Muriel Montgomery considered her main assets to be as follows: one small white house on a hill, one cranky car, two big blue eyes, and an indomitable spirit. She had lived as a conundrum for 47 years. At some point, her neighbourhood community had given up the idea of her fitting in and had grown accustomed to her being “the odd one”.
Muriel heard the sound of crunching gravel and looked out the window. There was Mark Laundry, rolling up her driveway. Late, as usual. His arm was hanging out the driver’s window.
That was just one of many differences between them, Muriel thought. She lived her life as if she was invisible – or at least, gliding on the edges of visible, common life. She would rather be absent from human busyness. He, on the other hand, lived obnoxiously visibly. Only a man could live like that, as if no physical space was big enough to hold his presence. If someone sat him in a chair, he would sprawl out. If someone put a hat on his head, he would push it crooked. And if he got in a car, he would make sure his arm was out the window.
He was passing the line of pear trees as she leaned out the window to wave. She had planted those trees years ago. “Pear trees are too much work,” her mother had objected. “Plant a hedge of something you can keep trimmed.”
“Pear trees love their wild lives,” Muriel replied, “and they know about freedom.” So she planted them. It was her Mom’s fault anyways, for having named her Muriel in the first place.
Mark Laundry would have agreed with her mother. He was a practical man, a handyman. “Let Laundry make your laundry happen” was one of his favourite phrases. It was true that he could fix anything, large or small – including the washing machines of desperate housewives.
He is the most prosaic man I know. Thought Muriel, as his car pulled to a stop.
Mark Laundry had been to the Montgomery home often. He had a long-standing acquaintance with Muriel. Her bounteous pear trees had filled his white truck with fruit on many occasions, and her despair over broken things kept her dependant on him.
“Technology, machines…” she sometimes complained, “they have no heart. No language. Even the smallest leaf on the humblest plant would be easier to befriend than a computer.”
That was the problem with Miss Muriel, thought Mark Laundry. She was always talking about odd things. Today the trees might be talking to her, tomorrow the wind had colours. Everyone knew the wind was invisible. Even Miss Muriel did – or did she? She had a strange way of talking. Almost as if she believed and disbelieved the very thing she was saying. She would say things as if they were jokes, yet at the same time you got the impression that she was at that very moment discovering them to be truer than the ground you stood on.
She was too alone. He had told her before that she ought to get married. Mark Laundry had no trouble speaking his mind. Of course, since there never was much volume of mind to speak, his friends did not find this burdensome.
If Miss Muriel had a healthy amount of kids about, she’d be so worried about them falling out of the pear trees that she would stop talking to the trees, he was sure of it.
“Your car today, Miss Muriel?” he asked after they had exchanged greetings. “What’s wrong with it?”
They headed there together.
Muriel needed her car, Mark Laundry knew that. She worked hard to support her elderly mother and to maintain the property. She really did need a husband, to keep things working and to share the burden of her responsibilities.
“Now, Miss Muriel, you said it’s making a funny noise. I’ll check under the hood for you.”
As Mark Laundry brought his tools to her car, Muriel leaned against the trunk of the nearest pear tree. It was the oldest. The bark was scratchy, solid, warmed from the sunshine of the day.
“I stopped at Pester’s on the way over.” Mark Laundry made it a statement, not merely an observation.
Muriel grimaced. “Pester… “
He was the closest neighbour to the farm, and a constant source of trouble. But who wouldn’t be, with a first name like that?
“You’ve gotta give the fellow more grace, Muriel.” Mark said. Another statement.
“I’ve given him grace. I’ve given him a decade of time. He’s just… “
“What?” She was searching for a word. Mark Laundry thought, she must know by now what sort of man she thinks Pester to be. She’s been his neighbour for over ten years. Why does she sound like she is giving a first impression?
“He has absolutely no respect for land boundaries, for one thing,” Muriel began. “His animals are constantly wandering onto my property and destroying my garden and trees. He thinks flowers are a waste of time, and doesn’t see why I care about his ducks snapping all the buds off my plants. We’ve had this argument for the past ten years straight. It’s not just that. You know. He spreads false stories about my mother and I. He kept a renter from staying with us. He dumps his farm waste on my land. He is a malicious, unfeeling man.”
Mark Laundry worked under Muriel’s hood silently for a few minutes. Then he emerged. “Miss Muriel,” he began. She noticed how in a few minutes, his tools, randomly placed, gave the impression of taking over the entire section of driveway. He seemed to tower over her car, over the pear tree, over herself.
“Please don’t tell me the same story about Pester. He won’t change.” Muriel blurted it out.
“That’s where you’re wrong. You see things in such a strange light. Maybe Pester doesn’t know about colours in the wind, no. But that isn’t the only way a man can be proven. He is a human being, not a tree. Human beings can change, Miss Muriel. They’re more like this car here. If something’s giving you a problem, you’ve gotta get under the hood and do something about it. I reckon Pester’s got a lot under his hood, but you’ve just wanted to tote him to the junkyard since day one. It won’t do, Miss Muriel. You must give him a chance. You have to get messy” he spread his greased hands out wide for her to see, “and tinker around, to find the problem.”
Muriel chewed her lip, studying his face. “You say he’s not like a tree. But let me tell you something, Mark Laundry. You see the cracks in this bark? The tree is growing from the inside out, and bursting through its old skin. But Pester? He doesn’t crack. Not once in ten years has he cracked. And do you know what that tells me? There’s nothing changing or growing inside him.”
“Now that’s harsh, Miss Muriel, and you know it. That man has a lonely heart, and enough problems to handle that they spill over into your life as well. You must see that.”
Muriel stopped, uncertain. Was this prosaic man accusing her – her! – of seeing life too categorically, too definitively? Was he teaching her about human hearts….through a lifeless machine?
“But…” she began.
There was a rustling in the leaves above her. Mark Laundry disappeared again under the hood, having spoken his mind. But Muriel’s mind was full of voices, more voices than the wind in the leaves above her.
Wasn’t she the girl (now old maid) who saw, intuitively, all the hues of a person or a plant or a sunset in a glance? She could thrill to them, or turn away. She could see beauty and she could see ugliness.
In Pester O, she saw only ugliness. And here was Mark Laundry – Mark Laundry of all people! – wiping his hands and telling her that Peter O was not a pear tree.
She knew that. Did she?
Some nights, when the wind wrapped around the corners of the small house she shared with her mother, she heard all the weeping of the world in its moans. Mark Laundry would sleep right through such a sound. But then… how could she miss what he heard, one broken heart that had cried for a decade just down the hill from her?
She watched him systematically running his hands over her car engine, inspecting it. Tinkering. Muriel was 47 years old. Can someone change, who is 47 years old? She had never expected to learn anything about living life from Mark Laundry. Yet here she was, on a warm evening in the Summer, under a pear tree. Learning.
“What do I do, Mark? How do I start?” She faltered. “How do I… learn to look under the hood?”
She didn’t know what she expected as an answer. She had always trusted her intuition above his prose. It was the first time she had admitted to him that she had been wrong.
Mark Laundry straightened slowly. He turned. Leaning back against the car, he crossed his arms. He looked at Muriel Montgomery, under the old pear tree. And he smiled.