A former U.S. foreign service officer, Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978-80) has published more than 100 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Idaho Review, The S0uthrn
Review, and The Kenyon Review. He has stories forthcoming in several magazines including The Hudson Review. His story “How Birds Communicate” won The Iowa Review fiction prize. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Schuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press, which won the Maria Thomas Award. His website can be found at markjacobsauthor.com. This story appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Border Crossing.
House of Flowers
Poppa Billy was living in the basement at the House of Flowers even though his name was on the mortgage. The basement was set up to be an apartment with its own separate door, so he came and went as he pleased. At maximum capacity, the House of Flowers accommodated seven room-renters. I was number seven, taking Nasturtium after Mr. Mikulski died.
Everyone spoke of the deceased Mikulski with respect, describing him as a gentleman of the old school. I took that to mean he wore a bow tie and was careful with his vocabulary. In the bottom drawer of the walnut dresser in Nasturtium I found a glossy photo of a topless brunette, arms crossed to hide her breasts. By today’s standard of smut it looked ancient and chaste.
Everything that happened went back to that first party, the summer I moved in. That was three years ago. Me renting a room from them was Billy and Maureen’s excuse to get people together.
On that sunny June afternoon in Syracuse, every last resident of the House of Flowers turned up in the back yard to eat grilled hamburgers and size me up.
There was tension in the yard. Even I, the newcomer, felt it. Maureen Elizabeth thought Poppa Billy should have cut the grass.
“I reminded you the other day, sweetie.”
“Short grass is unhealthy,” Poppa Billy told her, not specifying who or what it was unhealthy for.
Theirs was a magnificent antagonism. Maureen was what you pictured if you closed your eyes and said ‘Earth Mother.’ Five ten easy, just a couple of years past statuesque. Contemplating decline, she was regal. There was Boston in her voice. Twenty years in Syracuse wasn’t going to eradicate that. There was also honey, and Canadian Club, and a waterfall in woods you had visited in a previous life.
As for Poppa Billy, he was a welder, when he worked. Any man would envy the burn scars on his muscular forearms. His mustache gave him a walrusy look, if you imagined a walrus as a deadly creature on the verge of lashing out. The gray coming into his hair was camouflage. His belly was big but hard; as the man expanded, Nature was expressing more of the essential Billy. He squinted when he spoke to you. You might take that as his idea of courtesy. Whether you wanted it or not, he was giving you his full attention.
Maureen was drinking Long Island iced tea. Poppa Billy was knocking back boilermakers. We boarders were sprawled around the picnic table lapping up light beer and wine coolers and the drama unfolding before us. It was then and there I established the policy of referring to the others, in my mind, by the names of their rooms.
Zinnia – female, caustic, with what she described as a job in the fashion industry but was really Target – said, “Forget the Fourth of July. These are the fireworks I’ve been waiting for.”
“You want me to cut the grass, is that what you said?” Poppa Billy asked Maureen. He was not asking for clarification.
She shook her head. Her disgust was too big for words but got even more substantial when he wheeled his mower out from a shed at the back of the yard. He cranked the engine. We were all glad it did not turn over. That made it easier to overhear the debate.
“That’s your mower, all right,” hollered Maureen Elizabeth. “No ‘bout adoubt it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The parts don’t work.”
Delphinium – male, balding, an IT guy – and Peony – female, in a pinkish sweater despite the summer heat – tittered. They had lived at the House of Flowers long enough to feel comfortable letting their appreciation show. Others shifted in their chairs. Nobody was bored. Me, I felt a kind of awe at the sheer crackling power of our landlords. The back yard was electric with it. Even then I had the suspicion it was foreplay. It took me by surprise when Maureen dragged me into the show.
“Let’s ask Theo what he thinks,” she said.
She materialized at my side and began running her fingers through my hair, which made me feel like a kid who needed reassuring. This is probably the place to admit that in the looks department I was what you might call the anti-Billy. Nobody was going to mistake me for a dangerous welder.
Back by the shed, Billy yanked the mower’s starter cord so hard it snapped. There he stood with the handle in his hand, twirling the black cord like a defective lariat. Sweat matted his dark hair.
“All right,” he told his wife, “let’s ask him.”
“What do you say, Theo?”
This came from both of them at the same instant, giving me the impression that they had rehearsed.
I was not sure what the question was and told them so.
Climbing Rose – he had a nose like a barracuda and was constantly bringing up baseball statistics – coughed into his hand. He was happy to be out of the line of fire.
Billy came up in front of me. High Noon. He hooked his thumbs into the belt loops of his black jeans. His T-shirt said, Welders Do It With Electroslag. He squinted in my direction, making me feel small.
“Is the grass too long, Theo, or do you figure it’s just about right?”
Talk about a no-win situation. The only positive aspect it had was the soothing sensation of Maureen Elizabeth’s fingers massaging my scalp.
“It depends,” I said.
“If you’re a man, you like your grass a little long. If you’re a woman, usually you like it on the shorter side.”
I was pretty pleased with myself for the reaction that got. The threat leaked out of Billy, Maureen loosed one of her rich signature laughs, and the boarders clapped. If this was a rite of passage, I had crossed the rapids and was standing, safe, on the civilized shore.
I had just left someone. Thirty-three months. That was what I gave to making love and a life with a ravenous woman who wanted everything in the world except, as it turned out, me. People don’t normally associate the Adirondacks with disastrous human relationships. That doesn’t mean they’re not up there. I left the mountains defunct and wound up in the flatlands of Syracuse. A good place to recuperate, or so I thought.
Nasturtium was the blue room on the second floor, at the front of the house facing the street. That night I lay in bed with the window open to catch the breeze. Maybe I heard this, maybe I dreamed it, you tell me. Rockers creaking on the floorboards of the porch. A woman’s low candle of a voice keeping company with a man’s throaty rumble. I’ll crush his bones to make my bread, he says. And she: You keep eating all that bread you’ll be fat as a pig.
Syracuse winters are famously hard. Nobody talks about Syracuse years, but they go by fast. Look up and you see geese migrating south. Look up a minute later and they’re flapping north again. You don’t have to be old to start feeling like a tree, every year another ring around your thickening core. I stayed at the House of Flowers, recharging my batteries, for three years. When the behavior of my fellow boarders got on my nerves, which it did now and then, I closed my door and kept to myself for a few days, no questions asked.
Poppa Billy did not believe in the internet. The boarders thought that was why he moved down to the basement, since it was the crash of a computer that led to the bust-up between him and Maureen Elizabeth. I knew better.
It was always hard to tell, with those two, which one was the irresistible force and which was the immovable object.
By not believing in the internet Poppa Billy meant that the powers that be were playing a trick on the rest of us. Our guard was down because we liked a lot of stuff about the digital world. Sooner or later, though, our dependence on all that easy technology was going to turn around and bite us in the ass. It was out of deference to Poppa Billy that I quit capitalizing internet. By deference I mean fear. He scared the hell out of me.
I could have moved out once I got the raise, which the company was kind enough to give me when I finished my online degree in accounting. An apartment, or even a house, was not beyond my possibilities.
But I stayed. There was little turnover among the boarders. That had everything to do with our landlord and lady. Maureen Elizabeth and Poppa Billy made us feel special. Living in the big old blue Victorian on Hardy was like belonging to a secret club. We had our summer picnics in the yard, where the grass was always too long or just about right. We had our holiday parties in the high-ceilinged parlor, pushing through the French doors like kids eager to play games and drink mulled wine. We had entertainment and vicarious heartbreak as Billy and Maureen waged their titanic battles, made precarious peace, then went to war again.
There were tears in Delphinium’s eyes the day he packed his bags and moved to Omaha because his firm transferred him. The night before he left, Billy and Maureen threw a party for the ages. I overindulged. At work the next morning the lines and boxes in my spreadsheets kept getting tangled with each other, and the numbers were indiscriminate. I went into the restroom and rinsed my face in cold water. I looked in the mirror. My haggard face smiled back at me. I hadn’t thought about my ex in days.
Some of the boarders fell into a category I called Only the Lonely. For them, the House of Flowers really was a substitute home. Others simply found the lifestyle convenient. Whatever you thought about the length of the grass, you were not the one cutting it. I thought it was important to have a life away from the House and fell into one that suited my sluggish self. Thanks to Buster Sweet.
Buster was a jazz bassist and singer from Syracuse. I was a big jazz fan, always had been. I marveled at Buster’s ability to sing a complicated melody line while playing a bass run that was just as complicated. If I could have followed a different career track, it would have been down the jazz highway. But I could neither play nor sing. I did what I could, which was make sure I caught Buster’s shows when he was in town.
I was at the Stocking Club one night when Buster was fronting a four-piece combo with drums, a piano, and an alto sax. He was ramped up, just back from a road trip that included shows in Kansas City and New Orleans.
“Back to the well,” he kept saying into the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have been back to the musical well.”
The band was really on that night. The crowd was small, and Buster and his bandmates delivered Thelonius Monk’s “Bright Corners” to each and every one of us gift-wrapped for the holiday season. When they finished the set, Buster stopped by my table.
“You like Monk,” he said. “I can tell.”
I nodded. “What I like is the way you guys have been thinking about Monk.”
That got a smile. Buster was a big man in his fifties with a face like a dinner plate. The potter who threw the plate had exaggerated the features into a portrait of jubilation. He looked like a man who expected things to turn out for the best.
From my point of view, things did in fact turn out for the best. He invited me to have a drink at his table and introduced me to his wife. Cheryl Sweet was younger than Buster. She was a self-contained African American woman who might have looked matronly if she were not married to a jazz musician. When Buster learned I was an accountant, he made sure Cheryl knew how to get in touch with me. They had some financial questions, and who better to answer them than a numbers guy who loved jazz?
So that was how a good thing began. Cheryl and I met for coffee. In no time at all I learned she had some grievances, the biggest of which was Buster’s susceptibility to his female fans. He had a hard time saying no. She wanted to run him down a little, but I deflected the conversation into a tranquil channel. I liked the Buster I saw on stage making love to his stand-up bass. I did not want his flaws as husband and provider to get in the way of the music. I wanted things to be easy.
One thing led to another, as they seem to do. Buster had a medium-sized name in jazz and toured fairly often. All too often Cheryl was left to her own resources, of which I became one. It was comfortable. It was safe. It was a happy counterbalance to domestic life at the House of Flowers, which tended toward the turbulent. My life in the Adirondacks with and without my ex began to be a story I could tolerate telling myself.
How Maureen Elizabeth tumbled to my friendship with Cheryl Sweet I had no idea and did not intend to ask. She rode me unmercifully on the subject when Poppa Billy was not around. She wanted details. I never gave her any. Her fixation was almost enough to make me think she was jealous, although the idea of that was preposterous.
I knew as well as any other high-functioning simulacrum of an adult that nothing lasted forever. Change was the iron law of the universe. But it seemed to me that the arrangements I had worked out in Syracuse could go on for a while. Buster was pleased, to the extent that he thought about it, with the financial advice I was dispensing to his wife. And fair was fair. Cheryl had the right to do unto him as he evidently did unto to her with distressing frequency. I was saving a chunk of change, living in a boarding house.
Also, there was the never-ending tragicomedy of Poppa Billy and his formerly statuesque wife. There was a ritual quality to their fighting and making up. I won’t say it was scripted. It wasn’t. Every time was new, every altercation seemed to take them both by surprise. But when they locked horns they were obeying an impulse deeply coded into their respective personalities.
The dynamic changed when Billy lost his job at a tool and die shop.
I came home one Wednesday evening in early April in a funk. Buster had had a health scare. At two in the morning in a dressing room in Memphis, he had fainted dead away. Blood pressure and unspecified complications. He came back to Syracuse resolved to be a better husband, and Cheryl was doing her best to take him at his word. She wasn’t quite ready to give me up, but I could feel it coming.
Poppa Billy was sitting at the kitchen table getting hammered on a bottle of bargain rye. Maureen Elizabeth was nowhere to be seen. Forget spring, this was heavy weather.
Billy had lost jobs before. In fact that was his specialty. He was almost as good at finding new ones. But this time he did not recover. Being fired from the tool and die shop set him on his heels. He went out looking with a reasonable amount of diligence but could not turn up work as a welder. Maureen told him he could dig ditches, and should. That became a bone of contention. He was pushing fifty now and did not see himself as a digger of other men’s ditches. The fights grew fiercer, the truces more unstable. We boarders went around on tiptoe. April went by in a blur.
On the first day of May, I happened to be in the kitchen talking with Maureen when Billy stormed in. She was on the computer, at the table, looking up the sexual habits of jellyfish, to answer an idle question of mine. Billy was stinking. Maureen’s computer was new, a Macintosh Powerbook with that sleek silver case for which people endowed with a certain amount of free will convert themselves into consumers. Billy grabbed it. He threw it across the room. It smashed against the refrigerator, leaving a dent in the door before crashing to the floor in pieces.
“You worthless piece of shit,” Maureen said.
She was having a hard time internalizing the fact that he had just trashed her new machine. She stood to face him down, an inspiring figure of righteous anger. Billy knew he had overdone it, which guaranteed he would keep on overdoing it. He might have hit her, but it would have been worth his life. Maureen was known for giving as good as she got, or better. The abuse they heaped on each other set some records for innovation, but it was strictly verbal. It was loud and full of outrage and promised to go on. I waited for the right moment and snuck out of the kitchen.
The fight ended, later that night, with Poppa Billy in the basement. Maureen Elizabeth stood at the head of the stairs throwing his stuff down after him. Clothes, for the most part, but also his bowling ball. As Peony pointed out later, in one of the furtive conversations we boarders indulged in when our paths crossed in the hallways, it was a good thing the ball was in its bag when Maureen heaved it.
I don’t mean to make us sound flip. We were distressed by the break-up. Deeply distressed. The foundations of our home lives were shaken. The boarding house was no longer an interesting place to live. But a perverse sense of loyalty – to Maureen and Billy, or to the whole idea of the House of Flowers, I was not sure which – kept them there.
I stayed, too. On the verge of losing Cheryl, I wanted the stability. She waited for Buster to make a quick trip to New York to play a gig at a Manhattan club before she handed me my hat. She took me to eat at an expensive restaurant with windows like you saw in cathedrals. She buttered my bread. In an understated blue dress, her mother’s pearls around her neck, she looked great, and I was grateful for what she had given me of herself. I will spare you the conversation. We stuck to a script, I think, because we both had the sense that the punishment for variation was banishment. When I said I hoped things between her and Buster stayed good, I meant it.
That week the weather was milder than we had any right to expect in Syracuse. I was listless at work, and listless in the evenings, one of which I went into Nasturtium to find Maureen Elizabeth sitting on my bed. She was reading a book about dogs.
“I’m thinking about getting one,” she told me.
I nodded. I had no opinion about pets except that I didn’t want one myself.
“You and your girlfriend,” Maureen said. “It’s Splitsville, isn’t it?”
I nodded again.
“I could tell. You look like somebody threw your pet rock onto a gravel pile. Come here, Theo. There’s no law on the books against consolation, not taking and not giving.”
At that moment I realized I was past my ex. What I should have done was reach for my suitcase and pack. Should have moved out that same night. But I stuck around. I took some consolation, and I gave some. On a fairly regular basis. I’d like to think it was just another step on the road to recovery. There are other things I’d like to think that also depart from the truth. At some level I knew that if I had not been in the kitchen that night when Billy came home raging, he might not have crashed Maureen’s computer. What happened was more than proximity but something less than love. The transgression thrilled me.
As for Maureen Elizabeth, when we made our secret furious love I had a strong sense of her as an autonomous being. She had no shame of body. Her humor was clear as sunshine, her enjoyment unclouded. The mystery of the woman was in her mind, which tended to lock onto the past.
“How come you never asked me where the name comes from?” she said once.
We were in my room. We were in our underwear. It was mid-May. Billy had stopped doing any yard work. The flower beds needed attention they were not getting. Through the bedroom window we could hear a warmish rain falling outside, making a soothing sound that suggested how big the world was, how impervious to its inhabitants.
“The House of Flowers.”
“I should have asked,” I admitted. “Where does it come from?”
“A dream I had once, a long time ago. Me and Billy were still in Boston. I woke up remembering a big happy house with lots of flowers, and Billy was good. Go for it, he said. You only live once. My daddy died six months later. There was a little insurance money. It just covered the down payment on this place. We thought Syracuse would be a whole new life for us.”
It was strange, talking about Poppa Billy when he might be within the roll of a bowling ball, down there in the basement. I never quite got over my fear of him coming up the stairs and finding us naked in Nasturtium. If that happened he would tear me into strips of mortified flesh. But Maureen never worried. She understood him better than I did. Nor was she surprised when he invited me down to the basement one night a couple of weeks later.
“Go,” she said. “You’ll have a nice time. Poppa Billy can be charming. But you already know that.”
I went not because I thought we might have a nice time but because I was too afraid of him to say no. Walking down the basement steps was like descending into a cave. No windows, and the air had the feral smell of a man living alone. Billy was in his recliner watching television, remote in hand.
“It’s true what they say, Theo.”
“What do they say?”
“Two hundred and fifty channels, and there’s not a goddamn thing on. Grab us a beer while you’re up, why don’t you?”
I got a couple of Genny Creams from the fridge and sat on the sofa promising myself I would not drink to keep up with him. Billy was way out of my league.
“So what are we gonna do tonight, Theo?”
“I can’t stay long.”
He shook his head and drained his beer can. “I don’t like the sound of that, buddy. I don’t like it at all. You want to watch fishing? There’s a couple of clowns in a bass boat somewhere on one of these fucking channels. I just went past them.”
“I’m fine with whatever you’re watching.”
But he did not think much of my attempt to be easygoing. He got out of his chair. He came and stood over me. His breath smelled of pepperoni. Living on his own, he had been eating too much pizza.
“You ready for another beer?”
I had hardly touched the first one, but I told him I was ready. When he brought me a cold can he made sure I drank it.
“This is great, ain’t it?”
I nodded, not sure what I was agreeing to.
“Couple of guys hanging out, couple of brews. If I was the type to play video games we could do that, but I hate that shit. You want to hear some Aerosmith?”
“Sure,” I said. I did not mind being craven if it kept me safe.
I knew, at that point, that I was going to get drunk along with Billy. If I didn’t, the form his offense took could be deadly. We polished off a twelve-pack of Genny Cream listening to old Aerosmith tunes cranked up loud. Upstairs in the House of Flowers, Maureen Elizabeth could not help hearing. In a brief blur of images I thought about Buster and Monk, about Cheryl in her mother’s pearls. I wanted to cry.
I didn’t. Crying would be dangerous. If there were any cheap emotion to be had that night, it was Billy’s right to express it.
He was smooth on his feet, but I wobbled when we left the basement heading for Snaky Pete’s, a tavern on Conrad he was partial to. The pool table was open, and we played game after game of eight ball. I never won one. The handful of regulars drinking shots and beers gave us a wide berth. The waves Billy was emitting could not be mistaken for bonhomie. There was no Snaky Pete behind the bar, if there ever had been one. Every time Billy sent me for a refill – You’re buying this round, ain’t you, Theo? – a woman named Dolores with feather earrings told me her name meant Sadnesses, Plural in Spanish.
I was getting drunk. I was losing at eight-ball. I was paying for Poppa Billy’s maudlin high. I would have done just about anything to humor him and keep him from killing me, which I was convinced he intended to do. Maybe he never caught me in bed with his wife. It didn’t matter. He knew. He had to know. He smelled my terror and was savoring the build-up to the slaughter. Better that I suffer some mental torture first.
After an uncertain number of beers I made an attempt to get myself out of the rotten situation we had both put me in. I reached to put my cue back in the rack. I missed. It fell on the floor. Made it on the second try.
“I have to go,” I told Billy in a slur of simple words. “Gotta get up early for work in the morning.”
Too late I realized that was exactly the wrong thing to say.
“What’s that supposed to mean? You think I ain’t been out pounding the pavement every goddamn day?”
He came up close. He jabbed me in the chest. Hard. Three times. Four. Saying I was sorry would only compound the mistake. Drunk logic. I followed it. His walrus face was uncomfortably close to mine. Despite my fear I had a disarming sense of the man’s great pain, the wound he carried around.
“You got it all wrong, Theo.”
I shook my head. Anything I said would add fuel to his fire.
“You got it all wrong,” he insisted. “I would never cut your dick off. Come on.”
He grabbed me by the arm and dragged me toward the back door of Snaky Pete’s. The regulars stood there watching us go. There might have been some sympathy for me percolating through them, but they were not going to get involved. They were classic bystanders. At the bar, Sadnesses Plural shook her head. She must have seen it coming.
The alley behind the tavern was lined with Dumpsters. On the prehistoric pavement, a cat slunk away from our commotion. In a moment of vulnerability I was aware of spring over Syracuse. Not a promise, but a definite possibility.
Poppa Billy pushed me up against a Dumpster. I smelled rotting food.
“You shouldn’t have done it, Theo.”
I opened my mouth to say I was sorry and beg for mercy, but what came out was something different. I didn’t and don’t know where it came from unless it was the hovering spring. “You know what Maureen told me yesterday?”
That was enough to arrest his fist.
“She said she can’t wait for this thing between the two of you to be over. She’s really looking forward to having you back upstairs. She told me how much she appreciated it, way back when, when you told her she should go for her dream and start the House of Flowers.”
“You’re bullshitting me.”
“I’m not, and you know I’m not.”
Well, I wasn’t. What I was telling him was the truest lie to which a human being ever gave utterance. I was telling him only what Maureen could not bring herself to say.
“She’s hurt, Billy. The woman is suffering. My guess is, you don’t even have to say you’re sorry. All you have to do is go through the front door and let nature take its course.”
Drunk as he was, the sober part of him heard me. Believed. Understood. I was no longer relevant. As he let me go I did my best not to slump. He made his way down the alley toward the street. A lesser man would have been weaving. Poppa Billy was steady on his feet.
I watched him turn the corner before allowing myself to feel any relief. I moved away from the Dumpster, and the smell of ripe spring air made me feel pretty good.
It was time, it was definitely time, to think about getting a place of my own.