P e t a l s

**I wrote this in October, when sunflowers were in season. Scott likes it better than anything else I’ve written.**

Petals

“Cut the sunflower a little lower – there!”

Jenny listens to her manager and snips the thick stalk

She nestles the bloom into a bed of seeded eucalyptus

Then picks up a stem of pale green hydrangea

And works it in, working, working, as fast as she can

The delivery driver waiting, watching, tapping his fingers on the counter

Trying not to think about the homework

He needs to do when he gets home tonight

Jenny’s hands are flying now, bringing in solidago, spiral eucalyptus,

And rust-colored mums

And she keeps moving the sunflower, which doesn’t seem to want

To stay in the right place

And she tries not to bruise the golden petals

Like the worker on the California farm

Who made the first assault

When she took her knife to the base of the stem

And swept up the bloom to

Add it to her growing bounty of gold

Her name is Ana and she makes less

Than Jenny’s supermarket wage of $9 an hour

When Ana made that first cut,

She was thinking about the milk in her breasts

That needed to be pumped before the day was through

And she was thinking about the sleep she didn’t get

When baby Anita cried all night long

And she was thinking about the petals

Bright, garish, and oppressive in their ubiquity

And yet relentlessly beautiful

And she was careful not to bruise them

As was the bundler in the packaging room

Whose name is Betty and whose wrists were tired

They are always tired

Vern, the Ameri-Cal Floral driver, knew that day 

That he had a long night ahead

The road was not his friend, but it was

Always his companion

And he was not thinking about the petals

Of the sunflower, now wrapped and bundled in a long box

Vern was thinking of his favorite radio show,

“Night Figures,” a speculative show about aliens

That was just about to start

When he revved up the engine

And he was thinking about his next cig,

Which was nestled carefully in its soft box in his left pocket

Vern handed the flower box off to Josie at Floral Distributors, Incorporated

At 3 a.m. this morning,

And Josie, frazzled but hardened in her overnight shift

Handed it off to Steve, the driver, who didn’t like talk radio

But preferred top 40 hits instead

Steve was thinking about how he wanted to maybe go back to school

He was still young, he thought, and maybe he

Could make it in business

Maybe

Steve was thinking about that when he handed the box of sunflowers off

To Jenny at 7 a.m., who smiled

And in her brown eyes he thought he saw the tiredness he felt

And he made a joke about coffee

And she laughed

But it wasn’t funny

And he knew it

The piece is finished now, the sunflower is set

“Just one moment, Alex,” Jenny says,

“And you’ll be on your way.”

She scrawls “You are my baby forever, hope this makes you smile”

On a tiny square of paper

And writes a name and address on a tiny envelope

Amanda, a tired mother of three, opens her door twenty minutes later

She emerges from a cacophony of childish noises

And brushes a blonde curl away from her green eyes

And she blinks at the sunflower

And the hydrangea, and the seeded eucalyptus,

And the rust-colored mums

And the tiny envelope

And she knows that the fight they had last night

Is over now

And she takes the vase

Careful not to bruise the petals

Of the flower she has always thought

To be a little garish, maybe a little too bright

But he can’t be expected

To know that

She loves balloons

“My mother is 89 today,” he tells Jenny, smiling with his eyes.

She shows him and his chatty wife the rack of mylar balloons and walks back to her work, picking up the feather duster once again. Flick swish swish, dust dust dust…

She hears them behind her:

“They did such a nice job with the cake.”

“They did. Bright and colorful. She’ll love that. You think this balloon goes with it, then?”

“Yes, sure, close enough.”

Jenny turns around.

“Find one?”

“Yep!” he says. “Could we get one hot pink, one light pink, and…”

“…and one orange,” his wife finishes, decidedly.

“Absolutely. Give me just a second.”

Jenny wishes customers wore nametags too. Him with his smiling, bespectacled eyes, her with her gray bob and vibrant emerald scarf. She hears them behind her as she turns on the helium nozzle:

“You got the card?”

“Of course I got the card.”

“So, 89, huh?” Jenny says, tying them to a bright pink sand weight and struggling to stuff them into a bag.

“Yes!” He is so proud.

“And she is sharp as a tack.” She is proud too.

“That’s great,” Jenny says. “I was just talking with my husband the other night about age…he says he never wants to be old and decrepit. But what if your mind is still good? That’s what I said to him…”

“Exactly!” says this force of emerald and gray. She steps closer to the counter as her husband inserts his credit card into the reader. “She never did much for exercise, but she always walked. And she always read. And current events! She has always kept up with current events.”

“Is that the secret, then? Eighty-nine and sharp as a tack? Walk, read?”

“And current events!” This woman’s eyes are commanding. “Keep up with current events.”

Jenny pulls the receipt out and hands it to him. Jenny has been given a direct order.

Yes, ma’am, Jenny thinks. Anything you say. You with the emerald scarf. You have the answers.

She hands the bag of bobbing balloons to the man.

The emerald lady tilts her chin at Jenny and holds her gaze. “And she has always been her age, too. Never tried to be younger. I think that’s her secret.”

“She sounds like a wonderful woman.”

Emerald lady raises her eyebrows and smirks: “Yes, well…and…stubborn.”

He laughs.

“You folks have a wonderful day,” Jenny says, meaning it. She always tries to mean it. She means it half the time.

They walk away, the balloons bobbing, their steps sure.

Yes, ma’am, Jenny thinks.

“She just loves balloons,” she hears him say.