Our neighbor Isabel St. James is
the most whiny, griping person in the whole entire world. Honestly, if
you gave her eighteen dozen red roses with stems of pure gold, she’d
complain about the thorns made of diamonds.
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. 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. She wants to live in a Big City.)
“Oh, will you, darling?” She
gave him a mushy-smoochy look. A far cry from the look she’d given him
not five minutes ago when he mentioned getting another pair of goats.
Her eyes turned red and fiery, and I was pretty sure steam oozed out of
her earholes. But at Ian’s promise to dig a garden area, she sighed and
looked around us all, a smile stretching over her face. Which is nice,
because her face will never win any awards. But when she smiles, it’s
like someone turned on a light.
“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 have an abundace of barnyard
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 . . .” 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 off some of Isabel’s sharp edges,
who’d never known anyone like my parents, and, she’s softened up
considerably. But she’s still a pain.
So good ol’ Ian, who has had a
much easier time becoming a country person than his wife, dug up some
flower beds. Grandma and Mama helped her order seeds from Gurney’s big
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 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 gazed at those
skinny hands. They looked at each other, clearly puzzled.
“What’s wrong, honey?” Grandma
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.
Isabel’s long red fingernails,
of which she was so proud and protective, were now chipped and broken,
as uneven and snaggly as Billy Bob teeth.
“Mercy sakes!” Grandma said,
reaching into the pocket of her slacks. “Here. You never know when
you’re gonna need ’em.”
Isabel shrank back. You’d think
Grandma had just offered her a toad on toast instead of a pair of
“Grandma!” Myra Sue hollered.
“You cannot use clippers on your nails!”
Isabel moaned, waving her hands
back and forth 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
“Here, 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
“Blisters?” Isabel looked
utterly horrified. “Callouses?”
I’m only eleven years old, but I
have learned a few things in my life. One of which is 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.
“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
I poured her a 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. 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 isn’t as tragic as
That woman gave me an odd look
then picked up that glass and guzzled like 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.
And let me tell you, waiting for Isabel to react can be scary because
you never know what she’ll do.
“You should also know,” she
said, finally, “besides ruining my manicure, in that dirt 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 faint dead away. When we didn’t, she said,
“You got some good dirt for
your flowers,” Grandma said.
Isabel jerked like she’d been
poked with a sharp stick.
“How can you say that?
“Worms are good for the soil,”
Mama said. “They keep it from getting hardpacked 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
whispered. “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
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 shot me a
reproving look. Mama knows how I sometimes blurt out things without
thinking, but this needed to be said. Of course, I could have said it
nicer and gentler.
“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.” 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 bit ago. In fact,
she sat quietly for a long minute, obviously thinking.
She gazed 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. “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.” Her smile
brightened the room. “Just think how lovely those flowers are going to
look in my house this summer!”