The cast-iron mailbox sitting at the edge of the road wore black curlicue numerals “42”. Kate turned into the paved driveway, which curved slightly to the right revealing a house. From the design, the Tudor-styled home appeared to be from the nineteen thirties with black wooden struts tic-tac-toeing the white mortared walls. A round turret, topped with a slate roof, like an inverted ice-cream cone, anchored the front corner of the building. Kate felt a tinge of envy—it reminded her of home. It didn’t matter how long she’d lived in the States, she would always think of England as home.
She slung her handbag over her shoulder and climbed out of the car. Border gardens filled with colorful flowers surrounded an impeccable lawn. To her it was a contradiction of Tom Yoast’s disheveled appearance that his landscape resembled a picture of perfection in a magazine.
Two cars were parked in the driveway. The green one bore a current parking permit sticker on the windshield from a New Jersey college. The other car was a large black sports utility vehicle with a bag of potting soil spilling onto the open tailgate.
On the opposite side of the lawn, a woman bent over the flower bed and pulled an errant weed by its head.
“Mrs. Yoast?” Kate called over to the woman.
“Who wants to know?” was the curt response. The woman straightened up while she pulled off her gardening gloves. She walked toward Kate who was a little shell-shocked at the abrupt answer.
“I’m Kate Bart. I have the interior design shop in town.” She strolled across the lawn with a friendly smile on her lips.
“Well, hi. I’m Janet Hartley-Yoast, with a hyphen. Call me Janet.” The older woman held out her hand and Kate shook it.
“Pleased to meet you.”
“What can I do for you, Kate?”
Kate was confused at this response. Didn’t Yoast tell his wife about his invitation? she wondered. “Your husband said you’d be happy to show me around your prize roses.”
“Ah, yes. He did mention that someone was coming over to see them. I was preoccupied at the time and didn’t remember whom he mentioned. Welcome.” She gave her a wan smile.
Not very welcoming. Kate took stock of the woman who had pulled out a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at her nose.
“I enjoy gardening but my allergies are kicking up with all of the pollen in the air.” She sniffed as though to confirm her claim.
To Kate, Janet Hartley-Yoast, with a hyphen, resembled a white rabbit. The woman was skinny with thin white hair revealing a pink scalp. Her face was a sickly-pale, and her eyes were red-rimmed while her nose was rosy from blowing it constantly. If she pulls out a large pocket watch, I’m outta here.
The woman looked at Kate’s feet. “Good. I see you have sensible shoes on. We have mostly gravel paths here and high heels are soon destroyed by sinking in. Ready?”
“Yes, I’m ready.”
“Then let’s go see my roses.” With the assistance of a long hiking stick, Janet stalked ahead of Kate through a vine-covered arbor and led her down a gravel path toward the rear of the house. They were halfway down the walk when two Jack Russell terrier dogs came bouncing like rubber balls toward them. They jumped up and down around Kate trying to attract her attention.
“I’m sorry, Kate. I apologize for their bad manners. They’re scared of strangers. They usually hide when a newcomer comes into the house. But they do insist on pestering lady visitors despite their attending obedience school.”
“It’s alright,” Kate said. “They have too much energy to squash their enthusiasm.”
“My cleaning lady must have just let them out into the garden. I could put them back in the house…”
“Absolutely not. They’re fine.”
“I have a bad heart so I’m not able to take them for long walks. My husband takes them to the park every day when the weather is nice.”
“Sorry about your health problems,” Kate said. “It must make life difficult for you.”
“I’ll survive so long as I take care of myself. My roses bring me tranquility, and the local Rose Society keeps me busy.”
The dogs preceded them and they soon arrived at a large expanse of rose bushes. The rose scent was overpowering and the associated pollen made the older woman grab another tissue out of her pocket to blow her nose.
“Excuse me,” Janet pleaded. She tucked the tissue in the pocket of her khaki shorts.
Kate looked around her. She was surrounded with fragrant roses of all colors and sizes. Delicious white ones, labeled “Iceberg”, and multi-blossomed climbing types tumbled over archways covering the path leading through the garden. She was entranced with the beauty of the roses surrounding her. Mum would love to see this garden.
“Originally these came from England,” Janet said and took a handful of the blossoms in her hand. “Magnificent, don’t you think?”
“I agree. They’re gorgeous.”
“Oh dear, this one has aphids. I’ll have to spray tomorrow.”
“Do you do all of the gardening yourself? It looks like an endless task,” Kate said.
“Sometimes Eric, the young man who works at the store, helps me out.”
“With the difficult digging, I suppose.”
Janet nodded. “There’s a lot of back-breaking work involved.”
Ruby-red roses filled one square area, neatly enclosed by a hedge of boxwood. Another square contained apricot-colored blooms. “My favorite is this one.” Janet cupped one large pale yellow flower with pink-tinted petals on the outside. “It’s called ‘Peace’. I think it’s so beautiful.”
Janet droned on and on. She covered the history of the roses, the names of the roses, the fragrance of the roses, care of the roses, how to get rid of the dreaded black spot on the leaves of the roses, the hybrid tea roses, the differences between floribunda and grandiflora roses and on and on. Kate’s head was spinning but she definitely was far from being bored. The woman was a walking rose encyclopedia.
By then, the two little dogs panted in the shade of the shrubbery, and both women had red, sunburned faces. Kate’s hair was stuck in tendrils on her sweaty forehead. Janet wiped her forearm over her face. “Time to go inside,” she announced.
Kate took it as her dismissal. “Well, I thank you so much for your time in showing me your magnificent roses,” she said and turned to leave.
“I was hoping you have time to come into the house for a cold beverage with me,” Janet countered with a disappointed tone.
“I don’t want to impose on your hospitality.”
“It’s no imposition. I’m looking forward to talking to you about a little project.”
“And what would that be?” Kate asked.
“I’ve been thinking about redoing my kitchen. Nothing’s been done to it since the Bicentennial.”
Kate followed Janet back to the house where roses clung to the walls and tumbled over the window frames. A huge sycamore tree shaded the front of the house from the searing sun. Cool air greeted them when they entered the house by way of the hallway decorated with an impressive antique chest and hat rack. The terriers bounded through to the kitchen, with claws sliding and scratching the polished wooden floor.
“Come on through. Watch out for the dogs,” Janet called out. She went ahead through the comfortable living room to the kitchen. Kate trailed behind her. In the kitchen the two little dogs stood, with their dog tags clanking on their metal water bowl, slurping and dripping water from their muzzles. Satiated, they found a toy and dashed off to the living room where they wrestled and play-fought for the toy.
“Please sit,” said Janet. She pointed to a round table in a nook of the kitchen. Kate pulled out one of the wrought-iron ice-cream chairs. So passé—this set will be the first to go if I design the new kitchen. The Bicentennial was in 1976—it’s been more than 30 years since she decorated!
“Iced tea okay with you?”
“Yes, please,” Kate answered.
“There’s no sugar in it, so would you like sugar or artificial sweetener—or nothing?”
The ice cubes clinked in the two large glasses of tea, which Janet placed on the table. She pushed one across the table toward Kate and passed her some small packets of sweetener.
“Thanks,” said Kate. “I need this to cool off.”
Janet painfully eased herself down onto a chair. “Arthritis,” she explained. “It’s like a steamy jungle out there today.”
“Yes, it is very humid. It’s not my favorite weather.” Kate stirred the sweetener into her tea and took a sip. She looked around the kitchen. Janet was correct. It looked like it was straight out of the seventies. The whole room needed to be updated. “So what are your plans for redecorating?”
“How much did my husband tell you about the project?”
Kate spun around to face the woman—she didn’t understand the question. “I don’t understand. He didn’t tell me about any remodeling. I was measuring for curtains at the funeral home, and he was there.” Darn. Shouldn’t have mentioned it. My big mouth gets in the way all the time. That’s torn it. He’s in a good pickle now.
“What? No, he wouldn’t…” Janet sounded astonished.