“Did I just see Sapp kissing his marigolds?” Roger asked his wife.
Their front porch was not a great vantage point. Eli Sapp’s Hyacinths blocked some of the view, as did his rose bushes. Carla glanced over at their neighbor and managed a brief squint but Roger could not determine if she saw the flower-smooching as he turned away to answer the dual challenges of unlocking their front door and balancing a grocery bag on his hip.
“Damn, woman!” He snapped. “Can’t you get the plastic bags with the handles?”
He felt the stab of an angry glance on the back of his neck. He looked behind him to find her glaring from between the two bags she carried in her arms. “Paper bags can be recycled. Excuse me for caring about the environment!”
“All this recycling stuff is stupid,” he ground out as he managed to get the door open. “You’ve gone overboard. Isn’t recycling my beer cans enough?”
He heard her grouse behind him as they entered the house. “Those beer cans are the best thing I could do for this planet. You drink enough beer these days to make your own landfill!” She sniffed at the air in the living room as they walked to the kitchen. “And, those cheap cigarettes … whew!”
By the time they reached the kitchen, Roger’s irritation transformed into the first stirrings of real anger–an increasing problem, lately. He slammed the bag down on the kitchen table. “Shut your mouth, woman! I wouldn’t have to smoke cheap cigarettes if I could still afford my Marlboros. And, I’ve been laid off for over three months now. Let me have my beer! It’s one of the few joys I have left!”
Carla opened her mouth to say something, but then she looked into his eyes. He smiled, slowly. Hoping, daring, for her to argue further. She hesitated, paled, then edged away and began to put the groceries away with quick, jerky movements.
Roger left his bag on the Formica-topped table (a marbled “avocado” color – straight out of the 70’s) and grabbed a cold beer from the refrigerator before stalking into the living room to his La-Z-Boy and ESPN.
He settled his buttocks into their customary tracks and lit a cigarette, taking a long draw between thick, moist lips, and blew smoke into the air. He watched ESPN through a whitish-gray haze until movement outside the window to his left caught his attention.
Roger watched his flower-kissing neighbor, Eli Sapp, who had been forgotten during the course of his domestic interchange with Carla. Sapp was on his knees, weeding and talking, beside one of his many flower beds.
“What are you looking at?” Carla’s voice startled him and he sloshed beer onto his pants. He cursed colorfully. He looked up, prepared to give her more of the sharper side of his tongue, but stopped as he noticed that she stared out the window in the direction he had been looking moments before.
“I don’t know why you don’t like Mr. Sapp. He’s really very nice and he’s got such a green thumb … look at his yard! He even manages to make it look good in the winter. He said he’d teach me the secret of how he could grow anything in any place … even in this Alabama red dirt.” She chuckled. “I told him he would find it hard to grow anything without his black, Northern dirt. I told him that here he would find we’ve only got three kinds … red dirt, orange dirt and reddish-orange dirt.” As she spoke, she dried her hands on a threadbare dishtowel.
Roger jumped up from his chair, snatched the towel from her hands and slapped her with it. She let out a yelp of surprise, and pain, as the fringed corner hit her in the eye.
“You ain’t gonna let that old man teach you anything!” He leaned in close to her, nose to nose. So close, he could see the tears in her eyes, the hurt and humiliation, and it made him angrier–like a tightening fist. He hissed, “You listen to me … stay away from Sapp.”
A scared little girl appeared within Carla’s eyes. Her voice trembled on the brink of girlishness. “Why do you hate him?”
“You know …” He could smell the humid, yeasty aroma of his own breath drifting as a cloud between them.
She nodded slowly, her wide, scared-girlie eyes never left his. “The oak tree.”
“Bingo, bitch. Now, leave me alone.”
She quickly turned in a hasty retreat back to the kitchen. Roger remembered the dish towel dangling from his hand. He wadded it up for better aerodynamics, and then threw it. It hit her square between the shoulder blades and fell to the floor in a soft “ploof.”
Carla turned. In her eyes, for a second, Roger caught a freakish flicker of fury, but the hurt little girl soon squelched it. Carla silently picked up the towel and left.
Roger finished his beer and opened a second, deciding he wanted to enjoy it on the front porch. He slipped the can, slick with condensation, into a bright purple foam can koozie bearing the legend, “Wilson Tires – We keep you on the road.” The koozie had been a door prize from the last company picnic, just before the layoffs began.
He stepped outside to the gentle sights and sounds of an early summer evening. Freshly-cut grass lightly tinted the air, reminding him of all the summers he’d spent mowing lawns for extra cash when he was a boy. It was a rare, almost wistful moment for him that ended when he belched and settled into a plastic lawn chair to watch Eli Sapp in his relentless, tender care of his flowers, bushes and fancy grass.
Just the sight of the old man irritated Roger. Eli Sapp had moved in next door three years before from somewhere up north. Damn Yankee. Roger watched him work. Sapp wore his usual attire–sandals, knee pads over faded slacks, button-down shirt and a sissy-looking (in Roger’s humble opinion), wide-brimmed straw hat.
Sapp’s mouth worked as he leaned over a bed of pansies and marigolds. Was he whispering to those flowers? Roger couldn’t stand it–he had to have a closer look. He got up and tromped across his overgrown, crabgrass choked jungle, set in a world of middle-class, brick cottages, and into the immaculate Eden of Sapp’s yard. After the scratchy crunch of his own lawn, the feel of Sapp’s thick, soft, green grass was a shock beneath Roger’s cheap, dollar store flip-flops.
Sapp seemed oblivious to Roger’s approach and whispered to the plants as Roger drew closer. The ones closest to Sapp’s mouth leaned in toward the gardener–Were the flowers responding? A ripple of foreboding made its way up Roger’s back.
Abruptly, Sapp looked up at him. Roger thought the plants sprang back to a standing position, but the movement was so subtle, he could not be sure.
Sapp rose and dusted himself off–elegant, even in this task. “Good evening, Mr. Vernon,” he said, smiling.
“What are you doing, Sapp? It looked like you was talking to them flowers.”
Sapp chuckled. “Oh, Mr. Vernon, I was talking to them. It’s really a common practice. Humans exhale carbon dioxide, which nourishes the plants and the plants produce oxygen, which is essential to humans and animals.” Sapp’s eyes lit up as he gestured toward the plant life in his yard. “Every living thing is connected.”
With uncharacteristic restraint, Roger refrained from asking about Sapp’s penchant for kissing his plants. Instead, he said, “So, you know the court date is comin’ up in a couple of weeks …”
Sapp’s smile dimmed a watt or two. Roger liked that. He took a swig from his koozie-cloaked can.
“You know, Mr. Vernon, that tree is on my property and I’m not cutting it down. It’s old, but it’s healthy and strong, and it would be wrong and disrespectful to cut it down. The limb that fell on the tailgate of your truck was a fluke caused by the storm. I really wish you’d stop all this nonsense.”
They both turned to look at the oak in question. The enormous tree stood in the front, northeast corner of Sapp’s yard and overhung Roger’s yard and part of the street. They both craned their necks to look up at the top.
“Part of that monster tree hangs over my property. That limb tore my tailgate completely off. I’m laid off. I couldn’t keep up my insurance and I can’t afford to have the thing fixed.”
“I did offer to pay for the repairs to your truck, Mr. Vernon.”
Roger shook his head. “That’s not all there is to it. The whole mess caused me lots of stress–being laid off and all–now I worry all the time about when the next limb will fall and cause damage to my truck.”
“Perhaps … if you didn’t park your truck in the yard, Mr. Vernon …” Sapp offered.
“No, Sapp! This is America. I should be able to park wherever I fuckin’ please! That tree’s coming down! You’d better get used to the idea. Kiss it goodbye, Sapp …” Roger could resist no longer, “… ah, I forgot, you’d like that.”
Roger spun toward his house and stomped off without a backward glance.
A week later, Roger enjoyed increasingly fevered conversations with his lawyer. Feeling particularly optimistic about his chances toward winning his lawsuit, Roger wandered into the kitchen to get a couple of beers. He glanced at the window over the sink as he opened the refrigerator and hesitated, noticing the two dried-up looking ferns Carla had been struggling to keep alive, now appeared to be thriving. The plants were lush and green … and fuller than he remembered. “What did you do to them plants?”
“Oh, nothing.” Carla walked over and gently lifted a couple of delicate fronds with two fingers. She whispered something –he thought she whispered something –to the plant and then let the leaves slip from her fingertips.
Roger’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve been talking to Sapp, haven’t you?” Did he teach you how to make them plants healthy?” Roger slammed the refrigerator door with enough force to rattle the cereal boxes on top and set Carla’s sticky notes to fluttering like flirtatiously batting eyelashes. His temper slammed adrenaline through his body with similar force.
Carla jumped back. Her defensive move infuriated him.
“You did, didn’t you? You’ve been talking to the man I’m suing! Were you born stupid or do you just work at it real hard?”
The scared little girl took longer than usual to arrive in Carla’s eyes. “He’s a nice man, Roger,” she said quietly. “You should leave him alone.”
Roger flashed a mean, little smile and stalked to the kitchen sink to open the window behind the plants. He felt his face reddening with the heat of his anger.
“What are you doing?” Carla screamed behind him. “No! Roger! No!”
“I’ll teach you what happens when you start catching Sapp’s green thumb like it’s some kind of disease!” He grabbed each plant at its bottom, near the soil, and yanked them up. At first, the pots came with them, but after a series of vicious shakes, pots and soil littered the kitchen floor.
Behind him, Carla wailed, “Please don’t! Please! They’re the first plants I’ve ever had that didn’t die!”
He threw the de-potted plants out the window. Carla surprised him with a cry of rage just before she rushed at him. More out of instinct than anger, Roger back-handed her hard enough to knock her to the floor.
Her long salt and pepper hair covered her face as she held her head down for a long moment. When she finally looked up at him, he saw a bloodied mouth and dark eyes awash with tears, but no scared little girl. The eyes that looked up at him now were angry and accusatory.
The sight of her anger made him back down. As always, when his rage drained away, he felt vulnerable and ashamed. He extended a shaky hand toward her. He was surprised when she slapped it away and used a kitchen chair to pull herself up on legs that looked unstable.
Blood poured from her mouth and dripped down her chin, but she made no move to wipe it off. She simply stared at him–this time with something like regret. There was a different quality to the air between them, even though they stood in the same kitchen, on the same cheap, 1970’s harvest gold linoleum … now dotted with crimson.
Roger looked down, surprised to see his hand still extended. “Carla … Honey … I’m sorry. I’m so … sor–”
“You’ll never hit me again. Believe that,” she interrupted with quiet, blood-wet words. She straightened her blouse and her shoulders. A summer breeze whispered through the kitchen window, surrounded her, and escorted her from the room. Her voice drifted back from the hall. “I’m getting ready for work.”
For a long moment, there was no sound except the miracles of summer’s mundane wafting through the open window–the distant sounds of mowing, chirping birds and the jetting swish of sprinklers.
Roger’s heart hammered against his ribcage as he stared down at the cheap linoleum, now littered with soil and blood, both of which were his own doing. He stood and stared and stared and stared until he sculpted shame–unbearable, unthinkable shame–back into anger … and then decided to pay Eli Sapp a visit.
He found Sapp leaning over one of his five rose bushes — the one bearing red blossoms. The other four were pink, peach, yellow and white. Sapp whispered to the red.
Roger brought himself up short behind Sapp, certain the entire bush trembled in response to Sapp’s voice.
Without turning around, Sapp said, “Hello, Mr. Vernon.”
“You’ve been giving my wife gardening advice?”
“Oh, I may have answered a few questions she had.”
“You have no business talking to my wife!”
Sapp turned and peered at Roger from beneath the shadows of his sissy-looking straw hat, but he said nothing … he seemed to be waiting for something.
“Did you hear me, Sapp? I said you have no business talkin’ to my wife!”
“I do believe you’re the one meddling in business you have nothing to do with, Mr. Vernon. Carla had questions and I helped her. That was her interest, not yours. So, it seems to me, you have no business meddling in her business.”
Listening to Sapp, Roger’s rage grew until he felt dizzy. He jabbed a finger into the center of Sapp’s chest. “There’s nothin’ that Carla could learn from a sandal-stompin’, sissy-hat wearin’, tree-huggin’, flower-kissin’ old Yankee fart like you!” Roger tensed with each syllable, ready to fight Sapp’s retort.
Sapp’s over-sized dentures gleamed in the late afternoon sun. “Congratulations, Mr. Vernon! Bravo! You managed to string together quite an impressive litany of adjectives which obviously required thought and concentration.” Smiling, Sapp actually patted Roger’s shoulder. “Oh, I’m so glad you haven’t strung me up yet for being a Yankee … the other descriptions were unnecessarily brutal, but they were accurate assessments … well, except perhaps for the crude slang regarding flatulence.
“But, I must disagree with you about my having nothing to teach Carla. I should think it’s obvious that when it comes to plants, I do have a lot of expertise. I like to help people – to teach them what I know and share that understanding and knowledge whenever I can.” Sapp spread his arms in a sweeping gesture that encompassed the neighborhood. “I’ve told you before, Mr. Vernon, all life is connected … and I like to help people understand that. I’ve helped lots of people.”
Roger looked about him … really looked and, as if waking from the dream of his own little world, he noticed how beautiful most of the yards in the neighborhood had become. He was surrounded by unnaturally beautiful paradises like Sapp’s yard.
His own yard was now a crab-grass choked blight.
Roger was so engrossed taking in the beauty around him that Sapp’s voice gave him a start. His eyes snapped back to Sapp’s face.
“I’d be happy to share that knowledge and understanding with you, Mr. Vernon. All you have to do is ask.”
Roger’s voice sounded country and coarse — even to his own ears. “I don’t want nothin’ from you.”
He saw real disappointment in Sapp’s expression. “I’m sorry to hear that.” With a sigh, Sapp turned back to his rose bush.
Feeling dismissed, and suddenly forgetting why he had stormed into Sapp’s yard to begin with, Roger went home where he grabbed up the keys to his pickup truck and then headed downtown to his favorite bar, where he remained until late into the night, drinking his latest unemployment check. Damn layoffs.
Around two in the morning, he drove home, tired and drunk. He didn’t realize how fast he was going, or how or why Sapp was in the road, but the end result was that he hit Eli Sapp with his truck going about 50 miles per hour.
It happened so fast, a surprised expression in his headlights, a terrible “thunk,” the squeal of brakes and the sight of Sapp flying through the air and landing in the Eden of his own yard–at the base of the oak tree Roger hated so much.
Roger left the truck running and shakily exited. He cautiously approached the man-shaped heap illuminated by a nearby street light. He didn’t need to check for a pulse to know Sapp was dead. Blank, staring eyes set in a pale face reflected the streetlight. A trickle of black punctuated the corner of Sapp’s open mouth. From the unnatural angle of his head, Roger knew the man’s neck had broken.
Roger’s eyes slid down to Sapp’s ruined legs. One sandal-clad foot dangled – nearly severed from his twisted right leg. Roger averted his eyes and stifled a frightened and disgusted cry. He stumbled and fell, fighting an urge to vomit, as the whole situation became clear.
Roger was trying to decide what to do when he felt Sapp’s lawn roll beneath him. He gasped and looked around. His heart began to pound out a Samba. It seemed every plant and flower in the yard turned toward him … leaning … straining, toward him.
Tight-throated terror gripped him as the blossoms stared – pale shapes in the darkness. A rustle to his left jerked the reins of his attention. The red rose bush was almost lying flat to the ground in its effort to reach him.
A terrible creaking sound came from above him. He looked up to see the enormous branches of the oak tree slowly lowering toward him like scarred, heavily muscled arms.
He cried out and scrambled up and out of the yard. He looked around for witnesses and, in the spotted glow of lights lining the street, he saw a host of plants and trees–all straining toward him. On wobbly legs, he ran for his truck and managed to get in. He tried to start it with shaking hands but the engine’s grinding sound of protest reminded him it was already running.
More creaking from above made Roger recall that the oak also hung over the street. He jammed the truck into gear, but before he could take off, a massive branch came down with a rifle-shot crack and appeared before his headlights.
He tried to throw the truck into reverse, but another crack, and canon-like pop, sounded and a branch fell behind him, blocking him in.
Roger shrieked. “No!”
For a moment, the night was silent except for the ragged sound of his breathing and the rumble of the truck’s engine.
A soft tap on the passenger window caused him to weep. The tapping persisted until he slowly turned his head, feeling the tendons in his neck creak.
The tapping came from an oak branch, not as big as the branches that had him blocked in, but big enough to act as the battering ram it became when it knew it had Roger’s attention.
Roger screamed. The glass gave way with the second impact. Roger’s screams continued, even when his chest was impaled by the limb. The screams did not silence until another rifle-crack–the loudest yet, heralded the descent of a massive branch which completely crushed the truck’s cab.
The neighborhood again grew quiet, until later, when the colorful strobes of emergency vehicles lit the night and all the beauty created by Sapp’s green thumb.
(Leigh McQueen would like to acknowledge that she keeps terrible records on the previous publication of her work. However, she does know that “Sapp’s Green Thumb,” was originally published by Sam’s Dot Publishing between 2003 and 2005, under her real name. She just doesn’t remember which publication! )
Want to read MORE by Leigh McQueen “Sapp’s Green Thumb” is the second in a collection of four short stories published in the collection “Tenebrarum Tempore” by Leigh McQueen. Available on Amazon Kindle for only .99 cents. What are you waiting for? Here’s the link: