“Bonjour!” Jean-Pierre bellowed happily, riding the lawn tractor up the grassy knoll and down the other side. “Comment ca va, mes amis!”
Every workday began this way, with the gardener shouting greetings and nodding enthusiastically to all the residents he encountered during his daily tasks. Today was the scheduled mowing routine along the older, hilly section of the property, an area that Jean-Pierre particularly liked. The tenants there were by far his favorites.
He set about clipping the St. Augustine grass in long, angled, alternating rows to give it a nice patterned look, winking as his mower brought him near Tee Mike who was doing his morning tumbling and jumping. Jean-Pierre prefaced the names of all young men he knew with “Tee”, a bayou colloquialism derived from the formal French “petite” meaning small. Cresting the knoll near the property’s small lake, he nodded at Mr. Parsons as he passed near the old preacher who regularly paced along the banks of the pond, practicing his Sunday sermons on the wood ducks and geese paddling nearby.
Making a wide turn around an ancient live oak, Jean-Pierre saw a vehicle heading in his direction along the gravel path that originated at the main building. He narrowed his eyes and slowed the lawn mower. Mr. Jacobs, the general manager, was paying him a morning visit.
“Dis can’t be good,” he murmured. “Mr. Jacobs never set foot on dat cart ‘cept to bring bad news. Good news always wait. Bad news always in a hurry.”
Jean-Pierre knew why his boss was bobbing up and down the path in the modified golf cart that the business used to traverse the grounds. The young man that Mr. Jacobs had directed the gardener to begin training as his assistant had been summarily dismissed no more than a half-day after he started. By Jean-Pierre himself.
The lawn mower and golf cart met at the curve in the path and their respective drivers parked the vehicles head-to-head, each one sliding off their seat in tandem, the sound of gravel crunching beneath their feet as they approached one another for a morning tete-a-tete. Mr. Jacob’s complexion, usually the color of paste, had taken on a ruddy hue, a sure sign that his temperament was in a fluster.
“Jean-Pierre, you can’t fire every apprentice who’s offered the job,” he began, waddling towards the gardener while retrieving a white kerchief from his pocket to dab drops of perspiration from his forehead. Mr. Jacobs’ wide girth and black business suits preferred the cool of indoors to the warm, humid gardens. “Surely all of them aren’t incompetent.”
“Well sir, so far dey have been.”
Mr. Jacobs sighed. “The kid I sent to you yesterday? He seemed bright enough to train. What was wrong with him?”
Jean-Pierre pursed his lips and shook his head slowly for emphasis. “I ax him to drive da cart wid da tools ova to da lake. Leave da tools dare an’ come back to fetch me. I ax him when he come back who he done tawk to on da way to and da way from. “
“Ok,” Mr. Jacobs said. “And then what?”
“Nobody,” Jean-Pierre answered. “He don’t say ‘comment ca va’ to nobody. He don’t even say ‘yat’. “
“Did it occur to you that he didn’t see anybody, Jean-Pierre?” Mr. Jacobs feigned a gesture of searching the property. “I don’t see anybody. Except you, of course.”
“Exactly dat, Mr. Jacobs. He don’t see nobody. He don’t look.” Jean-Pierre cocked his head to the side. “None of dees ‘prentisses you send me can look, Mr. Jacobs. Dey all blind to every ting ‘cept a damn paycheck. When you send me a body dat can look, I hire him. I hire him on da spot.”
Mr. Jacobs shook his head in frustration. “Jean-Pierre, whatever qualities you think a gardener needs, I’m sure you can teach. But you’ve got to give the poor kids a fighting chance. You can’t fire every single one of them before lunch.”
“If dey don’t work out, dey don’t work out,” Jean-Pierre explained. “No more to discuss, less you wants dat I should leave, too.”
Mr. Jacobs wiped the kerchief across his forehead. A line of sweat was beginning to dampen the crisply starched collar of his oxford dress shirt and his complexion was slowly turning from a mottled red to crimson . “Now you know good and well that’s not what anyone wants, Jean-Pierre,” he chided with sincerity. “It’s just that, well, like we’ve discussed, you’re getting on in age now. Some tasks aren’t getting done like they used to be done. We’ve got a reputation to maintain, a reputation that includes a pristine setting. Our customers pay for that. They expect it.”
The gardener nodded in agreement.
“No one wants to replace you, Jean-Pierre. But you need a helper.” Mr. Jacobs waved his arms outward. “This place needs help. Sooner or later you’ve got to hire somebody.”
“I know dat, sir. I know dat some well. But Mr. Jacobs, dis ain’t your garden. It’s dere garden. And dey don’t take kindly to bein’ snubbed. No sir, not at all. I done tole you plainly dat when the right one come along, I’ll know it.”
Jean-Pierre looked down at the gravel path and brushed the pebbles with one of his boots. “If we done finished our little tawk, I got work to do, Mr. Jacobs.”
The general manager sighed again and walked back to the golf cart, mumbling and shaking his head. The little vehicle groaned as he plopped his massive frame onto the seat and started the ignition. “You’ve got to hire someone, Jean-Pierre,” he called out to the gardener, maneuvering the golf cart and aiming it towards his air-conditioned office. “Soon.”
Jean-Pierre spent the balance of the day in a funk, going about his routine mechanically. He knew that Mr. Jacobs was right. He did need help to maintain these huge grounds. But he also knew that Mr. Jacobs, like all the young men that had applied for the training job, were blind to the interests of the residents. It had taken a long time but for the most part they trusted Jean-Pierre. He had earned that trust because he respected them. And he was determined to hire somebody that he could not only train to prune the camellia bushes and fertilize the prized rose garden, but also train to interact with the tenants. On their terms. They deserve that, he thought. He was determined not to let them down.
Two more trainees came and went and when Jean-Pierre saw the golf cart rumbling down the path toward him later in the week, he figured that Mr. Jacobs’ patience was at an end. As it approached the stand of azaleas that he was trimming, he breathed a sigh of relief to see Matthew, Mr. Jacob’s son, behind the steering wheel. Sitting next to him was a young man dressed in a neatly pressed khaki shirt and pants with wavy black hair and a broad smile.
The cart stopped next to Jean-Pierre and Matthew motioned to his passenger. “Jean-Pierre, please meet John Akers. He’s here to try out for the apprentice position.”
Jean-Pierre approached the passenger’s side, shook the young man’s hand and offered his standard greeting. He noted the kid’s strong grip and stout frame, qualities amenable to manual labor, and the congenial smile that seemed relaxed and genuine. “Hop off dat cart an’ I’ll give you da grand tour. After dat, we see where it goes.”
John Akers exited the vehicle and followed Jean-Pierre to the old Jeep that served as the maintenance truck. Matthew yelled “Good luck” and turned back towards the main building.
The Jeep cranked to life, belching a small plume of smoke in protest and Jean-Pierre steered it around the lake and across the knoll, heading to the hilly parcel of land at the far end of the property. He explained in general terms how the property was divided and the overall routine and responsibilities that would be expected of a trainee. Having gone through this routine countless times without success, he was dubious that John Akers would last the week.
A bend in the path gave way to a lovely bed of flowers beneath a sprawling live oak a few yards from the road. On a bench next to the colorful display, an elderly lady sat in a pose of serene contemplation, her gaze somewhere beyond the boundaries of the surrounding gardens.
“She looks lost in thought, doesn’t she? John Akers commented as their vehicle rounded the bend.
“Where? Whatchu see?”
“Sitting on the bench under the live oak. Right there,” John pointed.
Jean-Pierre cracked a smile. “Dat’s Miss Beaujouis. More money dan God, dat one. See how she dress? Pearls all over. She don’t talk much, but she don’t like bein’ snubbed, none-de-less. We gonna nod like da gentlemen we are, as we pass by.”
John Akers looked quizzically at Jean-Pierre for a long moment and then broke into a broad smile. “Yes, sir. We should definitely nod like the gentlemen we are.”
Both men smiled and bowed their heads briefly in the direction of the finely-dressed lady as the Jeep drove past . She acknowledged their gesture with a faint smile at the corners of her mouth.
“Does she come here often?” John Akers asked.
Without answering the question, Jean-Pierre stopped the vehicle and turned to face the young man. “I tink I’ll call you Tee John, if you fine wid dat.”
“Sure, that’s ok,” John Akers responded. “Tee John it is.”
“Good,” Jean-Pierre said, turning the Jeep around and heading back to the maintenance shed. “You hired, Tee John. Da job is yours.”
John Akers smiled . “Thank you, sir. You won’t regret it.”
“No, I don’t tink I will,” Jean-Pierre answered.
Back at the maintenance shed, Jean-Pierre directed his new apprentice to drive the Jeep to the main building and inform Mr. Jacobs that he’d been hired.
“Da day is almost done, so you show up in da mornin’, bright an’ early. You got lots to learn, Tee John.”
“Yes, sir,” John Akers replied and he headed to the office.
Jean-Pierre walked into the maintenance shed, a feeling of relief washing over him. To no one in particular, he said “He’ll work out fine, Tee John will. It’ll take him awhile, but he’ll work out jest fine.”
He placed his set of hand tools in a large trunk and latched it closed. Brushing some grass clippings off the brass nameplate on its lid, he rubbed the inscription with the sleeve of his shirt, giving it a quick polish. The brass label announced that the contents belonged to the business. Property Of Restlawn Cemetary and Eternal Gardens, it read.
“Yep, Tee John’ll work out jest fine. He can see an’ dat’s what counts. He can see da ghosts.”
Locking the shed door and heading for his car in the parking lot, Jean-Pierre bid the residents goodnight. “Bon nuit,” he said. “Reposer en paix.” Rest in peace.