Tollie's Garden, a short story by Sisyphus. Date added: 2011-05-10. Times viewed: 3959.
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- Intro: How a gardener-poet awakens what is possible between two people
I was seventeen, almost eighteen when Tollie moved into the small apartment above the carriage house. I didn’t pay much attention when mom rented it to him. I was too busy trying to fit in with the other girls and adjusting to my new school after moving into the huge house we inherited from mom’s grandfather, my great grandfather, who I only met a few times before he died.
It felt weird living in a mansion, white pillars at the entrance, Wisteria growing up to the third floor, a big Dutch door, you know the kind where the top opens and the bottom stays shut—it was pretty cool. We had a big stone wall in front of the property with ivy growing up the sides. The long driveway curved in the front of the house and you could drive in one way and out the other way. The house had fifteen rooms, four fireplaces—I had one in my bedroom and so did mom. I also had my own bathroom and the kitchen was huge with a pantry next to it that had shelves and cabinets all the way to the ceiling.
It was a shock inheriting that big house after living in a small row house in Hoboken, New Jersey then moving to Chestnut Hill, a ritzy part of Philadelphia. Mom’s brother Steve inherited a lot of money because we got the house—don’t know how much—but her grandfather’s Will had one strange stipulation for both of them. They would get the same amount of money from the trust that showed on their income tax. The Will said he wanted them to know what it is to work for a living rather than just have money they didn’t earn. So mom had to earn money in order to get any money from the inheritance and that made it a challenge. The problem was that mom had always been a waitress, never went to college, got married to my dad because she had me then he took off with some woman when I was three and for awhile I got birthday cards from him but that was it. Oh well.
So the mansion was a mixed blessing and we felt a little out of place. We had a beautiful, luxurious house but, at first,barely enough money to make ends meet. That’s why we rented the carriage house to Tollie for five hundred dollars a month and that helped a lot. My mom got a job in a pretty swanky restaurant not far from where we lived and made good money—the problem was it was mostly tips and some weeks were better than others. The other stipulation was we couldn’t sell the mansion because he loved the house and wanted to keep it in the family. So we were stuck—not a bad thing to be stuck with—a beautiful home, but there we were with a large property that needed maintenance—just keeping the grass cut, paying the utilities and taxes and making sure we didn’t let it fall apart was a big job.
It was also weird living in that house and not being friends with any of the neighbors. They said a polite hello if they saw us but we were not in their class, never got invited to any dinners and I didn’t really care. I thought they were snotty and phony with their big houses, big cars and fancy clothes.
Still, we weren’t broke by any means. Mom made pretty good money and it got matched from the trust so we did okay. We weren’t starving and mom was able to get rid of the old Subaru we had and got a newer model Volvo and we were both able to buy decent clothes. I have to admit, I loved clothes and wanted guys to like me and if you didn’t dress a certain way at school you were an outcast. Also, kids knew where I lived and I wanted to give the appearance that we were better off than we really were--not sure why.
So Tollie’s moving into the carriage house was a necessity and the income really helped get more money from the trust each year. Mom interviewed him and told me he seemed like a nice man and that he loved to garden. He asked if he could put in a garden in our big back yard and alongside of the carriage house and he would take care of cutting the grass. He’d share the vegetables with us.
He was quiet, kind of shy and friendly but I didn’t pay much attention to him. He’d wave hello when I came home from school and he was either cutting the grass or working in his garden. He also trimmed the big hedge on both sides of our house and there were lots of bushes.
I found out from mom that he was twenty-eight when he moved in—ten years older than me-- and mom said he was a writer, had taught for awhile at a community college while working on his PhD in English. He had finished all his course work and was working on his dissertation but then decided he wanted to write poetry and a novel he was working on and dropped out of the program. Mom told me he grew up on a farm, homeschooled but got into Brown anyway and did well in college and had a fellowship. He talked a lot to my mom. She invited him for coffee and she was always making cookies for him and meals. She was twenty or so years older than he was but I think she had a crush on him—which seemed weird but I didn’t really think about it that much. Still, I could see why—he was actually good looking though somewhat nerdy, a little strange, but nice. He had longish brown hair, a beard and wore wire rimmed glasses but like I said, I didn’t pay much attention to him. I had more important things to think about like applying to college and this guy Tristan who I was crazy about and just keeping up with my classes. I was determined to get into a good college and not end up being a waitress like mom. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do or what I was interested in but I was in AP English and Biology and got good grades.
Getting into college was everyone’s obsession and there weren’t many options after high school—so researching colleges, taking a prep class to prepare for the SATs and filling out the applications was a full time job. I was also a cheerleader, believe it or not. I liked the exercise and wearing the short skirts—it was kind of sexy-- and it was fun getting everyone to cheer for our football and basketball team. It was also a good thing to have on my college applications.
Other than school and baby sitting for this woman up the street, I liked to work on my tan in the big back yard and would lay out there on a blanket, sometimes with another girl in my class, Janine—both of us in skimpy bikinis --and see Tollie working in the big garden he made. He’d glance over at us but mostly concentrated on digging and planting and whatever else he did. He worked hard, had a lean, tan body and looked good in his cut-off jean shorts and a t-shirt. He was in pretty good shape—probably from the gardening and he biked everywhere. He didn’t own a car.
When he wasn’t working in the garden, he would sit on a canvas folding chair in front of the carriage house and write in a thick tablet or his laptop. Every once in awhile he would look up at us but mostly, he didn’t pay much attention and either did I. To me he was just an older guy, renting the carriage house and we hardly spoke. I would see him from my bedroom window writing late at night while I was studying then when I’d leave for school in the morning, he was out in the garden, usually barefooted. He’d smile and wave to me when I left for school in either Janine’s car or Tristan’s.
Sometimes, my mom made extra food for dinner and asked me to take some to him in his apartment over the carriage house. I think it was her way of getting him to like her, you know, the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. She had to be at the restaurant by four and always made food up ahead of time for me. She was a good cook and made great soups, stews or lasagna so I would get to drop off the food and chat with him for a few minutes then leave and that was that.
I liked how he fixed up his place. It was small but he had floor to ceiling book cases on two of the walls, lots of hanging plants. He had a beat up couch with an Indian style blanket over the back, a big old soft chair with a lamp on a table next to it, a pile of books and magazines on the floor and a round oak table by the window—that’s where he wrote and ate. I could see my window from his window. His bed was in the corner and always made. I noticed the bird feeders hanging outside the windows. It was one room with a faded oriental rug in the center, a small kitchen area with a little refrigerator, a sink, a four burner stove and he told me he liked to cook. I noticed a wine rack with bottles of wine.
When I’d bring up a covered dish, he always poured a glass of wine and asked if I’d like a glass. I always said no and he never made a big deal about but I liked how he looked at me, not flirting just warm and friendly. He always had music playing—sometimes classical music, sometimes jazz.
Then one night near the end of my senior year, he asked me to join him for dinner, he wanted to talk to me so I said yes. That was the first time in the two years he lived there that we actually had a conversation and I’m glad I did.
He served me the soup and actually made a small salad from vegetables from the garden and a wonderful dressing he made—just oil and vinegar with a variety of herbs—I’m not sure what, but it was delicious. He poured me a glass of wine and we clicked glasses and he said, “To life.” I noticed how his eyes twinkled behind his glasses then disappeared into little slits when he smiled.
“So what did you want to talk about?” I asked after sipping the wine.
He put his glass down after sipping, stirred his soup then looked at me, that smile on his lips, “Sarah, I’ve lived here for almost two years and we have never really had a conversation and I know you are busy with school and your friends and I see you are a cheerleader and getting ready to go off to college in the fall. I’ve gotten to know your mother quite well—we’ve had lots of conversations, but I want to know you.”
“You do? I asked, surprised. “Why?”
He chuckled at my questions and my surprise.
“I want to know what you’re passionate about.”
His question stunned me. “Passionate about?” I repeated. “That’s a strange question.”
“What do you love?” he asked, looking into my eyes, lifting his wine to his lips, taking a sip, “If you could do anything you want with your life—what would that be?”
I have to admit, his question scared me. I took a sip of wine and just looked at him, noticing how he was looking into my eyes. “I don’t know what to say,” I answered, my mind racing to think of something, “Why do you want to know?” I asked.
He smiled, knowing as well as I did that I was avoiding answering him because I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I loved. I didn’t want to tell him how much I liked shopping for clothes. I told him I liked cheerleading and was interested in some of my classes, though most of it was doing what I was assigned and I didn’t think about loving my subjects. I said, sometimes, I liked a particular teacher and worked extra hard to get a good grade, but the fact is, I did what was expected and didn’t question it. That’s why Tollie’s question floored me—the thought of loving something, feeling passionate never occurred to me.
For a few minutes, we were both silent, eating the soup, taking a sip of wine. He looked at me and I don’t think anyone ever looked at me like he did. I felt he was really trying to see me, know me and it aroused something in me to feel his caring. So I asked again, “Why do you want to know what I love?”
“Because I want you to be happy and know you will never be happy unless you know what you love.”
“Are you happy?” I asked.
“Very,” he answered, looking at me and smiled and there was something in his eyes—a twinkle and the sincerity of his smile touched me.
“Really,” I responded.
“Yes, I love to garden and I love to write poetry and stories and I love the quiet and I love watching the birds and seeing the flowers bloom and the vegetables growing. I’m very happy.”
“Aren’t you lonely?” I asked. “I never see you with friends. “Don’t you want to love some one?”
“Sometimes I’m lonely and yes, I would like to love someone and be loved. I do have friends. They don’t live around here but we stay in touch and a dear friend is going to visit here this Sunday. I’m really looking forward to it.”
“Great,” I said, wondering if it was a man or woman but didn’t want to ask. “And I hope you find someone to love you. You seem like a really good person. I hardly know you but I can tell by the way you work in the garden and I see you writing all the time. I admire that.”
He smiled, nodding, “Thanks, Sarah.
I looked at the little table with the lamp next to the soft chair and saw a big manuscript and a thick notebook. “Is that your novel?” I asked.
“That’s the one I’m working on now but I have a few others. Mostly I’ve been writing poetry, lately.”
“Have you been published?” I asked looking back at him.
“No—maybe one day, but I just want to write. Hardly anyone has read what I’ve written.”
“Don’t you want to be read? Don’t you want to be published?”
“I do want to be read and one day I’ll be published but it’s not that important to me.”
My eyes were drawn to his manuscript and I was curious. I liked to read but only had time to read what they assigned in school. I wanted to ask if I could read his novel but didn’t.
“I’d like you to read my novel,” he said, as if reading my mind, “but I know how busy you are—maybe one day you will read some of what I’ve written. I’d like that,” he said, looking at me then continued, “I hope you find what you love to do, what makes you happy in your soul.”
“My soul?” I responded. “What do you mean?”
“I mean what makes you happy deep inside, feel fulfilled, alive regardless of whether you make money or not—something that really means a lot to you.”
I finished my wine and the soup and saw it was getting dark out. “I better get going,” I said. “I’ve got to study for my history exam.”
He leaned forward and looked into my eyes and again I felt he was looking at me with such caring. I felt his warmth, his gentleness and his eyes sparkled and it felt like he was seeing deep into me. No one had ever looked at me like that and it made me tingle all over and I felt like I was glowing, blushing but I wasn’t.
“I enjoyed having dinner with you,” he said.
“I did too,” suddenly feeling reluctant to leave but knew I had to. “This was nice.”
“I’ll wash your mom’s bowl and bring it over tomorrow,” he said when I got up and he walked me to the door that led to the stairway to the garage below.
“Let’s do this again,” he said. “I think you are very beautiful.”
I blushed when he said that and swallowed. “Thank you,” I said liking how he said that. It was so sincere and sweet.
When I walked back to the house, I glanced up at the window and saw him clearing the table and look down at me. He waved and I waved back and I suddenly felt something special had happened. No one had ever asked me what I loved or felt passionate about or looked at me like he did, but somehow he awakened something in me, made me think not just about the question what am I passionate about, what do I love, but about him, how he lived so simply and loved what he was doing and didn’t seem to care if he was published or need anyone. He seemed happy and peaceful. I had never met anyone like him. He was no longer the man who rented out the carriage house and worked in the garden. He mystified me. I wanted to know more about him.
The next morning, I had to rush. I stayed up late studying and slapped off my alarm clock and went back to sleep then woke up with a bolt, got dressed, throwing on a pair of jeans and a new tank top I just bought, my sandals and hopped into Janine’s car eating an English muffin, trying not to get crumbs on me. She parked right in front of the carriage house and I saw Tollie in the smaller garden on his knees. He looked up and waved and I waved back through the open window as Janine turned in the driveway and rushed away. I suddenly remembered the nice evening I had with him, feeling more connected in a strange way but Janine interrupted my thought telling me she and her boyfriend, Alex had a big fight so I listened to her.
Mom never got up early after working at the restaurant and I knew she and the staff always had a meal and a few drinks after they closed and she’d hang out—who knows when she came home or what she did. She always left for work before I got home from cheerleading practice or whatever so sometimes days would go by and we didn’t see each other. I was pretty much on my own but mom always had something made for my dinner and a note saying she loved me or put the clothes in the dryer or take this or that to Tollie.
When I walked in the kitchen that afternoon, I saw the bowl from the night before on the counter and I suddenly remembered the nice night I had with him. I put the bowl in the cabinet and then went to the window and saw Tollie in his chair in front of the carriage house writing in the thick notebook. I watched him as he wrote, wondering what he was writing about. He was so deep in thought, writing intensely then he’d stop and look up at the sky as if that’s where the words were coming from. I thought about going out to say hello but didn’t want to interrupt him so I opened the refrigerator and took out the jug of apple juice, poured a glass and wandered around the big kitchen, thinking about how nice it is, how lucky we were to have such a beautiful house. I put the empty glass in the sink, rinsed it out and then went back to the window and saw Tollie wasn’t there, wondering where he went and why I cared then shook that thought away, picked up my heavy backpack of books and went up to my room. I looked out my window and saw Tollie at his table writing on his laptop. He looked out the window and saw me and smiled, waving at me then went back to work.
After plopping down on my bed, picking up the glossy magazine with pictures of girls my age or a little older wearing sexy blouses or posing in short skirts, pocketbooks over the shoulders, or showing off their shiny hair with a bottle of shampoo next to them. I thumbed through the pages, hardly looking then stopping, wondering if I would look cool in those shorts or blue pants then tossed the magazine aside thinking about Tollie’s question—what am I passionate about and I couldn’t really think of anything and felt a pang in my stomach and chest then sighed staring up at the ceiling.
I then did one of my favorite things, unbuttoning my jeans and slipping my hands inside my panties and stroking my pussy with my finger, moving it slowly up and down, feeling my wetness and the growing pleasure as I got more and more turned on and then stuck two fingers inside, feeling my pussy gripping my fingers as I moved them faster and faster, my breathing getting heavier, quicker, my fingers going deeper, gripped by the warm wetness of my pussy and suddenly thought about Tollie, imagining him and not Tristan or some imaginary man, my fingers going faster and harder until I suddenly exploded, gasping, holding back a scream but then it burst out and I let go, a loud scream filling my room, glad no one was home and then releasing my fingers, feeling the warm cum on my thighs, my breathing slowing as I lay there loving what I could do to myself and feeling surprised that I thought about Tollie—he’s so much older than me what am I thinking--suddenly feeling confused, surprised and stupid at such crazy thinking.
Just then my cell phone rang and I was glad I didn’t get interrupted as I opened and saw it was Tristan, still feeling the relief from masturbating. I said, “Hi Tris…what’s up.”
“Nothing much. What’s happening with you?”
“Nothing. Just glad it’s Friday and it’s the weekend.”
“Yeah. Right. I wish I didn’t have to go to that fucking job at the market.”
“Oh right, when do you finish tomorrow?”
“Five. Wanna do something tomorrow night.”
“Maybe. Like what?
“We could get a pizza and watch a movie or something.”
“Maybe. I’m not sure. Let’s play it by ear.”
“You alright,” he said after a long pause.
“Yes, I’m fine. I’m alright.”
“You sound funny. You usually sound more, I don’t know, more wanting to do something.”
“Let’s just play it by ear, okay.”
“Okay, I guess.”
“Listen, I have to go. It’s time for dinner and I’m famished.”
“Okay,” he said and I could tell he was annoyed or upset.
“Let’s talk tomorrow,” I said. I really have to go. Have a good night, baby,” I said then clicked my phone closed, tossed it on the bed next to me, suddenly wondering why I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with Tristan. We usually spend as much time as we can, especially on the weekend. I sighed looking up at the ceiling then got up, went to the window and saw Tollie still working, concentrating and I just stood there watching him, curious about what he was writing and the dear friend who he said was going to visit him on Sunday and how excited he seemed and again, wondered if it was a man or a woman.
I went down to the kitchen and took out the left over lasagna from a few nights ago and heated it up two pieces in case I wanted more. I liked Friday nights and usually did something with Janine or Liz or Tristan and was rarely home alone with no plans but for some reason I didn’t feel like hanging out. Just then, my cell phone rang again and it was Janine.
“Hey!” I said, checking the lasagna in the oven, wishing I had stuff to make a salad and remembering the delicious salad I had at Tollie’s.
“What you doing,” Janine asked.
“Making supper--just going to lay low tonight.”
“Really—not doing anything with Tristan?”
“Nope. He just called. Hey, what’s happening with you and Alex---you guys had a fight.”
“We’re cool. He’s on his way over. We’re going to watch one of his dumb movies—that’s about it. We could come over there, if you want. What about it?”
“Nah. I want to be alone.”
“Really, anything wrong? Why do you want to be alone? That’s weird.”
“I just do. I have things on my mind. Just want to lay low, you know, just be alone—what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing’s wrong. It’s just strange---Friday night and all.”
“Listen, my dinner’s ready. You guys have fun tonight. Glad you made up.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Talk to you later. Call me if you change your mind.”
“Okay,” I said. “See you,”and hung up, realizing this was the first Friday night in a long time I didn’t do something with my friends. I took the lasagna out of the oven and put it on the plate, sat down, still wishing I had a salad like I had last night.
There was more lasagna left and I suddenly got the idea of seeing if Tollie wanted some, surprised that I thought of that—realizing it was partly the desire for salad that inspired me, but knew it was more than that so I quickly got a plate, put a piece of lasagna on it, grabbed my plate and went out the kitchen door, looked up at the window, noticing Tollie was still working then walked up the narrow steps and knocked on his door with my foot since was I holding both plates. When he opened it, I could see his surprise, his smile.
“Surprise!” I said, “I thought you’d like some of this left over lasagna but really I wanted another salad like you made last night.” I blurted it out, surprised at myself. “Hope you don’t mind.”
He laughed. “Wow! Sarah—Aren’t you something—this is a pleasant surprise.”
“Well, I saw you working and thought why not—thought you might be hungry and I was thinking about that salad and the delicious dressing—so I thought I’d pop over—hope you don’t mind,” I repeated, feeling awkward and again surprised at myself.
He laughed again and opened the door wider, letting me in. “No, I don’t mind. I’m just surprised---thank you.”
I walked in and put the plates down on the table while he pushed his laptop aside. “Sure, I’ll make us a salad. Would you like some wine?”
“Yes, thank you. I’d love some wine,” I said, realizing I hardly drink wine and last night was the first time in awhile. I was surprised how comfortable I felt and also a little nervous, unsure but glad I had followed my impulse. He put the bottle on the table and two glasses. “You pour while I make the salad,” he said, moving back to the counter.
I watched him making the salad, cutting up a tomato and green pepper, tossing it with his fingers and I liked how comfortable he seemed then poured the dressing over it, tossing it again with two forks and brought it to the table while I poured the wine. We picked up our glasses, clicking them, looking at each other and again he said, “To life and to our friendship.”
It thrilled me to hear him say that—especially since before last night we had hardly spoken to each other and it felt like after two years of his living in the carriage house, I had discovered something I didn’t know existed. I repeated his words, “to life and our friendship” and took a sip of wine, loving how he looked at me and smiled.
“I like it here,” I said, helping myself to the salad. “It’s cozy.”
“Good. I’m glad,” he said. “I love living here. It’s so perfect for me. I love that I can garden and write and it’s so quiet—just me and the birds and squirrels and I can bike into town to get some food—I don’t need much else.”
“I don’t think I could do what you do,” I said. “I’d be bored, I think, in fact, I know I’d be bored.”
He nodded, chuckling. “Maybe one day you will find what you love and you won’t be bored, but I know what you mean. You’re going off to college in the fall. Maybe you will find what you love there. I hope so. You’re young.”
“How did you find out what you love?” I asked, wishing he didn’t think I was young, even though I was.
“I’m not sure exactly how I found out what I loved. It kind of evolved. I grew up on a farm and I never went to school. I just worked with my dad and some of the other people who worked with us and we just talked a lot and I learned how to plant and harvest and my mom and sister canned things and I always helped with that and I loved to read and so many books taught me and inspired me. Dad put me in charge of the chickens when I was nine and I started selling eggs at the farmers market and to neighbors—that’s where I learned math. We went to different farmers markets near where we lived and I just watched people—you can learn so much at a farmer’s market—that was the only school I had—that and the farm and I started writing down my thoughts, sometimes in poems, sometimes in little stories. I was lucky that my parents trusted me and let me wander in the woods near our farm. I loved fishing—we had a big creek near our house and I caught trout and sometimes bass and learned from nature.”
“So you were really free weren’t you? I can’t imagine not going to school. I’m just so used to it.”
He nodded. “Maybe that’s why you don’t know what you love---you didn’t have the chance to find out like I did. I read an article recently about how many young people commit suicide and how rampant depression is among teens and so many don’t do well in school and those who do well go on to college but most don’t and find boring jobs and flounder in their lives, drink, get high. Some find out what they like but most choose something that will help them get a job when they get out but they don’t love it—maybe some do but, like I said, most don’t. Most people are bored, I think. I remember a line from Thoreau’s Walden, “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.’ It’s really tragic.”
“You went to college,” I said “and mom said you were working on your PhD and then dropped out—why did you do that?’
“Because I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I was a poet and it wasn’t a choice. It’s hard to explain---I mean, you can choose to do something like be a doctor or lawyer or whatever but you are chosen to be a poet. It’s a gift and a tremendous responsibility and I found that I wanted to share what was intimate and secret and I felt, I mean, really believed that what I had to say was important and I had to say it—I didn’t have a choice. I just knew I was a poet—it’s as simple as that.”
“But you said you never published anything.”
“I know. But when you are a poet you have to forget that you are a poet and just write poetry. Getting published isn’t that important. The reason you are a poet is to write poetry and believe it will be found, discovered like finding a treasure without looking for it. You don’t advertise yourself.”
“But you spend so much time gardening,” I said.
“Well, yes. I love to garden and it’s not that different than poetry and I have to eat—so gardening and poetry go together. It feels so natural and I learn so much from the garden. ”
We finished eating and he poured me a little more wine, emptying the bottle. We sipped the wine, both of us sitting back and he looked at me. We were quiet for a few minutes and I was trying to absorb all that he had said, fascinated by his words, how he thought and how he lived.
“But don’t you need money?” I asked, still wondering about how he lived.
“Not much—it all depends. Like your mom, my grandfather died and left me some money—not a lot but enough-- and mom and dad still have the farm—maybe I’ll go back there one day, but I was lucky to inherit some money and I don’t need much. I believe I am here to write poetry and stories and that’s what I do. I’m blessed and feel grateful. I really appreciate how lucky I am to have found this place and to be able to write and garden. I couldn’t be happier.”
I looked over at his notebook next to the lamp on the small table. “I saw you writing today, you looked so engrossed, like nothing else existed, what were you writing?”
He chuckled and glanced over at the notebook then back at me. “I was working on a new poem. I’ll read you a few lines—not the whole poem—I’m still working on it but I’d like you to hear it—thanks for asking,” he said, smiling at me then went over to the table, picked up the notebook and came back to the table and sat down, turning the pages, looking for the lines he wanted to read, adjusted his glasses, tugged at his beard.
“Okay here goes. This poem is called, “Following Dawn” and I’m imagining I'm above the world following the morning rising and moving across the world and I’m looking down.” He looked into my eyes, cleared his voice and read slowly and there was something in his voice that was different, as if he went into a trance. I can’t remember all the words but it was like music and even after all of these years, I still remember these lines, “and I want my words soaring through the sky to touch the hearts below me, praying I can love myself enough to love the ugly, the evil, the killers, the vultures and with my words wake the innocence they were born with, the goodness they’ve forgotten.”
He looked up at me after reading those lines and closed his eyes as if holding back tears and I felt like I was going to cry. He was reading with so much feeling, the words pouring out of him.
He took a deep breath, looking back at the page and continued. “I want my final words to heal their hearts and bring smiles and happy tears believing, perhaps foolishly, my final words can change the weather of our world.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off of him as he read, thinking about his voice and these words I have never forgotten, “Oh, if only I could say these final words, be heard and leave behind one song that makes a difference, I’d gladly leave the dawn to others.”
He took a deep breath when he finished, closed his notebook and looked away then took another deep breath and smiled at me. “It still needs work but that’s what I was writing this afternoon.”
“Wow that was amazing. You’re really good and I love how you read the poem. I had tears listening to you.”
“I’ll give you a copy of it when it’s finished, if you’d like,” he said.
“I would. I really would. Thank you,” I said, realizing we read poetry in school but I never heard anything like that. I was floored.
“Thank you for bringing the lasagna and surprising me. This has been nice,” he said.
“Thanks for the salad,” I said, feeling it was time to go but not really wanting to. “I better get going,” I said, standing up, reaching for the empty plates.
“Leave them,” he said. “I’ll bring them over in the morning.”
He walked me to the door and just before I left, he kissed me on the forehead and said, “Goodnight and thank you.”
I was overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings when I went home—surprised how Tollie had touched something in me, I didn’t know existed. I was intrigued, fascinated and amazed to suddenly discover this man who had been living a hundred feet from me for two years in our carriage house and who I hardly paid attention to and thought was weird. I went to the window and saw him sitting in his chair reading and wondered if I could ever be alone and content.
I slept in that next morning and didn’t wake up until eleven. It was Saturday and I loved not having to get up and rush out to school. The fact is, I loved to sleep—still do but not like I did when I was a teen. Anyway, when I got up, I looked out the window but didn’t see Tollie. I took a long shower, played with myself, had a huge orgasm then got dressed, throwing on an old pair of cut-off jeans and a baggy t-shirt and even before I got to the kitchen, heard Tollie and my mom laughing. When I entered, mom looked up at me and smiled, “I made home fries if you want some” and Tollie turned and said, “Good morning, Sarah” then turned back to the big cheese omelet and home fries mom made him. She was sitting next to him at the table—actually close to him, almost touching, holding her coffee mug and I suddenly felt a pang of jealousy that surprised me. I tried shrugging it off and put a bagel in the toaster over, got out the cream cheese, poured myself a mug of coffee and tried to act nonchalant about Tollie being there, but I wasn’t. I didn’t know how to act—I was shaky and didn’t know whether to sit with them or go out on the back porch or go back to my room—all I knew was I didn’t want the home fries mom made for Tollie and knew I was being stupid. I love home fries and mom is such a good cook.
I ended up sitting at the table with them, somehow feeling like a third wheel when I knew it was crazy—I was a kid and Tollie and my mom were adults but I wanted to feel special like I did when we had dinner and he read me that poem and said he’d give me a copy and it felt so intimate. They were talking to each other and I tried to listen but I wanted Tollie to pay attention to me and not to my mom and didn’t know what to do. I knew I looked good in the tight cut-offs and wished I wasn’t wearing such a baggy tee shirt. Mom had put on weight and was a little plump. She didn’t exercise but still looked good considering she was in her forties and she was wearing a low cut white blouse and no bra. I couldn’t tell for sure whether she was doing it on purpose or not but there was plenty of cleavage showing and I know she liked cooking for Tollie. I was definitely jealous and hated what I was feeling and somehow wanted to let him see how sexy I looked in the cut offs but I didn’t. Still it was pretty intense thinking I was competing with my mom for Tollie. Wow! That was insane but that’s what was going on.
When the phone rang, my mom took the long cord and went into the pantry next to the kitchen and there I was sitting across from Tollie. He had finished eating and looked at me over the rim of his coffee then put his mug down.
“I really enjoyed being with you last night,” I said.
“I liked it to—very much,” he said. “It’s nice getting to know you.”
“Thank you,” I answered, shrugging my shoulder. “I liked that poem you read. I was really touched.”
“I’m glad you liked it. I’ll give you a copy when it’s really finished and I’d love you to hear some of my others. Hardly anyone knows my poetry so it would feel good to share them with you.”
“I’d like that,” I said and our eyes met and I somehow felt special again like something was happening between us but I didn’t know what.
Mom came back in the kitchen and hung up the phone and sat down with us and they started talking again, continuing their conversation. And again, I felt like I didn’t belong there so I picked up my plate and mug, rinsed them and said, “See ya” and left the kitchen feeling confused and like my heart was going to burst—what was going on with me, I wondered running back up the stairs to my room.
I called Janine and asked what she was doing today but wanted to tell her about Tollie and what was happening but didn’t. She told me about a sale they were having at “Guys and Gals” a really cool shop at the mall—did I want to go. I knew Tristan was working until five and wondered if we would get together but for some reason I didn’t want to go shopping—which was really unusual for me. I think a part of me was hoping I’d spend some more time with Tollie, maybe even help him in the garden—something I knew nothing about so I told Janine I didn’t feel like it.
“Why?” she asked, shocked. “You always want to go shopping?”
“I know. I don’t know why. I just don’t feel like it that’s all.”
“What’s with you, Sarah? You stayed home on a Friday night and now you don’t want to go shopping—what’s going on?”
“Nothing, Janine. Nothing’s going on,” I said, knowing that wasn’t true then I said,“Drop it!”
“Okay, okay,” she said. “Call me if you change your mind and I’ll pick you up.”
I remember saying “Yeah, okay” but I was anxious to hang up and be quiet.
After I hung up, I looked around my room which was pretty messy so I decided to straighten up, picking up my clothes from the chair, lining up my shoes in the closet, wondering why I had so many pairs of shoes when mostly I wore sandals or sneakers. I took all of my sweaters out of the drawer and folded them, realizing I wouldn’t be wearing sweaters now that it was June but it felt good seeing them in the drawers –two drawers --nice and neat and so packed, I could hardly close the drawers then wondered how I would get all of my clothes to college in the fall. At that time, I wasn’t sure where I was going to go—I had been accepted at University of Vermont and Connecticut College and was on the wait list at Colorado College—my first choice so I couldn’t make up my mind and I had to see which place offered me the most assistance.
I thought about Tollie’s comments on college and how many people went because there weren’t many options and how bored most people were and how he hoped I’d find out what I love. I thought about how happy and content he seemed and why he dropped out of the PhD program and here he was living in our carriage house, writing and gardening. Suddenly, I thought about my mom and how she had a crush on him and now I did too—I finally admitted it—I had a crush on an older man who seemed so above me and out of reach but there I was.
Tristan called on his break at the market and asked about getting a pizza and a movie and I said I wasn’t sure but call me later and he said, “what’s going on with you” and I said, “nothing’s going on” and he said, “Come on, I want to be with you—we’ll have fun” and I knew he meant he wanted to make out and get in my pants which was tempting. We fucked a lot but I said I’d call him later and I had to go. I know he was pissed when we hung up and I hated making him feel bad but I was feeling strange and didn’t know what to do with my feelings.
I glanced at my digital clock and saw it was almost one. I realized I hadn’t put on my music—another rare things, not having my music on—you’d be surprised what I liked—not loud rock and roll or punk but I really liked Ani Difranco and The Beatles—I loved “Let’s do it the Road” and I’d sing it so loud and laugh—it was so raunchy and funny at the same time. Janine and Tristan always made fun of my taste but I didn’t care. I still like those songs but my taste changed as I got older.
It always felt good to straighten up my room—something I did when I was upset and felt my life was a mess. Anyway, I went to the window and saw Tollie working in the garden. He had on his cut-off’s too and I decided to go and see if he wanted any help. I knew that would surprise the hell out of him because most times when I was outside I was working on my tan and not paying any attention to him or the garden.
I can still see the look on his face when I asked if there was anything I could do and he said, sure, help me weed and then I’ll show you how to plant the tomatoes and peppers. He planted in what he called raised beds and he explained what they were but what was cool was I could work on one side while he worked on the other. I was surprised I didn’t mind getting on my knees in the dirt or even getting my hands dirty. It was a hot June afternoon and we both got sweaty but it was nice to pull the weeds and then plant the tomatoes and peppers he already started. We had a lot of them to plant and he said he was going to make a lot of salsa in the fall and soon would be planting cilantro and jalapeno peppers and pointed to the bed of onions on the other side of the garden. I could tell how proud he was of the garden and he talked about how certain things do better if planted near each other and how he planted the garlic in the fall and pointed to the bed and how the potatoes do well under straw. I listened and loved his enthusiasm and remembered what he said about passion and it made me think about how the only thing I had passion for was shopping and fucking Tristan and before him, a few other guys.
After working in the garden for over an hour, both of us sweaty and dirty, he said, “How about a beer” and I said sure. Beer is what I usually drink, not wine like we had a dinner. I was under age but we always managed to get beer and I was almost nineteen now—my birthday was in September—anyway, he ran up to his apartment and got us two cans of beer—I remember it was Guiness Ale and not Budweiser which me and my friends usually drank. I felt relaxed with him, not like I felt in the kitchen with my mom.
It felt weird when mom came out and stood out on the back porch and saw us sitting in front of the carriage house drinking beer. She waved and I could tell she thought it was strange that I had been working in the garden—guess she saw us—but I was glad she didn’t come down and went back inside. I knew she would be leaving for work soon and it wouldn’t be good to have beer on her breath but I knew she would say something as soon as she got the chance.
We sat there for awhile, drinking beer, enjoying the leisure after working so hard and I liked how he looked at me when we talked. His eyes always seemed to see inside of me in a way I had never experienced with any one. He always had a question that surprised me and made me think and that afternoon he asked me something that changed my life. I didn’t realize it at the time but he asked me if I remembered anything when I was younger that I really enjoyed. I had to think for awhile but I suddenly remembered I liked making things with clay. I went to a day camp when I was eleven when we lived in Hoboken and I signed up for a pottery class and I remember making a bowl and a mug and loved how it looked when I glazed it and saw it come out of the kiln. It was thrilling. I gave it to mom and she used it for coffee and I even ate cereal out of the bowl—I remember the bowl was blue and the mug was a bright orange and so I told Tollie how much I loved that. It all came back. He looked at me and smiled and I wondered what he was thinking.
He asked me what I was doing that night and I said I wasn’t sure—probably something with my boyfriend Tristan and he nodded and said, “cool” and he told me he was going to work on a story and he was in the middle of reading a good novel and was looking forward to doing that but I also had the feeling he wanted to be with me—I wasn’t sure, maybe it was my imagination working overtime, but then he said something that surprised me. He said he wanted to play me a piece of music that he liked and wanted to know what it made me feel. I was intrigued and said I would like that and we went up to his apartment and he put on a CD. He opened up another beer and poured each of us a glass since it was his last can and told me it was Rachmanioff’s Second Piano Concerto. He told me a little about it. He said it was unusual because most concertos start out with the orchestra and the piano comes in but this one started with the piano. He told me Rachmaninoff had been blocked and unable to write anything and went to a hypnotist to see if that would help and it did—he was able to write this concerto after many years of not composing. I was impressed with how much Tollie knew and I told him I never listened to classical music but wanted to hear this. But then he said he just wanted me to hear the second movement and not the whole thing. “I want you to close your eyes and then tell me what it brings to your mind.”
When he put it on, he sat down on the couch and I sat in his soft chair, noticing his thick notebook on the table. When the music came on, I closed my eyes. It was just a piano and violins and was really soft and slow—really slow. I sat back listening but opened my eyes and looked over at him seeing his eyes were closed so I closed my eyes again. I wondered why he wanted me to listen to this and tell him what I thought then I just let my mind go blank and I listened and I still remember how it made me feel. I felt love. I listened to the piano and felt the music expressing sweet tender love and I was swept up in the soft gentle sound of the piano weaving slowly in and out and around the violins. I had never heard anything so beautiful and somehow I remembered Tollie reading me his poem the night before but this was different. When it was over, both of us were quiet. He looked at me and I looked at him. I didn’t want to say anything but being with him and hearing that music was something I will never forget. Finally, he asked me what I felt listening to it and I told him I felt love—the music was love, tender love but somewhat sad like longing. I told him I thought it was so beautiful and thanked him for playing it for me then I asked why he wanted me to hear it.
He smiled, his eyes twinkling, “I wanted to know what it made you feel—that’s all. I wanted you hear that music because I wanted to introduce you to pure poetry—something beyond words, something that expresses the inexpressible, something that would reach inside of you and touch you and I’m glad I did.”
I often think back to that afternoon, listening to that music and how it felt in his apartment and I knew I would never forget what he was giving me. I knew I was falling in love with him.
That night, Tristan came over and we watched some dumb movie. He bought over a pizza and we hung out, smoked a joint, but a few times I went to the window and looked up and saw Tollie at his table writing. Tristan kept putting his arms around me and playing with my tits and I started to get turned on—he was a good kisser and knew my hot spots but I told him I wasn’t in the mood. He got insistent but I pushed him away a few times and said I was sorry I just wasn’t into it tonight. I felt bad but somehow, as great a guy as Tristan was, something had changed in me and I knew what it was but didn’t know what to do about it. After he left, it was about eleven and I knew he was bothered by how I was acting and tried to be a good sport. Though we kissed goodnight and said we’d talk tomorrow, I heard him slam his car door and drive off and I knew our relationship had run its course.
When I went to my bedroom I looked out the window and saw Tollie in his chair with the lamp over his shoulder reading. I stood there hoping he would look up and see me but he didn’t. I put on my white satin nightie and got in bed, looking up at the ceiling, thinking about the day—remembering mom sitting close to Tollie, how it seemed we were competing and hating that-- me being ten years younger than Tollie and mom twenty years older. I thought about working in the garden for the first time in my life and listening to Rachmaninoff. I hated upsetting Tristan and not knowing what I felt anymore then suddenly remembering how much I liked pottery when I was a kid thanks to Tollie’s question—anyway, my mind was swirling and it took me a long time to fall asleep.
I woke up late the next morning and saw the sun pouring in my window. I got up and remember looking at myself in the mirror, seeing my long auburn hair, my dark brown eyes, my slightly bent nose, my apple sized breasts, wondering if Tollie thought I was pretty even though I remember him saying he thought I was beautiful and wondered if he cared if I was so much younger. I liked how he looked at me when we talked but he never tried to touch me except when he kissed my forehead the other night. I thought I would ask him what he thought about our age difference but then thought he would wonder why I was asking and know that and was I getting a crush on him and decided I would pass on that question—if he was interested in me like I was interested him, he would let me know and decided to just be patient.
I went to the window and panic shot through me when I saw a red convertible car pull up and a woman with blond hair halfway down her back and a skimpy floral sun dress get out and then saw Tollie running out of the carriage house hugging her, picking her up and swinging her around as they held each other. My knees went weak and I thought I’d collapse seeing how happy they were to see each other. I couldn’t take my eyes off them and watched them walk into the carriage house and then saw them in the window --Tollie showing her around. Oh my god was I freaked out seeing how pretty she was and how happy Tollie looked when he ran up to her. Who was she? Was she an old girl friend, a lover or just good friends—I didn’t know and didn’t know how to find out and knew I had to mind my own business and let go of my feelings about Tollie.
I knew they were going to sleep together—there was only that small bed in the corner—and the thought was agony. I didn’t know what to do or how long she was going to stay and all I wanted was to have her disappear and find out they would never see each other again.
I hadn’t had breakfast and went down stairs and mom was at the table reading the paper, looked up and I knew she wanted to talk but I didn’t. I poured myself a cup of coffee and waited for the English muffin to toast, staring at it in the toaster over, my back to my mom. Finally, she said, I was surprised to see you gardening with Tollie—that’s a new thing.” I don’t know if she meant it that way but it felt sarcastic.
“Yeah mom. It’s a new thing—don’t make a big deal out of it.”
“I’m not making a big deal—it’s just seemed strange.”
I turned around and looked at her. “I just thought I’d help Tollie—that’s all. It’s not a big deal.”
When the bell on the toaster rang, I took out my muffin, buttered it and took my mug of coffee upstairs and heard mom shout at me, “I don’t like your tone.”
I didn’t respond but hated what I was feeling. Mom and me hardly ever had fights or anything—she was a really great mom and gave me a lot of space but at that time with Tollie’s friend Lark visiting —that was her name—I really liked that name—I didn’t want to talk to her about what was going on with me and Tollie ‘cause really nothing was going on except in my head.
In my room, I tried to read but all I saw were words and nothing registered. I called Janine and she was at the mall telling me what a cool tank top she bought on sale and I should have gone shopping with them. I started to call Tristan but just before I pushed his number, I stopped and closed my phone.
I got out of bed and went to the window and saw Tollie and Lark in the garden and watched Tollie pointing at things and looking around at the whole property, the trees, the bushes and I remembered being on my knees the day before planting tomatoes with him for the first time in my life and I could see how much they liked each other and how gorgeous she was. Then they got in her car and drove off and I have to admit it—that was one of the hardest days of my life.
Later mom went to work and I heated up the chicken casserole she made and just zoned out in front of the TV. I fell asleep on the couch and woke up with the news on and picked up the remote and shut it off. I heard the car drive up and park about eleven that night and went to the window and saw Tollie and Lark looking up at the moon. It was a starry night and I just stared at them hating how jealous and foolish I felt, sensing their closeness then watching them go up the stairs to Tollie’s apartment.
I went into the kitchen and grabbed two chocolate chip cookies—something I always do when I’m upset and was about to take a few more but caught myself. I stood at the kitchen window and looked up at his apartment and saw the lights were on but couldn’t see them. I couldn’t stop sighing and hated how I was feeling knowing she was in his apartment where I wanted to be. I went upstairs and got undressed, putting on my satin nightie then went to the window and saw it was dark and knew what was going on.
I picked up my science book and tried to study for a quiz but that didn’t last long. I fell asleep and when Janine picked me up the next morning for school, Lark’s car was still there and Tollie was not in the garden as usual. Janine asked me why I was so quiet in the car and I just shrugged and mumbled, “It’s nothing and I don’t feel like talking about” and Janine just said—“okay, whatever,” but she kept looking at me and it was pissing me off.
Lark left a few days later and I wanted to ask Tollie if he had a good time and not appear jealous but I was so busy with school and Tristan was trying to find out what was going on with me. I was trying to act like everything was cool with us but it wasn’t. We held hands and we hung out and he drove me home after graduation practice and he was being sweet but whatever was once strong in our relationship had faded and we both knew it.
I was glad that Lark had left and a week went by.I was so busy with school and getting ready for graduation, I didn’t see Tollie, but he wasn’t far from my thoughts and in my mind I kept seeing him and Lark together seeing how close they seemed and that thought kept going through my mind like a dark cloud until I squeezed my eyes closed shaking the image of them away. It happened a lot.
Finally it was graduation and Tollie came with my mom and then we went for a nice dinner. Mom kept talking and leaning against him and that bugged me. Tollie told us the only graduation he ever went to was his from Brown and he said it was nice seeing me in a cap and gown but said he thought the speeches were boring and he could hardly stay awake.
I went to a big graduation party that night, drank a lot of beer and danced like a wild nut for awhile but then got bored and asked Tristan to drive me home. I know he wanted to come in and continue our celebration but I said I was exhausted and that was that.
After, he left, I went to my room. Tollie’s light was on in his apartment and I saw him standing at the window and he saw me. He opened his window and I opened mine and he shouted he wanted to show me something and for me to come down and meet him.
I couldn’t imagine what was so important but was excited. I noticed it was after one and mom wasn’t home. I know she didn’t work but probably went out on a date. I knew she had an on-line friend and that they had met a few times and I was sure that’s where she was and wouldn’t be home until the next morning. I thought it was cool that she did that even though I know she had a crush on Tollie.
Anyway, he met me at the bottom of the stairs from his apartment and we went into the garage part of the carriage house. It was dark and he turned on a light and there it was—a potter’s wheel like we had at camp. I couldn’t believe my eyes and was thrilled that he bought me that for my graduation present. I wanted to cry but instead hugged him with all my strength and wanted to kiss him I was so overwhelmed.
“Why did you do that?” I asked after calming down.
“I’m not sure but I remembered you telling me you loved pottery when you were a kid and thought this might be a nice gift.”
“Wow—you’re amazing—that’s so cool,” I said looking at it then went over and pushed the petals and saw the wheel spin slowly.
He then invited me upstairs for a glass of wine to celebrate my graduation. He even lit a candle a few candles and we sat on the couch. I looked around his apartment, seeing the shadows on the wall from the candles and was still feeling high about the potter’s wheel and told him that was the best present I have ever been given and I knew then I wanted to learn how to be a potter.
He poured us the wine and we clicked glasses and he said, “To life, friendship poetry and pottery” and when we clicked glasses, his smile-- that sweet smile-- melted my heart. We drank the wine and then he poured another glass.
I was so happy being with him and getting the potter’s wheel, I was hesitant to ask him about Lark but after the second glass of wine, I asked, dreading the answer, “So, how was your visit with Lark?”
“It was great,” he said, looking at me. “We had a wonderful time.” He took a sip of wine, lifted up the bottle and saw there was just a little left. He poured a little more in my glass then into his and I was desperate to find out more. I know he sensed why I was asking and took a sip of his wine. “We’re best friends and we love each other but there is nothing romantic in our relationship. She grew up on the farm next to ours in Ohio and we are like brother and sister—she’s an amazing person and we will always be best friends.”
I was stunned finding out I was wrong and stopped breathing, “Really, I thought for sure you were lovers.”
“Nope, we’re definitely not lovers,” he chuckled, knowing why I had asked. “We haven’t seen each other in over two years but she had some time off from work and wanted to visit to see what I was up to. She’s the one who encouraged me to drop out of graduate school and just write and now she is engaged to get married to another friend and I’m going to be best man at their wedding in August.”
“Wow—that’s so cool,” I said.
Well you can imagine how hearing that on top of getting a potters wheel made me the happiest person in the world and I surprised myself by telling him I was jealous of Lark. I was embarrassed when he laughed and said, “Really” like he was surprised.
He then did something that changed both of our lives. I will never forget this moment. He put on the second movement of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto. I was surprised at first but loved that he did that. We listened quietly to the slow soft second movement and I knew it was going to happen. We kissed. He took my hand and we kissed gently then he put his arms around me and we kissed more passionately as if the music was speaking to us, leading us somewhere we would never return from. I wanted him like I had never wanted anything, my whole body aching to feel him in me.
He gently unbuttoned my blouse, touching my breasts sending shivers throughout my body, our lips kissing gently then harder, then more passionately, our tongues swirling while he slipped off my shirt and I unbuttoned his pants, lowering the zipper reaching inside, taking his warm hardness in my hand and we lay down on the couch, sinking into the soft cushions, his body hovering over me, my hands sliding my skirt off, his hands helping then lifting my ass feeling him slipping off my soaked panties then taking off his jeans and pulling off his tee shirt and there we were making love, sweet gentle love, the Rachmaninoff playing softly—the perfect music for our first night and he entered me so slowly, so gently, his movement like the bows on the violins, his hard cock moving in and out going slowly and deeper, filling me. We were the music and the music was us, our bodies so in harmony moving faster with the music then harder, faster, deeper our bodies trembling, the music rising, taking us closer to exploding, the music rushing to its climax, our need growing, the music soaring and suddenly we were there reaching for the highest notes, climaxing, coming together. It was a miracle-- how our first night of making love would be something we would never forget. I was sobbing and he just held me and we lay together on the couch. The music had stopped and it was quiet, no sound or movement other than the candles flickering in the dark.
That night was five years ago. I went to the University of Vermont that fall and we talked on the phone and e-mailed every day and he sent me new poems and I told him I was spending most of my time in the pottery studio at school and had a great teacher. I had a few other good courses but my main interest became learning how to be a potter. I loved it and learned that he was right. When you find what you love you are seldom, if ever, bored. My pottery teacher said something to me that I never forgot. “Though I am a master when I look at a piece of clay I am a beginner.” When I told Tollie that, he said that he learned that about poetry.
I did the same thing that Tollie did when he dropped out of the PhD program to write poetry. I didn’t go back to college the following fall and came home and for awhile shared his apartment but we spent a lot of time in the big house. We turned the whole downstairs of the carriage house into my studio and Tollie still used the apartment to write. Mom was not jealous of me and Tollie once she saw how much we loved each other and we had a lot of good meals together and when mom died last year from breast cancer at fifty-two, I couldn’t have survived without Tollie. It was a nightmare. I inherited the house. I have to make money to show on my income tax in order to have it be matched by the trust and we get by just fine.
Tollie and I never married—we didn’t need to but he is the love of my life and we grow most of our food and several places sell my pots and bowls. He started sending out his poetry to small journals and has several poems published then won a competition where he got a thousand dollars and they published his book. He gives readings at various libraries but he doesn’t care that much about being published. He’s not famous at all. He just loves to write. He planted a lot of fruit trees and loves watching me making pottery and I love seeing how happy he is in his garden.
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