The gardener is perplexed by what Vikki plants with her lemon tree, but goes along for the New Year’s ride.
Just when I think I’ll have to give in and take a break, the stairs end and we emerge from under the canopy of pines and cypresses to the roadway flanking the hill. Vikki and her new dog, Peggy Lee, a “poochis” (whatever that is), have jogged a few yards ahead, advertising their vivacity. Vikki turned 60 in November. She had a big party at 59 but this year, there was an eerie silence. Foolish me to think she called a truce in the battle against gravity. She informed me an hour ago that in the last six months she has become a vegan, broken up with Stan (this I don’t believe) and acquired the beloved poochis (perhaps I should believe it). What were my New Year’s resolutions, she wanted to know. Resolutions had not crossed my mind. Her big one, she said, was giving up procrastination.
It’s dog heaven up here. Mutts gambol past, by the gazillions. If I were an evolved person, like Vikki, I’d delight in them. She’s making squeaks with pursed lips that even I, who hears less and less, pick up. Many mosey up and suspiciously sniff at her hand, and check out Peggy Lee’s under-parts.
While Vikki communes with the canines, I plant myself on a recently vacated bench. I’m not a dog person; I’m a garden person. In dense cities, where gardens are small, you’re one or the other. Our friend Phil, whose black Lab, Satan, is his constant sidekick, is an exception. He’s a great gardener (he does it for a living) but even he would agree. “There are two major lies garden owners tell you,” he says. “‘I’ll water by hand,’ and ‘I always clean up after the dog.’”
Spread before me, in this westerly view, the riches of Ozymandias: Noe Valley in the saddle between here and Twin Peaks, houses, spires, and off to the northwest, the bridge, looking remarkably close, crowned by a blue, fathomless sky. It is a splendor I almost overlook, my mind on doggy doings. Here, auditioning for a viable resolution: to pay attention to what I’m paying attention to. Wasn’t that last year’s, too?
It has been a long time since we made this walk. Nowadays Vikki and I meet in a time slot, the dinner hour mostly. She called last week to ask if I’d help her move her lemon tree from its pot into the ground. She wanted to do it on New Year’s Day, for symbolic reasons. I said yes, even though minutes before I was grousing about excessive holiday socializing. I missed spending this kind of time with her. Also, I didn’t want to spend the day alone.
“Come on, lazybones,” she calls. “We have to do the sacred perambulation of the hill. Get off your butt. Come on.”
What, I inquire of the noncommittal pines, did I miss? I heave myself up, acquiescence as familiar as my grandmother’s blue and white afghan, loosely knit but durable, somewhat warming. She will be who she is, my auld acquaintance. Change? No we can’t. We hold a mutual account in the memory bank (though more and more we accuse each other of getting things wrong). We are linked by faces in photos on her mantel and on my bookcase, friends gone from us, whose only other venue is dream and whose legacy is this bond. Maybe it’s love. Who knew it was so exasperating?
As we round the rise, big chunks of the city bloom into view, a vast mobile diorama: Candlestick Point, the arterial freeways, Mt. Diablo a blue blip on the horizon. The walk unfolds symphonically, conflict, resolution, harmony and disharmony, now and always, spiraling upward, one encompassing fabric. It is a sacred perambulation; I can dig it. With each step a few more concerns peel off. Circling around to the north side, at the summit, the brisk wind sends the last grouse flying into oblivion. Yee hah. Peggy Lee picks up my exuberance and for the first time since we met earlier today, decides I’m worthy, and bounds my way, going airborne with a floating leap. Apparently we can be playmates. Not now, I say, but Peggy Lee is all now. I give her fever. She yaps and nips at my trousers, until Vikki pulls her off and launches into a scolding that (my guess) falls on deaf ears.
Diminuendo. We don’t dawdle at the summit to indulge plans for world conquest. No procrastinating is our theme; the sun goes down in a hurry, and the job awaits, transplanting the lemon tree.
We gazed our little fills at boundlessness.
From Up and Down by James Merrill
Vikki comes into the garden to check the progress of the hole. I’m pounding away with a pick, glad I had the foresight to bring it. The soil, if you can call it that, is mostly rock. The hole grows in girth ever so slowly, but not as slowly as the lemon tree. There are maybe 15 leaves on it, and half of those a ghostly white.
“How long has it been in this pot?” I ask.
“Ten years, maybe.”
“Do you ever feed it?”
“With citrus food. You go to the nursery, you buy citrus food. You read the instructions. You follow the instructions. The plant thanks you.”
“You don’t have to be sarcastic. Is it organic?”
“Death is organic.”
She sighs and shakes her locks. “Does it have blood and bone meal, stuff like that?”
“I won’t use it. I hate to think what they do to those poor animals.”
“You’re going to have to figure out something or the grim reaper will get your New Year’s baby. You could try coffee grounds.”
“I quit drinking coffee. Anyway, it’s not important.”
“Whatever you say.”
“I don’t mean it’s not important. I mean . . . you’re going to think I’m crazy.” Warning flags pop up like oxalis after the first rain. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. How deep is the hole?”
“As deep as the pot.”
“Can you dig it a little deeper?”
“You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“We’ve established that.”
“I want to bury my placenta under it.”
“My placenta. From Adrian’s birth.”
“Adrian just turned 21.”
“It’s been in the freezer. Don’t give me that look.” I can’t help but give her the 21-year-old-placenta-in-the-freezer look. “I’m going to get it.”
She comes back holding a package wrapped in brown paper dusted with frost. “Do you want to see it?”
“No,” I say a bit vehemently. “You are kidding.”
“I am not kidding.” Her voice rises in pitch every syllable. “Make the hole deeper.”
I ponder hole, pot, anemic tree, brown package on the bench, and grab the pick and swing mightily, jarring my teeth and the rocky dirt. Motivation is the key; out come hunks of rock. Soon I have achieved an additional 12 inches of depth and width. The addition, albeit subtraction, was advisable anyway, for drainage.
“I realized this was the perfect time. New Year’s, him turning 21. It’s good luck. Ask any doula—a lemon tree, specifically. No!” Vikki lunges at Peggy Lee who is nosing around the package. “Inside. Go.” She tries to grab the dog, but pooch hops onto the bench and into my arms.
“You and I are going inside,” I say, hugging her, “while your mom has her little ritual.”
To my surprise, Peggy Lee submits with no fuss. I’m starting to like her.
Inside I spend some extra time, enjoying a long slow contemplative drink of water, thinking about the kumquat on the counter of my Vietnamese barber. Good luck in the New Year. The kumquat is in the genus Fortunella, a close relative of Citrus. Is Fortunella from fortune?
Back outside, the package is where it was.
“Why didn’t you bury it?”
“I was waiting for you,” Vikki says.
“What for? Do you want me to say something?”
“It’s not a funeral. You have to help me get the lemon tree out of the pot. That is the point, if you recall.”
“Well put the damn thing in the hole already. I’ll take care of the tree.”
Vikki looks at me, hurt. Am I going to trash the sacred moment?
“Should I unwrap it?” Vikki asks.
“Why are you asking me?”
“It might be in plastic. Did we have plastic bags back then? I might have to microwave it.” She unwraps the brown paper. “Yep. In a plastic bag.”
“Get a scissors and cut it away. Not here, take it inside.”
“Would you just calm down? It’s a placenta. It’s not going to bite you.” She slides open the glass doors and Peggy Lee makes a dash to the bench, too late for lunch.
I drag the planting mix nearby, ready to make quick work of the planting, if it ever happens.
Vikki returns, and carries the gray matter to the hole, kneels and deposits it. “Cover it with dirt,” I tell her. “Now. I’ll do the rest.” But the tree, because the pot is bell-shaped, won’t come out. A catalog of attempts nets few signs of hope.
“I’m going to have to break the pot.”
“Is that good feng shui?”
“I’m Greek. Breaking crockery is my feng shui. Quick get a hammer. No procrastinating.”
Hammer in hand, we take turns giving blows to the mossy old pot until it falls away in sections and the lemon stands naked and defenseless as any newborn. I pick up the largest of the shards and smash it against the patio bricks. Vikki picks one up and does the same. Peggy Lee cowers near the door.
“Happy New Year, Zorba.”
“Happy New Year to you.”
We smash every pot that has been sitting around unused for years. We get a little carried away. Out with the old. Change rocks. Yes we can.
When the spirit subsides, I drop the poor tree into the hole (bon appétit), rake dirt around it and give it some water.
“That’s a weight off my mind,” she says.
I squelch each comment. “Do you want me to sweep up?”
“It’ll wait,” she says. “Let’s have a drink.”
Dispatches from Faro’s garden have appeared seasonally in The Monthly for more than a decade and were recently published as a collection by Ithuriel’s Spear Press. The book, entitled In Faro’s Garden, A Tour and Some Detours, is available at www.spdbooks.org, Amazon.com and Black Oak Books in Berkeley. R.E. Faro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.infarosgarden.com.