Lucy Corin

A Woman with a Gardener

I’m with the caterers, a one-time job, a borrowed bow tie, old sneakers I’ve spray lacquered black. It was that or heels. Fifty bucks, four hours.
        White turned rails swoop up the lawn and curve around the verandah. What’s a verandah? It’s what I think I’m seeing. There’s a funny white statue of a lithe angel holding a lamp at the walkway entrance, and then later, up nearer the house where the stairs start toward the entrance, nothing you could call a stoop, a baby one, what do you call it, a cherub? Like going in reverse, back in time. Next, great lion-headed knockers looking nothing like boobs, I think, annoying myself, scanning for a back entrance, somewhere I must be supposed to be going. There is one. Around back. You go in a door built into a hill and it’s a tunnel left over from slave days. I heard of these somewhere, in a class, maybe, this way to pretend you don’t have slaves, like it’s magic everything is so nice, but this place might be old or it might be replica. It doesn’t look old. What looks old and not dirty? This looks clean, a clean hill of grass, nice trees, a clean door in the hill, and inside, chunky rock walls. It could be a rich crazy lady’s delusional obsession. She could have built it for her demons. I don’t know enough to tell.
        Either way I feel dumpy and defensive. Inside it’s an underground kitchen and the company is using it to do final prep. Long metal tables fold out from the walls on insectlike legs and people, mostly dropout-looking kids, are lined along it in narrow cook’s hats making piles of dices and squeezing butter into ramekins with pastry bags. Piles of baskets for rolls, buckets of utensils, trays of four kinds of glasses, mounds of grapes, and eight hams pegged with fruit, and platters of strung-up little birds, and supersized crosshatched pies . . . I don’t know anything about food, but I’m for it.
        “Hi Amy, hi Jacob, hi Tandy, hi Joe.” These are kids I know from other sucky jobs.
        “You should see upstairs,” Becky says. I like Becky and miss her sometimes. She’s holding a cleaver and there’s band-aids around the center three knuckles of her hand. Something is always happening with her. “Go upstairs and check in with Matt. Tell him you’re here. Wait til you see upstairs.” Becky got me the job. I did catering once before, a bar mitzvah with globes of gumballs instead of flowers on the tables. Gumballs all over the floor like marbles as soon as the boys landed.
        Okay, upstairs. How do I get there? I can’t remember. I’ll tell you what else I don’t remember, is how I know how to say what I saw. But I know.
        Upstairs first it’s all about chandeliers, then it’s about mosaic tile, then it’s inlaid wood all through the ballroom, marquetry borders, and walls of mirrors in gilt frames surrounded with ornate probably silk wallpaper, and dark carved wooden trim around everything and enormous arching glass doors, window seats lined with tasseled cushions, giant oil paintings of old men and bustled ladies with lace-up dress fronts, tables, tables, tables, with white cloths and centerpieces made from rosebuds and pearl beads. No metal folding chairs at this shindig. All six-tops waiting for six tops. I’m about to throw up from looking when server after server emerges from behind a staircase in a fashion so orderly I cannot believe I will ever blend in. These people who I might, a moment before, have recognized, weave like a mass of ants among the tables, surround them, cover the space, and then disappear in a wave back behind the stairs, leaving six place settings at each table where before there were none. In fact, as I watch, I begin to believe I am watching one person, over and over, as if time is stuttering and indeed there is only one person setting one table. But then somehow the whole place is set and I suspect I’ve seen dozens of servers, maybe hundreds. It feels like hundreds. How does it feel to see a hundred servers? I might have seen hundreds of servers over the plodding course of my idiotic life. But at once they’re not men and not women, and not kids, some of whom I know; they’re elements of the décor swooping in and returning like a living curtain.
        I go back downstairs. I’m shaking, all the bits of me rattling like they’re strung together or just tossed in one bag. “I don’t know who Matt is,” I tell Becky. She’s there with the cleaver. She might have been one of the servers upstairs, but now she is herself again.
        How will I possibly become one of them? I will stick out. My shoes will chip. I’ll fall. She tells me something. For a moment I remember what she looks like naked. I also remember what she looked like when she said, “I can’t take it anymore!” and I said, “Take what?” and she said, “It! It, it, it!” and started throwing her things around her crappy apartment. She didn’t mean me. She meant everything. I remember she broke this ceramic frog she’d kept from childhood that she had on her dresser and it held her rings in its mouth at night.
        I can see the blade of her cleaver moving and flashing, just as beyond her I can see other hands on singing tongs and other hands spinning wooden salad bowls that clack like castanets, and even though I know Becky is talking, time shifts—it shifts because of memory—and even though I am a terrible server, I feel it: all I have to do is move and I am caught up in exactly what surrounds me. So I do, and there I am. I am one in a line of precisely undulating bodies from a long line of long lines, moving up twisting basement stairs that become increasingly shiny as I near the surface, and I am balancing an enormous silver tray of twenty glasses of champagne as if the glasses and the liquid in them are suspended over my palm as weightless as any idea I’ve ever had. I look for Becky; I want to mouth to her how elated I am, how okay I feel, how light I feel, and graceful, but everyone is blurred together and when I try to glance in the mirrors I’m moving past I cannot catch my own image, which bothers me for a moment. But then I see that my free hand is guiding glass after glass onto the tables as I pass with exquisite timing; I never stop moving my feet and yet each guest’s elbow shifts out of the way as I approach and each baubled dandy catches my eye to accept or pass as if we are breathing together, and just as I cannot tell one server from another I cannot tell one guest from another; I simply know as if by rhythm, yes or no, I want, I don’t, or yes, but here, or no, but soon. Their happy noises ring and hover, rumble and soar, and utensils punctuate, and behind me, Becky, or anyone, is slipping them pâté and crudité (what, did I pick this up in construction? did I learn it landscaping?) and golden bouncy bits of fish and vegetables. I’ve glided in figure eights so balanced I’m breathless, I’m elated, I’m gliding back down the stairs, and although the damp basement walls remain distant, somewhere I sense that if I slow down, moisture from the stones will begin to cling to the fragrant hairs on my arms. Luckily my friends in their crimped white hats fill my tray with meat pastries; the tray, in fact, seems to levee, and it guides me back around and up the stairs, the funny flaky bundles tugging along like a tiny pack of sleigh dogs until I’m sailing again among the tables, the nods, the orchestra of motion and sound, the pulsing colors, and light that ranges from staccato sparkle to low humming glow.
        I loop down into the kitchen, the kitchen streams by, and when I next rise from the basement I pause at the entrance, to see if I can, of my own volition, and it turns out I can. I feel like a rock in a river, but it’s because I’m still that I am able to notice what I notice:
        It’s a breath I’m taking, a breath like I have never taken before, one so discrete I can tell that it comes from somewhere. I am of the collective of servers, but then I take this breath that feels like an icy ribbon of vapor is being fed to me in this hotly buzzing room of kaleidoscopic bodies. It’s a breath that is coming from someone. As I take it, I can almost trace it, and then I do, I trace it back toward the kite it’s come from; I’m paused at the foot of the room and the other servers bend away from me convexly; I feel them pull, elastic, but I am held there with my tray; I am breathing the ribbon that has been sent to me. In the pause, I remember that I used to draw pictures as a child, something I stopped doing, I only now suspect, for some reason. In the pause, I remember drawing a picture of a road going into the distance. Did I draw it accidentally or is this something I learned? I remember that moment in my history when I discovered, just as some time in human history it was discovered, that a triangle in two dimensions can make two feel like three. It was sort of great, but it also ruined everything.
        I stretch my neck and close my eyes, and I am being pulled by the center line of this perspective. Have I ever used the word perspective? Would Becky, Jacob, Tandy use that word? I am being wrenched, I am being dragged, and then I feel the last tendrils of my connection to the serving corpus plucked away like nerves in a surgical amputation—plink, pluck—although it appears I’ve been properly numbed or stung or filled via breath with druggy distance for this ordeal. I’m so loopy. Time is wobbly around me, and space is, too, and the thing that’s going to happen is about to happen.
        I almost know I am on my way to being unimaginably blissed-out.
        At the top of the room, a woman, the kite herself, has risen and she stands at her table at the head of everything. She is dinging her glass with a fork. Her gown is yellow with silver threads. I know it from way back here, hot gold and cold silver. Her pale hair swoops around the back of her head, loose enough to form a halo. She’s got diamonds on. I am dumb and I am awed. One is worse.
        She looks wise, like an excellent actress.
        I don’t know what happens, but she speaks.
        There are bells, or applause.
        She is as if born of the room, molten, but then her tone shifts and the room turns moony, or her tone shifts and everyone’s cheeks glow like roses at once and light dapples their spotty heads. It’s true she’s too far away to see but that doesn’t seem to be the point of this experience. Luckily I have no idea how time moves here. All I know is it’s not mine. Not my time, not my place. And thank God. Mine sucks. Luckily I don’t have to wait. Luckily as I stand there and her voice reaches and feeds me I am stunned as if by certain kinds of insects I have never studied. What’s sharp? What’s smooth? This is sharp and smooth. She’s done dinging, and finished speaking, and now it’s a banquet peopled with playing cards, jacks, queens, kings, and jokers that simply fall away from the grid of round tables and who knows where the rest of the deck went; back below, long ago.
        Light pulses and spasms from the mirrors and the gilded ceiling. Then the light quiets and cools. The hall is a field of strewn white napkins. I see them blow away like petals. I see the tables take to their legs and scurry off stage. I see me at the foot of the hall. I see her at the head in her gown, dinging her glass and taking a breath to speak, but luckily I do not have to live through dessert or whatever social thing the mounds of guests might insist upon next because time here has moved as if for me and now they’re gone and now she’s laughing at them but she’s still exhausted and happy that the night was—what—swell? It was something. It was all right. It was exactly what we wanted. She throws her arm across my shoulder.
        She’d looked very tall but up close she’s my size.
        Her laugh is as soft as a charcoal line.
        I can remember my parents like this. Two in the morning, coming home, tired and tipsy. This is when I slept on the couch because it was a one-room place with a curtain divider, and Dad flopped into the easy chair, laughing, and Mom flopped onto his lap, shushing, and I said, “I’m awake, you dopes.”
        We’re pooped. We did it. It’s over. Let’s turn in.
        But first, link arms. First, a walk in the garden.

We survey the lawn for a moment from the great front doors of the house. We leave the doors open as we descend the curving stairs, dramatic in the light behind us, and we pass the cherub, and then we pass the lithe angel, and then we stroll onto the lawn. The lawn is dotted with seven enormous trees, a leafy canopied kind. Old trees. Can’t transplant trees that old. There’s some light from the moon and some light from the lanterns the angel and the cherub are holding. Am I myself? I feel as if I am, if a little wobbly, and with an echo in those words: myself, wobbly. She left her yellow gown like an enormous rose head on the floor of the hall and now she wears only her underthings, a simple cotton shift, or something called something like that, and she’s taken her necklace off and strung it in her loosened hair so now she’s nymphy, as if we’ve made it to Deco, so perhaps I picked up a little more history than I like to remember.
        Under one tree is a man and a woman stretched out next to each other, the man on an elbow. They’re making out near his floppy hat. Under another tree a fat old man is passed out, spread-eagle on his back, his pocket watch sliding from his pants. We’re arm in arm. We’re strolling. I’m barefoot with my trousers rolled halfway up my calves. The grass is cool. The breeze moves. I’ve untucked my white shirt, and it moves, and her white little shift thingy moves. A paper cup blows by from another era. We’re almost ghosts. We’d be ghosts to anyone watching. Nothing hurts.
        When will we speak? Is it possible to speak in this condition? Back in my old life, we’d banter. I wouldn’t call it “banter,” I’d call it “reeling her in,” but that cannot happen here. Too coarse. Here, there are practically no edges. I already know her voice and it’s already an aspect of the bubbling of my own imagination, so what can we do? We weave among the seven trees of the rising and dipping lawn until we come upon a break in the hedges and are in a maze. She shifts half a step ahead of me, because the space is very narrow, quite dark, and I can feel the tips of boxwood leaves on my shoulders. It’s as if I hear the word boxwood and as if the maze is moving beneath my feet and I am still, peering past the motion of her hair, the maze turning and gliding. We emerge from it along a stone path in a garden of evenly spaced young trees with silver bark and leaves that clack. A glass greenhouse shines in shards in the dark like teeth, like shifting knives. We are also surrounded by roses, which is lucky, because it’s almost the only flower I know. As we walk we can smell them. Most of the roses smell pale, but we pass one that is sharper. “These are old roses,” she says. “Generation to generation. Passed down.” She is still a half step ahead and although I know the gleaming line of her jaw as if it’s always lived in my periphery, I haven’t seen her face since we entered the maze and I’m a little frightened. I’m afraid that if she turns to me her face might be cruel, after all. Then the voice that told me “boxwood” begins humming again under the leaves. She turns enough to meet my eyes and says, “It’s my gardener.” She is still herself. Then, around a bend, I see him, crouched beneath a plant that looks like a buffalo, peering at a turtle that is black as a stove and looks like a stone. He’s wrinkled, and muttering. He looks like my grandfather. He looks like a troll. He’s holding a lantern. Bugs and desperate moths flail around it, bouncing against the glass.
        She says—and what should I call her? my lady? my girl?—she says, “What do you say?” and the gardener squints in the filmy light, his lips moving. I can see his throat push a little harder. I can see him pushing the sound out. I can tell he hates me. My own grandfather. Her gardener. A troll. He begins what is clearly incantation. I tell you, my education is singing. He says, or he recites:

        oenanthe crocata the water dropwort,
        argaricus xanthodermus, helleborus purpura,
        taxus baccata, amanita pantherina,
        deathcap, butlersweet, solanum dulcamara,
        laburnum, sulfur tuft, atropa belladonna . . . 

        Is the turtle going to turn into something? “Ignore him,” she says. “Let’s go,” she says, and whisks me away before we can make a choice, before I am even certain there’s a choice to make. She whisks me away as if neither left nor right. She whisks me up. Up, up, and away. “He’s a creep,” she says. Then, we disappear.
        Darkness and she is almost all sound and smell. I am made of particles. She calls me urchin. She calls me waif. I’m an urchin. “You’re my waif. You are. You are my urchin.” These smiling words, one from the sea, one a limp city leaf. Here I am, in a wave of water, a wave of air, in the motion that makes up matter. I am honey, sugar, darling, all of them. I have the memory of her already. It could be the reason it is so dark, the memory I will have of her filling everything. We remain placeless in a way I almost fathom.
        This, love, is simply response to stimuli, I think, although I know enough to know I am not a thinker. An urchin knows nothing, knows only now, and now, and now. When I close my eyes I am overwhelmed by my own light.
        Morning and the bed is a boatful of feathers and we are floating under yellow blooming sheets. Her windows are enormous. Minty leaves shiver out there, fringing the view. Beyond them, though, if I squint, the gardener is approaching with a red machine slung by a strap over his shoulder. He’s wearing a cap. He’s hunched and ugly.
        What will become of me if I am someone who loves a woman with a gardener?
        “I’ll be back,” she says. “I’m famished.” She crosses the room. She’s not wearing the sheet. She’s left the sheet with me. She remains astonishing. From a hook behind the bathroom door she lifts a golden bell. She cups it in her hand like a bird and keeps it noiseless. She holds it in front of her as if she’s going to present it to me, as if she’s going to present it wryly, knowingly, writhing with our in-joke, the joke of how I would never do this; I would never get caught up. “Look, baby bird.” Am I a bird? Is the bell a bird? She keeps it cupped and hovering in front of her abdomen, and when she lifts her knee to the bed her muscles shift and when she lifts her other knee they shift again, but differently.
        I must be the bird; I am so fluttery.
        She’s kneeling before me, although we are clearly on the same level. I’m resting on my elbow, head in my hand. This can go on. I can see it. I know it. I can do it. I can see my rags and riches. I can do this, I think. I am tough enough.
        My hips are a hill under the blossoms. “Take the bell,” she says. She’s whispering. “Ring it. I give it to you. I give you everything.”
        Outside, the gardener is muttering, still. He’s a voice from the past. I believe I remember all of this from childhood.
        “I know this one,” she says. “You can listen but it’s best not to take it in. It’s actually a very funny tune.” He’s out of view, now, low, below the window. He revs his engine and under its roar and the spattering of the branches it encounters I hear the incantation rise:

        polytrichum juniperinum,
        festuca rubra, festuca arundinacea,
        poa pratensis, poa trivialis,
        lolium perenne, anthemis nobilis,
        dactylis glomerata, phleum pratense,
        agrostis stolonifera the creeping bent . . . 

        What the spell does is make me remember my dream. In my dream my grandfather tells me the story of Thomas Jefferson from Virginia and his architecturally important house, and the slaves in the tunnels, and he tells me the story of Mrs. Winchester from California, haunted by a fortune made from guns, the house she built crazily bumping into itself, stairs into ceilings, halls into brick walls, wings tumbling over one another as if out of breath. The houses bookend the country. I know that in dreams, when you dream of houses, you are dreaming of yourself. I don’t know what this means. In the dream, I’m just a little kid. I don’t know anything. “Grampa,” I say, tugging at his nightshirt, “where did you learn this? Did you learn this in school?”
        I stretch across the bed, pull myself to the windowsill to see if I can see down. She takes my hand and pulls me back in a swirl of sheets. She’s grinning, dazzling. She says, “Shut up, you fucker!” and slams the window, and the room shakes, and the bell rings in my palm, and several figs tumble into our laps, and breakfast, it turns out, is the most delicious of all.

“A Woman with a Gardener” copyright © 2007 by Lucy Corin. Reprinted with permission by Tin House Books.

Lucy Corin is the author of the novel Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls and the story collection The Entire Predicament, in which "A Woman with a Gardener" appears. Her website chronicles her work in her next novel and collects links to online micro-fictions she calls "apocalypses."