“I always did love your lemon muffins,” George said, taking another out of the basket.
Carla looked across the kitchen table at her husband. “They are tasty, I’d have to agree.” She ate the last of her muffin.
“Where’d you get this recipe? Was it Ed’s wife?”
“I’m not sure,” Carla said. “Anyway, when a woman makes a recipe long enough she calls it her own.”
“I guess that’s fair.”
“It is what it is,” she said, getting up from the table. Carla took the coffee pot off the stove and filled George’s cup. She brought her dishes to the sink and turned on the water. She worked quickly, humming a set of random notes as she washed.
George poured some milk into his coffee and stirred. The spoon rang in the cup. “What’s your hurry? Sit down. Have another cup."
"I don’t have time,” Carla said, scrubbing at the crusty bits of muffin on the baking tin. “I’ve got work to do."
"Today?” he asked, dipping his knife in the jam jar. “What do you have to do today?"
"It’s Good Friday,” she said, looking out the window at the plot of bare earth in the backyard. “I’ve got to plant the garden."
He held his jam-covered knife in mid-air. “Can’t you do it tomorrow? I thought... maybe...”
Carla waited for more words as she rinsed the muffin tin. He was quiet. She turned the water off. “What, George?” she said, drying her hands on the dish towel. “Did you think I was going to help you pack?”
“I don’t know,” he answered, absently running his knife over the muffin. “I just...” His voice trailed off again.
Carla sighed. “It’s taken us years to get here,” she said, untying her apron. “If today’s the day you picked to leave, then so be it.”
She walked past him to the broom closet and took out the shoebox full of seed packages. For almost forty years she’d planted her garden on the Friday before Easter. She wasn’t going to stop now. Not even for this. She reached in the closet and got her sun hat, a yellow one with tiny blue flowers.
George chewed his muffin slowly, watching her. “Anything I can do to help?”
“You’ve got plenty to do,” Carla said, looking through the box to make sure everything was there. She popped the hat on her head and quickly tied a loose bow. “I’ll be out back,” she said, pushing the screen door open. “Holler if you need something.” The door squealed behind her. She’d asked George twice last week to oil it.
Carla stood before the patch of bare ground, hands on her hips, ready to dig in. There was a bit of chill in the air but the sun was climbing. It would be warm in an hour or so. She took a deep breath, smiling at the clean scent of an early spring morning. This was one of her favorite days of the year. Outside digging and watering and getting dirty. Picturing the garden in summer, so green and full. Thinking about what to do with all the tomatoes and wondering why she put in so many. But she always planted the same amount, sometimes more.
The earth was loose and a bit moist, just right for planting. Up until a few years ago George had turned the soil for her. Then they started paying a neighbor boy to do it. Carla had to watch him closely, but he did as she asked with less grumbling than her husband. She had the boy dig a new section this year, for pumpkins.
Carla laid out the seed packets and marked off rows with little wooden stakes. The design was clear as a map in her head. She pulled on her gardening gloves. The faded canvas felt rough but comfortable on her hands. She went into the garage and brought out the flats of tomatoes and peppers. They would go in after lunch.
She started with the beans, as she always did, scratching in straight rows with the hoe. Through the open window, Carla could hear George washing his breakfast dishes. She knew he was watching her, standing at the kitchen sink. She tore open a packet of yellow beans and dropped the plump seeds two inches apart down the rows.
When Carla was a girl, back in , her daddy used to plant on Memorial Day. She loved to help him. A few years after she and George were married, he brought her out here. He was always saying his new wife was as pretty as any Ohio Hollywood star. was nicer then. There wasn’t any smog or traffic. No people everywhere. It was like a warm and happy dream, a paradise. Now it was just home. When they first moved here it felt strange to be planting the garden so early. But now she couldn’t even think of waiting until May. Good Friday was the perfect time. California
The back door squealed and George went into the garage. He came out with two big suitcases, part of an old matched set. The last time they used them was to visit their daughter Nancy in , two years back. Anyone would have thought they were going to the moon for all his complaining before that trip. Colorado
“What’re you planting?” George stood over her, the bags hanging from his long arms. The front of his pants were splashed with dishwater.
“Oh, same old thing,” said Carla. “Snap peas, tomatoes, butter beans, cukes. Greens and lettuce over there.”
“You aren’t puttin’ in that lousy squash, are you?”
George clenched his face at the word. Last year it seemed like they had bushels of it.
“I probably shouldn’t, but it just does so well.”
“Crazy stuff grows like weeds,” he muttered. “Tastes like ‘em too.”
“I’ve seen you eat three pieces of zucchini cake at a sitting.”
He shrugged. “Put anything in cake and it’ll taste good.” Carla laughed. George raised the bags a bit, as if she didn’t see them. “Well, I better start packing.” The image of him trying to neatly fold a shirt made her want to laugh even more. But the urge passed just as quickly as it came.
“Okay,” she said, nodding.
He didn’t move from the garden. She drew three straight, shallow lines in the soil. George coughed, and Carla looked up at him.
“You gonna eat lunch?”
“When I’m hungry,” she said, taking off her gloves. He nodded and walked to the house. Carla watched him carry the bags inside. She tore open a packet and shook fine carrot seeds into her palm. They were too delicate to use gloves. She took a pinch and sprinkled them into the trench. Brushing the soil over the seeds, she remembered how she used to stroke the tight curls of George’s hair. It was white now, what was left of it. Her fingertips gently patted down the soil. She finished planting the carrots and drew six rows for beets. They were sweetest when picked young, but she grew a few extra rows to use the greens.
“Carla!” She looked up to see George leaning out the bedroom window. “Where’s my little leather bag? You know, the one for shaving stuff.”
“Check the linen closet,” she yelled back. “Top shelf.”
She pictured a pile of clothes on the bed, and George looking at it all with no idea where to begin. She planted five rows and pushed the colorful markers into the soil. “Damn!” she heard him curse through the window. She chuckled and moved on to the squash.
Carla worked at a steady pace, humming softly and sometimes singing out loud. Hymns and spirituals mostly. She knew plenty of other songs, but this was a holy day; working in God’s earth, she felt like he was listening. The morning passed quickly, and Carla was surprised when she reached the back fence. She hadn’t even stopped to take a drink. She plopped the gloves on the ground and went into the house.
Carla poured a big glass of lemonade and made a thick sandwich on dark bread. She could hear George fumbling around upstairs. She brought her lunch out on the back stoop and sat in the sun. It was silly to be eating egg salad. After Sunday she’d have cartons of boiled eggs to deal with. But that’s what she had a taste for. She took small, satisfied bites and looked over her work.
The garden was coming along nicely. The root vegetables were all in. The mustard and collards. Short, round hills for the squash and cucumbers. She looked at the flats of feathery tomatoes and shiny pepper plants waiting to be planted. By July they would be tall and bushy, with red and green and yellow fruit hanging like Christmas lights.
And the pumpkins. She had never grown them before, but her daddy used to. George always said there wasn’t enough room and they didn’t serve any purpose. But this year Carla had decided she would try. If they did well she would invite the best neighborhood kids to come over and pick out their own pumpkins. She’d make hot cider and oatmeal cookies.
George’s voice interrupted her daydream. “What’s for lunch?”
She looked up behind her into the dark screen. “Egg salad.”
“You know I don’t like egg salad.”
“Then have salami,” she shrugged. “I bought some nice rye bread.” Carla ate the last bite of her sandwich and wiped the corners of her mouth. “How’s the packing coming?”
“Really?” She tried to cover up the surprise in her voice. “That’s good.” They both stared out at the garden. She could hear George’s dry fingertips running up and down the screen.
“What’s goin’ over there?”
Carla knew without asking that he meant the new section. “Pumpkins,” she said, turning to him with a smile. Before he could say any more she got up, brushed the crumbs off her lap and added, “Because I like them.” George nodded. She finished her lemonade. “Will you take these in for me?”
George opened the door and took her plate and glass. “Is there anything for dessert?”
“Finish those brownies in the breadbox.” She turned to head for the garden, then looked back. “Or pack them if you don’t want to finish them. You know I don’t like chocolate. ”
Carla filled the big steel watering can and carried it from the garage, plopping it down with a heavy liquid thud. She was eager to start putting the plants in. She picked up the gloves and noticed her hands. They still looked as smooth as a young girl’s. She put almond oil on them every night, just like her mama did, and what didn’t soak in she ran through her hair. George used to tell their friends that he slept with a nut, but in bed he told her that he loved the sweet smell. That was a long time ago. She pulled on the dirty gloves.
Carla picked up a flat of lanky beefsteaks and turned it over into her palm. She separated the baby plants, the tiny tangles of white roots coming apart with a soft ripping sound. Even though she always felt badly for doing this, she knew it had to be done to let each plant grow tall and sturdy.
She separated all the plants and set them in the garden to make sure there was enough room before digging the holes. Everything seemed to fit nicely. Spread out in the dark earth, the seedlings looked small and lonely, split apart from their cousins. But before long they’d be sprawling everywhere, and she’d have to tie them up with strips of rag. She couldn’t wait for the first tomato. She would eat it right there in the garden, warm from the sun, the juice dripping down her arm.
Carla dug six holes and filled them with water. Thin streams sparkled and pittered down, making a muddy soup. This was her favorite job when her daddy planted. She would pretend she was a magic princess, filling up lakes and ponds with rainwater from her silver pitcher. Sometimes she would still pretend. Carla dropped the plants in and wrapped the soil snugly around each one.
The screen door squealed behind her. She watched George go into the garage and come out with a few big, empty boxes. Carla planted two more flats and took the watering can back to the garage to fill it. A light mask of dirt and sweat hugged her face. She stuck the hose in the can and turned the water on with a sharp metallic groan. The seedlings looked so healthy this year. Still, she hoped the white flies wouldn’t bother them. She’d need to put in some marigolds to keep the bugs away.
She could hear George rummaging around in the house, probably packing the boxes. She had a good idea what he’d take. His books, his bowling trophies. That fool stuffed fish could certainly go with him. He’d probably take some photos, but she had all the negatives. Maybe the African violets. He was the only one who could make them bloom anyway.
Carla knew that she was supposed to feel sad or angry. But the feelings weren’t there, and she wasn’t going to create them to fit the occasion. She’d felt sadness and anger many times, and she wasn’t in the mood for either one today. She sensed something cold, and looked down to see water streaming out of the can, running under her feet and spreading over the lawn. She quickly turned off the faucet.
Carla picked up the little trowel and began digging. She worked steadily and methodically, singing as she went. She put in twenty-four plum tomatoes and sang “Rocka My Soul,” her voice solid and strong. The screen door squealed behind her a few times, but she didn’t look up. She filled the watering can and started on the peppers. She planted two rows of red bells and three of yellow fingers, her thoughts floating on the notes of “Amazing Grace.” After the yellow peppers went four rows of green bells, then a row of chiles. She got another can of water. The cherry tomatoes went in next. Last year they grew like grapes. She sang “Easter Parade” and “Mona Lisa.” Eight yellow tomatoes finished off the section. They were sweet as sugar and very pretty in a salad. She set the plants in firmly, wrapping her gloved hands around the thin stems and pressing into the dirt, her body swaying slightly to the music in her head.
Carla planted the last tomato and tickled its leaves. She kneeled back and looked at the neatly ordered plants. It felt like she was seeing some of them for the first time. Now all that was left were the pumpkins. She gathered up two hills of soil, stuck her finger in all around and dropped the plump white seeds into the holes. Carla loved to roast pumpkin seeds. She used to have George carve a dozen jack o’ lanterns every year. She told him they looked festive on the front porch, but she really just wanted to have plenty of seeds. They smelled warm and nutty just out of the oven, and she would munch happily while counted her Halloween goodies. Nancy
Carla patted and smoothed the hills and stuck in the last marker. She had drawn a grinning pumpkin on it. She lifted herself up and admired her work with a satisfied smile. Her pants were stained with grass and dirt, and this pleased her even more. In her opinion, a person hasn’t really been gardening unless they’re filthy afterwards. She heard the whump of a car trunk closing and turned to see George coming from the driveway. He had on his spring jacket, and she noticed him jiggle the keys in his pants pocket.
“Looks good,” he said, walking up to the garden. “Bet it’s gonna be a bumper crop.”
“Oh, you know I always have pretty good luck.”
“Greenest thumb in town.”
“Except for African violets.”
“Right,” George said, his eyes shifting quickly to the house and back to her. Carla could see they were gone from the window sill. George glanced at the two mounds by their feet and frowned. “Pumpkins, huh?” She nodded. He shook his head, but the corners of his mouth turned up in a tight smile.
Carla watched her husband. He looked slowly over the garden, his eyes narrowed and focused, as if trying to picture it in the height of summer. She found herself doing the same.
George cleared his throat. “Well, everything’s packed up,” he said, his gaze still fixed on the garden. “I’m gonna get on the road.”
Carla realized that she didn’t know where he was going, or how far. “Do you want me to make you a sandwich?” She paused. “For later?”
“Oh no, I’ll grab something.” They stood close together, gazing intently at the garden, floating their words out over the ground. “I did pack those brownies up.”
“Oh good,” Carla nodded. “That’s good.” She took in a long, slow breath. “Listen,” she said suddenly. The force of the word surprised her, and broke the spell of the garden. George turned, and she looked at him, not sure what she had meant to say. “Don’t drive too long after dark,” she said.
George smiled. “I won’t.”
“Okay.” Their eyes met fully. She leaned in to give him a kiss, and the brim of her hat erased the sun’s glare, creating a small, private shade. Carla remembered George pulling the white veil away from her face. She saw the same deep brown eyes, now soft and fragile with time. She could still taste that first married kiss, shared like a promise and sealed with applause. Carla placed her lips on his, and he gently kissed her back.
George squeezed her hand. “I’ll call you in a few days. Make sure you’re okay.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I know.” They held hands for a few moments, then stepped apart, letting the light fall back on their faces. “You take good care, Carla.”
“I expect you to do the same.”
George let go of her hand and walked to the car. Carla watched him drive away. She stood at the edge of the garden, looking at the space where his car had been, until she knew he was down the street and around the corner.
She went into the house, the door squealing behind her, and poured herself some lemonade. Her throat was parched and tight. George’s lunch dishes sat in the drainer, sparkling in the late afternoon sun.
Carla leaned against the counter and sipped her drink. She would take a long bath, and then just have a little soup for supper. She wasn’t very hungry.
She untied the bonnet and lay it on the table. There was so much to do. The egg hunt was tomorrow afternoon, and she had promised to color two dozen eggs. Then there was the church picnic after Easter service. She needed to make potato salad. And an angel food cake. An orange glaze might be a nice touch. She opened the utensil drawer, looking for the little grater to make orange zest. She rummaged about for a few seconds, then closed the drawer. She took a sip of her lemonade.
Carla realized there was a thick, sweet smell in the house. She set her glass down and followed the scent into the entry hall. On the narrow table stood a pot of pink hyacinths. Next to it was a spun sugar egg. Carla picked it up. Inside was a tiny bunny planting carrots. Suddenly the house seemed very big, and quiet. Her fingertips could feel every grain of sugar in the egg.
It hadn’t been a bad marriage. Not compared to some she knew. But it wasn’t made in heaven either. It was always a struggle. And they’d both been tired for a long time. She stared at the purple foil wrapped around the hyacinth pot. Light from the kitchen glinted off the diamond patterns etched into the foil. The bright sparkles hurt her eyes.
Carla put the egg back on the table, picked up the flower and walked out to the garden. With her hands, she dug a hole between the two pumpkin hills. She peeled back the foil on the pot, turned the plant into her palm and set the colorful stalks in the hole. She packed the soil firmly all around.
Back east, hyacinths only needed to be planted once. They came up every spring, without any more thought or effort. Bulbs didn’t grow as easily in . These might never come up again. But it was worth a try. California
Carla realized she had forgotten to give the garden its first drink of water. She put the tools in the garage and got the spray nozzle. She could feel the metal threads grating and merging as she screwed it on to the hose.
Her hand closed lightly on the trigger. The hose bucked, clearing out air bubbles, then settled into a fine hissing spray. Carla swept wide, watery arcs across the ordered ground. The smell of damp soil was refreshing. She flicked the hose upward for an instant and felt the tiny drops cascade over her, wetting her face.
Carla thought about the church picnic. She wondered if Henry Pearson would be there. He’d been giving her the eye for years. Maybe she would make him a lemon meringue pie. She was looking forward to the Sunday service. How she loved to sing the Easter hymns. They were so joyous and uplifting. And in a few days all the dark earth around her would be covered in tender green shoots.