The Tulips

By Sally Haxthow

The girl has brought tulips today. "To brighten up the room," she says. Blood orange, they strain over the edges of their vase and scream in open-mouthed protest. Even the tulips want out.

It annoys you that you have the time to notice such things; your days used to be too full for idle observations. There was the girl to deal with, her need to be seen. "Mama, watch me," she would squeal, with handstands to be praised and cartwheels to be admired; her body bent and stretched for your approval. There was the boy's silent need for nourishment. In the morning it was coffee to brew and lunches to wrap; in the afternoons, band practice and soccer tryouts. And in the evenings there was Charles. Sweet Charles, home from the mill smelling of sweat and wood and cinnamon. Charles who always took a shower before dinner, emerging clean-shaven, his damp hair combed neatly back, his eyes... for a brief moment you cannot recall the color of his eyes and the breathless taste of panic creeps into your lungs, burning copper at the back of your throat.

The girl does not visit as often as she used to. It's your fault. You have little to talk about, your days being as they are, dragging on slowly as the years rush by. You are lousy company. You are critical of her in ways you have no right to be. You forget that your loss is just as much hers.

But she is here today, filling the room with her flowers and chatter. You don't talk about Charles, his death no longer fresh on your lips. You don't talk about the boy although you sense she wants to. You don't say "your father" or "your brother"; you don't say much of anything. You let the girl do the talking. Outside the window, cherry blossoms burst and bloom, filling the air with faded pink petals that are not unlike snow.

The girl is watching you; looking for signs that you are listening, that you are still lucid despite your years. She is willing you silently to ask her about the boy.

"Are we going for breakfast?" you ask instead. It is Sunday. When the girl visits on Sundays she takes you for breakfast. 'Brunch' they call it, at the hotel in town with marble floors in the lobby and young men in vests that will park your car for a small fortune.

"Of course," she says as she begins to make the necessary movements, the gathering of the coat and purse, the fluffing of the seat cushion on which she sat.

The walls of the hotel restaurant are painted terra cotta. It is a room that could be almost glamorous under the intoxicated guise of candlelight, but daylight has a way of exposing truths best left concealed, a soiled tablecloth, a besmirched drapery, the waxy smear of last night's lips on your water glass.

At night you dream of Charles. You dream of Charles' hand, rough and ample, on the small of your back. It is the hand of a hard laborer and a gentle lover. You don't dream of the boy. He has taken too much from you already; you cannot spare the time, not even in your sleep.

The girl is restless. She has places she would rather be, people she would rather be with. But you are not ready to leave; you have nowhere else to go. You go back to the buffet table for more waffles, making a joke about the food at the home. The girl smiles politely and beckons the waiter to bring her more coffee.

When you return to the table the girl blurts out, before you have had a chance to lower yourself into your seat, "He is doing very well, you know. He's still in San Francisco. The law firm made him a partner. I thought you should know."

You are unsure of what to say. You wish Charles were here, but thank God every day that he never had to witness any of this, that he never had to know the truth about his own son. You fill your mouth with waffle, savoring the sweet syrup, biding your time.

"Partner," you finally say, pushing the word slowly out of your mouth. "He must be very busy."

"You should phone him," she says, and she is pushing a business card at you while you cut your waffle neatly along its lines.

You know times have changed; you are not so old as to be intolerant of the young. You have seen the television programs, suppressed your disgust for the way that men and women behave. But you still know right from wrong. You can't just overlook what is not God's way, not even for your own children. Especially not for your own children.

The boy was your second born. He was the baby and you can't help but wonder if this somehow your fault. That he should choose such a life. That he should live in sin with another man and call it love. You feel the heat of shame upon you, even now, just thinking about it.

The girl is ready to leave. She has summonsed a check, pulled bills from her purse, waved a hand over her coffee cup when offered a refill. You let her hold your arm and lead you to the car. In the restaurant, you had placed the business card in the pocket of your jacket while she pretended not to notice. Now you roll your fingertip over its edges, press its solid ends into your palm until it hurts.

You let the girl drive you back to the home. The smell of lemons and burnt hair lingers in the dimly lit hallway, but inside your room the window is open and the air is crisp and unspoiled. The orange faces of the girl's tulips have all but one turned towards the window, bent and stretched for your approval, unaware that they have come here to die.

~ * ~

Native Shore Fiction

Word Smitten's
TenTen Award
for Fiction
Title: The Tulips - 2003 Honorable Mention
Short Story

Even the tulips want out. Fiction by Sally Haxthow. Title: Tulips.The orange faces of the tulips. Fiction by Sally Haxthow.

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