he inspiration for the “Burdick's Best Yard Contest” came to Jasper Burdick in the steam room of the Directors' Club, in downtown St. Anthony.
Someone had turned up the steam too high. A half-dozen fat, naked patriarchs of St. Anthony and environs yipped and cursed. They yelled for someone outside to turn it down. Nothing happened. No one could hear them.
Finally, the burning steam got too thick to just sit there waiting for someone else to do something. They lifted their jiggling, wrinkled derrieres up off the tiled bench and stumbled blindly toward the door.
But Mr. Burdick stayed put. His sixth sense told him that something of great importance to the future of his business was about to happen here. If his lungs had to get cooked and his body blistered with second-degree burns to witness it, then so be it. He didn't get to where he was in the gardening world by being a shrinking violet.
Curled tendrils of steam ensnared him. They hissed and murmured. Were they trying to tell him something? A vision began to take shape, coalescing at first into a billowing, diaphanous form, then rapidly gaining graphic clarity and definition.
What Mr. Burdick saw emerge from the mists was a snowy upper-Midwestern landscape bursting forth in legions of gigantic early-blooming crocuses and tulips. Tucked within their petals were human faces. That's kind of spooky, thought Mr. Burdick, but at least they're all smiling at me. They looked faintly familiar. Were they his employees? He'd never really taken much notice of them before. As the snow in the vision world melted away, thousands more human-faced flowers of every conceivable hue and size burst forth from the ground. Nonplussed, yet mesmerized, Mr. Burdick leaned closer to the vision and squinted. Who
all these weird flower people?
Then, the vision dissolved into something wonderful: all the mutant flowers trooping to Livia, in the suburban south, then into his Burdick's PlantWorld emporium. They waved fistfuls of cash at soaker hoses, tomato ladders, trellises, garden weasels, tillers, and watering cans.
Nearby stood a clot of TV camera crews and intense-looking reporters armed to the teeth with cassette recorders, pens, and steno pads. Mr. Burdick jerked back from the vision and frowned, distrustful as he was of the press. But what if all these media jackals had been put there to serve some helpful purpose? It would be out of character certainly, but then flowers usually didn't have faces either. They were all standing in a circle around a petite, middle-aged, sun-hatted woman who held a huge gold-plated trophy aloft as flashbulbs popped and reporters shouted unintelligible questions.
“I've just won the Burdick's Best Yard Contest,” the woman said with what seemed an understated and almost reluctant enthusiasm under the circumstances. “How could I possibly deserve such an honor?”
Show a little more joy, thought Mr. Burdick; buck up and smell the roses, for heaven's sake.
Someone finally found the controls and turned down the steam, which began to dissolve from its stultifying opaqueness into a warm, misty translucence. The patriarchs, having refreshed themselves in the club whirlpool bath, drifted back into the room. They voiced amazement at Mr. Burdick's heat endurance and plotted exquisite tortures for whomever the idiot was who messed with the timer and thermostat. Mr. Burdick ignored them. He was focusing all his mental energy on the revelation that had just burst on him like a supernova.
“I'm going to hold a contest the likes of which the St. Anthony metro has never seen before,” he told the disappearing vision, which now wafted into a faint few billion molecules of nothingness. “The mother of all gardening competitions. Our winner will be a celebrity, a hero, an ambassador for gardening and our particular products throughout the land. Business will flourish as it never has before. Burdick's PlantWorld will expand, first throughout the state, then the region, then the country, and finally, the world. I'll be selling yellow jacket catchers and sweet potato vine in Mongolia before you can say âBuy Burdick's for Beautiful, Bounteous Blossoms.' I'm going to be the emperor of gardening center owners!”
The shadowy shapes at the other end of the bench stared at him.
“Lost your marbles, Burdick?” gurgled one over the subsiding hiss of the steam jets. “Or maybe you been snortin' too much honeysuckle. Ha-ha.”
Marta Poppendauber strolled slowly down the brick pathway through her massive gardens with her watering can. She gazed lovingly upon her potted zinnias, impatiens, and lobelia as she positioned the watering can's snout almost into the dirt around each flower to ensure that the water went straight to the roots. It was how Dr. Phyllis Sproot, her friend and gardening mentor, had taught her.
My, wasn't the lobelia spreading out! She loved their dainty little blooms. And the zinnias! How precious! They seemed to perk up the very instant the water trickled into the soil. The impatiens? Well, we'd just have to see; they might be getting too much sun and too little water.
Having watered all her container plants, Marta scanned the rest of her gardens. It was early June, which meant the clematis's blanket of green leaves and violet blossoms was well on its way to smothering the gray-weathered wooden ladders she had tilted to lean sturdily against the house. The hydrangeas had exploded, as usual. Their plate-sized clumps of green flowers were poised for transformation into white masses of grandeur.
Elsewhere were the phlox, peonies, boltonia, and bugbane. The ornamental grasses, and Martin Frobisher roses, planted years ago, were well-established old-timers. Then there were the yew and the trumpet creeper, and the daffodils and dahlias, not to mention the Don Juan and Jasmina roses.
It was only last month that she had added the love-lies-bleeding, larkspur, mallow, and all the others. Each year, she had filled in every available space with big, bright annuals.
Many of her flowers were still waiting to bloom. Another three weeks or so and she'd have a kaleidoscope of a garden, swarming with honeybees, butterflies, and hummingbirds drawn to her sugary summer paradise.
It had taken years to establish her crazy-quilt pattern the way she wanted it. Along the way, Marta had managed to weather Dr. Sproot's contrariness and ward off her insistence to do something far more contained and predictable.
“It reeks of anarchy,” Dr. Sproot had told her two weeks ago, on her first inspection of the season. “You're a garden anarchist, Marta. I've been biting my tongue too long on this. You've openly defied every piece of advice I've given you over the past two years and turned your gardens into nothing more than a menagerie. I told you to get this and you got that. I told you to plant this here, and you planted it there. . . .”
“I didn't ignore everything, Doc Phil. Most of what you've taught me, I've done. It's just I wanted to have a garden with what
wanted in it, not someone else. And you haven't exactly been biting your tongue on this.”
“So I've told you a dozen times. So what! Since you're my friend what you do reflects on me. And look at what you've done! You've turned your garden into a jungle. And don't call me Doc Phil. What is it with you and this âDoc Phil' thing lately?”
“Ooops.” Marta placed her fingertips gently on the offending lips. “I don't think it's a jungle at all, Doc Phil . . . I mean, Dr. Sproot.”
“Well, it sure as heck is. Let me help you, Marta. Your gardens are doomed to disaster this year, but there's always next spring. You'll earn people's respect by tearing everything up and starting all over again, using me as your guide.”
With that, Dr. Sproot wound a strand of clematis around her forefinger and yanked it hard, ripping two feet off the plant. She pulverized the flowers and vine, and tossed the mushy remains onto the nearest clump of hosta.
“Sorry, Marta, but I just hate clematis. HATE IT!”
“Hey, sweetums!” The shout from the back door interrupted the unpleasant memory of Dr. Sproot's savage delight as she ground the clematis to a pulp with her bare hands. It was her husband Ham. “Dr. Doofy on the phone for you. She says, âCome quickly.' I say screw that nutcase and make like a snail.”
Marta smiled, but found herself dropping her watering can and quick-stepping down the pathway toward the door.
“What in blue blazes is going on?” Dr. Sproot said breathlessly. “You have contacts that I don't, Marta. You should know, shouldn't you?”
“What are you talking about, Doc Phil? What's going on where?”
“Here in Livia. Where else? There is something horticultural afoot right here in our own community or I'm not a fully accredited doctor of horticulture. What is it? I'm sure you know, Miss Snoop.... And
don't call me Doc Phil!
“I don't know what you mean, Dr. Sproot,” said Marta. Her voice trembled with guilt and uncertainty. “I don't know about anything afoot here in Livia. I truly don't.”
Marta was fibbing. The Burdick's Best Yard Contest had been underway, though not yet publicly, since last Thursday. Marta knew about it within twenty-four hours of Mr. Burdick announcing it to his assembled staff. She wished she could tell Dr. Sproot, but that just wasn't possible; she had been sworn to secrecy by eight friends who had also been sworn to secrecy. Keeping a confidence might not mean much to a lot of the gadabouts loitering in Livia gardening circles these days, but it
mean something to Marta Poppendauber. You gave your word to someone and you kept it.
“You know darned well that something's in the air, Marta. Why did the Rose Maidens cancel their first monthly meeting in seventeen years? Huh? Why won't the board members answer the phone when I call them, or show me the courtesy of calling back? How come everywhere I go, gardeners are working their rear ends off for no apparent reason, especially considering that they're usually slacking off and going on vacations right about now? And how come people mumble and stutter and find an excuse to rudely walk away whenever I ask them what's up? Huh?”
“You got me, Dr. Sproot.”
Dr. Sproot sighed. “Oh, all right, at least for now, my little friend. Never fear; I'll worm it out of you somehow. Now listen up, Marta, because there's something else. I've got a job for you. There's a place I want to scope out in the Bluegill Pond neighborhood. New gardeners. Untutored, from what I can tell. No pedigree, which is sort of insulting. I mean, who gave them permission . . . ? No connections in the usual gardening circles. But they've apparently had some little successes and people are talking about them like they just made a new Garden of Eden without the snake. I want to find out what it is they're doing that's got people talking about
fully accredited and as accomplished and experienced as I am. So, are you in?”
“Of course, Dr. Sproot. Just say the word. That's what best friends are for.”
“I'll be in touch.”