There was a sofa in the garden and he was sitting in it. She came out onto the verahnda and called “dahling.” She talked like that because she had a lot of monnnney. Arthur ignored her and twisted his toes round the tulips, grinning over how grand it was to have a sofa in the garden. And it was a quite lovely sofa to boot, with sproingy springs, a yeilding cotton upholstery, and blue striped patten. Her mother came on Sundays to visit and she was positively confuzzled about the garden sofa, but she never said anything out loud. She just sucked her tea through her pink lipstick and laughed politely in her throat. Hmm hmm hmm.
Arthur Kensington was really a clown. He looked very normal on the outside, but on the inside he was a whole circus. In fact this very day he was looking back and forth and back and forth because his eyes were trapezes. The willow tree cross the green green grass to the little gardener’s house cross more grass to the fountain then the frog pond. And then all the way back again. Back and forth back and forth. Mrs. Kensington called “dahling” but Arthur was trapezing his eyes and so did not hear her.
Arthur had dirty toenails because he was always in the dirt without his shoes. Rich people are supposed to wear shoes. They are supposed to powder their feet before they slip them between the sheets at night. They are supposed to have trim little nails and thin little ankles. But Arthur didn’t do that or have either. And boy did Mrs. Kensington hate it. Boy oh boy oh. She and her mother went to the salon after their tea on Sundays to make their feet pretty. She did not walk in the dirt in the gardens, no matter how inviting the dark dirt might be.
They had a daughter. She lived in the forest. She was a little elf. Pointy ears and a drawn face and high ruddy cheekbones, right out of a fairy tale. The elf was nine. She had an English accent even though she was born and raised in Pennsylvania. No one knew where she got it. Arthur thought she had picked it up from the wood nymphs because all wood nymphs are English. The little girl thought the sofa in the garden was preposterous. She prefered to sit on the grass or in the frog pond. When she sat in the frog pond she got wet pants. The liked elf ran naked sometimes. Visitors would smile and say ah little girls, knowing full well that only three-year-old little girls are permitted to run naked. Mrs. Kensington would smile with the rest of guests, but inside she would be a volcano.
She called “dahling” again and he finally decided to hear her and said “what” and she clicked her tongue and said that there were guests coming for mint juleps and would he please put his shoes on and come onto the verahnda. But Arthur didn’t like mint juleps and didn’t like guests and didn’t even really like his wife so he said “what, I can’t hear you” and she said “you heard me before” and he said “but I can’t hear you now” and she said “well then come closer” and he shook his head and pointed at his ears like they weren’t working under these conditions. He plucked a tulip with his toes and then felt bad about it. She called and called but he was deaf and mourning the tulip. Why oh why did we ever put a sofa in the garden she thought and huffed and puffed and hiccupped molten lava and then went inside. The guests were coming in thirty minutes and she wanted to be ready for them.
I was the boy who lived in the shed. I was nine. My name was Mulch. No one called me this cause no one called me in the first place.
The sofa had wooden little claws wrapped round balls like a bathtub. The balls were half buried in the garden. No tulips grew beneath the sofa cause there was no light there. Arthur fancied himself to be tan cause there was sunlight on top of the sofa and that’s where he most often was, toes round the tulips. Arthur fancied himself to be jaunty. If he had a top hat he would wear it crooked on purpose. Arthur fancied himself to be a roving spirit, free to traverse the wilderness of the estate, free to walk soft over the green green grass, free to walk to the edge of where the elf lived.
Arthur saw the elf more than Mrs. Kensington cause he was outside more. He saw her fly once. Not fly like a bird but fly like a squirrel, staying up in the air a little longer than one would think possible. She was up in a tree and the bottoms of her feet were pink. Her knees were pink and her fingertips and her ears and her cheeks were pink too. The rest of her was white white white. The elf had wrapped her pink little toes round a branch and swung her long skinny arms out and then she was off flying through the air a bit akimbo. Sometimes Arthur wondered if she was really his daughter. She didn’t look like him. He secretly wondered if his wife had conceived the child with some woodland fairytale creature.
Arthur snapped the head off another tulip cause he wasn’t paying attention, and he felt very bad indeed. Two in one afternoon. Poor tulips. This one was red. He dug a little hole in the spongy dirt with his toes and pushed the tulip in. He mumbled like a priest during the part of the mass when a priest mumbles to himself. You know the part, when he’s holding the wine and he says “this is the blood” and things like that and then he looks down and sort of talks to the wine all softly and then he takes a sip. The man mumbled like that. He was having a little funeral for the tulip. The other tulips leaned in and threw dirt on the grave. The tulip’s lover shed a tear. No more quiet dark midnights of cross-pollination for those two. The tulip hung her head and remembered the past. The man shared his condolences and squinted into the afternoon sun.
The elf was watching him from the frog pond. Only the top of her head was above the water. She did not make ripples. Her nostrils moved in and out when she breathed. The bottom of the frog pond was smooth granite stones. The elf’s toes slid across them and her nostrils went in and out. I watched the elf who watched the man who watched the sun. The sun watched no one. The sun was many miles away and did not really care about anything.
The elf knew I lived in the shed. We shared a guarded existence. Sometimes she would appear in the doorway, leaning against the rough wood, her arms crossed, her eyes so green. I was in love with her.
Once, before dawn, I went looking for her in the woods. She of course heard me coming because she had large pointy ears. I was also making a racket. When I saw her she was standing pale on a patch of moss. It was very dark but she seemed to be glowing a little. I believed her to be magic. She blinked and I breathed a slight hello in her direction. She blinked again and I said that I really should be going, given the time and all. She shifted her weight and I turned and ran.
Mrs. Kensington appeared on the verahnda again and Arthur forgot to be deaf. She called him and he turned his head and she said the guests were in the drive and would he please put on his shoes. His shoes, by the way, were snappy and white and black. The man sometimes imagined them to be giant clown shoes, and walked with big steps accordingly. When he did this, especially if he did this in front of company, the woman’s insides would smolder.
He put on his shoes, sooo slooow, and Mrs. Kensington imagined the sun colliding with the earth before he would ever get up off that sofa. The elf watched her from the frog pond. She blew three bubbles. Arthur set to tying his laces. Mrs. Kensington sighed and then sighed louder and the doorbell rang. Then she turned into a dragon and breathed fire at her husband, blazing for him to get up onto the verahnda now. And boy did that man move. One moment he was on the sofa and the next moment he was standing by the mixers on the veranda. The dragon turned back into a woman and went inside to answer the door. The elf ducked below the surface of the water and did not come up again for a full three and a half minutes.
In almost no time at all the afternoon guests spilled onto the veranda, holding out syllables in funny ways and pursing their lips and pointing their toes. One man’s tie was too tight and another woman’s nylons had a tear slightly above her left knee, but no one saw because her skirt went to mid-calf. Mrs. Brimsley set to talking about her neighbors and Mr. Carrington set to talking about Mrs. Brimsley to Mr. Hawthorne, who secretly had a thing for her. Ms. Hawkins showed everyone her engagement ring. The ladies sounded like hyenas, except for Mrs. Welshmire, who sounded like a cicada. The men sounded like very loud white noise. Mrs. Kensington bumped around her guests like a dying mosquito while her husband, Arthur Kensington the tulip-killer, stood uncomfortably in his shoes. People got soppy with sweetened alcohol, the afternoon wore away, and a line of ants made its way across the veranda without anyone noticing.
The elf watched everyone with mild interest from her froggy surveillance location. There were indeed frogs in the frog pond, big fat ones, smooth and green. They crowded on the south bank whenever the elf swam in their pond, utterly petrified of the girl. Sometimes the frogs ran away into the forest, but the gardener always found them and brought them back. The elf liked to put the frogs in the fountain. The frogs believed the fountain to be a place of luxury, with whirlpools and everything. The elf liked to watch the frogs go round and round in the rapids of the fountain.
There were also fish in the frog pond, brilliant goldfish, all shimmery and sunny. They didn’t care in the slightest if the elf joined them in the water or not. Her legs were fun to swim around. They glowed underwater. The elf glowed almost everywhere she went, but especially underwater.
I watched the guests on the veranda from the shack. They all had bad teeth and very manicured hands. I spent a lot of time watching Arthur Kensington, who spent a lot of time smiling up at the sky. He was picturing little men jumping from cloud to cloud. He was picturing himself lounging on puffy white pillows, swimming through the air. Every so often Mr. Suffolk would come over to Arthur and ask about the office, which was funny, because Arthur didn’t have an office. Arthur didn’t do much besides sit on the sofa in the garden. Sometimes he had a hand at painting, but he was really only decent at drawing cubes, which got tiresome after a while. Arthur liked to draw cubes because they made sense. The lines slanted and tilted and joined together and all of a sudden there would be a box that looked a little bit real, lying flat on the paper. It was just a bunch of lines and then it was an object, just like that. He would draw the cubes in pencil and then highlight them with watercolors. Mr. Suffolk would ask Mr. Kensington about the office and Mr. Kensington would reply that he didn’t really have an office, and Mr. Suffolk would congratulate him on another year of good business, and Mr. Kensington would look confused and say something like “nice tie” or “beautiful weather” and Mr. Suffolk would make pleasant sounds inside his mouth and then walk away. This happened several times over the course of the afternoon.
Mrs. Kensington, meanwhile, spent a good deal of time casting disapproving looks at her husband and having a daydream of the elf coming onto the veranda in a sundress and curtsying for the pretty ladies. Mrs. Rowley and Mrs. Kensington had a lovely conversation about day lilies. Mrs. Rowley was very drunk. She said lilies like this. Lee-lees. One of her fake eyelashes was coming a little loose.
Just when I noticed the eyelash and wished for it to fall off completely, I felt the elf behind me in the doorway. I turned and she dripped wet and looked at me and she dripped more, hair plastered onto her shoulders. If I had known how to kiss I would have done it then cause she had just spent three hours in the frog pond and she was a beautiful fairytale creature and I was a boy and she was a girl. The grass around her feet fell in love with her too. It leaned in and rested on her toes, longing to be close to her. Her presence made the chlorophyll run wild. The grass got greener and greener the longer the elf stood staring at me, dripping and lovely. The sparrows outside sang her a minuet and a dusty ray of sun clambered in through the window. To run away from her would be to burst through the rough wood of the shack. She was at the only door, nine and slender and pale, preventing my love from letting me flee. An inchworm crawled across the floor. The back of my neck was hot. I wanted to curl up with her in the grass. I wanted to follow her into the forest where she would teach me about wild berries and edible mushrooms, where she would show me how to chip glassy mica from the rocks, where she would introduce me to the little fairies and wood nymphs, hiding shy behind the birches. I wanted to hold her slim fingers in mine. I wanted to touch the rough skin on her elbows and knees. I wanted her to say my name. I wanted to watch her disappear up a tree and come down another. I wanted her to come closer. I wanted her to wanted her to wanted her I wanted her.
Mrs. Rowley crashed into the side of the shed, tipsy as anything, her great weight making the wood groan. The elf vanished, turning instantly from matter to energy in front of my eyes, and I ducked into the corner, pulling garden tools and tarps over me. Mrs. Rowley laughed and laughed and laughed and she was stuck on the ground, a big ol’ boat in a sea of gin. The party guests threw etiquette to the wind, soused as they were, and laughed and laughed and laughed right along with Mrs. Rowley, who rocked back and forth in repeated attempts to heft herself into a sitting position at least. Mrs. Rowley was like a big fish. Flop flop flop. The party guests got zooey. Yee-haw, they threw off their coats, kicked off their shoes, and dove into the lawn. The weakest swimmers tread the air closest to the veranda, while the strongest made it all the way to the shed, uprighting Mrs. Rowley and slapping their knees, tickled pink. Mrs. Rowley sang a drunken song called, “I was trying to get to the sideboard on the veranda but tripped all the way to the shed what a sloshed and silly woman am I!” Everyone sang along. Everyone loved Pennsylvania and all of their money and the song Mrs. Rowley made up and, jolly jolly, being alive and, rolly ho, being the most wealthy, educated, beautiful people they had ever met. Hooray!
Ah. Then they settled down and put their shoes back on but kept their ties loose. Ms. Brimsley allowed her hand to brush Mr. Carrington’s knee as they sat on the steps of the veranda. Mr. Suffolk finally stopped talking. Arthur Kensington laughed every so often, like the aftershocks after an earthquake. Everyone told stories about their part in the rousing rescue mission to the shed. Mrs. Kensington told Arthur to get out his canvas and paints so he could paint a picture of all of them sitting there, because they were just so clever and bright. Arthur submitted to her plea, set up his easel, and began drawing cubes. The ladies drew up straight and tried to look coy, the men stared off at the horizon and tried to look like heroes. Arthur peered at them every few moments, but continued drawing his two dimensional lines and his three dimensional shapes.
And then the party was over and people slowly bounced out the door. Goodbye.
And then it was dusk and Arthur Kensington had a smoke on the sofa in the garden and the smoke trailed up slow into the dark blue, and the crickets came out. The air pulsed with their music. Arthur tried to figure out the temperature by counting the chirps. He knew there was some formula. Thinking he had it, he figured the temperature to be eleven degrees. Arthur pictured himself sitting under a veil of snow, smoking a pipe. Ha. He wondered what snow would be like if it were as warm as dusky summertime. He wondered how much tobacco he had left in his pocket. He wondered if the tulips went to sleep at night. He wondered if a cricket conductor led the crickets in their song. A cricket with a tailcoat. A cricket atop a podium, a baton in hand, a score in front of him. All of the other crickets poised and ready, eyes gently lifting upward, breathing slow, waiting for the downward motion of the baton, waiting to pulse the air and lull little children to sleep. Arthur imagined himself to be a virtuoso violin player. His violin would be from the sixteen hundreds. It would be deep red and sound like a young woman singing. When Arthur played, his eyelids would flutter and he would be in a different place in a different time. When Arthur played, others would be reminded of beauty.
Arthur was not a clown when the sun went away. He was a lover, a great romantic, a novelist who had not yet written down the words, a composer, an artist. He knew French when the sun fell. He spoke in iambic pentameter without having to count the syllables on his fingers. The kisses he blew to the wind were as sweet as honeysuckle. He knew the word for love in a hundred different languages.
I watched him in the garden, the glass of the window cool of my forehead. He stood and stretched slowly, resting his hands on the small of his back and surveying the estate. He tapped the pipe on the arm of the sofa. Tap tap tap. He turned and slowly waltzed into the house, Don Juan, Casanova, Lord Byron, Virgil. Before he walked through the door he turned and whispered, “Adieu. Adieu. Parting is such sweet sorrow.” The frogs in the frog pond heard him. They shed a tear because it was evening and summer and frogs always cry when they hear Shakespeare. Then Arthur was gone. He had left his shoes in the garden. His shoes were fine with this. They liked to sleep outside.
The gardener’s name was Levin. He came to clean up the party. His duties included not only repairing the tulips but also clearing away the bottles and mopping up the liquor. He began to sing an old song. It went like this. It’s a long long way from Claire to here / It’s a long long way from Claire to here / Oh it’s a long long way / It gets further day by day / It’s a long long way from Claire to here. Levin was British but this was an Irish song. Once Levin visited Ireland, but he didn’t get beat up cause he could do the accent. He went to a pub and the man next to him on the bench passed out on his shoulder. His name was Phillip. Phillip woke up once to ask if Levin had a “pilla” but before Levin could answer, he passed out again. The man across from Levin was named John and he was also drunk as anything. When a young guy entered the bar and asked if anyone was sitting on the last stool at the table, John responded, “well if there is, he’s very very small” and then he laughed and passed out onto the floor, hard.
There were a bunch of students in the pub playing music. One song one beer one song one beer. Phillip began singing from Levin’s shoulder real quiet and the band caught on and began playing real quiet and a hush fell and everyone leaned in to listen to the old, old song. Levin thought Phillip was crazy, singing when he was all passed out, but no one else did and Phillip got louder and the band got louder and Phillip opened his eyes and the people stood and Phillip climbed up onto the table and the men put their hats to their hearts and all the people knew all the words and it sounded like a long time ago, it sounded like peat moss and green and low hills and wet blades of grass, and then the song was over and Phillip passed out again and someone got him a drink. Levin never forgot the song and he sang it then, on the veranda. It’s a long long way from Claire to here.
Levin and the elf were friends. They didn’t speak much because they were both British and so they already knew what the other was thinking. As Levin cleaned, the elf walked slowly over the glass, raising her toes ever so slowly, transferring her little bit of weight back and forth, skin white as the moon. The grass was cool. The wood of the veranda was still warm from the sun. Levin turned and saw the elf there, standing on the edge of the veranda. He nodded, she nodded. He went to pat the elf on the head but then thought better of it. He finished cleaning and stepped off to his cottage at the edge of the woods.
The elf stood very still amid the tulips for several long moments, breathing in and out. She reached up to push her hair behind her ears and then stretched, reaching up to the sky. My eyes were dry and sleepy, but I rubbed my knuckles into them and put my forehead against the glass of the window, letting the cool air pass against my face. Then the elf nodded and set off resolutely into the forest for bedtime. I wanted to follow her, but I felt unsteady on my feet, too sleepy for so much love. So I backed away from the window and tiredly jumped up to grab the grey beam below the sloped roof of the shed. I hung there for a minute or two, fingers curved over the angular old wood, my neck and arms and spine all stretched out.
There was a pile of mulch on the corner. Levin had been meaning to put it out in the garden, but then I showed up and he let it alone. It smelled good, sweet. I dropped to the ground lay down atop it. Pulling a tarp over me, eyes shut tight against the dark, I went off to sleep.