When Steve gets up, he puts on his
glasses, slides into shorts, walks downstairs to feed his two
cats, makes coffee, and then goes out to the garden, his
amusement park of petals. In summer, possibility surges
through each stem, winks from buds. Winter twists in chains in
a locked box under the garden.
He has few rules for his garden. He wants
flowers to bend spring, summer, and fall around stems. He
plants nothing he can eat, but makes an exception for
nasturtiums, which can be put in salads (which he hates).
Another rule is: weed! Quack grass pokes
through tangling nasturtiums. Weeds remind us of all we
can’t control. Steve wants to control his life, his demons.
So he weeds. And the weeds return.
Each year he adds more nasturtiums. He
began with a few orange ones. They did well, so the next year
he got some striped ones. Yellows came the next year. He
builds his symphony instrument by instrument – each variety
improves the music. This year he has some crimson ones, grown
from a seed packet given by a gas station as a “thank you”
for patronizing them.
When he first visits his garden, he walks
quickly past glamorous roses and necks-held-straight
foxgloves, wants to see how many blossoms are on the
nasturtiums. He hasn’t gone as far as writing down the
number each day, but he revels in color waves drifting up to
the shore of his feet.
Neither of his parents had much interest
in gardens. His dad loved NASCAR racing and his mom loved
indoor decorating. Even as a kid, Steve wanted to grow
flowers, and they didn’t stop him, though his father worried
that Steve wasn’t a “normal” boy. His mother was pleased
it wasn’t anything dangerous.
He remembers his grandmother Ada, who
died when she was 89, his favorite relative. An only child, he
was often the center of adult interest, the toy child for the
grown-ups to play with. Ada was different. At family parties,
she’d sneak away from the rest of them, usually her three
sisters and their husbands, her son, her daughter, and their
“Where’s Grandma?” someone
eventually piped up.
Grandma was in the back yard, on hands
and knees, showing Steve the secret world of soil, a magic
entrance anyone could find between petals of most flowers. Ada
was particularly fond of nasturtiums. When she died, she
wanted no glads, no roses. Her coffin was surrounded by potted
plants. Steve brought a pot of nasturtiums to Lang’s Funeral
When he grew up and moved away from
Dayton, he got a job sorting mail in a post office. He had
followed Jim, his partner who he had met in his senior year of
college, to Donalds, South Carolina. He and Jim rented a ranch
house. Jim had a job in nearby Greenwood and enjoyed
gardening, but not as much Steve.
The first day he was there Steve started
digging up the soil around the house – a 95-degree June day.
Jim and the movers were putting the furniture in place as he
sank the shovel into the unworked earth. He felt guilty about
not being more help in the moving process, but couldn’t
resist digging right in.
Steve and Jim were the only people with
jobs on their street. Most of the residents were poor, and
some had terrible family situations. Others had rotten health.
He knew he was a curiosity, weeding, planting, deadheading,
transplanting. Over the past couple of years, a few neighbors
got jobs and a few moved away. Now whenever people drop in,
many remark how beautiful his garden is, pointing to cardinal
flowers, cosmos, and roses. Few ever mention the nasturtiums.
Some flowers get taken for granted, lost among larger or
And nasturtiums have hardly any smell.
With a rose, people like to linger, sniff. Often roses are
tall. Nasturtiums huddle around ankles and calves, names
rarely known. A rose may get named for a famous person: Helen
Traubel, Billy Graham, Dolly Parton. The nasturtium is not a
magnet for the famous.
But each nasturtium offers its silent
room. Steve can shrink himself to less than half an inch tall.
It’s not hard. He just closes his eyes. It’s not magic.
It’s like eating or breathing.
He finds a nasturtium with a crimson
hallway leading into a crimson room and closes its doors
behind him. There he relaxes almost completely. It is
difficult to walk back out through the crimson door to the
world where he is six feet tall and has to work. The post
office doors are metallic, not soft doors of a flower which
are strong enough to keep thunderstorms from destroying the
Once inside the metallic doors, relaxing
is forbidden. Steven thinks of tigers kept in cages in old
zoos, how they would look out with terrified, angry eyes,
needing some place to walk, to run, but finding only the lock
and bars. They hear constant human footsteps during the day,
sounds of other creatures at night.
While at work, Steve yearns for the
crimson room, sometimes tries to shrink himself and enter it
in his mind, but it doesn’t work. Wanted posters, missing
children posters, customers, the press of mail coming in,
needing to be sorted – this world is designed for the large.
To shrink here would put him at the mercy of carnivorous
stamps and poison-tipped pens.
Even the crimson room isn’t always
safe. One day Steve went inside it and heard a terrible noise
followed by screaming. He looked out of a window and saw a
basketball from the kid next door had bounced onto the
nasturtiums, smashing several rooms. Steve’s room was
spared, but maybe next time the ball bomb would fall on him,
the crimson walls now forming his coffin.
And rabbits. Growing so close to the
ground, nasturtiums can be places where rabbits stop to rest
or, sensing danger, to stay still. They flatten the flowers,
But those are outside dangers. Sometimes
when he feels ready to let go, breathe deeply and rest, demons
come. Steve knows that closing the door means nothing to a
demon. If he can become half an inch tall, demons can become
thinner than paper and slip under a door like a note.
Demons never say when they’ll stop by.
They might stay away for weeks, but other times when Steve
enters the crimson hall, they’re already there, making tea,
playing guitar. It’s too late then. They surround him, tease
him, make threats. The crimson walls take on the color of
blood. When Steve looks at his skin, he thinks he sees them,
smaller than freckles. He flees but can’t escape. He knows
only the demons can free him, calls out for help, but the same
silence he treasures when they are absent also blocks any
Nameless, the demons can adopt different
faces from Steve’s life outside of the crimson room. The
faces merge, blend, split apart, become another face. His
father becomes his mother. Jim becomes a thief, sometimes a
killer. Steve closes his eyes, waits.
Eventually, they leave, slipping back
under the door. At least so far they have always left. Steve
wonders if the peace that comes by entering the room is worth
the risk of these attacks. He could stay outside remain tall,
but demons appear in that world too. They have no borders, so
hiding isn’t possible.
He knows they’re going to return but
goes to the post office. Then he comes home to the crimson
room, hopes for the best, and usually the silence opens before
him, a flower within a flower. He falls asleep, dreams. Crafty
demons drive speedboats in our bloodstream right into our
dreaming brains. We think we’re entering a world where
we’re free, but there they are, on the pier, waving as we
The nasturtiums are large this year,
bigger than ever, above round green leaves. Steve dreams of
them as lovely places he can explore. Till winter. In January,
he spends hours going through the many seed catalogues that
arrive almost every day. Sometimes he says the names of his
favorite flowers, relaxes in their syllables. But even there
he isn’t safe. Even then the demons sometimes come.
A sound of chains rattling, steel locks
breaking. Snow falling on abandoned rooms.