Today, author Erik Gustafson offers up a tantalizing sneak peek at one of his stories.
He sets the stage thusly: “Conscious Eggplants…Razor sharp onion stalks…Killer carrots…Envious tomatoes…Jealous angry vines…is brotherly love stronger than the sick love of a demonic garden? Two brothers are about to find out how strong love can be. You have never seen a garden like this.”
Salad bar anyone?
My Lover, My Garden
By Erik Gustafson
For years, the memory of growing up in my hometown in southern Iowa had been alive only in my nightmares, thankfully forgotten at sunrise. Until one day, browsing through the morning paper, an ominous paragraph and a familiar photograph sent those ugly memories surging back onto the front page of my conscious. Frank Berret, my brother, was officially dead.
Unable to control my emotions, I bolted to my Notebook and began to pound away at the keys: people had to know what really happened to my brother.
You see, I alone knew Frank had actually been dead for over a decade.
Within moments of reading his obituary, the memories were once again fresh and vivid. The memories were from a surreal sequence of events that happened the summer after I graduated from high school, shortly after I moved in with my brother.
I had planned to join the Army and see the world but my older brother’s house was as far as I got. I arrived desperate for excitement and freedom as any eighteen-year-old man should. I just wanted to be on my own and have my shot at being an adult.
I stepped out of a yellow cab that smelled of sweat and breathed in the hot summer air. I stared up at my brother’s huge, Victorian-style mansion that sat at the top of a long grassy hill. The house looked like a top hat resting on a hairy head.
“Eh, its eight bucks, kid!”
I turned back at the cabbie and grinned. “Oh yeah. Sorry.” I pulled a crumpled ten out of my pocket and shoved it through the window. He stared at the ten in his hand and then drove off. I guess he assumed he could keep the change.
Growing up, our strange, quiet uncle owned the mansion. My brother and I grew up less than a mile down the road from this massive dwelling but my parents rarely allowed us to visit. My dad had some wild tale when we were growing up of how the mansion sat on “unstable ground” and it scared them. We never knew what that actually meant but I never questioned his reasons.
As a teenager, however, Frank secretly found his livelihood up there. He snuck up before school, after school, and even on weekends. You see, although Frank was a successful runner on the track team and was an editor for the high school paper, he never got what he desperately wanted: a girlfriend He was always socially awkward. He never had a girlfriend during high school as far as I ever knew. The shame of not dating may be the only reasonable explanation for why he hid out at our uncle’s mansion.
Frank did not play in the manor while he was there. The lush garden behind the vine-covered walls of the mansion is what captivated Frank’s time. My uncle taught him the skills to be master gardener over the years. Together they planted peas, green beans, tomatoes, corn, potatoes and still more innocent crops. Frank learned about watering and weeding, combating pests and preparing the soil. Learning, befriending.
He loved that garden, and it somehow loved him back.
This relationship between my brother and my uncle caused quite a few fights at home. Frank visited my uncle in secret but my dad found out about half the time anyway. My dad hated my uncle over the last few years of his life, and Frank’s obsession with spending so much time with someone my dad hated so much, only served to make that relationship worse.
Tragically, our uncle died of a heart attack at the early age of forty-two, when Frank was twenty. And guess what happened? Frank inherited everything. My dad said he didn’t care.
I graduated from high school a mere two growing seasons after the shocking reading of my uncle’s will then chased after Frank to his mysterious, private kingdom.
The home was located, as I mentioned, at the top of a grassy hill. A six-acre plot surrounded the home. By the time I arrived, a wild garden had overrun most of the land. Vegetation was everywhere: an unstoppable variety garden, a wild vegetable web.
When the taxi dropped me off at the base of all this mess (we couldn’t find the driveway), I stood at the bottom of what my mind was describing as a “vegetable hell” and wondered if I should signed up for the Army instead.
As I looked up the hill, I saw a barrier of tall green corn stalks with wavy yellow tassels. Peeking out underneath the flourishing corn and running up the hill were bright red strawberries. I saw thick cords of pumpkins and squash curling around the yard and could see huge orange pumpkins that dotted the landscape. I could make out the little white flowers that I knew would someday turn into peas.
I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing.
The sloping hill I was staring at in disbelief was once, the few times my dad permitted us to visit, the occasional gathering place for extended family to enjoy fireworks.
Clear up against the house was another protective row of thick, wild tomato plants. Crawling up the walls of the house itself were huge tangles of grapes.
I had no idea what I was getting into.
I had an urge to race after the cab and go back home.
The garden had become a hellish labyrinth of vines and growth, its brilliant, healthy rows swishing noisily in the gentle wind. I wasn’t sure if there was any wind and that worried me.
The confusing maze before me was one that I could imagine only Frank knew the way through. There were no paths or spaces between the rows. What the hell, brother? I mumbled.
I began to forge my way up the garden. It was a battle to trample and step my way up the hill without damaging any fruit. I don’t know why I was being so careful.
Breathing heavily, I made it to the front door. I felt my mouth drop open and my eyes widened at what I was looking at. A plump clump of purple grapes hung directly over the doorbell. Green grape vines twisted and swirled like decorative art across the door. I would need a machete to get that door open.
I made my way around the house to the side door. Passing through a cluster of bulging purple eggplants that were so bright they seemed to be blushing, I rounded the corner of the house and the massive garden seemed to be everywhere. The sight overwhelmed me. I knew there was a tennis court out there somewhere but I couldn’t even see the fence let alone the court.
Personally, I believed my brother had no use for the tennis court so why waste the space?
His garden, on the other hand, was his growing child and it needed room to play. It demanded the space the court took up. The court was gone, overrun and buried just as Mother Nature overtakes an ancient forgotten building. Strawberry roots now play tennis. Compared to gardening, tennis was child’s play.
There is a story about his tennis court perpetuated by some local children. They claimed to have seen my tall brother out back with his faded blue jeans on, laughing hysterically and bouncing bright yellow tennis balls a couple of times and finally hitting them into a vast strawberry patch. After the balls were gone, he hurled the rackets themselves into the dark garden. The frightened children ended their tale by whispering this last part. When he threw the rackets, he shouted, with this crazy grin: ‘Here ya go kiddos! Enjoy!’ The kids never laugh when they tell that story.
People he worked with claimed that Frank, the star runner, was putting on a lot of weigh in the final weeks before he simply up and quit his job as a sports journalist for the local newspaper, “The Rosette.” This bizarre move left our small town baffled and gossiping.
It wasn’t as if he had found a better job or moved to another city. To put it in his own words, when my dad called him to find out what exactly he was thinking, he said he wanted more time to devote to his garden with all the demands his editors placed on him: deadlines, running down boring leads and other burdensome tasks, was why he resigned.
The letter of resignation that he left his supervisor simply stated, in scrawling cursive rather than typed, that he had found his destiny and it wasn’t covering sport events. That was when we lost nearly all contact with my brother.
His desire to both tend to and eat his product had grown like a mutated virus; so many juicy, succulent veggies. It was a beautiful garden too, everything always ripe and bright and tender. When I say always, I am not exaggerating much: up on this hill there was two seasons: winter and harvest. Maintaining his garden and eating his bounty, he quickly discovered, was far more rewarding than writing stories. His passion found him shucking corn from May until the end of November. I don’t know when or how he planted that corn he harvested in May and I didn’t want to know.
In the winter, I would find out later, he was growing carrots, green beans and other smaller stuff in rows in the basement. It was as if the Jolly Green Giant god had cast a green spell across his property.
Frank was starting to eat so much that he was continuing to put on weight, so I was told. He sometimes gained as much as ten pounds a month. It stalled the brain because everything he ate consisted of produce he had grown. How does one gain weight eating only vegetables and fruit? Frank told my mom it was healthy weight.
“No meats, no sweets,” Frank liked to boast.
He drank water and churned his fruits and vegetable into delicious drinks.
Often he skipped his shower. How silly such a notion must sound, but he explained that he couldn’t “be greedy” and hog the water for himself. Besides, gardening was long, hard work and there was so much to do out there in the rows he often just forgot to shower. He would prefer walking around with a few inches of crud under his arms than have his plants lack his delicate attention and nourishment.
He even slept in his garden most nights.
To Frank, the garden quickly became his mom, his friend, and his lover.
So I stood at the door along the side of the house, thinking of all these bizarre things I had heard about my brother and finally tapped on the sliding glass door. As I waited, I looked around the large wooden porch that my dad and uncle built years ago and it was covered with potted herbs. After a few moments my overweight brother appeared. He was wearing blue jean coveralls and a dirty white t-shirt under that. His hair was jet black and wild. He was sporting an equally wild black beard.
“Greetings brother!” he exclaimed as he slid the door open. “What a surprise!” and put his hand up to his mouth. I realized he had a half eaten tomato in his hand and the juices raced down his arm. “Are you hungry?” his voice was high and squeaky.
That was the first question my brother had for me. He didn’t inquire as to why I was knocking on his door or how I had been. He just wanted to know if I was hungry.
“Hi Frank,” I watched the red juice drip off his elbow. “Not really. I just need a place to stay for awhile.”
“Oh yeah! Eighteen now huh? Sorry I didn’t mail you a card.” He motioned for me to come in as he held the tomato in his mouth so he could slide the door shut.
We were in his dark kitchen. The counters were littered with mason jars. The sink was full of the jars. There was a cardboard table in the center with bowls of assorted veggies covering it. “Help yourself, brother!” he fanned his hand over his bounty.
After grabbing a stalk of celery himself, he walked me up two flights of stairs to show me what room I could have. It was on the third floor and clear at the end of a shadowy hallway. “It will be dark, the generator don’t go all the way up here.”
“Electricity is for losers!” he laughed and struck me hard on the back.
“What’s wrong with all the rooms downstairs?”
“They got stuff in ‘em.” The dimly lit walls of the hallway seemed to absorb his abrupt statement.