by Katherine Hughbanks
A bell above the door jingled, announcing Mark’s entrance to the shop. The din of rain and traffic outside hushed as the door stuttered shut, and a peculiar combination of eucalyptus and lilies greeted him, the scents taking up the space of the tiny store. He lowered the soggy newspaper he had held over his head, brown hair glistening with wayward raindrops. The tall man paused at the doorway to shake off his long raincoat and allow his eyes to adjust to the shop’s nominal lighting.
A dumpy florist this is, he thought and looked at his wristwatch. Better make this quick. Quarter till six. She’ll be waiting.
Quickly he scanned the store, tall ceilings needing paint and dim lights that made Mark squint.
Silk floral arrangements decorated shelves to the right; fresh-cut flowers of all kinds waited in glass-front refrigerators across the back wall. To the left was a counter cluttered with florist shop accouterments—ribbon, floral tape, scissors. Behind the counter was empty—no clerk about, no movement at all.
“Where the hell is somebody to help me?” he mumbled lowly. He could almost hear his watch ticking away the seconds. Must get there by 6:15. With flowers or not. She’s waiting, and here I go, screwing it all up.
In only half an hour, he’d be in Sheila’s arms. They’d have time for a quick dinner and then who knew what. His shaven cheeks flushed warm at the thought. Sheila. They met at a conference in Columbus, hit it off immediately, and exchanged work phone numbers (not home phone numbers, certainly).
She called yesterday to say she’d be in town for the night and would love to see Mark, if he could get away.
Get away. That was not a problem. Tuesday is Clare’s bunco night. She’d be out till 10. Mark had never in their 12 years together done anything remotely like this. He could get away, but would he get away with it? His heart quickened at the thought.
I better hurry. I’ll never make it if I don’t go now. Mark turned to leave the tiny florist shop, but behind him he heard a shuffling. Someone was coming out of the back room.
In a breath, he called out. “Hello? Could I get some help here?”
Slowly, a small woman in a stained apron approached the messy counter. “Here I am. Sorry you had to wait,” she croaked. She seemed half his size, shoulders bent over, her frame fragile. Her gray hair matched her gray eyes. Like her store, everything about this clerk seemed old. She appraised the man in front of her and asked, “What can I do for you?”
“I’m in a hurry and need a gift for, uh, for a friend. I want to give her flowers to make her feel, well, special.”
“I see.” And she did. She saw his clean jawline, the tie at his neck not loosened after work. The color on his face, his red ears. She saw.
“First, let me take that wet newspaper for you.” She reached for the paper he had used as an umbrella and gently grasped it at a corner. “Looks like this is old news now.” She chuckled, almost imperceptibly, as she shuffled to a garbage can behind the counter.
“Now, what would this lady like?” the clerk inquired.
Mark stole a look at the silk flower arrangements bunched together in vases and pots on the closest shelf. He lifted a vase of mauve and blue flowers. “These are pretty. She’d like these, maybe.”
“They are nice,” the woman agreed. “You don’t see mauve and blue flowers much in the natural world. Seems to me they are a little artificial. Well, more than a little, really. They are silk.”
The man frowned. “Are you saying ladies don’t like artificial flowers? Is that right?”
“Not saying that directly, no sir, but fake is fake, if you ask me.” She looked at him, her gray eyes offering kindness. “These silk flowers will last and last. They will probably hang around longer than you or me or your lady friend, honestly.”
He nodded a little self-righteously. “Yes, they will last. She’ll remember me with those flowers. How much are they?” He reached for his wallet.
“OK, if you want them, I will sell them to you, but are you sure your friend likes blue and mauve?”
“Well, I don’t really know. Most women do, right?”
“I can’t speak for most women, sir. The ladies who come into my shop most often buy cut flowers. You know, sunflowers to brighten a kitchen. Carnations because they are a good bargain and stay fresh a long time. Sometimes roses. A lot of ‘em like statice flowers because they’re pretty purple even after they dry up.”
Dismayed, Mark gave in. He set the vase back on the shelf with the other silk arrangements. “Okay, I’ll take a bouquet—you pick out the flowers, just make it quick. I’m supposed to meet her in a few minutes.”
Outside, the church bell across the street began its hourly tune.
“Six o’clock. I really need to go. Do you have a bouquet that’s already made? I need to get there.”
The clerk took a breath and closed her eyes for a few seconds. When she opened them, she saw a wet, angry man ready to either pounce at her for delaying him or turn around and bolt from her shop. She reached across the counter and touched his coat sleeve. “Sir, I know you’re in a rush, but can I please show you a third option?”
Mark hesitated. Sheila, his mind teetered. He thought of her blonde hair, the red dress she wore that day at the conference. Sheila. The old woman still had her hand on his arm. He relented. “Okay, show me.”
She led him past the silk flowers toward a corner of the shop. His tall body followed her tiny one. Light from the display window made this corner brighter than the rest of the store. “Look at that,” she whispered. “The rain is slowing. Looks like the clouds’ll be breaking up soon.”
Mark nodded, his impatience somehow falling away.
“Here, sir.” The lady motioned to a series of shelves with potted plants. “Now these will last, too. Maybe not as long as those silk flowers, but they could be around for years, even decades if they’re treated right.”
“But they’re not flowers. I wanted to get Sheila flowers.”
“Oh, many of these will flower. They just have to mature first. And when one creates a blossom, it will be special, really special. You see, with one of these plants, your gal can get the best of both worlds—a decoration that will endure and a chance to nurture and care for it. Like this one. It’s a pothos. It will last who knows, five, maybe ten years. People say it symbolizes luck, but I don’t know. It’s awfully nice.”
Mark touched a shiny green leaf and studied the plants along the shelves. The clerk smiled, then held out her hand to another plant, one with heart-shaped leaves.
“What about this one? It’s a philodendron. Grows and grows. Doesn’t need a lot of fuss, just water every week or so and a bit of sunlight. It’s not flashy red or bright blue, but it’ll stay green for the longest time. Philodendron plants can last twenty years or more. They say it can even purify the air around it. How about that? This plant’ll be helpful as well as pass the test of time. And you know, philo means love. A perfect gift for a woman you love.”
Love? I don’t love Sheila. I don’t even know her. Mark’s stomach turned and suddenly he felt sick.
“I know you are in a hurry. You want to go with the philodendron, sir?”
“I’d, I’d . . . I’d like the philodendron, yes.” He moved to the counter and slipped a bill out of his wallet.
“Should I put it in a bag? Or I have a box in the back room. Don’t want any dirt getting on your nice raincoat.”
Mark stopped her abruptly. “I don’t need a bag.” He handed the woman the bill but hesitated to let go. His brown eyes met her gray. “Thank you, ma’am. You have been a big help. I’m sorry if I was curt with you.” He let go of the bill and nodded. “Really. Thank you.”
The woman didn’t speak but watched Mark leave. Going out the door, he checked his wristwatch again. Her hearing was as old as the rest of her, but she listened for the church bell to chime at 6:30. Instead, she was pretty certain she heard him mutter to himself, “If I rush, I can get home and give this to Clare before she leaves for bunco” as he stepped out onto the sidewalk.
by Josephine Florens
Katie Hughbanks’ writing has appeared in a variety of regional and national publications, including Making Waves, Trajectory, Round Table, Calliope, Kentucky Monthly Magazine, Kudzu, Courier-Journal, Pegasus, and the Louisville Eccentric Observer’s Literary LEO and online on Dodging the Rain (Ireland) and Flight Writing (Ireland). Her poetry chapbook, Blackbird Songs, was published by Prolific Press in 2019.
Josephine Florens is a professional oil painter . Was born in Odessa, Ukraine on September 22, 1988. Lives in Bad Grönenbach, Germany, as there is a war going on in Ukraine. Website is https://josephineflorens.com Graduated from Odessa National Academy of Law and received a Master’s degree in Civil Law , graduated from Odessa International Humanitarian University and received a Master’s degree in International Law. She started painting in 2017. She studied individually at the Art-Ra school of painting. Josephine Florens is a member of the National Association of Artists and Sculptors of Ukraine , member of the Odessa Marine Union, Ukraine, honorary member of the Union of World’s Poets and Writers. Creates oil paintings in various genres, such as portrait , landscape , still life , genre painting , animal painting , marina . Works with oil paints. The painting styles used in the work are realism, impressionism, mixed styles.