Having lived next to Virgil for about three months, there were a few things I knew. I knew that he liked to shell peanuts outside on the deck, that he had installed car stereos for most of his adult life before retiring, and that he thought I spent most of my time in ways that defied all logic and wasted my youth.
Nevertheless, we got along well and occasionally dropped off food at each other’s houses like a two-way Meals on Wheels.
His yard held the remnants of an active garden. I had first observed from a distance, but after a particularly trying day, I found myself re-dropping the needle on the B-side of Eat to the Beat and staring at a bottle of low-shelf rum and a rotting lime and thinking about a more hands-on approach.
I had crossed into his yard to harvest a few sprigs from the curtains of mint that had been making eyes at me since I’d moved in. They had overtaken one of his raised beds. The nails were no longer holding the corners together and the boards that had previously formed a right angle now bent back from each other, one saying “remember when?” and the other saying “no.”
Naturally, I had checked if Virgil’s Nissan Sentra was in the driveway before making this clandestine raid, and it had been gone, but as soon as I was within the deer-netting enclosed garden, crouching next to what had once perhaps been a rose bush, I saw his glasses peering down at me from an open back door onto the deck.
He walked down the incline of the yard, and I watched him with no excuses coming to mind.
“So, you like what I’ve done with the place?”
Soon as I heard his tone I knew it was quite fine, and after a mojito each on the deck and a drawling comment that he enjoyed the birdwatching facilitated by his untended fig tree, a smooth-barked figure that had wandered out of Eden, I asked if he used to enjoy
“No, that was my wife. She spent almost all of her time out here. She used to say we both installed worlds.”
He asked about my interest in the yard and he volunteered that I could come over into the yard and glean as I saw fit.
One day I was painting my nails on the rocking chair pitching back and forth like the wind generated would dry them faster, when I noticed him walking into his yard to smoke. He waved and asked what I was doing.
I responded, “Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously. But really I’m just painting mine.”
He looked indifferent, and I offered, “It’s from the musical Singin’ in the Rain.”
“We used to have roses.”
“Oh I know, I’ve seen the shriveled one by the blueberry bush.”
“Is it still there?”
“Well, it’s not exactly flowering, but yeah, you can tell it was a rosebush.” I pointed.
He walked down to it, and I slid on my sandals and walked with my toes spread awkwardly to where he was standing. He was staring downwards at the thorny decay.
“She asked me for a couple nails once. It was when she planted these.”
“Oh, she said that roses are hungry for iron.”
“So, what did she do with the nails?”
“She planted them underneath.”
We seemed to have the thought at the same time. That not everything in the garden had been transforming since she was gone. While every shrub was either dead or over-living like a college student on spring break, the nails were exactly the same. The last hands they had touched were hers, and since then they had been preserved in the soil like dried fish in salt.
He asked me if I hadn’t better start dinner and so I went back to my house. But a few minutes later, I opened my back door and stole a glance to the right. He was on his knees, digging. I couldn’t tell if he had a trowel or was just pulling out the soil with his hands.
A few weeks later, I had been making fig and balsamic jam and decided to give a jar to Virgil. It looked like he wasn’t home, so I put it on his stoop. While glancing up at the roof’s sculpture garden of antennae, I felt a drop of sweat land in my eye. Would Virgil be alright with the jam baking in the heat or should I come back later? I had clicked the speakerphone icon and was listening to the phone ring while checking my email when the faded Nissan Sentra careened to a stop on the street.
“Hey Virgil, I made jam,” I called out as the smiling man in a short sleeve button-up walked to the door. Just as he was approaching the stoop, the phone stopped ringing and switched to the automated message. Three seconds of silence and then, “This is Virgil Strauss, you’ve reached my message machine. You tell me why you called and your number and I will be sure to return your call.”
He sounded a bit younger. His voice had a vigor and something between the gentility I heard now and the harder tone of someone who thinks he’s winning a fight.
“Call me again.”
“Please do it now.”
I hit the green phone icon and looked at him as it rang. His face showed a mesmerized regard with a longing that confused me. Finally, the tone and then a slightly too long silence, and, “This is Virgil Strauss, you’ve reached my message machine. You tell me why you called and your number and I will be sure to return your call.”
He certainly sounded younger than he did now, but it seemed such a strange vanity. Did he just want to hear his own voice?
“May I have the phone?”
I handed it to him, and he opened the door to his house and walked in. I followed. He had sat down at the kitchen table. He had turned it off the speaker setting and was holding my phone against his ear. It seemed more intimate than it made sense for me to be there. I could still hear the message although it was muffled, and the moment he reached the word “call,” or sometimes even before, he would redial.
“I’ve changed the cabinets.”
“Um, what do you mean?”
“You can tell there used to be the knotty pine cabinets in here.”
“You recorded the message in here?”
It was the silence at the start of the message, and he looked transfixed and hungry. Once his voice started up, he switched from artist to scientist, listening and observing, dispassionate.
“Yes, I recorded the message at this very table. But the room was different, the cabinets and the roof have changed. And the fridge, this one’s running at a lower frequency.”
I opened my mouth but his eyes were wet and I knew we were back at the silence. He pulled two nails out of his pocket and rubbed them in his hand. The dirt seemed to have mostly come off.
“She’s next to me. That’s her silence.”
He put it back on speaker and we got through the rings and the tone once more to hear those three seconds. I couldn’t discern so much as a breath.
“Shit recording of course. It was my old phone. But that’s her. Do you hear that she’s a little bit mad at me?”
“Uh, I don’t think so.”
“Oh she is, she’s ever-so-slightly angry at me for being a crummy husband. Not as mad as she had the right to be, but that’s it. That’s her silence. That five cent mic picked it up.”
He wiped his eyes and stroked the nails.
“Do you remember what she was mad about?”
“I do. She had been watching it for days and finally it was ready. I was thinking about work and setting up my phone and didn’t notice that she had installed the first rose of the garden at that table.”
(Photos and story by Nan Pincus)