This story is by Rachel Denhollander and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Jim Dillar was not somebody to be approached lightly. He loved his gardens and his Jack Russell, Peppin. People who appreciated neither, might as well not exist. It wasn’t that Jim disliked people, quite the contrary. He was an ‘anti-social pill’ as his sister had once called him. Jim had disagreed at the time, but now, years later described himself as an introvert.
Jim never strayed from his routine. After a solid eight-hour day, he came home and puttered around in his garden while chatting with Wilma his next-door neighbor. At 9:30, Jim went inside and watched “Lost”. He owned the complete series on dvd. Watching through it three times a year, taking only Christmas and Thanksgiving off.
It was a warm summer evening, and Jim knelt in a patch of bush beans talking to Wilma, who was picking her teeth with a knitting needle. It was tiny. “For baby blanket’s” She’d told him once, which puzzled him. Wilma didn’t have any kids, and she certainly had no great love of anyone else’s.
“-And Greg swore that they were the absolute best. None better,” Wilma was saying. She pulled the needle from her lips and sucked air between her teeth.
“Yeah?” He didn’t look up. Wilma’s abrupt changes in topic were something you didn’t notice after a while. Wilma herself was something like an achy knee; ever-present and uncomfortable, but you lived with it, and on occasion, the pain would disappear. If only for an hour.
“Did you hear the Grenitch’s house sold?” Jim looked up. He might have said something like, ‘Really?’ or ‘Interesting, when?’ but in typical Wilma fashion, she plowed right ahead.
“Sold yesterday. This morning the lady came with the realtor to get the keys, and the woman stood talking with the gardener for a long time. Grass? Maybe that’s what they were talking about? Well, she has a husband of course, but he didn’t come today. I would guess they’ll move in next week.”
“That’s nice,” Jim said, paying more heed to his beans than his neighbors fact-spouting.
“It’s about time! This neighborhood is full of old bore’s,” Wilma said. There was a tinge of maliciousness in her voice that made Jim smile.
“Spying getting boring?”
She shrugged, and tried to poke him with her needle.
“I do not spy. I stay informed.”
Jim stood, wiping soil from his hands.
“Yeah, I know. Goodnight.”
As with every other person in Jim’s small community, he watched with interest as the ‘Grenitch’s’ house took on a different mien. Covert peeking through lace curtains was Wilma’s preferred method of spying. Jim was partial to observation-by-way-of-watering.
The Grenitch house was just like all the others in the community: large with a big front lawn in which stood ancient elm tree’s. Jim’s own yard was meticulous in its landscaping. Each flower bed placed exactly right and taken the tenderest care of. The Grentich house had few gardens; grass and hedges dominated the yard. Things a novice could care for. Unlike Wilma, -who had only one small rosebush- Jim didn’t call the man who cut the hedges a ‘gardener’. Jim was a gardener. That scruffy, cowboy hatted ruffian could no more be called ‘gardener’ than Jim could be called a ‘Chef’.
Three large mover’s were unloading a giant truck when Jim arrived home from work one evening, while a woman supervised. Jim gathered his things from his car and went inside. People carrying large objects back and forth no longer held interest for him. He ate a quiet meal, read the newspaper and when he was done, played fetch with Peppin. Then it was out to the garden.
As usual, he started with the flower beds in the front of his house. Watering, dead heading, and weeding them. Peppin tagged along, rolling in the grass, chasing birds and occasionally dozing at Jim’s feet.
The mover’s were gone by the time Jim stepped onto his lawn to attend to an offending dandelion plant. The only sign of life from the house across the street, were lights being turned on in various rooms, then flickering off. Jim pictured boxes being carried and unpacked in each of the rooms. Boxes marked with words like ‘Fragile!!!!’. The summary of someone’s entire life, packed up and stuffed into a box.
Jim was kneeling by a bed of pansies, when he heard someone say “hello?” in a soft, quavering voice. Jim expected to see a child when he glanced up.
Instead, a well groomed, fashionable woman stood in his drive. She looked like someone unaccustomed to work, hair tied in a red kerchief. Her whole outfit could have come straight from the ‘50’s.
He rose from his pansies and greeted her. “Hello, I’m Jim Dillar.”
“Anne Bow,” she shook his hand firmly.
“My husband Ronald and I are your new neighbor’s.” She gestured towards the house with her chin. Her voice was very nice, thought Jim. Her accent was British, and while her tone was soft, it was now firm and carried easily.
“Well, I am delighted to meet you Mrs. Bow,” Jim watched Peppin, running around the yard.
The woman, Anne, made no attempts at further conversation, letting her eyes wander over Jim’s garden. Appreciation filled her gaze.
“You seem something of a horticulturist,” Anne said, not seeming to notice the strained silence.
“I was just bemoaning to my husband, that our house’s previous gardener was woefully ill equipped,” she laughed, “did you ever speak to him?” Jim nodded, yes. “Well, to be honest, he seemed a bit half-witted to me. Really only capable of trimming the hedges.”
She laughed, Jim squinted at her.
‘Half-witted’ was unfair of her to say. The man just didn’t love his trade. Unfortunate, really. Jim would have loved to quit his optometrist job and devote his life to his flowers. He wouldn’t mind having to mow lawns if it meant he could work with flowers all day.
“Well, it’s been lovely chatting,” Anne said, “I’d better be off, see you later.”
Jim nodded in acknowledgment, and watched as she crossed the street to her house. As she left, the tightness in his chest released. “Yes, it has been. See you later,” he murmured. But she was gone. She couldn’t hear him. She would never be able to hear him again. Why could he never say the true things when it mattered most? Maybe she would have stayed longer if he had spoken more. Said what he wanted to say. The true things.
Twenty minutes later, Jim went to his back garden. Wilma was there leaning against her side of the fence. Tonight she cradled a china teacup in her hands. She appraised him, then observed, “She’s pretty.”
“I’m sorry?” Jim pulled himself out of his thoughts.
“She was a looker,” Wilma repeated. She peered suspiciously at him under her spectacles.
“I suppose so. Wilma, she’s married,” He said, forestalling her next comment. He wanted to tell her that she was being a busy body, to go boil her head. But he had been raised right. He knew from experience what such comments could do to a person.
Wilma snorted a knowing snort into her dainty china. “Well, that never stopped anybody, did it?”
Jim raised his hand to his forehead, trying to rub the hurtful comments away. Erase them from his never forgetting brain.
“Wilma….” Jim began.
“I mean, Jim, don’t you ever get lonely? Don’t you have friends?” Jim blinked at her. He should be used to this, people never listening, cutting him off when he was about to say a true thing. He backed away from her, hands up. Warding against any potential words she might say.
“I’m sorry, Wilma. I need to go,” he turned and loped towards his house, calling Peppin.
“It’s only nine O’clock!” yelled Wilma after him.
For the first time in three years, Jim broke his schedule. At 9:30, the T.V. didn’t turn on, he didn’t go to bed at 10:45. He sat on a hard kitchen chair. Consumed with thoughts of another life, another woman.
“You’re a loser! Why would I have anything to do with you? I’m moving on in my life.”
“But Breanne, you’re all I have,” She looked at him, pity in her eyes.
“If I had had a choice, I wouldn’t have chosen you.”
“You don’t mean that,” Jim stared at her, incredulous.
“You’re just an anti-social pill. You kill everything you touch!”
Jim called in sick the next morning. Dr Stephens would be thrilled. More patients for her. In all his ten years working with her, he had never called in sick. Neither had Amelia Stephen’s. Jim was sure she was inhuman, she had no feelings or compassion. Nothing she had ever shown him, anyway.
He spent the day looking through a box. It was of medium size, and contained letters. Some were originals sent to him, each carefully dated. Some of them were copies of letters he himself had sent. He read through each document, careful with the frail, aging papers. They were records. Proof of all the wrong things that had happened to him in his 33 years of life. Records of each hurt inflicted on him by a person he couldn’t let go of.
He was up in his small attic for hours. Combing over each injustice. Allowing rage to fill him, when a sudden clarity shone down on his small insignificant life. “Why am I doing this to myself?” he said out loud to the box full of letters. “Hanging on to a dead woman? Someone who I will never be able to speak truth to?”
All the anger and self pity was gone, replaced by sorrow at a life wasted, and a tiredness that filled his soul. He slumped back on his heels.
He rose, left his box behind, and went to his living-room. The curtains were closed, darkness filled the room. He opened them, blinking in the harshness of the afternoon sun. His new neighbors were painting their front door, laughing and so full of life. Jim was about to turn away, when Anne waved at him. He lifted his hand to return the greeting.
Maybe I can make a new start, Jim Dillar thought, reflecting on the conversation with Anne. How she wanted a gardener, but Breanne’s words attempted to pull him back into his misery, ‘you kill everything you touch’ . Jim looked around and took in the beauty of the gardens that he had created. How can these things be dead? he thought to his sister, and how long have I believed your lies?
From across the road, Anne’s husband copied his wife, waving vehemently at Jim. I’ll put off my old sorry self, stop believing the lies that led me into merely existing, and live! As Jim waved back, one thought resonated with him. I’ll make new friends.