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Robert Collings short story

THE TEARS OF THE GARDENER

by Robert Collings


The LaGrange Conservatory in Philadelphia is the most prestigious music school in the world for aspiring concert pianists, a fact that is well-known to professional insiders.  Juilliard may be more familiar to the public, but a mention of a diploma from LaGrange in the proper circles will always produce a reverent silence before another word is spoken.

A few years ago, one of the first-year students at LaGrange was murdered, and the case got a lot of attention in the local media.  The murdered boy was named Randall Taneda, and he was only 18 years old at the time of his death.  He had been shot point-blank in the stomach in his dorm.  The story also made the national news, but it was one of those open and shut murder cases that do not seem to have legs in the national consciousness, and the story quickly faded away.  The killer was a man named Alfredo Juan.   He initially denied involvement in the crime, but soon made a full confession to police.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death.  He had spent close to ten years on death row as his case worked its way through a myriad of appeal levels and various procedural delays.   Then, without apparent reason, Alfredo Juan demanded that his appeals be stopped and that he be executed as soon as possible.  Despite this, the legal process seemed to grind on, and the case gained some renewed notoriety in the local press over the new angle of a condemned killer insisting to be put to death by lethal injection.  As a reporter for the Philadelphia Sun, I became interested in the last phase of Alfredo Juan’s legal battles, particularly the reason behind his execution-by-choice.  I had never intended to be present at the actual execution, and I could never imagine being invited to witness such a grisly spectacle in any event.

I had made several requests to interview Alfredo Juan on death row, but all my requests had been denied.  Then, when his appeals had finally been exhausted and on the eve of his execution, someone from North Bend Maximum Security called me and told me that Alfredo Juan wanted to speak with me before he died.  I was told that I only had ten minutes with the condemned man and if I wanted a story then I should hustle down the Interstate to North Bend State Prison as quickly as I could.  The execution was set for midnight and it was now close to 7:30 pm.  I dropped everything and ran for my car. 

Before I tell you about my conversation with the condemned killer, some background detail might be in order.

All happy families may be alike, but there is no such thing as a happy family without problems.  Still, the Taneda family seemed about as problem-free as any family could be.  They were a third-generation Japanese American family and they had done well for themselves.   They lived in a suburb of Chicago called Oak Park, an affluent area just west of the city.   Randall Taneda’s father was a former concert pianist who taught music theory at Chicago University.  His mother was also a pianist, although she never made it to the concert stage.  She taught piano to advanced students who were still in high school, and she specialized in preparing the senior students for the grueling examinations they had to endure before they could go on to any post-secondary training.  

The Tanedas had two daughters who also played piano, both younger than Randall, but Randall was the crown jewel of the family.  Hailed as a prodigy by the time he could talk, he was giving concerts at local venues at age five and when he entered Grade One, he had already been written up in several trade magazines as an up-and-coming pianist to watch.  Up to the moment he left home to travel to Philadelphia, life for Randall Taneda seemed bereft of any drama at all.   He had no friends and no social life.  Other than the laurels he received for playing the piano, his only achievement in life appeared to be passing his driver’s test on his first try.  There were no funny stories about him, no goofball behavior.  All he did was play the piano from morning to night.  His extraordinary talent had put him on an upward trajectory through the music world, and Randall seemed content to ride the wave all alone, solemn and detached, finding fulfillment in the ability to dazzle anyone who ever came into his orbit.  Most aspiring youngsters who get accepted into the LaGrange Conservatory will charge out the front door and shout the joyous news to the rest of the world.  But Randall Taneda’s life on the concert stage seemed to be preordained, and acceptance into LaGrange was more like a formality than any grand achievement.   

Shortly after Alfredo Juan’s death-wish pronouncement that triggered my interest in the case, I made a visit to the Taneda home in Oak Park.  Mrs. Taneda was friendly and helpful.  She was quick to point out that Oak Park was the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, and from the open doorway she pointed in the direction of the original Hemingway house.  Her husband was not there, and the older daughter had married and was no longer living at home.  The youngest daughter, Kate, was still at home and she was a senior at a local college.  She was not at school that day, and she gave me a pleasant hello along with her mother.  After that, she stayed in the background for the rest of my visit and I got the impression that she did not wish to be involved in any more publicity surrounding her brother’s murder.  I understood this, and I kept my own distance.

The first thing Mrs. Taneda wanted to do after I entered the house was show me Randall’s old bedroom.  I was surprised at the sight of the room when she opened the door.  Her son was just out of high school when he was killed, but this was the room of a child.  Mrs. Taneda insisted that the room was exactly as Randall had left it, and I did not seek further details.  The room was sparsely furnished with a small bed and desk and a kid-sized chest of drawers against the far wall.  There was a large oval rug on the floor with Disney-type caricatures of dancing musical notes.  Each note had its own happy, singing face, and all were frozen in the sort of over-the-top merriment that can only exist in the minds of children.  Mrs. Taneda had obviously preserved this room as a shrine to her son.  There were trophies and other celebratory memorabilia arranged in rows on every available surface, and all the walls were crammed with framed photographs of Randall at various stages in his charmed life as a musical prodigy.   The walls of the bedroom reminded me of those trendy sports bars where you can’t see the walls for the photographs.  I doubted that Mrs. Taneda had ever been in such a place and I had the good sense not to say anything.  There were framed newspaper clippings, too, all arranged in chronological order as one moved clockwise around the room, all of them a testament to the genius of Randall Taneda.  I was particularly struck by a huge, ornately framed photograph of Randall as a three-year-old that hung over the headboard of the bed.  It depicted a shining, scrub-faced child, perfectly coiffed and impeccably dressed in a dark suit and tie, sitting at a baby grand piano with his hands extended and his tiny fingers on the keys, chin up and eyes sparkling, flashing all those baby teeth in a huge smile for the camera.   If this room was truly the way Randall Taneda had left it, I could not help wondering how a teenaged boy could ever tolerate sleeping under such a picture of himself, in a kid-bed beside a kid-desk.  Just like my ruminations about the photos in the sports bars, I did not think these observations were appropriately solemn and I wisely kept my mouth shut.

I noticed that Mrs. Taneda kept the rug vacuumed with the loop pile all pointing in the same direction, and I tried my best to avoid stepping upon the dancing figures.

Aside from the time-warp of his bedroom, the only hint of anything out of the ordinary with Randall Taneda was something his mother volunteered to me towards the end of my visit.   This was a quirk the parents noticed when Randall was around six years old.   Mrs. Taneda told me that he suddenly developed a behavioral phobia when it came to the piano skills of other kids his age.  She said there was no lead-up to this, and it just appeared overnight.  Randall would either run from the room when another kid was at the piano, or he would press his hands tightly over his ears and close his eyes when forced to stay in his seat.  Ordinarily a talkative, articulate child, he had refused to explain why he was doing this or what might be wrong.  He refused to say a word about it.  His parents took him to a child psychologist, whereupon they both noticed an immediate change in Randall’s behavior.  Within two or three weeks, he no longer showed the slightest reluctance to listen to another kid play.  He continued to handle all the pressure like a true professional, and he never fell out of step again with any hint of quirky behavior.  His parents looked upon this episode as a temporary neurosis only, a blip in the radar, and Randall himself never once brought up the subject.  Mrs. Taneda insisted that Randall was “over the moon” with happiness when he pulled out of the driveway in his little car to begin the long drive to Philadelphia.  She never saw her son alive again.

My visit to the Taneda home did not last long, and I was surprised when Kate Taneda appeared and volunteered in her quiet voice to walk me to my car.   I thanked Mrs. Taneda at the door, and Kate led me down the walkway to the street.  When we were safely out of earshot of the house, this shy girl stopped walking and turned to me.

“Did my mother tell you my father was busy at his work?” she asked.  

“Yes, at the University,” I replied.

“My father doesn’t come home when he doesn’t have to,” she said.  “He avoids coming home.”

I knew what she meant.  “Your brother’s death has been hard on the family.  That won’t be going away, unfortunately.”

I could see Kate appreciated my candor.  She looked back at the house.  “You know how mothers keep a baby book when their children are born?  My mother never kept a baby book for me or my sister.  But she kept one on Randy from the day he was born until the day he left for LaGrange.  She goes into that room all the time and closes the door and reads from the book.  She reads out loud, like she’s reading it to Randy.  I can hear her.”

This gave me a bit of a chill, and I decided to be candid with Kate once again.  “Your sister got out, and you should, too,” I said.

Kate nodded.  “Did she tell you the story about Randy and how he went through a phase where he wouldn’t listen to another kid play the piano?”

“Yes, she did.”

“That happened before I was born,” she said.  “But I knew my brother.   He was a genius at a lot more than the piano.  I knew he would always tell our parents exactly what they wanted to hear.”

Kate then wished me a good day and she walked away without saying anything more.  I watched her go, and I hoped for her sake that she would soon escape from the house as her sister had done. 

If ever there was a study in contrasts, I would put the life of Alfredo Juan up against the life of Randall Taneda every time.  Randall Taneda’s life had been chronicled with obsessive care almost to the time of his death, whereas Alfredo Juan never even knew his real name or the date of his birth.   He told people he was born in Puerto Rico and came to the U.S. when he was still a toddler.  He did not know who his parents were, and he appears to have been shuffled around between various households in the greater Philadelphia area up to the time he was in his early teens, when he struck out on his own.  At a young age, he was alternatively called “Alfredo” and “Juan”, but he had never understood the connection between the two names.  He told the psychiatrist at his murder trial that he thought he had “12 brothers and sisters” but he was unable to provide further details.  He was mostly illiterate, and his exact schooling was unknown.  He described his entire education in a single memory where he saw himself sitting in a classroom and looking at “a big blackboard with white letters.” 

Until the criminal justice system started a rap sheet on Alfredo Juan, there had been no formal record that he had ever existed.  At the time he had his first juvenile run-in with the law for some petty theft, he had been using the name “Alfredo Juan” for most of his life and the name stuck as part of his criminal record, along with his fingerprints.  Although he had a rap sheet a mile long by the time of the Randall Taneda murder, it was mostly for things like house burglaries and purse-snatching and shoplifting, all piddling offences when it comes to the horrors of crime in the big city.  None of these offences had any violent component to them in terms of bodily harm to anyone, and none ever involved a weapon.  This was the likely reason Alfredo Juan had never done any hard time in state prison, and his multiple jail terms were only counted in weeks or, on rare occasions, one or two months.   He did drugs but never trafficked in them, so his rap sheet was remarkably free from any drug convictions as well.   Nobody knew Alfredo Juan, and nobody even saw him.

When the fingerprints on the murder weapon were traced to Alfredo Juan, his current address was unknown.   The police made inquiries at his last known address on his rap sheet, but they were told by the occupant that he did not know anyone by that name, although he said there was a guy who matched Alfredo Juan’s description who used to show up there with “crack pipes”.  The crack pipe man had not been there in over a year and the guy didn’t know where he was.   When Alfredo Juan was finally tracked down and arrested for the Taneda murder, he had been living on the streets and eating out of garbage dumpsters.  The police report showed that he had exactly 87 cents in his pockets.  Aside from the clothes on his back, these coins represented the grand total of Alfredo Juan’s worldly possessions.

Alfredo Juan initially told the police that he had never been anywhere near the murder scene and had never heard of the “orange” conservatory.  When he was shown the crime scene photographs of the murdered boy lying on the floor of his dorm with a gun beside him, he said he had never owned such a gun and did not even know how to shoot one.  When told that his fingerprints were found on the gun, he paused and said, “Well, maybe I was there but that don’t prove nothing.”   The police were patient with Alfredo Juan and eventually he gave them a full confession.

Like a lot of murder stories, Alfredo Juan told a story that was heartbreaking in terms of the fates that were aligned against Randall Taneda on the last day of his life.  Alfredo Juan said he had heard on the streets a few weeks before the killing that there was a music school on the outskirts of the city where “rich kids brought their money.”  The rumor was, these kids all came from various parts of the country and they all had large sums of cash on them when they arrived.  If you were able to rob one of these kids just as they arrived at the school, you could make a big score.  The rich students apparently lived in a “box building” until they paid enough money so they could move into the “big castle”, and this was the reason they brought so much cash with them.

Alfredo Juan said that he was not exactly sure about the directions, but he eventually managed to make his way across the city and up to the LaGrange Conservatory.   He knew he had found the right place because “it looked like a castle”.  He had been given a handgun by someone named “Carl” and he had agreed to split the money with “Carl” when he returned.  The police were never able to locate “Carl”, although the weapon itself, a 38 revolver, was eventually traced to a gun shop in Detroit that had sold the gun new a few years earlier.  The gun had gone through multiple hands since then and it was impossible to trace it back to “Carl” or anyone else.  

Alfredo Juan said that he walked through the main gate of the LaGrange Conservatory and went over to the “box building beside the castle”.  There were a few people around, but no one paid any attention to him.  When he reached the box building, he was surprised to be able to open the main door.  Once inside the hallway, he was surprised again to find that the first door he tried to open was also unlocked, and the room was empty.  This was the room that had been assigned to Randall Taneda.  He said he could hear a lot of “piano stuff” coming from the other rooms and he thought that maybe a “piano kid” might be moving into the empty room that he had so easily stumbled upon.  He told police he waited around just inside the door and listened for the footsteps of the “piano kid” so he could steal his money and split the booty with “Carl” when he got back to the city streets.  He said he was holding the gun because he wanted to “scare the rich piano kid”.  He repeated several times to police that he never wanted to shoot anyone because such an act would be “an offence against God”.

Alfredo Juan said he listened for approaching footsteps for a few minutes, but the sounds of the pianos made it hard for him to hear anything, so he decided to lean forward and put his ear to the door.  At that moment, Randall Taneda stumbled into the room with his box of clothing.  He had pushed against the door and was propelled forward when it suddenly opened.   Alfredo Juan said, “the boy run into me with the box”.   Randall Taneda immediately dropped the box, so they were now standing face-to-face with nothing between them.  In the same moment, Alfredo Juan pushed the gun into Randall Taneda’s stomach.  There was a brief struggle, and he pulled the trigger.

Alfredo Juan remembered how the boy just crumpled to the floor and he knew right away he was dead.  He said he panicked and ran out of the room.  He left the “box building” and ran across the grounds to the street, and then ran down the sidewalk as fast as he could to get away.  No one saw him, and no one followed him.  When he had exhausted himself, he stopped running to catch his breath.  It was then he realized he did not have the gun with him.   He wasn’t sure how he had lost the gun because he didn’t remember many details after Randall Taneda suddenly appeared in the room with his “big box of shirts”.  The police found the clothing scattered on the floor and the empty box had been tossed to one side, as if someone had rifled through the box looking for something.  Oddly, Alfredo Juan denied doing this.  He insisted the “piano kid” dropped the box as soon as he came into the room and it had stayed upright with the clothing in it the whole time.  Even when shown the police photographs of the scattered clothing and the empty box, Alfredo Juan remained steadfast.  He had never touched the box or anything inside the box.

Much like Randall Taneda’s acceptance into the LaGrange Conservatory, the criminal trial of Alfredo Juan was little more than a formality.   His lawyers tried to have his confession thrown out, but the police had done their homework and there was nothing the defense could do about it.  As soon as Alfredo Juan was arrested and brought into the interrogation room, he was read his Miranda rights.  When he said that he had understood those rights and did not wish to have a lawyer present, his interrogation began.  All of this was captured on camera, right down to the grand finale showing the chief homicide detective slowly reading out a 12-page written statement with Alfredo Juan nodding away and putting his mark on the bottom of every page.   The recording had even captured a muttered comment from one of the detectives off-camera as Alfredo Juan carefully signed the last page with an illegible signature that he said he used “only on important documents.”  The cop had remarked, “Poor bastard doesn’t know how important this one is.”   The criminal trial took three days, and the jury returned a guilty verdict in under an hour. 

The sentencing phase of Alfredo Juan’s criminal trial took a little longer, but the outcome was never in doubt any more than the original verdict.   This was an election year, and the DA wanted to send a strong message to the public that he was tough on crime and he was not going to tolerate any innocent kid being gunned down in the prime of his life by some scumbag vagrant.   The defense called a psychiatrist to the stand who had attempted to piece together Alfredo Juan’s fractured life history.  Among other things, the psychiatrist said that Alfredo Juan had been sexually abused throughout his childhood and was now left with a “tenuous hold on reality.”  None of it mattered.  The prosecution asked for the death penalty and the jury agreed. 

Alfredo Juan was then sent to North Bend State Prison, and this was where I was sitting with him over ten years later in a cramped interview room just off the death row cell block.   The guard had reminded me about the strict time limit, and he left the room without any further warnings.  Alfredo Juan and I were left sitting across from each other at a small table, and I was surprised at the lack of security.  There were no other guards and the two of us were alone in the room.  Alfredo Juan was not handcuffed or shackled, and he could have easily reached across the table in order to tear my throat out if that had been his disposition.  I had never broken the ice with an interview subject by having them lunge for my throat, but then I had never spoken to anyone with only three hours to live, either.   By the clock on the wall, it was three hours exactly.

Alfredo Juan had muttered a greeting to me, and then he just stared down at the table.  I was surprised at how short he was, and how passive he looked.  I had fully expected to meet someone with a chrome bolt running through his tongue and a body crawling with gang symbols and other sinister looking artwork, but this man had no tattoos and no piercings.  He did not even possess the sort of sneer one often sees on a dog-tough street punk.   He just looked lost and alone, like someone’s half-brother who shows up once a year for dinner and doesn’t have a clue what to say to the other family members.  I could see that his head had been freshly shaved, and there was a shadowy outline on his skull that showed he had hair if he had wanted to die with any.  He wasn’t being electrocuted, but perhaps this sort of tidy-up was still part of the execution protocol.  I didn’t know, and I didn’t ask. 

Although I had rehearsed my questions for him over and over during the drive to the prison, my mind had now turned idiot-blank and we just stared at each other.  Without thinking, I blurted out, “Did they give you a last meal?”

It occurred to me that I had just said the most insensitive and stupid thing one could possibly say to a condemned man on the eve of his execution.   I expected Alfredo Juan to hurl himself towards me in a murderous rage exactly as I had feared, but instead he just shook his head and kept looking down.

“The only good meals I ever had were in jail,” he said quietly.  “I never asked what they were, I just ate ‘em.  They say you’re supposed to ask for something special for your last meal.  I didn’t know what to ask for that was special, so I said I wasn’t hungry.  I didn’t want them laughing at me.”

There was true sadness in this, but I was not there as a social worker.  I tried again.  “I’ve written about your case, I guess you know that.”

“Someone read the newspaper stuff out to me,” he said.

“I’ve tried to arrange an interview before, I’ve always thought – “

“I didn’t kill that boy,” Alfredo Juan suddenly interrupted.

I did not want to hear this man’s protestations of innocence. “Mr. Juan – “I began.

“Call me Spike,” he interrupted again.  “That’s what the guards call me here, ‘cause they say I look like a spike that’s been nailed in something, like the body of Christ.”

Unlike Alfredo Juan, I did not warm to the comparison.  I said, “I don’t wish to call you by that name.  It is – not appropriate in the circumstances.  Why don’t you tell me why you asked me to come here?  I have tried and tried to set up an interview before, you always said no.  I’m here now, I’ll listen to you.”

“I didn’t kill that boy,” he said again.  “I was just telling the police what they wanted to hear.  I was hungry.”

“Mr. Juan – “

“Spike.”

“Please, I’ve told you I do not wish to call you by that name.  I am not calling you by that name, I refuse to do it.   Now I want to get something straight with you.  You can tell me anything you want, just do not tell me you didn’t do this crime.  I know your case, I know everything about it.”

Alfredo Juan was not impressed.  “There was a guy on the Row,” he went on.  “He told me about the Japanese.  He said they don’t kill themselves with a gun to the head, ‘cause then they can’t have an open coffin at the funeral.”

“What, you’re telling me that Randall Taneda killed himself?”

Alfredo Juan was still staring down at the table.  “Makes sense to me,” he said.

“Your fingerprints just happened to be on that gun, is that what you’re saying?”

“No, I was there.”

“You were there in his room and you surprised him, and you killed him.  We all know this.”

“You don’t know anything.  I was gonna rob him and then I just ran out.”

“You accidentally dropped the gun on your way out, is that what happened?”

“Makes sense to me.”

“You took the time to rifle through his box of clothing, didn’t you?  You were looking for money.  Was he standing back watching you do this?”

“I didn’t touch that box.”

“Who touched the box then?  Another student?”

“No, he did.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“That kid.”

“The piano kid?  Randall Taneda?”

“He must have scattered the stuff around to make it look like a robbery.”

I was determined to reason with him despite the valuable time that was being wasted.  “Mr. Juan – “I began.

“Spike.”

I was now feeling more at ease with Alfredo Juan, and I had forgotten that I was speaking to a man who now had less than three hours to live, by about six minutes. 

“Stop it,” I said firmly.  “Stop saying that.  We are not using nicknames like buddies on the street.  You want me to believe you surprised Randall Taneda in his room with that gun, then you dropped the gun, then you ran out, and then Randall Taneda himself scattered that clothing on the floor and shot himself in the stomach to make his suicide look like a robbery gone bad?  Is this what you want me to write tomorrow?  Your new fantasy story after ten years of telling the true story?”

Alfredo Juan shrugged.  “Maybe he didn’t want his mother to be ashamed.”

I was scolding him now and I knew my time was quickly running out. “You don’t know a thing about the boy you killed,” I said.  “You don’t know him; you don’t know his mother.  You have no guilt over what you did.”

Alfredo Juan was unmoved.  “You didn’t see the look in his eyes,” he said quietly.

“What look?”

“I looked into the eyes of that boy and God whispered to me.”

“Tell me what you saw in his eyes.”

“Sadness.  He was crying.  A person like you doesn’t know the look of true sadness, but I saw it.”

I tried to humor him.  “Okay.  You dropped the gun and ran away, and the boy killed himself.  Why didn’t you tell all this to the police?”

“I was hungry, I told you.”

“You must have talked to your own lawyers.  Were you hungry then, too?”

“I told them about the promise from God but all they did was look at me funny.  So, I didn’t say nothing.   Some promises, people just don’t understand.”

“So tell me then, what did God whisper to you?”

“God promised me that I would lose my soul unless I dropped the gun and ran.”

“That’s a warning, not a promise.”

“You don’t know true sadness, and you don’t know what it means when God whispers to you.”

“Maybe not, but I know a warning when I hear one.”

Alfredo Juan was adamant.  He said, “A warning is just a caution.  A whispered promise from God is a sure thing.”

I now had about a minute left, and I knew the guard was not going to negotiate.  “If you’re innocent like you say, then tell me why you insist upon being executed.  Will you at least give me that much to write about tomorrow?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Is this why you brought me here?  To tell me things I won’t understand?”

“Well, I’d like a favor.”

I anticipated what was coming and I was going to draw the line.  “I will not write about your innocence and lie to people.  I am not going to do that.”

Alfredo Juan then threw me the hook that I will never forget.  He said, “They told me I can have somebody watch the execution.  I thought you might want to stick around and be out there when they do it.  I don’t know many people.”

I could not fathom this request and I did not know what to say.  Mercifully, the guard appeared, and I knew this crazy interview was over.   I rose from the chair and Alfredo Juan looked directly at me for the first time.  He said, “I told you I don’t know many people.  Would you think about it?”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, as the guard led me out of the room.  “I’ll give it some thought, that’s all I can tell you.”

“You wanna know why I’m doing all this?” Alfredo Juan asked me.

I was now halfway out the door, and I gently resisted the guard.  “Yes, tell me.”

“I don’t know, so you tell me,” he said.  There was a pause and then he added, “It’s only in a person’s last words.”

With that enigmatic response, another guard closed the door upon Alfredo Juan and my last memory of the meeting is watching him stare down at that table, a hopeless life about to end. 

Shortly after midnight, Alfredo Juan was given a lethal dose into his arm and he was pronounced dead about ten minutes later.  I did not attend his execution and I was feeling guilty for telling him that I would “think about it” when I had no intention of attending.   I did not want to watch anyone being put to death, and I felt no obligation towards Alfredo Juan.   My only face-to-face dealing with him was that ten-minute death row conversation, and I assumed that someone would show up and represent him, or mourn him, or whatever designation is given to those lucky souls who witness an execution at the behest of the condemned man.   When I talked to one of the reporters the next morning who was there, he told me that no one had attended for Alfredo Juan: no friends, no family, no one.  I was the only one he had asked, and I was not there either.  

The reporter I spoke to was from another newspaper and he seemed unaffected by it all.  “It was nothing, really,” he said.  “The guy was behind a curtain lying there on this gurney, all strapped down.  They put him to sleep and that’s it.”

“Still, you witnessed the death of someone,” I observed.

“My grandfather used to be the warden up at North Bend when I was a kid,” he said.  “They used to hang them, and he’d give me all the gruesome details.  This wasn’t like that at all.”

I thought about my discussion with Alfredo Juan in the prison, and his strange comment about a person’s last words.  “Did Alfredo Juan have any last words?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah.  Before they strapped him down, he looked out at all of us.  He said, ‘I apologize to God, but my life isn’t worth living.’  Those were his exact words.  He didn’t say anything more, and he was dead a few minutes later.”

“I guess you could call that a confession of guilt,” I said.  “He told me last night that he was innocent.”

“My grandfather used to tell me that every goddam one of them said they were innocent,” the reporter said.  Then he gave me a big smile.  “I got a kick out of Grandpa swearing to me just like I was an adult.  Different world back then.”

I thought about this.  I finally said, “All I know is, I’m sorry to God, too, and I wasn’t on that gurney.”

The LaGrange Conservatory was located north of the city in an area called Ambleside Park.  This was a multi-acre property that was protected from the street by a high boxwood hedge.  The hedge was manicured to such laser-perfection that you could have cut paper on one of the edges.  Only the roof of the school was visible from the street, but as you entered the property through the main gate you could see the venerable old building through a long row of walnut trees that surrounded the driveway.  To my untrained eye, the place looked more like a private hospital from the Gilded Age than an academy of learning, the sort of place where one would expect to find railroad tycoons and assorted robber barons convalescing in quiet luxury.  This was early May, and the grounds rivaled any English country estate in full bloom.  As I pulled off the driveway to the parking lot, I noticed several gardeners scattered throughout the property, all of them wearing identical blue-gray coveralls with the name “LaGrange” on the back.  They all worked like bees, hovering quietly over the flowers and the shrubs with a determined purpose, each one of them secure in the knowledge that they were every bit as vital to the LaGrange Conservatory as all those prodigies tucked behind the ivy covered, red brick walls.  

As soon as I got out of my car, I heard a cacophony of piano sounds coming from the smaller, box-shaped buildings to the left of the main building.  There were two of these buildings, both identical, one behind the other, and both constructed with the same red brick.  They even had ivy growing up around the windows and the doorways, just like the grand old mansion beside them.  By their architecture they were obviously built long after the main house, and they had to be the “box building” student residences that Alfredo Juan had described to the police.  The music coming out of those buildings amazed me.  It was impossible that every student would be playing the same composition, yet the piano-sounds reminded me of one of those Claude Debussy “tone poems” where a batch of diverse, random-sounding notes come together into an inexplicable and mysterious whole.

The residence closest to the parking lot was the building where Randall Taneda was killed.  His room was just inside the main door on the first floor, the first one on the left.  Alfredo Juan lay in wait for him in the vacant room, watching the parking lot and biding his time until the doomed occupant showed up.  Randall Taneda would have carried his possessions a short distance from the lot, entered through the main door, and in a few moments his life would be over.  I took a few steps forward until I was standing on the grass.  I was now closer to the building and closer to the piano sounds coming from the brick walls.   Alfredo Juan had been executed only a few hours before, and the music seemed like an uplifting tribute to young Randall and a funeral dirge for his killer, both at the same time. 

I was lost in these thoughts when I heard a voice: “No classes today.  The kids are all playing.”

I turned my head and saw one of the gardeners standing beside me.  He was an older guy.  He was listening to the piano-sounds and nodding in silent approval.  “Today they’re celebrating the birth of Tchaikovsky.  No classes, so what do these geniuses do?  They get a respite from practice, so they go off and practice all day.”

“I guess you have to practice your whole life to get accepted here,” I said.  “Probably all they know.”

“There’s a lot of dead composers out there,” the gardener said.  “Pretty soon, every day will be a holiday for the birth of someone.”

“Might not make much difference,” I said, half-joking.  “They all sound pretty good already.”

“Wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference,” the gardener agreed.   “The classes don’t mean a whole lot.  The kids who come here can play rings around their instructors.  They just want to get that hunk of paper and then hit the world stage.  Nothing else matters to ‘em.”

I looked at the box building and thought about how Randall Taneda would have been banging away on his piano on every holiday and day off and every other chance he got.  “I write for the newspaper,” I said.  “I’ve done a few pieces on the boy who was murdered here a few years ago.”

The gardener had heard all about the case.  “That was a long time ago,” he said.

I nodded.  “They executed the killer this morning.  I thought I should come out here to observe the occasion.  Not sure why, it just seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Closure?” the gardener asked.

I was surprised at this insight.  “Yes, I suppose you could say that.”

“I hate that guy like everyone else,” the gardener said.  “Still, I don’t believe in capital punishment.  Too final.”

I pointed to the building.  “Randall Taneda’s room was over there, right inside the door.  As soon as he came into his room, bang.  They think there was some sort of struggle over the gun, but it was all over for him.”

“Well, I guess you’d know about the case,” the gardener said.

I thought about the hundreds of trial transcript pages I had read.  “There’s one part of it I just don’t get,” I said.  “It’s silly, really.”

“Oh?”

I said, “The killer, this Alfredo Juan, he insisted that Taneda came down the hallway from the opposite end of the building with his box of clothing.  He insisted he was listening for footsteps, and not looking out the window at the parking lot.   Obviously, Taneda would have come from the lot with his box of stuff because his room was just inside the door.  The killer would not be listening for any footsteps.  All he would have to do was peep through the blinds and look out the window at the lot.  And that’s exactly what he did.  It’s a little detail, and there’s nothing about it in the court transcripts or the arguments of the lawyers.  Didn’t matter anyway.   It bugs me, because Alfredo Juan had no reason at all to lie about such a trivial detail and then spice up his story with another lie about footsteps.”

“Well, the guy was right,” the gardener said.  “The kid had to walk all the way down the hall from the other end.”

“Why is that?” I asked, surprised.

The gardener nodded towards my car.  “There was no parking lot here then.  The student lot was behind the building.  They built the second dorm about five years ago where the old parking lot was.  They decided to build a bigger lot out front and you’re parked in it.”

Like a lot of answers to trivial questions, I was surprised at how obvious this answer was.   “I guess Alfredo Juan was telling the truth about the footsteps,” I said.  “He just lied about everything else.”

“The kid would have parked his car in the back lot and then carried his box down to his room,” the gardener said.  “That’s what I did, anyway.  Otherwise, you’d have to walk all the way around the building.”

I thought I had misunderstood him.  “What do you mean?  You had a room here?”

“My room was right across the hall from the one where the kid was killed,” he said.  “That was a couple of years before, and I was long gone by the time it all happened.”

I was still not getting it.  “You mean you were a student at this place?” I asked.

The gardener smiled and bounced the trimming shears in his hand.  “Hard for you to believe what can happen to a failed prodigy?”

I was ashamed now, and I stammered out an apology: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.”

The gardener flashed a smile.  “Don’t worry about it, I get that all the time,” he said.  “My whole life I was told how great I was.  My piano teachers all told me this.  My parents told me every day.  When I got accepted into LaGrange my family held the biggest party you have ever seen.   My first day here, I walked from the parking lot down the long hallway just like that poor kid must have done.  All the dorm rooms have pianos in them, and all the new students were playing away like crazy.  I wasn’t ten steps into that hallway when it struck me that these kids were all prodigies just like I was.  They were all geniuses who’d been stroked their whole lives, just like I had been stroked.  I realized there was nothing special about me at all.  I was a star in my own little world, but I was just an average guy at LaGrange.  And there was something else…”

The gardener paused and looked over the grounds, admiring all the beauty and all the perfection.  “I would cry a thousand tears over this, but it didn’t matter.  I heard those pianos, and I knew those kids were better than I was, better than I ever would be.  The average person might not have noticed any difference in the playing.  But I’d heard enough to know.  I knew in that moment that I was never going to make it.”

I thought about Randall Taneda as a child and how he would cover his ears when he was forced to listen to another child play.  “Maybe you were being too hard on yourself,” I volunteered.

The gardener shook his head.  “Nope.  Once you think you can’t cut it, you’re toast.”

I was staring at the gardener now, waiting for him to say something uplifting about the redeeming power of wisdom and how in the end everything works out for the best.  Instead, all he did was hold up his pruning shears and say, “But I stayed close to the music.”

The gardener may have said something more, but I was not listening to his voice any longer or thinking about his tears.   I was thinking about Alfredo Juan, and how frightful it must be to know in your heart of hearts that your life is no longer worth living.   I was also thinking about Randall Taneda, the boy with such great expectations, walking down that long hallway towards the room at the far end where Alfredo Juan was waiting for him. 

Both would be listening to the voices of the pianos behind the walls; the dissonant sounds coming together in cryptic harmony, the whispered promises of things to come.



BIO

Robert Collings is a retired lawyer living and writing in Pitt Meadows, B.C. “The Tears of the Gardener” marks his first appearance in Writing Disorder.  Robert’s short memoir, “The Spaghetti Party – A Memoir of my Father”, is published online in the Euonia Review (eunoiareview.wordpress.com).  “The Man Who Threw the Punch” is published online in Scars Publications (scars.tv). “Boardwalk and the Upper Crust” has recently been published online in Mobius magazine (mobiusmagazine.com).  “The Man Who Threw the Punch” is forthcoming in Conceit magazine in April 2021, and in cc&d magazine in May 2021.These and other short stories are contained in Robert’s collection called “Life in the First Person”.  He’s also written a satirical novella called “One Dog’s Life”, along with two screenplays now doing the rounds of the agents and producers in Hollywood. Robert has not won many awards in his lifetime, although he’s proud of a “Participation Certificate” he received for coming dead last in the 50-yard dash in the third grade.


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