My family lived in a pioneer town, layed out in blocks where the streets ran parrallel to the train tracks, where there was an limestone gravel alley down the middle of each block. Our house faced thirteenth street; which meant south, which when I was young was narrower and was lined with Chinese elm trees. Before they widened it, it was brick; laid down by the Work Project Authority in the Great Depression.
At the most homeric moment of my early life, when I was probably 5 or 6, I went around the our block for the first time, (probably lead by my firebrand trouble seeking brother, Collin). I remember attacking it in stages, first going to the end of the block, then along the north end, and finally down the west. And as fate would have it, peril lay in my way, and Collin lead me headlong into it. Like a fairy tale, my adventure ended at the door of a witch.
Collin leading the way (he had already encountered her once), I came down along the side of this house in a foreign land. A little cement path led the way past flower beds clinging to the side of the white clapboard house. Stooped, surrounded by the enchantment of a garden brimming with flowers, with a scarf on her head and a big red plaid heavy-cotton jacket was the witch. She was all wrinkled and old. I was terrified.
I remember coming down the path... I remember the flowers, but I do not remember the first time we talked. Funny, I don't remember the last either.
Our new discovery became a habit... my brothers and I would go there every day... and soon discovered that it was shorter just to cross the little alley between us. We'd run with bare feet, hardened by the summer down the alley and past the soaring holy hocks and the red orange honey suckle, to the midway point of the white picket fence which went three quarters of the way around her back yard. There in the middle was a gate, that looked just like the fence, but had a little latch and opened inward to a buffalo grass path leading up to her back door. On the right was an old fashioned yellow-rose plant with its branches so loaded with yellow scented blossoms that they bent and touched the ground.
Bachelor buttons hugged the fence in the south east corner of the garden and spilled out into the half grass, half flower strip between the fence and the alley. Irises ran the whole way and another band, but these less common-a-garden... more exotic ran along the middle of the back yard... separating the grass from the flower beds.
A oriental red bud dominated the South West corner and a wooden wrens nest was strung in it's branches. Several buffalo grass with their bobbing heads of grain divided the whole into patches. There was the vegetable garden and a little whole surrounded by a wire fence that served as compost pile. There were string beans on frames held up by strings. There was dill and lettuce and tomatos little radishes that were sweet if you ate them when they were very very tiny. Indian paint brush, peonies, canadian butter cups.
When I first saw the garden it there was a big chinese elm tree just outside the back door that shaded the house, but it died when Dutch Elm desease spread across the country. Mrs. Payne, Patrick and I later replaced it with a locust tree, that is still there, the pole at the center of the universe it still stands magestic, in the middle of a gravel and weed plot. We dug a big whole and tamped the dirt down around it with our bare feet.
There were climbing roses next to the clapboard garage, tied to a trelis made from old wagon wheels. A big white figure eight, and old fashion roses in masses along the back of the garage and at the corner near the drive.
There were only two small patches of grass when I first saw it, but slowly as the years passed and as Mrs. Payne felt them, the flower beds gave way to grass. By the time she died , there were no flowers at all just out from the back door, there where I had first seen the witch, up to her knees in Canadian butter cups.
I could name each plant and its spot in the garden... where the annuals grew where the perenials lived... the indian paint brush which needed on years frost before they would shoot up and produce a flame of red flowers, the dutch iris, with their spidery blue heads.
Thousands of countless times I made the way from my back door to Mrs. Payne's. In the Spring, at night, in five feet of snow, across velvety spring grass that grew in the abandon of the next-door neighbor's yard. I could walk it with my eyes closed. I can walk it now, if I closed my eyes, but it has grown more painful to do so now, that even it did when we ran barefoot down the alley and stepped on mexican sand burrs or on regular old fashion sticker plants, with their tripod thorns... one razor point always pointed up, aimed at piercing summer toughed skin on my bare feet.
I'd call at night to say I was coming. 52030 back then, and then later 625 2030, and she would turn the porch light on. In the summer there would be millers (moths) beating themselves against the naked lightbulb under the little roof. In winter, the light would sparkle on the blue night snow and reveal that path that I had helped scoop.
Inside the door, which was at the far South East corner of the house, was a little landing, then a stairway going down to the left into the bacement and one short one going up into the gingam kitchen.
But I didn't see the inside of her house for quite a while. And calling late at night, only happened very much later in the story. At first, I would just go and talk to her, and be shy and put my hands in my pocket and my chin on my chest. But Mrs. Payne had been a teacher, and she didn't have children of her own, although she loved them, and she was just a lovely person, and children are the first to see such things... so we soon became little gardeners... helping her, and when she thinned the flowers, we'd take cardboard boxes of plants with clumbs of dirt hanging to their fragile roots, over to our house where we planted them, and we learned how to garden.
And one day she invited us in... we probably asked, and she probably made us Minute Maid Lemonaid, and she might have given us some of her freshbaked chocolate cookies with chocolate icing.