Nobody in the neighborhood had anything bad to say about Winfred [Smith] and he knew it, and he figured he had them all pretty well duped, it was apparent by the way he snorted and drew the corners of his mouth tight and shook his head whenever he shut his thick oak door behind him after an evening’s stroll and some brief pleasantry with Marie his nextdoor neighbor, out picking up toys after laying her two little ones to sleep, or with Nathan from two doors down, a history teacher at the local twoyear college, a good conversationalist on any topic save clothing, which was Winfred’s field and had been for thirtyseven years without a stop even for wars. In the mornings and afternoons he didn’t see anyone, the kids gone to school or daycare and the parents working, it seemed that everyone who wasn’t little or in school in that neighborhood worked and so Winfred, who himself was down to two days a week at Morgan and Huntington’s Men’s Store in his slow skid toward retirement, had plenty of time in his house and his garden to mope.
He moped in the mornings when he went into his backyard, raggedy with weeds and mapleseeds and twigs, to hose down his twelve tomato plants and inspect them for the green worms too ugly for even birds to eat and then pick the red fruit and bite into and slurp them like juicy peaches or else take them inside to slice into thick slabs to grace his toast and mayonnaise, and he’d inspect his cucumber plants tied to homemade trellises made of thin bamboo rods and tied at the crossings with simple string, for some reason he liked to run his thumb and forefinger along the cukes’ little spines and he always picked them before the spines were shed so he could rub them off with his naked palms. He grew and nurtured basil and dill too, he prefered dill on his tomatoes, liked to sprinkle it on the runny pulp with each bite, and he grew a dozen thyme plants because with the basil he liked it on all his meats, even lunchmeat, and in the fall he dried and stored it, but he moped all the time he tended to these progeny of his passionless green thumb.
You sure keep a nice garden Mr. Smith his young meteorologist neighbor Judah Malliou would tell him over the cyclone fence between their yards. When Judah wasn’t offering compliments to Winfred the distant sight of his smooth skin and dimples and thinly braided hair curled the older man’s lip like sour milk, but the verbal emollients he customarily offered eased the distate.
Yep it’s a dandy Winfred would typically say, but I’ve been growing this stuff for a lot of years so it should be. You have to water the tomatoes every morning and sprinkle just a tablespoon of the right kind of fertilizer around their roots a couple of times a season, and they never fail to grow to perfection. And you have to spray the basil, especially when it’s young, but the other plants just grow like little kids.
(He’s too cute with his answers Judah Malliou says after supper one evening to D’Andra his wife, the first utterance smacking of chariness about Winfred Smith in the neighborhood as far as either of them know. He’s always got something cute to say. Judah and D’Andra like to wash and dry dinnerware together rather than use their appliance. They take turns washing and drying.
(Like what she says. She turns her head and upper body to the right and peers at Judah from the left corners of her eyes, her brow heavy.
(Like his plants grow just like little kids.
(She lightens up her brow, her eyes widen, her body relaxes. Hey that is cute isn’t it she says. She nods rhythmically, shrugs. And . . . so what’s wrong with cute? She turns playful, places her fists alongside her chin screws up her lips and with her head atilt wiggles her nose, receives a smile for her effort.
(I don’t know he says through his smile, then turns serious. A guy always says cute things but never has a cute look on his face, there’s gotta be something wrong. And he never says anything about his own kids, if he ever had any. I heard he did, but he never says a word about them. Judah turns to gaze at his own two girls playing a board game on the dining room floor.
(So why would you expect a cute look on the face of an old guy like that. She’s serious now too. And why should he have to say anything about his kids. There might be a lot of reasons he doesn’t and it’s none of our business.
(Just the same, he says too many things that are too cute.
(D’Andra tosses the drying towel on the counter, she’s tense now, fastens her dark eyes on Judah’s, nods to herself, tightens her lips. Besides that she says, he’s got to say cute things because, like you said, he sure don’t have a cute face.
(He’s got kind of troubled eyes. You ever notice?
(No, I never did, she leans against the counter, crosses her ankles and her arms, I mean, not just his eyes alone. What I notice is his whole face, the whole thing, eyes and all. The whole thing. And I’m not particularly pleased with what I see.
(What do you see?
(I see soggy ground.
(Soggy ground. You know, ground like sponge cake. You know, you walk on it and you . . . no, you’d probably sink a little and then spring up. Maybe more like taffy. You sink a little into it and then you have a hard time lifting your foot up. And you want to avoid the mouth.
(The mouth. Why the mouth.
(Because his mouth’s like an ugly churning maw.
(He laughs. A maw? Baby, you are all of a sudden a hard woman. What’s happening with you.
(A maw. An ugly churning maw.
(In the taffy?
(No, in the soggy ground.
(He pulls a stool up to the island he had made himself and sits on it. And the eyes?
(The eyes are driedout sauteed mushrooms.
(That’s why I don’t ever talk to him. I don’t want to get close enough to talk to him because I can’t look at his face closeup.
(Yeah I can see. He sees too that her face is very intense. What do you suppose goes through a guy’s mind like that he says.
(Cute things she says, cute little things that he likes to bullshit people with, she whirls around to face the window, the backyard, studies a robin splashing in its concrete bath, turns back and glares at Judah. But I don’t want Djooli’a and Shamika to go over into his yard.)