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Arrangements by Charles Watts

 

Charles Watts earned his MFA from Brown University in 1992, studying with writers that included Robert Coover, Meredith Steinbach, Michael Ondaatje, and Hortense Calisher. Charlie went on to work as a paralegal, a publications assistant, and a communications consultant. He and his wife, a chaplain, have three grown children.

1st place - 2015 Raymond Carver Contest

 

To her, the man standing in the center of her flower shop resembled a brightly painted piñata. She had the immediate sense that if she were to beat him open with a small bat, there would be nothing inside but strips of Spanish-language newspapers. His pants were cornflower blue, set off by a white shirt so crisp she thought it might be plastic. His skin was glazed.

“Hello.”

.  .  .

To him, the woman tending the store seemed angry. She was jamming big-headed flowers into a metal vase as if they had mistreated her. Her eyes were dark and set closely together. Her gaze was like a punch. She was wearing a sleeveless denim shirt and on the top of her left shoulder was a tattoo. He could tell it was fresh because the blues and yellows were backlit by swelling. It was either the head of a cougar or motor gears that didn’t mesh. Either way, it looked like a shape that was about to change.

“Hello.”

.  .  .

The woman turned away and went back into the cooler to bring out another tall bucket of flowers. They were plain purple asters, but her husband had convinced her to label them Monte Casino so she could charge a dollar more a stem. As she placed the bucket in its stand, she saw the man running a finger along the thick border of Queen Anne’s lace she had included in the center display. He looked to her like the kind of man that might run his finger in under the waistband of her underwear when they were walking in public. As if it were a gift.

“Can I help you?”

.  .  .

The man looked away from the woman because he felt he might answer incorrectly. He wished again that the office manager had not asked him to get the flowers. Why were they the ones arranging this anyway? He remembered a film from his tenth grade biology class showing the vibration of bees on flowers and the blizzard of pollen. Stamens and pistols. Now he felt anxious about all the living things around him, as if somehow all these delicate natural miracles were at risk because of the woman’s negative energy. He dug his hands into his front pockets and scratched the top of his thighs.

“It’s a funeral.”

.  .  .

She had to revise her assessment of this man, looking at him again as he stood before her, bent forward slightly, hands in his pockets. He was not a piñata. He was a Russian Easter egg. Elaborate and shiny on the outside but then, on the inside, blown out and dangerously hollow.

She guessed him to be, like her, in his mid-thirties. The funeral, then, would be for his mother. Or his sister, perhaps. It would be an exception, but perhaps it was for his wife. Yes. He was definitely brittle like you are when the very thing you care for the most is plucked away.

“I see. I’m so sorry for your loss. Did you have anything specific in mind?”

.  .  .

He considered again his sense of this woman. He was wrong about the anger. It was power she was pushing out. And now he could see that the tattoo was actually a group of five wasps headed from different directions at a disfiguration on her skin. A cigarette burn? He imagined that she had done it with another woman, her girlfriend, and this was a mark of solidarity. You do me and I’ll do you; both of them silently crying as the cigarette coals wormed their way through the skin. She had brown and buttery skin. Her girlfriend would have been pale as snow and the mark on her skin would have been a strawberry stain.

“I don’t know much about flowers. I don’t know what’s—”

.  .  .

The woman turned to the glass-topped counter and took up her order pad, wondering who would let this guy out on his own. He was a walking coma. It had to be his wife. Had she just blinked out like a burst bulb in the bed next to him? And then he didn’t know what to do, standing over the bed in his wrinkled underwear talking to the 911 operator while the paramedics stormed up through the apartment and slapped on the paddles, jumping her body up off the bed six, seven, eight times before he finally threw the phone down and told them to stop.

“Tell me a little about the funeral?”

.  .  .

The man shifted his hips a quarter turn and placed one hand on the counter to steady himself. This woman felt to him like a newly made island coming up out of the sea, all steam and explosions until the rocks begin to cool and collect seaweed and fish skeletons and shit from birds, and then a fragile new plant springs out of a swollen seed and makes the first moment of shade. Would her fingertips smell like iron and blood? And roses?

“She liked those pots of wheatgrass. You know, like you see at hotels. She was very organized.”

.  .  .

This man is completely disoriented, the woman thought, watching him shift his feet and grip the counter like a crutch. He’s surprised. He feels betrayed. Were there any last words from his wife before her heart stopped? Did she roll all of her warm weight over onto him, just at first light before real dawn, and push one or two last breaths of ecstasy across the edge of his ear, taking him into her before he even knew he was ready so that it was not like two people moving together but instead just one person exploding. Had he been waiting for that always? And now she was cremated and sitting in a mint-colored box on their kitchen table. A centerpiece. An accusation. Of course it would be that way.

“Well, again, I’m sorry for your loss. I think I know what you mean with the wheatgrass. They use shallow planters and then trim it level. Has a very striking green color. I’ve seen it done nicely with votive or pillar candles. That’s something. We could do that. What about maybe also some roses?”

.  .  .

This woman is so tired of staying strong. Of keeping all her muscles at attention. She’s heartbroken, maybe, because she made this store with her girlfriend. They were saving from their office jobs until they had the money to put down for rent and building permits. And then they spent months salvaging siding from old barns so they could make a warm hay-smelling floor.

They stained it with natural oil and bought high-end cheese for the opening celebration. But then this other woman just decided to leave. She didn’t say much. She just said her heart wasn’t in it, no offense, and for the flower woman, it was like getting her nerve endings extracted so that now every thing and every day is just a dull thump.

“Ah, sure. Okay. Someone mentioned the color peach. That’s appreciation, right? Gratitude?”

.  .  .

The woman felt warmth. As if in response, the automatic plant misters her daughter had helped her install just two weeks prior came on all around them, creating instant cloud banks at all of the windows. Yes. Peach roses because his wife would have been encouraging him to live an authentic life. It would have been an extended project of her telling him that he wasn’t being his own true self and that he was too often fearful. And he, in his ill-fitting hipster blue pants, would have been resistant, maybe even slamming his hand on the dining room table and going to the back porch to smoke if she pushed too hard. But then—and it would have been just before she died, before he could even tell her about it—a little boy at the mall, hearing a woman scream from the escalator, grabbed his hand because it was the nearest, closest thing to comfort. And it would have been at that moment, feeling the boy’s soft damp skin, that the man would have understood his wife’s message about being governed by fear. She had opened this window for him and then died, so suddenly, so unexpectedly. That was it. That was the great volcanic blast that had left him as dry as an old locust husk blown under the picnic table.

“Yes, exactly. They certainly can be. Unfortunately, the businessmen around here send them when they close a deal. If there’s a woman involved. But that’s not the real message. They are supposed to be a more real form of gratitude. More selfless. Have arrangements been made for a place to host the funeral?”

.  .  .

The man sensed a decrease in the threat level. There was a high swivel chair next to the counter and he dragged it closer and sat down, grateful for a moment’s rest. During tax season, about the best he could manage was a long nap and he was starting to feel that metal-on-metal grind in the back of this neck. The flower woman took a large sheet of white drawing paper and a set of pencils from under the counter and began sketching what the arrangements might look like. She was good. At the office they would be impressed that he took it to this level. But maybe this was it, the thing that ended it. Maybe the woman was doing portraits of her lover at night, here in the flower store after hours under these full-spectrum grow lights, getting the woman to drop one strap of her camisole so she could work on the shading at the top of her breast and struggling to convey in just pencil the fine field of blonde hairs on the side of her neck. And, then, when her lover came around to look at the page, rearranging her clothes, she would see so clearly the sadness and, more threatening, the lack of intelligence drawn into her face. And it changed something. It broke their connection. How could you see me this way? It was too honest. So she just left the next morning with a devastating lack of drama.

“Yes. It’s actually going to be at … well, it’s just one room. But there’s some space.”

.  .  .

The woman went to the back of the store again and opened the walk-in cooler. She would show him the beach pea she had been cultivating in a tub of sand. Her husband had helped her steal the first plant directly off the dunes. They went at night in the Jeep and dug it up from a spot she had memorized near the boardwalk. He was drunk but functional. They sat on the rear bumper and kissed for a long time before getting the shovel. Now, she wrestled the bucket onto the hand-truck and wheeled the whole thing out to the man standing in her store. He would not know that only animals can eat the berries and that if humans chew them they can become paralyzed and forget to keep breathing. You don’t struggle. It’s peaceful. But you can die. This would have been a better death for the man’s wife. And he could have been there with her, curled next to her in the sand watching the sun go horizontal out over the water while she let her cheek rest on the sand and he squeezed her shoulder, telling her that he was ready to be honest, that he would accept the things about himself that weren’t so perfect, that were a little undeveloped or unpleasant.

“I’ve been raising these in the back. They normally grow on the dunes. They have really deep roots, so that’s good in that environment. Beach peas. They’re more purple than peach, but maybe something like this would really make the arrangement. You know, in addition. One thing, it’s odd, but you kind of have to be careful about those little berries. See them? They have some kind of paralyzing agent that animals can stand but people can’t. Some wackos make a drink with them to treat things like arthritis. But I certainly wouldn’t.”

.  .  .

The man got up from his stool and examined the blossoms more closely, running the tip of his finger under the leaves. An outdoor funeral would be nice, he thought. He and his wife had been married on a beach and their anniversary tradition, each year, was to wade out to their knees into whatever the nearest ocean might be and see how much of their original vows they could recite. She wouldn’t let them out of the water until they muddled through the whole thing. The flower woman stood gazing at the beach peas like they were a child and it struck him that the wasps on her arm suddenly seemed more like honeybees. They were fat enough. Oh, so maybe that’s what she and her lover had been missing. A child. Another human being between them to keep them honest and alert. The man could see now from the way she was smiling with just half of her mouth, her lips very red and balanced, that she might be waiting for her lover to return with the child they had adopted. It would have been too much for both of them to go, and they knew already that the flower woman would be the more natural mother so she stayed home, minding the store, while her lover spent all that time on planes and in dirty passport and immigration offices, holding the hot sticky hand of their newly adopted four-year-old daughter.

“It’s good. I like it. So, maybe the lemon grass—no, it’s wheatgrass, right?—on the table where we’ll have a guest book. With candles. And then some of those peach roses and this beach stuff up near the screen. I think there are going to be pictures. ”

.  .  .

She came around from behind the counter and sat down on the stool next to the man, amused that in all her work with flowers, she had never really seen a blue as striking as the blue of the man’s pants. And, really, good for him. Your wife dies but you pull it together, you dress without apology, and you go out and make sure you’re the one who handles all the details. Figures out the room, decides the time and picks out the flowers. And a slide show? Wow. This man was doing great. She wondered about her own husband if it had been her that had died.

Would he remake himself into an adult in support of their daughter? Or would he just stay out there on his surfboard, floating by for Sunday dinners, his rough charm still in play but now undercut by a sour grief smell? She had the sense, in fact, that this man in her store would likely even set up a foundation in his wife’s name. Something about adult literacy or maybe guide animals. She could see him, changed into a smart gray suit, standing there among the roses and beach pea at the funeral—the arrangements she herself was going to put together and maybe, it occurred to her, even donate in support of the charity—and he would talk about the way he loved her for all the small things, like the way she would lose her bracelets or how she could slice a lemon and that she loved wheatgrass and was so kind and that, in the end, she taught him what it really meant to take care of someone else. And that he was going to miss her. But it would be okay.

“Okay. Yes. I think I’ve got it. I think this will be lovely. I really do. What’s the timing?”

.  .  .

He stood up to take his wallet from his back pocket. The front of his shirt brushed her elbow. She wrote out the order. At this range, she smelled like sea salt and he imagined the face of her newly adopted daughter buried in against her long neck, getting used to all the smells of a different country and to unfamiliar mothers and strange food. This woman would be a fantastic mother. She would have that effortless ability to lift a kid and set her up on the edge of her hip with just one arm while, with the other, she held a phone and made a deal or stirred a pot of soup or picked up the cat from the front steps, rescuing it from the rain. His own wife had not wanted to have children, which was something he had known when they married. It was their arrangement. He just hadn’t planned on his own feelings changing ten years later. The woman continued to write. She bit her lower lip. He imagined her and her wife moving around their apartment at night, visiting the child once after bedtime but then, after that, having the firm resolve to answer only from the hall, teaching their daughter to believe in her own strength and to let go of the day the way you just can’t when you are five years old and every fear has a shape.

“Well, they’ve set it for next Thursday. Can you make that work? We can do the pickup, I guess.”

.  .  .

To her, the man standing next to her at the center of the store, hands in the pockets of his summer day blue sky pants, would blossom despite his grief. Or, more accurately, perhaps he was just now becoming himself because of his grief. She loved and hated the fact that her own husband had never really been scratched, in any real way, by his own life. Happy, well-adjusted birth family. Solid education. Early-in-life financial windfall. Never a fight with their daughter. When he took a grinding in the sand, while surfing, he would come out and watch the blood running down around the hairs on his legs, a big smile on his face as if it was something happening to someone else entirely. But this man, here in her store, scuffing his shoe gently across her wooden plank floor, this man knew genuine agony. The kind of loss that puts you dog-face on your knees in a random motel room crying from the very center of your gut and not stopping until you pass out and sleep there with the bed skirt brushing back and forth over your forehead like a prayer flag. He would carry that pain like it was a delicate little gift, nuclear in its power. And everyone he met, even the ones very close to him, even his lovers, would not be able to name the experience.

“Yes. Absolutely. The timing is fine. And we’ll take care of the delivery. That’s part of it. So we can set the arrangement in the right way.”

.  .  .

To him, the woman standing in the middle of her store now seemed to be more of the flowers than apart from them. As if they, the flowers, had brought her with them to look after their feeding and cleaning while they got on with the taxing business of being beautiful. As she pulled together her papers, moving things around on the counter almost like a shy person, her tattoo flexed on her arm. It was like the bees were actually breathing, helping her along in caring for this sea of flowers. His wife was not a maker or a caretaker. She existed beautifully in the world of ideas. It was not that she couldn’t feel things—she was very emotional, in fact—but she could be looking at you and talking to you and your hair might catch fire from the dinner candles and she would be thinking about why that might have happened and what are the cultural norms relative to baldness and wigs and burn victims instead of thinking, oh shit, what the hell, here’s a wet napkin and are you okay? This woman, who he believed was preparing now to welcome home her lover and their newly adopted child, a daughter he imagined, gave him the sense of standing with an actual human representation of mother earth. Her skin seemed to throw heat.

Everything about her was a round and welcoming curve. She would raise her daughter marsupial-style, keeping her skin-to-skin so that the child’s heart and mind would develop beyond all measure. That child would become extremely famous, and the mother, along with her wide-eyed partner, would be there in the back corner of every photograph. She would die at age ninety-three in a big brass bed dragged to the window of a wooden cabin on the coast, squeezing her great-granddaughter’s hand and talking about the essential connection between plants and sand, bees and the blossoms, lovers and their mates.

“Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking me through this. Will I see you, then, on Thursday?”