As a kid, Billy and his friends would jump fences at night and strip tomato plants of their fruit, armed with a stolen cafe salt shaker to season his bounty. In the summer, they’d bike twenty-four miles out of Detroit to the small town of Utica and fish for a week at a time, eating themselves sick on green apples that grew on trees their city didn’t have.
Their antics may have remained simple child’s play if it weren’t for one figure who proved central to Billy’s love of gardening. They called him the Hatchet Man. He had long white hair and a scraggly beard, and got his nickname because he “was always making kindling.” One hot summer afternoon, after a morning of scavenging berries, Billy’s friends dared him to ask the Hatchet Man for a drink of water.
“They didn’t think I had the balls to do it,” he gloats. “It was good water. It was well water, not like in the city. So I go up and knock on the door, and the Hatchet Man comes out and says, ‘Come here, boy. I need your help.”‘
Billy helped the man stack wood, and their friendship began. “He was amazing with that ax,” Billy says. “He’d never answer a question, though. He’d just say ‘God gave you two eyes and two ears. Pay attention.’ So I did.”
The Hatchet Man taught Billy which plants need light and which prefer shade. He’d pull a vegetable off a stem, slice it open with a tarnished pocket knife, and show Billy how to clean it, how to save the seeds. Instead of pilfering fruit from neighbors’ yards, Billy began raiding grocery store dumpsters before collection day to scrape seeds out of the rotting fruit to dry. Soon, he started his own garden.
Eventually, Billy and his siblings became wards of the state after his mother was arrested for reasons he doesn’t want to get into. The garden he’d started in their Detroit dirt yard was abandoned, but his hands would ache to get back to the soil for the rest of his life. His mother’s arrest was the beginning of a long path of institutionalization for Billy, who spent his teenage years in and out of juvenile detention and foster care and later, after Vietnam, in jail for drunk driving and drug abuse. Throughout it all, he would garden whenever he could.
Billy’s love for gardening is irrepressible. He slips the topic into conversations with friends and strangers with the ease of a skilled raconteur.
One day, I meet Billy for coffee at a local cafe, and when I arrive he is bent waist-deep over the counter spinning a tale about compost to the barista. She is enthralled.
“Hang on just a second,” she says when I approach, not breaking eye contact with Billy. “I have to hear the end of this story.”
The end is but a sentence away, and Billy delivers it like a fat tip. They both climax with laughter about dirt. She wipes bleeding eyeliner from underneath her lashes, holds her hand to her chest, and has to catch her breath before she asks me what I’d like to drink.
It’s the end of September, and Billy has been piling root vegetables all morning, preparing for the end-of-the-season potluck he’s organized for the gardeners who rent out these plots.
“I got enough carrots to supply the entire town of Milltown,” he says in a voice grating with pride and years of tobacco. “It’s the only thing that grew worth a crop this year.”
Billy rubs his hand beneath the brim of his mason ball cap, tightens his graying ponytail, and pulls another carrot out of the soft earth.
“I just don’t get it,” he says. “I mean the beets are right next to the carrots. They take the same nutrients. But the biggest beer I had was maybe an inch and a half across. It broke my heart.”
The way he says it, it is as if he is talking about a premature baby, or a two-legged dog, or a distant cousin killed in Iraq. He believes his heart is broken, and so do I.
The beets are not the only crop to break his heart this year. The pumpkins are soft. They are more yellowish-green than orange, more wine than fruit.