PUSHING UP DAISIES
My first guess was heirloom silver, or maybe the family jewels, buried and forgotten, years ago by some light-fingered servant or paranoid ancestor. I was wrong.
The metal crate was heavy, about two feet wide and three feet long with a small handle at one end. Crouching down at the edge of the flower bed, I dragged it out of the hole, and used my trowel to pry it open. I was hoping for a reward or at the very least an interesting story to tell. That time I was right.
Inside was another smaller container, ornately carved and cushioned by paper, padding and disintegrating excelsior. I opened the smaller box and took out a tattered bundle wrapped in many layers of thin material. Given the weight of the box, the bundle was lighter than I expected – as if the fabric surrounded nothing more than a handful of feathers. That’s when the butterflies first entered my stomach.
Picking at the rotting fabric with gloved fingers, I exposed a slim chain with a tiny medal. Above it, leathery and doll-like, was a shrunken head.
I fell back on my butt, flinging the bundle into the air, then I watched it drop and roll over until it stopped facedown in the decomposing leaves behind a stone wall. I looked around, half-hoping there was a witness, but, just as happy there was no one to see me act like such a chicken.
I got up and tiptoed over to where the bundle rested. I couldn’t bring myself to touch it but wanted to get the tiny face out of the dirt, so I nudged it with my toe. It didn’t move. I did it a second time, but pushed too hard and the bundle rolled again, this time picking up speed on the sloping lawn that would take it into the Long Island Sound, if I didn’t act fast. I wasn’t much of a football fan, but instinctively knew what I had to do. I tackled it. I scooped up the body and ran up the hill, back to the garden, as if I were heading for the end zone. When I got there, I shook off my hoodie, made a circle on the ground with it, and nestled the tiny body inside, so it wouldn’t roll over again. Then, on unsteady feet, I walked a few steps, and puked, over by the album elegans rhododendrons.
But I should start at the beginning. Six hours earlier, I’d been minding my own business, lingering over burned cinnamon toast at the Paradise Diner. The coffee was better at Dunkin’ Donuts, and the food was better almost anywhere, but the Paradise was my third place – that place you go to that isn’t work or home.
Chalky turquoise and hot pink, with Christmas lights on twelve months a year, the Paradise is a little bit of the Caribbean inexplicably transplanted to southeastern Connecticut, courtesy of the proprietor, Wanda “Babe” Chinnery.
Detractors claim Babe stays in business by dealing pot on the side, and there is a suspicious patch of ground in the back surrounded by a hodgepodge of lattice, but I don’t believe it’s anything more sinister than your garden variety suburban debris, and probably a lot less toxic.
If only the boldest of the soccer moms ventured in, the Paradise was a magnet for every male in town between the ages of twelve and eighty. That’s also due to Babe. Babe is every young boy’s fantasy bad girl, and every older guy’s shoulda-woulda-coulda. They come in to see what color her hair is this week, or what sexy, tattoo-revealing get-up she’ll be wearing. And if none of them can really have her, at least they can dream, for the price of bad coffee and artery-clogging donuts.
Twenty years ago, Babe and the late Pete Chinnery bought the Paradise. She’d been a backup singer and he was a roadie for a fair-to-middling metal band that’d had one big hit and toured on it for years. They socked away the money they’d made hawking rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia and when they decided to settle down, they moved back to Babe’s hometown and bought the Paradise. Less than a year later, Pete and another member of the Son Also Rises Christian Bikers Club were killed in a freak accident on Route 7 when some crazy antiquer hit the brakes for a tag sale and sent the two men flying. To hear Babe tell it, there was more leather at Pete’s funeral than at an S & M convention.
Now, the Paradise staff was just Babe, a revolving part-time waitress – this one named Chloe - and the cook, affectionately referred to as Pete number two. Babe claims she hired him only because it would be easy to remember his name, and from some of the food I’d sampled there, she might have been telling the truth. Despite our glaring differences, Babe and I had hit it off immediately.
“Top you off, Paula?” she asked.
I threw caution to the winds, and held out my cup for more.
“You seen the Bulletin this morning?”
“I didn’t know they bothered to publish that thing once March Madness was over.”
“The New York Times isn’t the only newspaper in the country, wiseass.”
Springfield, Connecticut is a bedroom community, one of New York City’s many moons, more famous for the planet it orbits than for anything in the town itself. Springfield has a healthy mix of low, middle, and upper middle class, and we’re within spitting distance of the bluebloods in Greenwich and Bedford.
The Springfield Bulletin is our local paper, and unless it was college basketball season, when the UConn Huskies ruled, it took all of five minutes to read. Example? Now that the Huskies hadn’t made it to the Sweet Sixteen, a recent feature was “The Wonderful World of Walnuts.” I was saving it for some really lonely night by the fire.
Babe slid the paper to me across the counter. The entire front page covered the death of someone named Dorothy Peacock, last member of one of the oldest, most prestigious families in Springfield. We had a Peacock Lane, Peacock Road, a Peacock band shell and undoubtedly lots more a relative newcomer like me hadn’t heard about.
“I didn’t know there were any actual Peacocks.”
“I guess there aren’t. Anymore. Not exactly the crowd I ran with,” Babe said, “but I always thought their house was cool,” pointing to the paper. “Weird, but cool. They even gave tours of Halcyon’s garden.”
“Their house had a name?”
“Sure, doesn’t yours?” she said, grinning.
“Yeah. Right now it’s Chez Citibank.” I pushed my cup and plate to the side and spread out the skimpy paper. “Ever meet her?”
“Dorothy? No. A pal of mine did. I saw her a few times though, from a distance. Looked like quite a character.”
“Oh, yeah, not like us,” I said, returning to the article.
In one deft move, she cleared the plates and wiped down the silver-and-gold Formica counter, then consolidated the ketchup bottles in that precarious upside down way they must teach in diner school. She used a balled-up napkin to erase a few words from the blackboard behind the counter, changing the breakfast specials into the lunch specials.
“Have you ever considered adding some heart healthy options to that menu?” I asked gently. “It might help business.”
“You gotta be kidding. I should take business advice from you? Just don’t eat the fries,” she snorted, dismissing my health concerns and substituting the word French for home.
I realized she was right and went back to the paper. The Bulletin carried a basic bio of Dorothy and her sister, Renata. There was no mention of survivors. Archival photos of Halcyon and the garden were provided by The Springfield Historical Society. I’m something of a regular there, too, as well as at the diner. Not that I’m such a history buff, but designing on a dime is easier when you frequent the local thrift shops. And the Historical Society had a great one.
“I bet those old girls at SHS could even help you get the job,” Babe said. “The Doublemint twins?”
“Who says I need another client? I’d have to leave all this,” I said, barely looking up from the paper. But, her arrow had hit the mark; my dance card was hardly full, as my almost daily presence here confirmed. Did I mention I’m a gardener? Zone 6. I’ve got my own small landscaping business, emphasis on small. I’m also a master gardener and periodically volunteer with local landscaping problems as part of the program – and to drum up new business.
“Since we’re in advice-giving mode, why don’t you volunteer at Halcyon, that’d be a real community service. That place has been an eyesore for years. And it’ll move you into the high-rent district.”
Not a place I’d been visiting recently. The year before, a global media conglomerate swallowed up the boutique production company I worked for. My once promising career as a documentary filmmaker had degenerated into endless speculations about Who Killed Diana? Or worse. Who killed some poor bastard no one had ever heard of.
That had been the catalyst for this new chapter in my life. I took the moral high ground, and my severance package, loaded up the car, and made an offer on the bungalow I’d been taking as a summer rental. Then I hung out my shingle – pH Factor, Garden Solutions. PH is me, Paula Holliday. PH is also the measure of how sweet or how sour your soil is. The name was supposed to be clever, but so far, few people got it. And few people called.
Every time the wolf seemed to be at the door, Babe chatted me up to one of her customers, so I had a handful of clients, which kept the bank happy, but working on the Peacock garden could definitely jump-start things for me.
“I’m not a licensed landscape architect. This may be out of my league.”
“And you think all the women around here who call themselves decorators have some kind of sheepskin? Can’t hurt to ask. Besides,” she said, “I need to clean that spot where you’ve been sitting for the last 2 hours.”
“I have a mother, you know.”
“She just called. She thinks you should go, too.”
I guess I had been hanging out at the Paradise a lot. Newly single, I dragged my feet going back to my empty house. It was one thing to be a regular, quite another to be a fixture. Babe waved away my half-hearted attempt to pay.
“Forget it. We’re still working off the plantings you did out in the parking lot. Get outta here. And good luck,” she called after me, betting I’d take her advice.
Outside, I inspected the beds I’d put in last fall. Not bad, and they’d look even better in a month or two. The diner’s Las Vegas-style neon marquee was now surrounded by a tasteful assortment of foliage plants to harmonize with the tropical paint job. Very tiki bar. On the marquee was Babe’s thought for the week. This week’s was, “a clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.” Babe, in a nutshell.
I climbed into my Jeep, mulling over her suggestion. Why not? The girls at SHS may know something, and if not, I’d treat myself to the vintage ceramic lamp I’d been eyeing the last few times I’d been in.
The Springfield Historical Society is located in a formidable brick building, early nineteenth century, with impressive white pillars and a great expanse of lawn in the front sloping down to the street. They’d approve of that tasteful description. Unfortunately, the owner of the property next door is one of those cheerful, retired fellows who thinks even minor holidays need to be celebrated with a display of lights, hundreds of ornaments, and larger than life inflatables, so now, The Historical Society is known, county-wide, as the building near Holiday Harry’s.
I made a right, at the giant bunny (Easter was coming), parked near the bicycle rack in the SHS lot, and picked my way down the stairs to the shop, sidestepping boxes of recent donations. That’s where I was, poking through the castoffs, when I overheard the news of an even bigger donation. Halcyon and all of Dorothy Peacock’s property had been left to the Historical Society.
“Well, there really wasn’t anyone else to leave it to, was there, Bernice?”
I cleared my throat to announce myself.
“Hello, Paula. I almost didn’t see you over there.” In theatrical fashion, Inez Robertson covered the mouthpiece of the old rotary phone and pantomimed that she’d be off the telephone soon.
Inez and her friend, Bernice, were known locally as The Doublemint Twins. They were lifelong friends who sported identical upswept hairstyles (Inez’s jet black, and Bernice’s Sunkist orange) straight out of the sixties, although it’s probably unfair to blame an entire decade for their molded, shellacked heads. In addition to being the well-coiffed guardians of Springfield’s best junk, with the slightest encouragement, they were good for a little local dirt.
“Paula, you should have seen that garden.” Without missing a beat, she hung up the phone and continued, with me, the conversation she’d been having with her friend. “Once a year, the sisters opened it to the public. All the local children were invited for games, and Shetland pony rides that took us from one end of the garden to the other. Then there was a race through the maze, and all sorts of treats and exotic candies. It was a wonderful tradition,” Inez added wistfully. “What a shame Dorothy couldn’t keep it up.” She patted her immovable hair for punctuation. “Their brother helped, of course.”
“The paper didn’t mention a brother.”
“I’m sure of it.” She tapped her chin, mentally flipping through years of town history. She slammed her powdery hand on the counter in triumph. “William was their younger brother. He disappeared years ago. Went to Alaska or some place. No one ever heard from him again. At least not as far as I know.”
“Well, whoever’s handling the estate will have to look for him,” I said, wondering when I could tactfully get around to the real reason for my visit.
“Now I remember. Margery tried to find him once, years ago, for some Historical Society function. Richard was just as happy she didn’t succeed. Probably jealous, the old fool.”
Richard was Richard Stapley, the historical society’s president; Margery was his wife. And now the house had been left in their care.
“William was a handsome boy,” Inez droned on, oblivious to my mounting impatience.
“Quite a heartbreaker, too. He might have gone to Hollywood.”
"Yeah, maybe he was James Dean, I thought meanly, but didn’t say. I picked her brain some more about the Peacocks and local history, then when I couldn’t stand it any longer, popped the big question. “Any idea what will become of the garden?”
I was not the first to ask.
“Well,” she said heavily, grateful for a new line of gossip. “People have been traipsing in and out since yesterday. I’ve seen three landscapers’ trucks this morning,” she said, unnecessarily puttering with the dusty costume jewelry in her display case. “I just hope it isn’t that awful Mr. Chiaramonte. I don’t know what Richard sees in him. He was here again this morning.” She wrinkled her nose as if there was any doubt what she thought of him.
Great. Competition already. And from landscapers established enough to have a fleet of vehicles with their names plastered on the sides.
“Of course, it’s Richard’s decision. After all, he is the president,” she added, stretching out the verb and hinting there was a story there, too, but time was short and I didn’t take the bait. She peered out of the thrift shop’s high casement window into the parking lot where she had a tire level view of any visitor. “I don’t see his car, but it’s such a lovely day, perhaps he rode his bicycle.”
“I noticed a silver Specialized when I parked,” I said.
“That’s his. Go on, dear, he’ll need lots of help,” she said. “And you are one of our best customers. I held this for you.” From behind the counter she pulled out the lamp. It was one of those aggressively ugly lamps from the fifties that optimistic sellers on eBay refer to as Eames-era, an amorphous green and gold affair almost three feet tall from base to finial with a ring of small sputnik-like balls shooting out of the top. Frighteningly enough, I already owned the perfect lampshade for it.
“I’m not exactly dressed for an interview,” I said, as she painstakingly wrapped the lamp in copies of the Bulletin so old I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Nixon Resigns on one of them. Suddenly, I felt amateurish and grubby in my baggy jeans, sweatshirt, and ever-present Knicks hat.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, finishing up. “You’re a gardener, he won’t mind. And Richard’s a newcomer, too, you know. From Boston.”
I took the lumpy package, said goodbye, and made my way up the stairs. To the right was the exit to the parking lot, and to the left was the long corridor to Richard’s office, the hallway filled with vintage photographs from Springfield’s past. I caught my reflection in the glass of one of them, and made a feeble attempt to fix my hair. What the hell, all Stapley could do was say no, and whatever he decided it wouldn’t be based on my having hat hair. Outside his office, I took a deep breath, and tried to exude an air of competence. I knocked.
Richard Stapley was in his seventies, a little over six feet tall with thick white hair and a closely cropped beard. His dark eyes were framed by thin wire framed glasses, and he wore the womb-to-tomb WASP uniform of light blue Brooks Brothers shirt, khaki pants, and Topsiders.
“Have a seat,” he said, in a way that was outwardly friendly, but still made me feel like I was there to take dictation.
The bicycle had undoubtedly kept his weight down, but he still looked like he was no stranger to good food, good wine, and good cigars, as evidenced by the decanter, humidor, and crystal bonbon dishes on his credenza. Just under the portrait of Winston Churchill.
“One of my heroes,” he explained, when he saw me staring. “Do you play?” he said.
Was he hitting on me? Maybe I didn’t look as bad as I thought I did. “Excuse me?”
“Do you play golf? Those look like golf clubs in your package.”
Inez had wrapped my lamp in so many layers of newspaper that it did indeed look like a set of golf clubs.
“No,” I laughed, finally at ease.
Stapley settled into his tufted leather chair and got right to my point. “I expect you’re here about Halcyon. I’ve gotten very popular with the gardening community since poor Dorothy passed. She was a fine woman,” he said, clipping off the end of a fresh cigar and rolling it between his fingers. I hoped he wasn’t going to light up, but I was hardly in a position to protest.
I spoke too fast, babbling incoherently about why I was the right man for the job, even though I wasn’t sure what the job was. Stapley nodded sagely, occasionally smiling at one of my obscure gardening references which I couldn’t believe he actually got. (Ah, yes, what would Vita Sackville-West do?)
I was not optimistic, but, less than hour later, he was giving me a hearty, politician’s handshake and wishing me well on the job. Somehow I’d managed to convince him I could handle the restoration of Halcyon’s garden. And he’d managed to convince me to do it for next to nothing.
“Here’s a copy of our Halcyon file,” he said, handing me a bulging manila folder. “Helen Cox at the library should be able to help you dig up a bit more. And the Society will hold a small event, just some wine and cheese, to raise funds for any new plants you may need. Give me a wish list and we’ll see how much we can pry out of some of these old tightwads around here.” I was on cloud nine.
He led me out to the front steps of the building to say goodbye. From the corner of my eye I saw his eyes narrow at his neighbor’s joyously tasteless holiday display.
“You won’t be sorry, Mr. Stapley.”
“I have every confidence in you.”
I needed to celebrate. There might have been no one home to party with, but Babe would fill in nicely. Things were quiet at the diner, just a handful of stragglers, and some teenage boys working up the courage to flirt with Babe.
“You again?” Babe said, looking up from her book. She switched a wooden coffee stirrer from one side of her wide mouth to the other. “You got nerve, after trashing my menu. What’s with the cat-who-ate-the-canary grin?”
“I got it.”
“You didn’t get it here.”
“The job. I got the job.” I looked at her suspiciously. “Why aren’t you more surprised?”
“Why should I be?”
“I don’t know. I was. I’m not a native, and although I am incredibly talented, it’s not as if I have a lot of experience.”
“Stapley’s not a native either – he’s only been here thirty years or so.”
“You guys are tough. Look, I’m not sure I want anyone else to know about it yet, ok? There may be a few noses out of joint that I got the gig instead of one of the established nurseries.”
“I won’t say boo, but you should consider not walking around saying, “I got it! I got it!” if you don’t want people to know.”
I smiled and spun around on one of the duct-taped counter stools, promptly banging my foot into a nearby seat, and the man on it.
“Try not to wreck the place,” Babe said, “The Bon Appetit photographer is coming later.”
I mumbled an apology, and continued. “It was almost as if he was expecting me. I talked non-stop. I was sure I wasn’t going to get the job so I figured I had nothing to lose. I wowed him,” I said, moving from surprise to swagger in a nanosecond. “Some of your voodoo charm must be rubbing off on me.”
Babe gave me a lopsided smile. “Stick with me, kid.”
I banged my hand on the counter, this time sloshing my neighbor’s coffee. “I am so sorry. I’m not usually such a jerk. I just got a bit of good news.”
“So I gathered,” he said. “Don’t worry. Mum’s the word.”
“My name’s Paula Holliday. Can I buy you another coffee?”
“Gerald Fraser. That’s okay. Nature’s way of telling me I’ve had enough. I’ll take a rain check, though. Congrats on the job.” He folded his paper, got up slowly, and made his way to the door. Sitting down he looked fit and ready to spring, so I was surprised to see him move so stiffly out to the parking lot.
“Who’s that?” I asked, after he was gone.
“Like he said, Gerry Fraser,” Babe said. “Nice guy. Ex-cop. Comes in a few days a week. Walks over from Sunnyview.”
Despite the creaky moves, Fraser hadn’t looked more than fifty, fifty-five tops. “A little young to be in a nursing home, isn’t he?”
“Injured on the job. Some sort of mandatory retirement.”
“Looks okay to me.”
“Now you’re a doctor?”
“No, I’m a landscaping professional, dammit. And I’m celebrating! Give me a very large iced coffee, no sugar, skim milk, and don’t be stingy, baby.”
She used the chewed up coffee stirrer as a bookmark, and started making my iced coffee with the dregs of this morning’s pot. I leaned over the counter on my elbows and motioned toward her book. “Whatcha reading?”
“Biography of Jim Morrison. I was just a child, of course, but he and I shared a beautiful moment once. The man was a god, if you get my drift.” She raised her voice just a bit, so the booth full of raging hormones could hear her. It had its intended effect.
“So, uh, when do you start on that thing we’re not supposed to know about?” she asked, in a more natural voice.
“ASAP. I’m going over there now to get started. I’ve got research to do, and I want to make some sketches and collect soil samples first. In fact, better make that iced coffee to go.”
Stapley’s file included directions to the Peacock house. I hadn’t been to that part of town before – three-acre zoning kept out the riffraff like me, but, Halcyon wasn’t hard to find. As Babe had mentioned, it was weird, not your basic New England saltbox. There were turrets, spires, domes, and loads of tiny windows – a drunken collaboration between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Antoni Gaudi.
Back in the day, Halcyon had been snidely referred to as “Peacock’s Temple.” More recently, it’d been dubbed the Addams Family house by local kids. They’d dare each other to egg it on Mischief Night, the night before Halloween, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if more than a few of them had done the nasty in the Peacock’s hidden, overgrown gardens. Apparently, Dorothy had been a good sport about both kinds of intrusions.
The iron gate was open and one door was off its hinges. I rolled up the weedy, gravel driveway and parked in a partially cleared spot on the right side of the house. I grabbed my backpack, and took a quick inventory - plant identifier, camera, notepad, Stapley’s file, trusty Felco nippers, zip lock baggies, labels, trowel, gloves.
Years of broken branches, leaves, and general garden debris littered the front garden. There was old storm damage, and one enormous rhododendron had rotted out from the center, splayed open like a blooming onion, but the good bones were evident. New growth struggled against the weight of the dying branches.
Although still comfortable financially, the Peacock sisters inexplicably hadn’t engaged a landscaping service in years, and each year, Dorothy and Renata did less and less themselves. Stapley seemed to think the last time the lawn had been mowed Jimmy Carter was president. It looked it. Against the odds, scattered bulbs were coming out, peeking through the layers of leaf clutter. Another hopeful sign.
The early spring day was brilliant and chilly. It could have been fall, and I was as nervous as if it were the first day of school. “Get a hold of yourself. There’s nothing here but a bunch of half-dead shrubs,” I said out loud.
“I beg to differ,” came a cool voice from behind a large arborvitae in serious need of pruning.
I must have jumped a foot. “Hi. I didn’t think anyone else was here.”
“Clearly. I used to live near here. I stop back sometimes, to see what’s become of the old place.” She looked around. “It’s hard to believe all the Peacocks are finally gone. Flown the coop, so to speak.” So much for respect for the dead.
Halcyon’s other visitor was a striking woman, - of a certain age - with short auburn hair brushed off her face, the way you can wear it when you have luminous skin, and perfect bone structure. Her arms were folded across her chest, holding a large clutch purse, and a woolen shawl was perfectly, effortlessly tossed over her shoulders in that irritating way that some women can, and I cannot, but hope to by the time I’m fifty.
“You’ve got your work cut out for you. In their prime, these gardens were lovely. So were we all, I suppose.” She lost herself in her thoughts for a moment, then recovered.
“You must have seen them in pictures, right? You couldn’t have seen them yourself.”
“Of course I did, flatterer. Dorothy Peacock was one of my teachers, and an old”. . she waited for the right word to come, “an old beau of mine used to cut their grass. Not recently, as you can probably tell.” She nodded at the overgrown meadow behind me.
“Really? I’d be very grateful for any advice or information you could give me.” I whipped out one of my cards and handed it to her, still searching for a pen and paper to get her info.
“E-mail is always the easiest way to reach me. Now, if I can just get your coordinates, phone number, maybe an email address, . . . "
By the time I’d finished rooting around in my backpack, she’d silently wandered off.
“Thanks a lot,” I muttered to the late March air.
Well, it wasn’t the Pine Barrens, she was around here somewhere; I’d catch up with her later. I wondered how she knew I was here to work on the garden. Guess I wasn’t dressed for anything else, although in this getup, I might have been a burglar.
Whoever she was, she was right about one thing; I had to get cracking. I got out my pad and Richard’s file. At some point I’d make a detailed map of the garden, but for now a rough sketch would do. The magnificent elm in the photos was gone. Dutch elm disease, I was guessing. Sometime in the 1930’s a boatload of beetles stowed away in a shipment of veneer bound for the United States. The beetles carried a fungus, and the rest, as they say, is history. By the sixties, over fifty million elm trees in the US were dead.
The pines were in good shape. Removal of a few broken branches was really all they needed. The rest of the shrubs in the front garden – rhododendrons, azaleas, andromedas, viburnum, forsythia, and the lawn were wildly overgrown but nothing that couldn’t be pruned into submission or fertilized back to life, over time. Very few things in the garden were stone, cold dead. Plants have this incredible will to live and if there’s even a glimmer of life in something, I always think I can coax it back to good health.
Oriental bittersweet and euonymous burning bush, the Connecticut equivalents of kudzu, were running rampant. I had a love-hate relationship with the burning bush, but the bittersweet would have to go. Labor intensive but not impossible. I was counting on Hugo Jurado’s help. Hugo was my own part-time gardener. Going from a fat regular income to a slim irregular one had forced me to make some economies, but I’d sooner give up food than give up Hugo. He was from Temixco, a small town about two hours south of Mexico City. A tireless worker, Hugo juggled three jobs and sent almost every penny back home to his silver-haired mother. He’d probably own the town, or be its mayor in a couple of years.
Although a complete restoration of the garden would take numerous growing seasons, I knew Hugo and I could make a dramatic improvement in as little as sixty days. Things were looking up. I started designing new business cards in my head and thinking of an easier, less obscure name for my soon-to-be successful company.
The Peacock’s wraparound porch had been filled with containers and window boxes. I couldn’t tell from the faded black and white photos what kind of flowers they’d held, but if I stuck with the classics, - sweet alyssum, petunias, nasturtiums, - I’d be fine.
Like a happy puppy, I lumbered around to the back of the house. It was like slamming into a brick wall. Whatever confidence I’d had a few moments before totally vanished. The back garden was a disaster area. And so much of it. A large, herringbone brick terrace, cracked and choked with weeds held about a dozen moldy planters. Guarded by two moss-covered stone dogs, a short flight of stairs led down to an allee about ten feet wide and a hundred feet long, lined with dead or dying boxwoods. The path looked like pea gravel, but upon closer inspection I saw it was crushed oyster shells, much of it ground to dust. At either end was a garden; each approximately one thousand square feet.
The first was walled, with a central raised bed. According to the file, the other had been an herb garden; only the rampant mint betrayed its former use. Beyond them, on one side there was an overgrown privet maze, on the other, half a dozen spindly hemlocks barely screened out the neighbors.
On the far side of the allee, was a freestanding stone wall covered by espaliered pear trees. Behind the wall, stood a row of cypress, at least two dead, separating the garden from an unruly lawn which led down to a rickety floating dock. Broken statuary, a falling-down greenhouse, a tiny shed and a musty-looking cottage completed the picture. Only the gnomes were missing.
I retraced my steps and sat down on the brick terrace, somewhat shell-shocked. I checked the pictures again. It had been impossible to appreciate the size of the job from the photos I had. On paper it looked like a few manageable beds, in person - Monticello. No wonder those old ladies hadn’t kept up with the landscaping. What was I thinking when I said I could do this? What was that idiot Stapley thinking when he gave me the job?
Tears were welling up, but I willed myself not to cry. My attack of self-pity didn’t last long, it couldn’t. Otherwise it was back to sucking up secondhand smoke at film and tv markets, and feigning interest in yet another documentary on the Kennedys or WWII, and I definitely didn’t want that.
I walked to the walled garden on the left side of the property. The walls were about eight feet high with arches and openings in the style of an Italian giardino segreto, or secret garden. In the corners were medium-sized understory trees and shrubs, including a fifteen foot leatherleaf viburnum, bursting with health, and an evergreen magnolia covered with fat golden buds. Overhead, the dogwoods were still beautiful and looked vigorous, unusual since they don’t have a very long life span. In a month or so, they’d explode, some pink, some creamy white. Underneath were hostas and peonies, their pointed, reddish crowns just starting to break through the crusty top layer of soil.
I shuffled through the papers in the file. The walled garden had been Renata Peacock’s contribution. It was a white garden. Moonflowers, clematis, bleeding hearts, nicotiana, spirea – anything white that would catch the waning light and shimmer in the evening. A few crumbling columns and stone benches lined the walls of the garden room which were covered with wisteria, virginia creeper, and a thick mat of English ivy. I sat on one of the cool, stone benches, imagining the property sixty or seventy years ago, beautiful and as serene as its name would suggest, a place where well-heeled young ladies sat with their tea and cakes, oblivious to the world outside the boundaries of their cozy retreat.
There’d be no shame in going back to Richard Stapley to tell him the job was too big for me. I could do that, or I could simply dig in and see how far I got.
I’d get Hugo, and anyone else I could shanghai into working with me. Tools would be a problem, but I knew where I could borrow some heavy-duty equipment. It would require some hair flicking, a skimpy tank top, and industrial strength lip gloss, but, I’d make the sacrifice. And the Historical Society would have to hold more than a “small event”; I’d need at least a hundred plants, probably more. I added to my already voluminous notes and lists.
Making a quick sketch, I named all the different garden areas. Then I labeled the baggies I’d brought. Call me crazy, but I love taking soil samples. All you do is dig up some soil, ship it to your local extension university, and for five bucks they analyze the soil’s texture and structure, make fertilizer recommendations, and most important, determine the pH factor – something no serious gardener would consider proceeding without.
Okay, where to start? The center of the white garden was as good a place as any. I reached into my backpack, like a doctor going into his medical bag, and got out my favorite trowel, and my thinnest, goatskin gloves. I regretted not bringing a tiny airplane bottle of booze to have a little groundbreaking ceremony.
With my first stab, I hit something. When you garden in Connecticut, this is not an unusual occurrence. We grow rocks here. But this didn’t sound like a rock. I plunged my trowel into the soil again, this time scraping a surface that was definitely metal. Ten minutes later, I had unearthed a box. Eleven minutes later, a small dead body. Stone cold dead.
Excerpted from PUSHING UP DAISIES by Rosemary Harris.
Copyright © 2008 by Rosemary Harris.
Published in February 2008 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.