Fall 2009, #16
       "Woodchuck vs. the Hank Williams Zombie"

Flowers Lose Their Smell

     by Alka Roy

I burned the letter thanking my younger brother for sacrificing his life in the line of duty. Now my mother refuses to talk to me. Six months ago my brother’s plane blew up in mid-air. It was a malfunction. No enemies were involved. There were no remains. My mother added the folded flag to her altar, next to her only son’s framed picture covered in a garland of plastic roses that she sprays with his cologne everyday. She refuses to throw away the desiccated flowers in pots and baskets with faded red, white and blue ribbons, flags and store-bought notes of condolences.

They smell like death, I say.

They have only lost their smell, she says, like it’s something that
might come back.

I don’t want to get out of bed today, but I do. Faraway, a little boy in a sullied t-shirt bites a mosquito that flies into his half-open mouth. The boy’s mother covers his bare bottom and puts an amulet in black thread around his arm to save him. I move mechanically: toothpaste, soap, shower, hot and cold water, flush, milk, cereal, news and a toasted sesame bagel with fresh butter from the weekly farmer’s market. It is raining outside but I don’t pick up an umbrella. Over the mountains I have never crossed, a monk in a jail cell shields his face from a baton. Somewhere closer than that, a man planning to kill his wife “in the act” with her sister’s husband, cleans his gun.

The TV is on in my mother’s room. She doesn’t come out when I tell her that I am leaving for work and I don’t go in. Our neighbor waves as I pull out of the driveway. She congratulated us when she found out that my dead brother would be made a citizen. It would have meant a lot to him, the neighbor said, as though she knew him. They have started my mother’s paperwork for permanent residency. My work had offered to sponsor me as a “resident alien”. Both amount to the same thing. Except that mine is a much longer process. I can’t bear the thought of gaining from my brother’s death. Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe I don’t want to owe him something this big. Now that I can never repay him. Or maybe it just feels good to have an option.

At work my boss gives me a new project. I stare at emails. When my team members ask me to go to lunch, I pick up a folder from my desk and tell them that I am too busy. After they leave, I go out to by myself and order a greasy shelled taco salad. A couple sits down next to me holding hands as though they think they will always be together.

I get back in the car and drive without knowing where to stop. The lunch hour turns into the afternoon. The radio blares: The housing market stays sluggish. The unemployment rate is constant but someone finds a job, someone gets laid off, someone is fired, someone chooses to quit or retire or die an accidental death creating an opening for someone else.

I choose the mall and take the entrance marked South.

The monk in his jail cell also has a decision to make. Fifty men stand cramped in a small rancid cell. They are given rice but it is hard to eat. Names! The jailors shout. The monk fights against his urge to harm the jailors. Most of all, he tries emptying his head of names. 

The little boy plays with his amulet and holds on to his mother's dress in order not to lose her. She buys him a meal after lifting bricks at a construction site. He skips over the cracks on the road as they scout for a good place on the sidewalk to spend the night. He counts out loud every time a car honks when it passes them by: 9, 10, 11… He lets go of his mother’s scarf when he spots a red cricket ball on the road.

The man, who suspects his wife of cheating, cleans his gun and practices shooting with a pillow over the muzzle. He doesn’t want to mess up in front of her or have her tell him what to do. To keep up his spirits, he talks to himself and picks up a chicken sandwich for lunch. He says things like, You can do it. I know you can. For his high cholesterol, he gets a side salad with fat-free dressing. He then stops at the drugstore to get some yard gloves and sturdy three-ply garbage bags for the body.

I call home but no one picks up the phone. Since my brother’s name was mentioned as one of the casualties, my mother keeps watching or listening to the news whenever she’s awake. She sometimes repeats after them. Yesterday I heard her say: These are, by far, the lowest number of casualties we have had this year. I decide to cheat on my diet with two scoops of my brother’s favorite ice cream. The ice cream gets on my hands and mouth. Without washing it off, I go to a store I have never been to and try on a really short skirt that I wouldn’t dare to wear out of fear that I might have to suddenly bend to pick something up.

What is important is not how the day ended but that it ended. And that without questioning its futility or the outcome, the next day began. Dogs barked, ran and slid on wet roads. The morning train whistled three times, as regulated, near neighborhood crossings. Children laughed, scratched where they felt like scratching, and stared at the same object for hours. Someone moving fast stood still and noticed that it made no difference. Someone standing still for a long time got a nudge and started moving, slowly at first and then faster, barely remembering how it had felt to stand still.