Putting up so I don't have to shut up
Figure after commenting on other folk's work, it's time to put up a piece of my own. This is an old one, let me know what you think.
“Oh, no you don’t. You might as well put that thing back in the car and return it right now.”
Mary looked at me over the top of the bundle she cradled in her arms, then bumped the back door of the car shut with her hip. “What’ve you got against Hans?” she asked as she approached, stopping to kick her shoes off before stepping onto the grass.
“Hans? You’ve already named it?” I let the spreader drop and moved to intercept her.
“That’s the name on the certificate of adoption. Hans Blinkenfeller.” She blinked up at me. “Now get out of my way; he’s kind of heavy and I don’t want to drop him.” When I didn’t move, she circled to my right.
“Mary…darling,” I said, turning to watch her trek up the gentle slope toward the house. “You can’t put that thing in my yard.”
“I’m not putting him in your yard. I’m putting him in my flower bed.” Despite my annoyance, I couldn’t help admiring the view as she bent over and planted “Hans’s” feet firmly in the dirt, shifting him back and forth until she was sure he wouldn’t topple over.
Stepping back, she dusted off her hands against each other and said, “Isn’t he just adorable?”
Hans was a two-foot tall garden gnome. The point of his bright red hat flopped over to one side. His eyes were a dark brown that caught the sunlight, adding what looked like an amused twinkle to the painted laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. The vest that covered his rounded belly was painted a garish yellow with even gaudier orange buttons, the shirt beneath it an earthy brown. His pants were dark blue; the shoes with turned down ankles and pointy toes red like his hat. One hand was held up in greeting. The other clutched the bowl of a long-stemmed clay pipe. The mouthpiece of the pipe rested on his strawberry red lips, which were parted in a toothy smile. A stark white beard streaked with gray reached down to the middle of his chest, though his upper lip was bare. Each of his cheeks bore a rosy red circle.
“Yeah, okay…he’s kinda cute in a tacky sort of way. But….”
“But the yard is your pride and joy, and you don’t want a gnome in it,” she finished for me. I nodded weakly and looked out over the lawn. It was a vibrant emerald green that sloped down to the perfectly edged sidewalk. The seed I’d bought had been golf course grade bluegrass-fescue, expensive but worth every penny; it was so soft and flexible that walking on it was like getting the world’s best massage. From the beginning of spring until the end of autumn I worked on it daily, trimming and edging, weeding and fertilizing, watering and mowing—the grass maintained at a uniform two inches. There were few lawns in the allotment that came close to rivaling its glory and beauty.
“Well,” she said, sliding her arms around my waist from behind, “You should be thanking me for adopting Hans.”
I turned in her arms. “Why’s that?”
Standing on tiptoe, she kissed my chin. “Because according to his papers, he’s guaranteed to bring joy, protection, and fertility to his home.”
“That a money back guarantee?”
She pinched my arm. “Don’t be silly.”
I looked over her head at the gnome. He grinned back at me.
“You really like that hideous little thing, don’t you?”
“Don’t call him hideous,” she pouted. “And yes, I do. I knew the moment I saw Hans that I had to have him.”
I sighed. She grinned up at me, knowing that Hans wasn’t going anywhere. Sliding her hands down, she gave my ass a quick squeeze. Then she stepped back and grabbed my hand.
“Why don’t we put that fertility clause to the test?” she asked in a sultry voice, pulling me toward the house.
* * * *
It’s not that I have anything against lawn ornamentation. We had a stone frog out by the waterfall-slash-fishpond in the backyard, keeping watch over the goldfish; a faun supported the basin of the birdbath on his shoulders; several birdfeeders—built by me, painted by Mary—hung from tree limbs; and old-fashioned lampposts lined the driveway. It’s just that all of those things were part of the landscape; they contributed to the ambiance.
Hans, on the other hand, stuck out like a sore thumb. The riotous colors of his clothing couldn’t be made to blend in—there was no way that Mary could sculpt the flowerbed to mask his presence. When I asked her if she could move him behind the house, maybe beside it…well, we don’t argue often, but that was one of those rare occasions I slept on the couch.
I found myself idly plotting ways to get rid of Hans. Clipping him with the lawnmower, hitting him with a football when the nephews were over, bribing the paperboy to “miss” the steps, simply removing him while she was out. My fantasies grew in frequency as the summer progressed—every year, around the end of July the Clarion ran a feature on local lawns in their Home and Garden section. I was sure that Hans’s presence would nix our otherwise certain chances at being featured. They remained fantasies, however; I just couldn’t imagine causing Mary that kind of grief.
She adored him completely. She’d talk to him while working on her flowers, carrying him around to the other beds while she worked. But he always wound up back between the steps and the living room bay window. She even purchased a flat piece of river stone for him to stand on, burying the edges while leaving the center of the stone clear. The attention she lavished on him was a bit unnerving…it was as if Hans was the child we’d been unable to conceive after seven years of trying.
Still, I became used to Hans, even if I never quite accepted his intrusion into my yard. Except for the one argument, things went well enough—until Mary’s accident. It happened about six weeks after she brought Hans home. An old blue Buick ran a red light, clipping her as she crossed the street. The driver never even slowed down to see what he’d hit. Her injuries could have been a lot worse—broken leg, fractured wrist, couple of busted ribs, assorted scrapes and bruises. No permanent damage…except for the miscarriage. The doctor told us she was about a month along. We hadn’t even known she was pregnant until they told us she’d lost the baby. I watched her face crumple as what the doctor was saying sunk in; watched as the tears that physical pain hadn’t been able to elicit spilled from her eyes.
I sat beside her bed, holding her good hand in both of mine until long after the painkillers eased her into a fitful sleep. I sat there staring at her swollen eye, her bruised jaw, listening to her breath hitch whenever she took too deep of a breath. My thoughts were a disorganized whirl of grief and rage. Grief at nearly losing Mary, grief at losing the baby, rage at the unknown asshole who had done this. I wanted him caught, wanted him punished for what he’d done, for what he’d taken from us. Dark thoughts of revenge spun through my imagination. I suppose, though, that anyone watching me wouldn’t have had the slightest inkling that any of that was roaring through my mind. I kept my face frozen in a carefully sculpted mask of serenity; I resisted the urge to pace. The last thing I wanted to do was for my own anxiety to distress Mary if she should waken unexpectedly.
I stayed at the hospital until the nurses kicked me out, telling me to go home and get some rest, that Mary would be fine, that they’d call if she woke and asked for me. I don’t really remember the short drive home, though I do distinctly remember standing on the stoop, key in the lock, when I thought of Hans. Leaving my keys dangling from the doorknob, I removed my shoes and socks, then went and sat down in front of him. The moon was just a day or two shy of full, but it was behind the house, so Hans was just a dark shape in the night as I stared at him, chin resting on my arms, which were in turn supported by my knees. I was motionless, except for my toes, which clenched and released the grass reflexively.
Eventually, haltingly, I started talking to Hans. I don’t remember most of the actual words, just that I told him about the accident, about Mary’s injuries…the tears finally started to flow when I told him about the miscarriage. As I sat there weeping, pouring my heart out to Mary’s garden gnome, a small voice told me that I was being foolish. In truth, it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
I have no idea how long I sat there after the words dried up, but it felt like hours. A passing car finally brought me back to my senses. The headlights spilled over the yard, over me, casting scant illumination on Hans. The shifting shadows made it look as if the laugh lines at his eyes had been erased; his goofy grin was distorted into a snarl. I wiped my eyes on sleeves damp with dew and stood. Looking down at Hans’s dark shape, I realized I had one more thing to say to him.
“Joy, protection, and fertility. You delivered on the last, Hans old buddy, but you sure screwed the pooch on the first two, didn’t you?”
* * * *
Mary’s injuries kept her in the hospital for four days. I used up my sick days so I could be there as much as possible and arranged to take vacation time after she came home. Returning home from the hospital the second evening, I was dismayed to see that Hans was missing. Two days earlier, I would have gladly paid some college kids to take Hans on a cross-country trip. Now all I could think about was how devastated Mary would be to learn he’d been stolen. I discreetly inquired about finding a replacement at all the lawn and garden shops in the area, only to discover that Hans was one-of-a-kind. There were plenty of garden gnomes to be had, but none that looked like Mary’s.
As much as I wanted to have Mary home, I dreaded the day she would finally be released. She hadn’t talked much since the accident; she answered questions about how she felt when asked, responded tersely when spoken to. Most of the time, though, she remained locked up with her thoughts—thoughts, I was sure, of the baby we’d lost. I was afraid of what finding out about Hans’s disappearance might do to her.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with it immediately. She kept her eyes closed and teeth clenched against the pain the entire ride home. I pulled directly into the garage and carried her into the house through the kitchen so she wouldn’t see the empty spot where Hans had once stood. As I puttered around the house, fixing dinner and helping Mary with whatever she needed help with, I lived in the near constant fear that she would ask me to bring Hans inside so she could see him. Silly, I know, but the notion ate away at me just the same.
Once the OxyContin had finally dragged her off to sleep, I slid the bedroom window open a bit, both to let the cool night breeze in and so that I could hear her if she called for me. Then I went outside. The grass tickled my bare feet as I walked to the middle of the front yard, then lay down to stare up at the night sky. Normally I would have gone into the backyard, for privacy, but there were too many memories waiting for me there. No, not too many…just one in particular. That night, about a month ago, when Mary and I had lain under the darkness of the trees, naked in the warm night air, grass tickling as we moved together, trying to keep the sounds of our lovemaking quieter than the gentle chuckle of the waterfall so that the neighbors wouldn’t hear….
The image of Mary as she was now, bandaged and bruised in our bed, one hand resting on her stomach while she slept, chased that memory away. I sighed, aware that the peace I was seeking wasn’t going to be found easily. Standing, I turned toward the house, then stopped, stunned. In the light spilling from the living room window, I saw him. Hans, hand raised in greeting, standing in his accustomed spot as if he’d never been anywhere else.
I walked up the yard swiftly, marveling at my good fortune—whoever had taken him had returned him before Mary knew that he’d been missing. He hadn’t been there when we’d come home, I was certain of it. I wondered idly if there would be pictures of his travels—all the stories I’d heard about kidnapped garden gnomes and lawn geese always included pictures once they’d been returned.
When I was still about five feet away from him, I realized that something looked wrong with Hans. Even in the dim light from the window, I should have been able to see his white teeth. There looked to be a dark hole where his grin should have been, and what seemed to be large cracks ran through his beard. His upraised hand appeared to be missing—it looked like it ended at the shirtsleeve. I bent down and touched my fingers to his mouth. They came away tacky. Moving toward the window, I was distracted from the red spots on my fingertips when my toes met something cold and sticky.
It was a set of keys on a simple metal loop. Hooking one finger through the loop, I lifted them to the light. Bits of something I didn’t want to inspect too closely clung to the teeth of the longest key—a car key, from all appearances. Lying next to the key ring was a battered old leather wallet. I leafed through it, unmindful of the spots I was leaving on the first few things I touched. Credit cards, tattered receipts, social security card, a few folded singles…driver’s license. The picture on the license was of a thin, sallow man, dark hair swept up in a severe widow’s peak. The name…I didn’t look at the name, didn’t want to know what it was. Folded into a small square behind the driver’s license, I found a car registration—make: Buick, type: LeSabre.
Not thinking about what I was doing—unable to think about it—I went into the house. Mary stirred as I grabbed the rubbing alcohol from the bathroom, but mercifully she didn’t waken. I found an old rag under the kitchen sink, then returned to Hans. It only took a few minutes of careful cleaning to restore his carefree grin, to wipe the streaks from his beard. It took a little longer to clean his upraised hand, to make sure that I got everything out from between his fingers. I made sure to wipe every inch of him down, not wanting to miss anything.
I burned the rag in the barbecue. The wallet and keys, those were trickier. I considered burying them under Hans’s river stone, but decided against it; not only would it be foolish to dispose of them in the flowerbed, where Mary might find them, but it just didn’t seem like enough. Instead, I fetched the flat spade and an old square of plastic tarp from the garage and went around back. By the light of the waning moon, I carefully cut away a square of sod, then dug down until the soil turned to clay, gently tossing the dirt onto the tarp. With each scoop of dirt I was sure that the lights would go on at one of the neighbors, someone coming to investigate the dull thunk of the shovel biting into the earth, the soft swish of the dirt falling onto the tarp. If anybody heard, though, they didn’t bother to check it out.
Once I had tamped the dirt back down and replaced the sod, I returned the shovel and tarp to the garage. Sitting in the recliner I’d placed next to the bed earlier in the day, I listened to the quiet sound of Mary’s steady respiration and drifted off to sleep.
* * * *
Mary and I stood in front of our house, my arm around her shoulders, hers around my waist. The Clarion photographer stood in the middle of the yard, peering through the viewfinder at us. Before he could snap the picture, Cindy Dristoll, the reporter for the Home and Garden section, placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Maybe you two could move over to the right a few steps? You know, so that you’re, uh, more centered with the house?”
I glanced to my right, then at Mary. She was looking up at me, small worry lines at the corners of her eyes. “No,” I said, “I think we’re just fine where we are.” The worry lines disappeared and she smiled, resting her head against my shoulder and placing her free arm on her swollen belly. I felt a slight nudge in my side as the baby kicked.
Dristoll made an exasperated noise. The photographer shrugged and snapped the picture of the three of us, me standing between Mary and Hans, all of us grinning for the camera.
Very reminiscent of Stephen King. I would not be surprised to see this story tucked in amongst his other shorts. It was very polished and succinct. Although there was a bit of creepy factor, unlike a King story, yours left me with a good feeling. I was happy to read it. Awesome job, Ken.
Thanks for posting that, great read
I started to really connect with the narrator at this paragraph -> "Eventually, haltingly, I started talking to Hans. I don’t remember most of the actual words, just that I told him about the accident, about Mary’s injuries…the tears finally started to flow when I told him about the miscarriage. As I sat there weeping, pouring my heart out to Mary’s garden gnome, a small voice told me that I was being foolish. In truth, it felt like the most natural thing in the world."
Thanks again, great work
Very tight, beautifully clean, very effective. Thanks for the great read!
you had me creeped out at first. Garden Gnomes freak me out. Those that would actually protect me, that's a different story. Very nice read. Really liked it.
Kind of Stephen King-ish. I thought you lost me when you mentioned the gnome but I continued and am glad I did. It started off kind of too slow for me but picked up as it went along. Thanks for sharing.
Great story, just the right amount of creepy. I think all garden statuary is a bit spooky. Now I know I'm right! But the ending is just right. Thanks for posting this.
Excellent story, very tight and well written. Just the right amount of detail given and the right amount left to the imagination. Well done!