He was trying to save it.
“You just wanted one thing,” he sobbed. “That’s it. You deserved for this to work out. I’m sorry, Mom. I’m so, so sorry. I gave you a hard time about it because you found something you loved. I thought you didn’t need me anymore.”
I knelt beside him and wrapped my arms around his substantial shoulders. “You are everything I ever wanted. I need you more than I need air. Don’t ever forget that.”
We both lost ourselves to tears, until I heard Petra say, “Well, that fucking plant is going to live if I’ve got anything to do with it. Let your mom baby it a bit. Come on, get a bucket for these tomatoes, and let’s see what we can salvage.”
“Who the fuck is she?” Trey said.
“Language,” I said automatically.
“I’m fucking Tinker Bell,” Petra said. “Stop crying. When life gives you tomatoes, you make tomato sauce.”
Trey stared at Petra for a moment before silently leaving in search of a bucket. Before he walked away, he squeezed my shoulder, a loving gesture that brought a surge of emotion.
“Why are you crying?”
A male voice.
Mr. Eckhardt leaned over the fence, taking in the mayhem that was once my lovely garden. “Well,” he said. “Well.”
The anger rose swiftly and mercilessly. I launched myself at him. “You! You did this! Do you hate me so much? Do you hate seeing people happy?”
“But you’re not happy,” he said.
“How would you know?” I spat. “How the hell would you know?”
“Is this the wanker?” Petra asked.
“Yes,” I said. “This is exactly the wanker.”
“You think I did this,” Mr. Eckhardt said dully. He squinted at the destroyed tomato plants, eerily lit by the porch light. “Why would I do a thing like that?”
“Are you kidding me?” I screeched. “You’d uproot this whole garden if you could!”
Mr. Eckhardt calmly walked around the fence to my side. “Does your water line have a filter?”
He turned to Petra. “You. Get a pitcher of room-temperature water and a glass.”
“Excuse me?” Petra said. “Are you fucking ordering me around?”
“Yes,” Mr. Eckhardt said. “I am. If you want this plant to have a chance, you’ll do it.”
With a frown, Petra retreated to the kitchen.
Mr. Eckhardt knelt in the dirt, gently patting the earth surrounding the remaining plant. “If the main stem wasn’t injured, this one should be fine. We’ll give it a careful watering so as not to disturb it further.”
I joined him on the ground. “Why are you being nice? Do you feel guilty? Did you psychotically rip these from the ground in a fit of rage? Remember, I found your wife’s dress buried in this backyard. Did you bury other dresses in this backyard? Are you looking to dig up all the evidence?”
Mr. Eckhardt stiffened beside me. “You’re embarrassing yourself. I’m just trying to help.”
“We don’t need your help,” Trey said. He carried a large blue bucket that had seen better days. “This is what I could find, Mom.”
“Let’s gather as many intact tomatoes as we can see,” I said, fighting the urge to lie down and sob until my tears soaked the ground. “I think you should leave, Mr. Eckhardt.”
Petra returned, and Mr. Eckhardt reached for the water. He poured some into a glass and slowly fed it to the survivor. “You need to do this again in the morning. I can manage it if you don’t have the time.”
“I think I can water one plant. I’ve been watering twenty-five all summer.”
He sat back on his heels. Trey watched him, still holding the bucket in one hand, the other curled into a fist.
I nudged Mr. Eckhardt with my elbow. “I think you should go. It would be best.”
“I don’t . . .” He paused. Whatever he had to say took great effort. He glanced at Trey’s angry face and Petra’s puzzled one, and then finally locked eyes with me. “I don’t want to go. I’ll help you pick up the tomatoes. I’d really like to do that. Or I can work on making a nice tomato sauce. I cook for myself all the time.”
In the strangely bright porch light, the deeply etched lines in Mr. Eckhardt’s skin mapped his face like rivers leading to the tributaries at the corners of his tired, sad eyes. What had this man been through? There was a story, and part of me wanted to hear it.
“Tell you what,” Petra said. “Young Ponyboy here will help me pick up the tomatoes. Paige, why don’t you and the wanker go into the kitchen and prep it for some major cooking. Have you got some dried pasta?”
“Then pasta with tomato sauce it is.”
Mr. Eckhardt had only stepped foot in my house once before, yet he got up and walked in like it was his own. I followed the man into my own kitchen.
“Are you going to tell me the story?” I asked as Mr. Eckhardt and I worked companionably to prep the meal. He definitely wasn’t new to cooking, and we achieved a natural split in duties as Petra and Trey alternately ran in with bucketfuls of tomatoes. Some were salvageable, some weren’t, but we’d do what we could.
“We’re going to be eating at midnight,” he said in response. “I’m usually asleep at that hour.”
“Oh, live dangerously,” I joked.
“I have done that,” he said. “It didn’t work out very well for me.”
“If you’re going to make tomato sauce with me in my kitchen, then you’re going to need to spill some secrets. Why did you bury your wife’s dress?”
“It was her wedding dress,” he said while deseeding a Roma tomato. “Those earrings you’re wearing were my bridal gift to her.”
I guiltily fingered my earlobes. “I . . . I didn’t know.”
“It doesn’t matter. She’s not coming back for them.”
Because she lives in New Mexico, I wanted to say. But then I didn’t want him to know my stalker proclivities, or Sean’s for that matter.
“What happened between you two?”
Mr. Eckhardt didn’t answer, but his military-straight shoulders drooped ever so slightly, and his hand stopped working the knife.
I had never, in the ten years we’d lived beside him, touched Mr. Eckhardt. I decided it was time for that to change. I carefully placed my hand on his upper arm. “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it. It really isn’t any of my business anyway. I promise not to be judgmental if you do want to talk, though.”
“You are a very judgmental person, Paige. Don’t try to be otherwise. It’s who you are.”
“I am not,” I said, incensed. Was I? I thought about judgy Charlene. Was I like that?
“Maybe not outwardly,” he said, “but you judged my behavior.”
“Your behavior was begging to be judged. The pope would have a difficult time not judging your behavior. Would it have cost you much to smile sometimes? To say hello? To invite us over for a burger? We lived next to you for ten years. Why were you so resistant to making any kind of a connection?”
He resumed chopping the onions, a slight smile on his face. “My wife lived in this house,” he said quietly. “And I lived next door while she did. It was the only way we could manage to stay together, to be separated. Then that wasn’t enough, and she took off in the middle of the night. This was before Google. I didn’t know where she went.”
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