Into the Garden with Charles

A Memoir

Clyde Phillip Wachsberger

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Into the Garden with Charles
The Privet Hedge
Charles is on the next-to-top step of our wobbly A-frame ladder, trimming our privet hedge, wielding the electric clippers with the concentration of a sculptor. I'm on the bottom rung, steadying him, looking up at him tall against puffy white clouds and brilliant blue sky. He's wearing an old striped pullover torn here and there by rose thorns, faded pants that were once dress slacks, and muck boots that were a Christmas present from his mother a few years ago. His cap has a flap to protect his neck from the sun. It reminds me of a French Foreign Legionnaire's hat.
Not for the first time, I wonder if I have invented Charles. For half a century I daydreamed of a devoted companion, a best friend, a cherished lover. Maybe I'm still dreaming. If any neighbors strolled past right now, would they see me holding on to an empty ladder, staring up at the sky, talking to myself?
The clippers stop snarling. The ladder shudders. Charles is moving up to the top step. I snap out of my reverie to warn, "There's a notice glued on that step that says you shouldn't stand on it."
"Please give me the small pruners."
Without looking, he reaches an empty hand toward me. He wiggles his fingers, so I place the pruners in his hand.
Charles is six foot four, but just now he needs the top of theladder to get at a wayward sprig interrupting the flawlessly rounded surface he has shaped. He stretches forward over the smooth curve of the hedge, one long leg far out for balance, snips what he wants to get rid of, brushes away the few bits of leaves with a flourish, hands me the pruners without looking. From his back pocket he pulls out the nail scissors that are usually on a shelf over our bathroom sink and snips off one unruly leaf.
The hedge was a foot tall when I bought this property almost thirty years ago. Now it is trimmed high and billowy like a soft fur collar around the house. There was once a gap in the hedge, but years ago I planted a climbing red rose there with the idea that it would someday cascade over the privet. Friends warned me that it would be a nightmare to prune around a rose. They were right. I never got it looking the way I had imagined. Now Charles has the privet running smoothly, right up to the rose's thorny stems tumbling down the hedge in sprays of garnet blossoms.
I shift my weight to secure the ladder. Next to me is the cucumber magnolia that Charles started from seed years before we met, now taller than our house. Through its lower branches I can just see our new rose arbors. Charles had the idea that they would define entrances into our garden. Opera-velvet red 'Etoile de Hollande' and silvery pink 'Viking Queen'are already draping themselves over the arches.
I notice our friend Karen walking toward us from her home down the block, and at the same time Rover, our Havanese, has seen her from his upstairs window, where he's been watching Charles prune. He's barking to let us know she's coming for a visit, telling us to stop hedging and come play. He wants us all together.
Karen calls out her hellos, Charles answers over the hedge, Rover barks.
Maybe this is all real.
Text and watercolors copyright © 2012 by Charles Randall Dean