Remember how I was playing with my new character Valley? I was listening to "Tomorrow Tomorrow" a couple of days ago and began to write this story. I thought of Elliott Smith when I imagined Martin. I don't know what I'm calling it yet, so for right now it's "Linda's Flowers" And gosh, it needs work.
Martin is thinking about buying Valley roses but he'd have to put his cigarette out. Standing across the street, he watches the florist spray something onto the ferns that hang on either side of the flower shop entrance, like long bangs framing an open face. He thinks that she looks like the kind of lady who wouldn't sell him anything if he walked up to her with a cigarette in his mouth. Her gray hair is in a bun and she's got shinny, tanned arms with spots. Maybe she smoked when she was younger, before they knew that smoking and sunshine were bad for you, and he imagines her having a cigarette on the beach with long, unspeckled arms. Seeing him pale and smoking might remind her of everything she's no longer allowed.
He never used to think this way. It began last Tuesday when he and Valley saw the painting that meant nothing. The painting had no form, only purples, blues and greens that swirled together and came out at him, not loudly, but quietly as he looked at it, like waking up. It'd had the same green as the ferns.
He looks at his hands, the empty one and the smoking one, and imagines spraying plants. He's afraid he would kill them and he doesn't know why, just like how he's afraid that the flower shop lady will cough at the sight of him. It's not the cigarette - it's him, reeking of himself. Bad face skin from old acne, unwashed jeans, and only indecipherable glances from Valley. How could she love him back, even if he gave her a plant?
And, yes, a plant would be better than roses. When they met in first grade, Valley was into dinosaurs. She would show him pictures of bones and fossils of plants. Were there roses at the time of the dinosaurs? He imagines a place he's seen in cartoons with ferns, impossibly tall trees, creatures with dry, saggy skin like the flower shop lady, and smoke in the sky. But he doesn't know if that's what it was really like, he's never studied time like that. Since last Tuesday, he's only studied Valley and he sees roses everywhere.
That day he'd been walking through the museum with her like she'd asked him to. He didn't like art museums because he didn't understand anything he looked at and it made him feel dumb. But he always went if Valley asked him to go.
She stopped at one point when they were walking and frowned at the wall.
"Are we going to go soon?" he asked, scratching the back of his head. Standing two feet away from her, and two minutes away from falling in love.
"In a minute," she said. "I want to know this one."
She always talked like that, like looking at a painting was getting to know a person.
"I need a smoke," he whined.
She smacked his stomach with the back of her hand. "Stop smoking."
"You can't beat it out of me."
"Come on, look at this," she said. "Help me figure this one out. I'm just not getting anything from it."
He sighed loudly because he wanted her to know he was frustrated. And then he looked at the painting.
It was just colors at first. He thought smugly about how he could have painted it in kindergarten. But then he saw a shape in there - a curve, and then something round like the shape of an eye but it wasn't an eye. It was like the hint of a face of someone he knew, but he couldn't remember who it was.
He needed to know. He'd been through 12 years of grade school and six years of college and had never really wanted to know any of what he'd learned, but he wanted to know this, this person he'd forgotten who was lost somewhere in the purple, blue and green. He kept looking, hoping it would come to him, but instead the painting began to brighten and glow. It was warm, and it felt good.
The goodness made him suddenly aware of his stained T-shirt, his hands that stunk like cigarettes, and the dark bangs hanging in his eyes. Had he combed his hair that day? It was as if the good feeling had caught him sleeping on the couch in the middle of the day, and he was unprepared for company. How long had he been sleeping?
"What am I doing?" he asked out loud.
Valley glanced at him. "We can move on if you want. I'm not getting anything out of this one."
He looked at her. He had always noticed her long, red hair and her green eyes. And since they were fourteen, he had been noticing the curve of her waist and breasts. But he'd never really noticed her, and she was so often standing right there next to him - this woman who in the first grade introduced herself to him as Valley because her real name (Valerie) wasn't big enough. She couldn't explain it further than that at the time, but she was into dinosaurs back then and she said that her mother was just happy that she hadn't decided to call herself "Seismosaurus." In twenty-eight years he'd never met another woman like her. She'd dated so many men. Had she ever noticed him?
Was there anything to notice? He was 34, unemployed, living on his dad's couch, and interested in nothing. Valley kept telling him how smart he was and how much she thought he could do, but he wasn't sure that he was anything more than a cloud of smoke covered in bad skin.
"Come on," she said to him, shoving her hands in her jeans jacket pockets. "It doesn't mean anything. You want a cigarette?"
He looked back at the painting, unable to speak. Since he was so often quiet, she didn't wait for an answer but walked towards the entrance and, after a moment, he dutifully followed.
He'd gone back to the museum every day since then to look at the painting that had meant nothing to her. It was on his way back from it today that he noticed the flower shop and thought of roses.
He's sure he's right, roses are wrong for this woman who'd chosen the name Valley because Valerie wasn't big enough. He feels that she needs something ancient, something beautiful that's from a history he doesn't remember but that she knows.
He decides to cross the street and find out how much the ferns are. He has about 75 dollars in checking to blow. He'll have to get a job again soon.
"Jesus," he thinks. "What does that mean about me?"
Because since last Tuesday all he does is think about what things mean.
As he approaches, the florist smiles at him and asks if she can help. Her voice is gravely but in a soothing way.
"How much is that?" he asks, pointing to the fern she's spraying.
"This Boston fern is..." she pulls a white tag from the hanging pot. "$6.99."
"Ok. How old is it?"
"I got it in two days ago."
"No, I mean, when is it from? Was it around, like, in prehistoric time?"
She looks at him funny."Well, I don't know. Maybe not this species but something like it."
"Something like it is good," he says, suddenly afraid that she might think he's crazy. He wonders if she's right. "I'll take it."
She smiles at him. He can tell it's a real smile and not just one that she gives him because she thinks he's crazy and is trying to keep him from flying into a psychotic rage.
He follows her inside, where he is immediately stunned and shamed by the beauty of the store. Shelves of cypress wood are lined with potted plants and flowers, and in the center of the room are water tubs of fresh cut roses, lilies, daisies, and carnations. He feels like he's in a cabin filled with flowers. The sign on the front of the check out counter says, "Linda's Flowers."
"Are you Linda?" he asks, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket.
She sets the fern on the counter and begins punching numbers into a cash register that's the color of old paper. "Yeah, that's me."
"I'm Martin," he says, handing her his check card.
She smiles without knowing that this is the first time he's ever volunteered that information to a stranger. She swipes his card and says, "Is this for you?"
"No, it's for my friend. I think she'll like it. I mean, I hope she does," he says, brushing his bangs out of his eyes.
Linda frowns at the credit card machine. "It didn't go through, honey."
"Let me try it again, sometimes it takes more than once."
"It should," he says, thinking about it, remembering the number "75" the last time he checked his account.
How long ago had that been? He doesn't think he's spent anything since then. Had it been 75 cents and he'd looked at it wrong? It couldn't have been.
But a minute after trying the card a second time, Linda shakes her head, hands it back to him and apologizes.
"It's ok," he says, shoving the card in his front pocket and the wallet into his back pocket.
He starts to leave and Linda says, "Are you ok?"
He turns around. "Um, yeah. I just need a job, I guess."
"I would say so."
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Have you ever been in love?"
She laughs but he doesn't laugh back. "Yes," she tells him.
"How'd that go?"
"Went fine until he died a couple of years back."
She shrugs. "It's ok. It was bound to happen to one of us."
He smiles at her.
"I think if you want things to go well with your ladyfriend you should get that job."
"Ok. Well, thanks."
He turns to leave again. She says, "Martin."
She walks out from behind the counter, goes to the center of the room, and pulls a red, long stem rose from a bucket. She holds it out to him and says, "Good luck."
He takes the flower. His fingers are big and it's impossible to avoid the thorns. He holds it lightly, so that it tilts in his hand. Linda has a smile for him that aches like the truth of the painting, like the truth of Valley. But he smiles back.
As he walks out of the open door the daylight shocks his eyes, but he's getting used to that now.