By Stephen Adams
“What’s wrong with you, Talley? You’re dead out there. On the floor? You know that? Dead.”
Talley knew. He knew it deeply, in the aching calcification of his bones and the sludge that had settled sedimentarily in his brain. He knew it by the way the world every afternoon became blurred into dazed incomprehension through his unfocusing eyes. His trembling fingers and groping looks telegraphed dimwittedness to colleagues, all of them, even the stoned, scarcely sentient teens who loaded deliveries on the dock, more alert than he. He heard his fate knell in Rae Huling’s strident bark. He knew it, all right.
He didn’t need Rae Huling to point it out. He didn’t need that at all.
He just didn’t know what he needed.
And this is why he was willing to try the Lavender Garden.
He had tried everything else.
Lunch hours spent hunched over berms of slithering pastas, carbohydrates he prayed would burn like bitumen within him, stoking his fires through the awful purgatory of his long afternoon lassitude. Leaning rigidly against the counter at Isabel’s, power-slamming triple espressos. Two, then three vodka martini lunches, launching himself into the swooping trajectory of inebriate elevation.
Shoveling candybars, Oreos, chocolate kisses, even sugar cubes.
For two weeks, he dimmed the lights in his office and stretched out at his desk, dropping into sleep so seamless he was only awakened by the seismicity of his own snores.
Nothing worked. Some attempts were, true, temporarily more effective than others. The coffee granted vibrations that ratcheted him until mid-afternoon, before deserting him, leaving him more exhausted than before. Sugar treated him similarly.
On alcohol, he would soar aloft as Icarus but by the time of his first afternoon call, his spirituous wings waned uselessly and the earth met him violently in mid-plummet. Noodles left him fuddled and sleep, stupid.
He was going to lose his job. After thirty-three years with Huling’s Plumbing and Design—fifteen of them as the top salesman of fixtures, the more baroque, expensive, gaudily unnecessary, and high-end, the better—he was going to lose his job, and, worst of all, his firing was going to be announced in Rae Huling’s loathsome and grinding nasal caw.
This is why he found himself pushing open the curtained glass door under the unevenly painted letters which said: The Lavender Garden: An Aroma Spa.
During his years at Huling’s, the narrow rental space jammed hard in the lee between the tire store and the plumbing fixtures showroom where he worked had housed a variety of pathetic and hopeless businesses. There had been a bead shop, a black light poster and paraphernalia emporium, a discredited bookkeeper, a cigar store, a Spanish language video outlet, a stall that advertised Bible Gifts, a palm reader, and numerous other misguided enterprises whose dusty window displays and hand-lettered or computer generated posters bore the desperate announcement of long, empty days lived on the bleakest of dusty margins. Sometime within the last several months—he could not have said exactly when—a new sign had appeared, announcing its presence in anemic blue letters. Cal Talley had casually wondered what doomed product or gratuitous service aromatherapy sought to offer, but had given it no real consideration until the afternoon when Rae Huling had dropped all pretense of managerial civility and served notice to him in front of the entire sales staff that she considered him prehistoric baggage and meant to toss him out on his flaccid ass.
He hated Rae. He had worked for Huling’s since he had been hired decades earlier when the owner, Raymond Huling, had spotted him as a hot young go-getter racing up the aisles of the local Maytag distributorship, and the two had forged a nearly unbeatable team. Raymond believed that you could never offer the right client too much in the way of garish, conspicuous interiors—especially insofar as kitchens and bathrooms were concerned, and Cal fanatically upheld Raymond’s ideals. But when Raymond Huling had suffered two heart attacks within three months of each other, his ardor for saddling spendthrift suburbanites with gold-plated faucets and self-plunging draintraps dimmed and he turned the business over to his only child, a remarkably uncomely woman named Rae. “With an e,” she was always telling people, in a flinty voice that matched her exterior, harsh as riprap. “Not with a y. Don’t want you confusing me with a beam of damned sunshine.” Then she would unspool a wire of laughter so razored it could keep cattle in a field.
Unlike her old man, who believed that people were personal challenges to be wooed, seduced—that you made sales by making a type of passionate love—Rae saw customers as chumps, clueless marks whose only value was pecuniary.
Coincident with this change of leadership Cal found himself plunged into a weary listlessness that threatened to undo him. This was no mere slump. Cal was familiar with slumps—periods when no one seemed to respond to anything, when it was as if the entire world had decided that they were content with grunting toilets, pitted chrome, weeping showerheads, and scored enamel. Slumps could be out-ridden. One day he would be standing in the unfinished kitchen with a young couple, surrounded by the litter and tag ends of construction, and one of them, usually the wife, would point at the sample set of Edwardian antique brass sink handles and exclaim, “These. These are just what I want,” and before the hour was out, Cal would be writing a sales order that would eventually swell their building costs by fifteen to twenty percent.
And he would know he was back in his game.
No. This enervation, this torporous blanket, began descending over Cal every afternoon about one o’clock, and seemed to drag him down into the pit of the day like cement blocks tethered to his ankles. His eyes would flutter with fatigue. His brain would swell with fuzz. Words spoken to him buzzed weakly as if they had been whispered across great distances by old men worn wizened with their barren journeys.
Had this happened in the morning hours, he felt he could have borne it, but the afternoons were, in his line, traditionally the times when great sales were made. Something about the dazzle of the southern California sunshine, its lavish slant and bounteous promise, made this the time of day when people were most willing to contemplate the nearly limitless possibilities that their new homes or the renovations of their old presented.
As much as he hated to admit it, Rae was right. Lately, he had been dead out there on the selling floor. He could scarcely maintain himself upright during the mid-afternoon hours and summoning the energy necessary to listen, study, then probe his customers for their fissures of greedy excess was as impossible for him as tugging a locomotive along its tracks with his teeth. He could barely slog through the preliminary small talk any salesman lived by. His physician, other than perfunctorily nagging him with the usual admonishments about his weight, pronounced him reasonably fit for a man his age and recommended a change in diet. Thus began his experiments with platters of starch, thimbles of charry coffee, solid tumblers of vodka on the rocks, cookies, apples, hardboiled eggs, macaroons—anything that might potentially galvanize his metabolism and allow him to charge through a sales call with the kind of forthright vitality that had always made him such a natural at his job.
When he opened the door to the Lavender Garden, he had reached the end of his possibilities, and, like anyone who had everything to lose, was open to anything.
It was the sign in the window that did it. Written in a heavy purple marker on a page that looked torn from a spiral notebook and scotch-taped to the inside of the glass were the words: Scents for every symptom! followed by the question: Do you need to relax?
A bell over the door tinkled tunelessly as he entered the front room, an area that, he observed, was not much bigger than a standard four person forced jet whirlpool sunken tub. A small desk, like the kind you might find in a high school typing class, and accompanied by a dull orange plastic chair sat by the wall opposite the window where an air conditioning unit labored with a loose rattle, barely troubling the soupy air. Next to the desk stood a battered and peeling wooden lowboy. What looked like a faded bedspread was hung unevenly by finishing nails over a doorway to the back room, and it was through this, thrown back as if in challenge, that the woman entered.
“Yeah,” she said. “What do you want?”
“Uh, yes. Hello.” Suddenly, Cal Talley couldn’t think what exactly it was that he wanted. Did he tell her that his soul was stultified by unspeakable lethargy? That he could no longer concentrate sufficiently to do his job? Did he describe his profound mental dullness? Should he speak of the stuttering failure that had become his life of late? He could feel his face flush and prickle. Her eyes were hard as dry pebbles.
Meanwhile, the woman seemed to be impatiently taking his measure. What she saw was a large man, almost six feet, spherical as a football, bald save a gleaming web of black hair that coiled inertly on his skull. She watched as he brought his hand to his mouth. “Yes,” he said, deeply, importantly, as if he’d found his voice inside the fold of his fist. “I’m here because I need to relax.”
Her long face narrowed into a sequence of sharp furrows. “What? Say what”
“Your sign. Out front? In the window? I need to relax. I’m…” he tugged at his collar “…having some trouble at work. See, I’m a salesman. At Huling’s. Next door. Anyway…”
“Yeah, okay. Whatever.” She moved over to the desk and fired a sheet of paper at him. “Read this and sign it. It says you don’t got any heart problems, something like that. That you’ll abide by my rules. That I ain’t liable for nothing. Got that? Nothing.”
“Okay. Sure.” He dashed his name.
She snatched the paper back and dropped it into an otherwise empty cardboard box on the floor. “It’s twenty-five dollars for a half-hour with the candles and another ten for a compress with infusion.” She cut him open with her gaze. “You’ll want the compress, I can tell you. And understand this. This here’s a respectable business and an established science. It’s won the Nobel prize and everything. So don’t get any funny ideas. I’m like a doctor and you’re my patient. Nothing else. Got it?”
“Sure,” he said. “Of course. But—I guess—What exactly are you talking about? I mean, what am I paying you for?”
She shook her lacquered black curls, and he watched as the light fractured off the fashioned crests of what he realized had to be the cheapest wig he’d ever seen. “What you came in here for. Aromatherapy. Now go on back and lay in the chair. Take off your shoes, you want to, and loosen that damn necktie. Oh, and one other thing.”
“Yes?” he said.
“I get paid up front. Cash.”
The back room was only slightly larger than the front office and contained an old recliner, whose worn arms were silvered with chevrons of duct tape, and a free standing claw foot bath tub. The tub was old and looked unclean. A flimsy TV tray tilted obliquely in the middle of the room. The air back here was sticky and still and smelled like baby powder, body odor, some kind of sweet spice, and pine cleaner. There were crumbs on the recliner. Cal Talley was dusting them off when the bedspread over the door fell back with a chuff and the woman entered, her arms clutching a collection of jars, candles and rags to her blocky chest. She was no taller than a child, but heavy, and shaped of squared angles as though she’d been rough cut from leftover lumber. Cal imagined her being assembled by some less than fastidious carpenter who’d sought a use for the wood scraps discarded in a renovation undertaken on the cheap. She dumped her cargo on the TV tray. “Well, what you waiting for? Your time’s done started. Get comfortable and set on down there.”
Cal loosened his tie and slipped off his shoes. The recliner settled under him with a grating sigh. He watched her light three candles and plant them carelessly on the floor around him. He noticed that the air smelled like the bathsoap his mother used to keep in a round plastic bowl on the edge of the tub when he was growing up. The woman kneaded something in her hands, her lips moving, muttering. “What?” he said. “Did you say something?”
“No,” she said. “Settle down.” She moved beside him and said, “Close your eyes. This shouldn’t burn ‘em, but no point in taking chances.” Then she draped a wet cloth over his eyes and in the next instant he was in the coat closet of his second grade classroom—Mrs. Grimsley’s room—and Teresa Quarrier was in there with him, just the two of them, huddled together on a warm and fragrant pile of soft overcoats and jackets, and Teresa was brushing her long black hair across his face. It felt against his skin like he imagined clouds must feel, so tenuous as to belong high up over the tops of the San Gabriel Mountains, and in its fragrance he could hear the melody of laughter, the hiss and snap of woodstoves banked against a clear morning’s frost, an apple’s sharp bite, and see the glint of the evening star. A half a century was shed like a weightless and papery dry husk.
When she pulled the compress away from his face, it took him several minutes to get to his feet, and he left without a word. Two hours later the Bessemers bought a bathroom package that would have made Louis XIV look like a minimalist.
That evening, on his way home, he stopped at Rising Sun Retirement Center to see his mother. She had been there for over eight years now, ever since the morning he had stopped by to check on her in the house in which he’d grown up and found her standing in the middle of the living room with a garden hose spraying down the walls. “I’m so tired of this wallpaper,” she’d explained to him at the time. “And those paintings.” She had since ceased to recognize him as her son, referring to him now as Philip, and engaging him in long discursive, monologues about her unwillingness to accompany him to some dance held forever in the cluttered drawers of her memory. For Cal’s part, he would keep the television turned on during his brief visits, commenting to her about gossip pertaining to celebrities of whom neither of them knew anything.
That evening, as he sat beside her bed, holding her deflated hand, he shared with her his observation that Britney Spears seemed to be in deep professional trouble. To this, his mother said, “Oh, Philip, do you think this is a proper thing to discuss with a young lady?”
“Yeah, mama. See, they say all of that stuff with her hair and the drugs, they say it’s too much for her. Her fans, you know.”
“I just don’t know why you won’t take no for an answer.”
“If you ask me, though, she never did seem to have any real star quality.”
“You’re quite a nice boy, you know. It’s not that.”
“Now, that Jennifer Lopez, she’s another matter. And, what’s her name, the Miley girl.”
“Let’s just not discuss this any more. Not right now.”
“Okay, mama. I’ve got to be going anyway. By the way. I made a huge sale this afternoon.”
“There, there, Philip. Please don’t let your heart be broken by me.”
He kissed her goodnight, turned down the volume on the set, and walked back out to his car. Thinking of rank cabbage, rubbing alcohol, urine, and unwashed diapers, he’d never before realized how noisome the rest home was.
The next afternoon, he was back at the Lavender Garden, settling into the groaning, sprung recliner. “My name’s Cal,” he said. “Short for Calvin, if you can believe it. Cal Talley.”
She busied herself with the candles. “Okay.”
“And what’s yours?”
She stopped and looked at him. “Why do you want to know?”
“Just so I’ll have something to call you. That’s all.”
“It’s Cat. Short for nothing.”
“Oh,” he said. “That’s an interesting name.”
“Don’t kid yourself. My mother was a nutcase. Close your eyes.” He did so, and he began hearing the long distant echo of a falling line of surf and the arid rustle of a twisting driftwood fire. Linda Patrick kissed him. She tasted like salt water and the cold beer they’d been sharing all day. His best friend, Johnny Brewer, shouted something and kicked sand in their direction and he leaned back onto the beach, Linda tight against his thrumming heart, sparks unlashing and coiling up into the black and star-chipped night.
When she came in and told him, “Time’s up. Come on,” he realized that his groin was achingly stiff. He couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.
On the way out, he asked her, “What’s in all this stuff?”
“Aromatics. Lavender, chamomile, some linden blossom. Hyssop. Things like that. I make my own sachets, infusions, balms, so it’s a private mix. That’s all you need to know.”
“Can I buy some? You know, like to take with me?”
When he left, he was carrying a small brown paper sack.
The twenty-three thousand dollar kitchen upgrade and two deluxe model whirlpools he sold later that day infuriated Rae Huling so much that at Thursday’s sales meeting she could barely acknowledge his presence and when Mike Madaris, his oldest rival on the sales team but his ally against Rae pointedly congratulated him on “a couple of really lucky scores,” Rae coughed that time spent patting each other on the back might better be served polishing and padding their resumes. Madaris winked at Cal.
That evening, Cal slipped into his mother’s room and slid a sachet the size of a baby’s tight fist underneath his mother’s pillow. She stirred when he did and opened her wide, dark eyes. “Philip? You don’t give up, do you?”
Cal squeezed the remote and Entertainment Tonight blossomed on the screen. A reporter in a red dress was talking to a lank haired man who needed a shave. His mother said, “Oh, it’s not that I wouldn’t like to go. And go with you. No, no, that’s not it at all.”
When Cal rose to leave a little while later, he leaned over and kissed the loose folds of skin on her forehead. “Goodnight, mama. I’ve got to go.”
As he was stepping out the door, she said, “Oh, son. Why do you watch that trash?”
The next morning, he waited until Rae Huling had arrived and walked over to her office. “Morning, Sandy. Boss in?” Sandy Cook studied him briefly and then nodded for him to go on in. “Hey, there, Rae,” he said, tapping on the open door. “Got a minute?”
“Just,” she said. The mere act of listening to her made Cal want to clear his throat and spit. “What do you want?” Cal had planned what to do.
“That new floor model display that went up last week. The brushed chrome line? You know, the Whisper Flush? Well, I was wondering if you’d thought about where you put them?”
“What the hell you talking about, Talley?” He watched as her stark glare strayed over his shoulder and out the open door to the showroom floor.
“Well, it just seems to me that it might not be the best idea to have toilets right next to the dishwashers. I don’t know. It’s kind of…”
“What? Are you crazy? They’re nowhere near the dishwashers. They’re—’’ But she was already shoving her way past him, marching out into the showroom. Giving one blinking glance over his shoulder, Cal stepped across to her desk. Slipping open the shallow top drawer, he tucked a sachet in the back corner, behind a tangle of paper clips and loose staples. Pulling a small bottle from his jacket pocket, he uncapped it and began to shake an amber rain of oily drops on the floor around her chair. He’d barely made it back to the doorway when Rae Huling flew into the office, shoving him aside, and dropping stiffly into her chair. “Talley, have you lost what little’s left of your mind? Where do you get off, coming in here with a load of crap like that? Those toilets aren’t anywhere near the dishwashers. Have you been drinking?”
Cal shook his head and stared at the floor. Before he could speak, though, her face twisted into a pug grimace. “What the hell’s that smell? For God sakes, man. Are you wearing some kind of perfume?”
“Smell? Oh, that? Probably honeysuckle. Something like that. Stuff’s blooming all over.”
“Jesus Christ! I can’t believe I put up with this….Never mind. Just get the hell out of my sight, all right?” But before he could turn to go, she said, “And Talley. One more thing. I want you at the Homes 3000 Pavilion next month. At the Coliseum? You’re representing Huling this year. Got it?”
“Got it, boss. But I thought you had promised that to Trish.”
“Trish?” Rae scraped the name out like rust. “Trish couldn’t pedal her ass to a bar full of sailors.”
An hour later, Trish grabbed Cal by the arm and said, “What’s going on? Where do you get off stealing my spot at the Home Show this year?”
“Hey, Trish. Beats me. All I know is the boss wants me there this year. Age before beauty, and all that, I guess.”
“Screw you, Talley.” She shook her finger. “Something about this really stinks.”
Cal Talley stirred himself from the dazzling embrace of Sarah Pritchett and the bed of brown pine needles they shared, radiant from the pools of unclouded sunlight that washed languidly under the twisted cedar limbs overhead. Rising from the recliner’s grasp, he pushed the bedspread curtain aside and looked into the front room of the Lavender Garden. Cat sat, her back to him, hunched, as if over a caldron, seeming to hide something which was exhaling a steady fog of steam. She appeared to be muttering phrases—a stream of unintelligible utterances—into whatever hot potion she cupped in her hands. Of course! It was all so obvious. How could he have failed to see it? Leaping into the room, he clapped a hand on her shoulder, shouting, “You!”
“…the hell!” she said. “You crazy?” Still holding the cup of instant noodles between her palms, she glared at him. “What the hell’s your problem?” Cal apologized richly and at great length, and left with another small sack of sachets, vials, and tightly stoppered bottles.
Two days before the Homes 3000 Pavilion, the largest and potentially most profitable home show held anywhere on the west coast, Cal stepped out of Huling’s and turning to the Lavender Garden where he, as had become his habit, shoved against the door. He banged his head against the glass when the door failed to budge. Even as he shook it, his mind began to register the absence of the old school desk and plastic chair in the front room. The lowboy was missing and someone had pulled down the bedspread, leaving a single scrap dangling from one of the slender nails which had secured it. The badly painted business sign which had hung over the door was no longer there. Indeed, the only physical evidence that Cal had not dreamed into being the entire establishment was the hand-written page, still taped to the inside of the front glass, promising Scents for every symptom! and mocking him with the question Do you need to relax?
“Yes,” he whispered, rattling the door. “Oh, yes. Please.”
As would be expected, Cal Talley was as fixed and determined in his pursuit of Cat, and, failing that, her personal formulas for tinctures and infusions, as he had been in his original pursuit for an antidote to his profound and debilitating lethargy, a lethargy that had of course begun to redescend in direct proportion to the diminishing efficacy of his rapidly dwindling stock of scents. Once more, he tried it all. The manager of the tire store next door only laughed at his inquiries and said, “What? You got any idea how many loser bidnesses they been in that dump? They was even some kinda gypsy in there once, told fortunes.” The realtor who handled the space greeted his call with suspicion, then tried to coax from him the back rent Cat owed. Other aromatherapists were happy to sell him balms and sachets, candles and oils, unguents and soaps, but none of them came close to doing the trick, and once more, Cal began to find himself slogging with incomprehensible fatigue through the afternoon hours.
One evening, when the droning days of early summer were just beginning to stretch into the long hours of twilight, Cal stopped by the Rising Sun. Since the visit when his mother had chided him for the emptiness of the television he watched, he had not turned the set back on. Settling beside her, he took his mother’s hand in his. “Oh, mama. Guess what? They fired me. Fifty-nine years old and that lousy witch said I wasn’t cutting it any more. Just like that. Can you imagine?”
She stirred, rustling like some weightless insect against her pillow. “Philip. Philip.” Her words drifted on her whispery breath and he had to lean in to hear her. “Why can’t you do what I say? Why can’t you just be a good boy?”
He swallowed, breathing inwardly as if he were inhaling a deep sob. “I don’t know,” he said. “Really. I’ve tried everything.” For just a moment, his eyes squeezed shut, he could smell in his mother’s hair fresh rain falling like golden coins into the thick duff of a garden shimmering with verdancy. He breathed again; this time he smelled nothing but stale and ancient talc, damp piss, bleach, abandoned shoes, foul sweat. “I have, mama. I swear I’ve tried it all.”