“No tears,” he thought, “Not now.”
The empty light of the bathroom hummed like a bell as Alex leaned back. The shop had been closed for an hour and still, the flowers were gathered in huge crowds waiting to be put back. After splashing his face, Alex put on his apron and double-checked the mirror for any sign of redness. Other than a harried look on his face, he was fine. Like he had sawed his way through a windstorm, but at least with some scrap of self getting past the doors. Alex smiled at the mirror. He was fine.
His reflection glowered back in the stern dark. He closed his eyes. Then, with a sharp breath, he tried to smile. This time it seemed to work. The shadows were off. He could see a rose bed blooming in his cheeks. He could be on a portrait, some Dutch classic with a still life of olives, flowers, a skull. He sighed shakily, pushed the door open. Closing time was seven-thirty. The clock read eight and a half. As he left the bathroom, turning off the lights, Alex saw the disorder of the room. Tangles of plastic. Wiry colors. Boxes and pots stacked in unceremonious piles. The ghost of a cash register popping open. Hard shoes on linoleum floor. Murmuring. The flowers all in disarray—
Red carnations purpling in the summer heat. Violets and asters, once royal in color, seeming to blacken under scrutiny. Even his irises, so carefully raised and fed with the exactness of an eyedropper, drew toward the brink of collapse. Only he felt this chaos before he could see it, overwhelming, intense, the red, red, red of roses.
“What a mess,” he thought, leaning against the door. “What a fucking mess.”
The door clicked shut like a soft kiss. Alex bent an eye out between fingers. His thin, bony arms were stiff underneath the florist’s uniform. Pressing a damp hand to his face, the coolness of the air and the back of his palm crushed together like tiny flakes of snow. He wondered how he should ask Anthony to come to the funeral:
“If I just spring it on him there’s no guarantee. But then again it’s Anthony. What’s he gonna do? Say no? Even if he did, I’d say he owes me for that time we hung out with his friends Sunday night.”
Those brutes. Loud as hell. Alex remembered the rough hands that slammed into his back, far too friendly, yet supposedly in greeting. What huge weights they were, what with cement fingers tips wide as sewer lids. They were the hands of clumsy giants, come down at last from their respective beanstalks, off to terrorize the world by virtue of their sheer size.
Their crudely-hewn voices had clashed within his head, just saying hello, echoing like bullhorns on the vaulted ceiling of a Gothic cathedral. “Heey, how you doing, shortstop? Ooh, sorry ‘bout that. Sorry, jeez! Tough guy. Ey, Tony. Your boy here’s like a fucking doll!” A blast of syllables. A harsh, testosterone-curdled laugh. Several. The louts Anthony hung out with were rude, unpredictable, gauche. One would compare them only in favor to mountain trolls.
Then again, was he any better? He had kept quiet all that night, shyly smiling his shy smile, too afraid of seeming like less of a man. Sports? Beer? Alcohol? No. These things could change a person only if they opened themselves to it. Alex stayed firmly closed. And the night passed, and he had left early. And behind in the bar, filling with cheers as the goalie falls before the curve of a ball and the swat of net, the men muttered. Chuckling to themselves.
Alex laughed, unhappy. His ponytail, long and frazzled, hung at the back of his head like the yellowing tags of dry bouquets. In the fluorescent light of the azalea rows, he salted himself with the words of business wisdom his mother had left him the day of his shop’s grand opening: “A big smile brings big spenders.” It was stupid. He knew that. The triteness of the phrase fluttered against his chest, dull words against dull wood. He remembered the last time he saw her.
Sunday. State-wide drought. The sun had chased off every shred and wisp of cloud, snapping at the placid blue with heat-wave jaws. The sky opened off into a super-heated oblivion, like a great lidless eye filling with bleach and disinfectant. When she clambered out into the street, you’d think she was visiting a poorer relation. She was a Malibu Barbie dream house in a dollar store, stocked with racks and racks of clothes, the perfectly pink convertible, the flowery dress. She was a luxurious ice cream truck, all vanilla white and sprinkled strawberry, churning slow calliope music in the middle of a desert minefield. She was a saint descending upon a lone hermit in a mountain chasm, saying that it was time.
After all, back then she wasn’t sick and had visited, seeing his ad in the newspaper. She seemed dazzled upon seeing him, more dramatic than any queen strutting down the streets of New York. Arriving in her usual cloud of perfumed glamour, she greeted him with a wide, needling cry and an exaggerated embrace that he remembered stuck to skin like Velcro. He had to peel her off, furs and all, sweating like a dying animal. Her perfume left him woozy. Choking Hazard by Estee Lauder.
And the whole time she talked as if she were playing house: whisking in and immediately commenting on the floor, “Linoleum of all things, linoleum.” He held his tongue at this, tightly in the event that she retorted back. But his silence didn’t keep her from suggesting, “Why not marble, darling?”
He almost swore. She was the fanciest piece of work from here to Silicon Valley. A thousand sharp answers to the surface, every last one a guarantee to sour any semblance of polite convention. He couldn’t manage politeness, not even a mere semblance of it. Nothing he said would have mattered to her. Even if it was inlaid with refusal. So he simply smiled and said, “No.”
“What was that?”
Alex swallowed down, “Can’t afford it.”
“Alexander,” she said, obviously thinking little of it, “Why don’t you just get someone to do it for you? Shake a few hands, ask a favor or two. Not like you don’t know anybody. Either the money or the work, there ought to be someone? Out there. Fish’ll bite.”
Under the banner with “Grand Opening” in plain black print, the white of it seemed like pure heat as Alex seethed at her answer. What was she was trying to say? He didn’t even want to think about it. The little “Fish’ll bite” echoing in his head like a crap song. He didn’t want to think, to think at all. After seven years, she still didn’t respect him enough to believe he could live on his own. After what happened with his dad, Alex—
He couldn’t finish the thought; he was warping like metal against his own rage.
She dared to come in, come in just like that, talk about the floor, linoleum and marble like they didn’t cost a thing, and then suggest of all things! With his blonde hair bristling, the same bright shade as his mother (which he hated, hated, but could never dye), he said:
I’m not a whore like you.
But no. Maybe he said that. Or he wished he did. Only the words never left his mouth. Didn’t dare. Only they stayed there, where they could do no wrong, and they died back, backed up against the unrelenting close of his mouth. He had said nothing. And she had left, a dozen roses in hand, smiling. A pity sale.
That was almost four years ago. And now, just last week, she died, a wasting away of some sort, a slow death, a smile on her face, a dozen roses on the bed, a dozen rosy shades shining from her face. He never visited the hospital, though he did send flowers. But despite his hopes that they could replace the words he never said, they simply withered, and the nurses came to bring her the jasmine tea, the medication that did less and less every year, like collagen for skin, for the deeply aged. The law of diminishing returns. Economic theory states…and all sorts to make up a world. But never enough to keep it from changing.
Long, long ago he might have said something. But then, like now, he said nothing and the regret backed up in his throat like a clogged sink. Long, long ago in a hospital far, far away. He had said nothing as she died, a smile in hand, a smile in face, a dozen stupid beautiful roses in the vase beside her.
And now, he was here. Regret and the like followed him like eager crowds of Ukobachs, nudging like school children on a field trip, sweetly singing “The fish’ll bite, the whores with hooks, a thousand roses in elbows crooked.” For seven years he held that intense anger at her, always buried underneath a shedding of flowers, clipped stems, crumbled worries with bank addresses and credit card loans.
It was easy to bury and hide such things. You live and you live and the struggle to live buries it all. Anger could burn but it could not scorch its way through the incombustible haze of everyday life. With time and life’s myriad distractions, it faded like the light of the stars. Although, it was always there, assaulted by the night, the city’s bright lights, the day and its sun, the waking and dreaming worlds that blended against each other. Anger. Then everything else. Suddenly clouding. But suddenly amplifying. Alex was always aware of it. He had swallowed as many painful words as a person could swallow. What was left?
“God, I want a drink.”
The door was closed and the night’s dark red splayed itself across the ceiling-ed sky. Like a hungry ghost, Alex sat at the counter, his face in his hands, dissolving like a tissue that had soaked to shreds. Rippling, a watery reflection.
Before he could start, the bell above the door rang. And Alex, surprised, looked up. It was Anthony, coming in with a chef’s salad boxed in plastic.
“I got you something from the store,” he said.
“Aww,” said Alex, pretending to smile. He stood up and came to get it; his own hand shook slightly, grabbing at the bag too quick. He looked inside, left it on the counter, and pecked Anthony on the cheek.
“Nothing for you?” Alex asked, getting behind the counter, looking away, still pretending nothing was wrong.
“Nah, I ate already.” Antony said this glancing at the roses in the back, the petals already darkened to a bruised red.
Following his gaze, Alex saw the petals, the discoloration and thought, “I should have thrown those out days ago.” He wanted to get away for a moment, just for a moment. A minute or two was fine enough.
He rushed forward to grab them, walking too fast, in juxtaposition to the slow, measured tones that came out, “Wait just a sec, kay? I just gotta-I gotta…” He waved the flowers, and a trail of dark petals came loose.
Anthony stared at him as he left, about to say something. The words were small, and terribly sad. Only the flowers would hear.
At the back of the store, Alex dumped the roses and gasped quietly. He placed himself down on the roughened ground, leaned back against the dumpster, and tried not to touch his wet face.
It smelled back here. The garbage trembled in the stale wind and pork chops frying in the neighboring diner added oily sheens to the night’s stench. It was hot and he couldn’t help retching, both from the smell and the knot in his stomach.
After a while, Alex realized he was taking too long. Before he could get up, the back door swung open and he crashed down again beside the dumpster.
“What are you doing back there?” Anthony’s voice came out, soft and distant. He stood with a hand on the backdoor while Alex squatted, closing his eyes, covering his head. The electric light between them flickered; hummed as flies and an awkward moth collided gently.
“Go away,” said Alex, “just leave me alone for a minute. I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.”
They were both silent, though Alex sniffed and made the occasional noise. The light above them buzzed with the death of flies.
Anthony shifted his weight. He raised a hand to the back of his head trying to pull out a word or a phrase but couldn’t think.
“Is it your mom?” he asked.
Alex just shivered, rocked with elbows on knees, and whispered, “Goawaygoaway just—
Anthony inched forward and crouched beside him. Both their mouths were set in hard lines. Anthony from concentration. Alex from restraint.
Anthony bobbed on his heels. “I’m sor—
Alex shot him an evil look.
Snapping his mouth shut, Anthony settled on, “Well then, what can I do to help?”
“You can leave,” Alex said, still trying to smile. “You can leave. You can leave.”
Anthony paused for a minute. A little world seemed to die.
“I can’t,” he said, putting his arms around Alex. “I can’t do that,” he said, pressing a kiss into Alex’s long blond hair. Alex considered fighting back. Anthony’s motorcycle jacket pressed against the skin of his arms as he was brought in and the warm breath cradled his scalp like soft mist. Anthony’s warm breath settled, flowing down his neck like a long scarf. It was his, that flowing warmth. His.
“Shit,” said Alex, as he leaned into Anthony. “Shit.”
They woke up together in bed, still in their clothes from last night. The alarm clock had yet to ring and three bleak numbers signaled silently in sleep. Regardless, it was morning.
“So early?” thought Alex as he untangled his apron beneath him. Anthony grumbled drowsily and stretched, his arms cracking with sinew. Alex blinked a sleep-crusted eye and watched as Anthony sorely rose out of bed. With a wide yawn, as quiet as it was aching, Anthony lifted himself from the mattress and threw off his jacket, shirt, and jeans. Alex regarded his body silently and wished he had at least two more hours to sleep.
As Anthony showered, Alex turned up in bed, one arm laid across his eyes. He muttered to himself, something nasty about Mondays, something great about booze. Eventually, he opened his eyes and eased out of bed. His hair was tousled and mussy from a number of last-minute kisses that seemed only to curl and fuss with it.
“Did he actually carry me up last night?” he thought, as Anthony showered. He remembered this horrible feeling, a stink in the night air, maybe it was the smell that got to him, yeah. He recalled loosely how Anthony had let him fall apart in his arms, how he just shattered and broke down, and imagined the great embarrassment of being carried upstairs to their apartment.
“Like a great, daft baby,” he thought.
Alex looked back toward the bathroom door. The sound of Anthony showering was loud in the dull morning light and Alex could hear every drop hitting the tiles. Eternity, then the sound of water shutting off.
“You done in there?” Alex asked, annoyed.
“Almost,” came the muffled reply.
Impatience shot through Alex, making him stand and open the bathroom door. A cloud of steam rolled onto the bedroom carpet.
“Jesus!” said Anthony, stumbling in the shower.
“I need to shit,” Alex announced.
“Unless you’re actively crapping yourself in those old-ass jeans, I don’t see why you can’t wait three more minutes.”
Alex rolled his eyes in a look of pure indifference and hunkered down on the toilet. He ignored Anthony as he got out, toweling off his muscled body, and dressing in front of the fog-steamed mirror. Anthony tried to give him an amused smile but Alex ignored him.
Telling him to get out, Alex snatched a clean pair of jeans from Anthony and told him to get a fresh pair from the closet.
“Those are too baggy for you,” Anthony laughed, and got a curt “shut up” in reply.
Ten minutes later Alex realized how silly he looked. His reflection in the mirror seemed like a ten-year-old boy, fallen out of puberty and now dwelling in the dim light of his apartment. The eyes were widened beyond belief and seemed to cower, bracing, in anticipation of some fantastic explosion at the end of a long scene. Alex, out of the corner of his eye, noticed a lip twitching in frustration.
The haze of morning still lingered in the air, although it was weakened by the smell of breakfast frying downstairs. Eggs, toast, the clatter of plates. Anthony rearranging his collar, pressing down a stubborn cowlick, flipping an omelette so deftly he looked like a figure in a commercial. The pants really were too baggy for Alex’s thin, almost slender, legs.
“Don’t say anything,” said Alex, when Anthony gave him a look.
“Wasn’t going to,” Anthony chuckled to himself. The frying egg popped and hissed.
Although Anthony pretended not to notice, Alex’s face had the haggard face of a drunk and the tear-stained look of a girl at her first breakup. He stared at the empty window with a hand supporting his worn face, a fragile pillar for a precarious and leaky monument.
“You have work today?” he asked Anthony.
“Eh, yeah,” he said, still watching the sides of the egg tremble with heat. “I got…workout sessions and lifting classes. You know. The usual stuff.”
Alex tapped the side of his face.
“Do you think—
He suddenly moved his arms together, fiddling with a nail on a finger as if it were a puzzle he was trying to solve. A clutch of the throat. Then…
“Do you think…” he smiled towards Anthony’s back, turning around till he could feel his spine crack, “you could come over when you’re done? Maybe?”
Though Anthony was facing away, his mouth opened a mere half-centimeter apart. Then he flipped the omelette.
Setting it on a plate, he said, “Um, yeah…sure. I can make it.”
Turning towards Alex, he saw the awkward little smile and was reminded of the words that swarmed around Alex last night.
“Sure,” he said, shaking his head, still holding the plate, “why?”
Alex’s smile broke. He dropped his face and turned away, saying, “Um, it’s—
His eyes darted underneath closed lids and he mouthed “Shit, Shit” silently like a prayer.
“No reason in particular,” he said turning towards Alex again, a plastic smile affixed to his face. “It’s just…I’d like your company.”
A corner of Anthony’s mouth crept up, a bare half-inch.
“Um, yeah,” he said, looking away to set the steaming omelette down, “Yeah, sure. I’ll make it. Bring us something both to do. I-I’ve got a protein shake I’ve been meaning for you to try. I think you’ll like it this time.”
A smile. They both smiled.
The strange and harsh rays broke through the window, passing the enormous bouquets stationed on display and striking the broadside of his neck till it left a patch of skin more heated than the rest. Late afternoon and Alex had been dealing with orders all day, pulling forms and receipts, checking stock, arranging and papering the bouquets himself. But it was late now, that perfect thirty minutes in a day that were just brilliant.
Late spring. Just rained. Mountains swept clean in the night, blue as sapphire in the morning, amethyst by afternoon. Light, more curtain or lace than anything, flew through the cars speeding up and down the tree-lined avenue.
Alex sat with his back against the window, closing his eyes. The word “shit” revolved around him like the glass orbs in a planetarium. With his foot propped on a shelf and his chin pressed to his chest, it looked like the languid darkness was dragging him in, weakly, pathetic and slow, but making progress. Alex’s closed eyes hid a bright, lucid green. In the light they shined, but now…
The door swung open. The bell rang with purpose.
“Yes, how may I help—Oh. Hey, sorry. I was sleeping.”
Anthony swung his head up. He was looking at the roses again. Today, Alex had put the yellow ones on sale, tying them into pairs, ideal as a small gift. Alex came up from behind the counter and Anthony smiled as he emerged into view. He would not have anything on his hands today if not for last night.
“Hey, thanks for coming.”
“Yeah. Oh hey, I brought you something,” Anthony said, pulling up the bag to the counter, “again.”
“Oh, is that—?” Alex peered into the bag, pulling a drink blender and some protein packets out, “Oh no, are you making me into your guinea pig again?” Alex smiled at his little joke.
“…I did mention something like that last night.”
Alex wandered over, absent-mindedly picking up the blender, turning the lid with a lazy hand. “You know I hate the taste of these things. Thank god I was born thin or I’d die from the constant taste of whey in my mouth.”
After they had finished putting the flowers away, Anthony made them both a drink.
“How’s it taste?” Anthony asked, after pouring the protein shake.
Alex’s face was knotted with displeasure.
“Cold and grainy, like I’m swallowing old-timey static,” Alex said, pushing the mug away and wiping the stiff corners of his mouth.
This was how it was with any new workout plan or diet. Anthony came up with the idea, researched meticulously, or else got it from his coach and fellow trainers. Alex would always tag along, puppy-cute and eager, but it always ended as soon as that first taste.
Anthony downed the mug like he had a million times before. An old silence filled the room, expanding into a late-night soundtrack. Featuring the tired barks of dogs that faded away, the vibrato of a muted television, and the worn sighs of this florist and trainer, silence filled Anthony and Alex so fully, so deeply, that no song or composition, no symphonic work of art could ever hope to rival the deep engrained pauses that buckled knees and ached in chests.
Anthony felt the silence roll in his mouth like cigarette smoke. Alex felt it falling through his ears in withering, an old flower with gently rotting petals browning to a dust.
Eventually Anthony tasted enough of the quiet to spit it back out.
“You know, you never told me anything about your mom,” he said, casual, “I mean my folks are back in Pennsylvania, keeping folks well-read and bookish. By now, they should be preparing for the summer book festival.”
“Oh yeah,” Alex replied, “It had a funny name, their store. What was it again? Er-Ere-Arab…”
“Erebus and Asphodel,” Anthony said in an affected, faux-dramatic way, “Anyone who got that reference was welcomed like a long-lost brother in our book.” He laughed, a small smoking chuckle, old as bones, dry as tea stains on a kitchen counter.
“Remember when you brought me along to visit?” Alex asked, wandering through his memories like a dream, “They had the dimmest bookstore I’d ever seen. It was like the sun had never touched some of those walls. They were this pale eerie white. Like wax or bone.”
“Yeah,” smiled Anthony. In their first year together, he and Alex had visited his parents. They had taken well to him, and Alex was in mutual agreement. But they never talked about…
“How was your mother…even like?” asked Anthony, curious for once about this strange figure in Alex’s life, never mentioned, never talked about.
“Oh, don’t bring up that old worm. She was the worst,” Alex said, only half-joking, “She couldn’t even be called a mother really. She was always just Dad’s wife.”
“I don’t get what you mean.”
“Well, she loved him.” There was a brief stutter between his words. “And yeah, me. But,” he said, “she never had any time. And we—well…”
“We just didn’t talk. She went shopping or something and I always remember her bringing something or someone back. Clothes, of course. A new toaster, a waffle iron, even a car once.”
“Well then, why did you love her so much?”
“She was beautiful. I guess. That’s what mattered to me most at that age. It’s what’s still important to me now. She always had someone carry her shopping for her. But we never had a maid. We didn’t need one. There was always some guy she could bring in on a collar. They practically kissed the dirt she flicked from her nails, not that she ever needed to. And it was sad. The stupid boys that she bullied into doing her lifting, cowed by the sheer number of dresses and shoes!” He scoffed. “Hilarious.”
“I’m serious. You think I’m joking? We have a whole album of guys she brought home. Always the same kind of dude: cleft chin, broad shoulders, big muscles, (you just knew he was straight), six-pack, sexy ass, grab-able man titties, (but the way he dressed you would have thought he was gay), and always the same toothy smile. As bright as their expectations. Oh. They were sweet, and so good-looking, too.”
Alex broke up at this. But as his head tossed back from laughing, Anthony couldn’t help but think about this beautiful dead mother. What was so beautiful about this apparent manipulation? How she had bullied and teased men she barely even knew into buying her clothes, carrying her burdens, using them like personal servants. What kind of a person did that? On one hand, he didn’t understand it. On the other, somehow, he could relate. Perhaps she felt a little trapped, too. Like too much of her life was spent cooped up around men and dogs, beaming up at them from the nook of their arms. Pretty, handsome, beautiful. The words blended together sometimes. And faces too. Born with a kind of blessing that so many thought gave you an extra foot off the ground, born with the easy deference of a kind of god. She needed to…
He found himself unable to complete that sentence. A strange void in his head, filling up with Alex’s crude, bitterly strained laugh, found itself wielding an immense staying power.
“I,” he found himself saying, “don’t think it’s all that funny.”
“Oh, well maybe not for you.” The words came fast, like spit from a sneeze, reflex, reaction.
“Dude, lighten up. I mean, I had an unhappy childhood but,” Alex went on, “at least I’m big enough of a person to laugh about it. I mean for crying out loud! My mother was shit! I mean it. She was terrible at cooking, cleaning, doing anything besides keeping herself happy. She didn’t take care of me, of anything. I practically learned all I did by accident.”
It was as close to truth as he could say it. Alex was as close to an archaeologist as one could get without a degree. He learned so much from his mother, from her drinking, her excesses, rooting through her shopping bags like Carter in the valley of kings. Anthony was looking at him, like an absolute stranger had been hiding in Alex. Using him like a cocoon.
Alex looked down at the half-empty protein shake.
“She was as shit as this drink.”
Anthony blinked slowly and stood up.
“What, com’on dude. I was only making a joke.”
“I know. It’s eight, closing time.”
“Oh, yeah but—
The sun had gone down hours ago. The time they spent talking had suddenly grown cold. Like alphabet soup left on a dining table, the candles melted down to stubs, and late-night car beams streaming in through the window.
“Hey.” Alex turned to face Anthony who was again, staring into the dimly lit roses.
Alex’s mouth swung gently, trying to mouth words that didn’t exist, unable to say the ones hiding in the gummy depths.
“I, um, I want you to come with me,” he said, “to my mother’s funeral.”
Anthony did not move.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. It felt like hours had grown between his words and that invasive silence. “What do I have to wear?”
“Nothing much,” said Alex, “Black suit. Black tie. No patterns. I—
He seemed to choke on the last word. The “I” had caught in his throat like a chicken bone.
“I could-I could-get you something if…”
He couldn’t seem to remember the meanings behind his words.
“No. I got it.”
“Oh. Okay. Wanna leave then?”
Anthony looked down, finally turned away from the roses. Picking up the blender and the drink packets, he shoved them into the brown grocer’s bag and walked past Alex. Alex turned and switched off the light. He shut the door, rusty from age, and turned the key slowly. The lock was old and needed to be applied with a specific pattern of force. Normally, he did this fairly quickly. But now, he struggled.
Anthony looked on, impatient.
“Here, let me help—
“Don’t. I got it.” The lock clicked shut.
Alex pulled the key out, which retreated into his coat pocket. He hooked his arm around Anthony’s and they began to walk home.
“Thanks,” Alex said quickly.
Anthony paused. “Yeah, sure.”
A week later Alex and Anthony stood at the gated entrance of Alex’s childhood home. The sign had “Eden’s Orchard” spelled out in long, curvy letters like the eyelashes of some raunchy book. The funeral wake for Eva Songhaus was about to begin.
“Who’s…Eve…?” Anthony asked the air, squinting at the sign.
“Mom’s stage name,” Alex replied. His answer was as bland as toast. “She always made me call her ‘Eva’ or ‘Eve’ when I was younger. I called her ‘Mom’ just to spite her.”
Anthony grimaced at the bitter stranger on his arm.
The funeral director seemed to have a thing for azaleas. Pairing them with dark red or pale yellow chrysanthemums, the entire house bubbled with color even with the mortified stampede that clambered onto its carpets. This was nothing. As they approached the casket in the main hall, red spider lilies illuminated all. The room was somehow cathedralized with flowers, cascading with long tendrils of red, elaborately braided stems, the almost unearthly glow of makeup and cosmetically altered blossoms. The flowers here were like works of sacred art, illuminating the white, drab hall with a show of color. “Take heed,” they said, “Show us mercy. Feed us water and dew till our heads explode. Into nothing but light! Nothing but Light!”
“Whoa,” said Anthony, shifting around to avoid the people parading in, “big event.”
“She’s had her funeral planned for years,” said a stranger leafing through the guest book. His eyes were dark behind thick glasses, though Anthony could not tell if his eyes were black, brown, or a very dark blue. He seemed to flicker as Anthony stared. Either that or Anthony was just tired.
Alex himself was a deep, unknowable haze. As Anthony glanced down at his shorter escort, he was suddenly reminded of the first time they had met, three years back. They were both twenty-one, with Anthony being just a few months behind. Alex was born in July. Anthony in October. Fireworks and barbecue smoke for Alex. Autumn streets and brisk winds for Anthony. It was summer, Alex’s birthday. He didn’t know it at the time but Anthony would find himself in the flower shop looking for something.
“Why did I ever go in there?” he wondered to himself.
It was summer. He was walking to the store from the gym. He heard laughter and someone’s voice saying “Put that cake down, oh, not the face!” and curious, Anthony walked in. The first time he saw Alex, he was surrounded by girls. Dresses, skirts, piercings on lips, wide grins, loafers, black-rimmed glasses, the assorted harshness and tinkles in their laughter. And at the center, Alex. Surrounded by flowers. Hair flushed around him. Bright as a ray. Flashing through the branches of trees, an unabashed brilliance that shone through like watery money.
It was summer. Even with red velvet caked on his cheek and a friend’s hand smearing cream on his forehead, Alex’s smile was sunlight through trees. Blatantly transparent, his laugh mixed in the air, misted with pollen. The shop was full of that laughter, blooming with the newly arranged assortments of summer bouquets. Jokes sprouted from mouths as sunflowers hung their huge heads on the shoulders and sides of party-goers passing by.
And it was here that the volatile air ignited Anthony’s springtime allergies and with an explosive sneeze he caught the attention of every nymph-headed bacchanal in the room.
“Oh, a customer? How can I help you mister…” Alex laughed as he wiped the cake from his own chin, smiled up at Anthony in his own slanted way, “Tall, dark, and handsome?”
Anthony laughed then. Stupid. But it was…such a surprise. He had never met someone so forthcoming or as effortless as Alexander. Even the cliché had a lively charm to it, a small vine-y flower growing out of the teasing way he had said it. Like everything about him seemed to float or grow in the light, tickling the back of the neck or brushing against a strand of hair.
He had asked what they sold here, like an idiot.
“Well,” said Alex, teasingly, “I do have some whips and chains in the back, if that’s what you like.”
The laugh that came out of Anthony sounded like a dying mule. His embarrassment shone on his cheeks, palpable as the red of a stoplight. Somehow, this charmed Alex. He asked Anthony if he’d like to come out with some friends of his for dinner. Nodding, Anthony shyly blunted his way through the crowd and planted himself firmly at the snack table. He would never be able to recall a moment of greater brightness, or fluster.
Four months later, they finally did it. Lying in bed, having brought home all the unclaimed summer bouquets that now filled the tiny apartment, the two held each other like petals clinging to a bud. It would be the first time Alex ever felt it welling inside of him. The first (read: last) time he would ever admit it.
“I love you,” he said.
For three years that one phrase, that vine flower cliché, that bedside sentence immersed in the flowering of summer, echoed on. Only now did Anthony strain to hear it. They were both twenty-four, and Anthony wondered to himself:
“Why did I ever let him go that day? Why couldn’t we just stay like that forever?”
With Eva Songhaus laid before him, Alexander Holstock turned to bone; a color so dire that as the dead sensation in his chest pulsed and throbbed, even the corpse looked worried.
“Alex?” A new voice emerged from above the murmuring crowd. With a slow recollection brimming in his mind, Alex turned around.
“Alex,” his father stood smiling at him from the top of the stairs.
For once in his life, Alex could not hide his contempt for his father.
“You came.” The father said this happily, descending the staircase in eager steps.
“I didn’t know you were coming, kid. You should have-” he looked up from the steps as he descended. His eyes stuck to Anthony.
“-called,” he finished.
Not a word from Alex. Anthony shifted, eyeing the stone demeanor Alex exuded. The hate he felt was palpable, hanging in the air like the scent of rotting roses.
“Well, you must be,” the words eased themselves out of Malcolm Holstock’s mouth like it was an easy chair they didn’t want to leave.
“Anthony”, he replied quickly, briefly shaking Mr. Malcolm’s hand.
“Nice to meet you. But it’s Lieutenant, actually.”
“Oh, shut up.” Alex surprised himself, saying those words.
“Excuse me?” Lieutenant Holstock was eyeing his son, like he just spit in his face. “Young man—
“It’s Alex, actually,” he said, mocking the tone Holstock had used to jokingly introduce himself, “You know, the son you used to have before you practically disowned me. Pleasant surprise, isn’t it? So how have you been for these past seven years? I can tell you it wasn’t easy living on the street. Oh, have you forgotten? Oh, well. You might as well continue calling me young man.” His hands went up in quotes at this. “And I might as well start referring to you as The Lieutenant!” He laughed at this joke, empty as an alcoholic’s glass and dry of humor.
“I didn’t disown you.”
“It sure seemed like that when you kicked me out.”
“ Well, I—
“Literally kicked my ass, beat me as if all the gay just needed to be wrung out, and then threw me out of my own home. And all while she,” Alex gestured toward the casket, as if pointing out a joke. “did nothing. Just stood by! Yeah, I thought that was a real kick in the nuts. A real yank of the chain. I think I’ll have a good ol’ laugh about that old episode. Hell, why don’t we all laugh at it? Call it a passing of some juvenile feelings, a phase.”
He looked at his father, the smile pulling itself from his face.
“Go ahead,” Alex said, with an unnatural grin, “laugh!”
The whole room was flooded with murmuring. Lieutenant Holstock, dressed in formal military wear, found himself speechless in the face of all these strangers.
“Come with me,” he commanded, dragging both Alex and Anthony upstairs.
“What was that?” came the murmuring of the crowd, “What was that?”
As the voices receded, Alex’s deep well of anger drained just a little. As Holstock led them to his office, Alex thought for a minute about what he had said, but not a single regret emerged as a result of this thinking. Already his mental landscape was swept clean, windows polished, floral displays arranged neatly, and all the vitriolic anger he kept bottled up for seven years placed gently on the counter. In his mind, he took out the stopper, sipped gently, and waited his turn to speak.
As the office doors closed around them Alex’s father turned to face them.
“What you did back there was very immature.”
“Sure, Dad. Very immature.”
“It’s not any of your business what I believe. And if you still have misgivings about what happened those seven years back, well.” He stood with his hands behind his back, chest puffed out like a bullfrog. “I’ll have nothing to do with that.”
Anthony shifted uncomfortably where he stood, away from Alex who was facing Lieutenant Holstock as he paced in front of him.
“No, of course Dad. You’ll have none of anything to do with me.”
“I didn’t say that—
“Oh! Say no more, say no more. I get it! I’m an abomination in your eyes.” He smiles at his joke, eyes like a polished storefront, the practiced smile gleaming with malice, dripping with hate. “You’ll have nothing to do with the ingrate of a son. As long as I’m around you’ll always want to see me a different way. A way that doesn’t have anything to do with flowers or bodies. As long as I’m around I don’t exist, isn’t that right? I may be here, but not in your “here”. Oh no. What you want is what you get, and what you don’t want you just let it wander out into the street, spending your time smoking cigars and counting the years. Change is good, not for you, but for me. I can imagine how disappointed you were when you figured out you’ll never have grand-kids. In fact, I’m willing to bet you’re thinking about it right now. A florist for a son. Even worse, who sleeps with men!”
Alex’s dad turned puce and stopped pacing.
Both eyes landed on Anthony.
“Should I leave?” He gestured nervously at the closed door.
“Who said you’re allowed to?” Alex said, again with the empty smile.
The way he said it, so clearly and without question, made Anthony feel like a total stranger locked in a room with a psycho.
“After all,” Alex said, turning his attention to Holstock, “it’s his room. Why don’t you ask Lieutenant,” his voice went up at this, “High-and-Mighty over here whether you can leave.” In place of a period, Alex ended his statement with a glare.
His father, bristling in his white uniform, would say nothing. After a long pause, he asked slowly, “Are you finished?”
Alex leaned in.
“Why not? Aren’t you?”
Lieutenant Holstock steeled himself. The sentence was cut short; only a word in and it was dead.
The sudden silence was unbearable. Anthony felt that if they stayed like this any longer, the air would freeze and suffocate them all. Just when he was about to open his mouth, Alex blurted out, “I’m leaving,” and disappeared into the hall. His father said nothing as he left. Anthony watched as the Lieutenant closed his eyes as if in slow motion. The deep heave of the body giving into itself, its resignation like a mirror image, the shutting off. His deeply frustrated father and his own deliberate outburst had severed Alex from any hope of bridging the gap between him and the Lieutenant. But Anthony, in his frozen state, began to move again.
“Alex,” he called, “Alex, wait!”
He ran after him, catching up in front of a large portrait of his mother. Alex had stopped here with the portrait looming in front of him, like a large memory e wasn’t willing to let go.
Anthony looked up, remarked, “It’s pretty.”
Eva had designed her portrait to give the appearance of being young and innocent when, in actuality, nothing could be further from the truth. Alex knew this and as he gazed into the eyes of the painting he felt like first seventeen years of his life were a complete waste of time. His father hated him, his mother was dead, and though he wanted to deny it he knew he was close to losing Anthony.
“I’m going home,” he muttered quietly, heading down the stairs.
“Alex, wait,” said Anthony, “You need to talk to your father. Clear this up with him. You can’t move on without it.”
“I’m fine,” Alex said pulling away, “I swear, I’m fine.”
“Alex? Com’on, what’s wrong? What really happened between you two?”
Alex smirked, recalling the event with neither tenderness nor fear. Just plain bitterness.
If there was one thing she knew how to do, Alex’s mother could put on a mask. Whether or not her anger got the best of her and made her throw a wine glass at the wall, it died behind a perfect mask of powdered foundation and mineral blue eyes. She would smile, laugh, gaze up at the rotating ceiling fan as if to say, “My Goodness, that was…violent…not myself for a minute there.”
The only evidence of her outburst that trailed behind seconds ago, already fading, was the wine glass smashed against a wall. It was a sudden stain to the memory, severe as a slap. It was also gone, just like that. Until now, he had never paid attention to the way such anger and violence was pressed down into the fabric and tablecloth, smoothed out, and forgotten.
He had only told her what he felt regarding her questions about the kind of girl he was going to marry, whether she would be hardworking or smart, pretty or plain.
He had said, “I don’t really like girls.” And his mother, taken aback for a minute replied:
“Well, of course you do. What else is there a boy your age supposed to like? A feather boa?”
And he had thought for a minute; what exactly was he going to say to that, and, giving up, said, “No, I mean, I don’t like women. None of them. I don’t have a type. I just…don’t like ‘em.”
And she had stopped at this, stunned. “Well then, what?” her face seemed to say. “What does that mean? What exactly do you like?”
And with a slow, dragging breath she asked, “Well…do you mean to tell me…you’re different?”
Her voice lifted up at the last word. As if she were suggesting something just as ridiculous as the feather boa.
Alex didn’t nod at this. Or shake his head. He was seventeen. And the meager slivers of his years quivered inside him, shakable, frail as a vase loaded with flowers. He knew nothing of himself. And wasn’t even sure of that.
Only he knew. That the things that trembled inside him like bits of hard glass, crystal-cut tears, and brightly colored nails (both the kinds for carpentry and the acrylic sort pressed against the curled fingertips of scary women) rattled and shook. Never to be let out.
He knew that it wasn’t so much letting, like one would let a bird out a cage, as vomiting; throwing up, turning his stomach inside out so all the sharp ends and hard edges cut against his throat, bleeding from inside his chest so that the blood cannot congeal, and the moist cavern filling up like a cup of flesh, like a girl’s first bleeding.
He would turn into a girl and his secret would run out of him, through his throat, through his crotch and out, onto that hard, wooden chair like a mouthful of blood. The secret was like blood. It was better for him (for everyone) when kept closed in his veins, all to himself.
But his mother was waiting for a response.
“You’re not different Alex. You’re not. Why would you be? I raised you right. I did everything a mother could. From the house, to the food, the cars, your toys. I—
“I gave you cars and toy guns, little cowboys and Indians to play horse with. I had the best nannies, with large breasts and round rumps. I—
“I kept you fed, dressed, educated. I put a roof over your head and walls to keep you in!
“Stop!” he begged.
“I bled myself dry for you!” she roared, throwing the glass with a crack like thunder.
When the sound of the smash reached Alex, he broke down, defeated from within, saying, “I’m not, I’m not. I swear, I’m not…not different.”
“She was so angry,” Alex said, standing in front of his mother’s rose-lined portrait, “That she threw a glass into the wall.”
Anthony stared at his boyfriend. And almost scoffed.
“Is that all?”
The words plunged through the air with a sadness that shot out of Alex’s heart like a bullet train.
“Yeah,” he said, anticlimax crusting over his words. “That’s all. What were you expecting? Some great reason about how shallow she is? How she and Dad broke me or something? You’ve gotta be joking.”
“No, it’s just…that can’t be it? There’s more you’re not telling me.”
Alex shook his head. Nothing. How could he put it into words? The way the silence gave way that night, and the way his mother threw that glass into the wall.
The sunlight that poured down like an endless rain
falling on the wreckage of summer in heaven.
Nobody wants to know my name, now
my grave has turned to rot its flowers.
The world stands alone in a sea of clouded scenes.
How your tithes are empty, offerings gone, your temples flooded.
How your endless years of summer have come and gone.
“She called my dad that night and said she suspected I was gay,” said Alex, voice breaking. “I didn’t know what to do. I just waited in my room. And when my dad came home, he…he said I needed help. He said he knew a good place to get treated. The best. And the way he said it…terrified me. I wanted him to say something else, anything at all, but he…”
Anthony’s mouth was frozen with anger. His eyes seemed to widen, though they did not move an inch.
“He just kept talking, and talking, and talking. I just wanted him to say everything was alright. That it was okay. That he would forgive me for saying it out loud. That, it didn’t matter, just as long as I didn’t bring it up again. I wanted…I wanted to run away so bad. I was praying, begging to God, please let me go. I’ll never say it out loud again. I’ll marry a girl. Have kids with her. Get a boring job. I promised that I would pretend for the rest of my life.”
Alex eyes swam in their sockets, drowning, lost.
“I just,” his voice broke, “I just knew I couldn't stay there, stay anywhere.”
He looked at Anthony like he knew. Like he knew that Anthony was just another place he would lose.
At that moment, Anthony realized why this was happening. Why the silence that had settled over them for the past few days was only a smaller fragment of years and years. He had known something was wrong. But never did Anthony think that he was powerless to change that. Unkind. With a burst of guilt, Anthony remembered what he had said. But already Alex was leaving. Anthony tried to say stop, but his words swelled shut against his throat. Alex ran for the door.
Downstairs, the service had already begun. Guests chattered, pockets of noise that stippled the arrangements of black and lace white, making gossip, sipping drinks, some non-alcoholic, some a little stronger. The crowd meshed and pulsed with one another, shadows in the cathedralized walls of the lavish house. Like a wedding cake for a reception in the Land of the Dead, the sound, the noise, the wordless chatter, all had a life of its own.
Alex descended the staircase, his hand on the edge of the rail and his gaze cast down, away from the billowing, smoke-like mass of guests and visitors. Surrounded by funeral bouquets he looked as if the flowers he sold for a living had grown right out of his heart to wreathe his thin frame with their colors, dripping with sunlight. Anthony emerged at the top of the stair, bursting from the dark hall, a look of pure anguish. Wait, he wanted to say. Wait, he seemed to say. But this time, as he looked down at the thin, riotously painted figure of Alex, a welling of emotion, like a complex number rhapsody, began to dance in his head.
Everything comes together for you, that
I loved. The way your hand drew out
the petals of flowers, the way you coaxed them
alive, same as how you drew laughter from me
from all of us; all at once in this moment, as if
now, they come together
in a kaleidoscope of gentle shards, swirling.
Spinning like a top. All that I loved: from the curving
grace of your hair, the black of your suit,
the sharp lapels whiter than snow, hands so soft they rouse
a waking spring, the eyes turned stony with tears, the wakeful smile,
and always, always petals cascading from your shoulder
like a god of spring, my florist who grows heaven
in his backyard, in his spare time.
He had no idea where the words came from. Only that they were there, riper than swollen pomegranates, hanging from his tongue like fruit on a branch. But Alex just looked at him from the base of the staircase. He gave him this look like that of a lost child. His eyes had lost their sharpness, lost that salesman’s polish, that carefully articulated exterior. He only knew that as Alex stood there looking up, afraid to go into that murmuring, echoing, whisper-flooded room, there was a sudden vulnerability. Alex glanced up towards the ceiling, the stained glass and fragments of color. He wanted to leave. He wanted to leave. Up towards that iron hand rail, twisting like ivy, wrought with a blackened finish. Up towards Anthony, homely and familiar even in his suit, the one reminder in this house full of bad memories (the broken vase, the friends not allowed to come, girls brought in as a pretense, the thunderous arguments at times, the sullen silence at others) here, in the nexus of his past lives, was home.
“Alex,” Anthony called out, “Alex!”
Alex looked back. His hand fell from the front door handle and he slowly turned. As Anthony came down and reached him, Anthony said nothing and took him into a hug. The words “I’m sorry” flowed between them. The things they had neglected to say and the things they wished they hadn’t, collided in a single embrace.
He was sorry and the sun was hanging in the dark blue sky. He was sorry and the world turned on in the half-light and the half-dark.
“Talk with your father,” said Anthony, into Alex’s ear, tickling with breath and trembling hair, “He needs to know what I know. You need to let him apologize.”
Alex pulled his face away to look Anthony in the eye.
“He’s not gonna listen,” Alex said, still tearing, “You heard him, he wants nothing to do with me. Or you. Our kind.”
“No,” said Anthony, his voice softer than air, “He’s just scared. Let him talk to you.”
“Scared of what?” Alex asked, choking.
“He’s scared of you,” said Anthony, “Scared of what it says about him, about his family, his absence; scared of what you might have become in that absence. He needs to talk.”
He cradled Alex’s cheek, wet as stones in a river, and buttoned a button that had come loose in their embrace.
“To you,” he said, smoothing the creases in Alex’s shirt, “He needs to talk to you.”
The meat tasted bland. Probably from being so cheap the chef had to use baking soda to soften it. Malcolm pushed it away with a little tap, like it deserved nothing more than that little nudge. The sauce had turned gummy around the pork chops and what little heat was left in the dish melted the ice cream in his float.
“Why did you order that?” Alex asked, “You hate sweets.” He picked at his salad and tore a spinach leaf in half.
“I thought,” his father began, “you’d like it, I don’t know.”
“What am I? Still three years old to you?”
“What do you want from me?” he asked.
“All I wanted was an apology. But I didn’t get even that. So you know what? I don’t want anything. I don’t want anything anymore, at least from you. I’ll be happy just staying mad. Heck, at this rate, I’ll be happy staying mad forever.”
“Oh, sure. Go on. Make excuses for yourself. Be as excusable as you like.”
Malcolm paused. Then signed unhappily.
“Look here,” he began, “I know-I haven’t…been a real father to you these past seven years.”
“That’s a stretch. Did you think of that all by yourself?” said Alex, barely paying attention to Malcolm’s words. Instead, he was looking out the window, watching the cars streaming by.
“I know--it’s unfair of me for wanting you to change. For wanting you to be different.”
The cars outside swam freely through the air.
“And I know--it’s not right of me for hurting you like that.”
They flew through the glass like streaks of light, as if all they had to do was go from one place to another, points on a line, changing, changing, changing.
“Look...all I know is…I’m sorry.”
The words seemed to open a box in Alex's chest. An image flashed into his mind, his father in his study, writing, while Alex trailed in, crying, only seven. His father was twenty-eight, still so, so young, not knowing how to take care of his own child. Alex had just been told off by his mother for breaking a plate. She called him a clumsy ox with fingers like bread. Alex went to his father and as soon as he saw his son, Malcolm Holstock wrapped his arms around the sobbing Alex, saying “I'm sorry. I'm sorry.” as if he could make up for his wife, the angry mother who raged and raged and raged.
“I'm sorry. Alex.”
As soon as Mal said those words, Alex began to cry. Silent, slow-moving tears that refused to leave eyelids, though they swelled and grew, more breakable with each moment.
Though his father asked him a question, Alex could not reply. He couldn’t find his voice through the tears. As if something had broken, a wall or a dam, and the bogged past had started rushing back, back to the present.
Alex choked. Then bit hard into his lip, trying to hold back tears, while his father looked on with surprise and concern.
“I thought,” he choked out, “I thought you were abandoning me. Like I didn’t deserve to be your son. The way you said it, told me to get out that night, I thought-I thought—
He rasped out.
“I was so ashamed of myself! I thought that I was dirty and no matter how hard I scrubbed I would never be clean again! And I hated you for it. Hated you for making me feel this way, for making me hurt so much I wanted to die. I called you goddawful things in my mind. I killed you over and over. Always with the same words you said to me, “Get out. You don’t belong here anymore. You don’t belong anywhere.”
He couldn’t finish that sentence, instead, he curled up. Into the little ball of his self, so afraid of what lay at the other end of that unfinished sentence he had to try, at least try, to suffocate the aching of his lungs and heart.
“I,” began his dad, “I didn’t abandon you. I was just…just scared. I wouldn’t. Ever. That was just…just a mistake. I’m sorry.”
A loud sob grew out of Alex’s collapsed frame. Like the sound of a house sighing as fire tore it down. Like the sound of snow falling, melting, and spreading thin through the emerging grass. Having laid dormant for years, the sound stretched itself out from Alex’s mouth, curling and reaching and blooming out in the open space, a terrible, embarrassing, and shameless sunflower. Tears fell freely from his eyes as the emerging sadness began to grow.
”Alex,” said his dad, “don’t cry. Comeon. You don’t have to cry.”
Alex retreated further into himself. Malcolm got up from his seat to reach his son. They ended up sitting next to each other, Alex, staining his father’s uniform with tears, and Malcolm, letting his son’s unhappiness envelop him like a shroud until it gradually disappeared like smoke.
In his memory, her voice was as crisp as a hundred-dollar bill, bright as a strand of pearls, as loose and cascading as the pages of a book blown by the wind. When he had kissed her cheek, the taste of mineral foundation, heavy as cake, came away on his lips, leaving such a noticeable trace on his uniform sleeve when he wiped away he thought his wife was slowly draining to a colorless nothing, a skinny smear of peach against white fabric.
“I know I could have done better, I know it. But Mal, I just-I just-didn’t know how. Do you ever have that? That…missing knowledge. A sort of abridgement, I think that’s the word, an abridgement of memory. How you thought you could do something like you did a while ago only when you try it, you know, only it just…doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would? I disappointed myself to say the least. I did. But I often wonder. Did I disappoint Alex? Little Lexy, with his pretty hair and his sweet eyes? I don’t care that he likes boys, not anymore. But Mal…do you think he loved me?
There were things I wanted to say. Things I wanted to give back. And now…
I never will.
And he smiled.
I dreamed that I was sitting down. Someone was behind me brushing my hair. I couldn’t see their face, didn’t know who they were, but their hands were gentle as they lifted and brushed. The comb was soft and they kept switching from a horse hair comb to a plastic one. Either way, it didn’t matter. Every stroke, it seemed, made my hair grow longer, made the memories flow out like water. I couldn’t see the images flickering in their eyes, but I could feel almost, at times, the sense of tragedy they pulled from the strands. I don’t know what they saw, if they saw anything at all. But, though I never turned around, I heard someone crying at times. I don’t know if it was me or them. They brushed my hair. They cried at what they saw reflecting within it. I felt beautiful. I felt loved. I felt that tears were finally something to be given away, something to be given in spite of the difficulty in giving them.
“When I was little.” When he was little.
“My mother told me stories.” His mother taught him certain things.
“It was always about love, about beauty.” About boys, about girls. And what they did in the dark when no one was looking.
“One day, she told me a story about a famous movie star.” One day, she told him a secret that would ruin her, that could hurt him.
“It was about how she became famous.” It was about how she sacrificed personal and private assets for the sake of self-preservation.
“Even though she tried her best, all the movies she was in slowly lost money, until she made nothing at all.” She was a shit actor, no one wanted to pay to see this, that godawful drivel the Hollywood machine was churning out.
“She wasn’t getting anywhere with her career.” She didn’t want to get dirty. And now it was biting her in the ass.
“She had to ask for a favor from a man she knew.” It was a favor. It was not a favor.
“She got a very big role in a very successful movie the next day.” It was one favor. It was two. The few became many. The many became even more.
“But still. She couldn’t make it.” People found out. The men got bored. The news had her name flying like trained circus chickens.
“She had to give up acting. She took to singing instead.” Her tail between her legs, she ran back to safer shores, away into something that became what she settled for.
“She met a man. A different man. A man nicer than all the rest.” He was a big fan, the young officer. Seven years her junior, she was desperate and he was as good as she could get.
“They married, had a kid, it was a happy ending.” It’s a story. How do you think it really ended?
“What can I say? My mind works with metaphors, with flowers and water. But even I like things to be smooth. Even when things do get jumbly and the meanings start mixing into one, I like it when things are smooth, are clear as flowing water, with all the veracity of music.”
The next day, Alex woke up with Anthony beside him. His smile was like a flower blooming in the burnt-out wreckage of a carnival ride. Amidst the horses frozen in frayed colors and the looming disk painted with long-vacant landscapes, there was a single white scatter, spreading in the grass and beyond it. Calliope music still echoed faintly in this vision of his smile. Like an odd memory, rising from the background, emerging vibrantly into view. There was a sign of accidents in the past, a burning out, a flaming ruin. Then peace, silence, unfathomable stillness. Somehow in spite of this destruction, or perhaps because of it, it has become even more beautiful. Like flowers. For the dead.