Balanced and Serene
short story by
John William Tuohy
Francis Mooney loved his garden and his cat and his friend Ludy Boltzmann. Ludwig was gone now, their cat, the one they had adopted, was not far behind him, and the rain that morning kept him from his garden. It was Ludy that gave him his first, last and only Valentine’s Day gift, a dozen red roses.
Dressed in his blue jeans and white thermal shirt that were tattered and worn from the weather, he drove his pickup to a late breakfast at the Valley Diner. A smiling young man in an ill-fitting black suit and a peculiar tie in the company of a smiling young woman held the door open for him as he entered.
He slid his aging, narrow frame into his usual booth, the one towards the front and folded his hands on the table and crossed his legs in a way that was unfamiliar in the Valley.
What he liked about the Diner was that it never changed, ever. Not one single thing about it had changed since he first came here forty, or was it fifty years ago. Even the potholes in the parking lot remained the same, unchanging in size or depth, year after year.
Time stood still in the Valley Diner.
He looked out of the fog-stained window and watched a well-dressed young man in his mid- thirties pacing around the parking lot. He perused the plastic covered menu, although he knew its’ contents by heart. It’s what people who eat alone do, day after day. They read the menu. These days, he ate alone but it was all right. He didn’t mind and that was why he enjoyed the Diner so. He never felt alone here in this unchanging place. He saw that the wall clock read twelve as it always did in this place. It was as if time stopped here. Besides, he liked to be alone on these dark and rain swept days.
Turning his gaze again to the window from the snug warmth of his favorite booth, he thought that the rain meant more to him now that he was a man of the gardening science, as Ludwig used to call it. Rain is an important event to a gardener’s soul.
These days, these dark and windy days reminded him of so many things. They reminded him of the vacation to Dublin, Ireland, and that reminded him of his mother, Terra, and he thought about how much he missed her in his life. They were Dubliners. He was a private man. He never told her about himself. It was not the sort of thing one discussed with Terra Mooney; it was one of the many, many things one did not discuss with Terra Mooney. But she knew about him, he was fairly certain that she knew about him.
He was a private man. Aside from a small circle of friends, he never discussed his life with Ludwig, how happy they had been all those decades, and how much he missed him in every second that passed and with every breath he took. And when he shared those things with his small circle of friends, he would cry and they would hold him and tell him he and Ludwig would be together again and that everything was all right. But then, another one of them would die and the small circle of friends would grow even smaller.
His thoughts returned to Terra. That was what he called her, Terra. He had never called her mother or ma, but Terra. It was the way things worked out. Unlike him, Terra had never, in her long life, found a man who made her happy. Still, she was a remarkable woman in an unremarkable way. She had left the poverty of her childhood in Europe as a girl of fifteen years and arrived in New York City by boat, alone. She married the first man who asked her. He turned out to be a drunk, and a mean one at that, who beat her. Or at least he did until one day, after he slapped her, she took a coal shovel and beat him unconscious with it. She took Francis by the hand and with thirty dollars in her worn pocket, took the first train out of the city. They landed in New Haven, as far away as her money would take them, which, as it turned out, was only as far as Connecticut.
She was a doting mother and overly protective to her only child. She was his muse, his pusher and shaker and his motivator. Although Francis grew to be a strapping young teen with a natural inclination for almost any sport he tried, she kept him from the rougher contact games and guided him into figure skating and tennis, where he excelled.
“It’s the tennis game,” she said with one of her exaggerated winks “where you’ll meet the gals with the money.”
His reminiscence was interrupted by a short, homely man who was draped in a waiter’s white coat. He seemed to appear from nowhere. Francis recognized him as the porter although he had barely noticed him so many times in the past.
“The waitress is late,” the homely little man said in a voice that was much, much too loud and brimming with both resignation and disapproval. It made Francis wonder if the little man wanted him to leave or was simply creating a one sided conversation.
“I’m gonna take your order,” he said in what sounded to be more of a threat than an offer. Francis sat forward in good humor and joined the little man’s no-nonsense demeanor.
“Okay,” Francis pronounced. The little man readied his stubby yellow pencil and prepared for the next onslaught of words, taking a stance as if he were prepared to absorb a terrible blow.
“Tea,” Francis said decidedly, for this was one of those moments in life that one needed to be direct.
“Tea, what?” the homely little man asked without lifting his concerted glare from the notepad.
“I’m sorry?” Francis replied.
“Why?” the little man asked, this time lifting his gaze from the pad and looking at Francis with deep concern. “You can have tea if you want it,” and then he waved his arm majestically across the whole of the room and said, “This is a Diner.”
Francis did not know how to respond to that either, so he nodded appreciatively and he was now fairly certain that this odd-looking fellow was not only condescending to Francis, but he was losing patience with him as well. There was an uncomfortable silence between them for what seemed like an eternity. Francis spoke carefully.
“May I have a cup of tea?” he asked.
The little man darted his eyes quickly to the right, sighed, and once again waved his hand tiredly across the whole of the Diner.
“I’m sorry, I’ll try to be more astute and aggressive,” Francis said. “I would like a cup of tea.”
The odd-looking little man bowed his head in defeat. He was really growing tired of Francis. “You have to tell me what kind of tea you want.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask this,” Francis said carefully, “but what are my choices?” and then added quickly, “or do I have choices? I apologize for not knowing.”
The man answered in a tone that was breathtakingly patronizing although Francis understood it was this person’s way of explaining the overly complex things in life the way he would like to have them explained to him.
“They got regular tea,” he said looking back at the counter. “That’s the regular kind. They got the kind with the yellow tag with the Chinese guy on it and they got that other kind.”
“Ah! The other kind!” Francis said with raised eyebrows and a mock delight that prayed the man would not understand for he did not want to be cruel or mean.
“I absolutely love the other kind,” he continued rubbing his hands together briskly “Bring that, Garcon!”
“My name isn’t Garcon,” he replied and then he leaned forward and whispered, “girls drink tea, so I’ll bring it to you in a coffee cup.”
“Thank you,” Francis whispered in reply and then the little man disappeared behind the black swinging door that led to the kitchen. He reappeared several minutes later with a piping hot cup of black coffee in a teacup.
“There you go,” the little man said proudly and very loudly.
As the little man disappeared behind the black door once again, a woman that Francis determined to be the actual waitress, a determination he made solely on the fact that she had the desperate look of lateness about her, rushed into the kitchen.
He knew the desperate look well. His mother wore it, and she wore it constantly. The look was a mixture of fear on the edge of exasperation, all of it self-imposed although she blamed money for the cause of her constant, unending worry. And because of that, she worked and she worked and she worked in the rubber shop in Naugatuck, five days a week on the first shift, gluing the soles on men’s sneakers. Three nights a week, she worked at the snack bar at the Valley Bowl and Pins. On weekends, she tended after Mrs. Whitehead who, when she died, left them her expansive Victorian home on North Cliff Street, because all her family and anyone whom she had ever known, except Terra and Francis and the parish priests, had died decades before.
He wore the finest clothes and the latest fashions and when he was old enough to drive, something she never learned to do, she bought him a new car. Terra never expected him to work to help lessen her self-imposed burden. He offered, many times, but she pretended not to hear. He wanted for nothing because of her endless labors. He rewarded her by never causing a problem of any kind at all, and by always achieving the highest grades and by being her dearest and closest friend. When the time came for him to go to college, he chose the nearby catholic Fairfield University. Although with his grades he could have chosen any school he wanted, that would have meant leaving home and leaving Terra alone, so he stayed close. He was a good son.
The late waitress breezed out of the kitchen through the black door and on to the Diner floor, like a heroine in a play. She walked quickly up to his table, a familiar small note pad, and stubby yellow pencil in her hand and he wondered how much of a struggle the odd-looking fellow had put up before handing those treasured instruments back to their rightful owner.
“Do you need anything?” she asked in a way that was deeply sincere. He looked at her. She was very young and there was vulnerability about her. He wanted to ask what was wrong but he was certain she might tell him and he was a very private man and had no room for her troubles in his life. But he thought that she had a good face, an Irish face, honest and complete in its revelation of her every thought and feeling.
“A menu,” he said and she disappeared wordlessly to fetch him one.
He was an art major in college and an outstanding one at that. He never told Terra. “Art indeed,” she would have said. “College and education are serious issues not to be squandered”…oh how she loved to use that word, squandered, “on things as useless as art and such.”
No, she had other plans for him. One day, as graduation approached and without asking him, Terra marched up to the rubber shop’s international headquarters in Oxford. With the skillful use of charm and flattery, she landed an unscheduled meeting with the company chairman. When it was over, they emerged on a first name basis and with a managerial position for Francis. He would be the facilities coordinator for the corporate office. Not quite a mailroom clerk but not far from it either.
“The only man in the history of the Mooney family,” Terra beamed with pride, “to ever wear a suit and tie to work.”
He took the job because he needed a job but hated his work. He planned to leave when he could and he told her as much. He would be a high school art teacher. It was the first time in his life that he saw her cry and when the crying stopped it was the first time he had seen her truly angry and it was a frightening experience. Afterwards, she did not speak to him for weeks.
So he stayed. He left for work each morning from the house on North Cliff Street, dressed in the drab colored suits that Terra chose for him, carrying the bland lunch that Terra packed for him in plain brown paper bags.
They ate at home every night. The food in restaurants disagreed with them and they were frugal New Englanders. After each meal, they watched television until ten, usually in silence. On Saturday, there was food shopping and Mass on Sunday. Aside from the occasional trips to Dublin, nothing in their lives changed except the level of his dissatisfaction with his life, this life that drained the color from his existence. He aimed low in everything if only to be assured of an occasional sense of having won something. And because of that, he felt like it was always winter in the discontentment that was his life. Because of that, nothing was easy because nothing was right, nothing was balanced, and he knew no peace from the voices raging inside his head reminding him of what a hopeless failure he was.
As the years passed, forty of them in total, he came to forget what his dreams had been because he assumed his dreams would never be anything more than dreams and he buried them. And so it was that he became a man who would never reach his life’s goals, which only made him like most men who have ever lived. There was no tragedy in that. The tragedy was that he had given up dreaming that he could, one day, one far off day, fulfill his dreams.
Terra worked at the mill until her legs gave out and she spent the rest of her days at home, watching television. She took up drinking for the first time in her life at age 76 because the whisky soothed the pain in her hips, and she became quite good at drinking alcohol, as though she had a natural inclination towards it. She lived long enough to attend the grand retirement party the company gave for Francis when he turned 54. A week after that, it was in the early summer, he went to her room to wake her for morning mass, but she did not wake. She was gone. He missed her deeply for she was his best and oldest friend and for a long while he looked for her on crowded streets or in stores hoping against hope that it had all been a miscalculation, a mistake by God. Finally, one day, he accepted that she was gone and that he was alone in the world.
The house was empty then. There were some friends, not many, but some. There was always church and he would take in a film now and again. He ate frozen foods because he had never cooked. Terra wouldn’t hear of it. Although he wanted for nothing, he felt a great emptiness inside of himself and he found that he was angry most of the time although he didn’t know why he was angry.
He had to talk about it with someone. He had tried the parish priest, a man named Connelly, but Connelly was too young and that went nowhere. It left them both feeling very uncomfortable in each other’s presence after that. So he saw a therapist down in New Haven. And while it took him more than a few visits to open up, when he did, the floodgates unlocked and it all came pouring out. He talked about his fears and frustrations. The therapist, who insisted on being called by his first name, Ludy, short for Ludwig, listened, and when it was his turn to speak, he told him something that Francis had never considered.
“Don’t think about your frustration and fears, Francis,” he said. “Think about your hopes and your dreams, your unfulfilled potential. From this day on, concern yourself not with what you tried to do and failed, but what is still possible for you to do.”
Francis considered Ludwig’s advice and he stared at him, past him really, while he let those wonderful, simple notions take hold. Let go and dream of the future of possibilities.
After nearly one full minute of silence Ludwig said, “That’s the complete sum and total of the worldly wisdom that I can offer you today…well, that and always separate the darks from the lights when you’re doing the laundry. You’d be amazed the damage one black sock can do to a bunch of white shirts.” And for the first time, Francis noticed that Ludwig’s white shirt was actually a sort of off pink white. Ludwig noticed, nodded his head and said with exaggerated sadness, ‘That’s right. Black socks rub off.”
In his next session Francis asked Ludwig what he should do to fill an unfulfilled life and Ludwig shrugged and said, “Damned if I know.”
“Thank you,” Francis said.
“Look,” Ludwig said, “you’re you and the rest of us are somebody else who are not you. We all have a different notion of what self -fulfillment is. Only you can discover what you want out of this life. Only you can know what you want to give and take from yourself to live that life. Only you can figure out what you should stand for,” he paused and pointed a stubby boney figure at Francis, “and only you can prevent forest fires.”
“Thank you,” Francis said. “I’ll try to remember that.”
“That last thing doesn’t have any psychological merit,” Ludwig said, “but it’s good to remember anyway. I picked it up from a bear I’m treating…fire phobia.” He moved himself in his chair and leaned closer to Francis. “Francis, can you see yourself as a happy, fulfilled human being?”
“I’m sixty four years old,” he answered.
“That isn’t what I asked you,” Ludwig responded. “Can you see yourself as a happy, fulfilled human being?”
“Yes,” Francis said thoughtfully as he envisioned a picture of himself happy.
“Then go be happy,” Ludwig said, “and I think the way you should start is by stepping out of the very, very wide safety zone that you’ve built around yourself.”
He leaned back in his chair and said softly, “Look, Francis, the ugly truth is, that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. It’s in these moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers….you might risk failure at first, but that’s good. Failure, in this case, is good. As long as you don’t stop trying and you understand the role that failure now plays in your life.”
He paused and said, “So I would say, first” he paused again for that dramatic effect he so enjoyed, “get a dream. It’s kinda hard to make dreams come true if you don’t have a dream, Francis, so you gotta go get one of those. That’s step one. Step two is to fit that dream together with stepping out of your safety zone. And step three is giving your dream a chance to happen. You’d be amazed how many people give up on a really great dream within a few hours. And again, forget the past Francis. It’s over. You can go back to the past a thousand times a day and it won’t change a damn thing. What lies behind you is a tiny matter compared to the greatness that lies ahead, a greatness that comes from within.”
He stood from his chair, patted Francis on the back, and said, “Now go on out there and fail at something! I know you can do it, I’ve got faith in you!”
So Francis returned to the safety of his home and looked for something that would challenge him. The ancient, enormous, and musty basement seemed to hold some promise. Over the years, they had stored a little of everything down there, and some of the things had potential, particularly his old bicycles. They were some of the many gifts Terra had provided for him that he never used. The bikes held promise because he entertained the notion of biking down to Manhattan for no good reason at all. But first, he would have to learn to ride the bike. And that was what Francis Mooney, at age sixty-four did. He taught himself to ride a bicycle.
The following Monday morning, he appeared in Ludwig’s office, limping and sporting a Band-Aid over his left eye.
“What happened to you?” Ludwig asked.
“I stepped out of my safety zone and tried something new,” he answered.
“Cage fighting?” Ludwig asked.
“No,” Francis said, slowly and carefully sinking his sore bones into a chair. “Bicycle. I learned to ride a bicycle.”
“Wow,” Ludwig said pushing out his lower lip. “I’m impressed. At our age, cage fighting would have been safer. You can reason with a cage fighter, bikes, not so much. I applaud your courage sir. But perhaps you should start with something that requires less blood.”
That afternoon, Ludwig carried the bike back down to the basement. In a small room off one of the main rooms, he found an ornate black silk box, covered in a thick layer of dust. He opened it gently, for it was a very old and very fragile box and found inside it tintype photographs that he judged to be from the 1890s, when the house on North Cliff Street was new. One picture showed the house with the surrounding lots filled only with trees and not the Godforsaken ranch style homes that were there now.
In several of the photos there were children, one of whom he reckoned to be the late Mrs. Whitehead. She sat in a perfectly trimmed, sprawling garden that seemed to engulf the children in its majesty. A series of closer looks at the photograph over the next few days revealed that the majestic garden had been in the back yard under the enormous elm tree. Although he had lived in the house on North Cliff Street almost his entire life, he seldom went into the expansive back yard that had long ago surrendered to an invasion of wild weeds and sprawling thick vines. He was not a man who had an interest in back yards, vines, or weeds, or for that matter, the outdoors in general. He had allergies. But for several days he considered the photos and by midweek, he had taped the picture of the garden to his desk and considered it. On Friday, for lack of anything else to do, and most of his days were like that now, filled with less and less to do, he stepped out into the back yard and started to rebuild the English garden that was there, someplace, under the overgrowth.
Over the course of that first year in the great outdoors of his backyard, Francis came to understand that his garden was like child, a spoiled child that demanded all of him. It demanded his attention and his passion. He was very concerned that without his attention, something would die, and even from the beginning, when he had no idea what he was doing out there, he felt sadness when even the least important of his plants died.
He also came to understand that his garden restored him, restored him in a way that the words of his beloved Yeats or Shelly never could. He learned that the earth was a forgiving partner and from that he learned that not all the failures in his burgeoning garden were the result of his inexperience nor was failure, in this wonderful spot of earth, a testing ground of his character. Sometimes plants died and flowers faded simply because they did and it had nothing at all to do with him.
Gardening taught him these things and it gave him a sense of proportion. Yet he understood that on his sacred soil, all plants were equal, and no small thing was doomed to insignificance. In the garden, as in life, everything is significant because it is all a part of God’s creation.
He learned that gardening could not be taught in a class or learned from a book. No, gardening, like life, was learned through hands on experience, through the occasional tiny triumph and its cousin the constant big failure. Life and gardening, he realized, give one a sense of humility because, as he quickly learned that first year, there is no gardening without humility.
Now, after a lifetime of being alone and dreading that loneliness, he felt that it was good to be alone, alone in his garden, the place where he never felt alone. He buried a lot of troubles in that dirt and things grew there that he never planted like passion and happiness and completeness. And he rediscovered things there like the sun’s kiss and the happiness of a bird song and that wonderful childlike feeling of anticipation for tomorrow. But there was nothing bucolic and meditative at all about gardening. It was hard work. It was about wholeness and passion. A good garden grew from a happy heart. And he saw all this, the failure and the triumphs, as good and positive and kind and so he allowed his garden to consume him.
By the year’s end, with the onset of winter, he thought that if he had ever heard the voice of God, it would be in his garden on a perfect New England autumn day. Nor would it astound him to hear the voice of God while in the garden. It fact, he thought, it would make sense.
He had stopped seeing Ludwig, as a therapist, six months after he started the garden and began a friendship with him. They spent their weekends in the garden although Ludwig wasn’t very good at it.
“If I had a rock garden, the rocks would die.” Ludwig said.
“You’ve learned a lot,” Francis countered.
“Yes indeed,” Ludwig answered. “I learned not to wear cologne in the garden. If you do, bees will assume you’re a large walking flower and pollinate you.”
Francis leaned into and whispered to a particularly troublesome geranium.
“What are you doing?” Ludwig asked.
“You have to speak to the plants if you want them to grow, especially the geraniums. They bloom better if they’re spoken to.”
“Yes” Ludwig nodded with a small smile, “but I wonder if so much attention will embarrass them?”
“Are you jealous?” Francis chuckled, but he waited in anticipation for the answer.
“Yes, especially of that guy.” Ludwig replied with an eye narrowed on a Lilac. “I don’t trust him at all. A little to flashy if you ask me.”
“Well don’t be jealous,” Francis said and then spoke the next words with slightly trembling lips, “you are my world.”
“That’s foolish,” Ludwig said kicking about some dirt. “I’m one man, one man in the world.”
“I only need one rose to make a garden,” Francis said standing and looking directly at Ludwig. Ludwig returned this gaze and there was a silence between them that terrified Francis because he knew that he had gone too far, too fast. He watched in heartbreak as the smile fell from Ludwig’s face. He had ruined everything.
“Listen,” Ludwig said making the words sound more like a declaration than a statement. It was the way he said all things. “I’ve been so lonely for so long and you’re about the best thing that has ever come into my life now or at any other time, so I’d like to move in with you if that’s alright. I think we are of that age that we can be direct in the things we want. I’d offer to have you move in with me but you’d have an awful time moving this garden of yours into a one-bedroom New Haven high rise. Believe me, I know because I tried it once. And besides, I really don’t want these bees living with me because I like wearing cologne and no, I didn’t really try to build a garden in my apartment. That was a joke actually although I realize this isn’t a really good time to joke but it’s what I do when I get nervous, but I’m always nervous. Okay, I’m all done talking now.”
So Ludwig moved into the house on North Cliff Street and they lived the next two decades in happiness, true happiness. Being together made them both better people. They laughed a lot, Ludwig saw to that. The garden blossomed.
One day Ludwig died. He simply grew old and he died of being old. He was much older than Francis although, as Ludwig so often said of himself, he was “the soul of an innocent and happy child unfairly trapped in the astoundingly hot body of a brilliant yet modest man.”
These days, when he thought of Ludwig he laughed and Ludwig would have liked that and when he thought of Terra he was lonesome and Terra would have liked that. Now, looking over his life, he thought that although he had not become a man of success, he was a man of value.
The waitress returned with his menu and handed it to him but he didn’t look at it and placed it on the table.
“Do you know what you want?” she asked.
“Then go be happy,” Ludwig whispered from across the table, “and I think the way you should start is by stepping out of your very, very wide safety zone that you’ve built around yourself.”
“Yes,” Francis told her with a smile. “I’d like something greasy and unhealthy. That would make me happy today.