BY SUSAN TEPPER
At the garden center Lamont bought a tray of mixed pansies. He’d walked a couple miles to get there, braving cold winds gusting off the Long Island Sound, a steady mist soaking his camouflage jacket. And what did he find when he got there? A greenhouse full of ceramic pots. No nice humid greenhouse odor. Long empty shelves where lush potted plants should’ve been on display.
Disgusted, Lamont picked up his tray of pansies and exited the greenhouse through the newly installed automatic doors. Wind off the sound hitting him hard in the face, pelting the ground kicking up street sand, as he did the walk back to his garden apartment.
Once safely inside, he slid the tray of pansies out of the waxed, protective floral bag and set it on the floor near his living room window. No sun. Lamont clucked his tongue with displeasure against his teeth. The first of April and still as gray as February!
Turning away from the window, he switched on the TV hoping to find a garden show. Now that he lived alone he spent a great deal of his free time watching garden shows.
Shortly after Christmas, after all the discarded paper from the presents had been balled-up and thrown into the dumpster, while the tree and holly roping and other decorations were still in place, hiswife, Greta, walked out. Lamont had been expecting it. Every minute for two and a half years he’d been expecting it. He had expected to see the walls come crashing down — the inevitable climax to his infidelities. At forty-four, Greta was still considered extremely attractive.
Lamont played the remote until he found a channel with a garden show. The host, a beefy-looking guy, was doing this gig about bonsai. In both hands he balanced what looked like a pie plate that held a stunted little tree. On the close-ups that tree looked hundreds of years old. “This variation of bonsai is Japanese Red Maple,” the host explained.
“Huh!” Lamont scratched his grayish chin stubble, listening intently about the cutting and pinching off of new growth: kind of forcing the tree to succeed at life at all costs. A slinky blonde, the helper, chimed in calling him sensei. It flitted through Lamont’s mind that sensei and the blonde might have something on tap. Then sensei put down the bonsai, holding up what Lamont first took to be string but upon closer scrutiny discovered was actually wire.
Restraining wire. Used to force the bonsai into shape. “Get in shape!” yelled Lamont bending closer to the TV.
Sensei’s thick hands looking almost too clumsy to handle the delicate bonsai trees. Lamont staring at his own hands a moment; thinking he remembered watching the show before. Sometime before Greta left. Her piercing voice echoing I hate bonsai in his head.
He settled into the one remaining chair in his living room. Absently picking potato chips out of a bag he’d opened earlier,stuffing handfuls into his mouth, he decided bonsai looked interesting. The camera pulled back. And Lamont saw many more bonsai spread across the garden show work table. The camera moved in close again, sensei ticking off various other types: Japanese Beech, Norway Spruce, English Hawthorn, Crabapple, Firethorn, Shore Pine. Shore Pine! Plenty of those growing around the garden apartment complex. Though people mocked it, Lamont had always liked Shore Pine. Could Shore Pine bonsai possibly work in his window box? Made of plain white wood, the window box was standard garden apartment issue. But Lamont had been feeling the need to do something different with it. Something exotic. He pictured himself draped in kimono, of midnight-blue satin. A fierce gold dragon emblazoned across the back. Lamont would be leaning out his living room window, watering.
That Japanese woman — last week on the pier — so suddenly, so effortlessly. The way the woman slipped behind a piling,lifting her long skirt. The air smelling of creosote and low tide. Lamont had touched his tongue to her neck, tasting turnips.
Pulling the lever on the side of his chair he extended to the full reclining position. “Turnip breech birth,” he said.
Sensei was now cradling one he called Cork Bark Japanese Maple. Very pretty, thought Lamont, his mind drifting to turnips again. He munched more potato chips. Like babies, he wondered if there was a right and wrong way for a turnip to burst into the world? He wondered if bonsai was strictly for trees? Sensei hadn’t said — at least not during the time that Lamont was tuned in. And there was that Crabapple bonsai. Half-tree half-fruit. Lamont’s least favorite. He would have taken it for a dead tree stump; but for the mess of tiny red crabapples. He was glad when the camera pulled off it. It depressed him. All those red crabapples hanging like Christmas balls.
What about turnips? he was thinking, mashing the last of the potato chips into his mouth. Sensei was saying something about bonsai being over a thousand years old! Lamont pondered that a moment. If fruit could be included as bonsai, why not vegetables? Why not turnips? Why not!
He sensed a heaviness descending upon him. As if the basic question of nature, of life itself, had become his sole responsibility.Full out reclined in the chair, nearly upside down, Lamont felt miniaturized. Pulled down to size. In a way, tortured. Like the trees — tortured with restraining wire to make bonsai.
Heavy with fatigue, the empty potato chip bag crumpled in his lap, he began nodding off. He whispered thanks: to whom or for what he wasn’t sure. Not his mother or father, both dead. Not Greta! Not god, even; whom Lamont hardly ever thought of; and when at all, only with the little g. Lamont perceived god as something too big to be remotely accessible; therefore small. Smaller than the head of a pin. No, it wasn’t god he thanked. In his state of deep drowsiness he
realized that it was the company who manufactured his chair. That was who he thanked. For what is man without his chair? mused Lamont, drifting into a deep and dreamless rest.
While he slept the world had become unplugged. This occurred to him as he blinked awake in the pitch-dark room, jerking his head toward the window, surprised not to see the spray of amber from the lamp postoutside. That lamp post being the sole source of light for his living room. Greta made off with the lamps and end tables. The matched sofa and loveseat in black and white stripes. The wrought-iron etagere and assorted knick-knacks, their rock-maple dinette set, pine bedroom suite.
Only the high kitchen table with its swivel bar stools, salvaged from the home of Lamont’s parents, did she leave behind. He rubbed his eyes. Oh! Plus the TV. Plus his reclining chair.
Shaking off what felt like rising water in his chest, he forced himself to get out of the chair. “Walk!” he commanded himself.
Lamont used to say that to his father, to get him off a bender — holding up the old man as he staggered, spitting and swearing, punching at lamps. Punching at anything he could make topple. During those periods Lamont’s mother took to hiding in closets.
“Mom, dear Mom,” he found himself saying as he circled the room in darkness. Tears welled in his eyes.
Not that he missed his mother. He sure didn’t miss his father. Or, Greta — god forbid, not Greta. Then why this sudden ridiculous swing into girlie behavior? Stupid teary stuff the females do.
Lamont stopped circling, leaned against a wall. Did the Japanese woman make a habit of frequenting the pier? At the time of their encounter he hadn’t noticed a fishing pole or bucket; or crab cage; any of the usual crap people lugged to the pier. What was her purpose for being there? Intrigued by this, feeling somewhat calmer, Lamont went to the kitchen where he switched on the florescent light and took an orange to peel.
He slept fitfully. The narrow air mattress, from the Army/Navy surplus store, seemed to have softened in one of its central columns. All night long he pitched from side to side.
By six Lamont was up and dressed. Sunday. Another grayish unexceptional day in what had been a string of them. His plan was to grab breakfast at Bagel Art’s then wander over to the pier. Shoving his arms into his camouflage jacket, opening the apartment door, he was wondering: Could the Japanese woman be into bonsai? Maybe she could give him a few tips. Soil preparation, which trees worked better — that sort of insider information. Go to the source Greta used to say. A grammar school teacher, she had kept two volumes of encyclopedia in their small bedroom. Preferring Colliers over Britannica. Though she never explained why.
“Fuck you, Greta,” he muttered as he stepped outside.
His first big mistake of the day. Old Mrs. Carlucci had the ears of an elephant. She stood next to the open door of her ancient Plymouth, shaking a fist at him. “You donta work, you donta do nothin’. Greta shoulda lefta you long time ago.”
Grinning and thinking to himself: Lady, ain’t you ever heard about Ve-et-nam? he rushed over to help close her car door. “You are so right, Mrs. Carlucci, so right.”
He didn’t want to alienate Mrs. Carlucci. Or any of the other old bags who lived in the complex. Mrs. Carlucci sat on the tenant board. A rumor circulating the laundry room had it the board was
considering geraniums for every window box! Red geraniums! A swing
vote in favor of geraniums, could bollocks up, but good, his bonsai scheme.
Helping with the car door had softened Mrs. Carlucci up
some. With a little sad smile she told him that he looked thin. And to stop by later for a bowl of pasta fagioli.
“Thank you, Mrs. Carlucci, I’d love that, I truly would.”
Lamont had found that using words like truly had a great impact on the elderly. He wanted to have a positive impact on Mrs. Carlucci. He wanted his bonsai to the point where it was starting to gnaw on him, somewhere in the vicinity of his right shoulder. Vicinity being another of the words the elderly glommed onto.
Smiling and waving good-bye, promising repeatedly to stop by her place for the bowl of pasta fagioli, Lamont backed away. “Gotta run, see you later Mrs. Carlucci.”
Around the corner, Bagel Art’s was empty of customers. What did he expect at that hour on a Sunday, anyway? Lamont grabbed his first cup of self-serve, sliding into a plastic booth near the coffee station. Bagel Art’s being one of those places that went by the honor system for refills. A styrofoam cup with thank you! scrawled in crayon sat on the counter near the decaf pot. Lamont figured thank you! meant if you planned on helping yourself to a second decaf. He never touched decaf — once he’d tried it, felt the grounds stuck in the back of his throat all day. Sipping his cup of steaming regular he was wondering if Japanese women drank coffee with their traditional breakfasts of carp? Greta drank tea with lemon; minus the teabag. That’s no tea he used to tell her. Greta smiling her enigmatic Mata Hari smile, saying: Caffeine screws up your heart rhythms.
“Heart rhythms, my ass.” And Lamont slid out of the booth for his free refill.
It was blustery on the pier. Not too many fishermen. He saw a guy attaching the rope of his crab cage around that very same piling the Japanese woman had slipped behind — now what are the odds of that? thought Lamont with a sharp intake of breath. The woman had lifted her skirt, exposing the alabaster of short, sturdy legs; her dark patch of seagrass. It shot through Lamont’s mind as he pushed into her: seagrass. Spiced nicely. Other than a few grunts, they’d exchanged no words. Later that day it registered with him that she didn’t have on underpants. Like she’d been expecting him all along. Waiting for him: snatched and ready.
Giving a nod to the guy with the crab cage, Lamont continued down the pier to where deeper water gushed in swells, spilling like milk onto the boards; making them slippery; infinitely more dangerous.
The Japanese woman had been slippery. Slippery like arubber fish. Not just her snatch. But her neck, where he’d tastedturnips, her little round belly, her ass, her soft round cheeks. After he zipped up, Lamont had looked into her face. If she was satisfied she made no indication. Half apologizing, he’d backed away. Wondering if anyone had seen. Hoping so. Hoping Greta had seen. Had been nearby to witness his passion. Passion for anyone other than her.
Now Lamont continued down to the outermost section of pier, where the water rose fizzing into the air, churning, as if being manipulated from underneath. When he didn’t find the Japanese woman out there, either, he turned down the final stretch of pier, heading back toward
land to complete the trajectory. He now felt very cold. He flipped up the collar of his camouflage jacket but it was too small — inefficient in this kind of weather. From the beginning Greta had abused him: telling him that he had a small dick.
Lamont shoved his hands in his pockets. If the Japanese woman were to appear out of nowhere, like last time, he wasn’t sure he’d be ready.
Back in his apartment he toyed with the idea of planting the pansies. Temporarily. Naturally it was still too cold for planting. Even a window box. The pansies would wilt, then die. But Mrs. Carlucci and the other old ladies would get to see them. See how Lamont had an interest in gardens — as well as a mind of his own: about what should and should not be planted. The pansies could possibly pave the way for his bonsai scheme. Red geraniums sickened him. The way Greta finally sickened him with her red, wet-look lipstick, long red fingernails, red toenails that spiked his legs while he tried to get some sleep.
After Greta informed him that his dick was of no significant size, Lamont had no trouble planting it everywhere. Everywhere he could find. Every available garden. Every landscape being suitable for planting.
He planted in cars and elevators, behind the photo kiosk along the highway, in the old wooden phone booth at the rear of the tropical bird outlet, under the Belgian waffle stand at the bay. To name a few. It kept up steady. Until Greta left. Then wilting dormancy. Then last week — like a great gift — the Japanese woman! Restoring Lamont. The Japanese woman was a gift from God!
Squatting to stroke the velvety pansies he was jerked with a sudden realization. He had just thought of God in terms of the Big G! God! He did believe in God! That Japanese woman was a gift from God! Truly. Truly a miracle. Wincing that he’d thought in terms of truly, Lamont muttered, “What the hell.”
And he’d use truly again later — when he saw Mrs. Carlucci for his bowl of pasta fagioli.
Truly good pasta fagioli he’d say, softening her up for his bonsai scheme. If he had to, Lamont would plant her.