Never Mind the Thorns
When Eddie is thirteen years old, he asks his parents if he could please start a garden in their backyard. His mother is dubious. They are not a gardening family, which any person could tell just by looking at the fallow flowerbeds bordering their house. These barren plots of land dot the family’s property and seem to share more in common with old scabs—texture, color, a certain shell-like hardness—than with life-sustaining earth. More to the point, Eddie’s mother knows his ways, knows how quickly he gets over his “projects.” While her son’s question hangs in the air between them, her mind goes to the closet at the end of the hall, the one that can’t safely be opened anymore. It's full with the half-finished remains of Eddie’s various art pieces, which are layered like strata of earth and tell a story of changing tastes: a planet mobile with only the sun and the three innermost planets attached; watercolor canvases with no more than one or two brushstrokes apiece; clay sculptures of dragons, unicorns, and gnomes, each with one or two limbs or appendages broken off, as though after a great battle.
Eddie’s father, for his part, thinks a garden is a great idea—just the sort of project to bring him and his son closer, as Eddie has long preferred the solitude of his bed and his books and his thoughts to the company of either parent. A garden is something the whole family can enjoy, and, while it isn’t traditionally a young man’s pursuit, it cannot rightly be classified as belonging to women either. After all, gardening is a half-sibling to farming, and with an entire branch of their family tree occupied with just such an industry, Eddie isn’t likely to receive flak for trying to cultivate a green thumb himself. Still, Eddie’s father makes a mental note to steer his son in the direction of vegetables and fruit shrubs and away from flowering plants, hopefully veering the matter safely away from talk of masculinity altogether.
That weekend, Eddie’s father takes him to The Home Depot. Eddie has typed and printed out a document he has entitled “Gardening Project 2003!!! Whoo!!!!” The single sheet of computer paper includes a list of everything he needs and a selection of plants and flowers some thirty items long that he hopes to purchase. Eddie’s list now sports several handwritten changes made by his parents. His mother’s marks, written in the same red pen she uses to grade her students’ homework, are mostly suggestions of plants she think will look nice together. (“How about lots of RED to match the house?”) Less helpful are the numerous frowny faces she’s drawn in next to a few selections; Eddie hasn’t yet figured out what they mean. His father’s amendments, on the other hand, are more about practicality than they are about attractiveness. He has crossed a few plants off that aren’t suitable for the climate, or that are only available through mail-order magazines and specialty greenhouses. At the bottom of the paper, he has also added in several things that Eddie has overlooked: topsoil, to enrich the fallow dirt; black plastic, to keep the flowerbeds from freezing during the winter; and a hoe, which Eddie’s father says he will help with, as hoeing is hard work.
Eddie reads everything over in the car, his parents’ remarks forming a palimpsest so dense that you can barely read the original material. Still, he is excited to get the project started and to have his parents’ support. They make quick work of the store and stop to pick up hamburgers on the way home. The roadside whips by in a blur of dull grays and browns. Eddie’s body is buzzing from all the adrenaline coursing through it, which comes from thinking about coaxing things to life in a time when so much of the world is dying or going to sleep. Back home, he grabs as many plastic bags as he can carry and runs around the corner of the house to the squat rectangle of land his father has delineated for him with baling twine and old paint sticks. After discussing the use of a hoe, they had decided to borrow a rototiller from Eddie’s uncle, since the area to be cultivated is quite large, and since the ground this time of year would require three times as much effort to turn over than it would during the warmer months. Eddie had been disappointed to discover that, from the house, his little Eden-in-the-making is hidden from view by a pair of shaggy pine trees, which seem almost to lean in toward each other, as if to obscure Eddie’s garden even further. Unbeknownst to Eddie, this had been his mother’s idea, in case the garden went the same way as his other projects and ended up amounting to little more than a weedy patch in their yard. This would save her from the anxiety of having to look at it every morning, and Eddie, the embarrassment. It had been a sticking point during her initial negotiations with Eddie’s father.
In his garden, Eddie retrieves all the packages of bulbs he can find and lays them out on the loose soil. Gladiolas, irises—which, he has learned today, are actually grown from rhizomes, not bulbs—and tulips. Eddie has also been allowed to purchase one rose plant, though his father advised against it at the store. In a particularly proud display of logic, Eddie was able to convince his father to purchase the rose plant by showing him a diagram that lists the hardiness zones of North America. Their city is smack dab on the line between Zone 4, a bit colder, and Zone 5, a bit more temperate. His father argues that it is better to be safe and consider their house as being part of Zone 4. Eddie says that they should instead be hopeful and call it Zone 5. His father relents after mutteringly calling it a “glass half full” situation. The rose plant will not survive the winter.
Eddie selects one of the packages of tulips—a hybrid called Purple Rain—and rips open the plastic, taking up one of the bulbs. It is moist from the sealed interior of its packaging and from the moist packing material they use to protect the bulbs in transit. Experimentally, he shovels aside a layer of soil with his fingers, which are already numb from the cold, and pushes the tulip bulb down into the divot he has made. His father comes out with the rest of their purchases and, upon seeing the tulip bulb in the dirt—the top still poking out above the soil—tells Eddie he’ll need to plant the bulbs deeper than that to survive the frost, no matter whether it’s Zone 4 or Zone 5. Eddie says he knows, he’s just experimenting. His father lets out a huff, perhaps at the thought of their $150 worth of purchases being thought of as “an experiment.” He and Eddie’s mother had long argued about the cost of the project.
That weekend, Eddie and his father spend all of Saturday and Sunday working the soil in the garden, burying each brown bulb deep beneath the dirt. Eddie prints out color photographs of each in bloom and sticks them to posts at the end of every row. His mother even lets him use her classroom laminator after school one day, to protect the markers against precipitation and pests. His parents will not say it, but Eddie knows they are proud he has gotten this far with his garden. Late Sunday night, after they have gone to bed, Eddie goes outside in his bare feet and stands just on the edge of his territory. The cultivated earth looks unfathomable under the night sky. Not empty, just—dormant.
Taking a seat right there in the grass, Eddie looks out over his garden and waits, silently, for something to grow.