This story is by Karen K. Clark and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The maple tree that Chuck planted 32 years ago had burst into color, aflame with red, crackling with orange. Judith watched the leaves swirling to the ground against a clear blue sky. For the third time in as many minutes, she started a new paragraph in the book she was holding. Gazing out the window, her thoughts drifted. Soon she gave in to her memories, easing back in the overstuffed chair that was the smaller one of the pair that flanked the fireplace, and imagined that she heard the garage door opening, the motor humming and wheels squeaking on the tracks. She used to love that sound, followed by the familiar steps of her late husband coming through the door that led to the kitchen.
She would ask him how his day went, and he would hand her his lunch box and give her a kiss. Then he’d remove his fleece-lined, canvas coat, tuck his gloves in the pocket and hang it on the coat rack by the door. She imagined how she would have supper waiting for him, with a glass of wine for her and a beer for him. She could still see him in her mind’s eye, his hair peppered with gray, still thick and curling at the nape of his neck. His clear blue eyes still had a way of capturing hers and saying what was in his thoughts.
As her eyes misted over, she shook her head to dislodge the thoughts, muttering to herself.
“You need to stop this,” she said out loud. “Get up and do something, it’ll do you good.” She stood and looked around at the perfectly tidy room, where nothing needed doing.
Walking through the kitchen, grabbing her sweater off the hook, she went out the back door to the garden. It had always been a refuge for her, but never more so than in the past year.
At first, right after Chuck’s death, she had been too numb and too busy to find solace in anything. Family, friends, and neighbors, came around, called on the phone, and her grandchildren texted her daily. She knew they were all trying to be kind, and they were worried about her, but frankly it had gotten quite annoying. She and Chuck had never needed a lot of people to fill their lives. They had a few friends that they met for dinner occasionally. He enjoyed his weekly card games with his friends, and she went to water aerobics class at the rec center three mornings a week. However, for the most part, they preferred each other’s company, and in the months after he died, she would rather have been left alone with her thoughts. But everyone insisted that with it being winter, she shouldn’t be cooped up all alone, and that she needed company.
February arrived and with it came the first seed catalogs in the mail. By this time she had had enough. She patiently, but firmly, told her daughter that the daily calls were unnecessary and frankly annoying. She assured her friends that she would call them if she needed anything at all. And finally, she stopped answering the phone.
The first warm day of spring, she had been out in her garden, turning over the soil. She even tackled the new space that she and Chuck had planned to turn into a butterfly garden. Chuck really had no interest in what grew, but he was always happy to dig up the ground for her, and delighted in seeing what magic she could coax from the earth.
As she dug up the earth, she mapped out the garden in her thoughts. She’d plant a butterfly bush, zinnias, lemon verbena, phlox, and salvia. Doing the digging was good for her. It was hard work, but it made her tired and she found she slept better than she had in months. By the end of April, she had dug out all the old sod, taken dirt from the compost and filled the space. She started some seedlings inside the house: tomatoes, peppers, and squash plants.
The garden kept her busy through the summer months. The watering and the weeding were daily chores, and then when the produce came in, she picked tomatoes and canned them, made salsa with some of the peppers, and froze green beans, corn and beets.
On this day, she walked through the gated area to see if there were any newly ripened butternut squash. Then she went over to the fence line to check on her pumpkins. She had one that was perfectly round and shaped, and just a shade away from the perfect orange for picking. Frowning, she moved the leaves around with her booted toe, wondering how on earth something as big as a pumpkin and bright orange to boot, could disappear. But, sure enough it was gone.
She heard the tumbling and clinking of bottles and cans, and then the jarring sound of metal slamming on metal. She looked up to see Richard, the retired Air Force colonel, who lived next door, emptying his recycling into the bin between their houses. She sighed. About two years ago, they had had a bit of a falling out over his caltapa tree when its branches spread over the fence to her yard and shaded her strawberry patch. He had refused to cut the tree back, so one day she went out with Chuck’s hedge clippers and attempted the job herself. Richard retaliated by cutting some of her rhubarb which grew through the fence to his yard. She found this out when Patsy, the neighbor across the street, came over one day with a lovely rhubarb pie, its crust golden and flakey, and warm. Patsy said that Richard had given her some rhubarb from his garden, so she made up pies for all the neighbors. Judy and Chuck had had a good laugh over that one. They’d planted rhubarb and reaped a pie.
Seeing Richard, and with her pumpkin was nowhere to be found, something inside her snapped. It wasn’t just the pumpkin that had been taken from her. He had invaded her garden, her sanctuary, the very place where she found solace and could block out the rest of the world. Marching across the yard, Judith unlatched the gate, swung it open and slammed it shut. She rounded the corner of the house to his front door and rapped sharply.
She heard shuffling, and then the door being unlocked from the inside. It was swung open and Richard’s large frame filled the doorway. They regarded each other in silence for a moment. Noting his attire, (pressed khakis and a button down shirt), she wondered if he might be on his way out. He, looking at her with a satisfied smile playing about his lips, as though he had been anticipating this moment.
“Richard Carillo, where is my pumpkin?” she said, hands on her hips and staring him down.
“Judy. . . ,” he began.
“It’s ‘Judith,’” she snapped.
“Judith,” he, nodded apologetically, “Please come in.”
He opened the screen door and waved her inside.
It was the first time she had been in his house, and she was taken by surprise. It certainly didn’t look like a bachelor’s home. The light colored furniture was pleasantly arranged and a wall of bookcases filled with books and framed photos took up one wall. The light came through the front window in a pleasing way. She sniffed and the house smelled clean, and there was a spicy, somehow familiar aroma of something fresh from the oven.
“I just made a pot of tea, won’t you have some with me?” asked Richard, and he turned for the kitchen.
“My pumpkin. . .” Judith said, as if suddenly remembering why she had come over.
Judith followed him into the kitchen, her mouth falling open when she saw the table set for a lovely tea. A china teapot sat in the middle of the table, along with matching sugar bowl and creamer. A plate of butter and a small dish of apple jelly glistened in the sun that streamed through the curtained window on the back door.
It was the plate in the center of the table that made her draw in her breath, and her eyes widened. It was a plate of what was, unmistakably, pumpkin bread, the source of the aroma that had met her upon her arrival.
Richard pulled out a chair for her, and she sat down in silence, not able to find her voice. She watched as he filled the teapot with steaming water from the kettle on the stove, and replaced the lid giving it a little tap.
“We’ll let that steep,” he said.
He leaned his elbows on the table and lightly pressed his fingertips together.
“Now, let’s talk about that pumpkin,” he said, looking at her with clear blue eyes.
Judith looked away, and her eyes filled with tears.