Black Roses by Jeffrey Miller

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Glen sat in the corner booth of the Hollywood Diner and stared out one of the windows that separated the gray and red walls. He was delighted with the cool autumn day. It was one of those dark and gray days he loved being in the city despite the light drizzle that had been falling most of the morning. He held a cup of coffee to his lips and took pleasure in the richness and the warmth. On the cigarette-burned, graffiti-scarred table next to a half-eaten pastrami on rye his drawing pad was opened and waiting.

He normally waited until the lunch crowd had thinned out before he walked across the street from the bookstore he worked at on North Milwaukee Avenue. Although the bookstore gig helped pay the rent and put food on the table, he often plied his better-suited talents as a street artist in Wicker Park. When he wasn’t joining other artists doing graffiti on the sides of buildings and other structures, he could be found at various locations around the neighborhood doing caricatures for the tourists who came to Wicker Park looking for something chic and upscale. Glen remembered a time when it was still cool to tell people you were from Wicker Park before the upscale bars and boutiques sprang up everywhere and chased away the coolness.

Today, though, he hadn’t gone to work. For the past two days, he had been installing an exhibition of street art at a friend’s gallery. It was the first time that a section of actual artwork on the side of a building slated for demolition would be removed and set up inside a gallery.

He thought about calling his fiancé Lydia and apologizing again for last night. They were supposed to meet her parents for dinner at Mona’s, an Italian restaurant on North Milwaukee, but he forgot the time and by the time he remembered and called, Lydia had already gone to dinner. When he got home later that evening, he did his best to smooth things over but she already had other designs for how the rest of the night was going to go.

“I can’t believe you forgot about dinner with my parents,” she said, standing in the middle of the living room with her hands on her hips. She had already slipped into a pair of sweatpants and a DePaul sweatshirt. Cold cream was smeared on her cheeks and forehead. On the table was a wedge-shaped red and green box with Mona’s stenciled in white. She might have been angry, but at least she brought some food home for him.

“I said I was sorry,” Glen said, eyeing the Mona’s box. Judging from the size of the box it was their world-famous deep dish pizza. “What more do you want from me?”

“You knew about this for over a month. Couldn’t you meet your friends another time to do whatever you do that you think is so important?”

“It is important and it’s making a name for myself.”

“Making a name for you? Spray painting graffiti is the stuff done by gangs and delinquents.”

He could have told here right there and then, but he wanted to surprise her at the opening of the exhibition the following Saturday. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“How many years has it been now? Five?”

“It takes time.”

“We had a deal you could do this until you graduated then you would take my father’s offer to work in his company.”

Glen tossed his drawing pad on a wooden drafting table and fished for his prescription in his bag. When Lydia wasn’t looking he popped two yellow pills into his mouth and washed them down with a small bottle of mineral water. He didn’t like that Lydia was now supporting him anymore than she did though neither one would admit it.

“Maybe we should postpone the wedding unless of course you’ve forgotten about it, too,” Lydia said, storming off to their bedroom and slamming the door.

Glen never cared much for the offer her father had extended him. It’s not that he didn’t want the job; the money was good and it would immediately upgrade his lifestyle, but he felt he was being bought out. He couldn’t see himself answering the phone and hovering in the shadow of the man who would be his father-in-law.

This morning Lydia didn’t speak to him before she left for work. He found one of his recent nude sketches of her ripped and the pieces scattered across the hardwood floor.

Across the street, he watched a man and a woman walk out of a boarded-up flower shop. The man wore a long overcoat and a hat pulled down over his face. The woman, also wearing an overcoat, with her gray hair pulled back into a ponytail, carried a tattered Marshall Field’s shopping bag. She pushed the man along the sidewalk. The man lost his balance and nearly fell onto the street.

The man, after regaining his balance, turned around and yelled at the woman. He shook his fist at the woman and arched his head back. The veins on his neck tightened. Glen thought for sure the man was going to hit the woman; instead, he grabbed the woman’s left arm and pulled her along the sidewalk.

Glen watched the couple move across the street to the bus stop in front of the café. He noticed that the man carried a dozen black roses wrapped in thin gray paper. He heard the muffled yelling of the man. The woman continued to look the other way. The man and the woman walked side by side when the bus arrived. A young woman in a red dress stepped between them. She knocked the roses out of the man’s hand. The man stopped yelling. He looked at the woman with a disoriented expression that was more painful than troubled. The older woman knelt down and picked up the roses before they boarded the bus.

Glen turned away from the window and rubbed his knuckles and the inside of his hand. He still hadn’t told Lydia about what the doctor told him. For weeks, he had been experiencing tender, swollen joints in his hands. At first he thought it was an occupational hazard of simply being an artist and a cold, damp Chicago autumn, but then he went to the doctor and was told that he was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Although it hadn’t advanced too far, the doctor warned Glen that it could get worse with time. The doctor put Glen on a regime of medication which included both steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs.

A waitress approached with a fresh pot of coffee. It wasn’t the usual waitress, Madge, with her strawberry blonde hair piled high into a beehive, her body squeezed into a tight-fitting pink uniform that bulged in all the wrong places and crackled from all the starch she used when she ironed it, as she moved from one table to the next, referring to men as, “Hon” and “Darlin’” and women, “Sugar.” The new waitress was young and inexperienced in the art of flirtatious banter for getting tips. Instead of asking Glen if he wanted more coffee, she swooped in with the glass Bunn pot and filled his cup too quickly. Coffee slopped out of the cup and spilled on the table. She apologized and wiped the spill with her tomato and coffee stained apron.

He turned back around and stared out the window.

Glen had one more cup of coffee and finished his sandwich before he left. He crossed the street and entered the boarded-up flower shop, but not before he saw the message, “Deliveries in the back” someone had scrawled near the entrance in what looked like red lipstick. Inside, the shop smelled of burnt wood and smoke. The plants were bathed in a fluorescent pallor which gave them a plastic, sickly appearance. He moved through the shop quickly, his eyes darting past the plants as he approached the sales counter in the back.

A young woman working in the back room walked out. She wore faded jeans and a t-shirt underneath a leather jacket. Her dark copper hair was cut short and spiked on top. Glen recognized her from one of the dance clubs he frequented. He may have even danced with her at one time, long ago in the past which no longer seemed like his anymore.

She pulled out a pen from a pocket on her jacket, grabbed an order pad, and leaned over the counter.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

Glen looked around. He spotted a cooler behind the counter. The cooler contained carnations and roses.

“A dozen black roses,” he replied.

The woman looked up at Glen and sharply snapped the gum she was chewing. Glen noticed that her left hand was bandaged.

“That’s a special order.”

Glen looked at his watch.

“How long will it take?”

She snapped her gum again. “Give me an hour. I’m here by myself. I have a wedding and a funeral ahead of you.”

Glen appreciated the irony as he turned and walked back outside. He stood in front of the flower shop and gazed at the El tracks in the distance. A train coming from downtown screeched and shuddered to a stop. A huddled mass of black and gray exited the train and moved amoebae-like across the platform and out of the station. He took out a pack of cigarettes from his pea coat and stuck one in one his mouth. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still overcast. The chill in the air was bearable.

Last night and this morning bothered him. It was a mistake. He and Lydia had a satisfying relationship. He was happy.

He met Lydia the week he moved to the city. They bumped into each other at a street fair in Wicker Park one warm autumn afternoon five years ago where he was making five bucks a pop, drawing caricatures. He drew one of Lydia. She liked it so much she asked him to draw another one. A week later they were dating. A month later he moved in with her.

Their relationship was fine for the first three months. He worked six days a week at the gallery and took a few classes toward his MFA at the Art Institute. Lydia completed her masters at DePaul and landed a job with an advertising agency on Michigan Avenue. There was talk about a larger apartment, a trip to Europe, and marriage.

It was only after she told him that her father wanted Glen to come and work with him that he and Lydia had the first of many arguments which inevitably ended up being about money and Glen’s future.

“You can’t do this forever, can you Glen?” she asked him one afternoon after they had ‘make up sex’ after one of their arguments, one that she had invariably lost, but only because she let him think that he had won.

He could have told her right then and there what the doctor had told him, but he didn’t. Not being able to sketch or paint anymore was a close second to losing Lydia.

He leaned up against the building and stared at the side of a brick building opposite a vacant lot and a boarded up Mexican restaurant. Whereas most passers-by wouldn’t give the nondescript building a second look, the barren wall was a canvas waiting for him to create. That was something Lydia could never understand. She thought of art in tangible, traditional forms and symmetry; he thought of it as wild, evocative and irregular. Her world was filled with Monet and Van Gogh; his was filled with Banksy and Fekner.

When he arrived back at their apartment an hour later, Lydia was already home. He heard water running in the bathroom. He made a pot of espresso and grabbed a croissant he had picked up on his way home. He sat down at the kitchen table and picked up the black roses. He carefully untied the red ribbon and removed the gray paper. Some of the black paint had smeared onto the paper which resembled a Rorschach ink blot. He stared at it for a few seconds contemplating its insignificance before he crumpled up the paper and tossed it into a trash can.

He found a red vase and filled it with water. He placed the roses in the vase one at a time. When he was finished, he set the vase in the middle of the table and lit a cigarette. He didn’t notice Lydia’s suitcase and overnight bag in the hallway.

He looked out the window. He noticed the woman from the flower shop standing outside the apartment, talking to a street vendor. She held a long-stemmed rose in her bandaged hand.

Lydia came out of the bathroom with a towel around her and her hair wrapped in another one. She noticed the black roses immediately. She picked up one of the roses and smiled.

“I’m sorry about last night,” he said.

Lydia nodded and twirled the rose between her fingers. “How was work today?”

“I didn’t go into work. Derek asked me to come down to the gallery.”

That was that. The cat was definitely out of the bag.

Lydia waited. She looked at the rose in her hand. There were two small dots of blood on her thumb. She threw the rose down.

“Why do you do this? You know the rent is due. You need to be a little more responsible.”

“I know I should have told you, but—”

Lydia stood up and bumped the table. The vase fell over and shattered. The flowers slid across the film of water and fell onto the floor. Water spilled onto his drawing pad. The water seeped through the drawing pad and smeared the two drawings.

Lydia moved back from the table.

“I’m sorry, Glen.”

Glen shook her off. “I’ll clean it up.”

Lydia turned and walked out of the kitchen. Glen leaned back in the chair and lit another cigarette. He stared at the table. He picked up the portfolio and wiped off the water with his hand. When Lydia returned, she had gotten dressed and had her coat on. She carried the black and gray overnight bag over her shoulder. Her suitcase was in the other.

Glen’s jaw dropped. It was worse than he thought.

“I’ve got to meet some clients in Atlanta. I’ll be back the day after tomorrow,” she said, moving from one screen to another on her Blackberry. “Please think about my father’s offer. It’s for our future.”

Glen should have been relieved, but he feared they were just delaying the inevitable, just like the medicine he took for his arthritis. He stared at the black roses in the plastic wastepaper basket. Why did people say basket when in reality it was a plastic tub?

Outside, on the street below, a horn sounded. Lydia dropped the Blackberry into her purse and checked her lipstick in a mirror hanging on the wall.

“That’s my taxi,” Lydia kissed Glen on the cheek before she turned and left. Glen moved to a window and wiped off the beads of moisture that had formed on it. He looked down on the street below and waited for her to look up at him, but she only got into the taxi. He waited until the taxi drove off before he cleaned up the broken glass.

I should have told her.

The next morning Glen went back to the same café after he told the owner of the bookstore that he quit. Health reasons was what he told her. She looked up from her soy milk café latte and frowned. “I hope you get better,” she said. She wrote him a check for half a month’s work. There would be enough to pay the rent after all.

From memory, Glen sketched the man and the woman he saw arguing yesterday. Funny, how emotions appear after the fact, he thought as he added highlights to the man’s exaggerated facial features. Nothing is really premeditated. In the end, it’s all cause and effect. There was no way of getting around that. Moving to the city, the offer from Lydia’s father, the arthritis crippling his hands—it was all right there in front of him. He couldn’t stop what had already been put into motion.

When the waitress approached with a fresh pot of coffee, she sat down in the booth across from Glen.

“I’m really sorry about yesterday,” she said.

Glen looked up and furrowed his brow. “Excuse me?”

“Yesterday, the coffee,” she said, pointing to the coffee pot with a long finger. “I spilled it on your drawing pad.”

“It was nothing,” Glen said turning back to his drawing.

The waitress leaned over and examined what Glen had drawn. “You’re good. Your lines are so angry and yet symmetrical. I like the contrast between the dark reflections of the sky with the empty, unshaded regions. I sense an emptiness in what you’ve drawn as if what is not there is what is meant to be felt.”

Glenn stopped and looked up at the waitress. That’s when he noticed she had a tiny tattoo of a black rose behind her left ear.

 

Jeffrey Miller

 

Header photograph: By César Astudillo from Collado Villalba, Spain (Suddenly, a black rose) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

5 thoughts on “Black Roses by Jeffrey Miller

  1. Grace under pressure comes to mind. Major problems, tiny details, all blend smoothly to make an exceptional and provocative story. Well done, Jeffrey! Best wishes, June

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  2. Hi Jeffrey, I was led in by the dead-pan tone and the rather unaffected character Glen – he didn’t seem to care too much, because he is hiding an approaching tragedy. A sad self defeating character who slips up beside the reader amongst the drawn out prose, a style that works very well to catch out the unaware. Good story,

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  3. Hi Jeffrey, I enjoyed his journey of following the black roses with his decision on opportunities presented but unwanted. This can happen if we have dreams to follow.
    The voice of your main character was superb.
    Hugh

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  4. Thanks all for your comments. This was one of those stories that I cut my teeth on as a writer. The genesis for this story was back in 1986 when I was spending a weekend in Chicago. I stopped at this hot dog place called Byron’s and that became the setting. The story sat for years, which is sometimes a good thing, because when I looked at it again, I knew the ending needed some tweaking.

    I am glad you enjoyed it and thank you again.

    Like

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