The stairs always seemed inadequate to my weight. I wasn’t much more than 100 pounds at the time, but the wood would creak, and usually a shred or two would pop off on the side. “Myrtle, you need to get those stairs fixed,” I kept telling the florist. “Even if you don’t care if someone gets hurt, you could get sued—and lose money. I know you care about that.” Myrtle laughed in the hoarse way she did and smoothed back her thick silver pageboy hair cut. It was luxurious, nice-looking hair, which I always thought was unusual for a woman who just let it go gray. Other than the gray hair, in fact, she was still vibrant looking, if not young. She wore fitted jeans that showed off her figure and blouses that weren’t revealing, but were often in bright colors and tailored rather than a size too large or frumpy. “I’ll take my chances,” she said. “The stairs aren’t too high—if someone falls, I bet they won’t get hurt, at least not bad enough to sue me.”
I rolled my eyes and turned away from her and stuck my nose in the peonies that had just arrived. I wanted an assortment of white, light and dark pink for the vase on my desk in the office, but Myrtle wouldn’t allow it. “Why can’t we make our own bouquet with the peonies the way we can with the roses?” There were certain flowers that only came in ready-made bundles, while other flowers, like the roses, came both in ready-made bundles, as well as individual flowers that you could mix and match. “Well, they’re more expensive and I don’t get as many of them in,” she said. “I don’t want them being handled as much—the roses aren’t as expensive—I get them in bulk, so I can afford to have people picking through them, and have enough both for the pre-made bouquets and the solitaries.”
She wasn’t going to budge—I had been trying for years—so I settled on a bundle of three dark pink peonies. As I paid, I noticed a man loitering outside, peering in and then looking away when I looked back at him. He was short, maybe 5’4, and had mousy brown hair and eyes so small I couldn’t tell what color they were. “Who’s that, Myrtle?” I asked counting out my change because Myrtle often short-changed (accidentally, probably). “Oh, him, he’s nobody. Just some weirdo—maybe homeless or with something wrong with him—he stops by about once a day and goes away after I give him a flower. He had his hand out like he was asking for money and when I told him ‘no,’ he pointed at the flowers. So, at the end of the day, I give him a flower I would have to get rid of anyway.”
As I walked out the door, the man had seated himself crossed-legged on the sidewalk and was still staring intently inside the shop. Whenever anyone passed by, he gestured at the flowers on display outside the shop and murmured “please.” My apartment was just a few doors down from the floral shop. I tried envisioning where the flowers could go in the apartment if I didn’t take them to the office. My roommate was allergic to most flowers and my cat, Hogarth, wouldn’t leave flowers alone, sticking his nose in the vase and batting it with his paws. Plus, I had heard a lot of flowers were poisonous to cats. Gertrude, my roommate, was on the sofa with a hand upraised, painting her nails. Her brown hair had been ironed straight and highlighted to give the impression of being sun-kissed. But to me it had a harsh, bleached look. “Hey, what’s up?” she said not bothering to look at me. “Peonies,” I said. “But don’t worry, they won’t be anywhere around you. I’m taking them directly to my room.” Gertrude grunted and looked away from me. “I guess that’s OK, then,” she said. I picked a spot at the top of my bookcase so high even Hogarth couldn’t reach for the flowers. Avoid poisoning the cat and aggravating the allergies of the roommate. So many not to disturb with a few peonies. Now or never—the last week of May—if you haven’t gotten your peonies by now, you’ll have to wait until next year.
After the peonies were arranged up high, I ventured out to face Gertrude. I knew she wasn’t mad; I just didn’t feel like seeing or talking to anyone. I had a roommate for financial necessity but would have been infinitely happier with just Hogarth and the peonies. To keep things pleasant, I realized I had to interact with her a little, rather than just going straight to my room and closing the door, like my instincts told me to do. I plopped myself down on our red, faux velvet couch watching Gertrude as she blew on her nails to dry them. “So, what have you been up to today?” I asked.
She smiled socially, but not that interested. We were more elevator-sharers than roommates. Talking to her always felt the way making polite conversation in the elevator with strangers or new acquaintances feels. “Well, not much. Just work and I got take out on the way home from that new Italian place that opened up on Third Avenue last week. It’s pretty good.”
“Did you happen to see that strange guy at the florist’s down the street?” I asked. Gertrude was now just watching me sidelong with her eye corners as she flipped the channels on the TV from reality to show to reality show. “No, I didn’t notice,” she said. “Actually, I don’t know why you stop in there at all—you know I’m allergic to most flowers. If you have a roommate in a small apartment who’s told you like a hundred times she’s allergic to most flowers, why do you keep buying them? I can already feel my sinuses closing up.” She sniffed loudly to make her point.
So, she wasn’t that interested in her reality shows after all. She was skipping through the channels fast and looking at me from the corner of her eyes because she was pissed. “Well, they’re all the way in my room, up high on a shelf and I passed through here as fast as I could,” I said. “I don’t need to have them around all the time, but once in a while, I think it’s OK if I buy a few flowers. Up until now I’ve just bought the silk and polyester kind, so I thought it might be nice to have a few real ones for a change.”
Gertrude sniffled dramatically again and rolled her eyes. “Whatever.” With that she got up from the couch and stomped toward her room, slamming the door. And all because of a few peonies, imagine that. I wasn’t going to let Gertrude’s sinuses interfere with my love of peonies. I laughed at my silk flower attempts to replicate the real thing, stuffing the apartment full of cloth instead of forcing the point. My room was my own, and despite Gertrude’s discomfort, I intended to keep it fully stocked with genuine blossoms from then on. “Hey, Gertrude, I yelled angrily after her, unrestrained because I didn’t think she could hear me (I suspected she had her ear buds over her ears and was listening to music), “I’m decorating with real flowers from now on. I don’t care about your allergies. All the things you can’t tolerate aren’t worth enduring fake flowers for.”
The next day I decided to get more flowers—the peonies may not have had that much longer to go, so I needed another bouquet to take their place. Myrtle was up on a ladder, pointing out needed ceiling repairs to an assistant when I walked in. So, it gave me extra time to decide among the blooms in peace, wandering into every corner and sniffing around. I wondered whether I should double-down on peonies or look into another flower like maybe an orchid or a lily. Myrtle must have noticed my deliberation. “Variety is always nice,” she said. “Why don’t you try a different kind finally? How many times are you going to refill your vase with peonies?” I laughed but wondered if she was right. The peony season was so short—just about a month—so I wanted to fill my vase up with them as much as I could, until the vase couldn’t have any more peonies. “Well, the peonies won’t be around much longer. Don’t you think I should choose them while I still can—you know savoring the spring and all?” When I turned to look at Myrtle, she had descended from the ladder and now had her back to me instead, as she arranged flowers in the window and glowered at the same man I saw the day before, standing, palms outstretched in front of the shop. Begging for money and settling for day-old roses, it seemed. “I’ll make it a mix then,” I told Myrtle. “I’ll take three peonies, a few lavender and a couple lilacs and I’ll donate a tulip to that man always hanging around.”
Myrtle wrinkled up her short nose and laughed. “I wouldn’t waste my money. I just give him the stuff we’re done with at the end of the day. Really, don’t bother. He’s probably got mental problems—I don’t know even know what he does with the flowers. I think it’s part of his mental problems—like an obsessive compulsive—he compulsively collects flowers.”
It didn’t really matter to me what he did with the flowers. I just wanted to distract myself from the pressure to overlook the peonies. The homeless man had averted his eyes from us and was looking down at his hands. It looked like strangers had given him coins throughout the day, and he was cascading them from palm to palm, staring at the movement. It was his own experimental art show, right in his hands. It may have meant more to him than the money. The shapes, feelings and sound of the coins moving from hand to hand was apparently what mattered. I betted by the looks of it that he never would use the coins for anything other than the joy of playing with them as smooth metallic objects. “I don’t care what he does with the flowers, I’m still going to give him one or two—just because I want to,” I told Myrtle. She nodded and looked away, shuffling things around the checkout counter. “Whatever. Your money to waste.” Meanwhile I noticed the window display Myrtle had just put together—small animal sculptures of cats, birds and rabbits with flowers twined around their necks. “Myrtle, do you realize you have a predator in your window?” She looked up confused from her phone. “What are you talking about?” she snapped. “Well, cats eat birds and rabbits—in your window. You have two vegetarian animals and one animal that would like to eat the other two.” She finally laughed, but just a little—more like a guffaw than anything else. When she rang up my flowers—the final selection of three peonies, two orchids, a few lavender and a couple lilacs—she admitted that she hadn’t noticed the predator advertising flowers in her window. “Well, they’re all so cute, who would notice?” she asked.
I left Myrtle with the two of us laughing, and stepped onto a sidewalk newly smudged with rain—with dog poop smudged and stinking, and Myrtle’s onlooker grasping a few daffodils tightly in his left fist with his head turned up to the rain, mouth open, catching droplets. He didn’t lower his gaze to me, so I kept my flowers to myself, thinking if he didn’t notice me, then so much the better.
When I got back to my apartment, the door was partially open, which I hated—I liked my doors closed so as little outside noise could get in as possible. So, upon entering, I closed it without a thought. “Gertrude, are you here?” I asked wanting to be sure the open door wasn’t due to the presence of a workman or intruder. A melodramatic sniffle announced her presence. “Oh, you’re back,” she said in enhanced nasal tones, coming into the living room from her bedroom, in her usual at-home attire of yoga pants and sorority t-shirt. “And you’ve bought more of them! I was just keeping the door open to air the apartment out of all those allergens, and now you’ve got more!” I hated to be mean, but couldn’t help laughing. “Well, I have a room of my own, so I figured I may as well have flowers, as long as they stay in isolation there. It’s not like I’m finally getting the garden I always wanted. All I’m doing is making a place for a weekly bouquet from a florist’s shop.” Gertrude just kept sniffling ostentatiously as if the melodramatic sniffling exceeded all of her vocabulary. “It’s just—I mean—the thing is,” she stammered. “Pollen travels, the things I’m allergic to don’t stay where you put them. They’re in your room, but they’re going to reach me wherever I go in the apartment. Things you’re allergic to like pollen follow and stick to you when you’re in a small apartment. You can’t just hide it in your room and think it won’t ruin my sinuses.”
“Well, I’ll put them on the side of my tall bookcase closest to the window and keep the window open a little whenever I’m home. Maybe that’ll help.” Gertrude looked away and then back at me rolling her eyes. “Whatever, do what you need to.” Well, I knew I didn’t need to; I just didn’t want to live without a piece of the garden I was missing. I felt bad bringing discomfort to a person I had to share space with, and realized I was disrupting the peace of my home, but that slice of garden was something I felt entitled to—I couldn’t have the whole, so the flowers around the edges at least were meant to be mine.
The next morning I awoke to a sound I couldn’t place—it wasn’t just the typical clomping around the apartment that Gertrude did early in the morning as she assembled her things for the gym. The door to my room didn’t open at first, and so I figured for a second that Gertrude had put a chair or another piece of furniture up against my door to prevent it from being open. But when I pushed a little harder, I heard a scurrying back of feet. “OK, OK, I’m moving, just give me a minute,” Gertrude said panting. I had caught her in the middle of taping some sort of tarp in front of my door, to seal in allergens from the flowers, I guessed. “Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to get in and out of your room. I just thought having this extra shield might help.” I laughed and pushed through the plastic tarp. “Well, do you think it might provide a noise barrier? I wouldn’t mind that.” Gertrude looked disappointed, gazing down and then around the room as if thinking of something that would really upset me this time, since the idea of being symbolically sealed in my room didn’t seem too bad to me.
She also had purchased three “air purifying” fans, and handed me the receipt. “I talked to my allergist today, and he recommended I purchase those,” Gertrude said, sweeping her hand at two thin, though tall, freestanding fans. “So, since I had to get them all because you refuse to stop buying flowers, I thought you should pay for them.”
“Sure—depending on how expensive they were. How much?” I asked trying not to be offensive by laughing again.
“They were each $300,” she said. Gertrude was now the one who laughed, stroking her dry, bleached hair and tapping her fingernails on a nearby wall sconce. “When do you think I could have that?” Of course she knew I wouldn’t pay it. “That’s a rip off,” I said. “I think I saw the same thing for sale at Kmart for about $50. Maybe whenever you move out I’ll think about reimbursing you for that, but I don’t think it’s worth that much money—and I don’t think having flowers in my room with the door shut most of the time should be doing anything to your allergies. I think it’s all in your head.”
She looked up—at God, I guess it was supposed to be—but since we were on the third floor of a six-story apartment building it ended up being two men in their 20s always in workout clothes. “I just can’t believe this,” she ranted. “My doctor even wrote me a note about how I need the air purifiers so I can submit it to my insurance company.”
I decided at that point to get out of the apartment and take a walk. The stairs leading downstairs to our “lobby” looked damp, and an old man who lived upstairs, who had been living there since the 1950s, mumbled to me, looking down from the next floor up. He only had a few teeth left, which seemed to affect his speech so that I could never understand him. “What? What was that?” I asked. “Watch it,” I thought I heard him say. As I slid my fingers along the banister, I smelled paint, and my fingertips were tinged in white. “Oh, shit!” I shreaked, my voice echoing up and down the stairwell. On the sidewalk I looked for one of those short Mexican men who stand outside the shops with a hose washing away the dog poop from the cement outside the shops’ entranceways. But none were around.
When I got to Myrtle’s shop, the homeless-looking man who coveted—and then seemed to hoard—flowers was sitting cross legged at the edge of the sidewalk, his rear end practically hanging off the edge into the street. He was looking down at the pavement where five wilting white roses were laid side by side. He also had a few books with him making me wonder whether he was collecting all these flowers as keepsakes, feeling like it was his duty to preserve the flowers Myrtle otherwise would have thrown out. I thought maybe he was doing that trick where you press flowers inside a book to preserve them. Myrtle was on her stepladder again arranging the latest flowers twined from aft to aft of the ceiling. I didn’t want to spook her off her ladder, so I opened the door as noisily as possible and cleared my throat a few times. She turned around slowly and half-smiled. “You’re back. Did they die already?”
“No, not yet,” I laughed. “Actually, I just need to use your sink. This senile old man in our building painted the banister on our stairwell and I touched it. Now I have paint all over my fingers.” I moved toward the sink at the back of the shop without even waiting for Myrtle to respond. “The truth is,” I said through the running water, “the flowers are not only still alive, but tormenting my roommate.”
“She has a phobia of flowers?” Myrtle asked. I wondered myself if maybe that was the case more than allergies because I had never heard of anyone having a generalized case of flower allergies, but I passed along Gertrude’s story. “No, actually, she claims she’s allergic to all flowers. I was trying to be nice about it, but I’ve given up. She got to the point where she wouldn’t even be nice about me having flowers in my room on occasion. So, now, guess what I’m doing? I’m constantly having flowers.”
“It’s good for business,” said Myrtle with a half-smile. “But why would she continue living with an allergy tormentor?”
I wasn’t sure I cared whether or not she moved out. In fact, I kind of hoped I propelled her out of the apartment. I was tired of her already. “Now, Gertrude, don’t make me bring in the daffodils,” I dreamed of taunting. “Well, so be it if she moves out,” I said. “I have some money saved up, and I can go a few months or more without a roommate. I never like having one anyway. On top of everything else, she bought an air purifier she now expects me to pay for. She deserves more than just daffodils, she deserves tulips, lilies, orchids, lavender—and just for spite—lilacs and daisies.”
Myrtle laughed, but had her head cocked a little. “Huh, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard of anyone buying someone flowers out of spite.”
“Well, technically, I’m buying it for my own enjoyment, but at the same time, I think I’m buying it to upset Gertrude,” I said.
“Well, whatever,” said Myrtle. “I don’t care why you’re buying the flowers, that’s for sure. Like I said, good for business.”
We had gravitated to the hydrangeas, with our noses nearly burrowing into the bouquets, when we heard a strange squeaking sound. The little squirrel of a man who had taken up residence outside Myrtle’s shop was running his right index finger up and down the glass. Myrtle shook her head, tossing her hair back. “Oh, no, that’s where I draw the line,” she said, knocking on the glass where the finger traced. “Don’t touch my windows—I don’t want any smudge marks—and you’ll scare the customers away.” He smiled, showing teeth that were yellowish with the two top teeth gapped. He had stopped squeaking his finger along the glass but was still standing there, just smiling and staring. “Why don’t you just call the police?” I asked. “Isn’t what he’s doing considered loitering?” Myrtle didn’t say anything, but grumbled. “Oh, I don’t know,” she eventually said under her breath.
All the while Myrtle picked through the bundles of flowers, making a small pile on the counter where the register stood. “Don’t tell me you’re giving those to that man,” I said. She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, what else am I going to do with them?”
“Why not donate them to the hospital? That might be a nice thing to do,” I said. Myrtle furrowed her eyebrows and smoothed her helmet of hair. “Don’t they have enough flowers already? Look, I feel bad for him—whoever he is. He just sits there all day and the flowers seem to mean something to him—God knows what, but who cares?”
I was irritable and didn’t want to see Myrtle giving carefully chosen flowers to the bum. I felt sorry for him, too, but other than passing him a stray flower here and there, I thought he should be ignored. I laughed to leave things pleasant and headed out the door. Myrtle, as always, was quickly diverted to something else, scrutinizing whether the Georgia O’Keefe prints on her wall were hung perfectly straight. “See you later,” I said over my shoulder as she fixed her eyes into a bright stamen.
I decided to put the homeless flower-mongerer permanently in my peripheral vision, making my eyes go out of focus whenever he inched in. The problem was when I heard him, too. “Why won’t you? Yes?” he said, reaching up, grazing the bottom of my pants with the stem of a calla lily. “Why don’t you?” I smiled and laughed. “That’s OK, thanks, but I’m all set,” I said. In the past it always seemed that he asked for flowers, but now that he was amassing a collection, he seemed to want to give them away. “Free,” he said. “Free, no problem.” I pulled away the hem of my pants from the edge of his hands and looked away. “No thanks,” I said, quickening my step.
I thought a walk in Washington Square Park might be a good cleanser to the flower-mongerer experience. The sidewalks on the way there were full of sidesteppers, people who jutted out knees and elbows at me on foot and bicycle, and scooter, even. Sometimes, ridiculously, a child—somewhat cute—would scoot by and then a few seconds later—not at all cute—would come the parent scooting. Usually they skimmed the outskirts of my clothing or feet, never bothering to excuse themselves. They assumed I would excuse them, but instead I scowled or made a human-animalistic growl in exasperation. And the smokers blew back their leftovers at me and some facing each other looked up at the sky and blew their smoke upwards as if to be polite. But why should it matter if smoke gets blown in your face if you’re already smoking yourself? “Oh, just swallow each other’s smoke already,” I snapped, though nobody listened. “You’re already poisoning yourself. Who cares if your friends add additional poison?”
The afternoon garbage run was underway. Garbage in the city is an all-day event, unlike the suburbs where you just see the garbage trucks in the early morning. I jogged forward to be in front of the stink rather than behind it. It always seemed—between the toxic smoke and the dump trucks—that I was always downwind of discomfort. I noticed the cigarettes getting crushed underfoot, along with gum and the stray dogwood petals falling from trees. I didn’t understand why it was acceptable to crush cigarettes on the sidewalk and then just leave them there. People frowned on throwing litter on the sidewalk, so why didn’t cigarettes count as litter? The crushed petals didn’t deserve to lie among a butt’s ashes.
“I told you 9 o’clock, so where were you?” a fat blond, with oversize sunglasses and a flowered dress with no waist, complained to what appeared to be her skinny, sharp-faced husband. “I waited here for over an hour,” she whined. She was tall on top of being fat and had to stoop to avoid a magnolia tree bough. Nevertheless, a few petals fluttered to the ground grazed by the top of her ponytail. She spun around and angrily slapped the branch back.
I was walking behind the angry branch pusher, so I held back, trying to stay more toward the magnolias than her. The children and adults on scooters were still there, but as I got onto the periphery of the park, skateboarders were added. I felt like an orange cone or hurtle placed in their path—a challenge for them to skirt.
The beds of flowers along the edge of the park were filled with tulips, but they were just temporary tenants, like a flowerbed timeshare. After they died, what looked like overgrown weeds would take over and then by the middle of July there would be mounds of long-stemmed daisies. They would look dry and close to the beginning of the wilting process, but would end up enduring through August.
A child who looked about four was running toward the remaining daffodils and pulling at their stems. The mother’s back was turned talking to a companion. She would glance back at her daughter stampeding the daffodils’ bed and then back toward her companion to resume the conversation. I longed to scold the child, but didn’t since it’s considered socially unacceptable to yell at other people’s children. Part of the privilege of having children was the freedom to yell at them. “Iris, no!” the mother said. “We have to get going. We’re going to be late.” She finally walked over to the child, scooped her up and carried her off.
The amazing thing was, while the children now and then stampeded the flowerbeds, the dogs were mostly well behaved—even the ones left off leash were better trained than the children to stay off the daffodils’ territory. “Such a sophisticated dog,” I said admiringly to what looked like a golden doodle. I talked directly to the dog, overlooking the owner, who was typically the human-dog-human translator. Couldn’t I just talk directly to a dog once in a while? “I like that you respect the garden. If only more children were like you,” I said to the golden doodle.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the park, people who looked like volunteers were clearing and raking the dirt of a garden that had been covered over with port-o-potties while nearby construction was taking place. Released from latrine duty, the ground was being readied for a planting of some kind.
“What are you planting?” I asked. “What kind of garden?” The volunteers looked at me, but none answered. They were mostly women who looked in their fifties or sixties. Their hair was short and either mousy brown, gray or white, and they were nearly all wearing baggy pants with t-shirts that said “Park Conservancy” on the back. I asked again: “What type of garden is this?” They continued for another few minutes raking with their backs to me, and then a short, chubby sixty-something with short gray and white hair turned slowly. “We don’t know. We’re just clearing it.” I laughed, wondering how you could labor with no concern as to what would grow in the plot you were readying. “Maybe you’ll be lucky, and they’ll be perennials,” I said laughing. They were ignoring me again, so even the one who had turned to answer my question earlier didn’t bother to look up.
On the way home I passed by tons of dandelions and those weeds where you blow and the fuzz gets scattered. I started counting these “flowers” to pass the time back to my apartment, and to keep from losing my temper thinking about Gertrude. I thought about picking the dandelions and white fuzzy weed flowers to present to her, but didn’t want to make any special effort—though that added assault to her allergies would have been funny. I also watched and purposely stepped on the cracks in the sidewalks. I figured a weed eradicator had probably been used to get rid of the dandelions that grow in the cracks, and I felt resentful. Why can’t dandelions be considered a serendipitous garden? They weren’t wildflowers, too?
I watched the flowers rimming the trees and found the “please curb your dog” signs mostly observed, but found a couple beagles on leashes sniffing suspiciously at a mixed bed of daffodils and tulips.
As I ambled away from the park and back toward my apartment, there were no longer dandelions or flowers with fuzzy white tops. In their place were carefully cultivated mini-gardens surrounding the trees with the warnings to dogs. But then again maybe we should at least let the dogs pee someplace nearby. If that’s the way they mark their territory, then it’s like they’re sending love to the flowers—a love that might kill them, but still. I was wondering what kind of accommodations could be made to allow dogs to mark the flowers without killing them when I saw Myrtle coming toward me.
She was dressed the same as always—the fitted jeans, a bright turquoise fitted button-down top and, since it was a warm day, brown Birkenstock sandals, her pink-pedicured, pale toes sticking out. Her thick bobbed gray hair swung back and forth with her fast stride, a barrette of some sort held the top strands from billowing in her face. She was carrying an empty vase tucked into her left elbow. Her red handbag was slung over her right shoulder. She nodded and smiled slightly when she saw me. “What’s the vase for?” I asked. “I’m donating it to the park,” she said. “Apparently, they’re creating a potted border to one of the flower beds they’re clearing and they said they might like a wide vase like this—I ‘ve got a ton of them.” The volunteers must have considered this confidential information because they didn’t share any of this with me when I asked.
“That’s weird,” I said. “I was just over there and asked them what they were clearing the bed for, and they just said they didn’t know.”
“Well,” said Myrtle, “They probably don’t. They’re just volunteers for the day—they just do whatever park management tells them. They’re not the ones making the plans.” Something about this bothered me. “If I were them, I’d be insulted—toiling away at a flower bed for hours and no one thinking I’d like to know the plan,” I said.
“Well, think about it—you’ve seen these people—do you really think most of them have any better way to spend their time? They don’t care—they’re just excited for something to do, whatever it is,” Myrtle said. “By the way, did you say something about your roommate being allergic to flowers? I could have sworn you keep telling me that.”
“Yeah, that’s right—Gertrude at least says she can’t be around any flowers. Why do you ask?”
“Because just before I left to come over here, I saw her parading down the street with her arms full of flowers,” Myrtle said. I had a suspicion of what was going on, but didn’t want to sound crazy, so I just laughed. “Well, that’s Gertrude for you, always up to something weird,” I said.
The rest of my walk home wasn’t as leisurely. I felt the flowers I had lined my small space with were being pulled away from me. I stopped seeing the plantings around trees, wondering why they suddenly dwindled, and then stopped altogether the closer I got to home. In fact, I saw no flowers of any kind except a young woman carrying a box out of an office building with a small green plant tucked inside. It had the look of a move-out box on her last day on the job. I then passed by the building where I used to work and saw people one after another passing through the automated security gates in the lobby. They reminded me of bees coming and going through the opening of a beehive. Every four or five of these people paused on the sidewalk outside to light a cigarette. I turned away to avoid taking in their smoke leftovers—carcinogen leftovers, actually.
The air seemed fresher locked up indoors. Sprawling indoor gardens were starting to make more sense than outdoor ones. “What a disgusting habit!” I said out loud as I passed by the smokers, turning my head and fanning my hand in front of my nose. They ignored me, figuring probably that I was just talking to someone on my cell phone. I also made the “tsk, tsk” sound and shook my head at some of them. They always ignored me, but I kept hoping at least one would see me and feel ashamed to be smoking. At the very least, shouldn’t they keep their smoke to themselves?
Every light holed me up on the way back to my apartment. I didn’t try to walk without the benefit of the red light, even when no cars were coming because I had a bad feeling I would turn my head for a split second and get slammed. Bicycles sped around me, running lights, skirting my heels, and I always seemed to be just in front of or just behind someone, as if I were part of a parade of marching circus animals. If I stopped short, the person behind me would crash into my back and I would bump hard into the person at the tips of my toes. I would be harassed forward if I kept going straight, so I veered off onto another street. It would take longer getting home, but at least I wouldn’t be part of the crowd. That crowd was too conjoined for me—I didn’t want to be one of its middle dominoes.
The rest of the way home, I ran around people blowing toxic smoke back at me (cigarettes again and the occasional cigar), sidestepped even on the sidewalk bicycle riders interspersed with scooters and a wad of still-sticky bright pink gum. I ducked to avoid a low-hanging branch loosened by a recent storm.
There was something soft, malleable and broken into bits I began feeling about five blocks from my apartment. I couldn’t tell what it was at first under my feet. It looked like shreds of bright pink, red, yellow, orange, purple and blue paper. I thought it was some kind of confetti or the remnants of a child’s art project. It was sticking to the bottom of my rubber-soled sandals. I picked up my foot and it looked like smudges or soft chunks of blood. But when I looked closer, I could see it wasn’t that either. I ran the outside of my index finger along the edge of these soft blots of red. They were flower petals, but most were not in tact—they were the shreds of petals. “And they’re just the colors I love!” I said out loud, though no one was listening. “The same colors I like to choose for my own flowers.”
The density of petals on the sidewalk grew thicker as I moved closer to Myrtle’s shop and my apartment. Other people were curious about it, too, and some were bent over picking up a petal and holding it to the light to inspect it. “Isn’t that weird?” I heard one older woman say to her husband. “I wonder if some trees in bloom got cut down near here so the petals blew over.”
As I walked further up I saw Myrtle outside her store talking to a few of the other shop owners in the neighborhood. She was laughing and shaking her head and pointing to a spot on the sidewalk where an old beach towel and a bottle of water had been left. “I’m telling you, you should have seen him go,” she said between peals of laughter. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Like what?” I said gently, trying to push my way into the circle of people she presided over. “Like what?”
“That weirdo who’s always sitting outside here,” she said, pointing to the spot where the beach towel and water bottle lay. “He just got up all of a sudden—with all these flowers—and started marching up and down the block shredding them, shredding them, I’m telling you.”
“Shredding what?” I said. Myrtle looked at me like I was dumb or being facetious. “Shredding what? Shredding flowers—look around you—they’re everywhere. All those flowers I brought him that I was going to get rid of anyway and gave him—he shredded them. Oh, and your roommate, that ditz helped him out, I should tell you.”
“Gertrude? What could she do?” I said. “Well,” Mytrle said, flipping her hair and acting like she was re-telling a story on a comedy show, “She gave him a ton of flowers to shred. They didn’t all come from the end-of-day flowers I gave him—nope, they weren’t all end-of-the-day flowers at all.”
I had a sinking feeling, but at the same time, I wasn’t all that surprised—as if I just should have known better. Gertrude wasn’t such a nice person that she wouldn’t get back at me for carving out a garden in my room—with the door kept closed, no less. I saw her then coming up the sidewalk, in her home-on-the-couch look—yoga pants, t-shirt, dry, bleached hair pulled into a pony tail and long acrylic nails curled under into her palm. She was smiling, but looking down. I kept walking toward her, but she kept looking down and then up toward the roofs of buildings, that same smile remaining and then moving to more of a half smile or nervous smirk. “Gertrude,” I said as I got closer to her, “Gertrude.” She finally looked directly at me, squinting like the sun was in her eyes, though it had become cloudy. “Oh, I didn’t see you,” she said. “I was just taking the trash out, and thought I’d get rid of some things—“
“Like my flowers!” I said. “You gave that bum my flowers!” Gertrude looked off again at the tops of the buildings and then down at our feet. Eventually she looked sidelong at me. “Actually, I just threw them out—in the dumpster, here, she said, gesturing behind at the small white dumpster with garbage cans inside, which our building used. “He must have fished them out of there.” This made me even angrier than if she had bequeathed the flowers to the beggar. The thoughtless dumping of the flowers was far worse. “Well, the thing is, I asked you this morning to get rid of them, and then if you weren’t, to get me the humidifier my doctor recommended, and then I didn’t see you until just now, so I didn’t know what to do. My throat was starting to get sore,” Gertrude whined.
I couldn’t stand looking at her anymore, and thought a donation of her furniture and keepsakes to the dumpster, or maybe directly to the flower beggar, would be a good idea. He had resumed his post among the shredded flowers, yet among the bounty of his shredded collection, he asked for more. The people who had congregated to marvel at the petal-covered sidewalk had dispersed, and Myrtle was back inside her shop. The beggar sat cross-legged opposite with that hand of his still extended to those who passed within or without.
I forgot Gertrude for a moment and stomped over to the flower beggar. “Stop asking for flowers!” I nearly screamed at him with passersby turning around for a second, probably thinking I was his fellow mentally ill homeless person. “Why are you asking for them anyway? I felt bad for you at first. But it looks like all you want is to shred them, so why should anyone help you?” He just smiled and cocked his head like a dog at me. “Please,” he said, pointing at the flowers in Myrtle’s window. “Please.” He either didn’t speak English or he was mentally impaired—maybe even a little retarded. “Is it an experimental art project? Is that what all this is?” If it was art, I would accept it, but waste with no art was intolerable.
It was then that I got my idea. I ran into Myrtle’s shop and asked to borrow a vase, and then began collecting the petals from the sidewalk. I wasn’t an artist, but maybe I could glue them to a board of thick paper and create a collage of some kind. Attention diverted from the beggar to me, and I heard laughing and saw people turn their heads toward me even as they walked away, as if they couldn’t get enough of the strangeness of a woman collecting shredded flowers from a sidewalk. Was it that strange? “What are you doing?” Myrtle asked me, nudging my shoulder. “What are you bothering with those for?”
“Just my own personal salvage operation,” I said, trying to laugh to seem casual. “I thought maybe I could glue them to some kind of artsy paper and make a collage or abstract design somehow.”
Myrtle started to laugh, full-throated and even bent over because she thought it was just too hilarious. “I didn’t know you were an artist!” she said, “I guess we better call MoMa—sounds like something up their ally, you never know.”
“Ha, ha,” I said. “It’s just something I want to do—as long as they’re lying here on the sidewalk going to waste.”
But Myrtle kept laughing and the beggar even started smiling, while keeping his hand extended. “I got more for you, don’t you worry,” Myrtle said to him. “You can shred all the flowers you want—I can’t keep them forever—I have to trash some of them eventually anyway.”
I fixed my eyes on the bright shreds of my bouquet on the sidewalk, collecting it piece by piece—the beggar waiting, hand outstretched for more to collect and tear apart; Myrtle laughing as she bundled together out-going flowers.