Tag Archives: short story

Near and Far (Part 3 of 3)

“Flowers!  Flowers!  Get your flowers here!  Lots of shapes, colors and sizes.  Just like you say you like the folks in your neighborhoods!”

Maybe that wasn’t the best-ever approach to selling flowers, but with most people in their cars ignoring me altogether, it seemed as reasonable an approach as smiling.   That was the way I’d started out, if only because Julia and Tom had taken out all the yellow flowers out that I was allergic to.

When the traffic light turned orange, back to the curb with the bouquets I went.  Leaning on the shopping cart packed with floral arrangements, I watched the cars as they zoomed to what was unofficially the good side of town–their headlights freshly lit against the setting sun.  It was in this stream, Julia had said, that Tom had the best luck selling flowers.  Since he couldn’t stand to do it anymore, what exactly did luck amount to here?  Should I hope a rich old guy who’d cheated on his latest wife would pass by in his limousine all flower-crazed?

“You there!” he’d say.  “I’ll take the whole cart-full.”

“Sir,” I would say, “I can’t let a man of your stature buy these–not without an extremely significant mark-up in price.”

“I’m sure they’re worth every penny.  What they lack in a small but artful card attached, they make up for in being sold by a person of color on the street.  My wife loves that kind of thing!”

“Then you got it!” I’d say, able to head to the bake-off and see my friends win in one fell swoop.

The walk signal went up, and grinning at my daydream, I towed the yellow line as traffic crawled to a halt.  And then, after another sale-free round that I’d managed to smile through, I did it again sans smiling.  A guy in a green car hailed me over and bought some roses.  He was among a swath of passengers big on rolling their windows up as I got nearer.  But, after the woman in the car behind him watched as he rolled his window down to pay for the flowers, she raised a finger and bought a mixed bouquet.

When the sun went down, I should have headed for the pie contest, but in two hours, all I had sold was four bouquets (at five dollars).  Only the wind had picked up in the last half-hour.  I wanted to do just a little bit more, so as the traffic light turned red, I went out between the cars a little further–out of view of the cart.  There was no real logic to this, except some faint hope that maybe the people in the middle and back of traffic were in less of a rush to get to bars and restaurants in pretty neighborhoods.  Maybe they’d see me a bit more, even if they had little use for flowers.

“Flowers!  Flowers!  Get your flowers here!”

On the way back to the curb, the light turned green.  The oncoming cars were sparse, and I was surprised to feel the sense of panic that I did.  Maybe being hit by a car still affected me after all.

On my right, someone honked and I waited where I was for the car to pass.  But it didn’t.  Soon, a black compact pulled up next to me, and Jean, of the flower-planting lot, was in the passenger seat.  In the driver seat there was a husky, dark-haired guy.  The look he gave me suggested the distinct possibility that he hated my guts.

“I thought that was you,” Jean said, leaning over.  “So you hate flowers, and you sell them?”

“Yeah, I’m complicated like that.” I nodded at the driver.  “You want to buy some flowers for your lady friend, buddy?  Or, no wait, that’s not fair.”  I looked at Jean.  “Do you want to buy some flowers for him?”

The driver stared ahead.

“Be nice,” Jean told him.  I looked past her window to the cart with the rest of flowers, which someone in a gray cap was pushing it away.

“Shit!”

I ran for the curb.  In the next lane of the street, I held one of the bouquets up to signal a brown car to stop.  As it honked and braked in short sputters, the guy in the gray cap grabbed a bushel of bouquets from inside the cart — then he pushed the cart rolling toward the street.  I scrambled and tripped over the curb to secure it.

When I looked up, the man in the gray cap was dashing around a corner with a few bouquets.  With the two bouquets he’d dropped on the ground nearby, at least there was a bit less for me to have to re-invest in flowers.

Horns honked back in the street.  With a small queue of cars behind them, Jean and her driver were headed off in the direction of lots of restaurants, which was fitting, since they already kind of got to see a show.

I went to pick up the dropped bouquets before the wind caught in the wrapped paper and pulled them further away.

***

Before I joined my friends, I was supposed to leave the flower cart back at Julia’s place.  But that would have made me even later, so I took it with me.  It wasn’t all that different from pushing the mail cart at work.

The venue for the pie contest was the lobby of an art gallery.  There were a dozen people at the entrance, and the wind was gusting so that I and the remaining flowers in the cart breathed in their mixture of cigarette and choco-cigar smoke.  I stifled a cough and asked:

“I don’t suppose any of you want to buy any flowers?”

Eyebrows raised, but only a brown-skinned guy with a goatee and a faint accent answered.  “Nah, man,” he said.  “We’re good.”

I had to go in back-first to pull the cart in, and the wind pulled away the petals of some of the bouquets.  As I stepped inside the last possible ‘best pie’ was being tasted, and it wasn’t Limon’s and Julia’s.  Over at the top part of a three table set-up, a group of people swarmed around a pretty woman with an asymmetrical haircut.  Before I could turn —

“Hey,” a man in a leather jacket said, approaching me.  “You can’t bring that in here.  Nobody wants to buy any flowers.”

“I’m sorry.  I’m not actually trying to sell any.  Just here to see my friends.  Look, I’ll just tuck it right here by the door.”

The guy noticed we were starting to get the attention of the little crowd up front.   “How about you tuck it outside?”

“It’s pretty windy out there.  Some of them would blow away.”

“I really don’t care, guy.”

“Well, you should.  Check it.  Without flowers, you’ve got no charm at all.  But if I were to hand you one of these, well . . . It’s like night and day.”

The guy blinked then grabbed the other end of the cart.

“All right . . . I’ll take it out.”

Nodding, he didn’t let go until I was maneuvering the cart back through the door.  It was while I was doing this that Tom and Limon came over to us.

“Hey, Roger,” Tom said.  “I’ll put the rest of the flowers in my car.  They’re going to announce the winner soon, anyway.”

As Tom took the cart out, Limon shook his head.

“How is it that you can have that . . .”  Limon stopped to nod at a sculpture of a melted man in a corner.  “But you can’t let this cart stay up in here for five minutes?”

“I’m not going to try to explain how art works,” the man in the leather jacket said, then he went off to a small, crowded table where there was soda and wine.

Through the window, I could see traces of petals zipping through the air as Tom pushed the cart to his car.  Limon and I reluctantly joined Julia on the other side of the room, where there was a piece of pie waiting for me.  Most of our pie — a blueberry number — was already gone.  As we walked through the room, I noticed this wasn’t the case with most of the other pies.

Julia hit me lightly on my arm.  “Why’d you bring the cart?”

“I was trying to wait out some more buyers.  If I didn’t bring it, I would have missed this completely.”

My stomach was growling, but with Tom outside, it didn’t feel right eating the slice of pie with my name on it.  Limon, Julia and I simply waited for the contest results.

We got second place, behind a man who won with two apples and a banana in a pie crust.  Whip cream kept the smile in place.

“Hell no,” Limon said.  “They ate more out of our pie than anybody else’s, and we still get second place?”

“Well,” I said, “at least there’s a little left for later.”

Limon shot me a look.  “I don’t know why I thought you might actually know how I feel these days.  Except for trying to get out of the mail room, you pretty much gave up.”

“Whoa, I did take it seriously.  You’re kidding yourself if you think winning this wouldn’t have made you feel better about Nellie.”

Limon looked to Julia.  “Aight … Tell Tom I’m going to walk home.”

Julia stopped me from going after him.  “Just let him go,” she said.  “Second place isn’t so bad for somebody else’s contest, right?”

***

Years after my own heart was broken, I was walking into the street when a van backed into me and then took off.  I landed on the ground, just under the bumper of a light blue car.  All the air had been knocked out of me.  While the sidewalk was busy enough, no one noticed me.  I thought I’d lay there in pain forever until this brown-skinned woman found me.  She hung up on whoever she was talking to on the phone, and called the paramedics.  In and of itself, this seemed like a miracle, but she stayed long enough for me to be able to talk through the pain.  I remember that she lit up a little every time I spoke, though I can’t remember what I said–just her responses.  She was intelligent and nice and warm–and pretty to me.  And I couldn’t imagine, for the life of me, her being in tune with what already seemed so mapped out in life.

I saw her one more time, when I wasn’t so physically broken, and she raised her head, all excited to see me.  But it was like I was stuck in a tunnel of myself.  I couldn’t get out to say, “Hey.”

***

Tom managed to squeeze the cart in the backseat, and I sat next to it for the drive homeward.  Up front, Julia and Tom were both quiet.  I’d wanted to give them a trifle of a good night, but I’d come up short.  The wind howling around the car seemed to say as much.

I didn’t have anything to add until Tom mentioned something about a lot of bees.

“Those aren’t bees,” Julia said behind the wheel.  “They’re, um . . . petals.”

I squinted through the windshield.  “Yeah, I’d go with petals.”

“Huh,” Tom said.  “You know, they’re kind of nice not all bundled together, aren’t they?”

We all laughed, and I knew that without a night out trying to sell flowers to people in the street, those words wouldn’t have wrung a bit of humor for me.  When Julia put the windshield wiper on, we laughed again.  But under the ginger streetlight, the windswept swarm of petals made for something unique to pass through, and the ensuing quiet was not gloomy like the one before.  It was nice enough that I wished I wasn’t a third wheel.  Then it felt like I’d wandered into the path of the blunt side of a van all over again.

“Where do you think they’re coming from?” Julia said.

“Some kind of magic hippie,” Tom offered.

“I hope not,” I said.  “Pacifist that I am, I’d have to kick his ass before he started doing complicated handshakes with all the guys on corner-duty.”

When Julia turned on a street where there was one side of the local lot, I sat up.  The gusts of petals were coming from the garden there.  As Julia dropped me off near the garden, I sneezed as soon as the door to the car was open.  I told Tom and Julia they didn’t have to stay, but they seemed to be enjoying the site of all those petals swirling upward into the night sky.  Me, I sneezed again as I hopped over the fence inside.

With everything that used to be here cleared away, I spotted Limon immediately.  By the handful, he was tearing the yellow flowers away like they were weeds.

“Rodge,” Limon said, “you’re just in time to help me clear this crap out of here.”

My eyes watering up from the pollen, I shook my head.  “Is this really going to make you feel better?”

“It is,”  Limon said, yanking away another group of yellow flowers.  After he did that, he swiped at only the petals until he had bundles of them in both arms.  “She loves me not, and neither do any of those people who want these flowers here and us outta here.  They don’t have any love for anybody that’s been here they whole life, man.”

” I . . . ” I held up a finger, then sneezed and in that time, Limon was well on his way to tearing half of the garden away.  “Hey!  Will you hold up one moment?”

I put my hand on Limon’s shoulder, and he slapped my arm away.  More sinus than man, I stumbled back and fell on my ass.  Score another one for the magic hippie, wherever he was.

“Damn it, Roger,” Limon said.  He was out of breath.  “Why couldn’t you just help me out on this one?”

“I did . . . Look, there was nothing I could really tell you when it came to Nellie, but it wasn’t like I didn’t try.”

“Everything we went through here,” Limon said. “I just felt like she got that, but, at the end of the day . . . ”

“Yeah, look, I know.  How can it all just come to nothing, right?  Once you get that feeling, it’s like a big scar.  I mean, some people . . . you know they could care less about your existence, but when it’s someone you think might not like be that, it hurts worse.”

Limon reached out his hand to help me up.  When I was standing, I pointed to my face.  “The tears in my eyes . . . all allergy-based.”

Limon cracked a smile for a second, then slowly shook his head.  “Are we even here, if someone over there isn’t telling us that we got first place?  Even if it’s some stupid pie contest.”

“Yeah, we’re here.  Look, I’m not trying to defend these stupid flowers.  They’re far from people, and I’d be a complete chump if I did that.  It’s just, they already think everyone from here does stuff like tear them up.”

Limon took a breath.  “What now?”

“If they need flowers, they still have plenty.  And for once,” I said, pointing to Julia and Tom in the car, “some of us had a nice view when we needed it.”

“So that’s it then, huh?  Back to the mail room tomorrow when I feel like I can barely breath.”

I sneezed.  “I know the feeling.  Take another day off, if you can.  Just try not to sink into yourself like I did.”

Advertisements

Near and Far (Part 2 of 3)

Since Nellie told Limon that they’d always just been really good friends, he’d been using up a lot of his sick days.  And Julia, my other friend at work, was sort of floating through it, worried about her boyfriend giving up altogether.

After another day like this, I was passing by the lot on my way to the house that Limon’s mom owned — where I rented the basement.  It was raining and the flower pollen in the air was minimal.  Over in the lot, a pale freckled woman was planting something yellow throughout its grounds.  Her volunteers were limited today to the two guys  whom usually stood with their arms crossed.

“Hey, fellas,” I said, passing the part of the chain link fence they hung out at.  “I’m local, so you know what to do.”

Arms did, in fact, cross.

“Nice.”

I went further along the fence and stopped at the section I used to look out on some days when it was raining; there’d been a nice view of the overgrown weeds that smelled nice when the water hit him.

At some point, the woman waved to me.  “Hey!” she yelled.  “Would you like to help?”

“Heck no!” I yelled back. “And I mean that in the most polite way possible.”

Hell, that was why I used ‘heck.’

“What?”  She grinned and squinted, then headed over to my part of the fence.  Her glancing over at the volunteer guys put a stop to their slow advance.

“Hi,” she said.  “I’m Jean.  And you are?”

“Roger.”

“Where are you from?”

“Here,” I said.

“Oh, you don’t seem like it.”

“If you say so.”

“So why don’t you want to help?  Just don’t have the time, or . . .”

“Well, I’m allergic to what you’re planting, for one thing.  And honestly, I’m not sure who they’re for.”

“That’s a bit silly.  I mean, flowers are for everybody.”

“Then why are they usually in places that aren’t for everybody?”

“Yards don’t count, if that’s what you mean.”

I laughed a little.  “Not really, no.”

“Well . . . I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’ve been getting some positive feedback from other people around here.”

“People who are, like, around here all the time?  When it’s not a rush hour?”

“I’m sure, yes.”

I nodded.  “Cool.”  I started walking south when Jean spoke again.

“Don’t you want this place to be . . .”  She spent a moment searching for the right words.

What were they?   Decent?  Pretty?

“Look, I just know that–whatever flowers weren’t here–it’s already been some people’s everything.  People left us to it until it was back near some pretty place on a map or something.”

“So what?” she said.  “You think I’m doing all of this just for who exactly?”

I looked back and shrugged.  “Beats me.”

***

I opened the door to my basement apartment at the house Limon’s mother owned, and found her son sitting with his head in his hands on the couch.  The smell that wafted through the vents upstairs was nice.  Hopefully I could some swing some dinner out of it.

“Hey, buddy,” I said.  “Unless my rent is due, I’m going to have to ask you to sob upstairs.”

Limon didn’t look up.

“Phil said your sick days are running out.”

Limon lifted his head and rubbed his eyes.   “That sounds about right.  But look, check it.”  He tapped a flyer on the table..

I went and picked it up: “‘Pie as Art — City bakeoff contest.'”

“Her people–they do these things, and then they talk about how this or that is the best in the city.  But we’re never in play, right?”

“No, I guess not.  So this contest is tomorrow night and you’d want to enter with what?  I can bake in theory, and since it’s probably the same for you, that doesn’t add up to a whole lot.”

“We’ll use my mom’s recipe.  I would have told her about it, but contest rules say that things have to be baked on the premises.  There’s something about my mom being judged there that don’t sit right with me.”

I closed one eye and took a breath.  “All right, man.  I’ll help you bake this pie.  Hopefully the power of friendship trumps all.”

Limon slowly nodded.  “Good.  I already went over there and signed up.  It’s just, it’s the only winnable thing right now.  I know it sounds stupid.”

I shrugged.  “It sounds less stupid than clubbing.  Anyway, I’m starving.  Do you think your mom would let me have some of whatever she’s making?”

“I kind of ate it all ready,” Limon said.

“Oh, well . . . It’s cool.  I’ve been there.  Lots of emptiness to deal with plus food equals . . . . yeah.  I’ll put something together for myself.”

“I went to raid your refrigerator, but you didn’t have anything.”

I scratched my head.  “You mean that glass of water isn’t even half-full anymore?”

“Nope.  Shit, um . . . One of Nellie’s friends tweeted that they’re having a party.  I’ve been to the place before; plenty of food. If you really are hungry . . .”

“Do you think Nellie will be there?”

“Maybe, but it’s not her party.  Dude who tweeted it used to always want to talk to me about hip-hop.”

“You know what?  You deserve to go to a party and not be someone else’s ticket to street cred.  I want that for you, man.”

Limon sat up, chuckling a little.  “Yeah, all right.”

“We won’t even be five minutes.”

***

After they talked about some music video, the guy Limon knew let us in at the door of his building.  We got some dirty looks as we moved through the hallway–mostly from Nellie’s friends, I imagined.  Limon was probably breaking some cardinal rule of dating that I’d never really bothered to keep up with.

Nellie, wearing a green headscarf, was in the middle of a bunch of people over by a bookshelf.  Limon stopped at doorway when he saw her; I tapped him at the shoulder and went straight for the table with all the food.  I sensed a general disquieting by the books, but the other guy at the table nodded at me.

“Hey,” I told him.  “What’s on the menu?”

“Chips.  Something that looks like it should taste like syrup, but . . .”  He shook his head.  “It don’t taste like syrup.  And, uh, some kind of pasta salad thing.”

“Is that last thing great?”

“Not really.”

The guy assured me he didn’t want anymore, so I lifted the whole platter up.  When I turned around, Nellie was standing there.  Her eyes scanned me up and down; they stopped at the platter and then my hair for a little while, until I said:

“My eyes are up here.  I’d point to them, but I don’t feel like I should have to right now.”

“Um, okay . . . You’re Roger, right?  I don’t think we’ve ever really talked.”

I looked back at the doorway; Limon was gone.

“How is he?” Nellie asked.

“Not great.”

She nodded.  “I’m very sorry to hear that, ’cause, whatever he thinks, I really do care about him.  Can you tell him that?”

Some red-haired guy was swishing his head a lot in our direction; he was head and shoulders over the rest of the bookshelf group.  “Hey, Nellie,” he called out.  “Is everything okay?”

When she said “yeah,” I headed for the door.  Then I heard her tell him to let us have the food.  My head dropping, I put the platter down near the door.

“Um, it’s an art thing,” I offered.  “Speaking of which, if you like pie, come to that bakeoff two nights from now.  My friend and I are going to reproduce the best pie in this city, and in doing so, redeem all the people who used to live in this building before they got kicked out.  That is all.”

I found Limon out in the hallway by himself.

“I think she’s going out with that guy with the red hair now,” he said.

“Yeah?  I guess that makes sense.”

“If you heard her on stage, it wouldn’t.”

Together, Limon and Nellie had been big on spoken word clubs.

“Your problem is you’re thinking about it,” I told him.  “Let’s go to Julia’s.  If you have to think about something, think about how the hell we’re going to make a pie even with a recipe.”

***

It may have been falling apart, but Julia had a great little porch.  Two of the steps were stable at just the right height from the concrete.

There was a warm undertone to the chill in the air, so the three of us sat there, trying to deal with the knowledge that Julia couldn’t join our pie venture because she had to cover her boyfriend Tom’s rush hour shift.  He’d been getting up less and less for it, and she had to make up the difference.

“Hey,” I said, “can I go in and see him?”

Julia shrugged.  “You can, if you believe you can.”

Limon stared across the sidewalk into our reflection in a car door.  “It probably won’t do any good,” he said.  “Ah, well.  Hey, Jules.  Did they start planting flowers around here yet?”

“I wish they would,” she said.  “We could sell ’em.”

“Maybe,” Limon said, “but that’s all they’d let you do here after a while.”

I went inside and found Tom sleeping on the couch.  Its fourth seat was empty, so I took a running leap into it.  Tom did not stir.

“Hey, Tom.  It’s Roger.  You gave me a ride a couple of times with Julia, remember?”

“Yeah,” he said meekly.  “I remember.  Is your heart still broken?”

“It was my chest actually–my breastplate, if you want to be technical.  But no, it’s not too broken anymore.”

“I hope it heals all the way.”

“Yeah?  Well, thanks.  So what’s up with you?”

“I’m just tired, man,” he said.  “When I’m out there in the street, nobody even sees me.”

“I’m sure selling flowers at red lights isn’t easy, but you’ve got Julia, and you know, she’s really sweet, got a good head on her shoulders, and she sees you.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “But I don’t know what she sees in me.”

“That is a bit of a mystery.”

Tom let out a small laugh.

“Try to get up soon,” I told him.

He nodded his head up and down.

“Just so I know, that is a nod, right?  With you lying down, it also kind of looks like you’re shaking your head.”

“It was a nod,” Tom said.

I waited for him to get up, but he didn’t.  When I got outside, only Julia was there.  She patted the empty piece of stairs next to her.

“So, why did you take Limon to that party?”

“I can’t help but feel like this is a bit of a loaded question, so I’m going to go with, ‘Because I’m an idiot.'”

“It’d be hard enough if she just broke up with him, but seeing her with someone he thinks is on a whole different level . . .”

“That’s the way of the world.”

Julia shook her head.  “When was the last time you felt a connection with someone?  Do you even try anymore?”

“Not really.  It’s like, you know how at the agency every couple of months, I apply for something out of the mail room.  I’m never quite enough there, though.  There.  Here.”

“Enough of what?” Julia said.  “None of that matters to any woman worth having a connection with.”

I hopped up.  “I know that . . . Hey, look, I’m going to cover Tom’s shift tomorrow night.  You should help Limon.”

Julia turned away from me and slowly nodded.  “I do have mad baking skills.”

“You do.  And I should still be there for the judging of that pie contest.”

“You better be,” she said.

My stomach growling, I took the long way home.

***

To be continued

Story excerpt

Later, I waited at the curb for the bus, which I would ride until I figured out how to deal with the presence of Death—or at least until the bus stopped running. The thing of it was that I never really thought about death all that much. Sometimes the prospect of just how disenchanting life could be seemed like it could stretch on forever. Now, Death may have been at home, waiting for me.

Someone with a deep voice tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, sir, but your epidermis is showing. You might want to take care of that.”

——————————————————————————————–

All of “Our Mutual Friend” over at Garbled Transmissions.