On the verge of this, that, or some other thing, Charlotte draws up short in the dining room, all way forward barred by the image of a knife left out on the kitchen cutting board. She will get no further this morning. She turns back into the kitchen, takes up the knife, cleans it, dries it, slides it back into the drawer, all well ahead of the easily panicked burglar, the wandering schizophrenic hobo, the desperate strung-out drug addict, even ahead of a member of her own family or a close friend visiting, passing through the kitchen, brushing past the cutting board, their eyes catching the glint of steel and suddenly thinking, why not? A temptation. A trigger. The fatal final brick.
Although, thinking more on it as she moves back through the dining room—always room for more thought—any minutes gained would be just that. Minutes. A resolved perpetrator, friend or sad stranger, an assassin with purpose, could easily find the drawer, select a knife, maybe that very knife, even take time to stand over it and pluck its edge, crazily roll his eyes—her eyes even—let loose with some mad quotation. Poe. Shakespeare, even. Charlotte is not yet old or frail. She thinks of herself as robust. Hardy. But against such a wielding mad person, the seconds gained, optimistic minutes at most, would only delay the grisly and messy inevitability. However.
However. The knife has been removed from temptation’s jittery gaze. It no longer hangs at the front of Charlotte’s imagination. And that is everything. Now she can move forward with the day.
A few years back, not many, Charlotte’s husband announced he was leaving her. He had turned 50 a few years before that, not many, and something about time, its inevitability and steady onslaught, panicked him, left him feeling caged and crowded, lacking ample space for his desires. He said he was afraid, afraid of time getting away before he tried things, other things. Tasted different fruits. Climbed different heights. Breathed different air. They sat at the kitchen table, and Charlotte sniffed the air and smelled the fish sticks from the night before. Then he said something about his own clock ticking, and Charlotte looked up at the clock on the kitchen wall, a large daisy with green leafy hands.
My clock, Charlotte! Not that one!
She folded one hand over another and tried to concentrate on him and not the daisy on the wall.
Why is this again?
This is all about sex, isn’t it?
No. Of course not. Partially.
He wanted to try other people. Other things. Experiment. He wanted to let loose. No, there wasn’t someone else. Not yet. But he didn’t want to be forced into a corner and lie to her. Didn’t she see that? He held his hands far apart as if he had nothing to hide. He was honest. Frank, even. His name was Charles.
I guess it’s just biology. My own biological clock.
She looked back up at the big daisy on the wall.
You’re so literal-minded, Charlotte. Do you know that?
Was she? She didn’t think so. Not at all. He knew so little about her after all these years. But that, Charlotte realized, was that.
In the aftermath she thought, oh, dear. Not oh, dear for her marriage. Or oh, dear for the family or the children. Increasingly, her children lived in their own selfish nearly adult heads. They would feel and they would do as they pleased. But oh, dear for her husband. Her ex-husband. For Charles. This would end badly for him. She could see it and she worried about him, for a little while, in a pathetic way all through his leaving and her signing papers and settling into a new life, his name afterward being flagrantly avoided by friends and family. He’s going to make a fool of himself, and it will end badly, and that will be that. Sad times ahead for Charles. Oh, dear. And then that worry went away, too.
Charlotte’s house sits at the very edge of town where there is no notice that it is the edge. No retail zones or fast food restaurants or gas stations, no highway ramps or fairgrounds, not even a city limit sign. Charlotte’s street simply stops at her property line, and the farm fields begin, not so much an ending as an opening out into a vast sprouting place. And you are left to wonder. There one minute, then why not? If there ever had been a DEAD END sign up the street, it had long wandered away. At least one car a week, maybe one every two weeks, turns around in her driveway. She will peek behind curtains, and it’s like having guests arrive until she gets a look at the disgust on the driver’s face at being brought up short by the fields. Beans one year, corn the next. Never fallow. Always something.
Charlotte works part-time down at the schools but, mostly, tends to her yard. It’s a spacious yard since it’s the last parcel on the street and surrounded on two sides by farm fields. For years she’s hired neighborhood boys to cut the grass, and when a boy leaves for college or the service or just leaves she hires his younger brother, and when that boy leaves she always find another family. There’s always a neighbor boy. She gives them no instructions beyond just make it look nice. And that always seems to do it, the lack of supervision, her trust, their responsibility the only responsibility. I know you will. It’s enough. It’s their grass. She leaves them to it.
But the hydrangea. Charlotte dotes on the hydrangea. She paces her property, the oversized lot with the lush grass not of her own doing, the big shade trees, a clothesline of metal crosses that she has the neighbor boys paint each year mostly white but sometimes very light yellow and peach, and, of course, the hydrangea. Sometimes she stands apart out in the street that drifts off into a dream of corn and looks back at her little house, surveying the yard for openings. She’s planted all the hydrangea herself, no help from the neighbor boys though they will ask. They are very well-mannered with Charlotte who doesn’t supervise and shows trust and pays them. She’s planted hydrangea not only around the foundation of her house but in islands and rows all over the yard, around the trees, around the metal crosses, lining the driveway. Charlotte digs the holes, drags in compost and good topsoil, lays in the new plantings, gently but firmly fills and packs them in the hole, generously covers the base with a ring of cedar mulch. She even experiments with color, knows how much alkaline or acid to add or take away to turn certain blossoms from bright pink to light peach, others startling purple to subtle lavender, still others a strident white to a kind of lime-white. To a stranger, turning around frustrated in her driveway, or emerging dazed and anxious and desperate from the corn rows and contemplating violence, one more hydrangea might seem impossible given the number already flourishing. But Charlotte always finds room for one more. Because her parents had them around their farmhouse, she supposes this draws her to hydrangea. People, past people, everyone that fills the past, always planted hydrangea around their foundations. It’s what went around houses. Her parents, working farmers and hard at that, had simply planted their hydrangea and let them be, worked the crops, raised the livestock, and grew old together reading almanacs and bibles at night in matching Morris chairs as the hydrangea peeked over the sills of the front windows. You didn’t have to care for hydrangea. You could, but you didn’t have to.
When she walks her yard or stands in the street and looks back, Charlotte sometimes sees her cat Penelope in and out of the hydrangea, flitting from island to island, serpentining among the bases, mostly staring from just under the leaves. Penelope had round eyes, not feline eyes, which always made her more of a person to Charlotte when she was a girl. Penelope was Charlotte’s cat when she was twelve and during those uncrowded years on either side of twelve. When Penelope died while Charlotte was away at college her father promised to find room among the hydrangea to bury her, although Charlotte was never sure if he did. Now she sees Penelope in her own hydrangea at her own house. And that’s fine. It’s another surprise for Charlotte, like the surprise of always finding room for something beautiful. Anywhere, really. In the ground, around the foundation, at the edges of the yard, under a tree. And there will be Penelope serpentining or staring out, in her memory, in her imagination.
She can never resist. Charlotte takes pruning shears from her pocket and snips three or four very nice blossoms, maybe the last nice blossoms of the year, although who can tell what hydrangea will decide to do. Why not? She stomps her shoes up the back steps to the mudroom to loose any dirt and warn anyone just lurking inside by the water heater. At the cutting board she takes a knife and cuts diagonally at the stems to fit in the vase she has at hand. Hydrangea in vases already fill her house. Her house is filled with beauty. But she thinks she knows a spot on her dresser in her bedroom.
Back out in the yard she adds fishmeal around the new hydrangea she has just planted and scrapes it in with her gardening claw. Perhaps it’s the fishmeal that draws Penelope back. Perhaps it’s the gardening claw and the pruning shears and knifes left out that attracts the maniacs. The corn is already brown so most likely she won’t plant anymore hydrangea this year. But who can tell? Why not? She walks out into the street and looks back. Yes, it fits. Easily, like it’s always been there.
After her husband left, her children began leaving. They went and then came back and then went again, depending on their bank accounts, their jobs or no jobs, whether they could swing their rent. Boyfriends and girlfriends sometimes moved back in with them. Which was fine. But when they left again. They both left. And that made it harder because, most of the time, Charlotte ended up liking the special friends more than her own children. She discovered early on that her children were not like Penelope.
The wind rustles the brown corn and has let in a little coolness. Charlotte’s ex-husband died last year about this time. The news was given to her by a friend or family or her children. It seems to her that it was over the phone because she tends to remember visitors. She didn’t ask the details of his death but she can imagine. A girlfriend. Or a boyfriend. Impossibly younger. In bed. Maybe in the throes. A need to impress. She can imagine. Oh, dear. Charlotte always leaves a little room in her imagination.
Now, the question is, has she again left out that knife she used to cut the stems? She’s not sure. And here the wind kicks up, and with it the temperature drops further, suddenly, noticeably. Anyone hiding out in the horizon-stretching rows of corn will no doubt gather his worn shirt at the collar, shiver, grow desperate with thoughts of warmth. Thoughts of warm food and drink. Thoughts of warm rooms where he can maybe grow less desperate, serpentine in and out of at will, look on this vase and that, hungry and longing for beauty.
© BD Feil
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild]