The Gardener

Their forks clicked in unison against the empty plates as they set them down, finished. The utensils were not the only things that had clicked. The meal had been delicious, the girl lovely, the man courteous, the conversation interesting and free of the awkward pauses generally ended by dull commentaries on the weather or the quality of the wine. Altogether, it had been a perfectly smooth first date. Too smooth, the young woman was thinking. Surely something uncomfortable had to occur. It was a first date, after all. That thought alone- that the evening had been unnaturally comfortable- made the girl uncomfortable. She toyed with her fork as the man continued to talk about his work.

“The kids are great- I love working with them, but I hope one day to be a professor at the collegiate level, more research than teaching, you know?”

She nodded, tuning back into the conversation. What was his job again? Oh, right. According to the friend (well, more of an acquaintance) who had introduced them, he was a history teacher at the local high school. She was beginning to shake the feeling of discomfit caused by the very lack of discomfort when the man asked her a question that caused her to miss this imaginary anxiety.

“So,” he said, looking at her over his glasses, which seemed oddly hipster for an adult. But then, they had not been adults for long. “What did you say you do?”

She hadn’t. In fact, she had purposely been avoiding talk of her career and had hoped that by listening to the man- Andrew the history teacher- talk of his work, she would not be asked to describe hers.

“Sorry, what?” she blinked up at him, pretending not to have heard over the din of fellow diners. This would have been easier had there been any fellow diners, but in the odd perfection of their evening, they had dragged their meal out beyond all except a few men lingering at the bar.

“Where do you work? What do you do?”

“Oh,” she said. “I’m…a gardener…of sorts.”

“A gardener of sorts?” his eyes twinkled in amusement behind his spectacles.

“Yes.”

“Okay, so tell me more! What sort of plants do you grow? Who are your clients?”

She wished he would stop, but the genuine tone to his voice coaxed her into giving somewhat of an answer. It was the best she could come up with, anyway.

“I don’t much grow plants so much as I do tend them and, after a bit, dispose of them.”

“You’re that bad of a gardener that you dispose of plants instead of growing them?” Her eyes widened, but he chuckled and winked. “I’m kidding. I’m sure you’re wonderful.”

She blushed and her skin was so pale, she knew he could see it, but she was pleased. As much as she was reluctant to talk about it, she did think her job wonderful and she knew she was good at it.

“Thanks,” she chuckled in reply, relaxing a bit. “I meant that I dispose of the plants left by others- bouquets mostly, and sometimes miniature Christmas trees or potted shrubs. The ones I tend are thriving, I assure you.”

“People leave plants?”

“Yes,” she replied, then hastened to add, “But I do other work too- trimming hedges and trees and such. Lots of outdoor work, but I enjoy the fresh air. It makes me feel more alive.”

“Outdoors? You’re not exactly tan…” another wink so she knew he meant no offense.

“Well I mostly work at night. People don’t like the sight and sounds of grounds keeping work when they visit.”
“Fair enough. Sounds like your clients are high maintenance though- making you clean up after them and work at night. Do you at least like the people you work with?”

“Oh yes!” she clasped her hands together and instantly regretted her excited reply. Would he understand? She wondered. Best not to tell too much. She carefully arranged her hands in her lap, attempting to veil her enthusiasm.

“Well, tell me about them.”

“Oh…um…they’re pretty quiet. I don’t actually know very much about them aside from their names and dates-”

“Dates?”

“I mean birthdays and- er- ages.”

“Got it.”

“Anyway, they’re quiet, but I like to imagine things about them. I like to guess at their personalities, their backgrounds, who they loved and where they were born. It fascinates me to read their names and try to fill in the blanks with possible life stories. I mean, who knows what amazing lives these people had, what adventures and romances and tragedies. I have so many questions about them that I’ll probably never know the answers to, so I make them up.”

“Fascinating.”

“It really is.” Did she say too much? She feared she did.

“Why don’t you just ask them? Then you could have the answers.”

“I suppose I could, but I doubt it would do much good,” she said, her eyes were twinkling too now.

“Alright then…why not?”

“No reason…” she fiddled with her fork again. He watched her until she could feel her cheeks burning. Maybe she should just tell…it was nothing to be ashamed of. It was just that all of the men before him had found it a little, well, unsavory that an educated, pretty, young woman would choose her line of work and enjoy it more than the countless dull desk jobs she had been offered. Well, she could survive another man not calling back. What she could not survive was another date of evading questions and vague answers. Her work kept her occupied in the evenings anyway.

“Fine,” she sighed. “I can’t ask them because…they’re dead.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m the sole groundskeeper of a graveyard. Two, actually. Olive Grove and St. George’s.”

She let her fork click down at the end of her sentence and refused to look up at him. She’d seen the mixture of surprise and distaste on enough faces and had no interest in seeing it replayed in the brown eyes behind their glasses.

“Well then,” he said after an eternal moment. “Who is your favorite person at work? Any particularly fascinating epitaphs? What’s the oldest date on any tombstone?”

She sneaked a peek up at this odd Andrew the aspiring history professor. As his eyes met hers, she saw that the spark of genuine interest had not died. She savored this moment, for all traces of discomfort had vanished, buried in the past. As he asked and she freely answered, neither had felt more alive.

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