This story is by Anya DeLaremore and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Our backyard is what you’d call a suburban oasis. This is all thanks to my father. When we moved here back in 2001, the open space was seeping with potential. I saw dad build his dream through my five year old eyes. Back then, he was a famous caterer in our town. He mastered any and every cuisine that anyone challenged him, from Cajun to Asian to Soul. He was fueled with a passion for food, so naturally he grew his own. His garden was always filled with glistening vegetables, ripe fruit bushes, and herbs that popped. When I would see someone lost for words at the spectacle of it all, I would say, “it’s like what rainbows dream of.”
Back then, I was his favorite assistant. I had the honor of holding the basket while he picked away. He’d pluck whatever was ready off its stem or branch. He would squeeze it and toss it in his hand a few times. He would smell it and a smile would break out on his face. He was never wrong about the ripeness of food. Of course as his assistant, I also had the honor of sampling all of his creations. My absolute favorite was his lemon bars because he always added lavender to them.
Now when I come home from work or from visiting friends, I realize that the sun has set on his garden and his spirit. He retired from catering during my college years, opting instead to help manage other restaurateurs from his home office. His garden, once full from corner to corner, now barely houses anything. Every now and then, he may find the urge to bring in a half basket of peppers or a small bowl of berries. I try to be enthusiastic, but find it hard to bring up the same muster. I don’t go out there much anymore. I work at a grocery store, so I’m surrounded by food every day. My dad got me the job because he’s old friends with Stefan the manager.
Today of all days, I arrive at work and I am greeted by an uncomfortable atmosphere. Many of my coworkers are preparing for the day ahead, either lining up at their stations or finishing up some small talk. Instead of bland hellos, the ones talking are in some heated discussions. Some look distressed or fuming mad. Others look lost in thought. Stefan’s office door creaks open as I pass by it to go to the staff room. A fellow female employee stomps out. I was behind her so I couldn’t see her face, but I heard a sob and knew the news wasn’t good. He comes to the staff room doorway and asks me to step into his office. I hesitate but follow him anyway.
“What’s going on Stefan?” I sit in front of him in the cramped office. Stefan leans forward on his elbows and clenches his hands together.
“Vera, there’s no easy way to say this. Due to the pandemic-”
“Oh gosh, am I getting fired?” I start to panic.
He straightens. “No, we haven’t come to that yet. Unfortunately, I am cutting your hours.”
“What?!” I gasp.
“I’m sorry but my hands are tied on this.” He gestures by unclasping his hands.
I take a few deep breaths. Then I blurt out. “But we’re essential! Wouldn’t you need as many people as possible?”
He leans back in his chair and sighs. “That’s why we are having this conversation. The upper managers are shortening store hours so everyone’s hours are getting spliced together.”
I search around the room for a second, then I let out a stressed sigh. Slouching back in my chair, I ask,“ok…ok, so what is the new schedule?”
“Here’s what we have so far.” He slides a calendar sheet across the desk. I scan it carefully. I find my name and I don’t like what I see.
“You’re kidding. This is barely anything!”
He closes his eyes before rubbing his temples with his middle and index fingers. “Look, it’s still pending. Plus this whole thing is only temporary until things calm down.”
“How long is temporary?”
“We don’t know yet, but right now we’re thinking only until June.
I stare at him, silent. Then I give in. “Fine.”
“Please just hang in there. Everything will clear up soon.”
I drove home in my hot car. I grip the wheel, focusing all my thoughts on the truck in front of me. The pop song I sang out loud during the drive 4 hours earlier turns to screeching and over produced autotune. I shut off the radio when I pull into my development. Some neighbors are out watering their lawns or mowing the grass, a typical thing to do midday. I try not to make eye contact with anyone I pass. I pull into my driveway and park with a jolt. When I walk through the door, dad is standing in the kitchen. He is sipping his coffee out of one of his least favorite mugs. His eyes are locked on the tv, though I can tell he’s not really listening to it. He is miles away.
“Dad?” I start with caution.
His gaze snaps to my face. Then he blinks as if I materialized from nothing. “Honey, didn’t hear you come in.” His brow scrunches in confusion. “Wait, what are you doing home?”
“Stefan cut my hours because of the pandemic. Says he needs to fit more employees in during the week, so everyone’s hours are changing.” I pause. “Got any more of that coffee?”
“Yeah, in the pot.” He gestures to the coffeemaker. “Wow, but did he let you go?”
“No, but it feels like it. I’m down to 4 hours 3 days a week.” I explain as I pour a mug of coffee.
He opens his mouth to say something, but nods instead. As I join him leaning on the counter, he pats my shoulder. “These are hard times honey,” his hand slips from my shoulder, “for everyone.”
I look at him. Though he’s drinking coffee, I see the dark circles setting in, his wrinkles deeper than before. “Did something happen?”
“Some of the restaurants I manage are shutting down.” He takes a long gulp of coffee. “I’ve been on the phone with four of them, but I know more are coming”
My eyes soften. “Oh dad, I’m sorry. I’m sure things will work out.” I try to encourage him.
“Yeah.” He turns to me. “I don’t want you worrying about all this. I’ll be ok. It just means that some things are more important right now.”
By the end of the week, I’ve begun to adjust to my new normal. I now work with people I’ve never met before. Dad, however, is neck deep in work. On the days I’m at home, I rarely see him. He may come out of his office to make lunch, but he always takes it back with him. He’s beginning to develop a hunch. Sometimes I pass by the door and hear his tired voice. He’s either speaking on the phone, meeting with someone via video chat, or mumbling to himself. I try to urge him to take breaks and eat more, but he brushes me off. What’s worse is that his hobby is drying in the sun and rotting away in the backyard.
Today I decide to step out there. Sharp grass stabs my bare feet. I forgot dad also took care of all the lawn work. I take a panoramic look around the yard. There’s a layer of pollen on everything. Some of the flowers lining the fence are still thriving. Weeds are starting to pop up between the stone path. The planter box is empty. Dad must have cleared it out at some point. I frown as I stare at the box. I close my eyes and think back to when I was younger. Dad’s hands covered in dirt, holding a flower I didn’t know the name of in one hand. He holds the stem out to me and I smell it. It gives off a powerful scent, potent yet light and relaxing. My eyes snap open and I head back inside.
I convince my dad to come down for dinner once he finishes work. I fix a simple dish of spaghetti and meatballs, and set the bowl down on the table. While we dig in, I ask a simple question.
“Dad, do you mind if I plant something outside?”
He is taken aback. “Out in the yard?”
He thinks about it, then softly smiles. “Of course not.”
“Mind me asking what you’re planning to grow out there?”
I grin. “ I was thinking of some lavender.”