Noreen McAuliffe

Creative Nonfiction

Noreen McAuliffe earned an MA in English literature and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She lives on the East coast and summers in Mongolia.

Under the Locust Tree

Victor said if I gardened in the morning I would hear the voices in the leaves. He was the caretaker of the Walter Pierce Park community garden, which sat on a hill above an unmarked historic cemetery in Washington, D.C. Back there the kudzu vines choked most of the city sounds out. I only heard cursing from the basketball court and an occasional shriek from the playground swings. Then that year the cicadas emerged, crawling out of the dirt and into the trees, their buzzing song like the summer heat, always pitched high and never breaking.

My tomatoes were smaller than they should have been by July, their mottled green fruits the size of grapes. I suspected the locust tree must be sapping the soil out from under them, or maybe blocking the afternoon sun. There were days I wished that tree dead. Someone once tried to burn it down, but even with a black jagged scar spiraling its trunk it was smug and leafed out, towering over my plot. Every time my shovel thunked into a root that morning, echoing deep into my shoulder, I cursed the tree under my breath. Still, I was grateful for its green shade as I dug a new row for cilantro, stooping to pick out rocks from the dirt, chucking them over my shoulder to land hollow at the base of the locust.

By the gate my dog, Walker, shook from nose to tail, scratched out a hole, and circled twice before he tucked his paws under him. I kept on digging. Two summers turning the soil there and still I found blue plastic dime bags, beer bottle shards, and faded seed packets that the gardeners before me had used to mark their rows. Sometimes artifacts floated up from deeper down—once a jade pin, its lotus design lined with dirt, once a broken pearl ring that I polished with my glove before returning it to the ground.

I wasn’t an expert gardener; it was only the second summer I’d ever tried to grow anything. My neighbor Tessa had told me about the open plot, maybe because I looked pale and in need of the outdoors. She grew special varieties of eggplant from Tuscany, shiny purple orbs that looked like bowling balls. Tessa tended her eggplants and tomatoes in between cigarettes.

I was puzzled by the strange alchemy of gardening—how could a shriveled seed lead to the bright blossoms and peppery taste of nasturtiums? I became versed in the exuberant language of the seed catalogues: the Bright Lights Swiss chard, ruby red beets, Cajun delight okra; the pictures of the flawless mature plants beckoning with the false promise of mail-order brides.

Walker shook with a low rumbling growl when two men walked toward my gate. Miguel shuffled by and stared at me from under his baseball hat, then said something in Spanish to the skinny guy with him and they both burst out laughing and kept walking. Miguel was a shiftless-looking man, with long knotty hair and a big belly that pushed up his grease-splotched T-shirt, but he had built the terrace I was standing on, had cobbled together the piecework fence that surrounded the plot. One day he tried to sell me the fence for five hundred dollars, and threatened to pull it down if I didn’t pay him, but I thought he was all talk, a harmless drunk. Sometimes I pictured Miguel in the garden before Victor kicked him out, sitting with his paper-bag beer under the locust in blossom, an inchworm swinging on silk in front of his nose, contracting into an emerald question mark.

I finished clearing half the row, urged on by a mockingbird that alighted on the fence and sang me his whole repertoire: high screech of the catbird, insistent whistle of the robin, and his finale—a long string of car alarm sounds. The mockingbird took off when Walker cracked the silence again, barking at a short man walking down the narrow path that ran between the plots. Then he recognized Victor and his tail became a waving white flag of surrender. Victor reached his fingers in to stroke Walker’s nose and whispered something sweet-sounding in his Martinican French. Walker met Victor first, when Tessa arranged a time for me to see Victor at the garden. He was off the leash and bolted after a squirrel, shot across the soccer field, and dove under the garden fence. By the time I got to the gate, Victor was leading him out by the collar and laughing, “Man, he almost got that fluffy rat. Tough like my old dog Tiger.” We were in.

Victor was old, somewhere between sixty-five and eighty, with dark eyebrows, a thin mustache, and square-framed dark glasses. Some days he leaned against the fence like he owned the world, peering down at me from under his Panama hat and giving me directions. Other days he leaned against the fence to hold himself up. Victor ran the garden, or at least said who got to have a plot, which seemed to be decided mostly by whether Victor liked you or not. If anyone tried to get around him—passing their plot off to a friend for the summer or watering in the middle of the day in a heat wave—they were pretty much guaranteed never to garden in the city again.

Victor looked up from his conversation with Walker, took his handkerchief out of his shirt pocket, and wiped the back of his neck. “Hey, Miss Trouble, you see Miguel?”

I stopped shoveling and shrugged. “Maybe down the hill?” Down the hill was the big field a few Salvadoran families worked together. The land was a steep slope on the edge of Rock Creek Park, and the Salvadorans had claimed it and re-created a terraced field from home. They grew straight rows of corn and tomatoes, and squash vines that snaked along the ground. The women cleared the field every spring, wearing long skirts and swooping down on the weeds with shining machetes. Occasionally commuters cutting through the park to get to the Woodley Park Metro would look over the fence, startled.

“I told him not to come here. I beat his ass.” Victor clutched the wire loops of the fence.

Victor had told me dozens of times about his feud with Miguel. Victor said Miguel had grown marijuana plants under the locust tree. Miguel told him they were marigolds to honor his dead mother. One morning Victor broke the lock on Miguel’s gate and went in and ripped the plants out. That night Miguel tried to set fire to the locust, and ever since he had skulked around the gardens—long after I inherited his plot, long after that day Victor yelled curses at him that made the basketball players stop their game. The summer before he wasn’t around much, and Victor told me he had run off to Florida to work at a racetrack. That summer he was back, and I sometimes saw him on Columbia Road, in front of the chicken place where Walker always dove for the bones on the sidewalk. Mostly he would come to the park to drink down under the Duke Ellington bridge, past the Salvadoran field. Miguel had figured out Victor’s schedule well enough to sneak through the gardens and avoid him, so Victor said.

Victor told me stories. How he was a boxer in Marseilles. How he worked for Interpol in South America. How he fought for the French in Indochina and had a pet monkey that he found in the jungle. One day before a firefight he tied his monkey to a tent pole in camp, but the monkey chewed through the rope and followed him, climbing hand over furry hand in the canopy, until in the middle of the fighting it fell dead, shot, at Victor’s feet. Which was probably true. I didn’t like to tell stories. I dreaded the moment when someone might listen, and my voice seemed a separate thing, drifting out in the air.

Victor was on to talking about his vanilla bean farm in Martinique, and how since I liked gardening so much I should come next winter and work for him there.

“Hey, you need to kill that tree? I got some stuff you can put on the roots and c’est tout.”

“No, that’s okay. I sort of like it.” I looked over my shoulder at the locust.

“Well, you wanna water that ugly tree every day, go ahead.” He pulled a strand of morning glory vine off the fence and twisted it between his fingers. “I need to go see about my beans.”

I was planting more cilantro since my entire crop had been stolen the week before, cut off evenly at the base as if it were grazed by sheep. When Victor first told me that people stole—oozing okra pods and tomatoes just on the edge of ripeness—I was magnanimous. It was a community garden, after all, and if someone needed vegetables badly enough to scale a high chain-link fence, they could have them. But cilantro cost 79 cents at Safeway, and who was going to feed their family off a garnish? When I found it all gone, I bent the loose metal pieces of the broken chain links at the top of the fence so that they were pointing straight up, and scattered some glass shards on the ground near the fence in case anyone got the idea to crawl under.

Before my security system, I came in the morning once to find all my sugar snap peas clipped off at the end curl of their tendrils. The deep pock prints of stiletto heels ran along the inside of the fence. I yelled to Tessa that hookers had gotten all my peas. I pictured the women shoving peas in their purses, or shelling them on the spot, popping them in their painted red mouths. I thought of cutting things to say if I saw them that night. Then I squatted down and noticed that the heel prints were cleft down the middle. Deer. Standing on their hind legs and snipping off the peas, then leaping back over the fence like winged spirits. I’d never seen a deer in D.C. before, but of course they must sleep in the woods of Rock Creek Park in the day, then flood into the neighborhoods at night to graze on petunias, stepping through the dark streets on their slim ankles.

The row for the cilantro was ready, the soil loose and loamy. I took off my glove and ran my hand through it, feeling for pebbles, the sinews of roots. I liked to have dirt jammed so far up under my fingernails I couldn’t get it all out.

I pulled the cilantro seed packet out of my back pocket and listened to the Albanian scraping away in the plot next to me. When I first introduced myself, he had replied, “I am Albanian.” He gardened in the same threadbare suit every day, hanging his jacket on a snag and smoking while he hoed around his three scraggly peach trees. Soon his scraping stopped, and when he walked by our gate on his way out, Walker pulled up to his full hound height and barked at him like the rottweiler he dreamed to be. The Albanian ran his hand along the fence and said “Friend” in what he must have thought was a soothing voice but with his accent sounded like Boris Karloff. Walker’s hackles rose the length of his back. I hoped that he wouldn’t be able to fit his muzzle through the mesh of the fence. “Sorry,” I called, and the Albanian held up his callused hand and stretched his lips back to show his smoke-stained teeth.

I took off my gloves and planted the cilantro, rolling the puckered seeds through my fingers into the furrow and sprinkling them with dirt I pressed down with the heel of my hand. I knelt there next to the row for a little while, looking through the green screen of the foliage at the black-spot aphids sucking the sap from the tomatoes. The fattening eggplant hung so heavy on its stalk, I wondered how long it would be before it pulled the whole plant over.

I listened for the sound of Victor watering his tomatoes, the hose slithering through the grass, the spray hitting the leaves. I didn’t want him to look for Miguel. Though Victor never talked about it, in the spring Miguel had gone after him with a machete outside the garden gate. Miguel had knocked Victor down and stood over him with the blade arced over his head, gleaming, while Tessa tried to reason with him. I hadn’t seen it, but the scene ran through my mind in Technicolor when she told me. How Victor would have looked broken and small, curled up like a seedling stomped under a boot. How when the sirens got closer, Miguel dropped the machete and ran. How the blade clattered on the pavement, the metal ringing like a shrill chorus of cicadas.


I moved from D.C. that fall, plucking the last of my undersized tomatoes from the vine and packing them in a shoebox, where they rotted without ripening. The next winter I drove down to D.C., and decided on the Beltway that I wouldn’t go back to the garden. But when we were walking on Columbia Road, Walker pulled a hard left at Adams Mill. I let him lead me, past the apartment building with the grimy caryatids, past the playground. The garden entrance had a heavy chain and padlock across it and a sign from the Army Corps of Engineers: Closed for Repairs.

That was part of the story. There was erosion, but the garden would be permanently closed because someone in the city government realized what everyone already knew—that the entire park was once a historic burial site. While the dog run, basketball court, and playground could stay open, the garden had to go. Some community members had hysterical visions of gardeners digging up skulls—a far-fetched fear that had never been realized over the years of people working the soil. I wish the city had found a way to honor the dead and preserve some part of the garden. It seems strange to me, that impulse to separate the dead from the living, as if every city weren’t built on top of bones. The dead must be lonelier now, with no one to cultivate life in the ground above them, no one to listen for their voices in the leaves. I thought of the other gardeners, forced back inside their small apartments while the city dithers over how to memorialize the site: Tessa leaning over a stunted basil plant on her windowsill, squeezing the leaves to release the sweet nutty scent; the Albanian canning the last of his withered peaches to keep through the winter; Victor flipping idly through a seed catalogue, maybe—no one had seen him since the garden closed.

I peered through the fence toward my old plot and saw the locust tree on its side, the roots wildly spiraling into the air. A bulldozer might have knocked it over, or maybe it was all my hacking at the roots that weakened it enough for a thunderstorm to tip it. Two plots over the dry stalks of Victor’s giant tomatoes—the mail-ordered ones from Nebraska that he doused with some formula known only to him—crackled against each other in the wind. I stuck my arm through the fence up to my shoulder and grabbed a stalk, broke it in two. The sharp acid smell of August flooded the air, and my dog cocked his head. He pulled the plant from my hand and we walked back toward Columbia Road, Walker prancing and shaking the stalk like a rattle.