A Garden in Hiding

A Garden in Hiding June 20, 2021

The menacing neighbor was quiet today.

It’s Saturday, so the workmen didn’t come. And she seems to have tired herself out. This is the way her madness cycles: she builds herself up, angrier and more paranoid, spending more and more time outdoors ranting at anyone who will listen, vandalizing our yard. And then she collapses and won’t even get out of her bath robe for a week. I only know she’s alive because I hear the dog’s chain as she opens the door for it to urinate on her lawn or mine. One day soon I won’t hear the dog’s chain, and that’s how I’ll know she’s passed away.

I am still terrified to go outside, after the events this year.

But this evening the sun came out for just a little while after a cloudy, drizzly day, and it felt so inviting. I’d bought some potted plants and a small wading pool to use as a planter on last evening’s shopping trip. I decided to dart into the yard.

We’ve planned to plant a tiny container garden this year, instead of risking another attack by planting our backyard. People who mean well keep pestering me by saying that I’ve got to face my fears, don’t let the neighbor snuff out my light, plant that garden in the back. But I can’t. I have panic attacks every time I go in the back, and then the commentators just make me feel guilty and cowardly for having had one.

Sometimes I have panic attacks in the front too, but the front isn’t as risky. The neighbor doesn’t harass us in the front unless she’s at the very apex of her psychosis, running around in her sports bra jabbering words a mile a minute like an auctioneer. She’s too careful to do that at any other time. Her game is to pit the other neighbors against us, rather than to betray that she’s gone mad. But she often taunts us, or lets the dog out, or jumps out suddenly to startle us in the backyard. The backyard was where she flashed me while Rosie was playing in the sand. The backyard is what she tore up and destroyed last year. I can’t go into the backyard for more than a minute without having a panic attack.

The side yard doesn’t frighten me as much. If we plant a few planters right by the front steps, they’ll only be visible to our other neighbors, the friendly retirees who let Rosie play with their grandchildren sometimes. Maybe the menacing neighbor will leave them alone. If she doesn’t, we’re more likely to see her; I can have Michael run outside to chase her off with a broom.

I lifted the bag into the wading pool and dumped it. Out came every smell imaginable– the smell of dirt, the smell of fungus, the smell of manure that’s been let sit for so long it’s not manure anymore. The soil was a perfect, chocolatey black. I smoothed it out with my hands. I planted the herbs I could find so late in the season: two basil, one Rosemary, one parsley, one oregano. One giant sage. I don’t know what I’ll do with all that sage. I don’t cook with it very often. I wanted cilantro, chives, chamomile, fennel, but there wasn’t much selection this late in the year.

Rosie asked if there was anything she could do, and I sent her around the side of the house to the backyard compost heap, to put compost in planters. It’s theoretically safe there. The dog’s chain doesn’t reach and the neighbor’s delusions tell her we have a camera in that window. Rosie is puzzled by my panic. She’s lived here since she was three and a half years old. The menacing neighbor is just part of the scenery, like the water tower by the market or the layer cake of striped limestone cliffs on the other side of the Ohio. She has no idea that the neighbor has been trying to get Rosie kidnapped by Social Services with false calls to CPS and the police ever since 2016– not that CPS listens to her anymore. Rosie was looking at her sandbox and didn’t see the neighbor flash her crotch at me. She’s not afraid. She gathered every single plastic planter pot from last year from where I’d stacked them onto the porch. She used a shovel to scrape the yard waste off the top of the compost heap, and she filled the pots with last year’s loam. And then she dragged a few pots back around to the front.

“Can you get the others? They’re really heavy.”

My heart shot into my throat, but I swallowed it.

I tiptoed into the backyard, glancing over my shoulder at the monster’s back porch. It’s half the ugly green color it used to be and half the pretty slate blue. I wondered if the neighbor would even live to see her whole house repainted, or if the cancer would devour her before then.

The compost was mixed with the potting soil I’d thrown back into the heap after unearthing the potatoes, so it was beautifully light, but you could still see the ghosts of eggshells and grass clippings. Last year it was eerily warm and laced with white mushrooms; this year, it’s perfect, cool, crawling with earthworms and armadillidiidae.

I grabbed the remaining pots and raced around the corner of the house with them.

We planted bush beans and one cucumber in the pots. I don’t know if you can grow cucumber in a pot, but we had a few seeds and I wanted to try. Beans will grow anywhere– even in a Ziplock bag on a wet paper towel. I once demonstrated this for Rosie, to teach her biology and show her how seeds turn into plants.

Last of all, Rosie spread kale and lettuce seeds in the flowerbed in front of the house. That bed is useless for growing flowers because it’s too shady, but it might be nice for leafy greens. There’s a maple tree overshadowing that part of the property, flush up against the house. It was little more than a sapling when we moved in, and now it’s a tree. I’d like to cut it down, but it’s on the border of the neighbor’s property, and Lord only knows what she’d do. One day it will destroy the front porch entirely– hopefully in a few years, and would to God we’ll be out of Steubenville forever by then. I hope they just bulldoze this ugly wreck of a house and the tree as well.

The neighbor can’t see that part of the yard very well, because of the maple.

So, perhaps the maple is a mercy. But it’s irritating for gardening.

I took a step back to look at my work: one ugly blue plastic planter full of herbs. A few pots of beans, enough to share a handful with the Friendship Room now and then. One Rubbermaid bin full of potato plants that may or may not yield anything.

It might all be gone by morning, depending on when the neighbor gets over her exhaustion and exactly how far her psychosis stirs her up.

It might all dry out and die overnight. I don’t know anything about container gardens. Every time I buy a potted plant, it dies. I am only good at plating things in the ground.

Dear God. I forgive you for abandoning me in Steubenville. If you ever come back for me, I will forget all about this dreadful place. 

I went back to hiding inside.

I heard the neighbor come out her back door to let the dog out on its chain as soon as we’d finished. Perhaps it was a coincidence, or maybe she’d been watching somehow.

I am more and more convinced that paranoia is contagious. The panic attack I’d staved off in the yard crept over me.

I wish I had a brave person to show you– someone interesting and heroic.

Perhaps I am a little bit brave.

Maybe the garden will grow, and maybe it won’t. But I planted it.

That’s all that was mine to do.





Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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