Shaun McMichael lives in Seattle with his wife and quiet writing habit. He currently teaches English Language Learners at a public high school in a suburb south of Seattle and has spent the last seven years teaching, reading and writing with troubled youth across the region.
His fiction has appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row, Carrier Pigeon, Litro, Existere, The Milo Review and other literary magazines. His essays have appeared in Petrichor Machine and Contrary Magazine. He is currently a guest editor of youth poetry at pongoteenwriting.org.
The Tulip Wars
The first shot was fired on a Sunday afternoon at Home Again Ranch—both the home and the B&B of Wanda Charles, one of two breeders entering their new cultivars in the Skagit Valley Tulip Show.
It was the hottest April 1st on record. The sky’s blue dome laid out the valley’s geography like the contents of a picnic: Mt. Baker’s white chimney shoot to the northeast, the billowing towers of the oil refineries along the coast to west, the pines on Pheasant Ridge to the south. The blacktop roads sliced the fields into squares. Red winged black birds trilled in the poplars guarding the edge of fallow plots while the remaining water from the rains sat in ditches, waiting to be taken up by the sun. But even in the cruel heat and the pressure of the fast-approaching tulip show, Wanda Charles’ deeply buried core of strength remained cool and unperturbed like a diamond.
Home Again’s wraparound deck burgeoned with people as always. Families mostly, they were all Wanda’s guests. Or depending on who you asked, hostages of her famed generosity. Among them, call them victims or patrons, was the new mayor, Ford Chapel.
Wanda was plating him up a medium rare sirloin from her grill as he was polishing off a stein of her signature brew, Quiet Indian. She grabbed a pitcher and poured him another.
Quiet Indian, like all her handcrafted fair, possessed a perfection both hypnotic and salivatingly appetitive—effects that had a way of sending average guests into feverish comas from which they awoke red-eyed, agitated and demanding more. Though Wanda would never condone overindulging, as hostess, what else could she do but oblige her guest’s demands? Through products like Quiet Indian, she yielded tabs twice as high as the quoted room price and, sometimes, another night’s stay.
Ford Chapel was a smaller man. The way he’d been tossing back the drinks, Wanda was sure she’d have him there through dinner until some city council member came by to haul him back to his mansion on Pheasant Ridge. But Chapel sized up the stein of recently refilled beer with an assuming acceptance and downed half the glass, his large Adam’s apple bobbing down only briefly.
No matter. Wanda dished out more rounds of her duck deviled eggs, heaps of bacon-cheddar potato salad, more mugs of Quiet Indian. Then she felt a shade growing from the side of the house and into the near the corner of the deck. She smelled a musk—a pungent scent squeezed from skin by itinerant labor and, undoubtedly, fornication.
It was the other tulip breeder: Beau Mendel.
He was just standing there, leaning against the house like the help in between tasks. His hands hung in the pockets of his tan overalls which he wore over a bare chest, exposing his nipple rings.
“They’re black, Wanda,” Beau announced.
The dull roar of conversation ceased. Wanda saw her guests, Mayor Chapel included, turn their heads slowly to Beau. Their collective movement was like the shadow of a sundial turning towards the next hour.
“Blacker than the clap,” Beau confirmed.
He had boasted as much in an interview a few week’s prior with that horrid town rag The Tulip Town Tattler:
“Black’s the sexiest color there is.” Beau told the Tattler. “Bees, for instance, see color in two shades. Every light color comes up grey. But everything on the dark side of the spectrum, bees see as black. In nature, black marks the G-spot. And when the bees see these black babies of mine, they’re going to blow their load.”
Even more distasteful than Beau’s lewd commentary, was the revelry it stirred up in the older men around town, whom Wanda had overheard quoting it in chortles at the pubs and diners. The whole affair made her want to bathe and made her thankful her physique and advanced years disqualified her from the rather vibrant middle-aged dating scene in town.
In the flesh, however, standing hang-dogishly before her house full of guests, Beau Mendel was far less revolting than Wanda imagined. Nipple piercing aside, he stirred up a distant sympathy in her. Maybe of the son she’d thankfully never had. She imagined Beau’s father as a shiftless man with a loose crease in his pants who’d split at the first sign of trouble, leaving in his wake, this scrubby man-child of the trailer park.
“I have paying guests here, Mr. Mendel,” Wanda told him finally and, not missing a beat, set out a place mat and cutlery for him. “But you can have a seat if you like. On the house. Have you eaten?”
“I’m not hungry,” Beau said. “Not for anything in this house.”
Wanda bet Beau’s iceberg blue eyes were painful to see out of. And that for him, life hurt to see. There was a suggestion in those eyes that he intended to make everyone pay, starting with Wanda. He smiled, revealing his missing left canine.
Beau looked over at Mayor Chapel and nodded towards him with his scruff-covered chin, “Got your call.”
Ford pushed his empty beer glass aside and leaned forward, “And so,” Chapel asked, his voice low but steely. “Are you interested?”
Beau shook his head again, “I’m not a betting man. Never had money for gambling on anything ‘cept my plants. Every one of them’s a wager. Besides chief…Wanda’s going to lose. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“Gentleman,” Wanda interrupted. “Either let me know what you’re talking about or discuss it elsewhere, in private.”
Chapel rubbed a hand over the tight, poreless skin of his bald head which reflected light like an electrode. Before entering small town politics, he’d reportedly been an engineer, completing a new dam somewhere east of the mountains several years prior. The hand rub over the head, Wanda could tell, was the most significant betrayal of discomfort he would show. His prototypically good posture stayed sheer as a razor as he said his apologies.
“You see, Wanda, I invited Mr. Mendel here to join us today. I thought the three of us could benefit from the entertainment a little bet might bring. Who will win at the Unveiling? You as the more experienced breeder have nothing to lose. In fact, losing in a roll of dice might teach Mr. Mendel here some manners and…”
“Well, thank you for the offer. But I’m going to side with Mr. Mendel on this one,” Wanda said. “Though I do gamble from time to time, I only bet with people I know and trust. And Mr. Mendel and I just met.”
“Well, I am consoled by having accomplished that at least,” Ford said. He shoved his plate aside and leaned back as if to enjoy the show.
And Beau was more than willing to provide him with one.
“Come to think of it Wanda, if I was to bet, I would have to bet against myself,” Beau said, smirking. “What with your famous knack for duping people, I wouldn’t put it past you to rig the judges.”
Beau rested his hands in his overalls and began sauntering through the tables of her guests: men in Hawaiian t-shirts, sandals under their socks and sun-reddened pates; women in brightly colored blouses and straw hats; snot-faced children wiping their mouths on their striped, Ralph Lauren polos.
“You know…she uses bacon grease in her waffles,” Beau said to Wanda’s guests.
The women gripped their clutch purses.
“A whole stick of butter per serving of that succotash,” Beau said.
The men took hold of their wives and glared hard at him.
“And, you wouldn’t know it, but a year ago the papers released the alcohol content on that concoction,” Beau said pointing to Mayor Chapel’s beer. “Twelve point fucking five. Quiet Injun should be called Dead White Boy!”
Wanda’s inner diamond stayed cool, letting Beau embarrass himself some more. Any interjections she made would have just made her look ashamed and she wasn’t. What Beau didn’t realize was that even if she printed her menus’ ingredients, the guests would still come in droves to indulge. Her business model was the true realization of American appetite.
“She sneaks chicken fat into her salad dressing!” Beau continued, sweating.
“Ms. Charles,” one guest piped up. “Can you ask this man to leave?”
Wanda looked around in feigned helplessness. She enjoyed her guests discomfort as it indirectly insulted Beau.
Wanda supposed she could ask Chapel to take care of Beau, but Chapel would be an unreliable source of aid. Wanada saw that inside his napkin, Chapel was hiding a grin at Beau’s impromptu smear campaign. Besides, Beau was getting desperate, switching from unpleasant truths to bold-faced lies.
“She chops up Oxycodone and sprinkles it in her pancakes,” Beau said.
“That’s enough, Mr. Mendel,” Chapel spoke up finally. “Why don’t you sit down and…”
“I’m afraid I can’t allow that now,” Wanda interjected. “There are children and ladies present. And Mr. Mendel appears interested only in making everyone uncomfortable.”
“He will be MY guest,” Chapel finished, looking at her with finality.
“No thanks. Don’t want to have a coronary before I’m thirty,” Beau said and he began to swagger off, gazing warily up at the house as he did.
“More for the rest of us,” Chapel said dryly.
And Wanda realized that this whole tulip season was staged as Chapel’s own comic dinner show. He was the one arranging the competition between her and Beau; and he was backing the advertising, scheduling the interviews with the papers, calling the Unveiling of the Cultivars the event of the century and urging Chamber of Commerce to buy bus adds for the event as far as Seattle and Tacoma. At the end of April, the close of tulip season, she and Beau would be given a chance to present their creations. Of course there would be a hoard of overcharged audience members, botanists from colleges across the state, prestigious judges and the press. This was Ford Chapel’s hometown war.
But Wanda was no poltroon. As she poured Chapel another helping of Quiet Indian, she dedicated herself then and there to showing him the price of trifling with a thing like beauty, like a tulip.
The sounds of tires tearing at the blacktop echoed from half a mile away. Through the flat farmland, Wanda saw a lipstick red pick-up truck barreling down the service road that emptied into the back entrance of her property. The guests lowered their forks, Ford wiped his mouth and Beau Mendel paused his exit. He perched himself up on the iron work railing to watch this new development.
Ford himself stood up, “There’s my girl,” he said and started walking in his bandy-legged step towards the parking space where the truck had stopped.
Wanda readied another place setting while she watched the girl’s legs step out of the truck. The cuffs on the girl’s cut-off jean-shorts looked as if they’d been worn away by the glowing, busty power of the legs themselves. They were creamy, long, runway legs. They commandeered the girl’s body, leaving it to follow languidly behind. Her bleach blonde hair was tied in a bun and her lips were painted a canned-cherry red.
“Hi daddy,” she said to Ford.
From the iron-work railing, Beau removed his bandana.
Wanda greeted Ford’s daughter, Maxi, as Ford led her up the three steps to the deck. One of his knobby hands clasped her left arm, as if anticipating the stairs giving way to a pit of underfed, country bumpkins clamoring to impregnate her. Maxi’s eyes were shielded by insectoid sunglasses, veiling her subtler emotions from Wanda’s gaze. Wanda was sure the girl would be giving a lukewarm handshake, but to her surprise, the girl broke free from Ford and gave Wanda a hug.
Wanda lost no time plating her with a full spread and soon the girl plopped herself down and was eating with the gusto of an army barrack.
“Thank you sweet Jesus for a decent meal!” Maxi exclaimed. “I was so hungry I would have eaten a rattlesnake wrapped in a grilled flat tire.”
Wanda noted the Southern-accent and wondered as to its source: affectation, college attendance in Dixie or earnest desire to fit in in what she no doubt imagined was Hickville USA.
Chapel said something about Wanda charging his tab and moved towards the screen door, as if to take his leave through the house, out the front.
But Wanda beat him there.
“Are you trying to offer me an after-beer beverage, Ms. Charles?” Ford asked.
“Sir. Mr. Chapel. Mayor. I think you… and your daughter… should stay the night.”
His body’s only indication of the alcohol he’d consumed betrayed itself in a slight lurch backward; but Wanda knew this was enough to go on.
“Thank you for your hospitality. But I don’t think that will be necessary,” Ford replied.
“Sir. What if I were to tell you that my daddy was a sheriff,” she began. “And that my old daddy could smell the alcohol level on a barfly’s breath leaving the saloon at the other end of town. And that smell is a dominant allele passed down from father to daughter.”
“I’m perfectly fine, Ms. Charles,” Ford said, through a smiled that clearly pained him.
“If you step into your car,” Wanda cooed. “I’m going to have to call our sheriff so they can send a patrol unit. Just to follow you home of course. You can never be too careful.”
Ford looked to Beau.
“She did just dump half a pitcher of Quiet Injun down your throat,” Beau said, from the railing. “You know what they say around here about this place? Once you come Home Again, you never really leave.”
Ford continued staring at Beau. Claiming a seat next to his daughter, he put an arm around her chair as she continued eating.
“One more slanderous word Mr. Mendel and I’ll be calling the sheriff on you too,” Wanda said.
“Go ahead. Call him. The fucker owes me money,” Beau said, even as he was walking off.
Ford’s gaze followed Beau’s retreat. His stair was as straight and steeled as an I-beam; but Wanda wondered if Ford was able to discern that Beau was walking away without his head covering and that the orange bandana had somehow gotten tied around his daughter’s left ankle, crossed behind her right beneath the table.
Beau was rumored to have had samplings of the town’s finest imports in moments like the one that had just transpired—moments more surreptitious than Wanda could grasp.
They said that the only virgins left in the town were either nuns or women Beau Mendel wasn’t interested in. Though no one ever saw Beau bringing any of them to his house, they said he’d been seen at dawn, traipsing out the back doors of some of the nicest homes in town, slipping on his sandals and whistling away.
Thinking about the rumors, Wanda was filled with a sickening wonder at the ease in which young bodies moved together and older, heavier ones remained alone.
“Ms. Charles,” Ford said. “Ready us a room.”
Fertilization. It was the one thing Beau payed attention to in high school biology. He had been fourteen. Nip the anthers of daddy plant with tweezers and rub them into the cunny parts of mommy plant. He got a hard-on doing it that first time in the school greenhouse. It was the frottage of botany and naturally, Beau wanted to excel at it. But unlike the other pleasures he was learning about at that same age, the pleasure of horticulture took five years and a few months to climax.
His first breed flowered five years later just shy of his eighteenth birthday. They were little, dark red Darwins he called Dark Heart Cherries and he sold them for top dollar and a handshake.
Beau walked the rows of Bulbshire—one of the two tulip farms in town. He remembered what it was like being a teen and pacing the barren pots, waiting for just one little pecker-head of green to poke out. But even the agony of waiting in the garden gave him some purpose and it all made for functional pillow talk with the one or two girls he’d gotten lucky with.
On the other side of the garden, Maxi Chapel toured a grid of tulips about the color of her thighs, the color of white caramel. With her hands on her hips, she walked with a leisure that suggested she didn’t believe in time. The moment she began to quicken her pace, she stopped to finger a frilled petal or, what Beau couldn’t get over, to poke rather roughly through the prim petals, appearing to inspect a stigmata. But Beau could tell she didn’t know what she was looking at; she knew neither name nor history. She had the look of someone achingly interested in everything—a sure recipe for understanding nothing. He saw her look at the earth with this same fascination. He realized she needed a teacher.
As she emerged from the row, Beau bolted to intercept her until he saw Boss Daddy Chapel, ambulating over in his strange walk. Boss Daddy had a kind of violence in his trap-tight jaw. Boss Daddy and Maxi talked, but she wasn’t looking at Boss Daddy. Her gaze drifted further out towards where Beau stood, her eyes hidden in the black holes of her sunglasses.
Beau crouched down and pretended to inspect the coloring on the tulips, lest Boss Daddy followed his daughter’s gaze. He was nervous about that first word to Maxi; but not enough to stop him. A flower would help it along.
For those red apple lips and cherry blossom cheeks, he’d have to pick an Underbelly, a double early with crimson petals and a bloody pink hue lacing the ovum of the flower like lingerie. He found one with frilly petal tips and inspected its foliage. Then, right as he saw Boss Daddy leaving, Beau shoveled his hand into the ground with a vigorous squirm and when he stood, the flower came up with him.
Breeders were free to pluck a flower here and there. It made good horse sense, since they were providing the season’s main event.
Taking a short cut through a muddy runnel, Beau found himself face to face with Wanda Charles.
Her face was wreathed by a seamless fold of blubber. But she had quick moving eyes with an evil brightness; they were her most definitive feature.
They regarded each other. Her eyes sniped down to his flower, then back to him. She looked him straight in the face and did not balk or budge. In her hand, she had one of her own Rembrandts she’d plucked for whatever reason. It hung limp at her side sort of bashfully, like some embarrassing toy one of her kids forgot to bring in.
Though he knew nothing about her kids, she looked like a mom or a grandma maybe—rubber boots, a flowery blouse, Capri pants hiked up past her belly button.
“Afternoon,” he said.
“Good afternoon,” she replied flatly.
And he wondered about her Semper. It had come to him in nightmares. He had no doubt she’d done it. He imagined her squatting in her greenhouse: a tomato-shaped body gloating over her creations in the unhappy hours of the night when she was probably happiest. He imagined her in the green light of her greenhouse, sharing the same work and having the same agonies and hopes as he did. Yes, he’d even been in her studio—walked right through the front door on a field trip with his biology class before she’d become so successful and paranoid. He still saw it so clearly—the high glass, the light oak tables, the organized utensils and beakers all arranged in a conscious taxonomy. And there had been the unmistakable, cresive sounds and smells of things growing.
They said she’d kept people at Home Again for weeks at a time, feeding them comfort food from the minute they woke up till the minute they left. He heard there’d been guests trapped for as long as a year and that they escaped only by starving themselves to death.
Wanda spoke to him suddenly, “You know, there’s an Appledorn on the northeast furrow that might bring out her eyes more. They’re brown. Did you know that?”
“No,” he said. “But thank you for the advice. I think I’ll take it. What’s the catch?”
“My advice is always free. To those who need it,” she said.
Mainly as a means to get away from Wanda, Beau went and picked one of the Appledorns. When he looked up, he found that Maxi had walked right over to him.
He saw himself in Maxi’s big, black glasses. She had a gap between her teeth too—a gap that made her seem ready. He followed her eyes to the flower’s withered roots, up the stolon to the gynoecium—that prim, womanly little house. He offered it to her. Against her features, the tulip seemed to grow out of her, evoked from her almost. She took it.
“You’re the first person to give me anything since I’ve been here,” she said.
“Wanda feeds you,” Beau said, scanning the parking lot. He’d lost sight of Big Daddy Ford but ceased to care, smelling the sugary air coming from Maxi’s skin.
“That’s providing. I mean giving.”
“There’s a difference?” Beau turned back to her.
“Oh God yes. Giving comes from a deeper place. You know? Who’ve you been raised by anyway?” A filthy little smile came out from that tone of chastisement. “Where you from?”
“I hear you been cooking up some kind of seventh wonder out of your greenhouse,” she said.
“Think of that one there as a teaser,” he nodded to the flower he’d given her. “In three weeks, I’m a show you a plant so fine it’ll change the way you look at flowers.”
Her mouth wrinkled in an expression that implied she might not want that. Her eyes returned acceptingly to the bulb hanging down now by her thighs. She let its petals touch her legs.
“I got to wait a whole three weeks?”
“Plenty to do in three weeks.”
“I’ll show you.”
“You’re going to show me that greenhouse,” she said.
Beau felt himself get a little red. He felt like he was inside something already. A house. A house built so small it could squeeze out all your breathing room. “You act like you can change the world by just talking.”
She nodded and raised the tulip to the round dot of her nose, “And make it my very own.”
“You know,” he smiled, knowingly showing the gap between his own teeth. “Those don’t smell.”
Wanda had watched the interaction between Beau and Maxi. The way Beau’s smile showed his gap-tooth amid all of his other teeth made him look so hickish even he was blushing from it. Had women really fallen for that?
Beau had been holding a tulip. Not a peony, piquant with suggestion. Or a rose with its cleavage exposed and ready for the taking. A tulip—more petticoated and proper than Jane Austin innuendo. And in the hands of that mongrelish man. Could it have given him a certain charm? A naiveté even? It wasn’t outside the realm of plausibility.
But Wanda couldn’t understand Maxi agreeing to run around town with him. Not like the way they said she’d been doing in the weeks that had passed since Beau’s gifting of the tulip. In that time, they reported seeing Beau and Maxi necking like teenagers on the rail of Rainbow Bridge. Sun bathing naked at Pritchard’s strand. Dirty dancing at the Tractor Tavern on a busy Saturday night.
Wanda thought about all this while she did her weeding.
Visitors rolling into Home Again were often surprised to find bare planters. At the gate they’d pass the headless pair of atlas cedars, clipped of their crowns to make room for the telephone wires. After that, there was no sign of plant life. Nothing in Home Again was allowed to grow outside the greenhouse. But the absence of plant life lent a sense of newness to Home Again, as if the earth had only recently been cleared.
She heard Maxi’s espadrilles clapping onto the patio and looked up slowly, sure to keep her straw hat’s brim between her and the sun. The girl wore capris, as she’d done since Beau gave her the tulip. Capris, comfortable jeans, modest polo shirts and occasionally a knee length shirtwaist. Wanda started to wonder if the Daisy Dukes had been some coquettish disguise to lure useful male consorts. Wanda also derived great pleasure when she thought about Beau being caught on Maxi’s line.
Maxi held a glass of ice tea in her hands.
“Here you go, Ms. Charles,” she said and set it down on one of the planter bricks.
“Oh, thank you my dear,” Wanda said, surprised to feel the sweetness of the gesture press itself poignantly into her girth.
For unknown reasons, Maxi and her father had stayed on at Home Again over the last three weeks. Wanda tried to dredge up reasons for this; but on this issue, the rumor mill had halted production. They both appeared immune to the soporific effects of her menu. Both were separately active from early morning on, able to refuse over-indulging in Wanda’s fair.
During the day Ford was always gone at the office and Wanda had been glad of that. Like all men, he chilled her like the cold spots on her hips.
Maxi left at dusk. But during the daylight hours, she hung around and brought Wanda ice tea and chit-chatted in the lovely, frivolous manner of a younger person, offering up explanations, observances and private aspirations without being asked, always assuming the older pair of ears was interested. Wanda had listened about how Maxi graduated early from WSU with a bachelor’s in political science. The girl had plans to aid her father in his position and learn more about small town operations and even run for an election herself in a few years.
Unlike most young people, however, Maxi asked questions. Maxi asked questions about everything from the operation side of running a B&B to small town politics to how to smoke brisket.
After all those years of home making a weekend getaway for others, Wanda had amassed an enormous amount of skills to pass on. She felt like a glutton holding them inside and was relieved to have found such a generous and willing pupil as Maxi, always up at the same time, looking a little tired, but getting in Wanda’s way with her curiosity.
Wanda taught her how to poach eggs, to turn left-overs into a hearty stew, to brew and sweeten gallons of tea, how to fold beds crisply and most importantly, how to anticipate the ebb and flow of clients. Even when Maxi ran out of questions, Wanda found herself going on, grooming the girl with etiquette and means to slip seamlessly into small town culture.
Wanda had even divulged her philosophy on horticulture.
“Flowers are object lessons of Beauty. Beauty with a big B. I grow tulips for the same reason a painter paints them. I just have to. Tulips are trifles, completely lacking in utility and permanence. All they have to boast of is their aesthetic and the memory they plant in you. I seek to produce offspring so beautiful, you won’t be able to forget them.”
Maxi had nodded kindly in response to all this While she had been successful in drawing so much out of Wanda, the girl had been coyly unwilling to give up any information on her father other than that he’d built that dam east of the mountains.
Wanda sipped her tea. The tea was perfectly sweet. Just as she had taught her.
“It must have been hard growing up without a mother around,” Wanda said, hoping to bate Maxi into telling her the whole story.
Maxi shrugged, “Oh, I’ve always found good people around to take care of me just fine.”
Wanda’s cool diamond of inner strength cracked. She looked at Maxi and realized that this girl was poised to inherit a seat of power in this town, that she had helped her, would vote for her in ten years if she ran for mayor; and that when this same girl left Home Again, Wanda would miss Maxi and feel something she’d crafted her life around avoiding: pain.
“Can I ask you something, Ms. Charles,” Maxi asked.
Feeling suddenly cheated and sorry for any kindness she’s offered to the girl, Wanda replied hesitantly, “Go ahead, dear.”
“How do you know a man is worth having children with?”
“Does your father know about him?” Wanda asked.
“No,” Maxi replied.
Long gone were the days that Wanda spent waiting for a man to come into her life. But she did brood into the night. Standing on her back porch, she stared out at the darkness to confront the grander, more obscure force of fate, which for her, was defined solely by a masculine cruelty.
Maxi had just asked her the hardest question she’d ever been asked; yet her response came without hesitation:
“If you’re thinking you’ve found the right man, here’s what you’ve got to do. Think about the man. Imagine him crawling into you and then after nine months, imagine him tearing free, emerging as your child whom you must care for until the day you die or until he leaves you and never returns.”
Maxi started crying. Her round cherub face twisted like a rag being rung out. Wanda maintained her crouched position at the bare dirt, successfully resisting the urge to hug her.
“Be reasonable now dear,” Wanda said. “You know it can’t work with Beau. And knew it when you started it.”
Maxi collected herself and nodded in acquiescence.
Wanda paused. Other than burying her guests in cholesterol, stultifying them with tryptophan and gluten, she’d never succeeded in comforting anyone. What came next?
“Now what can we do to make it better?” Wanda asked.
Maxi raised her eyes and asked, “You can show me your greenhouse.”
“Don’t ask me that.”
“I’d like to see it,” Maxi insisted.
Wanda let her viscera rise and, when she was assembled at her full height and trembling before Maxi, she repeated her answer. Her snarling lips opened first, then her teeth as the battering ram of her answer gnashed through them, “No.”
She didn’t see or hear Maxi’s exit. Wanda lowered her face back down to her gardening, knowing she would never speak to Maxi Chapel again.
Maxi had proved useless at getting to Chapel. The little tart’s affection had distracted Wanda’s ratio of gain— her guide to all the relationships she bothered to maintain. She worried she might never ferret out the man’s secrets. What was more, she might have furthered his establishment in the town by tutoring his progeny. But Wanda had seen Ford Chapel cut up a steak—with a systematic relish flavored with a hint of resent. And it was that potential of stored up violence that promised to be of some use.
One word to him about her daughter’s lover was all it would take for Wanda to make her only competitor disappear.
Beau spent most of their time in bed trying to determine if Maxi’s legs were real.
Maxi’s legs were of such perfection, he was sure at first they were prosthetics. But he had traced the contours of those angles, been embraced by their warm volume and followed the seamless curve of the thighs over the ripe fruit of her ass and he had determined that they were legs of the purest breed.
While he searched her legs for bolts and seams, she asked him questions. She asked him about tulip breeding, about fishing, about country life and Beau talked more than he’d ever talked. He’d jabber on ten minutes before realizing it and she stroked all that out of him by just looking at him with her pair of greedy-kid eyes. He realized she was the fruit of a hope he’d sowed in the sand long ago—to have someone to be at home with.
It was the day before the Unveiling of the Cultivars and Maxi was over at his house to have, what Beau assumed, was a good luck fuck.
His house doubled as his greenhouse, and now, his shag pad. The one story rambler had been a regular fixer-upper when he bought it, so he decided to wreck it some more. He demolished the clapboard siding and knocked out the roof and replaced them with PMMA panels and banners of polyethylene; the next sunny day, he had himself a greenhouse in which he spent the next few years breeding a race of signature plants.
Needless to say, he showed her the tulips the second week of their coupling without really thinking about it.
All told, the last three weeks had been his most comfortable weeks spent in the town. Maybe on the planet.
The remaining beams of his house were rotting slowly. He could practically hear them decomposing at night. He didn’t like sleeping there. Didn’t like the idea of being stuck sitting square on a bare plain like that. It was maladaptive. He had a whole evolutionary history telling him to remain mobile. Things could find you. Things like fires, saber tooth tigers and bill collectors.
He’d arrived in town off the back of a supply truck he’d hitched a ride with and ever since, he’d been spending the night in the dens of unknowing hosts. He snuck in through people’s unlocked backdoors in shut-eye hours of the night, padded his way into basements, nooks or guest rooms; made himself comfortable on hammocks, love sofas, hide-a-beds, divens and pool tables. In these clandestine hideaways of unsuspecting homeowners, he’d sleep until dawn. He’d spent the night in houses ranging from log cabins to farm houses to split levels to country mansions. Country people of all kinds forgot to lock their doors or, out of some misguided honor system, made a conscious decision not to. Beau had continued doing this long after he’d purchased his house. When he heard rumors going around about him being some kind of virginity thief, he laughed the piss out of himself, considering the sweetest lay he got on most occasions was the family room futon.
But he’d gotten lucky with Maxi. Many times over. And on that night he rested in the alcove of Maxi’s neck. They were lying on the mattress in his greenhouse house. He’d just about readied himself to settle down for good in between her breasts and felt the warm plush of her body invite him to sleep.
The sound of water dripped from the tips of the leaves. Vines stretched over the exposed PVC piping. The air was heavy with the fecundity of soil.
The tendons of her neck flexed and she asked him if he loved her.
The choice picks of the Coalflower brood perched in pots on the floor behind her. They were the flowers that would put him in the books. For the first time, he wondered if it was such a good idea having her here. He’d padlocked the place when he was gone and never invited a soul inside and here she’d just slipped in.
“Do you love me?” she asked him again.
He said that he thought she was reproductively fit, which in his book was pretty much the same thing.
She asked him if he would ever leave her.
He replied that eventually we would all be left by something. For some, it would be life doing the leaving.
He said it partly out of revenge because he was realizing something. She had asked him a lot about the soil, even for gardening tips—as if she was getting ready to start one of her own. She’d asked him about the town’s men, what they liked doing and what they wanted in life. He realized he had no idea what she was doing with him or why she was here in the country but he felt the squirming sense that she had purposes beyond his bedroom.
She was silent and stared at the ceiling, mouth slightly open revealing the space between her front teeth. He felt like she’d gone somewhere. He pulled the blanket over his ringed nipples and prepared for her sheepish exit. But Maxi turned and shoved her red, wet mouth onto his face.
She pushed him into the mattress and next she was everywhere, pushing into him. Beau didn’t understand what was happening. He felt her lips. Her fists. He felt pushed into that cross-eyed subconscious mist of lush chemicals and there, he thought he could regain a hold over her. He saw things in fragments and saw her with this thrill on her face, tongue curling on her teeth, holding back her teeth. Mouth in a near sneer. She pulled him back and forth even after he wanted to be let go.
It had not rained in a month. It was the end of April. The tulips in the rows were dead. Their mummy-wrinkled heads littered the ground. Crowds gathered at Bulbshire by 2pm and weathered the most brutal hours of the heat, waiting for the Unveiling of the Cultivars to commence.
Wanda and Beau stood in the pavilion waiting to be called onto the dais. Their tulips lay beneath oil cloth coverings on respective mounts that they would tow to the stage.
“So. Here we are,” Beau said.
“Yes,” Wanda replied.
It was ungodly hot. The sun was a fat sky-king knighting foreheads with rays of heat.
Bea continued, “With all the photos they’re going to take of us, our mugs might even make it into some big city paper.”
“Please. I don’t think they’ll be putting our pictures on anything. They have the consumer mass in mind and require palatable imagery that won’t scare the children.”
Beau noticed the grimace on her face when she said they. “You don’t like them much, do you?” he asked with satisfaction.
“I want to win, Mr. Mendel. Approaching anyone with sincerity would come too close to fraternizing with the competition. It’s nothing personal.”
“Well, I’m glad there won’t be any hard feelings then,” Beau said.
“I can’t say the same for Mr. Chapel,” Wanda said.
“You’ve made sure of that, I’ll bet.”
“I haven’t had to, the way you two have been carrying on,” Wanda said as she peered out at the audience and saw the Chapels.
Chapel wasn’t presiding; but sat in the audience as if he were just an ordinary spectator. He wore a boyish grin, mocking perhaps. He leaned forward in his seat and looked approvingly at his daughter seated next to him.
Wanda had done some of her own research on Ford. He was a widower. A widower who built a dam, underpaying workers, side-stepping unions, hiring strike breakers and scabs and inciting the anger and petty violence of workers all across the eastern country side; all to pay off the board at WSU to admit his only child—a wistful, flunk-out on the road to getting herself pregnant by local rough necks. Wanda saw it now. Ford had probably tried everything to get her to focus after her mother’s death—flute, horseback riding of course, then college. Wanda had been wrong about Ford throwing the competition for himself. He was throwing it for her. To satisfy her new craze—tulips. And small town life.
Ford beamed now as a man basking in the success of his daughter’s new elegance. Maxi wore a black tulip skirt, as if she planned to compete with the flowers, and mid-wrist gloves of sheer ivory nylon. Her face was cacooned within a black sun hat. She was tight jawed, straight-postured and older looking somehow. It was like she drank some cursed elixir that, overnight, fashioned her into an older, more suitable match for her father. She had one article of clothing that clashed blasphemously with her chic montage—an orange bandana wrapped around her wrist.
Both Ford and Maxi were bookended by two bodyguards—bovine men in suits and headsets in their ears. Ford’s strike breakers from back in the day, Wanda reasoned.
“Think I should blow her a kiss?” Beau asked.
“He’ll shoot you,” Wanda sighed.
“I’d be more worried about what she’s going to do,” he said and Wanda pursed her lips at the truth there. Perhaps they both should have been more worried about Maxi Chapel all along.
The loud speaker came on and someone announced, “Wanda Charles introducing Auburn Augustina!”
Wanda was halfway down the aisle before Beau realized the only sound heard was the squeak of the wheelbarrow bearing the planter of flowers. Beau watched Wanda’s dowdy form grow smaller as she neared the stage; but no one was looking at Wanda. They were holding their breath, coming to understand that the white-wedding tulips actually had the slightest brushings of orange. Eyes watered and blinked only sparingly so they could stay open and continue gazing at the delicate swirls the color of sunrise.
“I smell peach,” one spectator dared to whisper.
Wanda too was looking at the tulips. Her face hovered over her half dozen hatchlings. Perhaps they saw her round, gleaming cheeks as the bosom of a benevolent mother-god, omnipresent and solemnly trudging them into glory.
Before Wanda even made it up the ramp to the platform, Beau started his tractor.
The tractor coughed exhaust on everyone as the announcer heralded, “Beau Mendel and Coalflower!”
Wanda heard women swooning. Several averted their children’s eyes. Someone passed out. The tulips were black.
Wanda couldn’t tell anything about them other than that they were black. The blackness seemed to blur petal shape, stem length and warp the surrounding air. They gave off heat they were so black. They floated down the aisle like a renegade posse of black holes. And Beau wore that shit-eating grin like a cheap suit the whole way up the platform.
Wanda noticed that Maxi’s face had remained a statuette of itself. She’d already seen them of course.
Both horticulturalists placed their offerings on a table on the main dais. A team of men and women emerged. Botanists, Biologists, Aesthetes. They had clipboards. They worked quickly slashing marks on forms. They muttered conclusions for the bullhorn.
“By uniqueness, form and mastery of technique, the judges announce,” the announcer began. “Beau Mendel’s Coalflower—winner of the Skagit Valley Tulip Show!”
Beau was surprised to find himself trench-coated in a feeling of disappointment. He felt a shadow flutter lighter than a bird’s wing over his eyes and found his old orange bandana at his feet. He picked it up. The goodness of its warmth saddened him, knowing that it was the closest he would ever come to holding again the hand that flung it. He looked up to see Maxi, hand still aloft from the kerchief toss. Next to her stood her father, whose steel gaze rested on the orange strip of cloth in Beau’s hands.
The crowd scattered. Beau lost site of the pair and stomped off the stage, hoping to find Maxi and maybe make a scene; but when he walked down the center aisle, he saw she was gone. The bodyguards were gone too. Only Ford remained. He sat in his chair looking right at Beau.
Walking towards Ford’s stare was like walking into the light of a freight train; but Beau did it. Beau even gave him a little wink. But he kept walking. He walked to the exit of the garden. And not far from the exit, Beau started to run.
At midnight, Wanda stood alone on her back porch. In the vacancy of silence, Wanda felt the squirming heat of failure and anxiety within her old, heavy core. No longer like a diamond, but an anvil.
The Chapels paid their bill and left. The other guests came home from the Unveiling and left. Each empty room magnified her solitude. She stood on her back porch and gazed again into the darkness, pierced suddenly by fire.
Flames licked up into the sky to the south, the klaxon of fire engines wailing with the slow resign of a widow.
She didn’t need her police scanner to tell her what it was that was burning: Beau’s greenhouse house. She imagined it billowing with the fiery fullness of a marshmallow as its polyethylene sides combusted. The PVC pipe and the wet beams would have formed a black frame unable to hold in the raucous flames articulating irascibly like modern art. The only things standing inside were the stocks of Coalflower, resentfully bending to the will of a dominant element.
But no flame would be able to efface the image of their petals from Wanda’s memory. They would forever dirty a corner of her mind, undisturbed as soot in a furnace.
Beau was running, stumbling through a corn field, waiting for it to empty out onto a service road. His face was bruised shut as if to hide itself from the two men who did it. He was his own child of ash stumbling free from what he tried to make home, his greatest mistake as he understood it.
In his equation of survival, a shelter should equal protection from the elements; the modern concept of home did not compute because a home opened itself to guests who were just as likely to burn it down as they were to make it safe. And therein lay his rage. That despite knowing all this, he’d still let her in.
He didn’t so much walk up to Home Again as he was washed up by the receding flames. He saw Wanda standing on the back porch with the light on.
“Are you alright?” she asked him.
“I’m more burnt out than a cigarette butt, lady… They burned everything. My plants…”
“What did you think was going to happen?”
“She was the only one in years to give me the time of day,” Beau said. “I had to give her a reason to stay!”
“But all the rumors,” Wanda began.
“I never started them.”
“But you never denied them.”
“What sense does it make denying something that protects you? Was I supposed to go around telling people I’ve been loveless since high school?”
“You will know to be more careful next time,” Wanda told him. “All powerful men have their breaking points.”
“Yeah,” he said. “But now I have nothing to my name… Those plants.”
“Now is where I’m supposed to say something to make it all better. But nothing can.”
“So, don’t say anything,” Beau snarled.
“I’ll say this. Nobody who saw Coalflower will ever be able to look at another flower without thinking of them. You’ve changed how they think and see. That’s the most any artist can do.”
Beau wiped his bleeding face, “I have nowhere to go now.”
“I’m not going in there.”
“It’s just a house. There are walls. There are windows. There are doors that aren’t especially good about keeping people in. Or keeping unwanted things out.”
“But the rumors.”
“We’re not so unalike, you and I,” Wanda said.
“I’m not staying long. I have to get out of town. I going full nomad after all this.”
“You can rent a room here for as long as you like.”
“I don’t have any money!”
“Well, you can squat then.”
“Okay,” Beau said, hanging his head and passing through the open door.