The Root of the Matter by Carolyn Pledge Amaral

Duncan’s rose bush has come back to life. It’s hard to believe it’s possible given that only six months ago I’d taken hedge-trimmers and cut it down to a tiny stump. I should’ve dug it up from the roots and buried it in the belly of the trashcan, but that seemed too humane. There was something cathartic about chopping off its limbs one by one until I finally clipped it off at the base.

That was last fall, when I should have been wrapping it in burlap for the winter, making plans for it’s triumphant spring rebirth. And now here it is April, and I can see its miniature green buds reaching out at the stump as if to tell me to fuck off.  It’s a spiteful plant, that’s all I can say. 

It’s late when I make my way down the path juggling two bags of groceries and my laptop. The rose bush, drunk from a late afternoon rain, calls out to me to admire the progress it’s made during the day.  Distracted by this harassment, I let one of the brown bags slip through my fingers. It bounces off the flagstone, planting cans and bottles through the garden, in a scene reminiscent of Andy Warhol.

I don’t stop because from the corner of one eye, I see a note wedged between the knocker and the door—something written on the back of an envelope.  As I get closer I see it’s my envelope, my hydro bill pulled from the mailbox.Right away I know it’s not the mailman who’s done this or my mother or even the pokey neighbour.

It’s Duncan, pretending to be sensitive, coming to see me face to face, sans text-message or email, but that’s a joke because he knows I work late, that the likelihood of me being home before seven is slim.  He’s left feeling a martyr. If I call him out on this, he’ll say that’s why he left a note, because I’m irrational.

I jam the envelope in the pocket of my blazer, for later, after a glass or two of wine. Or maybe I’ll find the strength to toss it in the trash without reading a word and go out for a run. Empowerment. I'm sure it’s nothing I haven’t heard a million times before.

“You okay, Sarah?”  A voice calls to me over the hedge from the driveway next door.

I take a deep breath and press out what can only be a sinewy smile. “Fine. I've got it.” 

I unlock the front door and drop the other bag of groceries and my laptop in the foyer. “Getting a bag,” I holler. I hope my words will create a protective shield, but it’s unlikely Mrs. Grant can hear me and more likely she’s begun the trip around the fence that separates my house from hers.

I dart back through the door to find my neighbor on her knees harvesting groceries from the garden.  She has placed the items in a neat line bordering the walkway.

“You should use those recyclable bags—the green ones. Costs a little up front, but it’s worth it.”

“Please. Let me do this,” I say. I offer a hand to pull her up, but she continues until the last item has been retrieved. 

Without skipping a beat, she starts in on the weeds. “You need to keep on top of this one here.”  She yanks some gangly weed from its roots and holds it in the air like a prized carrot. “This one will take over. Once you let them in, you’ll never get rid of them.”

I nod and toss the grocery items in the plastic bag I’ve brought outside. “This weekend.” I offer my hand again, and this time she complies, but it’s no simple task. Mrs. Grant is a formidable woman. 

Then something goes terribly wrong. I’m not sure which startles me more, the sound of the pop, or the expression of agony that registers on Mrs. Grant’s face.  

“It’s gone again.” Mrs. Grant devours her words as she speaks, her nails a garden rake in my forearm.  “Damn it.” 

I drop the bag of groceries again and offer the weight of my shoulder to support her.  “Are you okay? I'm so sorry,” I say, truthfully. This is not good, not for me or for Mrs. Grant. “Let’s get you inside.”

Mrs. Grant manages a nod and allows me to lead her into my house, her one leg a limp noodle. Her house is the preferred option, but realistically that won’t happen. With a great deal of maneuvering, I get her to the sofa in the living room, where the furniture is long and low. Duncan always said the furniture was style over substance, but it’s certainly come in handy today. 

I kick off my shoes, hop up on the sectional and get behind Mrs. Grant.  Hooking my forearms underneath her armpits, I muster my strength and slide her until her legs are fully extended.

I jam a couple of pillows behind her. “Good?” I ask. 

Given her size, which is twice mine, this may actually qualify as one of those moments when a mother, upon seeing her child trapped under a car, is possessed with the strength of ten men and single-handedly hoists the car off her wounded daughter. 

Mrs. Grant gnaws the inside of her lip and nods. 

“Ice?” Without waiting for a response. I zip back into the kitchen.  Of course, I have no ice packs, no first aid kit or any other such paraphernalia, because I have no children, but I do have an ample supply of Tylenol, Advil and even some Codeine left over from when I had my wisdom teeth removed last year. I stuff a Zip-Lock with ice, wrap the bag in a tea towel, and head back to Mrs. Grant with my selection of pain relief and a glass of water.

 “It’s the best I can do.”  

Mrs. Grant lifts her head and studies the bottles. “I’ll take a couple of those.” She points at the Codeine.

“Are you sure?”  Maybe bringing them out was a mistake. “They’re pretty strong.”

“It's fine. Takes a lot to knock me out.”

I shake the pills into the palm of her hand and arrange the bag of ice on her knee. “Water?”

Mrs. Grant nods. She flicks the pills into her mouth and gulps the water. Then she sets the glass on the coffee table and sinks into the cushions. “It’s a bastard, this knee. You never know when it’s going to act up.” She pushes herself back with her stout forearms and looks up at me. “Got a blanket?”

“Sure.” I rush to the linen closet and pull out the patchwork quilt I bought when Duncan and I first moved in together. I bury my face into softness of the squares and breathe in the lingering smell of Duncan’s cologne.

“He was here today—the other fella,” Mrs. Grant calls out from the living room.  “Left you a note on your door. Did you get it?”

“Uh-huh.” I shove the quilt back into the closet and choose something less emotionally draining.

“What did you think of it?” Mrs. Grant’s voice echoes down the hallway. 

“I haven't read it.” Had she? Did she think we were college roommates sharing confidences? I enter the living room. “Why?”

“Just curious, is all.” Mrs. Grant shifts uncomfortably in her makeshift bed. “I was wondering what was so important he needed to come by. The other one was with him. At least I think it was her. She was wearing those big sunglasses like the movie stars. That was pretty cheeky, him bringing her here like that.”

He’d brought Vickie here? What if I’d been home? Taken a sick day? I spread the blanket over Mrs. Grant’s legs. “Feeling better?”

“The ice should help. Another few hours and it should pop back into place.” She glances over at the open door and the mess of groceries and says, “Don't let me keep you from dinner. I'll get something later. Just go on with your business.” Mrs. Grant pulls the blanket up close to her neck. “I don't want to be a bother.”

I pick up the groceries scattered on the path, grab my discarded blazer and escape into the kitchen. I need to be alone, to throw shit, scream, cry—anything to make me feel better, less like an idiot. I pull the envelope out of my pocket and toss it on the counter. Then I grab the bottle of wine.

“I don’t blame you—being upset, Sarah.” Mrs. Grant calls out from the living room. “At least you never had kids. That’s when it gets complicated.”

“I’m fine. Really.” I jam the corkscrew hard into the top of the bottle.  The last thing I need is a conversation about my seemingly barren state. It’s as if this woman can see inside my soul. 

I pour myself a glass of wine and prop myself up against the island. Outside the iridescent glow of approaching darkness makes everything seem even more surreal than it already is. I crack the kitchen window and a chorus of cicadas and the essence of freesias explode into the room, a reminder of why I agreed to move. 

With my eyes closed, I breathe and try to steady myself, but I need to get out of this house and away from Mrs. Grant, and from the note that throbs on my counter like a smashed thumb. Before I can change my mind, I slip on a pair of flip-flops and head towards the side door.  “I'll be right back. Just taking out the trash.” 

Outside I move with purpose. At first I turn right thinking I’ll walk to the park, swing high on one of those rubber swings where Oakville mothers give their children underdogs while they chat about mother things and make weekend plans. It would be deserted there now, everyone home bathing their children, preparing healthy snacks before bedtime and reading nighty-night stories, but I change my mind and turn in the opposite direction towards town, Starbucks, and civilization as I know it. In the distance the glow of Toronto comforts me—my office, my job, and my life where it’s okay to be single and childless. 

I pass Mrs. Grant’s house and stop. The door is wide open, a light from the back room illuminating the hallway as if to welcome visitors. She must have left it open in her zeal to come over and help.  

I turn down her walkway and climb up the stairs to the wooden porch that surrounds the house. I pause for a second to appreciate my own house from this perspective. The grey stucco, white trim and dark mahogany door look smart and professional next to Mrs. Grant’s window boxes and clapboard shutters. Ours is condo-house in the city, a compromise for me and Duncan—my condo, his house.

Even though I’ve known Mrs. Grant for almost a year, I don’t know her first name, and I’ve never been past the fence. Maybe that’s a comment on my city coolness.  More likely it’s because Mrs. Grant is purely annoying.  I could easily pull the door shut and be on my way, but I’m transfixed by the amount of stuff everywhere.  

Piles of old newspapers line the hallway. Knick-knacks, pictures and plastic flowers adorn every table and ledge. Afghans and braided rugs in contrasting colors add to the confusion.

The last of the evening light filters in through a window in the back and illuminates a large jar sitting squarely in the center of the coffee table.  It’s a pickle jar, I suppose, but it’s what’s inside that intrigues me. 

I wipe my feet on the mat and tiptoe down the hallway as if someone’s there. It’s an odd feeling to roam through someone’s house, but I can’t help myself. I stop and stare. Inside the jar appears to be a baby; a fetus floating in water, although I guess it must be formaldehyde. I inch towards the table and drop down to my knees to get a closer look, to see if this is real. 

The baby is small but completely formed, its eyes tightly closed and its tiny mouth open as if it’s breathing in—little flared nostrils, fingernails, everything in miniature. A rosebud waiting to bloom. I reach out and run my finger down the side of the jar. The baby is perfect. But who keeps a fetus in a jar—on display? How would someone even go about doing that? Were there others? I look around the room but there’s nothing but furniture, books and junk. 

Mrs. Grant has children. Grown children. I’d seen them myself. Two sons and what seemed like hoards of grandchildren.  Did she keep this out for the whole world to see? Some sort of strange conversation piece?  I want to get up and run but at the same time I can’t keep my eyes off this baby. I rotate the jar, to see the baby from every angle. Its knees are drawn up so close to its chest that I can’t make out the sex, although I see it as a girl—a beautiful baby girl. 

The room grows dark, and I realize I’ve been gone too long. Mrs. Grant is on my sofa in pain or more likely passed out on painkillers, and I’m here mesmerized by a baby in a jar. Feeling the urge to run, I take off out of the house and pull the door behind me. 

I’m at the end of the walkway when I have a terrible thought.  Is the door locked? Does Mrs. Grant have a key?  Have I locked the woman out of her house and into mine? I bolt back up the stairs and try the door. No luck. The knob doesn’t turn. I press my body against the wood, but it doesn’t budge.  

My only hope is that buried deep within a pocket, Mrs. Grant has a key. She’ll laugh at the situation, thank me for my help and limp back to her baby.  I pray this is the case. I make my way home and quietly open the door in the hope that my visitor is asleep. I could use a few moments to compose myself, have another glass of wine. Should I ask why she has a fetus in a jar on her coffee table or pretend I never saw it? I’m curious, but at the same time there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to know. 

I take off my flip-flops and peek into the living room. The low rumble of snoring and the slow rise and fall of the blanket on Mrs. Grant’s chest assure me that, as a minimum, she’s alive.

I pour myself a glass of wine and pick up the envelope off the counter. Part of me wishes Duncan were here to share in this madness, but at the same time it’s just as well he’s not. He doesn’t like it when things don’t go according to plan, which may be why he discarded me like a shoe without a heel. I turn over the envelope and read.

Sarah, we need to put the house on the market. Vickie wants to stay in Toronto to be closer to everything. I’ve been talking to an agent. It’s time we moved on and we have to sort out our finances. Hope you understand. Give me a call. Duncan

My hands shake as I reach for the wine. We moved to Oakville to start a family, get married. I wanted to stay in the city where I’d be closer to my job, but Duncan convinced me the city was no place for kids. Two years later there was still no baby and no wedding and shortly thereafter no Duncan.  

Soon there’ll be no house from the sounds of it. My mother blames our break-up on not going about things in proper order. According to her, marriage should always come first.

“Sarah?” Mrs. Grant calls out from the living room. “Is that you?”

I drop the note back on the counter, take a deep breath and go to her. “Feeling better?”

“I think so.” Mrs. Grant lifts the injured leg towards her chest and maneuvers her kneecap with her hand. 

“Don’t push it,” I say, afraid she’ll make a bad situation worse and we’ll be spending the evening at Oakville Trafalgar Hospital. “When I took the trash out I noticed your door was open.” I try to sound casual about this, although inside I’m a wringer washer. “I went over and closed it. But it locked. Sorry. Do you have the key with you?” 

“Did you go inside?” 

“Not really,” I say, and instantly regret my response.  I don’t want her to suspect I was poking around. “Why?”

“The place is a mess, that’s all.” Mrs. Grant tries to lift her leg again. “There’s a key to the back door under the mat. You could go around there and then let me in through the front. Be easier that way.”

I stare at Mrs. Grant. Doesn’t she realize I’d walk straight past the fetus if I went in through the back? Has she forgotten she’s left the jar there? “Do you think you’re up to it?”  I ask, suddenly not sure if dealing with her here is worse than confronting the fetus situation at her house. There’d be no escaping it. It’s not exactly something you can ignore. 

Do any of the other neighbours know about this? That’s what I get for not making a better attempt to be part of the neighbourhood. I’m probably the only one around who doesn’t know Mrs. Grant is some strange fetus collector.  For all I know, her granddaughters pop the jar in a stroller and parade it around the streets of Oakville. 

“I should be good to go,” Mrs. Grant says, inching herself forward.

I offer my arm to hoist her off the sofa. “If you’re sure.” 

Mrs. Grant lifts herself an inch or two and then drops back down. “Wait,” she says.

I drop down beside her and take a deep breath. Here it comes.

“I’m feeling a little light headed. Do you think you could give me a bite to eat? Maybe it’s the Codeine.”

I breathe out. “Of course. I’m so sorry. I should have offered.” Something quick and easy is what’s needed here. “I could make you a sandwich.”

“Anything at all.” Mrs. Grant clears her throat. “Oakville’s not such a bad place, you know. I hope you stay.” 

From the kitchen, I ask, “Mayonnaise?” Clearly she’s read the note. 

“People look out for each other here. You’ll fit right in if you make the effort. I guess we all have our issues, our little secrets, but that’s what makes us human.”

Without responding, I slap a sandwich together and venture back into the living room. 

Mrs. Grant takes the plate. “You’re not having anything? No wonder you’re so thin.” She bites into the sandwich and chews. “I should tell you something before you go over to get the key.”

I lower myself onto the sofa and rub my hands along my thighs.

“It’s funny how life works,” Mrs. Grant starts and then stops and looks up. “Is that the other fella out there again?” 

I look up and see lights flash outside. What now? I get up and walk to the window. She’s right. Duncan’s car is in the driveway, but no Vickie this time, thank God. I move back from the window and return to the sofa. What’s worse, the story or another confrontation with Duncan? Which do I want to avoid more?

“You’re not going to talk to him?”

Duncan knocks on the door and rings the bell.

“Don’t you think he can see you’re home?” Mrs. Grant looks at me and then back again at the door. “You can’t avoid him forever. Sometimes you’ve got to face things head on.”

I let him knock one more time before I get up and go to the door. “I’ll be right back” I say, and slip outside.

“Is that Mrs. Grant?” Duncan cranes his neck to look inside as the door snaps shut behind me.

“Yup.” My response is short and sharp. “It’s been quite the night. Nice note.”

“That’s why I’m here. I should have waited until you were home to talk. I thought the note would give you a chance to think, get used to the idea.”

“It was you who wanted to move here.” I rest my back against the door and cross my arms over my chest.

“It’s just that I know you’re settled now.”

“Your concern is touching.” I glance over at Mrs. Grant’s house.  “Look. I can’t talk about your little plan right now, okay. I’m losing my mind.  Mrs. Grant’s been here since I got home. I seriously need your help.”

Duncan glances at his watch. “I don’t have much time. I’ve got the listing agreement in the car. I just need for you to sign it. Ask her to go home so we can talk.”

“It’s not that simple. She hurt her knee and she weighs like three hundred pounds.” I glare at him. “You have an agent’s agreement? Haven’t you been busy? You’re so full of shit. If you could have left the agreement in the mailbox you would have. Instead you have a nice meal out with what’s her name and then come over here to feign concern for me and my feelings when in reality all you want is my signature.”

Duncan turns towards his car. “I’ll come back when you’re more rational.”

Before he can go any further, I open the door wide and call out to Mrs. Grant. “Duncan’s offered to help you get home. Isn’t that great?”

I climb the creaky back stairs and reach under the mat for the key. From the window, a lamp casts a glow on the jar, and I hold my breath as I slide the key into the lock.  Inside, I kneel back down to study the baby. Both strange and beautiful, I fight the urge to press this glass womb up against my abdomen. Life would be simple if we could all go off to the store and pick up a baby in a jar. Keep it on the shelf until we’re ready to open it and let it grow. It would be fair that way. 

Maybe Mrs. Grant isn’t crazy. Maybe she wanted to keep what was hers, what she wanted and what she loved. Maybe she can’t let go and hopes this baby will come back to life. People make mistakes. Maybe this is one of them. Who am I to judge? It’s not easy moving on.

I rise and create a makeshift bed on the sofa with the throw pillows and an old knitted afghan.  When I hear voices, I clear everything off the coffee table except for the jar, and then I open the front door wide.

“Made it,” Mrs. Grant says and lets go of Duncan’s arm. “I’m not done-for yet.” She grabs on to the thick wooden doorframe and chuckles.

Duncan catches his breath. “You okay from here?”

“Help her onto the sofa.” I point in the direction of the back room. “I made a place for her there. She’ll never make it upstairs.”

From behind Mrs. Grant, Duncan gives me a face and points at his watch.

“Duncan will get you settled.”  I ignore the face and step onto the front porch. I pat Mrs. Grant on the back. “I’ll check on you tomorrow.”

“You’re a doll,” she says, and grabs a hold of Duncan’s arm as they head towards the back room. 

***

In the garden, the full moon guides my shovel as I cut through the soil around the roots of the rose bush. 

I hear Mrs. Grant’s door slam shut and then the rhythm of Duncan’s boots fast on the sidewalk. He stops in his tracks when he gets to our yard. “What’re you doing?”  

“Clearing out the weeds.” I don’t look up until the bush releases its hold.

“Do you know what she has over there?” He sounds as if he’s trying to catch his breath.

“I know.” I drop the bush into an old bucket.

“She’s crazy.”

“Is she?” Kneeling down, I press soil firmly around the roots of the bush until it’s anchored in its new home. 

“Yes, crazy. Unless your definition of crazy is different than mine.”

I stand up and look Duncan squarely in the eyes. “Maybe it is.” 

“It’s a fetus. In a jar. Crazy.” Duncan twirls his index finger around his temple.

I get back on my hands and knees and spread the mulch and soil evenly around the garden until there’s so sign of the hole. “I’m keeping the house.” 

"You’re kidding.”

“No. Serious.”

“Christ, Sarah. Now who’s the crazy one?” Duncan slaps his hands against his thighs.

“You? Me? All of us?” I stand up and spear the shovel into the ground. “We don’t need an agent. I’ll buy you out.”

Duncan throws his hands in the air. “You don’t know what you want.”

“Maybe—but I know I what I don’t want.” I drop the rose bush into his outstretched arms and turn and walk inside my house.

#


Carolyn Pledge Amaral was raised on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and now lives in Bermuda. The Root of the Matter won third prize in the 2012 Hazel Hilles Memorial Short Fiction Prize. 

Also by Carolyn Pledge Amaral: SNOWBIRDS and TAILSPIN

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