Sweet Thyme Baby – 3

 

Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

3

(Start at the Beginning of Sweet Thyme Baby)

(Click here to read Section 2 first)

 

Dee dropped onto her bed and stared up at the skylight Con had hired a contractor to cut in the ceiling of her room under the eaves on the third floor. He had thought he was doing her a favor, which made sense given that the first thing he did every morning, before breakfast or a shower, was walk outside and spread his arms so the garden’s generous light touched every part of him, front and back. In his youth – which in Con had lasted way into his fifties – he stood naked and claimed the light made him virile. In his old age he kept his night shirt on and said the light melted the ice crust that grew in his joints at night. He had never considered that Dee might prefer a room tucked so deep in the eaves that even the orange gasps of the dying sun could not reach her.

Dee never cried, not even at times like now, when she wanted to. Love had a bite like a cobra, but she had let herself love the Ryans. When Carlotta was dying – she had gone first by a few hours – Con never budged from her bedside; and in that lilting voice that made it impossible to imagine him ever saying anything unkind, he had read aloud to her their old love letters. Dee overheard them speak of somewhere called the Summer Kingdom and of faeries and myths and how they came to the garden when it was a barren place and how it had been transformed by enchantment. It was all Irish nonsense and the innocence of it had touched Dee’s heart. She didn’t want their garden, enchanted or otherwise. She wanted them.

 

*

 

Five years earlier, she had seen the sign in the window of the nursery shop: Help Wanted: a simple, direct and open-handed request. Not experienced help, nor even the directive to inquire within. Just a request for help. A hand outstretched. And Dee, who was only half alive, needed a hand to hold onto. A week earlier and she would have been too proud. A week later, too dead. She pushed the door open with her shoulder and stepped into the shop. She let her backpack slide off her shoulders. She stood with her hands at her side while the room — pots and packages, tools, books, the smell of fertilizer that made her eyes water – turned around her as if she were the center of a May pole. She tried to follow it with her eyes, staggered back and grabbed at the window sill to keep from falling.

 

“I see you’ve come about the job, then. Finally.” The old woman at the counter beamed over half-frame glasses. “And I’m that glad.” Her laugh was clear, cool water tumbling over rocks and Dee was desert parched. She ran her tongue over her lips and the cracks in them stung. The woman stepped toward her. The air vibrated with her welcome. “Con and me, we’re neither of us a breath of springtime as you might notice. But get a little food in you and you’ll be a good strong woman. I’m that glad you’ve come!”

 

Dee folded like a garden chair. The last thing she remembered until she came-to in the bedroom under the eaves was someone — the woman, of course –calling, “Pinky! Come and help me with this poor girl.”

 

Maggie had fed her warm custard from a china cup. Pinkus took her pulse and blood pressure, and George brought roses and Gerbera daisies as big as faces and filled her room with color. Dee had wanted to die but they would not let her. And gradually her mind that she had wanted to close like a small grave, opened up and the light poured into it. She saw the bed, a miniature four poster with vines carved in the posts. And the daisy patterned bedspread. She saw the room’s steeply slanted walls, the sprigged wallpaper and the door painted green. She was delirious, falling in and out of hallucinatory dreams. She thought there was someone else in the bedroom, a lovely woman tall and thin with bosky silver hair; she thought she heard singing. Other times she imagined the green door led into a wild distraction of lilies and daisies and sweet Williams, verbena and petunias and roses, shrubs, trees, grasses graceful as wings growing from a compost of kitchen scraps and sodden coffee filters, dead leaves and grass cuttings.

 

She was delirious.

 

Sometimes she slept and did not dream at all.

 

Carlotta and Maggie had cared for her as if she mattered to them; her hallucinations stopped, and soon she was restless to see the house and earn her keep. She was a strong woman, Carlotta had spoken the truth. Though on the day they met, Dee had been not much more than bones in a sack of Levis and cotton fleece, exhausted from weeks of living on the streets of San Diego and scrounging for food when she had the will. When she came to the garden she had wanted only to be out of the world. Later she desired to be like a nun cloistered within the garden and faithful to a discipline determined by the seasons. The order imposed by the garden comforted her as did the hard physical labor: weeding, digging, hauling. She hid from the world in the woods and fields, and Con and Carlotta never asked why. They had accepted her need to be apart from people and rarely asked her to answer phones or wait on customers in the shop.

 

But now that the garden was hers. Now she was responsible for the business and would be forced to deal with people all the time. The thought of this made her skin constrict like a straight-jacket. Con and Carlotta had understood her solitary nature – or so she had thought. To oblige her now to become a public person, it was more than unkind, it was an assault from the grave. For the first time ever, she thought badly of them and then she felt ashamed of herself.

 

The phone rang. From two floors below Dee heard Victor’s voice on the answering machine. Not his words, just a noise she knew was his voice. After more than a decade, there was no mistaking it. She pulled the comforter up from the foot of the bed and huddled beneath it. When she awoke the skylight was dark, and Maggie was pounding on her door and yelling her name.

 

*

 

In recent years Ryan’s Garden Shop had twice been included in “Sunset Magazine’s” list of notable Southern California nurseries. There had been photo spreads in “Garden Design,” and Latin-laden articles in “Pacific Horticulturalist.” Once or twice a month, George or Pinkus led tours of visiting garden groups, mostly late-aged gentlemen and white haired ladies in sturdy shoes. From time to time large nurseries had offered to buy the property and transform it into a vast growing complex. The most recent of these had been Whiterose, a mail order grower from Connecticut with properties in several states.

 

Land-use schemers brought out a broad macabre humor in Con Ryan, developers who envisioned acres of townhouses perched on the sandstone cliffs. “Temporarily perched,” Con would say and giggle horribly. One entrepreneur had a scheme for condominiums and a mall designed after an Irish coastal village that would include a theater complex large enough to promote a “Cabrillo Film Festival.” That one had made Con jig Carlotta around, hooked at the elbows. “Imagine,” he cried, kicking up dust in the driveway, “a real village. Famine and rats and all!”

 

Official San Diego city documents recorded the garden as almost fifty eight acres; but locals who walked the property, took picnics there and naps by the spring house, said that was much too small an estimate. Somewhere there must have been documents going back to the original bill of sale signed by Con Ryan’s brother or uncle or grandfather. No one knew for sure who he was but he had gold dust under his fingernails. Only Walter knew where that paper was and he had not looked at it in years. If he had he would have been reminded that the stretch of land known as Ryan’s Garden extended from the dirt track later designated Ryan’s Point Road to College Avenue on the south. The eastern border was marked by the limits of the neighborhood called Cabrillo Point.

 

Cabrillo Point was the creation of Alexander Flores, an architect whose romantic vision of California came from the stories of old Mexico told by his immigrant grandfather. These were fantasies of a homesick octogenarian, but the boy had believed in his grandfather and he took the stories into his heart and made truth of them. After World War II when land was cheap and homes scarce, Alexander Flores had bought land on the Point Loma peninsula that juts out a little from the far Southwest corner of the continent. He tried to buy the garden from the old Irishman but the price he asked – one hundred billion dollars – well, that was ridiculous.

 

Around a grassy plaza the size of a city block, Flores laid out shops of adobe stone and redwood, and these he connected with walks and porches with deep overhangs so that when it was finished the whole enterprise resembled his dream of an estancia and he called this a shopping village. Beyond the shops and office spaces, on deep lots and a dozen curving streets, he built stucco bungalows with terracotta roofs and arched doors and windows framed in decorative Spanish tile.  In all he designed and built fifty houses and landscaped them with pepper trees and bougainvillea and purple jacaranda and when he finished he was dead broke.

 

Flores’ collateralized his dream with another plot of land, the family acres in Kern County – farmland suddenly worth plenty in the hungry Forties; and when they took the land from him, the bankers expressed their deep regret that he had squandered his capital on homes and hacienda shops no one wanted. But a bargain was a bargain. Flores knew they had all along expected him to fail because he was Mexican and Mexicans were no good at business so they said. One day Alexander Flores closed his office in the shopping village. He gave his creditors the slip and stepped across the border. With his belongings wrapped in a serape that had belonged to his grandfather, he walked south into Baja California and was never seen again.

 

In postwar Southern California, the pretty little houses and the shops around a square were quaint and old fashioned when modern was what people wanted. In the big familied fifties, the two bedroom bungalows gave prospective buyers – even renters – claustrophobia. On the narrow twisting streets there was no room for their schools of finned automobiles; and how could a family live in a house with one cramped bathroom, however unique its ceramic decoration? Where were the essential family rooms and double car garages? The bank unloaded the dead-end property fast.

 

In the suburb-loving Sixties, the houses in Cabrillo Point were bought as income properties and rented to hirsute young people who drove vans, planted vegetable gardens and kept golden retrievers. They were too stoned to care when the handsome tiles around the doors and windows dropped off and lay in the dirt. The roofs leaked, the window screens tore. The neighborhood languished and decayed until an architect (who had never heard of Alexander Flores and how he died in poverty in a village on the Sea of Cortez) signed a contract to design office buildings for the city. The architect and his predictably pregnant young wife were honest with their realtor; they did not have much money. But they had the nerve to be choosy anyway. Mission Hills was too far inland. La Jolla too Palm Springs. Ocean Beach was great but just too funky. In Cabrillo Point the mature trees and narrow streets without sidewalks reminded the architect and his wife of Connecticut, sort of; and they were charmed by the way Flores’ had designed each house to be a little different from its neighbors. It didn’t hurt that the jacaranda were in full purple, parading the streets like bishops.

 

They bought not one house, but one in each of half a dozen blocks. They were that cheap. The one they chose for themselves was as cramped and old- fashioned as its neighbors but this was a good thing. Necessity forced the architect to discover his true calling. He was a gifted remodeler. He gave his new home a two story addition that was modern but harmonized with the Spanish colonial design of the original. The enlarged house was spacious enough for a growing family of children, dogs, cats, hamsters and white mice, two cars and assorted etceteras like skis and skates and bicycles. It was featured on the cover of several important magazines enabling the architect and his wife to sell their investment properties for sums that would have stopped Alexander Flores’ heart. The architect quit his job with the city and made a bundle remodeling Cabrillo Point for the baby boomer decades.

 

Meanwhile, the architect’s wife went to law school and established her office – tax was her specialty – in the shopping village. A dentist moved in next door and next to him an accountant whose husband was a potter famous for his glazes. A smart dress shop was installed and then a small and expensive gift store whose owners were more concerned with exclusivity than heavy traffic. A pair of houses facing the square were remodeled by Guess Who and turned into an expensive inn. In the late seventies there were BMWs in the driveways and the Mercedes coupes and Volvo station wagons could barely pass each other along the narrow streets with names like Via Ranchita and Caminito de los Arboles. Every year the shops around the square became more “interesting,” and by the early eighties Cabrillo Point had become a destination, not merely a place to stop on the way out to the monument or the National Cemetery. String ensembles played on the plaza green; there were house tours and fundraising bazaars. Tourists browsed and bought in the French Linen Shop, Bears on the Square, and Seventh Heaven – a shop catering to petite fashions which most of the tennis playing, running, swimming and aerobicizing women in Cabrillo Point were. There was a hair salon called Beloved and a coffee café called Dante’s, a bookstore, two interior decorators, a pharmacy, a pricey Italian restaurant, a vintner’s and, on the corner of Via Jacaranda next to Dante’s, a gourmet market called Greens.

 

And there was the garden, of course.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

 

Click here to read Part 4 of Sweet Thyme Baby

 

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