Little Blue Flower

I knew a man once who was cruel, but his story was also cruel.  The memory of how his life unfolded still haunts me.

It began when he saved the life of a wizard.  Remarkable in and of itself.  As it happened, the wizard was merely crossing a street and this man was doing the same.  He noticed the oncoming car first and whisked them both out of harms way.  It was a simple act, more instinct than kindness, but the wizard was grateful and he granted the this man a unique wish.  He could give him any one power, to be used over and over until his death. It would be a unique gift and one he must decide for himself.

As it happened this man was broken-hearted at the time of his heroic act.  His girlfriend of many years has left him only weeks before.  He was haunted by his love for her, particularly by a memory that came each time he glanced at a photo on the fridge door.  She stood on the beach, backlit, her hair a silver outline against the grey of sky and ocean.  It had been a sunny day, but the picture was not a good one.  Still, it brought back his happiest memory, and that was something that broke him every time.  He had torn up the photo, but later taped it back together. He couldn’t let it go, but the pain just didn’t seem to let up.

So when the wizard asked him what his power would be, the man said he wanted to be able to take away a person’s happiest memory.  He would use it on himself and once he did the photo would be all but meaningless.  It would find its way into the waste basket.

At first the wizard pulled his beard and seemed to hesitate, perhaps mulling over the cosmic ramifications of rendering such a trick.  But then his cell phone rang and, reaching into his flowing robes, he took a call.  It was his mother and he seemed peeved to get it.

“This really isn’t a good time,” he said.

The wizard shook his head at the man, his expression seeming to say, “Moms. Am I right?”  At last, he held out a hand and placed it on the man’s forehead.  His lips moved in a silent incantation.

“There,” he said aloud.

Then into the phone, “Not you, Ma. Some guy.”

The wizard walked away, but turned back, flattening the phone against his chest.  “It is done,” he said. “You need only say, ‘Happiest memory you are gone.’ Use it wisely.”

When the man got back to his apartment, he took one long look at the photo.  It had been in Malibu and the memory was a short one, though it represented a broader swath of his life.  When he and Diana were first falling in love.  He had looked into the sun too long, so that when his eyes tilted on her, there were spots of blackness floating around her face, and a dimness that shrouded her eyes in secrecy.  But her smile came through his small blindness, a flash of gorgeous lips and bright teeth.  He then felt her hand slip into his and heard her voice, husky and sweet and golden, “Ready to head back?”  That moment encapsulated everything good about one fantastic year.  His hand rose involuntarily and rested on the corners of the photo, flattening out the curling paper.

Taking a deep breath, the man closed his eyes.

“Happiest memory, you are gone.”

He let his mind go blank, breathing the way he did when he did yoga, sure that the magic worked best when you gave it a little space.  Then he opened his eyes and looked at the picture.  But the memory was still there, sharp as ever, bitter and sweet and agonizing.

“Damn.”

He tried it once more. Then again.

When he was drunk later that night he tried it so many times that he fell asleep on the kitchen floor in front of the refrigerator.  Each time he said, “Happiest memory you are gone.”

In the morning he could still remember everything about that moment.  The cry of the seagulls.  The smell of her shampoo and sunblock. He decided that there really was no such thing as wizards.  The wizard had just been some dude stumbling toward Comic Con or a meeting of D & D players.  Or a lunatic with a strong grasp of wardrobe.

He laughed at himself until his head hurt.

There was no such thing as magic and he had no super powers.

 


 

Then in the Spring a small blue flower budded in the mulch at the corner of his yard. He spotted it one morning on the way to the coffee shop and he paused, a smile opening on his mouth, and he had a strong sense that whenever this blue flower bloomed, he felt happy.  Because.

Then he realized that the only thing he knew for sure about the blue flower was that for a long time it had been a thing that meant something.  Now he couldn’t remember what it was.  He asked his sister if it meant anything to her.

“Mom planted those for us. Some in each of our yards. Cassie has some, too. Mine never made it. The year she was dying. You remember.”

And when she said it, he realized that part he could recall.  And helping her plant the flowers wasn’t a happy memory really.  He’d been irritated with her about it.  Thinking it was sentimental.  He might not always live here. One day he might not even want a yard. She’d blown off his grousing the way she always did.

“Let me do this,” she said.

It wasn’t the planting day that he couldn’t remember.  It was something else.  Of course, he was a kind of forgetful man.  He often walked into a room and paused because his reason for coming was already out of his mind.  Still, that blue flower hit him when he looked at it.  It was sharp, but vacant.  There had been a memory there and a meaning. It just wasn’t there anymore.

He began to wonder if he did have the super power.  Had this forgotten thing been a happier memory than the day on the beach with Diana?  He’d been sure that was his most joyous recollection, but he had been in the throes of his grief then and perhaps he’d not been seeing things clearly.

 


 

Then in the autumn he was cleaning out the grate when another missing memory made itself known to him.  It was a damp day outside and on those days the chimney really smelled of wood smoke the most.  As he leaned in to clean out the ashes, the smell caught him off guard.  And he felt a smile forming on his lips – just like with the little blue flower – and then it was just a feeling like being empty.  But if emptiness could itch.  Because he knew that this smell of woodsmoke always made him think of something else that was sensory, like another fragrance or a taste, which was in turn connected to a person and a moment.

He was stunned by the loss.

Leaning back from the grate, he stared into the shadows of the room, but there was nothing there to answer the question.  How many times had he used his power on himself that first night? How many happy memories had he erased?

Or was this more of his usual scattered mind?

 


 

He stayed late at his neighborhood bar, until only he and the bartender were left.  Two feet of mahogany, waxed over the years to a mirror finish, separated them.  Charlie had told him some good jokes; he knew a lot of them already.  They had been talking for years.

If the wizard had been a wizard – and if he had a super power – tonight would have to show it.  He couldn’t live anymore with the uncertainty.  It had been terrorizing him, not knowing if he had magic or was simply on the precipice of Alzheimers.  That’s what took his Mom. It ran in the family.

He looked into Charlie’s eyes a little too long.  Men have codes about things like this.  But he had to study him and see just how his eyes looked in the beginning.  Charlie frowned at him.

“You okay?”

“Yes.” His voice sounded distant to himself.

He took a deep breath and then said to Charlie, “Happiest memory you are gone.”

Charlie blinked.  “I’m glad I already called last call.”

“Tell me about the day with your Granddad on the ferry ride.”

Charlie frowned. “What the fucks got into you, man?”

“Tell me about it.  The hotdogs and the fat lady whose dress blew up.  The thing your granddad said.”

Charlie shook his head, “He just…”

“Yeah?”

Charlie straightened up, braced his hands on the bar.  He turned his head to glance down the bar, his eyes probing the dimness of the room, looking for an answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think that’s me.”

“Of course it is,” the man said.  His heart was racing, his hands trembling. “I just asked you too quick.”

“No,” Charlie said.  But his brow was creased as he dropped his gaze to his feet. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t have no memory like that.”

When he glanced up at the man, his eyes glistened with tears.  The man looked into his eyes, trying to find a missing light.  Charlie turned away, taking the towel off his shoulder to wipe glasses.

“What was that thing you said a minute ago?  The thing about the happy memory?”

“I don’t know.”

Charlie put a hand up on the shelf in front of him and leaned into his arm, resting his face against his sleeve.  “I think you’d better get out of here.”

But the man had already slipped off his stool, his face white and his fingers numb and awkward as he shook a twenty out of his wallet.

“Night, Charlie.”

The bartender wouldn’t turn to face him.  He didn’t say good night.

 


 

After that the man was sure his power was real.  It awakened something in his personality. There had been a thrill that came when he took away Charlie’s happiest memory.  It was undeniable.  When he tried to think about the morality of it, his thoughts broke apart like a puzzle fresh out of the box.   He couldn’t piece together a way to look at the mess of his new magic.  He just knew it to be exhilarating.

 

 

 

Throne Room

My favorite indoor place as a kid was the dark basement of our ranch house.  The faux wood paneling was littered with paint-by-numbers of flying ducks and macrame owls that perched on limbs of driftwood.  Above there was ceiling tile, stained rustily in places from water leaks.  The floors were institutional linoleum tiles, beige and avocado, coming up in places.  There was a huge brown sectional, decorated with a zig-zagged afghan, and a large wooden console with a convex piece of glass through which I escaped into other, far more delightful worlds.  In decorating terms, today this fairly hum-drum 80s TV room would make the most popular coffee house on any street in Brooklyn.  There may even have been a complicated Turkish coffee carafe wedged between dusty fondue pots on the top shelf of the laundry room.  Let us agree this is true because it might as well be.
tangina textThis underground level of the house, at times forgotten by my parents judging by the overflowing hampers in front of the washer and dryer, was all the inside world I needed or wanted.  As soon as I woke each morning of summer, I made myself a Tupperware bowl of cereal and headed carefully down the steps.  Ensconced on the sectional, I disappeared for hours into reruns of The Andy Griffith Show and Rhoda.  The latter informed my inner strong Jewish woman, the former mystified me, as I didn’t crack the Don Knots code until I was in my thirties.  Maybe I didn’t understand how this uptight deputy wound up as the neckerchief-wearing landlord to my favorite goofball trio on Three’s Company.

My eldest sister, Moo, was strictly a reader through the long days of summer; the middle child, Bird, never settled at home for long.  She often trotted off to visit neighbor ladies who smoked mentholated cigarettes while watching The Price is Right in darkened little living rooms.  Mom thought Bird didn’t love us sufficiently; I was thankful to have no challengers for my sacred territory.

By the age of ten, I was treating the basement as a sort of apartment all of my own.  It was true that the rest of the family piled in for evening TV viewing, but during the sleepy morning and humid afternoon hours, I was blessedly alone.  Sometimes I heard a pair of feet thumping overhead, then the door at the top of the steps would whine open about a foot.

“Paul, you down there?”

“Yes, mother.”

“Are you going to go outside and get some fresh air today or just lay around in your underwear again?”

“The latter, mother.”

“Your sisters are going to walk to the pool…”

“Mother, may I watch my stories in peace?”

A resentful pause; then an all-too-familiar bait.

“Do you want a fried bologna sandwich?”

“Very well, mother, if you insist.”

“If you don’t…”

“No, I do. I’ll be up in a minute.”

I took special care of that part of the house.  We didn’t have central air and the screens of our storm windows were always in some state of disrepair, so that all summer long there was what we called a fly problem.  At eleven o’clock, when the boring game shows began to air, I’d gather up plastic tumblers of Coke with dead flies floating in the syrupy backwash.  After I marched upstairs with them, I’d come back down with a butler’s whisk, a dust rag and a bottle of Liquid Gold.  Polishing the wagon-wheel end table until you could see your face in the spokes, I’d air my grievances over the condition of the place to my dream-mother, television’s own Barbara Eden.

“Can you believe how this swine live, Jeannie?”

Unfurling herself from the plush brown depths of the sectional with a kittenish yawn, she’d shake out her pink balloon slacks and give me a sympathetic eye roll. “I know what you mean, Sheffield. I woke up this morning with Cheetos in my ponytail. These people are pigs.”

I never asked her to use her magic to clean the place.  Not only would it have been rude to task a guest with the housework, I felt even then that the expectation of women to keep a tidy home was a sign of man’s centuries-long tyranny over the eyeshadow and wrap-dress sex. Ideologically speaking, my heart was in the right place.  Besides, something about my daily act of martyrdom was as pleasing to my senses as the smell of lemon when I mopped up Kool-Aid spills from the steps.

There was a corner in the back of the basement where a piece of the sectional that hadn’t fit had been stuffed. It created a sort of banquet against an accent wall of marbly streaked mirror.  The space struck me as sophisticated and somehow West Coast. Here I gave exclusive interviews to a then-young Barbara Walters, who my real mother had an unarticulated dislike for and whom, conversely, I had decided to worship.  Besides which, she rubbed elbows with the elite of the entertainment and political worlds. It was hard to downplay the panache of a woman who could cozy up in a taupe living room with a sticky-lipped Lonnie Anderson one week, then sit down in the Rose Garden to talk hostages with Reagan the next.  Between such engagements, she liked to catch up with me to discuss my latest, often gender-bending roles.

“Mr. Miller, tell us why you chose to star in this Of Human Bondage redux?”

Still a little high on Barbara’s effusive descriptions of my seaside estate in the opening, it took me a moment to focus on the question.  On screen, it would appear to be a satellite delay, despite the fact we were curled up together side by side in the sunny breakfast nook of my pool house.

“Oh, Barbara, so formal! Call me Paul or Sheffield or Destiny, please.”

“Alright, Destiny. But to the question…”

Here is where I knew the producers wanted me to ‘go thoughtful’ while they ‘zoomed in for a close-up’.  I also knew from past experience and from the sting in my left eye that I could squeeze out about two full sentences before the tears came.

“Well, Barbara, I had seen Of Human Bondage on WTTG out of Washington last Sunday afternoon when that hail storm cancelled our family run to Tastee Freeze, and I immediately thought, ‘Here it is. This is it. The role I was meant to play.'”

“The role you were meant to play,” Barbara repeated, nodding significantly. “But taking on a character that Bette Davis made famous…that would have to be daunting.”

“I never take on a project lightly, Barbara. And I called Bette to make sure I had her blessing.”

“Did you really?”

“Yes I did. It was important to me.”

“Destiny, what did film legend Bette Davis say to you when you called her Park Avenue condominium with brass wet bar and doorman service?”

“Well, Barbara…” And here came the tears, because of course. “I’m sorry…”

One of the boom operators slipped a Kleenex into my hand, barely detectable in the final edit, and I gifted him with the merest smile.  A rugged blond with a drooping mustache, he preferred to boom operate in faded denim cutoffs and a snug-fitting cinnabar t-shirt, emblazoned with ‘California Dreamin’ in juicy bubble letters.  I say preferred, but for all I knew, it may have been Barbara’s mandated uniform. Come to think of it, all the men on her crew wore the same outfit, even Hank, who clearly would have been more comfortable and less alarming in baggy coveralls.

“Barbara, Bette was very supportive. I’ll just say that.”

“Why so mysterious, Destiny?”

But I would never say and that was why Barbara always described me as ‘enigmatic’ and ‘unwatchable’.

When I was eleven, my parents put the house on the market and started building a new home on the other side of town. As the sprawl of our everyday lives began to sift into boxes and boxes became piles on the back of pickup trucks, I took pains to defend my basement wonderland. I lobbied that we pack it last, as it was after all the TV room and laundry, but the result was that the rest of them used it all the more.  Unable to explore my world of make believe in front of that particular audience, I found that I had few chances left to say a proper good-bye to this last stronghold of childhood fancies.  Then came a morning when my burly uncles clattered down the stairs to take out the sectional in pieces.  I had hidden my favorite accessory behind the interview banquet and rushed to grab it before they returned from the truck.

When I pushed my arm down between the cushions, my fingers brushed the chilly neck of a splatter-glazed bottle.  It was where my other Barbara lived, my Jeannie-mother, when she wasn’t reclining on the chocolate velour cushions, agreeing with me that perhaps Mash’s Charles Emerson Winchester III wouldn’t be such a jerk if Hawkeye wasn’t such a slob.  I stroked the bottle once more, wishing every wish could be true, all at once, a madly delightful escape out of the world of a misunderstood gay kid in the 80s and into the bottle, a round room with Technicolored pillows, swags of chiffon, and mad-cap adventures that returned to a familiar safe place every twenty-odd minutes.  Hearing the men open the basement door, the deep rumble of their voices as they shared a dirty-sounding laugh, I climbed up onto the back of the banquet, pushed aside a ceiling tile, and tucked the bottle away from sight.  It hurt to leave her there – my soft, blond mother, our dreams and adventures, our laughter – but the future loomed mysteriously, threateningly, and I felt somehow she wouldn’t survive out there in its bright glare.

In defiance of the changes I didn’t want and of the sweating brutes who called my mother sister, I sank Indian fashion into the center of the last piece of the sectional and folded my arms.  They thought it was funny to carry the piece out with me on it rather than to wheedle me into moving. And I thought it was funny, too, but not for the same reason.  It simply pleased me in a bittersweet way to be carried out of my kingdom on a throne.  A star deserves no less.