Spanish Geraniumby J. Lynn Laughlin
Thomas Askin was late for his appointment. The suburban streets of Roanoke ran North/South and East/West but then would take a sudden meandering jaunt past the fenced yards of single family homes. He checked his map and doubled back, driving until he found an unkempt row of houses on a dead end road.
He parked his SUV at the end of the road next to a wooden barrier where a greenbrier vine wrapped its naked limbs around the planks. A gravel driveway led to the house on 720 Mimosa, a white 1950’s bungalow. He had learned not to judge a man’s collection of arms by the size of his house. Thomas, an appraiser and buyer for Mitchum’s Antiquity Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, made his living deciding the value of things. Many of his best pieces were found in unassuming homes of hard working American men. Still, with all of his experience and all of his contacts and all of his research, he never knew how he would be received by the widow. Often, he felt like a personal injury lawyer chasing ambulances, or, in his case, hearses, obituaries, tips from gun clubs and other collectors, and, as always, he hoped his services were welcomed.
A petite, twenty-something woman opened the door and ushered him inside.
“My mom’s sleeping,” she said. He followed her through the living room where the remnants of Christmas lingered. Removing his gloves, he handed the woman his business card.
“It’s all in here,” she said, opening the closet door in one of the bedrooms. “Mr. Gorham said you’d be fair.”
“I am fair,” he said, and then, immediately spotting a replica field offer’s sword leaned against a suitcase, its shinny newness so apparent it could have been purchased from a catalogue last week, he added, “but I can’t promise anything until I examine the collection.”
“Have at it, Mr. Askin,” she said and left him alone in the room.
He moved the collection from the closet to the bed. The various weapons included: pistols, rifles, three swords, and a few daggers. Most of the collection was not all Civil War era, as he had been told, and only two infantry rifles interested him. He examined another sword, and, seeing that it had a replacement blade and two dings in the grip, he put it back on the bed. It was then that his cell phone began to vibrate. He reached for the phone clamped to his belt but stopped. He knew who was calling—his wife—and he knew what she wanted—sex.
He and Heather were trying to have a baby. He and Heather had been trying to get pregnant for over a year. He and Heather were going at it day and night until Heather put a stop to their sex-fest and decided to take a more scientific approach to copulation. So, for the last six months, she limited their intercourse to key conception periods, which he soon realized were a few days a month. This meant saving his sperm for just the right moment; it meant little green pills and ovulation tests and basal thermometers, fertility pillows, herbal rubs, non-toxic lube, boxers not briefs, and fertility tracking software. It also meant urgent calls to his cell phone demanding sex. Sex on demand wasn’t such a bad thing, at first.
“Who are you?”
He turned to find an elderly woman standing in the doorway. She wore a white, cotton nighty and a terry-cloth robe.
“I’m Mr. Askin.”
“You’re here to buy Walter’s things, aren’t you?”
“Is that okay?” he asked, dreading the answer.
“Well, that’s a bunch of crap.”
“Ma’am, I think you should talk to your daughter.”
“No,” she said, “I mean the stuff on the bed. It’s all crap.”
He paused, and then said, “It’s not all bad.”
“Yes, it is. But do you want to see something special?”
“Like what?” he asked.
“Look under there.” She pointed to the bed.
He pulled up the bedspread—a pair of old leather slippers sat on the floor.
“Under the mattress,” she instructed him.
He lifted the mattress and reached underneath and pulled out a sword—a sword with a brass lion’s head on the butt of a spiral grip and a long flat, double edge blade. It was not from the Civil War.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked. “This is English, 1770’s.” But he knew he wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know.
“It was his pride and joy,” she said. “He slept with it under he’s bed for over twenty years.”
Her distant gaze cautioned him against asking why.
“Let me show you something else,” she said.
He followed her into her bedroom, a smaller room with vibrant colored curtains, teal blankets, and a fuchsia boa tossed over the bedpost, which further complicated his image of her. She went to her nightstand and took out a knife.
“It’s a dagger. Double edge, spear point,” he said.
“Oh, I know it’s not worth much. But it was Walter’s first. Do you remember your first?”
“Sure,” he said.
She clutched the dagger in a semi-threatening way, pointed at him. “We moved into this house in the sixties. It was supposed to be temporary. Walter promised a bigger house as soon as . . . well, I don’t remember the why of things. But, after my youngest was born, she’s the one that let you in, Walter added two bedrooms to this place. Anyway, he found this in the dirt out back and was hooked.”
He moved closer to the door, acting casual, but wished for a polite way to end their conversation. He had seen everything he needed to see and expected his cell phone to begin vibrating again. His attention narrowed to the perfume on her dresser, and he picked up a glass bottle.
“What hooked you, Mr. Askin?”
“This is crystal, Czech, 1930’s or 40’s.” He picked up an atomizer with silver filigree and squeezed the bulb. “Honeysuckle,” he said as he evaluated the sweet fragrance.
“Well, for a man who deals in guns and knives, you know a lot about perfume.”
“I like, I mean, I buy…” He hunted for the right words as he set the atomizer back on the dresser. “I collect antique perfume bottles for my wife. My mother had ones like these,” he finally said. He expected her to say something. He sensed a question forming in her mind, but he changed the subject to money and made her an offer for the two guns and the sword. She seemed pleased, even surprised at the amount. He was being generous, but the daughter thought otherwise.
The daughter tried to convince him to take everything, saying the rest must be worth something. He explained she would get more if she sold them individually, saying the pieces were marginal. This angered her, and he might have walked away from the deal if not for the sword. The mother interrupted them by reminding her daughter about manners and scolding her for not offering him a drink, saying something about “guests in her house”. That quieted the daughter, and he wrote the check, thinking he was done, but just as he began to leave, the woman invited him to stay for lunch. An exchange of polite insistences followed as she would say, “It’s the least we can do,” and he would reply, “I really couldn’t,” until he accepted a sandwich and a thermos of coffee for the road.
By the time Thomas Askin reached I-81, his phone was pulsing in short vibrations, reminding him of the missed call. He removed the phone from his belt and put it in the center console along with the sandwich and thermos of coffee. He’d met Heather six years ago. She cashiered in the gift shop at the Confederacy Museum where he worked and even though she wasn’t the type of woman he dated, they went out for drinks. He tried not to reveal his true intentions and, for the first few dates, let her talk about life, her dreams, or anything she wanted to talk about as long as she kept stroking her hair in a flirtatious manner and wore low-cut blouses. He could appreciate the big tease, the tension; it kept him coming back.
Then, after five years of marriage, they began trying to have a baby and it was then that Heather revealed an aggressive side he did not know existed. She would meet him at the door, grab his hand, and, if they made it to the bedroom, she would strip him and use him for her own pleasure, demanding he make his deposit. It felt good to be desired, and this forceful play went on for some time, until their failure to produce could not be ignored, and then she became passive, lying in bed, waiting for him to perform the act that would return meaning to her life.
As he drove, he thought about the sword and how pleased Mr. Mitchum would be with the find because a Revolutionary era officer’s sword was highly prized among collectors. He would have to thank Mr. Gorham, a local gun dealer, with a finder’s fee. And without being too aware, his thoughts wandered back to the question the old woman had asked; “What hooked you?” He thought about his father, a history professor, and his mother, a housewife, and their many trips to battlefields and historical sights. Then, he pulled off the interstate and on to one of the secondary roads that branched like veins through Virginia’s heartland. He had just added an hour to his trip. A surge of freedom hit him as he crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and took a road to Lynchburg where, as a boy, he’d held his mother’s hand as they watched a battle reenactment. He passed through the rolling greenery of the Shenandoah Valley, through small towns unchanged through the years. He drove past Appomattox, remembering how he had stood in the courthouse where Lee surrendered to Grant. And when he reached Farmville, near the last major battle of the war, he turned north and followed a country road to a village lost to tourists and known only to serious historians like his father.
The General Store was located on a dusty street between other merchant buildings. The red letters on the store’s window were hand-painted, a loopy script, and had flaked from years of neglect. The front door seemed smaller than he remembered, but as he pulled it open, he imagined entering a time when the world seemed greater than he was, and the motto was “if it feels good, do it.” The jingling of sleigh bells rang out from behind the door and announced his arrival to a teenage boy who sat behind the counter reading a comic book. The teen looked at him and returned to his comic. Thomas walked down an aisle of canned food to the back of the store. There, the ceiling lowered and the light dimmed as he stepped into an old storage room. Two tables divided the space, and they were littered with junk. Boxes of odds-and-ends sat on the floor. He picked through the first table. Most items were marked with an orange circular sticker and the price written in black ink—some written in the same loopy handwriting as on the window. The second table had china and various kitchen items spread across its surface, and the boxes below housed a collection of musty books—page worn romances. As a child, this had been a treasure trove; but now, it created an empty feeling in his gut. He tried to remember what she had said, but he could only bring to mind an image—a slender figure walking away, down the aisle, her blue tunic catching the breeze, her skirt rubbing the back of her legs, her clogs slapping the bottom of her feet. That’s what hooked him. After his father had found a collection of Civil War photographs, Thomas found a bottle of perfume on the table. The bottle, half full, had a black t-shaped stopper and a golden label with a picture of a mother and child. He dug through his pockets and counted his change at the counter. He was nine pennies short, but the owner sold him the bottle. That was the beginning of his collection; he would buy the bottles for her birthday, for Mother’s Day, and for Christmas.
The room felt hot. He removed his gloves, stuffing them in his coat pocket. It was then he noticed the box on the floor near the doorway; a soft fragrance came from inside. He dug through it and found two pink atomizers, but they did not match the powdery floral scent. He dug deeper and tipped the box on its side until he found the glass bottle with the black stopper. He held it up; a small amount of yellow liquid splashed inside, and he tried to find the light to read the label—Spanish Geranium. He laughed realizing it had been the perfume, her smell, which had triggered the memory of his mother.
He set the bottle on the counter. The teen hardly looked at Thomas as he continued to read.
“I’m buying this,” Thomas said.
“You can’t,” the teen said.
“It probably fell off in the box,” he said.
“No,” the teen replied. “That’s from Miss Kelly’s box and Miss Kelly comes in and sells on Monday, so none of that stuff is marked yet.”
Thomas remained in front of the counter, tapping his foot, until he pulled out a business card.
“The bottle’s not worth more than thirty dollars,” he said with authority.
The teen used Thomas’s business card as a bookmarker and closed the comic. He handed Thomas a business card for The General Store as if he were following some rule that he didn’t fully understand. “Any thing else?” the teen asked.
“I want the bottle.”
“Fifty dollars,” Thomas said. “That’s more than fair.”
“Look, Mister, I don’t care about your money or your fancy business card. You don’t pay me, so I don’t listen to you.”
“Then who’s in charge?”
“Can I talk to him?”
“And why not?”
“He won’t come in until four o’clock.”
“One hundred. That’s my last offer. You’re grandfather will be proud.”
The teen looked away for a moment, as if he were considering what Thomas had said, but when he turned back, he said, “I’m not going to chance it.”
“But I can’t wait.”
“Well, I can’t sell it without a sticker.” He moved the perfume bottle from the counter to the shelf behind him. “I’ll keep it there for you,” he said and returned to his comic.
Thomas left the store and sat in his SUV. He wasn’t leaving. He figured he had an hour and forty minutes until the grandfather showed up. He could wait. He’d tell her that he got stuck in traffic, there was a bad accident. He couldn’t get home. Still, he would not call her and force the issue, preferring the one lie to several exchanges for the next few hours, giving her time to check the road reports.
“I need you,” he could imagine her saying. She would have taken her temperature just after he left, recording it on her graph with a black dot. Then, she would study the dots on the graph, most of them plotted along the 98 degrees line until that morning when she would plot a higher temperature. She would compare it with her past charts and log the information in the computer, and if those results were promising, she would break open an ovulation test. She would spend the day cleaning the house with a nervous energy so focused that, in the end, every corner would be dusted, the furniture show-room arranged, and a plate of cookies waiting for him. She had become the perfect wife, and he loved her. He loved her in ways he could not express. She took care of him, created a home for him, and, someday, would give him children. However, it was her domestic perfection that made him aware of his failings as a man.
He grabbed the sandwich and thermos and left his SUV. The chilly air felt good against his face. He walked along a path that led to a small campsite. He sat at a picnic table and poured coffee in the thermos lid. The campsite had changed, fewer trees, thinner brush, but the quiet remained. Long ago, the land served both Union and Confederate troops. When he was a child, his father told stories in front of a camp fire about how they were following the steps of men who sacrificed everything for their beliefs. During the day, his mother would take him on nature walks where they studied trees and birds and collected leaves—leaves that he imagined had once been stained with the blood of the fallen men. A half-mile west, a creek became their private water park; his mother and father swam naked in the rushing water while he tried to catch fish with a make-shift stick and string pole. She wore his perfume everyday.
As Thomas peeled the cellophane from the sandwich, mayo stuck to his fingers. He wiped them on the top of the white bread and then took a bite of the sandwich. He chewed a thick-cut piece of ham. The old woman probably made it extra thick, thinking she was being generous. But as he looked for another bite, he saw how uneven the slice was and sunk his teeth into the thinner section. He knew he needed to eat, and he wondered if he might have dealt differently with the teen if his blood sugar wasn’t so low. Then, just as he was about to swallow, the thought occurred to him—this was Christmas ham, leftovers from Walter’s last meal. He instantly spat the chewed wad of meat to the ground and reached for the coffee but stopped when he saw the monogrammed WJM carved on the face of the thermos. He shuddered and lost control for a moment as he dry-heaved. He stumbled down the path towards the main street and hurried back to the warmth of his SUV. With shaky hands, he searched the glove compartment for gum, a mint, or anything to counter the taste of the death pork. There were no mints; she kept them in her purse. He stared at The General Store for several minutes, and then he made his move.
He burst through the door, knocking the sleigh bells to the floor. He walked up to the counter and said, “I need to see the bottle.”
The teen seemed uneasy as he stood behind the counter, refusing to let Thomas have the bottle.
“Let me see it.”
Thomas paced twice and then came around to the other side of the counter.
“Hey, you can’t come back here.”
Thomas dug through his wallet and pulled out several bills and waved them around, saying, “This is more than fair.” He tossed the money at the teen and snatched the bottle off the shelf. The teen seemed frozen, as if he had no rule for what Thomas was doing. As Thomas headed out the door, he stopped at a candy display and took several packs of cinnamon gum.
He sped away in his SUV, chewing as many pieces of gum as he could fit in his mouth. He followed the country road back to the secondary and half expected a cop to be waiting at the crossroad, but there was no one to stop him. After traveling awhile, he merged on to a main artery of Richmond, and then he found his way to his street, his driveway, his home.
The lights were off in the living room and, in the fading daylight, colors waned and gray transfused the space. He found her in the kitchen. There were no cookies. Her graphs were arranged on the table: the days plotted, the weeks a collection of dots that formed the shape of their lives. She looked disappointed. He was prepared to answer her questions, but she asked none. He knew it was down-hill-dots from that moment on. She told him to meet her in the bedroom but before she could leave, he took the perfume bottle from his pocket and offered it to her as an apology. She took the bottle and examined its simple form. As she removed the stopper, he thought she might dab her finger in the lip of the bottle and rub the perfume on her skin. That thought both frightened and excited him. But when the heady mix of Aldehydic and Bergamot reached her nose, she winced and said, “That’s foul.” She immediately turned to the sink and poured out the yellow liquid.
“What are you doing?” He reached for the bottle, grabbing it from her, but it was too late.
“It’s awful, Tom.”
“You didn’t give it a chance,” he said, trying to stop his feelings of contempt, but it was too late for that, too.
In bed, they both stared at the ceiling, the covers pulled over their naked bodies.
“You know what to do,” Heather said.
He reached his hand under the sheet.
The only light in the room came from the green glow of the digital alarm clock. Soon, he would have to go back to his position at the museum, to stay close to home. The road would become a part of some other life, and then he understood why Walter kept the sword between the mattress and box spring. He imagined it was under his bed, the metal blade lying flat, suffocating under his weight.
“Deeper,” she said.
He smelled her scent on his fingers as he gripped her shoulder.
“You know what to do,” she said.
He closed his eyes.
“There’s no blood in the forest,” she said.
His eyes opened, but he could not see.
“Deeper,” she said.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“That’s why I’m telling you.”
“But no one will love you like I do.”