A bewitched young man meets a real sorceress by the side of an old country highway.
|The lines on the forgotten highway to Sarah's place had long since been worn away.
Leery of getting stuck, and wondering if a man like me should even be on such a road, I took my half out of the middle, deeply uncommitted to my lane. The gold of the sunset ahead of me bled into vivid red that time washed away to leave the purple mark of impact. At the chasing darkness, I checked my watch.
Nervous sweat on the steering wheel sent me to the visor for a tissue. "Get hold of yourself, Gilbert. Not the first, first date you've been through."
The tissue caught on the rim before it let go and slipped out of sight.
It might be the last. Among the barb-wire fences and scattered maple trees around me, the years started to play out. I envisioned myself loitering in Sarah's favorite bar, around the green game table, poking the white ball and keeping my bets low. I daydreamed of holding the greasy plug-in light with a handkerchief and peering under the hood of her pickup, at the arcane mess of wires and geometric designs, growling and snapping at me until she tamed it. Watching her hands caress the beast with wrenches, I ignore the buzz in my ears as she explains, yet again, what a carburetor does and how to make it carburate. I shook my head. "I have to be insane."
All these things she loves, and I hate. And yet, though my mind purred at the crazy plan, I knew better. "She'll understand. I've come to my senses. I can stand her up, call off the date, get out of it somehow."
Then Loggins and Messina came on the radio. They sang of the paper cup that held the embodiment of every dream a man might ever quest for, and urged us to drink. In that moment, Sarah held my paper grail. She was the princess and queen. Any seat beside her would be fit for a king, even on my knees holding a greasy drop light.
In the corner of my eye, a flurry and a whoosh dropped a flower stand in the field.
I shook my head. No matter what Mother said, a table can't teleport in just because she said so; it takes smoke and mirrors. I might never puzzle out how Mother did her tricks, but someone could. Certainly, not all street magicians could be equally talented, so I would probably catch this one. If it wasn't a trick of my mind. "The wind." This kiosk had been there, and the gust in the trees and grasses drew my attention. Stands like these usually had great deals, so I pulled to a stop.
"Auntie Rosie's Magical Flower Shoppe," proclaimed the sign over the table. Below, in sparkling, almost glowing paint, read, "Who needs potions? Our flowers capture the lady's heart."
I snickered at the scarves and chunky jewelry layered over the florist's gaudy dress as she walked toward me. 'Auntie Rosie' dressed the part: I half expected this fortune-teller lady would read my palm. Sarah loved the outdoors; maybe she would like flowers. I hoped so. I walked up to Auntie Rosie's stand and smiled at the perfume until my mouth ran dry at the thought of why I needed a flower. I whispered, "Oh, please, let me pick a good one."
The old lady stood behind me. "First date, hmm?
Flowers surrounded us. Several even sat on the hood of my sedan. I never saw her put those there. Who would put on a magic show to sell flowers by the road? Rosie sure went to a lot of trouble. And so many, swirling reds and blues and violets, fluffy and silky and velvety and lacy ones, petunias, violets, roses of every color imaginable, celosia, even flowers I had never seen before. A few seemed surreal, the stuff of faerie haunts and alien worlds.
Holograms? Artificial? The sweet and scratchy perfume made my nose burn, my eyes water. I imagined she had every flower ever known to man, and a few extra for good luck. "Uh, kinda."
Rosie smiled and stared.
I looked around. One of the flowers winked at me. I shook my head yet again, disbelief growing to amusement. "You know, I'm not ready."
"Better hope not!" Auntie Rosie laughed and gave me a wink.
After a few moments, Rosie patted me on the shoulder. "An ye be ready for it, 'tis a practice date. Nothing good comes therefrom." She grinned and shook her finger at me.
I chuckled nervously. "Yeah, I guess." Come on, lady, let's get on with it. I've got to go throw my life away.
She still smiled and stared.
Half detective, half mischievous grandmother, this old gypsy had me. "Maybe you could help me?"
"Such a cute boy!" She pinched my cheek. "I cut flowers and take money. The magic's in you."
The old woman's schtick bothered me."Oh, the magic's in the smoke and mirrors, I'm sure."
A violet-tinged, rose-type flower I had never seen before filled my attention. The smell of cinnamon and liquor reminded me of cold nights under the moon, of Romeo and Juliet, of dangerous potions. I imagined myself hiding in the bushes as Sarah's father walked past, carrying a double-barrel rifle.
I whispered, "Colonel Graham probably does own a rifle." I shivered and looked away.
She nodded, and pushed that one behind a taller vase. "Juliet's bloom. Each of these tells a story of love between you and the girl." Rosie put her hand on my shoulder.
Her touch woke something inside me that believed, and the whole show began to make sense. I nodded.
She continued. "Each special and unique. But the power, my child..." She stood, looking at the flowers and shaking her head.
I waited. She said nothing. "Hello? The power?"
"Look with your heart." Rune-like strokes of her fingers on my back evoked a hypnotic tingling that spread throughout my chest.
"Each pretty has a special spirit you can only meet with your heart wide open."
Psychobabble. I breathed a relieved sigh of recognition. Always helps to give things a name. "Okay."
"Open yourself to the language of flower, and you can speak to Sarah's spirit."
That witch knew Sarah's name. Perhaps I misheard, or perhaps—did mother mention a Rosie? I slowed my breathing and shrugged to release the tension. No matter, probably a lucky guess: cold reading, they call it. I shot Auntie Rosie a look. "I guess that's the point, isn't it?"
"At this point, you can notice she's here, in spirit, speaking to you. Each flower represents a path she will consent to take with you. Choose wisely."
I scoffed. This has gone too far. Time crept on, and the clothes I had worn to work for this date suddenly seemed a poor choice for Sarah. I looked for a few seconds, then grabbed a mocha-colored flower that matched Sarah's favorite jacket.
"Oh, please!" Rosie snatched the flower out of my hand, then gently put it down. "You're not even trying."
Her tone shook me. "You said you couldn't help."
For a long instant, her rough gray eyes peered into mine, nodding, making me sway in time to their motion, then she poked me in the chest. "Only you know the one you need, but anyone can see your eyes: not this one."
I glared at her, took a breath, and thought about the flowers. A daisy in the back caught my eye, so rustic and pure, full of everything there was to love about Sarah. Instead of that, though, I picked up something fancy, some kind of orchid: the smart flower.
"Nice try, kid." She groaned and took that one, placing it neatly back in its place. "That's not for you, either. One more try. You get the life you pick this time."
I looked at that flower, and my mind flooded with images: black ties, dry music and long-winded parties. Sarah had given away everything she loved for my dreams, and she asked only for me to do the same. My Sarah, serious and wilted, pressed into an evening gown. In this, I had uprooted her from her world, like I had done to myself in my daydream before. Auntie Rosie knows her stuff. I shuddered and looked back at the little daisy, dreaming of grassy meadows and bright blue skies. The birds sang as I played ball with grandchildren. Entranced, I absently lifted the daisy, cradled it in my hands.
She gasped with delight. "Aha! That's it! The smile in your eyes!" She slapped my back, driving my spirit back to its ordinary shape.
I reached for my wallet.
"Buy the wedding flowers from me, son." She winked and gave me a cockeyed smile. "That's where I make my money."
I set the daisy down on the seat and pulled out the money. "But I want to tip you." When I looked up, she had vanished, leaving a meadow full of wild daisies swaying in the wind. I ran my fingers through my hair. I didn't expect to figure out the trick; Dad always told me not to worry so much. Maybe he was right, and I could live with magic. With a sigh and a smile, I tucked Sarah's daisy in my shirt pocket, next to my heart.
I had a date to keep.