by Bernie Brown
Hans dug down with his spade. Digging used to be easier; but now that he was eighty, it was slow going. Maybe he’d buy a garden tiller. Madge would have wanted one. She liked new- fangled stuff. Hans didn’t.
They used to argue. “Put the radishes first, then the peas,” she’d say.
“What does it matter?” he’d say.
“Companion gardening,” she’d say or some other high falutin’ reason.
Madge died at seventy five, when they were still pretty spry. Five years and losing your gardening partner made a difference.
“Damn,” he muttered. His neighbor Barker, a nice enough guy who talked too much, headed his way. Hans’s stomach twisted.
“Hi, there, neighbor. Wanna borrow my tiller?” Barker said.
Hans kept working. “No thanks.” He didn’t look up, hoping to discourage gabbing.
“I’ll leave it here, if you change your mind.” The cursed machine sat at the edge of the plot.
Hans was afraid of it. It sounds like a sick lawn mower.
After a goulash supper, Hans fell asleep to “Dancing with the Stars” until he jerked awake. Had he heard a lawn mower? Probably something on that stupid show. He turned off the TV and went to bed.
Next morning, he went out in his pajamas to fill the bird feeder. The big old flicker pecked away at the feeder, like always.
A look at his garden plot shocked him. What the . . ? He stepped closer. The plot looked pretty as a garden magazine picture, completely tilled. Did that damn Barker till it? In the dark? And leave the hated tiller behind?
Hans turned his back. This was too much to deal with before morning coffee and the newspaper.
Dressed and back outside, Hans studied the garden. If he asked Barker, the guy would never shut up. He pushed the matter out of his mind.
Lettuce would go in the first row and radishes in the second. The sweet tang of a fresh radish filled his mouth. He knelt down on Madge’s old rug. She’d said it was easier on the knees than the ground. He dug a hole, put in the lettuce plant, and gently pressed the soil down. “Press too hard and you break the roots,” Madge always said.
Busybody neighbor headed Hans’s way, and Hans ignored him.
“You used the tiller.”
“Hmmph,” Hans said. So it hadn’t been him.
“I’ll just take it home then.”
Another lettuce seedling, then another. Hans avoided thinking about who had tilled the garden. He finished the lettuce and radishes. Carrots and onions this afternoon. He went inside for lunch. Hans saved the crossword for lunchtime. He put chicken noodle soup in a pan, and set it on the stove. While it heated, he read the clue for one across. “Short name for mother.” Easy. M A.
The soup bubbled and he poured it in a bowl, grabbed a spoon, and took a seat. Slurp. One down, “A saying or proverb.” Five letters, first one A. Axiom? He penciled it in. But that wouldn’t work with two across, dorm “a place to sleep.” He cleared the table, put the dishes in the sink with a clink, and conked out on the couch.
Hans woke, a little stiff but ready to work. He finished off his cold coffee while watching the birds at the feeder. That greedy flicker was there again. He couldn’t resist a last glance at the crossword. Not axiom? What could it be?
After putting on his work shoes, he returned to the garden. Wait, didn’t I plant lettuce first? Then radishes. He would never mistake floppy radish leaves for stiff lettuce greenery. But the rows were reversed. He scratched his head. Am I going nuts? Maybe I should check into some old farts home.
The mystery troubled him as he planted. But when he finished the neat rows of carrots, onions, lettuce, and radishes, a warm satisfaction filled him. At the same time, the crossword answer came to him like a bolt of lightning.
Hans cleaned up and went inside. Like a champ, he filled in the word.
Too late to cook. He decided to hit MacDonald’s. He and Madge used to do that sometimes. She liked cheeseburgers and he liked fish sandwiches.
At MacDonald’s the happy buzz of families made him smile. A little girl toddled over and grinned at him. He shook her chubby hand and gave the mother a nod.
You know, one of those garden flags would be nice. He’d seen one with carrots and peas on it. Walmart might still have it.
And it did, putting a nice finish on a good gardening day.
When he got home, he set the flag by the back door to put out in the morning. He’d watch “American Idol” and then hit the hay.
That kid from Carolina did a nice job. Hans would have called in, except he didn’t do stuff like that. He yawned. Time for bed. He put today’s newspaper on top of the recycling bin outside the door. It had turned breezy.
Next morning, rain’s patter woke Hans early. He set the coffee pot perking and collected the newspaper. A look out the window showed rain didn’t keep the old flicker away. Hans glanced at the garden and frowned. The flag already blew in the breeze. He hadn’t put it out last night. Nosiree. Somebody was messing with him. And the wind had messed with the recycling papers, littering the grass like dandelions.
“Shit.” He tramped around picking up soggy papers. He wanted to yank the damn flag right out of the ground.
Rain had glued yesterday’s crossword to the flag’s pole. Only two words remained: M A and A D A G E. Their message came to Hans like another bolt of lightning, solving the mysteries.
His old gardening partner was back.
“You got me again, Madge.”
And the big flicker came and snatched the paper clean out of his hands.
Bernie Brown lives in Raleigh, NC where she writes, reads, and watches birds. Her stories have appeared in several journals, most recently Belle Reve, Modern Creative Life, and Watching Backyard Birds. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and a Writer in Residence at the Weymouth Center.
Belle Rêve Literary Journal is a southern literary experience. Our mission is to capture everything that makes the South and its residents unique through the best contemporary literature we can find. We publish new works weekly.
Passionately Ran, Compassionately Fed.