The sides a my bologna gone and curled up in that cast-iron skillet when a pop a grease splattered out. Landed smack-dab on the mornin' paper I done set on the counter. Didn't much care to look at that paper anyhow. It been totin' nothin' but hurt all week --- and we all 'bout had our fill a hurtin' 'round here. I think I cried me more tears them past seven days than I cried since my Shirley died summer 'fore last. And Shirley and me, we was married fifty-seven years.
Miz Mackenzie done cried with me back then. Now it be my turn to cry with her. I seen her picture on the front a that paper, tryin' to hide her-self behind a big ol' black hat. But can't hide that kind a pain. Photographer gone and caught her with her Kleenex held up against her li'l nose. Ever'one else leanin' in close like she gon' fall over any minute. And that chil' lookin' up at her with an eyeful a questions. 'Bout near break my heart, I'm tellin' you.
They let me stay back yesterday 'til the last limo pulled away. Two young'uns come up and stood over that open hole in the earth. They pulled up the straps and rolled away that fake green turf and put away the contraption that helped lower the casket down. Then I watched them two boys go for a backhoe. But seemed my heart would break right there if I didn't step in.
I held up my hand. "Y'all mind if I take care a that?"
They faces was drippin' from the stiflin' heat this ol' Tennessee August thrown at us, but they was polite. "This be our job, sir."
I ain't cared one lick 'bout they protestin'. I flung off that black suit coat I borrowed and throwed it 'cross the limb a this big ol' live oak standin' over to the side. Seemed that tree stuck its arms right out, like it beggin' to hold my coat. Like it tryin' to share my load.
"Fellas, it be my job the last three years to tend the garden a this family. So I'm wonderin' if y'all could give an old man some grace today. It's purty important I tend this one. Now, one a y'all go fetch me a shovel."
Them two strappin' boys look at me. I knowed they could lose they jobs if they left. They knowed it too. I could see the debate played 'tween they faces, though they didn't say nothin'.
"Just go get me a shovel; then you boys just sit right there and watch me. That way you won't get in no trouble, and you can make sure I don't do nothin' foolish. Shoot, they watchin' me too." I pointed to the two police cruisers still sittin' by the gates.
Them boys laughed 'em some nervous laugh. "You sure you be wantin' to do this, mister? 'Cause we young and got a backhoe, and you . . ."
I chuckled and pulled my handkerchief from my back pocket. "And I be as old as this dirt I'm 'bout to throw on top a this here casket. But I move dirt 'round ever'day, boys. And I be needin' to do this. So if you just step aside . .."
They shrugged they shoulders good and hard and went to fetch me a shovel. I took it in my hands and let it fall in the ruts a my calluses. It knowed right where it belonged. And me and that shovel, we went 'bout our work while them boys sat almost rever- entlike on the ground.
After I tamped down that last shovelful a dirt, I laid the shovel down and swiped my forehead, the white shirt stuck to my back like sweat on a glass a summer lemonade. One a the boys act like he gon' do sump'n, but I raise my hand again. Not through yet. He sat back down without sayin' a word.
I put back the sod they done stacked in big square pieces over to the side --- laid it down nice and smooth over the dirt and pressed it down so the roots could take hold. "You boys be sure and water it good the next few weeks, y'hear?"
Then I walked over and took the big ol' blanket a white roses that laid on top a the casket and put it 'cross the top a the grave. I stood back and studied all the other wreaths and bouquets that sat there waitin'. And like the gardener I am, I 'ranged them flowers as beautiful as the life that laid 'neath 'em.
I took the last one and let my eyes, best as they still could, take in the banner that draped 'cross it. When I poked its three metal prongs in the sod, the li'l Tennessee flag tucked up in that banner done dropped down at my feet. I gone and picked it up and brushed at the dirt that clung to it. That dirt held on for dear life. Then it come to me --- that be what I really tryin' to do. Hold on just a lil' longer.
When I done patted it clean, I put it back in the droop a that banner, and it seemed like that banner gone and swaddled it in with them red baby roses. I took my jacket back from the tree and felt like I should show that tree some gratitude or sump'n. But I just flung my jacket 'cross the top a my shoulder. I looked back at the two young men. They watched me as curious as folks probably watched crazy ol' Noah.
I gave'em a nod. Then I gave a nod to that mound a sod and flowers. I walked toward the car in a blur a tears and a burden a prayer.
Excerpted from THE FIRST GARDENER © Copyright 2011 by Denise Hildreth Jones. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.