Landscape

by Randolph Schmidt

1.

Michael’s backyard was a manufactured beauty, peaceful and counterfeit. A few trees and bushes were placed randomly, allowing as much shade as sun. A worn wooden fence covered in ivy complemented the marble birdbath with wisps of moss curling from the bottom. An iron bench with a matching side table yearned for someone to sit with a glass of lemonade and a nice book. Dimpling the closely cropped grass was a pond, white sand lining its bottom, the water shimmering with blazing clarity.

Everything was exactly the way Michael wanted. He sat on the bench, his boat shoes kicked off, his toes feeling the soft grass underneath. All of the battles and frustrations with Andreas and the rest of the landscapers turned out to be worthwhile in the end. It cost a fortune, sure, but now they had a real retirement villa. Their tries in Ocala and Chapel Hill failed miserably. The heat, noisy neighbors, damned kids running everywhere. Michael thought going south from New England and the bustle of the office would result in an easier life, but no. When they packed up their townhouse in Chapel Hill, he said to Emma, “Every place is the same: awful.”

But when they made it to Lenox, they found their unlikely home. The previous owners were slobs. Monsters. When they bought the house, the backyard was a jungle of weeds bending over the green murk of a neglected swimming pool. A sidewalk with tall grass poking out of cracks led from the house to the pool, though it was clear it had not been trod upon in years. Dog shit everywhere. He remembered Emma’s tug at his arm, she was ready to move on to a different listing, but he could see the potential. All it would take, he said at the time, was a little care and attention. The yard could rival a millionaire’s. And there it was in front of him now, so clean. He closed his eyes and knew that when he opened them, there’d always be a reason to smile.

“It really is gorgeous,” Emma said. She had come up behind him and rested her hand on the back of his neck. Her fingers were cold and smooth. A sweet perfume drifted from her and mingled with the scent of the cut grass. Everything smelled beautiful. Michael took a sip of lemonade.

“You see how the bird bath makes a contrasting shadow with the birch tree?” he said. “It creates a sense of play.”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s incredible.” There may have been times in the past when Emma would have sounded sarcastic feeding into him, but she was not. She was really amazed by the backyard, Michael knew that.

“Leagues better than Ocala, right?”

“It certainly is,” she said, twirling her fingers in Michael’s hair. “Now it’s time to relax, right?”

“Yes, yes,” said Michael. “Of course.”

2.

Michael’s home office featured a floor to ceiling window that looked out over the backyard. His desk sat in front of it, and he had begun spending time turned around in his swivel chair, gazing out at his gardens. A robin was perched on the birdbath. It was still, yet behind it the small, red leaves of the Japanese maple fluttered in the breeze. If he had the talent, Michael would have tried painting the scene.

He turned back to his desk and to the lined paper on which he was trying to write. With pencil in hand, he wrote: My thirty years as the executive director of the Newton Chamber of Commerce afforded me with a unique grasp of business knowledge. Michael put the pencil down and reread the words. He thought it a poor way to start a book, but, as he had gathered from writing “how-to” books, the best way to begin was just to jump in. He pressed the point of the pencil down next to the period and waited, increasing the pressure of the pencil tip until it snapped on the page.

“Emma!” he called, but there was no answer. She left an hour ago, he realized. Michael wished he had listened to her when she left. She had said something about a group, but Lord knows which one. She had taken to the senior center lately, and he’d be damned if he’d follow her there. He stood up and cracked his back. It was stupid to use a pencil, anyhow, he thought. Something as substantial as a book, his own personal memoirs, deserved to be written with something dynamic, like his old Amherst fountain pen. He had to find it, though. He thought that it was most likely in the attic.

3.

Michael had planned to spend the mornings sitting by his new pond, enjoying nature and thinking about life. He wouldn’t even bring a newspaper. He had thought about this scenario ever since watching the landscapers dig the hole, coat the bottom with a black tarp, and then cover it all with crystalline white sand. He was so excited that the morning after he began his memoirs, he hurried out the back door. Michael stood at the lip of the pond, coffee in hand, his bare feet wet with dew, and saw that the pond had grown fish. The school swam together in a crazed trapezoid, their scales shimmering like a bronze shield in the early sunlight.

Michael knelt down and tried to get a closer look. They looked like tiny goldfish, some puckering against the surface of the water. There were so many that Michael thought that he could reach in and grab some in his hand.

“Emma!” he shouted. After a moment, she came out of the house holding her own mug.

“Why are you shouting?” she asked. “You’ll ruin your serenity.”

“There’s goddamn fish in the pond. Look.”

Emma peered over Michael’s shoulder. He looked up at her. She was pressing her tongue against her front teeth. That was her “concentration” look.

“Weird,” she said. “How did they get in there?”

“I have no idea. How do fish get in anywhere?”

“Well,” Emma said, “I think they’re pretty. They’re a nice addition here. Maybe it was a blessing from God for creating a perfect landscape.”

She walked back into the house. Michael got up and slumped into the chair. The fish were the furthest thing from a blessing. Michael knew that soon the pond would be filthy with shit scum. Soon the algae would grow and his beautiful pond would be another swamp. He shook his head. He’d be goddamned if that happened. He’d call Andreas and have him come over.

Michael sipped his coffee. Across from the pond, the fence’s ivy was beginning to look astray. Vines had curled off the wood and stood suspended in the air like antennae. A dragonfly hummed by.

4.

Andreas chewed a hunk of bubblegum and looked into the pond. His red polo shirt was tucked into his khakis in an attempt to distinguish himself from the workers under his command. His shoes were scuffed around the edges, and that’s what Michael noticed first. He might own his own business, Michael thought, but he still works for me. He’s just one of his workers that got lucky.

“It happens sometimes,” Andreas said. “I’ve seen weirder things.”

“How?” Michael said. “How does it happen? They certainly didn’t crawl in.”

Andreas sniffed loudly and snapped his bubblegum. What kind of man chews gum at nine in the morning? Michael remembered seeing that kind of behavior in the failed businessmen he’d coached.

“Birds, for one. They fly overhead and drop them. You only need two, and then they get to fuckin’.”

Michael glanced sharply at Andreas, waiting for an apology for the language, but it never came.

“You sure you want them out of here?” Andreas continued. “They’ll eat the bugs and algae and stuff. Keep it clean.”

“I’ve seen what these things can do to a nice clean area of water. In a month this place’ll look like Dutch pond.”

Andreas snorted. “All right. I’ll get my guys on it.”

“And fix the ivy,” Michael said. “It’s getting crazy over there. It’s detached itself.”

5.

Business etiquette, for example. Never act in front of a client the way you would act in front of a friend. Remember that your client is paying your bills. Remember that your client is your first priority. Avoid acting like an idiot.

The words were flowing now that Michael had found his Amherst fountain pen. He had half of a yellow pad full of his thoughts. They weren’t organized, but that’s what revising would be for. He would just get all of his expertise out, and then mold it into the masterpiece that it was bound to become.

It helped that every time he looked up, he’d see Andreas supervising his men cut into the pond with nets. Andreas himself stood near the fence, staring at his phone. Michael sighed. All of the customer service training he had done at the Chamber was coming back to him. He thought about asking Andreas if he belonged to the local Chamber. Maybe he could facilitate some kind of workshop and Andreas could be the first customer. He jotted down a note on a sticky pad: research local chamber.

Of course, Emma would protest his involvement. Michael remembered all of the arguments they’d get into back when he was the ED. “Why can’t you come home at a normal time just once?” she shouted. What she didn’t realize was that his long hours at the Chamber created the life they lived. She didn’t have a real career, he thought, so it was easy for her to say that. What did she do, anyway, but stay home all day? Clean, cook, raise the kids. Imagine if she had to deal with the stress of a real job.

If this workshop facilitation idea panned out, Michael could tell her that it’s just a couple hours a week, that’s all. She couldn’t complain about that; she’s gone for more time at the damn senior center. He tapped his foot under the desk. They’d love to have someone like him, Michael thought. Someone with years of experience helping businessmen and the local economy.

He looked up at the window again. Andreas had untethered himself from his phone and was pointing at the ivy on the fence to one of his workers. He shouldn’t be angry at Andreas’ incompetence, Michael realized. He just needed help.

6.

Andreas had charged through the roof for getting rid of the fish, but cleaned up the ivy “free of charge.” Michael spent the late afternoon appreciating the work, and his martini, as he lounged in his backyard. Emma had made black bass and spring vegetables en papillote, and they ate and drank glasses of Coteaux du Layon outside. By the end of the evening, the insects were making quite a bit of noise, but Michael didn’t let them ruin his evening.

“It was a perfect night,” Emma said as she cleaned the dishes in the kitchen. “Should we invite some people over for dinner this weekend?”

Michael reclined in the easy chair in the other room. “Sure,” he said. “Just let me know who before you do it.”

“Louise Parks and her husband. She’s been very friendly to me.”

Michael grunted.

“I suppose.”

“You should come to the center with me tomorrow,” Emma said. “There are several retired businessmen I’m sure you’d have a nice conversation with.”

Michael turned the television on. He passed procedurals and sports until he landed on the weather. Rain was forecasted for the next day. Michael sighed.

“Speaking of business,” he said over the voice of the television meteorologist, “I think I’m going to head over to the local Chamber tomorrow. See what I can do for them.”

Emma turned the water off and walked into the living room, her face strained with lines.

“Honey,” she started, but Michael raised his hand with the remote and muted the television.

“Shh,” he said. “Do you hear that?”

The buzz, groan and whistle of insects bled through the walls. It sounded like a swarm, a plague, billions of hard-backed bugs crawling and copulating. Emma paused for a moment to listen. She shook her shoulders.

“It’s getting warmer out,” she said. “That’s what happens.”

“Christ. I thought Ocala was loud at night.”

“Well, I was going to say,” Emma said, but Michael had already turned back to the television, increasing the bars of the volume.

7.

When he dressed, instead of his polo shirt and khakis, Michael dug out his gray tweed suit and red and black striped tie. He fastened the tie to his shirt with a gold clip engraved with the letter “M.” He thought about cufflinks (his crimson knights always worked so well with this tie), but decided against it. If the Lenox Chamber had a young man as its ED, then he might be put off by some of the nicer touches of a gentleman’s outfit. That was one of the problems with the newer generations, Michael thought. There was no care taken in their appearances.

Andreas, for example. Sure, he was a landscaper, but he didn’t do any of the actual hard work. Imagine if Andreas showed up to the jobs dressed in a button-down shirt and tie. What would that say to his clients? Michael pulled the Amherst fountain pen out of his pocket and jotted down a note: dress for success.

He walked down the stairs and into the kitchen. Emma, sitting at the kitchen table and sipping a coffee, had not opened the blinds. When she saw him, she sighed loudly through her nose.

“Good morning,” he said. “Can I get you anything while I’m out?”

“No,” Emma said. “I’ll get what I need at the center. By the way, it’s Saturday.”

Michael stopped and closed his eyes. She was right, god damn it all. How did that happen? Wasn’t it just Thursday when Andreas fixed the ivy? He felt a tickle in the back of his throat.

“I know,” he said. “I’m just running some errands.” He felt naked in his suit.

“Okay,” Emma said.

He heard that same tone in her voice she always had, and he bristled.

“I wonder how the pond’s drinking up the rain,” he said. He pulled the blinds open and saw that the grass had grown by inches overnight. The ivy from the fence had broken free, slithered through the air, and wrapped itself around the legs of the table. The pond was an opaque green. Weeds sprouted from the grass, some offering purple berries. Globs of a clear, gelatinous substance dotted the yard. The trees looked puffed, expanded, like they had added branches and leaves. If the sun was out, the yard would have been almost entirely in shadow.

“Oh, my god,” he shouted. “Have you seen this? What’s going on?”

“Things are filling out nicely,” Emma said. “Did Andreas use some sort of fertilizer?”

“What the hell kind of fertilizer does that to a lawn?” Michael said. He opened the back door and stuck his head out. The patter of the rain competed with a darker sound of rattles and scrapes.

“Do you hear that? Did he let loose a zoo? And what are those blobs?”

“It’s probably just foam from the rain.”

Michael slammed the back door and shook his head. He stormed to the telephone and called Andreas. A machine told him that his voicemail was full.

“Goddamn useless fucker!” Michael screamed and slammed the phone down.

“Michael!”

He disappeared into the basement and returned moments later clutching a rusty pair of hedge shears. Michael tore through the door straight into the back yard.

“Your suit!” Emma called, but her words were drowned out by the cacophony. Michael attacked the yard, muttering the entire time, “fuck, fuck, fuck.”

8.

He felt sick. He trembled. He had spent close to an hour in the rain, cutting the ivy, pulling weeds, using a shovel to toss the globs over the fence. Michael even poured two gallons of bleach into the pond and stirred it with a branch he had cut from the Japanese maple. In the end, the yard looked like a kindergartener had landscaped it, but it would do until he finally got a hold of Andreas and forced the bastard to pay for this.

His suit was ruined, and he regretted that. It was a pretty piece of clothing, and he’d had it for years. Michael’s shoes were worse off. The leather had cracked and become discolored in the rain and mud. When he walked back into the house, looking and feeling like a corpse, Emma was nowhere to be found. A note on the kitchen table read: You are acting like a lunatic. Michael crumpled the paper and tossed it into the garbage can.

Upstairs, he stripped and left his muddy five hundred dollar suit in a pile on the bathroom floor. Michael stood for a while in a hot shower, letting the water scald his cracked, bloody hands. Ever since he came in, there was an irregularity to his heartbeat. Michael rubbed his chest.

When he got out of the shower, it was only 11:30 in the morning.

He pulled on a robe and sat at his desk. He did not look out the window. Michael reread the last bits of his yellow-pad book, and contemplated the next chapter. Ethics, he decided. And the first sentence would be: How you conduct yourself and your business when no one is watching sets the tone for your entire career. It was perfect, he decided. He searched his desk for the Amherst fountain pen so he could jot this nugget down before it floated away, but it wasn’t to be found.

Michael ran to the stinking pile of expensive clothes in the bathroom and patted down the pockets. Only then did he remember that he felt something drop while he was outside on his knees near the fence. The pen. It had probably been sucked into one of those globs. The fucking pen that he’d had for decades, since college. Michael closed his eyes and inhaled, and exhaled. He opened his eyes, grabbed a bottle of cologne, and smashed it into the tub, where the glass of the bottle broke and the brown gunk oozed out through the cracks.

Later, when Emma returned, she looked out at the backyard and whispered, “What have you done?”

Michael rose from the sofa, tied the robe back together, and peered out the window. The Japanese maple was pared down to a skeleton, a bony hand protruding from the grass. The fence was clear, showcasing the ugly knots of the wood underneath, but the cut ivy lay in a pile to the side. But Michael knew what she was looking as she pressed her hand to her face. The goldfish floated motionless on the skin of the pond like carrots in a cold soup.

“Those poor fish,” she said.

Michael wanted to gather up those tiny corpses, piss on them, and then listen to them grind their way through the garbage disposal. But he said nothing.

“I want you to call to make an appointment with Dr. Miranda tomorrow,” she said.

“They’re not open on Sundays,” Michael said, flashing a smile that was not reciprocated.

9.

The ivy had regenerated overnight and was tickling the side of the house. The grass grew to nearly a foot long, and the weeds had wooden bases nearly an inch thick. The fury of the insects and animals was deafening. The pond bubbled and rippled with life. Michael even saw paw prints the size of dinner plates in the soft earth near the pond. He tried to be calm. He called Andreas again, yet could not leave a message. Whoever answered the police’s non-emergency number listened to his problem, and then laughed and hung up.

“I don’t know what to do,” Michael said to Emma. She was staring out the back window. “It’s going to smother us.”

“It is unbelievable,” Emma said. “We shouldn’t call Andreas, we should call the world records people. Fastest growing garden in the world.”

Michael covered his face with his hands and pressed his palms against his eye sockets.

“You need to calm down,” Emma said. Michael could hear her close the curtain. “Want some eggs for breakfast?”

Michael continued to clamp his eyes shut until he saw purple squares dancing.

10.

He struggled in bed that night. The sounds from the back yard grew in enormity until they sounded like a herd of cattle being led into a primitive slaughterhouse. He curled the pillow around his head and squeezed it until he fell into a restless sleep.

He dreamt of a warm hand placed on his cheek. It rested there gently, so comforting. A strong pulse beat through it, and it rhythmically massaged Michael’s face. The hand and the heat of its blood felt alive, but the pressure it applied grew until Michael felt his skull’s ancient cracks of infancy burst open.

He woke in the darkness with a headache. The roar outside had quieted, and there was a tapping somewhere. He turned to talk to Emma, but her side of the bed was empty and cold. Michael rose and walked to the window. The vines had reached up and were knocking on the glass with flowered fingers. Beyond them, everything was the dark green of growth. Even above him, the vines and sled-sized leaves created a canopy that barely allowed in the moonlight. To the side of the window, in the smallest crack where the painted wall met the pane, a tiny sprout had pushed its way through.

Michael’s eyes watered. “Emma,” he called, but his voice was barely a whisper. He wished more than anything that she would stand next to him, that she would take his hand, but Emma was probably watching television in the living room. She got heartburn sometimes. He loved her.

When he was a boy, Michael would play war games with the other kids in the neighborhood. One of them, he couldn’t remember who anymore, had thrown a stone that hit Michael in the temple. A piercing squeal had torn through his head. Michael felt the sound of that same scream as he stared out the window.

He pressed his forehead against the cool glass. A draft whipped itself around his ankles like a snake. The glass groaned and fell from the pane, landing with a soft shatter in the grass below. Michael gripped the wood of the pane and reached his head into the night. He inhaled deeply the ammonia of the evening. The vines glided across his face and curled themselves around his ears.

Michael came to be outside. He couldn’t see the pond anymore, just the leaves and branches of a thousand trees. The grass enveloped his torso and squeezed. A vine crept into his mouth and slid down the soft tissue of his throat. Michael closed his eyes and let it happen.


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