Opuntia

Rich just wanted to buy some flowers for his girl, but in the course of helping him find the right gift, saleswoman Jeredean found her old self instead.

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Because Jeredean Hoestler was the only one working the floor of Yours, Mine, Flowers — Darryl was in his office, busy doing “paper work” — she saw the boy enter. He looked to be somewhere in his teens and a little on the hefty side. What people called “well-fed.” He slumped, making it difficult to tell just how tall he was, and besides a brief wave in her direction as he passed by the cash register, his hands remained in the big front pocket of his sweatshirt. She eyed him all down the gardenia aisle, up another, until he stopped at the glass coolers housing the bouquets of assorted roses, irises, and lilies. He opened the cooler door, selecting an arrangement, which shook in his hands. When he returned it, there was such precision, care, like he’d been holding something fragile, like a baby, but hadn’t trusted himself until he could return it to safety. She went over to him, placing her hand lightly on his shoulder.

“Can I help you, sir?” she said, affecting the same flirtatious drawl she gave to men twice and three times his age. She’d found the cadence relaxed them, gave them the impression she was the kind of person they could open up to.

He turned to face her, brushing his bangs away. There was a little baby fat on his cheeks, and his eyes were green. He wore the same shaggy hairstyle that boys had had when Jeredean was in school. “It’s for my — girlfriend,” he said. His voice was deeper than she’d have thought, but sonorous. “It’s … it’s our first Valentine’s.”

“Well, isn’t that just so sweet!” she could hear in her voice that same patronizing tone generations of women in her family had used whenever she’d said or done anything the least bit grown up. She hated that tone, but now that she had started in with it, she found it impossible to stop. “That’s just so sweet. You’re just too much. Coming so early and all.” It was the last week of January, and while some men had done their shopping, they were the catches. Most men were like her Tony, who might remember to pick something up day of, if that. The boy was something, destined to be a catch for certain. And it occurred to her now that he had exuded this new, young romance ever since he’d entered the store. That must have been what drew her attention to him, for few things touched her quite like teenage love.

If more customers had been in the shop, she’d have had to move it along, tell him if he had any questions just ask. Fortunately, he was the only one in the store, and Darryl would just have to tear himself away from whatever it was he was doing if the phone rang. This deserved her attention; he needed her expertise. She wanted to ask how long they’d been together (less than a year, considering his nerves), if this was their first holiday together (without a doubt), had they said the L word yet (wasn’t that what this gift was really about?), but thought better of it. Her hand remained on his shoulder — how long had it been there? — she squeezed it before hiding her hand behind her back. “Do you know what you’re looking for?” she said.

“Honest truth, no,” he said. “But, can I tell you something?”

“Well of course you can, hon! Of course you can.” That annoying tone once more.

He stuck his hand out to her. “Forgive my manners,” he said. “I’m Rich. Rich Phelps, of the Anderson Place Phelps.”

“Jeredean Hoestler. From Goodlettsville. Pleased to meet you, Rich Phelps.”

“Well Mrs. Hoestler —”

“Jeredean, please call me Jeredean.”

He nodded his head. “Well Jeredean, the truth is I aim to marry her one day, this much I know. People think it’s foolish to talk like that, us being young and whatnot, but I know it’s so.”

She moved her hand to her mouth. Her heart felt so full. What a boy! What a sweet boy! If only more men believed in that kind of commitment. It’d taken Tony years to get there, and here this boy already possessed it. “That’s not foolishness.” She dropped her voice and moved closer to him. Their bodies almost touched. “It’s knowing what you want, is all.”

“Exactly,” Rich said, squaring his shoulders. “That’s exactly it.”

“And I’m sure she feels the same way.”

“You think? Well that’s the thing — that’s why I’m here, I guess.”

She was on the verge of some secret, and how she responded mattered. She cleared her throat. “She’s got doubts?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Thing is, she’s gotten accepted at this school, small place, way up in Ohio. If I were to drive straight from this parking lot there, it’d be” — he eyed the clock; it was five minutes after 3 — “midnight by the time I pulled up. See what I mean.”

“And you aren’t going there.” Of course he wasn’t, what a stupid question to ask.

His natural highlights shone underneath the fluorescent bulbs. He cleared his throat. “No ma’am,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be born and raised here, the most beautiful place on Earth. My roots are here. I could never bring myself to leave it.”

She’d heard similar sentiments from men throughout town. Even Tony said something like it whenever she mentioned moving west, starting over. What was so special about here? What was so special about these dilapidated farms that were transforming into ugly cookie-cutter subdivisions?

“Don’t get me wrong, Jeredean. Ohio, that’s pretty far, but not that far.” He spoke with such earnestness, as though they’d always known each other, and it surprised her how comfortable she felt around him. “Back in the day, people went years without seeing each other, you know, during wars and whatnot.”

“Where there is real love, there’s no such thing as distance,” she said. She’d heard that somewhere before; it was the kind of line that had stuck with her.

“That’s right. That’s so right. I know that, but Haley doesn’t seem to.”

“Haley,” she said.

“That’s her, that’s my lady,” he pulled out a photo from his wallet, a glossy portrait. She wore a yellow sundress, and her face was mid-smile: tan with brown hair framing her cheeks, brown eyes, perfect teeth, so captivating — nothing like any Haley that Jeredean had met before. That kernel of envy, like she’d felt so often all those years ago in school whenever she saw Tony talking to other girls, burned in her stomach. The girl was beautiful, would have been in any time period. “Anyways, what’s something that says, ‘We are forever, baby,’ but, you know, doesn’t sound so cheesy?”

“Well first off, if such a handsome man were to say that to me, I’d be swept off my feet. That’s the truth. Certainly wouldn’t think it was cheesy. But let’s see.”

She moved him from the coolers, up and down the aisles, pointing to various clusters of generic flowers, and mumbling the negatives for each (these would fade too soon; they never kept as long as they should; these were way overpriced). Through this, she invented reasons to brush up against him, selecting arrangements that required her to reach across his body. He radiated a warmth, a certainty. If she touched him enough, perhaps, like pollen, a little would rub off and move into her. It was an unassuming charm he possessed, for he wasn’t the model of male attractiveness. In fact, he might easily be perceived as shabby, but there was something that drew her to him. He cared — maybe that’s all that mattered. He really cared, and he was sincere.

She didn’t like any of the flowers. “They’re all so boring,” she whispered to him, giggling, and led them to the potted plants section. These were a little pricier, what wives with money bought for living rooms or their husbands’ offices. Then her eyes fell on it. On them.

The cactus had been in the shop so long she couldn’t recall a time before it. It must have arrived sometime during the Southwest fad that went through town, three or four spring seasons ago, and had remained in the same spot on the floor ever since. It’s order price, so much higher than most things in the store, had discouraged Darryl from cutting his losses and getting rid of it. The small pods, each slightly longer than her hand, remained trimmed and presentable (she’d seen to it herself, without even being asked). Still nothing. The main issue stemmed from the fact that some people mistook it for being ugly — each gangly pod covered in wart-like welts. Even Darryl called it “our herpes plant,” but Jeredean had always had an affinity for misunderstood things. It was the only plant in the store that was unique. The only thing that felt real.

“Now this may be a little unconventional,” she said, bending down to scoot it farther into the light. “But I can’t think of anything with more character. It’s my favorite plant here. Has the prettiest name, too.”

“What is it?”

Opuntia subviolatea. Doesn’t that just sound so interesting?” If she ever had a daughter (if she could ever convince Tony on the kids thing), that would be her name. She almost told Rich this, but reconsidered.

There was a long pause. Rich sucked in his lower lip, and proceeded to chew on it — his thinking face, something she imagined he’d done as a child and would continue to do as an older man, weighing decisions as important as this. “Well,” he said, “That sure is something, Jeredean.”

“You don’t like it?”

“It’s not that, I do. I think it’s — it’s got character, just like you said.” He squatted down on the floor and poked at one of the welts. “Just, well, I guess I’m thinking maybe she wouldn’t is all.”

He wavered on the verge of refusal, and her pulse thumped fast in her neck. Then it came to her. “Listen, Rich. You want a gift that tells her all those sweet things you’ve told me, right?” She pointed to the tallest pod. “Well this is it. This is the gift.”

And before he could offer any response, she continued.

“Just hear me out, real quick. You’ll see what I’m getting at if you do.” She squatted down next to him. “All right, now yours and Haley’s love, well, it’s something wonderful, something beautiful. You two have watered it with time, with dates, with” — Rich began to blush — “You know. Now she’s going away, far away, where that water won’t be. To a land dried out of love.

“Then there’s this plant. Where does it live? A desert! See, it’s used to those kinds of climates. A cactus requires small amounts of nourishment, just a little bit of water in order to survive long droughts. Do you see what I’m trying to say, Rich?” Her mouth had gone dry. He smelled like that shampoo from Walmart. He smelled like green apples. When had she ever talked like this?

She turned her face up toward his and found herself lost in the greenness of his eyes. Water formed around the whites. Not tears, but what men in town referred to as showing emotion. “That’s so right, Jeredean. We can be like this, here. We can survive those, those love droughts.”

She touched his shoulder again, feeling that warmth, and longed to fold herself into him. Instead, she stooped to pick up the cactus. He touched her hand, his fingers, like vines, wrapped around hers until they were almost intertwined. “Please, Jeredean,” he said. “Allow me.”

It cost more than he’d planned on spending, a good deal more — she could tell this from the red blossoming of his face — so before he could say anything about the price, she’d put her employee discount number in and taken an additional 20 percent off that price. She also brought up a new stoneware planter and transferred the cactus into it. “We’ll say there’s a crack in it,” she said, winking. “It was meant to be shown like this.” And it did look beautiful, the gray and green complementing one another.

As they walked out, they continued talking. She didn’t know, or care, what was said. It was the cadence of his voice that made her giddy, made her feel 18 again. She helped secure the cactus in the passenger seat of his Toyota pickup. Tony had driven a model just like it when the truck first came out over 20 years ago. She could remember them driving through the country, listening to cassettes of Confederate Railroad, Alan Jackson, old duets of Johnny Cash and June Carter, their hands having to touch some part of the other’s skin. That touch. He wouldn’t have been born then, Rich. Haley neither. Now here they were, full of that same passion she and Tony had had. Full of it, and thinking nothing of it, or maybe that wasn’t true. Maybe that had only been her.

A silence came over them that hadn’t been there in the store. Something, anything, had to be said. As long as they talked, she might still feel that warmth, still might receive it. She thought about asking some more about Ohio, but how much was there she cared to know? She’d never go there anyway. The wind picked up, cutting through her blouse. She wished for Rich’s sweatshirt, or that he would offer her his passenger seat. Maybe she could cradle the cactus in her lap while they listened to the radio. He coughed a few times, shuffling his feet.

“Do you have anymore questions?” Jeredean asked. “Happy to answer them.”

“No,” he said. He seemed to search for something along the horizon. “Can’t say as I do.”

“What about some information,” she said, “You’ll need to know how to care for it.”

“Oh, you have a packet or something that says what to do?”

They didn’t. She usually told people to water daily, or whenever leaves got a little brown around the edges. “Well, not a packet, exactly, but I can write it all down for you real quick.”

“Oh, well that’s all right. I don’t want to trouble you. Besides I really need to be getting on.” He moved his hand through his hair before sticking it out to her. She took it. It felt oily, wilted in her palm. “Thanks again, Jeredean.”

“Well, if you do end up having any questions about it, please come back, any day. I work every day during the week.”

He smiled, and in one movement, he’d hopped into the truck. From the time he started the truck’s engine until long after he disappeared down the road, she continued to wave.

***

Jeredean stood in the empty circle where the plant had been. Cobwebs and dust occupied the crevices the cactus had hidden. She pictured it in the passenger seat of Rich’s truck, in some foreign room 500 miles away. How strange that a cactus should travel farther than she. Then she thought of Rich, but had problems recalling precisely what he looked like. His face had already morphed, mixing with a thousand other acquaintances. She felt a longing still, but not for the boy. That had been foolish. No, it was for the plant. The cactus. Every morning at work, for as long as she could remember, she’d visited it, tended to whatever it needed. All of the time spent pruning and watering it, singing to it, like her grandmother had taught her. She’d never had something that relied on her, something that depended on her. Now it was gone, and what did she have to nurture?

If only a little Opuntia would come into her life. Tony would see the necessity of a new place, a new start for the family. He’d be so sweet: holding it in his arms, picking the little nettles off its face, rubbing the skin smooth and caressing the little floral blooms with his thumbs. They would place its crib at the foot of the bed, and at night, listening for its breathing, Tony would swallow her up, wrapping himself around her, and whisper, “Our love is being watered, Jeredean. Our love is being watered.”

When she came up front, Darryl stood at the counter, inspecting the receipt. It was against policy to offer discounts during the holidays, so she prepared her defense. It would end in a reprimand, probably, perhaps a warning if she said the right thing. But she was tired and didn’t want it dragged out any longer than necessary.

Not looking up, Darryl placed the receipt in the register. “I don’t know how you managed to get rid of that monstrosity,” he said, “But thank God you did.”

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