Crimes Against Nature
Oakley Thoroughgood reached for the crystal decanter of whiskey, certain a little snort would help him sleep. He was agitated due to a conversation he’d overheard earlier in the day. That’s when he’d heard his neighbors talking about the “cute little bushes” they’d planted against the wooden fence dividing their property from his.
Fools. Those “cute little bushes” were Leyland cypresses, baby evergreens destined to grow over thirty feet tall! In a few years, they’d completely shade his rose garden.
For the record, Oakley didn’t despise the Leyland cypress. It’s a handsome tree—in the right setting. If he thought for one moment his neighbors would be responsive, he’d explain how inappropriate the trees were for the particular location and ask them to reconsider. These people, though, wouldn’t listen. They were the type who favored plastic pots over terra cotta and annuals over perennials. They’d even blacktopped their driveway.
These types came from the big cities—Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia—to knock down old cottages and clear-cut lots to build monstrous weekend homes into which they hermetically sealed themselves with super-sized televisions and cooled and dehumidified indoor air. They viewed Rehoboth as an investment rather than a respite, destroying the charm and character of the old town.
Oakley was jolted from his brooding by a cold wet nose against his shin. Domino wanted to go out. After refilling his glass of whiskey, he followed the old Boston terrier out to the front yard where he experienced a genuine eureka moment. Illuminated by the light of the moon was Domino, leg lifted above a white plastic jug of Round-Up Weed Killer.
Grabbing the jug, Oakley strode around the fence and disbursed its entire contents onto the tender green Leylandii. It was a duplicitous and drastic act, but what recourse did he have? Oakley Thoroughgood went to sleep convinced he had done the right thing.
Roses had always been a passion for the Thoroughgood men. Pale pink New Dawn roses rambled up and over the family’s shingled cottage. Beds of fragrant garden roses—Centifolias, Damasks, and Gallicas—perfumed the air, most notably during the late afternoon cocktail hour. A man could live without bread, his father often said, but not without roses.
Oakley always knew roses would be in his future. It had just taken him awhile to realize it. After graduating at the top of his law school class, he went to work for one of Delaware’s white-shoe firms, where for twenty-five years he put aside his personal life to handle the affairs of an influential chemical company. When in his late forties Oakley came into a substantial inheritance, he said goodbye to his law partners, loaded up Domino and the best of his furniture, and drove a U-Haul ninety miles downstate to move into the family cottage by the sea.
The next day he purchased an abandoned greenhouse along the coastal highway. After expending a lot of elbow grease and cash, he hung out a new shingle: Oakley Thoroughgood, Gardener.
He determined not to follow current landscaping trends, focusing instead on the old-fashioned flowers he liked: irises, gladiolus, daisies, and phlox. Naturally, he sold exceptional roses proven to excel in coastal conditions. Hydrangeas, boxwoods, and Rose of Sharon were his shrubs of choice, but he also approved of sturdy species native to the seaside, like bayberries and beach plums. His was the only garden source in the county to sell sycamores, those tall, majestic trees that once lined Delaware’s highways. His focus was on quality, not quantity, and his stock and style won him some loyal customers in and around the resort town.
There is no such thing as a perfect garden, Oakley advised his customers. One should love a garden for its eccentricities and its wildness, but not for poor judgment.
For example, just because the big home improvement garden centers carried an azalea called “Delaware Valley White” did not mean it was appropriate for the Delaware seashore. This particular azalea had shallow root systems and was quite susceptible to dehydration from salt spray in storm-prone coastal areas. When spent, its white flower resembled a used Kleenex.
Oakley, naturally, was horrified to hear about the Washington lobbyist and his perky blonde wife up the street who felled two stately old hollies—the state tree of Delaware—in order to plant a bed of the white azaleas. Why? The leaves hurt the pads on their precious dog’s feet….
Oakley struck back by dumping bags of deicing salt on the new azaleas. He disguised the salt in empty Holly-tone bags, the fertilizer of choice for acid-loving azaleas. It was too easy. No one suspected a thing. The evidence melted away.
If he couldn’t stop the over development in town, Oakley reasoned, by God he could help reduce the landscaping crimes. He next targeted the skinny white birches and delicate Japanese maples planted everywhere by know-nothing contractors and builders. They didn’t belong in a seaside resort. He dug them, bagged them, and hauled them off in his old black pickup truck to the canal just north of town. There he’d quietly slide the corpses into the still water.
Over the summer he poisoned dozens of palms and banana trees with a powerful, odorless, amber-colored herbicide he researched and purchased over the Internet. Tropicals had no place this far north. Neither did the “Wave Petunia,” a hybridized fast-growing annual first developed by a Japanese brewing company wanting to diversify into the lucrative gardening market. They were easy to kill. In the fall, he waged war against flowering cabbages. He snatched, chopped, and then fed the garish purple and green “lawn ornaments” to his compost bin.
Larger inappropriate trees presented more of a challenge. To kill them he perfected a technique called girdling. With his sharpest axe he cut a deep groove all the way around the trunk in order to interrupt the flow of sap. He made the cuts near the bottom of the trunk, poured herbicide in the wound, and then covered the evidence under a mound of mulch so nobody could see. Driving by from time to time to witness the slow but certain deaths gave him great pleasure.
The more Oakley killed, the more distraught homeowners came to him for assistance. He kindly and thoughtfully directed these philistines towards replacements he deemed appropriate. To celebrate his success, he purchased a tasteful black Mercedes 450SL convertible and hired a Honduran housekeeper, a young, nearly beautiful woman who spoke very little English. It was, he realized, a tad pretentious. But, he’d earned it.
The new camouflage gloves fit Oakley’s hands like a second skin. Tough and flexible, they were perfect for his next maneuver. Plus, they complemented his black t-shirt and olive green cargo pants. It was an important night. Oakley Thoroughgood was going to kill three large Bradford Pears.
Bred specifically by the USDA to decorate suburban strip malls, the lollypop-shaped Bradford Pear was a genetic freak: a fruit tree no longer able to produce edible fruit; a hybrid with limbs that split off during storms. The tree’s small white flowers emitted a springtime stench akin to cat urine. Vile!
A police car pulled up just as he’d finished girdling the first pear tree. In the still autumn night Oakley could hear the officer reporting a burglary and calling for backup. This startled him, never once had he been confronted while on maneuvers. Gathering his wits and instruments, he awkwardly scaled a short picket fence and squeezed through a firethorn hedge, taking a three-inch cut just under the chin. A second squad car, sirens blaring, arrived on the scene.
Oakley used the green cover of privet hedges and holly bushes to sneak from yard to yard. Even the ostentatious pampas grass with its silken plumes offered refuge. He’d have to reconsider his disdain for the South American native.
Finally, he arrived back at his cottage and carefully put away his clothes, gloves, and tools. He applied some witch hazel to the wound, grabbed a book, and sat down in his favorite wing chair to wait.
Ten minutes passed. Then thirty. The knock on the door never came. Victory!
High on hubris, he marched over to the pine chest upon which he kept his crystal decanters of whiskey, tripping over Domino in his haste. A little drinkie was in order. He gulped half a glass. It didn’t taste right. He downed another. His throat burned. A ringing in his ears soon commenced, and, all of a sudden, the six-foot-four Oakley lost his balance and toppled over.
The winter had been a punishing one, with ferocious storms severely damaging many beachfront homes. Magnolias and camellias—better suited to Atlanta than to Rehoboth—had somehow survived.
When the bad weather finally broke in mid-April, a small group of well-wishers and gardeners turned out on a sunny Saturday morning to pay their respects to Oakley Thoroughgood. Such an unfortunate accident, they all said. The Honduran housekeeper had filled the crystal decanters with amber colored herbicide instead of whiskey. Oakley gave precise instructions to store his herbicides in apothecary jars and his liquor in decanters. She hadn’t understood.
The crowd clapped politely when the Bradford Pear sapling was lowered into a hole in front of the deceased’s cottage. At its base was laid a memorial plaque engraved with a simple quote by the great American poet gardener Emerson: The Earth Laughs in Flowers.
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in No Place Like Here: An Anthology of Southern Delaware Poetry and Prose. It received first prize for short stores in the 2012 Delaware Press Association Communications Contest.
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town. More Rich Barnett