Chapter 14 – In the Potting Shed
Horace Hipp closed the door of his potting shed gently. The latch clicked, and he nimbly slipped his gardening gloves over his tidy, white hands. Although he digs in soil each day as a true devotee of dirt, he keeps his hands and fingernails pristine for the sake of his wife. Mrs. Hipp dislikes dirt.
Since Dr. Jones’s death, and the arrival of his wife’s bosom friend, President Hipp has found himself more removed from his wife’s attentions than usual. This has been a boon. He’s been able to spend countless hours in his shed, transferring tiny seedlings from one spot to another, grafting roses and dividing shrubs to his heart’s delight. He is a man who is only content with his fingers in the soil. He troubles little with the work of the seminary; Mrs. Hipp tends to all that. The seminary president’s desk is overrun with her notes and letters, and the seminary president’s secretary frequently forgets herself, and answers the office phone with a cheery, “Mrs. Hipp’s office.”
The potting shed, however, is Horace Hipp’s absolute domain. The presence of dirt there prevents his wife’s ever entering. He rules there without fear of interference. The Hipp home, as I noted earlier, is on the front of the seminary property, but the shed is on the extreme edge of this plot, and is adjacent to the stone wall that runs along the side of the seminary bounds. In fact, the fourth wall of the shed, and the stone wall, are one and the same, and a small wooden door stands in the center of it. On many a balmy morning, this door has been Horace Hipp’s method of escape. After an hour with his plants, President Hipp slips through the small door and down the lane toward the country. The seminary wall and a row of cedar trees shield him from his wife’s sharp eyes at the kitchen window. He’s spent many a tranquil hour walking along the road that degenerates slowly from pavement to gravel to dirt, before dissipating into a cow track and into a field. President Hipp rarely goes so far as the cow track. He examines wildflowers as he walks to give himself something to do, and always carries a small volume – The Flowers Personified, or Victory Gardens, or occasionally The Country Garden of an Edwardian Lady. President Hipp’s own personal gardening journal, complete with thoughts about roses, theology and marriage, is secreted deep beneath his clay pots and mulch. Mrs. Hipp is unaware of its existence, and we would not dare to delve into its secrets without the president’s permission.
Without his knowledge, President Hipp’s potting shed has been the site of many late night trysts between young lovers of the collegiate or seminarian variety. The outer door is always unlatched, and every student knows it. The married seminarians need not bother with such subterfuge, but the college students appreciate President Hipp’s help in sneaking in past curfew and stealing a few kisses before retiring to their dorms. They are careful not to upend his pots or disturb his seedlings.
On this warm, bright May morning, Horace Hipp is dividing hostas. He would rather be tending his azalea beds, long past bloom, or tying off his faded daffodils, but that would involve being outside his shed. Dear Horace, slightly stooped and wearing the saggy, moth-eaten gray cardigan that stays in the shed, needed his shed this morning. His warrior wife and her Amazon partner were thick into plotting this morning, and he had to escape. Their breakfast table conversation went as follows:
“Miss Jones, will you please pass the pepper? What is to be done about this Greeter business?”
The pepper is passed. “I’ll tell you, Mrs. Hipp. The boy must be removed from the campus. And the church session must become involved!”
“I agree entirely, Miss Jones. It is unacceptable to allow it to continue unaddressed.” Pepper is sprinkled liberally. “President Hipp, will you refill my coffee?”
The President received the mug and tried to interject an objection.
“Ladies, I really do think ….”
But he was cut off. “Brother Hipp,” this from Miss Jones, who always calls him by this name. “Brother Hipp, you cannot understand the delicacy of this situation as women do. We are thinking only of the girls.”
“And,” added his wife, “the honor of the church, President Hipp. Think of the damage done to its testimony among the lost, if such a scandal were allowed to continue unaddressed. We would be rightly called hypocrites!”
“But –“ he tried. He knew when Mrs. Hipp began speaking of the honor of the church, all was lost.
“Miss Jones, salt, please.” Salt was liberally applied. “How shall it be addressed, though? Surely an appeal to the parents as a beginning. They might banish the son back to Atlanta, and disciplinary proceedings could commence in his absence, which would be less, um, less …”
“Less offensive, Mrs. Hipp. And much more agreeable to all. Sugar, if you will.” And sugar was spooned into the mug. “I think, however, that as the session is the body properly overseeing the spiritual lives of all involved, that the session should be spoken to first.”
“Oh dear! Surely, ladies ….”
But Horace Hipp only thought these words. He had learned long ago that he could barely get in a word with his wife alone as a conversational partner, and any attempts to add his thoughts with two women present, were absolutely in vain. He sighed and ate his eggs.
“A letter,” said Mrs. Hipp. “A letter to the session from the ladies of the seminary,” and here she gestured to include herself and her friend. “We shall begin there. They can involve the family when they see fit, as it is their duty to do.”
Then a piece of paper and a pen were added to the table, and the ladies began to construct their attack. Horace Hipp took his dishes to the sink. After he’d washed the frying pan, loaded the dishwasher, wiped the sink and watered the African violets, he slipped unnoticed out the back door, across the shaded lawn and into his shed.
And here he pondered Billy Greeter’s fate at the hands of his wife and her first mate. He took an ancient kitchen knife with a massive, blunted blade, and cut deeply into the hosta’s tangle of roots. I’m sorry to say that he did not attend to his work well, fixed as his mind was on poor Billy Greeter and his sorrowing parents. He contemplated Billy’s banishment forever from Greenfield, the Greeters’ shame and eventual departure under cover of night, the poor illegitimate child, and scorned girl. In the dim light of the potting shed, such thoughts were particularly tragic.
And then four little raps on the door signaled a visitor, and Horace Hipp knew who it was. Only Lily Cloudee rapped with four little taps. She’d come straight from the Sharp sisters. She was his gardening comrade, his partner in roses, his accomplice in dirt. They also competed in local flower shows, kept some gardening secrets from each other, but shared others. In some unspoken but palpable way, both took solace in the horticultural friendship, since their spouses were such avowed enemies on the ecclesiastical battlefield. Horace and Lily were not fighters. They nurtured little sprigs to life while mighty battles to the death were waging all around their ears. I would not call them spies, but certainly the potting shed was a place where two silent members of the opposing sides could meet in peace and discuss their quiet, mitigating influence on the violence. Such was Lily’s purpose today.
“Horace, you are so severe on your hostas!” she observed as she entered. “Couldn’t you wait until they’d finished blooming?”
“They’re very tough, you know. Can be divided at any time. The front bed by the gate was overrun.” Horace plunged the knife deep into a root ball. “Besides, this is what I was in the mood for today.” He glanced up at her. “Hippy and Jonesy are plotting.”
He never, ever used such names for his wife and her companion, to anyone other than Lily Cloudee, and then only in the potting shed. And she never repeated them to anyone else. And Horace never feared that she would. Such was the nature of their friendship.
“Yes.” The stabbing and cutting continued.
“Where will you put these new ones?” Lily asked. “Do you plan a new hosta bed?”
“Oh, I’m planning to pot them and sell them at the rummage sale. It’s on the 15th, you know, just a week from Saturday.”
“I’d forgotten. I must get some baby sewing done for that.” Lily picked up a severed hosta, dusted off its roots, and prepared a plastic pot with potting soil. “What will they do? About Billy, I mean.”
“Write to the session,” he answered. “They’re writing the letter as we speak.”
“Oh dear.” Lily thumped the hosta firmly on the wooden table to set it in. “At Mt. Moriah?”
Horace Hipp nodded.
“Who is on that session? Do you know?”
“Well, Sam Shepherd will be Billy’s biggest ally. And Mort Graves, of course. Henry Busby, but he’s so elderly now, you know. And I think the Sharp sisters’ nephew, Andrew Little. He’s new. But that’s not the biggest problem.” Horace stopped, and lay the long knife on the table wearily. Lily waited.
“Ernest Greeter is on that session, has been for years.”
He looked down at his caked gloves, and shook his head. “They will be asking that man to take action against his own son.”
“That’s horrible!” Lily banged the pot again, and Horace took it from her.
“But can’t something be done? Is there any proof of the boy’s guilt?”
“Hippy thinks she has proof enough, for her mind at least. She’s spoken to some friend of hers.”
“Yes, I know. The Sharp sisters told me.”
“Betty and Inez? They know too?”
Lily nodded sadly. “I imagine the whole town knows. Except the Greeters.” She ruffled the hosta leaves. “It’s so unfair how everyone always seems to know, except the ones who most need to.” They were silent for several minutes. Horace separated hostas and Lily potted them. Acorns fell on the roof with sharp plunks, and rolled to the ground.
Lily stopped her work, and sat on a stool in the corner of the shed. She crossed her legs and stroked her chin. “We cannot be seen to interfere, of course. But Horace, perhaps you could do something about the letter.”
“The letter! I cannot contribute one word to their letter. I imagine it’s already sealed and stamped.”
“Oh, I know. Let them write it. But perhaps its arrival could be … delayed?”
Horace Hipp’s eyebrow twitched and his blue eyes sparkled. His jowels lifted in a slight smile. He straightened to his full height of 5’ 7”.
“Yes, perhaps I could, um, interpose, just slightly.”
“Not with the post office, you know, Horace,” Lily added.
“Oh no, not with any governmental function. I understand, Lily.” And his eyes drifted into the thoughts of a little plan. When it came to his wife, Horace was good with little plans.
“I myself will pay a visit to Emilia. It’s been too long since I sat and sewed while she played Rachmaninoff.” Lily’s brow furrowed. “When she plays Rachmaninoff, I always pull my stitches too tight.”
Dr. Hipp stooped and looked out the grimy window at the bright sunshine. “Fair weather. She’ll be wearing white today, Lily. Perhaps it will be Bach instead.”