All morning, in between taking calls and greeting clients, Kat desperately wanted a cigarette. Meeting up with Dev for lunch had her decidedly on edge. Ages since whenever the last time. She didn’t get much sleep from thinking about it. Or him, rather—one scenario after another. There wasn’t a whole lot of talking. He mostly just gave her longing looks. And smiled. Loads of smiling. Like he always did. She kept hoping maybe he’d surprise her. With something other than smiles. But she was too close to being awake for anything crazy to happen. And now she didn’t know what to think other than maybe she should’ve had something a little more substantial for breakfast. Butterflies and coffee weren’t so compatible.
It was almost noon. Dev would be here soon. She hadn’t taken her morning break yet. Thought a hot cup of lemon water might be a good idea to settle her nerves some. She went to the staffroom. Sunlight streamed in the windows. Looked a gorgeous day out there. It had been so gloomy of late. Dirty roads, wretched skies, and no snow to speak of. If it weren’t for the incessancy of the radio it would be pretty hard to know Christmas was less than a week away.
Kat set the kettle and stepped over to the nearest window. She saw the old man down there in his small back yard sitting in his lawnchair with arms firmly crossed and that weathered wisdom only deep wrinkles can project. He was dressed for winter—mittens, scarf, puffy bomber. But nothing extra on his head. Seeing that flown away head of hair cheered her up like a chance run-in with a long ago friend. All this weird weather, she’d almost forgotten about him. Johnson. She smiled. Stan Johnson.
She remembered the day Johnson brought the lawnchairs from the garage. The folding kind. Both horizontally striped. One blue and white, one green and white. Each under an arm he shuffled up the walk and unfolded them by the back door. He took some pains to position them so that while they faced the garden, they were also slightly angled toward one another. Then he went into the house. Nothing much. But it grounded her some that day, gave her something to think about—other than how out of place she felt.
It was the week she started. As a temp. Back in the summer. Before the shit with fucknuts went down. Among all the procedures and inter-office relations she had yet to get a handle on, Johnson was a cinch. He was something of a third floor curiosity, a novelty, for the other girls in the office. Old Man this, Old Man that. The giggles never seemed to cease. Kat didn’t see what all the fuss was about. He just looked a lonely old man sweeping his days away. That’s about all he ever seemed to do: sweep sweep sweep. Stopping every now and again to look up at the sky. And mutter. Always muttering—the girls would stand at the windows and wonder what. Broom in hand he appeared to be cursing, making accusations against the infernal sky.
The lawnchairs added a new dimension to the game of watching the cranky old man. For the first few days he avoided the chairs. Then one day the next week Kat saw him standing before them, hands cupped over the handle end of his upright broom, face against hands like a collapsed prayer. Eventually, he broke his pose and sat. In the green chair. Clutching the broom with both hands, holding it across his knees. He looked tense. As if uncertain it would take his weight. She watched him get back up, look up at the sky, and try the blue chair. Tentatively, he eased himself back into it. Over the next minute or so she watched as he slowly allowed himself to relax enough to let the broom drop from his hands.
From that day on Kat was an avid, if less vocal, member of the old man’s fanclub. His shuffling, curmudgeonly ways too much to resist. She took it upon herself to find out his name. Walked straight up to his front door. Opened his mailbox. Pulled out envelopes. There it was. Mr. Stan Johnson. She snapped a picture to show the girls. Such a simple exercise. Yet what a long way it went to establishing her status within the futzy hierarchy of the office.
The kettle popped. Kat stepped back to the counter, poured hot water over pre-cut lemon slices. Her arm itched. She pulled up the sleeve of her sweater, revealing a good set of healing cat scratches. From the other night. Her phone rang. She didn’t know the number. Let it go to voicemail. When she listened to the message, heard Dev’s voice, so out of the blue, she screamed. Scrumps went ballistic. Took forever to coax her out from under the bed.
It was silly but she was so happy to hear his voice. She saved the message. Replayed it a few times. She could hear him now. Saying he was in town for a couple days. Visiting friends before heading off to spend Christmas with his family. Would love to see her etc. He sounded in such good spirits, rambling on as if the only thing that mattered was using up as much time as possible.
When she called him back he said something along the lines of his day being lit up. Of course he’d had a few by then. He was at a bar. With mutual friends. He invited her out. She wanted to say yes but hedged her bets. It was after 10. She was prepping for bed. Besides, she still didn’t quite feel up to being sociable. Not with that crew. Good folk, just too many reminders of how things used to be.
As she had plans for the next night (last night) and he was leaving late the following day (today) they agreed on lunch. Not optimal. But it would have to do.
What was it going to be like seeing him? She couldn’t remember the last time they actually saw one another. A year ago? Two? There was so much to talk about she wasn’t sure what to say. It had been such a trying fall. And she was really just beginning to get the hang of things again. Being herself was hard to do. But getting easier. Day to day.
She caught herself chewing at her lip ring. Damn that nicotine. She made a long face, took a deep breath, and absently checked out what she could dimly see of herself on the glass of the microwave. Was her hair all right? Should she put on some eye shadow? Lipstick? Was her skirt okay? What about the sweater? Too tight? Seemed such a facile concern. And what the hell was she so nervous about anyway? It’s not like it was a date or anything. Right? Her skin felt cold. Right? She would start nibbling her nails if this kept up.
Back at the window, cup in hands, she looked down at Stan Johnson. Completely at peace. Arms on the armrests, mittened hands dangling passively off the ends. Legs fully stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Big unlaced winter boots. Head off to a side. Hair dangling. Eyes closed. Mouth open.
Kat surveyed the yard. Off the house a patio of concrete and pavers ran about a third of the way back to where the garage and garden, divided by a narrow path of pavers, split the rest of the yard.
The girls told her that prior to this summer it had been an overgrown eyesore since the company moved their offices here, two or three years prior. They’d never seen Johnson. Then, not long before Kat was brought on board, everything green was cut back and removed. The small yard opened up. And out came Johnson. To sweep and look up at the sky and mutter—and, as the summer wound on, sit in the blue lawnchair.
Kat recalled the women who took care of the garden. One older, as in grey-haired, the other much younger. They came by once or twice a week. Together to begin with. Then later only the younger one.
The older woman wore a wide-brimmed sunhat and logging shirts. Whenever Kat saw her she always seemed to be bent to task. Preparing the soil, arranging and planting the plants, placing the wood path that marked a cross in the dark soil of the garden. The younger woman wore a ballcap and had a long blonde ponytail. She took care of the watering and the heavier jobs. And also, now that Kat was thinking about it, left vases of cut flowers by the back door—even into the fall, well after the flowers in the garden had finished blooming.
Johnson rarely made an appearance while the gardening gals were around. But once they were gone he’d come out and go through his routine. And if there were flowers by the back door it almost looked like he might just be smiling.
Week after week, Kat had watched on as the garden took shape. Like timelapsed snapshots. From nothing but bare soil to a generous bounty of controlled greenery. She imagined viewing the transformation—of Johnson and his garden—was somehow instrumental in her ability to weather the emotional tempest that had ransacked her own life. Coming to work forced her out of the world as she knew it collapsing around her. And seeing Johnson, whether sweeping or sitting in his lawnchair, was like witnessing what seemed to her to be the very spirit of hope.
Light at the end of a dark tunnel.
Kat heard her name being called. She turned. Tamara, the receptionist, poking her head in the open door.
“There’s a Devin here to see you?”