A Rose Garden
A branch of thorns with a single leaf bud was all that identified the dark soil patch at the front of the house as a rose garden. Large, earth-toned bricks lay in piles on the lawn, temporarily browning the indomitable Kentucky bluegrass beneath them. Elsa glanced up at the balcony above the garage. “When do you think you’ll work on the rose garden?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Flora answered, and then stretched out her legs elegantly on the lounger. Her dark sunglasses disappeared inside the rim of her mug as she took a sip. She reminded Elsa of a Hollywood star, in the new cherry-patterned summer dress that she’d recently ordered online. Elsa worried about Flora’s sudden interest in online shopping. The summer job that Flora had been hired for might not materialize. Though, Elsa hadn’t discouraged Flora’s purchasing, just yet. She didn’t want the children to be more alarmed than they already were. Wyatt, Flora’s boyfriend, tossed his shaggy blonde mane to the side and took a swig from his mug. He was still in pajama pants, his hair long, after months of remaining uncut in quarantine.
“All you have to do is level the first row of bricks, I’ll do the rest.” After receiving no response from the balcony, Elsa added, “I’m going to take Leroy for a walk. There are two sets of garden gloves in the garage, on the shelf beside the freezer.”
Leroy required double harnessing. Elsa attached one lead to his leather neck collar and then another to the harness around his chest, which, in theory, was to keep him from pulling on the lead. Oscar, was in the kitchen, filling a water bottle. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“My friends are going biking, they want to know if I can go.”
“Where are you meeting?”
“At Will’s.” Oscar shut off the water and turned toward his mother. Elsa unconsciously scrunched her brow. “Outside, in his driveway,” he added.
“Remember to social distance. Six feet apart at all times, no sharing drinks or snacks.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said as he screwed on the water bottle’s lid.
“Yes, I’ll social distance, okay?”
Elsa studied his thirteen-year-old face: large eyes, peeking from behind long, dark bangs—that he refused to let her trim—reminding her of the little boy who used to like biking the trails with her not so long ago. “Okay…did you have breakfast?”
“No. I’m not hungry I’ll eat when I get back,” he said, as he thumped down the stairs that led to the garage.
“Be safe. Bring some hand-sani—and wear your helmet!” she shouted.
Leroy and Elsa entered the forest through the yard’s back gate, slipping through spikey Oregon grape leaves and then prickly thorns from the wild rose bushes that crowded the narrow dirt path. It was later than she liked to walk Leroy. She preferred to get up and outside with him no later than seven, to avoid other hikers and their off-leash dogs. Though ever since the pandemic, she’d be unable to rise with the six AM alarm and recently hadn’t bothered to set it at all. Up ahead, on the trail, she spotted a hiker with an off lead dog. “Excuse me, can you put your dog on leash?” she shouted in an encouraging voice, the one she used on students who had a problem with authority.
“She’s friendly,” he shouted back.
Elsa stopped and told Leroy to sit. “My guy’s aggressive. He’ll view an off lead dog coming towards him as a threat.”
The man made no attempt to leash the dog. “She’s okay,” he said.
Leroy’s spine bristled. Elsa picked up the thirty-five-pound dog and stepped from the trail as the man passed. The border collie trotted off the path toward Elsa. Leroy squirmed. He was solid muscle. Elsa held him firmly. The man held his gaze as he passed by as if daring Elsa to speak. Elsa didn’t even bother reminding the man that it was illegal to have unleashed dogs in the park. She knew aggression. Leroy’s breed had been bred for pit fighting; although Leroy was born into a house of affection, and trained to be a lover, he was a fighter. A thousand dollars, and weeks of specialized training…and Leroy was Leroy. Leroy loved humans and hated other dogs. The money wasn’t wasted though, Elsa had been trained too—she learned how to deal with aggressives—dog and human.
They headed up the hill, weaving through pine and fir trees, and along craggy rock cliffs, towards the mountain top and then over to the other side, toward a tree that was visually startling in size and colour, with deeply grooved bark striped brilliant sienna and black. The tree had an imperial quality to it, towering meters above the other trees; its base so thick, Elsa’s arms remained ruler-straight as she embraced the trunk and then put her nose into a groove and inhaled. The fragrant bark smelled of warmed vanilla beans. She sat at the tree’s base, on long, rust-colored pine needles, and leaned her spine against its massive trunk. The pine was ancient. One of only a few old-growth trees remaining on the mountain, and Rosa—as Elsa called her—was the oldest of them all. Who knew why Rosa had been spared the loggers saw. She’d been on the mountain longer than Europeans had been in the West. The Catholic mission—the first Europeans to step foot in the region—was established in 1858. By that time, Rosa was over 200 years old. Leroy sniffed Rosa’s base and then sat down beside Elsa. Rosa’s base was black, proof of her strength: her naturally fire-retardant bark had withstood the many natural forest fires that had ravaged the mountain in her lifetime.
It was late April and already the grasses were turning gold, and the sun’s rays hot enough to fill the air with the delicious scent of toasty pine needles and subtly sweet ponderosa bark. Elsa placed her hand on Leroy’s back. He laid his head on her bare leg. “You are a lover,” she said and then bent to kiss the top of his smooth head. He sat still and subdued as Elsa took in the lake view and scanned the forest for potential threats: deer, coyote, or human. She closed her eyes for a short morning meditation. The heaviness of life left her for a few moments. A raven cawed and then she heard the swoop-swoop of its wings as it flew near the tree. Elsa opened the thermos and took a swig of iced tea.
The rose garden remained as she’d left it. Flora was in the kitchen, pouring a bag of kettle chips into a bowl. “Is that your breakfast?” Elsa asked as she unstrapped Leroy from his harness.
“Brunch,” Flora answered and then headed down the hall towards her bedroom.
“When do you think you and Wyatt will finish the first row of bricks?”
“We’ll do it when we do it,” Flora said, her voice rising and falling with annoyance and slight caution.
It was the caution that kept Elsa calm in her response. “What does that mean?”
“Wyatt’s online. His exam started at ten.”
“When’s your next exam? Do you have one today?”
“Yeah—not until three,” Flora said and then turned down the hall and walked toward her bedroom.
The pots and pans from last night’s supper sat in a pile beside the sink. Elsa opened the dishwasher and took out a steaming-hot, clean mug. Someone, probably Hugo, had shoved all last night’s dirty supper dishes into the dishwasher this morning and turned it on. Hugo would rather tidy the kitchen in the morning—by himself—than supervise the children begrudgingly cleaning a post-supper kitchen. Elsa had been too exhausted to argue with Hugo. She’d spent the entire late-afternoon in the kitchen making cabbage rolls—that Flora and Oscar refused to eat and instead, filled themselves with the mashed potatoes. Wyatt had eaten the cabbage rolls and even had seconds. For his short-comings as a guest, at least he appreciated her cooking efforts.
Elsa filled the kettle with water and then selected a tea bag from her cupboard stash and popped it into the empty mug. She sat on a stool at the kitchen island and waited for the water to boil. It was hard to keep up with everyone’s schedules. The house had become an online university campus, a middle school, and Elsa’s High School councilor’s office. Though so far, her teenage clients’ concerns focused on graduation credits, and even those online meetings were becoming few and far between.
Leroy ran out the partially-open patio door and onto the deck. His tail shook vigorously and he yelped in excitement. Oscar was returning from the bike ride. Elsa completely forgot to check if he had school today. Sink or swim, she thought. She was aware of how pathetic her efforts were at policing the kids’ online studies. Since COVID hit, it was all she could do to keep the house semi-clean and stocked with basic groceries. Leroy trotted inside and noisily lapped up water from his dish. “Did anyone feed Leroy this morning?” she shouted and then regretted it—Wyatt was writing a first-year Engineering exam. Leroy’s ears stood tall, his eyes penetrating Elsa’s. “I swear you understand the entire English language,” she said to him. He looked thin in the area just under his ribs. After a meal, his belly was usually more rounded. Elsa dropped a scoop of kibble in his aluminum dish. “Just in case we forgot your breakfast,” she said.
“Where’s Dad?” Oscar said as he ascended the stairs. Leroy ran to the top of his stairs, his bottom swayed as fast as his tail. Oscar patted his head, and then Leroy darted back to his food.
“At the university—why?”
“I thought it was closed.”
“It is. That’s why he’s there. There’s no one else around—did you have fun? What did the fab-four get up to?”
“I nearly wiped out, coming down a hill that I’d never been on before. It was so steep…but I jumped off my bike before it crashed.”
“Did you hurt yourself?”
“No. I jumped right off into a standing position. Isn’t that great?”
“Did you social distance the entire time?”
Oscar’s gaze fell to the ceramic tile floor. “Yeah.”
“What about the other guys, did they social distance?”
Elsa felt the turn in his demeanor. He walked with heavy feet down the hall, towards his bedroom. “What about your friends, did they wipe out on the hill?”
Oscar stopped. Lockdown had only increased Oscar’s thirst for adventure and, as a sensitive soul, Elsa knew that talking about the adventures, once they were over, was his favourite part. Oscar turned to face his mother. His eyes were wide with excitement. “Only James. He got a mouth full of blood—but he’s okay.”
“Are you sure he’s okay, did you guys check him over?”
“No! He said it was cool—he broke a tooth though.”
“Well, that’s not cool. Was he upset—did he cry?”
“I guess—a little.”
“Did he go home, do his parents know? Is there someone to look after him?”
“His mom’s a doctor, Mom. I think he’s gonna be okay.”
Elsa nodded. Sometimes she had to remind herself that she wasn’t at work. Not every child’s health issue was her burden to bear. “What did you want Dad for?”
“I need help getting my chain back on.”
“I can help you,” Elsa said, realizing there was probably more to his bike acrobatics than he was admitting.
Elsa’s feet danced a slow salsa in front of the wall-length dining room mirror, as one hand adjusted her lap top on the sideboard.
The garage door ground slowly open. Heavy feet walked up the stairs. “Online Zumba?” Hugo asked. His computer bag was slung across his shoulders, and he was holding an empty Pyrex dish, that contained remnants of last night’s cabbage rolls.
“Yup, starts in eight minutes.”
“Where’s Flora?” he asked.
“Out with Wyatt, why?”
“I printed out the sheets she sent me,” he said as slipped a manila folder from his computer case and placed it on the granite counter. “Where’d they go?”
“Walking Leroy, downtown.”
“Is that safe?”
“They’re outside. They like to walk along the boardwalk by the lake. They’re 19, it’s the closest thing they can find to socialization—was there anyone at the university?”
“I literally saw no one—I didn’t touch anything until I entered my office.”
“How is that possible? Did you wear gloves?”
“No.” Hugo’s face lit up with excitement. Like his son, he enjoyed talking about adventure. Though, Hugo’s idea of adventure and Elsa’s differed; she doubted the story would satisfy her interest. She’d been disappointed many times before, not sharing his excitement for things that Elsa found ordinary and predictable. His goofy smile was not going anywhere.
“Okay, how’d you do it?”
“I held the fob above the port and then used my knee to hit the door button.” Hugo demonstrated in pantomime, leaning forward to scan his imaginary fob and then swinging his knee up. “I used my hip to open the handle to the staircase—and then again to exit the stairs.” Hugo swung hips from side to side abruptly. “Then, I used the fob and my knee to get into the office.” His movements were a dance, his energy captivating. Elsa held her face neutral. This was the greatest story Hugo had ever told. She was not going to let the moment pass by too quickly.
“Show me again, how you did it? It’s fascinating,” she said, with skillfully muted excitement.
Hugo launched into the dance once again, this time it was smoother, without breaks between each step. His knee raised and lowered gracefully, followed by a sexy hip swivel and then abrupt hip bumps. Elsa’s smile escaped. Hugo stopped. His face fell. “You’re making fun of me,” he said.
“No, I love it. Seriously, it’s the best thing that’s come out of COVID—I think you just invented the COVID jig. Do it again, please.” Then she shouted, “Oscar, get your phone and film this—it will go viral!”
Hugo shook his head and then walked down the hall to the master bedroom, where he would stay, watching the news or streaming a movie on his laptop, until Elsa demanded that he emerge and join the family in supper preparation.
© Mix Hart 2020