“I guess it is a miracle I’ve managed to grow something,” I said. “The tomatoes are almost ready. I feel like they’re my children, in a way. Isn’t that crazy?”
“Not if you cared for them.” She looked at me cockeyedly. “Have you read my book? I gave human qualities to corporations! I’m not going to question your feelings for your tomatoes.”
“Do you believe everything you wrote about?”
She shrugged. “Yeah. I think I do. I change my mind about things sometimes, but more often than not I stick to my crazy thoughts like mashed potatoes to a person’s ribs. My mum always said I was a stubborn cow, and she’s right.”
“Are you close?”
“We were. She’s passed on. Didn’t know my dad.”
“For all of it.”
“No need to be. I’m living a life, you know? If people went around apologizing for every bad thing that happened to everyone, we’d be bored out of our fucking skulls.”
I thought about all of the people who said they were sorry when Jesse died. I knew they meant it, and I appreciated it, but I wondered if there was something else I would have rather heard. “What do you think people should say to someone who’s just lost a loved one? I don’t think there are many options.”
Petra thought for a moment. “If you knew the person who died, I think you should share a memory, something you don’t think they’d know about. The wilder the better.”
“And if you didn’t know the person who died?”
“Then you should ask for a good memory that best describes him or her. Let the grieving person have a moment with that person again.”
“Couldn’t that be too painful?” I asked.
“It’s all painful. Listening to a hundred people apologize for something they had nothing to do with is excruciating, isn’t it? They can’t reverse anything with their apologies.”
I wasn’t sure I agreed with her, but it was a fresh perspective. Petra was rough around the edges, but she had wisdom I suspected was hard-won.
We walked back inside. I sat Petra in my living room while I put a tray together—lemonade, some zucchini bread I’d made myself, and the last of Mykia’s blueberries. I could hear my phone blowing up in my purse, but I didn’t text Jackie. I didn’t check my texts. I just made my way back to my guest.
“So, forgive me if this seems rude,” I said, not worrying about it all that much, “but how in the world did you decide to write a book about business? You seem so, I don’t know . . . earthy.”
“I really did write the damn thing, if you’re thinking I cribbed it,” Petra said, though she didn’t seem offended. She settled into the soft cushions of my couch and scooped up some blueberries.
“Sorry if I implied that it wasn’t yours,” I said, trying to be sincere. The thought had crossed my mind that she’d at least gotten help. “I guess the better question is how did you come up with the idea?”
Her smile was sardonic. “Never finished university. My family needed me working, so I got a job fronting the office of the head of a public relations firm. I was busy, but not that busy. No one paid me much mind, so I could pay them all the mind I wanted. I watched as the company slowly went under. I saw all the fuckups and petty, avoidable disasters. I was bored out of my ever-loving mind, so I took notes. Eventually, I typed them up at the lunch hour.
“When things were really getting bad, my boss started showing the effects of the strain. He looked a mess. I got to thinking how the way the company fell apart was quite like how he was unraveling. That started the whole thing. I got up at five in the morning to work on the book every day. I’ve always been good with words on paper, so I knew it wasn’t a total nightmare. When I was done, I shared it with a friend who knew some literary agents. One agreed to take me on before having met me. He’d already sold the book before he realized I was from Birmingham and talked like a Brummie.”
“That seems a little archaic. Is it really such a big deal you don’t speak the Queen’s English?”
She shrugged. “It’s all about branding. I’m this ethereal, spiritual presence, or something like that. Not someone who curses like a sailor and smokes two packs a day.” She pointed a finger at me. “Don’t lecture. I know it’s unhealthy.”
“I wouldn’t lecture.” At least I wouldn’t now. “But I have to ask, you obviously want to expand your business and brand. How do you expect to do that without being a physical presence at things like trade shows and interviews?”
She drummed her fingers on the armrest, and I knew she was itching for a smoke. “I dunno. I’ve been working on some sort of solution, but nothing’s come yet.”
My mind reeled. “We could help you rebrand yourself,” I said, wondering if I actually believed it. “You could be the voice of common sense. And in America, we’re fascinated by British accents but not all that interested in your class system. So if you can ditch the f-bombs, you’ll be in good shape.”
“That’s a habit even my mother couldn’t break.” Petra smiled. “Is this what your company does?”
“We’re a boutique advertising firm, but we like to help our clients establish an overall presence. If you’d come with me to the office tonight, we could have shown you. Of course, the work we did was fairly generic, as it was completed before we got to know your lovely personality.”
“But it’s solid work.”
She nodded. “I don’t want to go back to that empty hotel and stare at the minibar all night. Tell ya what, if you let me sleep on this comfy couch here, I’ll stop by your office in the morning.”
Everything inside me jumped for joy. Everything outside remained calm. “That sounds like a deal.”
“But now I need a fucking smoke. Is it okay if I go out back?”
“Only if you stand at the fence and exhale toward my neighbor’s house.”
She smiled. “He a wanker?”
“That is an incredibly apt description.”
She stood up and held out her hand. “Come with me. Let’s go stand in your garden for a while. Maybe all that Zen will curb my need for nicotine.”
I decided at that moment that I liked Petra Polly, very much.
We made it to the sliding glass door before I noticed the figure in the garden. I flicked on the porch light and saw him, hunched over the tomato plants. The plants, the ones I so lovingly, painstakingly cared for, lay on the ground in tangled heaps. They’d been yanked violently from the ground, roots exposed and pathetically reaching in the wrong direction. The crimson tomatoes, some crushed, others split, but all . . . ruined.
“What have you done?” My voice shook with the energy required to keep control of my anger. “Trey!”
He turned to me, face stained with tears. “I’m so sorry, Mom. So sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean any of it.”
The vision of him crouched over the dead plants tugged fiercely at my heart but, unlike the plants, not enough to rip it from the roots. I heard the sorrow in his voice. It was enough to bring me back, and I took in the scene more carefully. Trey wasn’t pulling the last plant out—he was trying to pack the ground around it.