Noe Valley Voice May 2005

The Night Garden

an excerpt from the novel by Pamela Holm


San Francisco writer Pamela Holm describes her first work of fiction, The Night Garden, to be released by MacAdam/Cage on May 17, as a story about "that moment in between the time a person decides to make a change and when things actually do change. It can take five minutes or it can take five years," she says with a smile.

For the characters in her novel, self-transformation doesn't come easily. One of the main characters, Dawn, is a young single mother who has just left her boyfriend and is now living in a Potrero Hill home with her 9-year-old daughter, Jewel. Though she's a talented painter, Dawn spends her days working as a bug exterminator. As she struggles with the loneliness of being single, she begins to plant a garden in her new back yard, working at night because it's the only free time she has.

Holm, 43, knows her material well. Although she's never been an exterminator (her father, however, was a plumber, and Holm says her sensibilities are working-class), the San Jose native lived for many years on Potrero Hill, raising daughter Cara, 20, on her own. She now calls the Mission District home.

In 2002, Holm made a big splash with her first book, a nonfiction memoir titled The Toaster Broke, So We're Getting Married (also published by MacAdam/Cage). The book, described as "humorous and touching" by the New York Times, is a first-person account of Holm's wending path to husband Denzil Muyers, whom she married four years ago. It also doubles as a how-to (or how-not-to) book on planning a wedding.

During her 16 years in San Francisco, Holm has also written numerous personal essays, published in media ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle to Violet magazine to the online salon When not talespinning herself, she teaches creative writing classes.

Currently, she's producing a musical play she's written called Lovesick, which will run the first three weekends in July at the Dark Room theater on Mission Street.

"I call it the cat allergy musical," she says. Further elucidation: It's about a lonely woman whose cat seems to thwart all the woman's efforts at meeting someone. For more information, go to Holm's web site,

Holm will read and sign copies of The Night Garden, an excerpt of which is printed below, at Cover to Cover Booksellers, 1307 Castro Street, on June 3 at 7 p.m.

--Olivia Boler

The Night Garden by Pamela Holm. Excerpt published with permission. Copyright q 2005 MacAdam/Cage,
San Francisco.

The Night Garden

The morning traffic crept along, winding through the city like termites. As Dawn drove across town from her daughter's school in Pacific Heights to her first client in Noe Valley, she watched the styles transform. Like indigenous cultures where the weave of the cloth changes from village to village, signifying who belongs to which tribe, San Francisco residents exhibited a fashion solidarity that marked them as being from one neighborhood or the other.

Dawn drove past the women in Pacific Heights, clicking their way to the bus stop in pointy heals and ponchos. Through the Fillmore, where the boys looked like Ewoks in hooded sweatshirts and beltless jeans four sizes too large, held up by a fistful of denim as they walked liked they needed a diaper change. She drove down Divisadero until it crossed Market and turned into Castro, the queer mecca, where currency is measured in muscle mass. Dawn passed through the Mission, which hosted the unlikely combination of Latino gangland chic and lesbians camouflaged as 12-year-old boys.

It was easy to spot someone who had wandered out of their jurisdiction--like the tourists who'd escaped Fisherman's Wharf, the city's tourist containment area, standing on windblown street corners across the city wearing khaki shorts and sweatshirts they'd bought from street vendors when they realized their California destination was inhospitably freezing.

Swirling red and blue lights marked an accident on Dolores Street and offered an explanation for the knot of cars that had slowed to a crawl. As Dawn rolled past the chaos, she craned her neck to get a glimpse of someone having a worse day than she was. A car had run up onto the grassy median that divided the road and buckled against the trunk of one of the 30-foot palm trees that had lorded over the street for generations. An orange-haired woman leaned against a police car looking stunned and confused.

Dawn feared she had been wearing that same expression a lot these days. There was nothing particularly tragic about her life, but while others seemed to stay on the road toward their destination, she kept ending up sideways on the embankment, facing oncoming traffic, or leaning against the guardrail stunned and confused.

Life had always held an accidental quality for Dawn, unfolding in a series of surprises rather than plans coming to fruition. Breaking up with David was one her few measured decisions, but now, in the throes of her descent back to single life, the whole thing felt as accidental as any shipwreck she'd ever swum away from.

David was a large man, large in stature and attitude. He took up space, he filled rooms, he filled whole houses in the same way he filled his studio with paintings. David stood over six feet tall and could easily carry the extra 60 pounds that hugged his frame. He smoked, he drank. He spoke with a booming voice that annihilated conversations. David's convictions were immutable, bold, often offensive, and he had no inclination to edit them or soften his delivery. Yet people were drawn to him, and in the light of their adoration he grew even larger.

During the course of their relationship, Dawn had watched her friendships, one after the next, suffer at the hands of David's blanket statements and brutish comments, until her world had been whittled down to a small collection of thick-skinned people who were taken by David's charisma and who now disapproved of her decision to leave him.

There had been no choice. Dawn had felt herself collapsing under David's weight for years. Her desires swallowed, dwarfed. Still, Dawn found it difficult to reconcile the fact that the man she loved was simply too much. She had a history of leaving men who weren't enough, but she had no reference point for leaving someone because they were too much.

Dawn's Acme Pest Control truck slowly rolled past the accident. She would be 10 minutes late for her first appointment, but hoped they wouldn't mind; people were generally forgiving when they found a tall woman with raven hair standing on their doorstep dressed in white and loaded down with poison.

A woman with salt-and-pepper hair that framed her face like a librarian led Dawn to the kitchen while complaining about the stench of mice. When Dawn opened the cabinet, a flurry of mice dashed in all directions. It was easy for her to imagine how her clients could have let things get to this point. She'd seen it over and over, people seduced into inaction by their intruders' twitchy noses and translucent ears, the soft gray down of their fur, and their slender flicking tails. It was easy to be lulled into passivity by their monumental cuteness, a survival technique Dawn suspected worked only in mouse-to-human contact. She'd grown up with the cartoons too, and could effortlessly spin elaborate tales about mice that use wooden thread spools for tables and sleep in tiny matchbox beds, and when humans aren't looking, they dress up in clothes and speak with French accents. People were hard-pressed to admit the small rodents were three-dimensional, let alone consider them a problem, until it was too late and the stench of mouse piss permeated the house. It was usually at this point that compassion failed them and the exterminator was summoned.

"You've got a few choices here," Dawn explained while closing the cabinet door. "The easiest would be to get a cat."

"I'm allergic to cats," the librarian answered flatly.

"Okay then, I can lay some sticky traps."

"How does that work?"

"They capture the mice," Dawn said. "Then we come back and exchange the traps for new ones." The 12-by-12-inch trays of glue, in which the mice became lodged, then dislocated their limbs, and eventually starved to death, were never worth fully explaining to clients. Sticky traps sounded much kinder.

"Or I can set out some poison. The problem with poison is the mice tend to die just out of arm's reach, so the house might smell a bit gamy for a while."

The librarian squished up her nose like a rabbit.

"The most humane thing to do is set up a few have-a-heart traps. They catch the mice but don't kill them. Every day, you empty the trap outside and hope they don't find their way back in."

The woman listened intently and nodded.

"If we go with the humane plan, we need to find where the mice are getting in and seal it off. What's on the other side of this wall?" Dawn asked.

"The back yard."

"Let's take a look."

They stepped into the back yard, a beautifully manicured oasis of deep greens and browns. Dawn crouched down beneath the kitchen window and bent a tangle of weeds out of the way. "This looks like it," Dawn said, pointing to a gap between the sidewall and the foundation. She pulled some steel wool from her pocket and shoved it into the small hole. The back of Dawn's hand brushed against something prickly. "Ouch." She yanked her hand away quickly and rubbed it as white mounds erupted on her skin.

"Stinging nettles," the librarian said. "It's a tenacious weed, and hard to get rid of because the consequences of getting near it are so unpleasant." She bent down and sifted through the weeds. "But nature is very kind," she said, plucking a fuzzy leaf off its stem and rubbing it across the welts on Dawn's hand. "She never gives you a problem without leaving a solution close at hand."

"That's encouraging," Dawn said, watching the hives retreat. She looked around the yard. Everything was lush and tidy, a deep green fortress hidden from the city traffic, which whooshed by beyond the fence. Pink flowers clung like corsages to the waxy leaves of a tree. Brilliant ground cover grew in a soft bed around silvery bushes. A path meandered toward the corner of the yard, where a waterfall trickled down stones and into a pond. Dawn thought of her own yard and started to form the vaguest vision of how to tame the unruly mess. "Your yard is beautiful," Dawn said, walking toward the flowering tree.

"What's this?" Dawn pointed to a low tree loaded with drooping trumpets the color of butter.

"That's called brugmansia, or angel trumpet; the flowers are very poisonous. In Haiti they use them to turn people into zombies."

"Really?" Dawn tipped a flower so she could see inside.

"They're pollinated by bats."

Dawn let go of the blossom quickly, as if she'd had a bat's wing in her hand. "I thought prettier things did that work."

"In the daytime they do, but nighttime plants are the domain of bats and moths."

"My garden's such a mess I doubt that even bats and moths would have anything to do with it. I wouldn't know where to start."

"You get yourself a pair of leather gloves and go at it a little at a time," the librarian advised. "I did most of this while my husband was in chemotherapy."

"Is he all right?"

"No, he didn't make it. But I did," she said with a mix of sadness and triumph.

Dawn wrote out an invoice and left with a gardening catalog tucked into her bag.