“The house, from the outside, was not an uncommon color. It’s just that one would ordinarily have expected to see that particular shade of green on a rock band from the eighties, or a carton of lime sherbet, and it came as somewhat startling in house form. It made one first marvel at the amount of paint it must have taken to cover such a large surface area –though the house was not even the biggest on the block– and then give a short cluck of sympathy for the neighbors. ”
Well, alas, there is no more of the story I had been posting, “Notes from the Ballroom.” I wrote that long ago, back when I was learning how to dance, and I never finished it. I tried to go back and complete it recently, but I found -like Mark Twain, when he tried to edit “Innocents Abroad”- that I could not do it, because I’ve changed too much.
The conclusion I’ve decided to draw from this is that I must be like Mark Twain in most respects (minus the mustache), and that therefore my work will go on to become both celebrated and world-renowned, though few -beyond a small group of uncommonly intelligent and insightful blog readers- may recognize it now.
With that happy conclusion, I present a piece I wrote about twelve years ago, “Jungle Garden,” a character sketch based on a former neighbor of mine, a unique and riveting individual, who hopefully does not read blogs.
Have a wonderful Monday,
The house, from the outside, was not an uncommon color. It’s just that one would ordinarily have expected to see that particular shade of green on a rock band from the eighties, or a carton of lime sherbet, and it came as somewhat startling in house form. It made one first marvel at the amount of paint it must have taken to cover such a large surface area –though the house was not even the biggest on the block– and then give a short cluck of sympathy for the neighbors. Interestingly, one very often had the same reaction upon meeting the owner of the house: a quick marvel at the amount of paint it would take to cover such a large surface area –though Mrs. Matilda was not the largest person on the block– and then a short cluck of sympathy for the neighbors.
Mrs. Matilda, on an average afternoon, could be found in her front yard garden, an intimidating affair of perfect vegetables, over-sized pumpkins and squash, corn climbing higher than the head of an NBA basketball player. Mrs. Matilda did not actually garden in her garden on these afternoons, but instead dedicated this time to tracking down the rodents and small slugs which she was convinced snuck out in the evenings and destroyed her crops. She would march up and down the rows between the vegetables, the finely wrinkled, deeply tanned skin on her calf muscles bulging up and down; a formidable, pink-ribboned sun hat strapped to her head by means of an equally formidable pink bow. She would examine each leaf, each vine; she would grumble; and at intervals she would unleash short bursts of very loud profanities. The neighbors would cringe and glance nervously at the sandboxes where their children played, as if to question whether perhaps the ears of a two-year-old are still too undeveloped to pick up on such things.
Sunday afternoons seemed to throw Mrs. Matilda into an even deeper fury. They often revealed her sprinting through her clinging leaves in exhausted, bellowing rage, a large rake clutched teetering over her head, as she tripped over pumpkin vines and whacked blindly at the supposed vermin she saw flocking over her precious vegetables. On these afternoons, the neighborhood mothers would go so far as to pick up their children and take them inside the house, muttering chirpy scoldings , and wondering what the precise phone number was that one called to complain, when one’s neighbor furiously branded a rake at invisible monsters, and spoiled a lovely summer afternoon. The neighborhood fathers, on the other hand, would flock, on these afternoons, to their upstairs balconies with beers and potato chips, and watch Mrs. Matilda during commercial breaks on the Sunday afternoon ball game. On one particular Sunday, Mrs. Matilda had looked up at these marveling clusters of men, and grown enraged enough to actually throw her rake –with amazing range and accuracy- at the balcony closest to her own lime green monstrosity. The rake failed to hit the man she was aiming it at, but –incredibly- managed to reach the height of a second floor window very close to the balcony, and it smashed through the glass, landing neatly on the floor at the feet of the man’s wife, who had promptly gone into hysterics and demanded that someone call the police and stop beating about the bush. Her husband eventually calmed her down, and refused to take any action against Mrs. Matilda, saying that the cost of one small window was well worth the entertainment Mrs. Matilda had provided the neighborhood for numerous football commercials ranging off into history. And Mrs. Matilda, after shaking a trembling fist once more at the cockroach she was currently envisioning devouring the corn stalk by her elbow, had opened her creaking garden gate, marched up to the doorstep of the neighboring house, and demanded that they return her rake before she called the police and reported it as a robbery.
The neighbors often wondered how Mrs. Matilda’s garden could flourish so, when all she seemed to do in it was scream at the vegetables. It was rumored, however, that Mrs. Matilda in fact stayed up in the night, and worked in the garden then. It was certainly true that on most nights, a small globe of lantern light could be seen bobbing out to the garden post around midnight, where it fastened itself on top of the post and glowed fervently until dawn. And it was certainly true that when eight-year-old Mickey Carver, on a dare from his gang of young neighborhood hoodlums, snuck into the garden one eerie-winded Thursday night, the flushed, wild-eyed face that lunged out at him, hissing in the lantern light, had resembled Mrs. Matilda much more than the comforting raccoon the child psychologist his parents hired afterwards murmured soothing words about. The neighborhood adults conjectured that perhaps Mrs. Matilda wanted her garden to appear magically perfect, without anyone seeing the hard labor she must pour into it, and they chuckled condescendingly to each other at the foolish endeavors of an old, foul-mouthed woman. The neighborhood children had their own theory about the late night gardening, theirs differing somewhat from their parents, in that it involved the fact that Mrs. Matilda was a witch, and spent these nights twisting pins into her vegetables, while mumbling unintelligible words about the life of Mickey Carver.
But the real truth, which no one knew, and no one bothered to guess about, was that Mrs. Matilda spent nights in her garden because it was only then that her harried soul could work in peace. In the heat of day, Mrs. Matilda would imagine terrible things. Her feet would begin to itch; she would feel fire rushing through her veins; and she would abandon herself to wild ranting she could never remember afterwards, though she wondered why the other women in the neighborhood looked at her askance, and coldly refused her generous offers of vegetables from her beautiful garden. Only at night could she look up at the starlit dark of the luminous evening sky, feeling tears on her face that she kept sealed tightly behind her eyes in the day. Only at night could she release the love she kept bottled in her lonely heart, and then she would creep on hands and knees through the dark, dirt streaking her withered face, mumbling urgent, feverish words to each green stalk, and every hidden root. ♦