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The Left Handed Gardener

I dreamed I had a dream, and in this dream my sister Helen tells me she dreamed she saw our father walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, as he liked to do, watching the students, looking at the crafts for sale, dropping coins into the empty cans and cartons held by young people sitting on the sidewalk or leaning against buildings. If they had a dog or cat, he’d drop in a bill.

“Life is what you make it,” Helen says he told her. “You only get back what you give.”

The problem with the dream she described was that in it, our father was a man in his eighties with a neatly trimmed white beard, wearing a light blue polyester leisure suit, the sort of outfit he’d laughed at when it was in style in 1970, the year he died. He wouldn’t have been caught dead in a leisure suit, but he was dead at fifty, of melanoma, from all those years he spent exposing his pale face and neck while working in the sun. It was true that he loved walking down The Avenue, which in the ‘60’s wasn’t quite the obstacle course we think it has become, with homeless beggars outnumbering students, and venders who sell cheap imported baubles. If he’d lived, he might still enjoy his walks down Telegraph because it wasn’t in his nature to judge.

I woke from this dream to find myself in another dream, in which I get out of bed and walk into in our family’s former back yard in the Berkeley Hills, where my father is digging a pit large enough to bury not just himself but our whole family.

“Do you think it’s deep enough, Eileen?” he asks me. 

His digging has destroyed his carefully planned flowerbeds, as well as the vegetable beds in their raised wooden frames. The roses, the tomatoes, the cucumbers on their trailing vines—everything is buried in the dirt from the pit, as if he thinks I want him to bury his entire life. I back away into darkness and wake up again, although I’m not sure it’s for real this time so I lie in bed afraid of what I might see if I open my eyes.

The dead will bury us. That’s their job.

Helen never dreams. She’s a practical woman who taught school for forty years, raised two daughters, and divorced two husbands, seemingly without regret. Since her retirement last year, she’s spent more time socializing with friends, many of whom she’s known since high school, and often drags me along because she has always pushed me to get out more, telling me I lack initiative, as if I’m one of her reluctant students, refusing to live up to their potential. As the two-years-younger sister, I still obey her.

The night after this dream within a dream within a dream, we had dinner with a group of old friends who have little in common aside from a love of board games. Bored games, I call them. Games for people who can’t talk to one another, perhaps afraid of what might be revealed. I’ll put up with Scrabble, but when it comes to Monopoly, or anything involving cards or dice or tokens, I’m out.

“Oh, come on, Eileen,” Helen said. “It’s at my friend Elsa’s house, you know her, and people you knew at Berkeley High will be there.”

This doesn’t excite me, since I rarely see anyone from high school, even though I stayed in Berkeley all my life. I tell her I shouldn’t leave my husband, who hasn’t been well, but left out saying that he hates board games even more than I do, and also Helen’s friends, whom he calls typical Berkeley phonies. I went along anyway to please Helen.

“Have fun, ha ha,” my husband joked as I left him sitting with a book in his favorite chair, next to mine, where I wished I could stay with my book. That’s our idea of a good evening, reading together, maybe listening to a little music. We’ve always enjoyed a quiet life, loads of books, no children, yet here I was, letting myself be forced into Helen’s world again.

“Sometimes I feel like you’ve married a father,” Helen said when I got into her car. “He’s dragging you into old age before your time.”

But our father never got to be as old as my husband, which might be why I’m still in love with a man in his eighties.

There were eight at dinner, a good number for most board games, but too many for Scrabble. I wondered idly what the game would be as we sat around the artfully distressed oak farmhouse table in Elsa’s kitchen, eating her excellent lasagna, the salad Helen had made, and the homemade garlic bread our friend Walt’s wife, Cleo, who had an Italian grandmother, contributed. Hanging on the wall were carefully polished copper pans, which were never used because Elsa preferred the extra vitamins and minerals she said cast iron cooking pots provided. 

My husband, who hadn’t gone to school in Berkeley, was amused by her pretensions, and referred to Walt and Cleo as “the obligatory black friends,” which I had to admit was their function in this crowd. We all still knew each other because most of us had gone on to Cal, or worked there, or married a professor there, as I had, and went swimming in Strawberry Canyon pool, and attended concerts at Zellerbach Hall, and wine tastings and wedding receptions at the Faculty Club. Walt was in my year at Berkeley High, and his father had been our family’s dentist, at a time when few white people would go to a Negro dentist. He’d taken over the practice when his father retired, and moved it to new offices near the University. As we ate, it occurred to me that he was more intimate with my mouth than anyone, even my husband.

Dessert was pistachio gelato, in keeping with the dinner’s Italian theme.

“Sugarless, I presume,” said Walt, with a wink.

“No way,” said Elsa. She wore a sari, not quite in keeping with the Italian theme, but she always dressed in loose, ethnic clothing to hide her expanding waistline, as did most of us. Even I had begun to favor long Mexican or Greek dresses. “Full sugar, full fat, on top of all that cheese in the lasagna, not to mention the pork sausage. We’re living dangerously tonight. Forget about your weight and teeth.”

“Thank God,” Walt laughed. “I hate it when people assume I don’t eat sugar.”

Every dinner with Walt involved some joke about dentists and sugar that we always laughed at. He was everybody’s dentist now, and in his office, regularly told us to cut back on the sugar, although in his social life, he needed to prove he was as prone to temptation as anyone.

After dinner, we moved to the living room, where we sat around a large round coffee table on cushions covered in brightly patterned material, while ignoring the dull beige couch and chairs. Elsa brought out a new game.

“Balderdash!” she announced.

I wondered if this was a game or a comment.

Our friend Will, whom we only accepted as the group clown, although he didn’t know it, whooped. His wife, Ann, was quiet. She was Chinese, so when he’d married her two years ago, Helen’s crowd had welcomed this additional touch of diversity. I suspected Ann disliked games as much as I did, but she looked down when I tried to catch her eye. 

“Helen’s circle needs even further expansion,” my husband had joked after their wedding. “When I’m gone, you should marry a Mexican. I can introduce you to a couple of widowers I know. One still teaches over in Engineering.”  There was seriousness within his jovial manner, because he was twenty years older. I would go on longer than he would, but I didn’t like to consider that.

Fred, a newly single man whose much younger wife had left him, said to me, “It’s a game; I’ve played it before. You’re given the definition of a word, and everyone has to figure out what the word is.”

“Guess,” said Ann in a bored tone.

“But that’s the fun, seeing what outrageous things everyone comes up with from the definition!” Will explained, almost wriggling in his seat with excitement.

“But this is Beyond Balderdash,” Elsa explained. “You get acronyms, dates, or movie titles to explain, as well as words.”

Balderdash, I thought. The word, not the game.

“What fun,” muttered Ann, looking down at the coffee table again.

I thought it wouldn’t be long before Will, a chemist who worked at the Lab up in the hills above the University, would be single again, after losing one wife to cancer and the next one to boredom. Ann looked ready to squeeze herself under the coffee table.

The game had the usual board, with tokens to be moved around as points were won, and cards with definitions or dates or acronyms. Pencils and small pads of paper were handed around, and dice were rolled.

“I’m the dasher for this round,” said Elsa after the dice were thrown and the numbers came up in her favor.

That meant she got to shuffle the cards and pick one.

“O.K, let’s go,” she announced. “What does S.L.H.G. stand for?”

Everybody took up their pencils and pads of paper. They all looked so serious, even Ann, that I almost giggled.

“This is a challenging problem,” Fred intoned like the math professor he was. 

I stifled a laugh. I couldn’t recall why or when he’d joined Helen’s group of friends because he hadn’t gone to Berkeley High or even to Cal, although he taught there now, yet he was always there whenever game boards appeared.

Helen delicately licked her pencil lead, like she did when doing crossword puzzles, while Will actually bit into and gnawed the end of his pencil. Elsa stared at him, looking like she wanted to snatch it back and throw it in the trash, which I knew she’d do as soon as he left. I thought about all the government issued gnawed pencils that must be filling wastebaskets up at the Lab.

S.L.H.G. Who cares? I hated the sight of these supposedly intelligent people solemnly folding the papers that held their answers, and handing them to Elsa, who pursed her lips as she unfolded them. Quickly, I wrote the first thing that came to mind, Society of Left Handed Gardeners, and passed it to Elsa without even folding it.

Nobody got the right answer, which was Society of Left Handed Golfers, apparently a real organization. Everyone laughed over the nonsensical results: Sex Lives Handled Carefully, Sexist Lawyers Helping Grandmothers, Society Levels Harmful Gains. But the two that were almost right came from me and Helen, who had also written Society of Left Handed Gardeners on her carefully folded piece of paper.

“How odd that you both came up with the same thing,” Elsa mused.

Helen and I didn’t think it was odd at all. Our left handed father, who never played golf, had been a gardener, and not just in his yard. Elsa knew that, but almost none of our other friends did, because when we were growing up, we’d been ashamed. We lived in a upper middle class neighborhood, our mother was a teacher, but our father was a groundskeeper in the same suburban school district where our mother taught. We were safe in the Berkeley Hills, so no one needed to know. When we said our mother was a teacher out in Walnut Creek, we let our friends assume our father taught, too—a not unusual presumption because when he wasn’t working in his garden, he always had his nose in a book.

Later, when we went to Berkeley High, he took a job as head gardener and custodian at an East Bay shopping mall, a well known one where even kids from Berkeley might go to shop or hang out as soon as they got their driver’s licenses. When fog still clung to the Berkeley Hills, it would be sunny and warm out at this mall.

Helen and I went there with our mother when she insisted that we go see the decorations our father created every season. The kids at school talked about how beautiful that mall was, how there were pots of lilies all over in Spring, mums in Autumn, and poinsettias in Winter. We hoped no one would notice that these flowers would later find a place in our yard, the poinsettias growing to huge trees against the sunny side of our house. There were liquid amber trees planted in the ground surrounding the mall, too, red and orange leaves at Halloween, bare branches hung with lights in Winter, and bright green leaves in Spring and Summer, just like the trees in our front yard. We never bragged that our father designed all that because he looked like a common working man in his jeans and blue shirt as he dug and planted out at the mall. Even in our yard, he looked like someone we might have hired to do the work; with his dark hair, he could have been Mexican, like the other gardeners in the neighborhood. We didn’t want anyone to know he belonged to us.

When I think of Berkeley High, I remember the lunchroom tables, with the white kids like Helen, Elsa, and me at one group of tables near the entrance. The Asians were at a nearby table, joined by Will, the socially inept science nerd who didn’t seem aware of the way his pale face flushed with excitement as he discussed physics and chemistry with a friend from his classes while the everyone else rolled their eyes and looked away. The black students had another group of tables near the back, by the kitchen door, which were further divided into light skinned and dark skinned tables. The light skinned kids came from better neighborhoods, some even from the Hills, like Walt’s family, and were often in classes with us because they, too, were expected to go on at least to junior college. The darker kids lived in West Berkeley, near the Oakland border, where Walt’s father had his dental practice. They were the sports heroes we cheered at games, but we didn’t know them, and after graduation, we never saw them again.

By the time Helen was a junior, some kids we ate lunch with were driving out to the mall after school. Helen went along once or twice, but when she saw our dad, she ignored him, pretending to look at the plants, or at the clothes in the windows of the shops. He’d wink at her, but good-naturedly play along with her pretense. She and her friends would get ice cream cones at 31 Flavors in the mall, and then drive back through the tunnel to Berkeley.

The lighter skinned black kids also had cars that ran well, unlike the junkers the dark kids sometimes drove. Walt was the first in our class to have his own car, a new VW Bug, and once he invited me to go along with him after school, but I didn’t want to, both because of my dad, and because I felt strange about driving out to a totally white suburb in a car stuffed with black kids, however light skinned.

“Oh, come on, Eileen,” said Walt. “You can sit on Will’s lap.”

Will, who didn’t have sense to know where he didn’t belong; Will, a white senior who didn’t drive yet, in a car full of black sophomores. But the black kids seemed to accept his strangeness more than the rest of us.

Sit on his lap? The thought gagged me. Did Walt think we should be together because we were both white? 

“No thanks,” I said, backing away from his car. I would rather have been on Walt’s lap, but of course he was driving. And black. Forbidden, then.

“Suit yourself,” Walt called as he drove out of the school parking lot, grinding those uniquely loud VW gears.

In Elsa’s living room, Indian block print curtains drawn against the dark, the game of Balderdash went on. Points were awarded to the person who got to pick the card, and to anyone who got a right answer, but with this group, right answers weren’t the purpose; what mattered were the silliest acronyms or definitions that anyone could come up with. By the end of the evening, everyone was laughing so hard we couldn’t continue. Even I was able to join in the hilarity. Only Fred, who took games very seriously, seemed annoyed as he tried to come up with sensible answers while the others delighted in saying that CIA stood for Cyber Intellectual Alliance, or that “the art and science of teaching” was the definition of “peculium.” By the time the evening ended I was having more fun than I’d expected.

Helen and I walked the four blocks back to our car with Walt and Cleo, who had parked near us. The fog that always stuck to the Hills at night swirled around us.

“This is near where we used to live,” Walt remarked.

“Yes,” said Helen. “Elsa inherited her folks old place.

“She grew up here?” Walt hadn’t known her well in high school since she was two years ahead of him.

“Of course,” said Helen. “I was over at her place every day.”

“Well, I never stayed up here. And what’s with all the cars, anyway?” Cleo grumbled. “We had a hell of a time finding parking. Does every kid get a car?”

“It’s the Hills, honey,” said Walt. “I got a car on my sixteenth birthday.”

“But parking wasn’t always so difficult,” Helen remarked. “Eileen and I didn’t have our own cars, neither did Elsa, back then. We just drove our mom’s car, if she wasn’t using it.”

“Remember how we all used to drive out to the mall?” Walt said. 

Cleo laughed. “Lord, do I! That’s when I started going out with you. First was with the group, then us alone.”

“My old VW stuffed with black clowns,” said Walt.  “Man, people were uptight about us. You could tell shopkeepers wanted to pull those little metal grates closed, but then they’d lose money. And the other shoppers looking fish-eyed at us. But your dad was great, Eileen. He was really the head honcho out there. If kids got rowdy, he threw them out. But he was good to us, gave us free vouchers for ice-cream, showed us around, bragged to everyone how we went to school with his daughters, how smart we all were at Berkeley High. Why didn’t you come out there more?”

I was glad it was dark so they couldn’t see me blush.

“We were such nitwits,” said Helen. “We were ashamed our dad was a working man. We wished he was a scientist or a teacher, but he dropped out of college. Nowadays he’d be diagnosed as dyslexic. His being left handed made it worse. Studying was hard for him, even though he always read on his own, just slowly, at his own pace.”

“You talk about shame,” said Cleo. “My dad was a garbage man. A job he inherited from his Italian relatives, by the way. Most trash men here are Italian. Or were.”

“A good job,” said Walt. “Steady pay, benefits, retirement, no degree required. You should have been proud.”

“Yeah, we had a house in an O.K. neighborhood in Berkeley, nice clothes, whatever we wanted.” She laughed as she added, “Funny thing about race: the darker skin comes from my dad’s Italian mother. My mom was so light skinned she could pass if she wanted, and my father’s dad was light, too. But Grandma was so dark and kinky haired, she looked more black than Grandpa. And when I went to Italy and met my cousins, they were all like that; except for those big old Roman noses, you’d think they were black.”

In spite of being dark, Cleo had quickly made the jump to the light skinned table, as well as college track classes, on the basis of her good grades and high test scores. And her expensive clothes and perfect nose—not oversized Roman, but not a flat black nose, either—didn’t hurt. In our senior year, she was voted best dressed, although homecoming queen, which always went to a white girl, was clearly out of reach. Even now she was still the only slender woman among us, dressed in black slacks and a low-cut red sweater.

“Kids are such snobs,” I said. “Look how we’re friends, but in high school, we were in separate groups. Just because of skin.”

There was silence while I thought that really, it wasn’t so different now. Walt and Cleo were the only blacks we’d remained friendly with. I don’t think any of us ever asked how the others were doing, even those who’d gone on to Cal with some of us.

“I asked you out once,” Walt said.

“You did? I just remember you asked me to go to the mall, but I’d have to sit on Will’s lap.”

We all laughed, as we still did at Will when he wasn’t around. Only Cleo was silent. 

“Will’s a good man,” she said. “Always was. Strange, but a truly kind person. I went out with him once when I was a freshman, back when there was no interracial dating, at least not in public. He took me to the movies. I don’t even remember what we saw, I was so nervous. I mean, my grandparents had a mixed marriage, but you wouldn’t know it to look at them. It just wasn’t done, for a white guy to take a black girl out. I was afraid someone would see us, either my friends or his, but he didn’t care.”

I listened to our feet on the sidewalk.

“Helen and Eileen, your father was a good man, too,” said Walt. “I remember once a security guard at that mall thought we were shoplifting. I was just me and Cleo that time, wandering in and out of stores, and this guy stopped us, wanted to search that big leather purse Cleo used to carry. And your dad appeared out of nowhere and told him we were O.K., he knew us.”

“He must have been trailing us, knowing there might be trouble,” Cleo added.

“I don’t recall if I really asked you out, or just wanted to,” Walt went on.  “I know I had a crush on you, Eileen. Back when I used to work in my dad’s office, when I was the kid who’d numb your gums with liquid Novocain on a Q-tip before he gave you the shot. We must have been, what, twelve, thirteen? And I thought I’d like to ask you to the movies, but I never did. I was nowhere as near as brave as Will.”

“Or clueless,” I said, trying to lighten the mood, maybe not ready to admit I would have wanted to go out with him, even if I couldn’t have said yes.

Cleo jumped in, “Will’s not clueless, not any more than your dad was. I think you hurt your dad a lot by being ashamed of his work, which was really brilliant and artistic. And you all still hurt Will, laughing at him. They were both ahead of their time then, and Will is now, only we don’t get it.”

“Your dad got Jimmie G. a job out at the mall, soon as he graduated,” said Walt, mentioning a basketball star who had been a year ahead of Helen. “His parents were separated. His mom let the kids run wild, but thanks to your dad, Jimmie made a good life for himself. He was able to help his mom, and his brothers and sisters, too. Sent one brother to San Francisco State. He works up at the Lab now, with Will. And Jimmie worked his way up at the mall, so at the end, he was doing your dad’s old job, head gardener. He retired last year, with a great pension, which your dad helped set up, you know, when he was head of the union out there.”

I hadn’t known about his union work, or about Jimmie G. I hadn’t known anything. 

We’d reached our cars, Helen’s sensible Honda and Walt’s BMW, but stood there, held fast by all that had been said, and all that still couldn’t be.

Cleo and Helen got in their cars, calling out goodnights, but Walt and I remained standing just for a second. I’d spent my life holding back, so this time I took his hand and kissed him on the lips. Again I blushed, and pulled away because there was his wife, sitting in the car looking for something in her purse, and Helen, looking down as she put her key in the ignition.

“For all that couldn’t be,” I murmured. 

“It’s late,” he said, his hand on my shoulder. “Goodnight, Eileen.”

Was it too late? I thought of my dream of Dad digging what could have been a grave for all of us. Maybe it’s the job of the dead not to bury us, but to wake us up. 

He got in his car, I slid into Helen’s, and we sped off in our different directions, Walt and Cleo to Piedmont, and Helen and me downhill to the same lives we’d led for years in our homes near the University. 

“It’s good seeing those people,” said Helen. 

I told her then about my dream. “I guess I feel like I have to dream for you since you don’t,” I told her.

“That’s not true,” said Helen. “Where did you get that idea? I really do dream about Dad. The other night, I dreamed that he was dancing at his funeral. Which we didn’t actually have, because he was cremated. But this dream took place at that wake we had for him at the house, with his ashes in that blue velvet box on the mantel. Remember how we perched his glasses on top of the box so he could see us?  But in my dream he was in a shiny dark wooden coffin, and he pushed the lid open and got up and danced and wouldn’t lie back down. Nobody seemed to think that was odd, but I was so embarrassed, I kept saying, “Dad, lie down, you’re dead, you can’t keep on dancing.”  She shook her head as she drove.

“That’s so true,” I said, laughing. “He really did keep dancing, no matter what we thought. I once asked Mom why she’d married him and she said it was because he was the smartest person she knew. It never bothered her that he didn’t finish college, or even when he was a gardener in the school district where she taught, so why should it have bothered us? Why are we still laughing at Will, who’s more successful than any of us because he’s head of the Chemistry Division at the Lab? And why couldn’t we be friends with the black kids, why just Walt? Was he O.K. because he was our dentist’s son?”

Helen pursed her lips as she shifted into low gear down a particularly steep hill. “I think it’s the left handed gardeners who will save us, if we let them. Like you said Dad told me in your dream, you get back what you give. Except since it was your dream, he was saying that to you. We just never dared to give.”

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