Keith Buie

PERENNIAL

     The trash man watches me watch him. He stands in the street, clutching the aluminum can against the back of the truck. All he has to do is lift the can over the edge and dump everything in. Dump in those double-trash-bag-wrapped Beatles records. Dump in the turntable covered in a blanket of dust. The six shoe boxes filled with model cars. The musty flannel shirts.
     I can't have any of them anymore.
     This man who drives a truck around town, picking up the things we set on our curbs—things we want to make disappear forever—this man has more power than he even knows. Does he realize this, standing there now, staring back at me, not dumping the can into the truck, not doing his job, and not earning his twenty dollars an hour?
     He does have distractions. My garden of chrysanthemums borders the front porch, running all the way to the edge of the house. I could walk outside and give him the grand tour, pointing out the front row of Clara Curtis mums, letting him smell each flower's lingering perfume, and explaining how their smooth, powder-pink daisy petals grow out from a fluffy yellow center in which butterflies make their home every morning.
     The second row offers a collection of Rose Blush mums, a cross of two parent flowers, Minnqueen and Rosy Glow, and they are known for their profusion of blooms, starting early in the year and continuing all season long. And while each of the Rose Blush blossoms start out a beautiful mauve color, the flowers fade as they age, losing their rich purple and blue shades, leaving a worn, grayer color behind. But, on the other hand, the flowers can survive in poor conditions, staying frost-resistant, managing to not whither away during those cold, lonely months that feel like an eternal hibernation.
     But this guy, he's probably not a flower person. Or maybe I'm just too much of a distraction, standing here behind the glass front door, wearing wet hair and a pair of inviting eyes. I never knew how one could make their eyes look inviting, but the robe lying at my feet is a start. And while everything on my body doesn't exactly point north anymore—it's more of a southwesterly direction—just like the Rose Blush mums, I'm a little worn, faded, and grayer.
     But I'm still alive.
     He stands there, pretending to wipe a gloved hand over his sweaty forehead, blocking the sun from his eyes for a better view at the random mid-afternoon nakedness. If he's not half my age then he could at least play the part. Blond curls peek out from behind his ears, his hair still damp from the shower or maybe a lunchtime surf down at the Pier. A razor hasn't touched his face in days, leaving a layer of sandpaper across a sun-bronzed face dripping with sweat. And his dark eyes do not stare—they haunt. Any woman caught in his trance immediately resorts to giggling, stuttering, and speaking only one-syllable words.
     It makes me forget that his skin wears that permanent smell of rotten vegetables and expired luncheon meat, and I would be better off locking the door, getting dressed, and driving anywhere else that men go. A bar. A barbershop. An afternoon ball game when it lets out.
     But I don't.
     The only problem—he hasn't dumped the trash can yet. So right now, I still own all those things. Things I feel too young to be getting rid of. And too young to keep.
     Even through the aluminum can, I can still see those records. The turntable. Those model cars.
     Your flannel shirts.
     If you're looking down on me right now, I'm sorry.
     It's just that I still hear you up in the attic every night, sitting at your desk, that turntable churning out your old—I'm sorry, vintage—Beatles records. Lyrics I tried to memorize from songs I studied to learn their names, I still hear them creeping down the stairs.
     Every night.

- - - - - -

     During our first months of dating, you would take me to dinner every weekend. In between the fried mozzarella appetizers and the entrees with fish names I couldn't pronounce, whenever a nervous-first-date-lull-in-conversation would creep up, you enlightened me with endless amounts of Beatles trivia.
     "Did you know what Ringo Starr's real name was?" you would ask, reaching across the table to napkin marinara sauce off my chin. "His real name wasn't Ringo Starr. It was actually Richard Starkey."
     "And did you know that Martha in the song, 'Martha My Dear,' was not a woman?" you would say, grabbing both my hands, teaching me the proper fork-and-spoon-noodle-twirling method for eating spaghetti. "Martha was the name of Paul's pet sheepdog."
     Most dates you took me on had the same theme—Italian and lavish. I had to pretend to know which one was the salad fork. Or lie about ever having tasted eggplant parmesan. Or simply just knowing the difference between a seventy-five dollar bottle of wine and grocery-store grape juice.
     Because someone of my age should already have experienced such things, right?
     You used to cover up the prices on the right side of the menu because I had a tendency to order only the plain rigatoni or a house salad—meals I thought wouldn't require a down payment first.
     When I pointed out that you had probably been on these exact dates hundreds of times—with hundreds of women—you said, "Actually, someone like me doesn't date that much."
     "And what do you mean by 'someone like you?'" I asked you.
     You just counted out money for the bill, keeping your head down, your perpetual-Italian-tan bald spot staring back at me, showing the red scar running across the top of your head.
     When you finally lifted your head and looked me in the eyes, you gave your response:
     "Did you know who Jude was in the song 'Hey Jude'?"
     I watched you keep piling money on the table, reminding you that with tips it was courtesy to leave fifteen percent of the bill, not fifteen percent of your yearly income.
     "He who has is wise to give," you told me.
     "And by the way," you said, handing the bill covered with a wad of money to the smiling waitress, "'Hey Jude' was about Julian Lennon. You know, as in John's son."
     You were always a gentleman—always. Holding the door open for me. Standing out of your seat when I left to go to the bathroom. And teaching me about the three Ms of Italian food: mozzarella, minestrone, and meat sauce that had more meat than sauce. I went up two dress sizes that first month.
     And of course, during every evening, there was the idle Beatles trivia you spouted whenever there was a silence between us. Whenever you felt nervous. Whenever it seemed a chance I might ask—or do—something to get too close to you.
     I practically tackled you on our tenth date, just to finally get our first goodnight kiss at my front door.
     When we finally pried our lips away from each other after what seemed like hours, another one of those long silences hung between us.
     You took a step away from me, put your head down, and said, "That kiss lasted almost as long as 'Helter Skelter.' It's the longest Beatles song ever, clocking in at over twenty-seven minutes..."
     I just opened the front door and pushed you inside, kissing you again before you could cite Ringo Starr's shoe size and ruin the moment.
     I was at an age in my life that shouldn't warrant so many of my firsts. My first kiss (how embarrassing). My first time going to a concert (a Beatles tribute band called Sergeant and the Peppers). My first time drinking a beer (and six, for that matter, all in one night). And my first…well, just my first time.
     I grew up in a home where rock music and the devil were always lumped into the same sentence. Same with television. Makeup. Even skirts shorter than six inches past the knee.
     But after that night with you—the night of my first—I finally started to see that even the devil must have had a good side.
     I started inviting myself over to your house to cook you dinner. Every evening, whenever you slipped on one of your flannel shirts and went up to the attic to play your records—alone, as I took the hint when you never once invited me up—I would scrub the dishes, humming along to the music creeping down the stairs. I grew quite attached to one particular Beatles song, your favorite, "Yesterday," which, title alone, I used to examine for some deep hidden meaning. One night, over my first-ever homemade lasagna (thank you very much), when I thought I had some of the lyrics figured out, I played Sigmund Freud and asked if the song was about how yesterday was merely a good place to hide away, how it could make all your troubles seem far away, and if you don't feel like the man you want to be, and there's a shadow hanging over you, it's just a reminder to never take anything for granted, to stop dwelling on things out of your control, and to just focus on living for today.
     You kept your head down, and without even looking up from the newspaper, you answered, "No, the song is just about a girl."
     When I demanded clarification, calling out for John, our third roommate I swore you kept hidden in the attic, you reminded me Paul actually sang that one. I threw my hands up in defeat, surrendering by waving the dish towel as a white flag.
     But then you said, "Did you know that 'Yesterday' was originally titled 'Scrambled Eggs'?" and I knew it was my cue to drop the subject immediately.
     You used to drag me to garage sales and used record stores, always in search of the next "find." When you did stumble across one of the few albums you didn't already own, I took it upon myself to do your haggling, because you were fine with handing over your next month's car payment if it meant completing your collection.
     When you weren't buying records, you were coming home with a new box from the hobby shop. You would open the box and pull out the hundreds of small pieces, working for hours every night, lining the shelf above your desk with completed, miniature versions of all your boyhood fantasies: a black '65 Chevy El Camino, a candy-apple red '60 Ford Falcon, and your favorite, the baby-blue '70 Cadillac Coupe deVille.
     You had an attic filled with hobbies. A real "man" attic. The rock music. The model cars. Even that single poster of Sophia Loren wearing her water-soaked, body-clinging dress, fresh from walking out of the water in Boy on a Dolphin (Sophia, you once told me, was your second favorite Italian woman—next to your mother, that is).
     And I only saw each of these things because I snuck up to the attic one night. I figured you wouldn't hear the creaking stairs over Paul's long guitar solo, and I was right. But I didn't expect to see you sitting at your desk, surrounded by a pile of prescription bottles. You cupped a handful of pills, swallowed them down, and then wiped away the tears that were rolling down your face, before pushing the bottles back into the desk drawer.
     I wanted to walk over, put my arms around you, and ask, "Did you know what was the original name of the Beatles?" stealing your awkward-moment cue, all before making up an answer to cover my bluff.
     I never asked why you kept an entire pharmacy hidden from me in your attic. Instead, whenever I saw you putting one of your flannel shirts on, and when you opened the door to the attic, I would smile and tell you the same thing every time:
     "I'll stay down here while you head upstairs with the band. Don't worry, honey. I won't turn all Yoko Ono on you."
     That one always made you smile, because it showed I had been paying attention. That is, until the day it finally made you cry.
     "I think I love you enough now." You closed the door to the attic and sat down next to me on the couch. "I think I love you enough to finally want to hurt you."
     You talked for what felt like hours, using big words like astrocytoma and neoplasm and infiltration. But out of everything you said, there was one word I fully understood—cancer.
     Doctors cut into the top of your head to remove the tumor. They blasted you with radiation and chemotherapy. They prescribed dozens of pills to prevent seizures. To help you sleep. To counter the nausea.
     But the cancer cells had already spread to your spinal cord. Every treatment option was merely a stall. Doctors gave you two years to live three years ago. You were living on borrowed time that could expire at any moment.
     When you finished talking, you told me, "It's alright if you want to leave. I deserve that for waiting so long to tell you the truth."
     "How many albums did the Beatles record?" I asked you.
     "Twelve in England. Twenty in the United States. Why do you ask?"
     I said, "Just think how many more albums they could have made together had John not given up and walked away."
     You had never been to Italy. You never owned the keys to any of those cars you meticulously pieced together each night. You never once stood in the front row of a Beatles concert, holding up a lighter and singing along with thousands of other fans wearing sideburns and bell-bottoms.
     Your attic—it was your chance to change all of that. To compensate for lost time. To not leave anything behind.
     "Quantity over quality," you always told me.
     I reminded you that you were only half right.
     "You can have both quantity and quality," I told you. "But you sure won't get both of them up there alone in that cold attic."
     "What are you talking about?" you asked.
     "Just wait and see," I told you. "Just you wait and see."
     From that night on, during your "attic time," I stayed downstairs, doing the dishes, the laundry, counting down the minutes just waiting for you, and wearing one of your flannel shirts. Just your flannel shirt. I never even bothered to button any of them.
     Once John or Paul stopped singing, and I heard your footsteps coming down the stairs, that's when I found a spot on the bed. Or the couch. Or the kitchen table.
     It was different every time.
     Quantity and quality.
     I had always put off my first time, because…the words clumsy, anxiety, and deer-in-headlights always came to mind.
     But with you, something awakened in me. I started losing focus during routine moments throughout the day. Forgetting where I put my car keys. Forgetting if I brushed my teeth. Forgetting how to add two plus two.
     My mind was hopelessly and beautifully clogged.
     "Women reach their peaks twenty years after men do," you told me. "These thoughts and desires are natural. It's simple science."
     But I didn't believe any of that. I just believed something much simpler:
     "Once a blind man learns to see," I said to you, "why would he want to close his eyes ever again?"
     We started to live by that newfound rule, a rule neither of us were smart enough to know we should have always followed—make each moment count for something. And once you walked down the stairs and opened the door from the attic, we made those moments count. Sometimes we made those moments count so loud that when I went to the mailbox the next day, Mrs. Arnold from next door would keep her head down and remind me of the Sunday mass schedule.
     The sex education books never mentioned it, but I would tell the authors to add it in now—painting a license plate onto a '67 midnight-blue Pontiac GTO can actually count as foreplay.
     It got to be that I would literally push you up the stairs every night. Something about sitting downstairs, alone, getting goose bumps whenever I heard your footsteps, it was like drinking that cup of hot chocolate in the winter—it always tasted better after spending the previous hour outside in the cold shoveling snow.
     For the next six months, we lived like teenagers. The laundry basket overflowed. Newspapers piled up on the porch. Even the pizza deliveryman got to know our first names.
     No one was ever going to mistake me for Sophia Loren, but what I lacked in looks, I made up for with imagination. Like the time for your birthday when I tracked down the owner of a baby-blue '70 Cadillac Coupe deVille and offered a handsome payment to rent it for the day. When the owner checked the odometer after we returned it, pleased that we only drove the car twenty miles, he never asked what we did all day, or why you had a constant smile and I wore a wrinkled shirt and a frazzled head of hair.
     And I never pointed it out, but you had gone months without telling me even a single piece of your nervous, lull-filling Beatles trivia.
     If that isn't the love equivalent of construction workers dropping their hammers and whistling as you walk by, then I don't know what is.
     But eventually there were nights when you were too tired to go up to the attic. And once the tumor came back and the seizures started again, there were nights you went straight from the dinner table to the recliner. Or to the bed. Or to the rug in the bathroom between the toilet and sink, with your head resting on the porcelain seat, because it was easier to ride out the hour-and-a-half bout of nausea without running back and forth to the bathroom.
     But I figured those nights you had the energy to walk up the stairs to the attic, you definitely had enough energy when you came back down.
     Besides, during one of your radiation treatments, your doctor said, "If you still can, then by all means, do."
     But it's been two years since you became too weak to walk upstairs to the attic. Two years since the chemo stopped working. And two years since you first said good-bye to me. You kept saying good-bye to me every night, just in case, for the next year, until the one night you finally kept your word by not waking up the next morning. But that's what a slow-losing battle to an astrocytoma brain tumor does to someone—it makes them prepare for every day to be the day.
     You left me that spring with a houseful of reminders. The records. The models.
     I tried to keep wearing your flannels around the house, but once I started having to button them, it just didn't seem worth it.
     I followed your lead and tried to find my own hobbies. The only one that stuck was gardening because it forced me outside, away from a houseful of memories. I religiously spent every day last summer planting seeds in the garden, waiting patiently for the chrysanthemums to sprout up, plucking out each weed before it could even taste sunlight. I watered the garden every day, watching closely as each bulb opened, breathing in the air around it. The beautiful pink and mauve colors washed over me, letting me momentarily leave my life behind, and I stared at those flowers all summer long until each bulb slowly closed, making each flower whither away for the winter.
     But when spring came around this year, the flowers didn't wait until I was ready to take off your flannel shirts. The mums didn't bother waiting to hear John or Paul's voice fade away from the turntable, getting replaced with chirping birds and lawn mowers. They didn't wait for me to wipe away the last round of tears and flee my winter sanctuary, not needing me to strap on my garden gloves to work in handfuls of peat moss and fresh potting soil.
     While I stood by the window, finally unbuttoning the last button on your red and gray flannel, I saw the first bulb opening. The mauve petals extended like arms stretching from a long winter's nap. With each passing day, from behind that window, I watched as more and more bulbs sprouted open.
     When I started my gardening hobby last spring, the florist recommended planting chrysanthemums. She had told me they were perennials, how the flowers can withstand extremely poor conditions and keep on living, year after year, without anyone even touching them.
     A concept that I am struggling with right now.
     It's funny. Even early on with us, before I knew the hourglass had been flipped over, I was still new to being an affectionate woman, meaning I didn't need "affection" more than once every flip of the calendar. But during our final six-month-long cram session, my nightly desert craving wasn't anything I could get from Sarah Lee.
     That hasn't changed now that you are gone. I still like knowing the kitchen table can hold the weight of two people without collapsing. I like taking a pause before shaving my legs, then eagerly grabbing the razor and saying, "Just in case."
     I still want to make Mrs. Arnold clutch her rosary when she sees me walking to get the newspaper every morning.
     But my garden, my one distraction, my one hobby that got me out of the house, letting me spend endless days bringing flowers to life with my constant nurturing and attention, those flowers, now that I finally need them the most—they don't need me.
     I could always pull them up by their roots, start the garden all over. But that's something I'm not ready to do just yet.
     Start over, that is.


     That puts me here. Tuesday.
     Trash day.
     Every week I hide behind the curtain in the window, watching the same pair of muscled arms lifting cans and tossing bags, running back and forth, hitting six driveways before moving the truck down the road. This nameless man, he is within my eyesight for no more than a few minutes each week, but he shows back up later that night when I lie down in bed and close my eyes. He shows up during my morning showers. When I'm eating breakfast. Driving to the store. Dusting.
     This man, he's out there right now, standing in the road, holding the trash can full of your reminders in his hands. I see him every week, but this is the first time he has seen me. At least, the first time he has seen so much of me.
     And even though this front door is unlocked, I'm still not ready to open it.
     But I won't stop him if he opens the door, walks in, and…
     We keep staring at each other, until finally he tilts the can over the edge, spilling everything into the back of the truck. Those records I still hear playing upstairs. The models I still see sitting on the shelf above your desk. The flannels I still feel against my skin. He made them all disappear.
     At least, for right now.
     Whether his next step is back to the truck or up the driveway to my front door, I'll still hear John and Paul's voices singing in the attic tonight.
     And that's the problem. I'm old enough to let myself go on hearing music that isn't playing, waiting for footsteps that won't be coming down the stairs.
     But I'm also young enough to stop.
     He tosses the can back onto the driveway, his eyes looking up, meeting mine one last time. He shakes his head back and forth, smiles, and then winks at me before getting back into the truck, driving down the road to the next set of driveways.
     That is exactly what I thought would happen. What I hoped would happen.
     This time.
     Once again, if you're looking down on me right now, I'm sorry.
     Next Tuesday is trash day again. I'll be standing behind the unlocked glass door, robe at my feet, looking at my garden, and trying to understand how my flowers keep on living—alone and untouched.

 

 

 

- - - - - -

Keith Buie lives in Cleveland, Ohio. He recently completed his first novel, Resistance, and is currently working on his second novel. His fiction has appeared in The MacGuffin, Quiddity: International Literary Journal, Rio Grande Review, Willard & Maple, and Metal Scratches.

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