Troubled Wayfarer

A good gardener and his end.

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Many intrepid souls found their way over the mountain to the Herb of Grace, the small nursery, shop, gardens, and tea room I owned in the middle of Nowhere, North Carolina—some of them in want of a job. And since this horticultural enterprise owned me for an innumerable number of hours over a goodly number of years, I met each prospective employee with hopeful anticipation.

A treasured few proved truly unforgettable.

He rattled into the driveway in his old Chevy stepside, got out of the cab, and announced, “I’m Calvin. I just love flowers and growing things. And I am a hard worker.” He slapped the pinned-up leg of his khakis with the flat of his hand. His prosthesis, he said, rode around in the back of his truck. “It just gets in the way.”

He survived Vietnam only to come home and lose his leg from the knee down in motorcycle “foolishness.”

His prosthesis, he said, rode around in the back of his truck. “It just gets in the way.”

In a voice that was pure Tar Heel, he told me he was Melungeon, a race mixed and stirred from continents and dumped onto the Piedmont of North Carolina. Though his face looked weathered by tribulations of one sort or another, his eyes gleamed the crystalline green of coral reef water off the coast of Big Key, fathoms deep.

His first day at work, he drove up just as the sun pricked out of the trees up on the hillside, carrying his old worn spade and pruners. “They fit me,” he said.

I took him to a part of the garden being overrun with romping Campanula glomerata “Joan Elliot.” Though badly in need of digging and potting on for resale, those little beauties would have to wait for another day. Calvin’s assignment was their companions, a dozen roses in need of pruning. I started to demonstrate the proper technique, but he was ahead of me. With the instinctive touch of a man of the soil, he reached for a cane and snipped it cleanly toward an outfacing bud. I left him to it.

The sound of his old truck echoing off the valley walls woke me earlier and earlier every morning, until I stepped outside one day before dawn and—worse yet—before my first coffee to plead, “Not before 6:00!”

What breaks he took consisted of a swallow of sweet tea from a jug he kept under a nearby shade tree. For Calvin, quitting time came only after the last of his babies was in the ground, tamped down, and dosed with a good helping of manure tea. No dusk-to-dawn lights ever shone at the Herb of Grace, only stars. If they had, midnight might have found him still cussing the burdock for bullying his peonies. One of the best natural plantsmen I’d ever met, he seemed to sense—inhaling a flower’s breath, listening to its rustling leaves, his fingers tasting the soil—the needs of his botanical kingdom.

A few weeks into his time with us, the morning blustering toward noon, I watched him weave his way across the bridge from the gardens and into the potting shed, his work bucket swinging from one arm. Behind me Shirley, a volunteer who worked for plants, called from the sale benches, and I turned to walk back to the shop along a path lined with a congregation of Achillea.

“How many hours’ worth?“ she asked as I approached. Frenzied negotiations ensued.

A half-hour later, I headed back toward the potting shed. But Calvin, using the wheelbarrow for support, was hitching his way to the thatch of “Joan Elliot.“ Inside the barrow, potting soil cushioned a rack of 4-inch pots, a 3-gallon container for weeds, and his tea jug. Depositing his load under a dogwood, he turned his face to the sky. I could feel his smile a garden away. Sitting in a river of crinkled fat green buds near to bursting, he dug, potted, and watered the campanulas, stopping every now and then to tip the jug. He had gotten tired of waiting for me to get around to teasing out the bellflowers and set out to do the job himself.

I awoke one morning at the tail end of September, just as dawn was working its way along the valley floor, and made my way out to the hoop houses—my first cup of coffee in hand. Here among the pots and the bags of soil and the herbs and the roses and all the green and lovely things, I found the true jumpstart to my day. I heard a rustling from the barn as the bats bedded down. With his triple grace note, a cardinal greeted the day. The humming of bees and shushing of bluebirds also helped usher the morning in. I started watering.

Stopping to untangle two ”Betty Cornings” clematis, I heard an engine backfire. I looked up to see Calvin’s truck pulling into the drive. I glance at my watch: late for him. He stepped out onto his one leg, steadying himself as usual, one hand on the door-jamb. Then he swayed, gave up, and slid down onto the running board, his crutch clutched between his legs. Dropping the clematis onto the ground, I hurried over to see if I could help. I smelled it before I got there, the aroma of day-old whiskey seeping from his pores. You don’t get that sour mash odor from the occasional bender. This was a long time in the making—crouching horrors at midnight, waking to swales of Hell the morning after.

Depositing his load under a dogwood, he turned his face to the sky. I could feel his smile a garden away.

He worked in the shade that day, wearing sunglasses. His hands trembled as he pulled grass knotted between blades of blue flag iris. Sweating 100-proof Kentucky, he punished himself by weeding the gravel walkways. At noon, Ruby asked him if he wanted something to eat. He said he couldn’t stomach it. Later, Josie, our great Pyrenees, stretched on the hill, preparing to gather her goats and herd them home for their evening feed.

I found him behind the barn, forking compost. “Calvin, it’s after 7:00,” I said.

With a face all ashes and despair, he looked over at me. “I was late coming in.“

There were still good days, lots of them, but the bad hounded him, piling one atop the other. It was a time of heartbreak for him and for me. Then one day he failed to come to work at all. A week passed with the gardens missing him, his pinks and his roses looking pinched and forlorn.

One fog-flecked morning a week later, his wife climbed out of his old pickup. Parked in its usual space at the barn, it looked at home, but somehow lonely. Julie, sweet-faced and mannered, like her Mama taught her, tried to keep her voice from stumbling. “I come to pick up Calvin‘s check. He’s not doing too good and we got him up at the V.A. I don’t know if he’ll be back.“

She drove off then back up the mountain, carrying his check and a little extra from the register. Pressed upon her in a life already burdened, one of his cosseted “Joan Elliots“ and a young “Lavender Lassie,” his favorite rose, rode along.

I never saw her—or him—again.


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