When you’re fired for drinking, someone who knows someone gets you a job as the caretaker of a small city park. Your “office” is a padlocked maintenance shed on one end of an open shelter. Inside there’s a clutter of equipment—shovels, hoes, trowels, rakes, watering cans. There’s a lawnmower, a wheelbarrow, a wide push-broom. A small desk in one corner where you keep track of supplies and equipment in a ledger. A telephone you are forbidden to use except in an emergency. An old percolator coffee pot.
You are ashamed to have come to this, but relieved to have no boss looking over your shoulder, no Friday noon deadline to turn in the week’s payroll—error-free. And it feels good to be outside, to raise your face to the sun or rain or snow as you work, to come home at the end of the day feeling the kind of tired you used to feel after a long day of golf.
That first spring you watch green shoots emerge in clusters among the shrubs along the border of the park—rising, blooming. Daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, you are told. You only know roses, which you sometimes bought for your wife when you were first married. There are roses here, too, but those come in early summer. You ask your supervisor how to care for them, and he brings you a battered copy of the New Illustrated Book of Gardening, which you read on breaks and when it’s raining too hard to work outside. It helps with the craving.
You watch with interest huge, veined, paddle-shaped leaves that furl out in a round planting area, smack in the sun. Ruffled spikes thrust up—a foot, two feet, three, four—tapering to green sheathed buds that burst into a riot of blood red blossoms. The color of lipstick your wife wore during the War.
You find the flower in the gardening book: canna lily.
They are hardy plants, according to the experts, but you tend them as if they were rare, exotic creatures. You water them in the cool of early morning, so the sun won’t burn the leaves. You pinch off the spent flowers, careful not to damage the new buds forming nearby. If a stalk starts to bend from its own weight, you stake it with one of the wood dowels you find in the maintenance shed. You are grateful for how little it takes to make them thrive.
The cannas bloom all summer, into the early fall. When the first frost blackens the foliage, you remove the stalks and leaves. According to the book of gardening it is a good thing to thin cannas at the end of the season to allow the parent plant more room to grow—and you can plant what you’ve dug up the following spring. You follow the directions: slide the shovel under the roots, lift the clump, break off sections of the swollen tuber, sure that each includes several tender green bumps along the top—“eyes”, the book calls them. You set them into brown paper lunch bags you bring from home, cover them with peat moss, and store them on a shelf in the maintenance shed.
All winter you think of them there.
When the ground thaws and the threat of frost is over, you take them home—and, to the surprise of your wife and kids, you spend the better part of a Saturday digging a flower bed in your front yard. You turn the soil over and over until it is the consistency of pebbles, mix it with peat moss, then use a trowel you’ve borrowed from the maintenance shed to crisscross the area with shallow trenches. You take the paper bags from the trunk of your car, eight of them, each with four tubers. You open the bags, one by one, brush the dirt and peat moss away with an old paint brush, and plant the tuber—roots down, eyes facing up—three inches below the surface of the bed. You cover them with soil, water them, and put down a layer of mulch to keep them moist.
“You’ll see,” you tell your kids when they ask what you are doing.
In a few weeks, green shoots pop through the soil just as the book said they would. The leaves unfurl, the stalks rise, buds form and burst into flower. Your girls beg for the clipped leaves to make ball gowns for their dolls, the spent blossoms as hats. They use the leaves as fans, pretending to be southern ladies, and to play peek-a-boo with the neighbor’s baby. Your boy uses them to make a shield.
Yours is the only house on the block with flowers in the yard, and sometimes when you are tending them, a neighbor will ask what they are and how in the world you got them to grow so tall. You shrug and say it’s what they are meant to do. Once, on a beastly hot Saturday, your wife brings you a cold lemonade. Nothing has ever tasted so good to you.
Wait, you say, as she starts to go back inside—and clip a perfect bloom for her.
On another hot day, a neighbor walks across the yard with two beers, hands you one, and you drink it because you’re too embarrassed to say you’re on the wagon. By winter, you’re keeping a pint of Jim Beam hidden in the maintenance shed. And since you have to keep an eye on the kids who come to ice skate after school and into the evening, you don’t need to be at the park till noon so you can stop for a shot at the Bluebird. Just one. You keep a pot of coffee going, add a splash of whiskey now and then.
If it snowed the night before, you clear what’s blown into the shelter, then the paths through the park, then the skating rink. If it didn’t snow, you use the shovel to smooth the ice the best you can. The skaters start coming around four, skates tied and slung across their shoulders—junior high kids, mostly. Boys showing off, girls screeching and clutching at each other and going wobbly on their skates every time the boys come near. You wonder about your own thirteen-year-old daughter: how she acts around boys, what her friends are like. You’ve thought about offering to drive her and her friends to the park to skate, but you’re afraid the look on her face will tell you that the last thing in the world she wants is for them to know where you work.
Spring, summer, fall, winter, spring.
You tend the cannas in your own yard for several summers after you are fired. Sometimes in the middle of a summer night, when you come home from the Bluebird, you carry a lawn chair over to the flower bed and sit and look at the cannas for a while. Did you water them this morning? You can’t remember. So you unwind the hose, give them a good soaking. Deadhead the spent blooms and put them in your pocket, shred them with your fingers.
You think of your wife turning the pockets inside-out before tossing the trousers into the wash, the dried-up red petals raining onto the scuffed linoleum of the laundromat like confetti in all those V-Day parades.