This afternoon the rose bush went black. Two brown, crinkled leaves clung to one
stub branch. Stiff gray soil pulled from the edges of the pot.
“Coffee grounds,” Cristin frowned. She read in a woman’s magazine that used
hickory grounds made excellent fertilizer. Evidently not. She sat on the middle
porch step, which connected the house to the front yard, and placed the clay pot
an arm’s length away. Six stalks held a promise – neither would let love die, not in
this lifetime or the next. Every morning, Cristin shared half of her first cup of
water: encircled the soil, spritzed the pea-green leaves.
“You’re a year old now,” she whispered to the plant. Starlings flew to a “v”
overhead while leaves blew across the patio welcome mat. It was September 1.
Cristin stared across the yard, unable to hear the telephone ring or the message
on the machine. She noticed her blank staring last month, although she couldn’t
say for sure exactly when it started. A lot had changed in four months. Now Cristin
assumed responsibility for all expenses – house payment, credit cards, groceries –
and for their six-year-old son Jayson. Every pay period, Bradley’d bring home a new
packet of baseball cards for Jayson, a habit Cristin couldn’t break.
Thirty-five dollars for gas a week meant not many extras between pays. There was
no back-up plan or emergency fund; everything froze the day Bradley died.
She poured a little more bourbon in her sweet tea, failing to see her grandmother
sitting in the rocking chair, tucked into the corner porch railing. Up until her
husband got real sick, Cristin ate whole grains and triple-washed fruit, avoided
caffeine, never drank alcohol.
“Damn, lost another game,” Grana spit as she shuffled a deck of cards. A breeze
rustled the magnolias and large white petals cascaded to grass.
Cristin yawned, “I didn’t hear you get up.” She laid her head on folded arms and
closed her eyes. Grana watched the weekend mailman wave as he criss-crossed
After a moment, she said to Cristin, “When you fixin’ to move?”
“When I’m ready.” Cristin leaned back over the steps.
“Hired a realtor?”
She ignored the question.
“You’ve gotta git past this,” Grana began. “I mean, alls I had to do was send the
guv’ment a death certificate. Your grandpa took good care of me. I wasn’t in your
position, but from what I saw with the gals at the laundry, you just push it to the
back of your mind and ignore it.”
They sat silent. Crickets screeched from underneath the porch. The dogleg house
was quiet except for the murmur of highway traffic two blocks west. Cristin felt her
nostrils thicken from the mixture of stale sweat and Grana’s French parfume. With
ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit and 100 percent humidity, air hung, pushed against
lungs. Sweat layered skin. Before air conditioning, people only went outside in the
heat of the day for emergencies. Even now, appointments are limited to “before
lunch” or “after the rain.”
What’s nice about the 3 o’clock rain, Cristin thought, is it cuts the heat. Nothing
too severe, simply enough to calm nerves. Break the day. Kids swish in gutters.
Business-types take coffee breaks, and elderly folks sit back on their porches. It
certainly seemed better than a December ice storm, when everything begged for
“Cristin, the sooner you stop pourin’ whiskey in your tea,” Grana said, pausing to
flip over a new row of cards, “the sooner this will pass on.”
Cristin looked away, setting her glass behind her. There was no denying those
mornings she still believed Bradley, flushed from a sunrise run, newspaper in hand,
would come through the back door.
She needed a walk. The bus stop was a few blocks east, passed a row of duplexes
but before the Piggly Wiggly. She plopped onto the bus bench. Across the street,
an old man hunched over a bed of six roses, planted along the edge of the
sidewalk. His bent hips aligned with the tallest bush, summer’s pastels clashing with
his black shirt and khaki pants. As sweat pooled on her upper lip, she wondered
why, in this heat, was he wearing flannel. He hovered over the plants, snipping
burnt red branches, then stuffing them into the base of the bush – a common
Cristin pulled a bottle from her oversized purse; whiskey burned down her throat.
Magnolia Street seemed bare – no voices, no action, no wind. Except for the
gardener. Mid-swig she noticed his touch; it was almost unmanly. He lifted the
underside of the larger leaves, stroked them to the tips, and blew. She watched as
he spread white powder over slate ground, kneading it deep into soil with a
homemade forked gadget. Knobby fingers stripped stuck soil from the metal, his
thumb spun bits loose, drafting them over the plants. He spread dirt like Grana
spread fresh parsley. Above his waist, the man wore an unpolished leather satchel
with at least eight pockets set round. Other handmade metals laid flat on his
thighs or stuck straight against his rounded back.
Straightening, the old man yanked a cooper spoon from one of the front pockets.
He pulled a tiny opaque bag from his chest pocket, broke the seal, and scooped a
spoonful of black dust. Once even to ground he flicked the spoon empty.
Cristin considered yanking the old man from his stance, he’d seemed poised for so
long, when he jolted upright and threw his hands to the sky. A cool burst of wind
stiffened the rose petals, their hues brighter. The gardener laughed, expanding his
torso and resting on the back of his heels. Maybe the wind made her cough, maybe
the liquor. Whatever started the fit, it produced the kind of cough that scrapes
the back of the throat and forces eyes shut.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” said the old man as he approached. Cristin bunched up her
purse straps and turned away, inhaling a pungent mix of car exhaust and her own
sweat. She arched the neck of the bottle to empty its last drops.
He stood diagonal to the bench, slightly back from Cristin. With a yellowed
handkerchief, he wiped his forehead, circling his cheeks and swooping down the
bridge of his nose. “My wife made the tartest lemonade this side of the Mississippi.
Sure could use a tall glass about now.” Without asking, he sat. Although she didn’t
object, she scooted into the corner of the bench, pinning her leg to the iron
armrest. His voice echoed, boomed over the occasional roar of a passing car; she
assumed he was hard-of hearing.
“I show them roses – professionally. That yellow and white one I call Summer
Lemonade, after Louisa’s sweet lemonade. I first done the hybrid in nineteen and
ninety-seven for the Owens County Fair. Took me a long time to learn them roses.”
“I don’t like flowers,” she said.
“Louisa didn’t neither till she met me. Bet you’re one of those ladies who prefers
perfume or diamond earrings.”
Cristin shifted her weight. Not only did she abhor diamonds, her ears weren’t
“You got kids?” the old man persisted. “Louisa and I had eight – three boys, the
rest girls. That turned into thirty-eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Did you say you got kids?”
She told him she did.
“Played ball with every one of my boys. My pops took me – when I was knee-high,
back in nineteen and thirty-three – to the first All Star game, where Frankie Frisch
hit a homer deep in the sixth.”
Cristin’s hands were sweaty, mouth dry. When she spotted Bus 56 two blocks
away, she figured her getaway, but it turned a corner too soon. Delivery trucks
lumbered down the street, spewing black clouds; a siren blared in the distance. But
the old man droned on. Her gaze glazed and memories of last summer at the
Carolina Chalet, where Bradley tried to teach Jayson to swim, weaved between the
old man’s stories of back alley pick-up games with neighbor kids. Exhaustion filled
And then, through the afternoon haze she saw her Bradley; not an actual vision of
her husband, just the feeling he was sitting beside her. For their first date, Bradley
took Cristin to his nephew’s Little League game. If it was summertime, everyone
knew Bradley’d be at a ball game. On the night of the funeral, Cristin boxed up
Bradley’s baseball cards, along with the fly ball he caught at Wrigley Stadium on a
weekend trip in ’89. She sold their season tickets for the Louisville Bats to Bradley’s
cousin. When Jayson wadded up the Ken Griffey Jr. posters and tossed them into
the fireplace, she felt some relief.
After a moment, running his hand through his balding hair, the old man said, “You
awright, Miss? You’re blushin’.” She mumbled something about the heat, wiping
sweat from her upper lip. As he made his way back across the street, she called
out, “You think baseball’s like roses?”
”Well now, both take tending. Sweat and dirt and a whole lotta faith – but what
reward at the show.”
Tiny raindrops began to darken the sidewalk.
Mikkilynn Olmsted is a Denver writer and performer. Artistic pursuits change daily. Her writing has appeared in journals such as High Grade, Zephyrus, Watching the Wheels: A Blackbird, HazMat Review, among others. She currently teaches at Colorado School of Mines and Metropolitan State College of Denver.