The sun had just set and the evening was cooling in tiny increments. Julius’s neighbor Wayne, a young high school teacher just out of college, was in his back yard slowly coiling his hose between sips of a vanilla shake from the ice cream stand down the street. A snake crawled from the yard into the garden, slow and casual. Julius followed the snake. He parted the weeds with his hands and took one bold step. The weeds closed around him, brushing against his face. The garden smelled wild and exotic. Unseen insects clicked and whirred all around him. Julius got scared and went back into the house to call Amanda, his long-distance girlfriend. In regard to the garden, he told her he was “making progress.”
The next day Julius slept until well past noon. When he finally made it out to the garden with a pair of shears, which he had no concrete plans for, the humidity of the day sapped his energy. He stood by the garden and felt its defiance. The weeds had grown an inch or two overnight. Or more. Julius felt a touch of terror at their reckless health. He tried a tentative snip with the shears. The weeds were wet and they bent around the dull blades instead of cutting cleanly. Julius decided that before he went any further with his assault on the weeds, he should check for any vegetables that might have grown despite his neglect. He stepped into the garden and poked around on the ground with the shears. Insects blundered against his sweaty face. The weeds dampened the clatter of
The two men contemplated each other for a few moments. Then Julius turned and hurried back in the direction he’d come from, out of the garden and into the house. He dropped the shears inside the back door and watched the garden from the kitchen window. There was no sign of the old man. It was impossible to tell he was in there. The weeds were perfect cover, concealing him on all sides. Julius wondered how long the old man had been living in his garden. He had seemed very at home in the clearing, what with his sleeping bag and his milk crate and his general air of belonging. Yes, the old man was trespassing, but Julius was sympathetic to the plight of those less fortunate than himself, and he felt that at this point, cutting down the weeds in an attempt to salvage his garden would be a needlessly selfish act.
Julius got five magazines out of the basket on the back of his toilet and took them outside. He went a few steps into the garden and then called, “Heads up,” and tossed the magazines one by one in the direction of the clearing. The pages fluttered and snapped as the magazines arced over the weeds and out of sight. After he had thrown the last magazine, Julius stood very still and listened. Over the inane chirping of crickets, he heard the sound of magazine pages being idly flipped, considered, and flipped again. Pleased, Julius went back into the house to eat a fudge-sickle. Amanda called and they talked about how well their long-distance relationship was going. When Amanda asked him how the garden was coming along, Julius said it was “coming along great” and that it was “different than he expected.” He didn’t mention the old man.
The next morning, Julius took one of his padded kitchen chairs out to the garden. He decided it would be unwise to hurl the chair to the old man from a distance so he affixed a non-threatening smile to his face and carried the chair through the weeds and into the clearing. The old man was seated on his crate. He said nothing as Julius set the chair down and pretended to dust off the seat with his hand. Julius couldn’t read the old man’s expression, but he noticed that the magazines were stacked neatly on the ground next to the sleeping bag. He decided that the old man must have been reading the magazines while reclining on the sleeping bag, maybe as the last of the daylight crept off along the edges of the sky and the breeze wandered through the weeds and stirred up a pair of toads or something. Julius imagined the old man as still wearing the sunglasses as he read despite the obvious impediment they would be to the perusal of magazines in the dim of the evening. The old man didn’t thank Julius as he left the clearing. Julius felt gratified anyway.
That afternoon while Julius was in his garage looking for a powerful magnet he wanted to make sure he still owned, he found a wooden easel. Delighted, he took the easel out to the garden along with a print of El Greco’s View of Toledo that had been hanging over his computer. The old man was sitting on the chair now and the magazines were stacked next to him on top of the overturned milk crate. Julius was thrilled. He arranged the print on the easel across the clearing from the sleeping bag so that View of Toledo would be the first thing the old man saw upon waking up in the morning. Julius wished he was wearing a hat that he could tip to the old man as he left the clearing, but, without one handy, he settled on simply saying “Enjoy!”
Over the next week and a half, Julius ran an extension cord from the house to the clearing and provided the old man with a desk lamp so he could read at night, replaced the kitchen chair with a more comfortable deck chair and threw in a lawn chair for good measure, and gave the old man a couple of rubber 25-pound dumb bells in case he wanted to work out. He also started picking up one or two brand new magazines every day at the drug store so that the old man wouldn’t have to read the same old outdated magazines over and over. The old man never spoke a word of any kind and the weeds grew taller and thicker all around the clearing.
Two nights before Julius was scheduled to return to work, Amanda showed up at his door, grinning from ear to ear. “Surprise!” she said.
“What are you doing here?” asked Julius.
“I thought you’d be excited.” said Amanda. They sat in Julius’s living room and a news channel babbled on the TV in the background. The news anchor said “controversial” so often in such a short span of time that it sounded like a gibberish word he’d made up on the spot.
“I am excited,” said Julius. “You’re here, you’re actually here!”
“Have you eaten yet?” asked Amanda. “I’m getting hungry.”
“I haven’t eaten,” said Julius. “You want to go somewhere?”
“Actually,” said Amanda. “I’d love to try some of those fresh garden vegetables.”
“Ooh, good idea,” said Julius. “But, oh wait, I just finished the last of what I picked the other day. I’ll have to go out to the garden to see if anything’s ripe.”
“OK,” said Amanda. “I’ll wash up.”
As Julius approached the garden in the darkness, dewy grass clippings sticking to his sandaled feet, he noted the absence of the glow that always emanated from the clearing when the old man was using the desk lamp. Maybe the old man had worn himself out with the weights and turned in early. Julius decided he would try to take the lamp as quietly as he could, turn it on, and use it to search around among the weeds for a few acceptable peppers that could be chopped up for a salad. As he stepped into the weeds, the garden seemed stiller than usual. There was a touch of rot in the familiar dense, green smell. The half moon was bright, but it still took Julius a few moments to realize that the old man was gone when he stepped into the clearing. He took the desk lamp off of the milk crate where it had been placed near the sleeping bag and turned it on, shining it around the clearing. There was a small pile of wood shavings on the sleeping bag as if someone had been whittling. The weights were there, the magazines were there. The deck chair and the lawn chair were there. The print of View of Toledo was there, but it was lying face down on the ground. The easel was there too, but it was broken. Its long third leg had been snapped off and it had become a giant letter “A” lying on the brown, trampled weeds. Julius puzzled over the broken easel for a moment. Then the mysterious wood shavings and the missing leg of the easel connected in his head. He threw the desk lamp to the ground and ran through the weeds, their long, rough stalks and leaves cutting his arms and face. He burst out of the garden and sprinted to the house.
Amanda was sitting at the kitchen table flipping through a brand new issue of All Out Brawl magazine. She looked up as Julius slammed the back door and locked it.
“Why do you have this?” she said, pointing at the magazine. “And where are the vegetables?”
“There are no vegetables,” said Julius. “We have to lock all the doors and windows!”
“So what are we having for supper?” asked Amanda.
“There are no vegetables!” Julius said again. He checked the latch on the window over the kitchen sink and yanked the curtains closed. “I spoiled him and now he feels entitled! He may or may not have fashioned a weapon out of parts of my easel!”
Amanda pushed All Out Brawl magazine aside and crossed her arms. “You know, Julius, my friends all told me that long-distance relationships don’t work, but I insisted that we were different.”
Julius wasn’t listening. He was looking at the shears lying on the floor where he’d dropped them days before. The weeds had been tall then, sure, but still manageable. It was far too late for shears now.