Joy Hewitt Mann

The Smell of Prize Geraniums 

"It's from your sister," her husband, Huff, said and threw the letter toward the kitchen table where Deirdre sat. It ricocheted off an empty beer bottle and landed on the floor. She leaned over, stretching her thirty-nine years, to pick it up.
 
"What the hell's she writing you for? She never writes you."
 
Huff poured himself another beer while Deirdre ripped open the envelope. She read the one page. Read it again. The paper slowly crumpled in her hands.
 
Deirdre smoothed out the letter onto the table, smoothed it again, lengthening her motion to include the stained cloth.
 
"What is it?" Huff asked.
 
Deirdre brushed off some crumbs as she stood, grabbed three beer bottles in one hand and walked over to the sink. The hot,  soapy water felt good.
 "I don't know why you always do that," Huff yelled.
 
"Do what?" she whispered.
 
"Wash those bottles. You wash the cans and jars for recycle, too. With soap, yet. You're not supposed to, you know. Just rinse them. Lot of silly work for nothing."
 
"I like them clean," she said. She'd thought he was going to say, I don't know why you always walk away when I go to talk to you. She was relieved to be ridiculed.
 
"Why didn't you say?"
 
She turned to see Huff reading the letter. She wanted to run over and rip it from his hands. She rinsed the bottles under the tap and put them in the dish rack to dry.
 
"Did you know she was sick?" Huff asked.
 
She shook her head.
 
"I can't drive you, you know. I'm working on the Connor place Saturday," he said.
 
"I'll take a bus."
 
"For heaven sake, Dee. It's almost two hundred miles. You've never been further than Ottawa."
 "My mother's dead," Deirdre whispered. 

*****

Duntroon. Population still three hundred.
 
The houses are different colors, but it hasn't changed in twenty years, Deirdre thought, except for there being a bus stop in front of the garage. You had to go all the way to Collingwood back when she was nineteen.
 
"And no one's ever going to tell me what to do, ever again," she'd yelled. "Especially you, Mother. I never want to see your ugly face again."
 
She'd regretted the last part, but refused to take it back.
 
"Oh, we'll see, young lady. We'll see. You'll come crawling back. There ain't no work out there for girls like you, 'cept what you do with your legs up."
 
She had walked half way to Collingwood dragging a huge, brown, cardboard suitcase before that part had sunk in.
 
Deirdre lifted her one, medium-sized, black vinyl bag, and walked to the corner, turned right, walked past the fair grounds and suddenly remembered one warm fall day and the feel of angora rabbits. She was ten. Her father had died that summer.
 
"Mummy, Mummy," she'd run into the house after school, her good news bursting. "My poster's been chosen for the fair, and I'm in the public speaking."
 
Her mother sat at the kitchen table nursing a coffee. Her hair was uncombed and she was still wearing her housecoat. "Oh, you only ever think of yourself. Miss Goody-Two-Shoes. Miss High-and-Mighty." She took a swallow of the strange smelling coffee. "How can you be so cruel?"
 
Deirdre's older sister, Maureen, ran down the stairs, white go-go boots clicking below two feet of skin. "I won't be home for supper. Johnny's taking me to the community dance in Singhampton."
 
"Maury. I've been chosen for the fair."
 
"No time, Dee Bird." She rushed out the door.
 
Their mother called out, "Don't be late. Have a good time."
 
The dishes from breakfast still sat in the sink. The table hadn't been cleared from lunch. Her mother said, "There's no dishes for supper. You'll have to wash some."
 
"But it's not my turn. It's Maureen's."
 
"Well she's not here, is she?"
 
That year, Deirdre's poster for the fair had won first prize in her age category and she had placed second in the public speaking. Her mother and sister had not come.
 
The envelope she'd received for her poster contained two dollars. She'd spent half of it on alfalfa pellets for the giant angora rabbit in the petting zoo. All afternoon she'd stroked, and ruffled, and buried her face in the soft, warm fur.

 ***** 

The house took her by surprise. Deirdre had expected to come slowly upon it, seeing it appear like magic from among the higher-than-the-sky trees she remembered.
 
The giant elms were gone. It was such a little house.
 
Deirdre knocked and a rough voice yelled, "Come in."
 The door needed oiling and the cracked linoleum was gritty with sand.
 
"In the kitchen," the voice yelled. And, "Oh, it's you, Dee," when she walked in.
 
"Yes, it's me."
 
"Yeah, I guess it is." They stared at each other and Maureen was the first to break away. "Want a beer?" she asked.
 
"No. A tea would be nice." She looked around the kitchen. "Or a coffee."
 
The coffee was too strong and had Carnation milk in it.
 
"So what you been doin' with yourself?" Maureen asked.
 
"Why didn't you tell me she was sick?"
 
Maureen took a few seconds to finish her beer. "She told me not to."
 
Deirdre fought against feeling angry.
 
"You didn't tell me because she told you? Since when did you ever do what Mother told you? So many times I --" She forced her mouth closed.
 
Maureen said, "You missed the funeral, you know."
 
"What do you mean?" Deirdre stared at her sister's worn out face, searching for the eyes she remembered. "Today's the fifth."
"It was yesterday."
 
"You said the fifth in your letter."
 
"No I didn't."  
 
"You --" Deirdre stopped.
 
*Maureen's teenage voice. "I'm going now Mother. I'll be late." Then her own. "You can't. It's your turn to do the dishes." "No it isn't." "But I've done them for you twice in a row." "Mother! Dee won't do the dishes and it's her turn." And then her mother's angry, slurred voice. "You do those dishes, young lady."*
 
She thought she'd gone past it. Cauterized the hurt. Healed. The house was a thumbnail, ripping it open again.
 
Everything was so much the same. The kitchen still smelled of liquor and coffee, stale dishes and stale food. And her sister, Deirdre realized with a feeling close to satisfaction, looked exactly like she remembered her mother. Tired and old.
 
Deirdre's memories were like double-exposed photos. Faded scents and indistinct images lay below the painful surfaces: she, at four, and Maureen at ten, sharing cherries while they watched their mother make Father's cherry pies; at eight, she and her mother growing sharp odored geraniums from shoots given them by Mrs. MacIntosh, and then planting them below the windows in May; she and Maureen playing, "What do you smell?"; and always, the  aroma of fresh baked bread, a heel for her and a heel for her father.
 
"Why don't you bake bread anymore, Mummy?"
 
"What?"
 Deirdre had spoken out loud.
 
"I want to see where she's buried," she said.
 
"You said something 'bout bread."
 
"It doesn't matter, Maury. Just show me where she's buried."
 
It was a short, silent walk: across the highway, down a side road to the Presbyterian Church, down a gravel driveway, down a narrow path behind the church, everything getting smaller and smaller as she walked.
 
Deirdre stood above the freshly filled grave.
 
"The stone's on order," Maureen said.
 
Two wreaths of white carnations leaned up against a pot of yellow mums. Two other pots lay on their sides. Geraniums.
 
Deirdre pushed one with her foot, trying to right it. She pushed harder. She kicked.
 
"What are you doing?"
 
Deirdre brought her foot back and sent the pot spinning toward the next grave.
 
"What the hell are you doing, Dee?" Maureen grabbed at her and Deirdre shoved her away. Hard.
 
The other pot broke against a headstone. She kicked at the wreaths, the mums, spreading yellow and white petals across the earth. Attacked the earth itself, gouging at the soil, burying the petals under the dirt. Dirt and petals flying . . . flying.
 
Deirdre fell to her knees, "Mummy! Mummy!" then lay, face in the soft soil: Nothing but the creaking of old wood, the lone bark of a far off dog, and her own soft crying.
 
"Dee Bird . . ." Her sister's hand was on her shoulder.
  

*****
They both lay on their backs, staring into the blue sky above their mother's grave.
Deirdre asked, "What ever happened to you and Johnny?"
 
"Oh, he went to Toronto. Said he'd send for me, but you know . . ."
 
"There was no one else?"
 
"Nothin' serious. And you? Huff treating you right?"
 
"We get on."
 
They were silent for a while.
 
Maureen got up onto one elbow and looked down at her.
 
"What do you smell, Dee Bird?"
 
Deirdre smiled and touched the air. "Cherries. Fresh cherries in Mr. Brock's orchard," she said.
 
"Yeah. And geraniums. Mrs. MacIntosh's prize geraniums."
 
"And bread. Someone's baking bread."
 
"Yeah. I always liked the smell of fresh baked bread."
 

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