Neighborhood Sage

Dolores had never felt such glee, such opportunity, such — well — adrenaline. She looked down at the shovel in her hand. Now things were going to change. Going to the closet she took her late husband’s duffel from its corner and packed up her tools. She slung the bag across one shoulder and slipped out the back door. Her neighbor’s house, the Petersons’, was dark. They had gone to the silent auction she’d sold them the tickets for last week after Sunday services. There would be no one to bother her now.

She climbed up the stepladder and unscrewed the bulb from the motion-activated porch light and bent to place it in the sill. Then she stepped down, drawing a pair of oversized galoshes on over her bare feet. She stepped carefully down the back stairs and crept over to the fence line, sensing the Peterson’s black Labrador snuffling along on the other side, tracking her with his giant wet nose and fat black-lipped mouth that trailed drool over the hemline of her skirts every time she’d gone over there to talk to Chris and Luann. They always kept her out on the porch. Never invited her in and never showed her that neighborly courtesy. They just blocked the doorway with their wide-hipped bodies and let their dog sniff at her and rudely try to insert his anvil-sized head between her legs. She’d kept a civil tone at first: about the noise level at the Saturday barbecues, and the dog’s barking, and the shade of paint they’d chosen for the house that was in clear violation of the regulations stipulated by the Homeowner’s Association. She’d even brought over a batch of her own raw molasses and karob cookies when she’d asked them not to park their cars quite so close to her azalea bushes as the opening and closing of the door disturbed the blossoms in such a way that they came off their peak as much as a week or two prior to what the woman at the nursery had promised her. She’d been nothing but polite. And then they’d planted the sage bushes.

She found the weak spot in the fence, pushed on the board until it gave on the bottom and swung open to let her in the Petersons’ yard. The Labrador was waiting for her, a rope of drool dangling from his mouth, his breath hot and smelling of bacon niblets. She reached into her duffel and took out the rawhide she’d soaked overnight in a warm pot of chicken broth and Benadryl. She held it out. “Heeeeeere puppy….who’s a good boy?” The dog ambled over, sniffed at the rawhide and then snatched it from her hands before turning his back to her and settling down in the grass. She could hear the sticky, wet sounds of his chewing. “Sweet dreams,” she whispered.

The bushes squatted before her. Eight of them. No matter how many times she contemplated them, she couldn’t keep herself from shaking her head. Only a perfect idiot would plant sage in this climate. They were a desert plant! Perfectly suited for the arid climes of the Southwest, or even the dry, high mountains of Nevada. She supposed that in a stretch you could get away with them in California, but in Oregon?! What on earth were the Petersons thinking? It was absurd. Now: an evergreen? A holly? A fir? They would have been lovely, would have filled the space, would give the Petersons some greenery for their miserable dog to lift his leg against. But the sage? The sage was all wrong. And the smell! Like moldy logs dumped in a wet basement. Like a pot smoker’s convention in a dry sauna. Revolting.

She used to enjoy a nice cup of tea on the back porch in the early morning, before the rest of the neighborhood started up with their noise but not since those sage brushes moved in. Now she sat at her window nook with her 5am cup of Earl Grey and she stared out the window and she seethed. She’d tried to talk Luann out of if of course but she wouldn’t see reason. “Oh I love them,” she’d rhapsodized, clutching at her massive bosom with liver-spotted hands. “The smell is heavenly.”

Dolores had explained the difference between herbaceous and coniferous plantings. She’d gone into water tables and barometric pressure differentials, and theoretical photosynthetic variations in the mitochondrial activity of the genus Artemisia but it had fallen on deaf ears. And at a certain point, once the limits of neighborly goodwill and polite rejoinder had been exceeded, one needed to take matters into one’s own hands.

Dolores took the shovel from the bag then looked behind her to see the Labrador splayed on the lawn, huffs of breath flattening the grass in front of his nose. She walked to the first of the bushes and began digging.

It was slow work and she soon sweat through the thin cotton of her house dress. But one by one the bushes came up, their anorexic roots giving up their grip on the soil like they knew they were never meant to be there. With each yank at the base of each acrid-smelling bush she felt her jubilation grow. One by one she hoisted each bush, carried it through the fence to the compost heap she kept behind her house and dumped it in, covering the growing stack with clippings and fallen boughs from her own garden, for which she had used only native plantings.

Two hours later she was done. She picked up her shovel and duffel and stole back through the fence, nudging the board back into place. She leaned against the fence, wiped the sweat from her brow, and smelled the clean, cool air. The Petersons would be leaving the auction any minute now, getting in their car to drive home, perhaps discovering what she had done. She hoped they’d be grateful.