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Grading the Lilies


ISSUE:  Summer 1999

Margaret was usually so beat on Friday nights, she came home, baked a potato, and read travel books in bed. Flynn, her roommate, ordered a large pepperoni pizza and ate it in the bathtub with her boyfriend while they watched TV. The Friday night before Flynn had an abortion was no different except Margaret, who’d lent Flynn the money, couldn’t concentrate.

The TV, usually blaring, was inaudible, and Margaret picked up every murmur and splash in the bathroom. She didn’t care for Brian. He was a big, goofy, golden god, and all her life Margaret had unwittingly followed him through the parochial schools, to a big Catholic college out East, and home again. The TV was Flynn’s, too. It was a 12-inch black and white affair with a grainy picture and a squat screen that made the actors look Lilliputian. The sound vibrated through tiny speaker holes and was always on, nattering away like a conscience. But Flynn loved the thing and carried it around the apartment as she went from room to room, the cord trailing behind her like a leash.

Margaret closed Graham Green’s The Lawless Road and turned off her lamp. The moon was full and the wind high. The swollen tips of the tree outside her bedroom scratched back and forth across the moonlit walls. Her arms and shoulders ached from lifting clay pots all day, and her fingertips felt as though their minute furrows had been seeded with shards of glass. It seemed years had gone by since she’d been assigned to the lilies, though in reality, not even a month had passed.

“Why do you call it grading?” she had asked her supervisor, trying not to sound insubordinate, or worse, intellectual.

“Level, as in a road,” he’d said. “I thought you went to college.”

In the bathroom, there was a sudden flurry of activity, Water ran down the drain. A candle was snuffed. The warp door gave way. Tin-plug dragged across the black and white tiles.

There were hundreds of lilies, lined up rank anil file, and each day it was Margaret’s job to rearrange them so that the tallest lily stood in the center of the row Hanked by the shorter ones. The plants on the ends of the benches got more light than the ones in the middle. After a day or so, they were taller than the others, and the shifting began again. Her bare hands became more, not less, sensitise to the grit and cold that seemed the nature of a pot. Her vision blurred, and every time she went to the bathroom, she was sur-prised by the blue of her eyes.

Flynn coughed; the TV murmured again. An ambulance raced down the busy street at the end of the block. It was not a good neighborhood.

Once, Margaret had gotten lost in a corn field while playing Hide’n’Seek. She ran through the rustling stalks, changing rows and directions until she felt hidden. All she could hear, crouched down in a tight little ball, was her heart pounding like the waves against the bluff at home. She played with herself waiting for someone to find her. But no one came; no voice called out, “Ready or not, here I come!”

She didn’t see a road but a maze.

In the morning, she waited until they’d left for the clinic to come out of her room. The pizza box was under the pedestal sink. She tried to visualize two people eating in a tub, head to foot, foot to head, but it didn’t do anything for her.

Flynn had left the blue and white Dresden lamp on in her bedroom. She was always leaving things on; curlers, the iron, the water in the kitchen sink. Her room was the nicer of the two. It had French windows which overlooked the tree-lined street. Their apartment was on the second floor, one of six in the yellow brick building. Flynn’s room could have been bright and sunny but the bamboo shades she’d bought kept the room dark as a hut. It smelled like one, too.

Margaret went back to her own room and looked in her bankbook. She’d lent Flynn the money without hesitation, but now it struck her as rather ironic that Flynn, who had a credit card and a real job—she was an assistant principal at a school for the handicapped—had to borrow money from her. Margaret was making only minimum wage, a fact her father repeatedly brought up. The loan had cut her savings in half. What about Brian? she wondered. Why hadn’t Flynn asked him for the money and kept the baby to themselves?

She pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, opened the window, stripped her bed, and dumped her wash out of the hamper. Then she did the same in Flynn’s room, only there was no hamper, just piles of clothes, his and hers, on the radiator, the wicker chair, and under the unmade bed.

The basement laundry was deserted. She started the two washing machines and tiptoed back up the stairs not wanting any competition. Since she didn’t have enough change for all the wash there was, she poked through the china cups and jars on top of Flynn’s dresser and searched her jumbled drawers. It was a mystery how Flynn managed to emerge so well-pressed and groomed from this room. She found packs of pink artificial sweetener mixed with underwear, a box of Christmas candy in a sweater pocket, and finally, under a stack of unopened mail, an empty birth control compact full of quarters.

Flush, Margaret got to work, emptying ashtrays, smashing the pizza box, bagging garbage and carrying it quietly to the back porch. She scrubbed the tub, the toilet, and sink. The medicine cabinet wouldn’t close so she took everything out and washed the glass shelves in hot soapy water and put Flynn’s things back in an orderly manner. Her mother had taught her to clean like this. It soothed her and made her feel calmer than she had since Flynn had told her the bad news.

It was Flynn who had suggested they share an apartment. They had met in a drawing class at college. Equally untalented, they became allies in the face of the instructor’s scorn, huddling together at the back of the studio, their easels positioned like barricades. Occasionally, they bumped into one another on campus but only to say hi, how’s it going. Then one night they met at a party, and Margaret introduced Brian and Flynn.

Her parents went nuts when she told them she’d found a job as a laborer at the conservatory. What did they expect with a BA in literature, she asked them? Marriage, said her mother. Secretarial work at the very least, said her father. One night, they had a horrible argument about her dirty toenails, and Margaret went to a party and got very drunk. She didn’t like to remember what all happened, and for a short while she convinced herself she didn’t.

Flynn’s offer spared her an apology. She borrowed a hundred dollars from a younger brother to buy a bed. Her savings, such as they were, covered the first month’s rent and her portion of the security deposit; less than Flynn’s who took the bigger room. There wasn’t a lot to move; her bike and tennis racket; clothes, most of them suddenly too big; a box of text books; and an album of old family pictures. Her parents, knowing how little money she made, pretended she wasn’t leaving.

Flynn had found her job with no trouble at all and. with a 12-month contract in hand, went on a spending spree that still wasn’t over; an Italian sports car, designer sunglasses, Swedish dishes, service for six, two sets of designer sheets for her queen bed, a down comforter, a bentwood rocking chair. On moving day}, she drove up in a rented U-Haul truck, Brian and the TV in tow.

The warming air stirred the wind chimes hanging outside the open living room windows and, when Margaret looked the clock read 10:30.It was over by now. Across the street, a man, his hair still wet and slick from a shower, threw a bundle of shirts in his trunk and drove away. Margaret pinched back the grape leaf cuttings rooting in a carafe. Flynn bought plants as often as she bought shoes. A ficus tree filled one corner of the room, a grouping of com plants the other. Cactus and succulents dried out on the radiators. A bag of potting soil underneath the kitchen sink dribbled dirt where mice had nibbled on it, and there was a trowel in one of the kitchen drawers. On good days, Margaret hoped Flynn’s sloppiness would round her own fastidious edges. The plants, especially the green and white striped spiders, were flourishing, but the soil of the Bridal Veil. by far the most delicate of the plants and one that had cost more than Margaret budgeted for a month’s worth of food, was as dry as sand.

“Flynn,” she moaned and went to find the watering can.

As she carried the last load of wash upstairs, she bumped into their downstairs neighbor. They didn’t see her often because she waited tables at night in a downtown steak house. The clean laundry was warm and smelled of Flynn’s fabric softener. The open back stairs were drenched in sunlight, and Margaret could see the woman’s lumpy figure and dark nipples through the fabric of her nightgown.

“My father was arrested once,” the woman said, pulling her sunglasses away from her eyes, “for shooting at the guy next door. He claimed Saturday mornings was the only time he had to cut his grass.”

“I tried not to make too much noise,” Margaret said.

“I see that bike of yours. I’m going to slash the tires to shreds.”

Her hands were still shaking when she heard the front door open. She’d moved her bike into the dining room and locked the back door but not the front. She was sitting on the couch, folding laundry, when they walked in, Flynn bent over like an old lady dragging a shopping cart. Her mammoth purse was slung over Brian’s shoulder. His mouth, usually open like a box without a lid, was clamped shut. Neither one said a word. They went into the bedroom and closed the door. Margaret finished folding Brian’s boxers and set it on his pile. She heard the windows close and the shades drop.

Flynn didn’t need her. Brian was here; he was always here. As she put her laundry away, she imagined Flynn’s small dark head tucked beneath his chin, his straw colored hair bright against the navy blue wall. She put on a sweatshirt and went into the dining room to get her bike. All day she’d been dying to go for a ride along the lake. There was nothing she could do now. She’d already done too much.

The door to Flynn’s room popped open, and she heard Brian’s voice.

“I thought I’d go hit some balls,”

He jingled the car keys. She couldn’t hear what Flynn said, whether she spoke at all. The front door opened and closed, the security chain tingling like a shop bell. Someone was showering in the apartment upstairs. She set her helmet on the bike seat and walked into the living room and watched him get in Flynn’s blue car and drive off. He shifted gears too late, making the engine grind and backfire. Even with her windows closed, Flynn would’ve heard it, too.

“Can I get you anything?” She called through the half-closed door.

“How about a Pepsi.” Flynn was polishing her nails with a silver plated buffer she’d found at a flea market. “Did you wash my sheets?”

Margaret nodded. “Are you in pain?”

“A little,” Flynn said and shivered. “Have you got all the windows open?”

The sun was right over head and all the sunspots were gone, shrunk to slivers on the sills. There was no ice in the freezer; there never was unless she made it. The kitchen looked grim without the patch of morning light checkering the buckling floor. The white metal cabinets were chipped and the gray linoleum counter tops stained. Her family had come for dinner once, on her father’s birthday. Margaret would never forget her mother’s face when she came into this room—as though someone had offered her a dirty spoon. She filled the trays with water and slid them back into the cave of frost.

Flynn had fallen asleep waiting for Margaret to bring her a drink. The gears of her bike clicked and the floor squeaked as she tiptoed to the front door. She was supposed to use the back stairs with her bike but didn’t want to risk bumping into their downstairs neighbor. From the front doorway, she could make out Flynn’s white face on the paisley pillow case and the tight ball of her body beneath the comforter. She didn’t know much about the procedure except for some grisly dormitory stories that had worried her sick. A train went by, rattling the dishes in the kitchen cabinets. She listened for a cat turning down the street, hoping Brian would come back with second thoughts of his own.

Why did she feel so lousy for helping out? A sunspot grew, block by block on the rug as she tried to sort this through. Parts of the awful night came back and her face flushed with shame remembering how she had fasted until she bled again. The buds on the elm tree outside the living room windows were opening. It had to be one of the last of the giant elms. She was 16, just beginning to admit she was a girl and not a horse, when they cut down the big one in her backyard. She thought about her childhood home on the lake, how safe it had seemed even though her father drank and her mother kept on having babies until there were so many of them the doctor took pity and removed her “plumbing”. That was how her father put it.

Margaret wheeled her bike back to the dining room and got her book. When Flynn woke up a couple of hours later, Margaret warmed a can of soup and brought it in on a tray. Flynn looked better, her lips pink and her face not as white and pinched. She wanted a cigarette.

“It’s a nice day,” Margaret said, pulling up one of the shades.

Flynn lit the cigarette and pulled the comforter up to her chin. They listened to the kids riding their big wheels up and down the sidewalk, their screams of joy when they crashed into one another.

“Did it hurt?”

“Not much. They give you a shot first. Thanks for washing my things,” she said nodding at the stack of laundry at the foot of the bed.

“I washed his clothes, too.”

Flynn stared at her then closed her eyes. “If you’re trying to make me feel bad, you’re doing a good job.”

Margaret wanted to talk about the renewal lease. She’d come across it cleaning. She wanted to tell Flynn she’d sign only if Brian wasn’t always around. But now was not a good time.

“Where’s my TV?” Flynn asked.

“In the living room.”

“Could you get it for me? And lower the shades.”

She bicycled north through the lakefront parks. Patches of mist rose off the water, turning pink as they drifted up and away from the long, massed shadows of the trees. She rode fast, almost knocking down a toddler when she cut through a playlot. The street lights came on before the sun set. Spring ahead, she thought, and wished it were that simple to take away an hour of her life.

She kept peddling until her thighs ached, then coasted down the bluff to a public boat launch. The smelt were running, and the fishermen were getting ready for a night of it. One family, bundled in layers and wearing bright hand knit caps, had come early enough to grab the best spot at the very end of the pier. They’d brought folding chairs, buckets, lanterns, and a frying pan so large Margaret couldn’t imagine lifting it with both hands.

Three small girls with earrings fought over a sleeping bag. A squashed old woman sat on an upended bucket mending a gill net. Every now and then she scolded the girls in Spanish, the words quick and fluid as her fingers, but the girls didn’t stop. The woman could only smile; she had that kind of face. A man, barely taller than the pier railing, struck a wooden match against the concrete. His hands shook and he almost burnt the tip of his dripping nose as he bent over the flame to shield it from the breeze. Some fishermen had put on waders and were marching into the lake with their nets, cursing and laughing at how cold the water was. A teenage boy was bent over her bicycle. When he saw her watching him, he held up his hands. She took off her helmet and gave it to him.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Take it for a spin.”

When the old man pulled in his gill net, the silver fish twitched and glinted in the lantern light. The woman poured oil into the frying pan. One of the girls unhooked the fish from the net and tossed them in a bucket. The moon rose orange in the lavender sky. Another girl breaded the fish, shaking off the excess crumbs before tossing it in the pan.

They gave Margaret one from the first batch. It was so hot it brought tears to her eyes. It had been a long time since she’d cried. The old woman hugged her, and as they rocked back and forth, unmatched pegs, the boy came back to the pier with her bike.

On her way home, she bought groceries and a bottle of wine. She’d be strapped until payday but somehow would get by without touching her savings. The bag was heavy on her hip and the bike hard to manage with one hand. A light was on in the apartment below. She carried her bike up first then went back for the groceries. She could hear the television through the front door but when she looked in, Flynn was asleep with her mouth open, drool on her chin.

She sipped wine as she made a salad. The kitchen felt homey with a quiche baking in the noisy old oven and one of Flynn’s antique lamps lighting the corner. She set the table for two, then on second thought, added a third place setting.

“Smells good,” Flynn said, her slippers dragging on the floor. “You having people over for dinner?”

“Just us,” she said, handing her a glass of wine.

“Is Brian back?”

Margaret shook her head. “The smelt are running. I stopped and watched them for a while.”

“Don’t talk about fish,” Flynn said. She twisted a ring around her finger and sipped the wine.

“How much do you think an apartment on the lake would rent for?”

“A lot more than this dump.”

“I was thinking maybe if we asked Brian to help with the rent, we could afford one of those places.”

Flynn took a long drag on her cigarette, held it deep in her lungs, then let it out.

“I should never have told him,” she said.

A car turned down the street. It was him. Margaret would know that sound anywhere. Flynn smashed her cigarette out and ran her long, thin fingers through her hair.

He came in carrying a lily, sunburnt, a little drunk. The lily had opened already and it filled the dining room with a lavish scent, so like the shampoos, colognes, and powders crowding the crystal-clean shelves of the medicine cabinet. The shadows of the stamen and stigma were cast against the oniony skin by the lamp light. Brian talked about his golf game. They ate the quiche, the salad. Flynn got up from the table, complained she was tired, and left the room. Brian finished the bottle of wine and lit a cigar. Margaret carried the dishes to the sink and washed them.

“What kind of plant is this?” he asked.

“A lily.”

“It smells pretty good, don’t you think?”

She nodded. He puffed on his cigar, making rings that drifted apart in his hair. Her father smoked them, too. He’d leave one smoldering in the ashtray while the family ate. Margaret had been so surprised the first time she ate a meal not colored by the smell of one.

“God, I’m beat,” Brian said, yawning, not covering his mouth. “Need a hand?”

“All done.” She watched him pick up the lily and go down the dark hall.

The Easter Show, her supervisor had said, was an even bigger deal than the one at Christmas. All next week, she and the rest of the laborers would shuttle back and forth between the greenhouses and the show room, show room and greenhouses, carrying the lilies and other spring flowers. There’d be banks of hydrangeas, he’d said, behind the waterfall; blue, purple, pink. Primrose would line the paths. Sweeps of tulips, jonquils and paperweights would fill the room with the smells of spring. Every lily would be in full bloom. But they would never get one, even though there were thousands of them and dozens would be handed out to the city bosses who stopped by flushed and well-fed on their way home for the three-day weekend.

She picked up the phone and dialed her parent’s home. Her youngest brother answered. She hadn’t paid him back yet.

“What do you want?” he asked. “I’m watching a show.”

“Are Mom and Dad there?”

“No.”

A siren wailed but on the TV at his end of the line. Her neighborhood was unusually quiet for a Saturday night. Flynn wasn’t going to die. There would be no internal bleeding or some such horror so that the truth came out. Instead, they’d all go back to work on Monday as though nothing had happened. She thought about her lilies, the pale green sepals bulging in the moonlight

“Tell them I called to say hi, and that I love them, okay?”

“Why? What did you do wrong?”

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