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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Plain Man

 

by Ethan Leonard

 

 

My punishment is greater than I can bear.


                                              —Genesis 4:13


 

            When the plain man discovered the classifieds, and how everything from used office furniture to affection could be sold or sought, he decided to make himself known to the world once more by advertising himself:

 

For Hire:  Cultivator
Experienced cultivator will provide assistance
for helping grow a garden, grass, shrubbery,
crops, or anything else in mind.
Will do any form of labor related to cultivation.
Fee is negotiable.   Will travel.
Call:  212-560-6467

 

                The plain man posted the same advertisement not only in the New York City area, but around the state, up and down the coastal region, across to California, and even tried for the southernmost points of Argentina.   He received at least one call from various parts of North America, but after hearing the great distance he would have to travel to get to his destination, and perhaps the horror of long distance billing, his offers declined and hung up quickly.   The plain man never went further than Canton, New York.   

               
                His work as a cultivator was short lived.   People became very upset with the fact that—despite his impeccable knowledge of agriculture, botany, and all subjects related to plant life—their plants seemed to perish instantaneously.   When the plain man would lift a corolla in his hands to prune the dying flowers of a rose, the red crown would lilt, quiver as if caught in a light breeze, then blacken and shrivel.   When he would spread the grass seeds on a barren lawn, the dirt would become thick and soft, puddling water like oil and evolving into sinkholes, irreparable even after complete excavation.   One particularly infamous client even attempted to file a lawsuit, but to the court, it was impossible to find any rational connection between the man’s work—which was supported by various experts as proper in theory—and the ruined land.   


                After that legal fiasco, the plain man returned to the classifieds and submitted a new advertisement for himself:

 

For Hire:  Garden Caretaker
Experienced garden caretaker will provide assistance
for watering flowers, crops, plants,
or anything else in mind.
Fee is negotiable.   Will travel.
Call:  212-560-6467

 

                The job was less hands-on than the previous one, but the plain man was positive it was not going to suffer the faults of his previous work.


                Alas, whenever he would place a client’s watering can beneath a faucet, a tar-like substance would ooze from the pipes, clog up the drain and stick to the bottom and sides of the containers.   This in turn created immense worry for his customers, who made appointments to have plumbers inspect the damage.   They found nothing, and this resulted both in unnecessary bills and underfed plant life.   The plain man resigned the ad once again.

 

His job description suffered many alterations:

 

For Hire:  Garden Advisor
Experienced gardener will provide advisement
for helping grow a garden, grass, shrubbery,
crops, or anything else.
Fee negotiable.   Will travel.
Call:  212-560-6467

 

                This only passed on the plain man’s bad luck to others.   Cutting the dead stem of a hydrangea under his counsel caused the amputated piece to writhe in the hand like a wounded worm, emitting a terrible wailing noise as water seeped from its clipped end.   His advice of speaking to the flowers to provide additional carbon dioxide resulted in a lack of response to their care.   They would bend away intentionally, shading themselves from their words and, subsequently, the sun: a sort of suicide.
               

Then there was:

 

For Hire:  Garden Designer
Experienced gardener will design
gardens, Eastern or Western designs:
any desired style.
Fee negotiable.   Will travel.
Call:  212-560-6467

 

                This resulted in extravagant displays becoming what one client referred to as "sentient plant life."   In a short amount of time, flowers would grow enormous.   Roots would shoot from the soil and tangle around one another until the mess suffocated all of the other organisms with their astounding ability to drain the ground of all of its water, weakening the others and dominating the aesthetic.   

 

                After that, one that the plain man believed to be foolproof:

 

For Hire:  Stone Garden Designer
Expert will not only assist in design but excavate.
Fee negotiable.   Will travel.
Call:  212-560-6467

 

                What became of that project was a beautiful array of smooth sand and stone which turned quickly into a breeding ground for snakes, spiders, and scorpions, and other lethal animals not considered indigenous to the area and climate.   A massive team of animal control was dispatched to handle the situation.

 

                The plain man acknowledged his part in these extraordinary and strange events, though he couldn’t explain to anybody how exactly this was true, and eventually denied himself of trying to share his work with others.   He ignored his final appointment in Schenectady without notice.   He forfeited his subscription to the New York Times.   The plain man sat undisturbed in his apartment for several days, doing nothing more than staring out the window in his living room, his transparent reflection lit dimly in the grey afternoon.

 
                The plain man’s age was best described as an asymptotic anomaly, a continuously progressive movement away from the point of origin, but one that never reaches the point to which it aspires.   He was more bone and more hair than skin; more pain than movement, creaking like a vast network of small rotten doors; and above all, more silence than sound.

 
                The rain began to come down, and in the instance when a bolt of lightning split the sky and struck the cityscape with sharp recoil, the plain man received an idea:

 

For Hire:  Weed Puller
Experienced gardener will assist

in clearing weeds.
Fee negotiable.   Will travel.
Call:  212-560-6467

 

                A call came in a few days after the paper had published the ad.   An old woman in Syracuse had recently been suffering from arthritis, and called to ask for the plain man’s help.   He agreed to the job, and by the next day started on his way.

                When he arrived, she was already at the porch steps.   "You’ve made it at exactly 2:52," she said, looking at her watch, "just as you promised."


                The plain man nodded.


                "How is it that you did that?"


                The plain man shrugged.   The old woman smiled and held out her hand, palm down.   "My name is Francine."


                The plain man did not take her hand, but said with courteousness, "It’s a pleasure to meet you."


                "The weeding isn’t much," Francine said, turning and walking towards the right side of the house.   "But it needs doing, and that’s what matters.   I’m a meticulous gardener and so I’ll do anything to keep it as healthy as possible, and who knows how long my joints will be acting up like this.   Regardless,
you’ll be recompensed for both time and labor."


                "You do not need to pay me anything."


                "Don’t be ridiculous."


                They walked around the corner, and the plain man found himself standing in front of a border of red, purples, and pinks: roses,
perilla fruticosa, and bright eyes phlox, which formed a walkway between its edges and an inner stone circle of soil, lilies, and the ivory trumpets of royal standard hosta.   "It’s simple," Francine said, "but I’m too old to form anything too technical.   Can’t get into all the needed nooks and crannies."

 

                The plain man wasn’t listening very intently.   He had already set himself out to work.   He scouted out the weeds and promptly began removing each by the root.   They, like the roses, like the ground for grass, shriveled at his fingertips.   This made his job all the simpler.   When he would uproot the foxtails, dandelions, and crabgrass, it was as if he didn’t pull, but simply took them into his hands like a child with a hatchling.   Francine watched with admiration.   "You’ll be finished in no time," she said.   "It’s almost a shame that I dragged you all the way out here for less than an hour’s work."


                "It’s fine," he said.


                "Would you like to have some lunch with me?"


                "I think I should be heading home."


                "Where is home?"


                "New York City."


                "I figured as much from your area code, but I want you to confirm what I’m thinking.   Where are you from, and why have you finally settled?"


                The plain man turned his hands over to see how the deep, sickly green had turned quickly to an ashen shade.   "How did you know it was me?"


                "The lawsuit several months ago.   You were on television as well as the papers.   The story was a sensation for its strange character.   The lack of evidence had let you off the hook but you still looked as if you had done something wrong, and when you glanced into the camera once during an interview, that’s when you revealed yourself.   You were torturing yourself for what had happened."

 

                "Was that really enough proof?" he asked.   "Just by how I looked?"           

 

                "Probably not," she shook her head, "but I had faith that I was right."

 

                He studied her face to see if she meant that with any note of humor.


                "And besides," she continued.   "I’m a gardener too, so it was also kind of like an instinct."   She waved her guest inside.   "Let’s have some lunch."

                The plain man spoke over a sandwich.   He wanted to grow plants, to see life blossom at his hands again.   He wanted something to depend on him, but he had known for so long that it was impossible.   


                Francine nodded.   "What compelled you to try again in the first place?"


                He answered, "Several things.   Some didn’t work.   When I found Christianity, I felt a great relief.   Finally, I thought.   God is offering forgiveness.   I surrendered my contempt for my fate and tried to save myself through Jesus of Nazareth, who promised he would die for our sins, but to no avail; vengeance continued to follow me.   As of now, in the midst of World War II, I figured if God is unwilling to intervene during the atrocities overseas, then somebody as terrible as me could try his or her hand at doing something good again."


                "No luck?"


                He shook his head.   "Doesn’t look like it.   I have managed to retain my faith though."


                "That’s quite a feat in itself."


                "No.   It’s simply a divine form of torture."

 

                "It can’t be all that bad," said Francine.   "You have this weed pulling right?"

 

                "It’s the only thing I can do."

 

                "It’s all I ask."

 

                Francine touched his hand and the plain man pulled it away.   When he began to cry, he hid his face in his hands and ached loudly for forgiveness.   His palms felt the small stream of tears, which stirred within his stained hands to produce an unforgotten scent of clipped greenery.   His heart belted against his chest; his lungs stung with the struggle for air.   He fell over on the floor and did not die as he desired but rose later in the evening, sober from the catharsis.   Francine never left his side.   "I realize," he said to her, climbing to his feet, "that I’ve been conscripted to blood work.   I’ve been left to no other device, no other trade."


                "But you’ve helped my garden." She told him.


                The plain man answered gravely.   "I murder my brother and they call him a martyr.   You tear at the ground and call it good health."


                "My garden has to survive."


                "What’s to be said about the weeds?"


                Francine insisted, "Surely you were required to do the same thing when Abel was alive."

 
                The plain man fell silent; Francine could not subdue his grief.   When she told him once again that it had to be done, he merely shrugged.   "I think I’ll take my leave now," he said.


                She showed her guest to the door and bade him farewell.   She put her hand on his shoulder and pressed deeply.   The night washed over him as he departed, shrinking into the distance.