A Special Petal
By Yael Mermelstein
I know that Daddy’s worrying himself about me these days. Worrying himself silly, that’s what Mommy says. I never understood that expression but I never really did get expressions at all. Things like “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” like Daddy always tells me when he takes me to a job interview at the pizza store. I know that chickens and pizza don’t go together and I don’t know what hatchlings have to do with interviews. It all becomes one giant mess inside my brain when Daddy talks like that, but I nod my head like a good boy (I’m a man already really at 38 years old!) and say “that’s right sir,” like I learned at my day residence.
I might not understand what Mommy means about worrying himself “silly” but I know what worry is. I can feel it creeping into my bones every time I lose a job and I can hear it slipping out from under Mommy and Daddy’s door when it’s closed at night and they talk in tiny whispers.
“What will become of Avi?” Daddy asks.
“We knew this was part of our future the moment he was born.”
“I know, but now that we’re all getting older it’s so much more real.”
I don’t want them to worry about me. I’m not unhappy. I wake up at the same time every morning, wash my hands and face, put on my brown pants and my white shirt with the green alligator swimming across the collar. I go with Daddy to Shul for prayers and then come back to a breakfast of blueberry pancakes that Mommy makes special for me because she loves me from my toes all the way up to the top of my head. Then things get a bit confusing. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I go to the adult residence for the day. On Tuesdays we do arts and crafts, painting and drawing and sometimes pottery. Every Wednesday the residence has a sale where they put all our stuff on display. I’m not very good at arts and crafts though, so none of my stuff ever sells. On Thursday we prepare for Shabboss, our day of rest. They teach us how to bake challah and Mommy is mighty appreciative that I save her all that extra work even though she bakes a few extras every week “for a rainy day” though there hasn’t been a rainy Shabboss in months. I’m happy that I save her a few extra dollars too! Things have been “tight” as Daddy likes to say, which makes me think that all his money is squished up against each other in his pocket.
But the other days of the week really need some “fine tuning” as Daddy always calls it.
“Avi needs a job. Who’s going to take care of him when we’re gone? What’s he going to do to keep himself happy?” The words slither under Mommy and Daddy’s door like the black garter snakes I once kept as pets in the yard. I bury my head in my pillow and stuff the ends into my ears. I don’t want to be worrying Daddy silly and I definitely don’t want Mommy and Daddy to be gone.
I tried hard for a long time. First I was a pizza delivery boy but they decided they needed someone who could drive and I can’t drive because I can’t pass the learner’s permit test. Then they hired me to clean up in a meat restaurant on Avenue R but I kept on forgetting and leaving the bucket in the middle of the floor and the third time the owner tripped on it he fired me. I wanted to work as a bank teller because I’m actually really good with numbers. But the bank people didn’t think that I was such a good image for them, you know, seeing me and talking to me first thing when people walked into the bank, like “This is Middlebank everybody! This man over here!” No. Ha ha, that wouldn’t have been good at all.
Mommy is up early this morning, fixing my blueberry pancakes.
“Why so many?” I ask.
Shira and Binaymin are coming for lunch today.
“Yipee!” Shira is my youngest sister and Binyamin is her youngest son, two years old, fat and yummy. I give him raspberries on his stomach and he doesn’t squeal or move away from me like people sometimes do when I walk down the street. The moving away from me part, I mean, not the squealing! People aren’t crazy! I do a little dance around my chair and Mommy laughs. Then she leans over me and she smells like lemonade.
“Daddy got you another interview this morning.”
I want so bad to make some money so I can buy Mommy earrings in the shape of seashells and make them both stop worrying so much.
“Goody gumdrops! What kind?”
“At the florist.”
I could get free flowers, I could bring some home for Shabboss, I could get some nice ones for Mommy and…
“Don’t get your hopes up Avi.” Mommy leans down and kisses the top of my hair and I’m so glad I washed it with Johnson and Johnson shampoo that smells baby fresh.
“I just don’t want you to be too disappointed,” she says. Then she pulls my chin up real sharp and looks in my eyes (which are grey or green depending upon what I’m wearing, that’s what Mommy says.) Mommy looks at me like she’s about to say the most important thing in the whole entire world.
“Job or no job,” she says. “I will always love you. And so will Daddy. You understand that?”
I nod, because that’s one thing I always know. I don’t know why she tells me this so many times lately.
Daddy drives me to the interview. He always does. The flower store is on the corner, color spilling out of buckets that line the window. A woman and her dog press their noses against the window, eying a bouquet of red flowers. I know that they’re roses because we have a garden full of them at home.
“We’re here for the interview,” Daddy tells the woman behind the desk.
“I’ll get the boss,” she says. Then she disappears like there’s a trap door behind her. I breathe in deep.
“It smells good here. Better than our garden at home.”
“That’s because the store traps the smells inside,” Daddy says.
This bothers me. I don’t like the idea of trapping anything inside that’s supposed to be outside. I know about these things because I’m always supposed to be trapping my words and my thoughts on the inside so that people will like me better and sometimes it’s worse than being a lion in a cage.
The man that comes out of the room, the boss I suppose, he looks a little scary. He’s holding a thorny stem of some sort and I can tell he’s not being careful. His eyebrows are fat as pigeons. He doesn’t smile at me or at Daddy, just sticks his hand out to shake Daddy’s hand and then moves it over and shakes mine.
“My name’s Mel Rosenberg,” he says. “I presume this is the young man?”
My father nods. “Not so young, he’s 38 years old.”
The man nods. His hair is grey but his face has no lines. He looks younger that Daddy, maybe fifty or fifty three years old. He looks at me.
“I need someone to sweep up here and do some deliveries on foot to the locals.”
“I can do that,” I say.
“And you’d have to get rid of the wilting flowers and the dead leaves. Spruce up the bouquets.” I look at Daddy.
“He can do that,” he says.
“I can do that,” I say.
“Good. I don’t really have much more to ask. The job’s the only test here. He can start right now.”
Mel hands me a broom and I start to sweep. My father leans forward. “Give him a chance,” he says. “He learns slowly but he’s loyal and he won’t cheat you a cent of your time.”
Mel leans right back in at my father. The pigeons over his eyes bob their heads. “He works, I pay.”
Daddy backs off, getting that “worried silly” look on his face again. I’m not worried or silly, I am sweeping green, yellow and purple petals into a pile and looking all over for the dustpan. I know I saw it a minute ago but I can’t find anymore.
Working at the florist is a “dream job” as Mommy says. To me, dreams are dreams and jobs are jobs. The difference between flowers and pizza, I realize, is that I like flowers and I don’t like pizza. I’m not very good with colors on a paper but when I see them in real life, all those colors floating around my head all day long with those yummy smells, it reminds me of what it’s like to be with my little nieces and nephews- real. Mel will never sell so much as a fake branch like some of the other florists do. He’s real careful that everything is fresh and sweet smelling. He doesn’t talk much to me except to say “straighten those begonias over there” and “trim those roses down over there”.
I learn the flowers fast and furious. I always knew I was good with numbers but it seems I have the same talent with flowers. I learn the names of all of them, Lillies and roses and spiderwort and tiger flowers. But I also learn the scientific names and I catch Mel smiling once when I offer a customer a bouquet of Tigridia Pavonia. But I make sure to take good care of the dumb carnations too. I know what it’s like to be ignored and I make sure that all the flowers get the same attention. I can smell out a flower by name from ten feet away and Mel tells me I have a finely developed sense of smell which makes me feel fine. Other than that, Mel says nothing to me except; “empty the watering can,” and “pick those petals off the floor before somebody thinks this is a stable.”
But it is only when I am alone with my orchids, my Orchidaceae, that I am truly happy. There is something that draws me to these flowers, that makes me sit with my nose in them, remembering all the best parts of my life. Like when my sister Shuvi made me a hat out of bulrushes and I wouldn’t take it off, even for sleeping, even for baths. And when Mommy and Daddy took me to the petting zoo when I was fifteen and they let me ride a pony. Things like that. There is one other time though that Mel speaks to me. I am sitting with my Orchidaceae and Mel comes over and runs his calloused thumb across a petal.
“Two petals look just the same,” he says. “And one petal looks different. That’s why you like them so much.”
I might have a different sort of IQ like my parents tell me, but I know what Mel is saying. I’m so used to being the different petal in the bunch!
Sometimes I wonder if Mel is really the different petal. One time I’m brave and I try to talk to him.
“Do you have a wife?” I ask him.
“Too much trouble to keep,” he says.
I scratch my chin. I once heard my neighbor say such a thing about a dog but I never heard anyone say it about a wife.
“Do you have kids?” I ask, wondering if maybe they were also too much trouble to keep.
Mel looks sad, the gruff look wiped off his face for a second.
“Too much trouble,” he says, but his voice cracks and though I know what he’s said, all I hear is the word trouble. Then he goes back to his Birds of Paradise that have to be moistened.
The second time I start up a conversation with Mel he’s busy putting together a bouquet for a bride.
“Pink or red with this?” he asks me.
“Pink,” I say. Then I figure if he’s asking me for an opinion then I can ask him what I really want to know.
“Are you going to fire me?” I say.
“If you keep pestering me, maybe.”
I wonder if I should continue asking him questions or if that would be considered pestering. I find myself stuck between a rock and a hard place like Mommy likes to say (she explained that one to me and I really got it because I feel like that all the time.)
So I go back to sweeping the floor even though there aren’t any petals left to sweep.
On Tuesday morning the world nearly ends. I walk into Mel’s flower shop and I can smell from five feet away that there’s a problem with the plant sitting in the corner. I give it a nasty stare.
“Gotta keep up with the Joneses,” Mel says.
“What does that mean?”
Mel sighs and comes out from around the counter. “It means the other florists are bringing in some fake plants and I have to keep up with the competition.”
My heart nearly falls out of my chest. I know my voice is going to sound all throaty which probably means I’ll get fired. The last time I cried at a job was when I was hired to clean the air conditioning vents at an office and I found a kitten stuck in the vent. I was gone that afternoon.
“You can’t do that to my flowers,” I say. “Flowers belong outside, attached to the ground. If you must bring them in here to sell, at least put them near their friends.”
“Oh well, they have lots of friends,” Mel says. “But now they have some new friends too.” He holds out a fake plastic leaf for me to touch but I shrink away and wrap my arms around myself. Maybe I don’t even need to get fired, maybe I’ll just quit.
“Yeah.” Mel puts his head in his hands. “You love G-d’s creations as much as I do, don’t you?”
“I love plants as much as you do,” I say. I can’t talk about all of Hashem’s creations because Mel thinks keeping a wife and kids too much trouble and I would give a whole forest away just to have that.
“It’s business Avi,” he says and I am startled that he knows my name.
“But it’s not real. I hate it.” I say.
“I hate it too,” Mel says. “But what do you suggest?”
I think back to the first time I came to the store with my father. I know what I want to say to Mel.
“Don’t bring the indoor plants here. Take the flowers and put them outside where they belong. I can bring some dirt here in wheelbarrows and put them outside the door and we can grow things. Real things! Things that people can take home with them and keep on growing.”
Mel taps his fingers against the chestnut colored counter. “That’s not a bad idea you have there Avi. Your’e telling me to expand from being just a florist to also being a quasi nursery.”
The next day I help Mel move half of the plants in the store outside and I give away the plastic tree to a man who keeps his barking dog tied to a tree for way too long. I figure he and the plastic tree deserve each other. Then I haul three wheelbarrows full of dirt next to the front of the store and start planting right inside the wheelbarrows!
“You’ve got some insight,” Mel says. I don’t know what he means by that, but his smile tells me it’s a good thing.
It takes a few weeks for things to start pushing their noses out of the soil, but it doesn’t take much longer than that for the customers to come round.
“How’r the marigolds?” they ask me as I tend to the flowers.
“Coming along,” I say, tilling the soil with my fingers, loving the way it runs through them.
“It’s a regular sidewalk nursery,” a lady with a big straw hat says. I nod.
They come back every day, these customers, to check on the plants and see how they’re doing. When something doesn’t take root they pat my back as I cry and when something struggles through we all cheer together. Poor Mel stands by the doorway, waiting and watching. Somehow I get the feeling that he’s been waiting and watching his whole life.
I tell Mommy and Daddy about all the new things going on at the shop.
“Isn’t it exciting?” I say.
Mommy gives Daddy that “worried silly,” expression and I wonder what on earth they could be worried about now that things are going so well at the store.
But I should have known that things don’t stay the same forever. Not plants and not people.
I come one morning and Mel isn’t looking good at all. I ask him if he needs me to get him a cup of coffee, no milk, one spoon of sugar-the little spoon not the big one- but he just waves me away to my wheelbarrows which are bursting with color by now. But in the middle of speaking with Mr. Fenster about Ground Elder, the worst type of weed in the world, I hear a thud. I run inside and see Mel on the floor, holding his hand over his heart.
“Call,” he whispers but he doesn’t tell me who to call. I know he needs an ambulance but I get all dizzy trying to think of how to get it there. Luckily, Mr. Fenster comes inside because he wants to buy floral scissors. He takes one look at Mel and calls the right person on his cell phone.
But when the ambulance comes and the men in the ambulance start attaching a bunch of machines to Mel, I notice that Mr. Fenster has disappeared.
“Don’t worry,” I say, taking Mel’s hand. “I won’t go away. I don’t have anywhere to go.”
I think of all the trouble it would take to keep a wife and kids for Mel and how much it would help him to have them now. But at least he has me so it’s not so bad.
“Are you his son?” the paramedic asks me as we speed away.
“No,” I said, “he can’t be bothered.”
The paramedic looks at me funny but doesn’t say anything. Mel looks at me and his face is the shape of a frown. Or maybe it’s a face of pain, I have trouble reading nuances sometimes, that’s what the staff at my residence says about me.
Mel reaches out and grabs my hand so I figure I ought to squeeze back.
“Are you scared?” I ask him because I have nothing else to say. He does not answer.
I look at the paramedics.
“Is he scared?”
They look at me and don’t say anything.
We get to the hospital and they rush him through. Rushing, I assume, means that things are bad. But I am with him the whole time and that makes me feel better. When they take him into surgery I go with him the whole way.
“Is he going to die?” I ask the man in the white paper shoes. He just shrugs his shoulders.
I sit on a bench and wait under a big sign that says “family.” I call my parents from a payphone to tell them where I am and Daddy tells me he’ll be here in half an hour. I am so happy when he comes through the doors that I run and jump on him, squeezing his neck. And when I squeeze his neck so hard I notice that the skin that used to be tight around his face is hanging like an old man’s skin hangs. I suddenly realize that everyone around me is getting old. Mel and my father and the man in the white paper shoes – they’re all getting old. But the most startling thing is that I’m getting old too. I’m thirty-eight and if you change those numbers around it makes eighty-three. One day my father will be eighty-three and then ninety-three and then…..
I know why my father is worried silly. He’s worried silly about what’s going to happen to me after he’s gone. He doesn’t have to worry about that with the other kids, but with me he has to worry. That’s the way it’s always been. Because even though they can give me the little bit of money they have, they can’t give me something to keep me busy. And even though they love me from my toes all the way to the tippy top of my head, nothing is going to take away that worry.
“Avi, I’m so sorry about Mel,” Daddy says, sitting under the family sign with me. “Does he have any family?”
“Too much trouble,” I say.
Daddy laughs. “Family is never too much trouble,” he says. “And now he’s really in trouble.”
I sit with Daddy, leaning into his fuzzy coat. Sometimes I cry and sometimes I laugh at the silliest things, like a fly buzzing in the shape of an eight on top of Daddy’s head.
A man in a uniform that makes him look like a frog comes out of the operating room.
“Mel Rosenberg?” he says. Daddy lifts his fingers.
“He made it through the surgery,” the doctor said. “A double bypass. He had a pretty bad heart attack. But it looks like he’s going to be okay. He just has to take it easy.”
I can see that Daddy is worried about Mel. I can also see that he’s worried about me because without Mel I need to start all over.
We wait the night in the hospital because Mel has nobody else to do that. In the morning I make Daddy promise to be there when Mel wakes up while I go to unlock the store and push the wheelbarrows of dirt out into the sun. I notice the orchids have bloomed. Two petals, equal in size and another so different. I study it carefully. The customers come and ask about Mel and I tell them what I know. They put soft hands on my shoulder and say they are sorry.
Later, I walk to the hospital, whistling because the orchids have bloomed and the sun is shining. I stop when I get to the hospital as people will stare if I whistle in a hospital. When I get to Mel’s room I see the door open a tiny bit and I hear my father speaking to Mel inside. He’s awake! I jump in the air but I do not go inside. Something holds me back.
“Are you sure about this?” I hear my father ask.
“As sure as I’ll ever be,” Mel says. “I’ll have a contract written out later and we’ll get the whole thing clear in my will. But there won’t be any contenders.” The two of them laugh.
“Avi is special,” Mel says. “In so many ways. He was born to be with flowers. He’s a bit of sunshine himself. I think that in our shop he’s really found himself.”
“He will be my partner for as long as I can swing coming in. And when I pass on…”
“We don’t need to talk about that Mel,” Daddy says, putting his hand on Mel’s.
“Yes we do. When I pass on, the flower shop is Avi’s. I’ll get someone to help him, someone good and kind. But it belongs to him. And when he tires of it he can sell it. I promise that for whatever I can help Avi with, I will provide for him. But he will never want for money and he will never want for something to do with his life..”
“I can’t begin…” Daddy says.
“He’s the son I never had,” Mel says, and I hear the sadness in his voice.
And then I see it, all the worried silly pouring off of Daddy’s shoulders on to the floor, making a mad flood. He cups his hands over his eyes and he cries fat, sloppy tears that make dark stains on his shirt and his shoulders shake back and forth. I run inside as I can’t bear to see him so sad, but Mel tells me that they are tears of joy.
And I suddenly know, about the orchid. The third petal is not the same size as the other two. But it’s not just different, it’s bigger. And bigger is better isn’t it? Maybe being different means you’re just a big giant orchid petal standing above the crowd. And maybe I’m that third petal. But maybe Mel’s that third petal. And maybe Daddy is. One never can tell.