The Garden of Delights
He was five steps from the front steps when he heard the nicking of the spade and followed his ears past the white moving van to the shadowy side of the house. There he found his mother wearing a headlamp and kneeling on a flattened cardboard box and she dug in the soft earth. He pajama top, as usual, was filthy up to the elbow.
This was June Katz, the clever matriarch, the patient gardener, and by now her son was used to this scene. Another child, especially one who’d graduated college and was now living reluctantly at home, would’ve imagined the neighbors at their windows and died of embarrassment, but Malcolm had seen her kneeling over flowerbeds in her bedclothes all his life, so if he was ever annoyed to find his her digging in the dark, he hid it well.
“How was your sendoff?” she asked.
“Donny took me to a strip club.”
For a second he was uncertain she’d heard him, but then she offered a wry smile. “Did you have fun?”
“He said it’s his job to make a man out of me, that it might be a long time before I saw a real live woman in her underwear.”
“If you ask me, that sounds kind of sweet.”
“Oh yeah, he’s a real sweet guy. So sweet he should be hidden away on a desert island.”
“That’s no the spirit,” she said, taking off a gardening gloves and wiping her brow with the back of her hand. “Was he okay when you left him?”
June’s black hair and pale gray eyes sparkled through the darkness. She was tall, with a straight back, slim hips and an easy, fluid gait. She was an impressive figure. Not just because she ran like a deer and dismantled men on the tennis court, but because she was the kind of person who could climb a mountain, backwards while reading a book, and not even break a sweat. Still, despite her stature and her law degree, Malcolm struggled to think of her as anything other than his mom, the woman who wore old jeans and men’s shirts every weekend and who’d taught her boys that manners came before pride.
“When I dropped him at his mom’s,” said Malcolm, “he was very happy.”
June smiled, went back to her digging, and without saying goodnight, Malcolm went into the house, where he straightened and then re-straightened the chairs around the kitchen table, rewashed some glasses in the dish strainer, and tossed a few broken crackers into the trash. The radio was on, playing a lonely song he hadn’t heard in years. He leaned against the sink and started aligning the things on the counters, nudging each object until it was in the exact spot it usually occupied. As he was rotating the pepper mill a few degrees, he noticed the dog tags—Katz, Abraham, 041-27-3616, Jewish. Malcolm picked them up and saw they were taped together, most likely so they wouldn’t be noisy? But hadn’t his father driven a truck during the war? Hadn’t he stayed far away from the fighting?
Malcolm left the tags on the counter and climbed the stairs to his room. When his mother came back into the house an hour later, he was still awake. Another lonely song was playing on the radio. He heard a long sigh, the radio flicked off and his mother’s footsteps on the stairs. Soon she was running the water, changing into clean pajamas and the house grew quiet as his head filled with hazy pictures of his father in uniform. The boy was still staring into the haze, thinking about dog tags and moving vans and what it took to be a man, when daylight began poking her slender fingers through the shades of his room.