Cutting the Magnolia
This short story was inspired by a writing prompt: “You’re kneeling in the dirt, working on your garden when your attention is drawn up by a person saying, ‘Excuse me, I don’t mean to interrupt, but…’”
As I knelt in the dirt to pull up weeds, the sun caressed my back like the warm touch of a lover.
“Excuse me.” My heart sank. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but…”
Stiffly, I got to my feet and turned to face Gordon, who dangled a pair of pruning shears from his wrinkled right hand. My neighbor was a tall man, but hunched, so that his chin nestled in the soft wattle around his neck and his pot belly distorted the plaid pattern on his flannel shirt.
“A cutting? From the magnolia tree?” Gordon gestured toward the tree, whose pink blossoms were just starting to grope their way out of the buds. Jack and I planted it twelve years ago, a few months after our daughter went to Cambridge University to study physics. Her student room overlooked a red-brick courtyard filled with a mature magnolia, a far cry from the drab polytechnic where I’d studied in the 1970s.
I’d hoped to see that tree in bloom, but when spring came Rachel asked us not to visit; exams were coming up, she said. I’d nagged until she sent a photo, an abundance of blossom spilling beyond the picture’s edges, and then nagged Jack to drive us to the garden centre so we could purchase a sapling for ourselves.
Staring at the shears, I forced myself to smile. “Didn’t you take a cutting last summer, Gordon?” In truth, he’d hacked off most of a branch, leaving a jagged wound.
“Yes.” Gordon shuffled from foot to foot. “But then Gracie got sick, and you know I don’t have the green-fingered touch of you ladies.” He tucked his chin a little further and blushed. “I’m afraid I clean forgot about it and it died. I hoped I’d have better luck this year.”
Ah, the dead wife. The emotional argument no-one could say no to. At least, I certainly couldn’t. As I led him over to the tree, I disarmed him, taking the shears into my own hands. “Let’s see where we can cut without doing too much damage.”
I reached into the tree, seeking a branch that was young and healthy. My fingers closed on a stem with just the right balance of flexibility and resistance. “This one.” Resentfully, I forced the shears through the wood just above the leaf node. This was the wrong time of year for pruning. Sap would bleed from the wound, wasting energy the tree could have used to flower.
I got no more weeding done that afternoon. Instead, I helped Gordon pot the precious cutting in a mixture of perlite and peat moss. He watched attentively as I packed the medium carefully around the severed stem and pinched away the lower leaves. “Do you have any plastic bags?” I asked, prompting him to hurry to a corner of the greenhouse. He returned a minute later, rustling.
I shrouded the pot with clear plastic, creating a warm cocoon for the cutting. Gordon held the bag in place as I fumbled a rubber band over the pot. “You’ll need to keep it moist,” I explained. “If the soil looks dry, take a spray bottle and mist it. Not too much.”
When we were finished, Gordon stood a little straighter than he had before. “Well,” he beamed. “Ain’t that a fine thing we’ve done?”
I didn’t trust him to remember my instructions, so I ended up going around every few days. Each time, he led me through the house and out back to the greenhouse, saying “It looks dry. Is it too dry?”
It was never an in-and-out visit. I’d often be there an hour or more, fighting the urge to take over while Gordon fumbled the tea things, then skirting around Gracie as we chatted in the parlor. We talked about the weather, the garden, the magnolia, but never her.
He asked after our daughter. I told him what I knew. Rachel lived in Oxford now. She had a research fellowship with one of the colleges, but I couldn’t tell him what it was she worked on. Something to do with stars, but I didn’t understand the technical details. Her emails contained few clues about the rest of her life. It had been years since she visited, or allowed us to drive down to see her.
It was a summer of glorious, hot days, the kind Jack liked to complain about. He lolled around the house all afternoon, complaining that it was too hot to run, then clattered around at four in the morning so he could get out before the sun came up. He’s always preferred the kind of weather he calls bracing and I call miserable. Whenever it rains or snows or blows a gale, he goes out in it, miles and miles with the running club, coming back all clarted in mud with red cheeks and a big grin on his face.
“How’s the garden coming along?” Jack asked one evening. I was peeling spuds for dinner while he sat at the kitchen table, idly swiping at his tablet computer.
“Come and look,” I stepped aside from the sink to let him peer out of the window. He looked briefly, then slumped back to his chair, where he crossed one socked foot over the other knee and began massaging the sole. “I haven’t done as much work as I’d like on the raised beds,” I said. “But the roses are coming along nicely.”
He didn’t respond, so I continued. “Gordon’s growing a magnolia. He came around for a cutting a few weeks ago. He’s got a seedling growing.” This felt a bit like relating the kids’ achievements to Jack, who was only ever distantly interested.
“Hmm? Oh, Gordon from next door? Well, that’s good. Nice for him to have a hobby.” To Jack, hobbies were the point of life. Before the running club, it was swimming, but he busted his shoulder churning out endless laps of front crawl, so he had to give it a rest.
“I’ve been worried about him since Gracie died,” I said. “He must be lonely.”
“Well, invite him over,” Jack said. “Make one of your famous lasagnas. It’d be nice to have a fresh face around the table.”
The following Saturday, polished silverware glinted in the candlelight as I checked over the table one last time. Jack came into the room and laughed as he noticed the candles. “A bit much, isn’t it?”
Perhaps he was right. I extinguished the candles and shoved them back into the drawer, before scooping the candlesticks off the table and fumbling them back onto the mantelpiece. The doorbell rang.
“I’ll get that, shall I?” As Jack strode to the door, I flapped a napkin around, trying to disperse the smoky smell from the snuffed-out candles.
Gordon bumbled his thanks as he cast his eye over our good dinner set. Sheepishly, he handed over a cheap bottle of wine.
“Sit down,” I insisted. “Let me get you a glass.”
Gordon drank two glasses of wine during the meal, while I must have had at least three. Even Jack, who usually doesn’t touch alcohol, had a finger. The lasagna bubbled as I set it down on the table, and when I lifted a generous slice onto Gordon’s plate, each layer remained neatly stacked on top of the one below it. Gordon closed his eyes as he savored the first bite. “Heavenly,” he said. “Simply delicious.” Soon he asked for seconds.
Before long, we started referring to Saturday night as “Gordon night.” Each weekend, he’d bring wine and I’d get a little drunk, while Jack delighted in having a new audience for the anecdotes I’d grown bored of hearing.
As summer turned into autumn, the magnolia cutting finally put down roots. I never thought it would take — we’d started it off too early in the season — but here it was, proving me wrong. When we re-homed it in a larger pot, I imagined the sapling growing a little more each year, finally beginning to blossom as Jack and I reached our mid-seventies. Gordon was older than us, and magnolias, like children, take a long time to mature; I wondered if he’d live to see it flower.
On an overcast October day, I raked leaves in my yard, working up a sweat inside my padded blue vest. Our magnolia had entered its dormant period, pretending to be dull and drab. As I worked, my mind wandered. I imagined Rachel strolling through a version of Oxford I’d pieced together from television shows, all dreamy spires and lads on old-fashioned bicycles, and wondered if she ever thought of us.
“Looks like you need a break.” Gordon leaned over the fence, offering a mug of tea. I knew it would be milky, with no sugar, just how I like it. I leaned the rake against the fence and held the mug close beneath my chin with both hands, allowing the steam to caress the cold patch at the tip of my nose.
“I can’t make it this Saturday,” Gordon said. “I have a date.” He smiled like a child showing off a good score on a test.
“Oh?” I clutched the tea.
“Her name’s Laura. I’ve got a good feeling about her.”
I gulped my tea. Perhaps I said something encouraging.
“You’ve been so hospitable, you and Jack, but I think it’s time I gave you back your Saturday evenings.”
“Oh, that’s… you’ve been no trouble.” That didn’t come out how I wanted it to, so I changed the subject. “How’s the magnolia?”
That Saturday, Jack and I ate in silence. He swiped between news stories while I gazed at the family photos on the wall behind him. We didn’t open wine. As soon as Jack laid down his fork, I took our plates to the sink to wash.
In the twilight, two figures moved on the other side of the fence. I leaned forward, my breath steaming the window pane, to catch a better glimpse of her. All I could tell from this angle was that she was about a head and a half shorter than Gordon, and wearing a long blue cardigan over an ankle-length skirt. Her hair was blond: dyed, no doubt.
The door to the greenhouse swung open and they disappeared inside. I pictured the baby magnolia, released now from its plastic covering, spreading its leaves in welcome. Stepping back from the window, I took a tea towel from the rack and dried my wet hands and eyes.