January 29, 2008

Short Story: 2nd Place

Short Story • 2nd Place VIOLETS By Jason Reimer Last July, God sent me a birthday card. It arrived in a baby blue envelope, smelling like it had been dipped in corn oil. A picture of a dog blowing a pink bubble was on the front of the card. Inside, someone had written, “Come see me. God” and an address: God 1700 Yale Court Castle Rock, CO 80108 I’m not a religious person. I’ve never been to church except for maybe a couple of times on Easter. I’ve never gone to confession, never said a Hail-Mary, and never invited Jesus into my heart to be my co-pilot. At first, I thought my mother had sent the card. She sends me little notes every now and then to remind me that I’m her only son and that, if I’m not careful, I could soon end up on the wrong side of judgment. This card, however, wasn’t in her style. There were no scriptures attached and no admonitions to make Jesus my buddy. There was only the address and the short message written in dark blue ink. I called her about it. I told her that someone from Castle Rock had sent me a birthday card. I asked if she knew anyone from Castle Rock, anyone churchy. “Churchy?” My mother laughed. “I don’t have any churchy friends in Castle Rock. I’m sorry. Maybe it’s from one of her friends.” My mother still refers to Anne as her, even now, after the accident, after everything that the last two years have brought. To my mother, Anne was always her, the Jezebel who wooed her son away from his mother’s moral values. Like everyone else, my mother had forgotten. Like everyone else, she’d moved on with her life and expected me to do the same. The little white cross that we left on the side of the highway faded and became buried in the snow. When the snow melted, the wind pushed it over. One day, the city sent a truck to collect it from the side of the road. Like everyone else, the city had forgotten. I kept the card in the top drawer of my dresser. Every day for the next week, I took it out and read it again as if I might have missed something when I first opened it. I tried to decipher the intentions from the handwriting. I tried to determine what sort of person was behind the strange little note. Finally, with only the address and curiosity to go by, I put on a black suit and drove south to Castle Rock. The trailer park was hidden behind a thicket of pines. My car kicked up dust when I pulled through the chain link gate at the entrance. A lady with red hair and thick arms hung bras from a wire outside her mobile home. A couple of children on bicycles rode on the clay between the white houses. God lived in a double-wide with a green awning and plastic lawn furniture sitting beside the staircase. I parked behind a rusted pickup truck that dozed in the dirt in front of the house. Violets, a soft yellow, poked out of an orange pail by the door. Anne planted violets. The year before she died, she’d bought a dozen of them and planted them in rows in a little patch of dirt in our back yard. I told her that they looked like they wouldn’t last through the summer. She laughed. The sound of it sank into the grass and the cottonwood and became a part of the landscape. “Just you wait,” she said. “Just you wait.” Then, she took a shower and left a ring of dirt in the tub. The next summer, the violets had filled the little patch of dirt in the back yard. They grew thick, stuffed into the small space, their yellow faces gazing up at the sky and waiting for Anne to water them and weed their soil. “You know, it’s rude to stand on someone else’s grass,” said a woman from inside the house. Her voice rattled like bones on a necklace. I looked down. I stood on nothing but brown, cracked clay. “I ...” I tried looking at the face behind the voice, but the inside of the trailer was completely dark. The screen door squeaked open and an old woman with a white perm and a bend in her back stood in the doorway. She waved for me to come inside with a withered hand. I stood for a couple of seconds after the old woman had disappeared into the house, then I climbed the metal staircase and followed her inside. It took a while for my eyes to adjust. Wood paneling covered the walls. A pot of oil boiled in the kitchen, filling the space with a savory smoke. “I’m making fried chicken. Have a seat.” The old lady wiped her hands on a blue apron. The old sofa expelled dust when I sat down. Another orange pail of violets rested on top of a TV across from the sofa. “You came a long way.” The old lady came around to the sofa from the kitchen. Tight, powdery curls clung to her scalp, and the lacy dress she wore looked like it was made of paper. “You must be exhausted.” “Who are you?” I asked “Just who I said I was.” “Did you send the card?” “Yes.” She sat down next to me with two glasses of amber colored iced tea in her hands. “Drink?” I took the iced tea from her. I raised it to my lips, but put it down on the coffee table before drinking it. She fished through a cluttered pile of Reader’s Digests beside the couch and plucked up a gold box of Benson and Hedges. “Mind if I smoke?” “Not at all.” I looked at the iced tea, wondering if it was safe to drink. She took a cigarette between her lips and lit it with trembling fingers. “I hate these filtered things. I used to roll my own. But.” She held up her yellow fingers, crooked and puffy at the knuckles. “Arthritis.” I nodded. The tea winked in the light filtered through the blinds. Anne used to smoke Marlboro Lights. She’d sit on the stairs outside, next to her tuft of violets, puffing and looking at her fingernails. I told her that smoking would kill her. Every night I’d sit inside and watch her through the glass trying my best to give her reproachful looks. I would say through the glass that she was poisoning herself. Anne would flip me off and blow smoke at the glass. If I had known that her death would not come from smoking, but from a sixteen-year-old boy in a Mercedes, I would have buried her keys in the back yard and let her smoke all the cigarettes she wanted. The old woman looked at me through the haze of cigarette smoke. “Well?” She had eyes the color of an ashtray. I watched her for a few minutes, the silence between us thickening. “You said you were God?” I finally asked. “You don’t believe me?” She drank her tea and pushed her cigarette into an ash tray beside the sofa. “No.” “I’ll tell you what. You wish for anything, anything at all, and it’s yours. God’s honest truth.” She pulled another cigarette out of the gold box and lit it with trembling fingers. “And your tea isn’t poisoned. I promise.” “I don’t know what to wish for.” “Come on. There must be something.” Her voice rattled. “I want to see Anne again.” The words bubbled up without warning, startling both of us. The old lady didn’t say anything, but watched me as she smoked her cigarette. Then, she stood up and flicked cigarette ash off of her lap. “First, we eat.” We ate the salty chicken off of paper towels at the miniature Formica table in the trailer’s kitchen. “I never really properly introduced myself,” she said through her dentures, her mouth filled with bits of chicken and batter. “I’m God. Although the kids in the neighborhood call me Mrs. Byron.” When we finished with the chicken, she took me down to the tornado shelter, a tiny room of dirt and cement under the mobile home. I had to duck to stand up. A light bulb, grimy and orange, illuminated a small desk and chair against the earth and concrete wall. On top of the desk sat an old brown typewriter. “This is where I write it.” A spider dangled an inch from the old lady’s face, and she swatted at it. “Write what?” I asked. “The story. The one you came to see. It’s a love story, of course.” She sat down in the little chair behind the desk. “Don’t you just love love stories? Especially the tragic ones.” She flipped through a dusty pile of papers and pulled out a white sheet, covered top to bottom and front to back in black letters. She wiped the dust off of the page and handed it to me. “There,” she said. “There’s your Anne.” Anne looks into the back seat. The flowers are there, the ones she bought for David, in three different shades of red. It starts to rain. Water rolls off of the windshield. She wonders where David has made dinner reservations. The windshield fogs up and she turns on the defrost — “What is this?” I looked at her, trembling and numb. “You know what it is.” I looked back down at the page. My throat tightened as I read. A country song — she remembers it from when she was a little girl —plays on the radio. She doesn’t know the words, but she hums anyway. She looks in her rear-view mirror and wipes a bit of lipstick off of her lip. The passenger side window is white with fog. A black Mercedes creeps up to her bumper, then passes her on her right side — I never said goodbye to Anne. I just sat in the front row of the flower filled chapel and stared at the photo resting on top of the black pine box. Everyone else said goodbye. Everyone else cried and wore black and put flowers on the pile of dirt at the grave. Then they drove home to watch Jeopardy and order pizza and have sex. Funerals have always bugged the hell out of me that way. They are good for everyone but the ones who need them. They are an excuse for everyone else to forget. The dead lie in the ground with a rock over their head and no one ever pays any attention to them. People just drive by, like they drive by any other patch of grass on the side of the road. I went home from the funeral and watered Anne’s violets. When I slept, I slept on the right side of our bed. That was my goodbye, watching her shoes collect dust and finally throwing the tomatillos into the back yard because they spoiled and Anne was the only one in the house who would eat them. “Why?” I asked. The old lady put a cold, soft hand on my arm. “I didn’t write it because it happened. It happened because I wrote it.” In the small shelter, her shoulders seemed to fill the space. I had the sudden desire to drive. I had the need to be behind the wheel driving north on the highway. “I need to leave,” I said. God nodded and opened the door to the sky. I pulled away from the white mobile home with the old woman watching me from atop the metal stairs. She’d given me the piece of paper she called her love story, along with two tiny violets plucked from the pail in the front of the house. As I left, she waved from the doorway and slipped into the darkness. I listened to a preacher on the radio on the way home. When I hit traffic, I heard the preacher say, “The words of the preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities.” The preacher on the radio was crying. “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.” I drove slowly past a military graveyard with rows upon rows of manicured marble stones. The traffic went on forever.