THE HOSPICE GARDEN

by Diane Payne



On my twentieth birthday, I ate a few peyote buttons in the foothills near a small Colorado town. While walking aimlessly, feeling disappointed that I remained unchanged, I discovered a beat-up hearse parked near an unused mining road with an old man lying in the front seat.

My screaming woke the man. "I thought you were dead," I yelled.

"I've thought that too," he chuckled.

The old man moved over to the passenger door and kicked it open. "Damn door always sticks. Other one doesn't even open. Used to be a great car. This car has seen plenty of dead bodies, but mine ain't one of them. Name's Ralph. You just gonna stand there staring at me or are you going to identify yourself? This is my home you're visiting."

"My name's Sky Hawk."

"Are you another one of those hippies from Oak Creek coming up here on a peyote feast? Sky Hawk. Why not Ground Hog? Now there's a name I'd like. But my name is Ralph. Just Ralph. Your parents didn't name you Sky Hawk. What are you staring at anyway? You never seen an old man before?"

"I'm sorry."

"Oh, shit. I forgot to put my badge over my eye." Ralph looked into the side mirror and began to laugh. "Ain't I a sight? I had one of those glass eyes but I lost it." Ralph laughed so hard, he started to choke. "A one-eyed old geezer with one lousy lung sitting in a beautiful hearse. No wonder you're staring."

"Are you all right?"

"Sure, I'm all right. Which patch do you like? I like this one with the stars. A friend who works at the wind-powered radio station made it for me. You like it?"

"It suits you." Looking closer, I noticed it was batik. "It's a fine patch."

"You bet it is. I got a lot of friends down there. One drives a beer truck and walks up that hill hauling me a case of beer every week. Some of it is good beer. Real good beer. Heineken's. Anchor Steam. Fancy shit you kids like. Bottles break. Six-packs turn into five-packs and my friend fills a case for me. You kids ain't all bad. Walk over here with me. I got something to show you, girlie."

Not far from the hearse was a slow-moving stream. Beyond the stream a few yards, Ralph stopped, spread his arms, and asked, "Ain't she a beauty?"

Ralph was right. It was a beauty. Straight rows of broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, and egg plant. Tomato and bean plants were tied up, thriving. Marigolds encircled the entire garden.

"I got to have something to feed my friends who visit. You ain't the only one who walks up here. I started all of these by seed. Up here in the mountains, that ain't easy. Many a day I've called this my hospice garden. One sunny morning, I've got a beautiful garden. Next night we get a freeze and I'm left weeding out the dead. And I don't pull nothing out until it's really dead. Sometimes it's the sun that kills my broccoli. Fries it way up here. But the rabbits don't eat it. I toss carrots and lettuce over there for them. I like those little critters and they like me."

"This doesn't look like a hospice garden."

"Not today. But these vegetables go just like my friends. That's why I like having you youngsters for friends."

"You have a lot of people visiting you?"

"Not a lot, but enough. Look at these tomato plants. Ain't they something? If they don't die off before summer's over, I'll haul them down to town and use a friend's kitchen to can them. When the snow comes, my trunk is full of vegetables."

"You live up here all winter?"

"I have. I've spent some time at the Veteran's hospital. I hold off going there until winter. I ain't leaving my garden in the summer. I've been here all my life. My old man worked the mines. See those railroad tracks by town? I've repaired just about every one that goes through this valley. I remember when Oak Creek was nothing but ranchers, miners, and railroad workers. When I got restless or needed more work, I hopped a train." Ralph stopped talking for a few minutes and just looked at the railroad tracks, mentally reliving one of those long rides. "Pick some of those peas for your friends down there. Tell them they came from Ralph's garden. They'll know who I am."

"You mind if I come back up here with my tent in a few days? I won't camp too close to your hearse, but this is a beautiful spot."

"You think I'd park my hearse in some dump?"

"How did you get this hearse up here?"

"That's a long story, but a good one. I'll tell you next time you come. Now take some vegetables down there with you. Most those folks are friends of mine."

A few nights later, I loaded my backpack and hiked up the mountain. I had taken some cheese and sunflower bread for Ralph. For dessert, I made him oatmeal cookies.

The hearse was empty. Ralph wasn't by the garden either. Not wanting to invade his space, I set my tent up a fair distance from his hearse, and took out my sketch pad and began to draw a picture of his garden.

Having plenty of time on my hands, I drew each and every plant, tending to each vegetable the same way Ralph tended to each seed. Hours passed as I counted the leaves and replicated them on the paper. Not one leaf was missing from any plant. The moon was almost full. Not full like three nights ago, but bright enough to see the plantís shimmering reflections of leaves dancing on the soil.

One-eye Ralph. One-lung Ralph. Oh, how your garden grows. Ralph has joined the Hospice Garden. This I suddenly know. Old one-eye Ralph. How does your garden grow? Thereís so much Iíll never know.







©2002 by Diane Payne




Diane Payne, as seen by her daughter,
Ania, age 9.
Diane Payne lives in a small town with her daughter and her dogs, and she teaches writing at the University of Arkansas-Monticello. Her first novel, Burning Tulips, was published by Red Hen Press in 2001. See additional writing in Slow Trains Issue 1.
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