A Man’s Yard

published in

A TulipTree Anthology

The WINNER of the Award for PASSION

by Robert Michael Oliver

Mr. Cabot knew that eventually he would succumb, as all mortals do, to entropy. What he did not yet perceive is the terrible swiftness with which randomness overwhelms.

As a high school science teacher—9th grade Biology, AP Biology, Senior Seminar: Genetics—he valued his commitment to facts and hypotheses. Nature, he sometimes joked, was his only god.

That, and his yards—front yard, back yard, and even his two narrow side yards—were manifestly his divinity. Or rather, because the relationship between a god and its believer is one of identification, he was their god, as in their designer, their maker, their steward. The yards were his expression of divinity and, thus, the object of his worship.

Every morning before heading off to work, Cabot inspected his yards. His journey was prescribed. He slid the backdoor open and stepped onto the 8’ by 10’ concrete patio, the same patio on which his down-the-street neighbor, Elaine, would flirt with him when she and her husband Ralph came to dinner twice a month— second and fourth Wednesdays. Elaine flirted despite the fact that Ralph complained that his wife should stop teasing “poor Cabot” (he insisted on being called “Cabot” and not “Edwin”—his birth name—because, he asserted “Edwin” sounded too aristocratic even though one could easily argue that “Cabot” sounded even more aristocratic, thus demonstrating that, outside the field of biology, Cabot’s reasoning was flawed). In fact, that’s precisely the teasing Elaine engaged in, calling Cabot “Edwin” while giggling and stroking the hairs on his forearm with the tips of her cerise fingernails, an action that sent Cabot’s brain steamrolling into fantasies about stroking Elaine’s hairs, not just on her forearms but in all sorts of nether places. Meanwhile, Ralph tapped her arm and whined, “Now, you stop teasing poor Cabot. You’re embarrassing him.”

Recently, Elaine also teased “poor Cabot” about his patio, about how dull and concrete it looked, in stark contrast to the yards that surrounded it. He had created those, she said, “with pizazz and flourish,” making sure that their eruptions of color and shape were “year-round spectacular.” Cabot did not mind this teasing; he considered it good natured fun. This teasing of his patio was punctuated, however, not by a tickling of his forearm hairs, but by a playful poking of his nose, the tip of it. Every morning now, as Cabot started his daily inspection of his yards by stepping onto the pale, concrete rectangle that was his patio, he was accompanied by an image of Elaine being poked, not playfully on the tip of her nose, but passionately in those previously mentioned nether regions.

This morning was no different. Cabot shook the image of a swooning Elaine from his consciousness and replaced it with a video of mitosis, the video he used in his 9th grade biology class’s unit on cell reproduction. A microscopic cell grew and then separated into two cells with identical DNA structures, demonstrating in detail the miracle of nature. Each time Cabot viewed the clip, he experienced reverence: the only thrill that rivalled the excitement he experienced imagining Elaine being poked by no one but himself.

As he began his inspection, Cabot turned the mitosis video on repeat, restarting it each time an image of Elaine’s lips puckered in his mind.  He strode down the irregular, broken bluestone pathway that traveled from the patio out to the left corner of the backyard where the Alpine limestone birdbath dominated the scene. It stood next to the purple Sensation Lilac bush, which he had planted as a shelter for the blue jays before taking their dips. In two weeks, he would plant his traditional three sunflowers, which his purple finches and cardinals enjoyed. In the past, he had planted American Giants. This year, he elected to go with a bit of color, so Little Beckas it was. Those sunflower seedlings he was cultivating in his garage hothouse under grow lights.

“Damn!” Cabot cursed under his breath, before turning and walking back up the bluestone pathway and onto the patio to turn on the faucet. He grabbed the light green hose with the multifaceted sprayer attachment and returned to the birdbath so that he could refresh its water, a ritual he repeated every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Ever since Elaine had poked his nose, forgetfulness had plagued him however, a consequence that he refused to acknowledge. He blamed his recent failures to anticipate a task either on his growing old, even though he was only 41, or on an annoying child at school who caused him to fret while consuming his bowl of Corn Pops and lactose free milk, another ritual Cabot engaged in with conviction.

To the right of the Purple Sensation lay Flower Bed #1, constructed exactly as he had diagrammed it six years earlier. The blueprints of his gardens, which hung in his home office, would “testify to this factoid, if asked,” a line Cabot repeated when taking visitors on a tour of his gardens during the Spring Garden Festival, a yearly neighborhood event he had been selected for five years running. “If one believes in personification, that is,” Cabot would add giddily, a figure-of-speech joke that usually drew a laugh from one of the tour-takers, three or four seconds after being made.

Cabot bent down and pulled the tuff of a dandelion he saw pushing its way through last year’s unpainted mulch. He hated the colored chips, especially the red ones, because they appeared as if stolen from an amateur painter’s latest landscape. When he planted the bed six years ago, he had attempted to rid it permanently of dandelions, digging two feet into the hard dirt and pulling out the vestiges of their infamous tap roots. Obviously, he had failed. Now, he was forced to resort to a non-systemic approach to the extermination of unwanted guests: Eternal Vigilance.

He scanned the rest of the bed for intruders. The flowers had not yet made an entrance, though several were close to the door. Planted on opposite ends of the bed were two clusters of Trumpet Major Daffodils—“not to be confused with those pesky dandelions” (another quip he used on his yearly garden tour). They were the closest to blooming while not far behind were two rows of Elegant Lady Tulips. Their spectacular blush pink blossoms would obscure any sign of the Trumpets having withered. On the left side of the bed, a sea of gorgeous blue Grape Hyacinths would arrive thereafter. On the right side, however, Cabot had elected to go with a sea of purple. In the center of the bed and needing no introduction, a lavender PJM Rhododendron was but weeks away from announcing the fact that it would always be King of the Bed, another joke he used on his garden tours but most boisterously last year when Elaine had taken it.

Finding no other impostors at the king’s ball, Cabot followed the path that curved around the flowerbed, which was bordered by white, bluish gray and sometimes reddish river rocks. He had gathered the first 400 pounds of these rocks by hand, taking him a half-dozen trips to the Great Falls and Mather Gorge area of the Potomac River. He bought the last 230 pounds from Home Depot, even though he detested the idea, but a park officer had caught him stealing park property. The rocks, you see, were no longer subjects of nature’s province but of the State, an idea that, as he attempted to explain to the female officer, was contrary to natural law, not the kind purported by the Catholic Church, although he didn’t know if the Catholic Fathers had an opinion on State ownership of rocks. His argument failed to convince the woman that the law violated the natural order. She gave him a ticket and told him that a second offense would be “far more draconian,” her red lips and tongue articulating “draconian” with relish. Cabot thanked the officer for her “literate” warning and went on his way.

Flower Bed #2 began just after the teak pergola, which he had constructed himself (the blueprints were hung next to his flower bed designs). It dominated the right corner of his back yard. From there, the long, narrow bed traveled the length of his side yard from back to front, or at least that had been Cabot’s original intent. First, he swept twigs out of the pergola. he kept a hand broom hung on the beam closest to the house for such purposes. Then, he cleaned the far-right corner of webs. He spent a minute looking for the web’s maker. “It’s best to kill the buggers or they’ll build a new trap by morning,” he said to himself. He found no spider, but he did find a cluster of squirrel droppings under the redwood slab coffee table in the pergola’s center. Looking for the dust pan, he realized he had used it yesterday to clean up cat feces in Flower Bed #4, which was located in the front yard, right corner, nearest the street. Instead of returning the pan to the pergola’s beam where it belonged, he had left it in the garage because he had been running late and needed to get to work. “No excuses,” he muttered as he hustled toward his garage to retrieve the pan that he pictured resting on the table next to his grow lights.

“Objects need to be returned to their proper places. Otherwise, all hell breaks loose.”

At the pergola, Cabot swept up the squirrel droppings, or what he had thought were squirrel droppings. Now, they seemed a bit large for a squirrel. Might they be the droppings of a large rat? A thought he banished from his head out of primal fear. Nevertheless, images of a large rat traipsing about his pergola and, then, lounging in one of his portable Star Gaze Recliners sent chills rippling in his abdomen. Being portable, he could take the Star Gazers into his yard’s open space on clear nights, as he did last Saturday evening when Elaine broke protocol and visited him while Ralph was at an investors’ conference in Omaha.

She and Cabot had spent hours peering into the night sky, taking turns pointing out constellations. After naming all the constellations they knew, they made up patterns and their accompanying myths with exuberance. Their creative playfulness, something which Cabot rarely engaged in, was fueled by two bottles of his favorite wine, a Chardonnay by Rombauer Carneros. This playfulness ended with a kiss, on the lips, “a solid ten seconds,” Cabot later recalled. In reality, the kiss had only lasted two seconds.  

After the kiss, Elaine excused herself, telling Cabot that she had to check on Ernie, her Schnauzer. “He gets so cranky when he’s left alone,” she exclaimed as she hustled up the rust-colored brick path along the right side of the house to the street. She did not even say good-bye as Cabot’s lips tingled with excitement and his fingers, which only seconds earlier had slid along the silk of her flower-print blouse, pulsed with her breath. Irresistibly, he reached to caress those shoulder blades that were no longer there.

“No!” he blurted out before once again playing the mitosis video in his head. He hustled across the lawn to the ugly county garbage bin that was tucked behind the Lacecap Hydrangea whose fertile purple buds had not yet appeared. He lifted the lid and dumped both the droppings and the dust pan into the can. He was halfway across the lawn to inspect Flower Bed #2 before he realized what he had done.

“Damn!” he muttered louder than before. He turned back to retrieve the pan, checking his watch as he walked. I’ve five minutes, he thought, before I’ll be late for work, and I can’t afford to be late again. Mr. Wicks has reprimanded me twice in the last week.

Cabot picked up his pace, something that he hated to do because it reinforced the obvious: he had failed to plan out his activities correctly, not taking into account the possibility of error or difficulty.

From Flower Bed #2, he pulled three wild violets that, since yesterday, had dared to stick their crowns above the mulch. Then, he pulled a fourth. Only afterwards did he realize that, in his haste—again something he hated to acknowledge—he had pulled an emerging Tiger Lily that had squeezed its top above the ground.

“No!” he exclaimed, hand trembling with frustration. “No, no, no!” He attempted to breathe, in and out. “One, two, three. I’ve got to do better. I’ve got to do better. I’ve got to do better.”

“Are you okay?” his next-door neighbor Mrs. Watson asked, peeking her nose through the fence just to the right of “Trellis C” as labelled on Cabot’s blueprint. He had pruned the President Clematis of its dead and weak stems three weeks earlier, thus making room for Watson’s face, topped with its early morning mop of red hair. The Clematis’s blue flowers were not yet there to wreath that mop in splendor.

“I’m fine,” Cabot grunted.

“Well, you don’t sound fine. You sound like my husband did before he went into the hospital last fall.”

“I’m not your husband. First of all, I’m about 150 pounds lighter.”

“Say what you want, Edwin.” Watson refused to call him “Cabot”. “You’re stressed, and stress will send you to the hospital quicker than an ambulance.”

Cabot did not respond to Mrs. Watson. He had never forgiven her—her husband really—for not chopping down the Silver Maple that stood just on their side of the border between their yards. The maple’s root system had caused Cabot to change his design for Flower Bed #2, which he had intended to travel the full length of the yard. Instead, dozens of ugly roots forced him to end the bed and put in fescue grass where the rest of the yard had Kentucky Blue. As soon as he saw the fescue, his mistake became apparent. So he dug it up. He abhorred the idea of ground cover on principle because the purpose of it was to cover unsightly areas. Cabot’s goal was to have no unsightly areas. Hence, he should never need ground cover. Additionally, ground cover, like wearing a hat indoors, only tells spectators that you have something unsightly to see. Thus, the Watsons’ decision not to chop down their Silver Maple not only made his original design unfeasible but also made this unsightly area in his yard unavoidably noticeable.  

Sure, he had done his best to make things seem intentional. After getting rid of the fescue, he put in a half-circle of Mexican Beach Pebbles around the roots, bordered by some of his left-over river rocks, although he did sneak into Mather Gorge one Sunday morning just as it opened and rescued fifty pounds of rocks from State control. In the center of that display, which covered the roots, he installed a Zodiac Brass Sundial.

On the night of the kiss, he confessed this whole affair to Elaine, ending his story with the fact that in the past the annual Garden Festival’s selection committee had not taken off points for this “root monstrosity” when they were evaluating his yard and garden. She chimed in with a “I think you’ve done a marvelous job with that sundial arrangement.”

“You don’t understand,” Cabot corrected her. “The fact that they didn’t take off points was annoying, but this year, this new committee with their new ideas awarded me additional points, ‘for creativity’ of all things. When did ‘creativity’ become the act of hiding ugly roots?” Not giving Elaine the opportunity to respond, he admitted he had lost all respect for the committee’s integrity, and he might withdraw his entry into next year’s event.  

Elaine attempted to cheer him up. “Why not reward creativity? When you’ve got a problem and you come up with an idea to make it look beautiful, that’s good, isn’t it?”

“Oh, Elaine, not you too,” Cabot crowed. “What is happening to our society? Problems are meant to be confronted and solved, not creatively covered up, which is what I did.”

When she saw that Cabot’s mood had slipped into a depressing stare, she stopped talking. She rose from her Star Gazer and knelt beside him.

He looked at her longingly. “When it comes to the relationship between me and my yards, external praise, or critique for that matter, is meaningless, or next to meaningless. My own praise and critique are all that matters, and I know that my side yard is a dismal failure.”

Then Elaine tickled the hairs on his forearm once again. “Edwin, I love it when you’re self-deprecating.”

Cabot’s mind instantly flooded with images of her being tickled, on her forearms, on her neck, on the bottoms of her feet, up her calves to the top of her thigh; and, then, advancing forward, he stretched across the Star Gazer’s armrest and kissed her, full on the lips, passionately, for the aforementioned two-seconds that, if Elaine had not broken it off, would have lasted for the ten seconds Cabot remembered. A startled Elaine, not knowing how to respond in that split second, did not pull away. Yet, when she felt the tip of Cabot’s tongue wiggle against her lips, attempting to breach them and reach her mouth, she jerked back. She stood up. She looked at Cabot. Her mind filled with an image of her own pet Schnauzer slobbering her face and, as a result, providing her with an excuse for a hasty exit.

“Stubborn prick,” Cabot heard Mrs. Watson mutter as she retreated from her hole in the President Clematis. Cabot listened to her clip-clap along her concrete sidewalk in her open-toed bedroom slippers. He smirked as she made her way to the tool shed, prefab Home Depot, to retrieve the hedge clippers.

“To mutilate her boxwood,” he jabbed one final time, before, in a panic, he looked at his watch. Then, he envisioned his briefcase by the front door, packed and clipped shut as it was every evening before he went into the bathroom to brush his teeth and go to sleep.

“I’ve got to go! But I haven’t finished my rounds.” He glanced at Flower Bed #3 that was just to the right of his driveway. “The weeds. They’ll take over.”

Cabot went back and forth between briefcase and weeds. When he saw his case waiting by the door, the muscles in his right leg twitched. When he saw the weeds swarming his Limelight Petunias (Flower Bed #3’s number 1 resident), his left shuddered in alarm. Grimacing, he chose work over his god.

He took a step toward his used Alfa Romeo parked in the driveway. Yes, he knew that he could not afford the payments, not on a teacher’s salary and not with house payments and the expense of keeping his yards in full splendor, but he had meant to do something special on his fortieth birthday, so he splurged. Then, he remembered his briefcase and hurried into the house via the patio door which he had left unlocked.

After picking up his briefcase, he touched the front door knob. “The water!” he shouted. “I left the water running at the faucet.”

He hurried back out onto the backyard patio and turned the water off. As he pulled in the hose, staring blankly at the green snake as it retracked through the grass, an image of Elaine rushed into his head. She stood by the left, back corner of the house in jogging shorts. The sweat streamed down her neck drenching the tight, light blue tank top that clung to her breasts. The top’s fabric reached toward her bellybutton but had insufficient material to hide it and its diamond studded button. She smiled that effervescent smile he so adored. He pulled in another loop of hose and draped it over his crooked arm, hypnotized by the mirage beaming in front of him.

“I saw your car and thought I’d say hello,” Elaine said, startling Cabot out of his hallucination. He stared in disbelief: an eternity having passed between their kiss on Saturday and his being late for work on Tuesday.

“Oh,” he gulped. “You’re real.”

“I know you don’t like being surprised. I don’t know why—” She turned to go.

“No! Don’t!” Cabot stopped her.

“You have to get to work, and you keep a tight schedule. It was inconsiderate of me to—”

“I do,” he said. “I mean, I don’t. I mean. I love you.”

Elaine’s jaw dropped a peg. “What?”

No longer pulling in the hose, Cabot started to repeat his declaration. “I love—”

“No!” She cut him off, the fingers of her hands spread wide and forming two urgent stop signs. “You don’t! You can’t!”

“I can’t?”

“That’s right. You can’t love me. It is forbidden.”

“Don’t you want—” Cabot began to ask.

Again, Elaine cut the stammering Cabot off. “No, I absolutely don’t want anything like that. I’m married to Ralph, Edwin. Ralph, that man who comes over with me every time I come over to visit you, remember him?

“But last Saturday—.”

“That was a mistake.” Her hands punctuated her words like flashing stop signs.

“A mistake…” Cabot mumbled as she continued her warning.

Suddenly, Elaine’s vehemence took a turn toward doubt. “But everything in my life is a mistake. So how would you know? Yes, coming here last Saturday was a mistake. I knew it before I came, and I knew it after I had come. Hell, I knew it was a mistake while I was here. Constellations? Really. And trying to console you about your stupid tree roots and having to put in a sundial. Or listening to you complain about car payments when you should never have bought such a car in the first place. It was a mistake not telling you not to buy such a stupid car. What? Are you going through a mid-life crisis and need to feel sexy when you drive into the school’s parking lot in the morning? It’s not you! Yes, I flirt with you. It’s fun. You’re cute when you’re flabbergasted. But that was a mistake even if I’ve been flirting with you the way a cat flirts with a mouse. To entertain myself. Not only is it a mistake but it’s also horrible. I thought you were safe. I thought you were a-sexual, but I should have known better. What a-sexual forty-something male buys a sports car? But then my marriage is a joke. Yes, a joke and also a mistake, and you can’t get any worse than that. Ralph and I don’t even talk to each other. For years. We’ve both been having affairs. He stayed two extra days in Omaha. He’s there now. It’s his associate at the firm. Five years his junior and built like that model—what’s her name—Megan Fox, but twice as smart. He’s probably banging her brains out right now.”

At that moment, Elaine checked her watch. “No, not right now. Right now, they’re both asleep. That’s because of the time difference but give them another hour and you’ll know exactly what they are doing. They’ll be banging each other’s brains out, which doesn’t mean that late last night they weren’t banging—you guessed it—each other’s brains out. You get the picture! But Ralph and I haven’t banged each other’s brains out for well over a year. And that’s being generous, the ‘banging’ part and the ‘each other’s brains out’ part. Both parts. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Absent the banging and the brains’ part, I was getting sick of his grunting and groaning. I was tired of pretending. So, I’m happy. Anyway, Alonzo down at Sweet Fitness is all I need these days. He’s grade A at the banging part, and I’d give him a C+ at the brains part but that’s on me. I’m distracted, always distracted.”

Cabot stood there with lips open, mind racing but tongue lying flaccid on the floor of his mouth. He threw the hose onto the ground and strode right up to Elaine, his face but inches from her. She did not move, as if she were daring him to collide into her.

He grabbed the sides of her head and brought his lips to hers, kissing her passionately. She did not resist. In fact, she kissed him back, and their tongues danced like cobras to a charmer’s flute song. Encouraged by the response, Cabot’s hands dove down Elaine’s sweaty back, pausing only momentarily before plunging beneath the fabric of her jogging shorts.

She gasped and pushed Cabot away, lips trembling, eyes pulsing.

“No! This is impossible.” She suddenly sounded like a woman who had just driven her car off the road and was now watching it sink into a lake. “Totally impossible! Do you hear me?”

Cabot took hold of her waist and pulled her close to him.  

“No!” she said, grabbing his hands and freeing herself. “Impossible!”

“I can be both the banging and the brain’s part. That’s me. Both parts!”

“You don’t understand.” She did her best to avoid Cabot’s eyes that were focused like laser beams on her retinas.

He grasped her shoulders. “Then tell me! Tell me what I don’t understand.”

Elaine stared at the vibrant cluster of yellow, orange, and violet Jolly Joker Pansies that had erupted into bloom the week before in Flower Bed #5. A Hairy Bittercrest was nestled amongst them. “You have weeds in your pansies.”

“I don’t care about the weeds,” he screamed. “Explain to me what I don’t understand.” He turned her face towards his. “I want to hear it.”

She swallowed hard and summoned her courage. “It’s your patio. It’s horrible. It’s ugly. I’ve always thought so, but I was willing to overlook it and not tell you. Then, on Saturday, after you went on and on about tree roots and how covering them up was unforgiveable, I still wanted to forgive you, but you don’t think twice about a patio that is as grey and concrete as a prison. I… I can’t… I can’t accept the contradiction. I can’t go through with this. I wanted to, and a part of me still wants to, but – no! It’s impossible. Now, it’s impossible.”

She grew more agitated with each pronouncement. “No! I can’t have an affair with a man who has that kind of blind spot. It’s obscene. Do you hear me? Obscene!”

Exhausted, Elaine took a step back. “I’m sorry I hurt you, but rest assured. You hurt me as well, Edwin, and I will never forgive you.” Then, she jogged away.

When she reached the street, she said “Hello” to Mrs. Watson who had dragged her blue county recycling container onto the street for pickup later that day. Mrs. Watson warned her about jogging in an outfit “like that.” Elaine thanked her for her advice before telling her, with breasts thrust out, to mind her own business.

As Elaine jogged out of sight, Cabot’s hands flexed between spread and fist, spread and fist. “Of course who wouldn’t be upset by my patio? But I wanted to finish my yards first.”

He turned toward his Lady in Red rose bush that was the “Queen of Flower Bed #5—another remark he shared with his Festival visitors, staring directly at Elaine when she was on the tour. Its winter death was losing its war against a spring rebirth: tiny green buds squeezed through the epidermis of the hard stems. Cabot reached out and grabbed the bush by two of its thickest stalks. The thorns dug into his palms and fingers. He squeezed tighter, and blood began to trickle down his wrists before dripping onto the mulch.

As he pulled up on the stalks, Cabot let out a roar that frightened Mrs. Watson as she picked up an empty Coors can from the gutter, which probably a neighborhood teenager had thrown out of his parents’ Ford Rover the night before. The Lady refused to give up her bed, however; so Cabot pulled again, roaring twice as loudly, the muscles in his neck bulging as the absent red of the bush rushed into his cheeks and forehead. Finally, on the third attempt, the Lady’s roots rip from the soil.

Regaining his balance, Cabot stood there like a triumphant general holding before him the severed head of his enemy. Eyes blazing, he heaved the Queen into the air as high as he could muster. She flipped several times before crashing into the Alpine limestone birdbath with a bang, knocking the bath off its pedestal, splashing its water like a bomb.

Over the next 28 minutes and 42 seconds, Cabot assaulted his yards. He performed this task in a manner  opposite to the manner he had constructed his divine manifestation. He went from flower bed to flower bed, pulling out a trellis here, a handful of Trumpet Majors there, and then tossing them like babies in swaddling clothes into the air, their final destiny an exploding piles of roots, leaves, and stems. When he finished, the yards pockmarked with the corpses of five generations of splendor, even the residents of Iraq’s Fallujah would have thanked Allah for not having lived through that carnage.

After the annihilation was complete, Cabot sat in a lawn chair on his grey patio and surveyed his work. He knew that his principle, Mr. Wicks, would soon call, inquiring about his whereabouts. And he knew what he would say to him. He would inform him that his whereabouts were unknown. Mr. Wicks, of course, would say that he didn’t understand what that meant.

“How can your whereabouts be unknown, Mr. Cabot? You’re wherever you are.”

And Cabot would smirk that Mona Lisa smirk and say: “I am where all mortals eventually arrive. I’m nowhere.”

Mr. Wicks would wait a moment, trying to process the answer. Then, he would ask: “Does that mean you’re not coming into work this morning?”

Cabot would remain silent until Mr. Wicks hung up the phone.

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