Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

It really seems goddam strange to be telling a dying man on pain meds that it is okay if he doesn’t feel up to mowing my lawn, but here we are.

Okay, so no one knows anything for sure, but when David went for more tests last week — the PET scans and whatever all else that probably ought to have been done months ago, and would have in a civilized nation that had proper health care for everyone — the answers were about what I expected, which is that the cancer he was treated for earlier this year just kept marching on. I knew that. The first symptom he described was what I recognize as an endgame development, and eight whacks of chemo beat it back, but I wasn’t sanguine. He’s got pain now, and he finally gave in to taking the drugs for it, and he and his wife still showed up this afternoon to work in the garden.

The doctors told him they wanted to start a very powerful, aggressive chemo. He recited a list of the side effects and explained he didn’t want any of those: pneumonia, for one. I think he was telling me that he would rather die of the cancer than the treatment. I hope that’s what he meant and not that he has some half-formed idea that prayer or vitamins or herbs might do it. I am all for vitamins and herbs but the right tool for the job is important. A long time ago when my late and ex was starting chemo, a radiation tech I knew from a past life gave me a little of his time and assured me that bashing the disease, even with crude weapons that break down a person’s body, could mean the difference between lots of pain and not much, even if that’s the best you get.

I told him I had a name from a client who loves her yardworker, and that if he didn’t feel up to mowing I’m covered. It’s been scorched and breathless here for weeks on end and the grass is twisting and browned in the sun, so it’s an academic question at the moment. He reminded me I still have a couple mowings left (I pay him for a dozen or so in advance) and I said that was all right, forfrigsake (which I didn’t say because he never swears), if he didn’t feel well that did. not. matter. to. me.

He thanked me. He went out back with Liliana to check the harvest. I don’t grab him by the lapels and say Fuck My Lawn because that would be like saying I know you’re done, you can go home and die. I think the life he has now comes from the smell of the hairy tomato vines, the saturating solar rays and the turned dirt.

He was always one of those people that you figured would live forever (like it or not) because he griped so much. (The more you complain, the longer God lets you live.) He’s always bitched about his health, peppers don’t like him, he got candida from all the years of drinking before the Lord took away the desire, he can’t eat this and that, for all these twenty years you would have thought he was ailing for everything to listen to him, and yet he would dig and rake and clear and sift and lever with crowbars, praying his year’s vegetables out of my dirt, brown and corded in the sun, always a little stunned-looking  but untiring. He walked everywhere (most likely his driver’s license went up in the flames of a series of DUIs decades ago). He would stand out in the yard working his three rows, weeding, watering, spraying (always with something organic, about which he discoursed at numbing length) — sometimes from nine in the morning till dinnertime. I never asked where he peed.

Liliana picks up the shovel now. He still carries his backpack.

I that in heill was and gladnesse
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He spairis no lord for his piscence,
Nae clark for his intelligence,
His awful straik may no man flee: —
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The poem was meant as a eulogy for other poets — written in the sixteenth century in broad Scots, other than the Latin tag,  which is from the Office For The Dead. David has the literary sensibilities of a Roto-Tiller but the world will be poorer without him to describe exactly how long it takes to raise a tomato from seed. Exactly. Exhaustively. My yard’s his poem, and I can’t do anything for him, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t expect to go into the Lake Of Fire that his evangelical and slightly cartoonish God has ready for Sinners and Unbelievers, because he seems vexed and unhappy in about the same octave as when he had two lawnmowers break down in a year. But not afraid.

Maybe he has something to teach the poets.





The tomato with the yellow longitude lines connecting its stem and its blossom end is a Green Berkeley. It is ripe, though it’s still almost entirely green. David explained it to me. The small round capsicum, shaded in 1970s colors of olive green and gold and autumn orange, tiny enough to be concealed in a closed hand, is sweet. The long and twisted one is spicy.

The cucumber is probably the last we’ll get before the beetles start to eat them. The squash is ripe.

The hollows in David’s cheeks are not just the mark of the weight he always loses in the summertime, bending and tilling, loading up my compost trolley with weeds and spent stalks, drying in the sun faster than he can empty the two insulated kegs of water he always brings. They are the signature of mortality.

He told me in the spring, when he explained he had been getting chemo for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, that he trusted in the Lord, who, so far as I can tell after these twenty years of him raising his garden on my back lot, is the Lord of Chick Tracts, a complicated person who loves everyone but sends people who don’t love him back into a lake of fire. The shit list of David’s Lord, if he buys into the line of shirtpocket comics which supplies his annual Yuletide enclosure (a very potted version of Dickens’ Christmas Carol), is long, and includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, Masons, people who have sex before marriage without repenting (which always results in AIDS and pregnancy), and queer people generally.

He has a Venezuelan wife who I sometimes think of as the brains of the operation, a cheerful, sturdy woman with elderly relatives in the home country who want to come here, if they can. Tough times for that. She drives the car, because I think he lost his license back when he used to drink. She can start a seedling from the remains of a farmer’s market heirloom tomato. In the spring she eats the cherries off my tree with a mischievous smile as if she is a young girl stealing fruit.

He came to the door with the tomato, the cucumber, the capsicums and said he needed to tell me something, that Liliana had had to take him to the emergency room on Monday, and the awful pain he had wasn’t the gall bladder thing they initially thought, but the coiled bastard of cancer that the chemo hadn’t dissolved, and he wouldn’t be able to mow much longer and he was telling all his customers, and no one had even proposed a treatment, and they were going to do something called a PET scan and a biopsy. He didn’t seem very sure about what either of those procedures involved.

“Here, let me show you,” he said. “I just remembered.” He retrieved his wallet from increasingly baggy jeans and  showed me, rather proudly, that his Medicare coverage started today, August first. Early, because of his health.

“They said there was something else I might be able to get, some kind of Medicaid, and there’s a charity,” because of course there is, because I live in the richest country in the world where for decade after decade people have been insisting that we can’t do what every other civilized country has done and find some way to give everyone decent medical care. I’m not sure he even knows what the Affordable Care Act is. I once asked him if he had signed up, and he said he would rather go to the Free Clinic when he got hurt, where they know him.

He said some fucking insane thing about refunds for mowing packages he couldn’t honor and I told him gently to shut up and wrote out a check in the amount of this month’s disposable receipts, coming, really, to little more than a carryout order for every year he’s mowed my lawn and raised his vegetables in my yard.  I take one or two every week of the harvest, a cucumber now and then, a beefy pepper, a fat misshapen tomato.  He likes to explain all the varieties. He likes the Lemon Boy tomato better than the Golden Girl even if it doesn’t bear as long. The ones he gets at the big box store aren’t as hardy as the independent garden shop’s. He can declaim upon these topics for hours of optical glaze.

There’s a memorial for one of his seven or twelve siblings next week, and he’s not sure if he’ll be well enough to go, and his daughter came to visit which is why he wouldn’t let them admit him to the hospital, and he could be back in his apartment but he would rather be here and sit in the Adirondack chair under my cherry tree and work as much as his body will let him, in the crazy sea of staked and vining plants that he has coaxed out of the ground for these twenty years since he first came to me with his hat in his hand and asked if I would consider letting him plant some tomatoes, the sun here was so good, and I didn’t use chemicals on the grass. He didn’t trust chemicals.

The cancer he has is common among people who work around agricultural chemicals. Some of his customers are just in love with that stuff, he says.

The doctors wanted him to eat lots of meat and ice cream to put on weight. His health books all say that feeds the cancer, so he eats eggs. I gave him a Tupperware container of bodybuilder protein. I doubt it will help much. You just have to do something.

For twenty years he has been driving me out of my skull talking everything to death twelve and twenty times. This time I let him do it. When I left for the gym he was under the cherry tree, his water keg on the table by his elbow.

The striped tomato is a Green Berkeley. The yellow squash is ripe. Cook it tonight or tomorrow. It is mortal, and won’t last.


David Trusts In The Lord

The Engineer came in from putting his bicycle away. It is a phenomenon of Spring in this house: my sweetheart gets out his bike and starts tooling over the landscape, rabbits erupt from the shrubbery, daffodils bloom, David the voluble gardener appears and begins to dig his three rows in my backyard, filling the compost bin with weeds and improving the soil with peat and lime.

“I had a lengthy conversation with David,” the Engineer said — is there any other kind? — while divesting his socks and shoes and scratching his shins in my office chair. “I would assume so,” I said. “About his lymphoma,” the Engineer added.

Shit. I was afraid of that.

David has sported a grungy beard in all the years I’ve known him, a dubious frame for his four-dimensional row of obliquely angled West Virginia teeth. When I spotted him in the yard for the first time a couple of weeks ago it was gone. Well, people sometimes go random. But when he took off his baseball cap to mop sweat and exhibited a shaven cranium I had a bad feeling.

To recap. David came into my life when I was married to my mentally addled, heartbreakingly childlike late and ex, who claimed he was willing to mow a lawn but clearly had no clue what he was doing and suggested he could go out with scissors and take care of the matter. David happened to drop a flyer in my doorway about that time, adorned with a crude line drawing of a man with a mower who appeared to be vomiting the words “I have a great lawn service.” I was struggling with pollen allergy vivid enough to give me barotitis, and did not need another blast of ragweed in the face, so I hired him. Apparently we are only a few months apart in age, but I didn’t come from a family of nine, or spend my shank years drunk and dysfunctional, or have to pay child support, and I’m not judging, I’m just saying: some people get born in a place that doesn’t have easy roads through life leading out of it. I’m sure he thinks I’m sort of rich because I own a house, which I’m not, but I am safer than he is, and that is fool luck.

Twenty some years on, he cuts my lawn, plants three rows of organic vegetables on my back lot and drones on to me whenever I unwisely give him the chance about the provenance of each variety of tomato, the purity of his organic gardening aids and the mercy the Lord showed him when the Lord took away the desire to drink. Mention has been made of occasions when he woke up on someone’s front porch with no memory of how he got there, and the like. He has the leathery complexion that goes with such adventures. There are worse ways to fuck up in life.

According to what he told the Engineer, anyway, he had this mass in his abdomen which was caught when it was already pretty large, and he was set up on a schedule of chemo treatments, of which he’s had seven, the eighth to come on May second. The mass has shrunk radically. David is sure the Lord wants him to live since the Lord saved him once already, so he has faith. More pertinently, he got on a waiting list years back for a free clinic sponsored by Johns Hopkins University Hospital (up the road a piece) which is covering his treatment.

“I’ve been kinda tryn to work up my nerve to tell Miz Sled,” he told the Engineer, as if there were something to be ashamed about. I mean does he think I will write him a ticket?

But it makes me strangely abashed too. I always hate starting a conversation with David because you never know when it will end. Now I have to pick a time when I can listen to everything he has to say about this, because it is a giant fucking deal and he could be months from death or be set to live another two or three decades, lymphoma is a very big menu, though he says that his is one associated with the Roundup that may have been sprayed on half or four fifths of the lawns he’s mowed for years. I know for a fact that the people who sold me my house “didn’t like the grass they planted” and “killed it with Roundup” before planting a different grass. I didn’t touch the goddam lawn with anything at all, ever, and it was seven years before David broke ground in my back yard and planted his first tomato. Other customers may not have been so purist.

The Lord wants him to live, though. He has garlic and onions already set in the turned earth, broccoli ready to dig in, I don’t know what the rest of the plantings are, but they are faith beyond anyone’s religion in another cycle of seasons and another year of life. In the end it may be all we have.

Do What Thou Wilt

My gardener, David-Talks-To-Cheese, has been waging a losing war on the voles, who have taken to hollowing out the unripe tomatoes like a posse of snarky rodent pranksters. It is hardly uncommon to have voles around here but for some reason this summer they have gone crazy. I don’t know if they got in an extra breeding cycle or are simply flocking to my yard because the jungle vines are overtaking it and providing shelter. Usually I police these things up but the heat index has been up over a hundred fucking degrees way too many days already this summer. The response to “Do what thou wilt” has been pretty much “wilt.”There are voles; okay, there are voles. Tough titty.

David is persevering though, and he shipped in a gallon container of some sort of vole and chipmunk and mole repellent whose active ingredient — David being relentlessly organic — is castor oil. Maybe it gives the voles the shits, or something.

He and Mrs. David were casting about in the garden rows trying to pursue one of the little bandits, as if they intended to spray him directly, when I came around the corner of the house to fill the birdbath. Just standing there next to the birdbath with the garden hose feels like being under twenty Kleig lights at close quarters. I don’t know how they found the spunk to chase a vole around. Or why.

A little while later I was on my way to the gym and found them packed up to leave; David was toting a couple of cucumbers. “Would you like a cucumber?” he asked. “I got a big one, or would you like the small one?” (You have to imagine his accent, which is right out of Hee Haw.)

I restrained myself from saying I was not a size queen and took the small one, tossing it in my gym bag, which was going to be in a cool room, after all, till I got it home again.

That was yesterday. Today I opened up my bag at the gym. Um.


Further proof that the heat is driving me out of my mind

Please just let this end. If it won’t end — which the Capital Weather Gang says won’t happen till at least Monday — can I have my very own climate change denier to stake out on the lawn? In the direct sun? On top of an ant hill?

Dog days, dog breath. Just trying to hang on.

Mutant Shrubs

It’s supposed to be a Hydrangea. Which in my life up to now has meant a polite little bush that is pink or blue depending on the soil and comes up to about your chest, at most. It was a gift from a client — one who is no longer with us on this Earth, sadly, so that I can’t even ask her what the fuck?



Yeah, it rained a lot in the spring and early summer. This thing is starting to devour the driveway and threatens to take over the house. The flower clusters are the size of my head.

Now they tell me.

I’m expecting “take me to your leader” any moment.

Diva Gardener, Week Four (And Counting)

We are coming up on a month since I last spoke to David, my peculiar groundsman/gardener/handyman-wannabe. Appearing miffed that I actually hired licensed and insured professionals to rebuild my front porch (instead of engaging him for some unspecified stopgap upgrade involving tongue and groove — lots of  tongue and groove), he proposed to fix one of the many spots of deterioration on the back porch instead. Clearly offended that I came to my senses at the last minute and told him I wasn’t going to start on that porch because who knew where we would end up, he began to lecture me about his qualifications. Doubtless pissed that I then hung up on him after three attempts to convey to him that I urgently had to get off the phone and, like, put on clothes before a client arrived at the door, he has not made contact since.

The note I left him suggesting alternate work disappeared, but without a response. A couple times he has slunk onto the property — the space under my back porch has been, by agreement, his satellite office for years, sheltering a lawn mower, assorted stakes and cages for vegetable gardening, and, most recently and curiously, a slowly degrading Ikea cabinet door, hardware still attached, with which he was gonna do somethin for some lady. We are into about Month Five with the door under there so the lady must not be in a hurry.

A week ago I tidied out the jumble of empty flowerpots and bone meal bags, leaving a reasonably neat couple of stacks with the dilapidated door on top.

Earlier this week he slithered around the back — I spotted him out the window as I was finished with a client — and almost immediately re-emerged to jump into his wife’s car and depart. I checked under the porch as soon as I could. Perched on the cabinet door were two or three folded brown-paper leaf bags, the kind you leave at the curb and they recycle it bag and all, and on top of that was a doubled plastic carrier bag full of dirt.

I don’t know why he brought dirt over. I have a yard full.

I’m too fascinated by the evolving story to feel any need to force a resolution. At least until the lawn needs mowing, which might not be till April.

It will probably get weirder. News as it happens.

I Am Stone Cold Sober, Occifer

My late and ex, a theater amateur in that best sense of the word that means for love alone, liked to tell the story of a summer repertory troupe in New England which became restive as, over a period of weeks,  wages were shorted or didn’t appear at all. Perhaps the management felt they could get away with stiffing second-string actors as long as their rooms and meals were all found. It is a brave man, however, who presumes to fuck with artists. As the curtain rose one night on the second act of some version of Tod Browning’s fairly awful Dracula play, the actor playing the undead Count rose slowly from his coffin — fingers of one hand over the side first, upper half gradually coming into view, you know the shtik. “If I’m alive,” he said in the rich, vaguely Eastern-European accents we expect of the King Vampire, “what am I doing in this coffin?… But if I am dead, why do I have to go to the bathroom?”

Legend has it that the troupe was paid full whack thereafter. I don’t know if it’s true, but it occurred to me early yesterday morning. If I’m asleep, how did I reach this familiar seat by the bathroom window? But if I’m awake, why am I seeing this in the back garden?


“There’s a frog on a bicycle in the back yard,” I said blearily as I crawled back into bed next to the Cute Engineer, who had spent the night after a marathon opera evening. I think he replied something like “bsiuytoihrslplk.”

David the gardener seems to have gone upbudget. For uncounted seasons he has suspended a used aluminum disposable pie plate from a stake, hoping to frighten off an increasingly brazen tribe of birds who pillage the tomatoes. It is quite a metabolism for such a work of craft to take the pie plate’s place, but he explained to me later that evening that his wife likes things like that. “I figured maybe that was it since I knew I hadn’t had a thing to drink when I saw it,” I replied.

I can’t decide if my excitement threshold has dropped to a dangerously low level.

Out In The Midday Sun

Of course, after watching my gardener and his brother fricassee themselves operating power tools in yesterday’s heat, I had to go out there too and prove I could take it. I did, at least, go armed with a full iced keg; on the other hand, I was breaking in some new teenaged yard help, which made the whole operation kind of dicey. Teenagers consider themselves invincible and have to be nagged to drink water.

I ran out of time, but I meant to play this for her.

Who can equal the master?

In tropical climes
There are certain times
Of day
When all the citizens retire
To take their clothes off and perspire.
It’s one of those rules
That the greatest fools
Because the sun is far too sultry
And one must avoid its ultry
Violet ray.

The natives grieve
When the white men leave
Their huts.
Because they’re obviously,

Mad Dogs & Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The Japanese don’t care to,
The Chinese wouldn’t dare to,
Hindus and Argentines
Sleep firmly from twelve to one,
But Englishmen
Detest a
In the Philippines
They have lovely screens
To protect you from the glare.
In the Malay states
There are hats like plates
Which the Britishers won’t wear.
At twelve noon
The natives swoon,
And no further work is done,
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun!

Such a surprise
For the eastern eyes
To see,
That though the English are effete,
They’re quite impervious to heat.
When the white man rides
Every native hides
In glee.
Because the simple creatures hope he
Will impale his solar topee
On a tree.

It seems such a shame
When the English claim
The Earth,
That they give rise
To such hilarity
And mirth.

Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The toughest Burmese bandit
Can never understand it.
In Rangoon
The heat of noon
Is just what the natives shun,
They put their Scotch
Or Rye down
And lie down.
In a jungle town
Where the sun beats down
To the rage of man and beast,
The English garb
Of the English sahib
Merely gets a bit more creased.
In Bangkok
At twelve o’clock
They foam at the mouth and run,
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.

Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The smallest Malay rabbit
Deplores this foolish habit.
In Hong Kong
They strike a gong
And fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand
Each inmate
Who’s in late.
In the Mangrove swamps
Where the python romps
There is peace from twelve to two,
Even caribous
Lie around and snooze,
For there’s nothing else to do.
In Bengal,
To move at all
Is seldom if ever done.
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday
Out in the midday
Out in the midday sun!

I’m still rehydrating.


I have been fairly bummed by the news reports, which currently sound a lot like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse having a steeplechase, but today the temperature hereabouts hit eighty degrees and the Gaian Recovery and Reinvestment Act kicked in.

I have been promising my inner neatnik that I would get out there in the garden and clear things away from the already sprouting bulbs before the blooms had a chance to get tangled up in last fall’s deadheads. The schedule cooperated. Two hours of rassling a chaotic patch of ground with rake, shovel and clipper are all the Zen anyone needs. I always say I hate working in the goddam yard until I put on my gloves and do it.

Some days I think I would like to be married again, and some days I think I am just going to marry my house and the land it sits on. Everything seems to occupy its proper place in creation, like the planetary shells in an old-fashioned orrery, when I have been clipping away dried stalks and uprooting nuisance vines and freeing young shoots for a couple of hours.

It got dark before I could get out with my camera to record the first daffodil, and the nearly full moon was up.

Gaia says hello.