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And Every Polt of Soil
MONICA: “Look, a frog!” Celia giggled, carelessly dancing among Antoine’s black-eyed-susans. We knelt in our community garden, planting squash. My daughter, clad in a pair of light blue capris and an old Nirvana T-shirt of mine, crouched for a better view as she peered at the toad hidden by a patch of weeds. Celia’s eyes widened, her lopsided pigtails moving with the breeze.
People regularly tell me she has my face, my nose, my lips. Just earlier today our taciturn neighbor, Adelita, asked “Ay Nena, did I ever tell you her eyes sparkle just like yours do?” from her porch rocking chair. Celia stopped skipping then, turning toward me as she shoved the last bite of her Eggo waffle into her already full mouth. I nodded to both my baby and Adelita, acknowledging the resemblance between Celia and myself. With Celia, I am blessed. Blessed how she reminds me to let go of the past in search of new life in every corner, every unturned stone, and every plot of soil. But she will always have his smile. The haunting smile I love to the point of aching.
We, Celia and I, have lived here, in Cedar Cove, for six months now. Six months and one day since my Paul, Celia’s father, joined the kingdom of heaven. Thankfully, he passed away before his death could uproot her as it uprooted me. While watering our six square feet of ground in the lower right corner of the Cedar Cove Community Garden, I realized its the only place where I am in control. Surrounded by plants, my green safe haven grants me the ability to create life, not to mention the ability to expect and plan for death.
The packet of squash seeds tightly gripped in Celia’s left hand began to spill behind her as she paraded through the tomato cages. Each brown drop reminded me of tears falling one by one, colliding in unison with the cold, tiled, unforgiving hospital floor. Celia was too enthralled with following the invisible path of a butterfly to notice the seeds trickling to the ground. My eyes, which sparkle like hers, cannot visualize the flights of monarchs. I am a rootless squash. “Ceels, be careful!” I called to her, “We need to plant those seeds, so they can grow, grow strong.”
ADELITA: I grabbed my lilac, rusty watering can and headed towards the garden. These days the walk seems much longer and more difficult than it did forty years ago. Beads of sweat trickled from my face and I could feel my knees creaking. I had to stop twice for rest on my walk. Now it is my only home. When I finally reached the gate, no one was in the garden. I’m 71 years old and always alone.
Today my tomatoes need watering. Tomorrow I will tend to my green beans and blossoming Dahlia Pinnatas. Ay, they always keep me busy. Touching the damp soil with my bare, callused hands resurfaced cruel memories too painful to forget. Memories of my country, of all seven of us together kneeling, side by side, holding the damp soil in our hands, digging, planting, and watering each day. That was before I crammed us, chickens and all, into our beat up Ford and left for America, the land of hope and promise. I know I did the right thing. The only way for my children to grow was if we left Mexico, if we left behind Juan, their bad father. He was always angry and fighting. Fighting with his fists. It took all my courage to escape, but in the end I guess it wasn’t enough.
I had to refill my watering can and noticed the hose was left in young Monica’s corner. This morning, for the first time since I was abandoned, I spoke out. Pretty Monica and her little one passed me rocking slowly in my chair. I called to her, “Ay Nena, did I ever tell you her eyes sparkle just like yours do?” but all she did was nod. I have nobody. I am the grandmother who has no grandchildren. I do not get hugs and love, but cold, meaningless nods. I should not have to live this way.
Dahlia Pinnatas were the first thing I planted here. They were the very first thing anybody planted here. They bloomed bright and connected the past with the present for our new, refreshed family. That is why I started planting. I have planted those same flowers each year in my garden, our garden, since day one. Then others joined. They made the garden great, full of life and purpose. But my six sprouts did not agree.
They grew up and each went away, one by one, leaving behind their own mamá. I brought them here to learn, and I deep in my heart know it was right. First Carlos flew from my nest. He was 18 then, the age to go to school. Then Andrea, Jose, and the rest followed their brother out my door. Each time they packed my heart broke, hidden by my masking encouragement. But I always thought they would still be mine. They went off, leaving me with invisible tears staining my cheeks. They didn’t want to live like me, listening to bolero songs eating Arroz a la Mexicana around our rickety table. They do not want me to take care of them anymore. I sent dozens unreturned letters as well as unanswered phone calls, and I live in an empty house. I decided to plant more green beans. Each seed would need to be nurtured.
A young man in jeans and an old baseball cap woke me from my daytime nightmare. He kept wringing his hands checking over his shoulder as he walked into the garden. He has grown black-eyed-susans and vegetables here in my garden for three years now. Boys like him used to be like sons to my mother in Mexico. She was always baking pan dulces for the neighborhood boys, but he won’t even look at me. I wish I could bake him pan dulces. Instead, I turned to my green beans. Green beans were always Andrea’s favorite. She would eat them like candy. I plant them, hoping she will open my door and visit me. At least let me look at her face. I have not seen them in so long, I wonder if I would recognize my own babies. They each left to explore the world. But the world stole my children from me. They do not care to see their own mother, me, the one who loves and misses them more than anything.
ANTOINE: I was makin’ my way down Oaklyn Avenue, whistling a classic Simon and Garfunkel off key, when I found out. For Christssake it was posted on that public telephone pole. Just a phony piece of paper broadcasting its destruction. Yeah, sure a guy who’s in college loving some garden sounds fishy, but its the truth. I swear it.
Before that, before my stomach nose-dove, I had been there, in the garden to water my black-eyed-susans. An old couple was weeding as I entered, and I imagine the old man, in his flannel button down, “Poor boy, she’ll never fall for him.” His wife, probably replied, “I know dear, he must move on. It’s been three years now, right?” in a high-pitched voice. I could hear it. “I believe so. Poor, poor boy.” I laugh to myself, they don’t have any idea. But to their defense, three years is a long time, and one heck of a lot of seeds.
So I was watering my flowers and this other old lady, with a lilac watering can, kept staring at me. She even cocked her head like she wanted some acknowledgment from me, but the pained look on her face kept me from looking back. Anyways, after she left I continued watering. See, I may not know too much about forensic science, but I do know a thing or two about gardening. Its good and all, but its a pretty lousy talent. Most guys are either athletic, intelligent, artistic, funny, or at least attractive. I, on the other hand, am a dumb gardener. But I haven’t given up, yet. Everyday, when they’re in bloom, I snip off one single black-eyed-susan, and place it on the hood of her car. All the people know about my love ‘cause they’ve see me growing and snipping my susans, one by one, for three years. At first they thought it was sweet, a romantic gesture, ya know? As time passed, though, the town took pity on me for the flowers failure to work their magic. I used to think it was a surefire plan, but nowadays I’m not so confident. Not all girls swoon at flowers, maybe that’s only in movies. I do love her, really, but its unrequited. She sat beside me in history and lent me her pen, drenched in her perfume, and I kept it. God, she is the most beautiful Susan of them all. But deep down I’m aware she doesn’t like me, I’m only a good for nothing gardener, who stole her pen.
A middle-aged man walked in, complimenting my flowers as he passed. I thanked him, taking off my tattered baseball cap as I spoke, and continued to plant more seeds. When I looked up again he was already leaving, heading in the direction of Sal’s Hardware. Finally, my gardening for the day was complete, and I made my way to the drug store for some new #2 pencils. That was when I was walking down Oaklyn Avenue whistling Simon and Garfunkel, and saw the poster stuck to the pole. It was a perfect square poster, with perfect corners and all, just nailed there, silently waiting for its moment to attack.
“CEDAR COVE COMMUNITY GARDEN TO BE SHUT DOWN THIS WEDNESDAY THE 22ND. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM ENTERING THE PREMISES AS CONSTRUCTION WILL BEGIN IMMEDIATELY. THANKS, FROM YOUR FRIENDS AT THE GOODMAN & SONS BUILDERS GROUP,” it read. Below was a picture of the garden at present, all patch-worked and beautiful, and beside that was a crumby drawing of some ugly, corporate, sky-scraping shopping mall. Beneath the two it said, “Building a better tomorrow for the citizens of Cedar Cove.” I felt sick and my stomach churned. Better? It took every remaining fiber of sanity not to rip the poster to shreds on the spot. It was the 22nd and the invaders were on their way. Who were Goodman and Sons to call themselves my friends anyways? All of a sudden I remembered those lame pieces of paper i got in the mail every month for while now. God, they were notices from Mr. Goodman and his sons. Who, in their right mind, ever looks at junk mail? Everyone I know just throws ‘em away. If only I had known.
They were building a shopping mall on top of the garden for Christssake! I panicked. It’s not like I need the garden to live, or that without the garden I would shrivel up and die, no. But there was something in the sheer inhumanity of the moment that set me on fire. My black-eyed-susans were to be buried so some Mr. Goodman and his bogus sons could make a fortune. My veins pulsed with anger, defiant anger, the kind that spreads from your mind to your gut in 3.5 seconds, then from your gut to your feet. I needed to move, to run, to get away. ‘A shopping mall, a shopping mall,’ kept pounding in my head like a broken record as that anger led the me back up Oaklyn, and around the corner, right into Sal’s hardware. My flying feet took me directly behind that man I had seen earlier, who complimented my flowers. He was an ally, another victim. I tapped him on the shoulder as he scanned the male deodorant isle for the brand printed on the coupon in his hand, puffing, “Hey buddy, I need your help. The garden it, we.” I was too tired to continue, so I dragged him to the pole. Just like that our Garden of Eden became the Garden of Gethsemane.
LEO: My breath became fast and choppy, and my pulse quickened in my tightly clenched fists as I read the news. A fear spread throughout my body, drying my mouth and making my limbs go numb. “See. See right here. We need to stop it. We have to. Please, please help,” wheezed the young man next to me. My mind raced, how would I go on? I need the garden, it sustains me, and the six of us Redfords ever since Mr. Welch decided I’m not good enough. It is where I go each day while my family believes I am at work. The young man and his heavy panting became distant as I pictured my babies, little Gary, Chris, John, and Danielle sitting around an empty table. I saw my love Vivian standing in line at the A&P, stamps in hand, those stamps I know all too well, and my heart broke into a million pieces. I have kept my gardening secret from my Vivian for all this time, and I could not bring myself to tell her how we get our vegetables. No matter how hard I tried, I could not wrap my mind around the notion of the garden closing forever.
Desperate and out of other ideas, the young man and I decided to gather the other Cedar Cove gardeners. We had to stop the enemy, we just had to. First, I ran to old Adelita’s front porch and found her sitting in her rocker. “Ay, un momentito!” she replied to my warning. I knocked on nearly every door on the street. From the first seven houses, I received an obligatory sigh and a quickly locked door from the inhabitant. Not one person in those homes was at all riveted, or even startled by the news that our garden was to be shut down. My desperation grew as each knock was as unsuccessful as the last. I did, luckily, encounter some people who exclaimed, “Oh my goodness! I must fetch my husband and we will help in any way we can!” or “How? My sister grows flowers there. She will be so sad. Can I help?”
Now that I’m unemployed, the garden not only gives me food, but it gives me a home, and a place to be when I wake up in the morning. There, I work and I accomplish something, it is an outlet for my pain. After assembling our troops the young man and myself led our army of planters to the battlefield. However, by the time we arrived, it seemed as if we were too late. My throat tightened and my head reeled as I caught sight of the medium sized yellow bulldozer parked beside the garden gate. Half a dozen men in suits scurried about, measuring the garden, clutching megaphones, crushing sprouts with each step. All of us gardeners congregated on the other side of the gate, of the great divide. The only person missing was Adelita. “How is this happening? Who are you? This is our garden!” shrieked a young woman who held the hand of a young girl with uneven pigtails. Upon hearing her scream, an official looking man came over to the fence. He spoke in an unsettlingly clinical, nasal voice. “We warned you all several times. This is not news.”
“What?” the woman replied, flinging her empty hand up in pure, confused outrage.
“I told you. We sent each resident this notice,” he said through his megaphone, pulling out a rectangular piece of paper from his breast pocket as he spoke. It was your typical piece of junk mail, the kind no one even glances at before trashing. “We have sent it each month for exactly three months,” he continued. Oh, how I wanted to rip that megaphone from his heartless hands. My wife is not aware of my gardening, so she must have thrown those notices in the trash, along with the J.C. Penny catalogues.
Abruptly, the men cleared out of the garden and the bulldozer began to hum loudly, making its way into the garden, destroying green beans and my final options in its path. Tears welled up in my eyes and rolled, uncontrollably, down my cheeks. How could I possibly support my family? I cannot bring home food stamps instead of paychecks like my unemployed father. I would not allow myself to appear weak, like those green beans, in front of little Gary, Chris, John, Danielle, and Vivian. I just could not. When time my father filed for welfare, he looked small for the first time. On that day in 1955, I vowed to never become my father. I will not shrink in their eyes. The hum of the bulldozer made the tears run faster down my face, for I realized I inevitably must shrink in their eyes, it was too late for prevention.
Then, the girl in pigtails released her mother’s hand, climbing the three foot fence before anyone could stop her. She flew on her tiny legs across the garden, darted in front of the moving bulldozer and stopped, directly in front of Mr. Goodman. “Celia, no!” shrieked her mother with extreme intensity. Through my tears, I saw her mother’s body stiffen and lunge towards the fence, leaping the three foot divider and racing to join her daughter. Due to the disruption, the bulldozer stopped and grew silent.
“Excuse me,” the small girl announced, tugging on the leg of his ironed pants. “Mister, a little froggie lives right under there. Don’t hurt him, he might have babies, and a mommy and,” she continued. As the words tumbled out from that child’s mouth, I thought of my own babies. Placing one foot after another with exact precision, I inched home visualizing my approaching conversation. By the time I made it down Oaklyn and up the cobblestone walk of 34 Franklin, my decision was absolute. In this life, not becoming my father holds little meaning. Rather, my own family is where importance lies, which means I must be their father, no matter how much I shrink. Without a sound I gently pushed the already open door, quietly stepping inside my own home. I had to tell her. After a few moments, I found my wife folding the whites portion of this week’s laundry humming softly. As she heard my footsteps Vivian abandoned her folding and looked up at me, raising one eyebrow. “Why are you here and not at work? You look as if you’re about to be sick. Honey, did you get sick at work?” she asked, her voice growing more frantic with each question.
“No, I’m not sick,” I muttered, too ashamed to look at my Vivian. “I need to tell you something, sit down,” I suggested, gesturing to the only chair in the unventilated laundry room. There she sat, her eyebrow still raised. Despite the gnawing feeling in my stomach, I managed to utter, “Vivian, there is something I have not told you. About three weeks ago,” I squeaked through my returning tears, “I was stacking the shampoos and Mr. W-welch, he, he fired me. I forgot about the back order and j-j-just like that,” I could not soldier on, my father’s face reappeared in my head.
“Leo, I cannot believe this. Where have you been all this time, huh?” she asked, her voice quivering. With her arms folded across her chest, waiting for me to form the words I had to say, no matter how great the pain.
MONICA: For the first time in six months, my feet felt firmly planted. Holding Celia’s brave little hand and starring at Mr. Goodman himself, I grew baby roots, but roots nonetheless. My Ceels saved our garden, actually Adelita’s garden to everyone’s surprise. Celia coincidentally stalled Mr. Goodman long enough for Adelita to hobble into the garden, gripping a slip of paper in her hand so tightly her palms turned white. “It is mine. This is mine. You must stop, you may not build here. Be gone,” Adelita spat with unexpected intensity through her rosy, thin lips. Who knew? The Cedar Cove Community Garden rightfully belongs to Adelita, our savior.
“You have owned this piece of land for forty years? Forty years?” Mr. Goodman quietly asked in utter disbelief, scanning the document Adelita presented to him.
“Yes. It is mine. Be gone or I call the cops,” Adelita cried.
“How? What the?” Mr. Goodman muttered to himself, as his breath became fast and choppy. He proceeded to yell at the other members of his team for the mistake as a roaring victory cry bubbled out of my throat and joined the surrounding “Yippee”s. We had won. Triumph poured from my heart as Mr. Goodman and his skunks snuck away from our garden, like embarrassed puppies hanging their tails between their legs. I scooped up Celia, kissing her forehead as Antoine turned to Adelita, his strong arms enfolding her petit, frail frame in a giant bear hug. “Now Nene,” she said, her eyes lighting up and a grin forming on her wise face. “Will you give me one of those pretty black-eyed-susans?”
“Of course Madam,” Antoine replied, nearly singing. Something in his face had changed too. His eyebrows relaxed from their furrowed and knit position. Full of gusto he strode to his flowers, plucked one, and stuck it lovingly behind Adelita’s ear.
“Oh, how lovely! That is one exquisite black-eyed-susan, if ever I saw one,” exclaimed an over coiffed woman as Antoine began picking every single one of his flowers. “Black-eyed-susans for everyone!” he cried.
I reached for Adelita’s empty right hand, yearning to let her know that without her, our green safe haven would have become a four story consumer hell hole. She accepted my gesture, and feeling Adelita’s bony yet tough hand interlocked with made the commotion around me fade away. Even though I will always love him, I have here enough water and sunshine to thrive. “Adelita, would you like to garden with us sometime? I’m sure Celia would love to help you plant green beans,” I told her, and as her already beaming face glowed. “I would love that,” she responded, squeezing my hand as a tear rolled down her cheek. Glancing at Celia smiling across the garden, her grin made me only more joyous.
The next morning, a cloudless sky above and dew scattered throughout the grass, Celia, Adelita, and I walked to the garden, hand in hand in hand. As we approached the garden, we noticed a surprise from a fellow gardener that hung meticulously on the gate. Exactly where the
“Cedar Cove Community Garden” banner used to dangle, there hung a new sign. On it, in deep red, charming brushstrokes, were the words: “Adelita’s Eden.”