Somewhere, my boy was seven years old.
Mr. Timmons, the owner of the florist shop on the square, came by at dawn with his sheers at the ready. I heard him slam the door of his grey Studebaker and watched as he considered the yard. Milkwhite daffodils bobbed their heads as he walked through the garden. He knelt down, cupped a blossom in his hand, and released it after a pause. Standing, he looked about him. Then he left, without clipping one.
I slipped down the stairs, my bare feet silent on the cold floor. Grandmother was already in the kitchen, brewing water for coffee. “Caroline?” She called softly. “Is that you?”
I was silent on the landing. After a moment I heard her rustle her way to the back room where she did the washing.
I unlatched the four locks, saving for last the deadbolt, slipping the key out from a string I hid around my neck, tucked in my nightgown. When I reached the porch, I closed the door behind me without a sound.
The flowers had begun to droop. They were yellowing some too, and the petals, when held between my fingertips, showed the start of wrinkles. The vines that wrapped around the house were browning, and as I watched, the petal of a pearly rose loosed itself from its bud and fell in sweet pendulum swings to the ground. I knelt and brushed a faded iris against my cheek.
The flowers were dying, even while spring was in full blossom all around them.
“Caroline!” Grandmother called from the front door. “What are you doing outside in your nightgown? Get inside, girl.”
I collected myself with a few deep breaths. “Of course, Grandmother.”
She put her arm around my waist as we walked back inside. “Why on Earth are you out here in your nightgown? We’ll be late for church if you don’t dress quickly. ”
Up in my room, my hands shook as I buttoned my dress and fastened my belt. There had been winters when he was younger, when I had worried about what I would do if the flowers never bloomed again. Those were dark Februaries and Marches, and each morning I would hurry to the window to see if any green pushed up in the yard. How faithfully the flowers had come till now! They had never drooped or wilted before. Not even in times of draught. I fumbled with the clasp on my shoe and willed myself not to cry.
“Caroline?” my grandmother called from the foot of the stairs.
“I’m coming!” I called back. I met my grandmother at the front door. She was wearing a dark blue dress with a faint green paisley print on the skirt. Her thinning hair, which was speckled grey and white, was smoothed into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. She wore thick tan stockings and flat black kedettes. Her glasses hung around her bosom from a gold chain, and her pocketbook bulged with her Bible.
“Your hair is a mess, Caroline.”
I looked quickly at the mirror in the hall tree, trying to smooth some of the fallen strands. She smiled softly, took my head between her hands and carefully unpinned my braids, holding the bobby pins between her teeth as she gently rebraided my hair. Her fingers worked quickly.
“There now,” she said as she released me. She looked at our joint reflections in the glass. “Pretty as a picture.”
Out in the yard, the flowers still drooped. Grandmother did not notice. “Let’s hurry or we’ll be late, Caroline.” She reached out her hand to me, then linked her arm with mine. I must have seemed upset, for my grandmother said quickly, “I love you, my girl,” as we walked along.
“I love you, too, Grandmother.”
When we arrived at the baptist church, most of the congregants were still milling about on the sidewalk. Grandmother nodded as she swept past the usher, taking a program with enthusiasm. As ever, we sat in one of the front pews where almost the entirety of our view would be the preacher and the pulpit. My grandmother took out her Bible from her pocket book, found the opening passage, and marked her place with the ribbon. Then she folded her hands neatly in her lap. The organist began, “A Closer Walk With Thee,” the choir singing from behind us on the balcony. The rest of the congregation filtered in, and Pastor Denton entered from a door off of the stage. He wore purple robes with sleeves so long and full his hands looked diminutive peeking out from the cuffs.
“Good morning, brothers and sisters!” He motioned for us to take our seats. “How wonderful to see your shining faces this fine May Day. This afternoon of course is our Spring Picnic; please join us in the side yard for games and entertainment and fellowship. One of my favorite days of the year. Today is a special day for Laura and me as well, as our youngest son Arthur has just returned from Nashville.” My stomach lurched. He was sitting in the front row with his mother. “As most of you know, he’s been there the last five years, getting his optometrist license and doing his practicum. We are so proud of him and excited as we can be to have him here with us before he moves to Knoxville this fall. I know you’ll help us in welcoming him home.”
Arthur gave a reluctant wave to the congregation behind him. He had not changed in the years away. He was leaner, perhaps, but he still looked more boy than man. Our eyes met for a moment. He smiled broadly at me. I looked away. The choir began a new hymn.
I thought of the boy. I closed my eyes and tried to resurrect the feel of him. As a baby, he smelled to me of earth and cedar trees and the way a window pane smells in a summer storm. I imagined the flowers. I pictured them more numerous than ever, spilling out into the road, bursting through the shingles of my gable. It was almost a prayer.
My grandmother nudged me hard. “Open your eyes, Caroline!”
Out on the lawn after the service the Pastor, his wife, and Arthur stood in a receiving line by the food table. Grandmother marched along. I ducked away, but I could hear the loud timbre of my grandmother’s voice and could see her and the preacher’s family through the leaves of the azalea bushes.
“Can this truly be young Artie?” She placed one of her bony hands on his shoulder. “You’re looking awfully grown up, my boy.”
“Isn’t he? We hadn’t seen him since Christmas last. I almost didn’t recognize him!” his mother said.
Grandmother laughed good naturedly. “I know it’s a joy to you to have him home. I don’t know what I’d do if Caroline ever left for so long, though you must be so proud.”
“Where is Caroline?” Arthur asked.
Grandmother looked around, confused. “Why, she was just beside me a moment ago!”
“I’ll have to catch up with her later,” Arthur said.
I joined Grandmother at a table under the shade of a tall oak tree, along with the members of her Sunday school class. They had all been friends now for fifty years. I had grown up around them, and as much as I enjoyed many of their stories from when they were younger, I hated when their conversation inevitably turned to who had died, or what prognosis they’d received most recently. When my grandmother started up her story of her back going out three weeks prior, I excused myself.
In the field, a group of children had gathered around a pole to play a may game. The girls were weaving in and out of stationary boys, striping the pole yellow and green. When they’d wound all the way down, they began to dance the other direction. They were laughing.
“I remember when that was us,” Arthur said behind me.
I managed a smile. “It doesn’t feel that long ago.”
“Is that any way to greet an old friend?” he said, softly. I presented my cheek to him, which he kissed softly. “How are you, Cari?” He was taller. “Mother says you’re still living with your grandmother.”
“Well, yes, I-”
“Grandmother needs me too much. Or so she says.”
“Ah.” He was unconvinced.
“But it seems you’re doing very well. Arrived from Nashville and off to Knoxville. Home must seem very small to you.”
“It’s easier if I stay away.”
“I do envy you that.”
Grandmother was calling. She’d already gathered her things and stood waiting for me on the sidewalk. “I’m tired, Caroline!” she yelled.
“Meet me, would you?” he said. He took my hand. “At the old place. The old time.”
“If I can,” I replied. I pressed his hand and left, ducking beneath the branches of a cherry tree. It was pale pink. There were bees on every limb, making their way from blossom to blossom.
When we reached my grandmother’s house, the flowers looked as though blown about by a great wind. The daffodils were face down in the dirt, and the vining roses on the house had collapsed, a great brown stalk dangling limply from the porch awning.
“Well, my goodness,” my grandmother said. We stopped on the front walk together, our mouths agape. “What mischief is this!” She began her march indoors. “I just know it’s those Jensen boys. I saw them over here yesterday with the devil in their eyes, scheming away. Sure as day they’ve come along and killed our flowers.” The door slammed behind her. I walked to my mother’s garden and sat on the bench, sure for the moment that the boy had died.
But then as I cried, a small sliver of a green blossom pressed its way through the earth before my feet. I knelt, and a single tear fell on it. The petals unfurled, pale white and as thin as tissue paper. And so I knew my boy lived, somewhere, he was still alive.
Turn the page.