It started a few months after the divorce began. We agreed that we had irreconcilable differences. Kevin was decent enough not to put on the papers the words he used at home: I didn’t like sex enough. Not enthusiastic, he said over and over. Though we were both more or less virgins, he blamed all the problems on me. It was a surprising relief to be away from his contempt. Then I realized that in the fall I could continue working toward my associate’s degree in landscape – only six more months to go! Of course, I had to continue my part-time job at the garden center. Happily, a few customers praised my designs. So, all in all, my confidence had not totally dried up.
That was when I noticed certain homes in my neighborhood. They were barren. Several had not a single bush or shrub. The cinder block foundations were splashed with mud. A few had the same shrub in monotonous repetition. One had seven small hollies lined up like robots coming off an assembly line – five across the front of the house and two continuing along the driveway, all the same size and shape.
Another had two bushes out front. One was probably a viburnum, nothing wrong with that, but it completely covered two windows and peaked a foot above the rain gutter. On the other side of the front door was a midget hosta, looking forlorn. Obviously, the owner had no concept of balance.
Well, a drive around the neighborhood, actually a survey, if I may be so proud as to say so, produced a list of six places in dire need of beautification. You see, our neighborhood is quite humble. The homes are mostly small ranches about 30 years old. I think their square footage goes from about 1,200 to 1,600 max, and the owners have jobs like truck drivers, waitresses, clerks.
The causes for the bleak yards must break down something like this: Some folks are so worn out from their demanding and low-paying jobs that they cannot afford the money or the energy to enhance their homes. Beauty is the last thing on their minds. The places without a single bush or single flower must fit into this category. The other type – the mishmash of overgrown and duplicate plants – probably comes from people who want landscaping but lack the know-how.
Of the six properties, I decided to rescue two totally barren ones first. I had resources. My employer offered me a 50 percent discount on everything, so the cost was comfortable enough. I took lanterns and worked after midnight, even bringing my own cans of water so that running their outdoor spigots wouldn’t wake them.
Looking over what I just wrote, I sound cold and calculating. That wasn’t how it was. I wanted to give back. I wanted to provide some beauty for people whose lives were dreary. There was a selfish goal, too. Since I drive past these places almost daily, seeing a varied display of shrubs, some in flower, petals gleaming in the sun, dark green leaves posing in the background—this picture would cheer me, too.
I thought a lot about what to tell the people. Part of me wanted recognition, thought how nice it would be to get phone calls or thank-you cards from the neighbors. I would have to leave some kind of message; the recipients would need instructions. They would need to water the new creation, maybe do something about bug spray, too. But should the how-to note include mention of the donor?
Leaving my name and info could be viewed as seeking publicity. Someone would get the idea to call the local newspaper, and their reporter would come out and do a feature story on me. I decided to remain unknown.
I simply left a note, pierced through a branch, asking them to water the new bushes twice weekly if there was no rain. Then I added, “Enjoy your lovely new yard” and signed it, “Secret Shrubber.”
Now here’s my lawyer. Sam Longstreet. He introduces himself and says he has read my statement to the police, which said basically what I have just said regarding my motivation
“Well, Sam, is Sam OK? Well, Sam, I don’t understand why the state’s attorney sees this as destruction of property. I only dug a few holes in the yards and planted some plants. I added stuff, not destroyed it.”
Sam looks pained and impatient. “They may go with trespassing with malicious intent, too. And repairing the damage could cost more than $1,000, so that makes it a possible felony. ” Next he asks why I chose the ACLU for a lawyer, and I tell him my brother’s opinion on freedom of expression. Sam blows out a long and noisy whoosh, almost a whistle.
He pauses, then looks around the meeting table as if he lost something there. “Arlene, have you been evaluated or ever been treated for, uh, mental problems?”
“No,” I say, omitting my sessions at college for homesickness.
“This is a highly questionable situation you’ve got yourself into.” He brushes his hand over his forehead but the bushy hair will not stay back. “You and your husband have recently filed for divorce, right?”
I am hurt and scared. Does divorce make me less believable, less worthy? I say nothing. I feel my defenses crumbling. But I remember this: ”I’m only six credits from completing my degree in landscape.”
Sam looks puzzled. “Are you saying you needed some case studies or something like that?”
“No. It is just that I…” I try to continue in a strong tone. “It’s just that I saw how much better those places would look, and even have higher market values [I add that to show my grasp on reality] with a few shrubs and flowers. Especially perennials!” I end with conviction.
Sam stares at me so long that I cringe and have to look away. He pulls his chair closer to the table and leans on it, as if he’d like to push up and leave.
“You see, Arlene, what you are saying is that you know best. You are taking away the rights of the property owners to manage their own properties. And, by the way, one of the two places is a rental. And the landlord has forbidden the tenant from doing any landscaping.”
I cringe again in embarrassment. “Is that the one, is that how I got caught?”
“A neighbor across the street was up late that night, saw the strange scene of someone doing yard work at 1 a.m. and took down your license plate. Spoke to the resident the next morning, and you can guess the rest.”
“I didn’t know there were any rental houses here,” I say and feel tears wetting my cheeks.
“Now you are making me feel sorry for you, ” Sam tails off. He shifts in his seat. “Have you ever done anything like this before, and be sure to tell the truth. Because if the prosecutor comes up with something else, surprises me in court with another issue — how about drunk driving or disturbing the peace?”
I feel my spirit finally waking. “You are still making this a crime! Really, this was a good deed, that’s all!” Sam opens his mouth to object but I won’t let him.
“I took a lot of trouble to make sure the plants would be successful. For the first house, I chose roses – three roses, they’re Knock Out roses even – the toughest on the market! And since they are pink, I chose pink for the day lilies. That’s called color coordination, sir! This wasn’t some impulse. I thought it out in detail, spent my own money, even put in some great soil around them!” I feel the charge. Lord, it feels good to assert myself.
“Okay, okay, Arlene. Calm down; maybe you aren’t a nut case. But you sure have an exaggerated opinion of the importance of gardening.”
I’m still standing, feeling undecided about hiring this guy. So I ask: “Do you mean that you can drive past a barren house, a house plopped in its yard without a single shrub, or tree or flower, you can drive past that house and not notice how pathetic, how hopelessly plain that house looks?” I wait for his answer.
Sam scratches his head again, more slowly.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed,” he says calmly. “You are looking at me as if you can’t believe your ears.”
I have to swallow. He is right. “Are you telling the truth, Sam, or are you just trying to make a point?”
“I do find that very hard to believe.” But an idea is sprouting. I think perhaps some people, the Type As, are so compelled to push for their goals, even while driving, that they don’t notice their surroundings.
“I feel sorry for you, Sam,”
Sam responds with a kind of smile. “I believe you do … Do you think you could describe more … fully … the pleasure you get from seeing …” He says the next word as if it is a foreign term “beauty … in the neighborhood?”
I grasp that the correct answer is “Yes.”
“Good, Arlene. That may be necessary if they go with the felony and you choose a jury trial – your only hope, I’m certain, in that situation.”
“In the meantime, you have to write letters of apology to the two families where you did the planting. Apologize profusely. And offer to dig up the stuff at their convenience.” He looks at the police reports and gives me names and addresses.
I am stunned at the digging-up suggestion. I have faith in the natural world. In a few weeks the day lilies and roses will be in bloom.
“I’m gonna be awful busy for a couple weeks,” I lie. “But I can offer to dig them up after that. If they still want me to.”