Myra usually gardened in the early morning hours before the white heat of the day erupted, but today she stayed out until the blazing afternoon sun was overhead. Kneeling on a knee-pad in her backyard, sweat dripped off her forehead and down her temples. She stabbed the ground with a spade as though expecting resistance, but it sunk into the soft earth to her knuckles.
Glancing at her next-door neighbor’s house, she noticed Bruce’s downstairs curtains were open, but he hadn’t picked up the newspaper. As soon as he came out, she’d catch his attention before he went back in. With a cloth she wiped the spade, applied a tissue to her damp face and put on lipstick.
Today she planned to unmask the alluring side of herself, the part that had long been buried beneath the image of the benevolent, unmarried, next-door-neighbor for all these years. Lately, Bruce was more receptive. He’d given her subtle signals like leaving thank you notes whenever she babysat, Johnny, his six-year old. She saw that those notes had become progressively more intimate, at first addressing her by name and then using dear friend. He’d even given her a box of chocolates the other day. What could be more caring? He knew she adored candy.
She’d loved Bruce from the moment he and his wife, Ellen moved next door twelve years ago. She sensed all along that Bruce loved her in return, but their passion remained unspoken – only felt. That honorable man would never betray his wife and neither would she. Now Ellen was gone for a year. The poor woman had been terminal, dying slowly and painfully from cancer. And Myra had helped Ellen through her illness to the end with Bruce’s eternal appreciation. Yes, she knew Bruce loved her.
Widening a hole in the ground, Myra noticed a large brown bug on her arm. She swatted it with her open palm, leaving a splatter of blood. Absently, she washed it off with the nearby garden hose.
Myra heard Bruce’s front door bang open in the vigorous way it did before his wife’s tragedy. He wore a white tank top and cut-off jeans. Waving as he headed toward her, he carried a box under his arm. He looked more robust and energetic than he had in a long time.
She’d studied Bruce’s habits and understood him like she knew the personalities of every flower in her garden, like she knew her Belgian block walkway had two hundred and thirty stones. The time had come to act more assertively.
Removing her canvas gloves she tugged at the shoulders of her new cotton dress that she’d nipped in the seams to subtly enhance the curve of her breasts, her small waist and hips. Bruce stepped through the open gate, a big grin on his face.
“Hi, Myra. I noticed you were out here. How are you?”
She smiled, patting her new blunt haircut in place. Lifting her hand delicately, she shaded her eyes and looked up at him, wondering what was in the box. “I’m fine.”
“Nice dress. Hope you don’t mess it up with gardening.”
She blushed as she felt his eyes scan her. “This is my new special gardening dress.”
“You need a hat against the sun.”
“I love the sun,” Myra said, feeling a swell of nausea from the heat. With her bare hands she shoved a burlapped bush into the hole she’d dug. Dampness soaked the cotton material of Myra’s dress in a line down her spine. She yanked the burlap out from under the ball of earth and thrust dirt over the roots.
Bruce looked over at his house. “I left that kid of mine attacking the apple pie you baked for us. Better get back before he gobbles it up and winds up with stomach ache.”
Taking a deep breath, Myra chided herself to be patient, to remember Bruce hadn’t courted in a long time. Still, the man had an appealing shyness. After all, he’d at least noticed the new dress. She clapped the dirt off her hands.
He thrust the package at her. “I got a little something for helping us out like you always do.”
She sucked in air, expanding her lungs until they felt ready to rupture. This awkward man with his full head of curly black hair and smooth round cheeks made him look so vulnerable, so young. He needed the stability of a woman ten years his senior. Once they were married they’d put their ages together and divide by two. Two equal parts.
The relentless heat banded her chest tightly. Sitting back on her heels, she dabbed a pristine white towel to her face then placed it on the mat, used side down.
“You didn’t have to. You gave me that nice toaster last year.”
His eyes glazed over. “That was for your help with Ellen. I can never repay you for that, Myra.”
She loved the way her name rolled off his tongue, and the quick darkening of his eyes. Myra removed the wrapping paper slowly, holding on to the moment as long as she could. She recalled how after Ellen’s funeral, she’d devised her strategy of ingratiating herself by babysitting and cooking meals whenever Bruce worked late. He adored her pot roast and soups. He even once requested her specialty, chicken pot pie. Surely, the rare woman he brought to the house never did things like that. And none of them came around twice. She watched his house with her binoculars. Easing the ribbon off the box, Myra lifted the cover. Bruce shifted his weight from one leg to another. She hesitated.
Inside the box was a gleaming set of chrome gardening tools. They glinted in the sun. Expensive. Practical. Disappointing.
“Uh, do you like them?”
Suddenly, Bruce’s voice sounded as though it came from a closed jar.
“I could take them back and get something else.”
“No, I love them. Mine are shabby.” She jabbed her new spade deep in the ground.
She wondered what the practical gifts meant. A plea to care for him? He had no one else. That had to be it. What did it matter what Bruce bought? The act of giving her a gift showed his love.
Lifting a trowel out of the box she caught her reflection. Her facial features, ears, nose, lips, eyes, and cheek proportions were nearly perfect despite some random wrinkles. Yet she disliked the symmetry of her face, how it receded into boring perfection. She pressed the tip of the tool with her finger. Sharp. A pinpoint drop of blood oozed out.
“You know, Myra. You ought to get out more often.” Bruce wrinkled his brow. “You do everything for others. Indulge yourself and have some fun.”
Yes! The invitation she longed to hear. “That’s a lovely idea. Why don’t the three of us go to a good family movie sometime? I’ll bring snacks. The candy in the movies is much too expensive.” She felt lightheaded. “Ellen would have wanted us to do that.”
Bruce shuffled his feet. “Sure, great idea.” He looked toward his house. “Your garden looks great.”
“Thanks.” Myra shaded her eyes and glanced at Bruce’s property. “But your lawn is getting overgrown. How about I do some work on it?”
“I couldn’t let you do one more thing for me.” Bruce shook his head vigorously.
“No problem.” Myra had a plan. Looking around at her peach and red roses alongside the gardenias and purple irises, she had an image how she’d landscape the two properties until no sign of separation could be seen.
Just then Johnny came running toward them, carrying his little shovel. “Daddy, look what I planted in Myra’s garden.” Poking at an upright twig, he grabbed the hose and watered it. “It’s going to be a big oak tree when I grow up. Myra told me.”
Staring at Johnny, Myra noticed how much he looked like Bruce, his brown eyes fringed with long, girlish lashes. She wanted to hug the sweet, little child.
“If you want to go to the zoo later, go back and get dressed,” Bruce said.
Myra waited for an invitation to join them. She waited. A dense silence followed. Myra dug the trowel deep into the earth as Bruce watched his son. What the father didn’t realize was that a child needs a mother around every day. Need translated into love in her vocabulary.
“Hey, buddy. Get on back to the house. I don’t want you bothering Myra on the weekends.”
“Can’t Myra make me pancakes?”
Bruce’s smile evaporated as he hitched his thumb homeward. “Stop inviting yourself. It’s rude. Now get.”
Johnny dropped his shovel. Why can’t I stay?”
“I’ll give you three. One…”
Johnny whirled on his heel and ran home.
Bruce wants to be alone with me, she thought. Myra watched him shift his weight from one foot to the other. His muscles rippled against his taught skin. His hands, long and delicate for a large man, intrigued her. Imagining his touch on her cheek, her throat, her breasts, she transformed a half-formed moan in the back of her throat into a cough. She rose and stood in Bruce’s shadow, cooled and serene for the moment.
“I’d better get going,” he said. “By the way, can you return my house key?” he asked, looking sheepish.
Myra kept her cool, but felt sick. “Why? How come? Is something wrong? Did I offend you?”
He smiled tightly and shook his head. “You can never do that, Myra. I just misplaced my own key and need to make a copy.” He stared over her shoulder. “Hey, you know how much I trust you. You were my wife’s devoted companion and aid to the end.”
She felt the compliment like a slap. He was mostly at work through the entire ordeal. How couldn’t possibly know how she helped Ellen at the end.
Sunlight hurt her eyes. Bright garden colors faded, dimming into shades of gray. “I’ll make a copy this afternoon,” she said. “I have to go to the hardware store anyway.”
Bruce looked confused. “Don’t bother. I’ll do it.”
“Not a bother at all.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Okay,” Bruce said quietly. He touched Myra’s arm, staring into her eyes for a moment. He seemed to want to say something but stopped. “See you later.” He turned and walked home.
Goose bumps trailed her skin. She and Bruce shook hands occasionally, but he’d never touched her so intimately before. I will this to happen, she thought, smiling at his receding back.
Myra stepped outside at midnight. Holding a flashlight in one hand and pulling a shopping cart filled with flowers with the other hand. Bruce’s house key nestled in her pocket like the comfort of wearing gloves on a cold day. She pictured his delight when he awakened to the floral aromas in every room of his home.
Looking back, she saw the street light silhouetting her garden in black shadows, causing the flowers stalks to look like spikes. She made her way around to the back of Bruce’s home. Gingerly, she climbed the four steps to the cedar deck, hauling the cart behind her.
All the lights were out in Bruce’s vinyl-clad ranch house. A craving to find something she lost or never owned overwhelmed her. She intended to teach Bruce the real meaning of love, offer her larger house for them to live in, share her inheritance with him. Other women offered sex which many men interpreted as love. She had so much more to give. Her connection to Bruce had always been spiritual, and the time had come for moving to a new plateau in their relationship.
Myra thought about the men she had known, picturing all of them as one oozing mass, ugly groping hands and greedy lips. Bruce wasn’t like that. She inserted the key in the door and entered. Snapping on the flashlight, she made her way through the living room, dining room and kitchen, filling vases with flowers. Myra fretted about the possibility of Bruce’s stopping by, strangers who might breathe in the sweet scents of her precious flowers. That would be like stealing a part of her soul.
Pointing the conical beam of light at the mantle, she panicked when she noticed an empty space where Ellen and Bruce’s wedding picture had once hung. Ellen and Myra loved each other and, in her heart, she felt certain Ellen had bequeathed Bruce to her. The blank on the wall seemed magnetized as though she might be sucked through never to be seen again. The darkness in the room floated around her, eerie and menacing.
Myra directed the light toward a picture of herself pushing Johnny on a swing. She stared at it for a long time until it anchored her in her decision. She belonged here.
Removing her shoes, she tip-toed to the threshold of Johnny’s room and peeked in. He slept soundly. She pivoted toward Bruce’s bedroom with an overpowering urge to watch him sleeping. Shutting the flashlight, she walked assuredly through the dark halls, aware of every inch of the house. Myra had entered the house every day that Bruce worked, flinging herself on his bed to inhale the scent of his body in the linens. Beads of sweat dripped from her forehead down her temples.
She stepped inside Bruce’s bedroom. If only he would awaken and reach out to her. Hadn’t he touched her arm in the most intimate way? She unbuttoned her blouse.
The muslin curtains flapped as the night breezes blew through the open window. Moonlight filtered into the room. The weight of the air felt different, heavier. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. Outlines of furniture appeared in their proper places, yet the subtle aromas she knew so well had altered. The smell of an unfamiliar perfume assaulted her. She clasped her blouse shut.
Staring at the bed she saw a female shape clinging to Bruce’s back, her long shapely legs alongside him. They slept, breathing in unison. Now she knew why he wanted the key back. He was no different from the rest. Her body felt encased in ice, and she nearly leapt on them. She forced herself to step back.
At that moment, she wanted to seal all windows and cracks and vacuum the air out of the room, leaving them there forever. Out in the hallway she gasped for breath, leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. Head pressed against knees, she didn’t move for minutes. Sound, smell, sight vaporized into an alien space. She couldn’t locate her body. Silence roared.
Finally, her nerve endings roused, blood ran into her extremities. On hands and knees she made her way into the kitchen. Standing, she grabbed a knife and cut every flower off their stems, leaving them strewn on the floor. When she finished, she jabbed the knife into the same wound on her finger that the trowel had made.
She dropped the knife on the floor, blood dripping, and walked toward Johnny’s bedroom. Inside, she snapped on the night light and sat down beside him. The child squirmed. Myra kissed his cheek, his smooth child skin feeling firm and soft at the same time. Johnny reached out and dropped his hand in her lap. He mumbled something then opened his eyes.
“Hi, Myra,” he whispered.
“Remember how you wanted my pancakes?”
Johnny’s eyes fluttered. “Oh, yeah.”
“Dad wants you to come over to my house now.”
“I’m tired,” he said.
“You can sleep in my house.” Gathering Johnny’s clothes, Myra scooped him into her arms and carried him down the stairs. She slipped out the front door. In her kitchen Myra sat the child in a chair. Johnny rested his head on the table and dozed. Myra busied herself mixing pancake batter, whipping eggs and heating butter in an iron skillet. She hummed tunelessly.
Soon, the pancakes started browning. Myra shook Johnny’s shoulders, and he lifted his head, eyes glassy.
“This is a special breakfast for my family,” she said.
“Can I go to bed after I eat?”
“Absolutely.” She served Johnny a stack of pancakes and settled herself across from him, touching his cheek. Myra smiled, feeling the tightness of her lips. Let’s play a game. You call me mommy.”
The child looked puzzled.
Myra kissed Johnny’s rumpled curls. The silky threads against her skin calmed her. This felt right. “Eat your pancakes.” Myra cut them in small pieces.
Johnny speared a section of pancake, dripping with syrup and stuffed it into his mouth. Chewing with his eyes half-closed, he ate a few bites and then licked his fingers. “I want to go to sleep now,” he said softly.
“Nap in my bed.”
“Do I have to?”
“You’re going to live with Mommy now. She loves you, Johnny.” Myra’s scalp constricted. “It’s our secret game. You can sleep in Mommy’s bed.” She stroked his small, bony back. He closed his eyes and his head dipped. He was hers forever.
Myra carried Johnny upstairs and settled him in her bed. Dabbing a corner of a handkerchief on her tongue, she wiped they syrup clinging to his mouth. He soon fell into a deep sleep. She retrieved the new tools Bruce had given her and a battery-operated lantern. Walking into her garden she knelt on a rubber mat, enjoying the fit of her knees in the spongy material like a greeting from an old friend. Hanging the lantern from a branch, she dug the spade into the ground and dug a large hole with the new spade.
Looking up into the cloudless sky filled with milky cluster of stars, Myra shivered in the fresh night air. The breeze made a humming noise, fluttering past her ears, silky as a lover’s whisper. She looked up at Bruce’s bedroom window and noted the curtains were closed. With all her might she dug as hard as she could, willing him to come to her.
An hour passed and a half-circle of the sun appeared on the horizon. Suddenly, Bruce came tearing out of the house toward her. Elated, she knew she had won his love. He didn’t want that Jezebel. Just then, a police car pulled into his driveway, and she wondered what had happened.