Twilight Cactus             


Judith Nakken 


© Copyright 20011 by Judith Nakken    


Photo of a night blooming cereus flower.

“You’ve been trying to fix me up with Greenhouse Glenn since I was a senior,” her only child spat. “If you need plant food, run next door and get it yourself!” Newly divorced, Leigh and two little girls moved back to the Northwest ten long weeks ago. Her mother’s house was now small and disorderly and Edith was ashamed at her delight as they dropped clothes and toys indiscriminately into grocery boxes. Leigh’s rental home was ready.

“When I was here with Grandma that summer, all he could talk about was grafting pears and peaches onto their apple tree. Not my type, Mom!” The younger woman elongated the hole in the heel of a tiny red sock and tossed it into a wastebasket. Edith bit her tongue and did not remark about the type Leigh had chosen.

Glenn was a nurseryman, formerly the skinny kid next door. He graduated from college the year Edith married Walt, the only father then eleven-year-old Leigh ever knew, and turned his horticulture degree and part-time business into a thriving full-time career on his folks’ home place. Edith, Walt and Leigh visited Mama often in the years that followed and in the spring always went next door for flats of annual flowers. Glenn’s elderly, taciturn parents pointed and made change, but it was he who answered questions.

Glenn was shy, animated only when talking about growing things. “This guy,” his baritone whispered as his long hands caressed a plant, “This guy wants only morning sun. (Or very little water, or withered leaves removed.) Remember that, and he’ll be happy at your house.” Edith remembered, and Glenn’s plants were always content. She liked him.

He was quiet and loving with his parents, fine neighbors according to Edith’s mother. Before his death, Mr. Shelton appeared occasionally at eventide with a half-peck of apples or some fine pears from Glenn’s grafted tree. She reciprocated with homemade ice cream or holiday cookies, but they were never inside one another’s homes. “Best kind of neighbors,” her mother twinkled.

Oh, how she missed her these six months; Mama had been Edith’s rock in the two years since Walt’s death. Glenn and his fragile mother attended the funeral and Mrs. Shelton was gone a few days later. Edith took a meat loaf and an upside-down cake next door and spoke briefly to Glenn and a much-older sister she didn’t know existed. When she slipped back through the hedge to the empty house that was now her home, she felt doubly alone.

You could have done a lot worse,” was all she responded now, as Leigh filled the last carton. “Glenn’s a fine man.” Her daughter sniffed and shrugged and hoisted the box to join the others in her minivan. By mid-afternoon the little family was loaded and gone. Edith spent the rest of the quiet July day in neglected flowerbeds, most of them planted that spring under Glenn’s tutelage.

Four-inch weeds were flying from the corner of the house and freeing the soil around resplendent purple coneflowers when his face appeared over the high fence between their properties. “Hey, Edith,” he began.

“Oh, Glenn, I was just thinking about when you sold me on this flower bed. Aren’t they magnificent?”

A smile split his long face, made it nearly handsome. “They are just that! Too shaggy for most people, though. Others just want them because they’re Echinacea. You know, medicinal.”

Edith had never heard him talk this long without a plant in his hand. She was staring when he stammered to a stop and made his point. “Those guys over in the shady corner?” Glenn pointed to the bed of hosta under the sumac. “They’ve got company. Slugs. See those little holes in the lower leaves? Hosta is just about the slug’s favorite food. They can eat those to the ground in a couple of weeks.”

“Oh, no!” She moaned in disgust. “What shall I do?”

“C’mon over real soon. I’ve got some environmentally safe slug bait that really works.” He slid back down the fence and was gone.

Edith stared at that spot on the aged redwood for a long time. She had used his every suggestion and he’d been in this back yard a half dozen times since spring, designing personal flower beds to help make it her own. Like his parents before him, he’d never been in the house although he did sip a soda with her and the little girls one warm spring afternoon. I wonder if he’s lonely, she thought at the fence, and turned to finish weeding the Echinacea.

Leigh was busy with her new job and didn’t visit often. When she did, Edith didn’t mention Glenn again, for her spirited girl was already interested in a man at work. Autumn threatened, the flowerbeds began to fade and the leaves on her mother’s ornamental fig tree curled and dropped to the tile in the entry hall. Glenn said he could come over in an hour. She brushed her frosty hair and dabbed at lip gloss.

“So glad you make house calls!” He smelled of the shower instead of his usual peat moss and earth, and his damp, russet hair curled away from the comb marks on the back of his head when he bent to the pot in the hallway. “Mama loved this little tree, and I’d be devastated if it died.”

“We won’t let it die, Edith.” His deep voice was quiet, soothing as he investigated the fig tree’s molting leaves.

“Look, can you see this?” He turned up a leaf. “Spider mites. I thought it might be so, and I brought this…” He was still cataloguing all the plants endangered by the little beasties when he found himself in her kitchen nook, drinking tea while waiting to put a second coating of his homemade foam on the sick tree.

Edith made conversation about her garden. He sipped and watched her talk. Their eyes met once, and in his was a sweet kinship. She was disconcerted and bustled to the teapot, chattering.

“I thought I’d have you over for a meal, Glenn. Maybe invite Leigh. Could you use a home-cooked meal next week sometime?”

His shrug was helpless as he stood, handed over his mug and went to his patient without answering. She was there as he finished the second dousing, crooning to the little tree. “You get well, now, hear?”

He was at the door, and still Edith was silent. She finally found her manners, extended a hand.

“Thanks, Glenn. You’re a good neighbor - and friend.”

He filled the open doorway, his back to the evening, and enfolded her hand in his two. His smile was wide and guileless and he had no struggle with the words. “Edith, do you know I am nearly thirty-five? And I have never been interested in Leigh.” Then he was gone. Her hand tingled.

She was critical in front of the full-length mirror when she stepped from the shower that night. Maybe a little hippy, she decided, but nothing sags and it’s darn good for forty-four. What is age, anyway?

Edith put a highlight rinse on her hair the next day, and in the days that followed her back yard flowerbeds became pristine and weed-free. She gardened with one eye on the fence, but Glenn didn’t appear. She was torn between manufacturing an excuse to go next door and forgetting the whole darn thing when he appeared at her door at first dark.

“Do you like cactus, Edith?” He quizzed through the screen door, remaining on the stoop when she opened it.

“Well, yes, Glenn, but…” she gestured expansively, “where would I put some?”

“Oh, yeah, right…” he mumbled and turned to the hedge.

There’s more, said a voice in her ear. Stop him.

She called to his retreating back. “Glenn? Glenn, did you have a cactus you wanted me to see?”

He fairly loped back. The words tumbled out. “It’s a night-blooming Cereus, and it’s about to open. It just blooms this one night,” and she found herself following him to the greenhouse that housed his mother plants.

Primal odor and the alien feel of Glenn’s propagation plants assaulted her senses; lumpy, hanging monsters and living stalagmites erupted in the saucer-shaped room. Then she saw the Cereus, experienced its birth.

It was a single bloom in a thousand colors of ecru, its ten-inch trumpet radiant against ugly, twisted branches in hanging clay. Her heart leaped at its unspeakable beauty; she was mute as it unfolded its full glory to them. He had to share this with someone he cared for, said the voice, and her hand met his in the narrowing chasm between their bodies.

Was it minutes or hours when he spoke? “I have tea. We can see it once more before it fades.” His strong arm guided her from his first and greatest gift, around the apple-peach-pear tree and into the rest of his life.

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