Urbs in Horto

"Sweat is good for the soul," Mahalia said, stopping temporarily to wipe her brow with the back of her hand. She leaned on the handle of the hoe for a moment before starting again to work. "Makes you feel real. All these pretty-smelling people, I wonder if they've worked a hard day in their life."

"I'll bet you don't like air-conditioning either," the young man said. In an earlier time, he would have been furiously scribbling Mahalia's wisdoms into a notebook in barely legible shorthand. But today, as long as he held his tape recorder close enough, her words were effortlessly grabbed from the air. His concentration freed, he could focus on her gestures and her facial expressions, making mental notes he could use later.

"No, I don't like air-conditioning. 'Course, I can't afford it anyway, so I guess it's pretty easy not to like it," Mahalia replied with a cackle, showing a less-than-full set of teeth.

They lapsed into an easy silence. As the young man glanced up and down the block, where only the occasional house broke the pattern of overgrown, rubble-strewn lots, Mahalia dug intently at a stubborn weed. She pulled at the weed with the blade of her hoe, the muscles of her wiry arms bent against the strain. Getting down on her kness and digging with her hands would undoubtedly have been faster, but it had been years since her knees or her back would have allowed such a thing. So she bent over her hoe, prying at the weed until it finally broke free. Relieved, she made a small sigh of satisfaction as she flipped the weed aside and moved along down the row.

"So what possesses you to do all of this?" the young man finally asked.

"All of what?" Mahalia responded, a bit surprised, looking up until she met his gaze.

He said nothing, turned away and swept his arm across the expanse of the former vacant lot.

"This?" she replied, as the full import of his words settled in. "This keeps me going, 'course, but it really isn't that much. I ought to do a whole lot more."

Copyright 1999, P.J. Anderson