Like the pansies and petunias in their ordered beds, like the daffodils along the drive and the purple fuchsia below the partial-shading eaves, the dahlias were dead.
Joplin leaned against the deck rail and watched me clip stems. The new deck was made of redwood, solidly constructed and reinforced. It didn't creak like the old deck, which the flood had swept away. Joplin had designed the new one himself. His heavy shadow fell across the patch of dirt where I kneeled. "Perhaps…" he began. But he stopped, waiting for me to look up, and his jaw clicked back and forth with contempt, as if grinding his cruelty between molars, parsing out the taste of triumph.
"Spit it out, Jop," I said. "Or don't. I don't want to hear it."
"Perhaps they died of shame." Backlit by the sun, his curly hair blazed around the edge of his face.
After the flood I took up gardening. Not immediately after the flood. First, there was the unfathomable, paralyzing feeling of loss, of everything having been destroyed by water and silt. Next came the dispute with the insurance company, which consumed our attention and jolted us back to life. Once that was resolved we began demolition, clearing, rebuilding.
"We'll start over," Joplin said. The insurance paid for furniture and new appliances, some clothes, an entertainment center.
"I don't know where to begin," I said. It wasn't what I meant.
When I began to plant things Joplin said, "That soil's no good." I was opening packets of seeds that had arrived in the mail. "New topsoil's what you need." The insurance hadn't covered topsoil. It hadn't covered a lot of things.
Before the flood we bought things. Buying things made us happy. We budgeted for the things we needed, and with what was left we enjoyed life. We bought a boat with an inboard motor. We bought an extra car, a two-seater, convertible, with leather interior. We traveled to other continents and returned with trinkets and art to remind us of where we'd been.
One storm is all it took. One rising river, one weakened levee. Twenty-two years of things, washed away in one cleansing flood.
"I want to buy you something," Joplin said one night after receiving his first post-flood commission. "Something special."
"Can we not do this again?" I said. "Can't we put it to something practical?"
"What's with you?" Joplin asked.
"Nothing's with me," I said. "I'm afraid to grow fond of things. That's all."
"What are you, turning Buddhist?" he said. "Non-attachment and all that?"
"Don't make fun of the Buddhists," I said.
"I'm not making fun of Buddhists," he said. "I'm making fun of you. You're being ridiculous."
I didn't want to argue. "I saw fuchsias at the nursery."
Joplin bought me a fuchsia. After three weeks its tender branches were bone white and brittle.
Now the dahlias were dead, too. "This flood," I said, looking to the clump of earth in my hands, "it's still killing things."
But Joplin had crossed to the other side of the deck, where he looked out on the once-green yard. "My pool," he said. "We'll dig it here."
Rich Seeber lives in northern California with his partner and various pets. E-mail: rseeber[at]mac.com