They are people.
They have feelings. Concerns. Dreams.
I took a sip of the cold iced tea as the Georgia sun beat down on me. I was trying hard to remember that as my neighbor, my best friend Billy, stood before me shirtless, wearing the tiniest red running shorts known to man (or woman), leaning on a rake prepared to do yard work.
If there were something sexier on God’s green earth than that, you couldn’t tell me… and it’s not like I would have believed you anyway.
Billy had that tall, dark, and handsome thing going on, but it was really about the abs. Six-pack abs in the wild, my friend. I hope he was wearing sunscreen, because I was not about to tell him to put on a T-shirt. I, after all, had exercised more sense by wearing sweatpants and a thin T-shirt for this morning’s festivities to ward off the sun, mosquitoes, and any other creepy-crawlies we might run into. Since I didn’t have a chance in hell with him, at least I could enjoy the show.
Right now, though, the expression he wore was tight, and I was afraid that sooner or later we would have to do the thing he was over here to do.
“Billy,” I said, looking at my backyard philosophically, “don’t you think that looks like The Thing? It could be dangerous like The Thing. Kudzu can be some dangerous stuff.”
He at least took a quick glance to edge of the yard. Between my house and the house that backed up to it, there was a kind of no-man’s-land alley. A place where kudzu had run free and had to be beaten back on a regular basis.
Like today. All right, the truth was that Billy had insisted on coming out and helping me with this. He lived next door, so he could see that the heart-shaped leaves of the vine were getting out of control, and even though my brother Nick lived with me, Nick was too busy finding himself to help out with pesky things like yard work and paying bills.
Billy shook his head. “No,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it The Thing. I’d call it stalling, Laura. I know that you’re just looking for an excuse not to get started on this.”
“You know, they say that the only way you can really get rid of kudzu is by fire. Maybe you could have some of your buddies from the firehouse to do a controlled burn. Community service and all that.”
“I think our rakes should be able to do what we need to do in this instance.”
He turned toward the kudzu and I followed him to the edge, rake in hand.
Kudzu was originally brought over for erosion control until the South fell victim to unintended consequences.
It grew over trees, telephone poles, and small children. When I was little, I’d make pictures out of kudzu instead of clouds.
I walked closer to the edge and noticed that the green leafy vine appeared to pulsate. But that couldn’t be right. I blinked. It was gone. Just my imagination was all. I stepped forward with the rake to hook and drag away the kudzu encroaching on my vegetable garden when I heard a manly “Hey!”
I looked up. There was Billy in the middle of a mass of kudzu.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m stuck in this thing.”
“Told you kudzu was deadly.”
“Ha, funny. No, I can’t get out of this thing.”
I started moving toward it and he said, “No, no. You stay right there. It feels like something is wrapped around my leg like it could be a snake or something.”
“You’re serious. Something really has your leg?” I took out my phone from the pocket of my sweatpants, flipped it open to press speed dial 1—the line to the house where my kid brother was doing heavens knew what when he should have been down here helping. “I’m calling Nick for backup.”
Billy was struggling to get his leg a loose. As the phone rang, I asked, “Is it any tighter?”
“Feels that way.”
As I stood there, a vine lifted from the mass of green, waving its leafy tentacles, and struck out towards me. I ran away, dropping my phone so it made landing on the green piece of lawn. The kudzu hung there in the air, reaching for me, hindered only by its length. Billy’s groans broke through the morning’s birdsong as someone’s lawn mower rumbled along a couple of streets over.
I blinked again. The kudzu was still there, coming toward me. It was visually growing as Billy slumped toward the ground, the vine wrapping its way around his legs.
I backed up slowly, the kudzu growing stronger as while looked as though Billy grew weaker.
What the what?
“Laura,” the voice on the phone said, weak because it was so far away. At the sound of the voice, the kudzu dropped from its attack stance. Now it just looked like regular kudzu.
Had the voice scared it off?
The phone—it registered in my mind—the phone!
I reached down, picked it up, and said, “Nick, Nick. You have got to get down here right now.” I knew that I probably sounded hysterical, but I couldn’t help it. Hell, a woman’s entitled to have a little freak-out moment now and then. Right? I mean, can I get an amen?
“I’m in the middle of my meditation,” Nick said. “Can it wait?”
“We’ve got a killer kudzu situation here.”
“Come on, sis. Really? Did you say killer kudzu?”
I kept the phone to my ear as I walked toward the kudzu waste. Billy was standing up now—that was good—but he probably needed some help. And the kudzu seemed to be tame for now. I didn’t know how long that situation would last, though.
I reached the waste and waded right in the middle of it. I reached my arm to loop around his waist.
“I’ve got you,” I said. “Go ahead, lean on me.”
He waited a second, probably debating with himself. He was taking too much time and I didn’t know how much time we had. I started moving toward the house. I figured he would come along if I dragged him out of the mess.
He leaned on me, the smell of his sweat in my nose and his sturdy body against mine. He was heavier than I imagined. Turns out that muscles really are heavier than fat like all the books say. I pulled him to safety, his strength returning. I could tell that he wasn’t as sluggish anymore, and I kept going, well beyond the edge where the kudzu had stopped.
I weren’t taking no chances.
Nick continued on the phone, “I would love to come and help, I really would.” It was almost a tagline with him. “But I’ve got this new meditation thing that I’m doing and it came with tea and I think this is really the thing that’s going to put me right on top. You know?”
I was only half listening, looking at the heaving form of my neighbor, bent over with his hands clutching his knees. Him being of an olive complexion and seeing as his current skin tone was a couple of shades paler, I figured this could not be a good thing.
I clicked off the phone on account that Nick weren’t making any kind of sense, no way. He was in the house, but couldn’t come out to the backyard?
“You okay?” I asked Nick.
“Getting there. At first I thought it was just a vine, and then it wrapped itself around my leg and started going higher. I think I even felt some of it pricking me.” He rubbed his hands along his legs as if he was trying to ease the pain.
“Come on, now. Kudzu doesn’t have thorns.”
“And kudzu isn’t supposed to attack people, either.”
“True. I called Nick to come and help.”
“If you can take a swipe at Nick, then I know that you’re feeling better.”
“Yeah,” he said straightening.
And that’s when I saw the vine begin to move.
“Billy,” I said. He stood up, following my gaze.
The kudzu came alive again, not as all leafy-menacy as before, but kudzu, my friend, is not supposed to move unless a strong wind is going by.
It was time to get inside the house to regroup. But Billy was way ahead of me. He took my hand and ran, practically dragging me up the sloping yard to my tiny concrete patio before I felt safe to talk.
“Do you have any matches,” I asked, in between huffing. I really needed to get in shape and this was embarrassing. “You’re a single guy; you’ve got to have matches from restaurants… Do they still have matchbook cases in a fishbowl?”
“I’m a divorced man with two kids. My money goes to child support and college funds. Not too many resources for candlelight dinners.”
“Okay.” I looked back and forth from the kudzu and Billy.
“Let’s get inside,” he said. “At least it will be safer.”
He opened the glass sliding door that led to the living room on the bottom floor. There was Nick in the living room, wearing only a leopard-print Speedo, with the candles surrounding him. The room pulsated with energy. Plants floated around him.
“Nick,” I said.
I tried to step toward him and bumped into something invisible. At that point I was yanked back and then hidden behind Billy.
He felt around. “There’s a shield here. We can’t get close to him.”
There were a lot of plants around because Nick always thought that plants generated energy. Not that he could be counted on to do any weeding. He thought that they contributed to the energy of the house. At that moment, they did.
“What kills plants?” I asked
“Fire,” he said. “Go get your hairspray. I’m sure you have a lighter somewhere.”
“Don’t have any.” At his incredulous look, I added, “I have curly hair. A lot of curlies don’t have hairspray.”
“I’ll get some from my house,” he said. But didn’t get far. The plants had reached out to surround us, blocking us off from the door, their tendrils twining toward us, growing more powerful.
But there was still this bubble of calm, and all of it centered around Nick and his guided meditation in the background. A teapot on the table in front of him. That tea.
“That doggone tea,” I said. “He’s been on this ‘plants help the house’s energy’ kick ever since he started drinking that nonsense.”
“When did he start drinking the tea?” Billy asked.
“This week. And then he said he wanted to help out the plants outside, so he started dumping it in the kudzu waste between the two yards. I just thought it was a phase. Goodness knows it was just another scheme that he would find enlightenment.”
It all seemed kind of stupid, saying it out loud. That and the whole about-to-be-suffocated-by-plants thing, with their stems and leaves coming toward me. I had never thought of him as anything except a freeloader.
But as he sat in the bubble of safety, I realized that that was exactly what it was. And just as I had provided the room and the air and even the clothes on his back sometimes, I had nurtured him and like these plants, and he had sucked it all from me simply to try to turn against me once I tried to exercise a bit of independence.
The music was coming from an old record player. I had noticed that the plants were far away from it; they were actually crowding me toward the wall that had the record player against it. Because he liked things are close to the ground as possible, he said. He didn’t like technology at all except when he could use it to buy tea from halfway across the world.
He liked the organic. He liked that warbly record. He especially liked to meditate to that warbly record.
I figured the distance. Because lemme tell you what was not going to happen. I sure was not going out like this. Strangled by plants that I fed? Uh, hell no.
As Billy protected my front, I dashed toward the record player and yanked it from the wall, sending it crashing to the floor. The sound stopped.
Nick opened his eyes.
The plants dropped.
Billy stepped in. “Where did you get that tea that you’ve been drinking and watering the plants and backyard kudzu with?”
Nick jerked up his chin. “Through a friend.”
“I suppose that it was legal?”
“Why would we subject something that was natural to the regulations of the man?”
“Hold it,” I said. “You brought something into this house that you weren’t sure was safe?”
“What do you mean?” Nick asked.
“Whatever that stuff is—and it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s radioactive or part of the moon or some other kind of stuff and nonsense—it’s causing attack kudzu,” I said.
“You have such an overactive imagination.”
“Not that active.”
Billy said, “I saw it.”
“You,” Nick said, “are delusional, thinking that you have choices, that you have options.” He looked at me. “Did you kill the record?”
“It was either the record or the killer houseplants. You know, I’ve always hated that peace plant. To me it looks like a cobra when it flowers. And it did start to come toward me like one, too.”
“This is fantastical, and I wouldn’t trust the two of you anyway, trying to disturb the peace.”
Billy stepped forward and pushed past him to the kitchen. “Where does he keep the stuff, Laura?” he asked.
“The counter right above the can opener.”
Billy stalked into the kitchen and grabbed the box of tea. “We’ve got a fireplace at the firehouse. I think I know exactly what to do with this.”
“You can’t,” Nick said, “it’s rare.”
“And haven’t you ever thought of why it’s like that?” Billy pushed past Nick again, heading to the door as Nick tried to make a grab at the box.
“You coming, Laura?” Billy asked.
“Don’t do it,” Nick said. “Don’t give in to The Man.”
I turned to my brother. “How many possessions do you own?”
“You know I have less than a hundred. I’ve blogged extensively about it. Of course, that doesn’t count underwear. Underwear is counted as a group.”
I had to stop him before he got into the technical details, which he could talk about all day. “So,” I said, “it won’t take you long to pack up and leave.”
“Laura?” he asked, his face twisting as he tried to comprehend.
“Laura,” Billy said with a smile on his face.
“Billy takes the tea, but you and your stuff can be gone. Since you’re such a minimalist, I’m sure that you’ll be able to find a bed in a homeless shelter if it comes to that, but I think you’ll probably be able to couch surf with one of your friends.”
“Laura,” Nick, started reaching toward my hands, but I crossed my arms over my chest so that he didn’t have a place. “Are you sure about this? It’s not good to make such an impulsive decision.”
Billy stepped up. “Hey, Nicky. Need some help? I can help you pack.”
“No.” Nick turned to me. “Laura, I will leave. As you’ve noticed all my possessions fit in my rolling duffle bag. If you ever want to talk, you know how to reach me through my blog.”
He went upstairs to his room and came back down in ten minutes. He gave me the puppy-dog eyes.
I raised an eyebrow and kept my arms crossed.
Billy opened the door.
Nick rolled out.
I waited for the pangs to hit. Everything would probably hit me tonight. But when a man did not take responsibility for mutating kudzu, then it was time for him to leave. Even Ray Charles could see there was something wrong with that.
Billy shut the door. “Good riddance,” he said, then he pushed off the door. “I know some guys who run a kudzu removal service in their off time; they would be glad to get rid of this stuff. I don’t feel good about it being back there.”
“Thanks,” I said. “But if you know some guys that run a kudzu removal service, why did you offer to help me out?”
“What do you call it? Just being neighborly?”
“You’re from Buffalo, New York. I don’t think of y’all being very warm and fuzzy up there.”
“If you got to know me better, maybe you would.”
He looked sincere. And I waited for the punch line. The joke. But it didn’t come. He just stood there in the middle of a bunch of deflated vines scattered on the floor.
Flowers are pretty. Chocolates are awesome. But when a man does yard work for you, it’s best to pay attention.
“So,” I said, “uh, how do you think we could do that whole getting-to-know-each-other thing?”
“Well, I know that definitely I need to at least find somewhere where they have matchbooks for patrons. Who knows when I’ll need them?”
“I think I can help you out with that.”
I’d handled mutant kudzu. I knew I could handle Billy from Buffalo.