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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/2063129
by Joy
Rated: 18+ · Novel · Relationship · #2063129
Stories within a Story Framework--NaNo 2015 in progress...
"Being told a story is a very intimate, tender experience, and no matter what age we are, we need that kind of deep, human connection."
Audiobook narrator Tavia Gilbert


Prologue

Sometimes a serious illness boasts of a love story attached to it. Sometimes, with the onset of the illness, a lover’s paralyzed inability to stop the illness turns him into a regular storyteller; then sometimes, that storyteller walks through hell because her loved one is suffering as he tells the stories she wants him to tell, even though those stories are against his grain. Sometimes, this battle takes strategic planning so both of them can have at least a few moments of tranquility inside a major battle.

This was us: Heather and me.

Heather was only in her early thirties when the thyroid cancer struck. We were shaken up, of course, but her prognosis looked good. She had been healthy all her life and the cancer was discovered early. The two unpleasant operations and treatments were successful. We were told the cancer was in remission, in her doctor’s words: “I can easily say she is cured, but I won’t. Cancer is tricky. So let’s agree on the word remission and hope that it won’t come back.”

Heather stared at him for a moment of incomprehension, then dipped her eyes down, as if his words weren’t worthy to pay much attention to. Somehow I always recall that moment, that very instant of doubt that led to her disbelieving in the medical profession. Maybe the mind has a way of knowing how the body performs or, as a long shot, Heather might have been a psychic. Although the idea of psychic phenomena is fictional thinking and in some cases pleasant in proportion, it still rattles me that Heather was right and the doctors were mistaken. I am also still mad at myself for believing in the pretense, be it some kind of a wishful obliviousness.

Just as Heather had sensed it, seven years down the line, her cancer did come back, parading as a common virus at first. A week or so later, she began complaining of pains in her upper back and feeling sick at nights. When her constant nausea didn’t respond to medication, her doctor sent her for a pregnancy test, X-rays, ultrasound, and finally a CT scan. As we swung precariously from one test to another, I felt ruffled with outrage. The damn disease was back in the form of pancreatic cancer to turn our lives upside down, and even with treatment after treatment, it did not give in.

An alarm kept ringing inside my head like a non-stop war siren.

Her prognosis was awful. Her life could only be lengthened by a few years at most, if she wished to accept the difficult treatments.

With those treatments, she went through hell, but went through it for me. I knew she wanted to prolong the inevitable for my sake. An incessant itching, jaundice and loss of appetite were some of the symptoms that resulted from the treatments. Her hospital stays became elongated and more often with each passing month. The disease was rolling downward like an avalanche and consuming both of us on its way.

In the meantime, I had taken off from work as much as I could but now was in the danger of losing my job. At this stage, Heather made the decision of entering the hospice, Skyler-Health, where some of her therapies could be administered. I was hesitant about this but I agreed, since she would be in a place where medical help would be available round the clock. I thought the hospice would be temporary as a place of relief. She was still young and she might overcome the disease, and when she felt better, she would come home. As a matter of fact, banking on the moral support of her doctors and nurses, I was sure she would come home.

Once she saw her room in Skyler Health, Heather smiled approvingly. It was a large room on the third floor with huge windows overlooking the woods. An average hospital bed faced the windows, and from where she would lie she would be able to see the trees. There were two armchairs, a sofa, a bedside table, and on the side a large walk-in closet. The bathroom was large, clean, and easily reachable from the bed. The ceiling boasted soundproof tiles and recessed lighting. The colors everywhere were muted, yet had a pleasant, calming effect.

“I couldn’t ask for more,” she said, sounding oddly calm and cheerful, but my subconscious saw differently. I felt completely disoriented there, as I sensed it as the place in where she would be taken away from me.

Although I wanted her home, the hospice idea was probably a better option. If I had insisted for her to stay home with only a day nurse to attend her needs, we would be short-staffed and since I had to work during the day, she would feel lonely. Besides, forever the optimist, I still had hope that something miraculous would come up and she would be cured. Yet, even in such a caring environment, the going proved to be tough, and each time I was with her, she was in some kind of a pain. A few moments of tranquility would be ours, however, after a transfusion or a short half-hour or so due to the painkillers. Those were the calmer times, both Heather and the staff preferred me to be with her. My instincts, however, pushed me to spend my every minute with her; yet, I had to work. Even though, we had both received a good amount of inheritance, a private hospice like this one was costly.

Too thin, too pale, Heather had developed a tendency to wear her stress on her face, ever since the illness took hold of us, even though she faked cheerfulness. One day, after she had gone under another chemo treatment, longing for a respite as if it might bring a piece of heaven, she said, “Tell me a story, John. Don’t stop even if you think I may be asleep.”

“What kind of a story do you want me to tell you, Love?” I asked.

“I don’t care,” she said, grimacing with pain, as the nurse stuck another needle into her. “But nothing violent and upsetting. Just make sure you put flowers and plants in your stories and a bit of poetry,” she said. “Write them up during the day and read them to me later. Tell them from any point of view, but make them sound real. Not like the gory, horror-filled news stories you write for the Gazette. ”

“I’ll try, Heather,” I said. “I’ll even think of something right now. Off the cuff. The problem is, I may not know a place to start.”

“Just start, John. If you don’t, it will be overwhelming in the long run, and I do want a story from you each day.”

As long as it lasts… I thought.

The nurse, a motherly one with spreading hips who looked to be 45 years of age, turned and winked at me as if to say, just do what she wants. “Yeah, go ahead. She wants to hear your voice, so start telling her something. I’m finishing up, already,” she said.

As soon as, she left Heather’s side, I began talking.

“Since I don’t have anything written down that can entertain you, I’ll start with the dream I had last night. A dream of roses, luckily I have a few lines from Robert Browning in my memory.”

“A dream? How interesting!”

“I’m sorry, Love, but it is all I can think of at the moment. I promise I’ll do better in the following days. Forgive me.”

“John? Stop it. Ever since I got sick, you adopted this idiotic reflex of apologizing for everything. Why?”

She was right. I did that often. But then, maybe all patient families have some kind of a personality quirk or a cover-up for the guilt they feel. The guilt of helplessness. I am sorry you are sick. I am sorry I couldn’t prevent you from getting sick. But most of all I am sorry I am healthy while you are not. Some kind of a survivor’s guilt.

She repeated her “Why” but I didn’t know how to answer. Finally I said, “It must be a bad habit I’ve gotten into. Sorry, Love.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Okay, here it goes. Fasten your seat belt.”

“A seat belt won’t help. I can’t fall any more than I have already fallen.”

Her words cut through me like a scimitar.



Mixed flowers in a basket


A Dream of Roses

“I dream of a red-rose tree.
And which of its roses three
Is the dearest rose to me?”

Robert Browning



Last night I dreamt that you and I went to the old family compound to ask for aid and shelter. This is how the dream went, the best I remember it.

Somehow we have squandered all our money and worldly goods and we are very poor. The gardens surrounding the big house need care and I stop to take care of the ruined patches filled with ivies and nightshade vines choking the real flowers. Somehow, I manage to hoe a small spot and put in a rose bush, which miraculously has flowers all over it.

In the meantime, you have gone into the inner chambers as the place is a maze. I can’t see you. I want to find you because I have a bouquet of red roses I want to give to you.

Despairing, I find an empty cubby hole and go in there alone. There is a machine there and I work it easily, although I am not sure what the machine does. Another person sees me and she waits at the door to come in after me. The roses in my hand has a funny effect on her. She sneezes and says something to me, but I don’t hear.

I think there are many other people waiting outside the cubby hole, while this woman wants my roses, but my roses are for you and you are nowhere. Instead, I hear your voice, your loud complaints, saying you are empty handed but I made the garden bloom and got what I wanted.

Then I finish using the machine inside the cubby hole. I want to give you the roses. Instead I find us together and asleep in a comfy bed, but now I know you have the roses. Still, I keep thinking of the person waiting at the door and worrying about her, disturbing us.

Then this morning, I opened my eyes in my own bed, still worrying about you and all those numerous people outside who couldn’t find relief or help.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


Heather reached for my hand and held it. “Thank you for the roses, John. I’ll remember wherever I am that your roses are for me.”

I nodded. Somehow, telling her of my dream had knotted my insides and I felt like weeping. I kept quiet, being afraid if I uttered a word, any word, I’d break down, but at the same time, I needed to explain my pathetic attempt at retelling the dream.

“If you tell me a story each evening, John, those stories will make a nice book. And they will be a memory one day.” A small sigh followed her words. “This shouldn’t always be about me, you know.”

A book? I wasn’t into writing story books. I was a journalist, a newshound. Moreover she asked for sweet, flowery stories. Not my thing at all, and she wanted me to turn all this into a book composed of stories thought of on the fly, and worse, with a dream story at their start. No publisher wants dream stories. Some editors flat out reject any book that begins with a dream. This would never do.

Still, I nodded in agreement, even though I felt my gut tighten inside my belly. This was what Heather wanted. Not that she wanted much. Not that she had much time left. Not that there were many people left still visiting her. After several years of cancer, friends were rarely available.

“I am not too sure of the dream. I mean beginning the book with it,” I said quickly, not wanting to turn her wish down, but at the same time, not wanting to do something contrary to my learning.

“It’s all right, John. I love your dream. They are such gifts, our dreams, aren’t they?”

“Sorry, this is the best I could do at the drop of a hat. A story needs developing, editing…” Since I said sorry again, I looked at her to see if she rolled her eyes but she didn’t. I continued, pulling my chair closer to her bed. “With the rest of the stories, I’ll write down first and then read them to you, afterwards. Okay?”

“Okay. As long as I have a story each time you are here.” She leaned forward and clutched my hand. “You know, I think your dream has to do with our present situation. It will be all right. Take my word for it, John.” She had such a soft way of saying my name. “After all, the day we were born, we were indicted to die. I am happy we had some time together, and now you’ve given me roses, your dream roses.”

In a comic-book sense, she had raised me to the level of a superhero. A polar opposite of me. Yet, in a morbid sort of way, she managed to touch me, too. After a short silence, she spoke again. “I feel happy, now. I know I’ll sleep well tonight and maybe I’ll have a dream, too. Now, about your next story. What’ll your next story be, do you know?“

“Our azaleas and rhododendrons. Remember Ella who sold us her house? Let’s hope I can do this.”

Heather nodded, smiling. Despite the night cap covering her hairless scalp and the ashen glow of her skin, her deep-sea cobalt eyes accentuated her cheekbones. She looked so beautiful, angels would weep. I leaned close as her breath fell warmly against my skin. Oh, God! Why? Why?

I rose to kiss her good night, then spun around to leave the room.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Azaleas and Rhododendrons

“Rhodora! If the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:”

Ralph Waldo Emerson



“What distinguishes azaleas from rhododendrons is their having only five anthers per flower,“ says Ella as she drops the keys to the house in my wife’s palm.

“What is an anther?” Heather asks.

“The part of the stamen where pollen is produced,” explains Ella.

At this time, I am totally unaware that during the next several years, I will be living in this house and coming up with allergies against all pollen.

“I always loved the azaleas in early spring,” says Ella with a sigh. “Especially the ones that surround the front of the house.”

“Why don’t you come and visit whenever you like?” Heather offers.

“No way!” She shakes her head. “My husband built this house for me. He put in the azaleas, too. He built it. He built many things.” She sighs. “Too many memories. I can’t stand it. I’ll stick to Levittown, for good.”

Happy for me, bittersweet for Ella. Our new house, a harbinger of future joys for my family. For Ella, the storage of a haunted past with ghostly figures of winged scapulae. She has told us her husband took to drinking and turned violent. After she threw him out of the house, he moved away, but a year later, he purchased a gun and killed himself.

What detail she hasn’t shared with us, the azaleas will remember. Then after us, they’ll remember our story, too, if no one does away with them.

There is a huge rhododendron to the left of the house near the driveway. It blooms in lavender flowerets with purple stripes in them. The azaleas in front of the house bloom in dark pink but they are shorter. I think, at the time, that both the rhododendron and the azaleas will reach deep into the nurturing earth from which they rose, while that same earth will keep feeding us all and never realize what has sprung from it.

After Ella leaves and we move in, I raise my head and rejoice the dancing entry of sunlight through the web of oak branches. All those trees so huge, so noble, so perfect. The front yard and the backyard is full of trees. All kinds of them. We have quite a large piece of land here, with a small orchard of seven apple trees in the far back.

With so much to do and small kiddies underfoot, if we have them, I won’t find the time to explore the part of the property that is left to nature. So I do it right away, and I am totally flabbergasted at what I see and discover.

For one day when I make the trek past the apple trees into the legendary shadows of the thick wood, not visible to the eye from afar, I find an inner sun and moments of fullness while facing what I see. There is a secret garden with a small bench of raw wood inside a clearing. The clearing is surrounded by tall trees and brambles crosshatching arms their together while numerous bushes of blackberries thickly embrace each other to form a fortress against trespassers. Around the bench and the tiny clearing, azalea bushes against azalea bushes tangle and intermingle with the rhododendrons while their radiance and burst of color offer the eyes the gift of a fairyland. What an ecstatic moment for me!

Out of the blue, a breeze rises and falls, creating whispers through leaves and branches, as if saying, “Tread softly, as this belongs to fanciful fey and fantastic fairies,” and I see in my mind’s eye the fey wearing rhododendrons and azaleas in celebration of each spring.

Though the rhododendrons and the nectar of their flowers are poisonous, the varying amaranth and scarlets, magentas and purples with the richness and enthusiasm of color and my first glance at that hidden fairyland give me a hint at the inner sanctum of Ella’s husband, his capability and gentleness, as he must have built this bench and this sacred place before a raucous rush of everyday idols pulled him apart and away from Ella.

Thus, I see the big picture now. I feel Ella’s husband must have been a man who built things and never damaged anything. Yet, something set him off, and blisters of living rose from the void, pressing on and tearing apart his sensitive nature. I think then that he forgot about the comfort he once had found in solitude in this tiny paradise he built, as he must have been long stuck in an emotional quagmire to appear so cold, so heartless, in contrast to his true nature.

Yet the amazing thing is, how azaleas and rhododendrons could speak in tongues and tell me a few beautiful secrets that, in my mind, cleared this man from his soiled story.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“I remember Ella,” said Heather sleepily. “This is one of our stories. I know all our stories, John, some I probably recall better than you.”

“So you want me tell you something you haven’t heard about, right?”

“That would be very nice.” Next time, tell me one of your childhood stories, if you can remember that far back.” She winked with mischief.

“It isn’t that far back,” I said with bogus annoyance, dropping my mouth with incredulity.

She yawned and leaned back into the pillow and fell asleep. Watching her, I sobered very quickly. Her sudden sleepy spells were scaring me out of my wits.

The next day, she was too tired to get up and walk around. I sat near her and held her hand. I did this quite often as if she wouldn’t leave if I held on to her. After all, we were existing inside an eclipse, and I kept holding her hand and watching her face like a fool, like the diver I was inside that eclipse, playing, faking life in the bottom of it, but I had no idea when my air would run out.

“Tell me another story,” she said. “Something about the time when you were growing up.” But her eyes were about to close again. I touched my pocket but didn’t take the paper on which I had written the next story.

“Remember NaNa?” I asked, my eyes gliding over the few prescription meds the nurse had left on the table near her bed. “How she cried non-stop in our wedding?”

“What a nice person she was,” Heather sighed. “I miss her, but then I may see her, soon.”

“Not that soon,” I said, trying to control the sudden croaking of my voice. “You’ll have to listen to my stories, first.” She looked at me sleepily, through her eyelids. I took a deep breath to pull my thoughts together. “I will tell you something about Nana, tomorrow.”

Mixed flowers in a basket


Delicacy of a Rose Leaf

And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling

From Oliver Wendell Holmes’s The Last Leaf



My greatest adoration and astonishment lies in the greens of the earth that billow and sway at will, on plains and hills, to vocal winds, rising storms, confident rains that leave tiny drops on leaves and grass. Then from all that greenery burst multicolored beauties, flowers like dreams, not knowing death yet, but daring to live between the storms and the sun.

I probably learned to scan each leaf and blade of grass, in my ancient, primeval times from someone much older than me, who everyone else thought was a little soft in the head. I called her Nana, although she wasn’t a blood relative. She was my grandmother’s foster child who had come back to us after getting married and divorced and leaving a newborn behind her who later died. She stayed with my grandmother and mother until the end of her life.

Nana wasn’t stupid, rather smart in some ways, but not altogether perfect. The legend was, before she came to my grandmother, she had had a disease; the story isn’t clear whether she had measles or scarlet fever, but she had had a very high fever. One thing that is certain, however, is that her uncle’s family she lived with--after her parents had died when she was a baby--didn’t take good care of her. The disease left her damaged as what people decades later called learning-disabled. When she turned nine and was too sickly and acted as if she didn’t understand or get along with the people she lived with, she was put into adoption.

Unadoptable that she was, she was put into foster care. Later on, in her late teens when my grandparents wanted to adopt her, she refused to be adopted and put up a fight, for she thought that the lands her uncle owned partly belonged to her mother, and she was being shortchanged. She wouldn’t accept the fact that her mother had given away the land to brother. She worried that the adoption would totally eliminate her chances. Nothing anyone said could convince her.

I learned kindness and adoration for nature and all creation from her. Every morning, she would go into the garden and look and gently hold each leaf, each plant, each flower and stare at it for several minutes. People used to make fun of her by saying that she was counting the leaves on the bushes.

One day when I was eight years old, I went after her. She was in my grandmother’s rose garden, handling a leaf on a stem gently.

“Nana, beware of the thorns! Are you looking for rose slugs?” I asked. Rose slugs were caterpillar-like green beings with their hairlike bristles and ecru-colored heads. My grandmother had a phobia against them and anything caterpillar or similar to it. So we would all volunteer to handpick those, to avoid grandma-in-delirium scenes. One of those scenes, I recall, involved my grandmother standing on a wooden chair and brushing off everyplace on her body and head while shaking and screaming, just because one of those slugs from a vase of cut roses had landed on her skirt.

“No, no,” answered Nana, “Not the thorns, and I already picked the slugs up early in the morning when everyone was sleeping. But check this leaf out. See how fine it is to the touch. I wish I had a nice dress exactly from this leaf’s material.”

I realize now, how poetic her wish was, and that it had nothing to do with the textile or the dress, but the hope that the thorns would not matter if someday the whole world would act as tender to the touch as a gentle rose leaf.

Decades later, when NaNa died, I planted a rose bush on her grave.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


A tiny smile appeared on Heather’s face and she bobbed her head briefly. “I recall Nana very well,” she said while I folded the paper on which I had typed Nana’s story. “I was with you. I saw her only a few months at that time, before we went abroad.”

“Nana was one of a kind, for sure,” I said, relieved Heather wasn’t all that sleepy today and looked more animated.

“That she was,” Heather nodded. “In our wedding, she asked me to take good care of you, as if you were still a little boy.”

“Maybe I was,” I chuckled. “I am still into mischief.”

Her voice came out half-muffled. “That’s a blessing!” Then she shook her head as if to clear her thoughts and smiled with refreshed energy. “Now think about the next story. Make it about a happy flower. Put it in a story about your sister.”

“My sister?” My sister was away in Stuttgart, working on another book, a human interest story about refugees in Europe, and she didn’t give a damn about me.

Why her? What’s Heather up to?

“Yes. Tell it as if you are her. You weren’t very close, I know, but if you tell a story as if you’re her, maybe you’ll feel closer.”

Leave it to Heather to take care of me even after she will be gone. No wonder, she must have taken NaNa’s request to heart.

The next day was hectic, but Heather had visitors, old friends of hers from the neighborhood, and she looked more alive to me when I came in and greeted everyone, since I had left my desk at the Gazette early. Yet, a couple of hours later, toward the evening, her color paled again.

“Is my story ready, John?” she asked. “This is a good time now, before the new medicine takes effect and makes me sleep again.”

I sat on the side of her bed. She moved just a bit to accommodate me. “How about some cheery sunflowers, with my sister in it?”

“Perfect!” she smiled, then gently rested her head against my shoulder.

“Can you put up with a bit of off-key singing in lieu of a slice from a poem?”

“Fine, I’ll listen to your aria, if that’s what you can think of instead of a poem.” We giggled together.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Sunflowers


“Like the sunflower
I yearn to turn my face to the dawn
I am waiting for the day

Memory
Turn your face to the moonlight
Let your memory lead you
Open up, enter in
If you find there
The meaning of what happiness is
Then a new life will begin”

Lyrics from Cats



An insect, possibly a large honeybee or wasp, whizzes past my ear, making me lose my balance and step on soft mud where the next batch of sunflower seeds would be sown. Jeff takes two long strides and holds my arm just in time to save me from falling face first into the tilled earth.

“Sorry to have you walk all the way, Daisy,” Jeff apologizes. “The driveway’s getting topped, and there’s no other way to get to the house without passing through the patches.”

“No problem,” I say. “If we didn’t walk, I would have missed all this beautiful scenery.”

Besides preventing this distant acquaintance of his mother fall face down into mud, farmer Jeff has many other virtues. One of them is knowing the names of all the different kinds of sunflowers. While I gather myself together, he continues to inform me about how he came to inherit this farm while he was studying toward his law degree.

“So much childhood memories here,” he says. “My uncle’s only son died in a motorcycle accident. I used to horse around here with him and a couple of other kids from town.” He takes a quick swing as if practicing to hit at a baseball. “Over there, where we have the tomatoes, it was open field. We used to play ball a lot.” His blond strands waving on his forehead, he looks intently at a field of tomatoes in the distance as if seeing something, possibly the shadows of what was. “My uncle and aunt wanted to abandon the place after Bobby died. Then as a last resort, they asked me if I’d like to take over.”

He points with his finger to the house. “I always loved all this, but especially my uncle. He took care of me and my mom, as you know, after my dad didn’t come back from Vietnam. My secret is, I never took to lawyering anyhow, and it’s good to learn things.”

I ask, “But you were in school already. Your mother back in Florida is sort of worried about it. And you left all that?”

“No biggie,” he shrugs. “I’ll still do it. In winters…a few credits at a time. I’ve got a wife and a baby now. You never know which prospect can come in handy and when. This farming thing seems to be working right now, but who knows what will happen later, whenever.”

“You only raise sunflowers?”

“This year we do.” He grins. “They seem to have gained popularity during the last few seasons, and this is an up year with just enough rain but not too much. That means profit, big time.”

By now, as we have neared the house, the plants on the patches have become taller. “You don’t plant the fields all at the same time, do you?” I ask.

“No, Ma’am. I start in April and plant two or three patches each week, until the end of June, some years well into July. This way I always have a crop coming in, and it is easier to take care of a lot of stuff, too. Like bookkeeping.”

What he calls patches are large fields and judging by the size of them, I gather he is a hard worker, but then, aren’t all farmers?

“Sunflowers are easy to grow,” he says. “The thing is you can’t grow wheat the next year in the same patch, but then, who cares for wheat, anyway? I don’t grow the same thing in the same patch every year, anyway. We have other stuff like beans and peppers way in the back of the house. There is as much land there as in the front. Things even up one way or another. “

I stop and gaze ahead. The house is still in the distance, but in front of it is a vast field of sunflowers, their big, daisy-like faces of bright yellow petals and brown centers swaying in the breeze. Even where we are now, the plants come up to my shoulders in height, but they don’t have flowers on them yet.

“Those by the house are called mammoths,” Jeff explains. “They grow up to fifteen feet tall. With them up front, we need no air conditioning on the first floor.”

“No wonder, they are called mammoths,” I comment, admiring the yellow sea of beauty that seem to be waving at us.

“Botanically speaking, they’re all Helianthus. I have a few other patches of Velvet Queens, and Zebulans. Sunflowers are great for attracting honeybees for pollination, and songbirds, too.”

“Are those the only kinds there is?”

He shakes his head. “There are also the reddish Moulin Rouge, Teddy Bear, Strawberry Blonde, Procut Orange, and others. When I was going with Cathie, before she was my wife, I used to give her one sunflower a day, and if we missed a day without seeing each other, it would be two sunflowers. She got a big kick out of that.”

I can see why any woman would love a sunflower given to her by the one she loves. After all, didn’t the water nymph Clytie turn into a sunflower staring at her beloved Apollo without blinking, for nine days as Apollo passed in the sky? Unfortunately for Clytie, Apollo did not return her feelings. Recalling the legend, I murmur to myself “Tournesol,” another name for the sunflower.

“No,” says Jeff. ”They don’t really turn to the sun. On the same stem are several flowers looking at every direction. They do remind me of sunny days and happiness, though.”

I smile, thinking, At least this Apollo walking near me appreciates his Clytie at home who I knew had to be waiting for us with cold iced tea and sandwiches made with farm-fresh goodies, and I smile as I imagine her gentle fingers lifting a sunflower to her face and letting the petals linger on the curve of her cheek.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“Was you sister in love with Jeff?” Heather asked, lifting her chin.

“I am not sure,” I said. “They knew each other, once, I think. The closeness between me and Daisy is an iffy thing.”

I was close to Daisy, once upon a time, but I can’t tell you that, Heather. I can’t tell you the dirt she dug from your past. I can’t tell you I know about your background more than you’d want me to. She couldn’t believe after all the trouble she went through, I still married you. When I told her to mind her own business, I can’t erase from my mind the expression on her face. It was as if someone had replaced her. Her image on the outside didn’t change, and she was--and probably still is--different, hostile, bitter…But I wasn’t wrong to restore beauty from the ashes of such horror that you went through.

Heather's words broke through my thoughts. “You sounded, while talking from her point of view, as if she liked him and as if she were envious of his wife.”

“Maybe I caught that subconsciously,” I said. “But I don’t know for certain.”

“Too bad,” Heather sighed. “We’ll never know for sure, but I understand her better, now. Why was she visiting the farm? To see with her own eyes that he’s taken?”

I shrugged. “She is a journalist, like me. She just couldn’t pass up a human-interest story, I guess. That’s her specialty. You may be right, though. When looking at this from a woman’s point of view, it sort of makes sense.”

“You may be a guy, but you see into people, John, whether you know the details of their lives or not.” The last part of her words she uttered in a confidential murmur. Then she sighed, deeply. “I only wish the doctors could see into diseases just as well.”

“There are things not discovered, yet. That may be it, not the doctors. A few doctors are good storytellers, you know.”

“From St. Luke to Somerset Maugham, Cronin, Michael Crichton, yes…and many others, too,” Heather said. “Still, only you can tell me the stories I want to hear.”

“Glad to oblige!” She was still so pretty, in a dejected, paled sort of way. She was much thinner now and had lost her hair and not for the first time, either. What was coming back looked like a used floor brush with a reddish tint, but when she smiled at me, her smile was still energetic and it filled me with her inner beauty, the beauty some other eyes were blind to.

“Tell me another story with Daisy. Something about when she was still in school. Was she always that reserved?”

“Reserved? No, I don’t think so. She’s just extremely independent. She…she always hated women who ran after men.”

Heather frowned, as if I had said something confusing. “She doesn’t hate me, I don’t think,” she said. “Although maybe she did dislike me, when we first started going out…And I did run after you …”

“I’m glad you did.” I smiled, recalling our earlier days. Heather was so happy, so pretty, so alive then. I couldn’t stare at her long enough.

“Maybe you are more like her than you give yourself credit to.” She pointed at me with her finger. “That may be why the two of you aren’t that close.”

I tried to find some kind of a worry etched in her thin face; yet, there was nothing in her eyes but my reflection. “Who knows? Maybe.” I am not going to tell Heather into what my sister stuck her nose. Not now, not ever.

“Think of a good story, then. If you don’t know it, make it up. I know you can make things up so they will be truer than the facts.”

What was Heather up to, with this love-dovey stuff about my sister? It dawned on me slowly. She was readying me for the inevitable. She probably wanted me to be more involved with the other people in my life. Yet the only reason I was shunned was her. Why did she care so much what would happen to me, after her?

Why? When the time came, could anyone be able to heal me despite my shock and accumulated bruises? I’d go along with Heather for the time being, but I had and still have my idiosyncrasies to the sky and back. For example, no one tells me what to do with my life, not my sister, not even my wife. Especially when it comes to old hurts.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Daisy

The daisy follows soft the sun,
And when his golden walk is done,
Sits shyly at his feet.
He, waking, finds the flower near.
"Wherefore, marauder, art thou here?"
"Because, sir, love is sweet!"

Emily Dickinson



He plucked the petals one by one. “Janie loves me; Janie loves me not!”

“I didn’t know guys played with such things,” I said. “After all, your gender claims this is a she thing.”

“My gender claims nothing of the sort,” he replied. “Why do you girls always reserve and stockpile things in your names?”

“Ahha!” I said. “There you go. No girl would say reserve and stockpile for emotions. That is a guy thing.”

“There are many females working in offices who use those words, you know.”

“Which is a job requirement. By the way, who put those words in office memos in the first place before the girls got in there with the exception of the secretaries?”

“Probably those secretaries, Daisy; don’t you think, you know-it-all?”

“Who ordered those secretaries around, huh?”

He waved his hand in the air. “Whoa! I should’a known. There’s no winning with you.”

He smirked. I giggled.

I liked our easy, cheesy banters. Josh was my workmate after all, an easy-going guy, and he was open market for half-jokes and jostling around with.

He plucked another daisy and handed it to me. “Your turn. He loves you; he loves you not.”

I took the flower but shook my head. “Daisy is a type of flower with white petals around a yellow center, or a female name. Hope you haven’t forgotten; my name, too, happens to be Daisy, for which I hate my parents for granting me it.” I looked at him, arching my eyebrows. “Daisies are not meant to be plucked devoid of their petals.”

“Don’t you wish for anything? Aren’t you curious about anything? Such as how your special someone feels about you?”

“Josh! I don’t have a special someone. You should know that. Because I am free. Free as a daisy should be.”

“Daisy dear, I am messing with you. Don’t take everything so seriously. That’s your problem, you know. You take everything too seriously.” Then he started with his antics again, imitating my voice. “We have field work. Ooh, it’s the end of the world. The boss is sick, and I have to pick up after everyone. Oh, no, she’s our boss. I hope she doesn’t croak!”

I threw a fist jokingly at his upper arm. “You clown! Cut it out! I do not say or do those things, at all!”

“You do, too.” He stuck his tongue out at me.

“Didn’t you tell me you were going to pick up a book from the library? It’ll close in fifteen minutes, and be careful with the library monster.”

The local librarian was our monster, or rather, we called her that. She had a way of lowering her eyeglasses to the tip of her nose and staring at us over them as if about to attack. “Silence!” “No talking in the library.” We had watched her lead several patrons out, a couple of them by brute force.

“Since her highness shuns me, all I have left is to leave, never to come back. This knight in shining armor has had it.” And Josh strolled away.

Knight in shining armor, huh! Knight in shining armor for Janie with the huge emerald eyes. Some knight he was…

But I knew he’d come back. If he didn’t, then, I would go after him. I murmured a poem to myself for myself.

Such is the fate of artless maid,
Sweet flow'ret of the rural shade!


I picked up my backpack from the ground, dusted it, and began walking away. Then I noticed I was still holding his daisy in my hand.

I looked back to see if he had gone in the building or if he was watching me. Since I didn’t see him, I started pulling the petals off, one by one.

“He loves me; he loves me not.”

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“This was when Daisy had her first job as an intern at the local paper,” I said, trailing my fingers over the paper. “She was very ambitious. She still is.” Then I folded sheet in four and stuck it in my inside pocket. When I raised my eyes again, I noticed Heather watching me intently.

“So you were close enough to her then, to know about this guy,” she said wearily. Then she leaned back on her pillow. As the doctors had warned me earlier, her face was swelling up again. They had advised me to arrive earlier in the late afternoon, so they could give the painkillers in the evening when her pain would be at its worst. I traced her cheek with my hand.

“What was it like when Daisy was young?” She asked dreamily. “Tell me a story with your mother and her, next. Tomorrow.” Then she closed her eyes.

My mother and Daisy? They didn’t get along all that well. None of us got along well with each other in the family, except for Daisy and me, but even that was before Heather. Who can say my family wasn’t dysfunctional, even if we all had similar interests, such as a love for the written word, stories, and reading! Maybe it was that common bond in between the members of my family that mattered, the bond whose existence Heather surmised and now was trying to bank on. I gasped with the recognition of her intent—that she wanted me to get close to my family…after her.

“I love you!” I said, but she didn’t hear. She was fast asleep.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Crocus

"And the slim crocus stirs the winter snow;
Wherefore yon leafless trees will bloom again
And this grey land grow green with summer rain
And send up cowslips for some boy to mow."

Oscar Wilde



“Don’t go,” she says. “You’ll get sick. It’s still cold outside.” But I don’t listen to her, my overprotector, overprotecting for her hidden selfish reasons, even if at this time in my life I am too inexperienced to know why she is doing what she is doing, but I sense her wrong reasons and her emerging negativity.

Anyhow, I have decided not to listen to her, for each time I listened, the odds were something would go very wrong and they did. At the end, I would be the one to shoulder the blame. So I act like I am listening to her, although I won’t. If I don’t at least do that, she’ll smack me right across the face, as she usually does.

She is still watching me like a hawk. I take off my coat and hang it on the hook. Then I pick a book from the bookshelf without checking the title and go to my room. I lock the door from behind.

The title of the book in my hand is Plutarch’s Lives. I chuckle. She buys these books for their leather covers and puts them up on the shelves in the living room, so her friends think she is a reader of some sort. In all the years of my life, I haven’t seen her reading any book, let alone Plutarch’s Lives. Elitist snob!

My brother John is right. She doesn’t like us. No one likes us.

I open the book and put it face down on the pillow on my bed. Then I take the extra pillow from the closet and place it inside the covers. I know in a little while she’ll come and look through the keyhole. I guess I could cover the keyhole, but she’ll open it using her key. She could still do it, though not likely, as she was warned to respect my privacy. As if I had any privacy…ever!

I walk to the window, one of the things in the room she can’t see from the keyhole. Wild branches and patches of snow are on the ground after last night’s storm. I slowly lift the window up. Chilled air enters the room. I reach for my sweater in my gym bag. I can get out of the window and come back in before she knows I’m gone, but I decide to stay for a minute or two and look outside.

Leaves on the trees must be in the budding stage. Then the woods will take on a completely different character, with trees healing themselves from the winter’s ice. If I could just get to my closet to my windbreaker and wear it on my sweater…The idea’s brilliant, but I hear her footsteps on the hallway and I leap on the bed over the pillow, my other fake body, and turn the book over to open a page, any page, in the middle.

She calls my name, her voice sounding like that of a half-wit.

“Daaaay---zeeee!” She has such a cracked, nincompoop way of pronouncing our names.

“Yeah,” I answer. “What’s it?”

“What’re you doing?”

“Reading.”

“What are you reading?”

“Your book. Plutarch’s Lives.”

“What? Which one?”

I glance at the top of the page where it shows the chapter heading. “Marcus Cato,” I yell.

“What about him?” This is so funny, talking to each other from the two sides of a door.

I squint at the fine print. Why can’t they ever use decent-sized fonts in fancy books? At the top of the left-hand page it writes, Lucius being expelled out of the senate by Cato…

“He was in the Roman Senate.” I yell, rapidly skimming through the two pages in front of me. “He had a son. He wrote books. Do you want more details or do you want to come in and have me read it to you?” I know I am taking a risk for inviting her. If she comes, she’ll see the open window, and I’ll get it for wasting the heat. But I like faking my way through this. She always takes the bait.

“No, Daisy. You read.” Her voice is calm. She sounds satisfied. She’ll now be bragging to everyone that she was the one to encourage my reading. ”And isn’t it curious that my daughter finds the Roman Senate interesting.” I can just hear her flaunt. Hahahaha!

“I’ll go grocery shopping,” she continues. “When you finish reading, take the dishes out of the dishwasher.”

“Okay,” I say, like the good girl she thinks I might be turning into.

After I hear the sound of her footsteps receding, then a while later, her car driving away, I put on my windbreaker and go out of the room. Her car is really gone, and she probably won’t be back in an hour. Once she is in the grocery store, she stops to adore every item. “Just checking,” she says. “You have to be careful what you spend your money on.” Well, whatever!

I look at my coat on the hook at the entrance longingly, but I won’t wear it. She has to see it hanging there when she comes in. Just in case.

But first things first. I go empty the dishwasher in a hurry. If I don’t, she’ll nag, and I can’t take her nagging. When she nags like that, all kinds of images explode inside my head like picking up the bread knife and…Not that I would, but the images have their odd ways of popping up.

I go out the kitchen door to the backyard. We have a large backyard with woods in the back. My bedroom window looks to the backyard. I turn around and wave at the open window. Should she come back unexpectedly early, I can climb inside through it.

All those dry leaves…This year she isn’t making me rake. Doctor’s orders…as I have come up with asthma. I notice something purple. Royalty! A little bit of purple sneaks out of the fallen leaves and small patches of snow. Then I see the others like it. Magic, isn’t it!

Crocus is a fertility daemon to mother goddess. She hates it when I talk about daemons and gods and goddesses. What does she think her beloved books of antiquity contain? All those ancients believed in all those silly, stupid things as she calls them. This is what happens when you gloat about what you don’t know, as if you are so erudite.

I kneel down by a crocus. Something so courageous about it. So tiny and so unafraid of getting chilled. Like me.

I touch the small patch of snow just a foot away from it. It melts under my fingers. “I love it that you are so early,” I say to the crocus. “You are the stuff of legends and poetry.”

A sudden curiosity comes over me. I sniff the cold air and stroke the flower’s petal with the tip of my finger. “Be well,” I tell the flower. Then I go back in the house, to my room to close the window and hang the windbreaker in the closet.

I come down and sit in the living room and pick the encyclopedia’s C volume.

The crocus is a genus in the iris family comprising of about 80 species. Many are cultivated for their flowers in autumn, winter, or spring and also for saffron. Crocuses are native to woodland, scrub and meadows from sea level to alpine tundra in central and southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, on the islands of the Aegean, and across Central Asia to western China.

I skip to the legends part.

The handsome youth Crocus sets out in pursuit of the nymph Smilax in the woods near Athens. During a brief period of idyllic love Smilax is flattered by his amorous advances, but soon is bored by Crocus's attentions. After he continues to pursue her against her wishes, she resorts to bewitching him, transforming Crocus into a saffron crocus flower, with its radiant orange stigmas remaining as a faint symbol of his undying passion for Smilax. The tragedy and the spice would be recalled later by Ovid:

“Crocus and Smilax may be turn'd to flow'rs,
And the Curetes spring from bounteous show'rs
I pass a hundred legends stale, as these,
And with sweet novelty your taste to please”


Further down, it says:
"Crocus sativus, a bulbous perennial of the iris family (Iridaceae) treasured for its golden-colored, pungent stigmas, which are dried and used to flavor and color foods and as a dye. Saffron is named among the sweet-smelling herbs in Song of Solomon 4:14. It has a strong, exotic aroma and a bitter taste. It is used to color and flavor many Mediterranean and Oriental dishes, particularly rice and fish, and English, Scandinavian, and Balkan breads. It is an important ingredient in bouillabaisse.”

I didn’t know saffron came from crocus? Not only the flower has daring but it is also useful. Maybe I will be like the crocus. Someday! Maybe I’ll go live somewhere around the Mediterranean, somewhere where she can’t get to me to put me down, for not being up to her standards.

Wait till I tell this to her. Now she’ll have something to really brag about. “My daughter says saffron comes from a flower. Crocus, of all things. Isn’t she clever? Of course, it is me who has instilled learning in her…”

I can just imagine!

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“You are a clown, you know! I could almost hear Daisy talking. Whatever you may now think, John, you and Daisy have a connection, and her voice in the story, you have it down pat.” Heather was laughing heartily. It was good to see her happy today, and enjoying herself. Probably because it was earlier than in the day, since I arrived in late afternoons now and returned to the office to take care of what I had left undone. Luckily, my boss and co-workers had been very understanding.

Watching her face, I laughed, too. Then I saw my own face reflected in her eyes as if in a mirror: A man who has begun aging, marked by sadness. A man whose mouth holds his laughter as if he had painted a mask on his lips. Could the sound of my voice drown out her pain? Could it do away with our crude fate or the complex interior junk I carry around?

Heather kept looking at me, too; then, in a calm soft voice she said, “It’s all right, John. It is life. And cancer just is.”

“It may be treatable maybe, in the future,” I murmured while I couldn’t help wondering why I had lied just then. It wasn’t as if to deceive her or me and thus draw a benefit from the lie. And why did I laugh a minute ago, as if I were in the middle of a carnival? My laughter was incomprehensible to me. Also what of my lackluster stories, witty talk?

As if latching on to my thoughts, Heather said, “Silence disturbs me more. It is like a highlighter on a page. You are ever present because of your voice, John. Now, go get ready to tell me another story.”

I didn’t want to mention my mother or Daisy again. What wasn’t mentioned would not annoy, and annoyance was what I couldn’t handle at this time. Even when cancer wasn’t an issue, I couldn’t handle their uppity, holier-than-thou way of thinking where Heather was concerned. So I decided to write the next story from the voice of another girl who once was an employee and a guy who worked with us in the Gazette. She might enjoy that, the next day.

Outside, under the drizzle, the streets were quieter than usual with a mood of solemn intensity. So much the better; each time I drove through, I felt the eyes of people--passers-by, those in their cars or taxis, those coming out of the stores—on me, like vicious mosquitos giving me itches I couldn’t scratch. They all seemed to hum, “There goes the one whose life is fucked up by cancer.” Surely I knew all this was inside my head, but still…

I wasn’t the one to constantly read scriptures, but on my parents’ insistence that the Bible was a literary book, some passages stuck to my mind. At this time, it was Job that kept bugging me inside my head: For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me. I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet, trouble came.

Trouble with the fatal outcome. And this early October evening, when I passed by the gray façade of stone buildings darkened even more by the time of the day and the weather, Daisy’s words spread over me with a terrifying speed. I could see her face clearly on the screen of my mind as she was telling me all about Heather and I re-lived my terror while I floundered helplessly in dealing with it.

“John, leave her,” Daisy had said. “You can’t be marrying this woman. She’s a slut. She worked in a brothel. After she ran away from a perfectly respectable family. She flew to Paris on a modeling job. Next thing you know she is in a Parisian brothel. Not only that, she helped someone to swindle people. Here, here are the papers. Here’s what she’s all about. See for yourself.”

A year and six months earlier than this conversation with Daisy, I had bumped into Heather by accident one rainy day, another rainy day like this, on the street. As the result of our collision, her bag had dropped on the sidewalk. I bent to retrieve it, and that was our beginning. Soon I learned that she had a job as a receptionist-slash-secretary for the small insurance company in the building across from the Gazette, and after several other chance meetings, which Heather had confessed later that they weren’t by chance, we started going out.

She certainly wasn’t the person Daisy had told me she was. Yet, I knew Daisy was and had always been a much better reporter than me when it came to investigating a subject.

Not wanting to muddy up my relationship with Heather, I never asked her directly about her past. She told me in passing, however, that she had worked as a model in Paris for a very short time. Maybe she wanted to tell me everything, but I acted uninterested because I didn’t want to hear it. Maybe she was so embarrassed about that short passage in her life that she wanted to bury it for good. Maybe her past didn’t matter to her anymore since she was being enticed with the promise of a decent life.

To me, the woman who threw her arms around my neck and responded to me in every way that counted was the woman I wanted to spend my entire life with. To me, inside and out, she was the most beautiful woman on earth. To me, she had been faithful and loving and supportive. To me, her existence was a splendid happening and I was greatly flattered that she had become my wife.

Then cancer had struck, adding to the enigma of our lives.

When I brought the car to a stop, my persuasive logic was telling me that in the absence of hope, man still ought to struggle to survive, be it by the skin of his teeth, and I should do so to honor all those whose hopes fate had slaughtered.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Edelweiss


“Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Every morning you greet me
Small and white clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever.”

Rogers and Hammerstein



He was standing there, so close to me, and we were almost breathing the same air at the same cadence, but we neither could look nor talk directly to each other. There were others in the room, watching. Others such as the agency chief and his higher-ups.

We were being sent to different locations on different missions. I had a pleated white skirt and a yellow shirt on, since I was called abruptly without giving me a chance to change into uniform. Although I didn’t turn my head to look at him, I could see him in my mind’s eye with his uniform on, which made my heart come dangerously close to beating itself out of my chest. I so resented him with this power of his over me.

“This mission is like picking edelweiss,” he said, I assumed to break the silence. “Edelweiss is an alpine flower. Very pretty. Yellow center and white petals.”

At this time, my boss, one of the other topmost leaders involved with my assignment, motioned me to her side, and gave me the papers that had the directions and explanations.

“In what way do you associate your mission to that flower?” The chief asked him, as I turned around to leave the room.

“It is an icy flower, in that it only grows at high altitudes. Very rare, very special,” he said, keeping his gaze fixed on me. “Like I said before, yellow center, white petals.”

“We got that,” the chief said. “But why?”

“It is the legends,” he said, as I reluctantly started to walk out of the room.

Just then my boss said, “Excuse me, for interrupting, but tell the girl to come back here. She has the wrong papers.”

I stopped and turned around. “Yes, you, come back.”

I did.

“Stay here while I search for the right ones,” she ordered.

I stood in front of her, slightly turning to my side to catch a glimpse of him. He smiled stealthily and continued. “It is said when a man loves a woman, he would risk his life to bring this flower to her as an outward sign of affection. The idea grew out of a fairy tale, called The Snow Queen. This snow queen was unapproachable as she was guarded by strong soldiers with spears. A hunter fell in love with the snow queen and dared to scale the mountain she was residing on. When he came very close, the queen’s guards speared him and caused him to fall to his death. The Snow Queen began to cry; her tears fell along the glacier and near the rocks and they changed into Edelweiss.”

“But what is the meaning of all this?” The chief was puzzled. “Are we sending you into something you are afraid to do?”

“No, sir,” he said, staring into my face. “It is just that the flower is so pretty and so rare. The legend just came to me, suddenly.”

“I have a suggestion,” said my boss, her eyes twinkling. “Since I can’t find her papers, why don’t we send her with him? He can delay his flight one more day, and two is better for this mission than one.”

“But won’t she be an obstruction for him?”

“More so, she’ll be a good cover,” my boss said. “And she can fight the best of them. I trained her myself.”

“Is that agreeable to you?” the chief asked us both. I nodded, words evading me. I felt a blush creeping to my face.

He replied, “Yes, Sir,” as we both saluted and turned around to leave.

When we were out of the room, he whispered to me. “This legend always works.”

Nothing we wouldn’t do for our flag and the country.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“That was a good movie, The Sound of Music,” Heather said. “My father took me to see it.”

“Oh?” Heather’s father had been absent from her life. For what I was told, she had seen very little of him.

“That was the only time he took me to the movies. Then another time when he took me to the county fair. That was it. Only those two times. I held his hand tight only to feel that he was real. That hand holding with my father gave me a solace of some kind.”

“Nice that, at least, you have those memories of him,” I said, thinking abandoned children were like empty homes. They had a lifelong knack for toying with scarce memories and shadows.

“Never mind my father,” she tapped her fingers on the quilt that covered her up to her waist. “Did you ever watch that movie, the Sound of Music?”

“I watched it as a rerun on TV,” I said. “My mother liked it. I still don’t know why.”

She took my last remark as the criticism of the movie. “They weren’t Nazis, you know. Von Trapps fled the country, if I remember correctly.”

“Hmmph!”

“Sometimes people get trapped in uncomfortable situations, John. Isn’t blaming the movie or the characters in it unjust?”

I raised my eyebrows but held my tongue. I wasn’t going to argue the point with her. Especially because everything with her right now was super sensitive. Words, gestures, anything she attached a meaning to…in addition to her senses of smell, touch, and hearing. It wasn’t her, really. It was all the drugs being pumped into her to dull her pain and keep her alive.

Heather continued. “That would be like blaming me for things, like for the cancer.”

I sensed the heat of her words rise and engulf both of us. I knew my face had crumbled because I felt every cell inside my body caving in. Did she think I was blaming her for something in some way? Although I feared I was falling in extremely deep trouble, “Cancer and the Nazis aren’t the same thing,” I said softly, lowering my eyes.

“Aren’t they, now?” However, she seemed somewhat gratified that I disagreed. I had no idea why this made her look so smug. I glanced up at her again. It had still to be the effect of medication. “John, you don’t have to agree with everything I say, just because I’m sick. Don’t treat me like something or someone that would fall apart if you disagreed. This kind of treatment of me makes us different from what we were…before.”

I squirmed with a feeling of failure and futility. “We are the same as before,” I said. “Just that…this situation is still shocking.”

She shrugged. “Better get used to it.”

How could she say that, get used to it? I sat looking at her awkwardly with unease, wondering what to say, if I should say anything, next.

“What’s the next story about?” she asked, changing the subject.

Her attempt at changing the subject unsettled me. Who was taking care of who and when was the last time I was this upset because I was so helpless?

“I’ll tell you something of my early childhood,” I said. “Tomorrow.”

Then I dimmed the light in the room and sat back waiting for her to fall asleep. The story that I was going to tell could be a mistake, since it hadn’t left me for years. On the contrary, it played over and over inside my head. Why wasn’t it possible to leave things behind oneself? Things like places, memories, people…hurts. But then, memories held tight to people and people held tight to hurts.

I hesitated about telling her the next story for it might upset her. She wanted to see me as the one who had grown up with the perfect family as the perfect kid. In desperation, I’d let her have that illusion. She didn’t know what a scared, self-conscious kid I was with no self-worth whatsoever. But illusions didn’t count for much anymore. After the cancer struck the second time, reality began gaining weight and I began to throw hints about my fragile and not so perfect relationship with the members of my family, hoping Heather would find some kind of a consolation for the lack of hers.

Along the same lines of thought, if I didn’t tell her now a bit about me, when could I? Time didn’t favor us. And I wanted her to know of some little things that were never mentioned earlier, not because of me avoiding them, but because I was so complacent and thought that we had a lot more time with each other. About the things, she avoided to tell me…Well, they didn’t matter. Not at all. Not now.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Violet

“A violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the eye
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.”

William Wordsworth




Mrs. Stevens stares at me across the top of her chaotic desk. “If you think you can’t draw anything, try drawing something you know well. Even close your eyes and look at it inside your mind. See what happens. I know you can do it.”

“I can’t!” This is my constant refrain for anything, nowadays, ever since…

“I think you can draw very good pictures, John. I remember it well. You used to, last year.”

“That was last year,” I mumble, and my knee hits the table and everything on it rattles.

Jimmy says, “Stop it. You’ll make everything fall.”

Claire says, “It is because you don’t try. My mom says…”

“Claire, please,” interrupts Mrs. Stevens, as she gets up and walks near our table. “You children just go on with what you are doing.” She kneels down beside me. “Close your eyes, John” she says. “You are in your garden. What do you see?”

I close my eyes and see my father leaving…for good. “Not much,” I say. “Just weeds.” I can’t tell her what I really see. If she knew, she wouldn’t like me.

What I really see is my being so low on the rung of the approval ladder. I have felt like this ever since mom told me my father would have stayed with us if I didn’t upset him. I didn’t even know I upset him, but since mom said so, I must have. Now, there is no parting from my own shadow…ever.

“Keep your eyes closed,” instructs Mrs. Stevens. “Look down on the ground, on the grass. Now look around for flowers. Do you see a flower anywhere?”

I must concentrate or I’ll end up being sent to the school psychologist again. If I could only melt into obscurity without anyone noticing me.

“I see grass and stones…”

“Go on…” encourages Mrs. Stevens.

“Weeds. I see purple a flower near a large stone. It is a wild flower. It shouldn’t be there. It’s a weed.”

“Why?”

I don’t answer. I shrug.

“So you know the name of that flower?”

“It’s a violet.”

“How exquisite! Did you know I love violets? Now draw me its picture. Please?”

“Okay,” I whisper, nodding.

I have always liked Mrs. Stevens. Because she never yells. I think she likes me, too. Last year, while in kindergarten, she put all my drawings on a separate table for the parents’ day as a one person exhibit, my exhibit.

Mrs. Stevens pats my back and walks around our table commenting on each kid’s work. I start by drawing the stone first. I make it a huge stone and put green dots on it because it’s covered with moss. Then I draw the leaves of the flower. I make them heart-shaped because they are for Mrs. Stevens and I like her. I have a bit of a difficulty with the flower’s shape. It is a tiny flower, so it doesn’t matter. Then I remember its stalk is not straight but curved before it meets the flower. So I re-draw the stalk and make the old stalk look like a piece of a leaf.

That is when I see Mrs. Stevens coming near our table. I cover the picture with my hands and bend my head over it. When she walks away, I take another crayon and watch it tremble in my hold.

Mrs. Stevens walks by again and stares at what I have drawn. “Let me see your violet.” I bite my lip, but lean backwards on my chair to let her take a look. Did I cause another disaster, or what!

“Amazing!” Mrs. Stevens says. “See how nicely it came out? Your violet is my favorite violet now. And the stone is such a big one. Did you make it large on purpose for contrast?”

I shake my head. “Because this is the largest stone in the garden,” I say.

“It works really well,” she says. “See how well you can draw when you really see something inside your head.” Then she picks up the paper. “May I have it?” she asks.

I nod, smiling.

After I go home, I write a poem to a violet. This is my first poem ever.

It goes something like this:

Of all the flowers in the world
I love the wild violet
It bends its head to stay hidden
because it is shy and simple
and it isn’t scared of being left
on the ground.

Later in my life, I would write many other things, stories, poems, articles later, but no other prize would ever match in personal value as Mrs. Stevens’s appreciation of this little poem.

Decades later, I found that poem among my mother’s papers after she had passed away.

No wonder, wild violets often seed themselves, coming up each year in the unexpected parts of fields everywhere.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“You were a very sensitive child,” Heather said. “A little too sensitive, maybe. Little boys usually don’t notice flowers or feelings. ” She had the most peculiar look on her face. “Not that it was your doing. You felt deserted and cast out by both parents, one way or another. I didn’t know you felt that way, growing up.”

I didn’t know what I was expecting while I read the story to her, but at least, her words were quite reassuring. From where I was sitting near Heather across from the window, my eyes caught the white clouds pressing against the navy-colored late evening sky. Through the darkening, sometimes one can find something of light, I thought. When I turned to her again, I saw that she was looking at me slit-eyed, considering something. “You don’t think that I, too, like them…”

“Of course not,” I objected.

“Good,” she nodded. “I would never leave you in any way. But this cancer…”

“I know,” I said with forced resignation. “I wouldn’t have told you now if at all, but then…”

“You wanted to, and we don’t have much longer. And this one, I didn’t know. I am glad you told me. I wouldn’t want to miss it.”

I met her eyes squarely for a second, then I had to change the subject in order not to break down.

“The next story…”

She sighed. “Your grandparents…anything you remember.”

“I’ll have to think about that.”

“Do so. You’ll have the whole day to write it. Make it a good one.”

I shook my head, as I stood up. “Whatever comes up. I can’t promise for the quality.” Although I had an idea, I wasn’t going to give her a hint, which—come to think of it—was probably better. It would give me some slack and it would keep her guessing, to take her mind of the horrid situation we had at hand.

I touched her arm, then kissed her lips lightly, and left her side, waving at the nurse who walked in with the tray containing her medication for the evening. The tiny paper cups in a row and the nurse walking slowly, not because of their physical weight, but the emotional one. The careful motions of the nurse disconcerted me, and bile rose in my throat, but I swallowed it back. No reason to begrudge her or this situation. I had already decided to make it through this for Heather, even if it meant to acclimatize myself to this hospice room and not think of it with nausea…now or after.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


The sky was gray during the next day as if everything was fading, but I went through it without any what-ifs. A triumph of sorts, as the most horrid of my what-ifs was entering the Skyler-Health and finding Heather lifeless. This possibility was the grayish image of them all.

To my relief, that image didn’t happen, at least for the time being. When I entered her room, a nurse was near Heather’s bed, wiping her forehead with what I thought was a wet cloth. Heather had her eyes open, staring ahead through the window at the accumulating clouds. When she saw me, she made a hoot-like owlish sound. I stopped by the door, and tried to smile.

Nurse raised her eyes to me, “Hello John, why don’t you sit down? Just a bit of discomfort we are having today. She will be fine in a minute or two.”

We are having? It isn’t us; it is her, Heather, and it is not just a discomfort. Why did some caregivers use the plural first person to spread the patient’s pain? If I were the patient, I would resent her for belittling my agony.

“Where is Nurse Nora?” I asked.

“She’ll be here for the evening shift. Right now, I’m all you got.” She folded the cloth, picked the plastic bowl on the floor, tossing the cloth in it. Then, she addressed Heather. “Feeling better already, right? Now, close your eyes and relax.” She winked, at me and with the bowl in her hand, she took a few steps toward the door. “Let her sleep a little. She’ll be fine soon.”

I mouthed a thank you and reached for my I-Pad, but I couldn’t keep my mind on the current bestseller I was reading. My indisputable understanding of what was to come when pain descended even more strongly on both of us kept blowing through my mind like icy gusts of a winter wind. I gave up forcing myself into reading and surfed the net like a lost maniac without any objective.

Heather’s reedy voice brought me back to life. “What are you going to read to me, this evening, John?”

“A love story…of a kind.” I rose to my feet and walked to her. When I kissed her, her face still smelled of wet cloth. I took in her general appearance and felt terrified. She was pale and seemed more emaciated, melting like wax. She sounded wheezy and drained.

“Love story? Great! What did you mean by ‘of a kind’?”

“Of a kind, yes. It is about my grandmother. As you asked.”

“Fascinating! Do you have it in the Pad?”

“No, I have it on paper.” I slipped the pad into my coat pocket and retrieved the story.

She smirked. “In some ways, you are so ancient. No one uses paper anymore.”

“You’d be surprised,” I said. ”A good number of us at the Gazette succumb to pious follies like using pen and paper.”

Mixed flowers in a basket


Carnation

"A caress and a carnation
for your lapel, for your love.
The carnation is made of dreams,
my heart of scarlet red.
And the afternoon began to die,
and I’m followed by her cry:
A little caress and a carnation,
the carnation was the only thing left."

"Un cariño y un clavel
para el ojal, para el querer.
El clavel es de ilusión,
mi corazón rojo punzó.
Y la tarde fue muriendo,
y el pregón me va siguiendo:
Un cariñito y un clavel,
sólo el clavel, lo que quedó."

From Pregonera (Flower Girl) (1945)
{tango) music by Alfredo De Angelis
lyrics by José Rótulo



Grandma sipped steaming tea from her glass-cup, heat tempered, for sure. I imitated her, as Earl Gray’s aroma wafted all around us. I knew it was Earl Gray, as we both loved the same things. The hot liquid glistened in dark yet transparent maroonish color, but today, Grandma’s eyes were focused on the vase of red carnations I had picked up from a street vendor on the way over.

“You found the fragrant ones,” she commented as her eyes misted. “And how red they are as if on fire from within, but it is the perfume that always gets to me.”

I stared into her eyes, seeing the bluish circles around the dark iris, a sign of aging. She blinked away whatever was ready to gush out in the form of tears. I kept my quiet for I knew a story would follow if I let her delve alone into her past. A story probably involving my grandfather.

When she didn’t talk for a while, I asked, “The carnations…you were thinking about my grandfather, right?”

“Yes,” she sighed, “Carnations have to do with your grandfather, but it wasn’t him I was thinking about?”

“Oh?”

“I was thinking of an earlier something…”

“Grandma? Didn’t you just…? Not only my grandfather?”

“Oh, well,” she made a gesture with her hand. “I told Daisy about this. I might as well you, too. Before your grandfather, I was in love with his older brother and he with me, or so I thought at the time. Then he went to war. We wrote letters to each other almost every day, even though we knew some of the letters wouldn’t arrive, because of the erratic postal service during the war. I still have the letters. I should throw them away, although I can’t because they are part of who I am and who I became, but not because they have any emotional value for me. Their emotional value went down the drain a very long time ago.”

I thought of the wonderful man who Daisy and I used to call uncle-daddy when we were very little for he was one of the most fantastic people we used to know. My grandfather, on the other hand, I had never met because he had passed away four years before I was born. But Uncle-daddy was there for us when my father had left my mother and me. My mother’s favorite uncle that he was on her father’s side, my mother depended on him for many things.

Uncle-daddy was a tall man with dark wavy hair, blue eyes, a fast walk that broadcasted of his self-respect and strength to the whole world. He was also very perceptive in many things. I had observed that my grandmother didn’t like him very much and kept her distance from him, but I had thought, earlier, this was because some in-laws just didn’t get along. Was it this uncle-daddy she was talking about? If there another brother I didn’t know of him; although I was quite sure another brother didn’t exist, Thank God!

“What happened, then?” I mumbled.

“He wasn’t the same man who had gone away to war. When he came back, he didn’t like me. Instead he had a newly found interested in my older sister. I discovered it quite by accident when I caught the two of them kissing under the weeping willow in my father’s yard.”

I opened my eyes wide like dinner plates. “Uncle-daddy?”

Grandma nodded.

So it was uncle-daddy. Phew! I was right in my suspicions because the two brothers had married the two sisters. This was the part of the family history I had been told. Each couple had a daughter; one was my mother, the other one Aunt Zoe, my favorite aunt. My mother and Aunt Zoe had been always very close like sisters and best friends.

“It must be so…so…devastating. Hard to believe. What’d you do, Grandma?”

“Nothing. I backed away quietly, hoping they didn’t notice me.”

“Why?”

“I was in shock. I didn’t expect my sister doing that to me. Of the two of us, she was the more educated, more astute one. I felt betrayed by both of them.”

Leave it to my grandma to use good judgment, regardless of her feelings. Someone else in her place would have put a knife in both of them, but then, maybe my reasoning had to do with my gender. Maybe women acted with more restraint.

Shocked by the revelation, I felt I had to show her my understanding. “So sorry,” I mumbled, not knowing what else to say or do. I couldn’t sip my tea either because I had finished it while she was talking.

“Don’t be,” she laughed. “The best part came after that. Your grandfather was walking after me, which I hadn’t noticed. While I was going back, he rushed to me and hugged me. You see we were all friends, having grown up together because my mother knew their family as if they were related to us.”

“So?”

“Well, your grandfather wiped my tears and consoled me. Not that day, but much later when we drew closer together, he said he had been in love with me since childhood, but because his brother had acted quicker than him, he had kept back.”

Was my grandmother being the catch because of the rivalry between the two brothers? Or did they both love her? What about Uncle-Daddy’s wife, my grandmother’s older sister? Were there also rivalry between the two sisters? The answers to all these questions belonged in the past, but having been the only grandson, my thoughts were of shock. I don’t know what Daisy had thought of all this. We never really discussed it, although we were both aware of each other’s knowledge of the situation.

Mistakenly, I had thought my grandpa had been the only man in my grandmother’s life. Her disclosure had disappointed me to some degree. So, I had to ask: “Could you love my grandfather like Uncle-daddy?”

“I loved him more. A lot more. He was the better one of the two. He went out of his way to make me feel better about my sister’s betrayal and everything else. I don’t know if I said yes to him because I was hurt at the other two or because I understood what a great man he was. But eventually I said yes to his offer of a more meaningful friendship and later marriage.”

“Was that when he started bringing you red carnations?”

“Before then. Way before then. He brought me red carnations all the time. When they weren’t in season, he’d go out of his way to find them. And they almost always were the fragrant ones. In many ways, you are like your grandfather. That’s why you are my favorite grandson.”

“Grandma! I am your only grandson.”

“Just the same. Your grandfather was the best man for me. I was foolish with my first choice, but he really was the best man. Unfortunately, his life was cut short.”

Grandma reached into the vase and took out a carnation. She held it to her nose and inhaled the fragrance deeply. “You’ll never know when true love shows up. Your grandfather was the real love of my life,” she said. “No one could be like him. No one ever was.”

I believed her.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“I believe her, too,” Heather said, wiping the perspiration from her forehead. A few minutes ago, she had been too cold. Now she was sweating and her hands were shaking. The nurse had warned me of this, of the rapid heartbeat, too, that had suddenly come up.

I closed my eyelids for a second or two, wishing her discomfort were happening to me, like some leftover angst, like some ghostly battle in a bad horror flick, but when I sensed my body to be in perfect condition, I felt furious at myself for not feeling her pain.

“I am fine, John. Don’t pay too much attention to what they keep telling you outside in the corridor.”

Her uncanny habit of reading my mind had to be improving even more so as her illness advanced. “I doubt if anyone outside is thinking clearly,” I said, feigning detachment. “Lots of rooms and people to take care of, here.”

“Yes, metaphorically speaking.”

“Metaphorically?”

“Nobody stays very long here. One way or another they leave. I am one of the seniors, you know.”

I nodded, turning my eyes to the soggy view from the window. Rain was gushing from a bruised, bloated sky.

I took a step to the side as a nurse I hadn’t seen before passed close by me to check her blood pressure and some other thing or two.

Should I get lost while she is doing that? What the heck? I was already lost. Still, I turned my head away. I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t take all this universe of prodding and checking and the pungent smells of medicines mixing with Lysol. But I had to. The contradiction was I wanted to stay with her and I wanted to run away at the same time and just as strongly.

“Much better,” the nurse said, smiling. “She’s settling down. I’m Nora, covering for Kelly this evening. Her son took ill with strep throat.”

“Nice to meet you,” I murmured. “Sorry her son is sick.” I’ll take his strep throat if you take this awful situation away. Why did all the weird thoughts keep surging in my head?

“Thank you,” Nora said. “Well, enjoy your visit. I have a few other beauties to check.”

Beauties to check…What a way to think of the dying! Beauties…

“John! Aren’t you going to sit?”

I jerked my head toward Heather, cursing myself inwardly. Didn’t I have a way to make her end up feeling hurt—or worse, feeling neglected!

With a pretend casual tone, I said, “Hi, Love. I didn’t want to get in Nurse Nora’s way.”

Heather grinned, her teeth still sparkling white in contrast to her pale, now thinned face. “I wish only she took care of me. She’s really very nice.”

“I heard that! You are talking behind my back,” Nurse Nora said from the hallway, sticking her head through the door. Heather waved at her.

“You like her,” I said to Heather as I bent down to kiss her. “I am glad.”

Inwardly, I decided to talk to the head nurse and put in a request for Nurse Nora’s taking care of Heather at least most of the time for whatever time was left.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Dandelion

“The Dandelion’s pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas—

The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower,—
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o’er.”

Emily Dickinson



Mandie stood by the side of the road, looking at the distance. The neighborhood had sprawled taking over the wide open grassy plains, leaving a few large blotches of fields in between fancy houses. The home where she grew up, where the wood smoke and bacon grease ruled, had been razed down, and in its place, was now a shopping strip with three stores on it.

So much change within a few years alone! All the local stories that she could recall now seemed inane. Brushing back her tangled curls with one hand, she took several steps toward the bus depot. Then as if she had seen something delightful, she gasped and stopped walking. To the left of her a wide opening, a field of green grass, wild and with weeds, seemed to ask her, “Remember me?” She certainly did. Grass, weeds, dandelions and all…Now that it was mid-summer, the dandelions had grown white puffy heads raising themselves above downward-turned dark green leaves, like curious grandpas raising themselves halfway to see better.

Like her grandpa who didn’t see or appreciate the fact that she had grown up wispy, with thin corn-silk hair and emerald eyes and that young girls with beauty similar to hers did attract boys, to complicate matters for grandpas and grandmas burdened with raising their offspring’s offspring.

“No boyfriends until you’re nineteen,” was the rule thrown at her, but Timothy was the exception, as he was the young man, a tall wiry guy with chestnut hair, who rented the shed outside. He was keeping his rescued animals there, and once in a while, he spent the night with his animals.

They were friendly at first, with Mandy mostly ignoring him until one day, when the daughter of a neighbor, Joslyn, said to her, “Timothy moved in with you guys, I heard.”

Startled, Mandy asked, “Who said that?”

“Why’s he there in your shed?”

“It’s my grandpa’s shed, and he’s just keeping lost puppies and kittens there until they can be adopted.”

“Well, for your information, he has been sleeping there, too, within your little finger’s reach. He’s got kicked out of his mother’s house for bringing in sick animals into her house.”

“Even so, none of my business,” Mandy said.

“I saw the two of you on the field out by the highway, blowing off dandelion heads and enjoying yourselves. And you say he’s none of your business?”

“That’s because I was helping him with the puppies. He said the puppies needed to exercise, but he didn’t want them get into trouble in my grandpa’s farmlands. What’s all this to you?”

“People are talking and you know how your grandpa and grandma are. I am only alerting you.”

Well, that was Joslyn, and Mandy had felt the pang of her words echo through her heart. The pain Joslyn felt was evident. She had the eyes for Timothy.


Mandy turned around and stepped into the field. She picked a few dandelion heads, which floated into the air even before she blew on them, before she could make a wish. Yes, she did recall that day, the day she had helped Timothy with the puppies. They had let the dogs loose and had talked and played like two little kids although Mandy was already seventeen and Timothy was in his twenties. It had proved to Mandy’s advantage that her grandparents were attending a farmers’ conference that day. While she was sitting on the porch trying to read a book, her eyes had caught sight of Timothy struggling with several puppies on leashes.

Although she was a shy youngling then, she had gone to him and asked if he needed help. The rest was history. Eventually, even her grandparents had accepted Timothy as Mandy’s friend, but how could she know what would happen in a few years? How could she not have seen Joslyn’s interest in Timothy from her questionings?

She had every right to do what she did, she now reasoned. The way she was made to live, cooped up, bound by strict rules and frightened by her own shadow was unnatural. Did her grandparents had any right to suppress the youth of such a young pretty girl, like herself? She questioned that. Still, in some ways, they were also nice to her. Then the times she spent with Timothy…The whole thing was like the dandelion spores, so darkly hidden. So ephemeral.

Once she had danced out of her dilemma, she had soared. If it weren’t for Joslyn going after Timothy, she probably wouldn’t have. She would probably be working in the nursing home she had just visited, where her grandparents now lived, instead of becoming a nationally known newscaster.

Losing Timothy to Joslyn, the rage of it, had made her get up on a bus one morning and leave town. The day she had called her grandparents from the coast where she had found a job and a scholarship, she was worried they would never want to speak to her, but that wasn’t the case. Her grandmother had said, “Your life is yours to decide, Mandy dear. We miss you, of course, but you were nice enough to leave a note on the kitchen table. I trust the good Lord to take good care of you. You were taught well. I believe that will take you far.” Then her grandma had sobbed together with Mandy at the other end.

Just a while ago, during her visit while she held both her grandparents bone-dry hands, someone who worked in the nursing home had told her Timothy had taken to drinking and was acting obnoxiously to Joslyn and their two sons. Her grandpa said, “I know why, Mandy. That boy had eyes for you. Only for you. But that girl…oh well, never mind; I’m not going to gossip in my old age…”

“It doesn’t matter, Grandpa,” Mandy replied. “I am glad of the way my life turned out to be. Especially because I can visit you often, and I am quite happy with the way I live now.”

This was how she had ironed out the conversation and any gossip the bystanders around them would care to shoot into the grapevine. What agitated her once upon a time didn’t make a dent in her life anymore.

She picked another dandelion head and blew on it. The spores floated into the wind, soaring high and low, like delicate thoughts racing forth and disappearing, all dwarfed by the infinity of everything

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“Hmm! The infinity of everything…I like that. By the way, who were these people?” Heather asked.

“Imagined characters…” I felt my heart beat more rapidly than usual. What if she wanted real-life stories all the time? I had already made my family look bad, without wanting to. Plus, I knew Heather preferred I didn’t talk bad behind people’s backs.

“You made those characters real, but then, that is the idea, correct?” She was in a far milder mood. Possibly, the result of changed painkillers or Nurse Nora.

“If you wish, I could read to you from a book, a well-written one, a better one.”

“Definitely not. It wouldn’t be the same. I want your stories, John. I insist.”

“If you say so, Love,” I said. Some days I didn’t know what to expect from her. She had me guessing and walking on eggshells ever since this damn disease took hold of us.

She pulled the top of her nightgown. I bent to straighten it, but she gently pushed my hand away. Old habits never die, I thought. Heather always liked doing things for herself.

Then I asked gwe with a tinge of caution, “Wouldn’t you rather I tell you real-life stories from our lives instead?”

“No, not at all. Write what feels right to you, John. What feels right to you feels right to me when you read your stories. Maybe it is the way you read anything. Just don’t sugar-coat them. I can accept dark stuff, too, in minute doses.” She laid her head back wearily upon the pillows, her one arm staying over the crumpled top sheet.

This was a relief of some sort. I was always hesitant talking about my family members or Ella and Nana, for example. I recognized there were things about real-life people that a writer, and especially a journalist-turned writer, cannot put in a story.

Anyhow, no story ever represents the precise truth, including those once experienced and later remembered ones. Beyond the twists of memory and events of life once duly lived, a storyteller knows not to let a few insignificant facts get in the way of a good story.

Despite what I thought, I still wanted to demand her contribution. “For tomorrow, maybe you choose the flower you want in the story, before I go.”

She didn’t answer. She was already asleep. I smoothed the sheets without touching her and pulled the quilt over them.

Dark stuff? She wanted a bit of dark stuff, too. How much darker could a story get than our present situation!

Mixed flowers in a basket


Gladiolus

“NO fairer sight hath in the garden been
Throughout the summer since the birth of May
Than the tall blossoms which these plants display,
Set among sword-like leaves of lightest green.”
Robert Henry Forster



“Isn’t anybody here?”

Behind the door, Anisa failed to answer. She touched the stand in the entrance as if gathering strength from it.

More knocks on the door. “Anisa, are you there?”

She had made a series of bad decisions and had traced them back to their source. That source, Sherman, now stood on the other side of the door, calling her name.

On the stand stood a vase with several stems of blood-red and purple gladioli in it supporting immature flower buds at the tip of the spikes. She always liked the vision of these flowers for they meant character strength, sincerity, and generosity, having been named after the Roman gladiators and they did look like swords.

The woman who sold them to her by the side of the street had told her that the gladiolus symbolized love at first sight. What a dichotomy in the name, she thought. Sword and love. One of those had to cut out the other. If the sword is piercing the recipient’s heart, could it be called love?

She had once seen and admired a painting in UK, in London when an art dealer invited her to dinner in a little-known painter’s house where Alisa had found everything in the austerely laid-out apartment to be exceptionally of good taste. She had admired especially the artist’s work on the wall, as she had an unusual eye for enviable discoveries. Among the paintings, she had zeroed in on a painting the artist called Dancing Gladioli and had wanted to purchase it for the County Historic Society’s District Museum. Although she had already expressed her interest to the artist and her art dealer friend, her request was rejected by the society’s board due to the lack of funds. It wasn’t her first rejected request either, but she had felt put off and her taste as a conservator mocked at. In that painting, each stem of the gladioli had its own bottle to stand in like swords deserving hilts. Anisa, too, deserved her own hilt away from Sherman.

In the beginning, their friendship had rarely gone beyond a cup of coffee or a drink in the bar. The first thing Anisa had noticed about Sherman were his crooked teeth, almost the color of his dirty chestnut-brown hair. She had thought the teeth must have pained him for years, even though he never complained. His small unblinking eyes, his sharp nose with a bump at the bridge, his stony twisted face, and his lack of poise didn’t faze her either. After all, she had come to appreciate art and she always found art in the ugly. They’d say hi to one another if they ran into each other on the street, as Sherman worked in the building across the museum. His cubicle was the smallest in the office, but he ignored that fact.

After a while, they had started talking longer on the street and meeting more often even though no promises were made.

One day, without a prelude, Sherman just showed up at her door and knocked, then he said, “Let me in, for good.”

His was the strangest of courtings, if that could be called a courting since it tended to be stupid with nothing leading to this action. What was even more stupid was what Anisa did. She let him in, not only accepting his amorous words and advances but also delighting in them, even though she thought of them as drawling, flamboyant, and lascivious like the eighteenth century’s rococo style, and her lips tingled even before he touched them.

The relationship went on for a few months until it cooled. Then one day, she saw Sherman from across the street kissing the luscious Madeleine, the barista in the coffee shop, in broad daylight and without a care.

Surely, the business with Madeleine had just arrived in time, before Anisa could rack her brain to conjure up a valid excuse to let him go. After all, she needed a good enough reason because Sherman had saved her life once when they went picnicking in the state park.

Everything had happened so fast that day. Anisa and Sherman were walking on the trail toward the picnic tables, Sherman carrying the cooler Anisa’s father had given her as a gift. All of a sudden, they heard a rattling and hissing sound, Anisa thought came from among the trees, but then, Sherman spotted on their path on a weed bed the coiled timber rattlesnake with a raised head. Anisa hadn’t seen the snake and continued with her chatter as she walked. When Sherman abruptly pulled her back, she screamed, noticing at the last minute the snake’s form, its open mouth and sharp fangs. Sherman threw the picnic cooler in front of the snake and made her back up and run. Although in the offense position, the snake did not attack; instead it slithered into the bushes. After a ranger retrieved the cooler for them, they gave up on the picnic idea and walked, holding hands, across to the parking lot. Then they went to eat at a diner.

Things progressed sweetly between them for a short while, but the snake incident wasn’t forgotten. If anything, Sherman began dropping little facts every now and then about how he had saved her, while all Anisa wanted was to forget the face of the snake with squinting oval eyes, red tongue and long white fangs.

“Remember the rattler? Wasn’t it something?” Or
“Wasn’t I the daredevil to save you from that snake?” Or “You owe me, Anisa. You owe me your life.” As a reply, Anisa usually nodded or murmured something inaudible to placate him.

The event with the snake, however, became Sherman’s obsession that led to his self-important bragging at any time or any place and to anybody. After a month or two, Anisa was at a loss about how to handle Sherman or her own shaken self-worth brought upon her by his cockiness.

Did she have a preference when Sherman had thrown the cooler in front of her and saved her life? Still, wasn’t this snake-bragging attitude complicating her life? After all, Anisa was a self-reliant, independent woman and Sherman’s attitude was troubling her deeply.

One day, she couldn’t hold back anymore. “Sherman, stop boasting, will you? You only threw a cooler in front of the snake,” she said. “It isn’t like you beheaded it. Can we just forget this, for heaven’s sakes?”

“It isn’t boasting. It is the truth,” Sherman answered, indignantly, and the chasm between them truly opened then. Sherman said not much else that day and stayed aloof and remote. Not only that day but for weeks after that he acted as if in a trance. The relationship now was a mess. Sherman was a mess. His moods, his anger, his insinuations about Anisa being an ingrate was a mess.

Still, he didn’t leave her. Anisa wanted him to go away. She came up with excuses and skipped her dates with him, but to no avail. Even if Sherman didn’t actually say it, Anisa knew he thought she owed him her life and he wouldn’t let her off the hook until he was paid back somehow.

Lucky for Anisa that she saw Sherman kissing Madeleine in the middle of the street. She crossed the street immediately and walked up to Sherman. The barista turned crimson, recognizing Anisa as she was acquainted with her and had served her frequently her specialty, the double-foaming mocha lattes. Yet, Anisa ignored Madeleine and only stared at Sherman who quickly looked away. Then he turned toward her, and with a frown, squinted sharply at her face. No words were said, and Anisa walked away, still feeling his eyes on her back.

When Sherman called Anisa that evening, Anisa just answered the phone with a simple, “You and I are done. That’s it.” Sherman texted her a few minutes later, “You owe me!”

Now, he was outside her door, creating a racket. It was clear that no good would come out of it if she opened the door.

Sherman yelled again. “Fine, Anisa, no problem. If you don’t want to see me, bitch, I don’t want to see you either. I only brought back your cooler. It’s at your door.”

The cooler had stayed forgotten inside the trunk of Sherman’s car after the rattler incident, and although it was a gift from her father, Anisa hadn’t asked it back since it would lead to more of Sherman’s bragging.

Anisa stayed quiet and kept her eyes on the vase of gladioli in front of her. Blood-red and purple, they were silent, straight, and beautiful. Had they been people, they might be able to smell her distress and stare at her with mystified expressions.

Only when she heard Sherman’s his feet as he moved away, she moved slightly at first. Then she inched her way to the window, and from behind the blinds, she watched Sherman get in his car and drive away.

When she slowly pulled the door of the apartment open, it squeaked at the hinges and the lock clacked, but there it was, the cooler right in front of her in the hallway. Grasping a handle in one side, she dragged it into the apartment. The cooler felt heavier than usual, which made her uncomfortable, but she gave it to her own nervousness.

She pushed the cooler closer to the wall and opened the lid ajar, gingerly. Gasping, she slammed it shut again, and ran out the door into the hallway and screamed.

“What’s wrong?” A neighbor opened his door.

“Snake,” Anisa croaked, shaking all over. “There’s a snake crawling inside my cooler.”

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“I am so glad you are not Sherman,” Heather said in a no-nonsense, down-to-earth tone.

“Well, you are not Anisa, either.” I folded the paper and stuck it in my pocket. “Was the story dark enough for you?”

I didn’t want to write anything dark, mostly for her sake. No matter how high the degree of darkness would turn out to be, it couldn’t be darker than what was happening to us. Anything that had to do with hospitals, death, or something too exciting would be too much for her.

“It was fun,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of the dark anything, John, especially when you have a talent for it.” She smirked, then winked at me.

I mumbled an “Okay,” while I gazed around the room. How familiar this place had become! How adept I had become to feel this habituated to our situation! Maybe I was reflecting Heather’s feelings inside me, for she had hated the hospitals, but liked this hospice. The poking and waking her up when she was sleeping was kept to minimum here she told me, but I guessed that was only one of the reasons.

“You imagined this one?”

My attention snapped back to her question. “Only halfway” I answered. “Something like this happened to one of the girls in the newsroom. I changed the names and some tiny details.”

“Good choice of a story for gladioli. What happened to the ones we have, by the garden wall?” She closed her eyes as if remembering. “I guess, they are about to die down, now that we are well into October.”

“I’ll cover the soil with plastic. They’ll come up again next year.”

“Next year…” She took a deep breath, opening her eyes again, and looked out at the trees that were turning into all kinds of colors. She had to be wondering of her time left. The doctor had told her six months more, but he had told me it was much less.

I felt I had to re-direct her attention. “Your sister says she’ll fly in for Thanksgiving to see you. We were texting today.”

“Tell her not to,” she said in a barely audible tone. “Holly has small children and she shouldn’t leave the office. Not that it wouldn’t be nice to see her.” She smirked. “Besides, I’m a sight.”

I leaned and kissed her on the brow. “I love your sight. She will, too.”

She shook her head. “Not for Thanksgiving. Tell her not for Thanksgiving.” A hint of a smile appeared on her face.

“Why not? She said she wanted to spend it with you.”

Her smile slipped. “Each year they go to her in-laws. Her whole family. It’s a routine. No need to alter it. I’ll talk to her tomorrow.” She took a deep breath and turned her head to me.

Before I could say anything else, a nurse came in with her evening medication.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Bonfire Salvia

“Who smeared their doors with blood?
Who on their breasts
Put salvias and hibiscus?

Rosy, rosy scarlet,
And flame-rage, golden-throated
Bloom along the Corso on the living, perambulating bush.

Who said they might assume these blossoms?
What god did they consult?”

DH Lawrence


He stared at my black leotard, then raised his eyes to my red lips. “You must be gentle like a waveless ocean to suddenly burst into fireworks. Don’t forget that. Don’t forget it is all about art.”

“I know. I can understand that,” I said, with an admiring look at his dark, glistening skin.

“Don’t understand. Don’t know. Feel it. Feel the art in your fingers, in your toes, in your entire being.”

I nodded, afraid to say anything that would elicit another redaction.

He glanced up at the rafters under which we were practicing, then he swirled on his heels to turn on the music. “This,” he said, “You will dance on your own.”

He had a knack to set up challenges for me and I had a knack to follow up on his dares like a crow drawn to shiny bits and metallic sparkles.

“Feel the music; feel the words,” he added as the boom box came to life with a husky female voice.

~El querer es cuesta arriba, y el olvidar es cuesta abajo. Yo quiero subir para arriba aunque cueste trabajo.~

I flung my foot forward in a half spiraling motion and threw my head backward, my eyes fixed on his face, while the words translated themselves inside my head.

~To love is uphill and to forget downhill; I want to rise, uphill, although it may cost me dearly.~

I agree wholeheartedly.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he said, his mouth tight.

Did he read my mind? I looked at him questioningly, feeling as if an entire nest of yellow jackets were stinging my face.

“I wouldn’t begin stomping right away. Go into it gently and rise with the music, feeling its passion. Dancing is love. Dancing is being passionate, no?” His face was serious, expectant, and he had crossed his hands on his chest.

I nodded again, my cheeks flaming. He restarted the music, but now I felt as if I were stepping on crackling pinecones, leaning forward, as if I were bouncing and falling into everything, my fingers waving like opened fans. I’m now alive. I’m in love.

He came up to me. I turned my head, placing my hand in his, feeling his fingers bent at the knuckles. He didn’t grip but guided me as I danced crisscross, right and left, around and around. I clicked my toes and lifted my other arm over my head. Something about him had made me lose my reserve in the dance, and I swept, clicked, bended my knees and kicked.

“Splendid!” he grinned, when the music stopped. “Don’t forget to wear the red flower in your hair, and your bracelets. Recital’s tomorrow.”

I arrived at the studio, barely making it on time. In my haste, I had forgotten the flower.

“Love requires flowers,” he said as he turned to leave. I ran to the window and watched him go straight down the soft, crumbly slope, half sliding over the dark earth. Then he turned toward, and in front of the hedge of bright red Bonfire Salvia, stood upright for a few seconds, possibly deciding on which one to cut. Spiky just like the Salvia I murmured, as he bent to clip a couple of flower stalks.

When he came back, he personally attended to attaching the flower to my hair. I still recall the taste of makeup as my tongue licked my teeth. When I raised my head I took sight of his sunburned and cracked lips. He tapped my on the shoulder and told me to turn around. I did, the frills of my red skirt, polka-dotted with white, twirling about me over my black leather flamenco shoes.

He told me I would dance alone. I was surprised to find myself thinking that I wanted him on the stage with me, but I didn’t say anything. He knew what he was doing and I didn’t.

In the middle of the dance, when I had lost myself in the rhythm with my hand closed, I felt him holding my hand. I squinted. He was on stage dancing with me.

“You didn’t say anything or ask me any questions,” he said afterwards, while we were dining. “I thought this is going nowhere, and I should do something about it. So I jumped in. I felt I had to. The way you looked could have brought me to tears.”

“That bad?”

“No, that good, and don’t feel ashamed of good stuff.” Then he flicked his finger, summoning the waiter and ordered more wine.

Yes, it might have been going nowhere, but it went somewhere, although not for long. Today, decades later, when I stare at the dried, now copper-colored Bonfire salvia framed on the wall, I can still feel same warmth as if almost touching it.

At least, a long time ago, I did dance the same dance with him.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


Why was it that after I read each story to Heather, the image of Dali’s melted clocks invaded my subconscious? Were they the indication of time’s fickleness? Then, why was I here writing stuff that went against my very being, yet still doing it? I used to be a head-strong man. I used to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. I didn’t care if I made other people cross, like my sister. But Heather had changed all that. No, correction. Heather’s illness and our present situation changed all that. The fault of the melting time, the fault of Dali’s clocks.

“That is a beautiful story, John. I can believe you could get into a girl’s mind.” Heather’s eyes bore into mine. “You wrote that because you knew I’d love anything with dancing, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I thought you’d like it,” I said softly, although half the time, I didn’t know what I was writing. I tried to be careful not to touch the areas that I thought would upset her, but not always with success either. “I didn’t want to write another dark one. The news I write at the Gazette is dark enough.”

She looked away as if a thought had passed through her mind. Then she gazed at me with a smile. “I am so happy I learned to dance when I was a little girl. Putting on my slippers was the most exciting thing. Then I grew up. Then I danced with you. I’m so glad I danced with you, John.”

“I am, too,” I said, forcing myself not to choke. But I did. It felt as if my mouth was plastered with duct tape and my nose was clogged. A tear or two slashed at my face like whips and my nose threatened to close totally. I hastily passed my arm over my face, wiping it with my sleeve. “Happy memories, happy tears,” I said, digging my nails into my palms, trying to smile, but I was berating myself internally for lack of self-control.

Heather touched my arm with pretend seriousness. “It is all right to cry over spilt milk, John,” she said softly. “Except you have to find a way to clean up the mess. Come hold me and promise me that you will.”

I sat on the side of the bed and took her in my arms. She was so light, so faery-like. The moment she put her head on my shoulder, I was wrapped in her scent. Not the scent I was used to in our bedroom, but a slightly different one. I tried to identify it and ended up thinking it must be the soap they washed her with. Everything was different about her as it was with us, also. Such thoughts rushed through my mind all the time, to drown me, as if I weren’t choking already.

“Promise me, John, you’ll go on…afterwards…” I felt the floor vibrating where my feet touched it. I closed my eyes. How could I go on…without her? “Promise me, John, now.” She peeled away from my hold and gazed into my eyes.

I lifted my eyelids. “Don’t worry,” I mumbled. How could I address the future, when I was already lost in our jam-packed, callous present?

“No, I want a promise. I know you are faithful to your promises.”

She was asking me to make a plan, a real plan for my future, but I wasn’t capable of that. I was still floundering in the shock of every present moment, and the usable portion of my brain had already come undone.

“I promise,” I said as time seemed to fold in on itself. What would be left of me after her would be disjointed pieces of being. How could I bring those pieces together? But now, I had to. I had just now promised her.

“Thank you,” she said, sweetly, but perspiration was glistening on her forehead. I eased her back into a half-lying position and tucked the sheet around her.

I knew holding myself to my promise wouldn’t be easy. The oddest things would remind me of her. Not that I’d be able to forget a second of our life together…

“Next story…John?” Once she had my attention, she continued. “I want you to make up a story with death in it. I really want that.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to face it. I want to face it with you. I want you to face it, too.”

I groaned. “Don’t we already?”

“Yes, but we have to face it and not pretend it isn’t going to happen.”

But I wasn’t pretending anything. She had no idea how every second pierced into me as it passed, how every second brought me closer to losing her.

For a moment or two, everything got still and quiet, as if the air was sucked out of the room, making me feel caught in a dark, tight place I could not break free of. A shiver passed over me. Overwhelmed, I tried to talk. My voice croaking, I asked the same question I had asked the day before. “Do you at least want to pick the flower in the story?”

“No,” she said shaking her head. “That, too, is your pick.”


When I left the hospice that evening, my feet struck the ground so hard that I felt sorry for my toes, yet sorrier for the surface of the parking lot.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Wisteria

“The wisteria means to creep over the world.
Every day its long tendrils wave in the breeze,
seize the bench under its arbor, weave
round the garden fence obstructing
the path. Its arbor’s long outgrown.

Such avidity. Such greed for dominance.”

Marge Piercy, from Wisteria Can Pull down a House



“Do you believe once we die, we can come back to life again?” Allie had come up with one of her exquisitely impossible questions to dumbfound me again. Did other eight year-olds think of such baffling questions I wondered as I rolled my eyes and lifted them up to the top of the trellis.

The wisteria had bloomed again with pale lavender blossoms overpowering with zest its green mesh of leaves. I inhaled the scent resembling that of grape jelly.

“Mom?”

She wouldn’t let go until I answered her in some way, and “I don’t know” was never the reply she would have accepted. I said, “Look up at the Wisteria. The flowers die and they come back in another season, but if the mother plant dies, there will be no flowers.”

“Mom, I am talking about people, not plants.”

“Maybe people are like plants. Did you ever think of that?”

“Yeah, both are living things and their colors are varied.”

“Something like that.”

“But do people come back?” she insisted tapping her foot.

“I have no proof the body comes back,” I said. “See, when a plant dies, it doesn’t come back, unless we put in a new sapling.”

“Perennials do,” she said, fidgeting. “It’s in them to come back. I read it in a book.”

“That’s true. Some people insist people do come back, too, somehow, but I have seen no proof it.”

“I wish people could come back!” She sighed. “I wish Grandpa would show up any time I ask him to, instead of...” I noticed the tic on her left eyelid.

“You miss him, don’t you?”

“Once grandpa and I were sitting here and talking…He still comes to me. He found me again, yesterday.” She squirmed as she twisted the hem of her shirt. Was this her way of grieving, although quite a bit of time had passed? I was quite surprised that she kept his memory intact, especially because we rarely talked of dad near the children, especially in the beginning, even though we knew Allie was fond of him, and he of her.

“The moon was full,” she continued. “And I told him I loved unicorns. ‘Me, too,” he said, and he told me of unicorns dancing in the moonlight. Did he ever tell you a story about the unicorns?”

My father was a story weaver and his stories changed each time according to which child he was telling his yarns, but that was the fun part. The not so fun part was that he wasn’t around anymore.

Dad had passed away three years ago, and Allie had developed several nervous habits after he was gone. To begin with, she scrupulously avoided the cracks on our cement driveway. She wouldn’t hold anything sticky, and she was extremely fearful of getting sick. A sneeze or a cough from someone would set her off on a washing spree. Lately, she had gotten into the habit of collecting books, but she wasn’t interested in dolls, toys, or team sports.

We had tried therapy, which didn’t help much, as she didn’t take to the therapist and refused to go to the sessions. There was no other therapist within traveling distance, so we had to contend with what the school psychologist advised, and she had told us to answer her questions truthfully and not avoid the subject of her grandfather, but the same subject tore me apart, too, and I didn’t want to influence my daughter any further with my own grief.

“The silver unicorns and the dragon…” I nodded, trying to hold back the tears. “I remember that one.”

She blinked. “I don’t like dragons all that much. They burn things. Grandpa says he is in a place where there are no dragons.”

Grandpa says? I was a bit alarmed. Now, this was new.

“That’s something,” I said, for lack of a better answer. “Just when did he say that?”

“Last night,” she shrugged. “He’s always visiting me, don’t you know? He says he visits you, too, but you’re too hung up to listen.”

I’ll visit you all, if I can. His death-bed words.

“Mom, don’t cry!”

I hadn’t noticed I was, but I was. These last three years, I had thought about dad, but not those words. I had avoided to think of them. I had avoided to think of him.

Allie hugged me. “Hush, Mom,” she said. “I promised Grandpa, I’d take care of you.”

Above us on the trellis, the wisteria blooms danced in the breeze.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“This is so touching, John. And so possible.” Heather’s eyes were misty, but she smiled nevertheless.

“Made up on order…”I didn’t finish my sentence so as not to say anything trite. I had written the story late at night, after visiting her and then going back to work, which had taken several hours of trying to organize everything I had left undone at the office. While writing it I had fallen asleep. A few hours later, when nature called, I had woken up, surprised to find my face against the desk, while I felt groggy and disoriented. Then I had gone into the kitchen and made coffee, in order to be able to finish it. I didn’t know where I was going with the story. I had nowhere to go, but I had to go somewhere. I recalled crossing over a couple of paragraphs to open a path for the plot. Somehow, I had finished it, feeling numb and disoriented.

“I wish I could have left you an Allie, but you know…”

“It was a mutual decision not to have kids. Remember?” My eyes clouded, but I smiled anyway. “I’ll always have you, wherever you may be.”

Heck, I wouldn’t want any kid to go through this. Why would she wish for that now? And me, I should have thought of not writing about a kid eight years old, especially about a kid consoling a person after someone’s death. But wasn’t Heather the one who had asked for the death in today’s story?

Her eyes were moist, too. “Still…I wish you had somebody. Anyhow, I love the stories. All of them. I think about them through the day.” She made a circling motion with her hand pointing to the walls. “Through all this…”

“They are not the best. I wish I could do something better for you.” I leaned toward, my face only inches away from hers.

“They are fantastic. I had sort of expected you’d pull it. I think, if I were in your place, if I could, this would be what I might have written.” She eyed me reluctantly.

“I take it you approve.” I kissed her then, very gently and moved back.

“Wholeheartedly. Thank you. Thanks for doing this for me every day.” There was something odd in her voice, something that meant amazement, and probably, she was wondering how I could come up with a different story each time.

I was unable to tell her, because it felt too stupid to tell her, that I had asked the other reporters in the office for help and they had supplied me with a few stories. I was unable to tell her, also because I didn’t want her to think that I was too depressed to think of a new story each day. My impediment, my shortcoming, would hit her hard in the belly, because she believed in me so, and she was already hit so badly. She didn’t need to know more than what she could possibly guess.

“You don’t want to overdo things with her,” the social worker had counselled me. “If you want to make her feel better, do what she wants, to the degree that you can. Just go about things normally.”

But nothing normal was there to go about, and I had mentioned that fact to her.

“What’s the use of fighting it?” The social worker had bent her head toward her right shoulder and put her lower lip a bit over her upper lip. A woman with weird gestures, I had thought. I guess I was bitter enough to mock her, at least inside my head, but I didn’t.

It wasn’t just her. At least she was doing her job. Everyone around me suddenly went into the counselling mode. Each time I got a stifling advice, Oh, shit, I lamented inwardly. Why do these things happen to me? Then I felt sorry for feeling sorry for myself. What kind of a human I was turning into? Or should I call myself a human when every kind word annoyed me to the sky and back.

“John, hellooo! Where did you drift into?”

My hands were sweaty. I wiped them on my thighs. “Never mind me. Something in the office. My mind wandered.” I turned toward her and stared into her eyes. “Is there anything you want me bring from home tomorrow?”

“Just bring yourself and another new story. Everything I need is here already.” She stared pensively at my face.

“At least tell me which flower.”

“It doesn’t matter. Since you keep asking this, just color the flower yellow this time.”

I felt glad she didn’t insist on dark stuff or death or anything that would set me off to blame myself again. The next evening, I arrived with a mixed bunch of yellow flowers and a tiny story.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Yellow Buttercups

“Until a field suddenly flashes
The singing with so sharp
A yellow that it crashes
Loud cymbals in the ear,
Minor has turned to major
As summer, lulling and so mild,
Goes golden-buttercup-wild.”

May Sarton


There was no fence on this side of the plot, except for a weathered post or two, once erected to show the boundary lines. Behind them, the cornfields lay, dipping and rising against the white fluffy clouds over fields of healthy plants row upon row. The wire that held them together was no more. Olivia walked back, to where the path turned to the right.

She still hadn’t decided whether to sell the place or not. The magical perfume of her mother, Soir de Paris, was gone. She recalled, as a child watching all the structures on the property being razed down by huge grumpy machines. Nothing that concerned her lived here now, nothing at all.

When she stopped to let a family of turtles pass in front of her, she caught sight of an open field, savage and startling. Yet, here where the valley began what grew had a beauty of its own. Water trickled from the tiny spring to offer life to wild weeds and verdant grass in shallow swales, and among them a row of picturesque bushes with glossy deep green foliage that had lost their uniformity were but full of exquisite butter-yellow flowers. “Buttercups,” she said aloud with delight.

They were the leftovers of negligence, as remains usually were reminders of beauty, inflicting pain and whispering of earlier days through their brilliance without any care who might be listening. They had been sown in the place where once stood order and splendor, a place where the house Olivia had grown in had been, the house her mother loved.

Olivia’s mother had loved all things French: Limoges, French doors, French blue, cream and gold-leaf chairs. She had decorated the house with all those things, but she knew the words to Janis Joplin and loved the jazzy Ella although they weren’t French. Yet, more than anything, her mother had loved Olivia like no one else had, after her, after the fire.

After the fire, it all had gone to ashes emitting a smoky scent that choked and a kind of underworldly moisture, filling her, rattling her nerves. She could no longer sense that hellish smell. It was so very long time ago.

Even now, her mind was cloudy, her vision blurry. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve and said to the buttercups, “I will keep you for my own,” not knowing if they understood her or not. But then, she had better get on with things.

She reached for her cell in her pocket. “Hi Jake, I am not selling the property. I decided to rebuild. No, not on the old house’s site. Opposite from it. Yes, I am absolutely certain. ”

It would be a well-kept place, again, but reflecting her angle of the French blue sky, and it would still have French doors, moldings and soft-muted furnishings with crown and fleur de lis accents, cream and gold-leaf chairs, and Limoges porcelain. Yes, definitely Limoges porcelain.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“I wish we had kept my mother’s house,” Heather said. “I didn’t want to sell it, but my brother and sister needed the money.”

I’d done it again. Something in the story affected her, making her recall the unpleasant stuff about her cold and clueless family. Not that mine had been any better or warmer. I had to physically restrain myself from not hitting my head. Instead, I said, “Max and Ellie? I didn’t know that. By the way, I called Ellie yesterday. She agrees with you now about the Thanksgiving. She said she’ll try to come earlier.”

“She shouldn’t bother. We do skype often enough.” Her voice was startlingly high.

Ellie had sounded on the phone as if I were putting her in a difficult position she was too busy to bother with. The position of visiting her dying sister. After so many years of distance between them, I had imagined a genuine closeness, a make-up of sorts, to heal the rift between them to make them, at least, to feel good about themselves for this one last effort. But it was of no use.

I moved gingerly to the edge of the chair, leaning toward her, “I thought you would…” but she cut my sentence in the same startling voice.

“John, all I want and need is to hear your stories. I am a little hurt that my brother and sister didn’t hold on to Mom’s place. But Mom didn’t hold on to me either. Anyway, it doesn’t matter anymore, does it?”

Why did I come up with that stupid story and made her recall the problem she had with Max and Ellie and her mother? The way my life and my mind is so upside down, I can’t even think straight.

Heather wiped her forehead with her hand. When she started to talk again, her voice shook a bit. “Ellie has her own life and so does everyone, but you and I should spend as much time together as possible because we only have each other…”

For a very short time… I finished her words inside myself but kept my quiet.

“Don’t look so glum. “ She folded her hands on top of the quilt. “If there is another dimension, I am sure we’ll find each other there, too. Don’t you think?”

“Definitely,” I said, then hesitatingly added, “Was there anything you wanted me to do other than the stories? I, mean for…for anything…” As much as I hated to even think it, I had to know what she wanted for whatever...Even if this was still quite impossible for me to face.

“I’ll let you know.” Her voice was small and meek. “Soon!”

I had expected somewhat more from her, yet I couldn’t put my finger on what that would be: a few more words, some instructions? No, not just yet; maybe a little later.

Yet, I had no business thinking about the future when I needed to write another flowery, sweet story. She had wanted this and I had wanted to make her happy, even though this type of writing went so against the grain of what was used to write, and more so what I needed to write. I needed to curse at our fate through my stories. I wanted to write horror, suspense, murder, war, monsters, carnivorous things, anything that would cut through and bare open my bleeding insides.

Surely, I wouldn’t write those, and if I did, I wouldn’t read them to her. She would see through them into me. I wasn’t trying to fool her in any way, but I wasn’t going to get her upset on top of what she was going through. It wasn’t just her, though. Once she had already asked for a story with death in it and then another darker one, but I didn’t have the nerve to write more of those for her. Even when she wasn’t sick, Heather loved romance stories with fantasy in them. She shied away from horror, mystery, of even the sci-fi genres. Why would I push those on her now?

I thought about this while I drove away from Skyler Health, wondering about the wrenching process of writing stories for Heather, yet trying not to subconsciously send her any signs that this was eating me inside. I should plan my every move with delicacy; otherwise, I would be adding another disaster to the disaster we were already living. After all, wasn’t making her feel loved and happy during her last days a balm for my spirit? Wouldn’t this make me feel good about myself later on? Darn! Goddamn me! How could I think about feeling good later on or at any time after all this?

Mixed flowers in a basket


Petunias

“The Nature of This Flower Is to Bloom
Rebellious. Living.
Against the Elemental Crush.
A Song of Color
Blooming
For Deserving Eyes.
Blooming Gloriously
For its Self.”

Alice Walker -- Revolutionary Petunia


Bonnie lived with her family in a mountainous area with high cliffs and precipices on which the sun’s beams dazzled with mirror-like effects. Although the house was small, the porch surrounding it provided the family with a vista of lofty beauty. Although bunches of trees blossomed among the cliffs, unfortunately no flowers grew anywhere, except for tall grasses lapping at the tree trunks.

The problem was Bonnie loved flowers. All colors of them. If she could she would live in the city and operate a flower shop, but here she was stuck among the mountains, and she loved them so much that she knew she couldn’t leave them. She couldn’t leave them also because she had little children, two boys to be exact, and a husband who loved the mountains. If only she could have flowers here…

“Can we move to where flowers bloom?” she asked her husband Mike, one day.

But Mike was a macho man or at least he thought that’s what he was. He said, “Mountains are for men. Besides, this is what we can afford. Where else could you get this vista and this ruggedness? We are raising boys who should know how to live rugged lives.”

And all Bonnie wanted was flowers; hearing Mike’s words, however, she didn’t object or raise trouble. Mike had a right to his way of thinking and feeling, but then, so did she. She’d find a way, somehow.

One day while sitting on a chair on the porch and folding a few pieces of laundry, she started thinking of all the flowers she could have, if she could. A child’s tee-shirt slipped out of her hands and dropped on the floor. Before she could bend down to pick it up, she heard a tiny voice to the side of her. “That shirt could fit me.”

When she turned toward the voice, she saw a tiny angelic figure the size of a five-old with a round, charming face and diamond eyes. From the shoulders of the figure spread out frosted wings with a grayish tinge.

“It is cold on the mountain, and they from up there gave me nothing to wear.”

Shocked but not scared, Bonnie handed the figure the shirt she was holding. Then her eyes took in the bare feet of this childish figure. “You’ll need socks, too,” she said, and selecting a pair of socks from inside the laundry basket, she handed them to him. “But who are you?” she asked. “I am Bonnie.”

“I know who you are,” the child-like figure said. “You are a kind woman, and you’ll have all the colorful flowers you want. Here this is a payment for the shirt and the socks.” Saying so he handed her a small packet. “Take good care of this. Inside it is the possibility of all the flowers you wish.” He smiled mischievously, then pointed to the packet. ”Those flowers will last only one season, but the packet will always have seeds in it.”

After saying so, As soon as Bonnie reached for the packet, the mountain angel disappeared into thin air. Sighing and wondering if she was losing her mind, she saw the packet on top of the folded clothing on the laundry basket, and picking it up again, examined at it. It was just a paper packet with no writing on it. Since she had the packet, it meant she couldn’t blame herself for being mindless.

Just then she heard her husband’s car in the driveway. She picked up the laundry basket and went inside.

Mike said, “I invited my parents, brothers, and a few friends from school for a party next week. Make sure everything is in order.”

Oh, no! Not all those people! They’ll never approve of me or anything I do in this harsh place. Mike’s parents had always been very critical of Bonnie in the past. In addition, his friends and brothers were coming, too. Yes, the mountains were beautiful, but Bonnie’s house --with its very few coarse pieces of furniture and nothing else to soften its looks—wasn’t very pretty. Still, Bonnie didn’t say anything negative to Mike.

The next-day, the childlike figure appeared to Bonnie again. “You are still are pining after flowers and doing nothing about it,” he said. “If you want something, go for it.”

“Yesterday, you gave me a packet; then, you disappeared,” Bonnie said. “I don’t even know who you are. You seem to be otherworldly. Why should I listen to you?”

“I apologize,” said the child-like being. “I should have introduced myself. I am a mountain angel in charge of this mountain range. I always felt my mountains should have some flowers at least for a season each year, but no human seems to care, except you.”

“It is all rock around here,” Bonnie said. “Flowers won’t grow.”

“If the rocks knew how pretty flowers could be, they would crumble up, at least partially, and create space for them. It is up to you, to make them see. The packet I gave you yesterday has seeds in them. It is true that I can spread all the seeds I want, and don’t think I haven’t tried, but the rocks won’t take them since they don’t know what flowers look like. Besides, a human hand can create wonders that angels cannot.”

“So you want me to teach rocks what flowers can be like.”

“It is up to you to find a way,” and the mountain angel disappeared again.

When Mike came home in the evening, Bonnie told him she wanted flowers and she just wouldn’t budge. “Rugged, my foot,” she said. “I exist, too, and I want my flowers.”

“Women are so unreasonable!” Mike shook his head. “There is no soil, except rocks around here. You can’t grow flowers on rocks. Don’t you see there are no flowers around here?”

“Then we should find some flowers from somewhere,” Bonnie said. “If we can’t go where the flowers are, then flowers should come to me.”

Mike sighed. “I’ll bring you some cut flowers, tomorrow.”

“No, I want real living, growing flowers. And I mean what I am saying, Mike.”

“I told you we can’t move. Are you threatening to leave on your own.”

“If push comes to shove, yes. In the meantime, I want you to do what I am going to ask you.”

“What is it, pray tell?” Mike asked mockingly.

“Bring home fifty flower pots and a truckload of soil. I’ll take care of the rest.”

“You want me to spend all that money on something so stupid?”

“Exactly,” said Bonnie. “Either that or I won’t be here when you bring in your parents and brothers for celebration.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“I certainly do. Just bring my pots and the soil, tomorrow, Mike, and I’ll be very nice to our guests.”

“Women!”

Even though he emphasized ruggedness and masculinity, Mike loved Bonnie. Next day he took out a small loan from the bank and bought the flower pots and the soil that Bonnie wanted.

Bonnie lined up the flower pots alongside the rails of the large porch that surrounded their humble home. Then he opened up the packet and put seeds in the pots. She didn’t omit flowering the pots.

She was just about to throw away the packet after using all the seeds in it when she saw that the packet had filled with the seeds again. All those pots were seeded and she still had many seeds left. What had the mountain angel said? Those flowers will last only one season, but the packet will always have seeds in it.

Oooooh, a magical packet of seeds! How out of the ordinary, but then wasn’t her seeing the mountain angel out of the ordinary, too?

So that night, Bonnie went to bed awed and marveling about the future of her flower pots. She looked so awed and happy about her project that every single thing she did turned out into a big success. The supper she cooked was the tastiest ever. Her sons acted perfectly at dinnertime, and the place looked so spic and span clean that even Mike wondered what had hit Bonnie, and he was happy that things were going so well.

The next morning, they woke up to bird songs. When they looked out toward the mountains out of the window, they saw the ruggedness of the mountains contrasted by a flood of colorful flowers with bell-like shapes swaying in the breeze, as every single pot had a burst of colors and blooms. The harsh but gorgeous vista of the mountains was enhanced by the daintiness and softness of the flowers.

“Petunias!” Bonnie clapped her hands.

Mike, too, smiled. “I didn’t bring you seeds or saplings; how did you manage all this in one night?”

“I had the seeds, already,” Bonnie grinned. “Isn’t it magical!”

“It sure is,” Mike said. “I don’t know how you managed it, but my mother is going to love them.”

“Yes, I will get the place ready and cook a few special dishes for our guests. We’ll all have such a nice time. Petunias are such wonderful flowers.”

Inside her, she was sure the mountainside would be covered with petunias come next season. Hadn’t the mountain angel promise her that?

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“I’m so loving these stories.” Heather pointed at the paper I was folding to put into my pocket. “I wish I had thought of this earlier. Before…” She sighed pushing her head deeper into the pillow. “Petunias and mountains. Great contrast, and another woman crazy for flowers…” she said. “But she had no backbone. Actually not enough backbone.”

“That’s true. You and I like strong women, but in this one, she came out like this. I don’t know from where she appeared, though.”

“From the male mind, I assume.” She winked at me, smirking. “I like the bit of magic in the story, though. Now, throughout the day tomorrow, I’ll think of that magic. And the magic these nice cards work on me.” She pointed to the stack of mail on her side table.

I wished then I could come up with some powerful magic and make her feel better without all that medication being pumped into her. I wished I could make it all better, but if there was anyone to make things better, easier on everyone, it was Heather. The nurses were telling me about how courageous and accepting she was, when they caught me at each opportunity when I was out of her room. They especially stressed on the fact that she made it easy on them to take care of her. Easy?

Heather was easy on everyone, except for herself and me. She could be capricious and demanding, but I would gladly accept her demands again, if there would even be a sliver of hope of her getting better. Not that I ever minded her caprices since she was even tougher on herself. As a grade school teacher, she worked overtime and very hard and cared for each of her students very deeply. During the beginning of the illness, students rushed to visit her, but then the illness lingered and the visits stopped, except for one or two loyal ones whose mothers didn’t give up bringing them to the house. Now that Heather was in the hospice, their visits had stopped altogether.

Yet, she still got mail from other teachers and co-workers, and pretty cards from students who took the time to write. At least some people were nicer than our extended families.

Strange, how people twisted and turned their actions and words just to fit to the circumstance they think they are in or observing. The illness of someone else to them was a funny business, not in a laughing sort of way but rather an uncomfortable one.

Case in point, the other day, I ran into one of Heather’s students in the supermarket who was holding on to her mother’s shopping cart. The child gasped when she saw me. I looked at her but didn’t recognize her immediately, as it had been four years since Heather had stopped teaching, and the child who had visited us at home a few times had grown quite a bit.

It was her mother who spoke to me. “Hi,” she said with hesitation. “I am afraid to ask, but how is Mrs. Cameron? I hope better.”

“Oh, well, thank you,” I said, placing the over-priced can of salmon back on the shelf. “She is at the Skyler-Health hospice. Not doing all that well, I’m afraid.”

“So sorry to hear that. So sad. Karen wanted to visit, but I didn’t want to bother you and also because she is such a sensitive child, you know.”

No, I don’t know. I don’t know how you don’t know when all hope is lost and when the visitors even from the family don’t visit anymore. Sensitive child syndrome, huh! Keep protecting her from the joys and sorrows of the world, and find out what she’ll turn into, I thought, but I didn’t say all that. Instead, I cut it short to make it easy on me…and on them. “I’ll tell Heather how big Karen has grown. Nice to meet you both.” Then I exited the store in a hurry.


“John, hey, you got lost in thought again,” Heather reached out for me, touching my arm.

“Oh, magic, yes. I was thinking of magic. Yesterday, I ran into a student of yours with her mother. Karen is the child’s name. The mother spoke to me. They said hello to you.”

“Must be the Newmans. Good to know to hear about her. She is a good child, Karen. Some of my kids still send cards and letters, can you believe?” She pointed to the mail I had brought in earlier, now accumulated in a tall stack after the three weeks she was here. “Nice to know the world goes on.”

Except my world is stopping. Stopping with you. But I didn’t say that.

“Talking about the world, I think you’d better head on home, John. Make sure you get something to eat on the way.”

“Okay, I will.” No need to argue. My life nowadays was Pandora’s box, whose lid I kept tightly shut. The design of my days had a complicated pattern and that pattern filled up my every moment. The finiteness of life, primarily Heather’s, or rather the realization of it had put a different perspective on everything. As such, for tonight, changing the antifreeze in my car, a P&J sandwich, editing a news piece and writing another story for Heather were already in my plans.

“It is getting dark,” Heather continued. “And ugh! My evening meds are about to be served, which I am not looking forward to.”

She had to be in pain and that was why she was shooing me off.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Marigolds

“Great princes' favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun's eye;
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.”

Shakespeare –from sonnet 25



It was a hell of a long walk from one end of the town to the other. Moreover, her shoes were tight. Why did she buy tight shoes? Was fashion that important? Yes, it was, if one was thinking of finding a better job than the killer one she had at the moment. She could no longer feel her feet as feet but two skinned pieces of meat.

Finally, when it was getting dark, she made it home and through the door inside their small bungalow with the added dormer.

“What happened with the job?” He asked her, with his feet on the coffee table. Didn’t she tell him not to put his feet on furniture? What did he think she was? Bread earner plus his chamber maid?

“Nothing happened,” she said crossly.

“Don’t touch the newspapers on the floor,” he barked. “I have to pot some plants.”

She stared at the pots stacked one on top another, couple of bags of potting soil, and the newspapers on the hallway covering the tiles. “Don’t touch,” he yelled again from the living room. “I was busy on the computer. I’ll tend to them a bit later.”

He ran out of the living room and gave her a peck on the cheek. “I’ll see if I can get a snack before dinner,” he said, walking to the kitchen.

Just when she started walking up the stairs, the power died out in the entire house. She retraced her steps downstairs where she could only see his silhouette. “I can bet, you’re blushing,” she said. “Did you have time to save your work?”

“Oh no,” he lamented. “I got up when you came in and forgot.”

Not again!

“It must be so frustrating to lose the work.” She felt like laughing at his defeat, but didn’t. It would be such a joke if he lost all he wrote. Why did he think he could write a best-seller? He hadn’t actually said best seller, but still…Something that sold would have helped.

The fuse box was in the kitchen. She could hear him making a racket, looking for the flashlight. “The flashlight is on top of the fridge,” she yelled.

She heard him grumble, then saw a flashlight beam leap through the darkness.

“Damn! Nothing’s working!” The rest of his cursing, her mind didn’t bother to register.

Suddenly, a realization hit her. “Where did you get the money for those pots and things?”

“You gave it to me two weeks ago.”

Stupid, Idiot! She couldn’t believe it. “That was for the electric bill. I told you to go pay it, because it was overdue. It is a miracle they still kept the lights on, up to now.

“You never told me that…about the electric bill.”

“Yes, I did. When I put the money on your desk.”

“I told you I close off my ears to the world when I write.”

“What are you planting in them?” She pointed toward the direction of the pots.

“Marigolds,” he said, rubbing his ear. “Useful for love potions and are sacred for they decorate the statues of the Hindu deities. They are so bright and cheery and easy to care for. I’ll fill up the terrace with them. They’re just happy flowers.”

He was in front of her now with a silly grin, shining the stupid light in her face.

Marigolds! Such waste of money!

“I’ll light up a few candles. We can eat in the kitchen,” she said, feeling exasperated. She wasn’t going to start a fight over money when she was this tired and her feet were hurting even more, now.

“All right, I’ll open up the bottle of wine,” He laughed.

“What wine? You bought wine, too?”

“Yeah, today. Let’s just sit down, shall we?”

She could make a big deal out of this, but in the half-light from the flashlight, she saw his silly face and couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of their situation.

She lit up a few of the tapered candles, which she had put away for celebrations. Then, she served dinner, a macaroni and vegetables salad she had made from the day before and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Her feet still hurt so. I could use some hot soup, she thought but didn’t say it.

He bent and kissed her gently before opening the wine. “Isn’t it romantic, though?” he asked. He opened his eyes wide, gesturing with his eyebrows, unsettling her.

The wine felt good, trickling down her throat. She kicked off her shoes under the table. Since she hadn’t gone up, she hadn’t had the time to undress. Her feet felt as if thousands of needles were sticking into them.

“Cheers,” he said, holding up his glass to her. She raised her glass to him and smiled. She could tell he was watching her intently. “Just like Christmas, isn’t it?”

His good mood baffled her. He had been brooding and quiet somewhat during the last few days, but that, she had given it to his plotting his novel. Now, where did this celebrating come from? Well, she’d find out sooner or later.

During the rest of the dinner they talked about the presidential debates, the way Northrop Grumman’s stocks had gone up after getting the job of building 80 brand new stealth bombers and if this would open up a new front in the ongoing warfare, and discussed the offer of their cable network’s very generous two-year contract.

When dinner was finished, she said, “We‘ll have to leave the dishes in the sink. No lights and no hot water.”

“I can handle that,” he said. Getting up, he walked to the fuse box and pulled the switch. The lights came up all at the same time and the refrigerator started humming.

The startled expression on her face must have been something else because he began to laugh.

“What is happening?” she asked in a low voice. “Why?”

“I paid the electric bill, but that is not all,” he said. “I sold two stories, and the cash was delivered to our account this morning.”

“So we did celebrate, didn’t we? Isn’t it why you said Christmas?”

“Exactly,” he said, embracing her. “But there’s more. I applied for a teaching job at the high school. It looks like it is going to happen.”

“What about your book?”

He shrugged. “I’ll still write it. Whenever…”

It was then that she recalled she was standing on bare feet and her shoes she had left under the table. But her feet didn’t ache anymore.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“Happy ending. Nice! But you didn’t name your characters,” Heather said, curling her mouth upwards. “Is that what it all boils down to? Only a he and a she?”

“If you wish, you name them. I’ll pencil their names in right now.”

“No, it is good as it is.” She licked her lips and smiled. ”Anyway, I like marigolds. Such happy flowers anywhere you put them…” Her eyes took in a dreamy look. “My granny used to call them Mary’s gold. It must be a Catholic thing. Then my mom used to put Marigold petals in salads.”

“Your mother probably made the best looking salads,” I said.

She rested the back of her hand against her forehead. “And she favored Ellie over me. But never mind!” She lowered her voice slightly. “No wonder, Ellie is the one who manages to stay alive.”

“Love, please, don’t feel like that. I am sure your mother loved all three of you equally. Why would she favor any one of you?”

I had heard about this from her, how much her mother’s favoring her other siblings had hurt her, ever since we began living together. This was the sorest spot in her psyche that she had let me peek in and possibly the true cause of all the other unfortunate incidents in her life.

She raised her head from the pillow. “You haven’t seen her in enough action. Ellie could do no wrong. If my mom were a deity, she’d send an angel unto Ellie to have the angel announce, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! Your mom always sticks with you.’ Disgusting though funny, isn’t it!” She sat up, shaking her head.

“Why do you think that was, scriptures aside?” I asked, cautiously probing if I could help her hurt feelings in some way, even at this latest time in her life.

“Mom said, I was independent and headstrong. Ellie was the mild lamb and also the spitting image of her. Still Ellie and Max wanted her place sold, but not me. Never mind. Let’s not talk about this anymore.” She closed her eyes, and leaned back, resting her head on the pillow, again. Then she opened her eyes again. “By the way, Ellie called today. She said she won’t come. Not until after Christmas.” She was miffed, and rightfully so. “Too late, wouldn’t you say!”

“We don’t know that,” I murmured, even though fearing to come across to her as a playacting hypocrite. Why would Ellie not take this last opportunity to make amends with Heather? Maybe she was the spoiled one. Inside me, I wanted to beat Ellie up, be it that she was a female.

“Oh, John! Look at your face! She isn’t worth our bitterness.” She gasped. “You know that.” She passed her hand on her scalp. “And I don’t mind her. Once I did. My reaction pushed me into big trouble. None of them are worth it.” She locked the fingers of her hands together in her lap. “It is probably just as well that she doesn’t show up at all. The only one I have ever wanted and the only one I now mind is you. I wanted to be able to have a longer time with you.”

“Yes, I know that,” I said, my mouth drying up and its dryness penetrating into my esophagus. I hadn’t yet told her that her doctor had talked to me about her medication, that they would just manage her pain from now on, without trying to heal her. That would depress her to no end because she was fighting to live for each breath, each moment, each day. Did she have a month left? I couldn’t vouch for that.

Then, the image of all the years ahead of me hit my consciousness like a huge asteroid hitting the earth’s surface. All those years to come without Heather…

In my mind’s eye, I saw myself in old age, waking up alone in the morning staring in confused remembrance toward the other side of the bed. Then I saw myself climbing from the bed, in striped pajamas, with sore muscles and possibly with arthritis making its rounds through my bones. Then I would sit in the kitchen slurping coffee and eating a soggy cereal, walls around me holding their breaths and the roof pressing heavily on them. My veined hands would brush the crumbs leftover from my supper, as the clock would tick in haste bidding me to snap awake and get dressed to go to my office in the gazette, if there would be a gazette then. In the house, I would keep talking to myself without Heather, like all lonely old men do. Then I would dress, sloppily I might add, and hobble leaning on a cane, toward the front door. But, just before leaving, I would remember to check the windows and the bolts on the doors, securing everything. For what? Why would I care if Heather would be no more.

“But then, I’ll always be with you.” Tearing myself from the awful images my mind sprung on me, I looked up at Heather’s dimpled smile.

“I am counting on that,” I said, trying to smile back. Then I stood up and moved toward her. I hadn’t intended to do that, but I did with my stooped shoulders and mile-long arms. Heather’s smile widened and she held her arms in front of her welcoming my embrace.

We stayed like that until Nurse Nora’s voice brought us to reality. “Okay, love birds, I am back, again. It is meds time, and Heather should be resting.”


The next afternoon, I walked into Skyler Health, holding a huge red dahlia. Nora saw me on the corridor. “How lovely! Heather will be delighted,” she said excitedly, taking light and fast steps toward me. The way she bounced on her feet, I noticed she had thick red hair, loose over the shoulders, bound back at the top, a touch too child-like.

“From our garden. The last one. Heather had sown the tubers three years ago. I am surprised it came up this bright at this time of the year.”

“Yeah, it’s almost Halloween. Lovely! You go in and I’ll see if I can dig up a nice vase for it.”

“Oooh! Where did you get that one from?” Heather cooed as soon as I entered her room.

“From the garden,” I said. “One of yours. The last of the season. I had to bring it to you.”

“At this time of the year, too. It is a beauty.” She held out her arms as if wanting to embrace the flower. After I placed it in her hands, she lifted her face and pursed her lips. I kissed her sheepishly.

“Where can I put this? It will wilt,” she said, looking about her.

“Nora will find a vase. I just talked to her.” I took the flower from her hand and placed it on the side table. Then I sat next to her pulling a chair from the opposite wall.

“Nora is my regular nurse, now. I asked for her. They said, you talked to them about that, too. Thanks, John.” She sighed, her eyes still on the dahlia. “That whole line of the dahlias and mums must be dying off now.”

“They are, but we are having a warm enough fall.” Recalling the shape our garden took lately, I smacked myself on the forehead. “I’ll need to get someone to rake, too.”

I saw a fleeting shadow in her eyes. “Remember how we used to rake together?” she asked, leaning behind her. I nodded but didn’t say anything.

Nora, then came in with a long thin vase. Careful with the water in it, she placed it on Heather’s side table. “I’m terribly sorry,” she said. “This is the best I could do.”

“No problem,” said Heather. “It will do just fine.”

I reached for the flower and handed it to Nora. As she centered the dahlia in the vase, some water splashed on the table and the floor. “Clumsy, clumsy!” she scolded herself. Then she bent and began mopping up the spilled water with a small towel she produced from her pocket. “I am always prepared for all the mishaps I can create.”

Heather’s expression was amusement dotted with sympathy as she watched Nora picking up the spill.

“I’ll just come back for a minute to take her blood pressure,” Nora said, as she was exiting the room. “Then I’ll leave you two alone, so you can have a nice visit.”

“She is nice, isn’t she?” Heather asked as soon as Nora left.

I thought, Not as nice as you, but I said, “If you say so. You’re the judge of that.”

“She is gentle and funny. She goes out of her way to make me comfortable.”

“Good, then,” I said, waving a hand in dismissal.

After Nora came and went again with her small talk and cheery attitude, plus a tea-cart with teapot, cups, and few snacks--I assumed for me--I took the papers of the next story and placed it on the table next to the vase.

“Today’s story! So exciting. I wait for this every day,” Heather said.

“You have your e-readers and your laptop. I am sure you can do better than what I come up with,” I said.

“What you come up with is special. It is for me,” she said. The way her eyes brightened, for a minute there, I thought maybe she wasn’t as sick. False hope, again! Of course, I knew better.

“What is the flower of the day?” she asked.

“Dahlia,” I said.

“Oh, so fitting!” She motioned to the vase. I imagined if I touched her now, a spark of electricity would leap from me to her. Instead I poured tea for both of us, took a sip from my cup, and reached for the papers.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Dahlia

"The dahlia you brought to our isle
Your praises forever shall speak;
Mid gardens as sweet as your smile,
And in colour as bright as your cheek."

From Lord Holland – in a letter to his wife Baroness Elizabeth Vassall Fox Holland for introducing the dahlia to the United Kingdom.



Olivia met Coral while registering for a class in summer adult education. Bored with their hectic lives of work, home, and children, both women had registered to take up a course, any course. Somehow, the class called Cake decorating in Your Spare Time to be held after work hours between seven and ten, a perfect time to leave running the house to husbands, had appealed to both of them.

On the day of the registration, Olivia had stood in line behind Coral. There were several different classes but only one person to register everyone, causing the crowd’s pushing and pulling. Someone had pushed Olivia from behind which had caused her to bump into the woman in front of her.

When Coral turned to Olivia, Olivia apologized, “So sorry, it wasn’t intentional. I got pushed. “

“No problem, I understand,” Coral said, but she didn’t turn away again. “I wonder why they are spending so much time with each person. All they need is our names and money.”

Olivia immediately liked Coral. Coral was plainly dressed, blue jeans and a tee shirt, but she had the sort of beauty to make her stand out, with glistening brownish red hair, a most amazing white skin, and large green eyes. She was tall but fine-boned, yet she acted as if she wasn’t aware of her own charm. Olivia had to look up to talk to her with her five feet two inches. “Yes, and I am not even sure there will be enough people for the class I want. Who’d want to mess with cake decoration?”

“I do,” Coral said. “That’s the class I’m registering. So nice to meet you. I’m Coral. Such luck to find a classmate even before registration.”

“Yes, I’m delighted! I’m Olivia, but I am a klutz in the kitchen.”


The chef teaching the course was Mrs. Dunlop, a tiny woman with a china-doll face and nicely rounded figure. She asked her pupils to call her Leah, then told them to select another person to be paired with, as she would assign two people for each table. Coral and Olivia had bonded by the time the first class commenced, so they would be sharing the same table.

After Leah demonstrated to the students how to hold and use the tools such as spatulas and piping bags, she went around the room asking each person to show her what they had learned. When Leah came floating in their direction with a welcoming smile, Olivia froze, thinking of her past kitchen mishaps, but Coral was a star, smiling and making small talk with Leah while she showed the chef what she could do. Surely, she was perfect, but Olivia dropped everything she was asked to hold. “Don’t worry about it, Leah said, placing a mothlike hand on Olivia’s, to keep her from destroying everything on the table. “This is only the first class. We have six more to go. Your partner will help you along.”

“What the heck,” Coral remarked after Leah had moved on to another table. “It isn’t like we’re opening a bakery just yet. Let’s just have fun with it.”

By the end of the sixth session, they had learned, in addition to the basic skills of icing preparation and simple piping and border, how to make rosettes. Since the classes were held every Thursday evening, in the meantime, Carol and Olivia had made friends and visited each other. They had found they had a lot in common. Their children were close in ages; their husbands were workaholics, and they both had to sit in cubicles during the day, doing boring office work. Moreover, they enjoyed the very same things. Except, in Olivia’s mind Coral was the more successful, more beautiful, and much nicer person, like a luxurious ocean liner, and Olivia, a dinghy battling the waves after her.

The class consisted of sixteen people, ten women and four men, as there were eight tables in the room. One of the students was a florist who brought a large bouquet of dahlias to the teacher during the last day of the class. He said he chose them, as dahlia was the official flower of San Francisco and he was a displaced San Franciscan. Surely the flowers looked beautiful on an unused side table where Leah had put them. Olivia couldn’t help but look at them all through the class.

Leah said, “We are not going to work in pairs today. Just for you people, late last night, I baked sixteen cakes, but they’ll be up to each one of you to decorate. After you’re done, what I’ll do is a secret.”

Each cake was round and small, five inches in size, and there were many cans of frosting and other paraphernalia. Olivia applied a mocha icing as base, but she couldn’t think of what else to do. Next to her, Coral had finished a white frosting base together the piping of edges. She was now making dainty little yellow roses. Hers would be a winner, for sure.

As to Olivia, well, she had no idea after the mocha base. So she started applying the piping in white frosting. A bit of color contrast couldn’t hurt, could it? After the piping was done, she looked up around the room. Walter, who already was a sous chef, was putting figurines on his cake, wherever the figurines had come from. How did he know to bring them to class! Then another one was attempting a Christmas tree. Yet another one was doing a painting by mixing food colorings with white frosting. They were all so talented…Why not Olivia. She only could do so so with using the icing smoother.

Maybe she could imitate Coral and put up roses, too, but in different places. Thus decided, she reached for the petal cutter, to cut up the petals, but Coral was already using the smaller cutter. Oh, never mind the larger cutter would do just as well. But wasn’t the larger one for leaves? Oh, never mind. Her rose would have larger petals with large leaves.

“What are you doing?” Coral asked.

“Mystery flower!” Olivia laughed nervously.

“Your base looks good, though,” Coral said, being the supportive friend that she had become.

Not knowing what else to do, Olivia began laying the petals side by side, in the middle top of the cake. As she did so, from the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Coral watching her with a puzzled expression.

Olivia giggled nervously. Surely everyone would be puzzled as well. Why wasn’t her rose looking like a rose? She was the least talented woman in the world. She might as well smash her cake with a chamber pot. Did anyone make chamber pots anymore? Well, she could always title her creation as: Worthy of the Chamber Pot. Giving in to frustration, she thought, Since I am only good with the icing smoother, I should use that for the smashing. She picked of the icing smoother, the one Coral had used for her white base and pressed it over her rose.

She gasped as soon as she lifted up the tool. Her so called rose had turned into a huge red dahlia speckled with white, just as the ones in the vase that the florist had brought.

“Oh, Wow!” Coral’s eyes blazed under the fiery lock of hair that had fallen on her forehead. “That is absolutely…” she didn’t, couldn’t finish her words.

Neither Coral nor Olivia won Leah’s little last-day contest, but Olivia was happy. At least, she had come up with something, be it by accident and Leah had nodded to her, saying, “Highly original!” Was that an insult or a praise?

Original or not, it didn’t matter. Olivia was ecstatic. She had decorated her cake with a dahlia. Her time spent here had not been a waste, after all, and her supportive friend Coral would be there for her, way after these cockamamie classes were over.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“I wish I could see that cake,” Heather said, her lashless eyes now appearing even larger than usual. “Am I Olivia, you think?”

“Definitely not.” I felt my cheeks flush.

“I think you wrote this one about me and just changed the names. I hasten to say what I did was not chamber-pot worthy. It was at worst passable.”

“There is no resemblance between you and Olivia.” My lips trembled since I was now noticing the resemblance. Darn my subconscious! “You decorated beautifully!” Just not the cakes! I turned my head away from her to hide the smirk.

“Don’t lie, my dear. Besides I moved past it. I evolved because I figured with the world the way it is, cake decorating is pathetic.” She giggled out loud.

I faced her again. “Love, this story has nothing to do with you.”

“Oh, no? John, you used the cake-decorating class I took, didn’t you? How else would you know the details for cake decorating, otherwise?” She mock-furrowed her forehead and stared at me.

“Well, what you told me each night when you came home from that class could count for research, couldn’t it? After all, from where do you think I pull a story each day?”

She nodded and just looked at me for a few seconds. Then tears welled in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. “Thank you, John,” she said as if in a whisper. “It makes me feel so happy that you listened to my small talk all these years.”

“Your talk was…is never small.” I patted her back, then I folded the papers and put them in my pocket with a quick motion.

She leaned over the bed to hold my hand, pressed it against her heart, and let go. “Thank you. This means so much to me.” She turned a little sideways, reaching for a tissue, and wiped her eyes.

“Now what did you say to make her weep?” Nurse Nora came through the door with the medicine tray.

“Something to make me happy,” Heather said.

“He’d better!” Nora shook her head in mock rebuke.

I stood up to leave.

“Don’t go just yet,” Heather said. “I need to tell you something.”

“I can come a little later,” Nora said, turning the medicine tray back toward the door.

“No, please, I can wait,” I said, worried that any lapse of time in her medication would mean pain for Heather.

“John’s right,” Heather said. “Let’s get over the hurdle with the meds first.”

“I’ll just be out in the hallway,” I said. It had always been difficult for me to see her being tended to, if the one tending her wasn’t me.

“Okay, I’ll try to be quick,” Nora said, then mumbling, “All men are chicken!”

Outside in the hallway, I began pacing to shake off my bit of stress, although there were benches and comfortable looking armchairs on the sides of the walls.

“Mr. Cameron?”

I turned around. One of the nurses was standing up by Heather’s door.

“Finally I caught you,” she said. “I just wanted to let you in on something. Something quite ordinary and expected, really, but I thought you should be in on it.”

Now what? I froze in dread.

“Please, come this way,” she led me far down the corridor to a seating arrangement with a circular glass table and four chairs around it.

I pulled a chair for her, then I sat next to her. What could she have told me that could be even more horrible than our situation?

“Heather is having a bit of trouble emotionally, we think. I talked to her doctor and he prescribed another mild sedative for earlier in the day. Nora or whoever is on shift will be administering it in the mornings. Here is the insert of the prescription information.” She handed a paper with gobbledygook printed in very tiny fonts, as if I had the eyes of a hawk to see it, let alone make heads or tails out of it.

I held the paper and looked at it, faking to examine it. Then I said, “What did you notice that could be considered trouble emotionally?” I asked. “After all, isn’t this situation troublesome?”

“Yes, of course, I understand what you mean,” she said in a sad however reserved tone. “It is just that she has been a model patient. In a way, she still is, but since the last two days or so, she has been having some serious crying spells. We have never seen her fall apart like that. There’s also the fact some of her medications can alter the mood. That was why I talked to her doctor.”

“Really! She is not a crybaby at all. In all our years of marriage I have seen her cry maybe twice. If anything, she used to complain that she couldn’t cry even if she wanted to. Except just a while ago. She cried over a cake-decorating class that came up while we were talking.”

I didn’t have the nerve to tell her I was writing a story for Heather each day. For some reason, I felt our stories was something private, like lovemaking.

“Well, I just thought you should know. It may well be the medication. Keep the insert.” She stood up; I did, too, folding the insert and placing it inside the dahlia story.

I saw Nora in the corridor just as she was exiting Heather’s room. “Hurry on in,” she said. “She must have something important to tell you. She almost kicked me out physically.” She laughed, and then added, “Not really. Never mind me, I like a little joke here and there.”

I grinned just to be polite. Then I thanked her before entering the room.

“Where have you been?” Heather said. “I wanted to tell you something before I got drowsy.”

“I exchanged a few words of nonsense with Nora at the door.“ I pulled the armchair closer to the bed and perched on it.

She eyed me while I was sitting down. “We need to talk now. I think it is important. You should know. I think I am losing my mind, John. I wonder if the damned thing jumped to my brain.” In her passion of relating the problem to me, her voice rose a decibel or two. “Today, just before you came, I asked Nora who she was. Once in a while, I look around and don’t know what this place is and why I am here. And sometimes, I think”

“It must be the stress and the trauma of it all. Stress could make anyone disconnected,” I said, recalling the warning of her doctor. He had told me this was to be expected. Trauma! Tell me about it! “I’ll ask Dr. Bolton to talk to you when he comes by. Try not to worry. It is probably something to be expected.”

“John, you and I know I am dying, but I want to die with my mind intact. And I worry that, the worst of it, I won’t recognize you.” She started sobbing. I placed the tissue box in her lap.

“Your mind is fine, Love,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “Or else, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

We stayed quiet for a minute or two while I recalled Dr. Bolton’s words. ‘Chemical imbalances caused by disease or medication may lead to depersonalization and derealization. I am not saying it will happen to your wife, but just in case, I am telling you so you don’t panic when and if it happens. It is rather a horrible feeling for the patient, and you’ll need to be understanding.’ I recalled staring wordless at his face as if it were a magnet, and not because of the eyebrows and mouth acting together or the overstretching of the eyelids on his eyes as they pierced into me through his dark-framed eyeglasses.

“John, why did this have to happen to us? I am really so so mad,” she sobbed again.

Me too, Love, me too. I am so furious, I could push this planet off its orbit. But I didn’t let my fury show. Instead, I fluffed her pillow, pushed the armchair away, and sat on her bed next to her, holding her hands. We stayed like that until she fell asleep, which was just a few minutes later.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Begonia

“We need to grasp our lives inseparable
from those rancid dreams, that blurt of metal, those disgraces,
and the red begonia perilously flashing
from a tenement sill six stories high,
or the long-legged young girls playing ball
in the junior highschool playground.”

Adrienne Rich



Along the odd numbered side of Pulaski Road, before the Elm Drive, there was once a used-book shop. Its old moldy dry walls creaked as the owner, a nice English gentleman of fifty-six, turned a big key, the size of a hand, to open its door every morning and walked into it. I saw him do that every morning, when I walked to my low-paying sorry job. His name was Thomas Webb, he said to me. He was the only one inside that I noticed any time I visited the store.

Thomas Webb had no sales assistants, and I assumed, from the looks of things, neither did he have anyone doing any cleaning. Still, I was a voracious reader and without funds; therefore, to me, this store felt like a life saver. In those days, any book cost a pretty penny, as there was no internet, no e-books, and our town lacked a library. I kept going to Mr. Webb’s shop on a weekly basis and getting several books all at the same time. In the week that followed, I took those books I had read back to the store and purchased new ones. To say purchased is somewhat of a misnomer. Mr. Webb, since I had immediately paid for the first purchase, never charged me again, thus turning our seller-buyer relationship into a seller-borrower one.

Since the books cost me next to nothing, better said nothing, I didn’t mind the eccentric owner or his decrepit book shop. Yet, more than the unkempt insides of the store, what got my attention was the creaking sound I kept hearing anytime I went in there to exchange my several volumes.

One day, “Is there someone walking around?” I asked Mr. Webb, while looking about the store. “There is always a recurrent creaking sound while I am here, but I see nobody.”

“It is the walls talking to the bookshelves,” said Mr. Webb, with a thoughtful expression on his face. My first impression of him joking with me was soon erased by my vision of him listening to the creaking with a dreamy expression on his face.

“Really?”

“Why would I like about something like that!” Mr. Webb looked solemn, and yes, very strange.

Not knowing what to say, I looked toward the book shelves and listened intently, my animal senses now fully awakened. There was a rhythm to that recurrent sound, in fact, the rhythm of a back-and-forth conversation.

“What are they saying?” I asked, quite seriously.

Mr. Webb shrugged. “I assume they are gossiping about us.” His answer didn’t seem to make much sense. Maybe his mental faculties were getting foggy somewhat due to his spending so much time alone in this place. Yet, he was a fine gentleman who was very helpful to me in suggesting titles and finding what yearned to read.

After that day, I noticed something extraordinary about myself, as well. My hearing had become sharper. I could hear a woodpecker pecking at a tree trunk all the way across the street. I could hear the meows of the house cats inside the houses and even understood what they meant to say.

One day, while I sat in my easy chair reading, I heard a spider coming down the ceiling on its silk rope. It stood in front of me, winking its one gigantic eye, and I think it complained that someone had broken its web. Was it asking for my help?

“Sorry,” I said. “You are on your own with this. I can’t fix spider webs.”

My housemate Ernie heard me talking to the spider as he was passing by. Me talking to a spider was nothing I thought, considering the way Ernie looked, his face painted chalky white, a top-hat on his head and a weird black outfit with a skeleton painted all over it.

“Man, all those books and you’ve finally gone bonkers. Stop reading, will ya? I’m going to a Halloween party, wanna come?”

“Nah, parties are not my thing.”

“Well, you’d better. If you don’t pull yourself together and get out and shake off your funk, I’ll be scared shitless living under the same roof with you.”

“Look who’s talking,” I said. “Just look at your outfit and look at mine.”

“Come on, man, let’s have some fun. There’ll be girls there. Lots of people, too. Or else, like the books you lug around, you’ll rot even more.”

“You go alone, Ernie,” I said. “Parties are not my thing.”

“Yikes! You either come with me tonight, or I am moving out, serious!”

Going to a party one night would be easier than trying to find a new housemate with a good job who even paid for me when I was in a bind. I got up, pulled a white sheet over my head, cut out holes for the eyes, and accompanied Ernie.

The house we ended up in was overly decorated to honor Halloween. I didn’t know why anyone would go through such trouble to honor the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which meant old Celtics lighted bonfires and wore costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. Heck, forget about roaming ghosts, I was a roaming ghost now in this silly outfit. But then, I was pacifying my skeleton housemate with the strange top hat as if I were bending to a threat by the mob.

Aside from the silly, gory decorations of skeletons and zombies, the house had a wraparound porch with pots of flowers on it. The girl, Dinah, who was hanging on to me as if I would evaporate and she’d turn into an orphan, clapped her hands. “How pretty! Begonias! My Granma has lots of them, too.”

At that point an idea downed on to me. Why don’t I do something for Mr. Webb, like taking him a pot of begonias? After all, he’s being so nice to me without asking for anything back.

“Does your grandmother sell her begonias?” I asked Dinah.

“Why?” She looked at me strangely.

“I thought a pot of begonias would make a nice gift for a friend of mine. He has a bookstore and has nothing to cheer up the inside of it.”

“Ohhhh,” she said, her eyes sparkling inside her Cleopatra costume. “A guy friend! Why don’t we meet tomorrow and we’ll ask Granma. I’m sure, she’ll give you the pot as a gift, since you are my friend now.”

Oh, boy! I really wanted that pot of begonias, but did I want Dinah hanging on my neck for eternity?

“Maybe I’ll just check out the florist tomorrow morning, before I see that friend on the way to work…”

“Don’t be silly,” Dinah said. “We can stop by on the way out from here. She lives right around the corner. Then you can give the begonias to your friend in the morning.”

Being the cheapskate that I am, I agreed in spite of the fact that I didn’t care much for any further dealings with Dinah.

It seems, however, she did. Her lips heavily reddened with additional lipstick she pursed them to possibly invite me to whatever, and she stuck to me as if epoxied until we left the party.

With all the crazy sounds of the party my head was already like a cauldron, with its inside afire. My newly found sensitivity to noise had added a considerable weight on my nerves as well. When we were finally on the street, I felt myself flushing deeply, rattled by the ivylike Dinah leaning on me, far too close and in a clinging sort of way.

The cobblestones under our feet now seemed to talk, since the street was quiet. If I told her or anyone else what I was hearing so clearly, they would have an airtight case for throwing me under lock and key. Agitated, I took Dinah by the elbow and steered her away from me, with the cop-out justification of helping her to walk.


I found Dinah’s grandmother to be something of a surprise. With a small round chin, she was a plump and rather plain matron with a beauty mark on her cheek, possibly enhanced by an eyebrow liner. The air of liveliness about her was quite attractive with her mouth taking the prize as most animated part of her. As soon as Dinah presented me to her, she grabbed me by the shoulder and exclaimed, her plain face alight with excitement. “How wonderful to meet you, at last! Dinah has been singing your praises unendingly.”

I looked at Dinah questioningly, but she didn’t say anything. Except her face got redder and redder and she pressed her lips tightly together. I felt a trifle bit alarmed for feeling set up.

Dinah cut her off with, “Granma, please! Can we go inside or maybe sit in the closed porch?” Her grandmother smiled with a pleased look. I bet she imagined wedding bells and an advantage in gossip trading.

I wanted to run away but was stiffened instead. How was I going to get away from these two?

“On second thought,” Dinah said, “Let’s sit on this side of the porch by the flower pots. You know, Howard, my grandmother has some beautiful begonias.”

“Yes, every single pot is my baby,” the woman said, gesturing with her hand to the pots of begonias lining the sides of the porch. Then, on Dinah’s request, she went inside to bring us some milk and cookies.

“Just take a pot and put it by the gate,” Dinah whispered to me. “She won’t notice.”

What? What was she making me do?

I have to say I was tempted at first, but then, I listened to the sweet cooing of the begonias in the pots. Yet, this was more than cooing; their sounds were some sweet music serenading the old woman who took care of them. No way, would I take one of these pots.

Dinah came back carrying a plate of cookies. She asked in a small voice, “Did you?”

I sighed and shook my head. “It’s been a long day. You’d better enjoy the milk and cookies with your grandmother alone.”

After that, without saying much else, I rushed out of there, bumping into Dinah on my way out and making her spill the cookies all over the floor.
“You Klutz, son of a Bitch!” she screamed. “Don’t ever come after me, again.”

Women!

Then I ran all the way home, happy to be running away from Dinah while listening to my shoes telling me I did good.

The remark of the front door wasn’t anything I’d like to repeat here, but one can’t make every single object happy, can one?

When I went back to Mr. Webb’s store the next time, I found him sitting on the curb with his head in his hands. Behind him his book shop was still smoking.

“What happened, Mr. Webb?”

“Fire,” he said curtly. “Your fault.”

“My fault? Why, I wasn’t even here.”

“The shelves thought they graduated you; therefore, their job was done.”

“What? The shelves?” So I wasn’t the only crazy one.

“You were our-mine and the store’s--only regular customer, and you learned.”

“Learned what?”

“Learned to listen. Not everyone can hear the unheard, you know. There’s no one else that comes here regularly, either.”

“But still…”

“That’s what reading does to a person, if they stick with it.”

“What will you do now?” I said meekly, burdened with the guilt of having learned.

“The store’s finished, and so am I.” He sighed and stared at me for a few seconds. “Have a nice life hearing things.” He stood up and burst into flames. I stepped back in horror, as he burned with a grin on his face.

Two minutes later, all was left was ashes by the sidewalk. I gathered Mr. Webb’s ashes inside my palms and sprinkled them where his burned down bookshop was.

I guess, I’d have to live with this hearing until I’d find a new used-book place.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*



“Only because last night was Halloween…” I tried to explain my story apologetically, noticing Heather’s narrowed eyes. Her face looked blotched today. Did they change her pain medication again? What was it? Was it still another thing that wasn’t working in her insides?

“The story’s fine,” she said. “But I feel for Dinah. What if you had acted like Howard when I ran after you?” She raised her eyebrows mockingly.

With exasperation, I lowered my gaze to my hands. “I am not Howard. And you were never a Dinah.”

“I took you to see Clara, my grand aunt, didn’t I?” So she saw into my subconscious…again!

I looked at her face again in a mixed annoyance and fascination. “And I liked her very much. We were never like Dinah and Howard, you know. If anything, I was flabbergasted that you even noticed me.”

She looked blank for a moment, then looked at me as if she wanted to shake me. Possibly giving up the thought, she chuckled. “Always the gentleman…” Then after my lack of equal enthusiasm to her chuckling, she added, “In a way, I feel sorry I dragged you into this…all this crap. Then I feel lucky that I did. If it weren’t for you, who’d come to see me each day? See, I can be so selfish.”

I held up my hand in negation and blurted out without thinking. “You’re not selfish. I would take anything, all this crap as you put it and then some, to have more time with you.” Immediately after the words escaped me, I felt bad for having brought out the inevitable. “Sorry!”

“You’re doing it again, John. That sorry thing…” Her tone was quite serious but not accusatory, and it gave me a wobbly feeling inside.

She stared at me for a second, shook her head as if I were hopeless, and then relaxed a bit, changing the subject. “Did you get many trick-or-treaters, last night?”

Something broke inside me. Did you get, not did we get…She has mentally removed herself from our home. I ran my fingers through my hair in frustration.

“No,” I said. “Not many. It must be the poison-in-the-candy scare going around. Parents are cautious.” I was surprised I could answer her, let alone string so many words in a row.

“Oh, well, candy’s not good for them, anyhow. I knew someone who gave away toothbrushes together with candy.” She took a deep breath in and let it out slowly. Then she reached for the side table, attempting to pour water from the pitcher into her glass. I rose and helped her. This little casual give-and-take had calmed me down. She looked at me, her smile widening, wanted to say something and gave up. I went and sat down on the sofa across from her bed, feeling her eyes following me.

We stayed silent for a minute or two until came a slight shuffling sound from the hallway. Heather suddenly looked away from me, to her right where the door to the room was. “Where have you been, Basil?” Her voice changed to that of a bird chirping with glee.

Basil? We didn’t know anyone named Basil. Had the sickness gone to her brain? From where I sat I could only see the closed part of the door that must have been ajar, but there was no one there.

“Basil,” she called again. The door creaked open and a nurse I hadn’t seen earlier stuck her head in. She gave me a friendly wave, then addressed Heather. “He’s next door. I’ll bring him in a minute.”

“Who is Basil, Heather?”

Large cobalt eyes opened wide with mischief. “You, jealous?” she asked with a tone of deep satisfaction.

Who’s this Basil to get her this excited? She looks as if she’ll jump out of bed and run the marathon. How very peculiar!

“I don’t know who he is, and I’ve met most of the staff here. Someone named Basil? A new person?”

She snorted as if my question was a rhetorical one. “Oh, you could say he’s a personality. It is just that when he and Pete visit, it is earlier in the day when you are usually working.” She winked at me. “You didn’t think I would wait for you without talking to anyone else, did you? He and Pete, yes. I’m allowed to kiss them on the nose, but they’re only coming recently, when I don’t have to be wary of germs.”

I leaned back heavily in the sofa. I must have looked rather alarmed because Heather giggled and pointed to the armchair. “Pull that next to my bed and sit next to me. Soon you’ll see what I mean.”

I did so, making the chair face the door. I drew in a breath and sat. Heather reached to me and dug her fingers into my hand. “You are the only one who can make me laugh,” she said. “No one else is above you, even those I kiss on the nose.”

I covered her hand that held mine with my other hand, and my heart squeezed with the feel of her boniness. I lifted her hand to my lips and kissed it.

Just then, the door flew open and a big black Labrador with shiny eyes darted in and ran to the bed. Heather let my hand go and stretched both her arms toward the dog.

“John, meet Basil,” Heather chuckled, turning Basil’s head toward me.

“Oh, therapy dogs…they had mentioned them to me.” I hit my forehead with my palm. “That totally skipped my mind…”

The dog examined me with curious eyes. I reached over Heather’s bed and touched his shiny fur. “Hello, Basil!” The dog gave a gentle lick to my hand.

“He likes you!” Heather exclaimed. “He usually tests first.”

At that time, an older man entered the room. His face was matching his progressing age, but it carried an obvious dignity reminiscent of good old times depicted in fiction and featured in movies. “There you are, Basil,” he said, with a voice muscular and deep, which startled me. “You aren’t supposed to leave my side with or without your leash, Buddy.” Then he clicked his fingers and waved his arms back and forth like an air-traffic controller as if directing several planes with batons. Two other smaller dogs rushed into the room with Nurse Nora behind them.

“Mr. Cameron, meet Charlie and our furry helpers,” Nora said. “I see you met Basil. This is Francis and the terrier here is Pete. Charlie’s kids we call them. All are well-trained therapy dogs. Just as effective as the meds, and possibly more so. And a lot more useful than those of us handing out the meds. Heather and Basil have formed a very special relationship here. A rare one, for sure.”

I rose and stretched my hand to the man she called Charlie. “John,” I said. “Call me John, please.”

“Hey, there,” Charlie said. “Nice that you are early and met us all.”

“Glad to meet you,” I said. “I was told that dogs came to visit the patients, but since I was here in the evenings most of the time, I don’t recall running into you.” I looked at Basil whose both front feet were now on Heather’s bed, and between the two of them some kind of a human-to-dog and dog-to-human conversation was going on, enhanced by the unintelligible sounds Basil and Heather were making at each other.

“These two are a pair, Heather and Basil,” Charlie said. “The minute we enter through the gate, Basil dashes toward this room. I have to physically make him visit other patients first. I tell him he’s getting overly emotional in his old age. Seven years old now, quite advanced in age for his kind. He is trained to be kind to everyone. That he is, but with Heather, it has been something else; love at first sight, I should say. Intuitively, he took to Heather.”

“That makes two of us, Basil,” I said to the dog. Basil tilted his head as he looked at me. In my life much earlier, I had been a cat person, but at this moment, I knew something in my connected with something in Basil. It was as if we communicated through thoughts.

Later, after the lovefest between Basil and Heather were over and it was time for Heather’s painkillers, I kissed her to leave.

“You took to Basil, too, didn’t you?” She asked with the glee of a young child.

“Yes,” I said. “He is a very special dog.”

“That he is.” There was a glint in her eyes as she peered intensely into mine. “Now on your way back, think about my next story, John.”

Outside on the curb, Charlie was urging the terrier to hop up into the rear of a small van. He saw me and waved. “They never want to leave.”

“Do you need a hand?”

As soon as I took a step toward the van, Basil leapt out of the van and bound running to me.

“Basil, get back here,” Charlie yelled. “And you are the only dog I thought who’d never given me any trouble.”

But Basil was now jumping all over me, licking my hands, my face, uttering friendly arf-arfs and woof-woofs. I managed to hold on to his collar and walked with him to the van.

“Amazing!” Charlie said, the white strands of his hair flying in the late afternoon wind. “Basil never did this with any of the visitors. Are you sure you aren’t a patient?”

I shook my head. “No, but I certainly feel just as terrible.”

Charlie’s bushy eyebrows moved as he reached for Basil’s collar. “If you run around like that again, you’ll be on a leash for sure.” The dog whimpered as if he understood his trainer’s scolding.

“He must have sensed whatever it is you’re feeling,” Charlie said, his mouth and eyebrows acting together. “He really is a very good dog.”

“It went both ways. I liked him very much, too,” I said.

There by the curb, we chatted a bit when Charlie asked me a few questions, where I worked, how I lived, and told me a few things about himself and the dogs. He was a vet from the Marines who after becoming discharged became involved with training therapy dogs for other veterans with PTSD. At this time, on the popularity of his work, on a regular basis, he was taking his dogs to the Veterans’ hospital, a nursing home, and to two hospices, one of them Skyler Health.

“We talk more next time we meet, Buddy, okay?” he said, his eyebrows flitting hither and thither. Then he patted my back and closed the back doors of the van. “Now, I gotta take these three back and feed them. I have about seven dogs that I rotate. I’ll be getting three more soon to replace the retirees. Great animals, dogs! More human than some bipeds I know.”

I took a step back unto the curb. With a wave of the hand, Charlie walked fast, his spine looking as straight as a twenty year-old, and eased himself into the driver’s seat, then drove away. I waved after them, but especially to Basil whose eyes seemed to be on me with his nose flattened against side window of the van. For a few seconds there, I fantasized burying my face in his soft fur and letting it all out, all the tears and fears I had held back for so long.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Poppy


We smiled at poppies secretly seeding our concrete
with the knotweed dreams that filtered into the sleepyheads

of our begonias, the bowling greens, our turf and garden magic.
In time, the fissure stretched itself wide and showed us the lining

of its empty purse, and as all our sorries fell to the ground, dancing
and spinning around like street performers, the deer came

without warning: heads held high and marching; hooves clanging
on the concrete like empty bells – mouths without tongues.

Joanne Key -From The Day the Deer Came



Randall tipped up the glass, and took a big gulp. The house hummed quietly around him. All houses hum to a different tune, he thought, as his gaze rested on the antique items on the side table.

Just a day earlier, he had taken them out of the box from the attic, the box left to him by his great grandfather. The box with the carelessly thrown wrappers inside it now rested against the wall, devoid of the items in it. Wasn’t the invention of boxes a great thing? Boxes could hold everything in them, if one knew how to box things. Some people even boxed their thoughts and feelings.

Boxes also preserved time in them, like this one. This one that held all these items: a Japanese Cloisonné inkwell, Copper Betel Nut Storage Box, Antique Vintage Victorian Gold Wood Carved Picture Frame With Praying Child, Antique Silver Nautical Maritime Sand Hourglass and a Nippon Porcelain Vase with gold plated handles and poppies painted on its side surfaces.

He couldn’t necessarily throw all these things in the garbage; after all, they had once belonged to his great grandfather. He knew there was a market for them, but then, how can one sell family heirlooms for money, unless absolutely necessary. He didn’t lack for money. What he lacked for was a relationship. What he lacked for was Jenna. He wished to get Jenna back, but he didn’t know how. She wasn’t an easy one to approach after all her rage.

Everything on that table is good for nothing.

Forget about the picture frame with the praying child. If he would want to put any picture or photo in a frame it wouldn’t be this one. He wouldn’t want anyone to come to the conclusion that he was on the side of any parent who would brainwash his or her child toward any one belief system. Then he had no use for the nut storage box; he never ate any nuts as he liked his whisky straight up. The hourglass, who cared? People didn’t even wear wristwatches anymore, except for a smart watch like the iPhone one. Yet, when he looked carefully, he thought the sands were flowing upward. What? Was the time going backwards now? He shook his head and looked again. No, he had seen it wrong. It had to be the whisky.

There was, however, the porcelain vase with poppies painted on it. That piece intrigued him. He sort of liked to look at it. The poppies on it were breathtaking. The way the flowers bent their fuzzy necks made him recall his childhood home where the same kinds of poppies bloomed beside the steps of their back porch. His mother had told him once that the poppy symbolized, beauty, consolation, and eternal life.

He felt a sudden yearning for the place and the time when there were so many people about who cared for him. He rose and trudged tipsily toward the side table. Then he bent down and pulled the box away from the wall. Carefully he re-wrapped the items, except for the vase, and placed them back in the box. He would take the box back to the attic and let time take care of all those items, but the vase spoke to him as if to say, put in me flowers with the color your own heart, the color that flows into your blood.

If he could only find poppies to put into this vase…But could a poppy live in a vase. Didn’t poppies belong in the fields? Maybe there was a way. That only Jenna would know. Maybe he could try to ask her, but would she even talk to him?

He turned around, walked out of the room, and left the house. Outside, the fresh air brought him back to his senses. He walked without thinking, without an established direction. How could everyone, those strangers, he met on his way, have on their faces their disapproval of him? How could they know he had been so wrong in making Jenna leave him? Did this have anything to do with the sands of time flowing backward? Maybe the sands of time should flow backward every now and then to let people know where they went wrong, how they brought about their terrible self-destruction.

Up ahead, by the window of a shop a teenager and a woman, possibly his mother with histrionics, were arguing. Randall couldn’t hear all of what was being said, but their body language spoke volumes. He slowed down his steps out of morbid curiosity, as the mother moved away. The kid walked after her, his shoulders hunched, as if preparing for his capital punishment.

One shouldn’t make people who care for him leave so easily. Randall felt a downward tug, a sense of failure that the teenager might have felt for not measuring up. What was wrong with him? What did he care? Busybody! he called himself inwardly and kept on his way.

After the fight, didn’t Jenna know she should go back to check on him, although she might not have found him. Since she hadn’t called, he didn’t either, and that was a week ago. Pathetic excuse for a boyfriend, wasn’t he?

Randall realized he was on the same street again. Hadn’t he passed through this one twice already? If he kept up doing this, his stride would take him farther and farther away. The thought of it made his heart race and he gasped.

He paused for a few minutes to let his heart simmer to a slower pace. Then he walked decidedly with sure steps until he stopped in front of a florist. The painted words on the window of the shop said, Jenna’s Flowers.

He saw her walking toward the door, toward him. Something in the way she looked at him made his heart sputter. He turned his body halfway as if he were to leave but stayed put.

“So, what’s new, Randy?” If anyone could whine with a smile, that would be Jenna.

He hesitated for a moment, then met her eyes squarely. “I…I wanted to ask you a question, as a professional, mind you.”

“Professional? Okay! Shoot.” She cocked her head. Her face had taken an expression of favorable comprehension.

“Poppies. I wanted to ask about poppies. Can I have them live in a vase, if for a short time?”

Jenna’s eyes, deep blue as the sky reflected on the window next to where she stood, searched Randall’s face. With a deep sigh, she said, “No. Once the stem of a poppy is cut, its milky sap oozes to the cut and seals it, preventing it from drawing water when the flower is placed in a vase.”

“So, it’s hopeless, you say.”

“Nothing is hopeless, Randy.” Jenna crossed her arms, wearing a big grin. “I can singe the end of the stem right after a cut with a lighted match, until the end is black. This way the milky sap won’t reach the end to prevent it from taking in water. I would also need to remove the green calyx from the base of the petals. Still, the life of the poppies wouldn’t be too long.”
“Sweet!” Heather said, “A kiss and make-up story. And you didn’t think you could write stories of tenderness.”

Today, her tender body was lying under several thick blankets, as if the chill of the rainy November day had settled inside her body.

While I was reading the poppy story, I had noticed that her shivering came and went in spells, but she acted as if those spells belonged to someone else. I checked myself mentally to search for the reflected images of her discomfort and pain in my own body, but I felt nothing.

I had once researched, for a Gazette article, empathic pain that occurred to lovers, partners, and husbands when the women in their lives was giving birth. I also found out that feeling someone else’s pain was a hot topic of study in the field of social cognitive neuroscience. The theory, was this had to do with the possession of mirror neurons. I, therefore, guessed that I lacked those mirror neurons, or as much as I loved her, Heather’s physical symptoms belonged to her.

Even so, with diligence, my cold, logical brain probed my every physical organ to find each one unaffected by her pain. I felt tremendously disappointed and wondered if I were dead or paralyzed inside.

Despite all these thoughts that crossed my mind at a higher speed than light, I forced my attention to answer her, “As long as you like them, I’ll keep writing.”

A light of hope shone in her eyes. “This is what I wanted out of you: that you keep writing. No matter where or when or for whom.”

Disconcerted, I asked, “Why? Why did you say that?”

She blew out her breath through pursed lips. “You are a good journalist, John, but there is more in you that needs to come out.”

I clutched the armrests of the chair I was sitting in. I hesitated for a second or two, then blurted out, “What’s in me is not poetry and sweet stories, Love. I am writing these because you asked, not that I mind doing it. I even enjoy writing some of those, in a masochistic fashion.”

“There you go, again!” Her face was grim and she looked me over carefully. “Maybe you have hidden other stories inside you, too. I agree, but how will you discover all that is inside you, if you don’t sample it all? How will you know how good you are if you don’t try writing what you are at odds with? ”

I’d been harboring only an inward good humor of compliance for this fervor of hers. At that point, it dawned on me that she was taking me seriously. Intrigued, I stared at the trees outside the window, now beginning to bare their arms from their colorful cloaks. Was she doing it for me? Asking me to write stories for her to get me into writing fiction? What was the use, anyway? What was the use of writing if or when one’s life would have lost its meaning?

Always the obstinate one when it came to what I did or liked to do, I wasn’t about to let anyone tell me how to live my life or what to write, but Heather? When I was about to lose her? These thoughts had me recalling the trust that existed between us, and another abrupt feeling of despair took me in its power, making me shut my eyes for a second or two. I could not even think of facing what was predicted for her in a few days, a month at most, without going into a mental crisis.

My stomach clenched and I pressed my fists into the armrests of the chair. I had to go along with her wishes. That was that.

“Don’t you agree with me, John?” Her voice trembled.

I opened my eyes and took in her emaciated face. “I certainly do agree with you, Love,” I said, trying to keep my expression calm and unaffected. “I will keep writing our stories.”

She smiled, looking unruffled and placid, duly reassured.

Nurse Nora entered through the door, prancing with the ease of Fred Astaire’s steps into my I-can’t-believe-I-promised-her-fiction shock and the air of unreality in the room. I ceased slouching and stood upright, pushing the chair back.

After an exchange of inane conversation with the nurse, I bent forward to kiss Heather. Then I left with the idea of going back to Gazette to take care of the unfinished work from the earlier part of the day.

Outside, I drew a deep breath, calculating. I could probably try fiction, after Heather, but it had to be on my terms. Meanwhile, my work in the gazette should never cease since I valued the camaraderie of the other journalists and personnel greatly. They had put up with my crazy schedule due to my wife’s illness; I owed them my devotion.

I suddenly halted before entering the car. Had I just been making plans for my life after Heather? Startled, I held on to the top of the car. I felt some kind of a frozen panic ripping away my insides. How dare I!

I flung myself into the driver’s seat, banged my fists on the steering wheel, and sobbed, not caring whether someone saw me or not.


“If so, well, I was thinking why not you find me some poppies and put them in the vase that I have in my house, an antique heirloom from my great grandfather. It would be nice if you did come over to arrange the poppies in that vase.”

“Me? Go over your house?” Her mocking tone confirmed his fears, but when she continued again his hopes were renewed. “Sounds like a plan,” Jenna said. “But why poppies?”

“That antique vase has hand-painted poppies in them. I thought maybe, after you put the poppies in it, we could celebrate something. Something like you never leaving me again.” He gasped as if he lost all his breathing capability, but he immediately took a deep breath and continued. “Then you could bring the vase with the poppies here, inside this window. It would look great here.” Randall’s heart beat as if it would leap out of his chest.

“Randy! Are you bribing me with a vase?”

“I didn’t know how else to do this.” He swallowed hard. Had he created another mess?

“So you did it this way.”

He nodded.

She reached forward suddenly and took his hands, pulling him inside the store. “Well then. Poppies, it is. But no more fighting and sulking. Understood?”

Randall nodded but stayed silent for a moment. Then he looked around the store, fixed his eyes at Jenna, and smiled. “Since you have no customers, why don’t you close the store and come home with me so I can show you the vase with poppies on its sides?”

Jenna rested her head on his shoulders and chuckled. “I thought you’d never ask.”

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“Sweet!” Heather said, “A kiss and make-up story. And you didn’t think you could write stories of tenderness.”

Today, her tender body was lying under several thick blankets, as if the chill of the rainy November day had settled inside her body.

While I was reading the poppy story, I had noticed that her shivering came and went in spells, but she acted as if those spells belonged to someone else. I checked myself mentally to search for the reflected images of her discomfort and pain in my own body, but I felt nothing.

I had once researched, for a Gazette article, empathic pain that occurred to lovers, partners, and husbands when the women in their lives was giving birth. I also found out that feeling someone else’s pain was a hot topic of study in the field of social cognitive neuroscience. The theory, was this had to do with the possession of mirror neurons. I, therefore, guessed that I lacked those mirror neurons, or as much as I loved her, Heather’s physical symptoms belonged to her.

Even so, with diligence, my cold, logical brain probed my every physical organ to find each one unaffected by her pain. I felt tremendously disappointed and wondered if I were dead or paralyzed inside.

Despite all these thoughts that crossed my mind at a higher speed than light, I forced my attention to answer her, “As long as you like them, I’ll keep writing.”

A light of hope shone in her eyes. “This is what I wanted out of you: that you keep writing. No matter where or when or for whom.”

Disconcerted, I asked, “Why? Why did you say that?”

She blew out her breath through pursed lips. “You are a good journalist, John, but there is more in you that needs to come out.”

I clutched the armrests of the chair I was sitting in. I hesitated for a second or two, then blurted out, “What’s in me is not poetry and sweet stories, Love. I am writing these because you asked, not that I mind doing it. I even enjoy writing some of those, in a masochistic fashion.”

“There you go, again!” Her face was grim and she looked me over carefully. “Maybe you have hidden other stories inside you, too. I agree, but how will you discover all that is inside you, if you don’t sample it all? How will you know how good you are if you don’t try writing what you are at odds with? ”

I’d been harboring only an inward good humor of compliance for this fervor of hers. At that point, it dawned on me that she was taking me seriously. Intrigued, I stared at the trees outside the window, now beginning to bare their arms from their colorful cloaks. Was she doing it for me? Asking me to write stories for her to get me into writing fiction? What was the use, anyway? What was the use of writing if or when one’s life would have lost its meaning?

Always the obstinate one when it came to what I did or liked to do, I wasn’t about to let anyone tell me how to live my life or what to write, but Heather? When I was about to lose her? These thoughts had me recalling the trust that existed between us, and another abrupt feeling of despair took me in its power, making me shut my eyes for a second or two. I could not even think of facing what was predicted for her in a few days, a month at most, without going into a mental crisis.

My stomach clenched and I pressed my fists into the armrests of the chair. I had to go along with her wishes. That was that.

“Don’t you agree with me, John?” Her voice trembled.

I opened my eyes and took in her emaciated face. “I certainly do agree with you, Love,” I said, trying to keep my expression calm and unaffected. “I will keep writing our stories.”

She smiled, looking unruffled and placid, duly reassured.

Nurse Nora entered through the door, prancing with the ease of Fred Astaire’s steps into my I-can’t-believe-I-promised-her-fiction shock and the air of unreality in the room. I ceased slouching and stood upright, pushing the chair back.

After an exchange of inane conversation with the nurse, I bent forward to kiss Heather. Then I left with the idea of going back to Gazette to take care of the unfinished work from the earlier part of the day.

Outside, I drew a deep breath, calculating. I could probably try fiction, after Heather, but it had to be on my terms. Meanwhile, my work in the gazette should never cease since I valued the camaraderie of the other journalists and personnel greatly. They had put up with my crazy schedule due to my wife’s illness; I owed them my devotion.

I suddenly halted before entering the car. Had I just been making plans for my life after Heather? Startled, I held on to the top of the car. I felt some kind of a frozen panic ripping away my insides. How dare I!

I flung myself into the driver’s seat, banged my fists on the steering wheel, and sobbed, not caring whether someone saw me or not.


Mixed flowers in a basket


Impatiens

“From the petal’s edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact — lifting
from it — neither hanging
nor pushing —

The fragility of the flower
unbruised
penetrates space”

Dylan Thomas


“This won’t do,” the cameraman said the minute Pearl stepped up into the elevated vinyl-floor prop imitating garden flagstone tiles. At the backdrop, glowed a huge image of a spread of impatiens, their flashy flowers of milky white with pink centers against the bold dark green foliage.

“I agree,” said the director. “Pearl, you should be looking fresh and happy just like the backdrop. Yet, you’re drooping, and you have puffy eyes. What’s with you? Had another late night again?”

Pearl nodded in acknowledgement, tilting her head to one side as she eyed the cameraman’s ticked-off face. She couldn’t have helped it. She had to work late nights as a bartender to make a living. This photo-shoot was a side kick, maneuvered by a rich old ad-man, Phil Elskin, one of her regular customers, who also had been close friends with the elderly couple who had adopted her twenty-three years ago when she was a tiny newborn. Both her adopted parents had died one after the other when she had just finished high school, and after living with her adopted mother’s sister for about two years, she was now on her own.

She had a good face for the commercials, Phil Elskin had told her. Would she be willing to work for him? At first, they would try the waters and take it from there. She need not drop her bartending job immediately. Pearl had accepted the offer right away. Who would let such an opportunity escape?

Today’s was her third shoot, this time for a local nursery and florist. She was asked to hold a pot of impatiens and tell of a flower sale in the nursery that would last during an entire month. The success of the earlier two commercials had been so-so on the local TV stations, although Pearl had nurtured high hopes in the beginning. Maybe someday, her ads would be on the air nationwide.

“I’ll call make-up. We have to do this, today,” the director said, his expression grave. “The deadline’s tonight. We can’t afford losing any deals.” With saying so, he pulled up his cellphone from his top shirt pocket and hit a button. “Lisette, come on up. Bring your kit. We have an emergency, here.”

Within five minutes, the studio door was pushed open and a stylish woman clad in Altuzarra Snipe Dress, Jimmy Choo pumps, and Versace eyeglasses entered, clicking her heels and throwing air kisses to the director and the cameraman. She was carrying a large case in one hand that resembled a box. She had blonde hair and light blue eyes, both the same shade as Pearl’s.

“Lisette, meet Pearl, and please freshen her up so she doesn’t look so wilted. I’ll get coffee. Call me when you’re done,” the director said.

Pearl smiled nervously, then finding the question she needed to ask, called after the director. “Carl, won’t this dress clash with the backdrop?”

The director reappeared at the doorway. “After the makeup. I’ll decide about that after the makeup. It looks okay, though.”

Lisette flapped her hand to Carl. “You go ahead. I’ll do my best.” She turned to the cameraman. “Peter, you stay, but sit over there, quietly” she motioned to a chair. “I may need your input; maybe with the lighting and all, so we can coordinate a look.” Then she observed Pearl from head to toe as if she were an object. Pearl noticed Lisette’s pursed lips and deep frown of disapproval, but there was also something else in her eyes. What was it?

With a toss of her hair, Lisette put her case on the floor and pulled a high bar stool from the opposite side of the room. “Sit!” she motioned Pearl, as if she were a pooch who had wetted the floor. Pearl obeyed, half expecting to be slapped on the nose with a folded newspaper, and she clasped her hands together in an attempt of consoling herself.

Lisette threw a black muslin cape around Pearl’s shoulders. Then she pulled her hair back, combed, styled, and placed barrettes on the two sides of her head, just the way Pearl’s adopted mother used to do when she was a little girl. “Just to make you look a bit younger,” Lisette explained. Had she noticed Pearl’s sulk?

“Thank you,” Pearl said.

“No, no!” Lisette wagged her index finger at her. “While I work, you don’t talk at all. Don’t answer me or Peter or anyone else. I don’t need you moving.”

Pearl didn’t answer. No need to step on this edgy woman’s toes. After what seemed to be two hours, Lisette pulled a mirror from her case and shoved it in front of Pearl. “Voila!”

“That a girl!” said Peter, getting out of his chair where he had holed in, reading something. “Yes! That, we can work with.”

Pearl couldn’t believe her eyes. She looked at least five years younger, almost as young as when she was a teenager. “Wow!” she said, “Thank you!”

“Yeah,” Lisette said, “Thank me!” It was one of those remarks that one couldn’t believe a person could really say it. Only Pearl wasn’t disturbed by it. Lisette was an expert, and for that she deserved all the gloating.

Ignoring Pearl’s appreciation, Lisette arranged her box carefully, then pulled out her cell. “Carl, she’s done.” Then she raised her hand in a wave and clicked her heels out of the room.

Why am I not annoyed with her? Pearl thought. If it were someone else, she’d have said something against her rudeness. Working at the bar had taught her to be tough, not to take things lying down. Now, just what had happened with Lisette? I am a stupid blonde, after all! She gritted her teeth, and on following Carl’s instructions, she took her place in front of the panel with impatiens.


“Best ever!” said Carl when they were finished. “Three’s the trick.”

“Let’s hope so,” murmured Pearl.

She wasn’t working that night. So she took her time getting into her street clothes but left the barrettes in her hair. She had kinda warmed up to them. She skipped down the stairs. Things weren’t so bad. Just how many people in this economy had two jobs, be it half-time ones? And who knew when this starring in the ads thing would take off?Wasn’t that what Phil Elskin told her?

She went through the revolving door and on to the street.

“Pearl!” Lisette stood in front of her, thrusting her whole body into her view. She didn’t have her box with her. Instead, in her hand she had a blue handbag. Pearl didn’t miss golden sign with the words Prada with two bars, one straight the other with curved ends, and what look like a coat of arms underneath. Oh my! It’s the real thing!

Pearl stopped, looking at Lisette, awe-struck.

“Can we talk?” Lisette asked.

Why would this rude woman want to talk to her? Does she want her barettes back? Pearl said, “Yes, of course. Shall we go back in?”

“No, not there.” Pearl sensed a tinge of despair in her voice. “Can you walk just a block? We can sit in the park. It is quieter there than in the coffee shops.”

In the park, Lissette selected a bench hidden by the greenery and made a big thing of cleaning the seat before she perched on it. “I need to tell you something. I am sorry if this is going to hurt you, but I have to tell you now or else I’ll lose my nerve.”

Pearl’s hands gripped the wooden slat of the bench underneath her. “Are they firing me?”

“No, no one will ever fire you.” Lisette’s voice sounded odd; croaky and guttural.

Pearl placed her hands on her lap.

“Oh, I’ll just say it.” Lisette turned her head to the other side. “This is so difficult for me.”

Was this woman nuts? Pearl clenched her hands. If Lisette wasn’t going to say what was so important to her, Pearl might as well leave.

“Phil Elskin is related to you. My last name is also Elskin.” Lisette’s hand hovered over Pearl’s for a little while just before she grasped it tight. “Please don’t go. I need to tell you this.”

“I wasn’t moving, but I still don’t understand.”

Lisette let out a deep breath. “I am your mother. Phil Elskin is my father.”

A tremor went through Pearl’s body. She swallowed hard. Lisette tightened her grip on Pearl’s hand. “Hear me out,” she said. “I was fifteen when I had you. There was no way I could keep you. It was just Dad and me. My mother had died when I was nine.”

Lisette was her mother? A jab of pain with sharp icy edges shot through inside Pearl.

“I didn’t know where you were. I wasn’t told. Dad told me only recently. If I only knew earlier…” Lisette was weeping.

“What could you have done? You were young, under age even,” Pearl said, her eyes on Lisette’s hand holding hers; the knuckles had turned white. Pearl’s fingers felt as if they were cracking. She jerked her hand free, but edged her body closer to Lisette’s. “I always wondered about you,” she said.

“As I did about you.” Lisette wiped her eyes with the tissue she pulled from inside her bag. “My dad had told me you were adopted by a very nice couple and we should leave you alone.”

“That’s true. They were really very nice.” Pearl assured Lisette, however wryly.

“Then a month ago, Dad told me about you, about your parents’ being dead. That was when I insisted, he should bring us together.”

“Not earlier?”

“No, we didn’t want to upset you.”

“Who knows in the studio?”

“Just Carl. No one else. We didn’t know how you’d take it.”

Pearl shook her head, as strand of hair fell over her face. Lisette brushed the hair out of her eyes and re-adjusted the barrette to hold her hair in place. Pearl frowned but didn’t pull back. This casual intimacy had made her feel a certain kind of warmth toward Lisette, yet uneasy, too.

“I am glad,” she said, “that I know who my birth mother is. All my life, I was wondering, but let’s take this slow. I need to digest this first. Plus, you don’t know me and I need to get to know you.”

Their eyes met suddenly and unguarded. They drew closer together.

After a moment’s hesitation, Lisette put her arm around Pearl. “Maybe this shoot with the impatiens will bring us luck,” she said.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


“Ooohh!” Heather remarked. “Mother and daughter…This theme usually goes with imprisonment and torture, but only you could lift that kind of a relationship out of the muck. Good story. Pearl was a lucky girl. She had two good mothers when the rest of us can’t get one.”

“We don’t know about the second mother, yet. They just met,” I said, twisting my mouth sourly.

Why is it that I feel extremely foolish for writing such crap, yet somewhat pleased to see Heather’s expression after I have read each story to her?

“At least this mother dresses well,” Heather chuckled. “How do you even know what women wear?”

I laughed at that. “I googled her outfit,” I said. “Do googled outfits add up to being well-dressed?”

“When you write, they do,” she said, reaching to hold my arm. “John, don’t you feel well? Are you coming down with something? You don’t look quite good.”

I placed my hand over hers that lingered on my arm. “I’m fine. Remember I got the flu shot.” It was true. After she got sick the second time, I had never skipped on my flu shots. I added,“Maybe a bit tired. Hectic at the Gazette.”

“You’d better be well. Try to rest when you get home. I need you staying healthy.”

I nodded with an expression of casualness or at least I hoped I came across to her as being casual. “I am fine. Don’t you worry, Love!” I said with a sturdy voice.

Although she had a point. More than a point, she had a sharp sight or possibly an even sharper insight. All night I had stayed up in front of the desk, my eyes open and fixed on the opposite wall, trying to wrap my mind around the indelible, hard knowledge that she wouldn’t be coming home. Facts, questions, swarmed me. I felt shocked, dazed. Not that I didn’t know it all this time and earlier, but knowing a fact and really accepting it are two different things.

I must have fallen asleep there while brooding. When I woke up, I was still at the desk and it was 7 A.M, and I was surprised that I had never gone to bed the entire night. I longed to tell her this. I would have told her this at any other time…before. But I could not tell her now. We used to tell each other about every moment, every feeling; yet, I knew that now she couldn’t handle this. How could she handle the thought that I wanted something I could never have again? Can I handle the thought that she wants to live and she can’t?

She pulled her hand back from my arm. “Getting back to the story with the impatiens, I like the happy feel of it, considering. I wonder if any mother ever understands how important she is to her daughter. Mine didn’t. I did a lot of things because of it. Bad things.”

I touched her face, wiping away the tears that had formed at the corners of her eyes. She leaned tighter against me and continued. “I used to wish I was adopted. Then I would have a chance to find my real mother. But after you, real or not, the mother idea didn’t matter, real or not. I consider me lucky anyway, because of you, John. Never mind the rest of whoever is related to me. I only want to be with you…I only want to be where you are. Nothing else.”

She stood still until I leaned forward and kissed her very gently on the mouth. “Me too,” I whispered. Then I eased myself near her into her bed and held her. Smiling ruefully, she drew a deep breath and clasped my hand. We sat together like that until the day outside turned into evening.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Foxglove

“The foxglove tall
Shed its loose purple bells, or in the gust,
Or when it bends beneath the upspringing lark,
Or mountain finch alighting.”

Coleridge


First there were the calls on the phone. Leisha didn’t like them because as soon as she picked up the receiver, she heard lots of noises in the background like flocks of marching fairies and murmurs of conversation, then a big dinging sound, and the call would be over, no matter how many times she screamed ‘hello’ into the mouthpiece.

Then one early morning a bee buzzed in front of her kitchen window, trying to get to her herbs on the sill. When she stepped into the garden to spray it away, she almost found herself in a swarm of bees dancing in the air. “Who invited you?” she yelled at the bees and shut the door, barely making it indoors before getting stung.

Something weird was taking place for sure. All those creepiest phone calls, then the bizarre bees. When she talked about this to her friend Mel at the office, Mel shook her head and laughed. “It is the telemarketers, Silly,” she said. “If you were to pick the phone at the first ring, someone would probably try to sell you something. And the bees, well, do you have any flowers in your backyard? The kind of flowers you have may just be the things charming the bees.”

“You know what,” Leisha hesitated. “I wonder if I should give you a key to my place, since you live just a block down. Should something happen, we could call each other.”

“That’s a great idea,” Mel said. “I’ll give you mine, too. Maybe we could help each other out. I’m not worried about the neighborhood, as nothing serious really happens, but it is nice to leave a key with someone, in case we lock ourselves out.”

Leisha nodded, thinking maybe Mel could be a good friend, as she was lacking friends since she was so cautious with everything and it worried people.

As to the flowers, Oh well, the flowers were already there when I moved in this bungalow, she thought. It wasn’t like she put those flowers at the door. When she returned from work, she went into the garden, and since there were only a few bees to bother her, she managed to pick a few purple and white flowers. Inside, she put the flowers in a vase and examined them. They were very pretty, in clusters of bell-shaped purple and white flowers. No wonder the bees favored them. She put the vase on the table and googled to find what the names of the flowers were. She typed, ‘flower names purple and white bell-shaped flower clusters,’ but this gave too many flower names. Instead she typed ‘bee attracting purple and white flower clusters’. This one opened up a full images page. Inside that page, she found the image she was looking for. Now, she knew that culprit by its name: foxgloves.

She ran a search for foxgloves and what she came up with rendered her breathless: “Foxglove-digitalis purpurea. A plant that is beautiful on the outside but toxic at its heart. There are 4 stamens and a style inside the tube. Pollination is mainly by bumblebees.”

A magical herb for sure bending and swaying in the wind so gracefully, yet with medicinal uses in spite of being a poison. She wondered if those flowers were put in that garden by someone who had toxic ideas himself. She wondered where that person was. She imagined that person to be a man, for no woman would deal with such poisonous plants or risk being stung by bumblebees.

She made a mental note to check the renter before her and to make sure he wouldn’t hurt her. She dialed the rental agency to ask while planning her words, what to say, in case, someone would laugh at her the same as her new friend Mel.

A talkative receptionist told Leisha that the renter before her was an old woman and her husband. The woman now had moved into a rest home. “What happened to her husband?” Leisha asked. “He died,” the receptionist said. “The lady told us it was an allergic reaction, possibly to a bee sting. Don’t worry though; he didn’t die in the house. We are required by law to tell of any deaths in the houses we rent or sell. When the ambulance came to take this gentleman to the hospital, he was still alive. He died on the way.”

“But, but the flowers in the backyard…foxgloves, I think…do you think this couple put them there?” Leisha asked.

The receptionist said, “Probably they were already there. Who knows? That place used to be all woodland. Someone maybe the original owners must have cultivated the flowers. We don’t even know the original owners. Your place is one of those dwellings now owned by a company.”

Great, now I don’t even know who could have put those flowers there, to kill the old man and probably others, in some way or another. In spite of thinking so, Leisha thanked the receptionist and ended the call.

The flowers in the vase were beautiful, but hadn’t Leisha touched them with her bare hands? She rushed to the sink and scrubbed her hands off their poison and then rubbed an ample amount of hand-sanitizer on them, thus avoiding any chance of being poisoned. She thought maybe she should pick all the foxgloves she could find and kill them before they or their bees killed her. Of course, she would use rubber gloves and stick the flowers in a plastic bag to give to the garbage collectors.

It wasn’t just the flowers, bees, or the phone calls. Other things began happening, too, but everything crept at her and around her in tiny steps.

The shower curtain would move just a tad, for example, when she opened the bathroom door, which didn’t shut as tight as it should in the first place.

Then when she checked into her bank account online, she saw it emptied, whereas she was sure she had quite a bit of money in her savings and checking accounts. When she went to the bank to ask, the teller, after calling several numbers, ad said they had made a mistake with her first name. Instead of registering the emptied holdings in Leila Warren’s account, someone had recorded them in her name, Leisha Warren. The teller was apologetic and the bank sent her an apology letter with a $25 dollar prepaid credit card.

Easy for them to make me shut up with a meagerly twenty-five bucks! But that wasn’t the only thing. There were other occurrences that made Leisha’s hairs stand on end.

Of course, the phone calls had continued. Now, Leisha didn’t answer the phone. She sat and stared at it until it stopped ringing. She also gave up on getting rid of the foxgloves in the backyard, deciding not to put herself in such imminent danger. Instead, she didn’t sit at the back porch or step in the backyard. Fresh air was overrated anyway.

Then one day, as she walked from work to home, which was less than a mile anyway, she thought someone was following her. When she checked behind her, she saw no one. The next day, a slow moving black Mercedes inched toward her and asked for directions to a shopping center. When she told the man that she didn’t know such a shopping center existed, the driver swerved around and left, but then she saw the same car several times again on her way home. Was he following her?

When she got home, her key didn’t fit in the lock. She pulled the key back and wiped it on her sleeve, and the key was easily inside the lock. Had someone messed with the lock in her house? Leisha entered with extreme caution, and tiptoed through the living area and the kitchen. Everything seemed to be in the place as she had left it. The same was with her bedroom, but the bathroom? Oh, no! The bathroom door was slightly swinging and when she pushed it to sneak a look inside, she saw the shower curtain closed and moving. She screamed, ran outside and shut the door, immediately reaching for her cell.

After the police came and checked the place, a policeman with a smirk in his face, while fidgeting with his cap in his hand, said, “There wasn’t anyone in your house. Except, you must have left the bathroom window open, and the wind moved things about, scaring you. Make sure, Ma’am, that you lock up well next time you leave your house.”

Oh well, what did the police know? Maybe the intruder leapt out of the bathroom window, which was a very small one, but that didn’t matter as he could be a man with a small build.

Leisha decided to be much more careful from then on. Now, as a routine, each time she left the house, she checked everything, and each time she came back, she checked every room, the bathroom, and behind the shower curtain.

When she told this to Mel, Mel suggested she get a dog since she was so jumpy with the idea of an intruder, but Leisha steadied her breathing and raised her eyebrows. “What if the dog goes to the backyard and is stung by a bee?”

Mel looked at her funny, then relenting, bent her head as if she were nodding and didn’t wipe off the grin from her face for quite a while.

Although Leisha’s eyes twitched at Mel’s wordless response, she shrugged and returned to her cubicle, asking herself, Why does Mel have the annoying habit of chuckling at everything she doesn’t agree with?

Leisha’s routine of checking everything carefully continued for some time. One day, before she turned into the small path leading to her bungalow she noticed a small van by the side of the road with an old man inside talking into a smart phone. When the man noticed Leisha looking at her, he sent a friendly smile her way. Now why would he do that? Leisha didn’t know this man at all, but she smiled back and reached into her purse for her pepper spray. Just in case.

She was extremely careful entering her place, her hand still in her purse clutching the pepper spray. Then, she went through her routine of checking each room and took an easy breath. No one was in her house.

As she was just putting her bag down, she heard a slight crack. She hadn’t checked the bathroom. How could she have omitted doing that? She picked up the pepper spray and headed into the bathroom, her each step echoing inside her ears. One step, then another, then another. Her own reflection in the mirror over the sink startled her, but she didn’t stop. Instead she tiptoed taking long strides and reached the commode, flushing it. The shower curtain moved. She stretched her arm and drew it open.

Oh, no! Inside the tub was a person with a mask on his face, the mask of Darth Vader. She screamed and pointed the pepper spray, but something was wrong. The nozzle at the tip of the bottle was missing, and the pepper spray didn’t work.

Could she pacify the intruder? Scared out of her wits and not knowing what else to do, she lowered her hand and asked in desperation, “Would you care for some coffee and cake?”

Inside the tub, Mel took off the Darth Vader mask, doubling in laughter.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


I had arrived a little later than usual, having to finish up another reporter’s story, Adam’s in fact. In a freak breakroom accident, he had cut his hand and was sent to the emergency room.

Adam, the youngest of the writers in Gazette, was famous as a skirt chaser. At the time he cut his hand, he was talking to the new receptionist, an otherwise pretty girl with the exception of a Greek nose, which was the stand-alone feature on her face. He had to have been distracted by it because the knife slipped and cut his hand right through to the bone, instead of the coffee cake someone had brought in earlier. After the bloody clamor, one of the guys whispered, “The nose did it.”

I hadn’t caught the joke and didn’t laugh, thus becoming the second victim of the newsroom’s butt of jokes. Why people didn’t understand that I was not in any mood for laughing or joking! Besides, making fun of people’s faces never qualified as a joke or a laughing matter in my book.

Although, later, I somehow managed to present a happier me at Skyler Health, I was in a totally annoyed mood deep down inside. A much welcomed relief, however, swept through me when I saw Heather’s lips curling in a big smile, after I finished reading the foxglove story, which was on the longer side, and my voice had gotten scratchy by the end of it.

“You had to go and write about paranoia,” she said. “It is a funny story.”

“Your flowers, Foxgloves, are still in the story together with the paranoia,” I said. “It is difficult to sweeten things up when the most popular stories tend to go to the noir’s side or off into the paranormal land.”

“Yes,” she answered, “I know what you mean, but you made me laugh. I laughed out loud when she had the pepper spray in her hand, checking every room. I could almost see her in action.” Then she relaxed, sinking back into the pillows behind her. Seeing her shiver, I pulled the quilt over her and sat back in the armchair I had pulled near her bed. From under the quilt, her hand reached out to mine. Her fingers felt cool to the touch and I closed my other hand over hers, almost unconsciously.

“Thank you, John,” she said. “Your stories give me something to think about as the day goes by. Sometimes, I dream of them.” Pulling her hand from mine, she yawned, with her fist to her mouth.

“Why don’t you sleep a little? I’ll sit by the window and read.”

“No, I don’t want to sleep again. They make me sleep most of the time anyway. Besides, Nora said Charlie would bring Basil today.”

“Oh, Basil!” I said, thinking of the large dark eyes of the black lab who bent his head to the side when someone talked to him.

“You liked him, too!”

“Who wouldn’t? He’s a great dog.”

“Basil is seven years old, Charlie says. He’s thinking of retiring him. He’s getting three new dogs.” She sat up, throwing the quilt further down the bed. She had to be feeling better.

“Basil looked healthy to me. Why would he retire the dog when the dog is doing so well?”

“Go figure,” Heather sighed. “Maybe because the older dogs get, the slower they are.”

Noticing that her face had gone white, I reached and touched her hand. Her fingers had turned icy now. “Do you feel cold? Maybe you should keep the quilt on you.”

“Being under it makes me realize how sick I am. Then, without it, I get cold,” she said, smiling faintly. I stood up and pulled the quilt over her again and sat on the side of the bed, pulling her hands into mine and rubbing them in an effort to warm her up. “You know what? I thought of something,” she said.

“Tell me. I like your thoughts.” She looked up at me, her face very pale and she moved her lips as if she were reading something in my face, but didn’t say anything, immediately. “What’s it?” I insisted, pulling my hands and placing the quilt over them.

“I thought…I thought…Maybe you should adopt Basil.”

Her words penetrated slowly into my consciousness. I pulled my hands back and stared into her face, which had taken a pleading expression. “But, Love, I go to work. I can’t take him with me. He’ll be all alone in the house.” I made an impatient gesture with my hand. “He’s used to all this action, other dogs. Wouldn’t he be better off in a large family?”

“He took to you, and they’ll let you bring him to me.” Tears ran down her cheeks. She freed her hands from under the quilt and brushed at them. I picked a Kleenex from the tissue box and handed it to her.

So did she want the dog more often or for herself? Could I do this?

Willy nilly, I said, “Let me talk to Charlie and I am sure we’ll find a way.” I was striving to stay reasonable.

“I want you to have Basil, John; please, for me.” I froze staring at her for a moment as she wiped frantically at her eyes and nose. Why not, I thought, if this means so much to her?

“All right, then,” I nodded. “I’ll do everything in my power to convince Charlie.”

Composed once more, she smiled, her face donning a smug look. “He doesn’t need convincing. I already talked to him about this.” Seeing the expression on my face, she added somewhat seriously, “I am not ordering you to do this, John. I just paved the way, only if you were willing. Also, because this morning, Charlie came with a different set of dogs. ”

“Fine,” I said, astounded, “You did fine. I’ll talk to Charlie.”

“If you open the top drawer on the night stand, his number is on a yellow piece of paper. Maybe you can call him tonight.”

I opened the drawer and fished out the paper. It was a local number. I would call him; I had to call him.

But I couldn’t. At least, not right away. When I arrived home, I found the refrigerator gone to the fridge heaven, and in its wake, having filled the kitchen with a foul odor. Cursing my luck, I cleaned and hauled garbage bags to the outside as much as I could. Soon the kitchen was in a barely acceptable condition, but my own internal condition had deteriorated, and I felt in no humor to talk to anyone. I figured I could call Charlie the next morning while at work, and by the time I’d see Heather, all would be handled.

Not content with my life at the moment, dreading all those other moments to come, and in desperation with everything, I realized I hadn’t eaten since lunch, and for having thrown everything out into the garbage in my cleaning frenzy, there was nothing in the house except dry cereal. Thinking food would help, I ordered pizza and sat down to wait for it.

The house had an eerie feeling and I was alone in the middle of it, with Heather in a place where she considered her new home and the floors not quite dirty but without having swept or cleaned. So I gave myself permission to enjoy a good long pity party. Half an hour later when the pizza arrived, I almost didn’t hear the doorbell for having slouched and fallen asleep at the kitchen table.

After pizza and beer, it was too late to call anyone, and I still had to come up with a story for Heather. It occurred to me that I really wanted to write, but not her sweet, flowery stories.

Then I was furious. Why did I keep coming to this inside my mind? I had to do this for Heather and I’d do it. Although I scolded myself for the thought and the desperation over these stories, I couldn’t help but feel more distraught over the conflict of what I wanted to do versus what I had to do. I craved for horror, sci-fi, murder mystery, or anything else inside which I could wield a sword or shoot a gun.

Then an idea hit me. I figured I’d do both. First I’d write Heather’s story, then I’d sit up every night and bare my teeth at my fate through my pen.

Yet, I couldn’t do that either. Finally, I did write a story for her, but felt so worn out that, I thought if I didn’t go to bed right away, I’d be no good for work or for Heather.

Fraught with worry and frantic, I calculated the option of not going to work at all. To just retire, not do anything, but how? It just wasn’t possible.

Skyler Health was a private hospice and quite expensive. Some of Heather’s earlier care had erased both our inheritances, despite the fact that we had good insurance. Well, even a good insurance is not enough for the expenses that come up with serious illness. Besides, I had already borrowed money against the house and the few other holdings we had. It might be that I would need to borrow again, but for that I needed to keep my job, which--by the way--came with our health insurance. The whole thing was a catch-22 situation.

And in the meantime, while I lulled myself to sleep with my ponderings, I forgot all about the now defunct fridge and calling Charlie, even during the next morning at work.

At lunch break, I looked over the story when I got a moment’s respite. Foolish, foolish, foolish…Might it be that not only the story but my hand that held the pen had to be broken, also? Too much sweetness. This was a story I would like to take to a very dark place, but instead I had filtered the dark out of it. The magic was there, but the whole thing was far too sweet for my taste. Unfortunately, I had written it for Heather and the story had to be molasses and honey plus other sweeteners, too. Ugh!

The icky sweetness of the story so threw me off that I forgot to call Charlie either before or after lunch.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Chrysanthemum

No singing birds, or blooms to lend
Their brightness to the autumn haze,
'Tis she who cheers the dreary days;
'Tis joy to know so sweet a friend;
No fairer flower blooms 'neath the sun
Than autumn's queen Chrysanthemum.

By Hattie L. Knapp (1894)



Following the real-estate rental agent, Caleb Evans walked along the driveway that led to the house. Along the front façade of the house bright-colored flowers danced in the breeze. Something about their colors and their grace against the deep green of the leaves offered a feeling of home that settled over Caleb like a warm blanket.

“Wow!” he remarked. “This does look like home.”

“Wait till you see the inside,” Bob Muller, the agent, said, eyeing him skeptically. He was a fifty-something man, bald on the top with curly tufts of hair on the sides of the head like puppy ears.

“I like the ample yard and the flowers.”

“Yes, chrysanthemums. Something about them, don’t ask me what, they stay bright throughout the year. That is one of the peculiarities of this place.”

“Peculiarities?”

“Yes, a few. That is why, with this property, we ask the renters to spend one night in this house, before we rent it. Only then, if they are still willing, we sign the contract.”

“But this is so odd! Why? Is there something wrong with the place?”

“I wouldn’t know personally, but the place has a reputation of strange things happening in there.”

“Ghosts?”

Bob Muller shrugged. “I am not sure; I think it is something else. Some rent it willingly. Others give up right after they spend a night in there. Possibly they are influenced by the hype that goes around in the neighborhood.”

Caleb turned his gaze to the chrysanthemums. Autumn was just about to start, and it was their season to be in full bloom. Didn’t the Japanese consider them to be the symbol of the sun and celebrated their existence with a festival? Surely, Caleb knew a thing or two about Japan, since he had visited the country with his parents three decades ago. But a flower bed staying bright and colorful throughout the year? Unheard of. These had to be plastic flowers.

Upon thinking that, he took a few steps and held a petal gently in between his fingers. The flower was real, and he thought he heard a giggle as if from someone who was ticklish. Certainly the agent had messed up with Caleb’s head. Yet, the giggle? He was quite sure of he’d heard it. It’s arrogant to believe or disbelieve everything I don’t exactly know, he thought.

The agent was already at the door, unlocking it. Caleb, too, walked up the stairs at the front, stopping on the third tread from the door where the agent’s fat behind was at his eye level, boasting a shine on the polyester cloth of the older man’s trousers.

The lock opened with a grunt. When Bob Muller pushed it in, the door creaked at first, then swung open. The agent went in and held the door until Caleb was inside. A pleasant, minty odor circulated inside the place.

“Ooh, nice!” Caleb said. “Who’s keeping it clean?”

“Nobody I know,” said the agent. “Today, it is a nice smell. The house must have taken a liking to you. It is different with each tenant prospect we bring.”

The place had a living room with a fireplace, a large eat-in kitchen, a half bath downstairs and three small rooms and a full bath upstairs. Nothing extraordinary. Except the windows were taller and wider to let in more light and the ceilings were higher than the other houses the agent had shown Caleb.

“Great,” Caleb said. “I’ll take it.”

“First, you’ll have to sleep here tonight.” Bob Muller scratched bald part of his head and gave a small snort. “If you still want the place tomorrow, we’ll sign the contract.”

“Who is the owner of this house? I am surprised the rent is much lower than the other two you showed me, and this is a much better place.”

“Our company owns it. We bought it at an auction. That is part of the reason the rent is so low. As to the other part, you’ll have to decide tomorrow.”

“Since I have to stay here tonight, may I at least move my bedroom furniture now? I mean, I promise I’ll take the place.” Caleb watched the agent’s face intently.

Bob Muller sighed and repositioned himself, leaning on the wall. “Don’t rush to any decision yet,” he said apologetically. “A sleeping bag will do for now. You must have one since I remember you telling old me you liked camping. If you don’t have one, I can gladly lend you mine.”

The eager tenant candidate nodded. “I have it, and thanks for the offer.”


A few hours later, when the sun had already set, Caleb Evans drove his Subaru up the driveway, and got out of it in front of the house. At first sight, the chrysanthemums seemed to be giving off some kind of brilliance from inside themselves and lighting up the front stairs. Carrying a large bottle of Evian and his sleeping bag, he entered the house.

As soon as he closed the door behind him, he thought he heard music, not the kind he usually listened to but honey soft sounds in sweet harmony. Swinging around, he looked out the large window that overlooked the front where the chrysanthemums were. Nothing unusual, except for the brightness of the flowers.

The living area was empty, for the absence of furniture, but pleasantly cool and smelled heavenly. He put his sleeping bag and water bottle on the first step of the stairway and went into the kitchen. On the kitchen counter stood a beautiful, three-tiered cake with a ‘Welcome to Your New Home!’ sign on the top tier with white icing. Each tier seemed to be a different kind of cake. The bottom one was chocolate, the second tier was pink, which Caleb guessed was strawberry.

“What a wonderful gesture!” he said out loud. “But I can’t eat all of this. Maybe I’ll cut a slice from each layer.” He looked around. The kitchen was empty and he didn’t have a plate or a knife and fork. He decided to store the cake in the refrigerator and eat it next day, after moving in. Just as he turned around to leave the kitchen, he heard a small sound as if silverware clinking. When he turned around he saw a cupboard door slightly ajar. He didn’t recall it being so, during the day when he came with the agent or just a minute or two ago. Still, he went and opened the cupboard door wider. Inside was two plates and some silverware. So odd! I could have sworn the agent told me that the house was totally empty. Maybe it is his doing. I must thank him, after I get a taste or two from that gorgeous cake.

He cut three small slices from each tier and ate heartily, standing up. Immediately, his mood elevated to new heights. He would have eaten more of the cake, but he first wanted to go upstairs to set up his sleeping bag. He rinsed the plate and the knife and fork, but since any dish liquid wasn’t available, he left them in the sink. Drying his hands on his jeans, he opened the fridge door and very carefully placed the cake inside the empty fridge, but was it empty? Well, it wasn’t. On a door shelf was a bottle of burgundy, with the label Domaine Leroy Richebourg Grand Cru, Cote de Nuits, France. He had never heard of such a wine. He took out his smart phone and ran a search. Of pinot noir grapes, the wine sold for $2,584, tax excluded. He whistled. Did someone forget this here?

He put the wine back in the fridge, pulled out his cell phone from his backpocket, and dialed the agent. “Hey, Bob, I am in the house. Thanks for the cake. Such a nice gesture on your part…”

“It wasn’t me,” cut in the agent. “I didn’t send any cake. Are you sure there was a cake?”

“Yes, and I ate a bit of it, too. Delicious! But also, there’s a bottle of very expensive wine in the fridge. I wonder if someone forgot it there.”

“Oh God!” Bob’s voice grew small. “The fridge had been empty. We kept it plugged, so it wouldn’t smell.”

“Well, I am not touching the wine, just in case the owner of it shows up. Too expensive for my taste, anyhow. Other than that, this house is fantastic. Good night, Bob, sleep well!”

He was in such good mood now that he felt like singing, except he knew his voice would make the crows fly away. He picked up his bottle of water and his sleeping bag and went up the stairs.

He chose the room next to the bathroom for this night, since he was new here and technically could be called a guest for not having signed the contract.

He opened up the sleeping bag and took out his pajamas. He opened the door to a small closet and looked inside. It was empty, except for two hangers. He got into his pajamas, hung his clothes inside the closet, and eased himself into the sleeping bag. He easily fell into a deep sleep right there, in no time.

When he woke up again, it occurred to him to inspect the other two rooms, as it would be a good idea, he thought, after Bob Muller’s warnings.

He got up, used the bathroom, and turned the knob on the door to a room on the other side of the hallway. The door seemed to be stuck although it had opened very easily when Bob Muller was showing the house to Caleb. Caleb gave it another push, and the door creaked ajar. His jaw fell open when he saw an easel, a drawing table with a drawing pad, and several wide-ranging materials for an artist.

He tiptoed inside gingerly, expecting to see another person, a painter possibly, but there was no one. On top of the drawing pad was a note. It said, ‘Since you could open the door to this room, you have now gained the capability of a great artist. Try and find out.’

As far as Caleb was concerned, he had never been an artistic person. In fact, one year in high school, he had taken art as an elective, and he had barely passed it with a C minus.

“Why not?” He said out loud, and reached for the box of drawing pencils. Not knowing what subject to pick, he imagined Bob Muller’s face and began drawing. It was as if the portrait drew itself, and it was fast. He gasped at the image in front of him; the result was of a higher quality than the very talented artist at the country fair whose work Caleb had witnessed and envied.

“Thank you,” he said out loud. “I always wanted to do this.”

He took the drawing with him and brought it to the room where he had his sleeping bag.

Surely, some things are going on in this house, but they are fantastic. Why would anyone be afraid of any too-good stuff? He didn’t know the cause of such happenings, but he had never needed or been the fan of analyzing things to death.

Still, the thought occurred to him that he should inspect the third room, too, but he felt sleepy and he slipped back inside the sleeping bag.

Another hour or two later, he woke up with a feeling of being shaken. He sat up and looked around. In the semi-dark, he spotted nothing. He got up and switched on the light. No one was in the room. Since he was already awakened, he decided to try the third room.

This room’s door was not stuck at all. It opened up with a welcoming creak. When Caleb entered and switched on the light, he saw nothing unusual, but one of the windows was left open. He went to close it. It was then that he realized this room was to the front of the house, and underneath the window, alongside the wall outside, the colorful chrysanthemums were swaying and lighting up the dark night. When he turned away from the window, he saw the large envelope on the floor in a corner. It was addressed to Caleb Evans. He picked it up, opened it, and pulled out a sheet of paper. A letter!

Dear Caleb Evans,

Welcome to your new house.

This house was, in fact, waiting for you as it has needed someone like you for a long time. Someone who wouldn’t be afraid of the unknown or good things and willing to try new stuff. This house is alive and eternal just like its chrysanthemums.

The one thing you envied is yours. Enjoy your new talent. May you find eternity, too.


The letter wasn’t signed. It was out of the ordinary for such things to happen, and Caleb could see why people would be afraid of good things, due to their way of looking at life and its superstitions. Good stuff scared people just as much as the bad stuff.

“Thank you, House,” he said out loud. “I am sure we’ll be very happy together.”

The walls creaked as if they were nodding in agreement.

The next morning, just as he was waking up, his phone rang. When he reached for it, he saw the portrait he had drawn. So it hadn’t been a dream. All this was real.

He eagerly said hello to Bob Muller at the other end. “I am taking this house. Definitely. When can we sign the contract?”

“I can’t believe you’re still there,” Bob Muller said. “Most renters run out in the middle of the night. Some have reported what they had most been afraid of had materialized during the night. Are you still sure you want it?”

“This is best house in the world,” Caleb said. “I think it brings out the worst and the best in people. The others who were afraid of it were probably afraid of themselves.”

“Just to be sure,” Bob Muller said. “Just what did you do during the night.”

“Oh, I drew a portrait of you, Bob. Then I slept like a baby.”

“Now, this is a first,” Bob laughed at the other end. “I am about to leave my house for the office. Come on over for the contract just as soon as you can. Oh, and don’t forget to bring the portrait. I am curious to see it.”

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*



Heather dabbed the tissue at her eyes, then inspected the wetness on it critically. “Oh, John! You’re so adorable,” she said, almost sobbing but not quite. “You wrote the sweetest story ever, and just for me.”

I sneered. “Since it brings tears to your eyes, it isn’t that great, is it?”

“But it is sweet. Each time Caleb went into a room, I expected him to meet some weird otherworldly something to twist the story’s direction into some horror-filled ending. But you didn’t. That was the nice surprise in it. Thank you!”

You have no idea! Even while writing it, I told myself to redo the story and write it the way I feel, not through some saccharine-sweet, happy Hollywood ending.

But I didn’t say that. Instead, I said, “You’re welcome. It’s true, since I am putting your flowers in each story, I am treating the stories delicately.”

I will rewrite another version of this story and it will be filled with all the gory stuff like ghosts, zombies, vampires, and whatever else gross and scary that I can think of. I am so mad at sweet stuff, nice things, or beautiful lives. We once had a beautiful life, however shadowed by disease; a disease we thought we had the handle on, but the handle broke off, and the cup shattered. Now I am treading carefully not to step on those sharp-edged glass pieces, while knowing very soon, even they will be swept up, and I will all alone in a harsh and cruel world, belonging to nobody.

A small stir of suppressed amusement rolled by Heather’s mouth or maybe it was my imagination. I bit my lip and looked down at my shoes, so I wouldn’t meet her eyes on my face.

“Oh, well, whatever,” I heard her say and lifted my head again. “Did you call Charlie?”

The question snapped at me like a whip. Blood must have faded from my face, although I drew myself upright. Without waiting for my answer, Heather asked with worry, “Are you all right, John? You suddenly lost your color.”

What did she expect after her abrupt and disquieting questions? I looked down at the several crumbled sheets of paper in my hands, the papers I had written Caleb’s story on. With haste, I smoothed and folded them on my knee and put them back in my pocket.

I raised my eyes to her face. She was frowning, worried. Now I had no choice but come out clean.

“Sorry, Love!” I flinched, seeing her roll her eyes to my saying sorry once more after she had chastised me over it several instances, but I continued as if I didn’t notice her eye-rolling. “I had a hectic evening and today wasn’t any better either. I forgot to call Charlie.” I could feel thin lines of sweat dripping from my neck into my back. I only hoped the wetness would stay underneath the shirt, and the jacket over it would cover what needed to be covered. I had no desire to flaunt any road signs to my distress.

She furrowed her forehead. “Basil, but you do want Basil, don’t you?” Her voice came out thin and breathy.

Heck, why did I forget! Was it some kind of a subconscious brutality on my part?

“But I do want Basil. I’ll call him. I’ll call Charlie right now,” I hastened to talk, my voice coming out hoarsely. I coughed to get rid of the gruffness while I plucked the phone out of pocket.

“John, calm down. Don’t call him now.” He voice hinted at a restraint of an impulse to laugh. “I gave him your phone number. He said he’d try to call you at home tonight.”

“You talked to him about this?” I was beginning to wilt under the combined strain of writing sweet stories, our terrible fate, and Heather’s play with questions and statements that knocked out my already shot nerves.

“Yes, of course. He was here in the morning with Pete and Frances.” She wiggled from under the quilts and sat up while cradling her head with one arm. I hit the button to change the bed’s position to a slanted upward position, and gently aided her head on to the pillow.

Then, squaring my shoulders, I straightened up and asked, “What did he say?”

Her face took an expression of solemn gravity. “He said you would be good for Basil and vice versa, but he wanted to talk to you to arrange the logistics of it, since I told him you’d be at work most of the time. He said he has an idea but he would have to talk to you about it.”

“An idea?”

“Yes, but I don’t know what it is. He didn’t say.” Her face seemed to be carefully composed, or was it my suspicious nature to read wrong meanings into her expressions? Well, what she was not telling me didn’t matter. It was possibly the mirror image of my own approach of telling or rather not telling stuff. The stuff that, even the mention of it, might upset her.

“You said you had a hectic evening.” Her face was without a shadow of nosiness but maybe concern. “What happened?”

After a few moments of our furtive glancing to and fro, I said, “There was a mess in the kitchen. It took a while to clean it up.”

“A mess? You? You are not a messy man. Why? What else happened?”

“The fridge. It must have broken down. I don’t know when. It stunk. I cleaned it. No problem.” I wiped my sweaty hands on my jeans.

“That’s a shame,” she said softly. “Get another one.”

Get another one! Easy to say. Not with our finances gone to the devil…but I won’t tell her that.

“There’s no hurry,” I said, “I wasn’t using it much anyway. The freezer’s okay. Just the other part. I might call a repairman...”

“Did you unplug it?”

“No, I worried it would stink.” I was already regretting to having had to tell her.

She shook her head slightly. “Try this. Unplug it. Leave its doors open for about a day or overnight or so.” She stopped to take in a breath or two, and after a second or two, continued. “Then plug it again and close the doors. That thing acts up sometimes. It might work again. Sometimes, it’s the ice that gets in or around the motor.”

Since when was she the repair person? I realized she wasn’t the only one with breathing problems. I, too, was holding my breath while she was speaking. I released it, letting the tightness in my chest go away.

“All right. I will,” I said, trying to seem as composed as I could hack it.

“You weren’t going to tell me about this, were you?” she asked with a slight edge to her voice. She was probably irritated and didn’t trouble herself to hide it. Her fingers were drumming on the top of the quilt.

I heaved a mock exasperated sigh. “I didn’t think it was important, Love.”

“Probably.” She sighed, too, stilling her hands.

A fridge broken was nothing compared to what was broken here, inside me, inside her, inside our lives.

Later, when I got home, I did as she said with the fridge, and found that the temp knobs were stuck both for the fridge and its freezer. I shook my head in desperation, thinking what she said would never work, and I placed a kitchen chair in front of the open door, so in all my clumsiness, I wouldn’t knock into it.

Then I sat down at the kitchen table and, watching the desolate inside shelves of the fridge, ate the sandwich I had bought from Subway on the way home.

It might have been the empty shelves that danced in front of my vision that I had a sudden recall of Heather’s face while I read the stories. With the last two or three of them, she was trying hard, too hard, to keep her attention on the storylines. I had given her pallid complexion and excess fatigue to the ravages of that damned disease, but maybe there was more to it, like the stories tiring her out. Maybe I should stop thinking of my own conflict with writing such stories and think of her more. Maybe I should begin making the texts shorter, so listening to them would be easier on her.

With that decision in mind, I sat down at the computer for exploration. While I was searching for another flower name through Google, Charlie called me.

“How’re you holding up, Buddy?” he asked. From the tone of his voice I got the impression that his question was not out of politeness or curiosity, but it sprang from caring.

“Trying…” I said, truthfully.

“Heather thought you might like to adopt Basil, right?” He continued without waiting my answer. “You’d do me a great favor, you know. Basil’s still good enough to work, but I am getting three new guys, and with the other five plus my old Basil, my place here will be overcrowded.”

“Thank you, Charlie. I’ll gladly take him, but would he be happy with me? I mean he’s used to the company of the other dogs and all.”

“He’ll be just fine. When I saw how Basil reacted to you, I figured that is a match made in heaven. Then I found out your wife had the same idea.”

“Yes, she is full of ideas.”

I couldn’t hold back the pain in my voice. It bothered me that she was doing what she was doing for me, not only Basil but the stories, too. With the stories, I first had the notion that she wanted them for herself, probably because when I was with her in the hospice, she wanted to talk of beautiful things. It was possible that even though the stories might be tiring her, she wanted them for me, for keeping my mind busy. Then as the things progressed, I figured it out that she was trying to replace herself in my life…as if she were replaceable.

Now it was Basil; what was next? Matchmaking? Heaven forbid, if I go with another woman seriously again…

“Look, John, this is what I’ve come up with.” Charlie’s tactful tone brought my attention back to our conversation over the phone. “You get Basil, papers and all. I’ll let you in on Basil, about what he eats, likes, and what you have to do to care for him. Then if you wish, you leave him at my place every morning when you go to work. I take him to your wife in the morning and he stays with her until you come in the afternoon. Then, you can take him with you to your place. This way the transition will be easier on the dog, and it will relieve your mind from worrying about him when you aren’t home.”

“Thank you. I appreciate your help very much,” I said. These short-term plans would benefit Heather. In the long run, God knows what I would do with a dog. I figured I could always give him back to Charlie, without causing much distress to Basil.

Charlie’s voice cut into my thoughts. “I live close by. Just about three blocks south of you. Heather says I am on your way to work, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. You’ll see what a great dog Basil is.”

“When can I come to pick him up? Also what do I need to purchase?” I scrunched my face, thinking that I’d have to spend extra time for shopping doggy things when I could be with Heather, not that she wanted me there all the time.

“Nothing,” Charlie chimed. “It’s a bit late in the night to pick him up now. Better I bring him to Skyler tomorrow when you’re there. I’ll also bring whatever he needs. You won’t need to buy anything probably for a week, except you’ll have to change his water often. Did you ever have a dog, by the way?”

“I grew up with a Newfoundland in the house, and my sister had her own poodles, too. Then Heather had a Corgi and a couple of kittens. We didn’t have any animals during the last five years or so.”

“Good! You have the idea, then. I’ll take care of the papers with the town and all, also. They know me there. Nothing to worry about. Okay, Buddy?”

“Thank you,” I said with relief.

“Anytime in the future something comes up with Basil, you call me. Agreed?”

He got off the line after we said our goodbyes. A dog? I didn’t really need a dog, but Basil? I thought of his shiny fur, dark glistening eyes, and the way he bent his neck and pawed me and jumped out of Charlie’s van to greet me in the parking lot. God, I wanted—no, needed--Basil’s warmth even at that very moment, but tomorrow would come soon enough, and I still had a story to write.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Pansy

“O dainty Pansy! Hooded all in blue,
With chastely folding cloak of green,
A maid whom Eros never knew,
Nor Love has seen!
I yet must fancy, scarce dreamt by thee
That 'neath thy most discreetest thought
There lurks a will which may be taught
By Love - and me!”

Margaret Deland


It was a line of pansies that the new neighbor planted in between the two houses. Pansies to remind people of their limits. No wonder, the name pansy is derived from the French word pensée, meaning thought, as Ophelia uttered so dramatically, "There's pansies, that's for thoughts."

The real life Ophelia, a.k.a Abbie Ryan who lived next door, took that as an act of friendship. With her husband now-extinct after a nasty divorce, Abbie had become the only responsible adult for three kids and two cats in the run-down cottage, never finding enough time from making a living or for following her artistic nature’s urges to make something more of the garden that was left to her.

Standing on the veranda near the Adirondack chair she had found at a yard sale, she thought of her life and murmured to herself, “I’m amazed this neighbor loves pansies whereas I can’t even keep track of the upkeep of our lawn.” She had heard from Sally across the street that it was a lone man who had bought the house. A lone man in a big house? Maybe he was loaded or maybe the house was a good deal, since it had been empty for some time.

But there was work to be done at the house and kids to take care of, and Abbie could not keep standing idly near the Adirondack chair. So she trudged inside and took care of what she was burdened with.

Late that night when she was folding the laundry she heard some sweet music through the window that was slightly ajar. Banjo! She recognized it from how the sounds emanated one by one from plucked strings.

She opened the window fully and looked out, but she couldn’t see anything; however, she knew that the sound was coming from the new neighbor’s house. Then she heard his voice, a sweet bass baritone.
“Up on Cripple Creek she sends me
If I spring a leak she mends me
I don't have to speak she defends me
A drunkard's dream if I ever did see one”

Her eyes clouded recalling how her Pa used to sing Cripple Creek to her way back when before she had run away from home. Too bad she had only caught the last lines of the song.

But what was this new neighbor doing here in Jersey? He had to be from some place south just like she was. Maybe she could bake something and take over, to remind him of southern hospitality, but would she be able to find the time? The man had such a beautiful voice though. In what kind of a body could such a great sound enter?

She imagined dark hair and chiseled features. A tall, muscular form; yes, definitely tall and muscular, and… and someone nice and homesick for…wherever.

She wanted to see this guy. She needed to see this guy, but they were very busy at the office this time of the year. Then right after work, she was expected to attend her youngest child’s nursery school play. She had no time to bake, period.

Oh, what the heck! She decided to just buy the cake and take it over as if she had baked it. That man could never tell if she was the one who baked it or not.

The next day after work and the school play, she stopped at the Cake Walk by the only bakery in town and picked a chocolate-frosted six-inches wide cake and a large cookie for her whining four-year old clutching her skirt. When she got home, she took the cake out of the box, put it on one of her old plastic plates, and holding her little one’s hand, she walked over to the neighbor’s house.

Before she could ring, a man with a crooked back and height less than her own opened the door. Abbie’s eyes caught the thin scar ran on his cheek all the way under his jaw. The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach immediately made her wonder if she were doing the right thing, standing here with a cake and a young child hiding behind her skirt, pulling her about, and making her look like a wind chime in a gale.

“Welcome, Neighbor,” she said. “I am Abbie from next door. I baked this for you.”

The man stared at her as if she were a potential crisis. Then he said, “Tell your kids not to step on my pansies. You, too, be careful. Why didn’t you use the road and the driveway to come here like normal people? There’s a decent way to walk instead of cutting through and jumping all over my plants.” Then his eyes strained on the cake as if it were even a bigger concern.

Such a rude man! My fault coming here and being neighborly. Too bad I spent money on the darn cake!

“Well, sir, we’ll be careful!” She could have been just as rude, too, but she didn’t want to be a bad example to her kid who was already misbehaving. She stretched the plate with the cake to the man.

The man’s eyes frisked the cake, then her face. Then, he squinted at her and uttered with contempt, “You didn’t bake this cake. Now you’ve really overstepped your bounds.”

Abbie’s eyes widened with horror at the man’s allegation. “But…but…”

“Don’t butt me, Lady! And don’t ever lie to me. I baked this cake early this morning. I am the new baker at Cake Walk.”

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


I folded the story and placed it in my jacket’s inside pocket to read it to Heather after I’d be done at work. The story read like a joke, but it wasn’t long and wouldn’t tire her. She wouldn’t like the rude baker, but with my distraught mind, this was the best I could come up with. At least, against my every instinct, I had kept off anything that could be too distressful for her.

I went in the kitchen and plugged in the refrigerator. It came alive with a hum. Before closing its door, I checked its knobs. The stuck one was now working. I put a glass of water on one of the shelves and closed its door. It would cool by the time I’d come home, and it would show if the fridge would be working again. Not that I cared about the fridge much, but I had to go on with things and had to show other people some semblance of going me on with life, whether I liked it or not. So they would not keep bugging me with their kindnesses.

When I passed by the desk at Skyler Health, the receptionist called me. “Mr. Cameron, Charlie wants to talk to you, but he and the dogs are with another patient. You go on ahead and I’ll send him over to you.”

I peered inside the room before entering. What I saw was hard to believe. My wife was sharing her bed with a black furry thing whose head lay beside hers. At first sight, I thought they were both asleep, but Basil turned his head ever so gently, and looked at me. I could swear the dog smiled for the way he opened his mouth sideways and let his teeth show just a little. I made a hand motion to make him stay, which to my surprise, he understood and put his head down without moving.

I stepped back into the hallway and leaned against the wall by the door since the closest bench to sit was at least twenty feet away. When Charlie showed up, I was just about to enter the room again, but I waited for him. He had two other dogs with him, ones I hadn’t seen before.

“Come outside with me,” he said. “The stuff is in the van. We can put them in your car and I can give you the papers. There’s just one sheet they asked me to have you sign, and that will be it.”

While we walked out, he asked me, “How are you? Really, how are you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think so well, but that’s to be expected.” I didn’t want to talk to him or to anyone else about the narrow and deep well of despair I usually found myself in.

He nodded. “They say in there,” he gestured, his head pointing toward the building, “Heather is holding on for you. She is worried about how it would hurt you, if she gave up. It is harder on her.”

“I know,” I said, “I wish I could take away her pain; make it easier on her.”

“You’re doing fine, believe me. I see other family members and they can’t help but show their own pain, regardless of what the patient is going through.”

By this time, we had come near his van. “You hop in,” he said. “We’ll drive to where you are parked. So it’ll be easier to unload.”

As he opened the back doors to let the dogs in, I went and sat on the passenger seat up front. I wanted the dog but in a bittersweet, troubled way. At this very moment, she and the dog had to be sleeping together. I also wanted to be there with them, but the decision was already made.

Even if I had entered the room a while ago, I would be kicking myself for disturbing her. Yet, the urge of spontaneity told me to bolt out of this van into Heather’s room. Why did every step I took give way to regrets and apologies, especially internally? I felt I did nothing right, although I tried to patch together some façade of order into our lives.

A few seconds later, as Charlie sat next to me and turned on the ignition, he said, “You’re doing the right thing with Basil.”

“You think so?”

He shifted the gear and drove. “This way, he’ll spend more time with Heather, and you’ll find out what great friend he’ll be to you.”

Even though I liked Basil just fine, I was only doing this for Heather, as it was her wish, but I didn’t tell Charlie that.

Charlie and I filled the back of my SUV with everything that any dog could need and then some. When I wanted to pay for all this, he wouldn’t take it. “I get some of the stuff free anyway. Why would you have to pay for things that come free,” he said. Then he quickly filled me in with Basil’s ways, the gestures and commands he understood. The dog knew not only vocal commands but also the hand and finger commands that Charlie used for all his dogs.

“You call me anytime, day or night, if you forget something or a situation arises.”

I thanked him again, feeling indebted to this man who I thought was definitely a superhuman people one comes across rarely in a lifetime.

“Now, we have to go back inside, and let Basil know where he stands,” he said.

“How is that possible?”

Charlie grinned. “The trick’s in the leash. If he sees me give his leash to you, he’ll go with you. But if someone else would grab his leash and try to take him away, he would fight it. It is all in the training.”

Obviously he cared for his dogs greatly. I watched him park his van a couple of parking spaces away, then I helped him to take the dogs out to go inside the Skyler Health’s building. Charlie had put the two dogs on the leash. As we walked in, he said, “These two are my new guys. They are learning fast enough, I should say. They can get frisky and want more to play than work. That’s why the leash.”

Three nurses were by Heather’s bed and one of them was giving her an injection. I immediately felt the drama of the scene. Despite my vacillating disbelief at the events that folded abruptly in our life, it was clear that her pain had increased and they were giving her extra pain-killer. This is so much earlier in the day, I thought. Then I spotted Basil sitting on the floor near the sofa. When he saw us, he came to us and licked our hands, but kept turning his head to monitor the excitement evolving by Heather’s bed.

Charlie held my elbow tightly and pulled me out of the room. “Let’s give them space, now. Shall we? We can go in when all is settled.” Basil stood at the door, looking inside, as if he didn’t want to leave the room.

I stiffened not liking what was happening. This meant that her pain was accelerating and coming earlier now, and Heather was never the one to throw mounting tantrums or scream with pain. Charlie’s head was turned elsewhere, toward the end of the corridor, I guessed, only because he didn’t trust me not to react. We had barely been able to get out of the room without adding to the muddle.

Charlie talked to another nurse take the leashes of the newer dogs who took them to a new patient. Then he turned to me, “Let’s get on with this,” he said calmly. He signaled Basil to approach; although the dog didn’t want to leave his perch at the door stop, he obeyed unwillingly. Charlie bent down and smoothed the dog’s fur in appreciation and took his leash out of the deep pocket on the side of his jeans. He held the leash high up, letting it dangle, and placed the end of it to my hand.

“Click the other end to his collar, John,” he said.

I did, while I also smoothed Basil’s shiny fur. Basil turned his head to Charlie and gave out a tiny whining sound. “It is okay, Basil,” Charlie said. “You go with John.” Then, giving me a short wave, he walked toward the new patient’s room, I assumed to gather his dogs and go on his way. I almost ran after him to beg him not to leave us alone, but I didn’t. Instead, feeling the wetness in my hand, I looked at Basil. He was licking my hand.

At the same time, I felt someone touching my arm. Two of the nurses was out of the room. “You better go in,” one of them said. “It is okay now. Nora’s inside, too. Heather will fall asleep in a few minutes. She said she wanted to talk to you.”

Basil pulled ahead of me, leading me into the room. I let him off the leash. He walked to the bed but didn’t jump on it. Instead, he put his paws on the side of it and stared at her.

Heather’s eyes were half closed. Nora said, “Hi, John. We had a little crisis, but it’s over now. I’ll just stick around a bit while you visit.” With a soft smile, she pulled an armchair for me to sit on and went toward the medicine tray on wheels. Turning her back to us, she began busying herself with it.

I bent down to kiss Heather. “I must look a sight,” she said.

“You look beautiful.”

“Yes, I am sure Picasso would love to paint me.” It was a joke between us about how Picasso disfigured women.

“I’d say your painter has to be Monet,” I whispered tightening myself not to weep.

She opened her eyes just a little bit and said groggily, “You’ve got Basil. Finally…”

“Yes, he’ll be coming home with me tonight.”

“Good, that’s what I wanted. The story…read it to me tomorrow. I think I’m about to sleep.”

“I’ll sit here until you do then,” I said. Basil moved from the foot of the bed to my side and put his head on the side of the bed, gazing at Heather.

“What’s the flower?”

“Pansy,” I said. “It’s short.”

I don’t know if she heard for her eyes closed and she fell asleep.

Feeling the absence of our conversation, Nora drew near. “I’ll watch her. You can leave if you wish,” she said. “She won’t wake up until tomorrow morning.”

I hesitated…then I mouthed, “What if?”

“No, not yet, I don’t think. This happens. Don’t worry. If there’s any change, I’ll call you.”

“My cell number is…”

“I have it. Now go home and feed the dog. Everything will be better tomorrow.”

I stood up and went to the door. Basil was still sitting with his head on the bed. I called him, showing him the leash. He eyed me first and came near me, however unwillingly. Then we went out together. Inside my car he sniffed at the things Charlie had given me and settled down near them.

We were still in the earlier part of November, the days getting short at once. I drove slowly, in order not to make it uncomfortable for the dog who was squished at the back next to all the material. Inside me I wished that this wasn’t happening and I imagined Heather and I driving home with our new dog. But this wasn’t to be. Instead the darkening roads outside audibly taunted me under the tires. I knew that in no way could I put the genie back in the bottle, again.

When we arrived home, before anything, I walked Basil, just a little short trip down the lane and back, then showing him the part of the back yard that was fenced for Heather’s Corgi. I had the hunch that he understood what was expected of him, as he didn’t do anything on the road but took care of business in the fenced part of the yard.

The mind is a strange thing as mine sent a sudden vision In front of my eyes. I almost saw the kids Heather and I didn’t want to have playing with Basil. Too late, Idiot! I told myself. I let Basil in the house and carried his belongings inside. In one corner of the kitchen, I set up his food and water. While he was busy eating, I carried his bed upstairs inside the bedroom. When I turned around, I found out hat he had followed me. He whimpered at the door of the walk-in closet where mostly Heather clothes were hanging. I opened the door for him to explore. He went in, sniffing. When he came out he looked either sad or suspicious, I couldn’t tell. “We are so alike you and me,” I said and perched on the bed. He walked up to me, and sitting down, he put his head on my lap and sighed. “You and me, both,” I said.

There was such warmth in his eyes that, not being much used to being empathized with, I broke down. I felt him licking my tears having raised himself on his hind legs. “It is okay, Basil,” I sobbed. “I needed this, I guess. You sit down, okay?”

Somewhat reluctantly, he sat and resettled, but kept his gaze on me. God, I was making the dog feel bad in his first day in our house.

“Come on, Basil, let’s go down,” I said, after wiping my face. I couldn’t believe I had wept like a baby. Crying was not a habit and, in fact, I could never cry even when I wanted to. Basil must have thought I had gone mad or something, which if such a thing happened, it wouldn’t surprise me, but that wouldn’t be fair to the dog.

Downstairs in the kitchen, I made myself a peanut butter and cheese sandwich, poured some orange juice and sat at the table. Basil went to the corner and lapped some water. Then he turned around and watched me. After making sure I was all right, he gave himself a brisk shake and ate some of his chow. When finished, he came near me and sat, then readjusting himself on the floor, turned his face toward me, as if convinced that he had to remain nearby so I could count on him. I wiped my hands on a paper napkin, then bent down and stroked his fur. He tilted his head and wagged his tail.

Later upstairs, I pulled his bed next to mine, giving up on its first placement by the wall. I needed Basil possibly as much as Heather did.

Throughout the night, I kept waking up checking my cell for a call from Skyler Health, but there was nothing. Then, sometime in the middle of the night, I did the calling to ask how she was doing. The night nurse said she was sleeping, and she had slept since I left and not to worry. She’d call me with the first sign of a change.

The next day, I drove Basil to Charlie’s early in the morning. His place was huge with a very big yard and the house in it with dimensions almost equal to a mansion. I recalled the reason he gave me why he wanted me to have Basil. ” I am getting three new guys, and with the other five plus my old Basil, my place here will be overcrowded. ”

Overcrowded? My foot! The house can hold twenty dogs and then some. But he did really want me to have Basil. Why? I think it has to be Heather to talk him into it.


“I didn’t know you had such a nice large place,” I told him, handing him the leash, as Basil followed me to the front door. The dog seemed to be happier with ears all perked up and tail wagging.

“Yes, but I share it with my sister and her family,” he said, “Together we inherited it from our mother.”

“Nice place!”

When he invited me in, I said I was late to work already and left. Even if Charlie and his sister were sharing the place, he could still keep Basil. Yet, he wanted to give him to me. Why? Did l look that pathetic? I guess, I did. Although I made every effort to give the impression of being the courageous one…

Later in the day, Heather looked much better. She didn’t complain of pain and Nora said she could keep some of her food down.

“Read me the latest story,” she said, stroking Basil’s head that was resting on the side of her bed.

“All right,” I said. “Let me ask you something first. Did you talk Charlie into giving us the dog?”

“Not at all,” she frowned. “It was his idea. He said the dog took to you and that arrangement would benefit everybody, and I’d get to spend more time with Basil. Why did you ask that, John?”

“Because he told me his place would get too crowded when the new dogs come, and you would get to spend more time with Basil. His place is huge. I thought maybe the whole thing was your idea.”

“Awwww! But that’s Charlie for you. It is true that I jumped on it, but Charlie was the one who offered it. John, Charlie is a mensch. He must have wanted to help you and me. Did you know he paid for an old woman patient so she could stay a few more days?”

I shook my head. “I didn’t even know he existed, until I saw him with the dogs, here. Nice guy, huh!”

“You’re happy about Basil, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, very much. He is sleeping in our room. Excellent dog. “

She gave me a big smile. “Okay, now my story!”

So I read her the Pansy story, which I had not been able a day ago, due to the fact that she had taken a turn for the worse.

“So funny,” she said when I stopped. “I didn’t expect that ending. I’ll think about it more tonight. And John, I have something for you. Open the top drawer here.” She pointed to the night stand. “The envelope at the top is for you. Some instructions and stuff.” I took out the large Manilla envelope. “Nora helped me write it. No, don’t open it just yet. Do it when you get home, please.”

She had paled a bit. I figured she was getting tired. So I just held her hand and sat there, next to Basil, both of us stroking his smooth fur without talking much but just being together. It was as if our silence taunted the room while we taught ourselves patience as we waited with dread, yet accepted the calamity that might be hiding just around the corner. I opened the envelope when I got home with Basil sniffing at it and watching my reaction. Inside the envelope were two or three letter sized papers written by hand. In those, Heather was telling me what to do with her, afterwards, such as she didn’t want a funeral nor did she want a gravesite. She wanted to be cremated and her ashes be let go in the wind, in a place of my choosing. There was also a detailed list of where her personal belongings should go. Then there was another smaller envelope addressed to me, but with the words on it that said: John, do not open this while I am still alive. Please do so immediately afterwards.

What was it that she didn’t want me to know or confront her with while she is alive? It had to be the thing that my sister told me about. Still, was there something else? In any case, I should only honor her wishes. So I put the unopened envelope in the drawer of my desk, together with her directions of what she wanted done later, meanwhile feeling shocked at my own coolness in handling all this. Why wasn’t I coming apart? But I was. Except only in the inside.

Mixed flowers in a basket


Tiger Lily

“We do not long for tropic pageantry,
Yet surge with love to see
The tiger lily’s muted ecstasy.
Watered by mist and lashed by wind-blown rime,
She is no alien thing; but vivid, free,
She has no heed for paler rosemary,
Larkspur or thyme.”

Walter Adolphe Roberts


Just a roadside diner, he thought, from the looks of it, as he slowed down to let the other cars pass by and flash their lights every so often. The sky was dawning, despite the rain. He brought his truck to a halt at the parking lot, got out, and locked the door.

He walked up the steps and peeked inside to see if they were open or if there were other customers. He saw no one. He pushed the door, and to his surprise, it opened. The place had to be newly refurbished as the stools at the counter boasted of thick paddings and the walls were painted creamy white. The indoor lighting was muted. He leaned on the counter and let his eyes search the back where the kitchen would be. The only one he saw was the girl with a white apron and red kerchief on her head.

“Anybody home?”

The girl looked up and waved. “Good morning! Sit anywhere you wish.” She seemed to be rolling some kind of a dough.

He passed by the counter and took a table on the side of the diner. The day was lighter outside. He checked his watch. 6:30 A.M.

The girl appeared near him in the next instant, taking out her order pad.

“Coffee first, please,” he said. “Then eggs, scrambled, toast and jam.”

“You’ve been driving all night, haven’t you?” The girl said, as she put her pad in her apron’s pocket and reached to the opposite of him and pulled the chain of the curtains. He watched her arms moving rhythmically up an down, like pistons. They were white and not flabby. Her hair was golden, held back by the kerchief and cascaded behind her. “Still raining,” she said. “The tiger lilies are loving it, though.”

“Tiger lilies?”

“Look out at the opposite wall. I put them there last year. Don’t you love their colors?”

“Orangey, sort of. Nice. You must like flowers.”

“I used to work in a nursery, but the place burned down.”

“Sorry to hear that. You work alone at this time of the day?”

“Yeah, why not? The others come in about eight usually. The boss should come in before seven, though if he can make it.” She looked at him, sizing him up. “I’ll get your coffee.”

Five minutes later, she came back with a pitcher of coffee and poured it into the white ceramic mug. Then she placed three half-and-half packets near the mug. “Your eggs are coming right up.”

He clutched the mug and took a single sip. “Good and hot! Just the way I like it.”

She brought his food next. He watched her as she arranged the plate and the condiments in front of him. “The eggs come with hash browns,” she said. “I put them in a separate plate in case you didn’t want them together with the eggs.”

“Perfect! Thank you,” he said.

The eggs were cooked just right, the bread perfectly toasted, and the hash browns the best that he ever tasted. He wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, checking where the girl was. She was just coming out, carrying a tray of pastries. He watched place the tray at the other end of the counter as if a lure to the still absent customers.

There still was no one else in the diner. He thought he could get her now, follow her to the kitchen, throw her at the floor, push up her skirt, and…the yearning inside him suddenly grew acute like a kid throwing a tantrum over a candy bar as if nothing else mattered. His brain was short circuiting with longing, and his weakness disgusted him, but he wouldn’t do that. He couldn’t do that.

How could he? She loved flowers. She put in those tiger lilies; yet, she would be so good to hold.

He motioned to her, now that she was wiping the counter. “I’d like some more coffee, please.”

When she came up with coffee, he looked up at her while she poured the coffee.

“I like you,” he said abruptly. “You’re a nice girl.”

“Thank you,” she said, surprised, but she took a step back, although she didn’t seem to be scared.

“If you don’t have anyone, would you like to come with me on the road. I’m usually on the road.”

“I can’t,” she said. “But thanks for the offer.”

He felt crushed at her rejection, then a bit angry, but afterwards strangely calm. “Your tiger lilies outside; they are very nice, too.”

“I put them on the day my father was buried,” she said. “The boss let me.”

He leaned back in his chair and saw from the periphery of his vision, a tall burly man enter the diner.

“Here’s the boss,” she said. “I’d better get back. He doesn’t like me yakking.”

He nodded to the man who entered, then put down his now halved coffee and threw a couple of twenty-dollar bills on the table. As he rose, he saw her staring at him. When their eyes met, he forced to still himself.

Then she smiled, a soft, warm smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes and brightened her face, coloring her cheeks, as if she shone with an internal light.

He did a quick mental calculation. He would stop by this diner on his way back and ask her out. Just stay around here somewhere and ask her out. Maybe, she would agree then to go with him, carrying a bunch of her tiger lilies.

*Bookopen*----------------*Bookopen*


This was another story its ending and my good sense of story construction I had compromised to what I thought would be Heather’s wishes; yet, I never got around to reading it to her. All the flowers I had written about, for her, with such colors as yellow-the color of her hair, reds like the blood dripping from my heart, other colors like white clouds and blue skies, and the last one in orange with black specks—a combination of red and yellow with dotted with darkness flitted in and out of my mind as Basil and I lived through the last three days of Heather’s life.

Still, after writing the tigerlily story, when I went to visit her, I found her with Basil, the dog’s body right on the bed next to her and his head on her arm. Charlie was in the room, talking to her. I waved at him and walked over to kiss Heather and stroke Basil’s head.

He turned around to me. “Hi, John,” he said, tugging at the hem of his shirt. “I was just excusing myself to Heather for bringing Basil a little late. We were called on an emergency, a sick child who was having a difficult time.”

“That’s understandable, Charlie,” I said, “It would take longer if I had to leave him home, then pick him up before coming here.”

“Thanks, both for understanding; I guess I’ll gather the other dogs from 302 and be on my way now,” Charlie said. “Take care, you both,” and he left after stroking Basil’s fur.

I pulled an armchair near the bed on the opposite side of Basil, but Heather said, “John come near me and hold me. I need to feel the both of you, today.”

That was all the encouragement I needed. “All right,” I said, and perched carefully on the side of the bed. She had become so small that even another person could fit here.

“Do you want me read the story, here?” I asked, feeling a hollowing of the stomach at my own words.

“No story, today,” she said. “I just need the two of you.”

I guess, then, at that very moment I knew what was to come would come very soon, and much sooner than I was expecting. In internal delirium, I wondered wildly if I held on to her like this, maybe she wouldn’t be taken away from me, although Heather had begun moaning with pain again.

But we didn’t stay that way for long, as Nora walked in to check Heather’s blood pressure and shooed Basil and me off the bed. I watched her face as she did that.

Then Nora raised her eyes to me and I saw the fear in them. Not only in her eyes but her face too, as she closed her eyes with a small shudder. Was it the uselessness of her knowledge or the situation at hand? I closed my own eyes and swallowed hard. Prediction was an ugly business.

“I’ll give you more of that concoction,” Nora said. “The pain should go away soon. John, please, you take Basil out into the hallway for a few minutes.” Her voice had a commanding tone and I obeyed as that was probably the best thing I could do at the moment.

Basil didn’t want to leave the room, but I latched the leash onto his collar and pulled him out. He didn’t resist much. Outside, I gave him a hug and stroked his back. “You know so much more than me!” He licked my face while I closed my eyes in momentary thankfulness for the solace he made me feel.

The door to Heather’s room swung open and Nora came out. I stood up but put a hand on the wall to steady myself. “She’ll be sleeping now. John, it won’t be very long. I suggest you stay here tonight. I’ll have them put up a cot in the room.”

“Don’t let her feel the pain,” I said. “No matter what.”

“We’re already doing that,” she lowered her eyes, then looked quickly at me. “If there are other family members, you’d better call them.”

But I wouldn’t call anyone. Not her sister and brother and definitely not my sister. I wouldn’t because Heather wouldn’t want me to.

“Why don’t you take Basil for a walk while I arrange the business with the cot? I’ll call you if anything out of the ordinary happens.”

I knew what she meant by out of the ordinary, but the dog needed to go out. I needed air too, although I didn’t want to leave Heather, even if she were deeply sedated and wouldn’t know if I were there or not. I thanked Nora and took a short walk around the hospice. Poor Basil must have been holding his pee for a while. He did his business as soon as we walked out on the front lawn.

When we walked back in, two men were in the room setting up the cot against the south wall. I took the leash off the dog and thanked the men as they left. As soon as I sat in an armchair, Basil plopped down on my feet and whimpered a bit. The dog had to be hungry. If I could get down to the cafeteria, I could get us both burgers but he’d need water. The arrangement was or rather used to be I’d take Basil home and take care of his needs, but the way Heather turned for the worst, things had changed. I considered giving a call to Charlie, then decided against it, as it should be a last resort since I had taken over the dog’s care. I scolded myself inwardly for not thinking of Basil. I decided to always keep an extra bowl and some dog food in the car. Live and learn!

I bent and stroked his back. “I’ll take care of you. Don’t worry,” I said in a low voice.

“Oh, you’re back!” Nora entered the room to check on Heather. “Charlie left some dog food and a watering bowl for Basil,” she said. “They are in a bag in the bathroom. Why don’t you set him up?”

“Oh, that’s a relief,” I said. “Thank you.” I stood up and took a step toward the bathroom.

“I am on night duty tonight. Why don’t you go get some dinner? I’ll be here. You can leave Basil. He’s such a good dog, he won’t mind.”

“You are very kind. Thank you,” I said, walking into the bathroom. “Basil must be thirsty. He might like to eat, too.” I made my way to the bag that stood against the wall near the sink.

“There’s a McDonald’s right near the next building. Or if you wish, I can ask them to whip up something simple in the kitchen, which will be closed in a few minutes,” she said, standing by the door and watching me fill the bowl with water.

“Maybe a little later,” I said. “I don’t feel like…”

“You must eat,” she said. “Right now things seem to be settled a bit. Later, we don’t know. Please go get something you like. You can bring it in here for later if you wish. Or if you like I can call the kitchen, but that has to be now.”

“No, don’t call the kitchen,” I said, not wanting to be a burden. “I’ll go just as soon as Basil eats.”

“Go now,” she said with a commanding tone. “I’ll be here.”

That soon?

I called Basil into the bathroom and pointed to him the water and dog food. He approached tentatively, then hastened his steps realizing the arrangement was for him.

“Go get something for yourself, now. I promise I’ll call you, should…”

“All right,” I cut her off, not wanting to hear the rest of her words. Nora was a nice nurse but she was certainly a resolute one, which might have been the aspect of her character that Heather took to.

It was drizzling when I went outside. Not risking getting soaked should the rain worsen I took my car, and it was a good decision, maybe the sanest one I made during the last few days.

In McDonald’s I bought enough stuff to last me another day. I figured I’d share some of it with Basil. When I parked the car, I recalled the old tee-shirt and jeans I kept in the trunk. They would do instead of pajamas. Funny that I should think of such things, that I could think of such things.

But I wouldn’t call anyone. Not her sister and brother and definitely not my sister. I wouldn’t because Heather wouldn’t want me to.

“Why don’t you take Basil for a walk while I arrange the business with the cot? I’ll call you if anything out of the ordinary happens.”

I knew what she meant by out of the ordinary, but the dog needed to go out. I needed air too, although I didn’t want to leave Heather, even if she were deeply sedated and wouldn’t know if I were there or not. I thanked Nora and took a short walk around the hospice. Poor Basil must have been holding his pee for a while. He did his business as soon as we walked out on the front lawn.

When we walked back in, two men were in the room, setting up the cot against the south wall. I took the leash off the dog and thanked the men as they left. As soon as I sat in an armchair, Basil plopped down on my feet and whimpered a bit. The dog had to be hungry. If I could get down to the cafeteria, I could get us both burgers but he’d need water. The arrangement was or rather used to be I’d take Basil home and take care of his needs, but the way Heather turned for the worst, things had changed. I considered giving a call to Charlie, then decided against it, as it should be a last resort since I had taken over the dog’s care. I scolded myself inwardly for not thinking of Basil. I decided to always keep an extra bowl and some dog food in the car. Live and learn!

I bent and stroked his back. “I’ll take care of you. Don’t worry,” I said in a low voice.

“Oh, you’re back!” Nora entered the room to check on Heather. “Charlie left some dog food and a watering bowl for Basil,” she said. “They are in a bag in the bathroom. Why don’t you set him up?”

“Oh, that’s such a relief,” I said. “Thank you.” I stood up and took a step toward the bathroom.

“I am on night duty tonight. Why don’t you go get some dinner? I’ll be here. You can leave Basil. He’s such a good dog, he won’t mind.”

“You are very kind. Thank you,” I said, walking into the bathroom. “Basil must be thirsty. He might like to eat, too.” I made my way to the bag that stood against the wall near the sink.

“There’s a McDonald’s right near the next building. Or if you wish, I can ask them to whip up something simple in the kitchen, which will be closed in a few minutes,” she said, standing by the door and watching me fill the bowl with water.

“Maybe a little later,” I said. “I don’t feel like…”

“You must eat,” she said. “Right now things seem to be settled a bit. Later, we don’t know. Please go get something you like. You can bring it in here for later if you wish. Or if you like I can call the kitchen, but that has to be now.”

“No, don’t call the kitchen,” I said, not wanting to be a burden. “I’ll go just as soon as Basil eats.”

“Go now,” she said with a commanding tone. “I’ll be here.”

That soon?

I called Basil into the bathroom and pointed to him the water and dog food. He approached tentatively, then hastened his steps realizing the arrangement was for him.

“Go get something for yourself, now. I promise I’ll call you, should…”

“All right,” I cut her off, not wanting to hear the rest of her words. Nora was a nice nurse but she was certainly a resolute one, which might have been the aspect of her character that Heather took to.

It was drizzling when I went outside. Not risking getting soaked should the rain worsen, I took my car, and it was a good decision, maybe the sanest one I made during the last few days.

In McDonald’s, the girl who packed my stuff wished me a happy Thanksgiving. That was when I realized Thanksgiving was only four days away. I thanked her and wished her the same as if nothing was happening in my life, as if I had a lot to be thankful for.

When I got back I realized I had bought enough stuff to last me a week. I figured I could store the bag in the community fridge in the hospice and maybe I’d share some of it with Basil. When I parked the car, I recalled the old tee-shirt and jeans I kept in the trunk. They would do instead of pajamas. It came to me to call my boss, in case they’d miss me the next day, which I did, as it was still early enough in the night.

Funny that I thought of such things, that I could think of such things.

Still, nothing happened that night. The next day, Heather was conscious for only a few minutes but didn’t talk much. She wanted me to hold her and stroked Basil’s fur. That was the last time, she opened her eyes.

For the next two days, she stayed unconscious, partly due to painkillers, but I think it was more like she just didn’t have the will or the strength anymore, although ‘Atrophied muscles’ the doctor declared. Maybe she was keeping me in suspense, for whatever reason, I didn’t know, but it probably had to do something with the way she did everything, the way she readied me for her demise, the way she inserted Basil into my life.

During that time, Charlie came daily and took Basil for a walk and brought him and me food, although I wasn’t in any mind to want food.

Then on the third day toward the evening, a day before Thanksgiving, Heather stopped breathing. I saw it immediately, but turned my back and squeezed my eyes shut. It was the dog’s noise that made me look again. Basil, who was sitting on the floor next to the bed, lifted his head and howled like a wolf. It was the first time ever that I saw tears trailing down from a dog’s eyes.

In death, Heather was not the beautiful woman like Poe’s Lenore or Annabelle Lee. Quite the contrary. I hated looking at her; then I hated myself for hating what was left of her. It was as if she had died much earlier than the day she took her last breath. Still, I wrote her obituary as I knew her, and took care of her remains just the way she had wished.

I didn’t cry; I just couldn’t even though I had lost the most important person in my life and I was hurting like hell.

I didn’t call any of our family members, except I mailed them the death notice and later the memorial cards . I also refused to talk to any one of them when they called.

The flower stories I bunched them together and put them in the bank’s safe.

Loss has a way of changing life, changing a person. I refused grief counseling or attending a group. I refused everything. Even Charlie’s efforts to help Basil and me annoyed me, but if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t even go to work…eventually. I owe Charlie big time. He is probably my closest friend now.

For months after Heather, the whole world seemed to be wailing and off kilter. Nothing worked anywhere. At work, the elevator was out of service; the bathrooms smelled; my articles had to be rewritten several times over. The house was a mess. I forgot to lock the doors at night, but through it all I took care of Basil or maybe he took care of me. It took a while, but slowly I regained some sense of self.

It was during the second week of January, while I was searching for a lost piece of paper that I came across the envelope Heather had asked me to open after her death. I looked at it for a few minutes, then picked it up. Did I want to know what she had to say from the other side of the grave? My hands shook as I lifted the flap of the envelope.

John,

This is a thank you letter and not a farewell because I believe somewhere in time or in a place yet unknown to either of us, we’ll meet again. If I didn’t believe that, I don’t know what I would do.

I know you’ll grieve for I see that you have already begun that process, but at least, don’t make it too long. Don’t let your life pass in grief because life is a very precious thing. I should know.

The precious quality of my life happened because of you. You made me believe in higher things, things I never knew existed, things that made me feel good about myself and the world in general, no matter what my earlier life had been.

I know your sister talked to you about me, about my muddy past because she first faced me with it and encouraged me to open up to you. When I didn’t because I couldn’t, she told you and she told me she told you. I don’t know if you believed her or not, but I thank you for not talking to me about it because it would have been extremely painful for me. Everything she said about is true; moreover, I caused or went knowingly into that murky place on my own. I can blame no one and not one event. There was always a way out, but I didn’t take it, until I met you.

Our life together was incredibly, miraculously beautiful. I am overwhelmed by the splendor of it, and I believe you felt the same way. It isn’t easy to give that up, but we don’t have a choice in this, do we!

I believe Basil will bring some comfort to you, and please do keep up with the stories. After me, keep writing for yourself. I believe in your talent and that in no way should it stay hidden. You wrote even the trifling flower stories for me although they went against your every writerly instinct. My purpose is clear; I wanted to show you that you can even write stuff about which you don’t care very much. Imagine what is going to happen when you start a story or a novel that you really care about! Please, John, do it.

Plus, you are still a young man. If you meet someone you’d care about and who’d be gentle with you, please don’t let her pass by. That you continue living and loving will only make me happier, especially if I can watch you from wherever.

I wish I could leave you a lot of riches and a squeaky clean memory of a life that belonged to me, but I have neither, except for the immense love I feel for you. So please accept what there is and go on with your life for both of us.

Much love,

Heather


I kept staring at the letter even after I had finished reading it. This was Heather’s way of giving a gentle nudge on my arm to make me go on, but I still wanted to stay with her in the past, keep its threads between my fingers, and not let them snap.

Basil’s head on my arm brought me to my senses. Heather and Charlie were right in one sense; Basil had a hidden sense to feel my emotions. “Thanks, Basil,” I said as I stroked his head. He sniffed and looked into my eyes.

I guess in the physics of goodbyes, there exists a kind of velocity and undulating waves, and some things defy interpretation. Those things are best understood on a metaphysical level. Heather and Charlie assumed that I could be an inventor to start a completely different life. They were both wrong. Yet, I am scared of falling apart even if my life has been cracked and broken beyond repair.

I folded up the letter and put it back inside its envelope. Then I placed it in the bottom drawer underneath some old files and turned the key in the lock of the drawer.

I stood up and stretched. “Let’s go for a walk, Basil,” I said. He wagged his tail excitedly. I took a few haggard steps to the door.

-------

Tired. Now, this word spreads reverberating inside my mind, then into my limbs and my torso. Tired, a heavyweight word. It is destined to accompany me for the rest of my life. I shall cover up for it, of course, as covering up for anything is my modus operandi to save the others from worrying about me.

So, as tired as I feel, I fasten the leash to Basil’s collar and we go for a long walk.




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