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.
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?”
“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?”
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.
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