Arts: Simply Roses

(These are the opening pages of my short novel called "Simply Roses" which is the third in a trilogy of fiction I wrote about a young writer (JM Beemis) who has composed a novel about his travels around America. At this point he is working in a flower shop in a big unnnamed city (New York) where he is seeking to get his book published):                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                JM Beemis was drifting on the eros of the city, returning to the shop from delivering a vase of roses to a nearby office tower, when he spotted a fashion shoot taking place on the plaza of an umber skyscraper. The model, a skinny whitebread waif, was showing a teeny leather vest over black short sleeves and it all looked comical in the wintry February morning.

“Hold your breath! Hold your breath!” shouted the photographer as the girl strutted up and down the slab of swirled green marble that formed a settee on the plaza edge. “Good! Good! Longer stride!” he instructed, clicking away, then, putting down the camera, saying, “No, no, like this! Back and forth!”, doing a dance and she copied it. “Don’t look at the camera! Look away!” he commanded, squeezing off ten more frames. The model reacted in spades, exaggerating her moves in even more ungainly ways until she was strutting like a galumphing hyena. “Great stuff! Great!” the photographer yelled.

Having survived 8 years in the city, JM had seen it all before and forever was amused at the metropolis’ fascia. He noticed two businessmen taking a break from their walk to drink in the scene and imagined that the model must have pleased them for she was pretty in a commercial way although nothing authentically beautiful to JM’s eye. He could see the businessmen looking up and down the length and breadth of her and commenting to one another, while he playfully blew his own white breath in the model’s direction.

“OK, take five,” said the photog, changing lenses. In only a second the girl was wrapped in a lambskin coat, her teeth chattering. JM’s eyes drifted up and down the face of the skyscraper, slowly. Someone once had told him that the building was some sort of architectural masterpiece, but for the moment the significance of it was lost on him. What makes it so great? he wondered, noting its Shaker simplicity of line.

The model had sprawled onto the settee, sitting in a way that made it appear that there were more of her, particularly in the leg department, like a foal. The businessmen moved on while the photographer fussed over a large-format camera. Beemis looked around, this time to the boulevard’s lampposts where hung banners pertaining to an exhibit at the modern art museum just a few blocks yonder. The banners showed rectangles of primary colors set within an intuitive grid of black bands and again JM was lost on the meaning. Red, yellow, blue… The colors appeared inert in the frigid day and JM was reminded that the warm flower shop awaited with its own wider-ranging panoply of tints.

Upon entering the Flowerful Vase, he encountered a customer having a snit with the manager, holding forth in an irate Irish bark. City of Aliens, JM thought. The man’s hair was chalk white and his face a ruddy rose. “She wasn’t suppoosed to know who they wahr from!” he thundered. “’Twas the hool idea!”

“I’m really sorry, sir,” the manager responded, “but if you want total anonymity, you have to…”

“I said put no card of any sort with it!!”

“We didn’t. Lots of people send flowers without a card, sir. That’s different from…”

“But you told her when she called that ‘twas me! That’s wrong!”

“I’m sorry sir, but you signed the invoice. And sometimes when customers want to know who sent the flowers, we get the invoice and…”

“You woon’t have any more of my damned business!” he snorted before stomping out. A silent moment ensued.

“What happened?” Beemis wondered.

“She rejected his flowers,” the manager replied.

As JM retrieved a pear from his lunch sack and bit into it, there entered into the shop an arresting redhead. She was taller than most, and robust, and a face that cried out to be adored. She caught JM’s attentions immediately as they always did in the estrogen parade that marched by and through the Vase daily. He always had been mad about red hair and attributed to its rarity some congenital power. She was a studious thing in the mousy oval glasses that gave her a quizzed look. Underneath he sensed something purer than air. Beauty is proportion, he thought, observing her dainty hand lifting a snapdragon from the offering of Dutch flowers in the store’s center. For a moment, he did not hear the phone ringing since the thing that stood before him was all that was right in the world.

“Number’s the price,” he said, indicating the signs with the digits 7, 10, 12, 24 and 30. “Per dozen.” She looked toward him and their eyes met. She tipped her head then turned to the roses. “They’re from Ecuador,” he added.

Her body’s overall shape matched his own. She had long legs like his, but her bespectacled face put him in the mind of a librarian. Do we decimal or do we don’t... He sucked on the pear and extracted its sweet juices, all the while acting as if he were doing paperwork, but really angling himself for a better watch on the woman. She was pulling his chain more than all the others in the sexy city, which was no mean feat. Beauty was everywhere. “Need help?” he asked her after a few moments.

“What does a woman send to a man?”

JM’s heart sank. Foiled again…he thought.  “Do you love him?” he found himself inquiring out of nowhere.

“He’s just a friend who helped me out in a jam.”

“Texas roses. Yellow. That’s a good bet. For friendship. Alphas too. The orange one. Confetti’s good for men. Texas is the one with the serrated edge.”

“Which?”

He walked quickly through the back room and out the swinging door, sidled up to the woman in her proper dress and her pumps, official uniform of the corporate up-and-coming. He noticed straight off that she was precisely his height. Kindred forms… he thought. He stood as close to her as he could without being intrusive. “This is Texas.” He pulled a dozen from the pot.

As she puzzled over the flowers, JM felt recurring two effects that regularly overtook him in the metropolis: First that he was in the midst of being transported to a place where all that should be familiar was vaguely not. And second – and this may have caused the first, although he never could be sure and typically charged it off to urban delirium – that his ectomorphins or endoplasms or whatever in the blood were rising in a chemical rush in response to his being proximate to a thing of beauty. And that this buzz lurked in every corner of the cursed, teasing city. He observed her delicate profile and saw in it something utterly lovely and painfully blunt in its impact on him. She decided on 20-inch Texas roses. He hurried back behind the counter.

“Do you work around here?” he tried to ask casually as if making chit-chat when in fact he was mining data.

“Ten-Ten,” she said, pointing toward the boulevard.

JM made a mental note. He always had liked that certain skyscrapers were known simply by their numerical address. But what captivated him even more in this case was that the tower to which she referred was the very building about which he’d heard such high talk. “That’s a nice building,” he said, looking for a hook to continue the conversation.

“Yes, it’s a landmark. Of the Bauhaus style. Very famous. Always have some architecture students milling around the plaza, looking up.”

“Yes, the Bauhaus.”

“Yes, the architectural style. Sleek. Modern. Simple. Less is more. Its beauty is in its simplicity.”

Like yourself… He cut the rose ends at an angle, inserted them into water tubes and wrapped it all in cello then tied it in a ribbon. Cash was exchanged. He smiled at her and she responded in a vaguely kind look. “Stop by again,” he said. His eyes tracked her as she marched out and along the plateglass front then disappeared.  

“Wow…”

“Wow,” said the manager. As two men, they always were on the visual prowl.

“Aphrodite!”

“Mighty.”

“A masterpiece…”

“Yes…”

“Number One,” he called her, the most beautiful in all the city.

 

Valentines Day Wednesday rapidly was approaching and anticipation hung in the air of the Flowerful Vase. There seemed no end to the curiosity. “Getting busy, I bet,” the customers asked, and “Is it your biggest day of the year?” or “Red must be most popular.” To which JM responded “Yes” and “Of course. Walk by on the 14th and you’ll see” and “Certainly, red is for love, but tastes are changing.” And finally they inquired, “What time do you open on Valentines?” and he replied, “Officially at nine, but the line may start forming at 8:30. Even earlier.”

Requests and orders had begun pouring in for a week already from lovers, patchers-up, romantics, husbands, some wives and mostly from the boys to the girls, but that too was changing. “Women are bolder these days,” said a plump, sixty-ish secy from the emerald skyscraper next door to the shop. “And more desperate. Thank God I grew up when I did. Today, who knows where I’d be.”

Flowerful Vase employees began putting in long hours for days ahead of the passion fest. By Friday, the tempo began rising with orders faxed and furious, phoned, placed in person. One arrived through the post. Several guys, missing the cutoff date, offered cash bribes which were gladly accepted as ‘late fees’.

By Monday, the Vase’s crew began to feel lust rising everywhere: Extra-big shipments of flowers arriving several times during the day from the airport; multi-colors of roses cleaned, grouped, clipped and shunted into the cooler to await their fates; the Vase’s owner buying pizza and pop for the crew. Looking over the frenzy, JM thought, good life, being a rose. You are adored, are a channel for good feeling, and when you die, you are put down only reluctantly. You are romance in history and your modern-day names speak well of it – raphael (painted any good pictures lately); kiss (we must); leonidas (yasoo, o Spartan king); timeless (tick-tock); sophia (wisdom, always); aphrodite (flighty); vivaldi (good in any season); virginia (for lovers); sonia, ariana, osiana, first red. You hold in your natural heart something benevolent and everlasting like a specific authority granted by God Himself. 

Even the girls were getting sexier. Valentines’ aura was driving them even madder in the City of Passion. One seemed to intentionally yank open her coat and then bent low to smell the frezia, all in completely evocative terms and Beemis was quick not to miss it. Another, primping in the mirror on the Vase’s far wall, met eyes to his and suddenly she was primping all over and tossing her hair histrionically. He adored it.

And amidst all the everyday business of choosing and wrapping and paying leading up to the Big Love, he made the kind of banter that only could be described as verbal intercourse. “Can’t wait for Spring and all those good things,” he said, suggestively, or “Must get through this madness first. Then we’ll have time for, you know, stuff…” He even collected the women’s names, asking outright (she’s a good customer. I must know…) surreptitiously eyeing drivers’ licenses in open wallets laid on the counter (wonder if she’s got points…) or, his most favorite and easiest, reading them off the credit cards handed over for purchase (Ismay Byorim, nice handle. And a member since 86).

They worked ceaselessly Monday evening making the endless packages, mostly boxes of roses for quick pickup at the counter on V-Day, but pre-ordered vases and wrapped bouquets too, all stowed in the cooler to keep them fresh to Wednesday. After that, Heaven help them. People were infinitely innovative in mishandling roses, placing them near the radiator and things like that.

He liked making the sharp angled knife cuts that revealed fresh stem that water loved most. It was basic florist knowledge that knives were best, that scissors mashed the stems and should be avoided, although scissors somehow had become the weapon of choice. Education was needed, JM knew, perhaps a public-service announcement run free on TV: ‘Scissors kill! Save the Roses!’

Retail boxes were completed assembly-style: Tissue, gypsophylia, roses, more gyps, more roses, all tied in a bright bow inside the box so as to facilitate stacking and transport by van throughout the city, or at least to 96th Street on the north and everywhere south of the Vase. JM worked methodically – cut, tube, bow, repeat. Work invoices were attached to each finished one with shorthand like ’28, red, BB’, the last notation referring to the colloquial ‘baby’s breath’, the white flowerlet gyps filler that the ladies so preferred, akin to lace and doilies.

As he worked, he admitted to himself that the flower trade was good, that he was gainfully employed and that that was a positive thing. And roses certainly were colorful and life-affirming as opposed to the concrete conurbation outside. But nagging at him were the overriding life issues of love, money and power (I need them all…) and perhaps a smidgen of recognition for the two novels he’d written which lay unpublished on a shelf at the humble apartment he lived in in one of the city’s outer boroughs amongst the ordinary urban riff-raff whom he hoped to someday rise above. As a raconteur, he wished to convey his transcendent knowledge somewhere, somehow. He knew that in his heart and mind lay the candid truth about the intricate world, himself at times a victim of its byzantine plots and unctuous people.

In the meantime, however, the Vase had provided him with many vicarious pleasures in the ongoing parade of handsome women – passers-by beyond the glass; gals in the store; the smoking secretaries, in languor, slouching outside every skyscraper door and utility entrance in town, looking needy in their high heels and nicotine hells; bored authoritarians in uniform tending to lobby desks; lonely receptionists he met on deliveries, in their teeny skirts, completely disempowered within their petites mis-en-scenes.

He felt the city’s hot breath in sex-as-power, hair whipped into a frenzy, lips and nails painted like fine automobiles, bodies searching for perfection in any way possible – cover up, suck it in, stick it out. But deep down inside, he tried to convince himself that the women he saw were immaterial to him, as history had shown them forever to be to the philosophical man. Pleasure is whim. Knowledge is all… But ultimately they upped his yearning logarithmically for he could not escape them, and the Flowerful Vase was located in the richest, most glamorous neighborhood in town populated by the finest girls of all, just off the grandest boulevard in what they called the Greatest City in the World where the streets were paved in want and where all the addictions could be sated for a price except for those of poor JM who remained a florist, trapped in his cosmic paper jam, the kid minding the candy shop who could nary taste even a tiny treat.

He finished work Tuesday at a quarter to midnight, triple-wrapping tight a last sleek bouquet, making it stiff like a rifle. He went out into the city’s freezing night, the darkness offering a mirror to the urban backside of the graveyard shift. He walked half a block and then a full one to the corner of the boulevard where Ten-Ten lurked, its chocolate structure disappearing up into the night while its glassy neighbors reflected the avenue’s lights like show-off brothers. Ten-Ten appeared weightless, hovering on a lit transparent base, its only support appearing to come from the thin vertical bands that divided the lobby’s glass walls and the square columns rooted in the darkened plaza.

As he watched a maintenance man working alone sweeping the lobby floor, another in the metropolis’ solitary souls lost in the crowd, he noticed a bearded drunk in only shorts and a rhinestone jacket standing on the plaza’s marble settee wiping down his pet python with a napkin, swabbing the reptile’s eyelids lovingly as if applying daubs to a passionate painting. The light changed, and JM walked west toward the subway.

Two blocks on, he realized that he was in the environ of the modern art museum. From afar he could see the banners for the exhibit, the colored rectangles in red, yellow and blue. They were evocative, but of what he could not be sure. Red, yellow, blue… The simplicity piqued him in a resigned way and in passing the museum shop windows, he eyed the posters for sale that showed the artist’s progress from a lazy landscape reflected in a still river looking like an ink-blot test in somber browns and purples; to a brushstroke interpretation of a windmill in red and orange; to a bare grey tree broken into planes like shattered glass; and finally a white diamond criss-crossed in rectangular black bands. Beemis was tired and could not relate to the more abstract works, so he rested his eyes on the landscape and felt himself in both its trees and their reflection, like two offset factions within. Soon he dropped into the subway and took the one-hour ride home.

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