WHAT ARE YOU doing tomorrow?” Robert asked me. We were sitting on the back porch last Saturday night, drinking wine, listening to the silence as his wife, Judith, and My Prince debated kir or Cointreau inside at the bar.
We had just returned from dinner at Washington, DC’s Wharf complex, a boardwalk along the Potomac River lined with some of the city’s priciest condominiums and restaurants, mixed with yuppy bars, concert venues, pizza purveyors and fishing boats that never fish, relics of the area’s earlier incarnation. They still peddle fresh fish and carryout, which you can eat sitting on the concrete ledges that line the walkway, which is what we did.
We bought crab cakes and clam platters from one of the stalls and watched women in slinky gowns teetering on the stone walkway, trading up from flip-flops to obviously unaccustomed stilettos, clinging to their tuxedo-clad escorts for balance, heading to some formal do. Other women with screaming-pink leggings applied to their ample bottoms clutched men in wife-beaters flashing tattooed muscles. Babies screamed. Toddlers dashed about. Country-western dancing was being taught on a barge in the river.
It was horrible. I will never return, though I’m happy to have been. Once.
“Tomorrow?” I said. Sunday extended as a long blank day. It was supposed to rain, which would scotch most plans. If it were certain to rain we could take in a movie, but if it were just patchy . . . ?
Sunday came and I sat on the back-porch steps, as I have done for the last 36 summers, staring at the garden and letting my brain rattle about.
In the beginning, there was a straight concrete path that ran from the back-porch steps to the garage (or more pretentiously, as the price of houses has soared, the carriage house, though it’s possible no carriage ever abided there, although a Model T may have. Why was there a garage built behind a 1914 house? Surely there was plenty of street parking. That’s an aside).
The walk was cracked here and there, with sprightly spurts of weed poking through the gaps. It was not attractive. I painted the concrete to look like bricks, a little trompe l’oeil that was witty, if I say so myself. That the painting was a bit slapdash made it more realistic, said guests who were frequently fooled.
Poverty always brings out the creative in me; that’s possibly why I remain broke, to stimulate my creativity. What I could do with a pile of cash, I wonder. Probably hire people to do things for me, which would likely make me less creative but with more time to do something else.
Baby says I would not be me if it had been another way. How true. She would probably not be here either, as I’d be sunning myself on the deck of my yacht, moored off Bali or Bora Bora, drinking out of a coconut. How tragic.
Anyway, the walk remained for a few years. As I’d used a brick-colored stain, it needed an annual touch-up, which my knees did not appreciate.
It was my gym in the years when Baby was little. I’d finish my third or fourth cup of coffee and smoke my third or fourth cigarette and then run the 20-foot length, back and forth from the bottom of the steps to the garage/carriage-house door. I imagine the neighbors whose upper windows overlooked the walk found this amusing or bizarre.
I don’t recall when it was that the Prince decided to smash up the walkway, laying a gentle curve from here to there (or there to here) and filling it with a truckload of river rocks, flat stones an inch or so in diameter, in various shades of gray. It was, I will credit him, a thought of genius.
Curving the path is another way of fooling the eye, making the distance to the garden’s rear feel much farther away, while adding interest to a basic rectangle. From the back steps, scallops carved into the borders make it impossible to see the whole of what is a very small garden.
Go down the porch steps, and to the right are elephant ears, hydrangeas and ferns. On the left there’s a small flagstone patio and a dining table under the cherry tree. Follow a slight curve past another hydrangea, and the jasmine and palms and cannas appear. You can hear, but not yet see, the fountain and the little pond, which is just behind a stand of daylilies . . .
Ah. This is not good.
The fish are floating, and not in a lively way. Poor babies, they were so happy, not even 12 hours ago, frolicking golden in the last of the day’s sun. Clearly this is not the doings of the raccoon. There can be only one culprit.
What did My Prince do now? May the fish be reincarnated as mosquitoes and viciously bite his pale Irish ankles in revenge. At least, thanks to the curving path, I didn’t have to see this before I was thoroughly tanked on coffee.
LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” shares her thoughts about her garden, and the gardens of others, every Thursday.