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The Cactus Gardener


Mary Ellen was the proud caretaker of the Sun & Sand Cactus Garden in Southern Arizona. She got up no earlier than 6:15 every day. She would pull the blinds up, make Muesli (sometimes with half a banana), take a mental count of her spoon collection, and drive the 21 minutes from Phoenix to Gila Bend. Every day. Except for Mondays, that was her day off. But often she would stop by the garden on Mondays anyway, just in case.
Mary Ellen would always park her Volvo in the parking lot, at the very end. The lot would fill up with tourists as the day wore on. But seeing as Mary Ellen always arrived at the garden at 7:20 am, she always had at least two hours to herself in the garden before it was officially open for tours.
There usually wasn’t too much to do before guests arrived, but Mary Ellen liked having the extra time, just in case. She always unlocked the garden shed and made sure everything was in place before changing into her steel-toed boots and Gore-tex gloves and getting to work. She’d sweep the sand from the cement pathway that led visitors through the garden. She would wipe down the informational placards, and on Tuesdays she would even take a cotton swab between each letter. Sand was a real bother, she’d always think to herself. But that was Mary Ellen’s only complaint about her job at Sun & Sand, otherwise she was getting to be quite fond of being outside everyday. Her friends back in New Jersey had even started to remark that her hair was looking blonder these days. Imagine that, she thought, from white to blonde!
Mary Ellen would close up the garden shed and adjust the bandana around her neck at 9:15 every morning and wait for the first tourists to pull up. She had only been working at the garden for three and a half months now, but she had learned that no one really showed up early, or even right at 9:30. Unlike the Princeton Art Museum, where Mary Ellen had been a docent for 28 years. She recalled the mornings where school busses would arrive sometimes a whole hour before the museum opened and she would spend the next 60 minutes worrying about sticky fingers and absent-minded chaperones.
Today was Sunday, which was usually a big day for tours. Mary Ellen stood patiently by the entrance to the garden as the first van pulled up. Followed by a Subaru. Mary Ellen checked her watch: 9:48, which meant 9:41 (all her clocks were seven minutes fast). Dust settled around the two cars, music stopped, doors opened, and the children’s voices got louder. Six kids and four adults approached the front gate, where Mary Ellen stood under the TOUR STARTS HERE! sign. Mary Ellen’s shoulders relaxed slightly, at least they were adequately supervised.
After getting the group signed in, Mary Ellen began the first tour of the day. It only took six minutes to walk around the garden, if you’d been there before and you were trying to make good time, but Mary Ellen had found that most tours took about 25 minutes, longer if the group was old and walked slowly, or if they stopped often for questions and photos. Mary Ellen was starting to relax about cameras as well. She had always started her tours at the art museum with three warnings: Please stay with the group at all times, please no flash photography and absolutely no touching anything! Sometimes she would repeat the warnings if she thought the stragglers in the back hadn’t hear her.
Today’s first tour of the garden was a slower one, Mary Ellen noted. It was 10:22. She was almost done explaining the 17 different kinds of cacti that made up the garden’s collection, but one of the couples was a bit behind behind the rest of the group, trying to get their three children to stand together, hold hands and smile. Mary Ellen watched warily as the mother tried to direct her children. “No, no, no! Be careful! No, don’t go anywhere near that cactus!” Mary Ellen laughed to herself as she felt the last of the stress from a life of being too careful fade away. She decided she would take tomorrow off. The cactuses would take care of themselves.

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