Nick leaned against the passenger side window as his mom backed out of the driveway and tried fall back into the world of sleep he had been forced to abandon. His scruffy brown hair was just long enough help block out some of the morning light. If the judge had told him that waking up at 8:30 each Saturday was part of the deal, he might have opted for the jail time instead.
A constant jostle of stops and starts kept the dream world at bay, but thoughts of the day that denied him his sleep filled his mind. His dress shoes squeaked noticeably from lack of use in the quiet of the courtroom. Fear struck him like a sledgehammer to the chest when the bailiff would not let his mom join him in the front. That was the moment he knew the judge was going to treat him like an adult even though he had just turned 17.
Reality suddenly snapped back into focus as his seatbelt tightened against his chest and his head flopped forward.
“Idiot! You ever heard of a blinker? Sorry honey.”
Nick glanced over at his mom. She looked tired more often than not lately, but her face carried a different kind of weariness than his. It was deeper. He turned away and faced the window again. Buildings passed without being seen. His mind returned again to the courtroom.
The judge paused mid-sentence just as he was about to give his decision. A strange smile grew on his face as he looked to the rear of the courtroom. Nick turned to see what had caused a crack in the stone face that had been glaring at him all morning. An elderly black man with white hair was shuffling down the aisle. The judged waived him up to the bench and they began to whisper.
Nick watched the conversation with annoyance. The old man looked like he had no idea what year it was with his suspenders and the way he held his hat over his chest as he spoke. When he looked back over his shoulder at Nick he had a polite grin on his face, but it could not hide the fierceness in his eyes. He was waiting in the hallway after the hearing and introduced himself as Moses Farmer.
The voice of Nick’s mom brought him back to the present.
“Look at that. We made it on time for once.”
Fresh graffiti marred the front of the run down church where he had spent the last three Saturdays doing his community service. Bright red lettering stretched across the wall he had just painted last week, as if he had had intended to provide them with a canvas.
“Community service is load of…”
“All I’m saying is that it seems a lot more like slave labor to me. It doesn’t do any good anyway.”
His eyes remained on the newly decorated wall. A soft sigh told him that his mother had held back her first thought.
“Mr. Farmer didn’t have to speak to the judge on your behalf. He had never even met you. You should be grateful. Now, I will be back around 4 to pick you up.”
Nick unbuckled his seat belt and got out. A breeze helped shut the door behind him a little harder than he had intended. The whir of his window being lowered made him look back over his shoulder.
“Look, honey, I know you don’t like it, but it’s better than jail. Just remember that okay? Love you.”
A sudden smile brought her face to life as she gave a little wave. Nick turned to see Mr. Farmer walking towards him and waving back. He held a Starbucks cup in his other hand and took a sip as the car pulled away.
“Good morning Nick.”
“I got something special planned for us today.”
As he said this, he turned and headed around the side of the church. Nick mumbled a sarcastic “Whoppee!” under his breath as he followed, but if Moses heard it he showed no signs.
The sidewalk led around the sanctuary to the back of the church and stopped at a wrought iron gate. Moses held it open for Nick and followed him into the fenced area. The gate let out a creak of resistance as it closed and latched with a quiet click.
“Here we are.” Moses said with his usual amount of mirth.
Nick panned his head slowly searching for what Moses was referring to, but could not see anything other than the overgrowth that covered most of the ground.
“What is it?”
“It’s the church’s garden. Mrs. Davis normally takes care of it, but she has been in the hospital for the last few weeks.”
“All I see is a bunch of weeds.”
The old man gazed at Nick in silence for what seemed like minutes before he finally said, “To the untrained eye, that would seem true. But once you know what to look for… Well you may just find a lot more than that.”
Nick shrugged as if he had not felt a small tingle run up his spine.
“So basically, we are pulling weeds?”
Every line in Moses’ face quickly became a wrinkle as he laughed at some inside joke.
“Yes we are.”
The morning clouds melted as the days heat rose throughout the morning. After Moses gathered their tools, he began to show Nick what to look for as they worked. He had a pair of gloves for each of them, which surprised Nick. He still remembered the feeling of sandpaper against his skin the first time he had shaken Moses’ hand.
They worked side by side at first so the more experienced gardener could keep a close eye on their progress. His voice never seemed to grow frustrated as he repeated many of the same things over and over again.
“No, not that one. That is an herb called Thyme.”
“Don’t pull that one up. The one next to it.”
The sun was almost directly overhead by the time clouds swept back into the sky. Moses looked up and closed his eyes, letting the cool shade wash over his sweat dotted face. He took in a deep slow breath. His eyes popped back open as he let it out and started removing his gloves.
“I think it’s about time for lunch. Whad’ya say?”
Nick shrugged his shoulders again and tossed out a nonchalant “sure” hoping that his stomach had not rumbled loud enough to give away his relief.
The two of them found there way to the church’s side entrance and into the kitchen. Moses cooked them some grilled cheese sandwiches and pulled a couple sodas out of the fridge. They ate in silence, which was a welcome relief to Nick. He hated it when adults asked about what he liked and then acted all interested just to try to get in good with him. Each time Nick looked at him, Moses seemed content to just sit and enjoy his own thoughts.
When they returned to the garden, Moses seemed a little more confident that Nick knew what he was doing and set him over an area at one end as he went to start on the opposite side. The muscles in Nick’s back protested as he kneeled to begin working again.
Nick still got confused by some of the plants. He began holding them up for Moses to see so he would know if he had pulled the right thing. When he had Moses would smile and give him a thumbs up. When he hadn’t, he would just shake his head and laugh. There were quite a few more laughs than thumbs up.
Slowly, as they worked from the outside in, the gap between the two narrowed. Nick found that he enjoyed the rhythm of the work, but the silence made it difficult to block out the growing soreness. He decided to strike up a conversation.
“So you really like this gardening sh… uh, stuff huh?”
Moses chuckled as if Nick had held up another herb.
“I do. It’s good for a man to use his hands and work. And I think I’ve learned more from gardening than all the schooling I ever had.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?”
Moses stopped what he was doing and didn’t move for a moment. When he spoke, he kept his eyes on the ground in front of him.
“Nick, I will tell ya, but I don’t want you to think I’m preachin’ at you. You asked me a question and I am gonna answer honestly.”
“Ok. Sounds fair.”
“I learned a long time ago that, well… Some folks call it evil and others call ‘em bad habits. I just call it sin. But whatever it’s called, it’s a lot like these weeds we’ve been pulling. If you don’t take the time to root them out when they pop up inside you, they will eventually take over. Some men let them grow, thinking that they will get around to it later. Then before they know it… Well they know how much effort it’s gonna take to get it all out and they just don’t even try.”
Nick tried to make a joke to lighten the sudden serious mood.
“You just need to get you some spiritual weed killer.”
Moses half smiled, but his tone would not lighten at the subject.
“Believe it or not, I used to think the same thing. But the thing about weed killer is that no matter how good it is, it kills the good plants as well as the bad. If a man’s struggling with lust and he decides to just ignore all women, then he has just lost something really good to try and get rid of the bad. It just don’t work that way.”
Silence settled between them again as they resumed clearing the garden. The next time Nick held up a plant for inspection, Moses shook his head. Instead of laughing though, he asked a question.
“Can I tell you another thing?”
Nick’s voice sounded uninterested, but he was curious to hear what the old man had to say.
“You ever thought about why it is so hard to figure out which ones are weeds and which are not?”
“It’s ‘cause the weeds grow to look just like the other plants. It’s a form of self-defense, so that they don’t get pulled.”
“So sin is the same way. Or at least mine are. Oh you can look to all the world like you are being generous when you give to some charity, but it can just as easily be pride hoping that you look good to other people. Or you can look like your being kind when you change that flat tire, but deep down you are really just hoping to impress the girl who owns the car! In some cases it can look so close to the real thing that it can fool the one it’s growing inside.”
Nick had stopped pulling weeds and was watching Moses as he worked and talked.
“So how do you know what to pull and what not to pull?”
“Practice. If you work at it often enough you’ll get an eye for it. And if you leave the right one in the ground long enough…”
Moses had wrapped his right hand around thick stalk with large leaves. He pulled quickly and held a radish up for Nick to see. The big smile that Moses wore was matched for the first time on Nick’s face.
“You get a radish! That’s the big reward!”
Moses looked at the radish and then at Nick. They both started laughing at once in fits that did not stop for several minutes. Once Moses had finished wiping the tears from his eyes he continued.
“Ok. Maybe that wasn’t the best example. The point is you get something good for you. It can give you strength and help you stay healthy. It can sustain you. It’s something that can be shared with others when they need something good.”
Nick had finished laughing, but still wore a slight grin.
“That’s cool. I can see that. You ever think the weeds will just give up?”
“I wish they would. But the truth is as long as we are living, weeds will be trying to grow. That’s why you can’t get lazy. They grow faster than anything else so you gotta work at it every day. Well, I think that about does it for today.”
Moses peeled off his gloves and put the tools away as Nick gathered all the weeds they had pulled into a large black trash bag. They stopped back by the kitchen for a couple more sodas before going to sit on the front steps of the church to wait for Nick’s mother.
“Nick, some weeds are easy to pull and some dig their roots deep before they ever pop up on the surface. But there is not a weed that can’t be pulled if you try hard enough. I know some people may look at you and be quick to point out the weeds they see, but I’ve seen some good things in you over the last few weeks. Just thought you should know.”
Nick’s mom eased up to the curb a few minutes later. Moses followed Nick to the car door.
“You got a good son here ma’am. You should be proud.”
A faint smile touched the corners of her mouth as she gave a nod of thanks.
The ride home was filled with the silence they had both become accustomed to. Nameless stores passed by until one caught Nick’s eye. He turned to face his mother.
“Mom? Can I ask you a question?”
“Do you think maybe we could start a garden?”
Copyright © 2012 Adam Drake