Below you will find the first few pages of a story featured in my new collection Implosions of America: Nine Stories, due out this fall.
One of our kids started Claudie out with an African violet about a year ago. She put it on our kitchen window sill above the sink. Right around then I started thinking about the fact that I seemed to be on the way out of our marriage. It wasn’t Claudie, it was me.
After a month in our kitchen, the plant was almost dead. I found her at 5:30 one morning standing at the sink crying.
“We’re going to kill every plant that enters our house,” she said softly. “What does that say about us?”
Claudie cries quietly when she’s mad at herself. I know enough to keep my mouth shut when she’s crying quietly.
“Look at this thing,” she continued between sniffs. “I love its furry leaves. Even now.”
She was still taking deep breaths, but seemed to be on the downside of her pain.
I peered at the plant and sure enough, its wilted leaves had a graying mat of fuzz on them. I thought they looked like my tongue felt sometimes when I’d been drinking too much at night and sneaking smokes out back of the office near the parking lot with some of the secretaries and maintenance crew.
“I went to the library and found a book on houseplants,” she continued. “Did you know the botanical name for African violets is Saintpaulia ionanantha? Can you believe that? Saint Paul. And there are dozens of different hybrids with names like Whispering Hope, Little Dancer, Baby Sunshine, and Ravishing Ruth. I looked at photos of some of them. Their blossoms are so beautiful, and they’re not just purply. There are blue and white flowers, fire red and sunset pink.”
She seemed like she wanted to cry again, sniffing some unknown sweet liquid sadness through her nostrils every few minutes. “I really wanted to see what kind of blossom ours produces. But look at it.” She stopped and we both looked at the little plant, a shriveled fist of hairy, dying leaves that seemed like they would fall into the garbage disposal if you touched them.
I held my wife in my arms and wondered who would grow to hate me for leaving her. She told me that besides beautiful tiny flowers, healthy African violets had thick emerald leaves that glowed in the sunlight, and some of the leaves could also turn blood purple like the palm of a newborn.
We eventually decided that she should talk to people at our neighborhood garden club. It’s well-known in the region. Every several years at least one of the members wins an award in the Mid-Atlantic Flower Show. We read about them in our neighborhood newspaper.
Claudie imagined that most of the members would have an air of preferred knowledge about them. We’re both scientists. Claudie is a pharmacist and I am a laboratory technology researcher at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. It is part of the scientist’s job to pass knowledge on to people. Scientists are only stuck up about statistical truth, not their opinions.
“I’m going to go to a meeting,” she finally said. “But I’m just going to get information. Those people are probably no different than wine connoisseurs or the Dayton’s.” The Dayton’s are a couple we know who are on the board of directors at the Melton Art Gallery. They have a son at Oberlin and a daughter at Princeton. People who consider themselves experts are despicable if they make you worry about whether you should have an opinion about something like a glass of wine or a watercolor.
We were married just after college but waited another ten years to start having kids. The first two arrived in our mid-thirties. Jake, the youngest, was not planned and showed up when I was forty-three. I think I had been falling away from Claudie since Jake started Kindergarten and Neddy was heading off to college with Tyler already on the run with his friends and lost to teendom.
I watched younger women on the street, at work, in restaurants, in stores, admiring as much as wanting them, attracted by their aesthetics and the promise of -- what? I don’t know. Perhaps only the promise of my imagination. Breasts you imagine have still not yielded to long-term physics. Asses shaped like half a small planet rather than rolling up flat the curve somehow lost to age, hidden beneath draped skirts, long sweat shirts, and looser jeans.
There was one person in particular with an uncommonly deep voice. She rode her bike to work most of the time and showered in the bathroom off the employee wellness center. Her name was Angeline. At a Christmas party several years back she joked...