Monday, December 12, 2011

#13: "The Rose Garden" by Paula Whyman

~This piece previously appeared in North Dakota Quarterly (2004)

The travel agent assured her the room would have a view of the garden on the quiet side of the house.  She envisioned a flowery bower outside and, inside, a Victorian oasis (the house was built in that era) crammed full of faux-period clutter:  lamps with tasseled shades, pressed flowers labeled with their Latin names, portraits of hunting parties dressed in pinks.  In her room, a four-poster bed and a claw foot tub; in the morning, the earthy odor of frying bacon would draw her out of the bed’s feathery embrace to dine among Currier and Ives, rangy ferns, cut roses. 
Elizabeth rode through the patter of rain, safely dry in the back seat of the cab, and imagined her hosts.  “Tim”—the only name the travel agent had provided—would be a tall yet small-boned man in his early sixties with a reddish-gray beard.  Nearsighted, he would wear those magnifying half-glasses you could buy in the drug store, because he just didn’t care about fashion.  His wife (Mrs. Tim?) would be a heavy-set woman as tall as her husband who spoke only to ask pointed questions.  She would dislike women who wore perfume to breakfast.  The wife had an eye for artful clutter, but Tim was the better cook. 
The parlor would smell like cinnamon, which Elizabeth liked, or apple spice tea, which she did not.  There would be two cats who kept out of sight, except to appear out of nowhere and rub suddenly across the ankles, and she would have to stop herself from shoving them gently away with her instep, instead smiling at her host, commiserating about the foibles of cats.
The saddest words, what might have been.  Who wrote that?  She and Cleve had always preferred to sit at their own table for breakfast.  But this time was different because she was alone.  This time, she hoped for the strained camaraderie of strangers at one common breakfast table, the predictable remarks about the rich food and richer coffee, the name of which would sound like an ice cream flavor, “vanilla-raspberry sumatra.”  She would savor banalities like the guests’ capsule autobiographies; she’d even welcome the tentative, ill-advised stab at politics and the uncomfortable silence that followed.  Faced with strangers at eight in the morning, the only common thread that they’d slept in the same house the night before—Who would choose such an arrangement?   
It was the first time without Cleve.  Not true, not true; she’d traveled without him before, especially like this, to a conference.  What she meant was, it was the first time since Cleve.  It would do her good—friends kept saying that.  She’d registered at the last minute, too late for a room at the conference hotel.  This place was further from the center of town, but she liked the idea of a quiet residential block, a haven where she could gather herself, an escape.  It was just what she needed, really.  Friends kept saying that, too. 

Was it only the dirty, rain-streaked glass of the taxicab, or was the street not exactly what she’d expected from the description?  A block of tired row houses that leaned against one another for support, and here it was, The Rose Garden Bed and Breakfast.  Across the street, three men smoked cigarettes on a stoop.  Next door, an old woman sat still as a topiary, did not return her smile.   
Elizabeth held her bag tightly.  The cab drove away.  Rain tapped her on the back of the hand as if it were trying to remind her of something.  There was a small garden in front of the house, separated from the sidewalk by green plastic edging.  A vine of kudzu grew unchecked, shoving aside the phlox; she suppressed the urge to pull it up, her impulse always to overlook what she could not fix.  She walked instead up the crooked steps and set her bag down under the awning.  The inside of the house would be a refuge from the dismal street, charmingly eclectic, brimming with small treasures—Mrs. Tim’s silver egg cups, Tim’s collection of antique reading glasses.  Mrs. Tim would offer tea and cookies, or a glass of sherry.  Elizabeth would take a long, hot bath in the claw-foot tub and read the local newspaper, in which nothing important would have been reported. 
She opened the storm door.  There was a note taped to the front door with her name on it.  Welcome, it said.  Tim was out with the dog and would return later. 
But check-in was between two and four, and this was three-thirty.  She looked at her watch again.  Three-thirty.  Her key was in the mailbox. 
We’re sorry we couldn’t be here when you arrived.  Please use this form to let us know when you’d like breakfast, and lock the front door when you come and go.  See you in the morning.
Rain or shine, check-in or no, of course, the dog must be walked.  And she was relieved to think that maybe there were no cats.  No doubt it was a last minute walk, an urgent situation brought about by an unusual change in diet—gobbling up the innkeeper’s Belgian waffles that morning, or the chocolate mints kept in a dish by the armchair.  With Mrs. Tim out doing the marketing, choosing the best leeks for the omelets, there was nothing to be done; a note must be left.  But ‘see you in the morning’?
She sighed and tried the keys in the lock, after several attempts got the right one going in the right direction, and pushed into the front hall.  The first smell that tickled her nose wasn’t cinnamon or apple, but dog; wet, musty dog.  The second was gas, the leaking stove kind.  Tim must have run out so quickly that he’d left the stove on.  She brought in her bag and glanced around.  The front rooms were dimly lit; all those tasseled lampshades must hide very small bulbs.  A cursory examination revealed no shelves of Victoriana, but there were a few plants—a cluster of philodendrons suspended from the ceiling by macramé, a defoliated ficus, and small pots of pincushion cacti used as bookends.  And the books were the usual B&B thriller/romance grab-bag.  A whole shelf of old Harlequin romances, just right for her current situation, and I’m Okay, You’re Okay, that pop-psychology staple, leaning against a basket of plastic strawberries.  Maybe she’d read a Harlequin in the bath after she turned off the gas.  The hero, breathlessly yet chastely intoning, “But darling, I…love…you.”  There was never anything beyond that.  One was meant to assume that this was the crux; love, the ultimate goal.  How many Emma Bovarys were formed between those ellipses?  Everything happened after that, life happened after that, and they’d left it all out.
Where was the kitchen?  She walked through the breakfast room.  The tables—three small, separate ones—were lime green, with matching vinyl-cushioned chairs.  Where were the Delft blue cereal bowls?
The kitchen door was open a crack.  Elizabeth peered in.  Tim had clearly left in a hurry.  He wouldn’t want her to see all this.  Unwashed dishes were stacked on the counter, on a chair, on the stove—was that dried egg yolk from this morning’s breakfast?  With Hollandaise?  On the ceiling, a missing patch of plaster revealed a dark bulge, like a cow’s full udder, dripped steadily into a bucket below.  The claw-foot tub?  (Mrs. Tim phoned the plumber at six a.m., and he promised her …)  In the middle of the floor, the dog’s food bowl was overturned on the society pages.  The stovetop was insulated by a dust pelt that had settled over a layer of cooking grease. 
Elizabeth stood very still in the doorway, exhaling to expel the gas from her lungs.  She’d passed a phone in the hall.  She’d passed a Ramada on the ride in.  But she didn’t back away down the hall and pick up the phone.  She didn’t gather her things and rush into the street to hail a cab.  She would stick with her decision; she would stay and make it work.  It couldn’t be as bad as it seemed.  There was still her room.  There was still the garden. 
She crossed to the stove and gingerly turned the sticky knobs, ensuring that each burner was shut off, but the smell was not much stronger around the stove than in the parlor.  Where did it come from?  Her head was beginning to throb.  She rinsed her hands in the sink, but was unable to turn off the dribbling water.  Some bits of cartilage and skin—today’s lunch?  coq au vin?—refused to go down the drain.  It was best to stay out of the kitchen whenever one dined away from home.  She hastily closed the door behind her.  She had a five-thirty dinner meeting anyway; if Tim or Mrs. Tim hadn’t returned by then, she’d leave a note about the gas. 
She lugged her valise up the stairs, stopping at the door that bore the words “Rose Garden Room” on a white, ceramic plaque, lettered in pink italics, and surrounded by delicate vines.  The moment of truth.  She opened the door.  The room was clean, thank goodness; that was all that really mattered.  Inside, a double bed with a yellow—yellowed?—patchwork quilt, each patch decorated with a small appliquéd rose.  On the dresser, a digital clock and two water glasses (one for Cleve), and a sign that listed the room charges.  So much for period details.  She picked up a glass and held it to the light, then stepped into the bathroom and filled the glass with water, drank, filled it again.  Mrs. Tim must have someone who cleaned up the rooms, but what had happened in the kitchen? 
The bed was not a four-poster, but the tub was a claw-foot with no visible leak; maybe she’d take that bath after all.  Her head still ached.  She opened the window and switched on the ceiling fan.  Peering out, she saw the small, rectangular back garden that was enclosed by a chain link fence.  There were roses all right, plenty of roses, and yellow mums, and a white lily of some kind with a splash of orange in the center.  Both a blue and a white buddleia sprawled over a bed of what looked like squash plants—giant, heart-shaped leaves spread over the ground.  There was a wire column so overwhelmed by a collection of vines that it leaned threateningly over a rose bush.  Lovely; just what she had hoped.  So what if the weeds were as prolific as the flowers, and she could see even from the second floor window that a few of the rose bushes had been badly damaged by some pest or other.  Someone, sometime must have taken care where and what was planted.  Next door, the old lady’s house, the clothesline was still hung with sheets and cotton housedresses in spite of the rain.
Elizabeth lay back on the bed, which was soft.  Even with the fan going, the gas smell began to develop nuances:  a hint of rotten pineapple awash in human sweat.  She had to leave soon, anyway.  The rain was slowing—Should she walk to dinner?  She pulled out a street map and located herself on it.  This street was just inside the black outline, as far as one could get from the official downtown area without being excluded from the map altogether; beyond it was nothing, the white border of the page, the rest of the city invisible, eliminated.  Why hadn’t she noticed before?  But she had made it, after all, she was not in the white space.  This was Lincoln Street. To reach the conference center, she must travel across the park (she was on the wrong side of it) and down Runyon, that seemed most direct.  How long would that take? 
Footsteps clumping up the stairs, heavy and uncertain, fingers fumbling with keys—She felt a sudden thrill.  Tim?  Mrs. Tim?  She would get reliable directions; she would ask about the smell.  Tim would be glad to see her, grossly apologetic about his absence at check-in time, upset that she’d seen the horrid condition of the kitchen.  He’d explain about the girl who was supposed to help and how she stormed out that morning when he told her he could no longer support her failure to keep the stove clean, and then the bath overflowed when another guest fell asleep with the drain plugged, and what with Mrs. Tim gone to the doctor for her knees (it had always fallen on her to weed the garden), he had all he could do just getting breakfast and walking the dog in time, and not to worry, he would immediately investigate the gas leak (it had happened only one other time, when a rabbit got in from the garden and chewed a small hole in the line, and who knows but it could’ve happened again). 
She threw open her door.  An old man was bent over, caught in the act of picking up keys from the floor.  He stopped midway, startled. 
Tim?  Tim was very old; the place had become too much for him, and with Mrs. Tim laid up this week unexpectedly, it was all he could do…
“Tim?” she said.
“Sorry?” said the man.
“You’re not Tim?” 
“No, no,” he said, straightening up.  He was standing in front of the Iris Room.  His key was still on the floor.  In one hand, he held the same street map that she had, the one that came stapled into the center of the chamber of commerce brochure.  Of course, he was a guest.  Alone?  “I’m Irwin Hoage.”  He did not hold out his hand.
Elizabeth.  Elizabeth Cairn,” she said. 
He nodded and bent again to retrieve his key.
“May I ask you—” she began.
“What’s that?”  Hard of hearing, Mr. Hoage would play his television loudly and snore.  But he would not be bothered by her radio (she liked a little music and a little talk before bed).  And her ceiling fan would cover the sound of the snoring, rendering it innocuous as the flapping of sheets on the clothesline.
“I was thinking of walking downtown.  Do you know how long it takes from here?”
Mr. Hoage brightened.  “I’ve just come from there myself.  Here, I’ll show you on the map.”  He held up his map, then unlocked his door and disappeared into his room.  A moment later, he stuck his head into the hall.  “Well, where are you?”
She wasn’t about to go into his room, a perfect stranger.  She took a step into the hallway from her own room, but the light there was as dim as in the parlor. 
Mr. Hoage squinted at her.  “Won’t be able to see a thing out here,” he said.
“All right then,” and she stood in front of his open door, still in the hallway. 
Mr. Hoage raised an eyebrow.  “I’ve tried it a few different ways now.  Yesterday, I went around the park and down Klinger, here.  There’s a wonderful pub right here, by the way.  That took about thirty-five minutes.  Then this morning, I went round the other way on Manor, but believe me, you don’t want to go that way.  It’s a bit seedy.  But this afternoon, I finally…”
She couldn’t stop looking at his hand, the one he hadn’t offered her to shake and which he now used to point out the various routes on the map.  The back of his hand was covered almost entirely by a pale, square bandage, around the edges of which a crust of blood was clearly visible, and there were spots on the bandage where blood had soaked through and then dried to brown.  His white shirt was peppered with red-brown splotches as well.  Splattered ketchup from the fried clam strips he so heartily recommended?  In his room, on a low dresser identical to her own, she saw a shoebox full of medicine bottles and a box of fresh bandages.  My God, could it be Tim’s dog bit Mr. Hoage on the hand like that?  Poor Tim didn’t know what to do; it had never happened before, but Mr. Hoage, a cat person, was wielding the map like a rolled up newspaper.  He didn’t mean anything by it, in fact he hadn’t even noticed the dog until the moment when he inadvertently thwacked it on the muzzle with the tightly curled chamber of commerce guide, and the dog, more surprised than angry, not having been thwacked so since he was a puppy when he messed that one time on the Turkish kilim, the dog bit him hard on the hand, then, shocked at the taste of human blood, ran to the kitchen with his tail between his legs and buried his nose in the kibble.  Tim, meanwhile, frantically stanched the flow of blood, threw himself on Mr. Hoage’s mercy, and set out to find a kennel that could keep the dog until Mr. Hoage’s departure. 
“…and that’s why I advise you to walk straight across the park.  Absolutely the best route.” 
“Thank you, Mr. Hoage.  You’ve been very helpful.”  She glanced at her watch; she no longer had time to walk, not if it would take half an hour, and she still wanted to bathe if she could; she’d have to take a cab.
“Glad to.  So, I’ll see you and Mr. Cairn at breakfast tomorrow, if not before?”
Tell him the truth, and he’ll know she’s staying alone.  Say nothing, and he’ll find her out at breakfast.  She didn’t like to lie, although she wore the ring, still, as a deterrent.  What a lovely ring it was.  She’d always liked the two tiny emerald baguettes.  They weren’t part of the original of course; Cleve added them for the twelve-year anniversary.  At fifteen years, he gave her the pavé bracelet; at eighteen, the trip to Lake Como; and at twenty, the divorce.  At first, there was only the single long, fine auburn hair wrapped, knotted really, around the button of one of his white shirts, the bottom button, the spare one that’s hidden underneath the front flap. 
“Mr. Cairn is, is not.  Traveling with me.  And Mrs. Hoage?”  Not that she cleaned his shirts.  The service did that.  But she did gather them and tie them in a bag hung outside the front door, and it was in the gathering that she found it, along with the tiniest jot of lipstick the color of fire coral, on the edge of the seam below that button.  She’d pointed it out to the laundry service.  See if you can get that out, she’d said.  Prosaic, wasn’t it, finding those things?  She recalled telling herself that probably the shirt was among those Cleve kept in his office, just in case he ruined one at lunch.  It would’ve been hanging on the coat rack there right beside his desk, when his assistant accidentally spilled a box of paper clips on the carpet.  While she was kneeling to pick them up, her hair became entangled in the shirt buttons, and of course in the process of freeing her hair, she could hardly have avoided depositing some of her lipstick there. 
“Oh, Mrs. Hoage’s dead.  Ten years now.  Heart attack.”
“I’m sorry,” said Elizabeth.  Audrey Hoage would have been a deceptively frail-looking woman with a fine net of silver hair who made dull needlework samplers that hung in every room of the house and who nagged her husband so severely that he breathed a healthy sigh of relief the night of her sudden death following a devastating loss at bingo.  Elizabeth wanted him to go and change his bandage.  He must have had it on most of the day now.  But she didn’t want to pester him like Audrey had.
“You can use my map, if you like,” said Mr. Hoage, holding it out to her in his bloody hand.  “It’s the best one you’ll find.”
“Thank you, but you keep yours; I think I’ve had the good luck to find the same one,” and she held up her map for him to see.
“No, no.  I had that one yesterday.  It’s no good.  Look here.  Yours stops at Lincoln and Ramer streets.  This one goes all the way back to Post.”
He was right.  The block they were on, Lincoln at Post, was not on her map; it was invisible, in the white space. 
“I think I can make do, with your good directions.  But thank you.”  In the white space, she would stay.
Mr. Hoage nodded and closed his door behind him.
She walked three blocks to Ramer and hailed a cab. 

     Dinner was fine.  Chicken, of course.  And pilaf.  She half-listened to the speaker expound on the latest studies of rats in mazes and their relevance to human behavior.  Nonsense, she thought.  A rat would finish the butterscotch crème brulee. 
     Afterwards, she joined her colleagues in the hotel bar, where they argued yet again about the demise of Freud and the efficacy of cognitive versus behavioral therapy, and she felt oddly detached.  She’d always agreed with the glass half-full approach—no need to unearth the buried motivator, just cure the sick thought process.  Her whole life, lately, seemed like an exercise in this revision of thoughts, this blunting of experience.   
      Her second gin and tonic gave her a fuzzy feeling about the knees.  She’d had wine with dinner.  What was the saying?  Wine then liquor, never sicker?  Rather than walking away from the bar, she felt herself wading through a stream.  Sometimes she thought her biggest mistake in life was doing the Ph.D. in psychology instead of sticking with literature.  She’d always thought psychology would provide more reliable, more tangible answers, but this wasn’t true.  It was all about hypotheticals, if this, then maybe that, or theories developed to explain behavior that was inexplicable, whereas literature subsumed those hypotheses and played them out in real time, Henry James dramatizing brother William’s empiricism.  Literature was all about living.  Psychology was life examined, but not lived. 
            Back at The Rose Garden, moths hurled themselves foolishly at the porch light like little Phaethons.  Elizabeth pushed the front door open, crooning to herself, “Sorry darling, I never promised you a…”  The smell startled her, like finding bad fruit in the fridge.  She’d forgotten to leave the note!  Mrs. Tim and Tim must be asleep by now—it was nearly eleven.  There was a single, wan light in the parlor.  What should she do?  She climbed the stairs at first, but in her room, even with the windows open and the fan going for the past few hours, the smell lingered, clung to the quilt and the towels and the rug the way the smell of sex stayed in a room long afterward.  The way Cleve’s office smelled  the day she stopped in unexpectedly.  She saw him through the glass, from the waiting area.  He glanced up, pretended not to see her, went back to his reading, shading his face with his hand.  The assistant’s eyes skimmed her, summarized her.  This was after the hairy button.  Was it the long hair he liked?  Elizabeth’s was short, pert, enough to grab, but not enough to strangle.  The girl had fabulous hair, but her complexion was a muddy disaster, overfreckled in the way redheads can be, and her chin was doughy, undefined.  Cleve didn’t spend much time looking at her chin, though.  No, he would be busy at her ankles, snapping away down there like a yappy shih-tsu.  She had put up with the slobbery ankles, this girl, all in the hope, of course, of a ring, but she found after the divorce that the jewelry wasn’t so forthcoming.  (And if only she knew what came after the jewelry, she wouldn’t want it so badly, anyway.)  And that was when the girl began to confide in the copy boy.  She spent more and more time in the copy room waiting for documents rather than returning to her desk while they were processed, until one day she found herself bucking and thrusting inside the dark storage closet, her nose dangerously close to an open ream of 40-lb white.  In under an hour, she returned to her desk stinking of toner and with a razor-thin cut across the bridge of her nose.  And Cleve would not have found out, because Cleve did not notice things.  If he noticed things, he might have realized that, well after the hairy button, but well before the serving of papers, Elizabeth herself had the proverbial storage closet opportunity. 
It was a student of hers, a former student, arrived one night while she graded papers to tell her he’d been offered a position at a prestigious research institution.  Improbably, he credited Elizabeth’s recommendation and her inspirational seminars for his success.  There was always a kind of charge in the room when Nicholas was there, but she ignored it, averted her eyes, as if she’d been accosted by a drunken street person.  It wasn’t his looks exactly, but the way he looked at her; he paid attention, complimenting her first on her lectures, then, inappropriately, on her appearance.  Each time, she brushed him off.  But after the button incident, and other unremarked indignities which she’d nonetheless explained away as insignificant, he caught her in, would she call it a vulnerable state?  It was late.  Cleve had phoned that he was stuck at work and would take dinner in the office again. 
Nicholas leaned over her, his fingers spread out on her blotter.  He smelled vaguely of bourbon, as if he’d had a shot for courage.  I’m not your student anymore, he said, switching off the light, putting his hands on her shoulders, kissing the back of her neck.  All her follicles stood up, her nipples pressed outward, straining to escape the bondage of lace.  But she couldn’t, she hadn’t, she wouldn’t.  She still half-believed the paper clip explanation she had cooked up, or she might have acted on it.  No, no.  She never would have acted on it.  He left, angry, humiliated.  She could still smell his breath on her neck. 
Where was he now?  A few hours ago she’d had no idea, but now she knew exactly where he was.  According to the program addendum she’d received at dinner, he would speak on a panel tomorrow at eleven.

Elizabeth descended the darkened steps blindly, returned to the parlor, tiptoed clumsily from room to room until she reached the kitchen.  Miraculously, there was a light coming from under the closed door.  Tim would be there, cleaning with a frenzy, desperate to get it all in shape by morning.  And indeed, she did hear the gentle clinking of glass, and was that running water?  And footsteps.  And voices?  Yes, voices—two of them, a woman, high-pitched, and a man, deeper, nasal.  Mrs. Tim?  Tim?  Their words were muffled by the running water and moving objects.  There was an old keyhole in the door.  She bent and peered in, but all she could see was black; something covered the other side.  She knocked, gently at first, then with confidence.  There was a scuffling sound and whispering.  Tim would be glad she had stopped in; he felt uneasy not meeting his guests, and this way he could confirm that she had no allergies or special dietary requirements (which she did not), as he’d forgotten to ask her in his note.
            The door opened out, and she was forced to step back, and step back again, because the man who emerged from the kitchen filled the little hallway both in height and breadth.  She found herself facing his tremendous belly which led, in a ninety-degree arc, to the comparatively small, round head far away at the top.  He wore a soiled cotton T-shirt and shorts, which hung over his bulk like sheets over a sofa in a shut-up room.  His feet were bare and shaped like cinderblocks.  He looked down at her with the whites of his eyes showing, his face red and shiny. 
            Elizabeth was a smallish woman, short and delicate-boned, who didn’t usually feel small, but there in the hallway with Tim—could this be Tim?—she felt like a dwarf who’d wandered tragically far from the yellow brick road.  “Huh.  Hi.  I’m Elizabeth Cairn, in the Rose Garden room?  I just wanted to meet.  Meet you.  I hope I haven’t disturbed--”  A drawn-out, high-pitched giggle came from the kitchen.  The man shoved the door closed behind him with his huge foot.
            “I’m Tim,” he said, holding out his hand.  She shook it.  It was damp.  His voice was pinched but neutral, not unfriendly.  “You got my note.”
            “Yes, yes.  Thank you.  The room, the garden, is lovely.  But I need to ask you.”  (How?)  “Do you smell anything?”
            He cocked his head and squinted at her.  “Anything?”  he asked.
            Yes, that was a bit general.  “I have a—condition.”  That’s it, it was her own fault, the smell.  “I smell things that most other people don’t, and I thought I might smell gas in the house, like a stove left on or—Were you cooking?”
            “I’ve never heard that before.”  He looked baffled, impatient, derisive.  “No.  I don’t smell anything.”
            Of course he wouldn’t smell it.  He lives here.  He’d be used to it.  “Could you just check the stove and see, maybe the rabbit ate through the line?”
            “Rabbit?”  His face darkened.  “What rabbit?”
            Oh, right.  She’d invented the rabbit.  “The dog, I mean.”
            “The dog don’t eat gas lines.”   As if on cue, the door creaked open to reveal the nose of said canine, a fluffy brown muzzle.  “Hey, stay in the kitchen.”  And Tim pushed the door closed again.
            Elizabeth slowly backed out of the dark hallway, turned into the parlor and stopped next to a lamp covered with a plain nylon shade.  The bulb shone weakly through a tear in the fabric.  She wanted to speak to the wife.  She felt now that Mrs. Tim was the practical one, the diligent one who cooked and cleaned and went to market, while Tim watched football in the park and walked the dog.  Of course, it was Tim’s day to take care of things, while Mrs. Tim went to her long-overdue doctor appointment, and wouldn’t she be exasperated to see how he’d left the kitchen, and how he’d been away from the house at check-in time.  She would be furious, if she weren’t a little cowed by her husband.  She stayed with the brute, who knew why, even after the time he came home drunk, lit a fire and forgot to open the flue, and they had to throw out all the good furniture and rugs.  Her mother had always said she’d married down, even though Tim’s family was older than hers.  Her mother had said she would come back crying one day, but now her mother was dead and there was no one to cry to but herself, or the dog.  Or the rabbit, which she secretly allowed into the garden to nibble the new growth from time to time. 
“I’m sorry; it must’ve been my own upper lip, as they say.”
Tim smiled warily, and a vein bulged out at his temple.  His hair was cut close, so the shiny, pink scalp was visible, and there was a scar there that traveled around and disappeared behind his ear, then started again, snaking along the back of his head and curving up to the crown.  No doubt, it was from the attack; he used to walk alone at dusk, Manor Street, the seedy part of town.  They came from behind with broken bottles, knocked him out and nearly finished him off.  It was after that he went to the shelter and got the dog.  It was after that he gained all the weight.  Thugs would think twice about mugging a big man.  He could roll over and crush them. 
The high, sing-songy voice floated out of the kitchen on an invisible cloud of carbon monoxide.  Tim must have seen Elizabeth’s face.  “Talkin’ to the dog,” he said, tipping his head back toward the door.  Then the door burst open, and the woman dashed across the hall and through another door, slamming it tight, humming the whole time a tune that reminded Elizabeth of “The Candy Man”—“The candy man can, the candy man can…”  Then, back through the door and back into the kitchen she leapt, like a doe.  And this time, Elizabeth got a good look, because she’d been staring at the closed door when it opened.  A young woman, maybe nineteen, she resembled the girls who waitressed at the hotel bar, dyed blonde curls piled up on her head Marie Antoinette-style.  She wore a bikini top that revealed her whole smooth back, and very short shorts.  If it were Mrs. Tim, wouldn’t she introduce herself?  But it wasn’t Mrs. Tim, that was obvious.  Could it be Tim’s daughter?  The dog-sitter?  The girl he paid to clean the kitchen?
 How awful of Tim to behave this way, all on the night following Mrs. Tim’s surgery, she still groggy in her hospital bed, he promising to stay at home and tend to the guests and the house.  In the morning, she’d start to feel the pull of the stitches.  She’d be forced to use a bed pan at first, and then the nurses would help her in and out of bed, but she hated that, hated needing help, and if anyone was to help her it should be Cleve—Tim—not a stranger.  But he wouldn’t be there, not even after breakfast, no, because as soon as the guests had gone out for the day, he would ‘walk the dog’ again.
            Tim stood and waited, his mouth half open, breathing heavily from the apparent exertion of crossing into the parlor.  “Breakfast at eight, was it?” 
            Get out of my parlor, woman, he must be thinking.  Go to bed so I can finish what I started.  Well, she’d get out of his way, all right.  “Yes, eight.  See you then.”  He raised his eyebrows and looked down the bridge of his nose at her.  She felt his eyes following her up the stairs.  Mrs. Tim, Mrs. Tim, please come home.  It’s not too late.
            She stopped at the end of the dark hall in front of the door to her room.  The floorboards below creaked, the kitchen door opened and shut.  After that all was quiet, except for an arrhythmic click, click, barely distinguishable from the crickets outside, but it was there.  She listened a moment longer, then she was sure:  Mr. Hoage, clipping his toenails in the Iris Room.

            When she awoke, the smell had dissipated, and she was surprised to find she’d slept all night.  In the breakfast room, the sun came through the window, illuminating the millions of dust motes that floated in the air.  Mr. Hoage was already finished, his plate an aftermath of toast and poached eggs.  A place was set for her at another table.  There were apparently no other guests.  Hoage nodded, said good morning over his chipped coffee cup, and she noticed he wore a fresh bandage with no visible leaks.  He was flipping through an old issue of National Geographic.  “Marvelous photographs,” he said.  Elizabeth nodded.  The welcome banality of it—Who didn’t admire the photographs in National Geographic?—warmed her like a cup of flavored coffee.
The sun shone directly on her chair and made her squint, so she moved around to the other side of the table.  When Tim brought in juice and coffee on a tray balanced against his stomach, he noticed the shift, and she saw his brow lift in annoyance.  Where was the girl?  Where was Mrs. Tim?  Maybe she’d finally left him.  He looked the same as the night before, except he’d draped a chef’s apron over the slovenly outfit and wore thick knee-high wool socks, without shoes. 
            “How would you like your eggs, Mrs. Cairn?” he asked. 
            “Scrambled, please.  Well-done,” she added. 
What would Cleve be doing right now, early on a Saturday morning?  They used to sleep late, make love with bad breath before they got out of bed.  Or maybe they did that once.  She drank the coffee black.  If he were here now, he would mutter about the eggs.  They were underdone.  She would tell him she was thinking about taking a hot bath with I’m Okay, You’re Okay and missing the first session.  He would offer to join her.  No, he would wear a look of alarm because she’d ruined his plans.  Once, before the button, when Cleve had flown with her to a conference in Sacramento, she’d skipped a session to take a walk outside the hotel and saw him chatting up an attractive blonde poolside.  Funny she hadn’t thought of it in all this time.  He made love with her vigorously that evening, and she found it suspect. 
      She pushed the eggs around on her plate.  There was no getting around it; they were runny.  All Tim had to do was cook them a half-minute longer, but he hadn’t.  She flipped through the conference program, closed it in disgust.  Inference was too unreliable.  The glass half-full was a fantasy.  The memory of Cleve’s face above her, his eyes squeezed shut, his chin pushed forward, jaw clenched; her nightgown tangled around her neck, the sheets balled underneath the small of her back—Why?  Why did he?  What made him?  Was that the only question that needed an answer?  Why did she care anymore?  He went to the window afterwards, still naked, and looked out.  You could see the pool from their room, and he looked out, hoping the woman would be there.  He wanted to look at her afterwards, not at Elizabeth.  Did she notice it at the time, or did she just lie there, still and gooey, as if she were nothing but a receptacle for his scud?
     “Did you cut across the park, then?”  shouted Mr. Hoage.
      His voice startled her.  “No, but I will today.”
      “Better take this.”  He held his map in the air.  “It shows every path through there, not like yours.”
     She raised her hand in protest.  “I—”
     He walked over to her and plunked it down on top of the conference program.  “Here--I’m through with it.”
     “Thank you,” she said.

     “I’m checking out,” she told Tim.
     He raised his chin and peered at her through slitted eyes.  “Too late to cancel.  I’m gonna have to charge you for tonight.”
     Elizabeth felt her ears grow hot.  “Fine,” she said.
     “Think you’ll find someplace else, on a Saturday?” Tim snorted, tearing off the credit slip.
     “I already have,” she said, gritting her teeth.  The downtown Ramada, only three blocks from the conference hotel, had a room with no view but with a coffee pot.  There would be a sani-strip around the toilet and hangers that didn’t detach and institutional bagels with tiny, sealed foil cups of cream cheese for breakfast.  It would be no more and no less than it should be.
     Tim snorted again.
     Elizabeth carried her valise across the park, stopping frequently to watch the leaves fall.

      At least forty people had gathered for the panel; a good turnout.  Elizabeth sat in the second row.  The panelists arranged themselves at the table in the front of the room.  On the far left, Nicholas sat straight and self-conscious in his chair.  He had the same earnestly rumpled look she remembered (so different from Cleve, with his monograms and starched collars).  It was three years since that last time in her office.  He’d distinguished himself at the university, she heard, was firmly on the tenure track.  He would have tried not to think about her, of course, dated some women, developed a crush on one of his students that might have ended badly if he hadn’t recovered in time.  All the time she stayed in his mind like a specter.  At least he’d stopped being angry at her.  He would realize when he saw her now that what he felt was the anger of love. 
     She was sure he hadn’t seen her yet.  When he did, he would blush, and his speech would falter; he’d drop a word or two from the middle of a sentence, then wonder why no one understood.  She would ask a question, one she knew he wanted to answer, and he would tap the end of his pen on his chin.  He would try not to watch her; he could not watch her when he spoke, but when others were speaking, he would find his eyes on her, as if he did not control the turning of his own head.  When the session ended, she would rise as if to leave the room without acknowledging him, and he would stop her, touch her on the shoulder.  All he would say to her then was her name, over and over, under his breath the way he’d said it that night, shortened, not Dr. Cairn, but ‘Lizbeth, Lizbeth.’  They would skip the luncheon keynote.  She would tell him about Cleve; not all of it, just that she was free.  They would go to his room and draw the curtains, because he would not want to look out the window.  The day after, when she left for the airport, he would try to stop her.  The smell of him would be with her in the taxicab, as if his skin were still next to hers.  When she arrived home, there would be a message waiting:  The winter break was coming up; would she--?
     Elizabeth sat in the metal folding chair, waiting for the talk to begin.  She gripped the edges of the program in her lap, glanced down at her hands.  The emeralds in her ring looked like meteors ready to crush the shining planet whose orbit they crossed.  She would take the ring off and put it in her purse; then there would be no confusion when he saw her.  She fiddled with it, turned the stones to face her palm, slid it up and down her finger.  She would take it off, now. 
She would take it off.



About “The Rose Garden”:  I Never Promised You One, Did I?

     We all know someone who has stayed in a bad marriage for too long, continuing to make excuses and to believe beyond reason that their problems can be solved.  I thought it would be interesting to play around with a character whose whole life is about denial.  This narrator, Elizabeth Cairn, is a fantasist of the first degree.  She has a richly imagined explanation for everything that happens to her.  Much like a writer, she lives in this imaginary world, but unlike (most!) writers, she often can’t tell the difference.
     The seed for this story was planted during my stay at a quintessential bad bed-and-breakfast, by far the worst such experience I’ve had to date. The place was much like the one in the story, in that its eponymous “garden” was overgrown with weeds;  it was located a little too far off the tourist map; and it smelled very bad in the house.  I am blessed (or cursed) with a powerful sense of smell, and I have vacated hotel rooms far nicer than this one for that reason alone.  And of course my mysteriously sullen and thuggish host, who I was convinced would murder me in my sleep, had no idea what I was talking about when I asked him if the oven was leaking.  Go figure. ~Paula Whyman


Paula Whyman's stories have appeared in journals and anthologies, including Writes of Passage: Coming-of-Age Stories and Memoirs From The Hudson Review, Virgin Fiction,North Dakota Quarterly, Delmarva Review, and the German arts journal Schaum.  She teaches for the Pen/Faulkner Foundation Writers in Schools program in Washington, DC, and The Hudson Review's similar program in New York.  She's a MacDowell Colony Fellow, a Fellow of the VCCA, and a recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council grant for fiction. Her interviews can be found at The Her fiction is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review and in Gargoyle. She’s working on a novel and a collection of linked stories.  For more:

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