by J.M. Kessler
When the landlord said that the rent included lawncare, Id assumed
that it also included a lawn.
To be fair, there was a small square of lawn in the front. But a paved
walkway ran down one side of the house, and the other side was just a
plot of dirt with four clumps of grass wilting under the blazing summer
sun. It looked even more forlorn next to the perfect lawn of the neighboring
house, which itself was bordered by a well-tended display of azaleas,
rhododendrons, and some lilies my favorite flower - that hadnt
yet bloomed. Id have some work to do keeping up with the neighbor.
But I was in a spot and agreed to take the place, a 992 square-foot house.
A cute house. And it was even closer to the library, so now I could walk
to work, if I could stand the heat. Well, after learning from my husband
that hed been having an affair, filing for divorce, and then moving
out of my home so his young pregnant girlfriend could move in
I could take the heat.
The movers had delivered all the furniture and heavy boxes. With that
finished, I just had my car to unload. My neighbor didnt come outside
until I was just slamming the car door shut. She came down her front walk
with a gracious smile and waving an arm in self-defeat.
Oh, I was coming out to give you a hand. Her sandals slapped
against the sidewalk as she walked over to me at the curb, her auburn
hair radiant in the sun. Hi. Im Phyllis.
Hi, Phyllis. Im Brenda. I adjusted the box and extended
my hand as much as I could, grateful that the grey roots of my dusty brown
hair were hidden beneath the bandana Id tied around my head.
Oh, she said with a giggle, and shook my fingers. I guessed
her to be in her late fifties, my age, which I was feeling a lot more
today than Phyllis was. She had a perky face that matched her voice, both
of which grew perkier when she smiled. At least let me get the front
door for you. She walked ahead of me. This summer has been
so hot, its a wonder that dirt doesnt just up and blow away.
Theres really nothing you can do with it. She shook her head
at the dried-up ground.
Your flowers look beautiful, I commented.
Oh, thank you! They get watered by the sprinkler system every morning.
I just love flower beds around a house.
I made my way past Phyllis as she held the door, and then dropped the
box on the loveseat. Thanks, I sighed.
Its really a cute place, she said looking around. Really
charming. So, is it just you and your husband?
I had dreaded the question. I gave her a tight-lipped grin. No.
Discomfort flashed in her eyes and I noticed a quick catch in her breath
before she replied. Oh. I see.
Perhaps she disapproved of divorce. I didnt know why, but it made
me nervous. I shifted my weight and played absently at a chipped fingernail.
Then her face lit up in a smile again and she continued the private welcoming
This is a wonderful neighborhood, easy to get around, lots of shops,
friendly people. Im sure youll be very happy here once you
get settled in. Which you probably want to get started on right away,
so I wont be a bother. I just wanted to say welcome, Brenda. Its
nice to have you for a neighbor. She stopped at the door. If
I can do anything for you, just let me know.
Thank you, Phyllis, I appreciate that.
And I really did. I wasnt at my best that day, for quite a few days,
but it was nice to be on a first-name basis with someone when you moved
to a new place.
I spent the day unpacking essentials; dishes, bedding, bath salts, wine.
I got takeaway for dinner from the Korean place nearby, then later settled
into a soothing bath illuminated by a scented candle that Id made
years ago for an anniversary.
Hed said it was too pretty to burn.
At 7:30 the next morning, I was back from a light jog around the neighborhood
when I spotted a hose on the side of the house. I walked over to the bone-dry
dirt, wishing I could kick my shoes off and walk barefoot in a long stretch
of grass, when I noticed an area that looked as though someone had taken
a shovel to it at one point, then gave up. Whatever their intention, it
undoubtedly proved harder work than expected. I turned to get the hose.
At the very least, wet dirt looked better than dry dirt. And if nothing
came of it, the lot would make a good graveyard display in October.
Within minutes, Phyllis had her head out the kitchen window.
I thought maybe it started raining, she said with a laugh.
She looked at the damp dirt, unsure of what to make of it. Uh, are
you planning on growing something?
I shrugged. Maybe. Id like to keep what little grass there
Oh, sure. She nodded, but seemed distracted by doubt. Then
she smiled suddenly. Did you get yourself settled in?
Mostly. Still a few things to unpack.
Oh, I know, the first weeks the hardest. Do you like strawberries?
Uh, yes, I do.
Good. Ive got some extra, Ill bring them by later on.
Looks good! she said with a nod to the dirt, then disappeared from
When I returned from work, Phyllis stopped by to deliver a stunning strawberry
tart, the kind that gets photographed for magazine covers, the kind people
always say looks too pretty to eat. My mother-in-law had said that about
the ginger-peach preserves Id made for her once. Two years later
they were still sitting on her kitchen windowsill and Id wondered
if she would ever know how delicious they were.
I tore into the tart with a fork after dinner.
Phyllis was right, the first week was hard, and not just on my muscles
from all the arranging and rearranging of furniture. I was also rearranging
a lifetime of memories.
Late one night, I was going through photographs, letters, souvenirs from
places wed visited, and the pain, sorrow, and bitterness they now
brought to the cliché ending of my marriage, when I came across
sightseeing brochures from a librarians conference Id attended
many years ago. The one where Id had an affair.
I was stunned by the memory. The moral high ground Id been riding
caved in under me and my face flushed hard. Oh, God, I whispered.
It had been a meaningless, drunken slip-up Id no intention of repeating,
an uncharacteristic mistake no one would even believe me capable of making.
Still, Id made it. Id been no better than my husband, and
worse for hiding it. Convincing myself that it had never really happened
was an act of self-preservation, and Id buried it inside forever.
Or so I thought.
Of course, I could never admit to it, not now. Not even to myself. I couldnt
endure the guilt, the shame, even the thought that I was ever that woman.
Which I wasnt. Not really.
Especially if there was no evidence. I tore up the brochures and grabbed
It was dead quiet in the neighborhood. I took the small bowl of ashes
and a large serving fork and all but crept outside like a thief to the
far end of my dirt lot. I dug a hole with the fork, dumped in the ashes,
and then smoothed the dirt back into place. I was patting down the ground
when I heard a sound from Phylliss kitchen.
I stopped; no light came on. I brushed the dirt off my hands, grabbed
the bowl and fork, and ran back into the house where I poured myself a
I made a routine of watering the dirt every morning, thinking about what
I wanted my life to become now, and sometimes not thinking about anything
The following Monday I was outside watering the dirt (those clumps of
grass were getting bigger) when the lawncare guy showed up. A quiet, friendly
man, he introduced himself, Sam, and looked at the damp dirt with sparkling
curiosity before getting to work. I liked him immediately.
Before he left, he asked if I had a cat.
No. Why, has one been using the property as a litter box?
No, no. I just wanted to warn you of the toxic plants around here
if you did, he said, nodding at Phylliss flower beds. The
previous tenants cat got sick from some plants. I think it even
Oh, thats awful. So, those flowers are toxic?
Yes, all of them. To cats, anyway.
Well, I wont have to worry about that. Im not really
a cat person.
Sam nodded with a smile. Ive got two Springer Spaniels.
Monday was my weekday off from the library. I decided to have coffee in
my backyard, which was nothing more than a small stone patio.
I heard Phylliss car pull up. A moment later she came around the
side of the house.
Hello? Oh, there you are. Sam thought you might be back here,
she said, apologizing for the intrusion. I was at the farmers
market and they had the most wonderful looking tomatoes, beefsteak, and
so I got a whole bunch, and I thought you might like a couple. She
pulled two large tomatoes from her market bag and set them on the table
next to me. Then she added two more. I was delighted and asked if I could
give her something for them.
Dont even think about it, she said, dismissing me with
a wave of her hand and taking in the patio for the first time. Oh,
this is nice. She seemed pleased with my arrangement of two chairs,
table, and potted Hosta.
Im still working on it, I smiled. Id like
to get potted plants back here, flowers, so I can have some in the house.
I just love that.
My lilies will be blooming soon, she said in a faraway voice
as she sized up certain possibilities with the patio. I noticed she had
a nervous habit of playing with her fingers when she was thinking, something
we had in common.
Oh, I love lilies, I gushed.
Feel free to cut some for yourself when they come in. Just be careful,
you know how the pollen leaves stains. Thats why I dont really
care for them. Well, Ive got lots to do today, she said as
she gathered her bag of tomatoes. You know, she added with
burgeoning inspiration, you could do something like this out front,
on the dirt I mean. Put down some nice pavers, some container plants,
make a little garden area. Or even do a rock garden. And I could help
you with it, I love to do that sort of thing.
Well, thats, certainly an idea, I hedged. She must really
hate looking out her window and seeing that dirt. For that matter, so
did I. Ill, a, Ill think about it.
You do that, and let me know, she smiled. Then she made an
awkward half-turn to leave. Er, by the way, I thought I heard something
digging around last night. She threw a cautious glance over her
shoulder. We used to have a cat in the neighborhood, and we have
to be careful of raccoons. And of course, we wouldnt want anything
digging up that grass youve been growing, she added with a
light laugh. Did you happen to see anything?
By now I was staring at Phyllis with wide, unblinking eyes. Um,
no. I shook my head.
Oh. Okay. My answer was either disappointing or confusing.
She nodded to herself and mentally ticked some boxes before brightening.
Well, enjoy the tomatoes! And she disappeared around the corner.
There was a lovely sunset that evening. I made a pitcher of Prosecco and
lemonade with fresh raspberries and invited Phyllis to join me on my patio.
I wanted to reciprocate her kindness, and also it was nice to have someone
to just sit and talk with. She made another pitch for her rock garden
idea, and I listened, and then I changed the subject and poured our second
Im a widow. She smiled as she took a sip, the light
of the candles Id set around the patio flickering on her face. Oh,
that is a lovely drink. Perfect for a night like this. Thank you for inviting
My pleasure. It occurred to me that youd never been over here
Phyllis shook her head softly. The previous tenant, she confided,
he wasnt neighborly. He seemed to prefer to be left alone.
He couldnt even be bothered with saying hello when we saw each other.
Some people are slow to warm up to being friendly, I shrugged.
Itd been ten years, Phyllis impressed upon me. She sipped
more lemonade. And he never did anything about that dirt. Just left
it, an eyesore in the neighborhood. I think we have a responsibility to
keep our property aesthetically pleasing, or at least maintained. Nothing
on you, of course, she was quick to add. Youre the one
left to do something with it, which you are. Because you want your property
to look nice, for yourself and for everyone. The previous tenant didnt
share that idea. Neither did his cat.
What happened to him?
He was most likely poisoned. Phyllis had a long sip of her
drink as she gazed at the last deepening hues of the sunset.
"Its not unusual. Lots of flowers and plants are toxic. And
they like to dig around in them. He certainly dug around in my flower
beds, she stated with obvious annoyance.
The cat, I said with relief, recalling what Sam had said.
Of course. I thought you meant
so, why did the previous tenant
- what was his name, anyway?
Phyllis gazed into her glass, watching the Prosecco bubbles rise. I
never did know, she murmured.
Well call him P. T. Why did he leave so suddenly? The landlord
said P. T. took off before the lease was up, and he left a lot of things
Oh, Ive no idea. Although, the cat went missing before Petey
did. I remember hearing it wailing one night. It was awful. Her
eyes drifted into the middle distance and her fingers fidgeted absently
with her glass. And after that, it was never seen again. You know,
I dont think its healthy being alone all the time, it does
things to people. It gives them a queer view of the world, and in turn,
a queer view of themselves. They have nothing to relate to, and they can
find themselves behaving rather oddly. She paused before continuing.
No, I dont trust people who spend all their time alone, it
makes me uncomfortable. And Petey liked being alone.
A silence ensued and I realized I was staring at Phyllis, and listening
to my beating heart. Something in what she said alarmed me. Maybe the
fact that I was living in the same house that creepy loner P. T. once
I shook off my unease and declared, Well, Im a people person.
Me too, Phyllis cheered, returning from her thoughts. I
like to be out in the world and meet people, take part in life.
Heres to people! I said, raising my glass.
And to neighbors! We drained our glasses and finished the
And so, the weeks passed. Sam came by twice a month, and at least twice
a week Phyllis and I got together for coffee or cocktails (sometimes both),
and she always showed up with something that she had either bought or
made in excess. And every morning I got up early and watered the grass
The grass clumps grew and connected, and then that patch grew and spread,
and soon what was once mostly dirt was mostly grass. And a dry, desolate
lot became a lawn of green. It wasnt a perfect lawn like Phylliss,
but I was proud of what Id grown. And I was particularly pleased
the week Sam acknowledged that it was indeed a lawn by mowing it. And
of course, Phyllis was delighted. She made a lemon meringue pie.
I was in my new home, on my own now, but I was content. I knew Id
still be sorting myself out for a while, that the period of adjustment
would take interesting turns. But I also knew that I would be all right.
This was a time for growth, a growth I didnt expect, but, well,
thats life, and life finds a way.
I was just back from my morning jog when I noticed Phylliss lilies
had bloomed. They would look stunning in my living room, and I had the
perfect vase for them. I got a pair of scissors from the kitchen (where
I kicked off my shoes) and took advantage of Phylliss offer. I was
cutting my final stalk when I noticed catnip growing among the flowers.
It was growing everywhere, all through the beds. But, that didnt
make any sense. Why would Phyllis grow catnip if she didnt want
she must have had her reasons, whatever they were. I wasnt going
to waste time worrying about it, I was in too good a mood. She was so
sweet to let me have these lilies. I gathered them, careful not to let
the pollen touch me, and walked barefoot across my lawn to my home.