You might not know it to look at us, but Ernie Hudson and I have a lot in common.
No, I am not a six-foot tall African American actor with a lilting baritone voice and spotty facial hair. But anyone who knows me by now also knows that my favorite show in the history of television is Oz, the now-defunct but always-brilliant-in-reruns HBO prison drama best known for a cast of inmates so knee-knockingly attractive I have spent many an hour plotting Class A felonies in the hopes of getting arrested and assigned to share a cell with Dean Winters.
The warden of Oz, a bumbling nincompoop named Leo Glynn, was played with a stoic resignation by the erstwhile Mr. Hudson. Prior to joining Oz, Hudson had garnered critical acclaim as the courageous, mentally challenged handyman in the Rebecca DeMornay thriller The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, but was best known as the valiant "Black Ghostbuster." As a prison warden, however, Mr. Hudson was considerably less heroic. Under his administration, inmates at the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility (Level Four) were routinely beaten, raped, branded with swastikas, stabbed, shot, hanged, poisoned with ground glass, tossed down elevator shafts, burned alive, electrocuted, throttled in dimly lit hallways, and even stapled to death in suspiciously unguarded storage closets. And, no matter how horrific the manner of the inmate's demise, each murder scene would culminate in a shot of Leo Glynn standing over the mangled remains, sighing, shaking his head, and vowing to launch what would ultimately be a fruitless search for the culprit.
I am the Leo Glynn of my patio.
The only real advantage to living in a basement apartment is the outdoor space that typically comes along with it. This enables us bottom-dwellers to refer to our location as "garden level," and, in a rare element of truth in advertising, my outdoor space does, in fact, come in the form of a nicely proportioned fenced-in patio, complete with a planter bed, hooks for hanging plants, and a pretty trellis for climbing ivy.
Over the past seven years, I've been fairly diligent about planting my garden each summer, but this year I've been remiss, simply because the weather has been so terrible. Last weekend, I took advantage of the first pleasant weather we'd had all summer to dash off to the nursery for a few armloads of flowering plants. Predictably, the sojourn made me tired so I went inside to take a nap, leaving the pretty flowers baking on top of my patio table in the hot sun.
As I drifted off, I wondered idly whether my plants ever talked about me behind my back, and, if so, what they would say. I imagined most of the discussion would revolve around how wretched the conditions in the garden are, how I sometimes forget to water them and never spray for pests, how neighborhood cats sneak in and pee on the azaleas, and how, even when I do pay attention to it, by the end of the summer most of my garden is a massive tangle of sticks and weeds—wilted, dried out, and altogether depressing. By the time I woke up, I had realized the truth: my garden is nothing more than a poorly run prison for plants.
Once I realized I was presiding over a virtual horticultural penitentiary, I marched outside to Receiving and Discharge—the sun-drenched picnic table upon which, I noted glumly, one of my petunias had already succumbed to the ravages of prison life—and immediately began assigning the new inmates (or, the "garden bitches" as I decreed they would now be referred to) to their respective cells.
First things first: tending to the inmates already in custody. The perennials that populate my long wooden planter are the Lifers: peonies, azaleas, and two small, spiky bushes that I bought a few years ago and promptly forgot the names of. The Lifers hang out there year after year, pretty much doing their own time without many complaints. I don't really have to feed or water them much—they're a hardy bunch—and, while I'll occasionally try to mix things up a bit by adding something new, they usually just overrun the interlopers, who never last more than a season. Recalling grimly what they did to the day lilies last year, I decided to just leave the Lifers undisturbed and focus my efforts on rehabilitating the newbies.
The Short-Timers (this year zinnias, new guinea impatiens, and a few delinquent begonias) were assigned to the three hanging baskets where I could keep a closer eye on them. Fresh from the garden center and unaccustomed to institutional life, the Short-Timers are the most demanding of my inmates, constantly clamoring for shade and water when both are in short supply. Generally a pretty feisty crew, sometimes they will go the distance. A nimble few make it through to the end of their sentence, but more typically they fall victim to the violence of the jungle and end up crowded out and choked to death by the trailing vines I have added for what were intended to be aesthetic purposes but who inevitably turn out to be the worst of the jailhouse bullies.
As for the shallow border beneath the fence separating my patio from my next door neighbors…this is Death Row. No matter how hard I try, nothing lives very long there. And, sure enough, the remaining petunias were already showing the strain—no last minute clemency for them, I was afraid. The impatiens looked like they had slightly greater odds of survival (they must have better lawyers), but in my heart I knew any appeals would be unsuccessful and they, too, will meet their maker ahead of their time.
I had the new cons settled into their cellblocks in less than half an hour. After a thorough watering—probably the last one they would see for a while, I warned them, unless they behaved and promised to not riot—I sat back in my lounge chair and surveyed my domain, just as the sun began to set.
It occurred to me at that point that I might not want to identify too closely with Leo Glynn after all, given that the last murder scene he presided over was his own: in the second to last episode of the series, Leo was shanked to death by an inmate in one of his own dimly lit corridors. And, as the dusk deepened, my garden seemed to grow dark and malevolent. A sudden, vivid, image sprang into my mind: Me. Sprawled across the picnic table with a trowel jutting out of my neck.
I jumped out of my chair and glanced around warily, slowly backing my way toward my apartment. The plants watched me, unsmiling and inscrutable. When I reached the door I whirled around and darted inside, slamming it closed behind me.
Then, after only a brief hesitation, I grasped the deadbolt and turned, locking myself in securely, just as darkness fell on the Garden of Oz.