In the morning in their bed in their little house at the end of a gravel road two miles inland from the far northern coast of California, Zeke and Conchita wake to their alarm clock radio tuned to an oldies station, Moby Grape singing 8:05, though it’s actually 8:15.
Conchita wants to make love and so does Zeke, but he has to meet his boss at a new client’s place in forty-five minutes, so they promise each other sex tonight when Conchita gets home from the pub where she’s a waitress, and they jump out of bed.
Sturdy and strong, his curly black hair a bit longer than he likes, Zeke, shirtless and barefoot in his underwear, opens the front door of their house and follows their small black mutt Eso out into the clear cold April day, and while Eso races around sniffing and peeing, Zeke circumnavigates the little house and makes sure nothing is amiss on their three-acre farm bordering a vast forest.
Eso poops next to the compost pile where Conchita and Zeke trained him to poop as a puppy, and after shoveling Eso’s shit into the compost, Zeke releases the nine chickens from their coop into the scratch run, gathers seven eggs, and stands for a moment on the edge of the big vegetable patch.
“This weekend I’m planting chard and peas,” he says to the garden. “And another row of spuds. Don’t you worry.”
Zeke and Eso go back inside via the squeaky kitchen door and find Conchita in her bathrobe putting the finishing touches on Zeke’s lunch while simultaneously making coffee and toast and tending six eggs spluttering in coconut oil in a cast iron frying pan.
“I’m gonna start setting the alarm for a half-hour earlier,” says Conchita, watching her nearly naked husband feed the ravenous little dog. “I’ve been so wanting you in the morning lately and we never leave enough time for love.”
“Brilliante mi amor,” says Zeke, going to get dressed. “I’ll come by the pub after work to catch a glimpse of you.”
She flips the eggs and says, “What a good husband you are. How did I get so lucky?”
He returns a moment later wearing a red T-shirt and old black trousers and sits down to put on his socks.
“I’m the lucky one,” he says, gazing in wonder at his wife. “What’s your day before you go to work?”
“Vacuum the house and do some laundry,” she says, bringing their breakfast to the kitchen table and sitting down across from him. “Then I’m having lunch with Lisa at Jessica’s, and if I have time I’ll go see mi madre.”
“Gracias por la comida,” says Zeke, closing his eyes for a moment before eating, his Spanish excellent after seven years with Conchita and spending lots of time with her parents and brothers and sisters and their families.
“Gracias for another day of life,” she says, closing her eyes and thanking God for Zeke.
With Eso beside him in his twenty-year-old pickup, Zeke drives down a winding two-lane road through a redwood forest to the coast highway where he turns left and heads south, skirting the seaside town of Mercy where he was born thirty-two years ago. The cerulean sky is full of billowy white clouds and Zeke is hopeful the new gardening gig will prove to be a good one.
Four years ago, Zeke’s parents, Marjorie and Blake Levine, moved from their big old house in Mercy to a condominium on Maui, Blake having sold his Mercy dental practice and both Blake and Marjorie ready for warm weather year round. Until Zeke was twenty, Marjorie and Blake assumed he would follow in the footsteps of his father and older brother Aaron and become a well-paid professional, a doctor or dentist or lawyer or college professor, and when Zeke declared he was going to be a writer, they assumed his writing, like his guitar playing, would be his hobby while he made good money otherwise.
Then he dropped out of college, became a gardener, fell in love with Conchita, and…
“They were gravely disappointed,” says Zeke, scratching Eso’s head. “But what can we do? We are who we are. Si?”
Eso gives Zeke a look to say I love who you are.
Two miles south of town, at the end of a half-mile lane, Zeke finds his boss Zella waiting for him outside the closed gates of an estate overlooking the ocean.
Zella is Serbian and in her fifties, tall and pretty with long silvery blonde hair. She employs six people and pays them thirty dollars an hour while charging her clients thirty-one dollars an hour for the labor of her employees and doing twenty hours of gardening a week herself.
“You are always so prompt,” she says, getting out of her little white pickup – Wildflower Garden Maintenance painted artfully in green letters on both doors – her brown mutt Zephyr jumping out after her and happily greeting Zeke and Eso. “One of the many things I admire about you, Zeke.
“I know this place,” says Zeke, smiling at the baronial gates. “When we were in high school my friends and I used to sneak in here. Whoever owned the place back then was rarely here and we’d hang out on the big deck looking down at the waves and smoke dope and fantasize about being rich and famous and owning the place some day.”
“How would you get rich and famous?” asks Zella, going to the call box on the fence adjacent to the gates and pressing a button.
“I was going to write novels that got made into movies,” says Zeke, remembering the kids he came here with – Randy Chan, David Zulguri, Mimi Cantor, Cheryl Little, all aspiring writers and musicians – Cheryl Little the first girl he ever had sex with. “Randy was going to write and direct movies. David was gonna be a rock star, Mimi an actress and singer, and Cheryl a novelist, too.”
“That’s amazing,” says Zella, pushing the button again, “because the woman who owns this place writes bestsellers they make into movies. Her assistant called them bodice rippers. I had to look up this expression when I got home. Means historical romances with lots of sex. Oo la la.”
“Conchita loves that stuff,” says Zeke, laughing. “I don’t.”
“Hello?” crackles a voice from the little speaker on the fence.
“Hi. It’s Zella Wildflower,” says Zella, leaning close to the speaker. “Here with your new gardener.”
“Okay,” says the voice, and a moment later the big gates swing slowly inward.
Zella and Zeke drive their trucks into the estate, the dogs chasing after them. The grounds have been neglected for years – flower beds overgrown with weeds, dozens of dead shrubs, a maze of hedges in desperate need of trimming, and two ponds clogged with algae, their naked-goddess fountains encrusted with lichen and mold – many weeks of work needed to return the garden to its former glory.
They park in front of the huge two-story house reminiscent of the plantation mansion in the movie Gone With The Wind, and the grand front door opens. Two women emerge, a pretty white woman with long reddish brown hair wearing a summery blue dress, and a striking black woman wearing red leather pants and a shimmery purple shirt, her hair cut very short.
As the women approach, Zeke does a double take – the white gal none other than the just-remembered Cheryl Little.
“Cheryl?” says Zeke, staring at her in disbelief.
“Zeke?” says Cheryl, gasping. “You’re the gardener?”
“Maybe not,” he says, laughing nervously. “Might be too weird.”
“I had no idea you still lived in Mercy,” she says, turning to the black woman. “This is Zeke Levine. We were in high school together.” She returns her astonished gaze to Zeke. “Zeke, this is my assistant Marz.”
“As in the planet?” asks Zeke, grinning at Marz.
“M-A-R-Z,” says Marz, drawing a Z in the air with her finger. “Short for Marzipan. My mother had a serious sweet tooth.”
“You’ve met my boss Zella,” says Zeke, turning to Zella and half-expecting her not to be there and this whole thing turning out to be a dream.
“Yes,” says Cheryl, heading back inside. “She knows everything that needs to be done. If you have any questions just ring the bell.”
“Is it okay if my dog hangs out with me?” asks Zeke, before the women disappear into the house.
“Fine,” says Cheryl without looking back at him.
“We love dogs,” says Marz, winking at Zeke and giving him thumbs up.
When the front door closes, Zella asks quietly, “Was she your lover?”
“She was,” says Zeke, stunned by seeing Cheryl again, and here of all places. “My first.”
“Did you part as friends?” asks Zella, nodding hopefully.
“What a good question,” says Zeke, trying to remember. “I think so. We weren’t a couple or anything. Just pals who had sex a few times. Her folks moved away when she left for college, so she didn’t come back in the summers and I lost track of her.”
“Do you want this job?” asks Zella, looking around to assess the amount of work to be done. “If this place was mine, I would mostly let it go back to natural. But they wants us to make it fancy again. Manicured lawns, a maze of hedges, roses and tulips, the ponds restored and the fountains scraped clean. Like a set for one of her movies.”
“I could sure use the hours,” says Zeke, nodding. “Is she planning to live here, or…”
“I don’t think so,” says Zella, shaking her head. “She told me she has places in New York and Paris. They wanted a place in California and she loved it here when she was a girl, so…”
“I can do this,” says Zeke, liking the feel of the place. “You could put two people on this job for a couple months to get the place in shape.”
“Good idea,” says Zella, going to her truck. “She says cost is no problem. Emilio wants more hours. You like him?”
“Yeah, Emilio’s great,” says Zeke, following her. “So how about I do three hours here on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays?”
“Fine,” says Zella, putting on her work gloves. “Can you do a few hours now? I want to clean up the beds near the house and get the wisteria on the porch under control.”
“Absolutely,” he says, glad she’s staying with him. “Thank you so much, Zella, for all the work you’ve given me.”
“You’re welcome,” she says, getting her rake and shovel from her truck. “It will be good for me to get a feel for the place.”
After working for three hours with Zella at Cheryl’s mansion, Zeke and Eso have lunch on the beach at the mouth of the Mercy River. And while Eso chases sea gulls, Zeke remembers a Sunday afternoon during his last year at Mercy High when he and Cheryl and Randy and David and Mimi snuck into the estate and sat on the big deck and Zeke read aloud a short story he’d written, and it was after he read his story that Cheryl jimmied open a door and took him upstairs and they made love on a bed in an otherwise empty room, and she was so sweet and encouraging as she taught him the ways of love.
Conchita comes home from the pub at midnight, takes a quick shower, gets in bed with Zeke, they make love, and in the aftermath of their loving she says, “I don’t want to wait any more to have our child. We keep saying we will as soon as we have enough money saved up, but every time we get ahead, something happens. We need a new roof or the car breaks down. I don’t want to wait anymore. I’m thirty-one. I’m ready to be a mother and you’re ready to be a father.”
“I want what you want,” says Zeke, feeling a pang of guilt for not making more money. “We’ll be fine.”
“I’m gonna get a real estate license. My sister and I are gonna take the course together at El Mar Realty and start our own company. Ontiveros Realty.”
“Who wouldn’t buy a house from you?”
“Are you teasing me?”
“No. You’ll be a great realtor if that’s what you want to do.”
“I want to make more money and not spend the rest of my life serving beer and fish & chips.”
“I got that new gig today,” he says, kissing her. “Nine more hours a week.”
“Oh good,” she says, relaxing in his arms. “That makes thirty-two hours for you. Don’t do more than that, mi amor. You won’t have time for the garden or for me.”
Two mornings later, Zeke arrives at Tara, his name for Cheryl’s place, and starts removing dead plants and preparing beds for rose bushes and flowers.
After he’s been working for a couple hours, Marz comes out the front door and says, “Hey Zeke. Come have some coffee. Rebecca would love to talk to you.”
“Rebecca?” says Zeke, smiling quizzically at Marz and enjoying her get up – pleated gray slacks and a white silk shirt splashed with red parrots. “You mean Cheryl?”
Marz nods. “She’s Rebecca to everybody but you now.”
“Okay,” says Zeke, turning to Eso who is snuffling around in the weeds. “Don’t go anywhere, Okay? I won’t be long.”
Eso gives him a look to say Where would I go? and Zeke follows Marz to the front door and takes off his muddy boots before going inside.
The spectacular house is largely empty of furniture, sunlight slanting through the big windows into the high-ceilinged living room. Marz explains that Rebecca’s interior designer is on the case and they hope to have the place fully furnished by the time they come back in October for a couple weeks.
Rebecca is sitting at a large table in the dining room adjacent to the spectacular kitchen, looking lovely in a loose-fitting green dress and typing at lightning speed on a big-screen laptop.
“Oh good,” she says, closing her laptop and rising to greet Zeke. “Can we have a hug?”
They embrace and Zeke and Cheryl’s bodies remember how well they fit together all those years ago, and Zeke becomes aroused and feels adulterous and ends the embrace.
“I’ve got to make some phone calls,” says Marz, leaving Zeke alone with Rebecca.
Rebecca gives Zeke a look to say Hug me again, but he doesn’t and sits down.
“How wild and mind-boggling that you bought this place, Cher,” he says, shaking his head. “Beyond incredible.”
Rebecca stays standing and says, “You’re the only person who ever called me Cher and I didn’t hate it. Au contraire. I loved it coming from you.”
“And now you’re Rebecca,” he says, trying to see the person he used to know. “Rebecca who? Little?”
“You didn’t immediately look me up on your computer?” she asks, giving him an incredulous look.
“I don’t use the computer much,” he says, shrugging. “Hurts my head.”
“Oh,” she says, sounding disappointed. “You want some coffee?”
“No, I’m good. So… Rebecca who?”
“Rebecca Montaigne,” she says, sitting in the chair beside him, her eyes saying Kiss me.
“The name is familiar,” says Zeke, sensing how deeply tired she is. “Forgive me for not knowing your books. Zella said they’ve been made into movies.”
“Five of the nine have been made into movies so far,” she says, getting up and going into the kitchen. “You’re sure you don’t want some coffee? I just made some blueberry muffins.”
“Coffee and a blueberry muffin sounds great,” says Zeke, letting go of doing any more work here today. “What are the names of your movies?”
“A Royal Disaster,” she says, pouring two mugs of coffee. “The Abduction of Rosella. Ramparts of Love. Broken Diamonds. And coming soon to a theater near you Mirabella’s Revenge.”
“My wife loves your movies,” he says, thinking of how thrilled Conchita will be when he tells her he’s the gardener for the author of her favorite movies. “And so do her mother and sister. Whenever your movies come to the Coast Cinema, they get all dolled up for the show and go out for drinks afterwards and talk and talk about the movie and the costumes and how gorgeous everybody is. And they often go a second time before the movie leaves town. And for Christmas they give each other the DVDs.”
“But you haven’t seen them,” says Rebecca, bringing their coffee to the table. “You’d hate them.”
“Maybe not,” he says, shaking his head. “Knowing you wrote them, I might love them. Not knowing you wrote them, and historical romances not being my thing, I didn’t go. But I will next time.”
“Don’t bother,” she says, fetching the plate of muffins. “Big budget junk.”
“Not according to my wife,” he says, thinking of Conchita in all her finery going with her mother and sister to see the latest Rebecca Montaigne bodice ripper. “For Conchita, your movies are high art.”
“So what do you do now besides gardening?” She sits beside him again and he sees the sorrow in her eyes. “Do you have kids? Are you still writing? Still playing the guitar?”
“No kids yet, though we want to have one, maybe two, and I haven’t written anything in…” He thinks for a moment. “Three years. I wrote four novels, the first two just learning how, you know, the third and fourth pretty good, I thought, but I wasn’t able to interest an agent in either one, so… and I still play the guitar and write songs. Mostly I work and spend time with my wife and friends and walk on the beach and… live from day to day.”
“I thought you were a genius,” she says wistfully. “I thought for sure you’d write a novel that would make you as famous as Hemingway.”
“Maybe I will,” he says, gazing fondly at her. “Maybe I’ll be a late bloomer and write something great when I’m thirty-nine or fifty-five or seventy-two. We never know what might happen, do we?”
She thinks for a long moment and asks, “Did you love me?”
“Of course,” he says without hesitation. “Very much.”
A frown and a smile fight for control of her face, the smile triumphing.
“I thought so,” she says, crying a little. “You just didn’t know what to do about it and neither did I. We were too young to know how to preserve it.”
“I’m glad to see you again,” he says sincerely. “And I’m glad for your success. And I’d like to be your gardener. But only if it’s okay with you. You know what I mean? I don’t want to be a pain in your life.”
“You were always the nicest person, Zeke,” she says, standing up and going to the door that opens onto the deck. “You still are. I’d love you to be my gardener. It’s like something out of one of my books.”
“You were always the nicest person, too,” he says, getting up and following her. “How long are you here for this time?”
“Another week,” she says, opening the door to the sweet ocean air. “And we’ll be back in October. Always my favorite month here.”
“By then we should have your garden looking magnificent,” he says, going out onto the deck with her.
They stand side-by-side watching the unceasing waves and remembering those magical times when they and Randy Chan and David Zulguri and Mimi Cantor climbed over the fence and made their way through the maze of hedges to hang out here and dream together about their glorious futures.