I knelt in Emily’s garden for the first time years ago, just as her and her sister, Stephanie, were moving into their new apartment – the first floor of a duplex, a beautiful place, close enough to Lake Superior to smell the water, to feel its chill on the wind as it snuck between the latticed streets, the lavish houses downtown, where Emily said it was a miracle, really, to have found the place at all.
Emily pointed to bare patches of soil in the garden, dry, pockmarked with withered grasses from transplanted seeds carried in the cheeks of, I’m sure, chipmunks and gray squirrels, who laid down roots and forgot them there. Emily tells me there’ll be a rosebush, a something-colorful here, something-tall there. I tell her I can’t wait to see it.
On the porch, Stephanie talked to my brother, Nicky, who’s three years younger than me, five years younger than the sisters. They’re both smiling, and the sun pours down on all four of us, and I remember thinking that I felt so lucky, then.
I first met Emily and Stephanie as a flash in my vision, really, two shapes against the blizzard outside who stepped through the doors of the University Center I was situated in, where I was advertising Windows 8, standing next to a high-table, holding a tablet “thin as a dinner plate!” and “very fast!” and “has Paint!” Or something like that. I needed Christmas money, needed money to make it home, and as I whispered to Emily and Stephanie, snow swirling on the linoleum floors from the door they opened to come inside and escape the blizzard, I didn’t really feel very passionate about Windows 8. I gave them free sunglasses and book bags, and we drew flowers on the “innovative touch-screen!” of the tablets, while I told them about none of the features, except for all of the colors you could make if you slid your finger like “this” or “that” on the gradient.
I saw Emily again a year later, and learned her name was Emily by her telling me it was, which I think is so strange now. We had a class together, some sort of literature, and as I stepped down the stairs out of the building, she was there, in-step with me, and she said she recognized me as the Windows 8 guy. I smiled at that, told her that that job was no more, that it was really just a Christmas thing – and what I thought of, but didn’t say, was how gut-wrenched and ruined I felt to get home from my first semester away from home to see my Mom dipping her head to the table while Nicky sat quietly with his homework in the other room, and the whole house stunk of cigarettes and something else I couldn’t believe, and the dog looked thin and the tree wasn’t there and Mom turned to me and slurred, “Oh, you’re home.” I didn’t tell Emily any of this, and having had really known her for all of seven minutes at that point, I thought it was strange that I wanted to.
But no, instead we talked about something I don’t remember, because I think I was nervous –what I do remember is stepping out the doors of the building and onto the sidewalk, blinding for the sun bouncing from its bleached surface, and Emily stepping into the grass, looking down at an untied shoe of hers, and smiling, and looking at me, and asking me if I’d tie it for her.
I did, of course, and I remember clumsily bragging about the strength of the knot by tying it into the fact that I was a fisherman, and I was good with knots, and that’s how I learned Emily herself fished, and loved to, and I’m sure I mentioned that we should go together some time, but lord knows, really. I think I was nervous.
There are no sunflowers in Emily’s garden, but I remember Mom telling me, one fuzzy morning in the front yard, an impossibly long time ago, that they sway to the motion of the sun throughout the day, ever chasing the warmth. And I remembered that, then. Around that time, Emily and I had, by some astral chance, entire days scheduled together, classes after classes, walks to classes that happened to align – and I’m sure any botanist or biologist or good friend would have watched us move throughout the day and understood that, in those days, she was the sun, I was the flower.
It was an unremarkable afternoon when Emily, Stephanie, and I had an idea involving French fries, an empty plot of grass, and every seagull on campus. It went as expected, only more so – the thrown fry, hundreds of gulls, circling and fighting and screaming, eyeing, we were sure, the handful of fries Emily had in her hand, which she then tucked into sweatshirt pocket, before she, like Stephanie and I, sat down, slunk closer to each other, and hugged our knees to our chests to be as small as possible, while the sea of screeching white above us circled and raged. I thought then of an unusual flower, the Shameplant, Mimosa Pudica. I remembered it from one of my Mom’s plant books, remembered it because, at the time, it took something that could move, could react, to capture my imagination, I suppose, and that’s exactly what the Shameplant, or Touch-Me-Not, or Sleeping Grass, or Prayer Plant, does – recoil.
Three flowers are mentioned in the Bible – lilies, camphire, and roses. Emily and Stephanie were shy as kids, they told me, chronically quiet – to the point where fellow churchgoers were concerned for the goings-on at home. God forbid that got around, because it couldn’t be more wrong – I met Emily and Stephanie’s parents, and their little sister, and they had a beautiful garden and a badminton court in the back and chickens to keep the wood-ticks down and two dogs who Emily could make roll and play dead when she pointed at them and said, “Bang!” I walked around their yard with Emily and Stephanie, and well before she knew she’d move into that duplex with the garden out front, she pointed to her parent’s rosebush, tall as our waists, the petals red and full as apples, and said she wanted one of those, someday.
I remembered wanting to say something about my Mom’s rosebush, rooted hard through the dried woodchips and into the flaky soil, resolute and defiant to neglect, barren, down to only thorns and skinny branches, surviving on just the rain and the sun, now. I remembered as a kid chasing garter snakes under that rosebush, and I remembered then that I always thought they were called “garden snakes,” until a friend, much later, in college, would correct me, and ask how I could’ve never learned that. I remembered telling them that that’s the only place I ever saw them, were gardens, so I thought it made sense – and it was somewhere in that conversation or the one with Emily, who was now quietly tipping the petals and peering at their veins, that I remembered crawling, bony knees soaking up marbles of dried soil, watching as a garden snake who was too quick for me took shelter beneath the thorns of Mom’s rosebush, which I peered up into to see, nestled amongst the thorns, the smallest robin’s nest, composed of a weave of pine needles, dry grass, my dog’s fur, and one crooked cigarette butt.
My family’s dog died on the same day Emily’s family’s cat died. Haley and Caesar, Bubbles and Boo-Boo, because there isn’t an animal alive whose worth you can contain in only one name. My Mom was asleep when it happened, passed out, really, slurring her words since noon almost every day since Haley began to slow down. When Dad came home and saw Haley, panting, the round of her skull starting to show through her fur, he asked if she was getting any better. Those words swirled in the summer air that snuck through the torn window screen: a life in an answer, a thousand meanings – I told him, no. My Dad nodded. He stepped into the bedroom, where Mom slept. She didn’t stir, had no covers on her, was still wearing her shoes when Dad grabbed his handgun, closed the door behind him, stepped into the kitchen where Haley lay and I stood, watching two chicken breasts brown in the dirty oven, and scooped what used to be a 90-pound Alaskan Malamute into one arm, stepped outside, laid her down amidst a grove of birches in the backyard, and shot her twice in the head.
The next morning, Mom asked Nicky and I if it really happened. Nicky and I had rehearsed this, had pulled the mattress from his bedroom into mine and slept the night there, had pitched the burnt chicken breasts, forgotten in the oven as we dug Haley’s grave, had eaten cereal instead, like kids, and told her, yes. We could only watch the rest of that day as the August air swept through the house, bundling Haley’s final hairs into clumps of fur, which Mom scooped into a Ziploc bag and slipped into a drawer in her bedroom.
I told Emily that Haley went peacefully, and she said Caesar went peacefully, too. I didn’t ask for details, and neither did she, but I think she knew the truth, and I think I knew the truth, and that she was shattered inside, and so was I – and in those shattered, messy bits of us was a recognition, a nest of knowing: knowing that we were odd as children, knowing that our oddness was for this reason or that, and that when we were around each other we didn’t talk about those reasons, or about if there even were reasons, and instead just liked to sit together, to fish on the banks of a river off of Blueberry Drive and catch minnows and rock bass and watch a snapping turtle down the shoreline bury her eggs, and not take things so seriously – and so I realized it when I watched Emily one day walk into Lake Superior, accidentally touch the hem of her shorts the water, and say “oops,” and smile and step in deeper and spin, and ripple the mirror of the lake, while I talked to my Mom on the phone, and she said things like that she missed me, and the house felt empty now –that Emily was telling me without telling me, every day, to appreciate the people in my life – the women, the friends, the mothers, the crying Dad walking into the house with the smoking gun, the little brother at home now for the summer, the passerby, the addicts – and so I think then it was the strangest thing, but the slowness of Mom’s voice, the jumbled letters, while it hurt the same as always, it was, for the first time, just a hurt – just pain, and not even – discomfort, a thorn, a barb in my finger, but nothing I couldn’t pull out, look at, understand, and learn from.
I knelt in Emily’s garden just days ago, just as she planted the cape daisies I found for her and Stephanie’s birthday along each side of the rosebush, which is beautiful, and in the midst of the tall flowers, the names of which I can never remember, but are in fact, very tall, and beautiful, and I didn’t tell Emily about how last time I was home Mom could barely speak for the muscle-relaxers and Russian Standard in her system, or that wild grasses and dandelions have grown over Haley’s grave, but I did tell her that the new dog likes to boof at the neighbors, and she told me that their kitten likes to sit in the window and make the strangest noises at the chipmunks, and it was quiet for a moment, and she told me that the flowers change colors depending on the soil, that’s it’s a gradient-thing, and I told her that I don’t know much, but that I learned the biggest flower in the world was called Puya raimondii, or Queen of the Andes, and it was thirty feet tall and it bloomed 8000 white flowers, and she laughed at that and I knew it was a nervous thing to say, but I did think I could picture it there, towering over us and casting mottled shade, smelling sweet as we sat there, and Stephanie and their little sister were laughing as they navigated a tandem-bike they found for sale and fixed up together, and I thought about how I would show Nicky next time he was in town, and how it’d be something to talk about when Mom would call, asking how things were going.
Brandon Hansen ran the 800-meter dash in high school. One time, on the home stretch, he had to spit, and he did. It ended up on his shoes. He has a weird dog and a boring fish, but he loves her, and him, and sometimes, he writes.