Carmen Frances Jackett never smoked, drank or gambled. She had never shot anything up her arm or scratched away the surface of a lottery ticket. The only vice that Carmen had was gardening. The sweet intoxicating high she got from pushing her fingers through soil - the adrenaline rush from yanking out a dandelion by its root - that was her painkiller.
In her yard, she had three large plots of soil, two of which were filled from edge to edge with manicured flower beds. The first, filled with marigolds in memory of her first husband, Tony. The second, filled with madonna lilies in memory of her second husband, Luis. The third was only dirt, a sheet of black amongst the colourful borders of wildflowers, lilies and shrubbery. Thin strips of garden ran along the perimeter of her cramped yard, each replete with a variety of greens, browns and pinks.
When her daughter brought over the dog, the nasty drooling destructive creature that they called Howard, Carmen worried for her dahlias and her daisies. Selena had never been very good at discipline and this was evident with her monstrous children as well.
“Mom. They’re kids… they act like kids. Don’t you remember being a kid?” Selena tried to explain as she leaned against the side of the house, avoiding a perfectly placed trellis on her left.
“I remember being a child perfectly well, Selena. I also remember my mother and father scolding me when I misbehaved,” Carmen replied, filling up her well-used watering jug from the tap that had been sealed and resealed against the side of the crumbling foundation.
“I remember that too.”
Carmen looked up from her filling to see her daughter rolling her eyes, as she always did, as she always had. She had always been so contemptuous. From the moment Selena had learned to talk, she’d had an attitude problem. Carmen swore she would have filed a complaint about her birth canal if infant Selena had been able to file paperwork.
The dog hopped through the garden, digging its claws into the roots of the precious Sweet Flag and Goatsbeard.
“Shoo mongrel!” Carmen cried.
“Howard, get out of there.” Selena barely tried.
Carmen rushed forward, raised the chock-full watering jug and dumped it over the dog’s catastrophic snout. Howard whimpered and then shook himself so hard that water covered Carmen’s hosiery and loafers. Then the dog ran to Selena, rubbing his wet fur against her jeans and leaving behind patches of thin brown hair.
After giving a disappointed shake of her head, Carmen went through the back door to prepare lunch for the children and for Selena. Of course, Selena had not fed her children before she had come, she left that responsibility to Carmen and certainly, Paul would not do it. Paul had never been a chef. He had fallen in love with Carmen when she had brought a plate of dainties to Bingo. The indication that a woman could cook for herself and make him fat, somehow endearing.
Carmen’s friends, the few that she had, didn’t believe her when she had told them she was getting married a third time. Paul had been so enamoured with her and her baking that despite her protests of marrying at the ripe age of 66, he had insisted. He had shoved that tacky yellow gold ring on her finger and they had been married at his church. Carmen had not realized how truly useless he would be until he moved into her house, ate her food and used her shampoo.
Really, she shouldn’t be upset about the shampoo but it was a special product recommended to her by her gay stylist. It was expensive and likely worth more than the wedding ring itself.
Carmen buttered four pieces of white bread, not bothering to make a sandwich for herself. The mongrel, ripping through her buds, had made her lose her appetite. She grumbled underneath her breath as she smothered the sandwiches with peanut butter and honey.
Selena and the dog came barreling into the house, the children following behind them and then weaving and gliding along the tile with sticky fingers and snot-covered lips.
“Careful!” Carmen shouted, pointing a butterknife at Lucy and then Patrick. “Why don’t you go watch some TV with papa?”
“Okay, grandma!” Lucy yelled and placed a sticky finger onto Carmen’s bottom. She jumped and shooed the little blonde girl out of her kitchen.
“Paul! Let them watch some cartoons!” Carmen called through the walls, shook her head and returned to the sandwiches. Patrick lingered in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, shuffling from side to side with his bright orange sneakers. Carmen had told Selena not to bother with the expensive Nikes; he was going to grow out of them in three weeks. “What is it, Patrick?”
Selena tugged the dog into the living room and away from the delectable smell of peanut butter.
“Gamma,” Patrick said through a toothless grin.
“Grandma,” Carmen corrected. With a twist of her thin wrist, she plopped down a dollop of honey onto the second sandwich. “What is it? Out with it.”
“Grandma,” Patrick said, stretching out each syllable. “Your garden smells.”
Then, he ran from the kitchen to join his mother, his sister and his dog in the living room to watch cartoons.
“Little monster,” Carmen grumbled to herself as she finished up the sandwiches and cut them each in half. She looked down at the plate of white triangles that she had created and for a moment, thought about chucking them against the wall.
They didn’t deserve it.
They didn’t deserve her.
Carmen entered the living room with her plate of sandwiches. She placed it down on the marble-top coffee table that her first husband had purchased for her on one of their anniversaries that she didn’t care to remember. Selena and her children reached forward, immediately stuffing their cheeks full with peanut butter, honey and Wonderbread. Howard sniffed at the plate, his large black, wet nose spraying mucus over the ceramic.
“Howard, get,” Selena muttered with half of the enthusiasm that she needed.
There was no place for Carmen to sit. Paul was in his chair. Selena was on the edge of the couch with Lucy in her lap and Patrick splayed out next to them, dropping crumbs of bread onto the chesterfield. Then, the dog jumped up, stretching out his body onto the last cushion, plopping down on to the best spot to see the TV even though he couldn’t decipher between Alex Trebek and Ellen. Carmen stood beside the chesterfield, placing one wrinkled hand on the back to keep herself steady.
“Paul-” Carmen started.
Her bald, fat husband turned his head halfway towards her. His face was red and flushed from eating too fast and one of his slippers had fallen off, displaying his yellowy crusted toenails that she had begged him to take a file to weeks ago.
“What?” Paul asked.
“What kind of flowers would you like to see in the garden, dear? What are your favourites?”
“You asked me that before,” Paul muttered and turned his eyes back to the TV.
“Well, I just want to be sure.”
“You know I like those little blue ones…”
“They’re essentially weeds, Paul.”
“Well, you asked me and that’s the answer.”
That evening, after Selena and her mongrels left, Carmen drove to Schmitt’s Greenhouse to pick up the forget-me-nots. Carmen was lucky that they still had this late in the season. Rather, Paul was lucky. She bought two full trays of the spidery blue flowers, ensuring that she had more than enough to cover the final square of dirt in her growing garden.
As the evening grew into night, Carmen took a drive. She had always loved driving. The thrumming of the engine, the circulation of stifled air, the smell of gasoline. She stopped at the 7/11 and bought herself a Monster Energy, part of the routine, though in the past before they had sold these borderline radioactive drinks, she drank espresso to prepare herself. Carmen sat in the parking lot, the car running, the Monster Energy emptying into her stomach and her mind plotting the garden.
The next day, Selena came over again but left the children with their father. The gate squeaked behind Carmen as she bent over the dirt in front of her and stuffed it full with forget-me-nots. It was almost there. Three-quarters filled with the pale-blue, 5-petaled flowers connected with thin green stems, weaving in and out of one another, creating a carpet of foilage overtop of the fresh, black dirt.
Howard came tumbling down the stone path, running through the marigolds, the madonna lilies and heading straight for all of the work that Carmen had been slaving over all night.
“Howard!” Selena called.
“Shoo!” Carmen cried. The dog sniffed hard against the forget-me-nots and the dirt, fixating on a spot in the corner like if he turned away that it would disappear from his senses. Selena bounded forward, crushing a fully bloomed madonna lily with her sneakers, and grabbed Howard by his collar, yanking him backwards. The dog yelped.
“You must get that beast under control, Selena or you won’t be able to bring him around the garden anymore,” Carmen said as she dug out another hole in the dirt and settled another plant of forget-me-nots into their new home.
“I know,” Selena replied. “He’s just excited… This looks great. Did you do this all yesterday?”
“Last night, yes.”
“Paul did say that he liked forget-me-nots.”
“Yes.” Carmen sliced at the ground with her gardening spade. “He did.”
“Where is he? Inside?” Selena patted Howard on his head, still holding him by the collar as he obsessively sniffed the air.
“He went on a fishing trip. Alone. Lake Annatoo.”
“Really? I didn’t even know he liked to fish.”
“Certainly, Selena. You don’t know much about him at all, dear.”
“Yea, I guess.” Selena awkwardly stood behind her mother. Carmen looked at her over her shoulder, analyzing her sloppy sweatpants and stained t-shirt. “Do you mind if I get something to eat?”
Carmen brought her eyes upward. Selena had never asked before. Had she finally successfully instilled some manners in her daughter?
“Of course,” Carmen said and gestured to the back door with her spade. “Take the dog inside with you.”
Selena nodded and shuffled down the path to the door, dragging Howard with her who was still trying to break free and sniff at the forget-me-nots.
It didn’t take Carmen long to finish with the flowers and when she was finished, the previous spot of emptiness was breaming with life. She stood up and placed her hands on her hips, the red-black dirt sticking underneath her fingernails and palms, transferring onto her gardening smock. Carmen sighed. Content. Relieved. She stepped gently through the freshly-planted flowers and cleared away the mat of green stems so that she could scrutinize the spot Howard had been sniffing because perhaps she had missed something. She was experienced, done this multiple times, but she was getting old and forgetful. And sure enough, she had forgotten or something had shifted because when she cleared away the small blue flowers to get through to the base of dirt, there was Paul’s tacky yellow-gold wedding ring. How careless of her. She took the spade and hammered down on the ring; however, since it was still attached to his thick finger, it gave a distasteful crack, almost splitting in half. Carmen hit it again, burying the ring and split-finger down into the soil, next to the madonna lilies and the marigolds, beneath the forget-me-nots, and under the garden.