Chapter 1--Tabula Rasa
Shock works that way. A person runs on automatic. I read that once. Like an old movie projection camera rolling in slow motion. Click, click, click. The film sticks. Celluloid melts. My fate-- part of the mangled frames. I never believed in fate until now.
"Wes, you make your fate," my father used to say.
Tabula rasa. Blank slate. Clean slate. Or Fate? Was it easier to blame Fate? Or easier yet to blame myself?
I recall some of what happened before, but like celluloid shredded in that projector's wheel beyond repair I wonder--who I am--really?
The day started uneventful. I opened the flower shop at 8:00 am by flipping the "We're Open" sign in the front window. A quiet end of the work week, and the neatly written delivery orders for the day all organized-- waiting for me to pull out from today's delivery box.
Deliver to, deliver when and deliver what.
All written in black or blue ink.
I'm a 'flower designer'. Years ago, when I decided to go into the profession, the regulars at local bar my dad frequented teased me with cliché homosexual barbs-- "Hey, gay boy. Wanna twist my tulip?" To my father, it was no joke. Hell, my father asked me, "What are you-- some fag? Only pansies play with the flowers all day," or "do you have to wear that smock after work, too?"
I saw it another way altogether.
This profession orders my life. I feel calm and centered arranging flowers. Little stress except on Valentine's and Mother's Day. For the most part, clientele are thoughtful and kind. After all, aren't they thinking of others when they buy? I love this job. I don't make much. But my aspirations are modest-- to own my own shop one day. Let those who believe that only gay men work in flower shops be damned. Besides, every floral designer wears a smock-- it's practical.
It's beauty. It's nature. It's trying to improve on beauty and nature. There are days I wonder, will this woman receiving this centerpiece think I've improved on the simple beauty or will she think it's a travesty? Is it silly to even try to improve on what God made?
Why stop there? How silly was it to even try to change my father's mind?
Then there are other days. The days I'd think about quitting the flower design business. The creative half of my life calls. Playing guitar in a rock band isn't respectable employment. At least it doesn't make respectable income. The world is filled with talented washed up old musicians. I'm not old yet, but hey, some of the guys in the band are. They've dreamed that same old dream. That same dangling golden carrot of fame that keeps me chasing too. But Mac's Place, the local dive, or what ever trumped up place the recent manager has us play, wouldn't pay the mortgage. While live entertainment is refreshing next to dead floral recipients and jumping on stage better than waiting on family members of the dearly departed, I can't exist on the few measly dollars paid on weekends playing with the band.
Designing wreaths and funeral baskets during the day-- playing my Gibson at night, my dad had another word for a guy who does this: "bum."
I read over the orders and started working. Alan will come in about 9:30 to deliver flowers then water the green house. I dislike Alan. He's the only one who works here or ever worked here that I've disliked. Actually, I like about everyone. But for Alan, the male slut, I make an exception. I don't like his casual attitude toward women. He's a user. I've watched him seduce one nice girl after another then throw them aside like old newspapers-- the one too many came after he broke my sister Karen's heart.
He'll never change.
I had plenty of time to design the thirteen orders on the board-- with a funeral at 11:00 and a couple of the orders asking for morning delivery. I noticed one asked for last delivery of the day; I'd taken it. I can't remember when. Sometimes orders get as jumbled in my head as my scratchy handwriting on the forms.
I walked out the back room door down the well worn stairs to the walk-in cooler. The chill made welcome goose bumps on my arms. The hot summer morning fell away inside. I stood a moment and wrapped my arms around myself in one big hug-- just feeling alive. I thought, hey, maybe this is kind of a gay thing to do, but I needed to shake off the feeling I've had since the moment I got out of bed that morning. The kind of feeling that makes a person think this is trouble. That this day is not gonna be good. I tried to put a name to this feeling-- to this day-- as I stood crisp and chilled inside the cooler, but a name wouldn't come. Instead I bent and pulled three bunches of the baker fern from the large waxed box at my feet. I gathered seven yellow glads, a bunch of bronze mums, eight or so mixed carnations and pushed the feeling from my mind.
Hands full, I walked back up the steps happy I didn't need to fill out any of the cards. My boss always bitches about my handwriting. The boss wrote them for me the day before mumbling-- "I hired you because you're a good, fast designer, but I sure wished I'd known you wrote like a second grader."
Proved I'm not a fag. Now, if I was gay, I'd have neat and flowery handwriting-- not chicken scratch.
Today I planned to be a good, fast designer. I planned to leave work early and enjoy what was left of the nice hot July day… cool lake water, hot sand, a few Millers, relax.
Saturdays at the flower shop were generally a bust. Most afternoons, we employees closed the doors early without missing a single call. I hoped today's the same. I always called the local funeral homes first and made sure no one important died. When I'd tell my friends I did this, they'd tell me it sounds crass, but I explained, that's the way the business works.
I was on the phone taking an order when Alan pulled up in the shop's Michigan, cancer ridden, Ford van. Brakes announcing his arrival from half way down the block. The boss needed to invest in new brake shoes. The over used delivery truck had been resuscitated too many times over. Alan lovingly referred to the van as his Long Tall Sally. I think she's about the only girl in a hundred mile radius that he hasn't tried to screw.
Alan stumbled up the steps. Jeez this guy never quits partying. Alan smelled of a special blend of Old Spice and Aqua Velva, completely out of place on the flower room floor. He deludes himself into thinking that splashing around, aftershave after one of his regular benders, covers stale cigarette smoke, pot and whiskey.
I finished taking the order long before Alan schlepped up the steps.
"Late night again," I observed.
"It was fantastic, wow. You should been there, wow. The music was so loud I can still feel the vibration in my brain, man. Wow…"
God. Did he consciously punctuate his sentences with "wow" or was he really that fucking dense?
"Anyhow, did you know that the weirdest thing happened there last night," Alan said eyes shut, rubbing his forehead. "Wow, me and Sid were sittin' at the bar between the bands sets. We were talkin' to this dude…I can't remember his name. Anyhow he asks me, 'Don't you work at that flower shop?' and I say, 'You mean Keller's Greenhouse?' and he answers, 'Yeah, I thought I saw you today when I ordered flowers. You're supposed to deliver them to my mom tomorrow.' I said, 'Wow.'"
"What the fuck's weird about that?" I studied Alan. His eyes still shut-- a confused look on his face, then a bit of clarity-- remembering.
"It's not what he said, it was how he said it. The way he acted," he hesitated, waiting for the words to come. "After the guy went back to his table, he kept staring at us all night long. Sid said he even followed him into the John. I think he is some pervert or something."
"Wish I was there," I said. Oh Hell, why even try to hide the sarcasm in my voice? I sighed and added, "Sounds like I missed a lot of fun."
Alan opened his eyes looking directly at me for the first time.
"Fuck you. I'm getting to the point. He asked about you," Alan said.
"Yeah, he asked me about the young good-looking guy with the dark hair and intense blue eyes."
Shit, some other old fart thinking I was gay again. I looked over the orders on the floor ready for delivery and blinked, trying to figure out which one was his, which one belonged to this man.
"He asked your name, and how long you'd worked here. You know, if you grew up here, stuff like that."
"You didn't tell him anything did you?" I fumbled with the corner of my smock. Shit.
"I told him your name is all, and maybe your address," Alan looked down at his feet, scratching his head.
"You don't go telling people you think are perverts other people's names and addresses. Alan, you prick! What were you thinking? Or should I say drinking?" I could feel my cheeks flush and pushed my hands into my pockets to still them. I could have throttled Alan. The dumb fuck. Well, Alan wasn't a friend-- but no one should share that information.
"Actually, I was up to my seventh shot of whiskey about then," Alan said. I began searching my brain trying to determine who. Which order was this that I took?
"About how old is this guy? What did he look like?" he asked.
"I don't know. I don't check guys out. Are you interested?"
"Jeez, you don't remember his friggin' face? Were you that drunk?" I studied Alan. He probably was that drunk. His face had that ashen 'I've just spent the morning puking my guts out' look. Still, he had an incredibly high tolerance to alcohol, I probably would too if I drank seven nights a week. I hesitated then asked, "Would Sid remember?"
"Well, he didn't have much last night," he paused. "He was the designated driver."
"He's always the designated driver. At least with you. What's Sid's number?"
"What are you gonna do? Make a personal call on business time?"
"Shut up, give me the number. I left my cell at home. You give out my personal information to a strange pervert and then you won't give Sid's number."
"Surprised ya don't know it."
"I've never called him for before. He's your best friend."
"Ok, it's 555-5463, but I guarantee you he's still in bed sleeping."
"Too bad," I pointed receiver at the show room floor. "You better get those deliveries out. The Moore funeral is at 11:00, so you'd better move your ass."
"Ok, sorry," Alan bent down to pick up the arrangement off the floor. I noticed he was holding his head as he did. I couldn't help wishing his brains would splat out on that dirty door runner. "Wow, you can be so touchy sometimes. Are you PMSing it or something?"
"Shut up!" I threw my pen as hard as I could at Alan. It clipped him on the very same temple the stupid ass had rubbed a moment before. Satisfaction. I turned and dialed Sid's number, thinking that maybe throwing a pen might be something a gay guy might do.
"After you get done with Sid, maybe you could call '1-800 be my gay lover.' Oh, wait. You don't have to-- you're finally calling Sid." He grabbed the funeral basket and stumbled out the door fast.
The phone rang and rang, and I was about to hang up when I heard Sid's voice.
"Hello? Sid?" I asked before realizing I'd gotten Sid's machine instead. Why do people put messages on their machines with those false hellos? You think it's them but it's only Memorex. I chewed on my fingernail waiting for the damn tone. Either he must never pick up his messages or else he's really popular.
"Sid? This is Wes. At the flower shop. Call me. It's about last night. Alan gave my name to some shit at the bar, and I guess you were there." I looked up, and Alan was coming back to load up other deliveries. "I want to know what Alan told him… Exactly. Bye."
"I said I was sorry," Alan whined. "Wow. Don't be so intense."
I filled the order I'd taken before Brainless got to work, then went down in back to clean the cooler. Hopefully Alan would be out delivering for a while. He was useless on the floor with customers. As long as he stayed out in the greenhouse or delivered, I was fine. He spent more time trying to pick up college girls than waiting on the trade. And besides, Mr. Keller didn't like him answering the phone. The last time we let Alan take a call, he insulted the district representative of FTD, saying that wearing a hat with 'fucking Mercury wings' on it was 'gay.'
I didn't want to talk to him right now. To distract myself, I dug into the weekly cooler cleaning. This, my least favorite job at the shop, was always left for the designer who worked Saturday. Usually me. I especially hated old baby's breath. At room temperature the stems "mature" into a fragrant treat within 24 hours. Left on the showroom floor then stored in the cooler a week, the lacey flowers acquire an engaging scent-- something like cat piss. I left the baby's breath for last. Alan got back from deliveries in time to see me dump the buckets down the drain and wash them out with bleach. I smiled. Alan went straight to the greenhouse to water. Yeah, go hide, you ass.
Today I decided I hate Alan.
When I'm pissed, there's only one thing to do-- eat.
With no one 'capable' around to cover me to go out for lunch today, I packed a peanut butter sandwich, salad, chips and jumbo Butterfinger bar. I left the salad and ate the junk food. What I really wanted was fried chicken, potatoes and gravy. I swiped all the stems off the counter to the floor and took a seat in the back room, crunching croutons I picked out and pretended they were extra crispy chicken. Alan must have snuck back through the back greenhouse, because I heard him whistling Bohemia Rhapsody off key while watering.
The rest of the afternoon I spent watching the faded battery powered clock. Alan took off to deliver again. Finally, it was 3:00. Orders were up and done and out. All but one. The one left for 'the last delivery of the day.' It sat there waiting for Alan. Hell, I sat there waiting for Alan. There weren't that many deliveries.
I'd just hung up from the customary Saturday funeral home call when Sid called me back.
"Alan told him your name," Sid said, "and how long you worked at the flower shop by the tenth shot of what ever it was the other guy was buying. You know Alan-- you can't get him to shut up when he's drinking."
"The guy was buying Alan drinks?"
"Yeah, he bought a few. Sorry Wes, but when he asked Alan where you lived, he blurted out the street before I could drag Alan off the stool."
"What a lush," I realized I was fumbling with the corner of my smock again and stopped since it might look kinda gay. "What did this guy look like?"
"Older guy, about in his late forties, hair graying on the sides. Longer hair then you'd expect someone his age-- maybe one of those old hippies. Nice expensive suit though. Either an Armani or a good knock off."
"I remember him now. He ordered the bud vase with the three yellow roses. He picked them out himself and wrote the card," I glanced down on the delivery room floor. "It's the last delivery of the day. Alan said that the flowers were for his mom. Is that right?"
"Yeah, I think so. Alan talked to him a while. The guy was different. Maybe it's just me, but I coulda sworn he followed me into the bathroom after I pulled Alan off the bar stool."
"Alan said he was a pervert."
"Alan calls everyone a pervert. Occurred to me he might be trying to get some action in the bathroom, or maybe he just had to piss," Sid said.
"Wait… someone's on the other line. Gotta go. Thanks Sid."
"Don't mention it." I picked up the other line.
I knew it.
It was Alan.
"It's my Sally. I think she's gone. She started making this grinding noise then smoke started pouring out of her. She's broken down here on Woodward Street."
"Tom's Tavern is on Woodward. I hear Tom in the background. Get back to the shop now. That excuse sucks. You used it two weeks ago. Funny how Sally broke down on the same street."
"No kidding?! What a coincidence!" Alan said.
"You ass! You get back here. The last delivery is from that weird guy. You are not going to stick me with this one."
"I'm really telling the truth. Sally is busted." I heard his slurred voice and imagined throwing something heavier than my pen at him, like throwing my fist into that smug nose.
"Alan, I swear, I'll tell Mr. Keller you did this, and you'll get fired." That sounded thin.
"What? What was that? Is this the guy that makes personal calls? I'm sorry that Sally broke down, but I am stuck here until Ballard's Towing can get to me. Should be about, say, five pm."
"Five! Alan! I don't want to deliver these flowers."
"Listen, I'm sorry this happened. But it's just his mother not him."
"God, Alan. I don't believe you. All right, I want to get out of here before five. I'll drop the flowers off."
"Don't ever let anyone tell you that you're a fuck, okay Wes?"
"Go to Hell, Alan."
"Fuck you," I heard the phone click, and stared at the receiver. "You ass hole."
I was pissed. More than pissed. I went to the cash register, put the cash drawer away in the safe, grabbed my keys out of my pocket while saying every word of profanity I knew. I picked the bud vase off the floor, slapped over the "We're Open" sign, and took out the last delivery of the day for that lazy no-good Alan.
Now I'll have to wash my car besides being inconvenienced. Of course the delivery had to be a rural one.
After working in the floral business for years, I understood rural addresses-- odd on one side, even on other, numbers east and west, letters north and south, county line the divider. I pulled the card off the flowers to second check the street name. Written clearly on the envelope was 48965 North 43rd. I drove down 43rd Ave and just past 48922 on the left-hand side. I knew the house I was searching for was on the opposite side and close. I drove right by the dented mailbox before realizing I'd gone past. Checking my cracked rear view mirror for cars or large farm equipment, I backed up. The dirt driveway lay hidden behind an old sugar maple next to the letterbox. I turned in and bounced down the wash board driveway praying my shocks would survive. Would this drive ever come to an end? The way curled left around a small pond-- grass and tall weeds ate into the drive. The guy sure didn't help around his mom's much. I put the car in park and pulled the card off the arrangement and read the name. Lancaster.
I grabbed the bud vase box and got out of the car. The house looked vacant-- faded tied bundles of Newsweek, Time and the local paper stacked up high against the railings on the porch. It wasn't vacant though. I heard Billy Joel's "Up Town Girl" drifting faintly out from the white paint chipped window frame.
I stepped up and knocked on the wooden screen door while Billy sang louder.
I wrapped on the door again-- louder this time. I was about to leave the vase on the steps with a quick note when she came to the door. She sure didn't look like anybody's mother.
"Emma Lancaster?" I asked. Tall, strawberry-haired with stunning blue eyes and pouting lips. Skin perfect ivory with rich pink undertones and light freckles sprinkled her nose. Beautiful-- without one swipe of artificiality. Her matronly apron and plain a-line dress didn't hide the classic hourglass figure beneath.
"No, I'm Glenda. Are those for Emma?"
"Yes, mam." I couldn't guess her age. Her dress was old, yet she looked timeless.
"Thanks so much." She played with her reading glasses to get a better look at the flower shop's packing box. She silently read the 'propaganda' about the flower shop (shop name, phone number, address and some horse shit about wiring flowers anywhere in 24 hours). Then she looked up and studied me with the same intensity as she had just studied the box.
"You're welcome," I said. The lady started to close the door and then hesitated.
"I see you have greenhouses… do you know anything about growing roses?"
"A bit, we raise them. The ones you have in that bud vase we grew."
"How perfect! Would you mind much coming out to the back garden and looking at ours? I'm afraid we have some rather sick tea roses. Em is beside herself. Her grandma gave her the cuttings from them…won a distinguished award in Great Britain for them. She was a true horticulturalist. Let me just set these down and if you would be a sweetheart follow me out to the garden?"
I wanted to get to the beach and beers, but no need to be rude-- and I was here on business. Damn that Alan. I followed her.
"Yes, right back here is our little garden." We walked on what looked to be deer path through the tall grass and weeds-- I yanked off burdocks that leapt up and stuck to my crusty old levis as we walked. As I stumbled, I noticed some beautiful perennials among the weeds. This once was a garden, too. Beebalm, coneflowers and different varieties of hostas spotted the pathway but were being choked out by wild garlic. In front was a large fieldstone wall with old grape vine, nightshade and Virginia creeper invading its crevices. I stepped around the poison ivy. As I walked behind this Lancaster woman watching her nice hind end sway back and forth, I noticed the 'deer path' was not a deer path at all. Years of rain and topsoil half buried the old yellowed bricks of the walkway. So this was Glenda, the good witch from the north walking ahead of me! I half giggled at the thought. She was beautiful-- had an other-world look to her. She would look right at home inside a bubble-- all she needed was the gown and a wand.
Or maybe not. I recalled Alan and the man with too many questions. It didn't help that I stayed up half the night before watching the old Alfred Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest. I imagined the woman ahead of me as something evil. Glenda was not what she appeared... I wondered if she had a dagger in that paisley apron. Next she'll turn slowly and pull that six inch shiny dagger out, and I'll be so much chuck roast.
I ducked. Hey, wake up. It's just a low elm branch.
I ducked again and pushed aside the vines in the way of a threshold. Was I daydreaming again? It did look a bit like Oz.
"This is a little garden?" I wondered aloud. "Why, this is magnificent. If mom was alive and saw this, she be in paradise. She'd swoon."
"Why, thank you," she said. "That is so sweet. I didn't know young people still used the words like 'swoon' anymore. Hmmm… The roses are over here. Hmmm, yes. As you can see they are in dreadful condition, dreadful. We are stymied as to what ails them." The Lancaster lady even sounds like Glenda the good witch.
I bent down for a look and touched the leaves. The brown edges crumbled beneath my finger tips. I noted the buds on the plants were malformed and turned the leaves examining them further.
"I don't see any pests," I said. " It seems to only be affecting this particular variety here and none of the others. No, I'm sure it's not pests gnawing-- and definitely not mildew. I'm no expert though. I'll ask my boss on Monday. I'll need to take a sample of the leaves. He'll probably have to come out and look at this himself to make a diagnosis. I'll need your phone number."
"It's 555-3691. Here, I'll write it out for you," she reached into her apron. I flinched. Good. No knife. Just a pad and paper. Over-active imagination running away again.
"No, that's fine. I have a memory for numbers, phone numbers. I don't forget them," I said. "They just stick in my brain along with all the useless trivia I know-- like the complete history of the Beatles and REM or everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask about the Trojan War."
"That's nice," she said. I realized I was rambling and standing up I caught my Levi's on one of the afflicted rose branches. As I pulled it off, a thorn caught in my finger.
"Oh dear," Glenda said. "I'm sorry."
"I work in a flower shop. Happens to me all the time." True, but I still hated it. I caught the thorn between my front teeth and pulled, spitting it out into the poison ivy. Sometimes the tip of the thorn will break off and start an infection. I'd always bleach my hands at work, partly to get off the green tinge that comes from cutting stems off flowers all day, and partly to way-lay any infections from noxious rose thorns.
I said good bye and walked to my car, sucking at the sore spot on my damaged finger. She seemed nice enough. Distracted, I put the car in reverse and backed out. Gripping the steering wheel on the way down River Drive, I brushed the tender part of my finger and felt an invisible spark of pain. Yep, part of that darn thorn was still lodged there, probably festering already.
That's when I noticed the card sitting on the passenger seat.