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The Garden


Merle Morris

Helen was a small and delicate woman on whom the latest fashions never appeared. Her hands were perpetually stained and her fingernails broken, but she didn't seem to mind or even to notice. In her case the condition of her hands was perfectly justified for, weather permitting, she spent almost all of her free time in her backyard garden. Some people considered her to be a bit peculiar, but that was understandable, for when she wasn't gardening she was usually looking thought a book on gardening or a seed catalog or some such thing.

She could also talk ceaselessly about cuttings, bulbs, replanting, and those things. Many people, including her husband, thought she had a one-track mind. A few times he had tried to interest her in some other pursuits, but had finally given up on her. She would appear to be listening attentively to whatever he was telling her, but when he would finish, she would make a statement such as, “I think I'll transplant that hibiscus that's growing along the east fence. It's not doing at all well. Maybe there is too much shade there.”

On this fine spring afternoon, although she was doing nothing more complicated than arranging a border along the walkway, she confronted it, like she did everything related to her garden, as a perfectionist.  She examined her creation from all possible angles, going so far as putting her head on the walk and looking up at it.

She added a touch here and a minor change there until she had achieved an altogether professional look. She swept a few bits of debris into her dustpan and paused before deposited them into the trashcan, to take one last critical look at her handiwork. While she was engaged in this extreme concentration, the gate in the back slammed with an annoying bang, which caused her to startle guiltily and look around.

It was Faye and Wanda, two of her nosiest neighbors. They came over quite often, although Helen had never been particularly friendly toward them. If they noticed, they gave no indication. Both of them pretended to be keenly interested in gardening, but neither of them knew the difference between a dahlia and a chrysanthemum. As far as Helen could tell, the only interests they had was gossip.

“There you are Helen.”

“We wondered why you didn't answer the door.”

Helen, though not too pleased to have these visitors, nevertheless smiled a stiff smile as the two women approached.

“Yes. Well, I've been putting in a new border.”

“We've been ringing the doorbell off,” said Faye.

“We thought nobody was home. Where's Jack?”

“Visiting,” Helen answered vaguely, wiping her brow.

“He went to visit his sister.”

“Hey, what have you been doing?” asked Wanda.

“You've done a lot more than fix the border. It looks as if you've dug the whole side of the yard out and put in new grass.”

“No, I didn’t do that. I only did the border. I think it may have been something one of the utility companies did.”

Faye looked at her skeptically and observed, “That whole area looks to me as if it has been dug up.”

“Oh, that. I did that last week.” Helen looked at the spot where Faye was pointing, with a critical eye. The sod wasn't taking very well. It was this hot dry weather, she decided. She would have to remember to water it.

“You certainly went deep enough,” Wanda said. “There's clay along the edge. When we had our basement dug, they didn't hit clay until they had dug down at least four feet.”

“No, I didn't go very deep. I did strike a small seam of clay, but it was only a few inches down.”

“Now Helen, you had to go deeper than that,” asserted Wanda. “What did you do, bury one of the neighbor's cats?”

“No,” Helen laughed, “I didn't, but I can't say that sometimes I'm not tempted.”

“When did Jack go to visit his sister?” Faye asked, as she walked over for a better look at the disturbed soil. “We haven't seen him around for a few days.”

“Uh, this morning. He went early this morning.”

Wanda and Faye exchanged knowing looks. Fay asked, “How did he go? Walk? Your car is in the driveway.”

“Of course not. He didn't walk. He went by train.  I--uh, needed the car for a few errands, so I took him to the station. This morning. Early this morning.”

Helen edged over to where she could look at her new border from a different angle. She nodded her head approvingly.

While Helen's attention was averted, Faye caught Wanda's attention and inclined her head slightly, and said, “Well, we, uh, have to be going.”

“That's right,” Faye hurriedly added, starting to move away. “We have a hundred things to do.”

“We certainly do,” agreed Wanda.

“We'll be seeing you.” Without waiting for an answer, both women practically ran out of the garden.

Once the two women were outside the yard, Faye whispered to Wanda,

“Let's go around in front and take another look at Helen's car. I don't think it has been moved.”

“Ah, just as I thought,” exclaimed Faye. “There was a heavy dew last night. If she would have moved the car early this morning, she would have used the windshield wipers, yet you can see the watermarks in the dust on the windshield. From the looks of it, this car hasn't been moved for several days.”

“Yeah,” Wanda agreed, “and Jack didn't leave this morning. He's been gone a lot longer than that. No one has seen him around for several days.”

The sheriff was in his fifties, slightly balding, with an expanding waistline, which pushed his khaki shirt out over his wide belt. He held his hands half closed as he walked with a slightly rolling stride. He smiled slightly as he closely examined the hole in the ground. Following his instructions, one of his men had dug a hole about a foot deep in the middle of the recently disturbed area in Helen's back yard.

“The dirt has been disturbed a lot deeper than the few inches you said, Mrs. Neal. How do you explain that?”

“I-I don't know. Let me think.”

“And think of another pack of lies to tell me. No, it won't do any good. I already know you lied about your husband going to visit his sister. I called her and she didn't know what I was talking about.”

“I admit I lied to you about that, sheriff. But now I'm telling you the truth. Jack left me and I don't know where he went. I just didn't want anyone to know about it, especially those two gossips that were over here nosing around.”

“We'll have to dig it up.” He looked at her with a grim smile on his lips. “Then we'll know why it was dug up in the first place. I have a feeling we won't like what we find.”

And dig they did. All they found was dirt until about five feet down. Then they found something, but it wasn't at all what the sheriff had expected. He had anticipated that if they were going to find anything it would have to be soon, so he was leaning forward and watching closely. Even though he was expecting something, it came as quite a surprise. The bucket of the backhoe hooked a main water line and ruptured it.  A jet of water shot from the pipe and hit the sheriff squarely in the face with such violence that he lost his balance and sat down in the yard. A geyser was soon shooting from the hole and falling all over the yard much like a midsummer cloudburst.

“Now I remember why the dirt had been dug up before!” yelled Helen, struggling to keep a straight face.

“It was a few years back when the water company put in new water mains.”

The next day, the embarrassed and red-faced sheriff tapped gently on Helen's front door. He was holding his hat in his hands when Helen answered.

“The men have come out today to put your yard back in order, ma'am. They will put it back as good as new.”

Helen just stood there for a long moment and stared at him. Just when the sheriff had about concluded she wasn't going to answer, she gritted her teeth and said,

“Do you honestly think they can do a suitable job on restoring it?”

“Well ma'am, they'll do the best they can. You just tell them anything you want done, and they will do it.  When they are finished, I'll have a gardener come out and add the finishing touches.”

She stared at him coldly.

“Do you think I would allow a so-called gardener into my yard? No! No. All of you men can go back to town. I'll do it all myself.  That way it will be done right. I don't want anyone else fooling around in my flower garden.”

“Are you sure, ma'am?” the sheriff asked, scratching his head doubtfully. “ It will be a lot of work.”

“Yes, I'm sure,” she answered, chopping off her words slowly, in a voice as if she was explaining something to a not very bright child.

“ I have a yard tractor in the garage. I have the rest of the summer to do the job. And I'll do it right.”

That night Helen made sure to set her alarm clock.  She would have to get up very early, well before daylight, while the neighbors were still sleeping.  There was a certain item that had been frozen in her freezer for several days. She was going to remove it and put it in the bottom of the hole. Then she would go back to bed. When the proper time came, she would get up at her normal time and start filling the hole in her back yard.

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