|Pudding Creek tripadvisor.com|
According to the directions the bailiff gave her, the doctor’s place is almost directly across Pudding Creek from the middle school. Weekdays, it will be a twenty-minute bike ride, but today is Saturday, and she needs an extra ten minutes to get there from her house.
The shortest route would be down to the Highway One, then north, but Kelsey takes back streets until the river has to be crossed. She cuts down to the highway, turns north and crosses the narrow, traffic-y Pudding Creek Bridge. On the other side of the bridge, the hill past the recycling center is so steep she has to get off her gearless, old bicycle and push it.
It takes a few tries to find the house because the number on the mailbox is missing, and the place is down a long gravel drive lined on either side with the tallest rhododendrons Kelsey has ever seen. The driveway ends in gravel parking area that has grown weedy. The only vehicle is a rusty old Dodge truck. There’s supposed to be a greenhouse somewhere around her, but she doesn’t see it.
Her bike doesn’t have a kickstand so she leans it against rear of the truck and walks toward a long, low plywood building once painted dark brown, now covered with a tangle of sweet-smelling honeysuckle vines. It’s shaped as if it might have once contained horse stalls, but there’s only a single, rotting-from-the-bottom-up, hollow-core door with a carved woodpecker knocker with the beak broken off. Yellowing lace curtains sag against the dirty glass windows on either side. A fat, black and white cat lies in the sun near the front door. It opens one eye as she approaches, and yawns, does a double-take, scrambles to its feet, and runs toward her.
She squats down, and, to her astonishment, the cat hops into her lap and stands on her knees. It puts a paw over each shoulder, buries its face against her neck, and begins to purr. Kelsey strokes the back of its head and it purrs louder.
She likes animals and animals like her, but she’s never had anything show such affection. Kelsey feels like she might burst into tears. The cat tightens its grip around her neck, and for no reason at all, Kelsey thinks of her father—a man she’s never met. If he were to show up someday, this is how she thinks she’d greet him—like he’s someone she loves and has been waiting a long time to see.
Kelsey cradles the cat’s head and presses her cheek to one soft ear until the strain of its weight on her legs makes her muscles quiver. “I’m going to have to stand up.” She tries to disengage, but the cat holds on.
Kelsey struggles to her feet, carries the cat to the front door and raps on it using the broken woodpecker knocker. Odd, tuneless music floats in the air, but she can’t tell where it’s coming from. No one answers the door. She tilts the cat’s chin up. “Is anybody home?” She kisses the top of its head and puts it down.
It rubs against her leg, then waddles, tail up like a tour guide’s flag, down the side of the house, pausing once to see if she following. They walk down a path, which turns and meanders along the west side of the house and passes beneath a rose-covered archway. Beyond are two huge greenhouses, each bigger than the house Kelsey and her mother live in. The greenhouses are made of a series of glass panes set in aluminum. Between them, and of equal size, is a shed. From the beams supporting the roof hang dozens of begonias blooming in shades of red, pink, orange, yellow and white. A neighbor once gave Kelsey’s mother a coral-colored one, but Lydia watered it too much and it rotted.
Kelsey opens the door of the closest greenhouse even though the sign on it says No Admittance. The moist, muggy building is full of orchids. A ceiling fan makes lazy, squeaky circles, and another fan directly above the door rattles noisily. “Anybody here?”
Through the opaque glass wall of the other greenhouse, she sees the shadowy figure of a man moving slowly down the row between shelves of plants. He’s talking softly, almost lovingly to someone. The music kind of reminds her of one of those dripping-water, nature sound recording her mother used to like. The cat nudges the door open and squeezes in. Kelsey follows. The back of this greenhouse is concrete, and it takes Kelsey a moment to realize the wall is a block building attached to the rear of the greenhouse. There’s a black steel door in the center and a big window to the right of the door. The window has a dark tint so she can’t see through, but otherwise it reminds her of pictures she’s seen of old bomb shelters.
The old man, whose white hair is sticking out every which way, is still wearing pajamas and bedroom slippers though it’s nearly eleven. He turns and smiles at the cat. “Hey, old boy,” he says, then sees Kelsey. “Who the hell are you?”
The music stops.
“McCully? I knew a McCully once.” He says this as if he’s forgotten she’s there. “Well, what do you want, McCully?”
“The judge sent me.”
The old man shakes a trowel at her. “Make some sense or get out.”
“I wish I had a choice,” Kelsey says.
“Aha,” says Dr. Jonathan Hobbes. “You must be my newest delinquent.”
“What’d you do to your fingers?”
He looks down at his hands, as if he hasn’t the foggiest notion what she means. “These?” He wiggles the last two fingers of his left hand, which move as a unit since they are wrapped together with black electrical tape. “Broke ‘em a while back.”
“Did a doctor wrap them like that?”
“I wrapped them like this. What are you doing here so late? The day is practically over.”
“It took me a while to find this . . . dump. . .” she thinks, “place,” she says.
“Well, hell, is this what I can expect—you showing up when it’s nearly too late to get anything done?”
“What do you want from me? I had to ride my bike clear across town.”
“Watch your tone, girly. I understand I’m your last chance, so you better keep your nose clean.”
“Yeah, well, Juvie might be better than hanging around here.”
“You ever been in Juvie?”
“No, but I’ve got friends that have. They say it’s not so bad.”
He waves a hand like he’s shooing flies. “Well, if you think it’s such an Eden, get on out of here. I don’t need this crap.”
Kelsey squares her shoulders and bites her lip. The cat has jumped up onto a potting table, and makes his way toward her like an eight-ball with legs. When he reaches her, he stands, put his paws on her shoulders, and rubs his chin against her chin.
“Ah, hell’s bells. If Genera likes you, you can stay.”
Don’t do me any favors, she thinks, but, for a change, keeps her mouth shut.
“You can start by sorting these pots.” He sweeps his hand the length of the potting tables. Beneath each are piles of pots, hundreds of them, maybe even thousands, in all sizes.
“Where do you want them to go?”
“I don’t want them to go anywhere. Leave them there, just sort them.”
“Sort them by color, size, shape—what?”
“Hell, I don’t care. Just make them look neater.” He picks up the cat and shuffles toward the steel door in the concrete wall. He hunches over and squints to see the numbers as he dials a code into the bottom of a padlock. When it pops open, he glances back at her. “Those pots have been like that for years, so watch out for Black widows.” He grins. His teeth are yellow and crooked. “You know what those are?”
Duh. “Spiders,” Kelsey says. He’s set her to a fool’s task, as her mother likes to say—meaningless work, like digging a hole, then filling it in again.
“See that jar?” He points to a glass jar with a filthy dirty, worn-away applesauce label on it.
“Put any earwigs and brown slugs you find in there.”
Kelsey’s nose crinkles in disgust. “Earwigs pinch and slugs are slimy.”
Dr. Hobbes smiles. “Your point is?”
“I don’t want to touch them.”
“Then don’t.” He taps the side of his head. “Use something to pick them up with.” He squints at her. “Do you like plants?”
“They’re okay. Why?”
“Just asking.” He pulls the steel door open. “What’s your favorite subject in school.”
She kind of likes biology, but she isn’t going to tell him. “Lunch.”
“Figures.” He rubs the cat’s ears. “Watch her,” he says before stepping inside and closing the door. She hears a bolt slide shut on the inside.
Kelsey shoots him the bird, and then nearly jumps out of her skin when the music starts again. For a moment there is just one long note, before it softens into pattern-less tones.
The usual heavy August fog has rolled in by the time Kelsey finishes sorting the first hundred pots, and decides she’s had enough. “I’m leaving now,” she yells at the door.
There’s no answer.
Genera is curled near one of the fans that keeps the air moving in the greenhouse.
“Tell him I left, okay?
The cat rolls on his back and starts to purr.
Kelsey rubs his broad belly, and sees the applesauce jar. She’d conveniently forgotten about that task. “If he asks—” She presses her lips to the soft fur of one of Genera’s paws. “Tell him I didn’t find any slugs or earwigs.”
|Mendocino Coast by Ron LeValley|
Can Plants Hear?