Issues in Backyard Gardening
By Emily Franklin
There was something desperate about zucchinis. How they protruded from the stalks in such an obvious and forthright manner, demanding to be picked and huddled en masse in the empty, shallow basket Faulkner carries now, waiter-fashion on one hand. She’d convinced Zvi to organize raised beds for her, worried about growing anything directly in the yard soil because they’d found old gas tanks during the surveying and what with all of the environmental hazards of plants sucking up everything around them, it was just safer, Faulkner felt, to have a dedicated space.Zvi’s math ability only exacerbated his missing social skills, but they came in handy for measuring square beds, rigging up string on stakes evenly so the crook-necked squash had something to lean on and the zucchini plants had enough space to unfurl. Courgette, baby marrow, zucchini, however they were listed in the seed catalogues, their yield was too much.
“In terms of the quantity produced per plant, you have to admit these are impressive,” Faulkner says, thinking if there were a snapshot of her in the garden with her friend right now, it could be in a magazine – accompanied by a healthy recipe or an ad for some medication aimed at women.
“Are you falling prey to that stereotype?” Delilah asks. “Loony vegetable growers who hand out courgettes to everyone they’ve ever met?” She touches the soft nasturtiums Faulkner had planted as a companion plant for the zucchini. The flowers distracted aphids and flea beetles from bothering the squash, protected them just by growing there at the edge of the beds.
“For starters, I’m not… loony. Also, I could sell them, I guess, if no one was interested.” She could set up a farm stand by the driveway’s end; flag down people with her buckets of vegetables or just leave them unattended with a note and a pay box, trusting people not to take what wasn’t theirs.
“Is this one ready?” Delilah asks, parting two wide leaves with her foot.
Faulkner shakes her head. “Not quite.”
It is more than ready, gaudy even, but Faulkner thinks her daughter Charlotte should get to pick it later, paw through the garden at night the way she liked to, looking to see what had grown where when she wasn’t looking.
The zucchini’s yellow flowers started out innocently enough, delicate and soft. But if Faulkner didn’t pay attention, Charlotte would pick the blossoms, dip them in egg and bread crumbs and fry them up as a snack for Zvi as he graded papers or studied symbols and formulae that sat there silent on the page, speaking only to him. You had to wait for the squash to start growing before you picked the blossom or the thing would die, but Charlotte often forgot, so Faulkner kept a careful eye.
“I’ll have to make multiple loaves of bread,” she says to Delilah, who has stopped by under the pretense of wanting any extra vegetables but is really there to check up on her friend after the latest miscarriage. The last one, Zvi had told Delilah. Last. Not only because Faulkner is now forty-six and Zvi’s sperm are, as the doctor had said, low-quality, but because it isn’t good for them anymore, this high-speed chase toward fertilization, creation.
“I love your zucchini bread,” Delilah says, watching Faulkner crouch in the prickly green to twist a heavy, speckled green squash from the vine. Faulkner was careful to line the zucchini up, each one nestled in the basket, facing the same way, long or squat, mouthless alligators.
“The trick is applesauce, right?” Faulkner stands up, holding the basket with both arms circling it now as though it were something much larger. “You can’t just pour a whole bunch of oil and sugar in and hope for the best. The key is starting with the good stuff. The absolute freshest ingredients. And then you substitute applesauce for half the oil.” Faulkner’s coarse red hair blows into her eyes and she uses a forearm to wipe it away. “But I’ve told you this already, haven’t I?”
Delilah nods. Faulkner’s chest is still big, she notices, even though it had been a month or so. How long had it taken last time for her to get back to normal size? Two months, maybe. Delilah had been the one to find her, napping on the sun porch, unaware of the blood around her. “I have time,” Delilah tells her, “If you want me to help grate after this.”
Faulkner shrugs as though she could take it or leave it when in fact she knows she has to get Delilah out of here so the plan isn’t ruined. “You know, I think I’ll leave these for tonight. Charlotte can help after play practice.”
Delilah scripts a text to Zvi in her mind. She seems fine, actually. Not overdoing it. The fact that Faulkner was going to do errands was a good sign; productive, not avoiding being out in public for fear someone would ask when she was due, not knowing that she would never be due again. She looks better, hair neat enough, in her own shirt not one of Zvi’s, the buttons correctly aligned.
Inside the house, Faulkner puts the basket on the counter next to the phone. The landline barely rang anymore; she and Charlotte and Zvi all had their own phones, but there was the message pad ready and waiting, a symbol of yesteryear with its sturdy connected pages, While You were Out written in jaunty blue script on the top of each one. Faulkner sets the squash one by one into a dented metal colander in the sink, water sloshing over the tops.
Delilah crosses her arms. “I thought you were going to leave them for later?”
This startles Faulkner as though she’s been caught doing something tawdry and she can feel the blush creep across her neck onto her collarbone. “Oh, right! I just…” she notices the numbers scrawled on the message pad, and though she realizes they would be as mute to Delilah as Zvi’s discrete math is to her, she flips it over when she turns the water off.
Delilah’s phone buzzes and when she’s busy scrolling, Faulkner slips the message pad under a dishtowel and puts the wet zucchini on top. Faulkner imagines each green body with a tiny knitted newborn cap on top, the ones prisoners made when they weren’t pressing license plates. Yellow raisins for eyes, a slip of red pepper for the mouth. It was like other project sshe thought about doing with Charlotte but never did; Charlotte was like her father, existing less in her body and hands than tucked into a room in her mind, a place Faulkner couldn’t visit.
“Look,” Faulkner says to no one but herself though Delilah assumes it’s to her, “It’s a zucchini person dancing.” She makes the longest, slimmest squash stand upright, twisting her wrist so the thing can-cans across the counter.
Delilah texts while she nods. “It’s a regular zucchini kick-line. You should start a blog. Dances with Vegetables.”
Faulkner laughs. What if she did? What if, right then, she filmed herself and made a cast of characters, suave Mr. Leek with his smarmy goatee asking how may I be of assistance, dowdy Mrs. Eggplant calling all the way from Sweden with good news. She mentions these to Delilah who adds a few more and they banter back and forth, all the while Delilah relieved, her shoulders sagging because here is the offbeat friend she made when Charlotte and Lucinda were in pre-school, before the miscarriage madness took hold, back when having one child was really enough for both of them.
“You’re doing great,” Delilah smiles, car keys ringed on her thumb. “Is there anything else you need?”
Faulkner shakes her head as she stands on tiptoe to reach the grater on one of the open shelves. She needs a stool or to prop herself up on the counter for access but she refuses. Isn’t that just like her? So single-minded no matter what she was doing – writing a grant, making plum jam, darning Zvi’s socks even though no one darned anymore. So methodical in her actions, sure that if she breathed deeply and just kept at it she’d eventually get what she wanted.
Delilah remembers when the girls had an assignment in third grade. Describe someone at home. It was a grammar unit, adjectives, and while most kids had written fluffy, nice, cuddly for their pets or nice, smart, tall for their fathers, Charlotte had carefully printed freckled, determined, not really there. This last one the teacher had crossed out and written absent, which mortified Faulkner on Parent Night but she was visibly pregnant then so other parents around her gave knowing nods as though they understood. “Anyway, you seem good.”
“I am,” Faulkner says. “Really.”
She eyes the clock. The delivery guy would be here any moment and who knows what the package would look like. Would its shape reveal anything? Would some telling words be stamped on the box – refrigerate or keep cool, as if that were at all possible when something as ridiculous as sperm was on its way to her front door. How ridiculous was that? And even more absurd that Charlotte had been the one to show her the sites – proving that you really could Google and then order anything. And now, seventy-two hours later, medical supplies stored in Faulkner’s rubber rain boots, the little paisley creatures were en route, ready.
“You know,” Faulkner says, “There’s a new vegan place in the Highlands.”
Delilah claps her hands. “Great! Let’s go there. Right now. What do you say?”
What could she say? That she’d mentioned it hoping Delilah would scurry off to find tempeh or coconut-coated tofu and maybe even meet Zvi there? How perfect would that be? Her friend and her lousy-spermed husband meeting behind her back ostensibly to confer about Faulkner’s well-being but really wanting to go down on each other under the organic spread. “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly. I just…actually, now that I’m thinking of it…I could use a nap.”
“And lunch. A girl needs her lunch. You have to eat, Annie,” Delilah blurts out, almost angry. Faulkner glares at her. “Faulkner. Sorry. I slipped. How about I bring it back?”
Where was Zvi when she needed him to calculate time with distance with sperm delivery? “I have leftovers. Curried cauliflower soup.” Faulkner pauses. “But not a huge amount,” she adds just in case it sounds like she means you stay here when in fact she is close to pushing Delilah through the closed screen door, can actually imagine the sound it would make, her friend’s face tearing through the weak metal mesh.
“Fine. If you don’t want me here, just say,” Delilah sighs.
Maybe Faulkner wasn’t doing as well as she’d thought. Look at the frantic way she was lining up the smaller zucchini. Or was she organizing them by size, littlest to big? The largest one really did look like an overweight man, a grandfather with pants jacked up way over his belly.
One yellow squash tumbles onto the floor and Delilah bends down for it, noting for the first time that Annie has socks on. Had she worn them outside? She still thought of Faulkner as Annie though she’d gone to her middle name a few years back after the particularly far-along pregnancy that had ended with a hospital stay. “It just suits me better,” Faulkner had explained in a whisper at Charlotte’s play. They’d all gone, sat through nearly three hours of A Midsummer Night’s Dream even though Charlotte wasn’t on stage. Running the lightboard was just as important she’d explained to her mother, everyone depends on you.
“Don’t be silly!” Faulkner keeps the panic from her voice by listing all the items she’ll make from what she picked. Cranberry-zucchini loaf, zucchini-cheddar beer bread, miniature muffins patted with brown sugar streusel. That was the best part of gardening, having all of it brought inside when it started from nothing, just tiny flecks in your palm. So much possibility right there in the sink or displayed in the yellow and white striped bowl, snug against the fridge.
“I’m grateful, Delilah, really,” Faulkner says and it comes out in a whisper. “It’s just, with Zvi’s end of term stuff and taking Charlotte back and forth to practice and the…dog? Did I tell you we’re thinking of getting a rescue?”
Finally, she’s getting somewhere. Delilah cranes her neck forward. “I knew it. Haven’t I been saying for years? Pets are companions. They seriously are.” Delilah jingles the car keys and takes a few tentative steps toward the door. “Wow. How fun. And it’s the right time of year for it.”
Why did people always say that? Was there a correct season for puppies or babies or quitting your job or selling your house or anything? But Faulkner nods to display her enthusiasm. “Yes. Easy to train outside.”
“Although…” Delilah’s phone sounds again. “If it’s a rescue it might already be trained.”
Delilah unwinds her thoughts, looking not just at Faulkner’s busy hands, but also checking around the kitchen for anything amiss. Wasn’t that what Zvi had said, just a general feeling that things were out of place? As though Faulkner were a closet or a silverware drawer sorted by someone unfamiliar with where everything went? “Nicola Battersby got a nine-month old lab-Rotty mix and…well, let’s just say it didn’t end happily.”
“Meaning?” Faulkner questions. Jesus would this woman ever leave? How could she force her? Or should she tie her to one of the high-backed kitchen chairs? Hold her hostage and insist she sample every single baked good made from this morning’s haul?
“Meaning you don’t know what you’re getting. That’s the thing about these shelter dogs. And you have Charlotte.”
Faulkner’s breath is fast, her fingers shaking as she steadies the grater inside a large Tupperware container where she’ll store the zucchini. She can hear the clock ticking, the sprinkler hissing at her from outside, Delilah’s phone buzzing again.
Delilah meets her friend’s gaze and gives her a toothless smile as though they’d met a long time ago and couldn’t for the life of them remember where. Faulkner’s arms are in turnstile position, encouraging her friend to exit.
Delilah gives a quick kiss that lands near Faulkner’s ear, the smell of her vanilla shampoo sad and overly sweet, and walks slowly to the door. Faulkner busies herself with the zucchini, getting out muffin tins and milk, pulling the bluff along until Delilah is safely outside and in the driveway near her minivan.
Faulkner’s just about to put the milk away and clean up her pretense when she hears it – the crunch of wheels on the crushed shell driveway.
Her stomach clenches and she grins, bolting to the side door to meet the truck halfway. She runs outside, forgetting that the sprinkler is on, and sops through the wet grass to the sharp broken shells only to find that the truck is pulling away. Frantic now, and running, Faulkner looks to see if the driver has left a box anywhere. Or a tube. It could be a tube of sperm sheathed in a bigger tube. Surely not an envelope?
But the front of the house is bare. The side of the house has nothing. Ahead on the road, Delilah, in her car, not even looking back as Faulkner limp-runs to the end of the driveway.
Faulkner knows it’s over. That Delilah will somehow have talked her way into intercepting the package. That Zvi might already have found the syringes. That Charlotte, bless her heart, probably hadn’t told anybody anything but would in a court of law because she was just that patriotic. And Charlotte would have to supply details; how they would have done it at night, in the bathroom. One leg propped up on the tub. Made it clinical. And how Charlotte thought this might solve everything, make her mother happy or maybe love her more. Just to do this for her. After all, hadn’t Faulkner explained it that way? You’ll give this to me like I gave life to you. It had made sense then in the dark of the theatre after practice one day, the lightboard spaceship-wide around them, transporting them to a planet where it was natural for a teenage girl to carry a child for her mother.
Faulkner goes back to the kitchen, looks at the milk sweating in its glass bottle. As she stands there, her thick cotton socks damp with regret, she sees the mess of vegetables for what they are. Not characters or potential bread products to be tucked into lunches for children she doesn’t have, but mute green exclamation points, each one clean and ready to be made into something else entirely.
Emily Franklin’s work has been published in the New York Times, Mississippi Review, Monkeybicycle, Word Riot, Post Road, featured on National Public Radio, and long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.