Can You See Lois Gardening?
Everything was fine until the Mexican woman saw me. I bet there were plenty of other things she could have been doing other than catching me digging out her neighbor's ferns.
I turned around and looked up the hill.
"What are you doing?"
I got back in the truck and Caleb peeled out, like in The Dukes of Hazard. But she must have got our license plate number because the blonde teenager cop came later that day to Caleb's house.
I was on my knees, watering my new ferns, right next to the three new species of late-blooming lilies I got from over in the west-side suburbs. Next to that, a whole handful of mystery bulbs (flat, like buttons, but much smaller than Gladioli) that I found in the dirt I was digging around a small Japanese Maple.
Caleb never likes it when I get trees. He says there's a line I'm crossing when I do that. "People pay good money for trees," he says. I say yeah--people pay good money for blow jobs too. Doesn't mean that they deserve them.
"Ma'am, I can't do much to you," the cop finally said, after I gave him one of my Frescas, patted him on his crew cut, and told him about my disability check not stretching like it used to. "But I can ask you, as an officer of the peace, to stop stealing people's plants."
He looked at my garden and back at me. He looked past me and into Caleb's stockpile of crap in the hallway, and over at Caleb, who was dove halfway into the back of an old television with a screwdriver and a flashlight. His shirt was about four days greasy and he never did put pants on anymore unless we were going out.
"Good day," he said, and tipped his hat, got in his squad car, and drove away. I figure he must have understood.
These are my babies. They love me and I love them. I deserve them because God took away my two boys with war. I deserve them because God took away my first husband with cancer and my mother and father with heart disease. I deserve them because I have nothing else. Not one inch of dirt. Not one blade of grass. Not one grain of food. All I have is Caleb's place. And he lets me plant it up and take care of it even though we're divorced going on two years.
Fact is, I couldn't kick her out if I wanted to. I can't barely feed myself, and the cats and dogs need tending. I only divorced her because she nagged me to do it. She said it was in my best interest, but I don't think she knows what that really means. Best interest. As if it's in someone's best interest to have their gardens dug up by a crazy loon.
I knew she didn't have nowhere to go, so I assumed she'd stay with me for a while, anyway. She's got rights, she tells me now--rights to stay--and even though I know she's full of it, I let her stay. She feeds us and she does up my yard with all those dug up plants. She has it looking real pretty, too. I'm glad God gave her a thing, because in the two decades I known her, I learned she wasn't much good at nothing else.
When the cop came out because of the ferns, that's when I knew she really was crazy. She denied the whole thing, up and down. Said she never known anything about no ferns, right there, on her knees, holding the damn things. Then she crept over to the front door, to where he was, tiptoeing as if he couldn't see her. Up until then, I thought she was just being kooky, I guess. My mother used to be kooky sometimes. About four times a year, she'd turn up her Johnny Cash records and dance with me and my brother and sing loud and drink bourbon.
So I thought Lois was doing that thing. She'd drink all different concoctions and ask, "Can you see me?" and I'd say no and pretend I couldn't. You know, come to think of it, she'd ask me about three times a week. A lot more kooky than my mother ever was. And really, who, in their right mind, thinks they is invisible for real?
She calls it hunting and gathering. Like the old days. She says I'm a caveman anyway, so I should know all about it. Says it ain't illegal because no one can see her doing it. Says it ain't stealing because those people probably won't eat all that food anyway. They got too much of everything, she says. They'll let the birds at the spaghetti squash or the berries. They'll let the rabbits eat those radishes if she don't pick them. The carrots. The lettuce. The corn on the cob will rot. The tomatoes will sour. The peas will turn to starch.
She takes two fast gulps of Fresca and thinks she's some see-through master thief when really she's an overweight nut stalking through other people's gardens in broad daylight. My Lois, driven mad by losing, invented her own disappearing potion and believes it works.
Although, I shouldn't be surprised. When we first got married, she believed that Tic-tacs would make her pregnant again at forty-six, even though she knew darn well I'd had the snip a decade earlier.
I'm sorting through the mountains of Caleb's stuff. She-Bitch is up front being dramatic for the young couple who've come to view the place. The husband is asking all sorts of questions. The wife is sticking her head into each room inside, holding her breath--I bet--to block out the cat piss stench, trying to imagine the house without it being crammed full of everything that's in it.
Caleb was a pack rat. Actually, pack rat is an understatement. But he was a freaking genius, man. He didn't just store shit, he knew what he was storing, knew where it was, and how much he bought it for, and how much it was worth now. Rocks, gems, crystals, jewelry, art, tools, antiques. Caleb was one of those men who got bored quick. He'd sit down here on the back porch overlooking the forest, roll a fatty, and open up a book, and then another book, and then another, until he'd learned everything there was to know about a thing. Spent a week learning cacti. Built a heated greenhouse. Grew cacti. Got bored. Learned about smoking meat. Built a smokehouse. Got meat and smoked it. Got bored. You name it, he's done it, tropical fish, salt water, cichlids, coral, seahorses and turtles. Birds, snakes, iguanas. Farm animals. Computers, cameras, small motors, big motors, tractors, table saws.
So She-Bitch told us about a year ago that we had to stop dragging Caleb to the powwows. That he was too sick. Too sick my ass. She just hated him having any fun while he had cancer. He told me once she never gave him head--not once--in their seventeen years of marriage. Talk about a killjoy.
Yesterday, she told me not to smoke joints on the deck while I help her empty the house. I told her to go ahead and call the cops. She didn't. She's as high as I am--probably too high to dial the phone. Besides, I'm nearly sixty years old! Who the fuck does she think she's bossing?
Caleb was dead inside for five days before we found him. The cats had made a mess of his face trying to get him to wake up and feed them. One even nibbled his index finger. Just my being here requires some kind of medication. At least mine is natural. Her synthetic pharmaceutical shit isn't getting her anywhere but heaved into the back of that Subaru every twenty minutes, bawling her freaking eyes out, man.
When Bryan called me, I knew he was serious because he sounded excited.
"We found your house. Go check your email. Call me back."
As I waited for the computer to spit out the picture and room measurements, I tried not to get my hopes up. We've been looking for a place for two years. Over-saturated market. Prices too high. But even when we found something close, Bryan never sounded so excited.
So I called Reg. "When can you get off work and come see this place? If we see it tonight we can put an offer in and maybe get it."
"It's that good? Why's it so cheap?"
"The guy died. Something about his ex-wife needing to sell it fast."
It's perfect. I know it the minute I see it from the road. I know it the minute I see the two broken down VW hippie vans in the driveway. I know it the minute I see the unbelievably breathtaking landscaping up the side of the mountain. Reg turns to me, in a trance. "How much again?"
"One eighty-nine. Four acres." Japanese Maples, a rare Dogwood, Laburnums, Cherry blossoms. More bulbs that I have ever seen in one place are poking up through the bright green new spring grass. Large rocks on the steep incline are bathed in budding vines, some of which join to a trellis on the side of the house forming a natural pergola over the walkway leading to the deck. The house itself needs lots of work (I can't see one gutter still attached) but the garden must be worth thirty grand all by itself.
"God, Reg. I love it," I say, not even three steps into what smells like a giant litter box. We hold our breath and walk through the catacomb maze of stacked junk, peeking into the rooms. This is the house of our dreams. Modern contemporary, large lot, middle of the woods with a beautiful nearby river. Everything we ever wanted. Reg has seen enough. He's dying to talk to the seller and learn what kind of pain she's in. I tell him to go ahead, that I want another look around.
The seller is out front, using the back of her white Subaru as a chaise lounge, breathing loudly, moaning at times, guzzling at a bottle of Fresca. If I was her real estate agent, I'd have locked this woman far away from here. This house is hard enough to sell as it is. Over three-quarters full of crap, needing new sub-flooring from all the pet stains, crazy-man's junkyard in the back, cascading into the woods. Upstairs rooms never dry walled or plastered. The list to do was endless. Having the I Need Money Fast poster woman out front, sweating and occasionally bursting into tears, was not going to help increase commission.
I can hear them talking through the open stairs window.
She's telling him her life story between sips of Fresca.
The guy left her with everything. She has to pay his overdue cancer bills with the house money. He's been dead four months now. The bill collectors are getting persistent and rough with her. Reg is saying sympathetic things. He's verbally patting her knee. He's so damn good at this.
I'm walking around the perimeter. A paper-thin half-harvested lawnmower. A stack of slates. Bricks. Cracked buckets with hardened mortar.
I'm startled and look up. "Hi."
"Hi Cupcake, I'm Liz." I stretch my hand over the rotting, splintered railing. She's tapping her Birkenstock to the Credence playing on a little tape player next to her. She shakes my hand and smiles.
"These are his phone bills from 1978. When he lived in Ohio." She's got a box from a case of wine on her lap, filled with paper. There's a stack of these boxes behind the chair. Behind that is a small greenhouse filled with cacti that I didn't see from the inside. And more cat shit on the floor.
Her dark, tie-dyed, jingling skirt is resting on the deck, and I can see a single knee shape poking through it. "It's a groovy place, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Do you know where the property line is?"
She points directly across a shallow gorge. Four acres of woods seems big.
Cupcake says, swinging her waist-long hair over her shoulder, "Do you like it?"
"I love it. I wish I could buy it right now," I look down and sigh, "but any house we can afford, we get bid out of by investors."
"Yeah. We've been trying for two years so far. Bidding fair, too."
"Fucking rich people."
I wander off to finish my perimeter walk. When I get back to the Subaru, it's empty and I can hear Reg talking to the ex-wife inside. I peek into the garage window. The garage is filled one hundred and ten percent with junk too.
Cupcake is walking toward me from the other side of the house. In one hand she has a thick bunch of dried sage, smoking, and in the other, she's holding up what looks to be a joint. "It's my lunch break," she says, walking over to her sticker-covered van. (The van I included in my mental haul-away estimate is actually Cupcake's ride.) She opens the door, reaches in to grab a package of Vanilla Wafer cookies and a bottle of water. When she accidentally knocks the dream catcher off the rearview mirror, she leans down to pick it up and I can see she isn't wearing any underwear. This is the real deal. Straight out of 1966. "Wanna burn one?"
"Sure." This has got to be the weirdest house viewing I've ever been to. "So, are you her sister?"
"Fuck no, man! Caleb and I grew up together in Indiana. She-Bitch and I never got along. Not even back when he married her.
"I'm just here to help because he would have wanted me to." She takes the joint, inserts the whole thing in her mouth, evens the spit across the paper, and then lights it. "She can't handle shit at this point."
"He seemed to be some character," I say. "I mean, he sure did know a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff."
She's nodding, holding in smoke. She hands it to me and says, "A fucking genius." I nod now, holding in smoke, too.
We do this for a minute without saying anything. And then a truck slows down on the road. Stops. Turns left into the driveway. The truck reads: DeForillo Construction. Cupcake says, "Go away! Go away! We don't want you here!" She shakes her sage at the sky while he parks the truck and gets out.
She hands me the joint and walks toward him. "Where's your agent?"
"We won't sell to investors."
"The house is already sold. Go away," she says, now blocking him. He cocks his head, then laughs a little and gets back into his truck and leaves. The listing agent, who up until now was gabbing on her phone in her car, gives Cupcake a look and wags her finger to scold her. Cupcake says, "What can I do? Caleb would have never sold this place to a shark."
She pulls me back behind her van and I give her the joint.
"I can't guarantee we'll make a great offer or anything. It needs a lot of work. We only have so much money."
"She'll take anything. She's crazy anyway. Did you notice that?"
I'm holding in smoke, but Cupcake makes me laugh through my nose. "Yeah. I noticed."
"See all these trees and flowers?" She acknowledges the landscaping.
"She stole them. Right out of other people's lawns."
I look at the acre of plants so artfully placed among the rocks and older trees behind the driveway. Only now do I see that the entire forest floor is pushing up dark green sprouts. Tens of thousands of them. The place must be worth twenty thousand in bulbs alone.
"She stole them?"
"Yep. Every single one."
"Huh." I can't believe it. It's too professional-looking for it to be made of stolen parts. Too perfect. Too like the gardens from a European movie.
"Caleb told me once that she thinks if she drinks enough Fresca, she'll become invisible."
"Hm," I manage, too stoned to even register the word invisible. This is definitely the weirdest house viewing I've ever been to.
Reg is saying something about replacing the sub-flooring. I hear the ex-wife light one of the no-brand menthol cigarettes that were sitting outside the front door.
Cupcake whispers, "Disability checks coming out of her ass and she's still smoking."
I hear her say, "My problem is having it emptied out before settlement. We've been here for a month already." She motions toward the house as if to say, See? See the goddamn mess he left me with?
"We can do just about anything to help you," Reg says. "If you want, we can make the contract say that you get the money sooner, but you have an extra month or two to clean it out." That's my Reg. Smooth. He'll offer to help next. He'll take her out to lunch. He'll buy her a goddamned year's worth of fillet mignon if he has to.
Cupcake and I come out from behind the van. Reg looks perplexed, and Lois looks pissed. Cupcake gives her a sarcastic smirk and walks back to her chair on the back deck overlooking the gorge. Lois cracks open another Fresca and sits into the tailgate.
Reg and I move to stand by our car.
I'm listening to his list of cost-effective upgrades. Replacing and sealing the floors, plastering the upstairs, the second floor bathroom and the shower in the master bedroom bath. Insulation, gutters, boiler service, new water heater. Three hornet's nests. Junk hauling.
"I'd bid asking price," he says.
"We'll never get it for that. Four acres? This school district?"
"We can't bid more."
He's right. We can't.
I decide to say goodbye to Cupcake while Reg has one last chat with the listing agent, who's whispering complaints about Lois into her cell phone by the garage door.
Cupcake stops sorting old mail and grins.
"You're gonna bid?"
I nod. "I hope we get it."
"I'll make sure she picks you," she says.
"Whatever. She's got to take the best offer. May the best man win, you know?"
"I'll make sure," she says, waving goodbye as I round the corner.
To my right, the landscaping reminds me who's making the decisions around here.
Cupcake turns up Credence behind me and I stand under the vined pergola spying on Lois in the back of her Subaru. She's gulping, letting the fizz invade her nose, trickle down her chin, wet her t-shirt. She turns and centers herself with the rearview mirror and winces. She finds her reflection in the tinted hatchback glass, and throws the bottle toward the road. She yells something and then buries her sobbing head into her hands.
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