The coleus were dry. I consolidated the six-packs scattered across the A-frame bench into a few flats, and watered them. Water ran out the bottoms of the flats, and I moved on to the celosia, odd flowers like crimson and orange candle flames, close cousins to amaranth. Let celosia dry out too far, and its leaves crisp at the edges. The plant survives, but who’d buy them? And then the geraniums. Nudge the head of that water wand beneath the blossoms: water on the buds will cause botrytis gray rot. A whole bench of geraniums with moldy flowers waited on the back bench to be cleaned. Lee poked his head around the bench. “Jenny’s here again.” I rolled my eyes, hung up the hose.
Rockville, being in the suburban hinterlands, demanded a less interesting supply of plants than I was used to. Back at the DC store, the craze for ornamental grasses was just taking off, and every third customer asked for Festuca ovina glauca. Perennials were popular. Here in Rockville, one of the managers referred to perennials, with a sneer, as “weeds.” We sold geraniums, petunias, celosia, marigolds and begonias, tomatoes and peppers and squash, a few dozen baskets of fuchsias a week in spring. People would pick a six-pack of begonias from the rack, and we would fill the holes with other six-packs, and the great cycle of life would continue, until we were asked to carry a fifty-pound bag of steer manure to a customer’s Volvo, and mind you don’t mess up the upholstery, now. Here’s a dollar.
I’d started paying attention to the flowering plants outside Dad’s place two years before, the Joe-Pye weed and viburnum and invasive loosestrife. Found a book in the library to help me identify them, read it, found myself interested. My niece Allison was born without incident, and I left the next day for DC, and the day after that saw a nursery with a “help wanted” sign out front: I bought a razor, ducked into a gas station bathroom on Wisconsin Avenue, scraped off my eight days’ worth of five o’clock shadow, filled out an application and the next day I was learning the difference between geraniums and begonias at minimum wage.
My boss Gordon, the most patient man in the world, recognized my interest and kept my learning curve canted at just exactly the right pitch to keep me from boredom. Within a year and a half I’d been transferred to the Rockville store to run the pesticide department there. (A little joke on this organic gardener, played by everyone’s favorite caniform demigod.) My Rockville coworkers included Lee, a sweet gay man from the slopes of Mount Saint Helens who quickly became my closest friend, and Mason, a friendly, slow-moving teenager whose standard greeting was “Bon Jovi, dude!” I’d ride the Metro from the Pentagon basement each morning, eighty minutes on average to Rockville Pike, plenty of time for reading books on English gardening and xeriscaping, Stephen Jay Gould and Gary Nabhan and Henry Mitchell and his DC iris garden.
Elissa was tolerant of my new obsession, although she did poke fun at it from time to time. Our backyard in Arlington was a more or less blank slate when we moved in: in went vegetables and herbs and daylilies, white clover seeds beneath the American persimmon tree, and I ate the invasive volunteer Korean onions sprouting through our lawn almost every morning. Zoom, the stray cat that had moved into our Berkeley apartment, knocked down the mouse population before he died, expensively, over a few months ending on the day after my 25th birthday. We got more cats.
Jenny was waiting for me near the insecticides. She was a regular customer, a nice enough woman, an attorney with an arborvitae hedge in her backyard. She was hugely, top-heavily pregnant. “The whiteflies are back again,” she said, grinning.
Jenny had been in every two weeks for the last few months, buying stronger and stronger insect killers, pyrethrins then malathion then diazinon then lindane, and I’d wondered what it was she was trying to kill. She had seemed to know what he was doing. This was the first I’d heard her problem was whitefly, an annoying but basically innocuous insect whose population builds to nuisance levels only when its predators are removed — for instance, when someone sprays an increasingly strong blend of broad-spectrum insecticides throughout their yard.
“I wish I’d known you had whitefly, Jenny. I could have saved you some time.” I handed her a bottle of insecticidal soap concentrate, sat her down, and gave her the quick predator-prey population dynamics lecture. “You’re going to have those flies for a while, and chemical insecticides will just make things worse. Spray this soap when the flies build up to the point where you can’t stand them, but let them be otherwise. They’ll feed the insects that eat them, and their populations will build up, and you’ll have your problem more or less under control.”
Jenny read the label. “That’s just great. I’ve been spraying my kid for nothing.”
I grinned. “Well, ask me next time. You know I don’t want to sell you this stuff.”
My boss walked by, overheard that last line, pretended to scowl.
Glad for the chance to sit, Jenny chatted about her plans for her child, due in less than a month. Painting the bedroom, buying a baby monitor, taking another six weeks off before starting part-time work, husband anxious and already packed for the obstetrical car ride, and I drifted, nodding politely but not really listening.
“How bad am I going to feel about this pregnancy talk?” I thought.
Huh. Not all that bad.
I looked for J. in my mind like a tongue searching for a missing tooth. Found her swaddled under a few layers of gauze, indistinct and numb.
Jenny took my arm, hoisted herself out of the chair, and we walked together up to the register. She kissed my cheek and turned to pay the cashier. I walked back to the bedding plants.
I realized it had been, what? At least a week since I’d thought of J. No, two: the woman on the Metro that sounded like her. At least what I remember of how she sounded. I tried to call her image to mind. It took a while. If I tried really hard, picked very diligently at that old mental scab, I decided, I could make myself feel kind of sad in about five minutes, if I wasn’t distracted.
An odd loss, as if a hole had fallen into another hole and vanished. It felt like a betrayal, but of which one of us?
Lee was standing in the middle of the bedding plant yard, watching the sky. I looked up. Crows were flying west in single file, hundreds of them, an unbroken line stretching from horizon to horizon. The boss came out, looked up. “Oh, yeah. They do this every year about this time.” He went back in to his office.
One after another they passed, weaving a tight skein of trajectories, deliberate and determined. Every third or fourth crow would call out as it passed, a raucous cry directed at no one we could figure. They kept about fifty feet between them. They kept about a hundred feet between them and the ground. We would think we’d seen the last one, and then another hundred would resolve out of the haze to the east. Where did they come from? A trash midden? Too many of them. The Chesapeake, fifty miles east? Perhaps. Were they heading for the Potomac, near the spot where it bends westward at Great Falls, a doorway through the first range of Appalachians?
And why did their route take them directly over the nursery?
They weren’t telling, a dark corvid caravan against the pale Maryland sky, heading due west for the next six hours. It got dark; we all went home, went about our evening routines, slept, awoke, brushed hair and teeth, rode or drove to the train, rode the train to Twinbrook station, walked the three blocks to the nursery and they were still flying.
At three the next afternoon I watched the last crow fly overhead, looking as though it was having trouble keeping up. I turned and watched it recede, dwindling to a pale black dot. It vanished in the western sky.