Lavender

           Lavender

            On a warm summer evening Lauri sat on the couch and looked outside the sliding glass door at her garden.  At night the garden was beautiful.  Or at least, it looked like it might have been.  During the day, one could see that everything was brown and brittle and dead.  But at night, under the cover of darkness, the garden could have been filled with gorgeous flowers of red and orange and purple, or with beautiful succulents of dark green and blue.  Lauri could have closed her eyes and imagined a perfect garden.  That would have been the more honest thing to do.   But she felt prouder this way.  This way, she felt at least a little responsible for the pretty garden of make believe.

The next morning Lauri stopped by the plant section of Homeworld and walked up and down the aisles of daisies and roses and petunias.  She had time to do that sort of thing because she taught fourth grade and it was summer break.  She loved the smell of the soil and the aroma of the flowers.  In her cart was a bag of a new state-of-the-art fertilizer that came from Norwegian pigs.  She had no idea that there were pigs in Norway, nor did she understand how these pigs in Norway produced more exceptional poop than the pigs in other countries, but it was the most expensive fertilizer by a good margin and came in a shiny chrome bag, so it must have worked.  She picked up a succulent and read the label.  It needed minimal water and a moderate amount of sun.  It looked unimpressive.  It was small, and its leaves were a dull green, like the color of grass.

“That can get pretty big,” said an employee named Rod.  He was short and had a dark handlebar mustache that seemed to have grown longer every time she saw him.  Which was quite

often.

“I know,” said Lauri.  She didn’t know.

“How’s the other succulent doing?” asked Rod, as he adjusted a sunflower in its pot.

“Fantastic,” said Lauri.  The succulent he was referring to, one she had bought two weeks prior, was shriveled and brown.  She wasn’t sure if she had over-watered or under-watered.  Or maybe it was the lack of Norwegian pig fertilizer.
“That stuff’s crap,” said Rod, pointing at the chrome bag in her cart.
There was a pause as Lauri read his face to make sure he wasn’t joking.

“I know,” said Lauri, shaking her head.

“But you’re getting it anyway.”

“It’s for a friend.”

“Must not be a very good friend,” said Rod.  He reached underneath the row of sunflowers and held up a yellow bag of fertilizer.  “This is the way to go.”  He dropped the bag into her cart and removed the chrome bag.  “I’ll put this back for you.”

“Thanks,” said Lauri, looking down at the much less expensive looking bag of fertilizer.

“What kinda plants does your friend have?” asked Rod, grunting as he slumped the chrome bag over his shoulder.

“Lots,” said Lauri.  “I mean, desert plants mainly. ”

“Like cactus?” said Rod, looking surprised.

“Yeah,” said Lauri.  “A couple.”

“Right on,” said Rod, with a smile.  “Not many people are into cactus.”

“Never understood that,” said Lauri.

“People like the colorful stuff,” said Rod.

“Real shame,” said Lauri.

“Colorful stuff’s great too,” said Rod.

“It’s fantastic.”

Rod laughed and told her he’d see her next time.  Then he walked away to put the Norwegian pig poop back where it came from.

 

Lauri stood over her assortment of dying plants and drowned them in her new bag of fertilizer.  The sun beat down against her neck and she knew she was going to have a burn.  But that was okay.  People were always calling her pale.  Now they would call her red.  That may not have been better, but at least it was different.  She grabbed the hose and sprayed at her plants for a few minutes.  Every now and then she pointed the hose straight up in the air so that the water would rain down on her like she was one of those cartoon characters with her own personal cloud.  She sprayed at the roots and at the leaves.  She had heard about the benefits of both methods.  Lauri had even read somewhere that talking to your plants could help them grow.  So, she sat down in the corner of the garden, beside her greenest fern, which still had its fair share of brown, and talked about her daughter.

“Hazel’s just moved into her new apartment,” she said to the fern, before looking over at a shriveled lavender plant a yard away.  That was Hazel’s plant.  Well, symbolically.  When Hazel was in middle school, she and Lauri had planted some lavender.  Hazel loved that lavender plant.  She watered it every day, and, even as everything else in the garden withered away and became food for the worms, the lavender plant remained fully bloomed and pretty.  When Hazel left for college, the lavender followed the lead of its droopy neighbors and died.  Before every visit from Hazel, Lauri would buy a new lavender plant and place it in the exact same spot so that Hazel would never know the difference.  It had been a long time since Lauri had needed to buy lavender.
The fern responded to Lauri’s news about Hazel by blowing gently back and forth in the wind.  Lauri imagined it was nodding.  Perhaps with approval.  Or perhaps with empathy.

Lauri closed the sliding glass door and placed her wet and muddy shoes in front of the redbrick fireplace that hadn’t been used in years.  She sat on the couch and looked out at her garden.  She thought about sitting there and waiting for the sun to go down, for her garden to become beautiful.  But sunset was still two hours away, so she flipped on the television and watched National Idol.  She knew it was all scripted, and the contrived drama and ridiculous, sentimental backstories of the contestants made her roll her eyes.  It seemed the key to a great singing voice was not intensive practice nor God-given talent, but instead a paraplegic father or a terminally ill mother.  But Lauri watched the show anyway.  Almost every week.  Hazel liked to watch it.  And Lauri liked having something to talk about when Hazel called.  Lauri looked over at the mantle above the fireplace.  There were framed photographs of Hazel, from her toddler years until her prom.  In some of the photographs Hazel was with her father.  A bitter woman would have gotten rid of those pictures.  Lauri’s mother cut Lauri’s father out of all the family photographs after their divorce.  But Lauri wasn’t bitter.  And Hazel enjoyed looking at the pictures of her and her dad when she visited.

At seven Lauri decided to call her daughter.  It was either that or nothing.  The phone went to voicemail.  Lauri leaned back on the couch and looked out at the dark garden.

“The lavender’s doing well,” said Lauri.  It was an inside joke of theirs to end every conversation with an assurance that the lavender was in good shape.  Although, Hazel never knew how much of a joke it really was.

After she hung up the phone Lauri closed the shades, so that the garden was no longer visible, and then she went to sleep.  It was the first time in a very long time that she had gone to bed before nine.

The next morning, she went to Homeworld and strolled through the garden section for the third time that week.  As she examined the yellow flowers of a hanging plant, Rod stopped beside her.

He was pushing a cart of bags of fertilizer and his mustache was gone.

“That’s on sale,” he said.

“Great,” said Lauri, as she stared at the empty space above his lip.

“My son’s bringing his girlfriend over for dinner tonight,” said Rod, catching on to the source of Lauri’s fascination.  “Told me it had to go.”

“That simple?” asked Lauri.  She had always thought there was some sort of intense commitment to that mustache.  She assumed everyone with a handlebar mustache loved it more than their own children.

“Yep,” said Rod.  “Teenager logic.  It’s not enough for him to look good.  She might leave him if she doesn’t like the dad’s stache.”

“I’ve been there,” said Lauri.  Where exactly that place was she wasn’t sure.

Rod looked down at the fertilizer and then back at Lauri.  He was smiling.

“You know,” he began.  “I’ve meaning to ask you for some time.  Now, stop me if this seems inappropriate.  But, if you don’t mind, I’d love to see your garden sometime.  You gotta have quite the collection by now.”

Lauri rubbed her hands on her jeans and shook her head.

“Or, you could bring in pictures,” said Rod, speaking quickly.  “Maybe that’d be better.

Sorry.”

“I’m free tonight,” said Lauri.  It was a phrase she hadn’t used in a long time.  She couldn’t help but smile after she said it.  It felt ridiculous.

“Okay,” said Rod, with a laugh.  He must have thought it was ridiculous too.  “Well, I have the girlfriend dinner but that should be over by seven.”
“Sorry, I forgot about that.  Maybe next week would be better.”
“No, Scott’ll want me out of the house anyway,” said Rod.  “Tonight is great.”
Lauri smiled, half out of excitement, and half out of exasperation with Rod’s lack of concern over his son and his girlfriend having the house to themselves.
“It’s Seven-Fifteen Isaacs Lane,” said Lauri.
“Got it,” said Rod.
And that was that.  Lauri had a date.

When Lauri got home she panicked for a moment about the fact that she did not actually have a garden worth showing off to anyone, let alone to a gardening expert.  But she assured herself that he wasn’t coming to see the garden.  He wouldn’t be coming at night if that were true.  He didn’t give a damn about the garden.

Lauri made herself peppermint tea and sat down at the dining room table.  She liked Rod.  At least, enough to have him come over.  There was a time, in between the divorce and Hazel moving out, when Lauri would have needed to like someone a whole lot before she was okay with having them come over.  But that was then and this was her future. She sipped on her tea and waited for the night to come.

At seven-thirty her doorbell rang.  Rod was wearing a blue and white flannel and black jeans.  His hair was combed to the side and still looked wet.

“Just a little housewarming gift,” said Rod, as he held up a bottle of whiskey and stepped inside the house.

“Thanks,” said Lauri, with a smile, even though she was never going to drink the whiskey.

“About twenty years too late but still.”

“Old houses need warming too,” said Rod, as he took in the living room.  He nodded in approval at the impressionist paintings, but he didn’t comment on them.

“You can sit,” said Lauri, pointing at the couch.

Rod sat down and put his arms behind his head.

“Peppermint tea?” asked Lauri.

“I’m not usually the type,” began Rod.  “Trust me, I’m not.  But do you have anything a little stronger?  This week was a killer.”

“Earl Gray?” said Lauri.

“Sure,” said Rod, with a laugh.  “That’s perfect.”

They sat on the couch for a few minutes, drinking tea and talking about the kinds of things people talked about when they had nothing to say.  Rod said he didn’t watch much television.  Lauri said she didn’t either.  Rod said he wasn’t a big reader.  Lauri said she wasn’t either, even though she was.  Neither of them mentioned the garden.

“It’s up to you,” said Rod, placing his tea mug on the glass table in front of the couch.  “But what do you say we try out that housewarming gift?  Just to make sure it works all right.”

“I’m sure it works just fine,” said Lauri.

“Hope so,” said Rod, with a smile.  “Cause I think I might’ve lost the receipt.”  He pretended to check his pockets.
Lauri checked her watch.
“It’s eight,” she said, as she grabbed the remote control from the armrest.  “You wanna watch National Idol?  It’s one of my guilty pleasures.”
“Let’s do it,” said Rod.
The first contestant of the night was a woman named Kelly Fox.  She wasn’t very good but she was beautiful.  That was probably why she kept getting the votes to advance.

“I think I’m gonna have a little sip,” said Rod, after Kelly Fox had finished her song.  “If you don’t mind.”

Before Lauri could respond Rod got up from the couch and went into the kitchen.

“Cups are in the cabinet above the sink,” said Lauri.

Rod came back with two glasses of whiskey, both filled nearly to the top.  He handed one to Lauri.  She immediately put it down on the table.

“She had a helluva voice,” said Rod, after taking a sip.  “Great poise too. And presence.  So much presence.”

“She’s good,” said Lauri.

“I’ve got good news,” said Rod, smiling at Lauri and holding up his drink.  “It works.”      “That’s a relief,” said Lauri, grabbing her glass and taking a tiny sip.  It was bitter and burned as it went down.  She didn’t like drinking anything stronger than beer and wine.  And she hadn’t had beer or wine in over a month.  She placed the glass back down on the table and planned to leave it there.

“So, how’d the dinner go?” asked Lauri.  She turned the volume down on the television.

“Oh God,” said Rod.  He took another sip.  The glass was over half empty.  “She’s a good kid, I think.  But they’re not gonna last.”

“Why not?” asked Lauri.

Rod shook his head and took another sip.  It was a long sip and took care of most of what was left.

“She has goals,” said Rod.  “Wants to go to Stanford and study law or chemistry or something.”  He finished off the whiskey and placed his glass between his legs.  “My son doesn’t have goals.  She’ll leave him in the dust.”

“Some kids mature later than others,” said Lauri.

“You can’t mature out of who you are.”

“I don’t know,” said Lauri.  “Not having goals isn’t the end of the world for a teenager.”

“He’s too much like me,” said Rod. He stood up and walked to the kitchen, glass in hand.

When he sat back down it was full of whiskey.

“I don’t drink at home,” said Rod.

“Okay,” said Lauri.  She wondered how long Rod planned on staying.

“Turn it up,” said Rod, pointing at the television.  “I wanna hear this gal.”

It was Melissa Rodriguez.  She was Lauri’s favorite.  Her voice was soulful, and her range was unbelievable.

“Nah,” said Rod, after her song.  His glass was almost empty.  “Too fat.”  Rod looked over at Lauri.
“I’m sorry.  That’s my sense of humor.  I’m not bein serious.”               Lauri forced a smile.  Rod finished his drink and stood up.

“Refill?” he said, pointing at Lauri’s full glass.

“I’m fine,” said Lauri.

Rod poured himself another glass of whiskey and plopped back down on the couch, much closer to Lauri this time.  Their shoulders were nearly touching.  He took a gulp of his drink.

“My kid and his gal are probably fucking,” said Rod, shaking his head.

Lauri said nothing.

“As long as it’s not in my room, right?” said Rod, with a laugh.

“How are you getting back tonight?” asked Lauri, as she watched him take another drink.

Rod closed his eyes and leaned back, a dreamlike smile on his face.  He rubbed his thumb up and down the side of the glass.

“I’ll float,” he said.

Suddenly, he opened his eyes and stood up.

“I need to see the garden,” he said.

Lauri looked over at the curtains that hid the plant cemetery in her backyard.

“It’s too dark now,” said Lauri.  She was going to say, maybe another time, but decided not to.

Rod sat back down.  This time their shoulders were touching.  Lauri crossed her legs.

“Fuck,” he said. “I bet it’s great.”
“It’s not much,” said Lauri.

Rod rolled his eyes and slammed his glass down on the table so hard that Lauri was afraid he might have broken one or the other.

“You’ve bought more plants in the last year than the rest of our customers combined,” said Rod.  “When you die Homeworld’s stock is gonna die with you.”  He smiled and grabbed his glass.

“At least you could use me as fertilizer,” said Lauri.

Rod’s eyes widened.

“Zing!” he said, giving her a light punch on the arm.  “There’s the personality.”

Lauri tried to scoot closer to the side of the couch, but she was already pressed up against it.

“How’d you get into gardening?” asked Rod.  He was trying to make his face look serious, but his mouth kept devolving into a silly, drunk smile.

“My father loved to garden,” said Lauri, unsure why she was bothering to talk about this with someone who wouldn’t remember in the morning.  But it was a small step up from talking to a fern.  “He planted these gorgeous sunflowers in front of our house when I was kid.  When he died, a few years back, I decided to get into it.”

“When I started dating my ex,” began Rod, unprompted.  “She told me how much she loved flowers and plants and all that crap.  I told her I did too.  Of course, I was bullshittin.  But she ate it up.  I was unemployed anyway, so I decided to apply for a job at Homeworld.  Garden section.”  He sipped on his drink.  “They say you can’t build a relationship on a lie,” said Rod.

“Makin a lie a truth doesn’t work either, guess.”
Lauri looked down at her watch.

“I’ll get you another bottle,” said Rod, shaking his head at his glass.  “This was shitty form.  I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” said Lauri.
“I don’t drink at home.”
“I know,” said Lauri.

“What do you want next time?” he asked.

“Anything.”

“Vodka?  More whiskey?”

“Either,” said Lauri.  “Or maybe just a plant.

“Vodka and an orchid,” said Rod.

“Sure.”

He placed his arm around her and touched her other shoulder.  Lauri straightened up.

“You’re not into me,” said Rod.

“I’m just tired,” said Lauri.

“I know what it is,” said Rod, narrowing his eyes and nodding.  “It’s my name, isn’t it?  Rod.  It’s a horrible name.  Worst birthday present I ever got was this name.”  He gritted his teeth.  “Rod.  R, O, D.  There’s nothin to it, really.  But it ain’t like Bob or Rob.  It sounds shitty.  Sounds like an asshole.”  Rod finished his drink and then placed his glass on the table upside down.  “Isn’t that funny?  Rob sounds great.  Anyone would date someone named Rob.  But change one damn letter.  Flip that B into a D and you got a name like Rod.”  He bit down on his lip in disgust.

Lauri crossed her legs tighter.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said.  “You can call me by my middle name.  Gene.  How’s that sound?  Not so bad, right?  You can tell your friends you’re datin a guy named Gene.  They’ll be happy for you.  You tell em you’re dating a Rod and they’ll ask where he’s hit you.”

Rod grabbed his upside-down glass, stood up, and walked to the kitchen.  He came out holding the empty bottle of whiskey.

“You know the liquor place down on Eighth?” he asked.

Lauri shook her head.

“I’ll give you some money,” he said, reaching into his pocket and taking out his wallet.  “You head down there and get another whiskey.  Lexington Honey.”  He held out a twenty-dollar bill.

“And you can get something for yourself too.  Don’t worry about paying me back.”

“How bout I give you a ride home?” said Lauri.  Rod leaned against the wall, perhaps to keep himself from falling.  “You can pick up your car tomorrow,” she said.

“Scott dropped me off,” said Rod.  He laughed.  “My own son, drivin me around like he’s my babysitter.”

“Let me drive you back,” said Lauri, standing up.

“No,” said Rod, suddenly serious.  There was not even a glimmer of a drunk smile.  He put the bottle down on the counter and pointed at the curtains.  “I’m gonna see the garden.  I came here to see the garden.”

“It’s too dark,” said Lauri.

Rod waved at the air in defiance.

“Give me a flashlight then,” he said. Then he opened the cabinet above the sink and started rummaging through the glasses.  “Where do you keep the flashlight?”

“Just come,” she said, and waved for him to follow her to the curtain.  He kept one hand on the wall the whole way.

She spread the curtains and flipped on the backyard light.  Rod looked through the sliding glass door, at the collection of brown plants.  Lauri looked at her feet.

“What the fuck?” said Rod.  He looked at Lauri.  “You need to fix this.”

“I will,” she said.  Rod looked angry.  She took a step back.

He placed his hand on her shoulder and smiled.

“Don’t worry,” said Rod.  “I’m here to help.”

Rod opened the sliding glass door and stepped outside.  Lauri followed him.  The air was warm and humid, and she could hear the buzzing of mosquitos.  Rod sat down beside the garden and shook his head.

“It’s gotta go,” he said.

“What?” said Lauri.

“All of it,” he said.

“I’ll hire someone,” said Lauri.

“Do you know how much those bastards charge?” asked Rod, as he ran his hand through the

soil.

“It’s fine,” said Lauri.

“I’ll do it,” said Rod.  “Free of charge.  A housewarming gift.”

“You don’t have to,” said Lauri.  “Let me drive you home.”

Rod ripped out a mint plant and dropped it on the concrete.

“Don’t,” said Lauri, as firmly as she could.

Rod ripped out a second mint plant.

“Please,” she said, louder this time.

“It’s no bother,” said Rod, before ripping out a daylily.

Rod reached for the lavender.

“Leave that one,” said Lauri.

“It’s dead,” he said, digging into the soil to get a better grip of the roots.

“It’s not dead.”

“Winter’s too cold here for lavender,” said Rod.

Then he ripped it from the ground and tossed it away.

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