The Planter of Flowers

by Dale E. Lehman

“Merciful God in heaven! My flowers!”

Old Henry Graves gaped, sputtered, and slapped his hand on his forehead. Before him spread a scene of wanton destruction such as he had never in his seventy-odd years witnessed. His wrinkled face sagged with puzzlement. “Who would do such a thing? Who could do such a thing?”

Clustered around the green van, his underlings—Barney, Alice, Rita, Dave, Chester, and Margaret—looked on in stupefied silence. The road where they had parked ran true north-south, a dark ribbon of asphalt split in two by a grassy parkway. Down the parkway marched rows of marigolds, uniformly golden, uniformly four inches in height. If that had been all, Henry and crew would have had no cause for alarm. After all, he was the village gardener and the marigolds were his. Neat, orderly, respectable rows of rich yellow lined every street, encircled the trunk of each white oak along the easements. The parks were judiciously highlighted with his marigolds, and his tidy yellow borders adorned the perfect lawns of every public building. He had planned it all with meticulous care, and his volunteer staff of retirees labored diligently to keep it just so.

But here—

“Those are petunias!” Henry pointed at the formerly pristine marigold beds. “Somebody’s planted petunias! And delphiniums! And—and roses and lilies! And daisies!”

The gardeners gaped at the scene. The interlopers were planted helter-skelter down the parkway, around the marigolds, in the marigolds, without any discernable pattern or color scheme. They were just there, as though they had sprung up wild.

Henry pointed a bony finger at the mess. “Weeds! Get rid of them!”

The gardeners sprang into action, taking gloves and trowels and yard waste bags from the van and attacking the offending flowers. Donning the gloves, they ripped out the lilies, tore up the delphiniums, dug out the rose bushes. The smell of moist earth filled the air, punctuated by the scent of shredded greenery.

All morning long, Hendry marched up and down the parkway, inspected their progress, checked lines of sight. Slowly the damage was undone. By noon the marigolds once again stood alone, uniform, perfect. The gardeners peeled off their grimy gloves and settled under an old oak tree for lunch.

“It’s unheard of,” Alice commented as she rummaged in her brown paper lunch bag. The others agreed. “We had everything perfect. Why would anyone do such a thing?”

“Kids,” Chester grumped. “They got no respect no more.”

“Wouldn’t be kids, Chet,” Dave said. “Takes money to buy plants, and that was a lot of plants.”

“Maybe some nursery did it for a PR gimmick,” Rita suggested. “I hear business has been bad lately.”

“I’ve kept this town in trim for over thirty years,” Henry said, “and never have I seen such a mess! It burns me up to think somebody did that on purpose. I planned those beds. I planted and tended them. They’re the best flower beds in the world. They’ve won awards, for God’s sake. Whoever’s responsible had better keep their distance!”

“Now Henry,” Margaret soothed. “Remember your blood pressure. Besides, who would do such a thing? Look around. What do you see?”

They all took a good look at the quiet street. Everywhere was tidy uniformity. The whitewashed houses with their whitewashed picket fences were arrayed in precise rows along the arrow-straight street. White oaks—not black, not red, not pin or post—shaded the houses and lined the street. And, of course, there were marigolds, all sunshine gold and of the perfect height, their acid scent carrying on the wind.

Margaret said, “Folks are proud of this town. My neighbor, Mrs. Kilroy, says our flower beds are perfect. Across the street from me live a young couple who spend every evening tending their yard. It’s like that all over. So who would even think to do such a thing?”

“Kids,” Chester said again. “Kids.”

Dave shook his head. “Chet, we’ve been through all that—”

“Anarchists,” Henry snarled. “Probably troublemakers from out of town. Well, it better not happen again.” He glared at nothing.

The gardeners finished their lunches in silence.

#

The next morning, Henry didn’t even get out of his tiny office before trouble began anew.

For as long as he could remember, each working day had started exactly the same way. He would arrive at town hall by seven, review his charts and records, and assemble his volunteers. By seven-thirty they were on the road, travelling together in their green van to whatever part of town was due for attention. On occasion, one of the residents would report a problem, but that seldom occurred before nine o’clock and almost always followed a storm. A dispatcher relayed any such calls to the van.

That wasn’t how today began. Today Henry’s phone rang at seven twelve. “Oh, Mr. Graves!” the woman on the line cried. “It’s awful! The worst disaster of my life!”

Henry scowled. “What? Who is this?”

“This is Frieda, Mr. Graves. Over on Third Street. I’ve never seen such a mess, and today of all days! Why, why today?”

“Frieda? Frieda who?”

The woman sobbed. “Frieda Gable. Don’t you remember? You helped me plan my flower beds three years ago.”

Hendry had probably helped a quarter of everyone in town do just that, but he didn’t mention the fact. There was too much work to be done to waste time on nonsense. “Mrs. Gable, calm down. What’s the problem?”

“Problem! Disaster is the word! The PTA officers are having their monthly luncheon at my house this afternoon, Mr. Graves. It’s a very important meeting. School will be started in just over two weeks and—”

“Mrs. Gable—”

“And Mayor Whitehall is joining us today. He’s going to review—”

“But what is the problem, Mrs. Gable?”

Frieda sniffed. “Why my yard is a disaster! My yard, the street, everything! I can’t have such an important meeting here with the place looking like this!”

Henry propped his head up with his fist. “What’s wrong with your yard?” Behind him, Alice poked her head through the door, knocked, and arched her eyebrows. Irritably, he waved her away.

“Things are growing all over!”

“Mrs. Gable!”

She wailed again. “Rose bushes!”

A chill crept down his spine. “What?”

“Rose bushes! And nasturtiums, and pansies, and I don’t know what else. All over the place! The marigolds are practically lost in them.” Frieda sobbed uncontrollably.

Gritting his teeth, Henry said, “I’ll be right over.” He slammed down the receiver, charged out the door, and called his troops to battle.

#

The place was indeed a mess, worse even that what they had faced the previous day. Hendry set the crew to work right away. He assigned the job of weeding Frieda’s lawn to Barney and Margaret, while Alice, Rita, Dave, and Chester drew the more irksome task of restoring order to the marigold beds lining the street. There, a hedge of freshly-planted red, white, and brilliant yellow roses formed a thorny, fragrant barrier between the yard and the road. Digging it up proved sweaty work, for the sun was even hotter than usual, but the crew labored diligently through the morning, and by noon passers-by couldn’t tell that anything had ever been wrong with Henry’s marigolds or Frieda’s emerald lawn.

“Darn kids,” Chester mumbled as they loaded their equipment back into the van. “That weren’t funny. That’s someone’s property they messed with.”

“We’ll be behind schedule for the rest of the week,” Alice said.

Dave rolled his eyes. “Wouldn’t be kids, though. Like I said before—”

“It doesn’t matter who did it,” Henry snapped. “It’s vandalism, and it’s happened twice now. We’re going to put a stop to it.”

“How?” Margaret peeled off her grimy gloves and rubbed her sleeve across her forehead.

Before Henry could answer, a gleaming white Lincoln Town Car purred around the corner and cruised toward them. It halted just behind the van. A moment later, Mayor Whitehall climbed out from behind the wheel, a tall, genial fellow, smartly dressed in a light grey suit and black shoes polished to a soft glow. He nodded as he came around the car. “Morning, Henry.”

“Good morning, Mr. Mayor,” Hendry replied, forcing a smile. Pretending not to know, he asked, “What brings you here?” He glanced around again to satisfy himself that everything looked perfect. This wasn’t the time to bother the mayor with problems.

“Meeting with the PTA officers. Education, as you well know, is one of my top priorities.” He took a look around the street and flashed a patriarchal smile. “Good work, crew. Keep it up.”

As one the gardeners heartily replied, “Thank you sir!” and waited nervously for the mayor to get about his business.

But he didn’t. He stood there admiring the view for a few moments, then scratched his prominent nose. “By the way, Henry, I’d like you to stop by Koeller Park today when you’ve got a few moments. We’ve got a minor problem over there.”

“What sort of problem, Mr. Mayor?”

“Oh, nothing much. Just a few weeds that popped up overnight. Shouldn’t take your crew long to put it right. We’ll, I’d best be going in. See you around, Henry.”

Henry watched the mayor pass regally up the walk to Frieda’s front door. But as soon as Frieda greeted her guest and closed the door, he turned and glared at his gardeners. “Come on. Sounds like more of the same.”

And it was, of course. The park was sprinkled with an assortment of daisies, primroses, and asters. Delighted by the newness, children who’d never in their whole lives seen rainbows on the ground ran helter-skelter, picking bouquets, counting petals, sniffing the varied fragrances. A photographer from the local paper recorded the strange event for posterity, and moments after the gardeners’ arrival, a reporter asked Henry to comment on the situation.

“It’s vandalism,” Henry said, “and I’m going to put a stop to it. Mark my words!”

Eagerly, the reporter did.

#

Poor Henry didn’t even get out his front door the next morning before trouble arose. His home phone rang at six thirty, just as he was finishing his coffee and toast, and the mayor’s voice came over the line: “Morning, Henry. Hope I didn’t call too early.”

“No, I was up.”

“You sure? You don’t sound so good.”

Henry had no appetite for small talk. “Is everything all right, Mr. Mayor?”

“Oh, sure, sure. Just one little thing which I thought I ought to mention before you got here. Might be a shock, otherwise.”

“What’s that?”

“Seems we got a few more of those weeds.”

“Where?”

The mayor chuckled, but Henry could tell he was forcing it. “Right outside my window, in fact. Right here in front of town hall. We can’t have that, now, can we?”

“No, Mr. Mayor. I’ll get the crew together and be right over.”

And so another day was wasted digging up weeds of every shape, size, color, and fragrance. The gardeners put town hall to rights, then worked down the parkway on Main Street, then hurried north to Adams and south to Washington. There was no rest for them that day, and Henry knew it would be even worse tomorrow unless he did something.

So he called his wife to say he would be out late and don’t wait up for him, and then, settling into his old leather chair behind his old wooden desk, he stared out the window at his tidy marigold borders, pondering.

Night soon fell. A crisp wind cooled the town as the stars came out, pinpricks of white, red, yellow, and blue against the lightless dome of the universe. Donning his black overcoat, Henry stepped into the dark and made his way down Main Street. The town had grown still, the only sounds those of night creatures and far-away television sets. He moved slowly, quietly down the street.

Nothing happening here.

He turned south and crossed Oak, Maple, and Walnut, then wandered westward. The scent of fresh-cut grass lingered along Jefferson Street. Veiled by curtains, yellowish light peeked out from the windows of the houses where children were being tucked into bed.

Nothing here.

He circled back to the north, across Main again, and up to Independence Boulevard. He had done a particularly good job on Independence. It was one of the first streets he had landscaped. The marigolds were arrayed so perfectly one could steer by them at night.

Except that here, they were obscured by purple roses and white phlox. Henry sucked in his breath. The new plantings began just before him and wound down the south side of the street. The north side was yet pristine. He inched forward, careful not to make a sound, glaring at the wanton destruction.

Periwinkles wound among the marigolds. Daylilies poked up through the perfect lawns. A clematis wrapped around the trunk of an oak. The scents of the various weeds mixed with the cool air to produce a heady perfume. Henry picked up his pace but maintained his silence.

He halted two blocks on. Not fifty yards away, the culprit, the anarchist, was busy at work! He knelt on the ground, carefully digging a small hole with a trowel, whistling. Once the hole was deep enough, he reached into a large wheelbarrow overflowing with flowers of every variety, selected a red and yellow petunia, and placed it carefully into the hole.

His fists clenched, Henry approached the man, watched him fill the hole with soil and tamp it with wrinkled hands. “So!” Henry snarled. “And just what do you think you’re doing?”

The old fellow didn’t as much as look up. “Planting. What do you think you are doing?”

“Putting a stop to this. Get up.”

With a sigh, the man rose. He was as old as Henry—no, older, ancient, perhaps even ageless, with long, white hair and a long, white beard, but his skin was darker than that of anyone who lived in this town. American Indian, Henry guessed, or Middle Easterner. Whoever the fellow was, he was clearly an interloper. His eyes glowed softly, although their color was lost in the darkness, and he smiled.

Henry set his fists on his hips. “You can’t do this! What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you? Don’t you like flowers?”

“You’re coming with me, you old vandal. I’m going to have you arrested.” Henry flashed his most challenging glare, his mouth set in a harsh line, the veins standing out on his neck.

But the planter of flowers merely shrugged. “If you must. Do you wish to handcuff me?”

“Don’t be absurd. I don’t have any handcuffs.”

“That’s all right. I won’t try to escape.”

Henry blinked at him.

#

Mayor Whitehall couldn’t remember many cases of vandalism in this town, or so he told Henry as they awaited the judge’s return to the courtroom. “And I can’t remember any case, no matter how serious, that’s caused such a ruckus. You see that young fellow over there?”

Henry followed the mayor’s nod to a rail-thin youth with dark brown skin and sparkling eyes. The fellow was talking non-stop with an oriental woman who laughed and shook her head.

“That kid’s from the New York Times. Now who’d have thought our little town would attract that kind of attention? And it’s not good attention, Henry, not good at all.” Whitehall gave Henry a sickly smile.

“When Judge Avebury passes sentence, we’ll be known as a town that values order.”

The mayor scratched his nose. “I suppose so. Still—” He fell silent as the judge entered the courtroom and everyone rose.

The judge’s droopy gaze fell upon the old man standing alone behind the defense table. “Be seated,” he said. Once the rustling had ceased, he continued, “You, sir, are a most peculiar fellow. You elect to defend yourself, yet produce no defense. Under oath you admit to planting flowers on both public and private properties without authorization or permission, but express no remorse. When the jury found you guilty of vandalizing public and private property, I gave you opportunity to speak before sentencing, but you said nothing.”

The old man remained silent, his mouth curled into a serene smile.

Judge Avebury shook his head. “I can’t see this as more than a bizarre prank. However, the town’s image has been tarnished and its resources squandered on repairing the damage you did. Therefore, you are banished. You are hereby ordered to leave this town and not return until such time as you are ready to make a public apology.”

The unusual sentence threw the courtroom into an uproar. The reporters scrambled for the door, some eager to send off stories and others jockeying for interviews. Spectators debated the justice of Avebury’s pronouncement, but Henry was satisfied. His flowers would at last be safe, while the old man would surely think on his misdeeds and atone for them in short order. Pleased, the village gardener headed for home.

#

“Henry! Good Lord, Henry, come quick!” Henry’s wife ran halfway down the hall, then trotted back to the picture window in the living room. “Henry!

“I’m coming, Maud! What in the name of God—” Henry hurried to her side, tugging his beige bathrobe tightly about himself. When he got there, he gaped out the window.

The yard was full of flowers!

Pansies and asters and coneflowers!

Roses and hostas!

Hollyhocks!

Bright, random splashes of color had erupted all over his lawn, ran rampant through his marigold beds, spilled over into his neighbors’ yards. And that wasn’t all. There were children and youth as well—young folk, like the flowers, of every size, shape, and color—running this way and that, trowels in hand, pushing wheelbarrows filled with plants, digging up the earth and adorning it with myriad species of flower. Henry clapped his hands to his temples and uttered a strangled cry.

The phone rang. Still he watched, shocked into immobility, as the young ones swarmed over the neighborhood and destroyed its monochrome order.

“Henry, it’s the mayor.” Maud’s face was ashen.

Henry turned away from the window and took the phone from her hand. “Mr. Mayor?”

“Good God, Henry, you’ve got to do something! They’re everywhere!”

“Who?”

“Kids! Teenagers! College students! They’re running wild, planting flowers all over town!”

“I know.”

“Well? What are you going to do?”

Henry turned back to the window and shook his head. The army had moved on, leaving his yard a palette of swirled pigments. “What can I do? This is too big, Mr. Mayor. It’ll take all year to undo the damage. Maybe you should call out the police.”

“Are you nuts? I can’t arrest every child in town!”

“It doesn’t matter. My poor marigolds! Their days are numbered.”

“What? What? Henry!”

His attention still on the lawn, Henry gently replaced the receiver.

“Can you fix it?” Maud asked, as though she already knew the answer.

Henry shook his head. “What difference does it make? Those kids, they won’t forget. Even if we rip up everything they plant today, they’ll remember. And someday, when Whitehall and I are gone, they’ll be running this town.”

Maud’s expression softened. “Actually, it doesn’t look all that bad. And your marigolds are still there.”

Henry sank into the sofa and closed his eyes. “Marigolds, yes, but not only mine. Marigolds in yellow, red, and white. Marigolds tall and short and in between. I think, Maud, it’s going to take me some time.”

 

© July 2016 By Dale E. Lehman.  All rights reserved.  You may share links to this web page, but otherwise copying and redistribution of page content by any method for any purpose without written consent of the author is prohibited.

 

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