When it comes to gardening, I'm all thumbs. And those thumbs are black. I tell myself that's because I don't like gardening. Spending my time bent over digging weeds out of the ground and separating the good earth worms from the bad, root nibbling grubs is not my idea of relaxation. I find it difficult to understand how it's anyone's idea of relaxation.

You may not live anywhere near me, but you know my yard. It's the one with the foot-tall grass. Don't worry, it's not going to grow any taller. It's dead from lack of water. The backyard? Well, if the front yard looks like the Amazon, the backyard looks like the Sahara. So, I decided that if I couldn't grow flowers I'd grow cactus. I didn't think I'd be any better at keeping them alive. But I did expect it to take me much longer to kill them.

I asked my friend, Mo - and no, that's not his real name. It is, however, for reasons that will become obvious what I call him now. So, I asked my friend Mo where I could buy some cactus.

"You don't pay for cactus," he said. "Not in the Rio Grande Valley, you don't."

"You don't?"

"No, you don't. It grows wild here. Everywhere. If you went into a nursery and asked for cactus, the only thing that would keep them from laughing at you would be that they're so busy licking their lips. They'd think anyone who was stupid enough to buy cactus in the Rio Grande Valley would pay good money for anything. Special Cactus gravel. Cactus water sprayer. Cactus mealy bug spray."

"Cactus get mealy bugs?"

"No, they don't. That's my point. They'd sell you half the store. I tell you what we'll do. We'll go out and get us all the cactus you want."

The problem, of course, was that I didn't want that much cactus. I thought it would probably be easier just to buy it. I said as much to Mo. But he insisted I get into his 67 Ranger, a truck he insisted was a classic, even if the air-conditioner didn't work. Like most "classics," it had been shiny and new once. It had a color once, as well. Mo insisted that color had been red. Now it was dented and had a dull, pocked, rust patina. The only thing shiny about it were bright scratches in the rust along the fenders and doors.

So, Mo and I headed out to the Free Cactus Market. This hidden, free enterprise gem is located on 281 a little south of Falfurrias. I'm still not entirely sure where on 281. We passed that little gas station with the sign "Coldest Beer" that closed down three years ago, and the turn-out with the sign in Spanish that Mo insists says, "Last stop before the Border checkpoint."

Somewhere along there, Mo exclaimed excitedly, "There they are!" What he actually said was, "There they is!" But in deference to his family I've done my best to keep him from sounding like Larry the Cable Guy.

I have to admit, I was expecting something along the lines of a No Kill Humane Society for Botanical Strays. Instead, all I saw was a ragged line of cactus growing along the barbed wire fence. I'm no expert on cactus, but these were twisted in odd shapes that made me wonder if there was a secret government base close by that was leaking radioactive waste into the area. If there is such a thing as zombie plants, these cactus qualified.

I was supposed to go out and pick some of that? And then plant it in my back yard? If I had something like that growing in my back yard I wouldn't be able to sleep at night.

But, I was again mistaken. With a hoop of joy, and without slowing down, Mo swerved across the shoulder and into the thickest, knottiest lump of cactus.

Tires screeched, gravel flew, somewhere behind us the long blast of an air horn let us know we weren't alone, or appreciated. Cactus flew into the air, twisting in the air, then falling and hitting the ground with a thud. Barbed-wire-scraping rusted fenders rang in my ears, sounding remarkably like fingernails-on-chalkboard. I knew now where the bright scratches came from.

"There you go," Mo said happily, handing me a pair of worn work gloves. "Pick up as much as you want and throw it in the truck bed. You just stick it in the ground. It grows like weeds."

Someone pulled up, and a concerned voice asked, "Is everything okay?"

"My friend is an idiot," I said. "I'm reasonably certain that is genetic, permanent, and not contagious. Otherwise, I think we're in one piece. By the way, could you give me a ride into town?"