Mr. Tanner (A Short Story by T.M. Doran)

Mr. Tanner (A Short Story by T.M. Doran)

 

“MR. TANNER!” an eager voice called out from behind a dense Buttonbush in its red and green glory.

Mr. Tanner knew Betty’s voice as well as he did his own, but he was in hot pursuit of a pea-sized predator on a flowering Blackhaw Vibernum so he didn’t respond.

Mr. Tanner’s chief interests were making things grow, nurturing butterflies, eliminating killer insects and other pests, and the tenor saxophone. He had been a Detroit Zoo gardener for thirty-three years, now responsible for tending the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery’s indoor butterfly gardens and the zoo’s outdoor butterfly garden. He was a sturdy sixty-nine year old, five-foot-eight inch tall man, hitting the scale at exactly one-hundred-seventy pounds. When he’d started working at the zoo, Mr. Tanner had been the only Black man in a crew of twenty gardeners and had stuck out like a praying mantis on a red Hibiscus flower. Now, he drew attention only for the neatly buttoned white shirt and thin tie he always wore beneath his zoo jacket, and the dingy yellow backpack he had carried to work for as long as anyone could remember.

Mr. Tanner debated with himself: Pluck the larvae from its leafy roost by hand? Or use his puffer. The latter would destroy the little thing. Plucking the bug, albeit a more delicate operation, would allow the gardener to retain the living pest for Carla’s examination. Viburnum Leaf Beetle larvae were smaller than caterpillars but if allowed to become full egg-laying beetles could kill a mature shrub in one season.

Mr. Tanner had pruning to do, too, but pests once detected became the first order of business. Who knew how many progeny this creature would beget if he didn’t begot it first—an original saying of his.

Betty burst out from behind the blooming Buttonbush like a trotting ostrich, and Mr. Tanner had to put a finger to his lips to prevent her from interrupting the search-and-destroy operation. A fellow veteran of such missions, the dark-haired, olive-skinned woman in her mid-forties halted in place and, for good measure, held her breath.

Mr. Tanner placed the bug in the plastic container he kept handy for such invaders. “Mission accomplished,” he said to Betty. “How is our prize-winning photographer today?”

She blushed, though Mr. Tanner could tell that Betty appreciated his appreciation. Betty lived alone and could come off as haughty and prickly to those who only knew her superficially. To Mr. Tanner, who knew this woman as well as anyone at the zoo did, she was a person of intriguing contradictions, an adventurer who dared to flout a State Department ban to encounter wild gorillas in the Congo’s Virunga National Park but wouldn’t drive her car half a mile in the snow.

“Here…look,” she said, showing him her camera viewer.

“Oh!” exclaimed Mr. Tanner, observing a young Lion-tailed macaque plucking a snack from a spectacular Blue Celeste Ficus. “Zoo magazine cover material,” he added, and the two shared a smile.

Betty loved the zoo but she hadn’t been an employee there in the sixteen years he’d known her. Rather, she spent hours photographing the animals while serving as a docent in the primate and butterfly exhibits. To Betty, the zoo was a sanctuary rather than a job.

Betty’s smile became a dark frown: “You won’t believe what those people did.”

Per usual, when Betty was preparing to rail against someone, her spine stiffened and she gained an inch on her already towering frame. “The power company cut down that beautiful maple. Now, I have no shade on that side of my house, and I have to look at those ugly poles and electrical equipment!”

For a moment, Betty waved a prefectorial digit at him. Then, mortified and red-faced, she clenched her fists. Mr. Tanner had seen this side of Betty often enough, being the only person upon whom she felt comfortable enough to unload. Mr. Tanner didn’t like the indiscriminate cutting down of mature trees either, but he didn’t know the facts.

“Can you just plant something to replace it?” he asked Betty.

“Nothing as mature and lovely as that maple. What a disaster!”

“Or you could plant a sun garden,” he suggested. “You love the smell of our Bush Honeysuckle.”

“But a bush won’t shade my windows,” Betty objected. “Besides, it won’t overwinter.”

With his mini-snips, Mr. Tanner dead-headed a Blanket Flower, absentmindedly palming the shriveled floral corpse. “I know a woman who keeps a Cape Jasmine in a large pot and winters it in her dark garage. Not cold enough to kill the plant, and no frost. She lets it go dormant for four months. Or what about Hollyhock or Queen of the Prairie? They grow tall.” But mollifying Betty was impossible now, so Mr. Tanner resigned himself to hearing her out, and that took another twenty minutes. He had learned that sympathetic listening was a balm that took some of the sting out of Betty’s chronic frustration.

After lunch, Carla showed up, as she always did. As the zoo’s herpetology curator and Lepidoptera keeper, Carla spent mornings at the larger reptile and amphibian exhibits, and when she’d finished with the snakes and frogs, joined Mr. Tanner in the indoor butterfly garden.

“All well?” she asked him, her standard greeting.

“Very well,” he responded.

“The shipment should arrive tomorrow, and the Malachites. Our first.”

“Beautiful!” he rejoiced with her, and then showed Carla the object of his successful morning hunt. “You might want to add some Spined Soldier Bugs to the next order if you want our butterflies to have healthy Viburnum.”

Mr. Tanner had met Carla twenty-seven years before when the zoo hired her as their reptile keeper. Apart from a gimpy knee, Carla had changed little since that time. Single and stout, with a forceful personality that sometimes put off colleagues, Carla’s demeanor softened, her eyes sparkled, and her voice fairly sang when she showed off her winged and scaly creatures to young people. And Mr. Tanner had witnessed Carla’s generosity when a colleague or one of her staff was in need.

“I’ll keep an eye out for the shipment,” Mr. Tanner said. “How’s your knee?”

“I could help matters by losing some weight. In the meantime, I’ll keep this knee brace handy. Have you solved our water problem?”

“Not yet,” the gardener admitted. “I plan to text Ron.” Fixing things was Ron’s special talent.

She nodded. “Light crowd today.”

“Rain in the forecast.”

Their many years together meant the two were thinking the same thought. Carla had seen Mr. Tanner’s saxophone in the office. That meant today was Friday, and if the weather held out, Mr. Tanner would perform his Jazzy Jingles in the outdoor butterfly garden at three p.m., as he’d been doing for close to ten years; music everyone recognized, even if performed by a solo saxophonist: “These Are A Few of My Favorite Things,” “Put On a Happy Face,” “Honey Please Don’t Be That Way,” Tunes that brought smiles to people’s faces. Some annual passholders visited the zoo on Fridays just to hear Mr. Tanner’s evocative music.

They’re not Coltrane jazzy but they jingle was another of Mr. Tanner’s sayings.

Carla started to walk away but paused and looked back. She exhaled audibly, and said, “My sister lost her job. Third time this year.”

“Laid off?” Mr. Tanner asked.

“No, fired. Not exactly how she explained it, but that’s what it amounts to.”

Mr. Tanner had only met Carla’s sister on two occasions and had decided that two sisters couldn’t be more different in temperament and priorities than those two women.

“I’m washing my hands of the whole business,” Carla remarked. “Why bother when she can’t keep a job for more than six months? And that Barry of hers is worthless…irresponsible.”

“Don’t give up on her,” Mr. Tanner urged his boss.

If Carla was surprised to hear her gardener say this, she didn’t let on. Instead, she said, “What do you suggest I do?”

“Stay connected. What she does with your help…” He turned his palms upward.

“It’s frustrating!”

“Yes, but less frustrating if you admit you can’t control what she does.”

“You think I like to be in control?”

They both smiled.

“I’ll hand-water until the irrigation is fixed. Early, so the visitors aren’t disturbed,” he promised her.

Carla returned to the Reptile House while the gardener made for the office.

Mr. Tanner’s work space was a modest affair. In the corner of the office, he had a locker where he kept his once-neon yellow backpack—now faded to the color of straw—his zoo boots, gloves, and stormy-weather gear. Propped against the wall was a camp chair he occasionally used for Jazzy Jingles. When he needed a computer, he used the one on the office desk.

Mr. Tanner updated the butterfly garden’s Predators and Pests spreadsheet on the computer, then went back to work. He was on his knees and surprised to realize that two hours had passed when Ron tapped him on the shoulder.

“The tigers need me,” Ron announced, “but tell me what’s wrong. I’ll come back tomorrow.”

“The watering system’s acting up,” Mr. Tanner answered. How like Ron this was—a man who had recently passed the half-century mark, handsome and a magician with mechanical equipment—to stop in, rather than texting the gardener that he was too busy. Did anything short of a nuclear reactor exist that Ron couldn’t fix? He’d been at the zoo for twenty-one years and had married for the first time two years earlier—a younger woman with two children.

“I bumped into Betty at the primate exhibit. What rattled her?”

When Mr. Tanner didn’t answer, Ron shook his head. “You don’t have to say it—anxiety. Instead of having one wholesome disease, psoriasis or allergies, she has a new one every month. Like my Aunt Tilly.” The mechanic glanced around the butterfly garden, and said, “We’ll take care of you.”

“You always do, my friend.” The gardener removed his work glove and the two men shook hands.

Mr. Tanner looked at the clock. He’d be late for Jazzy Jingles if he didn’t get a move on.

MR. TANNER WAS SURPRISED TO HEAR someone moving about the exhibit as the zoo was not yet open for visitors, and Carla always attended to her frogs and snakes before she made an appearance here.

Carla’s assistant? Ron? But when the girl emerged from the lush greenery, he recognized her: the bear keeper Suzanne Wayne’s ward, as Carla had referred to her—Benji by name.

They had spoken once before without introducing themselves. Then, the exhibit had been busy with visitors, but unlike most this girl had not looked past the old gardener but had greeted him and asked several insightful questions—“What’s the rarest butterfly in the world?” “What’s the difference between a chrysalis and a cocoon?”

Today’s version of the girl looked troubled and wary, and Mr. Tanner wasn’t convinced she’d say anything unless he spoke first. Carla hadn’t told him much about Benji but enough to suggest the girl had come from a chaotic domestic situation and that Suzanne’s taking her in had been an act of mercy. She was wearing new clothes and shoes—not runaway clothes, and surely provided by Suzanne Wayne. He guessed she was in her early teens, though her eyes were older.

“Hello, Benji,” said Mr. Tanner.

The girl made a little wave, but her features remained cloudy.

He would keep talking. “Want to see who can find the stick first?”

He had surprised her, as he’d hoped. “We have several stick insects in the exhibit. People rarely notice them. Something Curator Carla dreamed up to keep things interesting.”

Benji shrugged.

“Is something wrong?” he inquired delicately.

Maybe she needed to release some of the emotion that fairly oozed out of her because the girl said, “Everything!”

“I’m sorry about that,” Mr. Tanner responded in surprise.

For a moment, he thought she was going to rush off, but a Monarch settling on her shoulder produced a meager smile.

“I want to stay with Suzanne,” she muttered.

“Does she know this?” asked Mr. Tanner, laying down his hand spade. Today, sunlight was rushing into this century old glass-domed building, the beams of light making the colors of the flowers and butterflies more vibrant.

Benji nodded. “But she said she doesn’t know if they’ll let her.”

“Does your mother or father object?” He didn’t think this question would be well-received but had decided to plow ahead anyway.

“I don’t have a father, and Destiny is worse than not having a mother.”

That docile butterfly finally ascended from Benji’s shoulder. Before the girl could step away, the gardener asked, “Why do you say so?”

“The usual…worthless men, drugs, yelling…” Her voice trailed off.

“I know what you mean,” he responded, and before she could fire back, he added, “Yes, I do. I’ve been in such places. But you’re here now, with Suzanne.”

“I love the zoo. I want to be a keeper like Suzanne and Stella.”

Mr. Tanner was acquainted with Stella, the other ursine keeper. “If I know Suzanne, she’ll do her best for you—”

“But will it be enough?” asked Benji, passion in her voice. “I won’t go back. If they make me, I’ll run away again!”

She expected him to caution her, but he didn’t. Mr. Tanner said, “You’re welcome here anytime. The more you learn, the better prepared you’ll be for a keeper’s or curator’s job…or to be a vet like Dr. Bogardus.”

“That’s what Suzanne told me,” the girl said, more engaged now.

“Who could ask for better training?”

“But why?” she pleaded.

Mr. Tanner knew exactly what she was asking—he had that sixth sense. Furthermore, he knew the question wasn’t directed at him. Rather, that question preyed on the girl. He said, “Would you help me clean up before the visitors arrive?”

When Benji hesitated, the old man pointed to the old-fashioned clock on the wall, and said, “Ten years ago, I used to finish all my getting-ready-for-visitors work in plenty of time. Now, those clock hands seem to move faster.”

Without saying anything, Benji picked up a broom and began to sweep the cuttings on the floor.

“Where does your mother live?” Mr. Tanner asked her.

When she told him, he cringed because that area of the city was notorious. “How long have you been staying with Suzanne?”

“Two weeks,” she replied, emptying her sweepings into the plastic bin.

“Does Suzanne live near the zoo?”

“Not far. I sleep all night now. I never did before.”

With Benji’s assistance, the cleaning didn’t take him long, and when they put the tools away and removed the plant debris to the compost bin, Mr. Tanner said, “May I show you something before you go?”

The girl followed the gardener to a corner of the exhibit where the zoo displayed many of its chrysalises. Every day, Carla offered a half-hour learning session here, often accompanied by an emergence, where a bin of butterflies was released to the exhibit, an event that never got old to Mr. Tanner.

“I’ve seen these before,” Benji observed.

Undeterred, Mr. Tanner kept his eyes fixed on the display, as if he expected a butterfly to pop out any minute. Finally, he said, “I wonder what it feels like to be pupae inside chrysalises. I try to imagine how I’d feel…dark, confined, all alone and scared.”

“I don’t think caterpillars feel any emotions,” she observed.

“Probably not, but I imagine how I’d feel.”

Now, they were both gazing at the chrysalises, eyes close to the Plexiglass.

“A caterpillar could crawl from one end of the zoo to the other but until it goes inside a chrysalis—that dark lonely place—it can never become a butterfly.”

Benji’s phone rang. She looked at Mr. Tanner. “It’s Suzanne. I’m late.”

“Thanks for helping me,” he said to her back as the girl ran off.

Mr. Tanner made his normal rounds, less conspicuously with visitors in the exhibit, and tending the outdoor butterfly garden when the building was busiest. He spent at least an hour every day cleaning, sharpening, and repairing his tools. A while back, the zoo’s maintenance chief had been amazed to learn that the gardener had been using several of these tools for thirty-three years.

“Like old friends,” Mr. Tanner had told him. “Reliable. Predictable…don’t talk much though.”

When the Malachite chrysalises arrived, Mr. Tanner quarantined them in the exhibit’s reserve box, making sure the habitat was ready for Carla’s inspection. In the coming days, both he and Carla would be carefully watching their new arrivals for signs of distress.

Near the end of the workday, Ron showed up, asked a few questions, and made for the mechanical room, accompanied by Mr. Tanner.

Ron exuded competence, not because of anything he said but by how he took charge when something needed fixing. If Ron didn’t always think before he spoke, Mr. Tanner had never heard anything vindictive escape the mechanic’s lips.

“Not too many aches and pains?” Ron asked him.

“You know” was Mr. Tanner’s equivocal answer. These days, his left shoulder ached most nights, a different sensation than his normal aches and pains. Occasionally, the pain woke him at night.

Ron nodded. “I’m getting to know. I turned fifty last month, remember?”

“And the kids?” the gardener inquired.

“Yah. Hand me that wrench, please…no, the other one. Thanks…”

Ron worked in silence for several minutes but something told Mr. Tanner to keep the mechanic company. As it turned out, his instinct was good because, without looking up, Ron said, “Those kids are driving me crazy. Their own father left them for Christ’s sake, and I’m not good enough?”

“They’re teenagers, right?”

“It’s the water pump—a metal chip. David’s thirteen and Sara’s twelve. Always mouthing off to their mother, and when I say something, the conversation really gets ugly. I don’t care about honest mistakes, but I won’t stand for disrespect.”

Mr. Tanner could hear the suppressed anger in Ron’s voice—the very first time he’d experienced such fire in this even-tempered man. Mr. Tanner said, “Young people can’t always control themselves.”

“I don’t care about that,” Ron snapped.

Mr. Tanner let Ron work a while before he spoke again. “You have a few years with them before they’re grown. What you say and do will make a big difference in who they become.”

Ron dropped the wrench and looked at Mr. Tanner. “You have children, right?”

The gardener nodded in reply. Ron responded with, “Well, these aren’t my kids.”

Already, Mr. Tanner was shaking his head back and forth. “Not your physical children, but when you married their mother they became your kids.”

“I don’t see it that way.”

“Then, try to see it that way for their sakes…and for yours. Your wife will honor you for it.”

“She’s just trying to keep the peace.”

“Someday, she will honor you for it. She’s worth it, isn’t she?”

Ron’s face was red, and his jaw was clenched, but after a bit the color receded.

“What are you working on for fun these days?” Mr. Tanner asked to lighten the exchange.

“I’m rebuilding a twentieth century military radio…using vintage parts. I’ll bring the radio in and show you when I’m finished.”

Mr. Tanner did his best to conceal the alarm he suddenly felt. His heart started thumping. He took several deep breaths and tried to concentrate on Ron.

The mechanic didn’t seem to notice. He returned the wrench to his toolbox, and said, “No more water problem.”

MR. TANNER DIDN’T KNOW WHY the zoo’s chief operating officer had summoned him but he had a funny feeling about it. He’d been tempted to confer with Carla but in the end had decided to see it through on his own.

Not that Art McLeod had a bad reputation. If he wasn’t as congenial as the zoo director, the COO enjoyed the respect of the staff all the same because McLeod was known to let people do their jobs so long as their work was satisfactory.

“Sit down, Mr. Tanner…please.”

Mr. Tanner did as instructed.

The COO’s office wasn’t ostentatious. Rather, it oozed efficiency, having a large primary desk with a computer facing McLeod, a side desk with a smaller laptop, and nothing on the bare walls. Not a binder, folder, or piece of paper in sight.

“You’ve been here for thirty-three years, Mr. Tanner.”

“Thirty-three years last month.”

“You’ve given superior satisfaction.”

Why didn’t this make Mr. Tanner feel any better?

“Carla told me you’re a man who can handle things…anything. So, I’ll be straight with you.”

Straight with him? Mr. Tanner was on guard now.

“You’ll be seventy soon, and starting on that date the zoo’s landscaping company will take on the butterfly gardens.”

Mr. Tanner overcame a pardonable confusion in his ordinary way, by silently repeating McLeod’s words until they sunk in. “I had hoped to work a few more years,” the gardener mused rather than complained.

The COO said, “Carla insisted that you receive a lifetime pass to the zoo. That’s a rare honor, Mr. Tanner. We hope to see you often. And you can be a docent if you desire. You certainly are an expert on many of the animals.”

Was Mr. Tanner listening? All he could think about was waking in the morning and not having his zoo gardens to tend, not seeing Carla, Betty, Ron, and the others who had become dear to him.

Mr. Tanner lifted his head and looked across the desk at McLeod. “Don’t think I’m not grateful because I am. Hardly seems like thirty-three years.”

McLeod was clearly uncomfortable with the message he’d delivered, and Mr. Tanner didn’t like to make anyone feel uncomfortable. He stood and extended a hand.

The COO took the gardener’s hand and mumbled a few more words of praise.

Mr. Tanner closed the door behind him. The end of the month—eighteen days. No more lively times in the butterfly gardens, no more spectacular butterflies emerging from chrysalises, no more conversations with Carla, Betty, and Ron—no more shoe-leather commutes, no more Jazzy Jingles.

You’re seventy, or almost, he told himself. What did you expect? A blue ribbon? Part of him was grateful and part sad. Like a lot of things in life—his wife, that heart scare ten years back, even the war when he’d managed to forge friendships amidst those horrors.

Carla was there when Mr. Tanner returned to the Gallery. It was after hours so she could have gone home. But not Carla.

“I was against it” were her first words.

“It’s alright,” Mr. Tanner said.

He saw tears in Carla’s eyes. “Will you be our docent? Betty will still have the primates.”

“Make sure they do the job right,” Mr. Tanner told her.

THE DOOR BURST OPEN and in came Benji like a storm cloud. She scowled at Carla, ignored Betty and Ron, rushed to Mr. Tanner and gave him a big hug. When she let go she was crying. And in a flash, Benji rushed out of the Gallery office.

Carla had intended a small retirement celebration for Mr. Tanner, but in a matter of seconds Benji had soured the mood.

The girl’s display didn’t do anything to assuage Betty’s worry. Only in recent days, with Mr. Tanner’s retirement looming, had Betty come to realize how much she relied on him. Who would she go to now when she was anxious about something?

Knowing that Mr. Tanner preferred printed photographs to digital images, Betty had prepared him an album filled with her own pictures of the butterfly gardens. And she had embellished the album with her elegant calligraphy.

“Open it,” Ron said to Mr. Tanner, handing him a package. It had been all the mechanic could do to refrain from critical comments about the COO and director. And though Carla had intimated that she’d fought the decision, Ron hadn’t been convinced. Only the sure knowledge that Mr. Tanner didn’t share his critical views held Ron back.

The mechanic had wrapped the present himself, and it showed. Mr. Tanner set the wrapping aside and displayed the book—a thick field guide to butterflies.

Mr. Tanner grasped Ron’s hand and smiled broadly at him.

He looks older, Ron said to himself. Then, he said to Mr. Tanner, “This book has real meat, the way we like it, not…” But glancing at Betty’s gift, Ron bit his tongue before he said, Not just pretty pictures and a few words.

Carla had felt guilty from the day she had grudgingly acquiesced to the COO’s and zoo director’s decision. Oh, she’d pushed back, but ever since that uncomfortable meeting in the executive office Carla had felt that she’d given in too easily. Yes, Mr. Tanner was well past normal retirement age, and yes, his duties had been curtailed in recent years, but who could deny all that he had contributed to the zoo—and was still contributing? She had witnessed Betty’s and Ron’s veiled suspicion of her own complicity in this action, and Benji’s opinion of her had been less subtle. What had Mr. Tanner once told her about the illusion of control? We have so little control that when the matter comes to our own hearts, we cannot so much as make the patter follow the pitter.

“You’ve been an ideal employee…and—” Carla was finding speech difficult, but she bore down—”and a dear friend to all of us.”

“I’ve been blessed to know you,” answered Mr. Tanner.

Carla dried her eyes without shame. “All your children still in town?”

Mr. Tanner smiled benignly. “Oh, yes!”

The curator suddenly realized how little she knew about her gardener’s private life because he preferred to talk about what interested or concerned the person he was with, and also because she—Betty and Ron too, for that matter—were naturally reserved when the subject involved a colleague’s private affairs. “You will be our new docent,” she told him.

“Give me a bit of time to think on that.”

“What’s to think about?” asked Ron.

What was there to think about? Plenty. Earlier in the day, an old memory had come back to Mr. Tanner while he was wiping down his empty locker—the day he’d opened the locker door and discovered a snow monkey perched on top of his backpack, eating his bagged grapes. The two had stared at each other for a moment—not belligerently, as Mr. Tanner remembered it—before the gardener half-closed the door, secured the office door, and went for help. As things turned out, the monkey had escaped from the Animal Health Center on a cold day and had found its way into the comfortable Gallery. That memory had transformed the doleful task of cleaning out his locker into a cheerier one. Mr. Tanner thought he still had the former zoo director’s letter of praise for his “compassionate and measured handling of this sensitive matter.” He didn’t need to be reminded that even those who receive praising citations and give superior satisfaction must one day clean out their lockers or their large offices.

Mr. Tanner said, “Keep an eye out for that girl—young Benji. Suzanne Wayne’s trying to help her and any support you can give Suzanne will be appreciated, I bet.”

“She’s a runaway,” Betty countered. “She won’t be here long.”

Mr. Tanner gave Betty the look she knew she was going to miss. “How long the girl is here doesn’t matter. What matters is what Benji experiences while she’s here. I know your hearts so I needn’t have said that,” he quickly added.

“Here’s your lifetime pass, Mr. Tanner,” Carla said. “We had it specially made. Betty helped with the butterflies.”

Though the day was Friday, Jazzy Jingles had been canceled. Mr. Tanner placed the gifts in his backpack and lifted himself to his feet. He kissed Betty and Carla on their foreheads and shook Ron’s hand, but he didn’t say another word.

The door closed on Mr. Tanner’s ninety-nine-hundred and fortieth day at the Detroit Zoo.

 

ALL THREE IN THE CAR were thinking about the same thing as Carla drove east—the brief notice from Pastor Simmonds: A mighty oak has fallen. A funeral service will be held for our brother, Cletus Tanner, this Thursday at ten a.m.

An oak they had seen and talked to almost every day and had too often taken for granted was gone. To Carla, he had offered protection from the workday gales, the precious sense that with Mr. Tanner on the job, nothing too awful could occur. Betty had received shade, a respite from the blazing heat of a life that all too often scorched her. For Ron, Mr. Tanner’s gift was the quiet beauty of changing leaves that enlivened drab days and offered him fresh perspectives on people and events.

Only six months after Mr. Tanner had retired.

“Why do you suppose he never came back?” asked Ron.

“Not what you think,” Carla rumbled, immediately sorry for her brisk tone. “He wanted Betty to continue as butterfly docent and he didn’t want to hear that the landscaping company wasn’t giving satisfaction.”

“Did he tell you that?” Ron pressed.

He had, but in the gracious words that had been her gardener’s trademark.

Mr. Tanner may have gone but his footprints were all over the zoo, like the paint-stamped elephant tracks on the lanes that guided visitors. Why, only last week a visitor had told Carla how she missed Jazzy Jingles, and when the curator had remarked that Mr. Tanner was devoted to popular tunes, the visitor had related how a serious jazz quartet on 8-Mile Road sometimes sent a car for Mr. Tanner when their regular saxophonist was indisposed. “And those cats don’t do popular tunes,” the woman had emphasized.

Why did Carla still feel bad about Mr. Tanner? Didn’t his seven children live nearby? But then again, didn’t she have a nagging memory—about the time she had started working at the zoo—when that number had been four, and hadn’t Mr. Tanner been a widower when they first met?

Betty was remembering how Mr. Tanner had asked them to look after Benji. Betty and that girl couldn’t have been more different, but the older woman had shown Benji some of her photos and let the girl use her cameras. And now? A friendship had been kindled based on their mutual love of animals and the art of the camera. Benji’s occasional vulgar eruptions still startled Betty but at those moments she did her best to picture Mr. Tanner, and that shielded her.

Ron hated funerals and he avoided them whenever he could, but both Betty and Carla had seemed quite forlorn when they’d talked to him about the funeral, and that was out of character for both women. Anyway, Ron wanted to whisper a thank you to the man who had helped him adopt a new attitude toward his wife’s children. While he and the kids still exchanged sharp words, and while he still grew frustrated with them, Ron was slowly changing, and he believed they were too. Could all this have transpired without those few words Mr. Tanner had offered him?

Mr. Tanner’s pastor had asked them to come a bit early.

The King Street Praise and Worship Church was nothing special to look at, just a small street corner building that needed some attention, though the yard was a thing of beauty. The visible neighborhood consisted of a mixture of smaller and larger houses, all intact while exhibiting signs that upkeep was a constant challenge. Nonetheless, most of the yards boasted small but lush gardens of Black-eyed Susan, Butterfly Bush, Phlox, Coneflower, Lily, and more.

Pastor Simmonds was a round man with a cluttered office. By the time Carla, Betty, and Ron settled themselves on unmatched chairs, they were shoulder to shoulder.

The pastor’s eyebrows were thick and the hair on his head was closely mown. The desk in the center of the room had seen plenty of use but wherever it had been chipped or scratched, a matching stain had been carefully applied. A homemade bookshelf was propped against one wall. A vibrantly colored rug covered much of the floor. The pastor’s one window looked out on a block wall.

“How did he die?” asked Ron, provoking a gasp from Betty and a frown from Carla.

The pastor took no apparent umbrage at Ron’s question. “Mr. Tanner loved working in our church yard. A week ago, he just tipped over. I saw him out the vestry window but he was gone when I got there…bless him!”

A large woman wearing a blue and yellow dress and expansive yellow hat somehow squeezed into the room behind Ron. Pastor Simmonds stood and said, “I want you to meet our cantor, Sister Ruth.”

When Ron made an attempt to rise, Ruth put a hand on his shoulder and pressed him back into his chair. “We’re happy to have you with us today. Brother Tanner loved you all so.”

“We loved him too,” Betty stammered, surprising Ron and Carla.

“And he loved his work at the zoo,” added the pastor. “Oh, how he loved his work. Why, Sister Ruth, how many in the congregation offered to drive Brother Tanner to work and back, but he wouldn’t hear of it.”

A moment of deep silence ensued when Carla, Betty, and Ron looked from one to the other.

“He didn’t have a car?” Carla asked the pastor.

“Not for twenty years or so. Spent every spare dime he had prettying up the church and neighborhood homes. Don’t think we didn’t try to convince him otherwise, but…well, you know Brother Tanner when he made up his mind.”

Ron said, “Then, how did he get to work?”

“Walked,” answered Ruth. “Two miles each way, in all kinds of weather.”

“Said he used the time to think and pray,” Pastor Simmonds remarked.

“I tried to pick him up on Woodward,” a new voice intruded, “but Brother Tanner just waved me on.” This new voice belonged to a tall lanky man in his later forties who stood just outside the doorway.

“I was hoping you’d look in, Brother James,” said the pastor. “Brother James teaches physics at Cass Tech and sings in our choir. Friend of Brother Tanner’s since he was a boy.”

James bowed his head. “Will surely miss him,” he whispered. “Mr. Tanner was like a father to me.”

“Amen to that on my account too,” Ruth concurred.

The pastor addressed the trio from the zoo. “Brother Quincy, our organist, and Sister Mazie will want to meet you after the service. They were special to Brother Tanner too. We all feel as if we know you because of what Brother Tanner told us about you…his dear ones at the zoo…Oh my, past time for me to robe. Sister Ruth, would you and Brother Quincy kindly assemble the musicians and choir? And Brother James, please have the pall bearers collect in the rear. I’ll signal when you can come forward, and then you can join the choir.” He looked at Carla. “Please sit up front.”

“We couldn’t—” she began, but Pastor Simmonds raised a hand and the rest of Carla’s protest caught in her throat.

They were preparing to move to the worship area when Betty, of all people, spoke up. “Why do you think he loved to garden?”

This innocuous question froze Pastor Simmonds, Ruth, and James in their tracks.

Finally, James answered Betty. “Brother Tanner never spoke to me of his time in Vietnam but my uncle served with him and we talked about those days in Uncle’s later years. Brother Tanner was a radio man who saw plenty of dangerous action—ugly things. He was also assigned to gray missions in Laos, even worse duty. Brother Tanner told Uncle that when he came home he made a solemn vow to live in decency and beauty. He began by helping neighborhood families to beautify their yards, and he took on gardening duties at the church. Then, he became a zoo gardener, but that didn’t slow down his neighborhood beautification efforts. Most of us have a quantum of generosity we use up early in the day, don’t we? Not Mr. Tanner.”

Betty could no more imagine Mr. Tanner amidst the field of corpses than she could imagine a butterfly in a volcano. Ron and Carla were equally stunned.

Betty thought she detected a few suspicious expressions as the three made their way to the front pew. Carla was too deep in thought about what she’d heard from Pastor Simmonds and James to pay much attention. Ron didn’t often concern himself with what other people thought, but seeing the men in suits and ties and the women in fine dresses and crowned with gorgeous hats while he was wearing an open-collared shirt and dress slacks gave him pause.

Dozens of potted flowers: lilies, tulips, honeysuckle, daffodils, and roses bordered the pulpit and a bricked baptismal font. The variety of pots made Carla wonder if the congregation had brought these plants from their homes and yards for the funeral.

On the front wall hung a large picture of a dark-skinned Jesus teaching from a hilltop. To the right were an organ and a dozen chairs for the musicians and choir, with a saxophone resting on a front row chair.

More and more people entered until the church was full. The side windows were then opened so the overflow could at least hear the ceremony. The zoo trio tried to give their seats away but the congregation wouldn’t permit them.

Pastor Simmonds was standing up front in anticipation of the coffin when the sending-off program was distributed.

Carla’s, Ron’s, and Betty’s eyes were immediately drawn to the last line: Mr. Tanner is survived by his beloved daughters Carla, Betty, Mazie, and Ruth, and by his beloved sons James, Quincy, and Ron.

James and the other pall bearers came forward with the coffin. Carla wept. She had prepared herself for all of this, but when the time came, she was overwhelmed by grief. How her world had been changed by this quiet, almost invisible, man.

Pastor Simmonds walked to the coffin, looked out at the congregation, and said, “Mr. Tanner and his wife were unable to have children, and he never remarried when his dear wife passed. So, his beloved daughters and sons were children of the heart, those for whom he had special affection and to whom he gave special care.” The pastor placed his hand on the coffin and lowered his head for a moment before saying, “Shall we begin, Brother Tanner?”

T.M. Doran is a Catholic, a novelist, a member of the College of Fellows at The Engineering Society of Detroit, and one of the most exciting voices in Catholic literature. His novels Circling the Turtle, Terrapin, and Iota represent a bold breadth of thematic storytelling, while his novel Toward the Gleam has launched an entirely new series of Tolkien-related literature which teems with life and originality. His conversation with composer Mark Nowakowski appeared in Catholic Arts Today on November 7, 2020: https://www.benedictinstitute.org/2020/11/doran/.

 

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