You find the envelope tucked into the exterior door handle one morning after dropping off the kids. You had expected to go inside for a peaceful cup of tea. Instead you read, “NOTICE OF ORDER TO ABATE A PUBLIC NUISANCE.”
It’s not you. It’s your vegetation. Nonetheless, it feels like the city managers are telling you to trim yourself back. They see what you’re up to: you are intruding into the public right of way.
The notice comes on top of your oldest child practically flunking out of school and your husband so absorbed by work he might as well be having an affair.
Piling on — isn’t that what it’s called? Nobody is taking care of you.
The only caretaking you’ve had in the last year came when you visited the emergency room for… a stomachache. Never mind that you thought you were dying. The pain exploded in your belly so harshly you saw stars and your face went gray. Your friend, driving you to the ER, chattered on about kidney stones and appendicitis. You were convinced you had both. Then the soft-voiced doctor said, “We call it acute gastroenteritis.” A fancy name for stomach flu.
But the nurse mothered you. Though you already felt better by the time she came to administer pain medication, she wouldn’t take no for an answer and pushed down the plunger on the vial of Tordol. She covered you with a warm blanket and made you feel she would listen to anything you said.
Insult to injury was the $3,000 bill you got for the trip to the ER because you are highly deductible.
“Everyone has problems,” your mother would say if she were here. She has the biggest problem of all: she’s dead, along with your father, your grandparents, and every aunt and uncle you had in the world.
At least you have progeny: two strong boys who look so appealing to those who don’t have to live with them. They’re handsome and they talk a good game in public. But within the walls of your house they writhe in the agonies of adolescence. On some days the testosterone flows so thickly you can hardly see, and you certainly can’t have a conversation. Your job is to smile and pretend this is the family you imagined having.
It’s a wonder you haven’t taken to drink. Actually, you have, to a degree. Sometimes you look forward a little too much to mixing a stiff martini, the way your mother used to, though at least you don’t light up alongside the drink.
The notice from the city engineer shakes you right down to your roots. Wild child that you once were — how have you ended up here? You were born in a place where there was too much nature to rake into piles and nobody cared about dandelions in the lawn, a place where women shared secrets in their kitchens. Now, here you are, in the middle of the life you chose.
So the notice makes you cry. Then it ticks you off. Reading it again, you feel your stomach clench in a way that reminds you of the first twinge of gastroenteritis. Trim your fucking hedge, lady, is what they meant to say.
“I’ll trim my fucking hedge,” is what you say.
No hedges contained the gardens of your childhood. What your mother planted she tended with manual tools: clippers, loppers, shears. You shadowed her as she drifted from bush to bush with a Marlboro Light waggling from her lips, begging for a turn nipping the Forsythia.
Your husband bought you an electric hedge trimmer years ago, after you fired the gardeners because they butchered your maple tree. The trimmer’s blade is only eighteen inches and it has a comfortable plastic handle. Millions of homeowners trim their hedges with such implements every day. But until now you’ve been afraid to use it. You couldn’t escape visions of chopping off your foot, despite your husband’s assurances that the automatic safety switch would never allow such a thing.
Now you stomp to the garage to find the trimmer and plug it in to the outdoor electrical outlet. You cross the lawn and slide the button to ON. The trimmer revs with an appealing growl. You raise it to the hedge, which is protruding rather far over the sidewalk, and make a first tentative slice. The severed branches of the Dodonaea flutter to the ground.
You lift the trimmer again and suddenly you’re an expert, a master gardener, a pro. A pile of bronze-leafed boughs accumulates behind you. The hedge becomes a denuded ghost of its former self.
When you finish, you stand in the silence, listening to your breath. You survey the neighborhood. Untamed brush bursts from every yard. Two houses down, a Westringia makes a foray over the sidewalk. Across the street, several Leptospermum perpetrate a similar infraction.
You find an extension cord in the garage. You walk down the street as assuredly as Paul Bunyan, trailing the orange cord. The trimmer snarls. The shrubbery cowers before you.
Now you are more than a master gardener. You are more than a martini-swilling orphan, a gastroenteretic mother, a misplaced soul.
Now you are a public nuisance.
Audrey Kalman has been writing professionally for more than 30 years and offers writing and editing services as a consultant. She currently serves as editor of the 4th edition of the Fault Zone anthology published by the SF/Peninsula Branch of the California Writers Club. Her 2011 novel Dance of Souls is available on Amazon. She blogs at audreykalman.wordpress.com and is at work on another novel, often with one or two cats on her lap.
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