Neighborhood Mums

Walking the dog, I notice someone stole two large mums from the front flowerbed. The mums are brick red flowers, tall as my knees with deep green foliage. I imagine the interloper with a huge plant in either hand trolling down the sidewalk late at night with the moon shining on his back. The occasional little girl snipping a springtime daffodil or the poor college student picking a bouquet for his girlfriend never bothers me. But no one ever removes an entire plant. Let alone two. This is just strange and wrong.

 When I first moved to the city, unemployed and out of boredom, I decided to plant a garden in the backyard. I made a careful list of plants and flowers: Miss Kim lilacs, a Sango Kaku Japanese maple, a Himalayan maidenhair fern, an Amethyst Falls wisteria, a Buff Beauty antique rose…

I overturned the grass and made a nice square planting area. I forgot I was poor, and gardens cost money. So I ended with a rainy summer and a large section of mud Sebastian loved to romp through. Whenever I let him back inside, he carried paws full of wet dirt. For three years I peered out the kitchen at all that open earth. I got used to the look until my wife said I had to do something. I planted grass, but had no lawn mower and too small of an area to justify purchasing one. That first summer of grass I spent on my hands and knees trimming with a pair of scissors. The following year, my wife bought me a weed whacker.

The front flowerbed mums were not my idea.
“Our front porch is rather shabby looking,” my wife said.
“How so?”
“That ugly yellow paint is chipping away near the base, and all those weeds. Everybody tries to keep their places nice.”
“It’s not our fault our landlord doesn’t come out once in a while with a nice fresh coat of paint or at least a lawn mower once in a while.”
“Can we get them?”

I buy the mums because she is right and I love her. But my wife grew up on a hog farm. Her mother fertilized mums with manure. Ever since our mums were planted, every June my wife sends me on a two hour drive to her mom’s to pick up pig poop. By November, the stench finally leaves my truck. But what is worse–I took Sebastian on that first trip. I sat in a tiny truck cab with a passenger smeared in dirt moistened with natural mum fertilizer. I do not remember how long Sebastian smelled. My father-in-law says hog farming is an acquired smell. Once the nose accustoms itself, pig doo-doo becomes sweeter smelling that roses.

I never really think that.

So I am staring at the two large holes in the ground and a trail of fresh black root lying along the sidewalk. I decide I am mad. I jerk on Sebastian’s leash. We will track down this flower-thieving culprit.

We reach our neighbors, the Hispanics. Their big white house sits on the corner of our block and I hear behind the privacy fence their five children playing and screaming in Spanish. I wonder why those kids cannot fight in English like the rest of civilized America, but I linger on our front porch often because whatever the Hispanics cook smells so much better than whatever my wife burns. I remember when my wife was pregnant. They all stood on our porch–the Hispanic husband and the Hispanic wife and their Hispanic children, holding a casserole dish of stuffed avocados.

The man of the house sees me from the window. He caresses his mustache and steps out. “Hey,” he says.
I nod.
“England looks pretty good this year.”
I shrug.
“Mexico could use some work though. What do you think?”
“New Mexico?” I ask.
“No. Mexico. I don’t know how they’ll do in the World Cup.”
“This is football we are talking about, right?”
“Si.”
“Then what does Mexico have to do with anything?”
“Soccer,” he says. “Football is what everybody calls it.” I really do not know the Hispanics. I do not know their last name, so I just call them “The Hispanics.” Besides, who calls soccer football?”

Sebastian and I continue the flower hunt. The trail lies across the street at the Hippy Girl. Hippy Girl’s is another three-story home with a sprawling yard. Unlike the Hispanics, the Hippy Girl does not keep a fence–or a bra. She works in her yard planting everything from corn stalks to weed. her breasts flop out of the sides of her home-sewn dress with little self-awareness. I let Sebastian loose. He lumbers over and attacks her with wagging tail and wet kisses. I watch Sebastian pull at her dress with his paws. She laughs. I jerk on Sebastian’s leash. “Sebastian,” I say. “Bad dog. Bad dog.” This happens so often Sebastian knows I lie. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay. I like Sebastian,” she says.
“I’m glad you do.”

She waves a hand in front of her breasts. “Sure is hot today.” She unbuttons her dress and I see her nipples peek out. She knows Sebastian is a ruse and invites me to her Halloween party. The Hippy Girl hosts Halloween parties annually inside her garage. I am invited every year. So is my and wife and we never go, although people from all over the city come in costume. We watch from our front window Draculas, punk rockers from the Eighties and Things from the Black Lagoon. They dance the night long with sexy green witches, wolfmen, and toga clad men and women for the less creative. The favorite are the dead clowns and zombies. The clowns always show much later into the night, and my wife never sees them because she goes to bed earlier than I at these parties. But all of this is enough for us, and I am left to wonder how Hippy Girl knows so many people because she has such a strange life-style: not shaving her armpits or having a car, or mowing her lawn with a regular lawn mower. She uses one of those old fashioned reel mowers instead.

Sebastian and I continue. Beside the Hippy Girl’s garage are a series of six brick-style apartment buildings. They are small, housing only four apartments per building, two downstairs and two upstairs. They are nicely decorated. Hanging flower baskets adorn the entrance ways. The landlord planted mums in the front flowerbeds the very year after my wife had me put in ours. During Christmas, he puts up lights. In the month of July, he hangs U.S. flags, and all year round, he keeps a small decal of the gay pride rainbow flag in each entrance way.

I wonder why no one stole his plants.

Sebastian now takes a break from sniffing out the flower-thief’s trail. He circles in the little bit of grass between the sidewalk and the street, looking for a place to drop some of his own fertilizer.

I see Brian turning the corner, and I say hello to him. Brian pays four hundred dollars a month for his tiny one-bedroom apartment and that is sixty-five dollars less than what I pay for my two-story, three bedroom with full basement and shared back yard patch of grass.

He lives in the large five story white apartment building to the west of my double. There are twelve apartments in that building, two of which are in the basement and flood every spring, three of which are in the attic and are illegal. Last year, the building caught fire due to faulty writing. The foundation crumbles and I am no longer sure whether the roof actually has tile or not. My wife and I will be out back grilling salmon steaks or just plain old hamburgers, and we will complain to each other about how much of an eyesore Brian’s place is. The apartment building brings a bad element into the neighborhood. Either a lot of alternative liberal college kids or newly divorced men. Brian is not the typical tenant. He has a lot to say about country music and bluegrass music. In his apartment, he keeps seven tiny dogs and Sebastian is scared of every single one of them, being that they of course are all yippy-yappy things not even a quarter of the size of Sebastian. They have simple names too: Garth, Dunn, Flats, Earl, Meek, Bela and Blue. Mainly, when he walks them all on separate leashes tied around his left wrist, he calls them by one long slurred together name: “FuckingDogsNumbskullShitHeadDogsFuckingListenToMe!” And blocks away, I still hear him. Just yards away though, and despite my cheery hello, he keeps walking, eyes fixated on the sidewalk. It makes me wonder what he is so intent upon, so I look down too and am reminded of the missing mums.

I check if Sebastian has finished his business, and sure enough–I reach into my pocket to look for a plastic bag to cover my hand before picking up the stuff. There really is no plastic bag. It is just a ruse; me trying to get out of something I really don’t want to bother with. Besides, I put pig manure on those mums; a little dog fertilizer will not hurt the grass. If anything, it will make those green blades all the more brighter and fuller.

We continue on our way.

We reach the corner of Hudson and Indianola–a main thorough way to the freeway and to downtown a few street lamps but always a ton of people. One of the many United Dairy Farmer’s convenience stores that litter the city sits on the corner. They sell gas along with ice cream and tall milkshakes. The are expensive. In the mornings, many people snake in for a coffee and a donut. Gary is the lead attendant, though he prefers the name Ivan. he wears his hair long and dyed black. He has a piercing in every viewable part of his body. He lives behind my backyard fence. Late at night he sits out there staring at the stars drinking beer and smoking weed. We stand at the fence sometimes in the city’s dark, and talk. “Do you believe in God?” He starts all of our conversations like this.

“No. I mean, not really. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“God is the coolest thing going on,” he says, taking a swig from his beer, a drag off his joint. He offers me a toke. I put up my hand and decline. “You want to know why God is the coolest thing going on?”
“Why?”
“Because he’s Jesus man. he came back from the dead and everybody who believes in him, well then one day after you die, he’ll bring you back from the dead too. Doesn’t that just blow your mind?”
“Yeah. Kind of.”
“You should believe man,” he says and takes another hit and another drink and stares back into the stars. Then, without warning, he comes off his high and looks me straight in the eyes and says, “I got the back of my thigh pierced the other day. You want to see?” Like most people in the neighborhood, Ivan or Gary or whatever his name, anyway–he’s a freak.

And I do not go into the United Dairy Farmers because Sebastian is with me. Instead, we visit the convenience store right next door to the UDF. It’s not that I think Iranians that run this shop stole the mums, but I am thirsty, and Sebastian wags his tongue.

Mr. Habash likes Sebastian and allows him in the store, though he thinks I should rename him something more respectable like Asmari or Maro. He is crazy. And I do not know how he retains business.

The first time I went into the store, he sat on his chair behind the cash register carrying on a full-blown conversation with himself in both English and Arabic. When he noticed I had come in, he pulls a pistol out of a drawer and sits it on the counter. “Cowboys I do not like,” he says. I wear a pair of penny loafers, shorts, and an old Hawaiian shirt from the Eighties. I hardly looked cowboy, but he probably meant American. I told him I could leave if he liked, but that I was told this was the only place in the neighborhood to get quality guava juice. He grins, showing off missing teeth and a wad of tobacco, the juice of which he spits onto the floor. He then resumes his conversation with himself.

This time Mr. Habash is not talking to himself. He talks to a policeman. he describes three kids that have come to his store for the last year and a half. I know these kids. They are boys and live seven blocks down from me near the railroad tracks. They order milkshakes from the UDF and run out the door without paying. They steal penny candy and cigarettes from Mr. Habash. They think it is fun when he pulls out his pistol. They know, like I know now, the gun is not loaded. Mr. Habash tells the policeman the kids stole milk and eggs, lunchmeat and bread. He tells the policeman where the kids live. He gives the policeman a fifty-dollar bill and instructs him to give it to the mother. He also tells the policeman not to let the mother know where the fifty came from.

I buy some guava juice and a bottle of water for Sebastian. I ask the policeman if he has seen anyone in the neighborhood carrying around two uprooted mums. He says no, and looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. Sebastian and I continue our hunt.

We go back to the corner of Hudson and Indianola. We cross the light and pause underneath Common Ground’s green awning. Common Grounds is the local coffee shop. It is owned by a lesbian. her name is Gabriella. Everyone calls her Gabby. Four mums hang in pots from the awning. I inspect them. Like the brick-style apartment building mums, these flowers have not been stolen either. But there is a splotch of root here on the sidewalk underneath the awning, and Sebastian rubs his nose in the splotch. Gabby spots me from the register and comes out to say hi. Gabby is built like a cylinder with a long diameter. She is bubbly and happy and talks about closing down her shop on Tuesday nights for AA meetings.

She complains she does not have a girlfriend. I wonder why she doesn’t go straight. Whenever a new man moves into the neighborhood, and he discovers Common Grounds, he is drawn into Gabby’s personality. And there are always men around her, asking her on dates, wanting to take her somewhere exotic. She brags about men all the time. 

I’m more into Gabby’s coffee, and she knows I’m married. That for all my complaining, I do love my wife. If it wasn’t for her, I’d end up a crodgedy old man. Hard and bitter against the world. And Gabby dutifully reminds me of this once or twice a week, every time I sit for hours in Common Grounds sipping hot Highlander Grog. I savor each bit of one of Gabby’s tiramisus or chocolate cakes, all the while watching the strangeness about me: guys kissing guys, girls groping girls. I do not understand the whole gay-lesbian thing. They are like The Hispanics, with their five uncivilized children screaming Spanish at each other.

I tell Gabby I have to go. Sebastian and I still hunt the mum thieves, and the trail is easy to see here, a stream of dirt heads up the hill in the middle of Hudson’s sidewalk toward High Street. We walk to the corner light. Fallen foliage has mixed with the dirt trail now, and some brick red flowers succumbed to the journey as well. Sebastian barks, we had on with the changing light.

At this corner the Skin Kitchen sits to the south. The Skin Kitchen is the tattoo parlor where Gary–Ivan–gets his artwork done. In front of me, stands a small breakfast diner, and behind these two buildings I do not know what lies beyond on the west side of Hudson Street. It is unfamiliar territory. I am trapped by my own neighborhood, refusing to venture beyond what is known because everything around me comfortable, like an old shoe. But we push on, and it is not long before we come upon a small white-washed home. The roof shingles falling off one by one. The paint chipped. The porch sags, and the sidewalk to the home’s front doors needs repaved. There is an old lady in front bending over dirt with a shovel and two mums, and I interrupt her work. 

“Um, where’d you get those plants?”
She stands and faces me. “My grandsons bought them from the UDF down the street.”
“Really?”
“Brought me groceries too.”
“The mums didn’t happen to be potted, did they?”
“No,” she says, and I know those mums belong to my front flowerbed, and I want them back. But then there’s Mr. Habash and his bulletless gun, the Hispanics who are always giving food to someone in the neighborhood for one reason or another, the Hippy Girl with all of the people she knows, Ivan the Goth Christian who wants everyone saved.

I think about pig poop and why I planted those mums in the first place. I sigh, and Sebastian looks at me and wags his tail. “You know, those grow better with hog manure.”

She crosses her arms like she doesn’t think I know what I’m talking about and gives me a stern look. “And where would I exactly get a hold of hog manure in the city?”

I know it’s a mistake because I’ve done it before, but the next day I load Sebastian into the truck and drive the two hours to my in-law’s because, after all, they are my mums.

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