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Roadside Roses

white buckets with roses on flagstones

I decided to write short stories again, solely for the pleasure of writing them and sharing them. I asked my daughter for a prompt. She said she wondered about the flower peddlers on the side of the rode, about the economics of selling roses that way, and the different reasons people would stop and by them there, instead of in the store. I wrote this freehand, outdoors on a sunny day, in about two hours. Life is good.

Roadside Roses

Camilla took off her panama hat and wiped her forehead with her bandana. A twinge in her back reminded her to get up and stretch. She got up slowly and carefully, mindful of her movements. The heat helped. She felt good and flexible today. It was the frosty days that caused the most trouble. Though she was hot and sticky, she worried more about the roses.

As she put her hat back on, she watched as a blue SUV slowed and pulled onto the gravel verge. The sole occupant, a man in a salmon-colored polo shirt, didn’t get out. Camilla guessed he was wrestling with a decision. Whether to buy her roses, take the job offer, or move far away, Camilla couldn’t guess. And guessing was something she couldn’t help doing. It helped pass the time. She sat back down on her camp chair. Her mind wandered as she waited to see if he would come buy her flowers. She remembered when she sat in her car aching to know what to do. That was a lifetime ago, but it left an indelible imprint. She wondered every day if she had made the right choice. Asked herself if she would have made a different one, if she’d known about the unforeseen consequences. But she never answered the question. Day by day, brushing it aside as pointless.

The man leaned forward. Maybe reading a text. His thick black hair fell in his face as he threw his head back against the headrest. Then he saw Camilla gazing at him. ‘Busted,’ she thought. ‘I shouldn’t have been watching his drama. It isn’t for me to see.’

He seemed to come to a decision. He became aware of his surroundings, squared his shoulders, and slipped a neutral mask back on. He got out and smiled. Or rather his mouth smiled. He had full lips and chocolate brown skin. His almond eyes betrayed his grief. He kept his head down as he made his way to the flower stand. As he came to the umbrella shading the roses of yellow, red, and pink, he lifted his gaze to Camilla. “Your roses are beautiful,” he said.

“Thank you. Will you save some of them from this wilting heat?”

“Of course,” he said. Then he just stood there, as if the transaction was complete, and he didn’t know what to do next.

Camilla left him to his grief. Let him have a moment to collect himself. After three minutes, she could stand it no longer. She felt a bit like a voyeur. She busied herself with making him a bouquet. She didn’t ask how many, what colors, what’s the occasion. She just put together the best bouquet of the day. Camilla witnessed a slice of many a life’s events. Couples in love, eager men choosing flowers for a first date, men who came irregularly. Some of those men looked at her and knew that she knew it, too. Flowers wouldn’t fix the “thing.” It was just too big to fix with flowers. She also shared the spontaneous joy of the people so in love that they needed to express it or die. And sometimes, she was a grief counselor.

As she tied the bouquet, his eyes seemed to focus again, his soul returning from wherever it had fled or burrowed. He looked embarrassed. Camilla thought, not for the first time, that people, at least those who didn’t stay stuck for their whole life, experience embarrassment to a lesser and lesser degree as they aged. She pegged him for 36, though she was never very good at guessing ages. Thirty-somethings still thought social norms were absolute and that politeness was more important than authenticity.

“Oh,” he said as he saw the bouquet. His face contorted as though he’d forgotten how to arrange his own features. “They’re beautiful. And perfect. I . . . I . . .”

Camilla put a hand on his arm, feeling it tense slightly at the touch. “Have you lost someone close?” She set down the bouquet on her folding table.

“I . . . I . . .” he tried again. Then his knees buckled. Camilla grabbed both his arms and gently ushered him to her chair. He let her maneuver him without saying a word. Then she grabbed an empty crate and set it down near him. She disappeared under the umbrella and came back with a sparkling water from her cooler, which she opened for him.

She handed him the drink. He had the expression of someone who has just woke up in a foreign land, like he couldn’t comprehend where he was. He drank two droughts of the water.

“Thank you,” he said.

Sitting down on the crate, Camilla asked him if he would like to talk about it.

He sat still. Gazed toward the horizon. Deciding. “I have made the hardest decision of my life. My . . . my . . . .” And then he sobbed like a baby. Camilla held his hand, offered him a clean handkerchief. She always had a clean hanky. Just in case. She let him let it out. A car slowed and pulled in to park in front of the SUV. Then the couple saw they were sitting talking and moved on. “Good,” she thought. “I’m not here to sell flowers. Not now.”

Sniffling, blowing his nose, and taking deep breaths, the man poured out his story. His mother had been on life support, he said. She had been in a coma from a car accident for five months. He had the life support removed that morning. His little brother railed at him and called him a murderer. He knew it was just grief talking. Aiden had no coping skills. He didn’t visit their mom or help with her care or her house. He was too busy drinking and blaming everyone else for his misfortunes. It still hurt, he said. It always hurt. The man lost his dad, when he was only 17, to cancer. Since his mom’s accident, he’d lost his job and his girlfriend because of the grief that began long before the plug was pulled. He told Camilla his life’s story before he’d even told her his name.

“My name is Camilla,” she said.

“I’m Lance.”

“Lance, I’m so sorry you’re going through this painful time of life. May I ask who the flowers are for?”

“My dad.”

Camilla thought she must have misheard him.

“Mom used to give Dad a bouquet of roses on his birthday. She said men like flowers, too. They are just trained not to show it. She’s . . . she was very progressive.

“And today’s his birthday?” she asked.

Lance nodded.

“Lance, you came here for flowers, but I’m going to give you some advice. Every day, when you wake up, tell your mom you love her, tell yourself you love you, and tell yourself it’s okay to be happy today.”

He furrowed his brows and tilted his head. “Who are you?”

“I am a woman who has stood in your shoes. Who had no one to help me navigate my grief. I punished myself and blamed myself and lost everything. You don’t have to.” She stood up and brushed the dust from her backside and picked up the crate. “What plans do you have after you decorate your papa’s grave?”

“Nothing,” he said with such heartbreaking grief it was all Camilla could do not to embrace him and cry with him. “I have no plans.”

“Well, then. Help me pack up. We’re going to visit your papa, and then you will come home with me for a nice meal. You aren’t gluten intolerant, are you?”

They packed up and she followed him to the cemetery and waited in her beat up pickup truck as he spent time with his father. Then he followed her home. He parked behind her in the drive. She would park the truck around back later. The roses were beyond saving anyway.

Again, he didn’t get out of his car.

She had seen that expression many times. The one that seems to say, “How could an old lady selling flowers on the side of the road live in such a mansion?” She smiled to herself, thinking, “Today is a good day.”