I heard the squealing of rusted scooter wheels before I saw him.
“Hello,” I said without looking up, calling Jimmy’s boy by name.
Jimmy the mechanic and his partner and children live just a few houses down. The boy is the youngest, a wiry five-year-old who rarely wears a shirt this time of year. When Jimmy does the rounds with his lawnmower to earn money, the boy tags along behind with a toy mower. I don’t know if he’s allowed to scoot all the way down to my house unattended, strictly speaking, but he slips away an visits every day when the weather is nice nonetheless. He always stays until he hears his father yelling his name.
He scooted into the front yard, in shorts and worn sneakers. “Hello!”
“Your back is all scraped!” I commented, as the boy bent over to admire the guinea pig, who was grazing under a laundry basket. “Did you wipe out on the tire swing again?”
“I fell off my motorcycle!” said Jimmy’s boy. He spun a long yarn about crashing his motorcycle into the house across the street and breaking his back right in half, as he tried to pet Lady Mcfluff on the nose.
“That’s about the most serious injury you can get from a motorcycle crash,” I remarked.
“Can we go look at the vegetables?”
Yes, we could go look at the vegetables. I scooped up Lady McFluff and her mobile prison. The boy followed me behind the house to the garden. He is intrigued by the garden, and wants to inspect it every day. I think he keeps better track of my ripening tomatoes than I do.
I put the guinea pig down in the weeds at the end of the herb bed, and covered her with the laundry basket again. “I’m going to Columbus on Friday,” I told him. “That’s the capitol. That’s where the governor lives.”
The boy does not impress easily. “The governor’s at my house right now.” And then his attention was on the plants.
“What’s this again?”
“This is popcorn. See how tall it is? Every one of these hairy tassels will turn into corn in a few weeks. You can feed a bit of the leaf to the guinea pig. It’s her favorite.”
He pushed the green blade through the slats of the laundry basket, where Lady McFluff ate it up like spaghetti.
“This is broccoli. The florets are almost ready. I should pick them this week. You can taste a bit if you like.”
The boy broke off a piece of the floret and chewed it meditatively for ten seconds before spitting it out.
“You don’t like broccoli?” I asked.
“It’s just not ripe. What are these again?”
“Those are potato plants. The potatoes live underground. They’ll be ready to pick in the fall, when you go back to school. After you get back from school one of these days, you can help me dig them out of the planters like an Easter Egg hunt and take it home for dinner.”
“I go to school over there,” said Jimmy’s boy, pointing to the yellow house where the nice old lady and her dog live, and where there is certainly no school. “I go to school every day. The bees are eating your sunflowers!”
“They’re helping the sunflowers. Bees are very important to the ecosystem! They’re carrying pollen from flower to flower so the flowers will grow, and then they’ll go home and make us new honey.”
“Where’s the hive?”
That, I didn’t know.
“I don’t see any strawberries,” he said, eyeing the patch critically.
“There’ll be another crop in fall when you go back to school. And these are red clover. They’re just a decoration. Here’s a cucumber that’s ready. No, don’t meddle with the tomatoes! They’re not ripe yet. That one will be ready tomorrow morning, but not yet. It needs a little more time. This cucumber is ripe. You can pick it if you want. Just twist it off at the stem like that.”
The boy twisted the cucumber as I’d instructed.
“You can take that home to the family for dinner.”
“I have lots of cucumbers at home on my cucumber tree. It’s a big big cucumber tree! You can climb it! But you can’t reach the cucumbers. You have to chop them down.”
“You’re very lucky to have a cucumber tree.”
Jimmy’s boy picked a great big handful of basil next, before I could stop him. The cloud of perfume went all over the garden, reminding me of that ridiculous fairy tale that Adrienne used to request every night, and then he threw it on the compost, a gift for the worms.
He went darting across our property line into the stalking neighbor’s yard. Jimmy keeps still keeps her grass low for old time’s sake, but the weeds are getting ragged and the bric-a-brac on her porch has blown over. Trash has blown into her yard and stayed there– Jimmy ran over a long white paper receipt with his mower this weekend, so the grass looks like it’s covered in confetti. The boy ran through the confetti, telling me stories about the deceased neighbor and all his adventures with the cucumber tree.
Instinctively, I cringed for her to come bursting out of her house with the German shepherd, ready to do battle. But she remained dead.
“What are these?” he asked next, bringing me the tops of my two cilantro plants.
“Cilantro. It’s a seasoning. It makes everything taste nice.”
The fresh, clean, minty smell blew through the garden, mixing with the basil and red clover in the twilight of a late summer evening.
I realized that I was happy. Here in Steubenville, where there is so much evil and where everything has gone so unspeakably wrong, I was happy.
The boy stayed with me until it was almost dark.
I think I could like it here.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.