Flower World

by Jeremy Schnotala
Featured Art: Still Life with Flowers – Odilon Redon

Cathy sat at the bedroom vanity and used a comb to separate a few of the dull curls in her hair. They always tightened up into something ugly by the afternoon. She thought about what she might buy when she and Bill got to Flower World. Maybe some flowers for the kitchen, fresh flowers, something red or orange to shock the dull ivory Bill had insisted on painting the kitchen walls, counters, trims, cupboards—what was it, twenty years ago? “Ivory is universal,” he’d said, as though their kitchen needed universality. The kitchen had faded now into a boring beige and all the flowers that came to mind were out of season—tulips, lilies, stuff like that. It was mum season and mums smelled like the dead. Maybe she wouldn’t buy anything. She would just accompany her husband like she promised. Smile when he put a garden gnome in the cart. Question whether he really needed two bags of fertilizer. She hoped they could just slip in and slip out without talking to a soul. Cathy could push an empty cart down empty aisles, unnoticed by anyone, some old tune from The Mamas & the Papas echoing from above. “Monday, Monday.” Was that the title?
     But they would probably see someone. Likely the whole world.


     Cathy dabbed on a little bit of lipstick. She didn’t need any more. It was just Flower World. Why did everything have to have a gimmick in its name now? she thought. Donut Den, Hot Dog Haven, Flower World. Cathy snapped the lipstick lid down tight—Ruby Roo—and dropped it on the vanity. No, she was going to be positive, she told herself. This outing was for Bill. Outing or outage, she couldn’t remember exactly what Bill was calling it. Whatever the name, for the first time Bill was going to leave their home dressed in one of Cathy’s old dresses, and likely wearing her exact shade of lipstick. Cathy kissed a clean tissue, looked at the red stain, then wiped off as much as she could and threw it in the trash can.
     “Cath, what lipstick are you wearing?” Bill called from inside the bathroom as if on cue. She didn’t answer the question.
     “Why do we have to call it an outing, Bill?” she asked instead. He was in the bathroom doing his makeup with the door closed. “Seriously,” Cathy went on. “Why name it anything?”
     “Because it’s like my coming out,” he said.
     “It isn’t your coming out,” she said. “You’re not some southern belle, Bill.” Cathy laughed a little at the silly sound of “belle, Bill.” She was sure Bill was laughing too.
     “It’s called Ruby Roo,” she said when Bill didn’t respond. “And it’s too red.” No, coming out was not the right term for it.
     Bill opened the bathroom door and walked into the bedroom. Cathy didn’t turn around. And she didn’t look up into the mirror where she knew she would see him silhouetted behind her. She could feel his presence, and that was enough.
     “Do you remember the plan?” Bill asked.
     Cathy pulled her purse close to her and stood up. Oh yes, she remembered the plan. He would always bring it up at breakfast before she ate her yogurt and he ate his toast. He would bring it up at dinner if their grown daughters hadn’t stopped by for a surprise visit. Sometimes he would bring it up in bed after he’d showered and tucked himself in, and before he asked her to put lotion on his back. Even then.
     She sat down next to Bill on the edge of the bed. “Yes, Bill. I know the plan,” she said, and leaned over his shoulder to help him snap his purse shut. “You’re going to chip your nails if you do it that way.” She showed him how to use the flesh of the thumb and the flat of the pointer finger. His nails were artificial and they had been glued on a little crooked, but he had done them himself.
     “How do I look?” Bill asked.
     Cathy didn’t answer. Not because Bill looked bad. But because she was afraid she might cry. Afraid of what it meant that Bill was finally taking this next step. Cathy was in the car first because Bill had to pee. She put her seat belt on and pictured him pulling his dress up, his nylons down, and aiming into the toilet. She smiled. He would dribble on the nylons, maybe on the hem of the dress. Bill always dribbled. Cathy waited to start the car until Bill got out of the house so he wouldn’t feel rushed, and in silence she imagined them walking into Flower World, normal pace, down the aisles of fertilizers and insecticide, breathing poison that seeped from plastic bottles, dragging bits of gravel that caught in the wheels of the cart. It was so quiet in the car that Cathy could hear her solitary breathing. It frightened her.
     Bill shut the door of the house. His heels clacked on the cement as he walked to the car, and Cathy thought about how their heels would sound together in the aisles of Flower World. Bill had insisted that they both wear heels.
     “How do I look, honey?” he asked again once he was in the car. His voice was higher, a new edge or lilt in it. And he had a similar new something in the way he entered the car that Cathy hadn’t seen during the other times he had dressed in front of her at home, sitting down to dinner in a blouse and slacks, or asking Cathy to have a glass of wine on the back porch wearing an old nightgown of hers.
     Bill repeated his question. “How do I look?”
     “Of course you do,” Cathy answered.
     “What?” he questioned, furrowing his brow. “Of course I do?”
     The wrinkles between Bill’s unplucked eyebrows contracted and Cathy waited for them to relax to look for the lines in his makeup. “You look good. Dab your forehead with a tissue. You’re shiny,” she said, as though she was helping a younger sister on her way to prom. She started the car and drove out. They were silent for most of the ride, but Cathy was comforted hearing his breathing next to hers.

*

It was in the rear of the store, the greenhouse, and there were never many customers in there. Bill had emphasized this when going over the plan. He knew, because he stopped there twice a week after work, mostly to buy dying plants from the bargain corner, too far gone to make it, but he would try anyway. “It was only a few bucks,” he’d say. “Why the hell not?” And Cathy would smile and watch him re-pot the plant. Bill tended the plants like he had tended their daughters, with a gentleness Cathy could never muster. A mini Norfolk pine with only three branches; a fiddle-leaf fig that never grew anything larger than a Cheerio; a handful of baby spider plants he had plucked from a withering mother plant in the store.
     How many times had Cathy watched Bill and his plants with an eerie, breathless precision? Watched him stretch out the roots on the kitchen counter and wash each tendril with a damp rag, then pat them dry like they were extensions of his own delicate body. He never looked up at Cathy while he did this. But each time Cathy’s palms sweated and her heart pounded, something stirring deep inside in her own roots. And when it was over, like the end of some delicate pornography, Bill always looked up at her at last, wiped his forehead with a soiled hand, and asked her to bring him a new pot. She took the plastic pot from the counter, descended the white stairs to the basement, added it to the stacks Bill was going to recycle one day, and then chose one of the moldy terracotta pots they’d inherited when Cathy’s mother moved into a nursing home.
     “That’s not mold,” Bill insisted. And maybe it wasn’t mold, but each pot had rings and shadows of powdery white that covered the bottoms, crawled up the sides, and choked away the orange. Cathy preferred the plastic pots, even if it meant death from root rot. Most of Bill’s deals died within a week, anyway. Cathy would find them shriveled into dried stalks or wilted over in a dewy slump. And she would listen when Bill finally carried them outside to the trash and dropped them in, pot and all.
     But every once in a while, a plant would make it, one in a dozen. One in two dozen, maybe.
     Bill cleared his throat when they got close to Flower World. Cathy steered the car into the left turn lane, pressed the brake, and listened to the turn signal click on and off. In just moments, she would be walking into Flower World with her husband in high heels. With Bill dressed as a woman. No—she corrected herself and gripped the steering wheel a little harder—with Pam.
     “It isn’t sexual at all,” Bill had told Cathy the day she had first discovered him standing in their bedroom with her nylons bunched at his feet. That was three years ago. She had come home early from work and found him. Actually, she’d hoped that it was something sexual. Cathy would have liked that, but Bill was always too prudish. She had even bought a risqué video once and brought it home after their youngest daughter had gone off to college, but Bill wasn’t interested, and they just left it hidden inside the Mary Poppins case until Cathy finally threw it in the trash. No, it wasn’t a sexual game. It was much more than that.
     Cathy waited to make the left turn, her signal blinking as she let the traffic go by. Bill reached up and pulled the rearview mirror toward him and began check- ing his lipstick, touching it up with the twisted corner of a tissue. Normally he’d use that twisted tissue to clean out his nostrils, but today he was touching up his Ruby Roo lip lines.
     “Bill, there’s a mirror in the visor,” she said and pulled the rearview mirror back to her side, pressed the gas, and then turned left, speeding in front of an oncoming minivan.
     “God. You always have to do so many things at once,” Bill said. “You could have killed us.” Cathy didn’t even know what that meant, do so many things at once.
     “And can you please call me Pam,” he said with that shift in his voice.
     Pam was a stupid name and Cathy had always hated it. She knew many Pams and hated them all. There was the Pam in her third-grade class who took Cathy’s reading log during silent time and wiped a booger on it. And then there was the Pam in her church choir who always tried to sing harmony when she was supposed to be singing melody. There had been a little Pam in one of the girls’ Brownie troops who touched her privates so often her mother sewed ugly pockets in her uniform and made her keep her hands in them all the time. And of course there was that Pam who had shared a room at the nursing home with Cathy’s mother before she died, a clamshell of a woman chewing bits of chicken pot pie she’d discovered in her mouth long past dinnertime.
     They parked next to a handicap spot, across from four mountains of brown mulch. Cathy loved how each of the mulches had different textures and shades, how they all complemented each other nonetheless. Each type was labeled, and while Bill finished fussing in the mirror, Cathy let her lips curl around the good, standard mulch names: Cedar. Coco. Golden Majestic. She thought she could smell the cedar through the door.
     “So, you’re my wife. Still my wife. Remember that,” Bill said.
     “Bill. I know that.” It was such an irritating thing for him to keep saying.
     “I mean, if anyone asks,” he said. “You don’t ever have to deny that.”
     Cathy opened her door, stopped, and turned back around. “What are you then? If I’m your wife, then what are you?” She couldn’t smell any cedar. Instead she smelled tar and trash. Her question was odd, perhaps cruel. What are you? She knew Bill wouldn’t answer, and she couldn’t leave him in that uncomfortable silence. “It doesn’t smell much like cedar, does it?” she said, waving at the mulch. The words came out quiet.
     “Smells like tar and trash,” Bill said. Cathy smiled and shut the door. “Maybe neither of us has to talk,” Cathy said and went for a shopping cart.
     “Maybe not,” Bill said. “But Sandy will be there. She’s always in the greenhouse. She just putzes around. Cleans. Waters. I never talk with her, but maybe we will today.”
     “We will?” Cathy asked. “Why?”
     “That’s part of this step,” Bill said as though reading a self-help manual on how to enter the world with your wife while dressed as one yourself.
     “I may not talk, if it doesn’t feel right,” Bill said.
     Cathy gave Bill the cart and stepped back. “You look nice,” she said. And she meant it. He wore a simple blue dress, silver ball earrings, and a silk scarf with a Picasso print that covered his Adam’s apple. He’d always had a pronounced Adam’s apple.
     When they entered Flower World, Cathy didn’t feel comfortable walking next to Bill, intruding on his independence, but she didn’t want to walk behind him either. Bill turned down the chemical aisle, perusing weed killers, and dropped a box of Miracle-Gro in the cart. Cathy let him go. Paused for a moment to see if he’d look back. When he didn’t, she turned and walked the other way.
     The store had started selling Halloween decorations and Cathy studied a pumpkin display until she saw the flower counter. There was a woman with Liza Minnelli hair sitting on a wooden stool behind the counter. Her neck was turned awkwardly because she was staring up at a clock behind her, and it pushed her double chin out like a cartoon frog.
     “Counting the minutes?” Cathy joked. Liza turned her head toward Cathy without moving her body.
     “Do you need something?” she asked in a flat, irritated tone. Her eyes were enormous, framed in a round pair of shiny black glasses.
     “Do you have anything red or orange?” Cathy asked.
     “Sure. Placemats and candles and balloons and mugs and a whole family of teeny red ceramic mushrooms.” She took a breath and was about to go on.
     “No, I’m sorry, I mean cut flowers. Fresh flowers,” Cathy said.
     “Oh. No one really buys them anymore. Tchotchke World is what they should call this place,” she said and laughed from deep in her throat. “Anyway, yeah, we got some red roses. Maybe some red carnations left, too. And six chintzy corsages some bride didn’t pick up over the weekend. Makes ya wonder, don’t it? Anyway, they all got some red in ’em too.”
     Cathy pictured herself buying one of the corsages, pinning it on her dress, and walking up to Bill. Ready for your outing! she could say.
     “They’re all right there in the cooler if you want to take a look.” Liza nodded her head to the right of the flower counter at a small cooler the size of a home refrigerator. Green paint was peeling at the edges and the glass door was streaked down the center with bubbles of condensation. Cathy could hear its humming.
     “Do you have anything less fancy than roses? Maybe a bit more exotic? Oh, and not mums,” Cathy said. “Definitely not mums. I want something fresh-cut. I never buy fresh-cut flowers.”
     “Boy, lady. You sure are picky,” Liza said, laughing again, this time so hard she began to cough. She coughed so long that it became awkward. “Sorry about that,” she said, finally, as she composed herself. “That’s what you get for breathing the chemicals in this place.” Liza was about to laugh again but stopped herself. “Like I said, what we do got is in that case. And what we got is roses, carnations, and a few rejected corsages. Mums is outside in pots in the garden center. Never heard of selling fresh-cut mums.”
     “Thank you. I don’t want mums,” Cathy said.
     Liza’s glasses slid down her perspiring nose and she stared at Cathy over the frames. After an awkward pause, she pushed herself off her stool with a little grunt and coughed twice before she spoke again. “But we got lots of artificial ones on that wall over there, if fake ain’t a problem. We got marigolds and birds of paradise and cosmos and zinnias and dahlias. Even some red hot pokers,” she said, reaching under the counter and grabbing a plastic cup with a straw sticking out of it. Her lips groped for the straw. When she had it in her mouth, she plopped back onto her stool. Yes, she looked just like a frog, Cathy thought, like a fat cartoon frog with plastic glasses and a Liza Minnelli wig. The image filled Cathy with so much joy that she laughed a full and rich laugh.
     “I’m sorry,” Cathy said, trying to cover for her laugh. “Red hot poker? That’s a flower? It’s just such a funny name,” she said, and faked another little laugh.
     Liza swigged three more times and nodded toward the wall of artificial flowers.
     “Thank you,” Cathy said.
     The flower wall was overwhelming. It stretched like a plastic rainbow, left to right, light to dark. Bleach-white poinsettias to ebony asters. The laws of nature didn’t matter here, the magic of paints and dyes trumped everything. Cathy pulled out something from the center of the wall that wasn’t quite a flower. Attached to the stem was a clump of what looked like red-orange seaweed, made of thick, textured plastic, with dozens of gritty nubs and flabby leaves sticking out the sides. When she held it in her hand, it fanned out like a beautiful orange weed, some abstract peacock of the sea. It was indistinguishable from real seaweed, Cathy thought. If there were such a thing as orange seaweed. The color was perfect—a melted blend of red and orange. Cathy checked the price—$6.99 a stem. She grabbed five more. “Saffron Salad,” the label read.
     Cathy found Bill at the bulk grass seed, a hand sunk deep in a metal tub of blue fescue; he had ditched the Miracle-Gro. Cathy dropped the seaweed stalks into the cart. Bill looked lonely and she had a sudden impulse to help him, to pull him back to herself before he was too far gone. Before she had lost him for- ever. She came beside him and reached her hand down into the seeds, swimming around in the darkness until she discovered Bill’s hand and laced her fingers through his. She liked the sensation, the slippery seeds rolling around her skin, the strength of her hand and Bill’s hand joined together. The last time she had known such intimacy was the day she had discovered Bill in her nylons three years ago. The day he’d said it wasn’t sexual at all. The same pulses of passion then. The same darkness. Cathy wasn’t shocked. She had just let him pull the nylons over his tight calves, up past his thighs, pressing his dark leg hair against the skin of the nylons, showcasing everything manly about his body. And then Bill had drawn Cathy close, had actually kissed her the way he never had before, pulled her into parts of him she had never known. That was the first time they’d made love in years.
     What am I to him? Cathy had thought then and thought again now, her hand still sunk deep in the grass seed at Flower World. Does he imagine he is making love to his own body? Does he feel himself inside of me and inside of himself at the same time? Cathy hadn’t understood the complexity of her own thoughts that day. And had spent three years delicately asking Bill questions he fumbled to answer. Where do I fit in all this? She didn’t want to lose him. She didn’t know the world without him in it. She thought of her mother—groping with her lips for air in the stale darkness of the nursing home.
     Bill pulled his hand away from Cathy’s, drew it out of the blue fescue and shook off a few straggling seeds, flicked a couple from under his nails. He wasn’t wearing his wedding ring and Cathy tried to remember the last time she’d seen him with it on. Had he been wearing it this morning at breakfast?
     At the back of Flower World, there was a wall of windows as long as the flower wall. In the center was another set of glass doors that led into the actual greenhouse. The glass was steamy and everything beyond was blurred into green shadows and dark shapes. Cathy appreciated the softness of everything, but she didn’t know whether she was looking at a giant cactus or at a man. Bill nodded toward the glass doors. At first she had thought he was motioning for her to grab a bag of the potting soil stacked on a pallet next to the doors, but when she bent to pick it up, he cleared his throat, a pitch above his normal voice, and shook his head no.
     He pointed toward the greenhouse doors, and for a moment the fingers, with their red nails, belonged to some stranger.
     Cathy dropped the potting soil in the cart anyway, forgetting about her bouquet of red seaweed until she heard the crunch.
     “Fucking flowers,” she said in a loud whisper, only they weren’t flowers. She grabbed the glass door and swung it open. There was an obnoxious cowbell tied above it, an actual cowbell hanging from a chain made of garbage bag twist-ties, and it rang like an announcement. Some cow was roaming free without this bell clanging around its neck and, instead, it was here, ringing like a punctuation mark on an unfinished sentence. Bill looked up and silenced it by sticking his thumb inside the hollow of the bell.
     They had arrived, the bell had rung, and before they could hide themselves among the ferns, they were greeted by a woman in khaki pants, pink rubber boots, a jean shirt, and a filthy green Flower World apron. Her name tag read Sandy and she held a fistful of weeds in one hand and a lime-green watering jug in the other. The greenhouse door closed behind them.
     “Evening,” she said from behind steamed-up glasses. Cathy couldn’t see Sandy’s eyes and wanted to know if she recognized Bill. If she was confused by him. If she was bothered. Sandy just smiled a wide, toothy grin.
     “Do you have Venus flytraps?” Cathy asked out of nowhere, to fill the silence. She didn’t know where the question came from. She’d owned a Venus flytrap when she was little. Well, her mother had owned it. And she and her younger brother had spent hours in the sun porch trapping flies in the hollows of their small hands. They had killed the plant, their mother insisted over and over again, by forcing it to eat itself to death.
     “We do,” Sandy said, smiling again, a genuine smile, circled by sweat and a few streaks of muddy potting soil. She took her glasses off, cleaned them on her apron, wiped her face with the sleeve of her shirt.
     Cathy wondered if Sandy understood what was happening, understood even more than Cathy did. “Can you show us?” Cathy asked.
     “Sure,” Sandy said, but didn’t move. Instead, she smiled at Bill. It was a smile that Cathy couldn’t figure out, and a sudden thought made her jealous of this stranger in rubber boots. Bill had been coming to Flower World for years. Had he shared all this with Sandy? Told her about the plan? Told her even before he had told Cathy? Before his own daughters even knew anything?
     Whatever the truth, the thing that had been their intimate secret just moments before, a secret Cathy didn’t know if she wanted, now belonged to Sandy, too. Belonged to the whole world.
     “I’m Sandy,” she said, as if introductions in Flower World were a rite of passage.
     “I’m Cathy,” Cathy said, irritated.
     And then Bill reached his hand out, the red nails stabbing forward. “Pam.” Sandy shook Bill’s hand and Cathy studied the handshake, how firm it was, watched the sleeve of the dress pull as Bill reached out, watched it release back down like her very own breath when the handshake was done.
     “Sorry, my hands are sweaty,” Sandy said. “Gardening gloves.” She gave a little bob of her head and started walking. “The traps are somewhere around here,” she said, darting through rows of cramped plants. “I usually have a few laying around somewhere. Flytraps. Flytraps,” she repeated. “We sell ’em, but, you know,” she said and kept walking.
     No, Cathy didn’t know. “Is there something wrong with them?” she asked. “We’ve already had spider mites.”
     “Well, they’re actually endangered. In the wild. These are grown in a green- house somewhere, at least that’s what they say. But in the Carolinas, they’re dying out. One of the Carolinas—I don’t remember which one.” Cathy hadn’t known any of that. She would have thought they grew in the jungles of Madagascar.
     On a wooden table near the clearance corner, they found the traps, tucked behind a bunch of succulents. Each Venus flytrap was couched in its own plastic case the size of a watch box. They were so steamy Cathy couldn’t see inside, but she was sure they were choking. Cathy looked up at the sun shining through the glass roof above her, took off her own glasses, and wiped her eyes.
     Sandy went on with the lesson. “They’ve been harvested and hunted almost to extinction,” she said, pulling one of the lids off with a snap. Cathy took a deep breath, and then realized Bill wasn’t there. She craned her neck until she spotted him picking dead leaves off a plant in the clearance corner. Sandy used her apron to wipe the condensation from inside the lid of the flytrap she held. “Here ya go,” she said and handed the plant to Cathy, who froze in front of it. It was stunning—long lashes circling each of its open mouths, pink caverns protected by tooth-like bars. She studied its jaws. Thought of its ability to clamp its prey. Its inability to survive alone in the Carolinas. Cathy had made the moment awkward, standing there so long, staring at the plant.
     And then Bill was back at her side, reaching out, taking the box, holding it like a relic. Holding it too carefully, Cathy thought.
     Sandy pulled out a small, plastic plant card and handed it to Cathy. “They say a portion of each sale goes to replanting flytraps back in their native habitat, but I wonder. It’s actually a felony to dig one up in the wild. Well, maybe not a felony, but there’s some sort of fine. But back in the day they used to pay kids a nickel a plant to dig them up and haul them in to the local dealers.”
     Cathy pictured dozens of dirty children, their hands stained green and brown from digging in the Carolina forests. She pictured thousands of giant Venus flytraps growing around them, mouths of plants and children opening and closing, speechless. She pictured her own brother, one of those children, holding a fistful of dead flies, crushed in his palm as their mother took a switch from the maple tree in the backyard and taught him a lesson against the back of his legs. Taught them both a lesson for touching her plants.
     “Maybe we’ll just look at something else,” Cathy said, stepping away, but Bill was holding the plant closer, studying it. He signaled for Cathy to come closer, and she leaned in. One of the traps was closed, but Cathy could still see through the bars and into the pink stomach where a faded ladybug was being digested.
     “They eat ladybugs, too?” Cathy asked. It disturbed her to think of ladybugs dying—elementary school boys crushing them on the sidewalk next to the tetherball, three of them dried up in the crevice of the back window of her father’s station wagon, one stuck in the spiderweb in her grandma’s sun porch, still moving. She could grab it, but how quickly the wolf spider would spring from its hole.
     Sandy was still wiping the steam off the insides of the other plastic flytrap lids. “Just flies,” she said and clicked one of the covers tight.
     “But this one has a ladybug in it,” Cathy said. No one responded. She said it again, a little louder. Tried a third time, to see if anyone would confirm what she saw. But Sandy was off to another table to water ferns and Bill was—Cathy looked over at him. Bill was Pam.
     The flytrap had sucked the red out of the ladybug, which was now just a faded orange shell. “But this one,” Cathy started again one last time, the words catching in her throat like a sob.
     Pam snapped the lid on and tapped the top of the container with a glossy fingernail. This one, the fingernail said.


Jeremy Schnotala has an MFA from Western Michigan University, and he lives with his husband in Grand Rapids, MI, where he teaches English and directs theater in the public schools. He recently won first prize in the Saints and Sinners 2018 Literary Festival fiction contest and for The Tishman Review 2018 Tillie Olsen Short Story Award. He was nominated in 2018 for a Pushcart Prize. Other recent work can be seen in Temenos Literary Journal, Chagrin River Review, and New Rivers Press. More information at schnotala.com.

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