The flower that doesnt w.., p.2
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       The Flower That Doesn't Wilt, p.2

           Martin Alvarez
 
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  * * *

  At 6:51pm that evening, Natali arrived at the address scribbled on the back of a receipt. “1650 N Pecan Lane. This is the one.” As she walked up the little path to the door, she noticed a small table on the porch with a glass top, set with some flowers in a skinny vase and two chairs of white wrought iron with lime green pillows for seats.

  Before she could knock on the door, a young woman came out.

  “Hello, you must be Natali. I’m Sam’s niece, Sarah.” She said excitedly as she held open the screen door. “Sam will be out in a minute, you’re welcome to come wait inside.”

  Natali shook the woman’s hand and said she preferred to wait outside since it was such a nice evening.

  Sitting at the table, she touched the soft petals of the flowers, a mix of purple and pink daisies with a bit of baby’s breath. While she was admiring them, Sam burst through the door almost dropping the two glasses and pitcher of cantaloupe water he was balancing in his hands.

  Sarah was right behind him with a plate of mini club sandwiches. “I thought you two would like something to snack on while you had your juice.”

  “Thank you, dear. That’s very sweet of you.” Sam said to his niece as she walked back inside.

  Sitting at the table, silence fluttered around them like a kaleidoscope of butterflies as Sam filled Natali’s glass and then his own. The only sounds for two minutes were of cantaloupe water being sipped from glasses and birds singing in the trees that stood on either side of the porch.

  “So,” Natali spoke first, “how was it?”

  “How was it?” Sam repeated, meaning for her to elaborate.

  “The world. Is it as beautiful as it seems in magazines and traveling shows?”

  Sam laughed and looked down into his half empty glass as if it were a picture slideshow of all the places he had been. “No. It’s far more beautiful than any magazine or TV show could tell. You can’t experience it by looking at a page or a screen, traveling is a thing that is done with all of the senses. Sure, you can look at a picture of a tropical beach at sunset and think it’s beautiful, but you’re missing out on how the warmth of the setting sun feels on your face and the soft crunch of sand beneath your feet. You aren’t hearing the water rush up onto the shore and fizzle like soda pop as it retreats or a lone guitarist performing reggae songs for the ocean. The smell and taste of the salty air cleansing your lungs can’t be enjoyed in front of a TV.

  “Then there are the things they never show. The things that are only blocks from the Eiffel Tower and just beyond the Pyramids. Those are the places I lived to see, at specific times when the city either came alive or was sound asleep and I would roam the streets like a nightmare creature in its lovely dreams.”

  “You mean the in-betweens and all-arounds.” Natali felt a pang of shame in her chest after she said it.

  Sam looked up at her as the visions of quiet memories faded from his glass. “Exactly.”

  “You were right.” Natali looked down into her glass now. It was her turn to stare into the cantaloupe-flavored crystal ball and look into her past.

  “About what?” Sam asked, shifting in his seat.

  “About changing my mind. Well, you were sort of right, because I did change my mind, but not about traveling. I changed my mind about you, about us.”

  Sam sat still as stone, frozen by the mix of emotions going through his mind.

  Natali continued. “After you left I dated other guys and they were all the same. All were gray souls with no imagination, no spark in their eyes like I saw in yours back then and still see now as we sit here. They were too rooted in reality, only worried about money. I thought that was what I wanted, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I began to miss you dearly, and after about three years I tried everything I could think of to contact you but nothing worked.

  “I finally accepted that I would never see you again and I married the next man I dated. He was a good man.” Natali was suddenly embarrassed at the way she let the words pour from her mouth as messily as if she had reached out and knocked over the pitcher on the table.

  Sam had only one question on his mind and decided against politely tucking it away. “Did you love him?” It came out rather sheepishly and he cringed, though Natali didn’t see it, her eyes were now on the wedding ring on her left hand.

  “Yes. No. I don’t know. What is love? He took care of me, we had two kids together and he was always there for the three of us, but did he make me swoon, make me think of only him and forget everything and everyone else in life when I was with him? No. He hardly ever made me laugh or think about things other than work or home or the kids. The worst part of it was because he didn’t try. He was like a stone statue that had come alive but his heart and mind remained stone.

  “Often times I thought of you. Especially when I would ask him if we could travel, really travel and see far away places. He would say ‘We do travel.’ And what he meant was that we had gone and would go to Rockport Beach in Texas every summer for forty-one years. That was up until he passed away four years ago.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that.” Sam said, not wanting to interrupt the story of her life too much. As she spoke, he was imagining himself as that man, wondering what it was like to be married and have a family. He imagined having a steady job, paying off a mortgage and taking the kids to the beach every year for their summer vacation, watching them play and build sandcastles while he and his wife--he and Natali--relaxed on towels sipping pina coladas from hollowed out pineapples.

  “Thank you. I’m fine now, though. But like I said, I thought about you a lot. I wondered what you were doing and where you were, and wished I was there with you.”

  Sam’s mind rang like a church bell struck with a sledge hammer. He uttered two words in a low voice, two words and Natali’s brain began ringing too. “You were.”

  She looked up into Sam’s eyes and they were looking back at her with the same gleam of memory they had when he was thinking of his travels.

  “What do you mean?” She asked, her cheeks flushed pink in the light of the setting sun.

  Sam took a deep breath and exhaled it before he answered, nervous about revealing what was perhaps his biggest secret, one that the entire world knew about. “No matter where I was, what was on my mind and before my eyes was you. I could be standing on peaks of mountains overlooking valleys that held within them small villages that disappeared when fog rolled in to swallow them whole and I would see your face, covered by your hair on a windy day. I could be warming myself by a fire on the African plains, watching a crescent moon rise from beneath the infinite horizon and I would see your smile.

  “Whoever would trade stories of life and travels, of death and love with me would know your name, imagine your night-sky, twinkling brown eyes and your sweet, cherry blossom laughter for my detailed tellings of.”

  In minutes, the Sun would be gone, snuffed out by Earth’s curve somewhere in the west. Natali remembered the photograph that had fallen out of Sam’s wallet at the store.

  “And that picture you have? The one of our first date, oh, a lifetime, perhaps ten lifetimes ago?”

  Sam removed the photo from his wallet and handed it to her. “Everyone saw it, everyone touched it. Little kids laughed and showed their friends, old men and women smiled warmly at it, remembering something forgotten from their youth… The Pope blessed it.”

  Natali laughed, Sam’s favorite song again. “Really?”

  Sam was smiling, unable to take his eyes off of her as the years melted away between them. “I was visiting Vatican City, it was one o’clock in the morning and I was drunkenly swaying down an alley, clutching the picture and singing The Book of Love. Suddenly a door opened to my right, nearly knocking me over. It was a man with a full trash bag who quickly apologized. He placed his hands on my shoulders and said, “Forgive me, my child. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be on the other side of the door at this hour’”

  Natali sat with her mouth open in surprise.
“Impossible!”

  “Possible.” Sam continued. “It was none other than Pope Donatello. ‘What have you got there?’ he asked me, so I handed the picture to the Pope, who was one person and then three and then one again like an accordion in my blurred, intoxicated vision.”

  Natali waved a hand at him. “So you expect me to believe that you were drunk in Italy-“

  “Vatican City.” Sam corrected.

  “Same thing. And you ran into the Pope, of all people?”

  Sam laughed. “Who else would be there?”

  “But taking out the trash?” Natali finally began to munch on the finger sandwiches that Sam’s niece had brought out. It was more like eating popcorn during a suspenseful movie than eating because she was hungry.

  “You take out the trash from your home, don’t you? It’s a chore not even the holiest man can escape!”

  They both laughed again. “Well, anyway, here’s the part that sobered me up. When he saw the picture, his smile grew wider and he said to me, ‘Lei e uno degli angeli di Dio.’ before he crossed it, said a blessing, and kissed it.”

  “What does that mean?” Natali asked as she took a sip of cantaloupe water.

  Sam looked at the stars that were coming out one-by-one. “It means: ‘She is one of God’s angels.’ It’s one of the only two Italian sentences I know. I learned it right then and there, drunk and lost- and I’ll never forget it.”

  Natali was still now, eyes wide, and in a voice just above a whisper she asked, “What’s the other one?”

  “After he hugged me and kissed my cheek he turned to go back inside but stopped and looked straight into my eyes as he placed his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Lei vi guidera a casa.’ that one means, ‘She will guide you home.’”

  Her face blushed, coloring her cheeks in the silver light from the Moon. “Wow.” was all Natali could say.

  “So you see, I showed everyone who cared and quite a few who didn’t. At first, I thought I had asked you to come with me so that I could show you the beauty of the world, but I learned a few years ago that I was wrong. My true desire was to show the world, every ocean, forest, and desert full of young and old faces, how beautiful you are.”

  A moment passed before Natali, unsure of what to say next, asked, “Why did you stop?”

  “Stop?”

  “I mean, why aren’t you still traveling? Why come back to this town when you could retire anywhere?”

  Sam wasn’t sure how to tell the story of his return. He searched his mind but all he found was the most honest and direct way. “I’m sick.”

  Natali’s eyes went dark with concern, her eyebrows scrunched up as she stared at Sam. “What? Sick how? Is it-“ she stopped before finishing the question.

  “I don’t have much time left.” Sam said without sadness in his voice. “My only wish is that I could show you the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met.”

  Sam was holding the photo again and was admiring the time available to them within it. He wondered once more, as he had every day for the last fifty years, how things might have been. If only-

  “You can.” Natali interrupted his thoughts. She placed her hand on his so that they held the photo together on the table.

  “But how? I have no more money after all of the hospital visits, and if I did I can’t travel anymore. I wish I could, but-“

  “You can,” Natali repeated, “and you needn’t be rich or leave Denver to do it. I already remember the night, long ago, after we had a few too many drinks in Italy or Vatican City and ran into a man taking out his trash…”

  Sam’s face lit up like the beaches of Portugal with their bioluminescent plankton as he understood.

  And so for the next year and two months Natali would visit Sam every Tuesday and Thursday so that they could rewrite the last half-century so the memories were of traveling together. Sam would replace “I” with “We” in his stories and Natali would stop him to change bars to cafes when she felt she would have preferred coffee on that night instead of a cocktail, and Sam would happily go there instead as he would have if she had really been with him.

  This would go on at the table on Sam’s porch until Sam was too sick to leave his bed. When that happened, Natali began visiting him every day. She had even learned how to make Sam’s infamous drink.

  “Best damn glass I’ve ever had.” He would say every time she made it.

  They re-remembered most of the big, famous places together, but Natali’s favorite times were the ones where they roamed cobblestone-paved alleyways at two in the morning or looked down upon cities from halfway up a mountain at dusk when lights in windows would go on one-by-one here and there just as the stars did, so that it seemed one was real and one was a reflection in a lake. Those were her favorite times, the in-betweens and all-arounds.

  The days went on like this in Sam’s room until one day Natali didn’t show up. Nor did she show the next day. He was sad that she had stopped coming to see him, but at least now he had memories with her, not just the rememories but real ones of real times when they sat and laughed together on the porch and in his room.

  Eight days after Natali stopped visiting, Sam woke up to find he had more company than usual.

  “Uncle! You’re awake. How do you feel?” Sarah asked, she moved from a chair by the window to the bed as she spoke.

  “Sarah?” Sam felt her grab his hand.

  “How do you feel?” A man’s voice repeated.

  “I feel… I don’t feel anything. Who is that?”

  Sarah exchanged a look of concern and sadness with the man who had asked the question the second time. “That’s Dr. Sillas. You remember him from your hospital appointments, don’t you?” Tears were collecting on her bottom eyelids.

  Sam closed his eyes. “No.”

  “Do you see anything?” Another man asked.

  “That’s Father Carmona.” Sarah informed him.

  He opened his eyes and a moment passed before he answered. “No. Wait…” Sam smiled as his eyes stared blankly across the room but were looking at something in a different place. “I see something bright, yellow like the Sun.”

  “Is it a light? Are you in a passage?” Asked the Father.

  “No, it’s brighter, more beautiful. It’s a yellow dress. An angel in a yellow dress.”

  The sounds of Father Carmona praying and shifting rosary beads in his hands were the only sounds in the room for a short moment.

  “She’s saying something.” Tears filled Sam’s eyes, but he was smiling.

  Father Carmona stopped praying. “What is she saying?”

  “She says she didn’t leave me, she wanted to-“ Sam laughed and the tears flowed. “She wanted to make sure she knew the way. She’s taking me home.” He raised his hand as if someone were to take hold of it and repeated, “She’s taking me home.”

 
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