Earth Angel

By Douglas Cole

n both sides of the block, on a dead end street, the families all worked with insect precision, planting identical trees.  Desiree, the block watch captain and defacto leader of the neighborhood beautification project, scurried from tree to tree with her measuring stick to make sure they were all in a line and evenly spaced, lest some element be out of order.  She was a lay botanist who, after seeing the movie The Secret Life of Plants, had become a devout Vegan: she ate nothing that didn’t drop to the ground and die on its own.

 

Frank watched from his porch at the end of the block.  He was not part of the project and had never been asked.  True, he already had his own, thin little elm wisps, barely plugged into the parking strip, and he probably would have declined to join their uniform cultivation of the paperbark maple that the city had given them free.  But it was amusing to watch how with the industrious care that only the amateur can muster, they all now seemed to think themselves experts and the only capable gardeners to handle their little trees, people who until now hardly deigned to clip back a rose let alone trim a hedge or a lawn.  Hadn’t most of them hired him to do all of that?  The cutting and the mulching, composting ,limbing, everything to keep their yards individually beautiful, like competing gardens of Eden?  And besides, he knew what Desiree thought of him.  She had said to him directly, in one explosion of completely unexpected vitriol when he asked her if he could do any work on her yard, that she thought he was nothing more than a stinking no good drunk, and that she would rather die than let him touch her plants.  He drank his beer and glared at the neighborhood.

 

They all worked away in synchronous time, looking up occasionally to see how the others were doing, making little comments about how beautiful the neighborhood would be, and there was something beautiful about them in their bumbling way, all exposed as he knew them.  Mary was a lawyer worn down by sadness after the death of her son.  Now even she had a look of joy, though the eternal grief was set deep in her eyes.  And Desiree’s husband, Ed, tagged along behind her from tree to tree, lending a hand, taking over at times.  He was a buffoon of an accountant with meticulous and pointless knowledge of baseball scores and player statistics.  Their daughter was a quiet, timid girl with heavy limbs, and she displayed the grim demeanor of neglect that came because her younger brother had cerebral palsy and so was fragile and needed constant attention.  He was sometimes allowed to ride his bike to the end of the block, but only if he wore elbow pads and a hockey helmet.  Hugh Bates was in real estate and pretended to be kind and talked of Karma in a way that made it sound like all of his actions were merely calculations and investments on the next life; his wife was a potter with burned out acid eyes and a paper voice.  They had a toddler girl named Rain.  Tom and Sharon were teachers, strangely cold with thin fake smiles that seemed to narrowly cover a sneer.  But here they all were, bent over their little plots of land like undertakers full of the joy of their work.

 

Frank couldn’t resist.  He rose up and loped across the street.  Grinning like a serpent, he wedged a foot up on the curb and looked down the slope of his beer can at the hole, at the mound of earth and at Tom, teacher and newest member of the block who was lifting out another wedge of sod with the blade of his shovel.

 

You got any steer manure? Frank asked.

 

No, Tom said, looking up, sweat rolling down along the wire rims of his glasses.  Should I?

 

Well, it helps to lay some down at the bottom of the hole.  It gives the tree additional nutrients.  It’s a good idea when transferring it to new ground.

 

Well, I don’t have any.

 

I’ve got two bags you’re welcome to if you want them.  I mean, you don’t have to.

 

Really?  If you think it’s a good idea.  Tom propped both hands on the handle of his shovel and drew a dirty glove across his forehead.  He puffed and blew and drew in deep breaths like a man on the verge of a heart attack.

 

I’ll bring them.

 

Frank loped across the street with his long Ichobod strides.  He rolled through his yard swinging his gangly limbs like some creaky structure made of pulleys and rope, and bent his weathered face to peer into the ruckus of down spouts and cinder blocks, pots and boards, and plucked up two red bags of manure and threw them over his shoulders and carried them back across the street.  His neighbor unhinged another crescent of sod, and Frank dropped a big hand down and yanked up the tuft, grass gripped like hair in his fingers.  He stood back as Tom dug deeper into the ground.

 

Everything working out in the house for you there?

 

Yeah.  There’s a lot of work to do.

 

Things were in better shape before old Dick died.  He used to keep a pretty nice garden, but after his wife left him, just disappeared out of the blue, he seemed to lose interest.  And the kids let the place go after he died.  You wouldn’t believe what it looked like before you bought it.  The kids fixed it up quite a bit, just to get it ready to sell, but before that…let’s just say people were making suggestions.

 

I still get mail with his name on it.  It’s a little spooky.

 

Mail?

 

Mostly advertisements, credit car offers.  Say, there’s an old white cat that’s been hanging around the back door.  Do you know who it belongs to?

 

Old Tom?  Why that’s Dick’s cat.  The kids abandoned him, I guess.  He’s coming back around, huh?  He must like you.

 

They just left the cat?

 

They weren’t much involved with anything that I could see, Frank said and then cut to a new subject.  So you getting to know the other neighbors?  Hugh tell you yet about his chest injury from a knight’s lance in a previous life?

 

From down the block came a shout, Don’t put fertilizer in!  Desiree appeared with a raised hand, queen of the trees.  She was in charge, the grand mother of the block.  The City told us not to fertilize them, she said, her hands gripped into her hips.

 

The city said!

 

Really? Tom said.  Why not?

 

They’re supposed to just acclimate to whatever ground we put them into.  They said we don’t need to fertilize them.

 

All right, Frank said.  I’ll take these back.  And he picked up his two orphan bags and carried them under his arms back to his yard and dropped them into his stash of supplies, most of which was swiped from yards where he worked.  He went up onto his porch, took one look back, then went inside.  Desiree went back to inspections.  Tom went back to his digging.  Frank reappeared on his porch, popped open a beer can and shook his head at the fanfare of tree planting.

 

Let them, he proclaimed with a monarch wave of his hand, they who know not the true rhythms of the earth.  Ah, except for you, he said, watching the Bates child totter through the mounds of earth, fingers working secret geometry.  Frank polished off his beer and went into his house.  Actually, it was his mother’s house.  He had never owned anything.  His work barely brought in enough money for beer.  The shaded gloom of the living room was internally lit by a television screen.  His twelve year old daughter, Heather, lay crumpled in an old easy chair, her gawky legs folded against her chest like the limbs of a praying mantis.

 

I don’t want you watching television all day, he said.

 

She rolled her eyes, and in that glance did he catch more than a glimpse of Lyla?  He watched her eyes, always in his mind a secret calculation, monitoring.  She was a bright child, no doubt.  She even won the school writing contest and the grand prize of a new computer.  But did she use it?  It was still in its plastic shroud.  She lacked motivation, it seemed to him, a weakness he gauged against the schizophrenia that drove her mother into the asylum.  And did Heather feel his calculating mind worm inch by inch over her growth, her speech, the way she slumped over meals or dragged herself like a wet willow limb through the rooms of the house?

 

Why don’t you go outside? he said.

 

Why don’t you?

 

I do.

 

I know, you’re face is red as an apple.

 

I’m out everyday.  It’s healthy.

 

I know.  I know, she said.  Rolling, rolling eyes.

 

Useless, useless, he thought.  To everyone a single destiny.  He stoop strode through the kitchen, tugged on the handle of the throbbing refrigerator and plucked out another can from the shelf.  His back spider-tingled from the television rays as he went down the hallway to the back door and out.

 

Chance of rain.  Clouds.  Thunder rolled in over the Sound, a deep-bellied sky engine.  But no rain yet.  The neighborhood tree concert played on.  He toed a newly planted palm in a wide umber pot, a left over from an Admiral District estate.  Who plants palms in the Northwest?  It would never last the winter, though perhaps inside the greenhouse it might survive.  For now, live in the false charm of summer, ye who know not the talons of our winters.  He chugged and chuckled and sidled into the greenhouse.

 

Ah, the big bloody Clinkers!  I want roses in my garden bower, dig?  And row on row of spider plants thrust their neurotic tongues towards him.  He dipped his rough chin into their spiny foils, breathed an acrid kiss.  What a thin barrier between this soft warm space and the cold world dream outside, nothing but a white plastic shield on wooden bones to protect the Jonah Babies.  And it struck him that plants always know.  To a plant, no emotion can be completely hidden or feigned.  Plants know.  Plants know there is beauty and sadness.  They are the only true witnesses.

 

The sun swung low, and its rays flowed golden through the little greenhouse.  Frank felt the warm waves of sleep coming on, sitting on his potters stool, shoulders slumped, his mind blur buzzing on the banks of oblivion.  He pulled free and rose and stepped out of the greenhouse, shading his eyes and scanning the rooftops along the alleyway bordering his back yard.  Sun bolts rolled grainy through the maple trees and the fluttering leaves of the cotton wood trees in the gorge at the end of the alleyway.  And all this brought to mind the fact that it was a good time to dump his yard clippings, a tower of moldering grass and shrub bits he hauled back from his various landscaping jobs.

 

He drained his beer can and tossed it light tinking into the heap and flipped over the wheelbarrow and nosed it into the pile.  He raked back a hank and then another until the wheelbarrow was full to tilting, and grabbing up the handles he rolled back down the alleyway, the strain sharpest at the inside of his elbows and upper back.  The gorge was his customary dumping place for yard waste.  Not that he should feel guilty, though the signs were posted on every street end, warning people away:

 

No Dumping

 

This was his place.  He had lived here long before most of the people in the neighborhood had come, long before most of their houses had been built, and certainly long before some city ordinance upon which nobody voted set in place a new regulation and sent some fool city worker out to post these signs of warning.

 

Perched on the brink and changing his grip to up-end the wheelbarrow, Frank glanced down into the gorge and saw, he could not believe at first, what looked like a human foot sticking up out of the ground.  Was it?  And was that too an arm exposed?  And…?  He did not even lower the handles but stood still, rapt, as light strobed through the trees, a golden light that pulsed and faded, pulsed and faded, and with each pulse illuminated a young girl’s face.  It was.

 

He glanced around for who would see.  No one.  He alone beheld her there, and the tree limbs moved in a vagrant breeze as if to fan her in her sleep, though he had no doubt she was dead as he lowered the handles of the wheel barrow and released his grip and stepped down into the soft loam of compost to where she lay on her back, naked, partially covered by earth, still, her legs crossed at the knees and extending down the slope, her left arm down with the hand half turned and lying at her hip, her right hand swept above her head as if in some final flourish.

 

He knelt beside her.  She was maybe fifteen years old, he figured, the same age as his own daughter, and she was beautiful.  A strange tenderness filled his heart for this child whose eyes, half-lidded, displayed no terror as he imagined she must have suffered to have ended here like this.  No, instead, with her lips lightly parted and her light brown hair spiraled like a shell around her head, she seemed to glow.

 

And what should he do?  His second thought was to call the police.  He would definitely call the police.  Then a fly landed on the smooth flesh of her cheek, and he swept his hand at it and drove it away.  Others were honing in, and he fanned and fanned with his open hand, but they never hovered far away and only waited for a break in his web of motion to drift back in.  And it angered him, to see her exposed like this, his mind spinning on the wrongness of it.  So he gathered up handfuls of the surrounding loam.  It came away like loose skin with a fine, white foam of decaying life beneath it, and he began to drape her limbs, bit by bit, with this deep green coat of earth.  He covered the exposed flesh of her stomach and her chest, and when nothing visible was left but her face, he selected a broad maple leaf and laid it carefully over her mouth and eyes.  And rising up, he saw her as though she were wrapped in a rich earth cocoon and knew that this way he could leave her.

 

And so he climbed back up to the alleyway, leaving his wheelbarrow, intent on calling the police.

 

But he did not call the police.  Instead, he walked and thought about this new and dangerous situation.  Or rather, he thought about her.  And he went into a trance as he walked.  The vision of her would not leave him as he entered the green tunnel of trees along Forty Eighth street and thought about her there in the gulley, incorporated in her bower, her hair splayed and her eyes in their fixed gaze looking out through the webwork of the maple leaf veins, as the ivy vines lowered slow python coils that slid along her cheek, her shoulder, down her arm and along her hip, entombing her as he felt her last spark shoot through his blood.

 

So consumed in thought, he emerged onto Seaview Drive and crossed the street into Lowman park.  The grass field flowed down to the beach.  And high above in that vast rotunda of sky, the sun radiated alleles of light that fell in spindles towards the earth.Waves came tidal surging in from the sound, falling on the sand with a rhythmic collapse like heartbeats and then rolled back with a diminishing hiss.  And there embedded in the pearled water surface, black nebulous globs of kelp billowed and breathed.  Life intricately at work, everywhere, and from the water rose the hovering islands and the far Olympic Mountains with their white flame peaks.

 

 

Time’s funny tricks.  What happened only moments before recedes down a long tunnel into the long ago.  What happened far in the past stands as close as now.  Back in his greenhouse, he waded through his pots and pot shards among the furious gladiolas and the fierce geraniums; even the spider plants hissed at him.  He stormed toward his house and balked at the tiny voices inside, the kinetic dark beyond the screen.  He tried to enter but couldn’t..

 

Then they came in their uniforms and their glares, pointing down the alleyway, their questions coming from a quiet distance.  He only smiled.  A strange giddiness rose up in him as the officers cuffed his hands together behind his back and took him by the arm to the patrol car on the street.  One hand on his head, they folded him into the back.  No locks, no handles.  The engine rumbled.  The squad car pulled out.  The masters were done with their creations, and they stood in silent rows and watched.  The newly planted striplings leered at him and flicked their shadows towards him as he cruised down the street, nodding and smiling to every neighbor, blessing them with his eyes.

 

 

——————–

I’ve had work in The Connecticut River Review, Louisiana Literature, Cumberland Poetry Review, and Midwest Quarterly.  I have work available online as well in The Adirondack Review, Salt River Review, and Avatar Review, among others, and I recorded a story for Bound Off.  I have work forthcoming in the Red Rock Review and a novella to be issued as a chapbook in the Overtime series of Workers Write Journal. I won the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry for a selection called, “The Open Ward,” a Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House and First Prize in the “Picture Worth 500 Words” poetry contest by Tattoo Highway.  I live in Seattle, Washington and I teach writing and literature at Seattle Central College, where I am also the advisor for the literary journal, Corridors.


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