The old man went down on one knee like a clumsy courtier and after steadying himself and making sure he wouldn’t topple over, he brushed away loose, loamy soil with the hand the stroke had spared—he’d had a second apoplectic stroke two months before—and located the beginnings of a pale root. He yanked up the hound’s tongue, as the weed was called, and sighed. He stood and righted himself, less of a labor than a few weeks ago, and stuffed the weed into the left hip pocket of his overalls, fingering its velveteen leaves.
On Sundays he always had his choice of fresh laundry and always he put on these, his newest pair of overalls, to garden in the morning. The stiffness of the denim was like that of a starched uniform, and to pull the hard fabric over his loose pale thighs made him feel like someone charged to carry out some task.
At least the tasks in the garden were his own. He’d always hated receiving orders, whether from his parents or from teachers, from superiors in the service or, later, from managers, clients, or employers. This was a part of the explanation he gave himself for why his life had been what it had been, with no stable career and never much money. He was tempted to be proud of his refusals, even if in one or two cases they were more accurately considered failures. Yet even now his life was structured by orders—doctor’s orders—to do with diet and activity, and it seemed to him that as old as you got the commands pursued you. And he himself, as a father and a husband, as a building contractor, as a ski-instructor, lastly as a landscaper employing a series of foolish assistants—he had given plenty of orders too.
His wife turned out of the driveway in her silver Subaru. The car was perpetually covered by a mist of red dust from the road. Anna, on her way to church, waved as she passed by. The old man raised up his good hand. He himself set no store by Christ, thinking of Jesus as at best a cracked social reformer, a man who lived and died, and suspecting that Easter fell when it did in order to overlay the spring-time rituals of Middle Eastern vegetation cults, as he might have read at some time in a book. Nevertheless he was glad for Anna’s sake that this alleged anniversary of that alleged resurrection was such a fine day as to fit nicely with the legend.
But the perfect weather made him most of all glad for himself. These were the Colorado days you would write home about if this weren’t already your home, the sky hardening above like enamel, and so deep in color that by noon it would smack of outer space. There was a nice Christian word for sky which he couldn’t think of just now. Often these days he lived in the company of forgotten terms. He prodded at a missing word with his tongue as at a sore inside the cheek, and sometimes the word would return to him—on Friday he had remembered lark bunting an hour after the bird alighted on the feeder—and more often not.
Whatever the old word for it, at 11 AM the sky was already scored with three contrails but otherwise a kind of natural absolute. There was always at least one line of vapor up there: rich people constantly in and out of the Vail Jet Center, so-called, though the ski area was a forty minutes’ drive from the ocher gypsum scrubland where the runways lay.