Friday, October 26, 2012


by Colleen Sutherland

Portia. Constance. Bianca. Sydonie. At night, their images waft through my nightmares. By daylight, their scent lingers throughout this apartment. I rush through my morning rituals to leave them behind, but even on the streets of this small town, they are there, mocking me, always a presence.

It was Great Aunt Chloe who introduced me to her flower world. She took me in when my parents threw me out. I was only a teenager but was already trouble. I came to live in her old house, so old and useless that ramshackle was too good a word for it. The rusted old kitchen plumbing, the old light fixtures, the old furniture. It was too dreadful. I never brought friends home.

When I first arrived I thought the many plants growing in Aunt Chloe's windows were an attempt to hide the awfulness of the house, but soon I realized the house existed for the plants, at least in my aunt's mind. They were only there to pass the time until spring.

In mid-March it all began with the first snowdrops pushing up through the spring mud. Aunt Chloe dragged me out of the warm house and through the slush crying “Come see!”

The snowdrops were followed by crocuses, daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths. Each new arrival demanded my presence. I laughed silently as she bent over them, her butt the perfect model for one of those plywood lawn ornaments. I detested the gardens but tolerated her and her damned flowers because while I hated the house, it was a place to hang until I turned eighteen. With all those plants, no one noticed the marijuana I grew in my bedroom. Though Chloe recognized each leaf her garden, she didn't know what weed was.

“Ah, you're catching on,” she said. “You'll be a gardener yet.”

Her special pride was the rose garden that lay between the house and the funeral home next door. The first roses arrived at the end of May. She told me their names. The first was Mr. Lincoln. Climbing the highest along the fence were the Seven Sisters, and of course Sydonie, Wise Portia, Fair Bianca and Constance Spry. She had climbing roses, tea roses and rose trees in every shade from white to deep purple. She gathered rose bouquets to fill vases that she spread throughout the house. Whenever there was a funeral, she filled a vase or two for the deceased. The last to bloom was in October. I didn't mind. As long as the roses served as room deodorizers, she didn't notice that I was smoking pot in my room.

All through summer and fall the flowers came, wilted , and died until even the hardy mums quit. No longer was I called on to “come see” and I was left in peace except for the pots of geraniums that flourished in the bay window bringing with them spider infestations. Throughout the winter she was spraying everything with evil smelling organic remedies that replaced the scent of roses and still covered my tracks as I smoked on.

I left Aunt Chloe as soon as I was of age but life never went the way I wanted it to go. I wandered from city to city and never found a real place of my own, a job , or a man I could hang on to. Then word came that Chloe was ill. Her friends thought I should come home and be there at the end. I scraped together enough money for a bus ticket. Two days after I arrived, the old woman was gone, leaving me the house.

Finally, I had a place of my own. I began to throw out the plants but that revealed the peeling wallpaper. I left them alone. From time to time, I watered them whenever I thought of it which wasn't very often. Still they thrived. It was as if Chloe was still tending them.

I took out a mortgage on the house and that gave me something to live on. I hung out at the bars at night and during the day smoked pot. I wrote novels that were never printed painted watercolors I never sold. I didn't worry over much. Something would turn up. I invited guys from the bars to come and live with me but I threw them out when they didn't give me money for mortgage payments. I could live without sex. I couldn't live forever without money. I took out a second mortgage in those halcyon days when bankers handed out money with no questions asked.

The gardens were weedy, but I didn't care. By June the flowers took over and the weeds were just so much foliage.

As I said, something always came up. The funeral director came over one day and asked if I was willing to sell the house. He wanted to expand the funeral home. In this town of old people, business was thriving. He needed more parking room, too. He made an offer but it would barely cover the first and second mortgages and I would be left with no place to live. I refused.

Then the bank president came and suggested I take the money. He was getting nervous, too. The recession was on and he knew the bank could get stuck with the old house.

Finally there was an intervention with the funeral director, the bank president and even the president of the Chamber of Commerce. “You're holding up progress” she said.

“Make me a better offer,” I said. They did. Both mortgages were paid up with money to spare. I took the cash and bought this condo. It would do until something else came up, I thought.

The funeral home tore down the house and paved over the lot and all the flowers. It was as if none of it existed.

But come spring, cracks formed in the asphalt and thorny twigs pushed up. The contractor was called in and a new layer of asphalt laid down. It did no good, the twigs kept appearing. He brought in botanical experts who recommended herbicides. They sprayed. And re-paved. It took three years before the roses were finally eradicated. Spring came and nothing was there but the black parking lot.

It was in early spring that the banker was killed in a robbery. I went to the wake out of curiosity as most of the rest of the town's population did. He was laid out in his coffin, with the wound cleverly hidden. All around were the floral arrangements sent by businesses who had dealt with the banker. They were expensive, as was his due. Most of them were rose baskets, so many they filled the viewing room. The sweet smell reminded me of my Great Aunt Chloe and her garden. I hurried out.

Two months later, the president of the Chamber of Commerce was killed when she hit a white tailed deer out in the country. I didn't go to the wake but as I walked past the funeral home, the smell of roses came wafting out when someone opened the door.

Tea roses, I thought. Seven Sisters. The scents were coming back to me as memories.

And finally, it was the undertaker's turn. As fall turned to winter, he was felled by a massive stroke. His son and heir put on the very best funeral ever. I stood outside in the dark, watching as van after van brought vases and baskets of roses sent from all around by the families he served. There were so many flowers that the bouquets started working their way out the door, sitting on the steps and even on the sidewalk.

And now it is winter. Outside, the snow is falling, a real blizzard. I can't escape this place. The condo has been up for sale for months but no one is showing any interest. I sit here in my living room, wrapped in blankets, afraid to move in case I trip and hurt myself on the vines that are creeping out of the walls. They are shadows but I know what they are planning. Soon thorns will prick and tear at my flesh. All around me are Sydonie, Portia, Bianca and Constance. I can smell them. They are waiting for me.

I hate roses.

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