The children are playing on the front street again. Irene parts the blinds in time to catch a boy running across Harold’s lawn—barefoot—in hot pursuit of the ice cream man. She raps her knuckles on the glass.
“Sorry, Miss Irene,” comes the boy’s muffled response, but Irene can see where the grass has begun to wear flat across the corner of the yard. She remembers how the neighbourhood once thrived, pride sprouting up with every sharp blade of Kentucky Blue in tidy patchwork that stretched all the way down the block. These days, the children are always running amok, wild as the weeds overtaking the lawn. A stray ball lands on Harold’s lawn. Irene sucks her teeth, seething.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment it happened, but the neighbourhood has lost its soul. Irene supposes it started with the Millers from across the way. Harold had served with Bill in Burma during the war, and it was perhaps the uncertainty of those tumultuous years that instilled in them—in all of them—a longing for order, although they rarely spoke of it. Instead, they joked over whose grass was greener, laid rulers down to discern whose edges were straighter. They met every summer Saturday on one lawn or the other for barbeque and bridge, until Flora’s arthritis could no longer abide their harsh winters, and Bill suggested they move down to the Keys. Through the hole they left behind, their cozy community slowly bled out.
It was only a trickle first; someone would retire and downsize or move into some posh new retirement home. Irene became quite the prolific quilter, gifting priceless keepsakes to her most treasured friends. But over time the dribble became a deluge, and one by one, their friends were whisked away with the current. The days grew quiet. Irene doubled her efforts, donating her work to the hospital and hospice, losing herself to the punch-draw rhythm of needle and thread while Harold tended to the lawn. They met each morning at ten for tea in the verandah, where the thick aroma of fresh dirt and fresh-cut grass would settle over them as Harold massaged the morning’s work from her fingertips. Irene’s final quilt hangs from the wall like a shroud, preserving stale air between layers of dead weight and blank space.
The verandah suffers in Harold’s absence, protesting Irene’s exit as though she too might walk out into the light and never return. The dandelions spring into focus, ruining the crisp order of things. Irene hobbles down the steps, gripping the small spade Harold affectionately named “David” and sets herself to the task of banishing the yellow blight.
“Sorry Miss Irene!” The boy sprints across the grass again, this time with Neapolitan running down his arms. Irene handles David a little too aggressively, and along with the dandelion flies something like a green toupee. It lands hair side down on the street where it is ground into the pavement by a passing sedan. Irene gapes at the newly exposed dirt until an earthworm breaks the surface.
“That’s one dead dandelion.”
Irene turns to find a small girl, no older than five or six, standing behind her. She plods over and plops down next to Irene. Then she turns her attention to the worm and, pinching it between thumb and forefinger, lifts it high over her head. For a moment, Irene is convinced that she intends to swallow it whole, dropping it from the sky into the pit of her stomach. Instead, the girl closes her eyes and holds the worm against her forehead.
Irene is stunned. “What—”
“Shhh!” The girl opens her eyes. She drops the worm back into its hole with an air of satisfaction and gently covers it with dirt. As Irene contemplates whether or not to open this particular can, a familiar dissonant jangling fills the air. The ice cream man halts his chiming bicycle right in front of Harold’s lawn.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” cries Irene. Dozens of careless feet trample the delicate grass. She squawks at the children, but they scatter, regrouping in their chattering murmuration after each feeble attack. It is more than Irene can stand.
The girl tugs at her sleeve. “Miss Irene, I only have a quarter.” She holds out her palm to reveal a single dull coin. Irene decides to cut her losses and retreats into the stillness of her empty home. Behind her, the verandah door squeals.
“Miss Irene?” The girl has breached her defenses and stands with the door flung wide. “I only have a quarter.”
Irene considers her options. “If I give you some change for the ice cream man, will you promise never to step foot in my home—or on my lawn—again?”
The girl nods.
“And you’ll take your friends with you?”
The girl frowns, then nods again. Satisfied, Irene reaches for the jar of change Harold kept on the kitchen counter.
“Alright, a deal’s a deal. Here—” But the girl is no longer standing in the doorway.
“Why do you hang your bed on the wall?”
Irene crosses the room with a few punishing strides. Coins clatter. The door slams. The quilt lies in a heap on the floor. Irene’s aching bones groan as she lowers herself to join it, pulling it into her lap. If she buries her face in it, she knows it will smell of dust and stale air and antiseptic cleaning agents and hospital food and wilted flowers and bedpans and Irene’s perfume and dirt and tea and fresh-cut grass. She lifts the rumpled fabric to her face and fills her lungs. When she brings it down again, she finds the stain—a muddy handprint smeared across the corner.
The verandah door flies open. Irene bursts into the yard, wearing the quilt as a cloak. Sitting cross-legged on Harold’s lawn, in direct violation of their agreement, is the mucky little worm whisperer. What’s worse—there are children playing ball on the grass! Irene stalks toward them, abandoning the heavy quilt on the lawn. She winds up, kicks … and slips, landing firmly on her rump as the ball sails in a graceful arc to land on the street.
“Miss Irene!” cries the barefoot boy. He and his unwashed flock descend on her, sticky hands reaching to pull her up from the ground.
“Get off!” she screeches. The children scatter, settling again at a safer distance. Irene sucks in enough air to fuel a hurricane, but somewhere between “private property” and “raised by wolves”, the little girl reaches for her barefoot brother and clings to his pant leg. Irene’s rage is suddenly a hot coal, burning to ash in her throat. She chokes into great heaving sobs.
The children disperse, disappearing into their homes until only the boy, his sister, and Irene remain. Cautiously, the boy pulls the quilt over her shoulders. The girl works away at the hole, wielding David as though she knows him well. She uncovers another worm and holds it up to her forehead as before.
“What are you doing?” asks Irene.
The girl drops the worm into a plastic pail and continues her meticulous scraping. “You have to name them, otherwise they’re lonely.”
“Well yeah … How can they introduce themselves to each other if they don’t have names?”
As the worms pile up, Irene imagines them filling the empty space under her ribs, nameless, friendless, and writhing. “You know,” she says, “my Harold liked to name things, too. He called that little spade you’re holding, David.”
The girl nods. “Yeah, but he named all his worms, Jim.”
For the first time in a long time, Irene laughs. She laughs until she can’t breathe, until her eyes sting and tears spill out. She laughs until her chest is emptied.
The children fill the street once more. Some return with spades of their own, some with parents in tow. Irene learns the names of all the neighbours she’s neglected to meet but who know her because they knew Harold. Harold, who always had a glass of water ready for John, who jogs by every morning. Harold, who collected the mail for the Randles when they went on vacation. Harold, who gave the children pocket change and let them cut across the grass whenever the bells summoned—as long as they picked a few dandelions along the way. They all converge, digging and pulling until every last weed has been excised from Harold’s lawn.
Irene sits with the girl, whose name is Wren, as she releases her squirming friends—Irene has decided they can stay after all. As the day cools, she wraps one end of her quilt around Wren, who pulls a handful to her face and breathes deeply. Where the quilt is torn from the day’s abuse, she pulls a thread until it breaks away.
Neither speaks as they perform the sacred naming ritual, but the name passes between them nonetheless. They bury Harold with his friends, whose names he already knows.
Brett Leanne is a writer, a mother, and a lover of fiction hailing from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She is currently pursuing an English degree in the creative writing program at the University of Winnipeg, where she loves to regale the youth with tales from the 90s and is definitely not the embodiment of that Steve Buscemi meme. Follow Brett on Instagram @brettybrettybrettbrett.