Debris of an early spring garden in San Diego

My father died and I just started weeding

The nasturtiums I planted last spring have matured in their flower bed and annexed every available inch of arable dirt.
  • The nasturtiums I planted last spring have matured in their flower bed and annexed every available inch of arable dirt.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

A SIMPLE PROBLEM OF AN EXPLODING STAR: “Calculate the gravitational radiation signal from a local supernova detectable on earth by a Weber-style device. Express your answer in terms of change of star mass and earth-supernova distance. Make any reasonable assumptions necessary.”

Anthony remembers aloud for me memories from his years spent studying particle physics while he helps me clean my garden. He sweats and grunts and turns the soil with a rusty, wood-handled spade.

His brown hair is now shoulder-length. He has a sparse goatee. He has taken off his shirt, and in the blue-white Southern Californian sunlight, his pale skin has begun to turn salmon-pink. He has a married man’s affable belly. I haven’t seen him for seven years.

The nasturtiums I planted last spring have matured in their flower bed and annexed every available inch of arable dirt. Their pale green tendrils, armed with miniature leaves, which I thought adorable this past late-winter, now seem greedy. Anthony and I hack at the flowers with kitchen knives and deposit their tendrils in the trash. The air around us is rich with the smell of warm wet dirt and peppery nasturtium.

We pull weeds. Anthony drinks water from the garden hose, and droplets cling to the tip of his sharp, Semitic beak. A mocking bird raises a ruckus atop a neighbor’s roof: the call is harsh, electronic. Anthony pivots his head upward to locate the sound’s source; his hair falls away from his face. Against the extraordinarily blue sky, I see Anthony’s profile—one I recognize from when we both were much younger.

“I would’ve never thought you would like plants,” he smirks, wipes water from the tip of his nose.

“I would’ve never thought you would leave physics.”

“Schmuck,” he says.

We are wading, I know, as male friendship must, through insult and rivalry, toward wary intimacy.

I am shirtless, too, and bits of mud and plant cling to the greying hair on my chest. Strange little gnats worry the air around us, settle on our bare skin, and make us swat and swear. Lulled by the bugs and the heat, Anthony settles with a yawn on the patio’s shady steps. I continue working, my knees on prickly grass, with my back to him.

It’s a scene of Chekhovian theatricality: In the debris of an early spring garden, two friends are united after many years of separation. Will they or will they not rediscover their friendship?

We don’t have much time. He is on a week’s vacation from medical school in Connecticut. Most days Anthony has spent on the beach, swaddled in towels and fragrant layers of sunscreen, content to nestle in the warm sand and peruse hefty texts on Gynecology and Obstetrics: A Surgical Approach and The Challenge of Osteoporosis. In the late afternoon he emerges from his cozy seaside cocoon and trudges, bleary-eyed, back from the beach with his towels and books filled with sand. I make meaty meals. We drink too much wine. We laugh late into the night.

On this, our last afternoon, I asked Anthony to forget the beach and help get my garden started.

“What the hell was that?” Anthony points to the desiccated stalks of a flower I planted last year.

"My Love Lies Bleeding,” I say.

"My love lies what?"

"Bleeding. I don’t know its Latin name. The Victorians called it My Love Lies Bleeding. I planted it last spring.”

My Love Lies Bleeding is a mournful flower that produces long, scarlet clusters of fuzzy blossoms that grow so heavy they eventually lean down and trail upon the ground. It’s a relative of the amaranth plant the Aztecs considered sacred. But I didn’t know that last spring: I planted My Love Lies Bleeding because I liked its name.

"You know. I’ve been trying to figure out your chronology. When exactly did you leave the physics department at Austin?” I ask, tucking into the soil a row of potential moonflowers. I’d punctured their seeds' tough skin with a needle the night before. (The instructions on the seed packet said this should make them germinate faster.)

“1992. I left Austin in 1992. I’d almost finished my Ph.D.,” Anthony says, rubs his belly. “Must’ve been a big deal.” “Well, yeah. Everyone who knew me thought I’d spend my life in academics. Ithought I was going to spend my life in academics."

“So?”

“So? So, I got tired of spending my time working out the details of things that were either too small or too large for anyone to ever see.”

Calculate the gravitational radiation signal from a local supernova.... I pat dirt over moonflower seeds. I see Anthony hunkered down in a cluttered Austin apartment, pencil to paper, scratching out the mathematical consequences of a faraway, dying star. A clock ticks on Anthony’s desk. It is 3:00 a.m. He hears nothing but the clock, his own breathing, and the sound of pencil against paper.

I have put the moonflower seeds in their gritty crib. Last year, late in August, the moonflowers I’d planted sent their vines high up the garden trellis and across the patio. Their huge, sweet-smelling white flowers opened only after sunset and gave me something to look forward to after dark.

“And when was it your father died?” I ask, washing dirt from my hands with the garden hose.

“Late in 1991. A stroke. It was very difficult for everyone.” The last time I saw Anthony was July 1989 in Jerusalem. I was walking downtown when someone punched me between my shoulder blades and growled, “Hey, Jew-boy, what are you doing here?”

I turned around and saw Anthony, tan, trim, and wiry, standing behind me on the busy Israeli street. He tapped me smartly on the chest with a tennis racket he held and said, “It’s good to see you again.”

We’d traveled together that summer to Tzafat, the hometown of Jewish mysticism. Late one night we found ourselves on a walkway overlooking the city’s ancient cemetery, where blue candles flickered on the graves of long-dead kabbalists. A very warm breeze blew up at us from the Jordan Valley. Anthony had a young man’s argument with God. At one point he raised a determined fist in the air and shook it at heaven. I thought to myself, “Remember this. It’s something you’ll want to remember later in life.”

I rake the earth flat in another flower bed. Anthony studies the dirt under his fingernails. I scatter a handful of radish seeds onto the earth and tamp them down gently with the rake. They will, I know, make more radishes than I can ever possibly eat. Last year I pulled bucketful after bucketful of radishes from the ground. I sat on the patio and scrubbed them clean with a pan of water and an old towel. I ate a few, but most times I’d forget to bring them inside. At the time of my great radish harvest, it was in itself enough to have something other than sorrow to occupy my mind.

“I just didn’t want to end up like my father,” Anthony announces in a vague, distracted tone.

I say nothing, and a breeze washes around the house and tickles the sweat on my back. The unexpected coolness of it raises goose flesh on my arms and thighs.

Anthony nudges an empty snail shell with a nonchalant toe. “I don’t think my father ever enjoyed his work. I don’t think he was ever very happy with it. He and my mother worked very hard their entire lives, and just when they should have been able to do the things they really wanted to do, he died.

“I didn’t want that to happen to me."

I kneel in front of a small plot of ground near the patio steps, and with a stick I make a row of small holes three or four inches apart. In these holes I deposit scarlet runner beans I’d let soak overnight. The skins on the beans are pink and wrinkly, like my fingertips after I’ve stayed too long in the bathtub. I pinch each hole closed. In a very short time the beans will sprout and send their vines up and across the railing around the patio. Anthony continues talking, but I don’t hear him. I’m momentarily lost in self-absorption. I realize that last year, when I started gardening for the first time in my life. I’d planted only lissome things that shot out of the ground with a will to conquer. At one point, my back yard looked like a viney jungle, filled with greedy runners and tendrils and assertive blossoms. I planted tithonia, Mexican sunflowers, which I fed so well they grew to seven or eight feet. They were filled with orange-colored flowers that were so bright it almost hurt to look at them. Hummingbirds swarmed to their intensity.

Anthony moves behind me where he can stand and watch me plant my beans while he talks. Actually I have finished planting them but don’t feel much inclined to stand myself and meet his gaze. Instead, I pick away at the soil, fussily weeding, aimlessly smoothing over the soil with the palm of my hand.

“I spent almost eight years of my life closed up in small rooms.” Anthony sounds as though he’s talking through clenched teeth. “I was completely cut off from other people. Everything I did was abstract. I was completely cut off from other people. Then my father died. I didn’t want to live that way anymore. I couldn't. One day I just got up and walked away from it all. All of it — physics, my thesis, Austin, my professors. I walked away. A year later I met my wife and was married. I enrolled in medical school. I think my father would have been very happy to learn I decided to study medicine.”

I can’t decide whether I should stand or stay kneeling.

I have worried the soil in front of me into a flat and tidy surface and can think of nothing else to do. I lie back on the bristly lawn and shield my eyes with the back of my hand. I cannot see Anthony but can feel he’s staring down at me. He kicks me playfully in the ribs.

“I’ve talked enough about me. Why don’t you say something? When did your father die?”

“Late last March.”

“Oh,” he says. “Was it sudden?”

“Sudden enough, I guess.” The mockingbird on the neighbor’s roof starts up with a noise that sounds like a human chuckle. The breeze blows my way the sweet smell of orange blossoms from the tree in my neighbor’s yard. I can’t tell if Anthony is or isn’t irritated with my reticence, but I sincerely cannot think of anything I want to say. I had hoped we’d find time to speak comfortably to one another about our lives. The opportunity has presented itself, but I am for some reason mute.

Anthony clears his throat. I hear him shuffle his feet in the grass beside me. The sun is very hot on my chest.

“This garden of yours is pretty impressive,” Anthony says. “I have to admit I never thought you were the gardening type.”

There is a pause. I hear the phone ringing inside my house, but I don’t want to get up to answer it. The dirt on my hands has dried and grown crusty. The grass beneath me makes my back itch.

“When did you become such an avid gardener?” Anthony asks. Again he prods my ribs with his toe.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, my mouth dry. “It was last April. A week or so after my father died. One day I came home and just started weeding. This place was a mess. I came home and started weeding, and the next day I started planting all the seeds I could buy. It sort of became an obsession, but, I guess, a harmless one.”

We are silent for what seems a long time. In a part of me far removed from our conversation and my lackluster need for friendship, from my everyday worries, I sense a small but growing excitement. A spark of anticipation. I know that tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after till fall, I will get up in the morning and the first thing I will do is rush outside to see what seeds have sprouted, which have grown, which are winning the race of planty self-assertion in my back yard. Watching them grow is a pleasure.

Anthony grunts and sits down very close beside me on the lawn.

“Oh,” he sighs. “I understand now. I didn't get it at first. Seeing you with dirt on your hands. Now I understand.”

I take my hand from my eyes and see him smiling at me.

He says, “It’s very good to see you again.”

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