Hydrangeas in the Heat

Hydrangeas in the Heat

Honorable Mention, Adult Fiction Category; 2010 Bethesda Magazine/Bethesda Urban Partnership Short Story and Essay Contest

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She had started this trip to the nursery with hope, but it was a hope that wilted quickly in the pale spring daylight. After careful hours with plant books and magazines, making her list, she was once again thwarted by inventory and the unknowing staff. None of her plants were in stock, ever had been in stock or had even been heard of. She pushed her cart in frustration from smocked assistant to assistant, with a vague promise from each concerning the next. But the successive questionings brought only heightened confusion, followed by attempts to steer her down the gravel paths of the knowledge that they did possess. “We seem to sell a lot of these.”

Is this all they can tell me? Alright, fine, her favorite color was purple and she would go with that. This is it—the last time I try this. The hydrangeas were promised to expand through those stubbornly large bare patches in the front beds. When she found that they filled her cart, she grabbed a few packets of seeds on the way to checking out and that would be enough for the day. She had to get home in time to clean up, change into something appropriately sporty—or at least not embarrassing—and ferry her daughters and their friends to yet another endless, endless soccer or lacrosse practice after school.

As spring waned the delphiniums and coneflowers sprouted shoots of green promise in the turned soil around the hydrangea bushes. But with summer’s warmth they matured into complicated masses, and when she retrieved their packets from the catch-all junk drawer in the garage she was frustrated to learn that the delphiniums required staking, and both flowers might give her a skin rash. The coneflowers certainly looked cute; their droopy petals reminded her of a puppy’s head hanging out the window of a fast car. And the delphiniums seemed to have a kind of soldier-like potential for standing up straight, ready to march circles around their bigger neighbors, wearing columns of neat epaulettes. I don’t have time for this, though. How can Sarah be a junior next year? We need to start researching college trips already, after camps. And if Beth finds one more activity or gets invited to one more birthday I’ll scream. I don’t care what the budget is, we are finding a gardener. In the end she settled for scanning the ads at the grocery. The only one that would fit within the price range that Donald reluctantly gave her was a handwritten name, a number and the statement “Handyman and Gardening Services. Satisfaction guaranteed.” She was surprised when she talked to Darrel that his voice was a young man’s, but he agreed to come the next day and that was all she needed to hear.

Darrel parked his car on the next block—once again, the windows wouldn’t even go all the way up—and walked back to the address the woman had given him over the phone. It was an odd enough feeling just being in this neighborhood on foot; he didn’t need the added distraction of the heap. His mother was used to it, working in the local upscale supermarket. “They pay twice what you need to for tomatoes, and don’t taste no different,” she would say derisively. “You think those people are any better than us, or just stupider?” But to Darrel the contrast was a little more complex. Organic or not, all of the regular grocery chains seemed to have forgotten “the County,” sitting directly opposite downtown’s hardened corners from here. Maybe it would nice to blow some money on tomatoes once in a while. He concentrated on the walking, but couldn’t shake the feeling of being on an uncomfortable stage. It seemed instantly apparent to everyone he passed that he was up on a platform, different, another species almost. And the more conscious of this they acted, the more conscious of it he became until he felt like he was the center of his own portable universe, each orbit defined around the path of the intruder. But the oddest part was that after putting him on this stage, they wouldn’t even look at him. He was the only actor in a theater where all the seats faced the doors. Every passerby seemed to be carrying an invisible hoop with him. Step in the circle and you’re gone. I wonder how they all know exactly when to stop looking, to shift their eyes like that? Is it when they see your hands, your neck?

But this was what his mother wanted. “They have the money. Just be around them, and you’ll have it too. It’s got to be. Get over there and work.” He understood the feeling, even if he doubted the plan. How many times had he talked about wanting all of this, this neighborhood, this lifestyle, with his friends before graduating? It was everywhere they looked, you could see it on TV, see it when you went shopping in their malls, but how did you get it? Apparently just wanting it, or even wanting to work for it wasn’t enough in the County. Who did you go ask for hard work that paid well? Why wasn’t there an office that you could go to somewhere? His life at times seemed stuck in a loop of unending separation from something so readily visible. They’re doing business, making money all the time, probably looking for people. And I know that I’m just as good as they are; they aren’t smarter and most of them don’t want it half as much. It’s happening over there, and I’m over here, just wanting them to know that I’m here and ready to do something. How do you get on the list?

“Darrel, I’m Lilly Wilton,” she said, stepping around packages piled in the foyer as the door swung open. “Pardon the mess, the UPS man just came…We’re getting the girls ready for camp….” Darrel shook her hand when she offered it, his mind still taking in the house, the yard. Damn, that’s a lot of purple.

“We don’t need much, I’m sure you’re just the man for the job. Maybe there will be more later, but for now the front yard could really use your help. It’s just a mess out there and the hydrangeas—that’s the big ones in the back—need feeding every week and I have the food in the garage for you. Those purple flowers, the delphiniums, need staking, so that means tying them to those green sticks but we don’t have any, could you get some?”

“Sure, I’m sure I could. Yes ma’am…”

“And I love the other ones, my friends think they’re so cute, but they just need to be….I don’t know. Can you kind of tidy them up? And the yard of course. We have a lawnmower in the garage too. You can use a lawnmower, can’t you?”

The words seemed to flow around him, at him, bounce off the walls in this little room with doors everywhere. He could see a kitchen through one of them, probably larger than the whole apartment he shared with his mother. But he focused back on this woman, who looked like she was trying to be friendly, a little nervous maybe, but she could look at him and she said his name twice so she remembered, that was good. In the end they settled on visits once a week, his duties and the fact that he would take a check. That crossed him off a list somewhere apparently. “I’m so sorry, now I’m late again. Thank you, thank you for coming. Oh, and here’s a key to the garage.” And that was it, it was done. He was working for the man. Or at least for one of his women.

The summer heat came on quickly that year. By mid-July it had swollen up from the ground like rising bread, filling the air. It lay outside, waiting, an almost visible layer over the blanched green yard. The heat made Lilly feel as if she had been hit in the head with a pillow every time she opened the front door. Instantly it filled her throat and nostrils, wrapped itself around her body like a wet blanket and stepped with her into the car. Lilly hated this time of year, felt like she could never get cool, wished that they could spend more time away, that they weren’t chained to tennis and soccer camps, Donald’s work, the errands that cropped up every day no matter how clear she tried to keep her schedule. Even the front yard, which was finally presentable, weighed on her. The hydrangeas had grown quickly, as promised, but now in the heat they looked faded, with an unnatural tint that reminded her of her poor grandmother’s makeup before she passed. Nothing could cheer her, only surprise her, push her further off her track.

And so it was when Donald came home early one evening. What, before 7:30? It reminded her of the days when she would have thrilled to hear the garage door start its grinding while she and the girls were still at the table. But those were the days, the ages when the girls could find the time to eat real meals, instead of coming down from their rooms at random hours with cell phones pressed tightly against their ears, free hands opening cabinet doors while they foraged. If she was lucky they would interrupt their breathless conversations, a quick glance, ‘Love ya Mom,’ and then disappear, only to resurface when it was time for school, or gymnastics, or piano. And that was before she had come to understand—accept?—that Donald’s work was this thing, the third part of their lives together. Even after Donald had made managing director, every night he came home later than he had hoped, forecasted, promised. Why can’t he just stop, put down the phone, quit whatever he was doing and be with us? she used to wonder. If work is so damn unpredictable, if he can’t run his own schedule, then why is it that he always comes home late and never early? But by now the thrill of seeing him before the appointed hour was gone, replaced with just surprise and an adjustment to her dinner schedule.

Everything about him was different tonight though. The way he threw his keys on the sideboard, his walk, the quick glance he gave her. “Is something wrong? Bad day, honey?” What came out in the end wasn’t much but she understood, it wasn’t good.

“You know I’ve been worried, worried about this economy and everything since Spring. I think we’re finally starting to feel it at the firm. Our numbers have been down since June and we can’t keep explaining it away. We can’t keep calling it a fluke.” In the end he couldn’t relate anything that was concrete, only a sense of foreboding that was both frustrating and ineffable. He wasn’t hearing anything explicit, but he was starting to get a sense that cuts would be coming. His group was, he thought, doing the worst of the practices and he had a fear that they all might be reorganized out.

With each successive day, each passing week from that first conversation the heat seemed to press down more on Lilly, no matter where she set the thermostat, and the dread grew into something that had an almost physical presence for her. It was a combination of fearing for the worst and having nothing but her fears, no information. There was nothing more that Donald could say, no matter how many times they repeated the same conversation. Over and over, the iterations never changing except in their number. There was never anything new… until finally there was. That night as they sat across the kitchen table, wine glasses in hand, he told her that it was now a definite in his mind. Only a question of when.

“You know how long I’ve been prepping for the meeting today. My plan would work, we can change the practice’s focus… but it didn’t go well. I’m sitting there, running through the numbers and the concept, waiting for that reaction and the f___ wouldn’t even look at me. I’m like, ‘Hey, there’s nothing out the window. You can’t even see the parking lot from here.’ What a waste of f___ing time.”

The profanity surprised her, it was unlike him. But the point was made. They would have to start planning for it now, a layoff, even while they had nothing more to go on then this projection of fear on the flat screen of their routine. Donald would lose his job and they would have to endure a long period, he thought, before he could find something that would replace his salary. She wanted to be supportive, managed to come up with a few words that she thought would comfort, but inside her a shrillness rose. She wanted to scream, shake him, make him understand the impact that this was going to have on her.

Instead of having that conversation, though, in which it all spewed out, she concentrated on making each morning a ritual. Designed to ward off the twinned banshees of panic and anger. Donald out the door early and nothing was to be revealed to the girls yet, so off to tennis camp they went with a quick breakfast, a chilled bottle of sports drink, maybe a sack of something or just lunch money. It was the period afterwards that scared her. She tried to stay busy, not think. But she could give neither of them any peace. Why, why, why? Why can’t he just fix this? Every day I keep this circus moving, keep the groceries in the fridge, the kids in school, the house clean, new clothes, presents at Christmas, birthdays…And all he has to do is one thing. That’s all we ask of him. Why, why can’t he just keep his stupid job?

And then she would imagine herself at her book club, trying to keep it casual. “Oh, Donald will be looking for work for a while, that’s all.” In her mind it was the slow seconds afterwards, the looks of shock replaced mechanically with expressions of sympathy and support. She could just see it, and cringed every time. She did not want to be an object of pity, but knew that she would be different from the minute she started talking, demoted almost. “No, Lilly, really, let us pick up the check” they would say at lunch, or maybe not even say anything as they quietly put the drinks by the club’s courts on their tabs. She hated the thought of that, almost as much as she hated imagining her friends talking about her after she left. And the conversations that she would have to have with her mom…. It was unbearable.

“Will you lose the house, Lilly?” “I don’t know, Mother. I mean, we have savings. We shouldn’t, right? But Donald doesn’t know how long this will last. We don’t know anything really. It’s so frustrating.” And then of course the worst, “What about your cousin Tommy? He has money. Why can’t Donald talk to him?” “Mom, I’m sure Donald will give him a call at some point….” Picturing that conversation, if it was ever to happen, was a horror in its own right. Her cousin Tommy owned a string of car dealerships in the area. Judging by the God-awful McMansion he had built for himself in his brand-new neighborhood, he was successful at it. Apparently there was a living in cars. But, still…Yeah, that would be just the ticket. When we get to that point, I’m officially done.

For Darrel the summer had passed neither quickly nor slowly, just a smooth succession of days lubricated by sweat, and nights listening to the rattle of the air conditioner. The work that he had found through his mother’s posting was never interesting, sporadic and in the end not particularly rewarding. Even the money that he made at the Wiltons didn’t amount to much, he realized, after gas, lunch and maybe stopping somewhere quick on the way back home. The Wiltons had turned out to be his steadiest customers, and at first he had tried hard to find enough to do there, to justify his presence out there in that yard, the hours that he billed Mrs. Wilton for every week. But he had come to realize, probably half way through the summer, that there was an air of distraction at their address that made this needless. It was as if there was a mild haze over the place, that seemed to prevent them from focusing on what exactly he was accomplishing in any given visit. He knew that Mrs. Wilton was aware of his comings and goings. And she did glance around the yard reflexively when she wrote out his check at the end of the day, while he stood below her on the front steps, pretending that he didn’t stink of sweat and grass clippings. But as long as the yard looked tended to, she never asked exactly what he had done, what her money had bought. Probably because it doesn’t mean much to her anyway. She seemed to be constantly in motion whenever she spoke to him, her speech and her hands thrumming like a hummingbird’s wings, a blur around the central core of her body. Something had clearly gotten to her. He thought vaguely at times of—what—reaching out to her? Asking her if everything was alright?

Yet this summer had succeeded only in making him feel less connected with these people, the families like hers that lived in this neighborhood. Being around it doesn’t mean you get it yourself, I guess. If someone was going to suddenly open a door for him, take him into the room where they all looked him in the eye and told him that he was part of the club now, that he was going to be in on the action from here on out, he would have been increasingly surprised. Whatever the path was to that point, that moment he imagined where he’d be saying “Yeah, thanks for asking. I’ll put some money into the deal.” And then they’d all laugh… it wasn’t this one. He thought about the ads for community college that he’d seen on buses, thought about the Army maybe, or settling for something permanent at his mother’s supermarket. The market, though, that would kill her. That’s for certain. So now what?

In September when the heat finally lifted and the summer began its retreat before cooler evenings, Lilly found herself settled into a routine of daily window shopping. Almost obsessively, she wandered the malls before the girls were supposed to be home from sports. Looking, thinking, not buying. Just imagining herself buying. Remembering when she would have bought this or that, wouldn’t have even paid attention to the receipt as she signed her name. “We’re on a real budget now,” Donald had told her. Saving for the inevitable. But what did that mean, really? When did you stop purchasing even the little things? They had given up vacation planning of course. And they had gradually cut back on meals out, settling more and more often for the leftovers from her weekly meal plans. They started drinking cheaper wine too, even looking at those bigger bottles before drawing a line in the sand on this, their last beach: a glass of wine together before bed. Lilly knew that Darrel, the piano teacher, the maid, these were luxuries that they could no longer afford. Something would have to be done. With each of them she kept hoping that maybe one week they just wouldn’t show, or would have moved and forgotten to tell her, so that she could save herself from the conversations that she had scripted in her head.

In the end, when she shattered it was over lip gloss. The longer they waited for the inevitable, the more this budget thing seemed to sit solely with her. Making it work, keeping the house together, helping the girls pretend that nothing had changed even if they couldn’t afford tennis lessons anymore. It all dropped right in her lap. Because I’m the mom, right? One morning as she finished her makeup, squeezed the last fraction of an ounce from her gloss, she found herself wondering what she was supposed to do next. Go to the store and just buy one lip gloss? Drive all the way there and get one thing, because we’re on a budget? Or do without? Borrow from one of the girls and look like a cheesy teenager? Wouldn’t that just be super cute? Feeling frustration so deep it made her eyes hurt, she grabbed her bag, walked without even hearing her footsteps on the stairs, to the garage.

Darrel was surprised to look up from the lawnmower and see Mrs. Wilton standing there, looking like she was trying to remember something. Is it about the plants? Why doesn’t she just get in her car and blow out of here? She shifted, took a breath, began to stutter almost.

“Darrel, I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’m off shopping and I’m sorry I can’t stay, but we need to…. stop, this. You’ve been so great, it’s nothing to do with you.” She paused for a longer moment. “Darrel, we’re just not doing well. I mean Donald’s fine, but his job, we think it might end or something….. We don’t have as much money to spend these days, can’t afford what we’re used to. We’re trying to save.” The words came out in a crackle now… I think she’s actually firing me. “If this could be your last visit, you know I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you now.”

Moisture traced the corners of her eyes as she stared at him, touched her throat. Dang, woman, it’s just yard work. What is wrong with you? He felt almost sympathetic, but before the emotion could fully register a wave of revulsion seemed to lift him up above her. Is this the first time she’s ever had to think about money?

The longer Darrel remained silent, staring back, the more rattled she felt. This is not going the way I thought it would. “It’s okay. I mean honestly, thank you Darrel, we’re going to be fine. We have savings. Donald knows people, we can even talk to my cousin, he sells cars … And the Jensens have a beach house they’ve offered us. Can you imagine? Living at the beach in the winter? Yes, I’ll sell seashells….” She tried a wry smile. “It’s going to be fine….” What am I telling this poor man? He’ll think I need a therapist. I’m losing it, losing it.

An awkward eternity, followed by a quick stroke of a check, and she found herself in her car at last. Turning the key, checking the mirror, backing out into the street and limping off. To drive ten miles, park, go in and buy only lip gloss. Her fingers ached, she realized that she was clutching the old tube too hard, was digging her nails into her own palm while she tried to drive with both of her hands on the wheel. She felt her breathing turn into heaves, waited, despised what was coming. The sobs brought the relief of adults, but inside she felt like a ten year old crying at recess. She shook her head, whipping the tears from her eyes, grimacing at the taste of salt. No time to stop, the mall was waiting.

But what was that look he was giving me in the end there?

She would have to think about that as soon as she could pull herself together.

Lee David Babcock lives in Kensington and works at the 360 Group, a real estate consultancy in Bethesda. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where he majored in psychobiology and minored in English.

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