When the Time is Right ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(I posted this story before, in a slightly different version, under a different title.)
The new gardener came in late summer. His name was Geoff Tallis. He wasn’t like the others. He wasn’t a grizzled old man with a sour smell, dirt under his fingernails and hair coming out of his nostrils. He was trim and light on his feet, like a boxer who knew all the moves. He hardly ever spoke and when he did his voice was quiet and confident. He cleaned up the lawn in record time, after a summer of neglect, without complaint and without excuses. And when he was finished for the day, he put away the tools and left without fanfare; never left anything out to get rained on.
Roddy was fifteen and just starting tenth grade. Summer was over and school had taken up again. Sitting in class all day long listening to people talk about things that didn’t interest him left him with a lot of pent-up energy. After depositing his books in his room, he liked to spend time outside, breathing pure air, walking around in the yard or just sitting quietly underneath the trees in the front yard listening to the birds twitter.
When Roddy saw Geoff working in the side yard, he approached him shyly, not knowing how he would take to being disturbed. Realizing Roddy was nearby, Geoff looked up from his work and smiled and gave a little wink. It was the wink that lifted Roddy’s heart and made him smile for the first time all day. Nobody had ever winked at him before.
Emboldened by these outward signs of friendliness, Roddy began speaking to Geoff whenever he got the chance. Roddy opened up to Geoff in a way that was rare for him. Geoff listened when Roddy spoke, never interrupting him or seeming impatient. They talked about clouds, animals, mountains, South America, Mars, the War of 1812, and anything else that came into Roddy’s head. He was amazed at how the words poured out of him and he didn’t have to worry about sounding stupid or being embarrassed. And, when all other subjects were exhausted for the moment, the talk inevitably turned to Roddy’s family.
“Watch out for my mother,” he said. “She’ll smile to your face and then stab you in the back. She fired the last gardener for cutting back the hibiscus bush too much. She didn’t even give him any warning. He was here and then he was gone. There were no goodbyes.”
“I’ll try to keep her from stabbing me,” Geoff said.
“Have you met my sister?”
“I’ve seen her.”
“She’s a viper. You don’t want to have anything to do with her. Her name is Janice. She’s seventeen and a senior this year. She’s ten times worse than my mother.”
Geoff laughed. “She can’t be as bad as all that!”
“You’ll find out if you’re here long enough. And then there’s my father. He’s a lawyer. He works all the time. He doesn’t want to be bothered with little domestic details. He leaves everything to my mother. He might come out of the house and fire you, but he’ll be polite about it.”
“I’ll try not to give him any reason.”
“Well, how about you? What about your family?”
“I don’t have any to speak of. My father died when I was five years old. My mother got married again and moved away. I had one older brother but he died.”
“What made you become a gardener?”
“I don’t know. I like being outside and watching things grow. I don’t plan on being a gardener forever.”
“What will you do then?”
“I don’t know. I’m open to all possibilities. I can do carpentry, house painting, and I’ve worked as a machinist.”
“Do you like doing those things?”
“I have to make a living. I like it as long as it pays me money.”
Another time Roddy talked to Geoff about school. He never talked to his parents about school. They only lectured him about applying himself and getting good grades. Geoff spoke to him as an equal, never talked down to him and never gave out with platitudes about staying in school and becoming a success in life.
“I don’t like school very much,” Roddy said. “I don’t fit in very well.”
“Why not?” Geoff asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I’m not like other people. I can’t wait to finish with school and get away from my family and everybody in this town.”
“Where will you go?”
“Out West somewhere, I think.”
“Where men are men?”
“Yeah. Wide-open spaces.”
Roddy began looking forward to seeing Geoff in the afternoons after school and was disappointed when he wasn’t there. He was afraid his mother would fire him or he’d quit without saying anything, and he’d never see him again. He didn’t know where Geoff lived or anything else about him, so that would be the end of that.
On a Friday afternoon, Roddy found Geoff in the yard with his hand bleeding.
“Why didn’t you knock on the door and ask my mother for help?” Roddy asked.
“I didn’t want to bother her.”
“You need to wash that out.”
He took Geoff into the kitchen and held his hand under the faucet. Then he gave him a cold root beer out of the refrigerator and told him to sit at the table while he went to get some antiseptic and a bandage.
The next day Geoff gave Roddy a little gift. It was an insect trapped in a nugget of amber.
“It’s for helping me yesterday,” Geoff said. “I’ve had it since I was twelve years old. I thought you’d like it.”
He held it up to the light so he could see the insect better.
“It’s just between you and me,” Geoff said. “Don’t tell the others.”
“No, I won’t.”
He put the nugget in his pocket and went into dinner with a happy smile on his face. Janice couldn’t stand for him to be happy.
“When you’re smiling, you’re up to something and I bet it isn’t anything good,” she said.
“Mind your own business,” he said.
“I saw you out there talking to the gardener.”
“So what? I’m the only one in the family who treats him like a human being.”
“What were you two talking about?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Mother, I think you should fire that gardener,” Janice said.
“I don’t like his looks. He looks at me funny.”
“He doesn’t look at you,” Roddy said. “He looks through you.”
“We’ll only fire the gardener,” father said to Janice, “if you’ll do all his work after school and do it as well as he does.”
“Has he said anything to you, Janice?” mother asked.
“No, he hasn’t said anything, but he looks at me funny.”
“Like he’s thinking things.”
“Well, if he says anything inappropriate, you let me know.”
“He would never look at you!” Roddy said. “He has better taste than that. You’re only jealous because he doesn’t look at you!”
“Neither one of you should be associating with him on a personal basis,” mother said. “He’s a grown man and we don’t know anything about him.”
A few days later, Roddy’s mother accosted him in the hallway when he came inside after spending a half-hour or so talking to Geoff.
“What is that man saying to you?” mother asked.
“He’s not saying anything! We’re just talking!”
“He’s not trying to get you to do drugs, is he?”
“Of course not! Do you know how ridiculous that is?”
“Is he telling you dirty stories?”
“Why would he do that?”
“I want to know what he says to you!”
“He doesn’t say anything! We’re just talking!”
“We’ve all noticed how much time you’re spending with him. Even the neighbors have noticed. You need to stop hanging around him. You’re keeping him from his work!”
Roddy the next day told Geoff what his mother had said.
“I have to stop talking to you so much,” he said. “My sister is jealous if she thinks I have a friend. She sees me talking to you and then she goes and tells my mother made-up stories. She’s a natural-born troublemaker.”
“I get it,” Geoff said. “I don’t want to be the cause of any trouble.”
“I didn’t want you to think I stopped talking to you because I was mad at you.”
“I’d never think that,” Geoff said.
“If she fires you, please don’t go away without saying goodbye.”
Roddy began having trouble in school. He was caught cheating on an geometry test. When he got into an argument with a history teacher and she told him to shut up, he threw a book across the classroom and went outside and smoked a cigarette.
When quarterly grades came out, it was worse than he expected. He was failing geometry and almost failing two other classes. If he didn’t get himself “straightened out,” as his father said, he was going to “flunk out” of school, and then where would he be? He’d end living at the city dump, a worthless hobo, without family and friends.
His father engaged a tutor, a former college professor named Mr. Hatley. Two evenings a week Roddy spent three hours with Mr. Hatley in his “study” in the basement of his home. Mr. Hatley believed the only way to save a slacking boy was through hard work and military discipline. He drilled Roddy relentlessly on the finer points of higher mathematics. Roddy hated him instantly.
One evening when Roddy was returning home from a tutoring session, his heart gave a leap when he saw Geoff standing in the front yard close to the house.
“Are you looking for me?” he asked.
“I need a place to stay tonight,” Geoff said. “I thought I’d stay in the storeroom of your father’s garage, but I wanted to tell you about it first.”
“You can have the guest room.”
“The storeroom is good enough and I’ll be gone in the morning before anybody even knows I was here.”
“You’ll get cold.”
“I don’t mind.”
“You can stay in my room with me.”
“And how do you think that’ll go down with your parents?”
“They won’t have to know about it.”
“I don’t want to get you in any trouble.”
“You won’t. It’ll be all right.”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“My parents go to bed at ten. Come to the kitchen door at ten-thirty and I’ll let you in.”
“Are you sure?”
Roddy went to his room at ten o’clock when his parents went to bed and, true to his word, he went downstairs to the kitchen at ten-thirty and opened the back door. Geoff was standing outside in the dark.
Roddy held his finger to his lips to indicate silence and the two of them, with Roddy leading the way, crept up the stairs in the dark and along the hallway to Roddy’s room.
“You can relax,” Roddy said, after locking the door. “Nobody comes in unless I say.”
Geoff took off his coat and sat down in the chair and untied his shoes. “If you have an extra blanket,” he whispered, “I can sleep on the floor.”
“Nothing doing,” Roddy said. “You’ll sleep in my bed.”
“I’m not taking your bed.”
“I meant both of us.”
Roddy turned off the light and they both got into the bed. They went to sleep to the sound of the rain on the roof and the wind gently pressing against the windows.
When Roddy awoke in the morning, Geoff was gone; there was no sign he had even been there.
In school all day long Roddy was more calm and courteous than usual. He smiled at the history teacher with whom he had been feuding and admired her expensive leather bag. He passed a geometry quiz and was hating geometry a little less. A girl in his class invited him to a party on Saturday night; he didn’t want to go but was pleased to be asked.
When he got home, his mother was out for the afternoon and Janice was waiting for him.
“I know what you’ve been up with to the gardener,” she said. “I can’t say I’m a bit surprised.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about! I know you sneaked him into your room last night. How many other nights have you sneaked him in? I can only imagine what’s going on in there!”
“It’s none of your business!”
“I heard you creeping past out in the hallway last night and when I opened my door to see what was going on, I saw you take that man into your room in the dark.”
“What of it? It’s none of your business!”
“Do you know that what you’re doing is a crime? They’ll put you in jail for it!”
“Oh, shut up! You don’t know the first thing about it.”
“I suppose you just ‘talked’!”
“I don’t have to explain anything to you!”
“I’m going to tell mother and father! They’ll be appalled that such a thing is going on in their own house after they’ve gone to bed!”
“Nothing is going on! He’s my friend, that’s all. You’re just jealous because he doesn’t want you!”
“Mother will call the police and they’ll come and take your ‘friend’ away and lock him up for the rest of his life. You’re a minor and he isn’t. Do you know what a serious crime that is? There are names for men who do that sort of thing!”
He pretended to shrug off the conversation with Janice, but in truth he was badly shaken. She could cause all kinds of trouble if she wanted to. He had always hated her but never more than now.
At the dinner table she looked at him smugly but didn’t say anything. He knew she was waiting for the right time to ruin his life.
He didn’t see Geoff for three days. When he asked his mother where he was, she told him he needed to forget Geoff. He wasn’t an appropriate friend for a high school boy.
On the fourth day, when Roddy was walking home, Geoff was waiting for him on the corner down the street from the school.
“Where have you been?” Roddy asked. “She fired you, didn’t you?”
“No, she didn’t have to fire me. I quit.”
“Do you have another job?”
“I’m going away. I wanted to say goodbye. You’ve been a real friend to me.”
“I’m coming with you!” Roddy said.
“Do you know how far we’d get? They’d come and get you and they’d lock me up. They’d say I abducted you.”
“I’d tell them the truth!”
“It wouldn’t make any difference. You’re a minor.”
“Will I ever see you again?”
“When you’re older.”
“Do you know…”
“Never mind. I won’t say it now, but I’m sure you know what it is.”
“I wanted to give you this.”
He reached into his pocket and took out a small object and placed it in Roddy’s palm.
“What is it?”
“It’s an 1877 fifty-dollar gold piece.”
“You’re always giving me things. I’ve never given you anything.”
“Keep it to remember me by.”
“I’ve never had such a wonderful thing. Thank you.”
“I’ll write and let you know where I am.”
“I hope you will.”
They shook hands and then Geoff walked away quickly.
Father hired an old Italian man to take Geoff’s place. Janice never mentioned Geoff’s name to Roddy again.
Roddy never stopped thinking about Geoff. He knew they would see each other again, that Geoff wouldn’t forget him. He kept the gold coin and the amber nugget in the drawer by his bed and took them out and looked at them almost every night before going to sleep. He never told anybody about them.
The high school years passed in a blur. In his senior year he turned eighteen right before his graduation. While his classmates were excited about going to college, getting married or starting jobs, he was silent about his future plans. He told his parents he had booked passage to North Africa to join the Foreign Legion. He was going away for good and they would never see him again.
A week after graduation, he received a letter postmarked Denver, Colorado. He always knew the letter would come at the right time.
He took the gold coin to a gold merchant and was surprised to discover it was worth a lot more than he thought. After he bought his bus ticket, he had enough left over to buy himself a sturdy suitcase, some warm clothes and a pair of cowboy boots.
Geoff met him at the train in Denver. He still looked amazingly the same—the same dark eyes and thick hair—but Roddy had changed from boy to man.
Roddy and Geoff lived together for the next sixty years. Geoff died in late winter, an old man, and was buried on the lonely wide-open prairie, with an empty grave beside him for when Roddy needed it. They had both known from the beginning that this was how things were always meant to be.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp