“Hallelujah.” Sophia repeated the last word of her father’s favorite song seven times as the music faded. She closed her eyes on the last few, then allowed the final note to wash over her. It did not bring her renewal or a sense of hope as it usually did and as Sophia made her way back to her seat she could not bear to look at anyone.
Tears lingered on Sophia’s face so she brushed them away with an errant hand. She reached out for support, imagining she had someone next to her whose hand she could hold. It was times like this Sophia second (and third and fourth) guessed her decision to end things with Colin.
Sophia had dialed Colin’s number several times that morning; yet every time she went to press call her father’s words of “never settle” ghosted through her mind. So now she sat at her father’s funeral alone.
Oh, this is stupid, she thought to herself as she continued wiping away tears. Sophia was not really alone, as she was surrounded by her mother, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. Her heart beat full of love. It just occasionally skipped a beat as there was one small piece of it missing.
Sophia had hoped Colin would fill that hole. And he did in some ways. Colin had many of the values important to Sophia, including honesty, determination, and intelligence. What he did not have was a passion for the arts, particularly music, and that made Sophia feel like there was still room for someone else. Thus, she ended their relationship. Sophia did so with kindness and appreciation for what Colin had brought to her life because that was her father’s second life lesson – Never settle, but don’t be a jerk about it.
Maybe it isn’t settling, Sophia thought as she watched her mother dab away her own tears with a handkerchief. Maybe that’s just what love is – to find someone who helps fill the void. It could be my fault. Maybe I’m the one who made the hole too big to begin with. Maybe it’s up to me to fill some of it on my own?
Sophia’s mother reached out and grabbed Sophia’s hand, jolting Sophia from her ruminations. Here she was at her father’s funeral thinking about Colin. Yes, she would call him tonight. As she came to this decision, she felt the emptiness in her heart consume her and it felt like the moment she watched her father’s life pass from his body.
Oh, Dad! she cried from her heart and then she heard his words echo again, “Never settle.” Sophia knew he was right and even though she craved even the smallest amount of intimate comfort, she would not call Colin. That would do both a disservice, not to mention it would make her a jerk to reach out when she had no true intentions of rekindling their relationship. She would honor her father that way, too.
For the rest of the day, Sophia stuck with her decision as she watched her father lowered into the ground and then celebrated his life with her loved ones over casseroles, sandwiches, and cakes. She began to waiver as she gave her mother one more hug goodbye in the parking lot, and so she decided to pick up some work on her way home to hopefully keep her mind occupied.
Sophia’s heels echoed down the silent and dark hallway of her school as she made her way to the music room. She felt small and lonely. Dad, I need your help, she thought as she again considered calling Colin.
As Sophia opened the door and flipped on the light, she blinked a few times and then her eyes settled on the four beautiful sunflowers perched in a blue vase on her desk. A card sat propped up on it and she reached out to open it.
Her eyes shined with unfallen tears as she read the contents:
Dear Miss Maxwell,
I’m so glad we found such a talented music teacher – hallelujah – I didn’t think this position would ever get filled! Let me know if you have any questions about the school. I was a newbie last year, so I know what it’s like and I’d be happy to show you around.
Peter Cohen (English Department)
Sophia read the card two more times. She did not know who Peter Cohen was, but she could not help but notice the one word that tied him to her father. In the quiet of the room, she started singing again. It soothed that empty place in her heart and Sophia knew whatever happened, she would not settle. She would find what she was looking for and in the meantime, she would sing.
Garden Victory Part 5
Before Peter knew it, he and Sadie had walked two blocks. He turned around as she sniffed at a fire hydrant, trying to recount the steps they had taken that got them to their current location. In the distance, he could hear the bells ringing from St. Michael’s steeple. Peter sighed as the sound reminded him about the new music teacher at his school.
“Come on, Sadie, let’s keep walking.” Peter tugged on her leash as they moved down the street, but the distance did not separate him from his thoughts of Miss Maxell.
He didn’t even know her first name. She had started at the school last week. Peter overheard her singing in the music room one day on his way to the teacher’s lounge. He stopped outside the door and listened as she sang a Beatles’ medley to herself. At first he stopped because the Beatles were his favorite band. A few moments later he was hooked as her voice seemed to reach the very depth of his core and when she started in with Here Comes the Sun, a desire ignited in him to find a guitar and start playing along.
“But we don’t play the guitar anymore, do we, Sadie?” Sadie ignored Peter as she was now sniffing a bench. He let her sniff away to her heart’s content as he remembered the last time he played his guitar. It was before his divorce three years ago. Peter had just gotten back from an open mic night at the local pub when he found a note on the table. Dear Peter, it began and then in a way so generic Peter wondered if she had copied the letter from the Internet, he found out his wife left him.
Since then, Peter turned into a shell of a man. His day to day motions were simply to get him through to the next day, then week, then month, then year. As he and Sadie ambled on, he felt a jolt inside him as he realized just how long it had been since he had even talked to another woman in that sort of way. I don’t even know what I’d say to her, Peter argued with himself as he made the case for doing nothing. I’d make a fool of myself.
Or doing nothing would make you the fool came his own retort. Peter tried to ignore this sentiment, otherwise that would mean putting himself out there and possibly getting hurt again.
“We don’t want that, do we, Sadie?” he asked to reassure himself. Peter, expecting no response, was unprepared as Sadie pounced on something laying on the sidewalk and he felt himself tumble over.
As Peter straightened himself up, he saw Sadie struggling to get four long-stemmed sunflowers into her mouth. Their bright yellows and reds burst through the gloom of his heart like a beacon of hope.
Peter gently pried them from Sadie’s mouth. He dried them off with the side of his shirt and examined them. They seemed no worse for wear and Peter looked around to see if anyone appeared to be missing them. He stood up and held the flowers in his hand, staring down at them as an idea formed in his head.
“Good girl,” he told Sadie with a smile as they turned around to make their way home. Peter knew exactly what he was going to do with these flowers and now he just had to find a card to write on so he could welcome Miss Maxwell to the school.
Garden Victory Part 4
Arthur watched from the back of the church as the congregation processed up the aisle. Some of the people went back to their pews, where they belong, thought Arthur, and some of them headed for the exit. As they walked past him, Arthur grunted, disgusted by the lack of respect these individuals had for the Body of Christ. Damn you, he thought. You’ll burn in hell for your sins. Even though a large part of Arthur took comfort in this judgment, a smaller part pitied the fools. Such a stupid price to pay, eternity in hell, just to avoid traffic.
Arthur checked his watch. Mass had gone over long. It was now six o’clock and they still had fifteen minutes to go. It was the windbag priest. “Anything extra goes back to St. Michael’s,” he repeated a dozen times discussing the bishop’s annual appeal. Finally, the priest got to “The Mass has ended. Go in peace,” and Arthur headed for the nearest exit.
On the way out the door, Arthur made sure not to make eye contact with the woman collecting change for the parish’s refugee resettlement program. Stupid immigrants. He hated that St. Michael’s contributed so much money to these foreigners. Why should a complete stranger get his money?
The woman tapped him on the arm. “We could really use your help,” she said.
He ignored her and started walking faster. As he headed across the street to his car, Arthur prayed the woman would leave him the hell alone. He looked up just in time to see the look of horror on the young girl’s face as she slammed on her brakes.
“Watch where you’re going!” Arthur yelled.
“I’m sorry!” The girl looked shaken. “Are you okay?” she asked, getting out of the car.
“No thanks to you,” he huffed.
“I was just trying to help.” Arthur didn’t say anything and started towards his car again. The girl seemed to dither on the spot, then reached into her car and pulled out four sunflowers. They had long stems. “Here, take these,” she said as she shoved them into Arthur’s hands. “To make up for almost hitting you.” The girl seemed to think she was doing Arthur a great favor what with how she smiled getting back into her car.
Arthur threw the flowers on his front seat. What the hell am I going to do with these, he thought as he drove away. He hadn’t driven too far, when he noticed a flyer on his windshield. It was asking for donations for refugees. At a stop sign, he grabbed one of the flowers and tried to use its stem to remove the flyer. It didn’t work, so he tossed it out the window. He chucked the other three out after it. There, he thought. Maybe a refugee will find them. He drove away leaving the flowers behind. Arthur chuckled to himself. Now, that’s the kind of charity I can get behind.
Garden Victory Part 3
Kayla sat in the parking lot. Twice she opened her car door, but each time slammed it shut. She kept looking through the restaurant window, seeing the girls clustered around a table. They laughed and smiled, scooping up ketchup with French fries and slurping on sodas. It was no different than the cafeteria at school. Not one of them seemed to have a care in the world.
Kayla sighed, looking at her body. She never knew what to feel about it, what with half the posts on her Facebook feed celebrating a big and curvy female body and the other half telling her she could get rid of her muffin top in as little as 21 days. But Kayla liked her muffin top. It gave her something to hold on to when she was feeling shy – she could cross her arms and hold herself tight – and then maybe she could get through whatever it was she needed to.
For right now, though, Kayla felt sure that getting past the girls inside was not something she needed to get through. So she stayed in her car, turning it back on. As she headed to the drive through she put down her window. Just then, two of the girls came out, drink cups held in their hands like trophies. They snickered as Kayla drove by and stopped a few feet ahead of them, waiting for the cars in front of her.
Kayla pretended not to notice as the girls strode past. But she couldn’t ignore their calls of greeting. “Hey Kayla,” one said. “Watcha gonna get?”
Kayla shrugged, but the girl didn’t give up. She pulled a dollar out of her pocket. “Here,” she said, throwing it through the window and laughing. “Keep it to their dollar menu. Maybe then you won’t get so fat.”
The girl didn’t wait for Kayla’s response, which was good because Kayla didn’t have one other than to turn bright red. Once the girls had gotten into their own cars and driven away, Kayla pulled her car out of the line and drove off in the other direction.
After a few miles, Kayla realized that she was lost. She hit the GPS button on her phone and waited for its instruction. “Turn left onto Hummingbird Lane,” it commanded, so Kayla did.
A quarter of a mile down the road, Kayla stopped. There in front of someone’s yard was a beautiful display of cut flowers. They were all propped up in paint buckets with the words 25 cents each written in black marker. The buckets spanned the entire length of two picnic benches. At one end was a metal box with an opening. Honor System it said.
Kayla grabbed the dollar bill on her seat. She picked four sunflowers in various shades of reds and yellows and gave the dollar in payment. She smiled as she got into her car, thinking that flowers were better than French fries anyway.
Garden Victory Part 2
Margie dragged the last of the empty paint buckets to her garage. She would take them out to the curb later. Back inside, she flopped on her couch and stared up at the ceiling. She nodded in satisfaction. Painting all her ceilings had been the right choice. It took three long weeks, but what else would she have done with that time?
A little voice told Margie exactly what she could have done with that time. For a second Margie considered knocking on Stella’s door. They had been neighbors on Hummingbird Lane for over 10 years and best friends ever since. Well, except for the last month.
Margie still wasn’t sure what happened. Half-hoping, half -joking she asked if Stella would consider chopping down her weeping willow tree. Margie’s new pool turned out to be one big hassle, especially the daily cleaning of debris. Most of it came from Stella’s weeping willow.
“How dare you,” Stella yelled. “Matthew planted that tree 30 years ago when we moved in!”
“I’m sorry,” Margie told her. “I didn’t think….”
“That’s right you didn’t. Just like you didn’t think when you decided to get that piece of shit pool in the first place.”
Their fight escalated after that with a lot of sweeping generalizations, over-exaggerations, and dredging up of the past as is wont to happen when two people who have a long history and love each other get into a fight. Margie and Stella had not spoken since then, so Margie had plenty of free time on her hands. Enough, to paint her chipped and cracked ceilings which Stella had pointed out made her house look run down. As Margie continued to stare at her ceiling, her phone rang.
“Margie? It’s Sophia. Listen, I know you and my mom haven’t talked much lately, but could you check on her?”
“Is Stella okay?
“No. It’s my dad – he was diagnosed with cancer a month ago.”
“Jesus,” Margie breathed. “I had no idea. I’ll call her.”
“Margie, it was fast spreading. The doctors said there was nothing they could do. Dad died this morning.”
In a split second it was as if their fight last month had never happened. “I’m going over there now,” Margie said and she hung up.
Margie found Stella laying in her garden, only it wasn’t a garden anymore. Every single plant was hacked to shreds with the colorful blooms scattered everywhere. She saw the weeping willow high above Stella’s house swaying in the breeze. Margie’s own tears now echoed its sadness.
“Come on,” Margie said as she picked up Stella from the ground. “Let’s get you inside.” As they walked to the house, Margie lamented the flowers they trampled on. Then she remembered the empty paint buckets in her garage. They could hold dozens of flowers. Perhaps their beauty wouldn’t have to be wasted after all. Margie gave Stella’s shoulder a squeeze. “And don’t you worry, I’ll take care of this mess.”
Garden Victory Part 1
Stella stood among the sunflowers, daisies, peonies, hydrangeas, and roses. The tears that rolled down her face hit the ground. She looked around to see if her sorrow had been absorbed into their roots. But the flowers didn’t wither and die. Instead, they stood tall and luscious; the sun showering them with vibrancy and life.
“Traitors,” Stella muttered. “It’s like you don’t even care that he’s gone.” Stella reached down and pulled her gardening apron to her, wiping the remaining tears from her eyes. As she did a pair of shears fell out of the pocket. She knelt down to pick them up, but stayed on the ground paralyzed by the flowers towering over her. Were they really as callous as they seemed?
Stella turned the shears over and over in her hands. The ground felt hard underneath her, but somehow that did not encourage Stella to get up. What would Matthew say about her sitting in the garden, she wondered. Would he behave in typical Matthew fashion and call her silly, laughing as he pulled her up? Give her a hug and a kiss on her forehead?
Well I’ll never know, Stella thought. Matthew is dead and I’ll never know what he would think about this. I’ll never know what he would think about anything again.
Stella continued turning the gardening shears in her hands. As she did, the words, Matthew is dead, turned over in her mind. The words and movement both seemed involuntary and she didn’t know how to stop either. She started squeezing the shears together, just for something different to do. Then, as another torrent of tears was unleashed, Stella began hacking the flowers closest to her. Down came the roses.
“Bravo,” they seemed to shout, taunting her with every snip of her shears. “Now you’re getting somewhere.” So, she kept going. Down came the hydrangeas, then the peonies, and the daisies. Last, came the sunflowers. She did not stop until every flower laid on the ground, their remaining foliage and stems at half-mast of where they had once been.
Stella looked at her work. “There,” she cried, sobbing into her hands. “Now you’re dead, too.” Stella wasn’t sure if she meant the garden or herself. She sank to her knees again, but this time the ground wasn’t so hard. The flowers cushioned her like a bed, soft and welcoming. Stella laid down. Maybe if she lay there long enough, the summer sun would somehow bring her back to life. So she closed her eyes and waited.