Issue Thirty-Six -- Summer 2020

The Orchid Tree

A Novel Excerpt

By Jan B. Parker

1. Spring 2017 Charlie

He hung the orchids on the dogwood tree in small crates he’d made himself, meticulously cut, precisely nailed, seventeen wooden bars in a four-side, repeat pattern. There were eighty-three orchids, and they all appeared to be dead with weird, snaky roots gnarling out like wicked fingers, but he dipped each into a warm bath of special water and talked to them sweetly. He hung them from the flowering tree, no matter their stage of death or dying.

He first filled the orchids onto his “gallows,” a rickety skeleton-like scaffolding made of ripped two-by-fours, crisscrossed in the higher limbs of the dogwood and secured tightly in the crooks of each. When he ran out of femurs and ulnas on that contraption, he hung the small crates from branches, like wet clothes on the line, like regrets with no place else to hide.

His wife, SairBeth, exited the house and walked with careful steps to the birdfeeder in the little round flower bed. The sun shone on her back and turned her white hair silver. It glowed through the skirt of her cotton dress and made silhouettes of her bony stick legs. SairBeth, cleared her throat. “What’s this, Charlie?” She knit her hands together behind her back and when he didn’t answer, SairBeth raised her voice. “I am not the invisible ant. I said, ‘What’s this, Charlie?’”

He looked up and was, just for a second, blinded by the sun. He knew SairBeth’s general direction, never mind the brilliant morning light, but rather than yelling over the distance as she had—out in front of everybody and their brother, the whole neighborhood, in fact, because it was only nine o’clock in the morning—far too early for their retirement neighborhood to be waked by senseless shouting—Charlie considered what he saw.

I’d name this painting, ‘Woman Fading.’ Charlie set down his Orchid crate and two-stepped over in SairBeth’s general direction. His knees were stiff and his balance, not so hot anymore, but when he got to his wife, his vision was improved.

He glanced from her to the plant she was touching, then back up to her. “Sair, that’s the Knock-out rose. We planted it just last week, remember? You wanted the Red Double and we got it.”

SairBeth turned rheumy eyes to Charlie and set her right hand on his forearm, still a thing of muscle and tan skin, even at eighty-six. “Oh, I remember you.”

Charlie tilted his head. The corners of his mouth turned up ever-so-slightly. “Come here, SairBeth. Let’s go in.” He looked back at the work to be done, then patted her fingers, wrapped over his forearm and shaped nicely by time and experience, worn knuckly by accusations, received and given. More of the latter, here lately, he thought. “I’m thirsty, Sair. How about you?”

She nodded. “Okay, darling.”

Charlie shook his head behind SairBeth’s line of sight. She could not have guessed his despair had she even wanted to. He said, “Iced coffee with Kahlua?”

He walked her around the orchid tree, knowing SairBeth had no recognition of his work with or his passion for saving the delicate, exotic plants. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. He helped SairBeth dodge the lower-dangling crates and the crumble-down bricks set to fill the hole in the concrete block wall, and, finally, they made it to the back steps. Went up them one-by-one. Held onto the rail, grip, slide, grip, slide, grip. Charlie’s right hand braced the small of SairBeth’s back, his left hand on the rail. “One, two, three,” he said, as always.

“One, two, three,” said SairBeth, as always, good echo that she was.

Charlie propped open the screen and guided SairBeth inside. Once she reached the island, he let go of the door, and it popped against the frame. The big, sharp noise frightened the congregation of black birds feeding in the wide side yard. The ten big birds lifted off the ground in a show of alarm, three-foot wings beating the air, flapping against the dry earth, causing swirls of dust to rise like ghosts walking the land. The crows bunched together in the dogwood tree, silhouettes at the top of the open-palm tree, posing like black shadows against pink-white blossoms. All the crates swayed in time to their jumping.

Charlie guided SairBeth to the stool at the island. “Hang on,” he said, and she waited. He hummed part of some little song while he poured the rest of the morning’s coffee over ice he filled in a mug. “You want a double or a triple today, gorgeous girl?”

She smiled, feigning a blush. “Make it a triple, dearie. I feel daring.”

With a fairly steady hand, Charlie set SairBeth’s doctored coffee in front of her. The island’s shiny white granite reflected the black mug. SairBeth tried to rub the shadow of it out, then sighed and slumped. Her head lolled to the side, nearly resting on the right-angled frame of her bony shoulders, and she cupped it in her hand.

Charlie’s brows came together and shadowed the bridge of his nose so that it looked as though he was squeezing out the worry. “What’re you doing, Sair? Drink your coffee, why don’t you? It’s pretty good.”

She didn’t respond. Charlie hated her blank behavior. He hated being an invisible ant, too, and so he thought, last time I checked, I was good enough—here in flesh and blood, taking good care of my SairBeth, good Southern girl, raised in town by wealthy parents, brought up in the church, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—the mantra was relentless, especially, once upon a time, I was good enough. Charlie found a clear spot on the island and tapped his fingers, rap, rap, rap.

“Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera,” said Charlie in a voice neither loud nor soft, but one which sounded sort of worldly in the fake Australian accent SairBeth loved for him to use. It had been her last husband’s favorite pastime—to cultivate fake accents; never mind Flep had been too country to sound anything but Southern. Flep was dead now, so Charlie didn’t mind mocking him.

SairBeth’s line of sight had followed the sound of Charlie’s tapping and then, the sound of his voice. She took in the hairs on his forearm and the wrinkles of his cotton plaid shirt. She looked at his blue eyes and the dark ring around his irises, and her face lit up in what Charlie hoped was recognition. He hated her forgetfulness.

SairBeth’s smile was both sudden and shy. It teased up the corners of her mouth and pushed out her waning cheeks. The wrinkles all appeared to be a natural part of happy, not just a sign of being in her late seventies.

He leaned in as though to share a secret. “Etcetera.”

SairBeth grinned. He lowered his head and directed his syllables to fall into her ears like the feel of good velvet. “Etcetera.”

She sat straighter on her stool and tried to make a proud chest. Her physical therapist would have been pleased.

Charlie held SairBeth’s hand gently in the palm of his own and his fingers curled around hers. Her brows raised high.

It came out then, like sugar and butter. Sugar, sugar, sugar. Butter, butter, butter. Charlie let the letters roll off his tongue. “Et—cet—eh—ra.”

Her smile spread wide enough to show teeth and SairBeth covered her mouth with the tips of her fingers, coy and with a sense of mischief, as if there had been no other moment to the morning—no Red Double Knockout rose, no one, two, three, no questions about a triple Kahlua, no. . ..

SairBeth met her husband’s eyes. “Charlie, I think I’m going to sleep.”

He read the alarm in her eyes, hidden behind the mask of age and illness.

“It’s all right then, dear. Let’s get you off to bed.” He helped SairBeth from the stool and snugged his arm around her. “I know a nice little room right off the den, here.” They walked in that direction. “Would you care for me to tuck you in?”

“Yes, I would care for that, and you could stay with me a little while too because you know, it takes me so long to go to sleep these days, even though I’m really exhausted from all that work. I’m probably just too tired. My muscles, I mean. All that hard work, mucking the stalls. I oughta sell all those horses. Forty-two thoroughbreds. They are lovely, lovely creatures, but they need so much attention. I’m too old to train them anymore.”

“Yesterday, Charlie, you told me you were gonna sell off the cattle.” They entered the downstairs bedroom SairBeth had done up in pink stripes and polka dots, pink pillows and covers, throw rugs the shade of Pepto-Bismol.

“You know we have neither cattle or horses, Sair.” He lowered her to sit on the bed and looked her in the eye. “We just don’t have them, sweetheart. Never have.”

“Well, that is certainly an important point, dear. Thank you for reminding me. You’re always so generous.” SairBeth gave him a peck on the cheek and prepared to lay down, away from the edge of the pink-quilted bed, where the corner of it was not exactly right-angled but rounded, like SairBeth’s shoulders, like river rocks worn by time and a constant rush of water.

Charlie opened his big hands to let her go, and SairBeth descended slowly to the covers. Her absence from him was palpable, and as she reclined, he felt her warmth and vitality stream away him in ribbons. SairBeth belonged to the bed now and not to him. It was like this every day. Every day, SairBeth left him, a little at the time.

Title, he thought. ‘Woman Departing,’ and his mind went to fragments of thoughts. Anything that could help him get through the fog of being alone.

Charlie pulled up the pink coverlet and kissed his wife on her cool forehead. He smoothed back her hair and shuffled out of the room, back down the hallway and into the kitchen where, at the sink, he looked out to the back yard and saw the Orchid Tree still waiting, its crooked roots still dangling, its crates still spinning in the breeze. Charlie thought of angel breaths first, but quick-quick, let it go.

2. Spring 1967 SairBeth
So, after we got hitched three years ago, Flep situated me in the outside corner office, labeled, ‘Secretarial Services, Flep’s Fords, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.’ I suppose it was to show me off to the backside parking lot. That’s where he sticks all the old-people cars and trucks, used jalopies, and clunkers that don’t run. He lets me use the Springtime Yellow Fairlane, though, so, I guess that makes Flep Owens not the worst husband in the world.

He’s not the best though, either. I file invoices for him because it’s vital for the dealership to survive. He told me so. He said, “SairBeth, nobody else’ll do this work for me. I’m counting on you. It’ll keep you busy. It’ll make you feel important. Why don’t you give it a little try, okay?”

I may be from the shabby side of town, but I do not like the way he talks down to me. I am not a dummy. All I want is to be taken care of. Is there anything bad about that? No.

So, here I sit at this damn old desk, hand-me-down from some thrift store, I’m sure. Yeah, yeah, I painted it azalea pink, but Flep hated it. Said “It looks like your girlie bedroom.”

I said, “How do you know? You never been in my bedroom.”

He makes those narrow beady eyes at me and looks away. I am not supposed to talk about certain things like that. He says, I married you for your outstanding beauty—not for your ability to make fucking babies. Like he could get it up in the first place. Psh.

I guess it’s nice being relieved of a man in rut. Flep’s never been in heat with me but that’s all right. He is tremendously overweight and has heart trouble, too. I don’t want him croaking to death right on top of me, but here’s the deal: I get it he wants things to look normal. He wants it to seem like he can still get the beauty queens, so three years ago, when he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, I married him. Yes, I did, and I had it made. I have it made until I do something stupid, like back-talk him. Last time that happened, he clipped me on the ear. Split the lobe so I can’t wear danglies. I grew my hair long to hide it.

But one day I showed it to Charlie Johnson and he thought I was just the toughest thing—he said, “You’re amazing, SairBeth. You look like a beauty queen but, turns out you’re a warrior, instead.”

That Charlie. He always says the sweetest words to me. Keeps coming around, too, like he waits for the perfect time to come help me feel good about myself. I guess he knows I’m a girl in pretty low spirits, not ever getting to make love like ordinary people, even though I’ve got it made.

Charlie’s sort of like an angel that tends to the spirit of folks when they need help. It’s probably why he’s top salesman at Flep’s Fords. See? I’m not the only one he helps. He is kind to everyone. Even Flep. I think Charlie Johnson’s a man that could take real good care of a woman, but I’d never tell that to Flep, of course. Psh.

But as a secret, I gotta tell you, not having sexual encounters with my rightful husband since I married him, three years ago, has just about done me in. So, if you want to know, that’s the reason I agreed to meet Charlie in my office today, I mean, besides the fact he is a gorgeous somebody, with his wavy, black hair and blue-blue eyes—and besides the fact he drives that brand new ’67 Candy Apple Red Shelby Mustang, GT 500 Fastback. With racing stripes, which of course translates to say that Charlie Johnson has got plenty of money. He’s got big money. I can’t even imagine how much money Charlie Johnson may have. Bigger than my imagination, maybe.

So, when he gets here at noon, when everyone else goes to lunch, I’ll invite him in to talk. Just to talk, really. Really. I’ll try.

Ok, I’ll really try to just talk, but even as I am talking about just talking with Charlie Johnson, my eyes land on the picture of Flep’s son, little Fletcher, taken at the wedding that summer. Flep told me, he said, keep it on your desk, SairBeth. People’ll think we’re normal then.

I didn’t like that hint, but his boy was such a cutie pie kid, back then, I did like Flep said. I kept in on my desk.

Fletcher was only fourteen, then, dressed in his boarding school blue suit and just so serious-looking. The gold frame’s smooth on my fingertips as I set it face-down on the desk—he was fourteen in the picture, but now, he’s eighteen, and you know, it wouldn’t be right for him to see me and Charlie together, even if we’ll be just talking.

Copyright Parker 2020