A ROSE IS A ROSE IS NOT A
By Tom Fillion
It was one of those holidays.
Valentine’s Day. One of those holidays that requires flowers. And I always forget.
Maybe. It's just another speed bump in the calendar of life that comes up on you when
you're not paying attention—even though there’re signs in Kool-Aid green and
stripes as white as a skunk in moonlight and headlights covering the road telling you there's
a fucking speed bump coming. Or a holiday. It's right in front of you smoldering like a
volcano, a zit in the porcelain landscape of your life. The pus is going to hit the fan
if you don't buy her something.
It's not a gift certificate or a lottery
ticket holiday either. Nope. But one of those made-up holidays not tied to a solstice or
an equinox, the birth or death of a savior or a vegetable god. Nope. Not like Christmas
with Santa, ipso fatso, in a red suit crashing through a window or slithering like a Jenny
Craig retread down a chimney to deliver U-Hauls full of gifts—with receipts, please-ready
for the return line at Walmart. Or Easter, now there's a real holiday. It's got rabbits,
chocolate morphed into a barnyard of creatures, jelly beans, and colored eggs. Or the
Fourth of July where it is better to give than receive cherry bombs and the rockets' red
glare bouncing off roof shingles compliments of the neighborhood drunks.
Those are all first string, first
team, top-shelf holidays. Anything with flowers? Well, sorry. That’s second string,
You wanted flowers. You didn't come right out and say it, but I knew. Call it the Braille
of marriage, the sign language, the language of the deaf and dumb of ‘gentle on your
mind’ marriage. There were flowers in your future and empty vases mysteriously appearing
throughout the house like undercover cops on a stakeout. I was the target. I was the accused.
The signs were all there.
of the anti-bacterial thumb. You who called the front yard, the garden. The garden? I always
laughed when you called it the garden, too. It's not a garden, I protested. Our front yard?
It shattered my whole concept of a garden. Our front yard? I've, in fact, deleted
the word from my vocabulary. Completely. I know the word is hardwired in my brain somewhere,
but I've heard if you don't use it, you lose it. That's what I'm hoping for. This is my
concept of a garden before I stopped using the word. Before you kind of ruined it for me.
It's laid out like a Webster's dictionary. A garden has rows and rows of vegetables lined
up like British Revolutionary era soldiers with bright, colorful peppers and tomatoes sprouting
from bayonets impaled in the ground. That's a garden!
Our front yard is not a garden because
you cannot eat the St. Augustine grass I planted several years ago. Only the chinch bugs
and mole crickets can do that. Very efficiently too. They've turned it to moon rock where
only non-native weeds can grow. Tasty weeds, nevertheless. Like the appetizers listed on
the first page, left column of all our favorite restaurants. Fancy stuff like, eggplant foo-foo. Tasty weeds that Crazy Eddie, our dog with bad teeth, an
on-again, off-again vegan, uses as an herbal healing remedy to cleanse his pallet of
horse hoof and pig snout. Where does he do it? All over the brand-new carpeting that we
buy every few years because Crazy Eddie thinks the carpeting is the "garden," I guess.
I have no other explanation for it. The carpeting is a mosaic, a tapestry of upchuck and
modern, abstract art from the "garden" by Crazy Eddie.
You wanted flowers though, and I was your faithful worker bee, the green knight
of your "garden." Not of silk or of sweet, Confederate fragrances like
jasmine that reminded me that Cotton was once King. Nor did you want tulips from Amsterdam,
the place full of opium and wooden shoes a size too small for dancing and fingers stuck
in dikes. Nor did you want African violets like your mother who could never kill them,
no matter what she did or didn't do for them, or how long she neglected them except at
the end on her deathbed with only Medicaid and you at her side, but mostly you because
you are a good daughter.
Yellow Roses? That's what you wanted. That's the speed bump I was trying to avoid,
trying to jump over, or find a detour around. I looked at my watch on Valentine’s
Day like the condemned man waiting for an extension on an appeal from the Supreme Court.
Nope. Not this time. Three o'clock in the afternoon already. I've made a major mistake
and bought a ticket on a train wreck and I'm in the front seat, first car. If I don't deliver
on the flowers, the yellow roses, your favorites, I can prepare my own last meal from Swanson's
meatloaf supreme or Campbell's soup of the day.
Unfortunately, I don't think the corner beef jerky and Zippo lighter convenience
store carries yellow roses. It does carry a fantastic assortment of T-shirts and license
plates celebrating life as a bass or a snook, not to mention the bags of chips that were
once ears of corn or buried potatoes in a previous life.
You wanted roses. Not
white or red, but yellow. Very specific. I liked that. I didn't even need a list like I
do when I go to the grocery store to buy two or three items. Or a cell phone just in case
I need to make an emergency call from the dairy aisle or that time I was in the wine section
without a clue about wines that sounded like bordellos and brothels. Yellow, I suppose
like the sunlight even though it is probably white or red when it leaves the surface of
the sun and turns yellow from motion sickness by the time it reaches us here on earth.
I do that too on our trips, the motion sickness, but only when I'm not driving, sitting
in the passenger seat and you're driving with both hands on the steering wheel.
So, I drove with our
daughter, Anna, who was born twelve (flowerless? I can't remember) holidays ago, give or
take a teacher conference or two. She was my consultant, my advisor in this endeavor, unbeknownst
to her. I was afraid to go alone to one of those stores full of outdoor chimes that would
make good target practice for the shotgun I inherited from my Uncle Billy who passed away
last year. Anna was the advance party, the scout, the one to be approached by one of those
dainty ladies who owned the place because she had too much money from interior
decorating—but mostly from a rich husband, or ex-husbands, who played golf way too
much with Ping or Callaway golf clubs. Of course, I told Anna going with me was good practice
for the SAT and the Ivy League.
I looked at my daughter
when the lady who smelled like the deodorant I hang from the rearview mirror of my truck
informed me that all the roses in the city have already been sold, in fact, Venezuela is
completely out, defoliated of everything except poor people and oil. She did have a few
red roses, but for fifty dollars each that added up to a new golf club for her husband
who was off the hook and out playing golf on this holiday.
"And by the way, why so much for a
rose?" I asked. “Was it descended from the ancient Sumerian stock, bred like an Arabian
racehorse to withstand the withering sunlight if mulched properly and not overwatered?
Or, Mrs. South Beach Time-Share, can you trace the lineage of your spare red roses to the
roses of Malmaison where Josephine grew them taller than her husband, Napolean, who gave
up flowers for continents and the Holy Roman Empire? Or do they come from the Peace roses
smuggled out of France during World War II by the likes of Hogans' Heroes when they went
"No," she answered.
Out of roses? Yellow roses?
I looked at my daughter.
"None of the above," I said, my face covered with the look: everything is practice
for the SAT.
How can an entire city and half a continent no longer
a rainforest be out of yellow roses?
Mrs. South Beach Time-Share pointed to the wall.
"No, I don't want a clock, I
need roses, yellow roses. Minimum of a dozen, long-stemmed, or it's TV dinners and
Spam for special occasions."
She kept pointing at the clock like one of those statues of the
Blessed Virgin Mary with her arms outstretched.
She kept pointing at the clock, her arms
flapping like a seabird tied up in fishing line.
You can't close. I need roses, yellow roses or I'm mulch."
unmoved. My procrastination, in fact, delighted her. It proved some subtle point.
"Planning? Do you have
a sign that says it's illegal, immoral, or indecent to buy yellow roses on this artificially
sweetened holiday after four o'clock? Where are your house rules? 911? Trespassing?"
My daughter pulled me towards
the door without a rose or a raincheck. Mrs. South Beach Time-Share, before quickly deadbolting
the door, did take mercy on my soul and gave us directions to another establishment, a
nursery, that possibly had long-stemmed roses.
"I'm there," I said through the bullet proof glass that
she Windexed from inside.
We arrived at the nursery fifteen minutes later. There were roses everywhere! More
than Venezuela! There were floribundas,
hybrid teas, grandifloras, climbers, and miniatures and an old man that introduced them
by name like his grandchildren: Day Breaker, Livin' Easy, Honey Perfume, Betty Boop, Memorial
Day, Elle, Love n' Peace, Gemini, About Face, Glowing Peace, Crimson Bouquet, Candelabra.
He rattled off the names in blinding speed like an auctioneer.
"Chill," I said.
"Don't have those," he replied.
"No, I mean, I don't need the
lineup for the World Series of Roses. I need twelve, long-stemmed, yellow roses for this
man-made holiday that is almost over."
My daughter nodded in agreement.
The old man surveyed his rose garden and
located some splashes of yellow amongst the red, white and lavender.
"One potato, two potato, three
potato, four. There are four blossoms on this one," he pointed. "Six on this one. Two over
here. That's twelve in my book. All yellow."
I stuck my nose in each blossom like
they were upside down wedding dresses. What a magnificent smell! Romance incarnate!
"Sold," I said, "but what
about the sheer, fancy paper instead of these black, plastic buckets and all the other
crap in the bucket?"
need that," he said, "when you plant them in about six hours of sunlight a day and not
too much water or it'll kill them. And make sure the roots are not wound up tight like
the guts of a baseball or a golf ball. The roots have to make good contact with the soil,
or it's lights out for the roses."
"Plant them, huh?"
I looked at my daughter. This was getting complicated like the SAT.
"Yeah, okay, ring us up. This
man-made holiday is almost over, and it's the thought that counts anyway, right?"
The old man agreed and we drove
away with three buckets of roses, all yellow.
You cried when you saw the roses.
much water will kill them," I said watching the tears fall on the roses, "and they need
about six hours of sunlight every day and soil that has leftovers from the Crazy Buffet
and is fat with wood chips, compost, pine needles, cow manure, and fertilizer."
Still you cried.
"Save it for the planting," I
said. "Your roses need some water when we put them in the soil."
I went to the aluminum shed that I inherited from my
father who set it up like an irregular trapezoid, tall enough for shovels that leaned at
less than sixty degrees.
was on the third hole, not on the golf course with Callaway golf clubs, but the third hole
of your roses with the shovel, each hole a cylinder of eighteen inches in diameter by eighteen
inches deep when you said, "THEY AREN'T ROSES."
"If you keep crying they won't be
roses, too much water, remember?" I said to no avail. "They look like roses, they smell
aren't roses," you repeated.
"Well, if they aren't roses, a dozen long-stemmed, yellow
roses like you wanted, what are they?" I asked rubbing my eyes like Aladdin's lamps trying
to see what they really were, but when I finished rubbing the same roses were still there.
"What are they?" you asked,
repeating my question.
knew I was in trouble then—when you repeated my question. It was like my mother calling
me by my full confirmation name.
"Those roses are another responsibility,"
you said, "like washing dishes, making beds, fixing dinner, cleaning up the cats' hairballs
and Crazy Eddie's upchucks. That's what they are."
"But, but, you wanted twelve,
long-stemmed yellow roses for a Chinese vase from the Ming dynasty full of water that don't
grow and don't need to be watered or fertilized? That's what you wanted, right?" I asked.
nodded from the Niagara Falls of your tears.
"If I gave you a fish you would eat
for a day, but if I taught you to fish you would eat for a lifetime," I said, "but if I
gave you roses, you would have them for a few days, but if I gave you rose bushes you would
have roses for a lifetime."
smells like dead fish," you said. "I wanted roses to look at, admire, and remember when
we first met," you said. "The trips to New York through Washington Square with pigeons
and skateboarders to Vermont's covered bridges and streams full of polished stones, not
a dead fish in a black bucket to be buried in the garden."
"Garden? It's not a garden," I
said. "This is the front yard where I dug these holes."
"And those are not roses," you said.
"And how about if I plant these
roses that are roses that are not roses in this garden that's a garden that's not a garden?"
and your tears stopped and the flowers in your blue eyes sparkled open.
is a business trip
in the dead of winter
with delays and layovers at
LaGuardia or Newark or Philly
where they entertain you with
an AM radio sports show
and the host is a Mafia hit
who recognizes you
despite the disguise from the
witness protection program
and he pulls out a garrote
when they killed Luca Brasi in The Godfather
and he chases you down the concourse
you jump on a courtesy vehicle
and drive it like Steve McQueen did in Bullitt
so now you’re safe in San Francisco
until the third game of the 1989 World Series,
and you fall into the San Andreas Fault
slide all the way to the Los Angeles aquifer
and meet Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
and hang out with him and Peter Fonda and
until Jack goes crazy and “Here’s
Johnny!” in The Shining
and destiny is when the weather clears
they de-ice the plane
and you head back to Penelope and Telemachus
tree is the best
Going out on a limb
And never barking up
The wrong tree
And getting rid
Of the dead wood
Is a sap
Of the problem
that a bear
in the sawmill