A couple months ago, I met a guy, Vincent, who changed how I see the South.
It was Easter Sunday, and, for the third year running, I’d designed an Easter-egg hunt for my classmates at Georgia College, though I knew that, for the third year running, none of them would participate. This disappoints me, but I can understand why. For one, in early April, temperatures in central Georgia are already bumping over the ninety-degree line, plus humidity, and the clues I send by email point all over town, from Central State Hospital to the college campus to The Old Kroger, so the hunt takes a while. But the participation is mostly irrelevant—the others can while away the holiday afternoon elsewhere, and I’ll design the hunt anyway, because growing up, every Easter my dad designed similar hunts for my brother and me, and they were the shit. My dad also designs labyrinths and Tangrams and Soma cube puzzles by the bookful, books he won’t consider publishing no matter how much we inveigle him, and so, in my opinion, he’s pretty much the king of making puzzles nobody will ever even try to solve. And this, I guess, is why I’ll always make the hunt: I like to think I’m honoring him.
This Easter I once more bought a bunch of chocolate bunnies, marshmallow Peeps, and bags of fun-size, brand-name candies, all on sale at The New Kroger, and drove around Milledgeville with my girlfriend, Elizabeth, dropping candy off at clue destinations. During the hunt, Liz started feeling uncomfortable—it was already ninety out—and I dropped her off at a student apartment complex, The Grove, to cool her heels at their pool. I had one more stop on the list, Central State Hospital (at one time, with 17,000 “residents,” the world’s second largest asylum), so I drove out to the south side and set a colorfully packaged chocolate bunny on the big white sign out front. Then, I headed back to join Liz. I parked and toted my bag of Dale’s Pale Ale to the pool and saw she was talking with Vincent.
Only Grove residents are allowed to use The Grove pool. Liz and I are not residents, but we look like we could be residents, like we are young enough and aloof enough and white enough to live there. (The Grove, amazingly, costs $600 a month for one room in a four-person college apartment; a rate partially the result of Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, which funds in-state tuition for any high-schooler in the state who can skate by with a B average. So, with tuition covered, your college savings have to go somewhere—e.g., jacked-up housing.) So with the right sunglasses, a couple cans of beer, and a studied manner of toe-flexing, we can, if we must, summon enough vapidity to strike a true angle of entitled repose. We get away with it. Once, a few years back, I was trespassing at The Grove pool with fellow Troppists Tom and Stephan, and we invented a game called Pool Ball, where we floated a basketball in the pool and heaved deck chairs so as to knock it into a “scoring zone.” Just some college kids having a good time. We belonged.
Vincent was alone, and black, and very dark-skinned, and very well-built, confident, unconsciously coarse body movements, barrel-chested and voice booming, accent thick as syrup, very clearly a man, very clearly out of place, and very clearly flirting with my girlfriend. The pool gates were locked, and Liz yelled at me to climb over, so I dropped the canvas grocery bag that held my reading materials and my beers to the ground on the other side of the fence, swung myself over, and set off to claim my place beside my lady.
Vincent turned out to be a charming guy, a good smiler, quick to laugh. He told me where he lived in town, and I’d never heard of the neighborhood, had never been there, couldn’t even mentally follow the directions. He kept casting about nervously at the residents stretched out and sunning their flat stomachs, afraid he’d be caught trespassing at the pool here, so I told him Liz and I didn’t belong either, and Liz assured him we’d cover for him, if it came to that. After that, Vincent relaxed in his chaise lounge, making small talk until a fat honeybee landed on his toe and he freaked out and shook it off. The bee looped around his head and he flinched, ducked down, and I rolled up my New Yorker and gave the bee a swat, knocking it out of the air and onto its back about ten feet away. I’d surprised myself, was initially kind of proud, but Vincent watched the bee, its wings beating the grainy, bleached cement, and he seemed suddenly forlorn. He sighed audibly.
“Sorry,” I said, a little taken aback by the unexpected display of sensitivity. “Guess I didn’t need to do that.”
“I did that once,” he said, and made a swatting motion in the air, like swinging a baseball bat. He paused, then shook away a memory, and told me this story.
Vincent had lived most of his life in Tampa, had come back to Milledgeville only recently, when he heard his father was dying. His father had beaten cancer once, ten years before, but it came back. He died in hospice, already asleep by the time Vincent had heard the news and traveled home, and he didn’t wake up again.
His dad had remarried not long before he died, and his new wife got everything. Everything but the old greenhouse and nursery, which, the attorney said, had been willed to Vincent. Vincent had never gardened before, hadn’t, in fact, spoken with his dad in several years, and didn’t know what he was expected to do with his father’s nursery. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d seen the place, so the attorney suggested he visit, and he did.
The nursery was up U.S. Route 441, five minutes past the Walmart, on the right side of the road, tucked into a grove of trees along a gravel driveway going about a quarter-mile back from the highway. This was the summer before The New Kroger, and the superstore was under heavy construction, going up pretty much in Vincent’s backyard. He remembers hearing the earthmovers crank and squeal as he toured his father’s garden for the first time as a grown man. The place was overgrown, dead-looking to him. He walked the field, kicked at the rocky furrows of light-brown dirt, amazed that anything could grow in Georgia soil. Marveled then at all the pine, all the magnolia. Wondered if this wondering about plants was something he had in common with his dad, and though he never knew his dad as an adult, here in the garden he hoped that it was, figured it must be, and so, Vincent kept exploring.
The nursery had a few wooden buildings and a greenhouse, a half-cylinder moon-colony looking thing made of sheets of corrugated plastic. Cracks and holes all over. He opened the door, found the place superheated but actually full of plants, some hanging, some in rows on tables that stretched all the way to the back, all of them wilted or dead, radiating a sick sweet smell so heavy it had a weight to it, a smell he didn’t like, which was rot. Standing there in the greenhouse, fairly amazed by his father, Vincent realized he’d been hearing a faint ghostly sound, a warbling that had been going on since he first stepped out of his car, but only now could he separate it from his whirring memory, from the twittering birds outside. He followed the sound out of the greenhouse and arrived at a wooden construction with what looked like wide windows, but were paned instead with chicken wire. Inside were pigeons. They were alive, and Vincent bet they were hungry.
The first time Vincent opened the door to his father’s pigeon coop, he almost quit right there. The smell. The dust and grain in his eyes, his nose. The flapping wings, the gargled cooing. The coop was so thick with pigeons he couldn’t step forward out of the doorway, could only stand there, the bag of birdseed he’d just bought at the Tractor Supply Center under one arm, looking through the cloud of birds for an opening. He supposed the feeder, if there was one, was on the far wall, maybe ten feet back, but he couldn’t really see. There must have been a hundred birds in there, whipping around crazily, a cyclone, a storm of pigeons. So this was what his father had left for him. Unbelievable. Vincent made his arms big, and with his free hand pulled one side of his shirt out wide, like a giant wing of his own. No dice. So he lunged, yelled, “Quiet! Quiet, you goddamn birds!”
Of course this was all only exciting them. They flew closer. White and gray and oily-sheened, collectively the colors of his father’s hair after his two-week sleep in hospice, they seemed to all be circling in the same direction, a swirl of pigeons, and in them Vincent saw his own life going down the drain. But he had to feed them. They’d been forgotten, for what might have been weeks now. He stepped forward, his foot falling on a soft, dead pigeon that crackled like his tires on the gravel outside. The smell, the smell. And they kept closing in. He shut his eyes, felt a wing beat against his cheek, so he put his arm across his face, speaking through the neat little opening made by the crook of his elbow.
“I’m not Dad,” he told them. “I’m not Gary, you idiots.”
No way could he make it even the ten short feet to the feeder on the back wall. So he dropped the sack of feed on the ground and ripped it open, clean across the top, paunched the bag with his hands so the opening yawned and they could get in at the seeds. When they smelled it they went wilder still, drove him back against the wall. One bird flew into his chest, then another, another. Vincent saw a short, wood-handled shovel leaning against the wall, grabbed it and wielded it at the whole cloud of them, said, “I am going to beat your goddamn brains out.”
But the pigeons had all turned their backs to him, had now descended on the sack of feed, totally covered it, knocking it over, spilling seeds and millet and then quickly covering those, too, feeding, fighting, but paying him no mind. A couple pigeons doddered toward the fallen bird, heads jerking forward in that insane way of theirs, like bobbing to some crazy funhouse tune, and he kicked, and they scattered, and Vincent dropped the shovel back against the wall and left the coop.
The afternoon outside was bright and fragrant, the highway at the edge of the property alive with traffic. A Thursday afternoon, a warm early March in Milledgeville, and now getting on four o’clock. For all intents and purposes, this would be the start of his weekend, if he were still in Tampa. But things had all moved so quickly, chaotically, and now he was here. Back in Milledgeville. How could he describe it? He’d felt like one of those pigeons whirling around, actually, like he’d been through all that manic cycling. Vincent turned and latched the coop door shut, wiping his hands hard down his t-shirt. He’d lost weight, his ribcage like a washboard. Birds, man. Nasty.
Vincent looked at the property, at what had become of Brooks Brothers Flowers. Stretching a good quarter-mile to the road, to U.S. Route 441, the furrows of the nursery now fuzzed with brown and green, with dirt and weeds both dead and living. Tables of particleboard—faded, splintered and rotting—laid across stacked cinder blocks, empty, and everywhere cracked plastic and ceramic flowerpots in sclerotic columns. A ruin.
His dad ran this place for forty years.
More “Vincent, Who Says He’s a Gardener” next time in The New Kroger.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.