I discovered his magic by accident. Tom didn’t like to show off. He was the sort of next-door neighbor you waved to when you both happened to arrive home at the same time. Nearing fifty, he spoke with eyes blue, clear, and serene. Tom Campbell was a “handyman,” vanishing each morning in his immaculate pickup truck. There was no Mrs. Campbell. Not even a dog or cat.
When I found my St. Francis statue toppled in the rose bed between our houses, I winced. Tom was watering his bloom-covered gardenia bush.
“Storm was bad last night,” he said. “Don’t try to pick that up yourself. It’s too heavy.”
“My father gave him to me,” I whispered. “I think it’s broken.”
I didn’t think it was broken. I knew. A telltale crack necklaced his throat. The one saint I remembered who died peacefully in bed was martyred in a Texas spring storm.
“It’ll be fine.” Tom stood over the statue, ignominiously lying in the baby weeds peeping through my mulch.
I wondered how Tom got his five gardenias to bloom all the time. I quit executing gardenias after my last two attempts died. On the internet, I found a helpful thread, describing countless other people’s efforts to grow a lone gardenia. Laughing over the desperation and confessions, I had felt better. Then Tom began to grow gardenias that not only thrived but seemed perpetually covered in gorgeous blooms that scented his whole front yard.
“I have to go to work.” I wiped a stupid tear from the corner of my eye. Who cries over a garden statue?
“It’ll be fine, Ellie,” he said. He smiled.
It reminded me of the rare sunny day on my last trip to Ireland with Da.
“All right. If you say so,” I said.
Sometimes the last straw wasn’t a piece of hay you were spinning into gold for an angry King. Sometimes it was St. Francis, that benign spirit beloved for his reverence for all living things. His joy in life itself, from sun to moon was a perpetual “Alleluia” of joy. My father Francis took his namesake seriously. Until his death, Da had celebrated October 4, the feast day of the little friar from Assisi, with as much pomp and reverence as March 17.
“I could have been pope,” Da told us, over his eightieth birthday dinner. “Did you know, I even studied for the Church, when I was a young man? But where would you all be then? I would be in that pope mobile in Rome. And you would be little angels, waiting on a cloud.”
The five Mahoney progeny looked grim.
“Da, I cannot imagine you as Pope,” said my brother Sean, eyeing the last fried mushroom as my brother Flynn’s hand hovered across the table.
“I would have been a good pope,” Da insisted. His voice shook then, all the time, from the palsy, but it still brought that jolt of attention to our ears. “It’s not all about the one thing or the other. It’s about your heart, Sean. The heart is all that matters. You have to have a joyful heart.”
“Right now, it would give me joy if Flynn let me have this mushroom,” Sean said. Everyone laughed except Da.
That had been our last family dinner; Da passed away a week later.
Since Da’s death, coming only months my divorce, I had felt joy oozing through the cracks. For weeks, even getting out of bed felt like pushing off heavy debris, fighting off the weighty possessions blown onto me as I slept. In dreams, I herded homeless cats, rescued drowning puppies from certain death.
When Tom moved in next door, I tried to make an effort to look competent again. Keeping my job no longer my only priority, I tried to make sure my yard was mowed, my roses tended.
“To know how Ellie feels, look at her garden,” Da had told my siblings. “She never talks, much. But her roses tell you everything. If there is nothing blooming in her garden, then neither is she.”
He knew. Last week I planted flower seeds.
When I came home, the first thing I noticed as I drove up was the tall form of St. Francis, once more shadowing my zinnia babies.
Moments later, I closed my car door, and took a closer look. St. Francis’s healing was miraculous. The crack around his neck wasn’t just repaired. It was gone, a seamless stretch of gray concrete telling no tales.
Gone too, I noticed seconds later, every tiny, scraggly weed in the garden bordering our property line.
On my front doorstep, I found three white gardenias sipping water from their red plastic cup. My note from the universe, signed by Tom Campbell, the wizard of ordinary things.
Eliza Archer is working on a novel. She drinks too much coffee.