Kahl crept like a child. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt giddy. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever felt giddy. Victoria’s garden was one of the few experiences he’d had at Peaceful River Psychiatric Treatment Center that made his stay bearable. Her relentless production of roses and peonies and daffodils from found objects and those recovered from locked storage spoke to a part of his soul that could never be stirred by years of private art lessons or family art retreats. Even though she’d liberated his wallet from the little plastic bin that held his personal effects, something about having his possessions reborn as a flower made Kahl feel chosen.
He inched though the garden slowly, peering into the shadowy corners as best he could with the sparse light from high windows that were impossible to jump out of. When Victoria had come to PRPTC six years ago and begun her work, the doctors and staff had taken her flowers down each night. The sharp edges of broken plastic and provocative nature of high-fashion magazine clippings weren’t conducive to a healing environment, they’d claimed. She’d never let it quell her artistic fire, though. She’d pilfered from waste bins, hoarded supplies in her bathroom vent, and pocketed personal effects from other patients’ visitors. A self-help pamphlet repurposed as a weedy dandelion, a wire from a child’s toy bent into a stigma, a condom wrapper cut delicately into a spray of baby’s breath, anything was fair game if it was for the garden. To hear the orderlies tell it, Victoria had persisted in planting her nightly paper and plastic for two years before they stopped taking it down each morning. Victoria enacted a dedication to her art that Kahl’s mother would have revered.
When he found his flower among the week’s new plantings near the doorway that led to the group therapy room, Kahl didn’t mind that his company-issued business card had been torn into uneven strips. He’d always thought the burnt orange and mustard New City Graphic Design had chosen was ugly, but as a lily filament it was shocking against the family photo petals. He didn’t even mind that she’d used his social security card as a sepal, wrapping the flower at its base. He would just get another one when he got out. If he got out.
After two months of what his father had dubbed “severe melancholy,” his mother had insisted he see a psychiatrist — her psychiatrist. Kahl had ambled dutifully through the following weeks including two psych evaluations and, ultimately, a voluntary stay at hotel Peaceful River. His time at PRPTC was the longest stretch of his life he could remember not feeling suffocating pressure to find inside himself the brilliant, cutting-edge artist he unquestionably was never going to be.
“Kahlo Devrinskie,” came a voice to his left as the fluorescents flickered on. Jay Fredrickson took a predatory step forward as Kahl threw a hand up to shield his eyes from the sudden assault of light. “I never pegged you for the sneaking kind. Is it the pudding cups? You can’t have any extra. I already counted them.”
Jay paused, scrutinizing the other man, and Kahl stood straighter. “Or maybe you just wanted to sit in the garden.”
“She took something of mine,” Kahl snapped.
“Of course she did,” Jay said. “She takes something of everyone’s. See that one?” Jay pointed to a flower hanging from the ceiling. “She made the petals from my divorce decree. It’s a morning glory. See, the long vine was the restraining order my ex took out. Morning glories are invasive, you know.” The vines of Jay’s morning glory wound around other flowers to the top of the door frame. The words “obsessive compulsive” superimposed themselves over every word Jay said. Kahl wondered if Jay was superimposing the words “clinically depressed” over Kahl’s responses. “What’d she take from you?”
“My wallet.” Kahl glanced sideways at Jay and eased half a step away from the other man.
“Is that what she used, the actual wallet?”
“No,” Kahl plucked his flower from the wall near the top of the door frame. “The petals are a picture from my last family reunion. We did this big paintball canvas for my mom’s birthday. The picture is me and my brother and sisters with the canvas.” Kahl touched the business card filament topped with bits of paper from his last group art therapy class. Watching Victoria crumple and palm the pearl blue page with an abstract heart blotted onto its center had been the only stirring part of the session. The red was a fitting compliment to the flower now that it had been rolled and flattened into little anthers.
“Maybe you can tape the picture back together,” Jay said.
Kahl shrugged. He thought the picture was more evocative in its second incarnation.
“What’s that?” Jay pointed to the hard, dark stem.
“It used to be a business card,” Kahl said. “A guy I know, a guy I met anyway, gave it to me.”
“It’s plastic,” Jay said.
“Yeah, I know.” Kahl felt a smile spread from his lips to his eyes. “He has this urban planning firm that specializes in sustainability. He had his cards made of recycled plastic.” Kahl twisted the stem between his thumb and finger wondering how she’d molded the plastic into shape without breaking it. “We worked together on a pro-bono project for a school in my neighborhood. I guess it doesn’t matter. It’s ruined now.”
“So get another one,” Jay said. He shuffled to the snack cupboard and popped the lock with a fork. “Nutter Butter? The nurses like these, so nobody counts them.”
Kahl shook his head. “I can’t get another one. I haven’t talked to this guy for a year.”
“Ain’t he your friend?” Jay scowled at Kahl before he gingerly opened the bag of cookies and slumped into a chair.
“No,” Kahl said. “He offered me a job at his firm. It’s not a kind of work I’ve done before.” Kahl searched the room for a better explanation, but all he found was himself and Jay and the cookies. “I’ll have a cookie after all.” He sat neatly in the chair next to Jay.
“Do you want the job?” Jay asked. “You got this guy’s card in your wallet for a year. You must want the job.”
“I’m an artist, not a planner,” Kahl said.
“We had art therapy together, remember?” Jay said. “You’re a real tidy fella with a good eye for color and balance, but you ain’t no artist.” He snorted a laugh and then coughed cookie into his hand. He scrubbed his hand on his pants and plucked another cookie from the pack.
“Maybe so,” Kahl said. He dropped the flower on the table. He’d taken that card out of his wallet, run his fingers over the raised type, every night for a year. He’d set his phone on the table and tried to see himself dialing the numbers. Sometimes he’d dialed them, but never hit send. Looking back, every night he’d gone to bed feeling a little heavier, a little slower.
From memory, Kahl sketched the plastic business card onto a piece of scrap paper. “Maybe I will call,” he said. He could nearly feel the buttons of the phone under his fingertips. It seemed so astoundingly possible — not just the job, but a thousand other things. He twirled the flower again slowly, the newness of old things taking root in his heart. “In the morning, I think,” he said to Jay who nodded and mumbled some kind of affirmation through a mouth full of cookie. Kahl stood, pushed his chair squarely under the table, and slipped the paper into his pocket. He walked quietly back to his room, but not before replacing his flower where Victoria had planted it.