It all started for me in the third grade when Mrs. Chase had us grow marigolds from seeds. I was new to the class and painfully shy. These kids had been together since the first grade and I knew from the moment I crossed the threshold I would be the new kid in class until someone else knocked me out of the position.
So instead of playing, or at least trying to, I stayed inside and watched my little container. A time or two Mrs. Chase would come by and ask if I felt okay or to see if I needed anything. I didn't and, in my own way, I was happy to have this to do instead of trying to fit my square peg body into the class's round hole.
When my plant broke through the surface, I was so happy, so proud, but also so careful to not let my mom know. She knew something was up, mistakenly thinking I'd made a new friend. Well, that's not quite right, I had, you see, but it was a plant, not a person.
In that moment, I knew a joy I'd never experienced, and thought I would never have again. I had created, I had seen the miracle of life - birth.
That summer, my mother permitted me to plant some vegetable seeds and I nurtured them, watering and weeding with care. When the seedlings seemed to be struggling, I found a burlap bag and started combing the field for cow patties. I'd seen how the grass flourished about them. At the end of the summer, I had a fine harvest, even though it broke my heart to kill what I'd created. After that, I changed to flowers. It seemed less cruel.
The next winter, I grew seedlings on a sunny window sill. Again, I planted vegetable seeds when I was sure the threat of frost was over. I was a bit older and beginning to understand more things. It went on and on. I made a couple of friends, but even they played second fiddle to my plants. My childhood was spent with my flowers and vegetables. I might not have been popular, but that was okay.
Imagine my joy when I discovered my high school offered botany as a science and again my world expanded even more. Since I was a guy, I was permitted to take FFA and learned even more about horticulture and planting.
I walked with my class at graduation, already knowing what I was going to do with my life. No college for me, I was going to work for a nursery. And I did. It was a good one. I started at the bottom and worked my way to the top, all the while learning and honing my skills. I learned how to graft plants; I learned to diagnose a dozen diseases just from the leaves of the plants that our customers brought to me.
Then I made a mistake. For the first time I fell in love, deeply and without bounds. But it wasn't the sort of love that you talked about in polite conversation. It didn't matter. I was happy and every day was a new adventure seeing what I could do or buy that brought a smile to my beloved's face and a few kind words for me.
When my boss found out, I was fired on the spot. Without a job to lavish beautiful things upon my lover, he too left me. It was an unhealthy relationship, I know that now, but it didn't make it hurt any less.
It was a small town and soon everyone knew. Worse, no one would hire me. Gossip was an effective weapon and the sharp tongues of my former clients and friends were wielded with deadly intent.
Broken, I crawled away and sought refuge in the big city. And they didn't come much bigger than New York. There I disappeared, learning to keep my former job off my resume. I started again, determined to not be made a fool of a second time.
I found a little nursery and began to work my way up. I was carefully tending a plot of flowers when I felt someone watching me. A little old man, yet I figure now he was only in his early sixties. Not all that old, not really, but it was his attitude that won me over.
He asked questions, thoughtful ones, and before we were through, he knew more about me than my own parents did. He handed me a card and told me that if I ever wanted a job with more meaning to call the number.
I wasn't expecting much, but I was ready for a move. This job was going to be a dead end for me. The owners would not be likely to let me go much beyond where I was, but I was careful to leave my job on good grounds in case I needed to go back.
I never did. I began working for UNCLE and that was it. Now you are asking yourself, why would UNCLE need someone who is good with plants? Well, I could spin you a tale about developing anti-toxins to save the lives of our agents. I could lie and say it's all a closely guarded secret. The truth of the matter, I am the caretaker for UNCLE's small local cemetery. It's in one of the outer boroughs away from the city. It's quiet and peaceful there. I tend to the grounds and tend the graves. Every one of them has fresh flowers, I make sure of that. I keep trays and trays of flowers growing in my planting shed, just to make sure no grave is left unadorned.
It was in pretty awful shape when I showed up. Even though I love all plants, crab grass and dandelions are weeds. Within a few months, I had it whipped into fairly passable shape. After a year, I had it shining like a jewel.
You may be wondering why UNCLE even needs its own graveyard. Truth of the matter, many of our agents don't have much family outside of UNCLE. Many of the agents don't marry, even after they leave the field. Many of their families don't know what their sons and daughters did for a living and couldn't come to terms with their deaths. So, UNCLE maintained this one and many other cemeteries around the globe. It was a place for them to rest when no one else wanted them.
I talked with the stones and knew by the marking what the employee had done for a living. Section Two and Three had small triangles cut into their grave markers. Section Eights had a thin rod, representing a communicator, cut into theirs. Sections Ones had a globe and so forth. As time went on, I came to know each stone by name.
It had been a long weekend and I expected the grounds to show the abuse. I hated Memorial Day because it always meant a lot of foot traffic. There were always trouble patches where the grass struggled or got worn away. Sometimes, my flowers were ripped out of the ground and replaced by something twice as showy, but which I knew would be dead within the week without proper care. It was just a rough day for my patch of ground. I stayed in my little bungalow and listened to the radio or watched TV and ignored what happened outside my front door that weekend. It wasn't my place to be there. The people coming knew the deceased as living breathing people; I only knew them as gravestones. It was a time for remembering fallen heroes, so I drew my curtains, locked my door and let them have their day.
Tuesday morning, I wandered out to survey the damage and my throat caught. There was a new grave and I hadn't even known it. There was a temporarily wooden marker - No. 5879546-ST on it. A man's life reduced to a number. That was sad.
I looked at the grass that had been poorly replanted and shook my head in remorse. I would fix that first to keep the edge from drying out and dying. Going down to the shed for my tools, I was surprised when I returned to see someone standing by the grave, his dark head bent.
I knew enough not to approach, so I went about my business. Or rather I tried to. The open grief of the man was so obvious I knew this had to be one of those rare occasions when an agent had lost his partner. I'd witnessed a few of those and they were heart wrenching. It made me glad no one would mourn me like that.
I kept hearing him saying, "I'm sorry, old friend, I'm so sorry. I wasn't there when I should have been."
I thought back to my friendless life and was happy that my passing would never cause someone to carry on so.
He stayed there for a long time, longer than most, at times talking, other times crying, or so I deduced. Finally, this ancient man, his shoulders bent with age, approached him and gently led him away, speaking softly, his arms around the man's waist as if he could support the pair of them. A second man came from the car and offered a helping hand and between them, they whisked the dark haired man away.
And that was that, I thought as I knelt to tend to the grass. I was going to have to trim the edges of the grass now; it had already started to turn brown and dry. That's when I saw the badge. It was badly damaged, so much so that I couldn't read the number. And even though I didn't know 5879546, I felt sorry for the poor bastard. He must have been wearing it and they only wore their badges inside HQ - he must have been inside HQ when it happened...
Except that wasn't the end. The next day, he was back. With trembling hands, I watched him try to plant the flowers, but they were shaking so badly, it was a Sisyphean task. This time a pretty brunette and a sandy haired guy came. She took the trowel from him and gently planted the forget-me-nots. I appreciated how much care she had for them and for the man.
"It's time to go, Napoleon."
"I never got to tell him, April, I never let him know..."
"Shh, sweetheart, he knew every day. Illya was a lucky man and he knew it."
I caught the endearment, the encouragement, and the name 'Napoleon.' I wanted to reassure him that I would look out for his partner too, but April, that was her name, and her partner led Napoleon away. It didn't last long though.
The next day he was back and the one after that. I came to anticipate his arrivals. Every morning he was there, tending the flowers, talking softly to a partner who would never again answer back.
One morning I was tending a grave nearby when I heard him saying, "Thank you." It took me a minute to realize he was talking to me. "You make this place a work of art."
"You're welcome... Napoleon," I said, quietly.
"He'd like it - he preferred order to chaos." His voice dipped and I held out my hands, offering astrolemerias - Peruvian lily is its common name - to him.
"Here, these signify remembered friendship." His hand was steady now and he accepted them and a trowel with a nod.
"Thank you." He planted them carefully, patting the soil around them.
"You're a good friend."
"So was he, except I never told him that and now I can't. He told me you should take a lesson away from every experience. Always tell the people you love that you care for them when you can. I think that's the lesson I've learned this time."
As he bent to plant them, I saw someone approaching. His step was unsteady and halting, almost as if he was drunk... or - I could see the bandages now - gravely injured. There was a bandage wound around his head and he looked nearly as ashen as the gauze as he staggered towards Napoleon.
He stopped a few feet away and watched Napoleon with the flowers, then softly he said, "I've never cared much for Peruvian lilies. They make me sneeze."
Napoleon jumped to his feet and then turned. To say he looked like he was seeing a ghost would have been an understatement. He looked at me, as if for assurance that he wasn't insane, that he was actually seeing someone standing there.
"I'm sorry it took me so long to get here, but the nice hospital in Barcelona didn't want to let me go until I could remember my name. That sort of took me awhile."
Napoleon nearly crumpled, then took a step as his other friends, the nice looking brunette lady and her companion, showed up. He sort of seemed to shore up his reserve and his next few steps took him to the blond.
"You're alive?" Napoleon touched the man's face gently. "But they said you were dead... from the crash."
"There is still some debate over that," April said, with a cheerful laugh. "I'm not sure what Personnel is going to have to say about this."
"It takes much more than a mere air crash to kill me, Napoleon. You should know that by now."
Napoleon suddenly embraced him and I could see the pain in his face, not just from the physicality of Napoleon's embrace, but from the suffering he'd caused his partner.
"Come on, old man, we have to get him back to the hospital now. He wouldn't let us take him there until he saw you."
"I'll take him," Napoleon said in a tone that no one in their right mind would argue with.
April tossed Napoleon the keys. "We sort of thought that you would."
Slowly the two moved away, watched by April and her partner.
"There's no one in the grave then?" I asked.
"Nope, Guv, it's always been empty, but our boss knew if he didn't give Napoleon some place to grieve, he'd lose him just as sure as he'd lost Illya." The man had a charming British accent and I couldn't help but smile at him.
"Napoleon must love him a lot."
"I reckon he does, in his own way."
"Is there more than one way?" I had always thought it was either love or it wasn't.
"Of course." The woman's smile was dazzling. "And, sometimes, if you're lucky, it's everything. Let's go, Mark."
Later, I thought about what she said. I loved my plants and they responded back by growing strong and healthy. I love my work, but only in that I enjoy the plants. I had no one in my life, not one single person to call my friend. Until just now, that had been fine, but suddenly it wasn't.
So, if you will excuse me, I'm going to go out tonight. There's a bar over in the Village that has just opened and I think I will try it out. Perhaps I will even dance. It took a lesson in death to teach me how to live and I certainly am not going to let life pass me by anymore.