The Blooming

By Lewis K. Schrager

Juan Machado stared at the sweating lawyer and the folded sheaf of papers he waved above his head like some kind of threatening baton. It was all Juan could do to hold back from laying him out flat. “It’s all right here,” the lawyer said with the same insolence of the corrupt police that had arrested him and beaten him and finally driven him from his homeland. “We warned you. Seven o’clock tomorrow the demo crew arrives. Anything left we confiscate or leave for the bulldozers.”

Juan snatched the papers. “Get the fuck out!”

Dios mio, Juan, porque tu gritas? Eva called out from inside the fence separating their garden store from the rest of the vast, crumbling parking lot. “I shout at this thing, here,” Juan said, gesturing toward the lawyer as if he were a slug crawling on one of his prized peonies.

 The lawyer climbed into his silver BMW convertible. “Tomorrow morning, seven o’clock,” he said and started the car.

“And until then you can fuck yourself!” Juan shouted. The lawyer extended a raised middle finger through his open window and stepped on the gas. Juan ran after the car and almost caught it but the lawyer turned out onto the street and disappeared into traffic. “Dumb fucker,” he whispered in his heavily accented English. For a moment he wasn’t sure if he was referring to the lawyer or to himself.

Eva came to him and laid a hand on his back, his shirt damp with sweat. “And what would you have done if you had caught him, genius?” she said in that mock scolding voice that always brought a smile to his face. “Hit him like you did to those policemen back home? That got us far.”

“They were no police,” Juan said through deep breaths as his wind slowly returned to him. “They were thugs with badges, working for the cartels. And that is no longer home. This is home. Never forget that.”

“No, I will never forget,” Eva said. “There is much I will never forget.”

“And neither will I.” I will never forget the sudden leaving, the thirst, the heat—the fear of capture or worse, Juan thought. And I will never forget the kindness of those that saved us – the memory of it bringing on the lump in his throat, the moistness in his eyes that brought on a weakness within him and made him unwilling to remember further.

Eva squeezed his hand. “So what is this about?”

Juan took in all that he had built: the vast outdoor garden of flowers, shrubs, trees, a verdant paradise created on a black-tarred wasteland behind an aging strip mall now slated for demolition. “He says we have to leave.” He expected a cry, perhaps a gasp of desperation, but heard nothing except a resigned sigh as soft as a summer breeze. “So you knew as well?”

“The people in the stores, they talk,” Eva said. “I thought we would have some months yet.”

“They start tomorrow morning, at seven o’clock. I will leave them nothing, even if I have to burn it all myself.”

Her eyes followed his as they gazed through the fence at all that was theirs: rows of hostas, each now with a single flower stalk bearing white or pink blossoms waving high above the plant as if in salute to high summer; yellow and orange lilies; dogwood, Japanese maple. Flowering cherry, their root balls wrapped in burlap still moist from the morning’s watering, lined the fence at the back of the lot. “Burn it and you will go to jail for arson. But seven o’clock tomorrow morning? What can we do?”

“I will find a new place. We will move there.”

“In one day? I think it is better to find a good lawyer.”

“A lawyer? I trust a lawyer as much as I trust the police in the old village—maybe less. No, I must find a place for us.”

“And if you do not?”

“There is no ‘do not.’ There is only ‘do,’ and I will. Put everything on sale.”

“Everything?”

“Everything. Tell the customers they can pay what they wish.”

“That is crazy!“ Eva said.

“Better to our customers for free than to the lawyer.”

“And you?”

“I must look for new home for us.” Juan emptied the cash register of all but a few small bills and stuck them in his pants pocket.

Buena suerte, me amor.Eva pressed her face into his chest. Juan kissed her head, climbed into his rusted Chevy flatbed and headed out onto the Pike.

*   *   *   *   *

By the time the sun had set, Juan was convinced he had visited every open lot in that part of the county. It was while on his way back, his desperation pounding in his head after concluding that his search had been a failure, that he noticed a barren piece of land just past a lonely strip of trees and undergrowth abutting the railroad tracks.

Juan pulled into the lot. He walked the land, stopping only before a pile of charred wood just short of the trees, still ripe with the scent of smoke. He knelt down, placed his hand near the wood and felt the subtle warmth. He stared into the trees but in the shadows of the evening and the thickness of the underbrush he could see nothing. A tall, strong fence will keep them out, he thought, even as he imagined that it may take more than a fence to fix this problem.

The land belonged to Jacob Abassian, owner of the office furniture warehouse that abutted the far side of property. Abassian was still in his office when Juan rang the bell to the locked store. Juan couldn’t believe his luck when Abassian quickly agreed to lease the land. Juan fished his cash from his pocket, peeled off the $250 that Abassian wanted as a down payment, and shook Abassian’s fleshy hand vigorously, clasping it with both of his own as if having received from him the commutation of a capital sentence.

It was dark enough to see stars when Juan pulled up to the old store. He found Eva asleep on a stool behind the cash register, her head resting on the counter. “Eva,” he whispered. “I have good news.”

She half-opened her eyes. “I have sold much, but there is still much left. So much left.”

“I have found a place for us. Better than this. Bigger.” Eva’s sleepy eyes grew large as he told her, but then a thought came to her. “If the lot is so big and the location so good, why is it so cheap?”

“It does not matter. It is ours now, and we must start moving. When they come tomorrow, they must not find even a single leaf left here.” Juan leaned across the counter and hugged Eva tight enough to lift her off her seat.

Before long he and Eva had filled the truck bed with their entire inventory of small blooming perennials and a few larger bushes. Juan slammed the tailgate shut and looked at what they had accomplished—then turned his eyes to all that was left: rows of azalea and rhododendron, nandina and laurel, and then the trees, so many trees, most far too heavy to be lifted even by him and Eva together. And then there were the planter boxes, gardening instruments, stacked bags of potting soil and mulch. Juan saw this and sensed the hopeless truth: that all this could never be moved in time. They could never recover from the loss. “We have done well but we must hurry,” Eva said. Juan said nothing and climbed into the driver’s seat.

With the roads empty of traffic it took less than ten minutes to reach the new lot.  “It is perfect!” Eva said.

“Nothing is perfect,” he said.  “It will take much work.”

“And our work begins now,” Eva said as she climbed down from her seat.

Juan handed the plants to Eva, who set each one gently down. After a short while he lowered the last plant off the truck, a good-sized mountain laurel, jumped down and gave a look of satisfaction at what they had accomplished, but noticed an entirely different expression on Eva’s face. “Juan, how will we move our trees?”

“We will move them.”

“You know how hard it is to get even one of the big trees into the truck. They are so many, Juan—”

“We will move them,” Juan said, struggling to believe his own words.

They worked until they could work no longer, loading and unloading three more truck beds. Juan rested against the lowered tailgate, Eva leaning heavily upon his shoulder, her body warm against the sweat-chill brought on by the night breeze. He gazed out at all they had managed to retrieve, realizing that all this was for nothing unless they could move all that was still left behind before the start of the next work day. Feeling his exhaustion, his wife asleep on her feet, he knew that moving the rest would be impossible. Simply impossible.

Overhead, a three-quarter moon cast a soft glow through wisps of ground fog floating ghostlike across his newly acquired land. Juan scooped Eva into his arms. “Where are we going?” Eva murmured.

“Home.”

“Home? No, there is still too much to do.”

“It cannot be done.” Juan lifted Eva into her seat, circled around the back of the truck, slammed the tailgate shut, jolting Eva fully awake.

Juan climbed in, fumbled for the keys, started the engine. “Please, not home,” Eva said. “We must finish—”

Juan flipped on the headlights and the sudden appearance of three figures standing in the glare and Eva’s scream sent Juan’s heart into his throat. He shifted into drive and lurched towards them, but the enormous, dark-skinned man standing between the others, his shaved head shining in the headlights, shoulder and arm muscles massive outside his ragged, sleeveless shirt, slammed his open palms on the hood. As Juan jerked the truck into reverse, a smaller man with unkempt hair and beard jumped up on the running board.  Juan threw a jab but the bearded man was too quick and dodged his fist. “Dude, relax,” he said. “We just want to talk.”

“Talk? About what?” Juan said to the wild-looking man smelling of sweat, cigarettes and urine.

“Just talk. We ain’t here to hurt you—I promise.” He crossed himself, kissed two fingers, tapped his fist twice on his chest and pointed up toward the moon.

“Talk—I’m listening.” Juan kept his hands tight on the wheel, the engine running, his foot on the brake but ready to hit the gas.

“Come on out. I’ll start up the fire, make some coffee. You take regular or decaf? Hey Possum, we got any decaf left?”

Juan took a longer look at the tall, skinny figure standing next to the big man and noticed that she was a woman, dressed in a colorless skirt and a tight-fitting t-shirt, her knotty hair half hidden beneath a worn, red bandana. “Sorry, decaf gone two days ago,” the woman replied. She came up to the window alongside Eva. “You brought pretty flowers. You going to plant them here? This place could use some pretty flowers.”

“We are going to sell them,” Eva said, willing her voice to be calm despite the fright which had her heart pounding. “We have leased this land. We are going to set up our garden store here.”

“A garden store? Sounds wonderful,” the woman said.

“Wonderful my ass,” the bearded man said. “Jesus Christ!” He climbed off the truck, kicked at the dirt, and headed off toward the trees.

“Where you goin’?” the big man in the headlights said.

“I don’t know. Somewhere. Anywhere. Who gives a shit anyway?” the bearded man said and disappeared into the darkness.

The woman called Possum offered Eva a sad, tight-lipped smile. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly frightening about her, Eva thought as she gazed at her in the side-glow of the headlights; if not for the shabbiness about her she might even be pretty. Eva leaned her head out through the open window into the cool night air. And then it hit her—the sharp body odor of the woman that flashed her back to the days of their escape, the sweat-stench inside the hot, dark, truck where they and the others hid after crossing the border. Eva must have made a face because Possum stepped back and lowered her head. When their eyes next met, Eva could see the tears glistening on her cheeks. Eva unlatched the door handle, but Juan stopped her with a hand around her wrist. “Are you crazy?”

“No. Please let me go.”

He loosened his grip but would not release her. “Where the hell are you going?”

“To her.”

“You are crazy.”

“She is crying. Please.”

Juan released his grip. He kept his eyes on the man in the headlights, ready to jump down if he made a move towards Eva, thinking that there would be little he could do against someone that big.

Outside, Eva took a step toward Possum, reached out a hand. Possum hesitated then raised her own hand toward Eva. Eva took hold of it, feeling its course dryness.  “May I ask, why are you here?”

“I—we live here. Here and in there,” she said and pointed with her free hand toward the trees.

Eva found this hard to believe but then smelled the woman’s scent again and knew it must be true. “But—why?”

“It’s no matter now. It won’t be forever, at least not for me. I’ll get me a decent job, clean myself up, and I’ll be fine.” The way she said it made Eva think she didn’t believe a word of it.

“Your name is—Possum?”

“No. Chantice is my real name but Possum’s what they call me. The big dude over there, he’s called Bear.”

“But that’s not his true name.”

“Uh-uh. His name’s Robert. The other one’s Squirrel. Can’t say I know what his real name is. All I know is, when I ended up in the woods, Squirrel started calling me Possum. ‘You’re a night animal now,’ he says to me, ‘just like us.’ So he called me Possum. Possum,” she said, and then the tears really started.

Eva took her shoulders in her hands. “Why don’t you leave?”

“Because I got nowhere else to go,” she said in a kind of pathetic wail that cut straight to Eva’s heart. “And now you’re goin’ to push us out. I can’t live all the time in them trees no more. So now what the fuck am I supposed to do?”

“Pushing you out? Who said anything about pushing you out?”

“You’re puttin’ in a store here. You want us walkin’ around this place while you’re trying to do business? I don’t think so.”

Eva heard the truck engine cut off, the door slam, Juan’s footsteps coming fast and hard around the back of the truck. Que haces?he whispered. “We’ve got to get going.”

“Get going? Where? Back to the old store, so we can stand and look at all that we cannot move into the truck? Is that why we are in such a big rush?”

Juan slammed his fist into the side of the truck. Eva startled at the sound but before he could say a word Bear was on him, his arms encircling Juan as if he were a child’s toy. Juan fought to free himself but the harder he struggled the harder Bear tightened his grip. “I cannot breathe,” Juan gasped.

“Let him go!” Eva cried.

“Robert, enough,” Chantice said.

“Just calm down,” Bear said to Juan, his voice low and slow. “You promise to play nice and I’ll let you go.” Juan nodded and Bear released his grip. Juan half-stood, half-leaned against the side of the truck, panting heavily through the ache in his sides.  “Well, you are right,” Juan said to Eva through short, painful breaths. “What is the point?”

Eva took a deep breath and put her arm around him.Escucha,she whispered.  Tengo idea.

“What kind of idea?”

“Just let me talk, all right? Say nothing, even if you think I am crazy.”

“You are married to me, so I already know that you are crazy.”

Eva planted a small kiss on Juan’s stubbly, sweat-salty cheek. “Crazy in love,” Eva whispered. “Now and forever, and never forget this.” She turned toward Bear and Chantice. “Call your other friend back,” Eva said to them. “We need to talk.”

*   *   *   *   *

They sat cross-legged on the ground around the wood fire that Squirrel had made.  “So that is our offer,” Eva said.

“You want us to work for you? Well Jesus Christ almighty,” Squirrel said.

“How much you going to pay us?” Bear said.

“Not much at first,” Eva said. “But when we get the store going, it will be fair.”

“And what the hell does that mean?” Squirrel said.

“It means—it means that I will pay you what I will pay myself,” Eva said.

“Eva!—”

“Juan, I told you, you must leave this to me.”

“I don’t know about you, but I always wanted to work in a flower store,” Chantice said.

“A garden store,” Eva said. “But, perhaps, someday we will sell fresh flowers as well.”

“And I can make bouquets?”

Eva could not help but smile at the sweetness of the question and could only wonder how someone like her, how any of them in this America which she now called home, could have ended up living in a lonely grove of trees between a railroad and a deserted patch of trash-strewn ground. “Querida, someday I hope that you can make bouquets. But there are no guarantees—except that, if you do not agree to this, then we will not come here and you will stay where you are until something else comes your way.”

“Which may be never,” Chantice said.

“That is something for you to consider,” Eva said.

“And what about your customers?” Squirrel asked. “We don’t exactly look like those people working on the floors at Macy’s. That ain’t going to change as long as we’re living out in the woods.”

Eva had not thought of this and now had no answer. She looked over to Juan, the flickering light of the fire dancing lovely in her eyes. “We will find you a place,” Juan said. “There are rooms and a shower in the basement of our church. I know families who may take you in. You will have to pay them something, but soon you will have the money to do this.”

“But only if we start now,” Eva said. “There is a lot of work that must be done before they come in the morning. Even now I am not sure that there is time.”

Bear stood up and brushed the loose dirt off his pants. “Well, then, what the hell are we waiting for?”

Squirrel, Bear and Chantice climbed onto the flat bed. Eva sat in her seat and squeezed Juan’s hand.  “Thank you for all this,” she said.

“It is I who should thank you.” As he started the engine, Eva opened the passenger door.

“Where are you going now?” Juan said.

“In the back. I will ride with them. Remember how it was for us, Juan? It is the right thing to do, and this time it is a much shorter ride.”

Juan shrugged his shoulders knowing it was no use to argue. He pulled out into the street and thought about how he, and Eva, and now the others as well, would make the dirt lot bloom. He thought about this, but mostly he thought about Eva, crouched in the back with the three lost Americans. And then the memory returned—how the truck had stopped as he and Eva sat, half dead, near the side of the road after crossing the border. How the American strangers hid them, how the wife of the driver got out of the her seat up front, crawled in the back and laid down with them beneath a blanket her husband covered with hay, how she gave them water and food and said not to worry, that they knew this road better than the patrols and that they would be safe. It had been a long time since he had allowed the memory to play out fully in his mind but now he no longer felt the weakness. He swallowed hard with the memory and brushed the back of his soil-stained hand across his cheek as he guided his truck through the dark, empty town.

___

Lewis Schrager has published a dozen short stories in literary journals including South Carolina Review, Southwestern American Literature, South Dakota Review, Cottonwood, Bryant Literary Review, Colere, and Quiddity. His staged dramatic productions include Fourteen Days in July (Baltimore, 2014), Levy’s Ghost, (Baltimore, 2005), and Shadow of the Valley (St. Paul, MN, 2005).  Schrager is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University (B.A., 1977) and the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (M.D., 1981). He received an M.A. in Writing (fiction concentration) from Johns Hopkins in 2003. He lives in North Bethesda, MD and serves as vice president of Scientific Affairs for Aeras, a Rockville, MD-based non-profit biotechnology firm committed to developing vaccines for tuberculosis.


Comments are closed.