Dead Flowers

by David Laidlaw

     It was at three o’clock in the morning that I finished a second draft of my letter to councilman Kane, written because I’d read it recently in the news that his wife was dead. It’s such a shame, I wrote. She was just such a beautiful woman. Besides everything else, I mean. Besides everything else she was, I wrote. The truth is, I had only ever seen her photo in the papers. But councilman, I wrote, it pays to see good in a bad situation. The whole wide world considers life cheap, and really it is, and cheap is the only sensible way to consider it. In the end, I wrote, we’re better to toss it off. Better that she was able to do it that way, I wrote, on her own terms, in her own time, by her design. At the end of the letter I signed off saying, Up up up and Away! And afterwards I fell asleep like that, sitting in my chair at the desk.

     When I woke up it was morning. I was lying in bed. And it’s for reasons like this why I hate this miserable time of year. Nothing holds together. Nothing makes sense. Everything unravels. Every thread’s cut loose. I can’t even hold myself together now. I can’t trust myself to wake up in the same place as where I fell asleep.

     This morning I woke up at a reasonable time, but then just lay there in bed for hours. I lay there like a rabbit, with my head in my hands. And for hours I watched the window where rain was falling and every so often a small black bird flitted by. Grape vines in the garden, although wasted by the cold, still clung to their trellis of stick and twine.

     Earlier Joe had had his friends in for coffee, and there’d been a ruckus above. I knew all about it, even though I’d been asleep at the time. I knew it because of the dreams I had had. I’d dreamt it was the end of the Second World War—radio announcers, all of them men, shouted broken English into their microphones, blinded in a smoke of too many cigarettes and choking on the salt of their tears. Then I’d heard something tumble down the stairs. I dreamt of Joe standing under the window, shouting after someone, shouting something about plums. He had a perfect pyramid of golden-purple plums in his outstretched hand. But his hands as always were thick of dirt. And Joe as always was drunk. Coffee in the morning meant three fingers fat of rum spilled into each cup. It was the same as every Wednesday. He and his compatriots started in around seven o’clock.

     But don’t you judge him. You haven’t the right. You gave it up. You forfeited that when you so happily forgot the fact that Joe was still alive. Still putting in hours. Still shaking his legs. Still at it, just as his house still stands and I’m still renting the suite below. And everything is still as it was despite the fact that you left.

     By the time I got up Joe’s friends had gone. And Joe had probably taken a bus downtown. Probably he’d taken himself to drink at the old Tin Whistle. And that’s another thing that I just can’t stand about this time of year—no sign of life, just silence and still. Just dozens of pots and pans laid out in the garden trying to catch the rain. And the sounds of hot blood and piss roaring through my open ears. That’s maybe why I’m writing the letters. Because I get so lonely, you understand. And I go crazy with it, this loneliness, this silence and this awful still. I get up. I take out the garbage. I eat a slice of toast with butter and egg. I smoke yet another cigarette in the yard and wander barefoot in the cold, up and down the muddy paths of the garden.

     Every year Joe tends to the garden. He grows an array of both flowers and food. And every year he overwhelms his neighbours and his friends with fruits and vegetables, with apples, figs, plums and onions, beans and peas and bunches of kale. But every year around this time, the garden decides just to up and die. And it leaves him floundering. And every year Joe flounders a little bit farther off. And then he’s gone a little farther off and he can’t make it all the way back.

     I ask him what it’s like.

     He says, It’s exactly like losing my wife.

     He says that more than anything else he misses the flowers, and he wishes every year that they’d be quicker coming back.

     But Joe isn’t sentimental. He wears a ball cap reading, Old as Dirt. And he walks all around town drunk, with his zipper down and the tails of his soiled shirt poking out like a tuft of feathers in the dismal array of the seat of his pants. He calls me a son of a bitch. Asks, do I ever get tired of always only fucking myself? And he boasts that he’s been growing food for over seventy years, ever since he was a nine-year-old kid. I know everything there is to know, he says. He holds his face right close to mine. And he smells of cabbage and of barley wine.

    It’s a story at any rate that I’ve heard at least a half-dozen times before. About how his father had to fight in the war, about how his brothers had to fight in the war, about how the war raged all around them, east and west and north and south. So Joe had to pick up one half of the farm, or else starve with his mother and his sisters. In fact the only part of the story that I’d never heard before is one Joe told this afternoon, how one of his brothers never came home. The army had been in retreat, so they had lost track of who fell when and where. And the only thing the family ever had of their son was a postcard that came one day by mail some months after the boy was supposed to have died. On the postcard there were just a few words.

Addressed to the mother. Saying, I miss you, come home.

     I said to Joe, That doesn’t make any fucking sense.

     Then he started in asking for an advance on my rent.

   Tonight I am at the desk, sitting with a cup of coffee,  staring off. I’m sitting over the scattered pages of so many old ideas, of so much worthless thought. Letters that will never be written. Letters written that will never be sent. And I know all the while that the only thing I ought to write is a letter to you. The one, and the only one, that counts. So I pick up a pen and a sheet of paper. And I bend myself over the desk. But nothing comes to mind. Well no, it isn’t nothing. But it just doesn’t make any sense. It isn’t something you would understand. Not now that our lives have split and have come undone. Not now that we are far apart. It’s nothing you’ll understand, but then there are no other words for me to write. So I pick up the pen once more and one more time bend myself into the task. I scratch a few words on the page.

     Single draft. I’ll send it tomorrow.

     Saying, I miss you, come home.

David Laidlaw’s writing has been featured in several print and online literary magazines, including Cosmonaut Avenue, Event, Descant and Pilot Pocket Books. He lives with his wife and two sons in British Columbia. He is currently working on big things.