By Jason Arehart
Despite Samuel’s best efforts, the garden was under attack. That much was clear. He bent down and examined the plants for any uneaten fruit. All that was left were the small, hard green growths that would eventually become tomatoes. This was not the start he had wanted. He stood up to escape the scent of garlic and basil, which he had strategically placed throughout the garden to ward off insects. He wiped the beads of sweat away from his forehead, conscious of the fact that Elizabeth was watching him. She’d told him that the garden was a bad idea, and now she was enjoying the fact that he was failing at something again.
“How are the tomatoes doing, dear?” she asked.
“Oh, you know, if it isn’t the rabbits, it’s the insects.” He hated having to admit it, but the garden was failing, and it wasn’t due to a lack of effort or attention. Maybe she was right. Maybe everything he touched did turn to dust. Samuel took off his sun hat and swept strands of sweaty gray hair out of his eyes. He walked over to the table where Elizabeth sat and reached for a glass of ice water. Beads of cold sweat dropped from the glass onto Elizabeth’s arm. She yelped.
“Sorry, darling. I didn’t mean to get you.”
She glared. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and cut the lawn.”
He looked around. “It’s not time yet. I think I’ll wait until after the next rain.”
“So you pretend to be a gardener, instead?” She removed her sunglasses. “Why are you still trying to be something you’re not?” She paused. When he didn’t speak up, she continued, “Tomatoes won’t make you feel better about the store, you know. If that’s what you think, you’re just kidding yourself.”
“Not everything is about the goddamn store. How many times do I have to tell you?” Samuel took a long breath.
She laughed. “If it takes a garden, so be it, but it won’t erase a thing.”
There was a strange silence. Elizabeth drew a deep breath, and looked at her husband.
“I don’t expect it will,” he said.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” she said. Then she stood and lightly touched Samuel’s forearm.
Samuel reached for his wife’s hand, and she allowed it to be taken. He ran his fingers through her hair. Elizabeth withdrew her hand, letting it hang at her side. She looked down and shuffled her feet.
“I’m going to the store to pick up something for the garden,” he said.
Elizabeth fixed her hair, smiled faintly, and went inside to start dinner.
Samuel returned with marigolds. It was a well-known secret in the garden community that the best way to protect new growths was to surround the vegetable plants with flowers. Marigolds in particular were said to ward off certain insects and to kill microscopic organisms known to feed off the soil and attack vegetable plants.
After chasing away a curious squirrel, Samuel sat and watched the garden. He remembered the long nights in the early years of his marriage, when Elizabeth spoke often about their future. She’d wanted it all—to volunteer at an orphanage in Ethiopia, to spend a year in Buenos Aires, to invest in a vacation home on the Amalfi Coast. She never wanted to open a store, and she made that clear the night she first found Samuel comparing interest rates for a bank loan.
The business wobbled from the beginning, as all businesses do. And whenever Elizabeth tried to bring it up, Samuel talked about baseball or the news, or asked about his mother-in-law.
One night, after a particularly bad month with the store, Samuel came home to find Elizabeth crying. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Don’t you know?”
“Look, if it’s the hours, I already told you I’m looking for someone.”
She wiped the tears from her face.
He sat down next to his wife. “What do you want me to do? Sell?”
“I never wanted this.”
“It’s all ruined,” she said.
Sam leaned on the kitchen counter.
“I wanted so much, and I’ve gotten so little.” She wiped her eyes.
“It could’ve worked. It was supposed to work.” He sat down at the table to join his wife.
Elizabeth lowered her head on her hands and wept. Later, when Sam filed for bankruptcy, he sat Elizabeth down to assure her that everything would be okay, but he could tell from the absent look on her face that he had lost a part of her with the business.
On the night Sam planted the marigolds, the Bakers asked them over. When they arrived, Sam had tried to talk about the garden, but Martha had other ideas.
She took a sip of wine and turned to Elizabeth. “You know what I mean, don’t you? You do the cooking and the cleaning and the worrying and he sits around and complains that it’s always the same thing for dinner.”
Sam looked at Elizabeth. She was silent.
Martha went on. “God. I know you’ve felt it. What’s the word? It’s not ‘cluelessness,’ that would require a certain level of ignorance. No. It’s meaner than that, more selfish, like a lack of appreciation.”
Cliff downed his wine and poured another glass. “That’s real nice, Martha. Why don’t you tell our guests about those long hours you’ve been spending on the phone? I’m sure they’d love to hear all of it.” Cliff smiled.
“Screw off,” said Martha. She excused herself to the kitchen, and Elizabeth followed.
“It’s that bad?” asked Sam, who poured another glass trying to match Cliff’s pace.
Cliff clucked and swigged his wine. “I’ve never known a woman who didn’t stir up trouble for no reason at all.”
“But you seem so good together.”
“Sometimes we are. Most times we aren’t. It wasn’t always like that.”
Cliff laughed. “I can’t even handle the one I have.”
Cliff stiffened. “Too much of this,” he pointed to the glass. “And this.” He pounded his chest. “It’s poison. And I don’t mean the wine.”
“Well, quit it, then.”
“I can’t. It’s like those weeds you’re always fighting. Try all you want, they keep coming back.”
“It might just take a little pruning.”
Cliff smiled and whacked Sam across the back. “Sammy boy, I haven’t the slightest idea how to tend a garden…especially one that’s been overrun.”
“Elizabeth, come see.”
A week had passed since he had planted the marigolds and Samuel hoped that they had begun to take root.
She sauntered over, sighing and fanning her shirt to cool off her skin. “What is it?”
“Don’t you see? It’s working.”
She rolled her eyes. “What’s working?”
“The marigolds. Don’t you see them?” Samuel turned the hose on and sprayed the plants with a fine mist so that faint little rainbows appeared in the garden. “They’re beautiful.”
“I thought you were growing tomatoes?”
Samuel’s eyes grew larger. “I am.”
“One step at a time. These marigolds will help the tomatoes grow.”
Elizabeth stopped fanning herself and stared at Samuel. “Who told you that?”
“Everybody knows it,” he said.
He ignored the question.
“You shouldn’t listen to everybody.”
“It’s going to work.”
“You’ve said that before.” She rolled her eyes and swatted at a bug that danced around her face. “I’m going to get dinner started.”
Once she disappeared into the house, Samuel rolled up the hose. Then he sat at the table in the backyard and watched the garden. That was the only protection he could truly give.
Sometime later, Elizabeth returned with a fresh glass of ice water. Her eyes were softer than before. “Drink this,” she said, “or you’ll get dehydrated.”
Samuel took the cup. “You know, we should take a trip somewhere.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “That sounds nice.”
He pointed to the garden. “Do you know why they’re there?”
She nodded and ran a hand through her hair.
“For protection,” he said.
He put the water down and took her hand again. This time she kept it there.
Samuel told her that he loved her. She kissed him on the forehead and went back in to finish dinner.
Samuel checked on the garden. The weeds would always be a problem, but if he kept up with them, tended to them daily, there was a chance. He sipped the water his wife had brought him. It was cold and refreshing, unlike the sweltering heat of the garden. He prayed for rain to help bring about a good crop. The success of his garden depended on it, as much as it depended on the sunlight. He needed a steady combination of both—one was useless without the other. He shielded his eyes and peered up at the cloudless sky. He seemed to be in for a long, hot summer. Still, It was early in the season and that meant that anything was possible.
Category: Featured, Short Story