“Chrysanthemums” by Franz Bischoff (American Painter, 1864-1929); via Wikimedia Commons.
Simone Martel sent in a short story that evokes so much: the restlessness and awkwardness (and secret thoughts) of youth, the old watching life through the actions of the young, gardening in autumn.
Always, life brings us flowers. Thank you for this autumn bouquet, Simone! —SK
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Laura trudged up to Peter’s duplex, past Mrs. Chen standing in her half of the front yard among her yellow and orange flowers. In Peter’s half, dandelions sprouted in cracked soil; takeout menus and free weeklies bleached and curled. While Laura waited for Peter to answer his door, she unzipped her backpack and found her dad’s check.
All she ever saw of Peter were his hands, pale and pink-knuckled, first as they opened the door and took the check, then as they cleared sheet music off the piano bench and finally as they poised beside hers on the keys. “I think he never goes outside,” she’d said. “He’s like something disgusting under a rock.” Her dad had laughed: “He’s an innocent music student trying to pay his tuition.”
“Every morning before school,” she told Peter, not mentioning that she’d practiced with the TV on and an English muffin dripping butter over the piano keys. She liked to twist on the bench and work out the notes one at a time. Then she’d lick butter off her fingers and try again. A satisfactory rhythm would begin to develop and by the fourth time through, the rhythm had taken over. Now, on Friday, it was fixed, inevitable. Laura played the tune for Peter twice, with all the same mistakes.
“Again. Only this time, read the music.”
Slowly, painfully, they picked her song to pieces. After five minutes, nothing of it remained. Laura sat with her face close to the music book, her fingers clumsy, her body tense with un-learning. Outside, an ice cream truck’s jingle grew louder. She wished they could go outside and buy Popsicles and talk. They’d look into each other’s eyes, instead of at their hands on the piano keys. She’d show him the drawings in her art binder. Just because she was bad at piano didn’t mean she was bad at everything.
Now that the ice cream truck’s song had faded, they were both listening through the pinging piano notes for her father’s footsteps on the porch. The sun had begun to set, the room growing orange and even dimmer. Dusk fell like a judgment, a doom: too late for this day, anyhow.
“Rats.” Laura had let loose a stream of notes–trying to get to the next line–and in her rush had lapsed into the old way.
Laura said goodbye to the bottom of the page and started over.
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Dorothea Chen paused with her secateurs above her gold and rust-colored chrysanthemums as a white BMW rolled up to the curb. A man in a suit hurried along the walkway that ran parallel to her own, returning a minute later with the girl walking quickly at his side. The expensive car bucked away down the street, leaving silence. Soon the light would be too dim for Dorothea to continue deadheading her spent flowers. Her eyes moved to her neighbor’s door. On the other side of its blank face of chipped brown paint she heard a stifled cry or scream. Then the notes began–a waterfall of music that would stop, return as a trickle, then pour forth again more forcefully. He would be at it all evening, practicing, practicing, as though trying to exorcise a spirit from the piano. Poor boy. And poor girl. Each week she dragged herself up to the door and flew out of the house an hour later as though a demon were after her.
Dorothea returned her secateurs to their leather holster. In the dirt border that mirrored her own, dandelions shed their fluff in the evening breeze. Dorothea’s eyebrows rose toward her hairline. To share a yard with a boy who grew weeds instead of flowers crowded her as surely as sharing a piano bench for sixty minutes a week seemed to crowd those two young people. She’d been growing flowers for forty years, though, and knew that a garden was an invitation to aphids and mildew and dandelions, that success and frustration were inseparable and that, most of all, beauty was a private thing, difficult to share with anyone. She kept trying, of course, offering a view of mums to passersby on foot or car or bus, but mostly she cherished the autumnal blooms for their own sake and for herself: a worthy love, if solitary.
As the streetlamps flickered on, Dorothea turned toward her own front door, then paused again before going in, as an orange dragonfly, bright and shiny as hard candy, whirred past her ear. She turned to watch it hover over her cement birdbath and shoot out toward the road, buzzing, into the steady grind of commute traffic, flame-colored, vanishing under the street lamps’ moonlight glow.
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Simone’s short story originally appeared in the Irish magazine Crannog.
Simone Martel’s debut novel, A Cat Came Back, was released last year by Harvard Square Editions. The novel is a subversive love story about a woman trapped in the body of a cat. Simone Martel is also the author of a memoir, The Expectant Gardener, and a story collection, Exile’s Garden. She’s published essays and stories in many journals including Hip Mama, Horticulture, Greenwoman, The Main Street Rag and The Tishman Review. Her work is online at Carbon Culture, F(r)iction and Fogged Clarity. After studying English at U.C. Berkeley, Simone Martel operated an organic tomato farm near Stockton, California. She’s working on a new novel based on that experience.
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