There is an orchid you bought from a man in a booth on the side of the road. You drove along State Road 363, counting wires on telephone poles, trying to decide how many people were speaking through them right then. You saw a sign FLOWERS hand-printed in blue ink on a cracking square of cardboard shoved into the ground on an iron stick. Then another: $5.
You pulled over a hundred feet away, stepped out of your ’72 Vista Cruiser. The dirt-skinned man in a brown vest and black Imperial loafers met you halfway. He asked what you were looking for, his accent like your French-Canadian professor’s in college all those years ago. You said you weren’t sure.
He said, Well have a look around.
You said, Okay.
Let me know if you find one you like.
There were six small folding tables. Each covered with pots and stems and foliage, purples and greens and pinks. You took small steps, disrupted a pile of pebbles, spread them around with your open sandals on the asphalt. A cloud of dust clung to your toes, but you didn’t mind. You looked over the nursery.
You noticed small yellow buds waving to you. You went over, touched a leaf at its base. Its veins ran parallel, reaching out to you like ten tiny fingers.
That’s an loeselii, from the orchidaceae family, he said. From Europe. Paris. C’est trés beau, oui?
You said, oui. You picked it up—held it with the inside of your arm, against your chest. You swayed left, moved to your station wagon. Right.
He tapped your shoulder. He said, Ma’am, that will be five dollars.
It sits on your balcony collecting morning sun though it’s been dying. You noticed that when you watered it last week. The petals were wilting. The stems were browning. You unloaded it into an open coconut husk for nutrition.
You check on it now. The petals are wilted. The stems are brown. You tilt the husk with your forefinger, rocking it back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. You go inside, lift the receiver from the kitchen wall and punch a number from a piece of postcard taped to your green square refrigerator. The cord coils around your wrist and you let it stay there.
You say, It’s dead.
He says, What’s dead?
A beautiful little orchid. A loeselii.
He says, Drive over in the morning.
Bring it. The plant.
You say, Okay, and wait until morning.
It is morning. You pause on the balcony, squatting there, holding onto a section of the metal rail. You squeeze the rail. You let go of the rail. You tap the plant, then pick it up, the husk’s coir settled against your palms warming you like the outside of a blanket. Double-handed, you carry it through the apartment. Gently. You’ve done this before.
You stop in a room patterned with wallpaper of horses racing against a background of blue. There is a pump on the dresser, a suction cup next to it. There is a three-figure portrait on the wall; you turn your back to that. You get an old shoebox, size 12, men’s. You take a shirt from a garbage bag. You line the shoebox with it, and place the plant inside. You linger in the doorway. You close the door behind you.
You lean over in the foyer, open the front door, kick it shut. You come back and grab your purse. You come back and grab your key, then proceed quickly to your station wagon.
You place the box in the backseat, strap the belt safely around it, and lock the door from the inside. You sit in the driver’s seat. You ride the interstate in silence, watching your bundle in the rearview mirror. Specks of leaves and petals fall within the box like dandruff as the tires slip in potholes and dips. You want to say something aloud, you want to release it in the air. It is on the small of your tongue. It is in the back of your mouth. You swallow and it is gone.
You park outside a refurbished motel in Sunnyside, go to the main office, say you’ve come to see Walt Thomas.
The boy at the desk says, Well what’s he look like?
You say about your height, lean, dark, maybe a scraggly beard.
He says, Does he work at the factory?
You say, He did—how’d you know?
He says, He used to wear that uniform everyday—didn’t take it off until a few weeks ago.
He says, He’s on the second floor. I can call up if you want.
Walt comes to meet you. The dark hair on the skin around his mouth reminds you briefly of the hair on something else. You walk to his room. He holds the door for you. There is a thick line across the bottom of his finger. It matches a line at the bottom of one of yours. You hand him the box. He holds it with two hands. Gently. He’s done this before.
The box is on the coffee table, the lid turned over beside it. You see your face in the frosted glass top as both of you crowd over it on your knees. Your hair is pulled back neatly into an uneven bun. The dark circles cupping your eyes pair well with the dingy gray carpet. The ceiling fan spins in the reflection beside you. He reaches in, touches the lip. It’s a wet-green color.
He says, Did you water it?
Around the brim?
I learned how to do it
He nudges the pistil. He says, And you fertilized it?
Yes, I fertilized it.
Once a month?
For how many months?
It’s only been three?
It feels much longer than that. He pinches off a smaller flower.
You say, It wasn’t my fault.
It wasn’t your fault either.
It’s not my plant.
You fall back; sit on your butt. You say, I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do now.
He says, I went to that bookstore down the street. I told the lady what happened. She gave me some books.
What’d they say?
I think it’s going to be alright.
That’s what they said?
No, that’s what I said.
When did you say that?
He takes the orchid out of the box, rubs his thumb beneath the coir for moments. He holds it out to you. You take it slowly, look over the top of it.
He says, I think you should say something, too.
To the plant?
The way you feel that it’s stopped blooming. Why you need it to live.
I don’t want to.
Please, just do it.
I don’t know.
There is a Bible on the nightstand you can tell he hasn’t opened. The scents of long-burned cigarettes are stuck inside the drapes, which are open. There is a painting near the door of trees in ice, of snow, and the sun.
You say, It was mine. It was me. Am I supposed to bury it?
He pinches another flower.
You say, There’s that place in the corner, by the windowsill that needs to be filled.
He pinches another flower.
You say, I carried it. I held it. I loved it more than a lot of things. How am I supposed to feel when I lose something like that? And overnight, in my sleep.
He walks around the room, goes behind a corner, comes back holding the razor he used to shave with.
He says, It’s not dead.
You say, What?
He says, The orchid.
He lights a match from a box of the dresser and spins it under the sharp edge of the razor. He cuts the stem in half. Rotten flowers top the floor like used tissues.
He says, It’s not dead.
He says, Put it by the windowsill.
He says New flowers will grow.
You take it back home, driving in the dark, panels of diluted coral of light from passing streetlamps catching you and the orchid the whole way back. You say something that sounds like a lullaby. You scoop it up, take it inside. You set it by the window and lie down in your bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking of fans and renovation.
© C.L. Cummings
C.L. Cummings founded Before After/Godwink in 2017 and serves as the literary journal’s sole editor. Her work has appeared in The Grief Diaries, Francis House, Strange Foot, and others.