Five Singing Gardeners and One Dead Stranger

By Catherine Ryan Hyde

If you were poor, you could buy a used fax machine off a dead guy and not take any crap from anybody as a result. And you are poor; that’s the unfair thing. But your fiancee is not. So you have to take the crap on his behalf, with your own name written in, where it seems not to fit.

But you do it anyway, don’t you? Just to prove all that stubbornness won’t marry out of you.

When you bring it home to palatial Montecito, notice there are five gardeners at work on your grounds. Five. Well, your fiancee’s grounds. Call them yours, why don’t you? You’ll learn to, sooner or later.

Most everyone you know could receive a fax, and answer this simple question:
Did you receive it?

You don’t speak enough Spanish to ascertain why five, but assume your fiancee complained that the grounds look seedy. He did say that. And you said, yeah, I see what you mean. But without his eyes to see through, it might have looked like a palace to you. Not even a seedy one.

When you get inside with your second-hand thermal fax, step into the front closet and punch numbers into the alarm system before it calls the police and has you arrested as an intruder. So far as you know, this contributes nothing to the sense that you don’t exactly belong here.

Take your new purchase into your new office and send a fax to Alan. Why Alan? Why indeed. Most everyone you know could receive a fax, and answer this simple question: Did you receive it? But don’t ask any of them. Only Alan.

A few minutes later, receive a fax back. The first words you’ve heard, loosely speaking, from Alan in about seven weeks. Well, not about seven. Seven. Exactly. It only seems longer.

It says: What’s Wrigley Michigan? Is that a business name? It sounds like a small town in the Great Lakes region.

Pick up the handset and call him at home, even though you never had the nerve to before. Tell him you have no idea what he’s talking about.

“Your sender I.D.,” he says.

Stop and ponder a moment. Decide if you should admit you don’t know what a sender I.D. is. After awhile he’ll grow tired of waiting and say, “It reads across the top of every fax. Somehow you must have programmed it in there, Suse. Think hard.”

Think hard, because Alan told you to. Then say, “Maybe it’s the old owner’s sender I.D.”

“You bought it used?”

Say, “What’s wrong with that?” Then tell him to wait a minute, there’s a train going by. you can’t hear him. While you’re both waiting, pretend he won’t tell you what’s wrong with that.

After you’ve studied the manual for half an hour, you should be able to program your own sender I.D., erasing the name Wrigley Michigan forever. You know it’s not a business name because you bought the machine from the dead guy’s brother, Holland Michigan. Just assume weird names run in the dead guy’s family.

When you’re done, fax Alan back with this question: What does it say on top now?

Wait too long for an answer, and, while you’re waiting, try to stop doing that thing you keep doing, where you hope this takes all day. Where you hope he comes over and shows you, because it’s something you just can’t work out on the phone.

Don’t jump when the fax rings again. Try not to, anyway.

Read the following on the curling paper: It says Susan Lindeman, with the wrong time. Time. This is harder than you thought it would be. Watch, too intensely, the paper feed until you see there’s more. Try not to be disappointed when it’s only this: What did Wrigley Michigan turn out to be?

Call him at home. Say, “The guy’s name.”

“Why would Wrigley Michigan sell his fax machine? Unless he was having problems with it.”

Try to answer fast, before he can say, “You did buy a plain paper fax. Right? Don’t tell me Wrigley was moving up to plain paper and you bought his old thermal. My God, Suse, what’s the point of marrying a rich guy if you won’t spend any of his money?”

It’s what you get for not answering fast enough.

Try saying this: “Wrigley Michigan sold his fax machine because he’s dead.” See what a good answer that turned out to be? All that other stuff just disappeared.

“You bought a dead guy’s fax? What did he die from?”

Tell the truth. Say, “I didn’t ask.”

“Weren’t you even curious?”

Lie. Say, “Why would I be interested in a dead stranger?”

“Well. I’d want to know if his soul is resting in peace. Maybe it’s haunted.”

“A haunted fax machine?”

“Sure. Why not?”

Tell him you liked ghost stories better in the old-fashioned low tech days.

Try not to be hurt when he manufactures no excuse to prolong the conversation.

Before tackling the onerous task of an outgoing message, step outside to breath. Smile at the gardeners. All five of them. Even though it seems to make them nervous. Pretend not to know they were happier with you inside.

You are the only person you know who learned to say, “Lo siento para mi Espanol,” in order to apologize for your Spanish, which es no mui bueno. Nobody else in Montecito says this. As far as you know. Actually it’s a damn safe bet. That’s why you say it. Lo siento. Because nobody else will. Because you want them to know you’re closer to being one of them than one of us. You want them to know you don’t exactly belong here, either. So now they know. But they’re still happier with you inside.

You are The Senora, poor fit or no.

Go back inside.

Call Alan at home, for the third time in one day. Even though in the four years prior to this you never did, not even once. Ask him to call on your fax line and leave a message.

Then try desperately but unsuccessfully to figure out how to monitor messages.

After he’s hung up the phone, succeed in playing the whole thing back. Hear this: “Listen. Susan. Do this thing or don’t, but be happy with what you decide. You’re not even married yet, and already you’re trying to divorce yourself from tho whole scene. I mean, come on, Suse. He would have let you use his fax. If you wanted your own, he would have bought you a brand new one. Plain paper. I’m only saying all this because I care. I’m going to hang up now. Forget you ever knew me.”

Now listen to it three times more. Because it’s Alan’s voice and you might not hear it again. Think about calling him back. But don’t. Whatever you do, don’t. Because you’ve scraped by three times now, and your luck might run out. Next time she might answer.

Consider pocketing the microcassette and buying a new one. So you never have to tape over this. While you’re deciding, more messages will play. Lots more. But not for you, of course. For Wrigley Michigan.

Listen anyway.

A whole tape full. Discover, to your surprise, how much you can learn about a dead stranger by listening to twenty-six of his phone messages.

When you’re done listening, sit marvelling over how much of Wrigley Michigan’s life you now possess. Except that Wrigley Michigan has no life. But maybe he still could, if you possessed it for him.

Now scratch that thought. That was a stupid thought.

Rewind the tape and play it again. Fast forward through the calls from his wife, because they’re boring. Fast forward through the three from the pharmacy, asking why he hasn’t come in to pick up his photos. Maybe later you should stick your head into the pharmacy and tell them why not. They couldn’t think ill of Wrigley if they knew why not. It’s such a good excuse.

When you get to the cluster of calls from his lover, Anne, start your good cry. Then rewind and listen to the Anne calls again, because you weren’t quite finished. Notice how she calls him Rig, and how that makes you uncomfortable and sad. First try to pin down why. Later try not to. In neither endeavor will you enjoy complete success.

When the tape plays out and stops, listen. The gardeners are singing. All five, from the sound of it. In Spanish. In harmony. Not a rehearsed-sounding thing. One of them just starts, and then the others add their voices. You know it’s a Mexican song, even though you can’t understand the words. It’s definitely not Montecito they’re singing about.

This is the moment it will hit you. Somewhere south of your head. Your head is still woefully ignorant, but your gut gets the message all of a sudden. They brought this song here because it’s something from home. Because this is a foreign land.

Look out the window. You’ll see they’re right.

Walk out with just the clothes on your back, though you have no intention of returning. Put on your sunglasses so they won’t know you’ve been crying.

As you come down the path, your presence will still their voices. Tell them, “Lo siento.”

Drive away fast so they can get back to singing.

Since you have no special plans, drive into the upper village and pick up Wrigley Michigan’s photos, because it’s been twenty-eight days already, and after thirty days, they have threatened, they will throw them away.

Tell them you misplaced the stub. Tell them you’re a friend of Wrigley’s, even though it’s clear they don’t care who you are.

Tell yourself you do this out of idle curiosity, though you know it’s something more important. Something about too much of Wrigley having been discarded already.

Sit in the car and flip through them. Notice how it hurts that Wrigley is not much older than you. How big and dark his eyes are. How easily he could be a friend of yours if he wasn’t a stranger. Notice how you can tell that’s Anne, because you know how he feels about Anne. Because he doesn’t look bored.

Try to forget the ultimatum she issued him shortly before he died. How she told him to decide what mattered.

Pretend you don’t know that Wrigley died about this. Think instead that he just had an accident in his car or something. Remember to pretend that dying in an accident is not the same thing as dying on purpose. Think how sad he was at the end and pretend you have no idea how that might feel.

Now pretend you’re not going to go see Alan. No, never mind. Don’t bother with that last one. You’ve wasted enough time as it is.

Cruise by his house and do the three short beeps on your car horn, and then wait around the corner like you always did. Even though her car is not there. Do it just to be safe.

While you’re waiting, look at the pictures again. This time notice how pretty Anne is, and understand why he needed her. Try. It shouldn’t be hard.

When Alan gets into the passenger seat, don’t look him in the eye. Don’t tell him why you’re here. Whatever you do, don’t suggest you go out to his studio in Carpinteria.

You won’t take your car for the ten minute drive to Alan’s studio. You won’t take his car. You’ll go by freight train.

Sit in the heavy gray gravel by the side of the tracks, not half a mile from the spot where they cross in front of your beachfront home. Your fiancee’s beachfront home. Your former fiancee. Listen to the sound that comes off the tracks when the train is only half a mile away, and wonder if the noise of the train is, at this moment, drowning out the singing gardeners. Just for a split second you’re allowed to wish you were there.

Notice how many of the big rusted spikes have come loose, lying scattered in the gravel. How trains barrel along this track even as it comes undone. Pretend this is not a metaphor, or, if it is, that you don’t know for what.

When it turns out to be a passenger train, a sleek silver Amtrak, ask Alan, “Why are we doing this again?” Shout to be heard. When the train has roared away to the south, ask again, because he didn’t hear you.

“Because you want this.”

“Oh.” You didn’t know you wanted this, but he knew, and that’s some comfort to you now.

When the next train is a Southern Pacific freight, and it’s clear you will be compelled to jump it, ask, “Why do I want this again?” Ask fast; in a minute you won’t be able to hear each other. The train will drown out everything except that little jangle of fear.

“Because the part of you that would jump a freight train has been getting lost lately.”

Ask yourself if you even knew there was part of you that would jump a freight train. This will help you pretend you don’t understand what he means.

Miss on the first jump. Land on your feet if possible. Look up to see that Alan made it. That he’s dangling comfortably from the side of a boxcar, holding the ladder, his feet planted firmly on it, reaching one hand down to you. Realize that if you don’t try again, he’ll ride off without you.

Run to keep up. Try to shake that familiar feeling.

When he grabs you, when you grab him, you’re going to feel like you’re falling. Think, so what’s new? Know that you probably are falling. Teeter there, take a good hold, stand with your feet on a rung and smile. Know that you didn’t leave home for nothing. As you rattle along the Carpinteria bluffs, notice how the ocean spreads out forever. How the oil platforms stain the horizon. Feels Alan’s arm around your waist. Pretend it’s only there as a safety precaution, and that you’re not going to his studio for any special reason.

When it’s time to bail, consider for a minute riding the train until it stops, to avoid jumping. Look down at the rushing gravel, the ocean palisade cliff, and wonder if you’ve brought enough money to get home from Southern California. Then, when Alan jumps, stop wondering. Jump.

Land on your feet and try to stay that way. It won’t work, though. Give up and pitch forward, landing hard on both knees, and the heels of your hands. You’ll find it’s surprisingly painful. Crouch there for a minute, appreciating that you survived. Now open your eyes. Notice that you’re close enough to the bluff to see over the edge; feel that queer sensation of almost falling. Wonder if Wrigley Michigan fell, jumped off a bridge or drove his car off a cliff, and if this feeling bonds you two together even more solidly. Okay, enough of that. Stop wondering how Wrigley died. There is no doubt that he fell.

Take the pictures out of your pocket and drop them a hundred feet into the surf.

Accept Alan’s help in rising. Say, “Ouch.” When he asks if you really hurt yourself, say, “No.” It’s not like you never lied to him before.

Walk with him the three blocks to his studio, without admitting that you’ve really hurt your knees. Don’t say ouch again, no matter how real the temptation.

When he rolls off you, lie still for a minute and listen to a train go by. Then get up and limp naked to the little half-sized refrigerator in the corner of his studio. Break a whole tray of ice cubes into a dish towel, then limp back and lie next to him, in case you never get to again. Hold the ice on your knees, which have begun to swell.

Assume Alan is napping until he says, “What the hell is wrong with you, Susan?”

Say, “I just banged up my knees a little,” even though you know that’s not what he means.

“That’s not what I mean.” Pretend that could be the end of the conversation. “You love him.” When he says that, know it’s true, though it’s okay to have ambivalent feelings about being reminded.

Wonder if Wrigley Michigan loved his wife. Before you even finish wondering you’ll know what a stupid question it is. Of course he did. Or there wouldn’t have been a problem.

Tell Alan all about Wrigley Michigan. Tell him that Anne felt she’d waited long enough and wanted him to move one way or another. Tell him that Wrigley didn’t have much time to figure out what mattered. And that’s such a hard question, too: What matters? Tell Alan that Wrigley loved his wife, even though she was boring. Tell him Anne is pretty, though he could probably guess.

Throw in the singing gardeners.

When you’re done, listen to the silence. Now listen to him break it. “You haven’t changed much.”

Say, “Thank you,” though it’s clearly not a compliment.

“Go home to him.”

“If I don’t….” Wait as long as possible before finishing that thought. If you must finish it at all. “Are you ever going to leave her?” Squeeze your eyes shut and try to persuade the words to slink home unnoticed. Hope he won’t answer.

“If I did, I wouldn’t be what you want anymore. If I did, and you could have all of me, then you’d be off fucking somebody else to hide out from me.”

Start to tell him that’s ridiculous, then think better of it. Instead, tell him you don’t know if you can be happy there.

Here’s what he will say: “The question is whether you can be happy, period.”

Say you don’t know yet.

He’ll tell you to bloody well find out. That’s how he is.

He’ll say if not, you can’t be happy anywhere. And if so, you can be happy there.

When you get back from calling the cab, he’ll say you should have forgotten him long ago.

Promise to do better this time.

Just before you leave, he’ll say, “Try going back there as yourself. Stop trying so hard to fit.”

Say maybe you’ll just do that.

Know you’ll never say anything else to him, ever, never hear him say anything else to you. Expect that to hurt. It’s okay to be surprised and a little disappointed when, just for this one moment, it doesn’t.

Arrive home to find that the gardeners have packed up and gone.

Go inside and erase the microcassette.

Then spend the rest of the afternoon deciding whether or not, when he gets home, you’ll tell him how badly you Sucked up today. Be assured that whatever you end up doing in that regard, it will be a decision made with his best interest at heart.

While you’re thinking, ice your knees again. Decide that if poor individuals from a foreign land can grow accustomed to this place, so can you.

Make a mental note to do more singing.

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About Catherine Ryan Hyde

Critically acclaimed novelist and award-winning short story writer Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of more than forty published stories, the novels Pay It Forward and Funerals for Horses, and the story collection Earthquake Weather. Pay It Forward, released in February, 2000 by Simon & Schuster, is a Warner Brothers feature film starring Academy Award winners Kevin Spacey,  Helen Hunt, and Academy Award nominee Haley Joel Osment. Also from Simon & Schuster, and already optioned for film are her novels Electric God (December, 2000) and Walter's Purple Heart (Winter, 2002). Pay It Forward has been translated into 10 languages for publication in 14 countries, while the mass market paperback was released by Pocket Books in October, 2000.

Her stories have been published in The Illinois Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, South Dakota Review, The Amherst Review, Ploughshares, The Crescent Review, The Laurel Review, Literal Latte, High Plains Literary Review, Bellingham Review, Red Cedar Review, The Antioch Review, Puerto del Sol, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals, and in the anthologies Santa Barbara Stories (John Daniel & Co., 1998), and California Shorts (Heyday Books, 1999). Two of her stories have been honored in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest: Love is Always Running Away in 1994 and Dante in 1996. Her story Red Texas Sky was nominated for Best American Short Stories, the O'Henry Award, and a Pushcart Prize; her stories Wednesday Man, The Last Younger Man, Five Singing Gardeners and One Dead Stranger, and four stories from Earthquake Weather have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She placed second in the 1997 Bellingham Review Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction for Breakage, an excerpt from her novel Turtle Park. Castration Humor was cited as one of the "100 Other Distinguished Stories of 1998" in Best American Short Stories 1999. She has served on the administrative staff of the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference, the fiction fellowship panel of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and on the editorial staff of the Santa Barbara Review. Each fall she teaches fiction workshops at the Cuesta College Writers' Conference.

Catherine Ryan Hyde currently lives in Cambria, California, and writes full-time.

One Comment

  1. Posted February 2015 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Thought provoking

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