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The Flower Lady
I was robbing a brick ranch at 314 E. Woonsocket Way when I saw the Flower Lady through the window.
She was an ordinary lady, not too tall. Her hair was straight and long. She had a wool jacket on, blue, and a watch cap. She was young. That drew my attention right there. Most ladies had moved into the neighborhood in the 1970s, when they got married. But the Flower Lady was carrying a baby. She had flowers in her hair, and this was the dead of winter.
There were colors around the Flower Lady, like when the sun shines through a waterfall, or a fish scale catches the light just right. Then she was gone, and the colors were gone too.
I looked away from the window and cased the place. The jewelry was in plain sight. It was good that people trusted each other in Springfield. Yeah, I was a crook, but nobody wanted to live in a city full of crooks, not even me.I took four diamond rings and a gold necklace. I would have felt bad about stealing, but the jewelry was high quality. Whoever the old lady was that lived in that house, she was rich.
I told Junior about the Flower Lady that night at dinner.
"That was the Flower Lady," Junior said.
"She from around here?" I said.
"Some kids say that she's from another country, or something," Junior said.
"She rich?" I said.
"Don't steal from her. It's bad luck," Junior said.
"I steal from everybody," I said.
"No, don't," Junior said. "Seriously. It's like, some kids say she might even be a witch, or something."
"How much you get out of the lockers at gym class today?" I said.
"Four hundred and thirty dollars," Junior said. "Some girl left her money there for prom tickets and a prom dress."
"We're going to the Bruins game on Friday," I said.
The next day the sun poured down like gray paint.
I went into the supermarket. The Flower Lady was there, wearing a store apron.
Blobs of yellow, red, green, and purple color floated around her like balloons.
I bought a bag of chips that said, "Sun" on the label, and tried to make eye contact with her as I left the market through the automatic door.
She smiled at me. It was a sad smile. She wanted to tell me something.
Junior and me got rinkside seats to the Bruins. Junior had three hot dogs, curly fries, and a large coke. I had four beers. The Bruins lost. A guy in a Penguins jersey got smart, so I punched him. Security started to run me in, but I slipped them a hundred dollars. The four hundred and thirty dollars were gone.
Mr. B makes his case
Junior got busted on Monday.
"He got the money from mowing lawns this summer," I said to Mr. B, the Principal.
"He's on video leaving the locker room," Mr. B said.
"Oh, I didn't know he was the only one in the locker room that day," I said.
"Don't get smart with me," Mr. B said. "This is a school matter for the time being, but the victim has a right to press charges."
"I hope she's got proof," I said.
"She?" Mr. B said.
"I mean, whoever the kid is, I hope they've got proof," I said.
"Junior left school ten minutes after he came out of the locker room," Mr. B said. "He changed four hundred dollar bills for twenties at the Circle K. It’s on tape. The victim's mother says her kid left for school with four hundred dollar bills."
"I remember when you were just a coked-out punk, starting fights that you couldn't finish on Friday night at Pizza Palace," I said.
It was true. Mr. B was a weasel. Nobody could stand him. We voted him Most Deckable in high school, and he hadn’t gotten better since then. I don’t know how he got to be Principal. It was like, the worse of a weasel you were, the higher up you rose in the school system.
The Flower Lady
I was driving home, mad at Mr. B, when I saw the Flower Lady walking along the side of the road, on the far side of town by the highway overpass. It was dark and cold. Nobody should have been walking down there. She was carrying her baby.
Colors came off of her into the night, like the colors that come from Christmas light bulbs with tinted glass. They were little thin rays of green, red, and blue that didn’t do much to fight against the gloom, but they did light up her face in a beautiful way.
I pulled over.
“Hey lady, you need a ride somewhere?” I said.
“I’m only going to the park on the far side of the river,” she said.
“Hop in,” I said. “I’ll take you there.”
She stared at me long and hard. She was standing in gravel and broken pavement and glass, and a few scrawny looking brown weeds that had died long ago. Then she climbed in. She held her baby in her arms, since I didn’t have a car seat.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I’ve seen you around town,” I said. “You always have those flowers in your hair.”
“I like colors,” she said.
The park was close. I had to talk fast.
“Lady, I’ve lived in Springfield all my life,” I said. “I’ve seen lost bikers when the motorcycle rally is on up north in the summer, but this is winter.”
“I’m old,” she said. “I’m tired. You’re right, I’m not from around here.”
She filled the cab of my pickup truck with colors. They came from beneath her clothes. She was made of light, like candles and fireworks come to life.
“The colors...” I said.
“It’s always the colors,” she said. She looked at me. “Everybody stares at the colors. It’s the way I am. Surely you know that fireflies blink in colors, and ctenophores phosphoresce in the summer waves? I was born this way. It’s in your DNA too, you know. We’re related. All life is related. Colors could just pop out in one of your children too, with the right mutation. Sometimes I wish that somebody else would radiate colors.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“I’m old,” she said. “I’m the last of a line, a small line, that should have died out long ago. We were colorful like this. We never aged. I never threw a spear, or built pits to trap mammoths, but somehow, I made it through. I’m the longest Hail Mary pass that’s ever been thrown. Two million years of pure luck.”
“You like sports?” I said.
“Not really,” she said. “I like the colors of the uniforms.”
“I don’t get the Hail Mary thing,” I said.
"If you're a blind chicken, you probably get eaten, because you're blind, and because you taste like chicken," she said. "But out of a billion blind chickens, if they have the potential to be immortal, one might get through. I’m that chicken."
“There were a billion people flashing colors like you?" I said.
“No,” she said. “But even one blind chicken could get through.”
“Now I’m hungry,” I said.
“You have colors in your body too, the potential for colors,” she said. “All of the glows and flashes from creatures that live in the dark ocean depths are in your DNA. The flashes are hiding, not expressed, but chance could bring them out in future generations. It happened to me. Your child might live forever.”
“What about your baby?” I said.
“Oh, he doesn’t have colors,” she said. “He’s not immortal either. But I love him.”
“I..., who...” I said.
“The father?” she said. “Joel Svedlick, first line center for the Boston Bruins.”
“He’s had a bad year,” I said.
The Flower Lady stared straight ahead.
“I mean, a good year for his family, obviously,” I said, “but a bad hockey year.”
“Whatever,” she said. “I told you, I’m not a fan. I was working as a Bruins cheerleader for a month. They hired me because of the colors. I watched the jumbotron, and missed the games. They fired me.”
“And now you work at the supermarket?” I said.
“I like to organize things on shelves,” she said. “I’ve got to make ends meet, and besides, this way I get to know when cereal goes on sale.”
We were at the park. There was nowhere for her to sleep.
“You’re just going to get out of the car here, in the parking lot, with your baby?” I said.
“Do you feel sorry for me?” she said.
“You look beat up by life,” I said.
Her colors flashed more brightly.
“I’ve been sleeping outside for two million years," she said. "You’re going home to a T.V., and worry about where your next meal is coming from, while I’ll be out here looking at the stars and dreaming. Someday I want to go to the stars, and see the colors of distant planets. I want to fly by Saturn and Jupiter, and then take a tour of the Milky Way. Our own galaxy would be good enough for me. If we are going to explore the planets, it would make sense for humankind to send me. I’m immortal. I know nobody will ask me to go today or tomorrow. But kindness and rationality may rule some day. I can wait. I’ll come out of the woodwork then, and appeal to our leaders. I’ve got all the time in the world.”
Then she was gone into the cold, carrying her baby in one arm, and singing, for all the world as though it were a warm summer day, and seagulls were flying over her and her baby on the beach.
The most beautiful mural in the world
I pulled away, parked on the next block, and walked back. I’m a thief. What can I say. Somewhere, somehow, she had something worth stealing.
There was a light on in the woman’s restroom. Through a small frosted window I saw the shadows of somebody’s arms moving against the white plaster roof. The shadows were long and thin, exaggerated in form, as though it weren’t the Flower Lady moving, but the forearms of some giant escaped praying mantis. Then the light turned off.
I heard footsteps going towards the river. I started to follow her, but curiosity about what she could have been doing in the bathroom gripped me. Besides, I have a thing about women’s bathrooms. When I could no longer hear her footsteps, I slipped inside. I didn’t want to turn the overhead light on and alert her to my presence, so I used the small flashlight on my cellphone instead, careful not to play the light around the window.
What I saw inside that bathroom would have astonished Howard Carter, the discoverer of Tutankhamen’s tomb, had he been there to hold a torch in his trembling hand.
It was a mural, painted in fingernail polish on the bathroom wall, that showed scenes from the Flower Lady’s life over two million years. Empty vials of fingernail polish, of the kind from the bargain bin at the Dollar Store, littered the floor. The mural was astonishing in its complexity, and depicted daily life in a thousand lost civilizations. The ice age was there, and saber-toothed tigers. Volcanoes erupted and covered the earth in ash. Ancient rulers in Cambodia rode elephants into battle.
I spent all night chipping the yellow ceramic tiles on which the mural had been painted out of the bathroom wall. I glued the tiles onto sheets of plywood. I had destroyed what the Flower Lady had drawn on the grout between the tiles; still, the effect of what remained was stunning. The mural was more intricate, beautiful, and accomplished than Michelangelo’s decorations on the roof of the Sistine Chapel.
I drove the mural to an art dealer in Boston. I told him who the Flower Lady was, the length of her life, the colors that flashed from inside her chest when she spoke, her dreams, and her love for her baby, the son of the first line center for the Boston Bruins. He didn’t believe me--how could he have believed me?--but his processing my tale of the Flower Lady as the ravings of a reclusive mad artist, which he must have done (as if I could have produced such a work of art!), and which he must have figured would give him in turn a story to sell, added value to the mural. He paid me six hundred and eighty-five dollars.
I whistled my way back to Springfield. It was another gray day, but I was used to gray. I passed the gray carcass of a deer by the side of the road.
When I neared town, there were police cars by the park, near the women’s restroom. I couldn’t stay away. I had to know what happened to the Flower Lady. An officer motioned to me to open my window.
“The park is closed,” he said. “You need to go home.”
“I have a friend here, an old homeless lady,” I said.
“You know that lady?” he said. “She doesn’t look like the rest of them. She was here. She walked off towards the Safeway on Elm Street.”
I squealed my tires. I didn’t owe the Flower Lady anything. I didn’t owe anybody anything. I wasn’t proud of being a thief, but I wasn’t ashamed either. Is a rattlesnake ashamed of being a rattlesnake? But there was something about her that left me uneasy. It wasn’t my conscience. I didn’t have one.
It was a feeling she gave me that a flood was coming, that would wash downriver from Vermont and New Hampshire, and cover Springfield a mile deep in water. She was an omen of something terrible like that. I would be torn away from the earth by the water, pulverized, and swirled downstream in a cold black torrent.
No. My fear was irrational. Such a flood would not happen.
But the fear pressed on the back of my neck like a thousand pound weight.
I saw the Flower Lady half a block from Safeway. I pulled over.
“You,” she said.
“I didn’t do it,” I said. I was a thief and a liar.
“You’re worried,” she said. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to do the right thing?”
“I do what I do,” I said.
“I’m late for my shift,” she said.
“Am I...” I said.
“Cursed?” she said. “Yes.”
“That’s it?” I said.
“I’m not worked up about it,” she said. “I’ve seen bigger sinners than you.”
It was dark when I got home. Junior was gone.
There was a one-word note on the table: “McGillicuddy’s”.
He’d soon tire of slinging smoked turkey legs on McGillicuddy’s food truck--the state fairs would all start to look the same--but it was better that he tire of it now, when he was young. And I’ve have his debt at the school paid off for him when he got home. There wasn’t always honor between thieves, but there was honor between Junior and I. We were family and thieves.
“Freeze!” a voice said.
“What the...?” I said.
An old lady pointed an enormous pistol at me.
“Lady,” I said, slowly, “just take what you want. How’d you get in here? I’m a thief too. Maybe I deserve this. Maybe you’ll reconsider and work with me as a partner? I can’t see anybody giving you any grief. I’ve got some chops.”
“I’m not a thief,” she said. “I live at 314 E. Woonsocket way.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking a...” I said.
She cracked me over the head with her pistol. I fell to the ground. I felt a lump on the crown of my head. I looked at my hand. It was bloody.
“You don’t what?” she said.
She flipped me her cell phone. A video of me robbing her house was playing.
“I didn’t...” I said.
She hit me--crack!--harder than the first time.
It looked like she had no muscle in her arms. But the stringy tendons playing around under her skin were like steel cable.
“You're doing time, son,” she said.
“Don’t hit me again, Lady,” I said. “I’ll make good.”
No way home
I’m in county jail now, cell B-231. The food’s as bad as they say.
Mr. B tracked me down here, after Junior was truant for a week. He said that he’d take care of Junior, if and when he comes back to town. Great. Mr. B and the curse of the Flower Lady are conspiring to get Junior out of the family business, now that they've done me in.
We had a legacy.
Maybe Junior won’t come back. It’s one thing to hump a grill for McGillicuddy when you have a hometown and a family to come back to, even if your father is a thief, and another thing when there’s nothing resembling a sofa waiting for you anywhere in the world.