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Brock Clarke

A Widespread Killing Frost

Bad blood down at the VA hospital. Outside we've got a widespread killing frost, and I'm in knots over my wandering Jews. Inside the cripples are cranking it up on the subject of Jacksonville, Florida.

"I have traveled to Jacksonville twice, without expectation," says one of the old sufferers.

This young turk, Thomas, takes on a smug look and superior posture. He should. He claims that the Jacksonville International Airport gives him an absolutely terrific erection.

All the enduring and noble old centurions are set off by this big whopper. They shuffle over and let loose in the name of everything true and reasonable.

"Jacksonville has a passable modern art museum," someone says.

"I am happy to say that Jacksonville is not the state capital," the first old geezer shoots back.

"I couldn't find not a one pinball machine in the whole city," another one says. "Not one pinball player neither. I would've got the high score."

"I've never been to Jacksonville," Thomas tells them. "It's the airport I'm talking about."

"Does it carry the New York Times?" I ask.

"I don't think that's it," Thomas says.

"Then maybe it's something in the air," I say.

Thomas fixes me a stare and says, "I tell you true, there is nothing funny about it."

Which is, in fact, the sad truth. This poor man would have us believe he spends his brief adulthood winging around this big old country, rerouting himself past convenience and expense to experience the X-rated pleasures of the Jacksonville International Airport. Then, all he's left with is the story itself, which no one believes but everyone hates him for. There is absolutely nothing funny about it.

Then again, he's no worse off than the rest of the young turks, who are in the other corner near delirious over their validation. They've been chagrining the government for years about being gassed, poisoned, etc. by the very government itself while out there in the desert, killing off all those Communistic Muslims. The government has now said, Fine, you've been poisoned. This has set off some fearful celebration in the VA hospital. Someone has smuggled in some beer, someone else cigarettes. One of them has even gone and wrapped himself in the American flag, which he takes off only when his diarrhea, vomiting, vertigo touches off a counter-celebration that makes drapery ill-advised.

The old cripples hem in poor Thomas and pretend disgust or envy or no interest. They are afraid to look at their younger selves. They are also afraid not to look at them. They take their diversionary potshots at North Florida with one rheumy, collective eye toward the future.

Then there's me, the woman who acts just as a lady florist and lady wife should not. I'm supposed to educate them all about plant life.

Well, the theory goes, I asked for it.

This October 15, on his thirtieth birthday, my husband and I went off drunkenly and declared our love in public spaces. We did this in both New York and Ontario. This was all according to tradition. When we got home, Bobby Candace remembered he was a Catholic.

"I was confirmed in the year 1980," he said to me.

"That's what I thought," I told him and went to sleep. When I woke up ten hours later, he had given up alcohol, alphabetized our records, and murdered all of my plants except for an Easter cactus, which Bobby Candace thought majestic and not a little holy.

"You're looking at a better man," he told me.

"What happened to my plants?" I asked back.

He stood there handsomely and swallowed some important phrase, which I knew would be a quote and heavy with intent. Then he walked away. Through the sliding glass door I could see all my plants laid out in jagged rows on the deck. Some of them were tipped over. Some of them were upright. They were all taken dead by a frost, exposed to the frost itself by the husband who had overnight revised me into an evil and damning influence. I am a florist. I have a degree and no one can tell me it was constructive criticism. I mean, this wasn't one of your easy orange-killing frosts you get down South. We've got frosts that can kill cattle if they're already a little sickly and not truly loved.

My husband spent the next month convicting me of poisoning him with eight years of middling debauchery untouched by middle-class reserve. Bobby Candace teaches the creative arts part-time at the community center, which means he's got a nimble mind and a thesaurus. Once, I got home from my shop and he'd typed up twenty-odd synonyms for the word "repent."

"Hey," I told him. "We've done things, but within the law and only with each other. This is love, is it not?"

"You went to the movies without me," he said.

"It never made the papers," I said.

The spouse's soft heart is starved for proof. Instead of answering me, Bobby Candace went and found a picture of me drunk at our wedding, a speeding ticket, and copies of his and my tax returns, which revealed a prejudice towards capital enterprise and against the life of the mind. Then he ran away singing "Sad sad sad."

That night the sky was clear and the frost inevitable and charismatic in its sensibilities. Science teaches us that so many things can happen on clear nights, and all of them bad. It doesn't need saying, when I got up the next day my replacement plants were dead. Bobby Candace left me a note on the kitchen table that read: "What goes around comes around." And then: "With love."

Ultimately, I set about to prove his truth. After three nights of trying, I finally introduced my van to the brick wall of a fast food drive-thru. When I got in front of the judge, he said, "You were drunk."

"Correct. I was also hungry," I told him.

The judge sentenced me and sent me home, where Bobby Candace was waiting. "Are you going to jail?" he asked me.

"I am going to the VA hospital," I said. He looked distraught, his good, young soul choking with self-hate, and it pained me to disappoint him. So I wept a little and said: "The judge said I needed to learn something about hurt. He also said I was developing into a bad woman."

"Well," my husband said, "that's true."

Among florists there is no honor, no lack of honor either, nor a fondness for community, rivalry, or the whatalls of advertising. There is no consensus in sexual preference. There is no celebration of sexual difference. There is no sex. There is no hatred or weakness for complimentary manuals with titles like How to Grow Tulips in Cold Climates or Your House and Hanging Plants. There is hardly anything at all except for the public joy of our vans, and a fair degree of etymology, which is our private ache. The vans are white, tattooed with a rose or sunflower of nuclear proportions. We buy them used and paint them ourselves. We do not lease because of our fear of mileage restrictions. Sometimes we throw those complimentary manuals in the back and drive at unholy speeds around the dirt roads with potholes like bomb craters, listening to the bindings bounce and snap a little musically like bones.

But the etymology tells us how the world works, except when it tells us how it doesn't. There is power in knowing that "philodendron" means "lover of trees," that "rosemary" comes from the Latin meaning "sea dew" and was used in classical days as a symbol of love's truth. There is relief in discovering that "impatiens" has nothing to do with temperament.

There is no relief in the legend of the wandering Jew, a clinging ivy who in human form mocked old Jesus on the cross without understanding that mocking was criminal, and was thereupon damned by the savior himself to wander the world until kingdom come. Which is when the savior forgives the Jew or does not.

And there is no relief in the story of my husband, who is anxious and philosophical. One night he goes to bed and realizes that he is thirty and has no idea how he got there without resistance or accomplishment. Like most men of thirty, my Bobby Candace is big on reasons. He turns over in bed and locates one. He explodes my drunk sleep into a long, wet history of contagion. I get less moral and less moral, and he feels better all the time. The past becomes the smoke of convenience and vindication. But for me, the past is all terror and clear promise. Our horse is fine feelings and beauty, and I ride it by memory and as a matter of course. I remember that I loved Bobby Candace and that he loved me. Because it happened that way once, I have faith it could happen again.

I keep buying houseplants and leaving them unattended. Bobby Candace keeps killing them. I keep buying more plants. He used to not kill them. I keep hoping he'll remember why.

Regret is at high tide back at the hospital. The inmates are in full remorse, feeling a lot of bad after feeling a very little bit of good. They have driven Thomas from the rec room. After losing the war of celebration, dying out to fatigue, beer funnels, and uncertainty of purpose and going in drips to their rooms to chew on a future of expiration or endurance, the leftover young turks joined the old crew in shaming poor Thomas out of arousal and into a small fury. Finally, he quit the room, his long black hair flapping out behind him with a facility hateful to the cripple in all of us. Now, the rest of them can't figure out why they did what they did. They can't be sure if there is anything real and good left in the world. Those who don't have visible wounds are about to start in on the ostentation of those who do. I stand up and ask them to fix themselves into a circle. This is what all of us want me to say:

Take back your deluxe heart monitors, cable TV, and cheap emotions.

Give me back my husband, my leg, my faith, my life.

What none of us wants is the fulfillment of my community service, but I break out my overhead projector and my notes and have at it anyway.

The one thing you don't want to do when teaching veterans about houseplants is to expose them to terminology. My lecture on southern exposure and bay windows is a rare hit, and I am right in the middle of my spin about rhizomes, viviparum and propagation when I notice their look, which amounts to an expression of final terror. They are being invaded by rhetoric. It is Pearl Harbor '41, Saigon '68, Baghdad '91 all over again.

"You're singing to the chorus," one keen old victim finally tells me.

"Praise Jesus," I tell him.

He looks at me for a good while. He has expansive white eyebrows and a kind, attentive gaze. "You're a real character," he finally says.

"I am a florist accused of moral contamination."

"I am dying," he says.

"Not so much," I say.

Then, to cheer him up I relay the story of the Saintpaulia. "The Saintpaulia," I say to him, "is otherwise known as the African violet. The name "violet" supposedly comes from Io. Io was a Greek maiden who Zeus changed into a heifer. He was trying to hide her from his wife, who was jealous of Io. Zeus created violets for that girl, to make up for having turned her into a cow."

"And why would he do that?" the old geezer wants to know. "What kind of comfort is that?"

"I have no idea," I say. What I do know is that I am a florist accused of moral contamination, fearful of high cloud ceilings and turncoat husbandry and adjudication. They are soldiers who have to convince the free world of cause, effect, and premeditation before settling down to the satisfaction of being bona fide, lifelong cripples. We are in a concrete box with high windows glazed with night's black and November's deep frost, and I am supposed to learn what it's like to be dead and dying, except that my teachers have no interest in death as a teaching tool, and I am a teaching tool, well-versed in the rigors of plant and home life and terrified of all lessons therein and -of. We stop talking because none of us can stand to learn one more new thing about this world. Those of us who can cross our legs do; those who can't pretend a lifelong grudge against leg-crossers. We remain like that for a long time. Outside the frost is beginning to work its way into the ground, making the earth crack, seize up and cleave with the force of the cold as we sit there quietly, very quietly, and with a little hope.

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