Abby plucked a plump onion ring from the basket in the middle of the table. She nibbled on it as she leaned forward, ogling the ass of the young man as he walked past. “Nice, nice….” she mumbled.
Jen, sitting next to Abby, lifted her brows and shook her head slightly. “You just got engaged, you whore,” she said to her friend. She reached for her Hop Sun Summer Wheat beer; the bottle neck clinked on the rim of her amber-glass mug as she poured. She set the bottle upright on the table.
Tawanna started to rumage in her purse for cigarettes, but remembered this restaurant/lounge was strictly no-smoking. She threw her bag at her feet. “Damn, where are the burgers?”
Monica tore off an end from the small loaf of bread and began picking pieces out of the doughy center, pushing them in her mouth. She sat next to Tawanna, across from Abby. She kicked a foot in the direction of Abby’s legs under the table. “Stop staring at that dude. What is wrong with you, girl?” she said, laughing.
It was Friday night, and the four nurses and friends were waiting for their usual dinner at their usual table in a corner of Austen’s Bar and Grill, a small place not far from the hospital where they worked.
“Did I tell you about what my ex said yesterday?” Monica asked. “I wouldn’t let him in the backyard, so he stood there at the fence, yelling, ‘What good is a garden anyway? What’s the point. You always cared more about your goddamn flowers than you did about me.’ And I was wearing my work shorts and halter top, sweaty and dirty with a trowel in one hand, and I said to him, ‘What good is a husband anyway? What’s the point? A garden is better than your bullshit any day.'”
Abby giggled half-heartedly. She gripped the top of her straw between her index finger and thumb and sipped her iced tea. She raised her chin and let the straw fall from her lips. “I love your garden, though, Monnie. It’s so beautiful. I love your roses and daylilies and all the flowering shrubs. The terracing and the brick pavers are so gorgeous, but I especially adore your triple-decker fountain.”
“It’s my Garden of Eden,” Monica said, munching on some crust. “And I’m Eve, and I kicked Adam out on his ass.”
“A girl and her garden….” Jen said.
Tawanna drummed her fingers, craning her neck looking for their waitress. “Have you met your doppleganger yet? In Prometheus Unbound by Shelley, mother-earth tells the story about how the magus Zoroaster met his own image while walking in his garden.”
The three others exchanged glances. They loved Tawanna, even if she was an English teacher before she started nursing school.
“Oh my god, would you look at him,” Monica cooed, as a man half her age sauntered down the aisle towards them, following the hostess, his arm around the shoulders of an unspectacular girl. “That must be his sister,” she whispered, leaning forward.
They joined in a chorus of guffaws that tapered off into snickering.
“Did you see his bod? I bet he’s a swimmer. Those broad shoulders, those long and lean abs,” Abby said, trying to keep her voice down.
“I give you and Brian a year at most after you’re married,” Jen said. “Good lord, Abby, you’re a slut tonight. And your wedding is in a couple of months.”
“Thanks, Jen, and what’s the latest between you and that socialist Herbert,” Abby asked, half turning to look at Jen next to her. She dramatically crossed her arms across her chest, trying to look stern. “‘There is no room for politics at this hospital. Keep you personal beliefs to yourself. You are lucky to have a job here,'” she said, contorting her face as she spoke in a high-pitched, sing-song way, mocking the tone and delivery of their St. Mary’s Hospital nursing supervisor.
Tawanna and Monica giggled.
“His name is Albert, and he’s not a socialist,” Jen responded evenly. She gulped some more of her wheat beer. “He’s a progresive liberal activist….”
“And that’s all he is,” Monica interrupted. “Has he found a job yet? I guess it’s too time consuming writing protest letters to Fox News.”
“He actually tries to do something, you know? Instead of sit around and complain,” Jen said.
“Does he also do the housework and cook dinner for you when you get home?”
“Oh geezus, oh crap,” Abby said, loosely gripping her own throat with one hand. “Ladies, put a sock in it.” She paused — there was a moment of silence — but a group of nurses together abhor a vacuum. Abby groped in her memory for something to say. “Oh hey, Monica, did I ever tell you about death-touch Olivia? Olivia the garden killer? She was my brother Derek’s first wife.”
“Uh, no….” Monica tried to say with a straight face, but laughter broke through her pursed lips with a snorting sound.
“Oh no, not another Olivia story,” Jen moaned. She had been friends with Abby for years, and was familiar with Abby’s ex-sister-in-law Olivia tales.
Tawanna furrowed her brows with great deliberation and brushed back a piece of her short brown hair. “‘Death-touch’ in a literal or figurative sense, Abigail?” she asked. “Was she a nurse? That would have been … an interesting profession for her.”
“You are such a bitch, Tawanna, really.” Abby said, trying to maintain a serene expression on her face. “No, she was not a nurse. She was a law student, and is still out there somewhere, roaming an east coast city, making hundreds of thousands of dollars working for some corporation, the last I heard….”
Monica began buttering another chunk of bread. “So, what about her?” she asked. She took a large bite, a little butter sticking to the corner of her mouth.
“She was a serial killer of plants,” Abby answered.
“I’m so hungry. I want my bacon-cheeseburger now,” Jen said.
Abby glanced at her. She returned her attention to Monica. “Anyway, as I was saying, Olivia could walk into any yard, or garden, or even into your house, and plants would wither and die. Sometimes not right away — but it wouldn’t take long. Family members used to dread inviting her to birthdays or anniversaries or for Thanksgiving or Christmas.”
“You’re not contending there was really a correlation between this woman’s presence, or touch, and the withering and dying of all plant life?” Tawanna asked. “Because from what you’re saying, it seems more likely family members were panicking, thinking with their lizard brains, getting worked up by rumors and coincidence. Similar to the way women were accused of being witches in the seventeenth century.”
Abby gave two thumbs up as she noted their waitress heading in their direction, balancing a large round tray covered in food.
“Oh thank the Lord,” said Jen.
Monica, who was no longer very hungry after having eaten an entire demi-loaf of bread, blotted her mouth with a napkin. “Wait a minute,” she said, her face looking pinched and strained, “this woman killed entire gardens? Like, even larger ornamental shrubs and trees, even the grass?”
Without speaking, the waitress set the plates in front of the ladies who had ordered them.
Jen immediately grabbed the top of the sesame-seed bun and plopped it on her cheeseburger. She then grasped the whole thing in both hands and began chomping. “It’s … a …. stupid … story…..” she mumbled between swallows.
Abby carefully, with precise movements, spread some mustard, mayonnaise, and catsup on the top half of her bun. She licked her fingers.”It’s not a ‘stupid story.'” She darted a look at Monica, did a double-take. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” she asked, surprised.
Monica’s face was screwed up and her eyes were tearing. “That’s terrible,” she said, sniffing and wiping her nose with the back of her hand. “Those poor innocent plants. They’re living creatures. They depend on us. And this woman … your former sister-in-law … could just walk close to a flower bed, a bush, or lawn, and it would turn brown and die. She is a mass murderer.”
“You really believe that crap?” Tawanna asked, her words somewhat muffled by her chewing.
Abby held her burger with pinkies extended. “It’s not crap. It’s a family legend,” she countered.
“Monica, you are nuts, you know that,” Jen said.
“I’m not. I love my plants,” she shot back. “I talk to them and sing to them.”
“I rest my case,” Jen said. “Now let’s eat.”
Monica remained motionless for a moment, then shrugged and tossed her long blonde hair back over each shoulder. She assembled her burger, and began to gnaw at it, her gaze cast down at her plate.
“I’m sorry I brought it up,” Abby said. She was about to suggest that someone should change the subject, when a tall and extremely good-looking man approached their end of the room. “Oh … my … God, do you see who’s here? It’s Dr. Elliott, from orthopedics,” she said sotto voce. “He’s coming this way. I think I’m going to have an orgasm right where I sit.”
“Abby,” Jen said, washing her meal down with another swig of beer, “just why did you agree to marry Brian, anyway?”