t first, it was all about the front yard.
That was the part of their corner lot that was so obviously scenic. Spreading out westward from the house, it stayed level for about twenty yards before sloping down thirty feet to Sumac Street.
Beyond Sumac the land dipped more gradually to the thin screen of cottonwoods that bordered Bluegill Pond, the third-biggest
in suburban Livia. The gap in the terrain created by Bluegill Pond opened up the sky. Winter nights would treat them to panoramic displays of stars, meteor showers, and northern lights. On summer days, columns of clouds would billow up in plain view forty miles away.
George and Nan Fremont, on purchasing the hilltop rambler at the corner of Sumac and Payne Avenue, immediately set to work to take advantage of this wonderful setting. They'd make their front yard the showpiece of their new home, and use it to take advantage of Nan's developing skills as a gardener.
They hired a landscaping contractor to build a stone wall that curved upward, following the cement steps rising from the driveway to the stoop, on which were situated a table made of a laminated slice of tree trunk and three plastic chairs.
Their first plantings were the sweet-scented dwarf Korean lilacs, which they placed next to the huge silver maple that shaded the front entrance to the house; a mistake, they soon discovered, since dwarf Korean lilacs are sun worshippers. Somehow, they had managed to bloom adequately.
Then came the pachysandra and purple-flowering ajuga at the base of the stone wall. The rotten wooden railing on the lake side of the steps came down, to be replaced by an elegant, curving, gray-painted iron one.
Nan dreamed of much more: a cedar deck, carpets of ground covers, and swaths of annuals and perennials that would turn their slope into a quilt of bright colors and rich earth tones. But she soon discovered that all this would have to wait; three small children demanded too much of her attention. They'd also require an unobstructed playground of hardy grass that could be trod on and trampled to their hearts' delight. Once they were older, Nan would be able to give her new hobby the attention it deserved. For the time being, she had to make do with some petunias and impatiens, and a ring of irises she planted around the stand of mugho pines that came with the house.
Over the years, though, the front yard's stock nosedived.
It was all about George, who had developed a front yard phobia. That might have come from having to push a lawn mower without a self-propelled mechanism up and down that steep slope. Or maybe it was the need to continually spray a particularly stubborn patch of dandelions and cockleburs that rose halfway from the street to the top of their little hill. Another thing: The slope and sandy soil meant water drained away quickly from the grass's shallow roots. Any week-long stretch of dry heat scratched brown patches across the lawn, even with regular sprinkling.
There was also the front yard's history of violence.
George had once been attacked while mowing by a honking mother goose who must have figured he was going to run over one of her goslings. Her sudden waddling charge caused him to let go of the lawn mower, which trundled down the hill, barely missing a passing minivan as it crossed the street, jumped the curb, and careened down the slope and into the lake. A swift kick to her feathered midriff that left George losing his balance and sprawled on the lawn finally drove the attack goose and the maniacally squabbling goslings away.
It was in the front yard where George made the mistake of spraying a yellow jacket nest in midday. The result of that was an upper lip swollen by stings to three times its normal size and Nan taking photos of it, which she advertised to friends as “George's Homer Simpson look.”
All this got Nan to wondering whether her gardening ambitions had been off-target. She began shifting her attention from the front to the loamier and more level back.
This new project started with George renting a chain saw to clear out the volunteer trees that had turned much of the backyard into a junkyard of mismatched vegetation. Then, he built pea-gravel-and-railroad-tie steps into the weed-choked bare patch that separated the driveway from the patio.
Nan took over from there. Her maiden garden effort was to plant lilac bushes and variegated dogwoods next to the fence that separated the Fremonts from the Grunions, their neighbors to the east. That was eight years after they bought the property.
Six years later, they'd transformed the backyard into a suburban paradise of vibrant blooms, trilling songbirds, and hovering hummingbirds that, last summer, had defied the destructive whims of Mother Nature and even some ridiculous efforts to sabotage them by the local gardening nutcases. It had won them first place in the world-famous Burdick's Best Yard Contest, and the unprecedented $200,000 tax-free windfall that came with it.
Now, at last, it was the front yard's turn.
“Lots of work to do here, George,” said Nan as they sat on the covered front stoop. George gazed out through the sheets of endless May rain at their blank canvas of a yard. This would be a start-from-scratch job, just as the backyard had been. A flare of pain shot through his knee. Then, another one, this time starting at the small of his back and rocketing all the way up his spinal column. It was his body's reaction to the prospect of hard, painful labor ahead. He flinched.
“You can't fool me, George. I know those phantom aches and pains of yours. So, buck up, because I'm gonna need you to do most of the heavy lifting here. Dig. Rake. Mix. Haul. And maybe you can sometimes give me a little input as to what we should plant and where. But, mostly, you'll be my good old semi-reliable gardening mule.”
George cringed. This was the hyper-caffeinated-morning Nan talking here, and when she started jabbering away about projects that would put the Pyramids of Giza and Hoover Dam to shame, you just had to listen and nod politely. She'd calm down once the day moved into its afternoon stage, and wine-induced relaxation replaced all the let's-build-the-world's-best-garden-in-a-day stuff. What especially worried him was this stark comparison: It had taken them six years to transform the backyard. Nan wanted the front yard planted by the end of the month. George, at a loss for words to express his foreboding, looked stricken. Nan regarded him with a mixture of connubial pity and scorn.
“Oh, don't look so miserable, George. Just think of all the new flower buddies you'll have to talk to. And imagine the magnificence! This front yard project will make us whole. Backyard
front yard. The Fremont
not just the Fremont backyard. Won't that be wonderful? If it would only stop raining for a few days.”
“What's wrong with resting on our laurels?” George said. “For, say, four or five years, maybe a decade, before moving on to new projects.”
“Oh, stop being Mr.-Lazy-Ass-Fussbudget,” Nan harrumphed. “You've got helpers this time, you know. Mary's going to pitch in big-time, and we've got Shirelle as our gardening intern all summer. With two strong, motivated young women like that, you won't be overworked. With any luck, you can spend a good amount of your shiftless days just lording it over those of us who'll actually be working.”
Yes, that's true, George thought; we've got reinforcements for this project! His mood brightened instantly. And just as instantly the clouds returned to darken it. What about the psychotic rage unleashed by the local criminal gardening element on the backyard last year? And the freak hailstorm? And all that weird, otherworldly stuff that they didn't dare tell their pastor about? What about the deadly angel's trumpets that would once again sprout their seductive and hallucinogenic flowers?
Are we through with all that, or is this just the beginning? George wondered, involuntarily bouncing the balls of his feet on the cement. Who or what's going to try to deep-six us now?
It was at this point that the caffeine racing through Nan's brain found the appropriate neurons responsible for inventing horticultural riddles and knock-knock jokes.
“George, what flower is like a cartoon character?”
George could only shrug, looking as he did like a mourner who's wound up at the wrong funeral and decided to stick around anyway.
dill. Get it? Daffy Duck? Daffodil? Tee-hee-hee . . . Now, let's get a move on, mister. We're off to the Historical Society.”
“Waste of time, if you ask me,” George said. “I mean, why do we need to encourage Jim and his stupid delusions of buried treasures somewhere underneath us?”
“Because he's one of our dear friends, George, as you may recall. And he happens to be recently bereaved.... Quit being so morose and contrary just because you've got one of the Labors of Hercules ahead of you. Besides, I'd have thought the Mr. History Buff in you would jump at the chance of getting a little glimpse back in time of the very place where you eat, tipple, and otherwise fritter away your slothful days.... Hey, here's something that'll perk you right up: It's stopped raining. And look over there to the west. That patch of blue's getting bigger by the minute. Let's go; it's time for us to do our annual spring inspection tour anyway.”
George and Nan pulled out of the driveway with George's disposition improved. The notion of a front yard makeover, assisted by a mug's worth of French roast coffee, was beginning to appeal to the semi-developed aesthete in him; especially since there were others who would be sharing the toil this time. There was also the fact that the front yard was smaller than the back. Something else to look forward to was picking up the skinny on their property's pedigree. That was long overdue, especially after the scare they had gotten last year about there being an Indian burial ground under the backyard gardens. That had turned out to be a false alarm . . . or so they'd been told.
Besides, what if there
something to this buried treasure notion of Jim's?
“Why is this museum we're going to like an overly emotional woman?” George quizzed Nan as he peeled out of the driveway.
“This is a joke?” wondered Nan, pleasantly startled by George's sudden impersonation of a getaway car driver. “If it is, it's sexist, and I'll have no part of it.”
“Because they're both
Or, you know,