by Charles Grosel
“What are you doing, Mr. Man?” said the girl from across the street.
“Who wants ta know?” I said, my best Durante.
“You know who.” She slapped her bare feet on the blacktop, cooler in the shade of the maple arching over the driveway. “Liz-zie.”
“Lizzie Lizzie Lizzie on the label label label, won’t you tell me what is new now are you able able able?” I sang out, looking up from the weeds that had overtaken the flower beds in such a short time.
“You always say that.”
“You always say that.” I squinted against the sun angling under the tree. “Your mother know you’re here?”
“She knows I’m outside.” She brushed away the bangs of her dirty blonde pageboy.
“Just stay in the front so she can see you from the house.” I stood up. “But all gardeners I know wear shoes.” I pointed the trowel at her bare feet, grass-stained and rimmed in dirt. “Or you’ll cut your feet to peeshes, shweetheart.”
“Stop talking funny.” She stomped her feet. She had just turned four, but her voice was as husky as a barfly’s, as peremptory as a cop’s.
“Bad habit,” I said in what passed for my own voice those days. “Wait. I think I’ve got something.”
I went into the garage. The light blue, black-toed rain boots were still under the steps where Benjamin had left them next to my winter boots. One of my pair had fallen across the other. Benjamin had crossed his boots in exactly the same way. For a second, I didn’t think I could move them. Then I snorted and scooped them up from the ground.
“Try these,” I said when I returned, my voice almost as husky as hers.
“Benjamin’s boots.” She slipped them on her feet eagerly, as if this had been the point of her visit all along. “They were way too big for him.”
“Yes, they were.”
I recalled the two kids at play—she pushing his plastic lawnmower, he, a head smaller, her doll’s stroller, the handle up to his eyes. He couldn’t quite get the rhythm, so the front wheels popped up as he pulled down on the handle. With every step, he nearly pitched to the ground.
“He was little. I had to teach him everything.”
“He’s not dead,” I shot back, then softened when I remembered who I was talking to. “He’ll be back for visits.”
“I know that,” she said. “Mama told me.” She grabbed a fading tulip in her fist and yanked it out of the ground. “I’ll do these.”
“Not the flowers.” I snatched the tulip from her hand, but she hung on, and her momentum carried her into the flower bed. “And stay out of the dirt.”
If I had slapped her, she couldn’t have been more surprised. “I gotta go now.” Her lower lip quivered, on the verge of full-scale blubber. She gave a little hop and made to scurry past me.
On impulse, I bowed and offered her the tulip stem. She hesitated, wary, but her curiosity took over, and she plucked it from my fist.
“They’re all dead,” she scolded, pointing with the stalk at all the other tulips nested in the weeds, their crinkled petals sagging from the stems like discarded tissues.
“Not dead,” I said. “Dormant. They’re storing up food so they can grow back next spring.”
“Oh.” She thought about it, then stuck the stalk in the ground in another part of the bed. “I’ll plant it here.”
“That one doesn’t have roots,” I said, but she wasn’t interested in my logic, as intent as a scientist on her own experiment. I returned to the weeds, but when I bent over, the blood rushed to my head so fast I feared a return of the headaches. I raised up and closed my eyes until the feeling went away. When I opened them, the girl was rummaging in the toy box against the wall of the garage, easier to get to with only the one car parked there. A playground ball bounced to the floor, a baseball bat clattered, a broom fell. She found what she was looking for.
“Itty ump tuck,” she announced, holding up the plastic toy, its reds and yellows faded with use. “That’s what Benjamin called it. He meant ‘little dump truck.’” She set the truck on the driveway, knelt with one leg up, her cheek resting on her knee. She pulled the truck toward the boot’s black toe, then let go. Nothing happened.
“The spring’s sprung,” I said.
“Then fix it.” Still kneeling, she held the truck out to me with a child’s confidence that grown adults actually know how to do anything.
An editor, writer, and poet, Charles Grosel lives in Arizona. He has published stories in Western Humanities Review, Red Cedar Review, Water-Stone, and The MacGuffin as well as poems in Slate, The Threepenny Review, Poet Lore, and Harpur Palate, among others. To pay the bills, Charles owns the communications firm, Write for Success.