Short Story by Megan Guernsey

Harry and the Potting Soil

In the year 2004, Harry lost his job with the orchestra, in which he played the violin for 15 years, and he moved next door to his elderly mother. At times, he felt his mother was doing quite well, and he would play his violin, all alone, until late at night, in the top story of his three-bedroom home. His house was stately, brick, and quite ornamental; his yard was quite plain, just a front sidewalk and some scraggly grass. Although Harry’s yard was nothing to complain about, it was nothing to praise either, and Harry decided that he would put some of his free time into making the yard more presentable.

When spring rolled around, Harry borrowed a pitchfork and a shovel from his Mother’s garage and just started digging. As he dug, he found treasures from the past that made him wonder about the families that had live in the house before him. One day he found a fork, once an old coin, and one day he even found the eye of a doll. He kept them all in a special box in his bedroom. Souvenirs from gardening, he thought. Treasures that others had cherished.

Before he’d begin digging in the yard each morning, he’d go next door to his mother’s for breakfast, just to check on her. He’d eat his eggs and toast with an extra eye on his mom’s right knee, maybe shakier today than yesterday. But usually everything was okay, and he’d go back out to the yard, start digging again, repeatedly noting the progress he was making.

Megan Guernsey is a writer, poet, and lawyer from Missouri, California. She may be reached at

One cool night, after eating lasagna at his mothers, Harry began to make a supply list for the garden store, which he was ready to visit tomorrow. He wondered why mom hadn’t questioned what his plans were with his yard. “Well, it’s only been a week…maybe she’s hoping to be surprised.” Harry put the pen and paper down on the table, satisfied, he looked down at the paper. “Rocks, Daisies, Black-Eyed Suzans, Potting Soil.”

At about 11am the next morning, Harry got down on his hands and knees and began making little holes along the front sidewalk for the Daisies and Black-Eyed Suzans. He’d space rocks evenly between the flowers, very artistically, and he expected his work to say, “welcome” to visitors to his home. In the sunshine, the Daisy centers seemed warm and expressive, petals slightly angered by the wind. The Black-Eyed Suzans, with their yellow petals bigger than the faint whites ones of the Daisies, stuck strongly out against a dilated center. The rocks held the whole picture together. Harry’s hands got dirtier and dirtier as the scene became more and more musical, and the wind died down. Harry had gone through three bags of potting soil.

Harry stood at the foot of the sidewalk. “What time is it?” he thought. Harry looked at his watch, quite covered in potting soil, and realized it was four o’clock. His neighbors would be getting home from work soon. “They’ll laugh at me,” he thought. This looks like a clown’s house, and I can’t have people laughing at me! Harry began to get angry and sad at the same time, and he remember people laughing at him when he didn’t play his violin well. Harry remembered all the embarrassment he felt when he tried and tried and he still wasn’t good enough.

Harry got out his shovel and started digging up all the Daisies and Black-Eyed Suzans that he had planted. He picked up the rocks and threw them in the back yard. With his last bag of potting soil, he covered up all the petals and stems that still peeked up from the ground. He began seeing his neighbors, people he had never even spoken to, drive up to their houses in their cars. Soon they would be taking their daily walks, with their dogs, wives and children, by Harry’s house. Now they would have nothing to make fun of him about, nothing to find Harry suspicious. There would be no basis on which to think that Harry wasn’t a good gardener.

Harry hid inside his front door as soon as the roller-bladers, walkers, and bike riders began to pass by. Two women wearing jogging pants noticed potting soil bags on Harry’s front porch and one said, “Someone’s working hard!” Harry felt their sarcasm like a ton of bricks in his stomach. He decided, no matter what, he would never leave an empty bag of potting soil on the front porch of his house again.

For the next week, Harry continued to dig, move piles of dirt from place to place, arrange the rocks he had purchased from the garden store, and think about what to do next. At one point, he thought about buying a birdbath. At another point, he thought about selling the house and moving into a trailer with no yard at all. What was the point of a yard any way? It just meant digging and digging, buying more and more potting soil to cover things up with.

While playing Chopin on his violin one night, Harry thought about how nice it would be if he could attract butterflies and hummingbirds to his front yard. He could sit on the porch, drinking lemonade in the summer, which was beginning, and watch the beauty of nature. He remembered sitting with his father on his uncle’s porch as a child and seeing a type of kool-aid inside plastic humming-bird feeders. He wondered if he could get some of those at the garden store. He also knew there was a beautiful flower called the Butterfly flower that would attract butterflies. The next morning, Harry asked his mother for garden supply money. She dug deeply into her old leather purse, full of check stubs, expired coupons, coins, and half-sticks of tin-foil wrapped bubble gum. She limped right over to Harry. “I’m sure the yard will be beautiful.”

Harry dreamily attacked his yard with his visions of a fairyland, Butterflies, Hummingbirds, and little bluebirds bathing in water. First, he filled up two Hummingbird Feeders with red food coloring, water, and sugar, and hung them strategically over the porch. Then, again, he covered the lawn in a layer of potting soil and placed a birdbath close to the end of the sidewalk. He took each of the individual stones he had purchased for the original “Black-Eyed Susan” yard design, and painted them, some with stripes, some with polka-dots, some with hearts, some plain; and littered the space around the yard and birdbath with grass seed and these pretty rocks. Finally, he planted the gorgeous Butterfly flower, many Butterfly flowers. Harry hoped to sit, wait on his porch, and enjoy the live entertainment.

It was 3:00pm. Harry brought his lawn chair to his front porch and gazed at the beauty. The light whites of the Butterfly flowers picked up on the pastels of the rocks, which would solidly speak of spring all summer long. It was as if his yard was a place for cooling off, a yard of pina-coladas, freedom, a wildlife wishing well, a child’s watering hole. All that was missing were the hummingbirds, butterflies, and bluebirds, but they would come, all Harry would have to do was wait. It was 3:10pm.

Harry waited on his porch. He began to get nervous about the neighbors who would get home from work about 5pm. What would they think of this vulgar mess is Harry’s front yard? What was Harry, anyway, a glutton? Did he really think he deserved to look at all the pretty creatures while others had none? This time others would not laugh at him, but they would be angry. Harry had been selfish, taken too much, and other people deserve the things he got more than did he. It was 3:30.

Harry started taking down the Hummingbird feeders, pouring the water out of the birdbath, and putting the butterfly flowers back into their plastic containers. He moved the painted rocks to the back of the yard. By 5:00pm, all the garden store supplies had been returned to the store. Harry sat in silence over dinner with his mother that night. He played on his violin until the wee hours of the morning.

Digging the next morning, Harry came to the conclusion that the soil was too dry for much planting and that he needed to spend at least a week watering it and turning it upside down, adding topsoil here and there. Fresh is best, he thought. He dug, turned the soil, dug, watered, turned the soil, dug, and so on. This would go on between the hours of 10am to 4:30pm everyday. Harry would think about music, new songs to play, times playing in the orchestra, and, finally, when he first heard of his father’s passing. Harry wondered sometimes what his mother would do without him. He thought of her as lonely and was happy that he could provide her with companionship after his father’s death. Harry also knew mom could hear his beautiful violin music during the evening hours and that mom cherished that talent in him. Knowing the violin inside and out always occupied Harry’s mindspace, time and energy. He saw his hands dig to the rhythm of quarter and eighth notes, he saw earthworms turn to treble clefs, and heard dissonance in the sounds of a rake’s scrape.

At times, new ideas of what to do with the yard would come through Harry’s head, but he always found something wrong with them. One of his favorite ideas was to scatter myrtle and peonies throughout the yard, and bring back the birdbath, but he thought the myrtle might get in people’s noses as they walked by, and then they’d think that Harry planted it there for that reason intentionally. He was afraid he could even get sued for such a thing. So he decided, why risk it?

Every night, after dinner, he would go back to his own home and play his violin in his room as eloquently as he could. He would always leave his window open for acoustics purposes. He played the Masters, of course, but he was also very talented at composing music himself, and did so regularly. Most of his pieces therefore were unrecognizable, but exquisite. Little did he know, but neighbors who walked at night could hear the beautiful violin float through the air and loved it. It added romance to their deadened marriages, added chaos to last year’s Christmas’s Big Wheels, highlighted the moonlight for skateboarders looking out for bumps in the sidewalk. Families who had stopped using their barbeques began to cook outside again just to hear Henry play while having hot dogs. Mall walkers found their way to his street because the rumors of Harry’s violin playing had spread to the local Bergner’s. A grandmother asked her redhead grandson to walk her down to the park by Harry’s house every night after dinner so she could listen for an hour to Harry’s amazing songs.

Harry’s mother began to get concerned about Harry and his obsession with the yard. Why wasn’t he finishing it? Harry’s mom brought in up one night at a conversation over dinner and Harry began to cry. She decided not to push it. Instead, she got another idea.

That same evening, Harry’s mom stood outside of Harry’s house while he played violin. She held Henry’s Orchestra scrapbook in her hand. The last page was blank. Harry’s mom held a pen, and asked if the people walking, jogging, riding, and skating by would write a special message to the great musician upstairs. Everyone agreed. They wrote thing like: “Harry, you are awesome!” “I’ve never heard such beautiful music!” “Thank you!” “My husband and I listen to you every night.”

The next morning, Harry saw the book, opened to the last page lying on the breakfast table. After he read the comments, he was so happy he jumped up and down, wearing his favorite gardening pants. Though he didn’t know who had written those compliments, it didn’t matter. He hadn’t remembered anyone ever saying such nice things to him ever before.

After turkey bacon and eggs, though the eggs a little runny, Harry went straight to the garden store. He bought Azaleas, Dianthus, Lilies, birdseed, a birdbath, grass seed, and some small shrubs. All day he dug and dug, worked and worked. He arranged the flowers and the birdbath meticulously, and even brought the painted rocks back out from behind the house. The yard looked beautiful. It looked so beautiful that Harry knew that he could leave the yard that way for the summer, put up a hammock, and relax.

That night, under the moon, the yard sparkled and shined, for everyone to see. Harry played his violin, as beautifully as ever. The skateboarders slid passed and waved; the grandmothers grinned with their munchkins; the night birds flew high in the air. Harry’s mother, alone in the kitchen, dreamed lightly on her feet to the sound of her son’s sweetly found new confidence, holding a photo of her late husband to her chest.