Mockingbirds

by Claire Carpenter


This morning, Angie stands at the kitchen sink, scrubbing her hands and fingernails. After two months of neglect, the lavish flower garden in her backyard has exploded with weeds. So she’s spent an hour of this hot Saturday morning making a small dent in the mess and is paying for it with sweat. The garden, with its excess of plants she can’t even begin to name, almost kept her from buying this house in the first place.
On Angie’s first tour, the realtor told her that the former tenants were an older couple, the husband now dead and the wife in a nursing home. As they passed through the one-car garage, Angie noticed a stash of gardening tools in the far corner, which her realtor said were hers, at no extra cost. After she moved in, Angie riffled back through the gloves, trowels, pruning shears, bags of fertilizer, garden hose extensions, and hand aerators, looking for some sign of who these people had been. It seemed strange for all of this to have been left behind. Didn’t their children want any of it?
Just days after the move-in, her mother Maud was still balking at the idea of Angie buying a house. When she saw the garden, she ranted even more. “You’re only twenty-five. You don’t know what you’re doing. What if you finally meet a man, get married, have babies? You won’t want to live here. He won’t want to live here. And that garden! It’s like a full-time job in and of itself.”
Maud is coming over for brunch in a couple of hours, which will entail an argument over tea instead of coffee and too many leftover cream-cheese sandwiches that her mother insists on bringing and then leaving behind. She will chastise Angie for not coming out with her and the Arts Alliance to help local art groups and galleries. This is a new part of Maud’s attempt to drag Angie out of the house and back into Houston. But Angie just won’t budge. She tells herself she would feel rude abandoning her house so soon, as if she’s already bored with the walls and floors she’s just mortgaged her life for. It’s not like there’s a good reason to leave anyway.
Since Angie moved back to Houston, Maud’s been encouraging Angie to get out and look for a man. But what’s the point? She won’t find anyone like her father whose gentleness and love, Angie later realized, had been overwhelming. And since his death almost five years ago, Angie has grown more convinced that she hadn’t appreciated him and neither had Maud. So Angie’s going to rot away in her new house, alone. She will eventually make friends with her elderly neighbor Joyce, and somehow Joyce will stay alive long enough for Angie to wrinkle and start sporting age spots of her own, which they’ll compare daily over coffee and prunes.
Angie rinses her hands one last time and washes the dirt and bits of grass from the porcelain sink. She should get cleaned up for brunch, so she heads to the bathroom and runs the water for a bath, a cold one. Chucking her shoes and socks back out into the hallway, the linoleum is suddenly cool beneath her feet. It would be a relief to lie down, pressing as much skin to the cold as she can. So she strips and then spreads herself across the floor, glad she’d mopped the day before in preparation for Maud.
Lying like this, the silence is overwhelming. In the garden, mockingbirds had either been fussing at her or imitating a dozen birds, making it seem like she was surrounded by wildlife, knee-deep in sudden nature. But now, stretched on the floor, the silence has turned to laziness. She is officially a bum, worthless, wasting her life away in this house. Her cheek against the linoleum, she looks down the hall into the living room and cannot avoid the blankness of things. She needs to find the art prints—the Rothkos, de Koonings, Duchamps, and Matisses—and hang them around the house: down the hall, over the fireplace, behind the backdoor, above the bed. She will do this later, after brunch, after the sun has set and her mother has called two times begging her to come to dinner with the Alliance.

* * *

The phone rings an hour later. “The arts and crafts project with the ladies is such a hit that we’re starting a second round,” Maud says. “So sorry, sweetie. I guess it will be a lunch instead of a brunch.” Angie stays on the phone for a few moments more as Maud describes the craft project. It has something to do with naked dolls becoming clothed and makeup-ed. But Angie isn’t listening anymore--the front door just rattled.
Angie stands in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, staring at the front door. Tuning out Maud’s loud voice, Angie listens for the noise again. It might be her neighbor Joyce, stopping by for an actual visit. She’s been over twice before but always refuses to come in. First, she dropped off cookies in a hurry after insulting Angie for being single. Joyce was a bit softer the next time, asking for her plate back and commenting about the last heat wave.
The door rattles again. The doorknob is actually twisting and creaking.
“I’ve got to go now,” Angie says quietly, interrupting Maud. “I’ll see you at noon.”
Angie sets the phone down on the floor. It’s probably one of the neighborhood kids pulling some prank like she’s Boo Radley. She dismisses the idea then forces herself to walk the few feet to the front door. The doorknob is no longer moving. Maybe the person has given up. Angie peeks out the door’s small window.
An old woman stands on the stoop. At first, Angie think it’s Joyce with a new perm. But this woman is shorter, maybe five-feet, and wears a bright yellow pullover and light blue pants. Around her permed white hair is a green scarf, and reading glasses dangle from her neck on a beaded chain. She looks like spring. She must be one of Joyce’s friends, accidentally at the wrong house.
Angie turns the lock and opens the door.
The woman jerks her head up and peers at Angie. “Thank you for opening the door. I seem to have misplaced my key.”
“Excuse me?”
“I’ll just get to work in the garden now.” The woman makes a move forward, like she’s actually going to walk into the house, but Angie blocks her.
“I’m sorry, but you must be confused. This is my house and my garden. You must be looking for someone else.”
“Look, young lady,” she says with sudden authority, “I don’t know who you think you are, but I am Mrs. Evelyn Wheatley and I own this house and that garden. So you best let me by.” And without another word, she pushes past Angie and marches straight through the living room to the kitchen.
Angie scrambles after Evelyn, almost forgetting to shut the front door. “How did you get here?” she asks after reaching Evelyn who stands at the open backdoor, surveying the garden.
“By taxi, of course. I’ve never driven a car a day in my life.” She clears her throat. “I woke up this morning and realized I hadn’t worked in the garden all last week. So I called a taxi and a nice gentleman in a tweed jacket picked me up and brought me home.”
Evelyn clearly doesn’t know what day or month it is. And now Angie remembers. She must be the former tenant, the widow who was moved to the nursing home. How did she get out?
“Did anyone see you leave?”
“Of course not. It’s none of their business. I leave every morning to work in the garden. But for some reason the taxi wasn’t waiting this morning, so I had to call one.” Evelyn steps down into the thick grass and thrusts her hands on her hips. “This garden is disgraceful.” She walks to the nearest flowerbed and digs her fingers into the dirt. “The daffodils and tulips should’ve been dug up by now and stored in the cooler.” She pulls out a bulb and knocks away the dirt. “And the young red oaks should’ve been pruned.” Sticking the bulb in her pants pocket, Evelyn begins to walk around the yard, touching each plant and tree, explaining what pruning, weeding, and planting needs to be done.
Angie simply stands at the backdoor, watching Evelyn’s careful movements. She must be at least eighty, yet her steps are sure. Her voice is clear and distinct, not at all like she imagined the voice of a person with dementia to be. Evelyn speaks with authority to the plants, to the small lives she’s cared for for who knows how many years. Evelyn returns to the flowerbed where she pulled up the daffodil bulb. She bends and slowly sits on her knees then rolls up the sleeves of her pullover.
“I need a trowel, wheelbarrow, pruning shears, the water hose, and a pair of gloves—the flowered ones.”
Angie stands still, transfixed. Shouldn’t she call the nursing home and let them know where Evelyn is? But before Angie can retreat into the kitchen for the phone, Evelyn turns and says, “Well, are you going to get them, or not?”
Angie drops her gaze and begins the walk around the house to the garage. Inside she gathers all of what Evelyn has requested, except for the flowered gloves. The only ones she can find are the same brown and black ones she touched when she first dug through this pile some two months ago. When she brings over all of the gardening tools in the wheelbarrow, Evelyn says, “These aren’t the gloves I asked for. I need the flowered ones.”
“I couldn’t find them. I’m sorry.”
Evelyn looks from the gloves to Angie. “Fine. These will have to do.” She turns back to the flowerbed and away she goes—pruning, cutting, and digging.
There is nothing else for Angie to do but watch. So she sits down at the threshold of the backdoor and folds her arms across her knees. Evelyn’s hands move swiftly but with a gentleness Angie can’t quite comprehend. It’s like this woman knows each of these plants intimately and so even though she has to pull up some and prune back others, it’s all done with love. More than that, Evelyn is enjoying herself. In fact, she’s humming.
Maud hadn’t looked this way when she tended her garden, but then, she’d chosen a garden for different reasons. The day Angie left for college, Maud appeared in her husband’s carpentry workshop to inform him that he would have to stop acting like his job was his life and spend more time with her. Maud had grown jealous of the wood, which was ridiculous. Of course he loved the wood more than her, as he should have. She hadn’t deserved him. After her monologue ended, he had smiled, waited for her to stalk out, and then installed a lock on the workshop door.
And so Maud churned up the back corner of their backyard and started a garden. At first, there were only strawberries and cucumbers. Each month whole sections of grass succumbed to tomatoes, string beans, garlic, oregano, lavender, parsley, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, and kale. She began spending whole mornings in the dirt, on her hands and knees, each week adding a new row. During those last six months, Angie’s father spent his early mornings in a lawn chair watching his wife work the earth.
This went on for a good two years. Until one summer evening Maud left the supper dishes in the sink and marched out the backdoor to the shed for the hoe and pitchfork. Earlier that week the doctor had ordered Angie’s father to bed, indefinitely. The Hospice nurse was coming over twice a day to see that he was comfortable. It was difficult to ignore the steady beeping from the heart monitor and the periodic drip of the IV. Angie was still sitting at the kitchen table when Maud shoved open the backdoor. And two hours later, the backyard was a heap of compost. The next day, she turned the ripped, juicy plants back under the soil and laid out slabs of new sod.
Angie smiles at Evelyn even though her back is turned. If only Maud had felt this way about gardening, maybe things would be different. If only she hadn’t preferred it to being with Angie while her father wilted away. Even if her husband had been dying, why did Maud have to ruin other pieces of life just because she was losing the only one she had never been able to control?
Angie sighs. Evelyn shouldn’t be here. She needs to go back to the nursing home. What if she’s missed her morning’s medication? What if she has a heart condition? What if she dies right here in the garden? How would she explain it? But Evelyn won’t die. She’s obviously healthy. Angie is sure of at least that.
She watches Evelyn work along the east flowerbed for what feels like half an hour. Angie really should call and at least let people know that Evelyn is here, safe and happy. But it’s because Evelyn is so happy that Angie doesn’t want to call anyone. Shouldn’t this poor woman be allowed a few hours of pleasure in the garden she was forced to give up? Maud will be coming over soon, so Evelyn will have to be gone by then. If Maud finds her here, she’ll start a phone calling campaign to the police, the fire department, and every nursing home in town. She would set the situation right and be the heroine of this poor old woman’s confused life.
Angie reaches down to scratch her ankle and realizes her legs have fallen asleep and are now tingling wildly. She stands and shakes out each leg. Her stomach aches. She glances into the kitchen and sees that it’s almost eleven o’clock.
“Mrs. Wheatley?” Angie says, and Evelyn turns to look at her. “I’m going inside for some tea. Would you like something?”
“I’d love tea, thank you.” She smiles broadly and for a moment, stops digging. “Henry and I used to drink tea every morning and evening. We would go through a box of teabags a week.”
A few minutes later, Angie returns with two mugs. She sets hers down on a small concrete stepping stone then carefully carries the other to Evelyn, who removes her gloves to take the cup in her hands.
“Thank you so much.” Evelyn sips at the tea. Angie turns to go back to her seat by the door when Evelyn says, “Now, who are you again?”
Angie stops and looks down at the seated Evelyn. She asked the question with such a patient tone that Angie almost doesn’t know what to tell her.
“I’m Angie Sampson.”
“And do you have a husband?” That seems to be the golden question. Every woman over forty wants to see Angie married off. Life’s starting to feel like a Jane Austen novel.
“No, just a mother.”
Evelyn nods. “So what are you doing in the neighborhood?”
“Well, I live here now.”
Evelyn meets Angie’s gaze and takes another sip. “So I hired you to watch the house while I’m away?”
“Something like that.”
Evelyn looks back at the flowerbed. “But where’s Henry? He was here when I left last. Is he at a doctor’s appointment? Oh no,” she sets the cup down in the flowerbed, “was I supposed to take him? Is he waiting in bed?”
She is pushing herself up when Angie steps forward and helps her back down. “No, no. Henry isn’t waiting. You haven’t forgotten anything.” She pats Evelyn softly and hands her the cup.
“Are you sure? Because sometimes I forget the most important things. I once forgot his birthday. Isn’t that terrible?” She turns to Angie with a desperate look.
“No, not at all. My mother has forgotten mine plenty of times. But each time, it was still my birthday.”
Evelyn smiles and takes a drink. “I like tea. Henry and I always did. I once tried to grow tea plants, right over there in that back corner, but they wouldn’t take. Not enough rain, the books said, even for Houston.”
“I can imagine.” Angie drops to her knees beside Evelyn. “So you planted this garden?”
“Why, of course I did! Henry doesn’t know the first thing about planting anything. But he helps me, mostly with the lifting. He always was a strong man.”
Angie smiles. She wants to hug her. “So do you have any children?”
Evelyn shakes her head. She sets the now-empty cup in the grass then slips back on her gloves. “I always loved children though, especially girls with their pigtails and lacy dresses, like postcards. Henry would’ve loved a little girl.”
Angie almost can’t stand it anymore. She wants Evelyn to stay, not in the kitchen or the living room, but in the garden, her garden. Evelyn belongs here on her knees with the brown gloves and the green scarf drooping from the side of her head, surrounded by clumps of dirt and small piles of fresh weeds. The garden looks right again, just like it had when Angie first moved in, when fertilizer and mulch were still in the grass and under the bushes. Evelyn can’t go.
“What’s the name of the bush you’re pruning right now?” Angie asks, squatting down next to her.
“It’s a lantana and these are the blueberry bushes,” she says, nodding to the right. “We planted those so we could make blueberry pies and jams. I canned eight jars one year, but mostly we just sprinkled them over toast.” She pauses and Angie can see her smiling. “Joyce still comes and picks the blueberries for jams, so at least they’re not all going to the jays and mockingbirds.”
“Joyce, next-door?”
She frown, but keeps digging. “She’s such a wonderful lady. But I haven’t seen her in a few days, which worries me.”
Angie considers telling her about Joyce, that she’s just fine and still comes by. But then Evelyn might want to go see Joyce, and then she would leave, and then Joyce would make her go back to the nursing home. But Angie wants Evelyn to stay. Maybe she can even convince Maud to let her join them for lunch.
Evelyn drops the trowel and turns to Angie who is still sitting next to her. Evelyn’s whole face seems to droop, and her mouth hangs slack. Her eyes search Angie’s face as she touches her cheeks with the dirty gloves still on.
“Who are you?” she says, her voice fading into a frail moan.
“I’m Angie. I take care of the garden while you’re away.”
“Where is Nurse Mabel? Why isn’t Henry here?” Before Angie can stop her, Evelyn is standing and pulling off the gloves. “Where is Henry? I need to go home.”
Angie stands and takes both of Evelyn’s shaking hands. “You’re already home. Right here. This is your home. This is your garden. You are fine. Everything’s fine.”
“Everything’s not fine,” she says, shaking her head. “Where is Henry? Why isn’t he here?” She tugs at the green scarf and twists it fiercely. Her eyes dart around the yard. “Why am I here? I need to go home.”
“Listen to me, Mrs. Wheatley. You are home. This is where you need to be.”
Evelyn stares wildly back at Angie then pulls her hands from Angie’s grip. “I need to go home. I need to go home. You have to take me.”
Evelyn stumbles toward the backdoor, but Angie reaches out and holds her by the shoulders. “Henry will be here soon. You were right. He is at the doctor. But he’ll be home.”
“He will?”
“Yes, he wants to see you.”
Evelyn’s shoulders relax under Angie’s hands, and she smiles. “Oh, I’m so glad,” she says then pulls at her green scarf. “I miss him, very much.”
Angie steps forward and hugs Evelyn, who stands limp and quiet. If Angie can only convince Evelyn to return to the flowerbed, to slip back on her gloves and stay for just a little while longer, then everything will be fine. Angie will drive her back to the nursing home before Maud comes over. She will explain that Evelyn just wandered down the street and into her yard, no harm done. No one will ever have to know that for one morning, Evelyn returned home and restored her garden. And that Angie kept her there while she waited for her mother.