The Hard Way
I know approximately where the house in the ad is located. The locals refer to the neighborhood as Birdland because the streets are all named after birds - Warbler Road, Bobwhite Drive, Towhee Point, Swallow Court, Nuthatch Lane, and so forth. But of course they developed it so much that none of those birds are left, just the green and white street signs as memorial plaques.
Nuthatch Lane turns out to be a small connector street with only six houses and plenty of land between them. Number forty-eight is set back at the end of a long circular grass driveway with two gravel strips down the middle, lined with tall birch trees planted close together. The silvery-white trunks shimmer in the slanted early evening light and make a crosshatching of shade upon the driveway. And though the grounds are entirely landscaped and appear to be well looked after, closer inspection reveals a house in need of a makeover. Peeling paint and rusting gutters conflict with the highly ornamental architecture.
There are two cars parked to the side of the driveway and the front door is open. Tapping lightly on the screen door it's possible to make out an older woman sitting in a rocker and reading a book. She carefully lays the volume on a side table and threads her way around a lot of fancy wooden chairs and end tables in order to answer the door. I can't recall seeing her around town but if older people don't have kids or play poker then I usually don't know them. However she smiles brightly and appears friendly, as if we might know each other from church.
"Hello dear. Are you here to pick up the chaise longue?" She opens the door and indicates that I should enter. The screen door wheezes loudly and then slams behind me.
"Uh no. I'm uh - I saw an ad. I'm here about the yard person position."
An amused smile appears to play across her mouth. "Of course. Then you'll want to speak to Bernard. Oh, where are my manners? My name is Olivia. What is yours?"
"Hallie. Hallie Palmer."
"Oh Hallie! What a wonderful name." She clasps her hands delightedly in front of her chest. "Just like the comet!"
Uh-oh. She could be senile. These big old houses are exactly the kind of places where rich people hide their demented relatives on the third floor so they're free to hurl themselves against dormer windows without attracting too much attention. I'd read Jane Eyre freshman year in high school.
Before I have a chance to say anything she trots off toward the back of the house. She moves really fast for an old lady. "Bernard! Someone is here to inquire about the yard person position." She can also holler pretty good for an old lady.
Upon returning to the front hall she lightly smoothes her soft halo of hair with her
fingertips, even though there aren't any loose strands since it's pulled into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. A hint of pale blonde is still visible on the sides though it's mostly the color of milkweed. "You must come in and have a cup of Ceylon tea," she says cheerily. "Or perhaps some pink lemonade."
I've never been on a real job interview so I don't know if it's appropriate to accept. When I went for the job at the service station they just stuck the gas pump nozzle in my one hand and the window scrubber in the other. But here I feel more like I'm at my grandma's house and so I say okay.
We enter a spacious sunny room that overlooks the backyard. There appear to be three separate gardens, one for vegetables and two for flowers, along with a birdbath, two intricately designed wrought iron benches painted a glossy white, and lots of birdhouses stuck up in the trees like robin's nests. In the far corner of the yard, just before the woods begin, is a little house that looks as if they cut a chunk off the big house and dropped it back there. It resembles something Beatrix Potter might have rented for Jemima Puddle-Duck and Benjamin Bunny.
Inside I'm afraid to sit down because the chairs are so expensive-looking. They're old-fashioned and have embroidered seats that are not the kind of seats that people under the age of twenty are not even allowed to go near. And so I check the back of my pants before making any sudden sitting moves.
The space around me is overflowing with stuff. Old stuff. There's a gold trunk with ivory bits and pieces stuck into the top that form an intricate Chinese-looking design of gondolas, starbursts and flowers. The bookshelves hold porcelain vases and blue and white china plates propped up on little brass stands with curlicue feet. On every table, and there are lots of small tables, is a lamp with a fancy stained-glass shade. And sitting only an inch from my lemonade glass is a two-inch high pink enamel bunny rabbit with a tape measure coming right out of its ass. Where a regular house has one picture on the wall these people have pounded in upwards of a dozen. Mirrors too. And where a regular house has one rug in the middle of the room, they have twelve. In some spots there's even a small rug on top of a big rug and then long narrow rugs squeezed in-between the larger ones. Who ever heard of putting one rug on top of another? Maybe when the top one wears out they just pick it up and throw it away and the next one is all ready to go, like pop-up tissues.
However the room doesn't appear to be dirty. But then my Mother always says you can't really tell about people until you inspect the kitchen and the bathrooms.
In the doorway appears a tall, elegant man with a wonderful mane of salt and pepper hair that makes him look distinguished, but also probably older than he actually is. I can tell by his unlined face that he's probably only about thirty-five. And he doesn't just walk into the room either. He sweeps into it.
"Bernard, this is Hallie Palmer," says the old lady. "Isn't Hallie a wonderful name? We simply must have someone named Hallie around the house. Among the Viking warriors it meant hero."
Mr. Bernard smiles warmly, just like the woman did when I arrived. And just like
a polite person would if a friendly but senile person entered into a conversation. I decide he must be her son. They have similar blue eyes that happen to match the color of the blue in the china plates propped up in the display case behind them. And their cheekbones are both high, though the Mother's jaw line is softer and makes a shape like the bottom of a heart while his is more square.
"Hallie would like to discuss the opening for a yard person," Ms. Olivia says with formality in her voice but a twinkle in her porcelain eyes.
It makes me wonder if they're just pretending to do the interview to be nice.
"That's splendid!" Mr. Bernard declares. "We are equal opportunity employers."
"Great," I say. "I'm an equal opportunity employee."
"Well done!" says Mr. Bernard, obviously pleased by my response. "Now, Ms. Palmer, I know I'm not supposed to ask this, but do you harbor a drinking problem?"
It's funny the way he addresses me as Ms. Palmer. I almost look over my shoulder to check for my mother before realizing that he's talking to me. "I drink a lot of chocolate Yoo-Hoo but it's not what I would call a problem. The most I ever have is three in one day."
"Excellent. Lars, the last yard boy, or rather, yard person, was in possession of a constitution that had extreme difficulty processing ethanol and I dare say his work suffered as a result of this deficiency in body chemistry. Those Danes are stupendous craftspeople and they always show up on time but they can become horrendously depressive when self-medicating."
"Oh," I say.
"No matter, how are you in the garden? Do you know the difference between sweet corn and crab grass?"
"Sure, we have a vegetable garden at home."
"That's glorious. So when might you commence?"
"You mean start the job?"
He apparently registers the astonished look on my face. "Of course you'll want a tour of the grounds first, and undoubtedly you have some questions of your own." He hesitates. "And perhaps you wish to sleep on the matter."
"Yes. I mean no. I mean, could you just review the pay?"
"Certainly. The monetary compensation. The pay is-" He turns to the old lady. "Mother, whatever is the pay?"
"Twelve dollars an hour," she answers.
"Oh yes. That's right. Mother does all the household accounts."
I decide that's how it must be in most families - the least reasonable person is in charge of all the money. At least that's how it is at my house.
"I can start tomorrow at eight o'clock or whatever time you want," I say with enthusiasm.
"How is half-past eight? That has always appealed to me as a civilized time to begin outdoor work."
I think for sure they're going to ask about school. But maybe not. These folks seem a bit odd. They're hard to read, like two down cards in a game of seven-card stud.
We all stand up and Mr. Bernard extends his hand as if to seal our employment contract. On the third finger of his left hand is a shiny gold signet ring with a "G" engraved on the front of it. This reminds me that I don't even know their family name. "Excuse me, but what's your last name?"
"We are the Stocktons." He says this proudly, as if confident that anyone with this last name could easily pass a lie detector test.
"Okay. Then thanks Mr. and Mrs. Stockton. I'll see you both tomorrow."
"Please call us Olivia and Bernard," the Mother chimes in.
I glance at Mr. Stockton to make sure he isn't staring at her as if she forgot to take her pills, however he just nods in agreement.
I'm not sure what to say. "Then please call me Hallie."
"As you wish," he says in this way that's not mocking, but as if we're all in a play. Mr. Bernard glances down at his watch. "Half-past six. Perhaps you'd like a quick tour of the premises."
When I nod my head okay he actually makes a little bow and gallantly ushers me through the doors into the garden and says, "Then without further fondue…"
I follow Mr. Bernard down a cobblestone path of faded pink and gray stones that wends its way around the different gardens. Even though it's early fall there are still a number flowers in the first bed. These I mostly recognize - yellow and white irises, impatiens, lilies of all different colors and red and purple azaleas. At least I think they're azaleas. Closer inspection reveals most of the remaining blooms appear rather tired. But I imagine they were quite beautiful up until a few weeks ago.
"Dahlias, china asters," he points to different plants as if he's taking attendance. "Mauve dwarf asters, heliotrope, violet petunias, tall scabiosas, pink snapdragons, autumn crocuses."
He pauses in front of the second garden. Before us sways an odd assortment of flowers - all different heights, shapes, and colors, though mostly taller and ganglier than what was in the previous bed. I can't identify one stalk or blossom but they all seem pretty much past it, drooping like flags on a windless day.
"This will all have to come out over the next two weeks," Mr. Bernard says despondently. "And the soil must be turned. Then the other bed has to be pulled up and there are some bulbs to plant in that one for next year." He points back toward the first garden. "It's a big job." He sighs.
But I notice he doesn't say this in an Are you sure you're up to it? tone of voice. It's more like he's saddened that it's all over.
"What kind of flowers are these?" I ask, though mostly to take his mind off the impending bloom doom.
"Wildflowers." He sounds grateful that I've inquired and with his left hand gracefully motions towards the different clusters as if he's the maestro cueing his musicians. "Purple loosestrife, swamp rose mallow, trumpet honeysuckle."
His gold ring flashes in the sloped light of the setting sun and reminds me of how Eric and I used to sit in our garden and torch bugs with a magnifying glass.
"Yes, wildflowers are the most exquisite of all, I do believe."
"What's this?" I ask, walking towards a vine of trumpet-shaped purple, pink and pale blue flowers sprawled across a row of white wooden trellises that border the south side of the garden. This plant doesn't appear to have any intention of folding its cards for the winter.
"Common morning glory," Mr. Bernard replies. "Gorgeous, isn't it? Last summer I attempted to cultivate beach morning glory but unfortunately it prefers the West Coast."
We stroll past the vegetable patch where there are still pumpkins, watermelons, a few scattered heads of lettuce, some radishes and stalks of green peppers.
"Do you enjoy pumpkin bread?" he inquires.
"I don't think I've ever had it," I say. "And if Wonderbread doesn't make it then I know I've never had it."
"Goodness gracious. I'll bake a batch this week."
I'm hoping he's like my great Aunt Vi in that she's always saying that she's going to "whip up" this or that but never actually does. Pumpkin bread sounds totally yucky.
"This is the summerhouse," Mr. Bernard announces as we approach the outbuilding with the large windows and dainty gingerbread trim that I first spotted from the sun porch. Through the glass windows it appears that the interior is a lighter-colored version of the room in which I'd just had my interview. There's an overstuffed couch, two chairs, an array of end tables, five or six lamps with fancy bases, and knickknacks covering every inch of surface space.
A few feet in front of the summerhouse is another flower garden that I hadn't been able to see from the main house. However only two plants are still in bloom, both with enormous ivory-colored flowers. Red Monarch butterflies with black trim dance and mingle among the dried stalks.
Mr. Bernard pauses. "Mother's rose garden," he says. "She'll tell you not to bother tending it but don't listen to her. Poor things would have perished ages ago if I didn't water, weed, fertilize and prune. These days the only roses that Mother remembers to water is her Four Roses bourbon every afternoon. In fact, she's currently lobbying to adopt a goat as an environmentally-friendly organic lawnmower and fertilizing system. What she doesn't comprehend is that grazing animals, when in the process of fortifying themselves, do not differentiate between dandelions and dendrobium, nor crabgrass and coriander."
The place is beginning to remind me of Fantasia. Way back here with the fading sunlight streaking through the trees and the clouds stacked so the ones on top appear to be squashing the ones beneath a person wouldn't be surprised to run into The Blue Fairy. There's something interesting or attractive or both everywhere you turn. The birdfeeders hanging from the lower branches of the ash and maple trees are constructed in various architectural styles - southern plantations, gothic cathedrals, an A-frame log cabin, a palace and even a riverboat. Mr. Bernard leads me around to the side of the summerhouse and stops in front of a finely cultivated ten-by-twenty foot bed that looks as if it nurtures nothing but tall stick-like weeds.
"This is my herb garden - chives, rosemary, thyme, sorrel and so forth - mostly for cooking. It's hidden back here as I've not yet found a way to make it aesthetically pulchritudinous enough for display, but it's de rigueur if one cooks."
I assume that de rigueur means required by law, like a fence around a swimming pool. As for pulchritudinous I can't even hazard a guess. "Is that basil?" I point to the one plant I think I recognize from the pizza parlor.
"Yes." He bends over, gingerly removes a few leaves and places them up to his nose, inhales deeply, closes his eyes for a few seconds and looks satisfied. Then he hands them to me, as if we're passing a joint in the bleachers at the high school.
"Mmmm," I say agreeably. "I can smell mint, too."
"It's next to your foot. You'll have to sample it in iced tea while taking your
break. That reminds me, please don't smoke in the house. It's not good for Father."
"I don't smoke," I reply. But I can't help thinking how funny it is that he's already spoken to me about drinking and smoking when I'm not old enough to do either. I mean, he says all this as if I'm twenty-five or a member of a motorcycle gang.
"We'll have to take in a supply of Yoo-Hoo now, won't we? Hmm…" He glances quizzically at the herb garden. "I wonder what nicely accents Yoo-Hoo?"
Again at first I think he must be joking, like about the cigarettes, but he's not.
"Ice cream," I respond, trying to be of assistance.
"Of course. Mother and Father adore ice cream so that's not a problem." He guides me around to the back of the summerhouse. "And here's the orchard."
Well, it's not exactly an orchard. There are about eight gnarly apple trees, five cherry trees and a scraggly, mostly dead peach tree. But hey, if they want to think they have an orchard, what the hell, I'm just the yard person. And I'm sure the blossoms are lovely in the springtime.
"What's this?" I walk over to a big semicircle composed of ten square-shaped granite slabs about the size of encyclopedias. Next to it sits a weathered rocking chair.
"That's Mother's Druid Circle." Enacting a broad, dismissive wave toward the house he says this as if Ms. Olivia is indeed a little out of it, but for the most part harmless. "She'll have to explain it to you."
"It looks like a mini-Stonehenge."
"I believe that's the idea. Mother is…well, she's what one might call spiritual."
I understand this to be a euphemism for gaga, just like my Mother and Father say that Grandpa Ed is afflicted. Though Mr. Bernard doesn't appear to be concerned about the matter. However, if any animal sacrifices will be taking place this certainly looks like the spot. I can't help but wonder if his Mother practices witchcraft. She sounds as if she has a New England accent, like those people who say pahk the cahr, and as I understand it, that's the birthplace of American witchcraft.
"Mostly mother just sneaks back here to puff on her Gauloises. She quit smoking a long time ago but the stress of father's illness gets to her sometimes."
A few feet away is an as yet uncultivated six-by-six patch of lawn surrounded by short wooden stakes that are loosely connected by a weathered length of butcher string. Maybe it's the outline for the goat pen.
"This will have to be turned in the spring," Mr. Bernard explains. "I'm installing a blue garden. I took inspiration from Edith Wharton's French Riviera garden."
Edith Wharton must be one of the neighbors. But a blue garden? I wonder if we're going to apply blue spray paint or add blueberry Jell-O to the soil, like kids at school use it to dye their hair.
Mr. Bernard points to the future home of each plant and optimistically performs a practice roll call. "Anchusa, delphinum, lobelia, bachelor's button, blue browllia." Then he glances up at the sun, which is dipping behind the so-called orchard and casting long shadows across the yard and he suddenly seems to realize that it's growing late.
"The implements are stored in there," he points to a dark green shed in the corner of the yard, somewhat camouflaged by overgrown shrubbery. "Can you operate an electric hedge trimmer Hallie?"
"Sure. I can work anything - power mower, weed whacker, leaf blower, you name it. My Dad says I'm mechanically inclined. Sometimes I even fix my brother's car. Last summer I pumped gas at the Sunoco. I can even shoot an air rifle."
"Hallie Oakley," Mr. Bernard replies mysteriously. However he looks delighted that I've brought these additional skills to light. "So that must mean you can drive."
"Yeah, I've got a license."
We stroll through the darkening twilight air, around the side of the house and out to the driveway where Mr. Bernard politely waits while I mount my bike.
"I'm saving to buy a car," I explain. There doesn't seem to be any point in leading him to believe that I own a car.
"Mobility is a noble cause for which to till the soil."
"I just hope I can do the job okay," I say. "I mean, I've never been a full-time groundskeeper before."
"And that's exactly why you're perfectly suited for it. We need one of Plato's
philosopher kings, or a queen, such as the case may be - someone who brings outside beliefs and experiences to the fields in order to effectively rule with a green thumb."
Plato's philosopher kings? Sure, whatever he says. Because for twelve bucks an hour he's the boss and he can call me a yard person or a philosopher queen or anything else he wants. In fact, I'll wear a nametag. Now that I think of it, Mr. Bernard and Ms. Olivia could both be communing with fairies. I've read that dementia runs in families just like alcoholism. He offers a leisurely wave goodbye as if I'm a ship pulling up anchor. The gravel crunches under my tires and as I pedal past the mailbox at the end of the driveway I notice the name RUSH underneath STOCKTON. Maybe it's a government-subsidized halfway house. Who cares, as long as their checks are good. Though I suppose I'll find out soon enough. In the meantime, I'm starving, and decide to raid the church pantry.
© Copyright 2002, Laura Pedersen. All rights reserved.