Special skills: I can type 54 words per minute (measured average), smoke six cigarettes in quick succession before nausea sets in and I know the Latin derivatives for most of the flowers in this store. Additionally, I have an almost uncanny ability to respond to assholeism with smiling gallantry. The bigger the asshole, the more polite I become. It borders on genteelism.
“Shelby Arlenson, college graduate, almost ten years of teaching experience. Is this application supposed to be serious?”
“Some of it. The politeness aspect, definitely. And the typing part. I took a class back in college and they timed us.”
“What font is this?”
“I like it.”
“You didn’t think you should dress more professionally for the interview?”
I was wearing an oversized loose-knit cardigan with grey UCLA sweatpants and a Scooby-Doo shirt. I hadn’t tied back my hair and it hung down past my shoulders in tangled sable waves. I was clean, though. Just unkempt.
“This is a florists,” I said.
“That it is. I’m going to go ahead and add ‘Observant’ to the skills section.”
“Be my guest.”
“What’s that on your arm?”
“But it looks blue?”
“Observations seem to come in spades today.”
“Is it cancerous?”
“No. Do I have the job?”
The interviewer was like some hangover from the punk era, lissome and tattooed, emerald octopus tentacles and snarling tigers inked into her arms. She slid my application back across the table, littered with navy scrawls.
“You start tomorrow. Well actually you start now because I’m going to train you, but you’re on the payroll as of tomorrow.”
“I have the job?”
“You have the job. Are you pleased?”
“I am overjoyed.”
I followed her to the front of the store and she gave me a Bunches embroidered apron and pointed me to the till.
“Bills, quarters, dimes, cents, pennies. If the balance doesn’t add up at the end of the day it’s you that’s got to go back and do the ‘Who Fucked Up?’ math, so it’s in your best interest to count.”
Her black spiking hair was chopped short around her face and tinted neon blue from the ear-line down, the arms ripped off her t-shirt and her jeans shredded at the knees. There was a safety pin looped through her back pants pocket, superfluous, inexplicable.
“Raven, how old are you?”
“And you own a flower store?”
“Yep. I used to sing in a punk band -”
“And – I don’t know really. I guess I have rage issues. We had some good hits a few years ago and I gigged in San Francisco a whole bunch, and I had some money saved up so I just moved down here and opened the store. I like this. I like flowers. It’s hard to get mad at flowers.”
“I can see that,” I said.
“What about you? Your teach kindergarten for what, ten years, and then quit and get a till job? What’s that about?”
“I needed a change,” I said.
“I can see that.”
Within the first three weeks eight children had leant over the counter and poked the mole on my arm. I wasn’t expecting that, all the children. The store was mostly filled with mothers walking around with their toddler’s hands, letting them pick out flowers. Did none of these women have jobs? Since when did women buy the flowers? I thought men shopped at florists. I at least expected suited men slinking in on the way home from work, needing bouquets to make amends, for one thing or another.
I loathed myself for thinking these things. My mother used to say things like this and I always chided her for it. Weak women’s thoughts, I’d say. Foolhardy women, women who think they need men.
“What is that?” The children would poke the soft violet skin, sheathed with a small faint tuft of blanched hairs. “Nevocytic Nevus!” I would drawl out the vowels and wave the fingers of my left hand over it, making it sound like magic. Which was true – the name, not the magic. In reality it was just a large mole tinted blue by excess pigmentation. Not rare enough to be special, though unusual because of its size. It covered about a third of my right forearm, a stretched oval tilted on the right side towards my wrist, the shape of pennies after you put them in those compressing roller machines at carnivals. And it was uneven, craggy, slightly raised in the middle with darker stippled hues of cobalt and cyan and cerulean, mottled and lush, like an inked oyster shell. High risk of melanoma, to be kept out of the sun with regular check-ups and semi-regular biopsies. Vigilance was key.
Of course after thirty-two years of sun block slathering and bandages worn on beach trips and general shading of the utmost precaution I was melanoma free, but a sudden onset of abdominal cramps led to scans revealing a uterus riddled with cysts, teeming with them, a Santa’s sack packed with tiny unwrapped baseballs, laden and infertile. Easily operable, I was told with smiles and light sighs that insinuated good fortune. Never underestimate life’s ironic sensibilities.
“How much are the Blue Water Lilies?”
“Three dollars a stem,” I said.
“That’s quite expensive.”
“They’re quite rare.”
There was a young man, a willowy man, standing over the lily bucket and inspecting the petals closely, bent at the hip with palms pressed into his lower back, elbows making equilateral triangles. His jacket was a marshy green, pea soup and mustard, and his hair shot up in wooly crimson tufts.
“Do you not have any special sales? Or any reduced prices?”
“We don’t really get back-logged on stock, flowers having such a short shelf life and all.” At this he straightened and looked at me, perplexed. And then he recognized the joke, the laughter welling up in him almost visibly, painfully gradually, until he creased into a crooked smile and a silent outward laughter, a hisshisshiss of pushing air through teeth. His smile bent up at the left and exposed an incisor dulled right down, flat, a cow’s tooth, a masticating, cud chewing tooth, and the right incisor, glinting through the hanging crooked smile, was sharp and spherical. His face was covered in tiny tawny freckles. Spattered with them.
“I’ll take one please,” he wheezed, placing a hand on his chest to signify the comedown from a swift and gripping bout of humor. Some mannerisms of children seep into adulthood, I thought. We are all shadows of our former selves.
“Please. Do you do wrapping?”
“It’s a gift?”
“I suppose so, yes.” He wheezed again, hissing soft sneezes of laughter. “Yes I suppose it is.” I reached past him and pulled out the longest stem, the petals splayed and reaching, a gradual dreamscape blue. I wrapped the severed base, wet towel then paper then decorative film and coiled patterned ribbon.
“That’s some mole you’ve got there,” he said, leaning in.
“Do you know they make drinks with this stuff?”
“The Water Lilies. They used to brew it and make teas with it, for its psychoactive properties, in Ancient Egypt. Now they just infuse liquors.”
“I didn’t know that. That’s pretty interesting, actually. Do you work with flowers? Or with liquors?”
“Liquor, yes. Flowers, sometimes. You could call it a hobby.” He laughed again. Apparently this was funny. “Do you have any hobbies?”
“I smoke.” He began to breathe his gasping laugh but stopped short, seeming to sense I was serious, still smiling his tilted smile, unsure. “I mean it,” I said. “I recently took it up.”
“Oh.” He looked serious now, worried, or contemplative, his eggy forehead creased into little freckled divots. “How often do you smoke?”
“Not that often. I’m trying to build up tolerance.”
“I see.” I passed him the lily and now he clutched the base with both hands, fingers intertwined. “When do you smoke next?”
I looked around the store, empty, besides one svelte young mother and her small blond toddler, hovering in the doorway, cooing at the petunias.
The air in the alley behind the shop was laden with the smoke of pork smoldering in the next-door Mexican restaurant and the smell mingled with the tepid briny musk of the early onset evening. I lit two cigarettes and passed one to him, and we smoked in silence as the building’s shadow crept across the alley’s darkened floor.
“Here.” I looked down and he was passing me a hip flask, shining titanium flanked by buttery amber leather, embossed with a swirling JR.
“What is it?”
“I can’t drink,” I said. “I’m at work.”
“It’s nearly evening, you must be closing soon. And how sober do you need to be to sell flowers?” This last comment struck me as painfully true. I reviewed him and he seemed grander now, less weedy, the ivory of his skin offset by the sienna of his freckles and the burning amber whorls of hair in an almost beautiful way. Diaphanous. Poignant. Quite striking, really. I took the flask and drank and it tasted like honey, a biting honey hinting at roses and lilies. Sap mixed with wood and pollen. It felt thick and warm on my tongue, already viscid from smoke.
“It tastes like dew.” He seemed to like this comment. He smiled and laughed softly, one long exhale, gentle and mellow.
“I made it.”
“I’m impressed,” I said. He had finished his cigarette so I lit him another, and we passed the flask back and forth, sipping idle, tiny nips.
“Why did you take up smoking?”
“A lot of reasons, really. More and more it seems that the turnings of my life are disconnected from my actions. I’m beginning to doubt any chains of causality. You keep an eye on one leg and fate cuts off the other. So I’m saying, why watch either?”
“Like determinism?” He drank.
“Not exactly. More like a deliberate experimentation with apathy.”
“Apathy can be a dangerous thing.”
“Apathy can be a beautiful thing.” I took the flask and smoked then drank a little, rolling the amber liquid across the rear plate of my tongue, melding it with the heady smoke, floral and charred. “You settle into it, gradually. It’s abatement. Like freezing to death.”
“You are very honest,” he said.
“Maybe just astute.” I lit a second cigarette.
“Have you always sold flowers?”
“I used to teach kindergarten, up in the city. I’m new here.”
“Three weeks tomorrow.”
He laughed his freckle-throated laugh. “No, no. How long did you teach.” He stressed the word teach with great emphasis, Teach, leaning on it, like it was a column holding up the entire conversation, an unforgivable misunderstanding needing immediate redress.
“Oh, only about ten years of my youth.” I was purposefully flippant, trying to counter his earnestness. But he closed his eyes and nodded slowly, tilting his head back and then down again until his chin touched his sternum, holding it there unmoving, like the closing of a meditation. “You’re a strange bird.”
“What’s that?” He righted his head and was looking at me again, his eyes orbital, strikingly green.
“Just something I used to say to my kids. My students. You’re a strange bird. When they were odd. And if they were silly they’d be a goose. You silly goose! My mother used to say that one.” I inhaled a long chalky drag of my cigarette and held it deep in my lungs, woozy. It filled my head and my thoughts were mist.
“Not any more?” He leaned in slightly. He smelt sweet, slightly acrid, like burnt sugar.
“She died. Liver disease.”
“It’s fine. She was a drinker.”
“Are you a drinker?”
“I, am a smoker.” I let out a long exhale for emphasis. The smoking was making me foggy headed and heavy, limbs like alabaster. The liquor was warming, trickling through my body and gripping tight in my chest. I felt Almighty.
“Do you miss it? Do you miss the children?”
More than I could ever say, I thought. More than you could ever hear in words. “Children can be cruel. When I was young they called me Cartography Kathy, because my mole looks like the topography of a mountain. They used to try and quiz me on State capitals.”
“Your name is Kathy?”
“No. It’s Shelby.”
He found this hilarious, unbearably so, it seemed, bent double and clutching his side with one hand, slapping his knee with the other. He stood and handed me the Blue Water Lily, to avoid crushing it in his rapture, and bent back over, laughing harder, that silent nasal hiss. It was the charade movements for mirth. When he stood his eyes were glistening and welling at the corners and he wiped them, sighing exuberantly.
“Do you have any children of your own?” he asked, recovering.
“No. Just me.”
“Don’t be. ‘It just never happened,’ as they say. And now I can’t, anyway.”
“I said don’t be.”
“Why can’t you have children?” I looked at him now, this strange little man, impish and vivid. I thought of the topography of his face, that odd sculpture of a face, like a haphazard poem. The pallid, taught skin, almost translucent, jaw strong and angular, flecked all over by sepia freckles, spattered, like when I’d have students dip old toothbrushes in liquid paints and run a comb along the bristles, a quick and steady ffffttttt, showering colors onto empty paper canvases, vibrant, clashing hues. They would be giddy. His crooked smile was a craggy valley, his hair burning carmine, wild, savage. An entire island on fire.
“I had ovarian cysts, a lot of them. I still do have some, actually, all benign. Removing them made it so I can’t conceive children.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thus is life.” I stood up straight and held out my arms, the blooming lily in one hand and the cigarette in the other, like talismans in effigies of Saints. “I taught at a religious school. We’d sing hymns each morning, called ‘Assembly.’ Most of the teachers were zealots. When I found out about the cysts one of them said to me ‘You just were not meant to have children, Shelby. It is not in God’s plan. He has a special plan, just for you.’”
“That’s terrible!” His voiced peaked high, a squeaking pinnacle.
“No, she meant it to be comforting, I think. When she said it she cupped my face.”
“And so you quit teaching?”
“I was writing a book at the time, non-fiction, about how teaching was my raison d’être. About how ‘educating these young minds was preparing me to become a mother.’ Like I was in school, too.” I laughed, now, resonant and booming compared to his light, soft wheezes, my throaty, saxophone laugh, like cognac aged in barrels. “Do you know what I called it? It wasn’t finished but I’d named it.” I blew out smoke in a steady stream, laughing throatily. “I called it Learning Through Teaching.”
He did not laugh, now, but looked at me with all the earnest well wishes of a thousand doe-eyed men. “You wouldn’t adopt?”
“No. It’s just me, from now. That’s the grand plan.” I held up my arms again.
“You don’t have a boyfriend?”
“I did, for a while. A few years actually, while I was teaching. We lived together, up in the Mission district.”
“Not any more?”
“Not any more. He was a surgeon, a resident, so we were as poor as all hell. But God, I loved him. Anyway he moved to Vail.” I twirled the stem of the lily between my forefingers. It was thick and virile.
“You didn’t go with him?”
“He didn’t ask me to. He was a strange bird. About a week before I knew he was leaving we got drunk and he told me he didn’t think he could feel the same ways other people could feel. He said when people talked about being sad or angry or heartbroken he didn’t understand what they were talking about. As if he just feels less.”
“And that’s when you knew he was leaving?”
“No, no. I was drunk. Not too perceptive.” I tapped my temple with the flat of my finger. “But it struck me, and I don’t know why I’d never thought about it before. That people could go through life just living on completely different frequencies. You know, how some people are color blind so can’t tell red from green, and can’t see the numbers in those circular dot tests? Everything looks different for them to how it would to you and me. I never thought that this could extend to, just, everything. It’s so obvious. It’s so obvious I never thought of it before. But I knew exactly what he meant, and I feel the exact same, only the opposite. I think I feel more than most people. Or I feel the same things, just more acutely. And I’m always in love, absolutely always. Just at varying frequencies. Sometimes with no one in particular.”
“You love no one?”
“Just no one in particular. You know when people tie old shoestrings to fan belt cages and they flap endlessly in the gust? I think of it like that. Untethered.”
“Doesn’t it get lonely?”
It gets so lonely it is crushing, I thought. Sometimes I cannot breathe. “Love is for the unimaginative. It pacifies the lonely.”
“You never thought you’d meet someone else?”
“I’m not sure that any one man can handle it. I’m too loving. It’s too much for one person to take, there’s never equilibrium. I always thought I’d have a child. I thought that would finally be it.”
Brittany Taylor is not a professional writer, and she has never been published before (until now), but when she saw the ‘Women’s Edition’ of Specter announced, she knew she had to apply.