July is a wicked month for gardeners. That miraculous encounter of fire, air, and organic elements that entertains us on the Fourth isn’t a bad metaphor for what’s going on down below, except that the more earthly spectacle isn’t half so entertaining. In fact, it’s downright heartrending, if not backbreaking.
I should know. After sixty years, what my back wants is a padded deck chair on a Caribbean cruise ship, not a goddamn guerrilla war with grubs and dandelions.
I remember the groundbreaking ceremony. It had been a cloudless April day, birds twittering in the trees and a gentle breeze stirring the scent of hyacinths and bananas. I had remarked to Kevin that I thought the suntan lotion was a bit premature, but the promise of summer was definitely in the air and the gang at the old Catatonia Arms Apartments was ready for it.
Everybody was there, participating in our little pastoral experiment out behind the parking lot. Alice Rosenberg had traded her lawyer’s costume for a pair of jeans and was helping her roomie, Melanie Carter, pace off a garden-sized rectangle and mark it with stick and string. Kevin O’Neill, who, like me, was a graduate of the eyeball, spit, and promise school of home maintenance and horticulture, was fending off boredom by recording the whole process on video. So far, though, I suspected that he’d devoted more footage to Winnie the beagle puppy, who, in her excitement, had already started digging in the middle of our plot. Kevin also had been zooming a lot, to catch Sidney in the act of attacking the string.
In fact, Sidney laid feline waste to the first side of the rectangle as soon Mel and Al started working on the second, and might have put a crimp in the camaraderie if Moses Fogg hadn’t swept him up and distracted him by letting him untie shoelaces. After a career in the juvenile section of the Cincinnati Police Department, Moses knew a lot about delinquency prevention. Moses seemed determined to keep his agricultural opinions to himself, even though I suspected that on gardening, as on everything else, he had opinions. Off to the side, my salt-and-pepper tabby Sadie and my gray tiger Sophie sat placidly, tails tucked in and eyes wide open, watching the whole scene as if it were some unusually interesting zoo exhibit. Me, I was leaning on a shovel almost as tall as I was, dreaming of a summer in the great outdoors.
I should have taken a hint from what happened at the momentous ceremonial instant of the actual groundbreaking itself: nothing. As the owner of the Catatonia Arms, it fell to me, Cat Caliban, real estate entrepreneur and private investigator-in-training, to do the honors. So, camera whirring, I grinned like a television pitch man, swung my shovel, planted my Adidas, and pushed. I damn near broke my jaw as I leaned in, expecting the shovel to give. Nothing. It sank not a beetle’s breadth.
The camera still running, I gritted my teeth, shifted all my weight to the shovel, and pushed again.
“Goddamn it!” I expostulated. “You guys give me a trick shovel or something?”
“Come on, Mrs. C! Put some muscle into it!” the cameraman said.
“Come on, Cat! You can do it!” Al encouraged me.
“I told y’all we should’ve given her the pitchfork,” Moses muttered. I could see Sidney struggling to break free so he could get a closer look.
Winnie circled my ankles, barking furiously at the shovel. I’d take all the help I could get, sound waves included.
I planted a foot on either side of the handle, wobbled precariously, and gave a little hop. I am not a featherweight and figured with the help of gravity I was bringing considerable weight to bear on the damn shovel, but it didn’t budge. Or rather, unable to move vertically, it rocked forward and crashed to the ground with me on top. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Kevin zooming in to catch the first colorful eruption of bruises amid the varicose veins.
“I told you we should’ve borrowed Deedee’s Rototiller,” Kevin contributed. “This is the 80s, after all, not the nineteenth century.”
“And pollute the atmosphere for the sake of our backyard garden? Contribute to global warming? No way!” Mel insisted.
“I think you need to move the plot,” I said, examining my hands for blisters. Five minutes into the gardening season and already I felt sore all over. “This part must be solid rock.”
“Maybe she should do the groundbreaking over where Winnie was digging,” Al volunteered.
“That’s cheating,” Mel sulked.
“Hey, listen, I was never one for ceremony, anyway,” I said. “Kevin’s already got Winnie’s groundbreaking on tape. What do we need another one for?”
“Cat’s right,” Moses, my geriatric ally, said. “Winnie broke ground so let’s get started and get this thing dug.” He pushed up his bifocals, took a swipe at his mustache, and reached for a pitchfork.
I watched them covertly while they took their positions and turned to their work. I listened with satisfaction to their grunts, and watched the realization dawn on their faces as the first trickles of sweat started down their noses.
“Damn!” Moses was the first to speak. “This ain’t nothing but clay!”
“Mine’s rock,” Kevin said with conviction.
“How did Winnie break through this stuff?” Al asked. We all turned to gaze at the puppy, a small dervish merrily throwing up clods the size of meteors, as if demonstrating how digging ought to be done.
Four hours later, Mel and Kevin were loading Deedee’s Rototiller back onto her pickup, Moses and I were sacked out in the shade, drinking beer and contemplating a