The summer I turned eighteen was the summer that all the flowers mysteriously died in the greenhouses at Konn & Son nursery. A thousand dollars worth of begonias, petunias, and geraniums shriveled and turned bristly overnight—curled in on themselves like newspapers left out on the porch too long. The owner of the nursery, Old Man Konn, stood in the doorway of one of the glasshouses, his gnarled, arthritic hands on his hips. He shook his head as he surveyed the damage. He looked toward the sky and then looked back at me.
"I thought I told you to water them good," he said.
"I did water them good," I said. "Feel for yourself."
Old Man Konn had no son, but he thought that adding one to the rotted wooden sign out front would make his nursery seem like a family business. It must have worked. Konn & Son was the Poconos' largest nursery—a one-acre plot of evergreen trees with two small greenhouses, tucked away behind a pig farm on Route 319. Konn & Son makes you're landscaping fun. That is if you believed the slogan on the sign. I didn't. And I didn't bother pointing out the difference between Y-O-U-R and Y-O-U-apostrophe-R-E when I asked for a seasonal application on the day after my high school graduation. I didn't want to be the first person in the nursery's twenty-year existence to notice the error.
Old Man Konn was suspicious of me from the beginning. He eyed me as he watered pine trees and I filled out the application form, pressing the paper against a greenhouse window. He said, "You're a little thin."
"I'm a hard worker," I said, not bothering to look up as I scribbled my Social Security number.
He watched for a while, chewing the inside corner of his cheek and letting the hose water form a puddle beneath the burlap-wrapped root ball of an Alberta spruce. He said, "I can't pay you much. What with the economy and all."
I told him I didn't care about the money. I said I wanted the experience. It was only a half-lie. The money didn't matter all that much to me. But then neither did the experience. I needed the job so that my father wouldn't chew me out about sitting around the house all summer.
Most of my classmates from Lakeville High were content to enter community college in autumn, but I was eager to leave northeastern Pennsylvania. My father expected me to find a job so that I could pay for books and supplies as a freshman at Penn State. He expected me to learn the value of hard work. My mother expected me to get good grades. She argued with my father that the measly take-home pay I could earn in three months was less important than reading the books on Penn State's summer reading list.
Old Man Konn smirked at me when I mentioned college—smirked when I told him I'd never shifted stick on a dump truck. But he hired me on the spot. My father was pleased; my mother disappointed.
At first, I read only on my half-hour lunch breaks. I would find a shady spot beneath the flowering trees and dive into Camus's The Plague or, my favorite, The Great Gatsby. Reading beat watering plants. I especially liked the settings. I felt as if I were sitting there with Gatsby on the lawn of that grand estate on West Egg. I saw that green light across the water and believed, too, in the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. And I was angry with Nick Carraway for not sticking up for Gatsby, for not setting Tom Buchanan straight about just who was driving the car that killed Myrtle. Eventually, my half-hour lunch breaks began spilling over into the afternoons.
When my father saw me bringing novels to work, he took me down to Grady's Lake Boathouse to help him install a new trolling mount on the front gunwale of our bass boat. He talked about discipline and effort. He said in life, hard work is rewarded. He pointed across the lake at our house, his hand sweeping over the forest reflected on the water's glassy surface, and said I could be anything I wanted to be.
"Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get ahead in the world nowadays?" he asked as I passed him a mounting bracket. From the boathouse door, we watched a powerboat roar past, twin rooster-tail plumes of water kicked up in its wake.
"It's difficult," I said.
I began stashing my books in my blue Igloo cooler. When my mother found out, she started wrapping the cold packs in plastic bags so the condensation wouldn't curl the pages.
During the week, business was slow and the work was easy. I split my shift between the store and the two greenhouses. Half the time I was ringing up purchases on the old-fashioned cash register and the other half I was watering plants. There was no artificial lighting inside. A pair of saloon doors cut off daylight. Whenever someone entered or exited, the wooden doors swung on their hinges. Light exploded and shadows seesawed. I imagined myself as Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven and reached for a pistol. I picked off the customers while they inspected the metal hanging baskets and the various commercial deer repellents. I was an excellent shot.
The summer that all the flowers mysteriously died in their greenhouses was also the summer of the drought, and while the store had no air conditioning, it was still noticeably cooler indoors. Still, I preferred the outside work. At least, when I was outside, I could walk around. The paths connecting the store to the greenhouses and the flower displays were crunchy gray pebbles. Weeds sprouted up in the center of the walk, in the barren spots where the sprinklers washed away the stone. Old Man Konn was too cheap to throw down pavers to create a real walkway.
My job outside was to hydrate the greenhouse flowers twice daily. When watering, you're supposed to drench each plant near the stem until the soil refuses to take any more water. Then you're supposed to wait for the runoff to drain out through the little holes in the bottom of the plastic containers and repeat. I just sprayed back and forth until the leaves looked good and wet and the little glasshouse took on the deep, earthy smell of dripping flora. The hothouses were cloying, and your clothing stuck to your body when you were done, but it wasn't an overwhelming task. The hose nozzle had a metal lip on it, like a gasoline pump does, and you could lock it so that it sprayed continuously. Your hand didn't even get tired from squeezing. Once I'd figured out Old Man Konn's schedule, I could set the nozzle to "soaker" and sneak off behind the shed to read a few chapters before he checked up on me. It was "life on easy street" as my father would have called it. Of course, everything changed when Jasmine showed up.
I was squatting behind the cash register in the plywood open-air shack that Old Man Konn calls "The Agora." He thought it sounded cultured and horticultural. I'd stuffed my head under the counter and was fooling with a cubic foot bag of Miracle-Gro because a woman in a blue flower-print muumuu insisted on having the potting mix with "moisture-loc" and I didn't have the heart to tell her it's the same shit packaged in a different color bag. So I didn't see the girl until she was right on top of me, her arms crossed in front of her breasts as she leaned on the counter. She was a cute kid. Probably just old enough to drive. Small—petite—whatever it is you're supposed to say when describing a girl like her—maybe five-and-a-half feet tall on her tiptoes with waist-length brown hair and a round face. All tan and mostly legs.
"Is my grandfather here?" she said. Something about the way she didn't look at me made me uneasy. Muumuu lady was getting restless, and I could tell from the way she drummed her fingers on the countertop that she was going to start griping if I didn't get back to finding her fertilizer.
"Is your grandfather Mr. Konn?" I asked.
The girl nodded.
"He's in the office," I said, pointing. I watched the girl disappear down the back hallway. The shop smelled of plant food and liquid fertilizer and those orange clay pots with the holes in the bottom. Everything was sweating. The woman in the muumuu was getting really irked now. Her cheeks were red, from the heat or lupus, and she knocked on the countertop with her knuckles.
"I'm sorry," I said. "But we're out of moisture-loc."
Her nostrils flared, but she didn't say anything. She tucked her purse under her arm like a loaf of bread and stormed out. I stood there leaning against the rotating rack that carried paper seed packets for a dollar, watching the back hall, waiting for the girl to reappear. When she finally did, it was with Old Man Konn.
"Donovan," he said. "Grab your boots. You're working on site with Tio. Jasmine's going to work the register from now on."
I nodded and almost felt sorry for myself. On-site labor was much harder than the work I had been doing. It meant heavy duty landscaping with shovels and pry bars and wheelbarrows. Tio and the other men transplanted full-grown trees and laid everything from pavers to artificial creek beds. The mercury hadn't dropped below ninety-five degrees since late June, and I had seen Tio and Wally Stokes return at the end of every day with dried riverbeds of dirt and salt crusted down their cheeks, in the lines above their eyebrows and in the crinkles below their eyes. I didn't envy them.
Tio was maybe four years older than I was, and, from what I had gathered from Old Man Konn, he had been with the nursery since he graduated from high school—working all spring and summer and collecting unemployment during the other half of the year. Out in the parking lot, he wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, smearing a fresh trail of mud across his brow, and he checked his watch. He climbed onto the running board of the dump truck and pulled a six-pack of Yuengling lager from the driver's-side window, hooking the empty plastic loop around his index finger. He snapped off a can and tossed it to old Wally Stokes. Then he tilted his head back and drained the beer, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down.
"So I guess you're stuck with me," he said when I walked out holding my father's work boots by the shoelaces. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and grinned and said, "Hope you enjoy mulching."
After work, I went down to Gillian's music shop for saxophone lessons. The store was actually a renovated mansion. The owners had knocked down most of the interior walls and the building had taken on the spicy-sweet odor of fifty years of mustiness. There was a checkout opposite an enormous pair of bay windows in what must have been, at one time, a front parlor. I arrived a half hour early so I could bum around the display cases, admiring the Selmer Paris Mark VI that I would never be able to afford, and the Yamahas, Martins, and Conns I could not currently afford. I played my grandfather's hand-me-down saxophone—a rusty, brown instrument with fuzzy forest green pads and a dull lacquer that had begun to chip below the bell. I wasn't sure what brand of saxophone it was because its identifying marks were worn away by years of finger oil and spit.
Sometimes, I would talk to the women behind the counter and pretend not to notice the high school senior squealing and squeaking his way through the Charlie Parker Omnibook in the back room where Mr. Olson gave lessons. If I were running low, I would buy reeds—Rico Jazz Select. Rico is the cheapest brand you can buy. I was the only person I knew who used them. I compensated by purchasing reeds specially filed for jazz musicians, even though I couldn't tell the difference.
Mr. Olson was kind. He didn't challenge me much. He sat in an orange plastic chair, one leg crossed over the other, and smoked while I played, nodding and occasionally pointing out places where my phrasing broke down. Every lesson ended with a story about his teeth. How he had failed to take care of them when he was younger, and how his false teeth ruined his embouchure. The moral of the story, I gathered, was brush after every meal.
"Squint your eyes," he said. "Squint them until they blur."
I crossed my eyes, allowing the world to slip out of focus, squinting until two distinct sets of sheet music became apparent on my metal stand.
"Now play," he said. "Play what you see in the white space."
I did as he ordered and kept up with the notes and rests and rhythms on the page for a little while. But every time a page turn or a coda appeared, I lost track of where I was. I blew sour notes and he held up a hand to stop me.
"Listen, cat," he said, leaning far back in his chair. He stubbed his cigarette out against the mahogany staircase banister—the backdrop for our lessons. "If you remember anything I tell you, remember this." He held up one finger and pointed it at me. "There's more to music than what's printed on the page. There's beautiful stuff there in the space between the notes."
I nodded and listened as he talked about his teeth, and then I paid him fifty dollars on my way out the door.
On Monday, on my way into work, I ran into Wally Stokes at the gas station across from the nursery. It was an old-fashioned service station. A bell rang when you ran over a wire, signaling the attendant to come to pump your fuel. Wally Stokes was of no particular age—a person who perpetually looked older than he was. He had a messy shock of white hair that stuck out on either side of his head, and his face was never without a five o'clock shadow. Everyone called him by his full name. Never Wally. Not Walter or Stokesie or Mr. Stokes. He was Wally Stokes.
"I see you in that old shop there, selling junk, watering them flowers," he said through his gums as he ambled over to where I was filling the gas tank of my Jeep. "Must be nice with that little chippy running around there. Give you something to look at, am I right?"
"Jasmine?" I said, drinking from a Styrofoam coffee cup. "Sure, she's pretty. But I'm on-site with Tio now."
Wally Stokes nodded and looked over my shoulder toward the nursery. "It ain't easy for a man in my position," he said, lowering his voice. "I got a wife at home. She don't do work no more. She can't walk. My job's all we got. Don't hardly make ends meet most times. God's thrown me. Thrown me for a loop, saddling me with a woman whose feet are swollen up like a watermelon from the diabetes, you know? Never had no kids on account of it, the doctors said, so we got no one to take care of us now, and still I got to work though I'm ready to retire, long ready, long ready to retire."
Wally Stokes laughed for no reason and I nodded. I wasn't sure if I should offer condolences or not. He jabbered on, and his body erupted in little spastic jerks like a rooster strutting around a barnyard. His eyes were glassy and unfocused, and they kept darting from me to the nursery and back again. I was relieved when Tio drove up in the dump truck.
"Donovan," he said, rolling up to the pump and climbing down from the truck. "Wally Stokes, how goes it?"
The old man licked his cracked white lips and pointed over to the nursery. Jasmine stood out front in the gravel drive with a watering can, tending the Baby's Breath that grew near the front of the lot. "It's hard for a man like me," he said. His finger shook a little. "Man my age shouldn't be having thoughts like that. Not about a girl her age. It ain't right, ain't right at all. A man my age shouldn't be having thoughts—shouldn't, not at my age."
Tio laughed heartily, pulling a folded twenty from his wallet and handing it to the attendant. He slapped Wally on the back and climbed into the dump truck. I laughed a little, too, though there was something unsettling about Wally Stokes's eyes, something wild and fearful, and for a moment, it looked as though he might even cry.
The dump truck rumbled down back roads still wet in places where the trees hid the macadam from the morning sun. I had no idea where we were. We had taken so many turns that I couldn't have found my way back home. Tio knew the way. As he drove, we listened to Howard Stern on the radio. He was trying to convince two strippers to allow him to measure their breasts.
"He's a funny character, isn't he?" Tio said.
"Howard Stern?" I said. "I guess."
"No. Wally Stokes," Tio said. He looked over at me and smiled from the nose down. There was something threatening in his eyes, as though he was challenging me to say otherwise, to say that Wally Stokes was not funny. Not one bit.
Neither of us spoke until we reached the site, a movie star's house, where—according to our work order—we were supposed to tear down the forested area around her pool and replace it with lawn. When we approached the gate, Tio pressed a button on the intercom and announced our arrival. The wrought-iron fence swung open and he pulled the truck up a long, paved road toward her house. I pointed out different animal carvings in the woods—a squirrel on a stump eating an acorn, a white-tailed deer caught in mid-leap, a black bear.
"Danicka Davis," Tio said, glancing down at the work order. "Fitting name for a New York diva, isn't it? Here we are nestled in the Pocono pine barrens, surrounded by evergreens and natural foliage, impromptu fields of wildflowers, ridges, everything you could ask for. And people like her still prefer the affect of nature. The man-made, artificial backyard haven. The trimmed, mowed, sculpted, suburbanite habitat. Maintained and tended by yours truly."
I looked down at my own hands and picked at a callus. I had no idea who Danicka Davis was. I'd never watched any of her movies.
"It's what keeps us in business," Tio said, shooting me a sidelong glace. He snorted as we pulled up to the house. It was a modern version of the log cabin style—a cherry-stained behemoth spanning at least ten-thousand square feet. Long lattice-arbor walkways connected one wing of the house to the next. A decorative iron fence marked out a courtyard in the front, where two large rottweilers slept in the sun.
"Mean looking dogs," Tio said as we circled the house. There was a deck in the back with an Olympic-sized swimming pool. A few pine needles floated on the water, and it was clear why Danicka Davis wanted the surrounding coniferous woodland turned into lawn.
"Jesus," I said. "That's at least half an acre of forest."
"Soon to be a half-acre of hardwood mulch," Tio said. "We should get started. Wally Stokes will be here on Friday to lay the sod and we need to have the place cleared by then."
I nodded and strapped one of our industrial weed whackers to my back. Tio cranked a chainsaw. He wore protective eyewear, a pair of earmuffs, and a light blue surgeon's mask whenever we operated mowing machinery. In minutes, green clippings, moist splatters of weed and grass, covered my arms and legs. It was hard to breathe without coughing. I didn't see Tio when he tapped my shoulder, and I nearly caught him with the plastic tail of the hacker.
"Watch it," he said, signaling that I should turn off the machine. "You need to see this." He beckoned me toward the woodline where, behind a large rock, a fawn lay with its legs curled under it.
"It's a fawn," I said.
"No shit," Tio said. The deer's ears perked up at the sound of our voices and it looked at us with glassy black eyes.
"What's it doing here?"
"Its mother probably dropped it off for safekeeping," Tio said, reaching down and touching its speckled fur with his gloved hand. "We need to move it."
"When they're young like that they have no smell," I said.
Tio rubbed his chin. "How do you know they don't?"
It was something my father had explained to me. "It's a defense mechanism," I said. "So they won't attract predators."
The more I got to know Tio, the more I found that we had a lot in common. Like me, he played the saxophone. We both played basketball in high school. We both liked jazz. And he'd read all of the novels I was reading. When the workday was about done, we'd sometimes tune into the Princeton jazz station as we cleaned out the truck and put the tools away.
"There's beautiful stuff there between those notes," I said, halfway through Pat Metheny's Tell It All.
Tio raised an eyebrow. "Beautiful stuff between the notes?" he said. "Where'd you hear that?"
I told him about what Mr. Olson said about squinting your eyes, about playing in the white spaces.
"You know what that means, don't you?" Tio said.
"Something like read between the lines," I said, standing in the bed of the dump truck and hosing out leftover mulch, while Tio stood near the fender and drank beer.
"It's just one of those artsy things musicians say," he said, picking a splinter of wood from the tailgate and examining it. "Every occupation has its clichés."
I pressed my thumb over the end of the hose to spray some of the caked mud from the far end of the truck and I looked out over the back lot at Wally Stokes, who was showing Jasmine how to water peonies. He stood behind her, his arms wrapped around hers, his hands locked on her wrists, directing the hose toward the flowers while she laughed.
"I guess so," I said.
"It doesn't amount to anything," Tio said, following my gaze.
"What's our cliché?" I said.
"If all else fails, mulch it," Tio said.
Three days passed, and Tio and I were almost through erasing the nature from Danicka Davis's backyard when Jasmine rolled up the drive in her red Kia. I was trimming the property line with my back to the house, so I didn't see her at first. Tio turned off his chainsaw and leaned against the knotted trunk of a birch, looking down over the rims of his sunglasses, eyebrows raised. He nodded over my shoulder, pointing with his thumb, and I turned just as Jasmine grabbed the back of my neck. Her hands were cold and she laughed a little as she dropped an ice cube down my shirt.
"I thought you looked hot," she said, snapping the plastic lid back on her McDonald's cup. She wore oversized sunglasses and a neon pink bikini top that showed everything. Her stomach was creamy white, like she didn't often wear a two-piece, but her legs were tanner than ever, and I noticed a silver ring on the middle toe of each sandaled foot. "Grandpa says he needs you back at the nursery," she said, stifling a yawn with the back of her hand. "The supplier showed up a day early and now the parking lot is filled with trees. He needs someone to move them."
Tio looked at me and shook his head. We'd chopped down most of the larger trees and Old Man Konn had come over last night to dig out the stumps with the backhoe, but we still had a full day's worth of work ahead of us. He said, "We need to get this done by tomorrow."
Jasmine shrugged and rolled a pebble beneath her foot. "This is an amazing house," she said, bending down and swishing her fingers across the surface of the pool. "It's like bathwater," she said.
She raised her arms above her head, grabbing at her elbows like she was limbering up to dive in. She'd tanned unevenly and the undersides of her arms were much lighter than the tops of her shoulders. I could see the slight shadow where she'd recently shaved her underarms. Tio blew a long breath through his closed lips.
"You go," I said. "I can finish up here by myself. And Jasmine can drive me home when I'm done."
Tio looked from me to Jasmine and back again. Jasmine nodded a little. "I can help him," she said, flexing her biceps. "I'm stronger than I look."
"Not dressed like that you can't," Tio said. He crossed his arms and stared up at the sky. A thunderhead was forming in the west. It wasn't one of those anvil-shaped clouds they always showed on the Weather Channel. It was round on the top and flat on the bottom—dark gray and curling over at its base in a thick layer of puffy trim, like the perfect scoop of ice cream. Tio pointed at me. He said, "You'd better hurry. Those clouds look like trouble."
At first, the rain wasn't too bad. In fact, it cooled things down a little and made it easier for me to work. Jasmine lay on her stomach next to the pool, her bikini strap unclipped—she said to prevent tan lines—although the sun had long since disappeared behind the clouds. The raindrops formed tiny beads on her back that ran down along her sides, and they created miniature rings on the surface of the pool. The little backsplashes made it look like it was raining upward, as if the drops were rising from the chlorinated water instead of falling. The rain picked up, and the sky grew dark, and the leaves on the trees appeared to turn over on themselves, their lighter green undersides twisted to the sky, and before long Jasmine and I were running for cover as the first flash of summer lightning tore across the sky with a long, rending snarl.
No one was home, but the screened porch above the pool was unlocked, so we climbed the wooden steps and sat there on the wicker settee to wait out the storm.
"We haven't had rain like this in months," I said, as Jasmine pulled her hair down in front of her face and squeezed it, as though she might ring it out like a dishtowel. "A storm like this won't last long."
Jasmine shrugged and pushed her hair back over her shoulders. "There's no hurry," she said. "I've nothing better to do."
"So are you just visiting for the summer?" I asked.
"A prisoner is more like it," Jasmine said, leaning her head back against the wood-paneled wall. "My mother thought it would be nice for me to stay with my grandfather this summer. She said working at the nursery would teach me integrity. Really, she just doesn't want me to see my boyfriend." She crossed her legs at the ankles and then added, "She always hates my boyfriends."
When Jasmine looked back at me, there was something wild in her eyes, something angry, but it must not have been important because it only lasted a moment. She threw her head back and laughed, and putting her hand down right above my knee on the canvas of my shorts, she said, "Of course, I just don't care. I've got plenty of integrity."
Her laugh kind of startled me. It was shriekier than anything I'd imagined coming from her and it didn't bubble or roll over her lips; not like the laughs you hear from starlets in the movies. You wouldn't have described it as water rippling over a streambed or anything quite like that. Her hand on my knee really startled me. Especially when she kind of squeezed. But that didn't last long either. Before I even caught my breath, she was pulling at that coffee-colored hair of hers again and complaining that it took too long to dry out.
"I should really chop it all off," she said. "Wouldn't that be lovely?"
"It'd be cooler in the summer, that's for sure," I said, watching her hands. Her fingernails were painted baby blue, and every nail was decorated with a little silver star.
She must have noticed me staring because she said, "The stars keep falling off when I water plants. The adhesive gets wet."
"That's too bad," I said, getting up and walking toward the door, pressing my hand against the screen and pushing it open an inch. The rain was still falling in sheets, pockmarking the surface of the swimming pool, but it seemed like it had slowed just a little. I was about to say something about it when I felt a tingle at the base of my neck. There was a tremendous crack and everything went white. The room disappeared, Jasmine disappeared, even my hand disappeared in front of me. It was like when the cable goes out and the screen gets all snowy, only I could feel the radiant heat blown in my direction. I threw myself to the floor and kind of curled over on my side. The lightning strike hadn't hit me. I was pretty sure of that, but my heart felt like it was going to beat its way out from my chest.
"Jesus," I said. I said it three or four times, leaning up on my elbow. I wiped at my face and tried to get my hands to stop shaking.
"I think I saw your skeleton," Jasmine said, pressing her fist to her mouth, stifling a nervous laugh. "Are you O.K.?"
"I think so," I said, rolling onto my hands and knees. I pointed to where a long, splintery gash ran down the side of a big maple far back in the yard, cleaving only the middle of the tree, like a keyhole in a door. The lightning had peeled the bark away entirely, exposing the tree's fleshy insides. I was still pointing when Jasmine wrapped her arms around my neck. I could feel her heart beating through her bikini top, through my wet shirt, against my back. She drummed my collarbone a bit with her fingertips and then gently turned me, pushing against my chest until I was lying flat on my back.
"Are you O.K.?" she asked again, leaning closer and stretching her legs out next to mine on the porch floor.
"I think so," I said.
When I went to Gillian's for my next lesson, Mr. Olson was standing in front of a full-length mirror in our practice studio upstairs, running his thumb over his teeth. The mirror was obviously a relic leftover from the old tenants of the house, and I imagined a young woman standing at that mirror at night or in the morning brushing out her hair.
"Let's pick up where we left off, cat," said Mr. Olson, easing down into the chair next to me and patting my knee. "Go on. Get squinting."
I stared at the sheet music in front of me, crossing and uncrossing my eyes. I watched the notes blur in and out of focus, and I thought about what Tio said, about how every profession has its clichés, about how "reading in the white spaces" was just an artsy exercise, something Mr. Olson had concocted to sound clever and mysterious.
"Whenever you're ready, cat," Mr. Olson said, striking a match on his thumbnail and lighting his cigarette.
Fifty dollars an hour to squint at a sheet of paper. I lowered my head a little and let the music come back into focus and then I played. When I got to the page turn, I hesitated a little, so that it wouldn't seem too easy for me, and then I kept right on playing. Mr. Olson sat quietly smoking, nodding occasionally, and when I got to the end of the piece, he flicked an ash into the ashtray on his knee and said, "Right on, cat. Now you're really playing."
By noon that Friday, we had finished leveling the natural grasses and the low-lying shrubs from around the pool area at Danicka Davis's house. Tio and I sat on the deck and watched Wally Stokes sow seed with an automatic spreader he had attached to the back of a John Deere lawn tractor. Sweat dripped down the neck of my T-shirt in a V-shaped stain and along the waistband of my cotton shorts. It pooled against the small of my back, and ran down my ass crack. Tio scratched dirty limericks into the slate walkway with the blade of his pocketknife, flipping each stone over after he had defaced it.
There is a young engineer, Paul
Who lives from me just down the hall
The square of his weight
Times his pecker, plus eight
Is his phone number, give him a call
A carpenter came from Australia
Whose hand had grown genitalia
And before he made love
He'd put on a glove
And say, "Now I'm ready to nail ya"
I read over his shoulder while he carved and watched Wally Stokes toss straw down on the ground to keep the seed from washing away.
"So you mean to tell me, you were holed up in a thunderstorm alone with that girl and you didn't even make a move?" Tio said, frowning and pressing his lips. He looked at me skeptically, as though I was keeping something from him. "Sure you didn't. It's fine—don't tell me, man. I had a good time moving shrubs with Wally Stokes."
I pulled off my leather work boots. My feet were shriveled and yellow from where the old leather had bled away. My heart was pounding from exhaustion, and when I blew my nose, I filled Tio's handkerchief with green mush from the foliage we'd mowed down. Old Man Konn was still only paying me seven dollars an hour—cashier wages. My father had called it a "character building experience." Tio called it "highway robbery" as he dangled his feet in the shallow end of the swimming pool.
"Goddamn hot for a man like me to be working this hard, too hot," Wally Stokes said, walking up the steps to the deck and stripping off his T-shirt. His chest hair looked especially white against his tan skin, and without hesitation, he tossed the shirt to Tio and dove into the movie star's pool.
"What if she comes out?" I said, while Wally Stokes did the backstroke and Tio laughed.
"You boys should dive in. The water's fine," the old man said, but it didn't matter how hot I was. I didn't feel right about diving into some movie star's pool.
When we got back to the nursery, I gathered my cooler and the rest of my belongings. I was halfway out the door when Old Man Konn said, "Don't forget to water the flowers."
I stopped in mid-step. It was already a quarter after five—the weekend—and the last thing I wanted to do was to waste another half an hour watering the hothouse plants. I knew my parents would be waiting for me at home. My mother would be starting dinner. I also knew Old Man Konn wasn't going to pay me for the overtime. I sighed a little, and Old Man Konn raised his eyebrows. He nodded toward the front door as I trudged past him. "Use the hoses in the utility shed," he said. "And make sure you water them good."
The shed was locked tight when I got there. I stood for a moment, staring dumbly; then I shook the door in annoyance and tramped back to the Agora.
"Tio locked the shed," I said, walking into the back office. "I need the key."
"Ask Wally Stokes," Old Man Konn said, barely looking up from where he sat writing out paychecks.
"I think he went home," I said.
Old Man Konn raised only his eyes. He shook his head a little, as though it was by my stupidity that the shed was locked. "Hold on," he said, signing the last check with a flourish and cramming it into one of the little envelopes he kept on the corner of his desk.
As we walked out to the greenhouses, he swung the big metal key ring on his finger and talked about how he'd built the nursery up from a meager beginning. He talked about buying the adjacent lot and adding another row of hothouses. I listened and nodded when it seemed appropriate. When we were maybe ten yards from the shed, the door swung open from the inside and Wally Stokes scrambled out, dusty and tugging at his belt. He wore a rattled look and grimaced when he saw us. When he passed, he lowered his eyes and mumbled something about getting home to his wife. I looked over at Old Man Konn, but he didn't return my gaze. He chewed on the inside of his cheek a little and ran a hand back through his silver hair.
"Go on, Jasmine," he said. "Get out here."
At first, nothing happened. Then the door creaked open an inch and Jasmine poked her head around the corner. She kicked at the pea gravel on the path, then threw her hair back over her shoulders and stepped out. There was a smear of dirt on her chin, and the backs of her legs were gray from thigh to knee with chipped resin grout that held the shed's floor tiles together. She crossed her arms in front of her and shrugged a little.
"What would your mother say?" Old Man Konn said, wringing his hands, his voice low and shaky.
Jasmine looked from him to me, and I didn't know what to do or say. My stomach felt squirrelly, and for some reason, I couldn't take my eyes off that ugly gray powder along the sides of her knees. It made me both sick and excited in some deep, weird way.
"What would your mother say?" Old Man Konn said again, rubbing his hands on his stomach. "Answer me, young lady."
"She'd call me a godless slut," Jasmine said without hesitation.
Maybe I was just shaken by the whole situation, but I suddenly wanted to say something. Anything. An encouraging comment—or maybe not, maybe only a funny or absurd remark to shift the focus away from all of it. I was embarrassed—embarrassed for Jasmine, for Old Man Konn, for myself—and confused. Yet there was something undeniably defiant about her standing there with that smudge on her chin and her arms folded below her breasts.
"I'd pack my bags if I were you," Old Man Konn said.
Jasmine didn't reply. She only smirked a little as she passed between the two of us. Old Man Konn half-turned, as though to shout something at her back—a curse or a plea or something—but he only watched her mount the steps to the Agora and disappear inside.
"Grab those hoses, Donovan," he said, turning to me and pointing at the curled nest of green rubber hoses on the shed floor. He sounded tired, deflated. "And make sure you water them flowers good."
The following morning, I stepped into the office at Konn & Son to pick up my final paycheck of the season. It was a Saturday, and the heat hung in the air, the way it does before a thunderstorm. I passed Wally Stokes on my way in. He ambled nervously around the nursery grounds and didn't acknowledge me, and for a moment, I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to smash his head with a shovel or run him down with the dump truck. I noticed, as I grabbed my pay stub from the wicker basket in the office, that Jasmine's paycheck was still there. She normally picked it up on Friday afternoons. When I walked out front, I found Old Man Konn standing on the bottom step. I shook his hand and thanked him for the job.
"I been meaning to talk to you about going back on the register full-time next summer," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder as we walked toward the greenhouses.
"What about Jasmine?" I said.
"She went back home," Old Man Konn said sharply, sucking on his bottom lip.
I started to say something, but he raised a hand and cut me off. His bottom lip quivered and he opened his mouth as though he wanted to say more, wanted to explain himself, but no words came out. Instead, he stared stupidly from the door of hothouse number one at his garden of dead plants—row after neat row of withered begonias and petunias and geraniums. Hundreds of dollars' worth.
"I thought I told you to water them good," he said.
"I did water them good," I said. "Feel for yourself." I plunged a finger into the moist dirt of one of the plastic egg carton trays that held the once-flowers and pulled it out muddy. I waved my dirty finger in front of his eyes, and then wiped it on his shirtfront.
I turned, and on my way out, I saw the light green spray bottle of Ortho Weed-B-Gon across from the watering can, tucked behind a bag of potting soil beneath the large white tables that had held a lively assortment of potted summer annuals no more than twenty-four hours earlier. I had never noticed the poison there before. In fact, we weren't even supposed to bring that stuff into the greenhouses. Everyone at the nursery knew what a commercial weed-killer like that could do to a hothouse full of flowers. On the ground, next to the bag, were seven or eight small silver stars—each no larger than a raindrop—arranged neatly to form a perfect little square around the table leg. And though I couldn't be sure, I suspected a hurt and embarrassed granddaughter might be vengeful enough to commit floral genocide.
In the office, I dropped my paycheck back in the basket next to Jasmine's pay stub. It seemed like the appropriate gesture—the least I could do. When I turned, Tio was standing in the doorway. My stomach tightened.
"Just stopped in to say goodbye," he said, walking over, grabbing my check, and putting it in my fist. "Don't leave without your pay." His concerned frown masked a familiar glare—that goading look he'd given me in the truck on our way to Danicka Davis's house, the look that said what happens between any of us stays here at Konn & Son. He nodded and closed my fist around the yellow paper stub, and my face burned hot as I stuffed it in my pocket.
"Good man," he said as I pushed past him, my shoulder brushing his arm. On my way out to the parking lot, I squinted. I squinted all the way to my Jeep and then, sitting behind the wheel, I squinted even harder until everything—the nursery, the flowers, Tio, Old Man Konn and Wally Stokes, and my thoughts of Jasmine—blurred away and nothing was as clear as it seemed.
Title graphic: "All Square" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2009.