The window above the sink faced the neighbour’s back yard. As Susan washed the dishes, a man she hadn’t seen before stepped out the screen door into the yard. He was tall, with longish hair and a beard. He stood with a mug in his hand, looking at the garden patch.
New renters. She had noticed the owner around a lot lately, carrying tools and paint cans in and out. This was her new neighbour then.
A woman came out of the house and joined him. Her hair was long and straight, parted in the middle, and she wore a loose shirt and wide-legged pants. The man said something to her and pointed at the patch of earth; she nodded.
The dishes were washed now, and Susan decided to dry them instead of letting them drain as usual. She watched as a young girl, four or five years old, ran out and took the woman’s hand, then ran away to peer in a shed behind the garden.
That night, after feeding the baby and rocking her back to sleep, Susan went to the kitchen window and checked the neighbour’s yard. The outside light was on, and she could see the garden soil freshly turned, and bedding plants waiting in flats on a bench by the back door. She stood for a moment, trying to imagine life inside that door. The man would leave for work in the morning, driving the flappy-sided pickup.
Sometime later the girl would play in the yard while the woman drank from a mug and looked at the garden. Probably not coffee, they seemed too healthy and alternative for that. Herb tea or mate´, something bitter and exotic. Elise rumbled in her crib, and Susan turned back to the bedroom.
Susan pushed the stroller round to the back door. Elise had fallen asleep and she wanted to haul the stroller into the laundry room at the back, where she could leave her to sleep. As she felt for the keys in her pocket she glanced over across the low fence. The neighbour woman was squatting in the garden, long hair falling forward as she reached to set bedding plants in the soil. Susan opened the door and fussed with the baby’s blanket a bit as she watched. The truck was gone and the little girl probably at kindergarten, and the woman had some time to herself and her garden before the family came home. Susan bumped the stroller into the narrow passage and went on into the kitchen. Standing back from the window, she watched the woman work.
Their own garden had been a tangled jungle of raspberry canes, weeds, and volunteer tomatoes when they moved in. Susan’s husband had turned the soil with a rototiller borrowed from his father.
“If you plant the rows wide enough I can weed with the tiller,” he suggested. She imagined the spinning tines close to the delicate corn and tomato plants and shook her head. “It gives me a reason to be out there. I’ll just pull them by hand or use the hoe.”
Working in the garden, while Elise slept in the stroller, gave Susan an excuse to talk to the new neighbour. Her name was Jan. The man was not her husband and not the girl’s father. They had met at a music festival last summer and he had come to live with Jan and her daughter at her mother’s place in Vancouver.
“Mom was getting pretty fed up with it. All these people under her feet, she said. I mean, the people were her daughter and granddaughter, but I guess we were making her life too busy. I don’t know. So I signed up for the horticulture diploma at the college here. I love working with plants; they’re so straightforward. Jed got a job in a kitchen. Mom said she’d keep Maia for me, but I said I didn’t want to cramp her style. Jed’s a good father figure to Maia, anyway; they’ve really bonded.”
Susan was a reluctant driver. She didn’t like how this made her dependant on Jack to ferry her around, as they lived a fifteen minute drive from town. She tried taking the infrequent bus, struggling to take Elise out of the stroller and hold her while trying to fold the stroller with the other hand, then lugging baby and stroller up the steps, dropping the stroller, and going back for the diaper bag on the sidewalk. The driver and other passengers watched disinterestedly, and she felt pressure to hurry and not hold everyone up.
“Fare?” said the driver as she collapsed into a front seat.
“Oh, yes.” Susan shifted the baby on her knee and started sorting through her bag, grabbing at the stroller as the bus lurched forward.
When she told Jack about it, he suggested that they do groceries together at the weekend. “It’ll be faster and easier,” he said. Susan felt like crying. She was so busy trying to be stoic and efficient; she didn’t always admit to herself just how overwhelming the transition to motherhood was.
“I don’t know how my Mom did all this and made it look so easy,” she said. She was sitting at the kitchen table with the baby on her shoulder. Jack cleared the dinner plates and ran water into the sink.
“Mine too. But by the time we were noticing our mothers, they’d been doing it for years and we weren’t babies any more. I bet your mom sat up in the middle of the night crying while she fed you.” This was a reference to the previous night, when Susan had been sobbing so hard while the baby suckled that Jack woke up.
“I just feel like you’re working so hard already, going to work every day, and then helping me out in the evening and at the weekends.” She glanced at him, worried, not sure how much she could expect of him.
“What makes you think I don’t like that? She’s my baby too. And anyway my workday ends at five but yours is twenty four hours. I can help you out. Those guys do stuff together,” he added, nodding at the neighbour’s yard out the window. “It’s a lot easier once your kid is older, like theirs.”
“He’s not the dad, Jan told me yesterday. He’s just some guy she met at a music festival.”
“Well, they look like a family. Always working in the garden.”
Susan didn’t want Jan to know how much she watched her, didn’t want her to think she was weird. Although maybe she was. Maybe she was going a little crazy, at home all day with the baby. She wasn’t sure exactly what the point of her life was, who she was anymore. Elise’s mother, that much was obvious; the milk that filled her breasts and leaked from her nipples when the baby cried told her that, as well as the nights she spent alternately feeding and walking, or lying staring at the dark ceiling imagining the many awful ways a baby can die, and sobbing quietly so that Jack wouldn’t wake up.
A friend of Jack’s stopped by one afternoon before he was home, and Susan invited him to come in and wait. She brought coffee for him, mug in one hand and baby on the other shoulder, then sat with him in the living room, conscious of her unbrushed hair and the lilac fleece bathrobe an aunt had given her. She patted Elise’s back and tried to remember how to make conversation. The friend stretched out his legs and looked at his work boots, which she had told him not to bother taking off; the carpet hadn’t been vacuumed since the baby was born anyway.
“So,” he said, smiling at her then down at the coffee mug. “What does Susan do all day?”
She stared at him, amazed, and he smiled expectantly.
“I take care of the baby,” she said, wondering why he even had to ask.
“Yes, but apart from that. That doesn’t take all day, does it?”
Susan looked down at her bathrobe. Elise had been fussy today and she hadn’t been able to put her down long enough to dress. She didn’t like to shower unless Jack was there, worried something would happen while the water blocked off sound. Once, she had tried sitting Elise in her car seat on the bathroom floor, but she had cried the whole time and milk poured from Susan’s breasts in the warm water.
"Well, I take care of the house too,” said Susan, looking at the unvacuumed floor and thinking of the pile of dishes in the sink. She had rinsed the mug he was using under the tap with one hand before pouring his coffee. “With the baby, there’s not a lot of time for anything else.” Jack came in then and rescued her from more questioning.
Why do I have to justify my time? she thought later. Isn’t caring for a new life enough? But she knew it wasn’t, not for her.
Susan and Jack had met the summer before while they were both travelling in California. They spent the summer together in his van, travelling from beach to beach and sometimes to the mountains. They married in the fall in her parents’ back yard in Oregon. Susan was already two months pregnant, and had informed the head of her university department that she would not be returning to her studies. The Head of the Department of Languages was a small man with balding hair and a beard, and bright brown eyes. He steepled his fingers and leaned forward on his desk.
“You were presented with the top prize in German last year; the German Institute of Oregon gave you an inscribed thesaurus.”
“Yes,” she said, eyes on her hands in her lap.
“You were in the top three in French and your translating teacher tells me you have a natural gift for simultaneous translation.”
“Yes.” She looked out the window behind his head. He sighed.
“Is there nothing I can do to change your mind?”
She shook her head. He stood up to shake her hand.
“I think you’re making a mistake.”
Susan left without responding.
It was October when she came to Canada, newly married and pregnant, to the mid-sized city in southern BC where Jack had grown up. They drove across the border in Jack’s van, a few boxes of her clothes and books in the back. Her mother had said not to bother clearing out her old room at home, as if she expected her back soon enough. She would pack up the rest of her things and bring them when the baby was born, she said, and Susan wondered if she was waiting to see if it was worth the trouble, if Susan would be home before then.
Jack rented a small house from his father, next door to the house he had been born in. His parents had moved to a larger, newer house when Jack was still too young to remember, but had later bought the neighbouring house as a rental property.
“I remember the old couple who built this house,” Jack said. “I used to visit with Mom. An old Italian couple, I think. They had a huge garden, and Mom used to come over and can produce with the wife.”
Jack’s mother had died of lung cancer a year and a half ago, while he was away finishing his journalism degree. The move back was because he was worried about his dad, alone and “almost helpless,” he said. “I had to show him how to do laundry. Load it up to here, measure the detergent; he’s beyond helpless in the house.”
Bill tried to take an interest in his son’s life. The boy had a family now, for goodness sake. A young wife and a little daughter. He had married very quickly, and those types of marriages didn’t always last, but the girl seemed nice enough. A bit dazed by the speed of it all, the new town, being a mother so young. Frances had never been bewildered like that. Never still in her bathrobe at dinnertime. She had waited so long to be a mother, and had embraced it fully when it finally came.
Bill was twenty four and Fran twenty when they married, and they had expected to be parents soon. When Fran still wasn’t pregnant two years later, she had gone back to work part time at the community newspaper, where she wrote a weekly article for the women’s page. It was a household column, with recipes, tips on house cleaning, organizing a dinner party, handmade gifts, and so on. Fran enjoyed her work, but was always home before Bill so that smells of dinner cooking met him as he came in. On days she wasn’t at the newspaper office she often experimented at home, testing new cleaners or making picture frames from coloured cardboard. Fran was always singing. “I like to hear people sing while they work,” she would say, and she sang while she starched and folded napkins for an article on setting a festive table, or tested a recipe a reader had sent in. She was always ready with a laugh, always saw the bright side; she could look out on a cloudy, rainy March sky and find the one tiny patch of blue. “I think it’s clearing,” she’d say.
She was almost thirty and Bill already in his thirties when she became pregnant. Bill had settled into a comfortable life without children, but Fran was ecstatic. She resigned from the newspaper and threw herself into preparing for motherhood. Here was the project she had been practising for all these years, the real one finally. Jack could, perhaps, have been a spoiled, overprotected child, only child of older, doting parents; but his was a calm, thoughtful nature that responded well to his parents’ attention. As a child, he was content to spend his time working alongside his mother in the well-ordered house, and it was their frequent visits to his mother’s old workplace that formed his decision to become a journalist. As a young teenager Jack was already working for the paper: running errands, folding flyers, researching archives. He planned to seek employment at a large national publication after graduation, maybe even move to the US where there were so many more opportunities. That all changed when Fran became ill, the cancer moving quickly so that she was dead two months after the diagnosis. Father and son were both lost, drifting in their grief, without Fran who was the glue between them. Jack managed to finish his degree, then bought a van and took off travelling. Bill rarely heard from him until he came back with a young, pregnant wife.
Bill missed Fran humming in the kitchen; wherever she was, there had been sound and movement, and now the house was so terribly empty.
Midsummer was already past, and the days were shortening and the nights lengthening towards winter, but the heat was just reaching its peak. When the baby woke in the night, and fed and cried, and wouldn’t go back to sleep, Susan took her outside into the summer air like a warm bath and walked her around the yard, rocking her and looking at the hills across the highway. Inside, the house still held the heat of the day, even with all the windows open to the night, but outside it was pleasant to walk in pyjamas and bare feet, the earth still warm underfoot. In summer here in the semi-desert it never really cooled off. Their house sat exposed in the middle of the yard, nothing protecting it from the insisting sun. At night Susan could smell the heat rising from the asphalt roof, could imagine heat waves shimmering off the house seeking somewhere to dissipate in the bleached landscape.
Exhausted as Susan was, she still welcomed the chance to go out into the mellow night and feel what slight air movement there was, rustling the hedge of apricot saplings lining the driveway. This was when she loved the sun, which made her life a misery of sweat and irritation during the day: now when it was gone below the horizon, and its heat released from the earth and the house walls felt gentle and unthreatening.
Raised voices from the open windows next door drew her head. She stopped walking to listen and the baby whimpered and turned her head on Susan’s shoulder. She felt exposed now, in her pyjamas and bare feet; the open back door was on the other side of the house. She walked to the door, shoulders hunched, and as she reached it the voices grew louder and the screen door slammed open, and Jan stumbled out backwards followed by Jed, who was shouting and jabbing a finger at her face. Susan hurried in and went to the window. Jan was screaming and punched at Jed with both hands. He stumbled back then grabbed Jan by the shoulders.
Jack came up behind her and asked what was going on. “We should call the police,” she said. “I don’t like the look of this.”
“Do you think we should interfere? Everyone argues sometimes.”
“This is more than arguing. I could hear them when they were still in the house. He’s grabbing the shovel – oh God, Jack, you have to go out there – what is he – the garden! He’s smashing the garden! Jack!”
“Alright, maybe if I just go out and make my presence felt he’ll calm down.”
Jack went out the back door and Susan ran for the phone.
“It’s already been called in,” said the dispatcher. “There’s a patrol car on its way right now.”
Susan looked out the door. Jack was re-stacking a pile of lumber, letting the planks slap down loudly. Jan was alternately screaming at Jed to stop and crying with her hands to her head. A police car pulled in and two officers emerged.
The next morning, Jed’s truck was gone as usual, but it didn’t come back in the evening.
“Good riddance,” said Jan over the fence. “He had such a temper. That wasn’t the first time.”
“I feel so bad about your garden,” said Susan, looking at the young plants hacked and lying around the churned up soil. “All the work you put into it.”
“My arm is bruised where he dragged me around.” Jan pulled up her sleeve to show Susan. “Such a control freak. Everything had to be his way.”
“You always seemed like such a happy family to me.”
Jan shook her head. “I’m better off without him. I’m going to take Maia down to my Mom’s for a visit; we need to get out of here for a bit.”
When Jan and Maia left for Vancouver in Jan’s old Subaru with the dreamcatcher hanging from the mirror, Susan felt let down, empty. She washed the breakfast dishes while Elise had her morning nap, and looked out the window at the quiet yard, the screen door that had been left hanging open. That afternoon, after their walk to the mail box and around the block, with Elise sleeping in the stroller next to the chain fence, Susan swung over the fence into Jan’s yard. She stood for a moment looking around, orienting herself to the familiar scene closer up. Details came into focus that couldn’t be seen from the kitchen window: the garden tools leaning against the wall on the far side of the screen door, the pattern of red brick between the door and the garden, the deep grooves in the seat of the wooden bench.
The garden was left in the aftermath of Jed’s rage, wilted plants scattered over the soil. The red bucket Jan used to collect weeds sat on the bricks and Susan bent and started pulling tomato vines, broccoli plants and wilted kale and throwing them in the bucket. By the time Elise woke up she had filled and emptied the bucket onto the compost heap four times, and raked the soil smooth. She swung back over the fence and stood looking at her work. She would have liked to have gone into the house and tidied up there too, but she didn’t even try the door to see if it was locked; she was afraid of her strong desire to walk through Jan’s space, to sit at her table and know what Jan would see when she sat there, look in the fridge, at the food left on the plates by the sink; lie on her bed, stare at the ceiling and the walls; fall asleep there and be found like Goldilocks, inhabiting a skin that was not hers.
The sun was rising later now, well past the solstice and heading to the fall of the year. Just as suddenly as she had left, Jan was back, and she had brought two men with her.
“Her brothers, probably. Or her dad. One of them looks old enough,” Jack said. He was reading the newspaper at the kitchen table. Susan stood back from the sink and watched the two strange men, who were holding cans of beer and looking at the garden.
“She’s never mentioned a brother,” she said. “And she told me her dad took off years ago. That’s why her mom’s so crabby.”
“Her mom’s probably crabby because her daughter drifts around getting into trouble,” said Jack, not looking up from the paper. “Maybe she replaced Jed already. Two of them in case one is another psycho.”
“Well, I think she’s nice. It can’t be easy raising a kid by yourself.”
Later, when the men were in the house, Susan spoke to Jan across the fence.
“I picked them up right at the top of the Coquihalla, on the way down to Mom’s,” Jan said. “Their ride took off and left them when they stopped at the washrooms by the tollbooth. I couldn’t leave them stranded on a mountain like that. Dave and me talked all the way to Vancouver. It was like we knew each other already; our connection was so deep, so real. Mom wasn’t into having him and Justin stay, so I left Maia with her and stayed at the boys’ place. We’re just back to get my stuff. I’m moving in with them. Dave and me are like soul mates; we both just know this was meant to be.”
“But what about your course? And your garden?”
Jan shrugged. “That’s just outer stuff. The details. What matters is finding your inner bliss and following that where it takes you. Love, you know?”
Susan was eating breakfast by herself. Elise was down for her morning nap, and Jack had left for work, leaving two cups of decaf coffee in the coffee maker. He worried that Susan drank regular coffee when he wasn’t there and that was why Elise woke up crying at night: “the caffeine is probably into your milk by evening and then it’s like you’re feeding her coffee for her bedtime snack”. It was ten am and Susan sat at the small table in her bathrobe, eating a bowl of cereal.
There was a knock at the back door. Startled, Susan looked out the back window and saw Jan standing on the porch.
“We’re heading back to the coast today,” she said. “I just wanted to say goodbye. There’s some plants in the house you might want to have. I’m leaving the door unlocked; you should go in and get them. I haven’t told the landlord I’m leaving, so do it soon before he realizes I’m gone and cleans the place out.”
Susan invited her in, but Jan said the boys were itching to get going, this place was too quiet for them, and she still had some things to pack. She turned to go.
“And thanks for cleaning up the garden, by the way. It was you, wasn’t it? I didn’t want to touch it; it was like Jed’s anger was still hanging there.”
Susan closed the door and poured the warm decaf down the sink, put on a fresh batch of regular coffee. She stood and looked out the window while it made.
She waited until Jack came back from work to go over to Jan’s. Jack was hesitant.
“It’s ok,” Susan said, “Jan said we should pick up the things she left me. Anyway, then we get to see your parents’ old place.”
Jack carried Elise. The door was unlocked as Jan had said. The house was partially cleared; there was a table in the kitchen, but no chairs. A coffee table and bookcase were left in the living room and a picture of a coastal scene on the wall. The marks of the bed legs on the bedroom carpet were all that was left there. The plants were sitting on the kitchen counter.
“Do you want them all?” Jack called. Susan came back to the kitchen.
“We don’t really need any plants. I’m killing the ones we have already.” She looked around, imagining Jan at the counter making dinner, chopping vegetables from the garden for soup while Jed helped Maia read a book at the table.
“Look, she left her gardening tools,” Jack said, pointing at a crate by the back door. “I guess she doesn’t need them now. You could take those.” He walked to the door and looked out. “Mom always liked to garden too. Dad’s let the yard go since she died. He’s let everything go, really.”
After Fran died, Bill met an acquaintance he hadn’t seen in a long time by the yoghurts in the dairy aisle.
“How’s Fran?” asked the man.
“Oh, she’s dead,” Bill said. “Two months after they diagnosed the cancer.”
The man sucked in his breath, stricken. “God, I’m so sorry Bill, I had no idea.”
“No, me neither. Last thing I expected. You think the people who love life so much are invincible.”
After that he tried to pre-empt such questions: get the big one out the way right away. “Where’s that laundry soap with the lemon on the box? My wife died, I have to figure these things out myself now,” he would say to the clerk, see the surprise and pity cross her face, and think, ok, that’s done now.
Jack came to see him most evenings after dinner, often bringing leftovers in case Bill hadn’t got around to eating that day. He would put on some laundry, turn on lights, water plants while Bill ate the food Jack had warmed up in the microwave.
“You need an interest Dad, a hobby, something to get you going.”
Bill looked at him, then away again. “You shouldn’t be coming over here every night, son. You have a family of your own now. I can manage.”
“Doesn’t seem like it, Dad. Look at you sitting here with the lights off and not eating all day. Why don’t you just go over and see Susan and Elise in the afternoons? Susan’s stuck at home a lot of the time, and you’d enjoy seeing your granddaughter. Wouldn’t you?”
Bill bent his head to his plate. To be honest, it hurt to see the young soul that Fran would have given anything to hold, the grandchild she would never meet.
Lying awake at night, listening to Elise snuffling and sighing, waiting for her to wake up again, Jack breathing on her other side, Susan sometimes imagined walking away from it all. Pack a few clothes in a bag and go, back to the life she had had before. This usually ended with her crying, holding the quilt over her face, knowing that the strands that bound her to her child were already too strong to break without breaking pieces of herself. Sometimes her crying would wake Jack, who would pat her shoulder sleepily or pull her into his arms, where she would sob harder. He never asked her why she cried in the night, why a new mother would have such a weight of grief while her baby slept in the crib next to their bed, the innocent life that had changed theirs forever.
Bill sat at his kitchen table, staring at the empty chair on the other side, and wondered why he stayed. Why keep living? For Jack, came the easy answer, but what kind of father was he now, sitting here in the dark house, unable to get up to turn on the lights and be forced to look at the emptiness of his house. He dreaded Jack’s visit every evening, the way he studied him, sat in Fran’s chair and watched to make sure he ate. The boy had his own grieving to do; his mother had been close to him in a way Bill could never approach, this solemn child who seemed to be always watching him.
“Go out for a walk at least, Dad, get some fresh air.”
Bill didn’t tell him that he had stopped leaving the house during the day for fear of meeting people and having to talk about Fran, and see the wary pity on their faces. He walked at night, after midnight when the streets were empty. He walked past the little house in the big yard next to Jack and Susan’s, where he and Fran had started out. Since Jack told him the tenants had moved out, he had started going into the yard, to the garden.
Susan stood at the sink and held a bottle of breast milk under the cold tap; Jack had suggested they get Elise used to a bottle so he could take over some of the night-time feedings. She had overheated the milk and was trying to cool it down to the right temperature. She squeezed a couple of drops onto the inside of her wrist: still too hot. She put the bottle in the stream of cold water and looked out the window. Bill came around the corner of the house next door into the yard. He stopped and looked at the garden. Susan turned the tap off. Bill went to the house, opened the screen and tried the door; it opened and he stood a moment on the threshold, peering in. He glanced back over his shoulder and went in. Susan tested the milk on her wrist again and went to get Elise from the crib. When she had fed her the bottle and was burping her on her shoulder she checked the neighbour’s yard out the window. Bill was sitting on the bench beside the back door, hands in his lap and shoulders hunched forward.
Bill sat on the bench and tried to imagine Fran there beside him, Fran in the garden pulling weeds, pulling carrots and waving the leafy clump at him, smiling. He couldn’t see her. She wasn’t there. Not there.
“Bill.” He started and looked over at the yard next door. For a moment he saw Fran standing there with their baby son on her shoulder. When she spoke again, he saw it was his daughter-in-law at the fence, Susan, the young girl.
“Elise couldn’t sleep. It’s a lot more pleasant out here; it’s so hot in the house. Could you not sleep either?”
Bill turned back to the garden, the bare earth sprouting a faint flush of green weeds. Susan was still waiting at the fence. Bill got up and went over to her. The baby, his granddaughter, slept in her arms. He reached out and laid his hand on Elise’s downy head. So soft. He could barely remember Jack at this age. He looked at Susan, and saw how strained her face was in the white summer moonlight.
“Can I hold her?”
“Of course. She’s getting to be so heavy these days. There’s a seat here on the porch.” He crossed the fence and sat where Susan showed him. She handed him the baby, who snuffled and moved her head on his chest. He bent his head and smelled her milky-sweet scent.
“You go on in to bed, Susan. You must be exhausted. I’ll bring her in in a bit.” Susan looked as if she was going to say something, then just nodded and went in. Bill sat on the porch with his head bent over the baby. “Elise Frances,” he murmured. “Fran.”
Jillian Harvey lives in Nelson, BC. Mainly she is a single mother of four, and she pays the bills (almost) by working as a grocery store clerk, which at least has a more regular paycheque than her previous career as an organic farmer. Writing is her passion and what happens in the early mornings, lunch hours and in bed before sleep. She has written content for websites and her short story ‘Summer Range’ won second prize in the 2012 Okanagan Short Story Contest.