was reading.
“Honey, I just met the oddest man at Home Depot.”
“You went to Home Depot?” She sat up straight and dropped the magazine onto the wooden table.
Martin held up his hands, which still had some lime powder on them from moving the bags. His suit was dusty as well.
“First we have to fix the soil,” he said walking towards the kitchen and taking off his jacket.
“What?” Alicia asked, starting to stand up.
He ran the tap and scrubbed his hands. “That’s what Ray said.”
“Who’s Ray?” Alicia had followed him to the kitchen and stood in the doorway, perplexed.
“My guy at Home Depot.”
“You have a guy at Home Depot now? What’s that on your hands?”
“Lime.” He dried off on a dish rag. Her hair was messy and she puffed it out of her eyes as he approached. “Ray said we need to cut out the grass and get rid of the rocks.”
“Lime like limestone?”
“I guess. He said it makes the soil sweet.”
“No kidding?”
“That’s what he said.” Martin pushed her hair back over her eyes and kissed her on the forehead. He pressed her to him. “How was your day?” he asked.
“Fine,” she said into his chest.
“Did you think about it some more?”
Martin felt her nod under his chin. “Good, baby. That’s good,” he said.
“So tomorrow we’re planting a garden?” she asked, pulling back from his hug.
“Tomorrow we’re preparing the soil.”
“Oh, excuse me. Tomorrow we’re preparing the soil. So when do we plant, huh?”
“I don’t know. Next weekend, maybe?”
“Marty, just don’t feel you have to do this. It will be a big project.”
Martin thought about this. Alicia had been so excited—genuinely excited when they talked about the garden last night. He wanted to see her excited like that more often. “I want to do this for us,” he said.
“That’s sweet. All I’m saying is let’s not get carried away, okay?” Alicia went to the stove. “Did you talk to Sarah?” She fixed a plate with rice and vegetables and a piece of baked salmon and put it in the microwave.
“That looks so good,” he said, and stooped down to search a floor cupboard. “No, not yet. Hey, do we have any wine?”
“Beer in the fridge.”
Alicia took the plate from the microwave to the kitchen table and served a smaller portion for herself.
He waited for her before starting to eat, though his stomach was rumbling. After finishing half his plate he said, “So I was thinking. Tomorrow, we should start after breakfast.”
Alicia reached her hand across the table and smiled at him.

That night, while they shared the sink in their tiny upstairs bathroom to brush their teeth, Martin placed a hand on her hip and looked at her in the bathroom mirror. He could see his nose above the top of her head. The end of his toothbrush seemed to stick out of the side of her ear. “Look,” he said with a mouthful of spit, pointing to the mirror.
Alicia bent over to wash her mouth out with a handful of water. “What?” she said as she stood up to grab a face towel from a wooden dowel hanger.
“Nevermind.”
Alicia left the bathroom and Martin looked at himself in the mirror. The bags under his eyes and the extra thickness around his belly had only gotten worse each year that he’d been in the District. He vowed again that he would use his gym membership more often.
When they got in bed, Alicia kissed him on the cheek and said she loved him, and then rolled over to her side and was quickly fast asleep. Martin lay awake for awhile, one hand pinching together the roll on his belly that was not quite flat, even when he was lying on his back. He stared at the revolving ceiling fan above them, thinking about lime and rocks and sunflowers.

Three

She had gotten up first, and as he walked down the creaking wooden staircase, he could smell the espresso wafting throughout the house. Alicia stood in her bathrobe, stirring milk in a sauce pan. She poured the milk into a French press and worked it into a thick foam with the plunger.
“Good morning,” she said as he entered the kitchen. “Sleep well?”
Martin stood behind her with his arms around her waist, feeling her tummy and her hip bones while she poured two cappuccinos and added sugar to hers. He kissed the side of her neck and said, “I did. How about you?”
Alicia bumped him away with her rear and turned around with their coffee. “Pretty good. I had crazy dreams this morning.”
“Of what?” he said, leaning in for a peck. She obliged and kissed him quickly before telling him about the man with the black fedora and his silver watch chain.
“It was so weird.”
“Well, those are dreams for you.”
“What does it mean?”
“I have no idea, babe. I haven’t remembered my dreams in ages.”
They walked into the dining room and sat down. Alicia pushed a stack of bills to the side. “I was thinking about the studio upstairs idea,” she said.
Martin looked up from his coffee. “And?”
“I think I’d like to try it out. Maybe just for smaller work at first. But you’re right. It would be good to change my space.”
Martin’s chest swelled. His face became very warm. He took her hand and said, “We’re going to have so much fun today, playing in the dirt.”
“Are we going to get muddy?” she said, cupping her coffee mug between her hands and grinning.
“We’re going to be a mess. I know it.” He gave her a cocky wink and she rolled her eyes.
They finished their coffee while talking about what they might plant, the space between them shrinking.

“He said the first thing we need to do is spray,” Martin said, standing outside, wearing old jeans and one of a dozen freebie tee-shirts he was continually collecting from various events he attended for work. This one, in primary color blue, said: “Mike Garrity for Congress!” on the front in big red letters, and on the back: “Together we can make a CHANGE!”
“So what do we want to kill?” Alicia asked.
Martin stood in the middle of the yard, his hands on his hips. “I suppose we should ask ourselves if there’s anything we want to keep.”
Alicia surveyed the yard and shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. Is that really poison ivy?”
Martin looked at a printout from a website and said, “Yes?”
“So what do we do about it?”
“Pull it out?”
“You do it. I don’t want to get itchy.”
Martin pulled on a set of yellow dishwashing gloves and snipped the vine with a pair of scissors. Alicia squatted down and sprayed the spot liberally with Roundup.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Well,” Martin said, “let’s keep pulling up the weeds and I’ll start digging out the beds. Where do we want to plant? Along the fence?”
Alicia stood and walked the fence area. “How about four feet from here, all the way around?”
“Okay. What about the gate?”
Alicia told him about her vision of a path. Martin glowed. “Great! I love it. Do you want to pull out the rocks after I dig?”
“Why don’t I dig and you pull out rocks, buddy,” she said, taking the shovel from him.
Martin felt good. He took off the dishwashing gloves and watched Alicia stomp on the shovel in her sneakers, working the blade back and forth. She was wearing one of his old oxford shirts, rolled up at the sleeves, and its tail covered most of the seat of her paint-spattered khaki shorts.
“What are you doing?” she said as she dumped her first shovelfull against the fence.
“Checking you out.”
“Oh really?”
“Not even going to try and lie.”
Alicia shook her head with a snicker and went back to shoveling. When she had finished a patch, Martin used the rake to break up the clumps. Every few seconds he stooped down to pull out rocks and pebbles and even a few broken bricks. He placed them in a small pile nearby. When Alicia’s arms got tired, they switched.
They stopped to get an early lunch and admired their efforts through the kitchen window: they had dug out the whole back side of the yard, right up to the fence, with the exception of the area around the poison ivy. Alicia said she wanted to leave it alone for a week because the instructions on the back of the Roundup said it could take five days to get down to the roots.

They stood barefoot in the kitchen. Alicia had lined their shoes up on the patio. She had commented on how nostalgic they looked and thought about grabbing her sketchbook real quick. But when Martin made a pained expression and clutched his stomach and said, “can’t you do it later?” she consented, and started to make the sandwiches.
Meanwhile, he called his ex-wife. “Sarah? Hey, it’s me.”
Alicia held up mustard and mayo jars and Martin nodded at both of them.
“Alicia and I have just been doing some yard work.” Martin smiled at Alicia while Sarah responded. “No, seriously,” he said. “Tell the boys we’re planting tomatoes. Do you think they’d get into that?”
They coordinated when Sarah would drop them off and Martin hung up.
“Four o’clock,” he said.
“You still want to do pizza?” Alicia asked.
“Sure. You know what else I want to do, though?”
She pushed him in the chest as he came closer and said, “You’re going to have to do better than that.”
Alicia turned back to making their lunch and Martin began rubbing her shoulders. She hadn’t washed her hair last night, and it was full of her smell. She stopped cutting as Martin ran his hands down the sides of his old shirt and touched her bare skin underneath. He kissed her on the neck.
“You want to go upstairs for a bit?” he asked.
Alicia turned around and held her husband’s stubbled face between her hands and kissed him, slipping her tongue between his lips. When Martin opened his eyes, she had unfastened down to the fourth button, exposing her bra. “I thought you were hungry, mister.”
“Are you teasing me or being serious?” he asked, clearing his throat.
“Wash your hands.”
Martin nodded, went to the sink and scrubbed his hands under hot water. He listened to her footsteps in their room above him. She had just put on a CD.
“Leesh!” he called up the stairs.
“Yes, dear!” she called out in imitation of her mother, who wore pearls every day of her life.
Martin opened the door to their bedroom and found his wife lying on her side, hair falling over the pillows. She rubbed her foot against her calf and rolled onto her back as Martin went to her.

Four

Alicia moved half of her Baltimore studio into the guest bedroom upstairs. When she wasn’t teaching, she began to sketch the back yard in its in-between stages, and used many sheets of her pad to capture the wilting poison ivy vine, which she had coiled in on itself in the corner of the patio. She had also outlined the border of the plant beds with the rocks they had dug up.
At the end of another hectic week on Capital Hill, Martin returned to Home Depot Friday afternoon and was pleased to catch Ray in his orange apron, walking down one of the outdoor aisles in the garden section, turning plants to catch better sunlight.
“Ray?”
Ray looked up with a start. “Sir?”
“Hi, it’s Martin. You helped me out last week?”
Ray looked around the Garden Center and bounced a couple times on the balls of his feet.
“I just wanted to tell you how much my wife and I appreciated your help.” Martin grinned and nodded his head a little.
“Well, I’m happy to be of assistance,” Ray said, half turning back to the plants.
“I was wondering if you’d be willing to give me a little more advice, Ray,” Martin cleared his throat, “about some of the things that we want to put in.”
“What you done so far?” Ray mumbled, turning plants and moving down the aisle again.
“Well, we dug out the beds and pulled out the rocks and spread the lime like you told us to.”
“You did?”
“Sure did. And it looks great. I think we’re ready to start planting.”
“You fertilize yet?”
“No.”
“Well, you ought to. You eat eggs?”
“Eggs?”
“From chickens.”
“Um, yeah. Sometimes. Why?”
“Grind up the shells and sprinkle them out into the dirt before you plant.”
“No kidding?”
“It’s got nutrients that help the soil. Except don’t put them near chili peppers if you’re growing them, cause it’ll take the heat out. I’d get some Miracle Grow, too.”
“Where did you learn all this, Ray?”
Ray snorted. “Ain’t rocket science. Though I expect that’s what you do, huh?” Ray looked up at him and Martin noticed one eye had a large black speck in the brown iris, as if Ray had two pupils in one eye.
“No,” Martin said, “I’m not a rocket scientist—not by any stretch of the imagination.”
“I saw you leave last week. You got a nice car.”
“Thanks, Ray,” Martin said, not quite sure how best to respond. “We’re thinking we’re ready to start planting tomatoes.”
“Well it’s pretty late in the season. I’d go with the seedlings we’ve got started here. Much easier than starting ‘em from seed.”
“Can you show me?”
Ray shrugged and shambled off towards three tall square carts with pans filled with baby flowers and vegetables.
“Are those tomato plants there?” Martin asked, squinting at the pictures printed on the tiny white signs stuck in the soil. “I didn’t know there were so many kinds. Which is the best?”
“You want to make sauces or salads?”
“Probably both.”
“Then take a few romas and some of those cherries. Maybe one of them heirlooms, but you got to be careful with heirlooms, cause they’re picky. Maybe some beefsteak ones too, if you like that sort of thing. Personally though, I prefer the little ones cause they don’t spoil as fast.” Ray plucked one from the pan. “This one’s good.”
“How about sunflowers?” Martin asked.
“We don’t got them in planters, but they’re easy enough to start.”
Ray took Martin down the aisles, filling another flatbed with tiny flowers and vegetables, packets of sunflower seeds, and a small collection of peat pots. They took bags of peat moss, topsoil, and potting mix, and a few new tools: two trowels, some clippers, and two sets of kneepads, one large, one small. When they had finished, Ray shoved his hands in his pockets and said, “Well, sir, looks like you’ve got yourself a garden coming along.”
“Looks like I do. Thanks again, Ray.”
“Just remember, when you plant them tomatoes, leave about two feet between them. Same for the sunflowers, when you finally get them in.”
“Ray, you’re my hero. Thank you. Sincerely.”
Ray mumbled something in the directions of Martin’s shoes about getting back to work, and shuffled off.
He paid at the outdoor register and loaded the supplies into his car, carefully arranging the baby plants on the floor of the passenger side. At stop lights, he checked on them to make sure none had fallen over. Sarah was dropping the boys off, and he wondered if he’d have time to get them in the ground before they arrived. He knew he should wait for his sons to share the experience, but his urge to accomplish the task was insistent. He could show them later.
Alicia was painting in her new studio when Martin pulled into his parking space in the alley and began unloading the car. She leaned out the window and waved to him, causing Martin to worry a bit that she might fall. One of the first things she had done when she had set up shop was to remove the screens, which bothered him a little, because it meant bugs would get it, but he let it slide, reminding himself that marriage was about compromise. This had been one of the key ideas that he had taken from his marriage counseling sessions with Sarah. The studio was next to the bedroom, which also looked out onto the back yard, but whose blinds were almost always closed. That, for example, had been his insistence. “I don’t want the whole damn neighborhood peeping on my woman when she get’s out of the shower!” he had argued when she first moved in and wanted to keep the window open. “Who cares anyway?” she had said. “Definitely not me. Let them look if they want. I don’t give two shits.”
Martin was excited to be home, back in the yard, with new supplies and new knowledge. He had finished unloading the car and was tearing open a bag of peat moss to fold into the dirt when Alicia opened the door and came outside in shorts and a camisole. “What are you doing?” she asked, padding over on bare feet. “Oh, look at the babies!” She picked up one of the seedling tomato plants and stroked the thin, fuzzy green stalk.
Martin was struggling with the bag, trying to poke a finger through the thick plastic. “Hey, sweetie,” he said, not looking up.
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” Alicia said, smacking his rear. “Look at me.”
Martin reached into his pocket for his keys. “I know,” he said to himself, “this will work.” He dragged his house key along the plastic and cut several holes. “There we go!”
“Earth to Martin—your wife is calling!”
Martin dropped the bag and stood up straight. “Sorry, babe.” He leaned in, kissed her quickly, and bent down to pick up the bag again.
“You are just so pressed to do this, aren’t you?”
“I want to get a head start before the boys arrive.”
“Why don’t you have them help you? Isn’t that the quality time Sarah’s been talking about?” Alicia stood with her hands crossed over her stomach, her left foot pointing out at an angle. “What is that? It smells.”
“Isn’t it great? Peat moss.” He lifted the bag and began to scoop out handfuls and spread them around the bed they had dug out. The scent of cedar and manure filled the air.
“What do you use it for?”
“We’re supposed to fold it into the topsoil.”
“Can I help? Or are you having a moment?”
Martin’s focus was intense. He enjoyed the feeling of the springy peat moss in his hands, and the sharper smell that emanated when he broke apart the semi-solid chunks.
“Honey, don’t you want to change your clothes?” Alicia said, smiling. “You’re ruining your shirt.”
Martin looked down and saw what he’d done. He looked at Alicia, back to the garden, at his shirt, and back to her. He hung his head, chuckling.
“Oh dear,” Alicia said, “you’ve finally gone nuts. Congratulations. Now come here.”
Martin put the bag down and walked back to where Alicia was standing on the patio. She brushed peat moss bits off his shirt. “You are such a mess, you know that?”
Martin wrapped his arms around her, and they stood like that for a moment.
“That’s what I was looking for,” Alicia said. “Okay, go change now.” Martin disappeared indoors, and when he came back out, he saw Alicia walking around the flowerbeds in her bare feet, sprinkling handfuls of peat moss from a bucket she’d filled.
“Oh, I see how it is,” Martin said, walking down the steps in jeans and a tee-shirt.
“I just thought since I was standing out here, I might as well be useful.” Her legs had gotten some sun from last weekend and were starting to brown up. A flash of memory came back to him: Alicia laying out on the deck of the boat they’d chartered for their honeymoon, wearing only the bottom of her two piece bathing suit. She had gotten so tan that trip, like the skin of the hazelnuts she had toasted in the oven last Christmas for a chocolate cake she’d made.
Martin took the rake that had been leaning against the house since last week and returned to the garden. “Ray said we have to work the peat moss into the soil, and not leave any on top because it will dry out and blow away.”
“What’s it do anyway?” Alicia asked, dumping more peat moss from the bag into the bucket. Most of it missed. “Shit.”
“Oh, come on, Leesh. We can’t waste any.”
“Don’t worry about it. Christ.”
Alicia dropped handfuls of peat onto the dirt as Martin raked.
“He said it puts nutrients into the soil and improves the water absorbency. It’s like a sponge that disintegrates over time and adds nitrogen or something.”
“What are the little pots for?”
“Oh, did you see those?” Martin put down the rake and picked up one of the pots to show her. “Check it out: they’re made from peat too, right? This is what we’ll start the sunflowers in.”
“Why don’t you have any baby sunflowers like the others?”
“They didn’t have any, Leesh.” He held out the tiny pot. “But we can start them from seeds in these and then plant them directly in the ground. Ray told me all about it.”
“Maybe that’s something the boys would like to do?”
“Maybe.” Martin rotated the pot in his hand, feeling a ridge where an old stem of some ancient leaf protruded like a seam.
The back door opened, and a young boy, about eight years old, ran down the steps and rolled across the patio on wheels built into the heels of his shoes. His mother had bought them for doing well on his final report card.
“Hi Dad!” the child said, rolling off the edge of the patio and into a stride. He stopped in front of Martin and looked at the plant bed. “Cool! What are you doing?”
Martin kneeled down, put the pot on the ground, and gathered his youngest son up in his arms. “Hey, Noah. What’s going on?”
“Mom just dropped us off,” Noah said, extracting himself from the embrace and walking along the edge of the plant bed, inspecting the soil with a stick.
“Is she still here?” Alicia asked.
Noah shrugged and squatted down to play with an earthworm he found. “Eww! Gross!”
The door opened again and a larger boy, a high school teenager, walked down the steps wearing baggy jeans and a plain black tee-shirt two sizes too large.
“Hi, John,” Martin said.
“Hey.”
“Your mother still here?”
John turned around and screamed into the house, “Mom! Dad wants you!”
Alicia squatted down with Noah, and they played with the earthworm while John slowly made his way over to check it out as well. A thin woman in professional dress with straight blonde hair past her shoulders clicked down the steps in high heels. “Hey guys, what’s going on back here? I didn’t know you knew anything about gardening, Martin.”
“He doesn’t,” Alicia said, standing up and leaving Noah and John to watch the worm undulate across the dirt, feeling with its proboscis for a suitable cranny to dig into.
“Do you?” Sarah asked. She wore ornate silver earrings that jangled when she moved.
Alicia shook her head. “Not really. But it’s been fun learning.”
“Well anyway, I bet the boys would love to help out,” Sarah said with a polite smile. She had been a debutante in Georgia, and to this day had perfect posture.
Noah said, “Cool! I want to plant, too!” John just shrugged.
“John, honey,” Sarah said, “would you be my best love and get the bags from the car?”
John hopped up the stairs and had trouble opening the door the first time. He blushed around the ears before getting through with a racket.
“Hey, easy there!” Martin called. Alicia hushed him.
Sarah inspected the yard from the edge of the patio, the hard leather on her soles scratching against the brick. “So how are things with you?” Alicia asked.
“Hanging in there. I think I might go out with some friends tonight. Thanks for taking the boys, y’all.”
“Are you kidding?” Alicia said. “Hey Noah, you know what we’re eating tonight?”
“Pizza!” Noah stuck out his tongue and panted like a dog. “Can we? Can we?”
“Definitely your child, Martin,” Sarah said, winking at Alicia.
“Would you like a beer?” Alicia said.
“Oh darling, that would be superb.”
Alicia went into the house while Sarah dusted off a corner of the steps. She smoothed out the back of her skirt as she sat down, knees pressed tight together.
Martin wiped his hands off on his jeans and walked towards her. Noah was back in the dirt looking for Mr. Worm. “How are things?” Martin asked.
“Same old, same old. I got a new account for the Pfizer people, so that’s good. Big market in this town for E.D. drugs.”
“I can imagine.”
Sarah pulled her hair behind her ears and watched Noah walking along the edge of the rock border that Alicia had begun to build. “What do you have planned for tonight?”
“Probably a movie. Hanging out. Try to keep it low key.”
“Good. The boys have been talking about this all week. Would you be sure to spend some time talking with John?”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“He’s fourteen. Isn’t that enough?”
“Miller Light okay for you, Sarah?” Alicia said, pushing the screen door open with her hip and coming out with three bottles.
“Perfect,” Sarah replied.
“Thanks, babe,” Martin said, taking two beers and handing one to Sarah.
“Hey, Noah,” Alicia called out while walking towards him. “You want to help me plant some tomatoes?”
Noah looked up from watching the worm. “He’s digging.”
“Is he?” Alicia squatted down next to him. Martin appreciated how good she was with Noah. Early on, they had taken a liking to one another.
“Anything new on the Hill I need to know about?” Sarah asked.
“The big news this week is mostly fallout from Barry’s no vote on the farm bill.”
“What’s that all about?”
“Oh you know, same old shit. Ranchers want a cut of the ethanol subsidy, too.”
“Fascinating,” Sarah said, flicking a gnat off her bare knees.
“Pays the bills.”
“Alicia,” Sarah asked, “how’s the painting coming along?” Sarah had a small, tasteful collection herself, and had asked Martin once if it would be appropriate to approach her about a commission of the boys. He had said to wait a bit.
Alicia looked up from the peat pots she was showing Noah and said, “Fine. Not much to report.”
“We turned the office into a studio,” Martin said.
Sarah had just taken a sip. She swallowed hard and said, “Did you now?”
“It’s better than driving forty-five minute to Baltimore, right Leesh?”
“It’s very nice, yes,” Alicia said. “Noah, do you see those tiny tomato plants on the patio?” Noah scurried away to fetch them.
“Martin, I hope you’re helping her out,” Sarah said in a low voice.
“She’s doing very well. Don’t worry about it.”
John opened the screen door. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing much, bud.” Martin said. “You want to help Alicia and your brother plant some tomatoes? Tell them they have to be at least two feet apart, okay?”
John nodded and sulked off to join Alicia and Noah.
“So how did you guys get into gardening, exactly?” Sarah called out to Alicia.
“It was Martin’s idea.”
“Was it now?” she said, turning back to him. “I didn’t know you had any gardening experience.”
“I don’t. But I have a guy at Home Depot.”
“A guy at Home Depot? Oh my lord, Martin. Why don’t you just hire somebody who knows what they’re doing.”
Martin’s brow furrowed. “It’s the process of it, Sarah. Besides, we thought it would be something fun to do with the boys.”
“Well, they certainly seem to appreciate helping Alicia. Who is your guy?”
“His name is Ray,” Alicia said.
Martin suppressed a belch. “Pardon. He’s from around Richmond. He works in the garden center and knows just about everything regarding planting. He’s really been very helpful. I’ve spoken to him twice now.”
“Can I meet Ray?” Noah said from the garden.
“Sure can. You can come with me to the store when he’s working.”
“What’s he look like?” Noah asked. “Does he grow all the plants first?”
“I don’t know bud. I know that he waters them. I think they get the plants from someplace else and then sell them at the store.”
“Where do the plants come from?” Noah picked up his stick and flicked some dirt towards his brother, giggling.
“I don’t know. Why don’t we ask if we see him?” Martin watched John say something to Noah too quiet for him to hear. Noah seemed to be listening closely and then turned his focus back to the small holes that Alicia was digging for them. He put the stick down, and John went back to reading the little plastic signs stuck in the dirt of the seedlings.
“Well, it sounds like he’s a very knowledgeable man,” Sarah said. “But I can’t believe you actually got service there. I hate going to Home Depot. All those geriatrics hobbling around. I’m a Lowes woman, myself.”
Martin guffawed. “You have never set foot in a Home Depot or a Lowes in your entire life. You’re not fooling anyone. John, am I right?”
John sat back on his heels and said, “Didn’t we go there once to get light bulbs?”
“You guys!” Sarah flushed, her eyes wide. “I have been to a Home Depot before. I’m actually pretty handy, y’all.” Her Atlanta roots tended to show when she got excited.
“I saw you hang the bathroom mirror in Noah’s room,” John said.
“Mom, I think you’re handy,” Noah said. “I saw you fix the garbage disposal with a hammer.”
Martin turned abruptly towards Sarah. “You did not!”
“Little tap here, little tap there. You just got to have the magic touch.”
Martin snorted and leaned back on the steps, watching his family plant tomatoes.

Five

They ordered two pizzas from Papa John’s and rented an action movie from Blockbuster. The pizza arrived while they were watching the previews, and Alicia said, “No, Marty, sit down. I’ll get it.” She paid the delivery boy, placed the pizzas in the middle of the coffee table and the boys pounced.
“Careful! It’s piping hot,” she said, but that didn’t stop them from shoveling down the food.
John started to choke and Martin thumped his back. He forced up a glob of cheese onto a paper plate, and with water in his eyes said, “Oh my God, that’s hot. I almost died.”
“I told you!” Alicia said, and left to get napkins.
They watched the movie, Martin on the blue couch with his sons on either side of him and Alicia sitting on a matching ottoman nearby. She became tired, and excused herself to take a shower before the movie was over. She came back down wearing the pink striped pajamas Martin had gotten her for Christmas, the ones that were loose in the legs, but snug in the back. Her hair was wet and she had slicked it back over her ears. She smelled of cream rinse. At first, John had sat closest to the pizza box but then moved to the floor to become more focused on the movie. Alicia quietly sat down next to Martin in the empty space. When she did, Noah climbed over Martin’s lap, whining, pretending to be a puppy, and snuggled between them.
“You’re being silly,” Alicia teased him. She bent over and kissed him on the forehead. “Shh, sit still and watch the movie.”
“But I want to sit with you and Dad,” Noah said.
“Did you hear that, Marty?”
“Shhh!” hissed John, and Martin hit him on the side of the arm with his foot. “Come on! You’re ruining the movie!” John said, shrugging with exaggeration from his father’s contact.
Alicia wrapped an arm around Noah and whispered into his ear. Noah laid his head against her breast and flicked his toe against Martin’s knee.

*

In the morning, Alicia cooked breakfast while Martin and the boys figured out how to start sunflower seedlings. John read from Martin’s laptop, and Noah kneeled on a stool, hovering over the peat moss planters with a flour scoop. A bucket of potting soil was within reach.
“It says first we have to soak the pots,” John said.
“Can I do it?” Noah asked.
“Sure, bub,” Martin said. “Do you still need the sink, Leesh?”
Alicia was cooking scrambled eggs at the stove. “No, I’m all set,” she said, grinding a pepper mill over the eggs which bubbled like yellow lava.
“Okay, buddy. Just a little though, okay?” Martin held his hands up, ready to intercede if needed. Really, he wanted to do it himself.
Noah nodded, hopped down from the stool, and carefully adjusted the tap to a little more than a trickle. One by one, he turned the pots over under the water, watching the dry material turn moist. “Oh, weird! It’s like they crackle when they get wet!”
“Let me see,” John said. “I want to try.”
They set the pots up on the counter in baking sheets, and Noah said, “Now what?”
“Fill the pots with soil mix, being sure not to pack the pot too tightly,” John read. Martin helped Noah scoop soil into the pots and tamp them down.
“Breakfast is ready, guys. Time to wash up,” called Alicia from the dining room, where she had set the table with milk and orange juice and a big platter of bacon and buttered raisin toast. Martin looked around to see that the kitchen counters were covered with her prep, the egg shells sitting in the kitchen sink.
She came back to the kitchen to serve the scrambled eggs on plates she’d heated in the oven and Martin said, “Just a second, we’re almost done here,” while reading the back of a packet of sunflower seeds.
“Martin, the food is getting cold.”
“Should save these shells,” he said to himself, moving to the sink.
John closed the laptop and said, “I’m hungry. Come on.”
“Me too!” Noah said, following him out.
From the table Alicia called, “Can you bring the ketchup?”
Martin dropped the seed packet on the counter and put the egg shells in a bowl to use in the garden later. He got the ketchup from the fridge on his way to the dining room and took his place at the table. He ate quickly, finishing before anyone else, and rushed back to the kitchen to finish planting. Noah and John were close behind him and one by one they left Alicia to stare at the fledgling garden through the window, sipping her coffee and wondering.

Six

By the following Friday, the tomato plants had shown visible growth, and in the peat pots that they kept pushed to the back of the kitchen counter, tiny pale green sunflower shoots were sprouting through the black dirt. Every morning and evening Martin had checked the progress of the seedlings. As May drew to a close, the warm summer sun baked the winter melt out of the ground, and slowly but surely the steam began to rise over the Potomac river basin. Martin and Alicia took turns watering the yard and the plant beds with an inflexible green plastic hose that had come with the place and refused to coil nicely. They had found it pushed away in the back corner of the patio, a snarled and muddy mess. Martin put up a calendar in the kitchen to keep a garden log and he marked when they watered, when they sprayed Miracle Grow, what they had planted, and the daily temperature highs and lows, which he gathered from the National Weather Service online. Jotting these notes in the log often promoted pleasing visions of General Washington writing to Martha from Boston, inquiring about the progress of Mt. Vernon’s crops. The brittle lawn began to brighten with verdure, and was soon thick with dandelions and crabgrass.
“We should get a mower,” Martin told Alicia in the kitchen that Friday morning. He had just finished dressing for work and smelled of deodorant and shaving cream. He had shaved so close that his jaw was shining. “I’m planning on going to the store today,” he said. “I’ll ask Ray about it.” He undid his tie to try again because he could feel with his finger that he hadn’t gotten the dimple quite right. It wasn’t centered, and there was a wrinkle in the crease.
Alicia had started the coffee and was waiting by the counter for it to finish percolating. “We don’t need a mower,” she said. “Besides, where would we put it? We only have that little bit.”
“It’s getting to be a jungle back there, Leesh. The grass is already past my ankles. Dammit!” he cursed, throwing his hands up. He had undone the tie and the loose ends flopped back to his chest.
She went to him and pushed his hands away. “Can’t we just find some kid in the neighborhood?” she said. “It was fine a minute ago, stop.”
Martin dropped his arms to his side and held his chin up as she made the final adjustment. “There,” she said, and turned back to the coffee maker, which had begun to sputter as the last of the water boiled out into the filter, puffing steam through the edges of the black lid.
Martin felt the tie with his hand and loosened it a bit. “I don’t want just anybody back there,” he said. “What if they go into the beds?”
Alicia poured coffee into a stainless steel travel mug and nodded her head. “You’re absolutely right. I hadn’t thought of that. We should get a mower and do it ourselves.”
“Don’t they make push mowers? Can’t we just get one of those?”
“I think you should ask Ray,” Alicia said.
“Okay. I’m going after work.”
Martin took his coffee and his briefcase and kissed her on the cheek. He walked out the kitchen door through the back yard, and Alicia smiled while she watched him stop and check out the tomato plants for the second time that morning.

Summer recess was approaching, and Barry had flown home early for the weekend, as had most Senators. Martin finished reading the front page of the Times on the elevator up to their floor in the Hart Senate office building. As he walked down the wide linoleum halls, he greeted other staffers from other offices, shoes squeaking as they passed each other. He stopped at a plain, government issue grey door with a small placard indicating his Senator, and tucked the paper under his arm as he opened it. Inside, a skinny blonde intern named Lucinda sat at the front desk and waved hello as she took a message over the phone. Two doors stood at either side of the front desk, one led to the Senator’s decadent private office, the other to a larger room filled with four desks for the other staff—the pit, they called it, and Martin’s cubby beyond. He walked through the door on the right, to the pit, to say good morning to the rest of the staff, but only Bill was in.
Dark haired and well groomed, Bill had come to them from Georgetown and looked the part. His grandfather had been on the Hill for decades as a congressman from Maryland, representing the eastern shore, ocean side. But despite his silver-spoon upbringing (he had been a scratch golfer since his senior year at St. Alban’s) Martin found Bill to be very tolerable and polite, and a good worker.
“Morning, Boss,” Bill said.
“Hey, Bill. What’s new?”
“You see the Nationals game last night?”
“Didn’t catch it. We win?”
“What do you think?” Bill smiled, flipping his pen around his thumb. Martin had asked him once if they taught kids things like that at St. Alban’s, the ivy covered boys school up by National Cathedral. He himself had weathered wood shop and Algebra I with forty students in a class at Homer Glenn High, back in Illinois. Usually, the office would be staffed with native constituents, but Barry and Bill’s father went way back to their law school days at the University of Virginia. Martin didn’t mind, so long as he did his part well. He hoped that one day, his own sons would benefit from such connections. Besides, Bill’s mother had been raised in Chicago—uptown, lakeside—and he still had family out there. Close enough.
“Where are the others?” Martin asked.
“Gretchen is sitting in on that biofuels forum in the Rayburn building. Suzy went out for coffee.” Bill flipped his pen again.
“I suspect it will be a quiet day,” Martin said. “Well, I better get to it.” He opened the door connecting the pit to his small office, about ten by fifteen, but which had a window that offered a view of the building’s courtyard and a few folks smoking in the morning shade. By noon, the sun would rise about the building and the courtyard would be blistering hot and lifeless. Later in the fall, though, it was a nice spot to have lunch, with well tended flowerbeds, clean wooden benches, and a few pruned trees. He stood at the window for a time, paying particular attention to the flowerbeds and how they were laid out, with taller plants in the middle, and lower, creeping flowers around the edges.
He crossed the beige carpet to his desk and sat down to finish reading the newspaper and do his e-mail. His To Do list was minimal, maintenance really, and by ten thirty he was surfing his favorite gardening sites. One in particular, ChattaMom, a homemaker’s blog in Tennessee, had several posts about different ways to plant herbs. After lunch, which he took with the other staffers in the cafeteria, Martin spent much of the afternoon sketching out a window box that he’d seen on ChattaMom’s site. He called Alicia at three o’clock on his cellphone.
“I think we should have a kick ass barbeque this weekend.” The phone was quiet for a few seconds. “Leesh?” He imagined her squinting through one eye at her canvas, touching the painting delicately with the tip of her skinny brush.
“I heard you,” she said.
“So what do you think?”
“I think that would be nice. How many people are we inviting?”
“I don’t know, whoever,” Martin said, doodling on his garden sketches. “Keep it casual. Call whoever you want.”
“Are you inviting Sarah and the boys?”
“Sure, why not?”
“I’ll ask Mary if she wants to come.”
“Is she teaching still?” he asked, scratching out the drawing and starting again. Maybe Ray knew if they sold pre-made window boxes.
“No, her class is done.”
“How about Frank?”
“He’s going to be down in Annapolis this weekend for the festival.”
“Really? I didn’t know that was this weekend.” Annapolis was usually a big one for her. Last year she’d done several thousand dollars in sales. “You didn’t want to go?” he asked.
“No, not really, and I don’t want to talk about it. So what are we cooking? Are you going to get new propane for the grill?”
“I was actually thinking about getting a new grill.” He watched a blinking red light on his office phone for a few moments, lost in thought. It went solid as Lucinda picked up.
“Hello? Marty? At Home Depot?
“Yeah?”
“I want to pick it out with you.”
“Okay, great. Meet me there at, say, four thirty?”
“Cutting out early today, then?”
“It’s summer. Hey, you’ll get to meet my guy.”
“Who?”
“Ray, Leesh. My guy at Home Depot.”
He heard Alicia’s stool screech as she pushed back from her easel. “Oh, good! Of course. Okay, honey, I’ll see you there.”
Martin closed his cell phone with a snap and looked at the picture on his desk of Alicia smiling under a wide-brimmed sun hat, legs extended on the teak panels of a bench in the back of the Simba, Kool-Aid blue water in the background. He was struck with the sudden urge to leave work and speed home. When someone knocked on his door, he was still thinking about gardens and his wife’s legs.
“Yeah, come in.”
“Sorry, Marty,” Bill said as he opened the door. “I just got off the phone with Barry—he wants to co-sponsor the farmer’s tax credit bill with Levenhause.”
Martin pinched the top of his nose. He’d been afraid of this. “To make up for his no vote?”
“I guess.”
He let out a deep sigh. “If it makes the boss happy, but I think it’s too little, too late.”
“You want to start writing today?” Bill stood up on his toes a fraction of an inch while he waited for Martin’s answer.
Martin looked at his clock and shook his head. “No, it can wait. Hey, what are you doing this weekend? Any plans?”
“Just tickets to the Nats game.”
“You want to bring Anna over for a barbeque at our place tomorrow?”
Bill tilted his head and said, “I didn’t know you were the barbeque type.”
“What? Are you kidding? I cook the mess out of a hamburger.” Martin leaned back and put his feet up on his desk.
“Well, sure. Sounds great. What time?”
“Say six, six thirty. Whatever’s clever.”
“All right. Hey, you mind if I knock off early?”
“I was thinking about doing the same myself.”
“I love it when Barry’s out of town,” Bill said, grinning.
Martin swung his feet down and shut off his computer monitor. He grabbed his jacket from the hook on the door and slipped into it. Jingling his keys with his bag over his shoulder he said, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and closed the door behind him.

He arrived at Home Depot before Alicia and wandered the grill section, reading tags and playing with the knobs. She called him when she pulled into the parking lot and he met her at the front doors.
“Hey, you want to go over to the garden section first?” Martin asked. “I was wondering how you’d feel if we tossed an invite Ray’s way. I don’t get the sense he’s got much of a life, and it might be nice to have him see what we’ve been doing.”
“Oh, Martin, that’s so sweet. Yes, you should invite him.” They held hands as they walked into the garden center and sure enough, Ray was there, watering his plants, wearing his bright orange apron.
“Ray! What’s up, buddy?” Martin said.
Ray turned around and smiled. He looked at Alicia and said, “You must be Miss Alicia.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Alicia said, chuckling. “And you’re Mister Ray?”
“Well, just Ray, ma’am.”
“Nice to meet you, Ray,” Alicia said extending her hand. Ray looked down at it and stuck his hand out. Afterwards, his ears became bright red. He turned back to the flowers he had been tending.
Martin said, “Hey, Ray, the garden’s starting to come along. We never could have done it without you.”
This did not help Ray’s embarrassment. He mumbled an acknowledgement.
“We were actually wondering if you were busy this weekend,” Alicia said.
“Busy?”
“We’re having a barbecue,” Martin said, “And we were wondering if you’d be interested in coming over?”
“Barbecue?”
“Nothing major, just burgers and hot dogs. Have a few beers.”
“Oh, I don’t drink.”
“Well, you eat, right?”
It took him a second, but then he did laugh, loudly and with a force that drew attention to them from other customers. “I eat. Sure do. Most every day.”
“So would you like to come?” Martin asked.
“I’ve never been to a barbecue before.”
Martin laughed. “You’re kidding, right? Everyone’s been to a barbecue. You’re from Chester County!”
“No. Ain’t never been to a barbecue party.”
“How can that be?”
Ray frowned and looked down at his boots. “I don’t know. Guess it just never happened.”
“Well you’re very welcome to come to ours,” Alicia said. “It’ll be a lot of fun. Unless you have to work this weekend?”
“Naw, I get off on weekends. You serious then? I can come to your barbecue?”
“Ray, of course!” Alicia said.
“I didn’t mean to offend, ma’am.”
“You have got to stop with that ma’am business. Come on, you coming over or what?”
Ray chuckled and looked from Martin to Alicia, “Yeah, I’d like to, if it’s all right.” His smile was sheepish, but delighted.
“Great!” Martin said, a feeling of joy rising up through his cheeks. “Anytime tomorrow, round six or whenever. We live off Commonwealth on Elm Street. Number fourteen, blue door. You know the area?”
“I can find it.”
“Do you have any favorite foods?” Alicia asked. “Any allergies?”
“Naw, none of that. But my mamma used to take me to the Golden Corral sometimes, and I really liked their sweet potato pie.”
“Did she make it with marshmallows on top? That’s how I make them,” Alicia said.
“Yes, ma’am.” Ray was grinning wide. Martin had never seen him smile, he realized. In previous encounters he had been so weird and withdrawn.
“Ya’ll are really nice customers,” Ray said.
“Ray, I think it’s safe to say we’re friends, yeah?” Martin said, smiling. “So we’ll see you tomorrow then?”
“Sure will.”
“Good.”
They excused themselves and walked back through the store to the grills. Alicia said, “I see what you mean about him being a little odd.”
“Isn’t he though?”
“But he’s got a good heart. I can tell.”
They looked at grills, finally settling on a mid-sized stainless steel CharBroil with glazed racks that could go in the dishwasher for easy cleaning. Alicia had driven her 4Runner and they put the box in the back. She’d also had the foresight to bring the empty propane tank from their old, rotting grill. He took the tank back up to the cashier and exchanged it for a full one.
Back at the house they unpacked the grill and Alicia read the instructions. It didn’t take much assembly, but Martin gave up after Alicia seemed to handle it well enough on her own. Instead, he went out to pick up Chinese for dinner. By the time he got back, the new grill was standing on the brick patio, glowing in the fading sunlight.
“Wow. Nice work, honey,” he said carrying a trimmed liquor box filled with their order. Martin felt a little bad for not staying to help, but he let it go as the smell of steamed dumplings and sesame chicken drew her to him. He lifted the box high over his head when she tried to rummage around for a dumpling.
“Uh-uh, wash your hands first.”
“Please!” Her eyes were wide, and she threw herself against his chest, whining in jest. “Puh-lease!”
Laughing, Martin popped the plastic top off the aluminum dish and held a dumpling between his fingers for her.
“What are you going to give me, first?” he said.
She looked up into his eyes and opened her mouth slightly. Her hand snaked down his belly and she slipped it past his belt to the second knuckle.
A smile crept over his face as he leaned towards her for a kiss, and suddenly she grabbed the dumpling with her free hand and shoved it in her mouth.
“You’re terrible,” he cried.
“Oh my God,” she said around the hot dumpling. “It’s so fucking good.”
They went inside, washed up, and Martin set out two plates at the counter. They ate standing up, barely saying a word to each other as they shoveled the food down. After dinner, they went back outside and Martin complimented Alicia on her handy work. “What should we do with the old one?” he asked.
“Want to make it a planter? Fill it with flowers?” Alicia said, eying the dimensions.
Martin pulled her close to him and rubbed his hand over her belly.
“Oh, baby, not right now. My tummy is so full.”

Martin didn’t get lucky that night, but the following morning they lay in bed, talking about what they needed to get for their party. “Should we do ribs? Or just burgers and dogs,” Alicia asked.
“Let’s keep it simple.” Martin scratched her back while she lay on her side, tucked into his armpit. “Did you call your people?”
Alicia nodded. “Mary might come over later. She didn’t say for sure.”
“Flakey artists.”
“Hey!” She slapped him on the chest. “That’s not fair.”
“What’d I say?” he tried to keep a straight face. Alicia dug her thumb into his ribs until he was howling.
“Okay, time to get up,” she said, popping out of bed. Martin watched her leave the room, the hair down her back, the twin band of muscles along her spine. She wore an old pair of his boxers with the elastic rolled down, and the accent of her calves in the morning sunlight was striking.
“How do you look so good first thing in the morning,” he called out from the bed. He could hear the echo in the toilet as she peed. “Honey?” The shower turned on, and he heard the scrape of the curtain on its steel rings. Martin pulled himself out of bed and walked into their tiny bathroom. He popped his head around the curtain and Alicia splashed water on his face.
“Keep dreaming, bud,” she said. “We got a lot of work to do.”
“Are you washing your hair?”
“I thought about it,” she said, squirting body wash into her palm.
“Do you want a hand?”
Alicia eyed him and began to wash her arms and legs, balancing the tip of one foot, and then the other, between the various washing products gathered in the corner. “Are you going to be good?”
“I promise,” he said, watching the water slip off her back and join the suds on their way to the drain. He enjoyed watching the way her vertebrae articulated as she moved.
“You’re not getting laid right now. Believe me.”
“Fine. You want me to help with your hair?”
“Sure.”
Martin stepped out of his boxers, took off his undershirt and climbed into the back of the shower.
He squeezed out a small puddle of shampoo into his hands and rubbed them together before wiping them along the top of his wife’s head, and into her thick hair. He worked the shampoo into a lather and scrubbed it into her scalp with his fingernails, gently scratching around the temples and her crown as she leaned back into him with her eyes closed, a peaceful expression on her face. He reached over her and removed the shower nozzle from its plastic bracket and rinsed her hair out, while she put a hand against the tiled wall to help keep her balance. When he applied conditioner, Alicia nodded slowly with him as he massaged the back of her scalp. He washed himself while she stood in the hot water, letting her hair sit. “Okay, I’m ready to get out,” she said. “Rinse me.” He obliged.
She slipped past him and stepped out the back. He washed the remaining soap off his body. When he turned off the shower and opened the curtain, she was sitting on the seat of the toilet wrapped in a towel, another around her hair, cleaning her ears with a q-tip.
He stood in the shower, dripping, and she smiled at him as he reached for his towel on the back of the door. She dropped the q-tip in the trash and gave him the eyes. His heart raced. She leaned forward from the edge of her seat, and he stopped drying his hair as he watched her head move closer and closer. She kissed him once on the navel, a second time closer, and then stood up. “Maybe later,” she said, “if you’re extra nice to me today.”
She turned on her heel and went back to the bedroom to dress. Martin stood in the shower, the towel around his neck, and called out, “You’re killing me!”
He could hear her laugh from inside her closet.

Seven

In preparation for their party, Martin held a strand of white lights against the fence while Alicia carefully stepped around the tomato plants. She used a staple gun to secure the twisted green cord to the soft wood, making a loud sound as she squeezed the lever, click-CLACK! Periodically, she directed him to let out a bit more here and there to achieve the wide arcs she desired, then click-CLACK, click-CLACK!!
They heard the rattling exhaust of an old truck drive down the alley. Then the engine dying, pinging loudly, and the harsh squeal of an un-lubricated door opening, then slamming shut with a bang. Suddenly a round, greasy face appeared over the top of the fence, inches away from Martin’s nose, causing him to step back in surprise, crushing a tomato plant underfoot.
“Watch it!” Alicia shrieked.
“Hi guys!”
Alicia craned her neck. “Ray?”
The gate handle jiggled and Ray appeared. “Nice yard.”
Martin was kneeling down, inspecting the plant. The delicate stem was bent in two, but not separated.
“What happened?” Ray said, coming closer.
“I stepped on it when you startled me, Ray.”
“That’s not good. Here, let me take a look.”
“Don’t worry,” Alicia said. “We’ve got plenty.”
Martin breathed in deeply through his nose. “No we don’t.”
“Let me fix it,” Ray said.
Martin was annoyed as he stepped out of the plant bed.
Ray squatted down over the broken stem. “Mmm. Yeah. We can splint that. That your garbage can out there?” His jeans were worn, but washed. He had on a thin yellow t-shirt that advertised Ba-Ba-Doo all-natural sheep manure.
“You’re not going to throw it away, ” Alicia said.
“Course not.” Ray bounced up and went back into the alley.
Martin held up his hands, whispering: “I didn’t mean to! How was I supposed to know he’d be so early!” Alicia waved him off as Ray returned with two used chop sticks from their dinner the night before.
“Did you get those from the trash?” Martin asked.
“Yup. Hey, y’all got any old rags we can cut up?”
Alicia said, “I’ll see what I can do. You think you can fix it?”
As she mounted the steps to the kitchen, Ray called out, “Real thin rags. Not so thick, all right?”
“We didn’t know you’d be so early,” Martin said as Ray walked around the edge of the plot.
“You put the lime and peat in?”
Martin nodded. “Yeah. Just like you told us.”
“Sure looks good.”
“Really?” The compliment softened his irritation.
Ray nodded, and Alicia came trotting down the steps with scissors and an old pair of Martin’s boxers. “Perfect, Miss Alicia,” he said. He cut two wide ribbons from the blue material and squatted back down in the dirt. Martin and Alicia watched with interest. When Ray stood up again, the tiny tomato plant sported a bandage around the stem, propped up on either side with chopsticks. “That oughtta do. I’d say take it off in two weeks and she’ll be all right.”
Martin marveled at Ray’s handiwork and the last of his agitation evaporated. “Ray, that’s incredible. It’ll really be okay?”
“Sure thing, boss. Hey, I got something for you two in the truck. Come on.” Ray opened the gate and beckoned.
Ray’s truck was rusted white with dabs of grey and orange primer along the sideboards and bumpers. The doors were beaten, as if they’d been hit several times. In the bed, two black plastic trays of flowers sat amongst a spare tire, sun bleached soda cans, and a shovel.
Ray was standing by his truck. He kicked a few dried leaves to the side and said, “I thought I’d give you a hand planting some flowers. If that’s all right.”
Alicia wrapped an arm around Ray’s shoulder. “Ray, that’s so sweet!” She gave him a peck on the check, and he flushed deep crimson. “Isn’t it, Marty? Look!”
“Ray,” Martin said. “I don’t know what to say. Did you get this from work?”
“Sure did.”
“How much do we owe you for all this?”
“Nothing at all. This is all extra stuff, you know?”
Alicia was probing through the mixed flowers. “These are pansies!” She pointed to a large brown paper bag. “What’s in here?”
“Ah, those are for you, Miss Alicia. Well, Martin, too. But I remember he told me you wanted—”
“Bulbs! Are these tulip bulbs!”
“Yes, ma’am.”
Alicia ran to Ray and wrapped her arms around him. Martin watched his eyes widen and then close, a soft smile spreading over his red face.

*

Martin stood in the kitchen, forming burger patties on wax paper. He sprinkled pepper and garlic salt and hit each one with a splash of soy sauce. Through the window, he could see Alicia and Ray discussing how to lay out the flowers in the new plant bed. Ray had suggested they put them along the fence to the right, and it did look best. Ray worked so much faster than he and Alicia did. And why shouldn’t he? Ray was a professional with industry knowledge. Martin was a suit.
They had used the remaining peat and lime, and Ray raked back and forth, working the mixture into the broken soil. Along the back fence, the vegetable garden looked tiny, but neat. The strands of lights were hung half way down the fence all around the yard. Martin couldn’t wait to turn them on when it got dark. Alicia was right, he realized. There really should be some sort of path, flagstones maybe, leading from the patio to the gate. When he finished making the burgers, he covered them with a long sheet of plastic wrap and hurried back outside to help before all the planting was done.

*
Bill and his girlfriend Anna arrived promptly at 6:30. At the front door, Martin, showered and in clean clothes, shook Bill’s hand and accepted the bottle of wine Anna offered. He tilted the bottle to read the label and said, “I love Cabernet.”
Alicia called out from the kitchen, “You know nothing about wine, but I’ll have a glass when you open it.” That got a chuckle from Bill and an unsure look from Anna. Martin had met her once or twice with Bill after work for drinks. She worked for a newly elected congresswoman from her home state of Maine. She had tight curly brown hair pulled back into a thick pony tail, and he could tell by her bare arms, which were nicely toned, that she worked out regularly. He imagined she had played some kind of sport in college, or at least high school. Basketball maybe? She walked like a jock, always on the balls of her feet, he noticed, as she moved down the hallway with Bill towards the kitchen.
“Hey guys,” Martin said as they entered the kitchen, “I’d like you to meet Ray. Honey, where is he?” The doorbell rang again and Martin excused himself.
Noah greeted him by jumping up into his arms and kissing him on the cheek. “Hi Dad! Can we see the sunflowers?”
Martin put his son down and waited to see what John would do. The boy leaned forward, hands at his side, as Martin wrapped an arm around his back and kissed the top of his head. Noah ran into the kitchen to join the action, shortly followed by John. Sarah stood on the stoop with a man that Martin hadn’t known was coming.
“Hey, Sarah,” Martin said.
“Sounds like quite a party in there.”
“Getting to be. Hi, I’m Martin.” He extended a hand to the stranger standing next to his ex-wife.
“Oh, sorry. Marty, this is Matt. He’s a friend from work.”
“Evening,” Matt said with a bright smile. He wore trim slacks and a designer shirt open at the second button. His hair was immaculate and recently cut in a stylish way. Martin could tell the man didn’t go to the barbershop for a ten dollar trim.
“Nice to meet you,” Martin said. “Please, come in.” He shut the door behind him, and they moved into the kitchen, which was getting crowded. Alicia was pouring sodas for the boys as they waited near the counter, peering into the sunflower seed trays. The tiny green sprouts were three inches high and two pairs of leaves had formed on most of them. She was explaining to Bill and Anna how they had started the germination process with wet paper towels.
“Oh, hi Sarah!” Alicia said when she noticed the newcomers. “Who’s your fella?”
Martin made the introductions and recommended they move outside to enjoy the nice weather, which had cooled down with the help of a gentle night breeze.
They had set up a card table with paper plates and condiments, napkins, and a modest wet bar, which the guests gravitated towards. A cooler underneath the table contained bottles of beer and water. Ray had found a broom and was sweeping the patio. Martin took the broom from him, chuckling with a tinge of embarrassment. “What are you doing, man?”
“I was just sweeping.”
“Everybody, this is Ray.”
Ray sunk inside himself and nodded at the crowd that had suddenly assembled. “Excuse me,” he said, and walked up the steps into the kitchen.
“Who’s that again?” Bill asked.
“He’s been advising us on our new garden,” Martin said.
“That’s Ray?” Sarah said, snapping her head up from a conversation with Matt.
“He’s a genius,” Alicia said. “Really. He is totally in touch with nature.”
Martin leaned the broom against the gray plastic siding of the house. “Well, now Alicia—”
Bill interjected, “Marty, where did you find the guy?”
“Home Depot.”
“Home Depot? Like what, at the register?”
“No, Bill. He works in the garden center.”
“That’s wild he’s working this late on a Saturday. Who gets help like that? I tell you, Anna, this guy,” Bill said hitching a thumb in Martin’s direction, “He’s got the gift.”
Martin protested, “No, no, it’s not like that—”
Alicia’s eyes narrowed. “We invited him. He’s our guest, just like you.” She excused herself and went back into the house.
Bill looked shocked. “Marty, I had no idea.”
“No, don’t worry about it.”
“Forget about it, Bill,” Sarah said. “Honest mistake. I mean really, who invites the guy from Home Depot to their party, anyway?” She and Matt chuckled with Bill, Anna smiling nervously at his side, as John watched his father closely.
“Well, who’s hungry?” Martin asked, turning to light the grill.

When Martin went into the kitchen to retrieve the burger patties, he found Ray and Alicia sitting at the kitchen table. “Honey, honey, it’s fine,” she was saying. Twin tracks ran down the man’s cheeks and his face was slick with perspiration.
“What’s going on?” Martin asked as the screen door slapped shut behind him. It looked like the man was having a panic attack. “You okay?”
“He’s just a little shy, that’s all. Marty, why don’t you take him out and introduce him properly, and tell that dickhead friend of yours to mind his fucking manners.”
“No, Miss Alicia!”
“Ray, you are going to enjoy yourself. This will be good for you,” she went on.
“No, Miss Alicia, please. I think I should go home.”
Martin took a seat next to Alicia. Ray’s hands were still dirty from working in the garden and he smelled of sweat. “What’s there to be shy about?” Martin said. “They’re all nice people out there.”
Ray looked up, and Martin could see that his eyes were glassy and red.
“Jesus, man. You okay?”
“Of course he’s not okay, Martin,” Alicia hissed. “Look at him!”
“Whoa, whoa, hold on a minute.”
Ray buried his head in his hands and Alicia motioned for Martin to do something.
“Uh, Ray,” Martin said. “We’ve just put some burgers on the grill. Would you like one?” This was not at all how he had envisioned his first garden party.
Alicia pushed her chair back and stood up.
“What’s going on, Ray. Give me something to work with, buddy. What are you thinking right now?”
Ray looked up again. “I just never been to a barbecue before.”
“That’s fine. It’s really not a big deal.”
Ray took a deep breath and seemed to collect himself a bit. “You know,” he said, “you got a nice family. Real happy people.”
Martin wondered what this meant coming from a man like Ray. Was it a nice family because his wife was so quick to embrace a stranger? Or because he and Sarah had learned to get along reasonably well for the sake of the boys.
“Here, Ray,” Alicia said, setting down a glass of water.
“Thank you, Miss Alicia.” He took the glass and drained it.
“Would you like another?”
Ray shook his head.
“All right, Ray,” Martin said again. “Listen up. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re a welcome guest in our house. You’re our friend.”
Ray watched him closely. “Really?”
“Of course, of course.”
“I don’t have many friends like you. Any, actually.”
“Well, that’s fine. But tonight you do. Let me explain how it all works, okay? It’s been a long week, right, so now’s the time to sit back and relax a bit. Be friendly.”
“Friendly?”
“Yes. Mingle. Chat. Make some new friends.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“You just do.”
Ray put his head in his hands again.
“All right, Ray. Ray? Put your head up. This is what we’re going to do. You’re going to go to the bathroom and wash your face and hands. You’re going to pull yourself together, and when you’re done doing that, you’re going to come outside and eat a burger. I insist. If you don’t want to talk to anyone, that’s fine, but if you do, it will be okay.”
“You promise?”
“I promise.” Martin said it without thinking.
Alicia asked, “Do you want any more water?”
“No, that’s okay.”
“Okay then. Bathroom is right over there.”
Ray moved mechanically, and soon they heard the tap running.
Alicia said, “I’m going to go check on the burgers.”
“Hey,” Martin reached for her arm. “What’s his deal, do you think?”
Alicia looked down at him in his chair and said, “He’s probably just scared.”
When Ray came back out, his face was a little wet and Martin handed him a paper towel.
“Come on, Ray,” he said, and the confused man followed him out to the yard.

It had started to get darker, and John had found the plug to turn on the lights. They looked great, Martin thought, as he walked down the steps with Ray in tow. He could hear the man’s breath behind him coming faster. He wondered if Ray really was having a panic attack. Sarah and Matt were entertaining the group with a story from work: Matt had planned a prescription drug dinner for some of the doctors at Georgetown Medical. He held it at a fancy restaurant where there had been samples of the latest generation Viagra. One of the interns, who had gotten drunk, had taken one on a dare and made an ass of himself to a waitress. “And then he says,” Matt re-enacted in a low voice, “but I haven’t given you the tip yet!” John had taken over the grilling, and Alicia stood next to him, showing him when to turn the burgers and when to add cheese.
Martin said to Ray, “We’re going to go down and get a beer, and we’ll just join the group, no problem.” Ray nodded, following behind.
“Smells good, John-boy.” Martin patted his son on the shoulder.
“Thanks, Dad. Would you like cheese on your burger, Ray?”
Ray nodded, then grunted out a yes.
Martin opened a beer for Ray. “I don’t drink much,” Ray said, looking at the bottle.
“That’s fine. One won’t kill you. Cheers.” Martin clinked the green neck of his bottle against Ray’s. The smell of meat was thick in the air as the guests shuffled around the table, picking up paper plates and eating the chips that Alicia had put out.
As the burgers were cooked, John lifted them from the grill with a spatula and carefully placed them onto the buns pushed in his direction by the hungry guests. “Why don’t we eat inside, everybody?” Alicia said from the steps, “So we can sit down for a bit.” The patio cleared out some, and soon it was just John and Martin and Ray.
“That’s good, John,” Martin said, indicating the last few burgers. “Here you go, Ray.”
“I think it’s well done, Dad.”
“That’s fine. You did good.”
John looked up at his father and then back to the grill knobs. “How do I turn it off?”
“Turn them all the way down and then don’t forget to check the main underneath.” He bent down and showed him how.
“I can do it.”
“I know you can, but we need to get inside.”
Ray watched them closely.
“Shall we?” Martin asked him. They made up their plates and went inside to join the ruckus around the table.
“Mary called,” Alicia said to Martin when they took their seats. “She said she’d be by later for drinks with her guy.”
“No dinner?”
“They’re vegetarian.”
“Great burgers, guys,” Bill said and Anna nodded with him. “So I understand you’re in the gardening business, is that right, Ray?”
Ray had just taken his seat and was looking around the table to see all eyes turn toward him. “I work at Home Depot in the garden section, but I don’t own the store.” This drew several laughs from the adults.
“We met at the store,” Martin said, “And Ray’s been an invaluable help. We never would have been able to plant without him.”
“Did you tell Dad how to make the sunflowers grow?” Noah asked.
Ray turned to the little boy and nodded. “I guess I did.”
“Did you see them yet?” Noah asked, eyes wide.
Ray shook his head.
“They’re right over there.” Noah pointed. “Come on.”
“After dinner, Noah,” Sarah said. She was drinking white wine and Martin noticed her other hand was underneath the table. “Then you can show Mister Ray.”
“That them over there on the counter?” Ray asked, and made to get up.
“After supper, Ray,” Martin said.
When Bill and Martin started to talk about the finer points of the farmer’s tax credit bill, Alicia asked Anna if Bill talked politics at the dinner table all the time, too. Sarah jumped in saying, “Oh, it used to drive me nuts, didn’t it, Marty?”
“Pardon?”
The women laughed.
“Well, he’s all yours now,” Sarah said, raising her glass.
So as not to let the moment sink too far into Bill’s mind, Martin quickly brought up the Nationals game that they had spoken about in the office the day before. Anna, it turned out, was a big fan, and before getting into politics she had dreamed of being a sports reporter. The party rose and fell with the sounds of food and drink and the relaxation of a lazy afternoon without deadlines or pressures from bosses. Martin wondered whether Ray felt a similar release, or whether he dreaded returning to work the following Monday.
“You mind if we step out for a smoke, Mart?” Bill asked, pushing his chair back. Ray was still hunched over his plate, eating slowly.
“Not at all,” Martin said. “We’ll see you out there in a bit.”
The doorbell rang. “Must be Mary,” Alicia said, and got up from the table.
“May I be excused?” John asked, prompting a funny look from Ray.
“Sure can,” Martin said. “Great job on those burgers, by the way.” Sarah and Matt nodded their support as well.
“Can I show Ray the sunflowers now, Dad?” Noah asked.
“When he’s finished eating, Noah.”
Ray said with his mouth full, “I’m done.”
Martin tried his best not to stare at the juice dribbling down Ray’s chin, and nodded. “Fine. But don’t forget to clean up, Noah.” He hoped that Ray would take the hint as well.
“Marty, you remember Mary, right?” Alicia had her arm wrapped around her friend’s. “And this is her fella, Jesse.”
“What’s up?” Jesse said. He must be an artist as well, Martin thought. Or maybe a musician. His jeans were black and ragged. He wore a sleeveless undershirt and a tiny fedora cocked at an angle. Probably hadn’t bathed in several days, Martin guessed, getting a whiff of his spicy odor.
“Upstairs, guys. I want to show you the new studio,” Alicia said. “We’ll be back down in a bit.” She took a bottle of wine from the table and three glasses.
Ray and Noah were perched over the counter, looking at the seedlings. Ray was telling him how they could plant them tonight, if they wanted. They were ready.
“Can we, Dad? Please?” Noah asked when Martin joined them.
“Not right now.”
“Oh, it wouldn’t take much,” Ray said. “They’re really easy to put in. Just a little—”
“No, Ray. It’s not a good time right now. Come on guys, let’s go outside. You want an ice-cream sandwich, Noah?” The child began to jump up and down and Ray laughed, hopping once as well.
When Martin opened the box from the fridge, Noah grabbed two and said, “Come on Ray!” and bolted out the door. Ray grinned over his shoulder at Martin as he followed the boy into the yard.
“Some guy you’ve got there,” Sarah said about Ray from the table. She and Matt were now holding hands in plain view. “Is there more Chardonnay?”
Martin moved mechanically, taking the bottle from the fridge and refilling both their glasses.
“Thanks, man,” Matt said, and clinked his glass against Sarah’s.
“I don’t know, Sarah,” Martin said. “He’s pretty funny, isn’t he?”
“I’ll say.”
“But salt of the earth. The guy’s from Chesterfield County. I bet he grew up on a tobacco farm or something.”
“Whatever you say. It’s your party.”
“Sarah, it’s guys like Ray who make up most of this state, you know? Outside of the beltway, come on, Ray’s closer to America than we are.” Martin began to assemble a few lines to tuck away for Barry if he ever needed them. Something along the lines of the working poor who were the heart and soul of the country.
Sarah sniffed. “High school dropout, daddy was hard on him, yeah, yeah. Just don’t let him touch my kids.”
“Knock it off, Sarah.”
“I’m serious. He seems like a nice man, but he’s definitely not normal. I don’t mind if you have him help in the garden, but you better watch his ass when he’s around Noah.”
“He’s all right. He’s harmless.” Martin could see that Sarah had more to say on the subject, but her lips had gone tight with her polite smile. She wouldn’t say more until she was ready. “Where’s John?” Martin asked.
“Watching TV.”
“Well then, I think I’m going to go outside. You love birds want to join me?”
“Sounds good to me,” Matt said, not wasting any time getting up.

Martin found Ray showing Noah how to braid the long stems of some overgrown grass into bracelets. He finished making one and tied it around Noah’s wrist. Three white flowers had been woven in with the grass stems and Martin had to admit, it looked quite nice.
“How did you learn to do that, Ray?” he asked.
“Yeah, Mister Ray? How?” Noah said, twirling the bracelet around his wrist as he studied it.
“Oh, I don’t know. Just did, I guess. I think I must have learned when I was a kid. Maybe your age, Noah.”
“Did you live on a farm?” Noah asked.
“No. Lived in the country, but not on a farm.”
“You sure are a mystery, Ray,” Martin said, popping him on the shoulder with the flat of his hand.
From the window above, Alicia called down, “Hey! Is there any beer left?” Martin could see Mary and Alicia giggling, Jesse’s head in the background.
“Why don’t you come down?” Martin called up.
“I’m showing them my work—can you bring us some drinks?” How tipsy had she gotten, Martin wondered. “Thanks!” she said, disappearing back into the studio.
Sarah caught his eye. He walked toward her. “Hey, Sarah?”
“Yes, Martin.”
“You mind keeping an eye on Noah while I bring some drinks up to Alicia?”
“I’d be happy to. Oh, sweetie,” she said, expertly kneeling down in her heels to touch her son’s hand. “It’s beautiful. Did Mister Ray make that for you?”
Martin walked back to the cooler to get Alicia her drinks. He was a little disconcerted to see Ray standing at the edge of the patio in the darkness between the garden and the party. Ray was staring out into the little yard, maybe at the fence, maybe at the flowerbeds, but with his back to the group, his foreignness was obvious.
“Here you go,” Martin said, handing him a beer, hoping he’d snap out of it and act normal.
Ray was very still and did not take the bottle.
“Ray? You okay?”
“I got a funny feeling.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”
Ray swayed back and forth, as if in the wind. Martin sensed the heat coming off his body, and the now familiar smell of sourness and dirt. The beer bottles were cold in his hand, and he shifted them. He wondered if Ray was drunk off his one beer.
“You don’t have to take it if you don’t want to. We got soda, too.”
“No, I’ll have one,” Ray said, taking the bottle. “It’s so nice of you. Bring me to your home. Show me your family. Meet your friends.”
“That’s fine, Ray. I just want you to have a good time, is all.” What was he doing with this strange man-child in his back yard? Martin asked himself. He’d done the natural thing—he’d invited a stranger over to his house as an act of kindness, and that had given him the satisfaction of knowing that he’d done a good thing. He hadn’t gone to church in years; since he and Alicia had been married, come to think of it. But as a child, his parents had put him in Sunday school every weekend. He still remembered the lessons: Be kind to strangers. Be charitable. Treat others as you would want to be treated. “Are you having a good time, Ray?”
He turned to face him more directly and saw that the man had tears falling down his face again.
“I ain’t never had no family like this. It’s nice to be around, you know?” His voice was hoarse.
He couldn’t help it. He put an arm around Ray’s shoulder, feeling the sticky tee-shirt stain his clothes. They stood like that for a moment until Ray nodded, and Martin let him go. When he turned back to the party to check who had seen him, his eyes met Sarah’s cold stare.
“I’ve got to bring these drinks up to Alicia and her friends. But I got a question I want to ask you about what to do about all this grass here. I’ll be down in a bit. You going to be here when I get back?”
Ray nodded, smiling. “Yeah, I’ll be here. I ain’t going nowhere yet.”
As Martin turned to head back to the house, he could see Mary and Alicia watching them from the window. Mary whispered something to her, and Alicia placed her hand over her heart; it sent shivers down his arms. He was intoxicated with that feeling as he climbed the stairs to the second floor.
He found them in the studio, looking at sketches and watercolors that Alicia had done recently. Both friends made the appropriate noises of encouragement as Alicia slowly pulled back pages in her sketchbook, flipping past crude drawings and giving them time to absorb the better ones. Martin knocked on the doorframe and Alicia turned to face him.
“I saw you,” he said.
“I saw you.”
“Here’s your drinks. No more wine. Just beer.”
“Fine by me,” Jesse said.
“Isn’t her new studio wonderful, Martin?” Mary said, accepting the beer he held out to her. “I haven’t seen work like this from Alicia in years. There is something very special about this space. I think your idea of putting in a garden is lovely, darling,” she said, nodding at her friend. “Absolutely lovely. Now if only I could get this guy to help me with an herb box for my kitchen window.”
Martin nodded at Jesse. “It’s pretty easy, I’ve read.”
“Not my thing, man,” Jesse said.
“What is your thing? We’ve barely had a chance to talk tonight.”
“No worries, man. I do sculpture. Some silk screening. A little ceramics. You know.”
“Jack of all trades.”
“Something like that.”
“But Martin,” Mary interrupted, “don’t you think it’s wonderful, Alicia’s garden?”
“Alicia’s garden?”
“No, Mary, it was Martin’s idea.”
Alicia’s friend seemed to process this idea very slowly. “But you’re a…”
“But I’m a what?” Martin asked with interest.
“A politician!” Mary cried. “How could you want to grow a garden?”
Alicia covered her face with her hand as Martin explained. “Actually, I thought it would be better for Alicia if we did the garden together. She’d been talking about how she needed new energy to paint.”
“Alicia? Who is this man? And what has he done with your husband?”
“I know,” Alicia said, reaching out for Martin’s hand. “He’s come around quite a bit to the arts, haven’t you?”
“Well, I think it’s a great studio,” Mary said. “And I think you’re a great man for my friend, even if you are a politician.”
“At least I’m a Democrat,” Martin said, which got a good laugh from all of them.

When Noah fell asleep on the couch, Sarah said she’d take them home so they could sleep in their own beds. She promised to bring them back in the morning. Martin carried Noah out to Sarah’s SUV and buckled him into the backseat, John walking behind him. The other guests left, two by two, and Alicia eventually had to shoo Ray away, insisting that he was not allowed to stay and help clean up.
“But Miss Alicia, you all have been so nice to me.”
“Ray, that’s enough. You’re welcome here anytime.”
She and Martin walked him to the alley. When Ray climbed into the driver’s seat, he rolled down the window. “Y’all are real nice folks.”
“Thanks Ray. Goodnight,” Martin said.
“Drive safe!” Alicia called.
Ray nodded and started up his truck in a cloud of exhaust. He honked the horn as he backed out of the alley and onto the street.
“I think he’s such a sweet man, Marty. I’m so glad we invited him over.”
“Me too, honey.”
She turned to face him, and he wrapped his arms around her lower back. “Come on,” she said, indicating the house with a slow move of her head. “You’ve been good tonight.”

Eight
Sunday morning, Martin woke with his wife in his arms and a strand of her long brown hair in his mouth. He had trouble extracting himself; the sheets were so tangled even the fitted bottom sheet had come loose. He started the coffee before even relieving himself, and by ten o’clock he was sitting on the couch with his laptop booting up. As he worked his way through the Sunday morning talk shows he began to feel a twinge of guilt about not staying in bed with his wife after she had treated him so well the night before. Then the host of Meet the Press said something about the farm bill and he didn’t think about Alicia again until he heard her making breakfast.
“You planning on helping me in the garden when you’re done?” she asked. “Almost over,” he said.
“Here’s your breakfast,” she said, handing him a plate of eggs and sausage.
“Thanks babe,” he said, not looking up at her for more than a second.
“I’ll be in the back yard, having my coffee if you’d care to join me.”
“One minute, okay babe?”

When he finally went outside, he found her up to the elbows in dirt, smudges on her cheeks, hair in her face, pulling a brick from the dirt and placing it on a small stack behind her. “Son of a bitch that was a doozie,” she said. “You ready to help, now that all the hard work is done?”
He picked up the shovel and began to work the dirt loose in the second flower bed, perpendicular to the first and along the fence, and Alicia picked out the rocks and bricks that emerged. Far away, they both heard the heavy exhaust of an old truck. As it approached Martin wondered—no, it couldn’t be, but yes, Alicia was standing up and smiling, and there he was coming through the gate now and Alicia hugging him like an old friend.
“Hey Mister Martin!”
“What are you doing this morning?” Martin asked, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“Oh, I thought I would stop by with some stuff I had lying around. Thought you could use it.”
Alicia had hooked her arm around Ray’s and was leading him out to the truck to see, and Martin heard himself say he shouldn’t have bothered. He stood in the gardening leaning on the shovel, still a little hung over from the night before. What was happening?
When Martin stepped out into the alley he saw that the back of the truck was filled with mulch. Ray had pulled back a grey tarp and was using a bucket to scoop out the mulch into an empty trash barrel that Alicia was steadying on the truck’s open gate.
“Where did you get all this, Ray?” Martin asked.
“Leftover stock from work,” Ray said. “They get all these bags that get returned or torn open and we take them to a big pile in back. Just go to waste otherwise. Mixed up, but it’s still good mulch.”
“And you can just take it?” Martin asked, The smell of cedar, compost, manure was thick in the air. “We don’t have to pay you for any of this?”
“Oh no, Mister Martin. This is my paying you back.”
“Ray, don’t talk like that,” Alicia said, throwing a piece of bark at him. “Knock it off already. I told you, you’re a friend. Right Marty?”
Martin scooped up a handful of mulch and worked it through his fingers. It was a nice gesture, he had to admit. “Well, let’s put some of this in the flowerbeds and see how much we have left,” he said. Maybe Ray wasn’t so bad after all, he thought.
“There’s plenty more where this came from,” Ray said, “and I got some other things for you, too.”
“Like what?” Martin asked.
“It’s a surprise,” Ray said with a mischievous smile.
Alicia laughed and said: “Look at you!” Ray chuckled and dumped another bucket into the trash can. It was approaching full. “It’s awfully sweet of you,” Alicia said, “but we can pay for this stuff, you know.”
“I just want y’all to have a nice garden. Y’all have been such good people to me, inviting me to your barbeque and all.”
Martin had begun to visualize what the beds would look like with the fresh mulch spread and was getting excited. “Okay then guys,” Martin said, “let’s get to work.”
Ray nodded, and jumped over the side of the truck. He took the barrel from Alicia and hoisted it onto his shoulder. As he carried it into the back yard, Martin leaned one hand on the truck and lifted the tarp back further.
“He really brought all this from the store?” he asked his wife.
“He said it was going to be dumped anyway.”
“Still,” Martin pulled the tarp back. “I don’t like the idea of him getting into trouble.”
“Where you want me to put it?” Ray called from behind the fence.
They worked side by side, stooped over in the flowerbeds, pulling out rocks, weeds, and a cracked plastic sand shovel, the kind kids play with on the beach.
“It’s an archeology site back here,” Alicia said as Ray pulled the shovel up carefully and wiped the dirt off with the edge of his thumb.
“What’s that?” Ray said.
“When they look for dinosaur bones,” Martin said. “Archeologists.”
“I never heard that word in all my life. Y’all are real smart, you know that? You been to college, Martin? I bet you been to all kinds of colleges.”
“I have. Right here in DC actually. Alicia’s been some, too.”
“I graduated, Mister.”
“What kind of college did you go to, Miss Alicia?”
“I went to an art school up north. In Rhode Island.”
“You an artist?”
“Aren’t we all?” she said, fitting a smaller rock between two larger ones in the border she was making.
“I ain’t no artist,” Ray said, spreading mulch with his bare hands. “What kind of art you do? I bet you paint like that guy on the TV program, all those mountains and trees and stuff. You ever see that show?”
Alicia laughed and looked at Martin, shaking her head. “Like the guy on TV, Ray?” she said with a little sass in her voice.
“Yeah, he’s good. I used to watch that show when I was a kid. So what do you paint, Miss Alicia?”
“Lately I’ve been drawing a lot back here, actually. We had a poison ivy vine that I sketched up a few times.”
Ray scrunched up his face. “You drew it? Why?”
“Because I thought it was pretty.”
“No way! Can I see? I never thought poison ivy was pretty, but I bet you could make anything beautiful you wanted to, Miss Alicia.”
Martin was out of mulch and he had just got up to get more from the back of Ray’s truck when his youngest son came sprinting down the steps, letting the screen door slap shut behind him.
“Noah, dammit! How many times do I have to tell you about the door!”
The child froze and pouted at the ground. Next to Alicia, Martin noticed Ray watching the boy with a strange look.
“Hello! Hello!” called Sarah from inside. She stopped at the top of the stairs and said, “Oh, hello Ray. Martin? What’s going on? Noah honey, is everything all right?”
“Dad yelled at me for slamming the door.”
“Well maybe he shouldn’t have yelled at you, but maybe you shouldn’t have slammed the door either. Go give your father a hug. Martin, don’t yell at our child for being eight, okay? Can we try to preserve at least some semblance of innocence? Please? Hi Alicia. Sorry about all this, but I’m running late. Martin, may I have a word with you inside?”
John arrived at his mother’s side as Martin climbed the steps. “Hey bub,” Martin said to him.
Alicia said, “Noah, would you like to help Mr. Ray and I plant some flowers?”
“What’s going on,” John said. “How are the tomatoes?”
Martin looked down at him and patted his shoulder. “Fine, fine. Check them yourself. Just need a minute with your mother.”
Inside, Sarah’s lips tightened across her face, creating tiny lines along her cheeks. “I thought we had a deal,” she said.
“What deal?”
“That you would keep that creep at a distance. Why is he over here again? Did he stay the night?”
“No, he didn’t stay the night. He came over this morning. And if you really want to know, he also brought a whole truck load of mulch to help us out, because some people in this country are still good, nice people, who are sincere in their actions, and maybe, just maybe, it’s possible that he’s not a child rapist!”
“Get ahold of yourself, Martin. He’ll hear you.”
“Let him!” he said, banging the table. Then after a deep breath, “What time are you picking up the boys?”
“I might not be dropping them off,” she said. “If you keep that up.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I told you. I don’t like him. Help in the garden, fine. Invite him to a party, fine. But he is not to touch my kids.”
“Come on, he’s harmless. The boys will be with me all day.”
“I don’t want them back there in that yard with him. Take them to a movie or something. But don’t let him near my kids.”
“Your kids?”
“My kids.”
“Fine.”
Sarah searched his face for a moment then said, “Have a nice day at the movies. Noah said he’d really like to see the new Harry Potter, if you’re interested.”

Martin did end up taking Noah and John to see the movie, and Ray stayed with Alicia in the back yard. When the boys returned, Martin parked on the street in front of their row house and stopped Noah from running into the back yard by saying, “Do me a favor and brush your teeth first. I don’t want your mother to know I let you eat popcorn.” John plopped himself down in front of the television, and Martin edged his way into the kitchen, watching Ray and Alicia kneel in the yard. She was touching him on the arm. Martin had a hard time figuring how old Ray looked. Mid thirties maybe? Older? Ray was looking her directly in the eye and nodding, smiling.
Through the window Martin saw the strange man touch his wife’s hand, showing her how to plant a bulb. Behind him, the living room was loud with the television. He heard Noah ask John to change the channel to Cartoon Network. Alicia’s mouth opened wide as she laughed, and Ray laughed as well. She held onto his arm, telling him something and he listened very intently. He stared at the ground and Alicia pushed up his chin with the back of her hand, which was not as dirty, and she told him something in earnest.
What is she seeing in him, he thought to himself. It can’t be sex. No way. The way he knows plants, he decided. Yes, that was it. And he was good with plants. The way he showed her bulbs, and how he fixed the tomato plant, cutting those cotton ribbons and tying the vine off like the arm of a patient. He knew Alicia had watched him closely as he did that, and she had been so mat at him moment before. Furious. And then instantly Ray had made it all better.
They both were kneeling near one another, and she draped an arm around his shoulders and without knowing what he was doing, Martin opened the door to the back yard and quickly walked down the steps.
“Hey honey! Hey Ray! How’s it going? Oh the flowerbeds look wonderful!”
Alicia kept her arm where it was for a second and then folded her hands in her lap. “Ray was showing me how to plant bulbs,” she said.
“Hey there, Marty,” Ray said.
“How was the movie?” Alicia asked, standing and brushing dirt off her knees. “Oh my God, my butt is sore. Do you see these bulbs we planted? Ray taught me how to cut their tops open just a little bit to force them up, seeing as we were a little late in getting them in. Ray says that we should be fine though. Season’s been off or something.”
“I heard it was because of climate change,” Ray said.
“Right,” Martin said. “Hey, Ray, what do you think we should do about all this grass?”
Though they had been watering every day, the perfect green square of lawn he’d imagined had yet to materialize. Instead, various grasses had grown and sprouted strange white sacs of fluffy seeds half the size of a rice grain, and tall wisps with tight cobs of black kernels. “Grasshopper eyes,” Noah had called them. And there were little flowers, low to ground, white as a new golf ball, just like the ones he might practice with one day, chipping into a bucket, once the lawn was ready.
“I want to keep it the way it is,” Alicia said. “I love it in its natural state.”
“Leesh, we need to mow. It’s starting to look unsightly.”
“Course you don’t have to right away, Mister Martin,” Ray said. “It’s never a bad idea to let the roots grow a bit before you cut. Specially after such a long time being all dried up and stuff.”
“Even the weeds?”
“They’re not weeds,” Alicia howled. “They’re beautiful! I want to keep them to sketch.”
Martin chose his words with care. “I saw you working through the kitchen window and I thought I ought to have the boys come out and help, if you don’t mind.”
Ray turned his foot in the dirt, crushing a bright red ant. “Course we don’t mind, Marty.”
Alicia turned her back to him and was in the dirt again.
“All right, just let me get the boys,” Martin said over his shoulder, climbing the concrete steps. He could hear the scraping of a shovel penetrating the dirt behind him. In his rational mind he knew that there was no possibility of Ray stealing her away, that by all counts, he was the better man. He had a good job, a nice house, two boys who could have turned out much worse. Ray was a novelty, he told himself. A new friend. A project for her, nothing more. Just the guy who helped him with his garden. The Home Depot guy. Nothing to worry about. “Noah! John! Get your butts off the couch and get outside to help us with the yard.”
“But the show’s almost over,” Noah cried.
“And it’s hot out there,” John said.
“I don’t care if it’s almost over. Get off your butts, you two. Now.”
Noah and John didn’t budge, staring straight ahead at the cartoon playing on the television.
Martin tried a different tactic. Softening his voice, he approached Noah and said “Hey, don’t you want to see how Alicia plants the flowers? It’s really cool.”
“I want to watch TV,” Noah said.
“Come on bub, help me with your brother.” Martin slapped John on the shoulder with the palm of his hand.
“He doesn’t want to go,” John said. “It’s hot out.” Neither John nor Noah had taken their eyes off the screen.
“Come on you two. TV is off,” Martin said walking to the screen and pressing the power button. “I want you two outside in five minutes.” He left the room and the high-pitched fizzle from the television set that smelled vaguely of ozone. His feet fell heavy on the stairs as he went to his bedroom, undoing his shirt along the way. Half unbuttoned, he pushed the door open, slamming it against the doorstop with a bang. He tore his shirt off and threw it into the laundry basket and jerked open a dresser drawer. Alicia’s clutter covered the surface. Long necklaces of multi-colored beads that she would wrap around her neck several times and then tie in a knot. He still wasn’t used to that. How could you tie a necklace? Wasn’t that bad for it somehow? Her earrings, too, mismatched sets strewn across the cherry wood finish. Her elastic hair ties, dark strands wrapped in knots around them, and still more strands everywhere, in the bed, on the floor, long curls of them in the shower drain. Her hair was everywhere and her clutter, and he didn’t even want to step into the studio, because he knew he would flinch at the sight of half empty tubes of oils, the metal casings crushed from the middle. “She’s such a fool,” he said to himself. “She probably doesn’t even know he’s falling for her.”
He grabbed an old t-shirt and forced it over his head. He stopped himself short of ripping the fabric, and slowly smoothed it down his chest. Leaning over a hairbrush and a stick of deodorant, he looked into the mirror. “What are you doing? Get a grip. He’s the yard guy.”
He was much more calm when he went downstairs. The boys were still sitting on the couch.
“Sorry I yelled,” Martin said.
They filed out after him as he headed for the yard.
“I come with forced labor,” he said, opening the screen door.
Ray, sweating from all over, red-faced, stooped in the dirt, looked up at the boys as they descended into the garden.
“What do you want us to do, Mr. Ray?” Martin said.
“It ain’t my yard.”
“But you’re in charge,” Martin said, tousling Noah’s hair, who ducked to avoid the large hand pushing his head around. “What do we do?”
“Can I plant something?” Noah asked.
“Sure can, bub,” Martin said. “Ain’t that right, Ray? Something Noah can plant?”
“Yes sir.”
“Don’t sir him,” Alicia said. “Come here, Noah. You can help me with these black-eyed Susans.”
The sun was on its way towards the horizon, and overhead, long jet streams from planes flying to and from National Airport elongated the sense of sky, drawing skewed lines of longitude and latitude.
“What are we going to do about this grass, Ray?”
“Cut it, I expect.”
The yard from the brick patio to the flowerbeds was a wild tangle of grasses, some almost a foot high, some flowering in dense clumps.
“I say we should keep it,” Alicia said.
“Leesh, it’s out of control,” Martin said.
“It’s beautiful. You need to let me sketch it some more before you cut. Promise me.”
“I’m getting a mower next weekend. I think a nice eco-friendly one, right Ray?”
“You know for a little yard like this—no offense Mister Martin, I think a push mower is all you’d need. And it wouldn’t be loud at all.”
“A good work out, right John?” Martin said.
John threw a small clod of dirt at his father’s feet and said, “You mean, I’m the one whose going to mow?”
Martin winked at him and John groaned. “It’s so unfair! He gets to play with flowers,” he said pointing at Noah and Alicia, “and I have to mow the lawn.”
“Relax, bub. I’m just kidding.”
“No you’re not. I know you.”
Ray stood a few feet away from them, watching their conversation with interest. “Hey y’all,” he called, “I have some things from the store that they was going to throw away. I don’t have room for them at my place, but I thought you might want them.”
Alicia turned from the hole she had instructed Noah to dig, and sat on her heels. “Ray, you shouldn’t have.”
“No, no, I wanted you to have them. Ain’t no big deal. It was all going to the dumpsters anyway. Come on back, I want to show you.”
He pushed open the gate and stood in the bed of his truck, pulling back the gray tarpuline even further. It crackled sharply as he bunched it up in his hands and tossed it aside. Martin and Alicia stood along the side of the trunk bed, staring at the treasures Ray uncovered for them. At the back of the bed, nearest the cab, stood a loose stack of chipped flagstones, white like limestone, with indentations of prehistoric shells and bits of brightly colored pebbles. There was also a dented copper fire pit with green rings around the edges from being on display. And in the back corner, Ray was unwrapping a long strip of burlap and rerolling the material around his own arms, such that when he was finished and stepped back to reveal a tiny cedar tree, the cloth had become a giant beige muffler.
Alicia walked around to feel the springy leaves. “Ray, this is incredible,” she said. “How beautiful!”
Martin couldn’t resist. He followed Alicia to get a better look. “Ray, I saw these at the store,” he said. “They were pretty expensive.”
“This one was in the dump pile for some reason,” Ray said, looking back towards the yard.
“You sure?” Alicia said, trying to catch his eye.
“It’s perfect,” Martin said. Noah and John had followed them into the alley and were waiting by the gate of the truck. “Come on boys,” Martin said, “let’s get this stuff unloaded. Quick like a bunny.”
“Wait Marty,” Alicia said. “Ray, you’re sure? This is a lot of stuff.”
“No, no, don’t worry about it, Miss Alicia, I want to. It was going to the dumpster anyway.”
Martin was already directing Noah to take only one flagstone at a time. He watched John pick up three and heave them into the back yard.
“Come on Ray,” Martin said, “give me a hand with this fire pit. Maybe we’ll make us some smores tonight. You would like to stay for dinner, I hope.” In his head, he thought of Sarah, and how she couldn’t possibly dislike the man after such a generous gift. That fire pit alone, he was sure it cost more than a hundred dollars. Liberated, he told himself, from a wasteful dump pile. Saved, not stolen.
“Sure,” Ray said. “That’d be real nice.”
They followed each other like trained ants, carrying forgotten and discarded treasures back to their home. Ray, Martin, Alicia, and the boys established a rhythm, carrying the flagstones into the garden until they had emptied the truck.
Ray showed John how to cut out the grass a little before placing the flagstones. They worked together laying a path from the corner of the brick patio to the back gate. Martin fussed with the fire pit, dragging it from one corner of the patio to the other, playing with furniture arrangements and where to put the grill until Alicia told him to quit it and help them figure out what to do with the cedar tree.
It was potted in a nice cream-colored glaze. The terracotta bottom scraped against the brick as they set it in one corner and then another, on the steps, in the grass, until everyone had their own idea on what was best; Ray was arguing to keep it in the sun because it was better for the tree, John was saying it looked better against the house, and soon they were raising their voices at each other. John said, “What do you know? You’re just the guy from Home Depot! Besides, it’s not even your house!” Martin grabbed John by the shoulder and told him to knock it off, and Noah and Alicia froze, and Ray’s face, already red from the sun, turned hot pink. With a loud, penetrating, and almost childish scream, Ray stepped towards John and shook his hands in front of his face, fingers extended, as if he were being electrocuted.
Martin quickly put his much larger body between them and firmly pushed Ray’s chest back with his hand, saying in a deep voice, “No Ray! Stop!” as if he were scolding a dog. The shorter man came up abruptly and stood, fists at his sides, fuming. Martin was shaking, too. He said, “You better knock it off, Ray.”
John, who had begun to cry, fled inside.
Alicia made her best attempt to smooth things over and insisted that John come out and apologize to Ray, but Martin vetoed her and said, “Maybe it’s just been a long day. We’re all tired. Ray, why don’t we take a rain check on dinner and do it some other time.”
Ray was nodding slowly as he walked back towards his truck. Alicia hissed, “Follow him! Talk to him!”
Martin whispered, “Let him go. I’ll talk to him later.”
“No, now!”
Martin watched the gate close and heard Ray open the door of his truck.
“Then I’ll talk to him myself,” Alicia said.
“No, wait,” Martin said, grabbing her arm. They heard the engine rumble, not quite catch, turn, and die. This was followed by a second and third attempt.
“Fine, I’ll go talk to him. Stay here,” Martin said, walking across the freshly laid path that Ray had helped them build.
Ray was standing in front of the open hood, peering inside. The sun had begun to set and the temperature was dropping a little. In the distance, the faint and incessant song of an ice cream truck played.
“Engine gives me trouble sometimes,” Ray said from under the hood.
“Should I call a tow?” Martin asked.
Ray stood back from the truck and spit. “I don’t know. I guess I could fix it. Need my tools though.”
“They’re not in the back?”
Ray shook his head and then ducked back under the hood.
“You don’t know what it is?” Martin asked.
“Probably this belt here,” Ray said pointing to some component that Martin could make nothing of. It’s been fixing to go. Yep, that’s the one.”
“If it’s been fixing to go, why didn’t you take care of it ahead of time?”
“Ahead of time?”
“Listen, how about I call a tow truck and we get it to a shop.”
“I can fix it. Take it to a shop and they’ll charge me an arm and a leg.”
“Well then tow it back to your place.”
“That could work. Got my tools there.”
“All right, let’s get you out of here,” Martin said pulling out his cell phone and handing it to Ray.

While they were waiting, Martin asked Ray about his family. The sun had started its descent, and over the tops of the houses the clouds were pink and lavender.
“Was just me and my folks, but Mother’s dead and I haven’t heard from my dad in a long time.”
“Don’t you ever talk?”
“He ain’t got no phone. I tried to get him to buy a cell phone, but he’s a stubborn man, my father. Even offered to pay half. That was a few years ago.”
“He still live in Chester County?”
“Guess so. Don’t know anywhere else he’d go. He own his own house, you know.”
“The house you grew up in?”
Ray nodded and scooted off the back of the truck as the tow pulled into the alley.
“You know where you’re going?” Martin asked the tow driver when he pulled up.
He nodded from the cab as he opened the door and stepped down. He wore a blue jumpsuit—a onesie—and his hair was cropped high and tight. He worked fast, attaching the hooks to the under carriage of Ray’s truck and pulling the levers to hoist the vehicle onto the tow’s flatbed. When he was finished, Martin handed him a wad of eight twenties from his wallet and asked, “You’re sure you know the address now?”
“Yes sir. One-oh-seven Weldon Way. Arlington.”
“Thank you.” He approached Ray, who was looking up at his truck, the painted doors and the large dents in the sides.
“Maybe I outta think about getting a new one.”
“First things first,” Martin said. “Get home safe. I’ll see you around the store, yeah?”
“I’m sorry about what I did, Martin. I didn’t mean to yell like that. I don’t know what come over me. Sometimes I just lose my temper.”
“We all do, sometimes. Let’s not talk about it anymore. It’s over and done with.”
“I saw you pay the driver.”
“Call it squares.”
“All right, Marty,” Ray said hitching his jeans. He climbed up to the passenger seat of the tow. “I’ll be seeing you.” He closed the door and rolled down the window. “But if I don’t see you, I really appreciate it. The time I known you.”
“Ray, I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah. Good night.”
Martin watched them pull out of the alley, down long shadows. He walked through the gate and back along the path, which was now lit with solar-powered ground lamps which Alicia had been waiting to put in. She had placed them between the clumps of black-eyed Susans that they had planted earlier, and the soft blue light had begun to attract various bugs. Alicia and the boys were sitting around the card table, which they had set with plates and silverware. A pitcher of lemonade sat sweating in the middle. There was a dish towel folded underneath to catch the drips. John was playing with the condensation on his drink, using his finger to squeegee the sides of his cup dry.
“How are you doing, bub?” Martin asked.
“Not bad.”
“Ray’s on his way home.”
“I don’t like him,” John said. He continued to focus his eyes on wiping the sides of the glass clean. “Mom’s right. He’s a creep.”
Martin saw Alicia stiffen and was thankful that she had the good sense not to say anything just then.
Later that night, after the boys had their dinner and brushed their teeth and said their prayers, as Sarah liked them to do, Martin joined his wife in their bedroom. She was reading another of her glossy magazines, but this one, Martin was excited to see, had a cover displaying lush green and red tomato vines. “Whatcha reading?” he asked, lying down next to her.
“Home and Garden.”
“Can I get it when you’re done?”
“Have it now,” she said, and tossed the magazine onto his chest. “I’m going to bed.”
He picked the magazine up and made a point to keep his voice level, and not to throw it across the room like he wanted to. “You all right?”
“Forget about it,” she said, turning away from him and cinching the covers tight over her body.

The next morning when Sarah came to pick up the boys and Noah told her about what had happened with Ray and John, Martin found himself in the strange position of wanting to agree with his ex-wife, but forcing the opposite side to avoid a fight with Alicia. “He is not a creep,” Martin said. “He’s a perfectly nice guy, just a little under-developed, or something.”
“Oh, even better,” Sarah said. “He’s bringing over a retard to pick fights with my son.”
“He’s not retarded,” Martin said. Alicia had left the room, but Martin knew she could hear every word from her studio.
“He’s not allowed near my kids, Martin. I am serious. You know that I am.”
“I know that you are.”
“I’m not bringing them over again until you can promise me that he will not be popping over unannounced.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“He threatened John!”
“Sarah, you weren’t even there. You’re going off the account of an eight year old.”
“He’s your son!”
Martin shook his head slowly and closed his eyes. He was about to explain to Sarah how unreasonable she was being when she said, “No, you know what? I’ve had it with this shit. Noah, John! In the car, now!”
Martin protested, but he knew there was no use. He hugged Noah, who was upset, and he told him he hadn’t done anything wrong, that he loved him. He hugged John too and the boy’s lanky body against his chest felt stiff and bristly. “Hey bub,” he said. “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at him, okay?” John didn’t look him in the eye, but he nodded.
“Can we talk later?” Martin asked Sarah. “On the phone?” She was herding the boys into the car and closing the door behind them.
“You call me, Martin.”

Back upstairs, in the studio, Martin approached Alicia.
“She’s very serious, Leesh. He can’t come over anymore.”
“That’s ridiculous. Did you see John? He was antagonizing him.”
“What? No way.”
“He was, Martin. He was probably jealous that you were giving Ray all your attention.”
“Are you kidding me? John’s my son. And Alicia, Sarah has a point. We don’t know his history. He could be violent.”
“Martin Matishak! You cannot be serious. You cannot just drop this man! He is our friend! You can’t treat people like that.”
“Come on, Leesh. He’s not people. He’s Ray. He yelled at John—he had his fists up! Who knows what could have happened if we hadn’t been there.”
“Get out of the room. I am so pissed with you right now. Get out.”
“Fine. I’ll be in my office—oh no, wait. You’re in the office. I’ll be in the garden making sure nothing happened to the goddamn tomatoes!” Alicia didn’t flinch when he slammed the door behind him.
Nine

On Monday morning Martin arrived at work with a splitting headache from not sleeping very well the night before. It took him two cups of coffee to get his eyes open enough to check his e-mail, and he wondered how he had driven himself to the office without an accident. He wanted nothing to do with the short stack of pink call slips that sat waiting on the corner of his desk. Foremost in his mind was the Ray issue. Alicia was right. He couldn’t just drop him. Ray had gone out of his way to help them with the garden project. No one did that anymore. Ray was good people, in his own way. A bit slow maybe. No, just unrefined. But not a bad person. Still, sometimes good people do bad things. Martin knew this all too well. The thoughts tormented his mind, and his headache worsened.
In the end, Sarah was right and he knew it. He couldn’t put Noah or John in a position of danger. It wasn’t the good parenting decision. Martin wrestled with his reasoning, trying to find a way to have it both ways. What if there was a way to keep Ray as a friend, to never have him over when the boys were at home, and to never let Sarah know… All fine until he came over again, uninvited. Martin had a feeling that with so few friends, unannounced surprise visits would probably be more common in the future.
He imagined himself in bed with Alicia, sharing some alone time with each other, and the doorbell ringing. Alicia jumping out of bed, throwing on her bathrobe and inviting Ray inside for breakfast. He imagined their morning coffee in the back yard, he with his paper, she with her sketch book, whiling away the morning, a fruit salad wilting on his plate, the birds singing, and Ray’s greasy face peering over the fence like Kilroy. How could he create the distance he needed? Martin realized he had been pacing his office. He thought about going out to get another cup of coffee.
Bill came in around eleven thirty to confirm a meeting with the legislative staff. Barry was planning on introducing new legislation on the floor next week that focused on the rising costs of fuel for his constituents who worked in agriculture. They were trying to find a way to subsidize their fuel costs with an incentive to grow more corn for the biofuels market and they needed to get the renewable fuel standard up a point or two.
“How hard could it be?” asked Bill. “We have plenty of support in both the House and the Senate. Fish in a barrel.”
“I’ll be there at one,” Martin said.
Lucinda popped her head in to tell him he had a call on the line. “If it’s anything about the farm bill,” he said, “I don’t want to hear it until after lunch.”
“It’s Geoff Golden from the Washington Post. He wants a comment about the new bill.” She tapped her long fingers against the door frame. “What should I tell him?”
“Tell him I’ll call him back. No, wait. Bill, are we done?”
“Sure. Just wanted to tell you me and the girls are going to the Dubliner for lunch. You in?”
“Twelve fifteen?”
“Sure.”
“All right. Lucinda, I’ll take this now. Thanks Bill.”
As the office emptied out, Martin picked up the phone. “Geoff, how are you?” As he spoke, he doodled on a yellow Post-It note a new design he had been thinking about for a tomato basket that could hang in the kitchen. “No, the Senator is interested in creating relief for our country’s farmers which is desperately needed during these tougher economic times. The Midwest is not just the bread basket of our country, but also for the rest of the world. Our countrymen, and our friends abroad depend on our crops. If our farmers aren’t given relief , the situation will become much worse.”
The phone conversation lasted several minutes and after, Martin was pleased to find that his headache was starting to clear. An idea had occurred to him while he was answering the reporter’s questions. He checked his watch. Just enough time to make one more call before joining the others for lunch.

Ten
Alicia was not happy with her painting. “It’s just not working,” she said. “I’m over painting, I’m not capturing the line. It’s a mess.”
“It looks great, honey. What are you talking about?”
“You don’t know anything. I don’t even know why I bother telling you.”
He knew that it was a sixteen by twenty inch canvas, that it would be categorized as an exterior, and that it was realistic and not conceptual. Martin preferred when she painted realistic scenes because he could understand it better. He was happy seeing her painting landscapes. They would sell better, he thought, and fit the tastes of the art buyers who lived in big custom built homes and had large wall spaces to cover up. Before the recession she had twice sold enormous landscapes that had been used for just that purpose. At $15,000 each, she had been euphoric for months from those sales.
“I hate this stuff,” Alicia said, dropping her brush on the marble tile she used as a palate. “All this tiny landscape shit. I spend too much time on the details and just screw it all up. Fucking shit.”
“Baby, wash your mouth. I think it looks fine. I’d buy it.”
“You’d buy it because I make your damn coffee in the morning. You wouldn’t buy it if you saw it on the wall next to a dozen others. What’s so special about this landscape? Tell me.”
Martin screwed up his eyes and looked at the painting. A wooden fence was covered in some kind of ivy, and along the foot of the rails, tiny white flowers blossomed from the ends of thin green stems. A table for two was set in the corner. She’d spent a lot of time on the lawn, detailing individual blades of grass in places.
“How did you do the lawn? With a brush?”
“I have a special one, yeah.”
“I think it’s really good.”
“You’re useless.”
“Come on,” he said, stroking her arm. “Let’s have some lunch.”
Alicia stood up from her stool. “Fine. But I’m not happy about it.”
He drew her into a hug. “Listen, babe. You’re a brilliant artist. You’re really talented. Just give it some time.”
“Quit patronizing me,” she said, pushing him away. “I’ll be downstairs.”
Martin stood there while she left the room. He looked out the window of the studio and imagined for a moment what it would be like as his office again. The garden looked really good, and the tomato plants were three feet high now. Hard green fruits were starting to weigh down the stalks. One day this summer, they were going to have homemade BLTs and it was going to be fantastic. But for now, he’d have to settle on turkey clubs, which were waiting downstairs on a plate with a cold salad. It was his hope that she’d see the effort he’d made and lighten up a little. When he joined her in the kitchen a minute later, she was squeezing lemons and limes into a pitcher.
“You want some sugar for that?” he asked, reaching for the canister on the kitchen counter.
“No, you always make it too sweet.”
“Suit yourself.” He left it within her easy reach and sat on one of the stools tucked under the counter. “So I was thinking, the grass is getting pretty long,” he said.
“And you want to cut it.”
“I was thinking we could go to the store and take a look at a push mower.”
“We could see Ray, then.”
“We could see Ray. If he’s working.”
Alicia looked out the kitchen window. “It is pretty long.”
“Do you think we should cut it?” he asked. “I think it’s time.”
“Okay. You win. We’ll go to the store. I could use a break anyway.”

After lunch Alicia’s mood improved, as he had hoped it would. Martin drove and she put her hand in his lap and even squeezed his thigh a few times, flipping through the radio stations and singing along with off key gusto. At a long red light he leaned over and kissed her on the neck, right below the ear, causing her to catch her breath and let out a long sigh. He could feel her smile through her jaw. “I’m glad you’re letting me get a mower,” he said.
“Well, it’s time,” she said. “You’re right, we need to cut it. It’ll grow back, right?”
When the car behind them honked, Martin realized the light had turned green and he gunned the accelerator.
The lot was full and they had to park way in the back. As they walked towards the entrance, Martin steered towards the main doors, where he knew the lawn mowers were on display, front and center, but Alicia pulled him towards the garden section. “Let’s see if Ray’s in first,” she said.
Martin shrugged as they walked through the wide gate and entered the rows of nursery shelves. A green mesh tarp fixed to a display pergola provided some shade for the outdoor register and Martin blinked his eyes hard when they got under the shadows. He’d forgotten his sunglasses in the car. Alicia asked the nearest salesperson for Ray, and Martin belted out three sneezes in quick succession.
When he recovered from his sneezing fit, he heard his wife say, “He was fired!?” and when he looked up he saw her gripping the edge of the counter, shaking.
“Ray was fired for stealing from the store!” she cried.
“Oh my God,” Martin said, wiping the underside of his nose with the back of his hand. “That’s terrible.”
“We have to go find him,” Alicia said.
“Right now? Just let me get the mower first.”
“No Marty! We have to find him now. And talk to the manager.”
The clerk said, “the manager is inside. But I don’t know if you should talk to her. She was pretty pissed when it all happened.”
“How did it happen?” Alicia asked. “How did he get fired?”
“Honey, can I talk to you for a moment,” Martin said, pulling her arm towards the exit.
“No Marty! We have to talk to someone! I bet he got in trouble for—”
“Can I please talk to you about that, outside, please,” he said close to her ear, “without talking explicitly about the matter in front of the whole goddamn store, please?”
He dragged her by the arm into the parking lot until she pulled away from him.
“We are getting in the car and going to his home right now,” she said.
“Honey, I think that would not be a good idea.”
“He got fired! Do you understand what that means? What’s he going to do?”
“He’ll probably collect unemployment until he gets another job, just like everyone else does.”
“But he doesn’t have anyone. He must feel terrible. What if he can’t get unemployment? What if he hasn’t been able to fix his truck yet? Martin, he might need our help. We should go see him and check. Do you know where he lives? Do you?”
It would be so easy to lie, he thought. But no, eventually she would find him. All it took was a few calls. And then she would go and talk to him. He decided it was much better to do it on his own term. So with reluctance, he nodded.

When Martin parked next to Ray’s truck, he noticed that the bed was empty except for a cardboard box. It must be running now, he thought. Good. He won’t be too hard off. Alicia had her nose pressed to the window.
“Is that where he lives?”
“I think so. That’s definitely his truck.”
“It looks like a hotel.”
“I think it used to be a La Quinta Inn. Looks like it anyhow.”
“Oh my God, I can’t believe this is where he lives. This place is a dump.” The parking lot was cracked and littered. There was a broken wire fence that separated the parking lot from a gas station. Two black teenagers dressed in baggy clothes walked past them slowly, smoking cigarettes, and Martin instinctively reached to make sure his wallet was in his back pocket.
Martin closed his door behind him; Alicia had already walked past the doors on the ground floor, looking for surnames, and was doubling back. She climbed up the cement staircase and he followed after her. She stopped in front of a door with two smallish shrubs on either side, manicured to look like tiny trees.
“This must be it,” she said, looking over her shoulder at him as he stopped behind her. She knocked on the door. “Ray! Ray, open up!”
“Honey, I don’t think we should—”
“Ray? Are you in there?”
Martin’s stomach dropped when the door opened. Ray stood in his boxers and an old shirt with holes along the neck seam.
“Martin,” he said. “Alicia.”
“Ray, we just heard the news from the store!” Alicia took his hand and held it in her own. “It’s just awful.”
“Yeah, well they got me.”
Martin tried to peer over Ray’s shoulder to catch a glimpse of the apartment. He had had a grand vision on the drive over of walls of plywood shelves on cinder blocks, stacked thick with potted plants, creeping vines, and wide arrays of orchids. He had imagined that the bathtub had been turned into a carp pond, that Ray likely took showers over a slate rock terrarium with frogs and turtles crawling around his feet as he bathed with biodegradable soap. Ray would live in an urban forest compartmentalized within a shitty apartment block, and it was here, amidst the suburban sprawl of the District that some of the last great wisdom of plant husbandry was being preserved.
But when Martin glimpsed the dark room behind Ray, he saw a set-up much like a standard interstate motel room. A bed with a nightstand, a television on a set of drawers. The bathroom in back seemed to serve double duty as a kitchenette. There was a drying rack next to the sink.
“I’d offer to have you inside, but truth is, it’s nicer out here. Sides, I’m not so good right now.”
At that point Martin began to sense the stink of booze.
“I looked for those beers y’all had at your party. They taste real good, but my store didn’t have them. They did have something called Colt 45, though. You ever had that, Martin? That Colt 45? It’s not bad.”
“God, Ray. Don’t drink that shit,” Alicia said. “We came when we heard the news. What happened? Do you need help?”
“No ma’am, I’m fine. Don’t need anybody to help me.”
“Have you filed for unemployment? Marty, tell him about unemployment.”
“There’s a service the state provides, Ray, for people who are out of work.”
Ray scratched the stubble on his neck. “Don’t you have to be poor to get it?” he asked. “I don’t need no Welfare.”
Martin turned to Alicia. How should he say this?
“Everybody who has a job is eligible,” he said. “Regardless of rich or poor. It’s different from Welfare.”
“Well I’ll have to think about it.”
“But what happened Ray? At the store?” Alicia had let go of his hand now.
“Leesh, why don’t we just let the man have a beer in peace. Right Ray?”
“No, that’s all right.” Ray scratched his belly through the shirt and puffed out his chest a little. “See, I come into work, early, like I usually do, and my manager says she’s got to talk to me, and I says about what, and she says ‘we have evidence that you’ve been stealing from the company.’ I ain’t stolen, I say. I ain’t stole a thing. And she says she’s got tapes, security tapes, right?”
“What did she accuse you of stealing?” Alicia asked.
Ray blushed a little and rubbed his calf with one toe. His face tightened up and he said, “Well, some things like that stuff I brought over to y’all’s place, stuff that was going to be thrown out sooner or later, cause it was already moved to the back.”
“Martin, I told you we should have spoken to the manager! We should offer to pay for those things, or write her a letter. No, you should go talk to her,” Alicia said, gripping Martin’s arm tight.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Martin said. “Maybe it’d be better to help you find a new job.”
Ray started nodding, first slow, and then faster. “Yeah, that might be best. I don’t want to work somewhere where the boss thinks I’m stealing. But how will I get a new job? Won’t they say I stole from Home Depot?”
“Let me take care of that,” Martin said.
“No, Martin,” Alicia said. “The right thing to do would be to go back to Home Depot and try to work it out. Why won’t you do that? Ray, didn’t you like working there?”
“It was all right, I suppose.”
“Then why won’t you go talk to the manager, Martin?”
“Tell you what,” Martin said. “Why don’t we just think about this for a little while, okay Ray? And you figure out what you want. In the meantime, I would strongly recommend you file a claim with the unemployment office.”
“Claim?”
“You can read about it on the Internet.”
“I don’t get that.”
“Oh, well then City Hall should have someone there who can help you. You can find them in the phone book.”
“All right.”
“And you and I, Mrs. Matishak, ought to be getting on our way. Ray, it was nice to see you again.”
“Yeah, likewise.”
Alicia was quiet as they descended the cement stairs and walked back to the car. While Martin had been talking to Ray she had thought of something, and it made sense the more she thought about it. When they got in the car, she waited until they were on the highway and then she said, “You called Home Depot, didn’t you. You ratted him out.”
“I—”
“You son of a bitch.”

Eleven
By the August recess, Martin was fully satisfied with his garden, but in particular he was pleased with the lawn. It would take another two or three years to establish the roots that would make it pristine, but the difference between today and only a few weeks ago was enormous. He wheeled his push mover to the patio edge where he would use the hose to wash off the pureed grass stuck to the blades and cylinder. Recently, he had gotten a set of mesh screens to put around the tomatoes, now that they were beginning to turn plump and red. One morning he had come outside to find a squirrel gnawing away on a tomato that was almost ripe. He had been so furious, he threw a rock Noah had saved from the garden and set on the stoop. The rock clattered against the back of the fence, far from hitting the target, and the animal scampered away, leaving the ruined fruit behind.
Martin washed the mower down using as little water as possible to do the job. He’d recently paid for an energy audit on the house, and along with changing out all the lightbulbs with CFLs, the consultant offered a plan for using recycled water from the sink to irrigate the yard. You could compost the disposal, too, the guy had said. Martin relished the smell of the lawn as he sprayed the last bits of grass off the patio’s paved surface and wound up the new flexible hose. The old one had been thrown out. He had the whole week to himself, and it was only Tuesday. What would he do?
He’d seen on television, late night, a commercial for a basket that hung from a hook you installed in the ceiling, similar to his own designs. The tomatoes grew in the basket, hanging over the sides from the vine. This kept them off the ground where they would rot, he had read, if they weren’t picked right away. But it still didn’t solve the squirrel problem.
He took his shoes off at the back door and walked to the coffee pot to pour a fresh cup. The thought crossed his mind to call Sarah and see if there was time to see the boys that afternoon. Now that things had settled down, he wondered if he should have them over for a guys night.
He stepped outside to check the mail. After sorting through the thin bundle and slipping the rubber band over his wrist, he found a postcard from Alicia, buried amidst real estate agent promotions and a Have You Seen This Child flyer. The postcard picture was of an old cathedral in Florence.
Martin,
Arrived three days ago. Still no Internet here—amazing.
Love the new space. Already my work is coming together. New
place, new energy. I am so much happier here. I’ll call when I
get a phone card. –Alicia.

Martin read the postcard as he walked upstairs. He found himself sitting at his desk, recently pushed to the window in Alicia’s studio. He had moved some of her things to the side in doing so. He placed the postcard in the right-hand corner of the window and turned to look at Alicia’s painting supplies. Maybe he would get some boxes and pack some of it up. Make a little more space. Maybe even get a twin bed in here for John, now that he was getting older. He turned back to the window and looked down into his yard. The black-eyed Susans lined the white flagstones all the way to the gate, and three mesh tubes stood along the back fence, protecting the tomato plants. Giant clusters of pink and yellow snapdragons dominated the flowerbeds. Noah had had a ball when they planted them, squeezing the little blue and yellow heads together and making roaring sounds. Now Martin could see that the snaps were turning a bit brown around the edges. Probably this damn heat wave they’d been having over the last week, he thought. Maybe he could get some sort of plant to create some shade. Some broad-leafed variety, like a small palm or a rhododendron.
He looked back at Alicia’s easel, which he had given her for their first anniversary. It had begun to collect a thin coat of dust. Something caused him to stand, and he ran his finger along the tray of the easel, which was splattered with dried paint. He rubbed the dust between his thumb and forefinger, rolling it into a ball. There was a set of heavy-duty steel shelves filled with old wine boxes that were dented and smeared with paint; they contained multitudes of greasy metal tubes. He reached into one of these boxes and pulled out several tubes and held them in both hands. Some of the caps were still off, and he saw that these ones seeped various colors: saffron yellow, moss green, and a red the color of the lipstick she had been wearing the night they first met at that dinner. The oil pigments had dried out, and were hard and cracked at the tips. On a larger tube of ivory white, with dry paint smeared down the side, he could see where she had left a fingerprint. He placed his thumb over it, trying to feel the bumps formed by her ridges and whorls. It was all that she had left of herself.

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