by J. R. Chabot
Quite Contrary was first published several years ago in the Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine after taking second prize in their contest. This story involves a garden which seemed a good fit for Earth Day.
I don’t want to come off a snob, but really, what did she expect? Did she honestly think I’d… No, we’ll get to that later. First things first.
I’m a gardener. Not professionally, just on weekends. That Saturday morning when all this started, I was putting in tomato and bell pepper plants. The beds had been prepared weeks before—-a thick mat of compost laid on, then carefully spaded in. Kneeling there between the rows, I scooped out the dark, slightly moist soil, feeling its crumbly texture, inhaling its loamy tang, then setting in the young plants and carefully filling the light, rich dirt around them. If you’re a real gardener, you know it doesn’t get a lot better than that. There’s sex, of course, and there’s the Modern Jazz Quartet, and twelve-year old single-malt scotch, but…
When I was finished, I remember sitting back on my heels, looking around, frankly admiring the rest of the garden. There were the neat, frilly rows of leaf lettuce, the darker green of spinach plants, backed by a trellis of snow peas. This was the early spring crop and nearly finished now. Just in front of them marched the lacy rows of carrots and plainer, no-nonsense radishes. Glancing behind me, I saw the strawberry bed, at its peak now. Every morning, I could pick more than enough of the luscious red fruit to go with breakfast. The extras could be laid out on sheets of waxed paper, then frozen for later in the year.
I got up, brushing off my hands, stretching the cramped muscles of legs and back. It was a good morning’s work. On my way back to the house, I stopped to inspect the blueberry bushes. It had been a wet spring, and the limbs were loaded with still-green fruit. Later, the berries—what the birds didn’t get—would take the strawberry’s place as part of breakfast.
When I came through the back door into the kitchen, I knew something was wrong. Not wrong exactly, but different. It took me a moment to realize it was the quiet. The television wasn’t on. Myra always had it on, even when she wasn’t watching, even when she was in a different part of the house. I had often seen her stretched on the sofa, reading one of her magazines, while the tube blatted away, a meaningless background. If I turned it off, it would be, “Hey, I was watching that.”
I called, then went back to the bedroom, curious. The door of her closet was open and most of the hangers were bare. The only clothes left were those things she hadn’t worn in years: some bell bottoms she couldn’t quite get around to throwing out, a blouse she said made her look fat. Actually, I think it was just too small for her now, around the middle. I checked her lingerie drawer. Empty. The counter top in the bathroom was nearly bare. The hall closet was emptier by a soft-sided suitcase, the garment bag, and a travel case she used for cosmetics.
I went to the kitchen and got out bread and mustard, cheese, and sliced ham. With a sandwich in one hand and a beer in the other, I wandered into the living room. No wife. No Myra. The television screen was blessedly blank. I wondered if there was something I should be doing, then decided all I really wanted to do was to sit there with my sandwich and beer and enjoy all that sweet silence. That sweet, blessed silence. I know, I know, it’s not what you’d have done. But what the hell—-you celebrate your way, I’ll celebrate mine.
Her sister came by later that afternoon. Blocking the doorway, I said, “Myra’s not here.”
“What do you mean, she’s not here?”
She took a step forward, but I didn’t move to let her in. I’ve never liked Midge. Nasty, little creature. Always suspicious, always thinking the worst of everyone. She and Myra are too much alike. “She’s gone.”
The two of them, Midge and Myra, were like conspirators, always with their heads together, keeping their secrets, quietly laughing as if they were playing a joke on the world.
“I don’t know. She’s just gone.”
“Well, when will she be back?” She stood there at the door, trying to look around me, listening.
“I don’t know.”
I could have told her about Myra’s clothes being gone. I know I should have, but I didn’t want to answer more of her stupid questions. She gave me her squinty-eyed, suspicious look. “Tell her to call me when she gets back.”
“If I see her,” I closed the door.
She called the next day. “Put Myra on.”
“She’s not here.”
“Where is she, then?”
“I told you. She’s gone.”
“You mean for good?”
“I don’t know.”
“Bull. I’d have known. She’d have said.”
There was a long silence. I could hear her excited, heavy breathing on the other end. “You bastard! What have you done with my sister?”
She called at least once every day after that, trying different approaches. At first, she tried to trap me with what she thought were tricky questions. Then she wheedled, appealed to my humanity, threatened. Then she stopped calling.
The police appeared in the form of a short tree trunk of a man named Detective Vesper. His hair was in a race to see if it could turn gray before falling out. My money was on the falling out. His two great black, bushy eyebrows ignored the race. Under them were eyes that carefully showed no emotion, only recorded everything.
“It’s just that we’ve had a report she’s missing,” he rumbled. “Probably nothing to it, but we have to check. You understand.”
I showed him the nearly empty closet, the drawers, the bathroom. From his look, I didn’t think he was much impressed.
“Did she say she was leaving?”
I shook my head.
“How have things been? Had you been fighting?”
“No.” It was true. We’d hardly said a word lately.
“Your wife has her own car, does she?”
“No, there’s just the one. It’s still here.”
“It was here when she left?”
“In the garage.” I hadn’t thought of that. “Maybe she called a cab.”
“You’d think so. But no, there’s no record of that.”
We went out onto the patio. I watched as his eyes moved slowly, taking it all in, perhaps in admiration of the neatly spaced dogwoods and azaleas, perhaps just memorizing it. His gaze settled on the garden, lingering, and I felt a little tightening of the gut. A premonition?
“Maybe your wife had someone pick her up. Did she have a special friend?”
“She spent most of her time with her sister. Midge is divorced. I think she has a lot of time on her hands.”
“Where did they go?”
“You’ll have to ask Midge.”
I could tell from Vesper’s expression that he’d already done more of that than he wanted. He looked back to the garden. The new sets of tomatoes and peppers had shot up in the past week. Everything was flourishing. Even the lettuce was still putting out new leaves. He smiled, I thought to show he was kidding, and said, “Be a shame to have to dig up a garden like that.” Without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked back into the house.
“Sir, your wife is gone, you don’t know where, or why, or who she left with. That right?”
“And yet, as far as I can see, you haven’t done a thing to find out where she is.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“You wanted to get rid of her?”
Had I? Not really. I’d just been glad when I found she was gone.
“May I ask why you didn’t look for her?”
That was an easy one. “I was afraid I might find her.”
Midge called not ten minutes later. “Now you’re in for it. How do you like talking to the cops?”
What was there to say?
“I don’t know what you did to her, but you won’t get away with it. You hear me?”
One of life’s unappreciated little pleasures is hanging up on people like Midge.
I stood with Vesper on the patio as the policemen dug up the garden. Vesper watched closely to be sure nothing was missed. God forbid they should leave anything. I couldn’t watch at all, but leaned against the side of the house, eyes on the ground.
“No choice,” he said. “Your wife disappears, witnesses say you two weren’t getting along, and we’ve had a formal complaint. On top of that, we can’t find any way she could have left the house. Not without walking.”
“Someone picked her up.”
His eyes slid over to me. “Who?”
How should I know? I said nothing.
“And you’re scared to death of the garden being examined.”
I snapped, “That’s the first stupid thing you’ve said.”
Vesper’s eyes flashed, but he kept his voice steady. “And why is that?”
“For God’s sake, look around you.”
When they were finished, Vesper seemed less sure of himself. He aimed his heavy brows at me, trying to make up his mind. “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe not. If so, I’m sorry for the trouble.”
Right there I was supposed to say, That’s all right, you were only doing your job. But it wasn’t all right. Not at all.
When they’d left, I walked through the ruin of what had been alive. They had left nothing. Every bed had been ravaged, it’s occupants tossed aside, living roots exposed. The tomato plants, nearly a foot high by now, lay in a heap at the end of a row. The strawberry bed was gone. And the blueberries. For ten years I had cared for those blueberry bushes, in the spring piling compost around their shallow roots, pruning their long, leggy canes each fall. Did Vesper think I had dug them up, put Myra in, and replanted them? Didn’t he know anything? No, by God, it very much was not all right.
In the weeks that followed, I became aware that Vesper hadn’t given up. I knew my co-workers had been interviewed from the odd looks they tried to hide, the edginess whenever I was near. Some of the neighbor women either looked away or stared pointedly whenever they saw me. Whenever I saw a policeman, I had the distinct feeling he was watching me. Midge, of course, called each day with her idiotic threats.
Detective Vesper sat at one side of the kitchen table, myself on the other. He opened a manila envelope and slid out an 8×10 glossy. Half of the picture was covered by a business envelope held in place by a paper clip. Pushing it over, he asked, “Do you recognize this man?”
The picture was taken from slightly above and seemed to be of the interior of a store of some kind. I could see the end of a display counter holding potato chips, corn chips, stuff like that. Beside it was a man. Tall, dark, with a very alert expression. I thought his alertness probably had something to do with the gun he was holding.
“Ever see him before?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Vesper pulled off the paper clip and the envelope, revealing the rest of the picture. Another row of merchandise, along with the counter and cash register. A clerk with his back to the camera was by the register, frozen in the act of stacking money on the counter. Standing beside the man with the gun was a woman, eyes wide and mouth open with surprise.
“How about her?”
I couldn’t help staring at the grainy scene. “Yes, it’s Myra. Was she hurt?”
Vesper laughed. “She came in with the guy, and left with him.”
“When was this taken?”
“Two days ago. Has she contacted you?”
“No, why should she?”
“A Sheriff’s Deputy pulled into the store just as they were leaving. He didn’t know anything was wrong, but it must have shook them up. They didn’t even go back to the motel to pick up their clothes.”
“Have you showed this to her sister?”
“No, not yet.”
“Would you? Maybe then she’d stop calling me.”
Vesper let part of a smile escape. “I suppose I could. Would you tell me if your wife does get hold of you?”
“From the look on her face, I don’t think she knew what was going to happen. We just want to know more about the guy. Of course, if she decides to stay with him, well, that wouldn’t look so good.”
“Look, Sir, I owe you an apology, I know that. Nobody likes being accused of murder, but damn it all, I was sure. I’m not often wrong. I honestly thought you’d done her.”
“I know. Toward the end of the summer, though, I’m going to put in some autumn crops—broccoli, cabbage, carrots, things like that. If you’re going to dig up the garden again, I do wish you wouldn’t wait until they’re planted.”
I pulled into the garage after work, and heard it as soon as I’d switched off the engine. The TV was on. I sat there for a minute, preparing myself, then went in. Myra was curled on the sofa, flipping through a magazine. A teenage commercial for some soft drink blared from the screen. She looked around as I came in, gave me a lazy smile. “Hi, did you miss me?”
She almost complained when I picked up the remote and punched the OFF button, then thought better of it.
“Where have you been?” I didn’t really care, but didn’t know what else to say.
“Lot’s of places.”
“I could have been.”
“No, not you.”
She tilted her head and gave me a puzzled look. “You don’t really care, do you?”
“Not a lot.”
“Well, if you must know, I ‘was’ with someone. Someone I met in a bar. Does that shock you?”
“Your sister didn’t know you were leaving.”
“I don’t tell Midge everything.”
I said nothing, which always made her uncomfortable. She looked for the TV remote, then saw it still in my hand. “Well, damn it, you never took me anywhere fun. So I met a man. So what? You don’t care.” She tried a glare, but couldn’t keep it up. “Hey, let’s not fight.” She gave me her best imitation of a coy smile. “I’m back. That’s what matters.”
“Where’s the guy?”
Her eyes flicked away, then back. “He’s gone.”
I held her gaze, waiting for the rest of it. She said, “There was some trouble. The son of a bitch ran out on me. But that’s over now. It’ll be just like before. I’m back.”
“No,” I said. “No, you’re not.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“That means I don’t want you back.”
“Well, that’s too bad, isn’t it?”
“Your sister thinks I killed you. So do the police.”
She looked stunned for a moment, then snorted. “What, you? That’s a laugh. You haven’t the—-”
“They think I killed you and buried you in the garden.”
She laughed. “You’re not serious.”
“They came out here with shovels. They dug up everything looking for your body. All of it. Even the blueberry bushes that had been there for years. Everything dead, everything destroyed.”
She laughed again. “Oh, that’s a hoot. No, really, you’ve got to admit that’s funny. You know me—-I wouldn’t be found dead in that garden.”
And I swear, that’s the first time the thought crossed my mind. Until then, I had just enjoyed not having her around. Now…
I sat on the sofa beside her. I reached slowly and touched the side of her face, caressing her cheek with the backs of my fingers. I said, “Are you sure?”
She didn’t know whether to be pleased or puzzled. “Sure about what?”
I smiled, letting my hand trace the shape of her ear, then slide softly down along the curve of her neck. “About the garden.”
She sat up straighter, the smile fading. “What?”
My fingers slid to the back of her neck, the thumb resting in that little space at the front of her throat. “The garden’s nice,” I said. “It’s peaceful out there.”
By that time she was sitting up very straight, her eyes taking on the same startled look as in the picture of the robbery. I moved closer, my other hand coming up to join the first.
I feel better now. Sitting here, looking out over what is left of the garden, I know it’s all right. I can get new blueberry bushes, several different varieties, so they’ll pollinate properly. Then, in the fall, I’ll put in the autumn garden. By next May, with a fresh batch of seedlings started, you’ll hardly be able to tell the difference.
No, no, you don’t understand. Right now, Myra’s probably with her sister, telling her what a total psycho I am. The last I saw of her she was charging out the front door as fast as those chubby little legs would carry her, looking back as if I’d suddenly grown horns and a set of drooling fangs. As I said before, I’m not a snob, but what did she expect? Did she really think I’d have ‘her’ in my garden?
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