If you know our neighbor Isabel St. James at all, then you realize she’s the most whiny, gripey person in the whole entire world. Honestly, if you gave her 18 dozen red roses growing on stems of pure gold, she’d complain about the thorns made of diamonds. She thinks she’s the Queen of Egypt or something.
And speaking of roses, ol’ Isabel decided she wanted a flower garden. You see, she’s from California, and when she lived there she “had fresh flowers galore, absolutely everywhere in my house, darling, not one room without them.”
Here’s the thing. Flowers grow pretty much all year round somewhere in California. At least that’s what I learned when we studied geography. We live in north Arkansas, in the mountains, where flowers grow plenty, but only in certain seasons, and not in the middle of February, which was when Isabel was going on and on and on about how “perfectly dreadful” life could be sometimes. If she wants to know dreadful, she should live where the sun hardly ever shines and ice covers the ground all year round. That would be dreadful. Perfectly.
“I’ll dig you a flower garden, lambkins,” said her husband Ian, who is a transplanted banker and now a goat farmer. (Isabel doesn’t like farming. Or goats. Or even Ian, sometimes. Also, she wants to live in a Big City.)
“Oh, will you, darling?” She gave him this mushy-smoochie look.Not five minutes ago, when he was talking about getting another pair of goats, her eyes got all red and fiery, and I was pretty sure I saw steam oozing out of her earholes.
Now she sighed and looked around at everyone, smiling all over her face. Which is nice, because her face will never win her any awards, believe you me, but when she smiles, it’s like someone turns on a light.
“Sure. You just tell me where you want it, and I’ll fix you up.”
“I have some seasoned barnyard fertilizer that will make those flowers grow like crazy,” my daddy added. We have a dairy farm and always have lots and lots of barnyard fertilizer.
Well, ol’ Isabel’s eyeballs got bigger than the plates on which we were eating our supper. You see, she’s a Miss Priss. She’s almost as bad as my sister, Myra Sue, who is the Biggest Priss in the known universe.
“I…I…I …” Isabel laid one scrawny hand on her scrawny chest and declared, “I couldn’t possibly … I’ll use Miracle Grow, thank you very much.”
Now a few months ago, when this woman first came into our lives, she wouldn’t have been so polite. You see, she and her mister lost everything they owned out in California and bought this awful little farm just down Rough Creek Road from us. The old house on that place wasn’t fit for anything but spiders and rodents, so my mama, who lives her life the way Jesus said to, invited them right into our home and let them live here for a few months. It was not pleasant, let me tell you, but we all got through it. Somehow Mama’s kindness and gentleness rubbed some of the sharp edges off Isabel, who’d never really known anyone like my mother and father, and by now, she’s softened up considerably. But let me assure you, she’s still a pain.
So good ol’ Ian, who has had a much easier time becoming a country person than his wife, dug her up some flower beds. Grandma and Mama helped her order seeds from Gurney’s big spring catalog.
One Saturday morning in mid-spring, I was in the old rocking chair in the living room reading Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Myra Sue sat on the floor in front of the coffee table painting her fingernails—for the seventeenth time that week. Isabel burst through the front door without knocking, wailing like she’d fallen off the monkey bars at the playground.
Without so much as a howdy-do to Myra or me, she streaked straight into the kitchen, crying out, “Lily! Grace! Look, oh, look at this!”
I dropped my book, Myra Sue dropped her nail polish, and we both dashed into the kitchen.
Isabel stood in the middle of the room, her hands spread out in front of her, as wide as duck feet.
“Look!” she shrieked again.
Mama and Grandma were gazing at those skinny hands. They looked at each other, clearly puzzled.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Grandma said.
Isabel blinked about twenty-five times all in a row.
“Don’t you see?” she gasped.
Myra Sue gawked at Isabel’s hands, then screeched like a pickled owl. “Isabel-dearest! Your nails. Your gorgeous fingernails!” Myra Sue thinks Isabel hung the moon and painted all the stars, that’s how much she admires her.
Then I saw what had set the woman to howling. Her long red fingernails of which she was so proud and so protective were now dirty and chipped and broken, as uneven and snaggly as Billybob Teeth.
“Mercy sakes!” Grandma said, reaching into the pocket of her slacks. “Here. I keep these handy all the time, especially when I’m working outside. You never know when you’re gonna need ‘em. Keep these. I have more.”
Isabel shrank back.You’d think Grandma had just offered her a toad on toast instead of a pair of fingernail clippers.
“Grandma!” Myra Sue hollered. “You cannot use clippers on your nails!”
Isabel moaned, waving her hands back and forth in front of her face like they were windshield wipers.Mama went out to the service porch just off the kitchen and came back with a brand new pair of gardening gloves.
“Here you go, Isabel. They won’t do much to stop your nails from breaking when you’re working in dirt, but they’ll keep your hands clean and maybe you won’t get blisters and callouses.”
“Blisters?” Isabel looked Utterly Horrified. “Callouses?”
I’m only 11 years old, but I have learned a few things in my life. One of which is this: when Isabel St. James gets in a state, you have to take care of her and calm her down because, believe me, if you don’t, she gets worse. And right then, Isabel was fixin’ to get in a state. I gave this whole situation a good think.
“Come here,” I said, taking her hand. It was actually shaking. Poor ol’ Isabel. I led her to the kitchen table and pulled out one of the chairs.“Sit down before you fall down,” I said, and she sat.
I poured her a nice tall glass of iced tea. We always keep a small pitcher of unsweetened iced tea available for Isabel because she usually pops in once a day or so. All the rest of us want sweet tea or coffee.
“Here you go, Isabel,” I said, putting the tea on the table in front of her. “This all isn’t as tragic as you might think.”
That woman gave me an odd look then she picked up that glass and guzzled like she thought drinking iced tea was the latest fashion trend and she had to get in on it.
Grandma patted Isabel’s shoulder and sat down nearby. Mama filled her glass, then poured sweet tea for the rest of us. Isabel looked at her hands silently for a long time. We waited, and let me tell you, when you’re waiting for Isabel to react it can be scary because you never know what she’ll do.
“You should know …” she said, finally, “besides ruining my manicure … in that dirt at my house … I actually saw … worms. Wriggly, squirmy, slimy worms!” She raised a wretched gaze and passed it around like she thought we’d all scream in horror or maybe faint dead away.
When we didn’t, she said, “Well? Well?”
“Sounds like you got some good dirt for your flowers then,” Grandma said.
Isabel jerked like she’d been poked with a sharp stick.
“Oh, Grace, how can you say that? Worm-infested dirt?”
“Isabel, worms are good for the soil,” Mama said. “They keep it from getting hard-packed and unusable.”
“And they keep it fertilized,” Grandma added. Which probably wasn’t the best thing she could have said, knowing Isabel’s view on natural fertilizers.
“Oh my goodness!” she said faintly. “It isn’t enough that I break my nails scratching around like a rodent, but I also had my hands in … in worm fertilizer.” She rested her forehead against one hand.
“Well, good gravy, Isabel,” I finally hollered. “All winter you’ve said how much you wanted fresh flowers, and now here’s your chance to have ’em. What do you want, clean hands and long fingernails or fresh flowers? You’re gonna have to decide because it’s mighty hard to have both at the same time around here.”
“April Grace,” Mama said, reprovingly, and I hushed. Mama knows how I just blurt things out sometimes without thinking, but this time it needed to be said. Of course, I could have said it in a softer voice and in a nicer way, and if I’d thought about it, I probably would’ve.
“I think what April Grace meant to say,” Mama said in a soothing tone, “is that—”
Isabel held up one hand. “Don’t scold her, Lily. And I know what she meant to say.” She looked at me, and I saw a soft light in her eyes. She didn’t look quite as upset and wild as she had a little bit ago. In fact, she sat quietly for a long minute or two, and you could see she was thinking.
She gazed down at her snaggle-toothed fingernails and shook her head, wriggling her fingers.
“These nails get in my way so much of the time, and they keep me from doing things I’d like to do,” she murmured. She looked at Grandma and held out her right hand, palm up. “Grace, may I borrow those clippers?”
Myra Sue gasped in pure-dee horror, but Isabel smiled at her. “Don’t worry, Myra-darling. I have what I need at home to smooth out the rough edges.” She gave us all a smile, brightening the room. “Just think how lovely those flowers are going to look in my house this summer!”