by Arley Sorg
On the weekend, Edmund Oberthaler wandered through a plant nursery he’d discovered at the outskirts of town. He felt sluggish and wanted to drown in the shade, among the light floral scents and sleek, wavering leaves. He avoided other customers, repelled by their noise and their pets.
He’d felt some tug, as if hope or pride had drawn him in. His skin had tingled when he’d walked through the opened iron gate. He’d thought to find a plant, something nearly as big as him. For the first time in years, he had a place of his own, an apartment with a little patio.
The word ‘home’ felt wrong in his mouth. Six years had passed since he’d been kicked out as a teen, ‘home’ was a shapeless blot in his memory. His place was empty space, just old carpet and a sleeping bag. He had newer clothes folded into two neat stacks against the wall. His older clothes were still stuffed into a black trash bag.
Under the window, he kept the five unopened letters he’d sent to his mother. Each told a tidy fragment of his struggle to get off the streets. Her landlord had held them all, to return to Edmund when he’d shown up to look for her. The first letter had arrived months after her passing.
At least the grungy halfway house was behind him, with the drugs and the homelessness. He’d thought the plant could be a celebration, a symbol of life, growth and possibilities — maybe he would get his GED, or work his way up.
But the garden reminded him of what he’d never had and all that he’d lost. Statuary and flowers, bushes and trees, trellises roped with vines and fountains tickling with sound. He pictured yards and families, big houses with fences. A punctured hose dribbled water into a soppy puddle. He lost himself in its sound and shine, the emptiness in him swelled.
“Keep moving. Keep looking,” Edmund told himself with a shudder. He glanced between pots at other people and the hope in his chest sagged. Faces hung faded in his memory. The details were muddy, but he knew he’d made a mess of his relationships. Anger and love used to show up together, kind words became tools for twisted ends.
Peering through a metal rack packed with slats of thyme, he saw the slender, naked, smooth curve of a woman’s back. Strong, rounded shoulders tipped as if she held something heavy, her slim waist angled downward, then bloomed to the most wonderful rear and legs he’d ever seen. He was captivated, his skin numb.
Edmund blushed, swallowed and looked away, blinking. His mind sifted through what he’d seen, his heart was loud in his head.
“Statue,” he whispered. “Just a statue.”
Dizzy, Edmund tip toed around the row, until he could see her better. She was pale where the sun danced through branches and found her, dark as wet sand where uneven shadows covered her. Crystal grounds glittered through subtle striations. She pitched an oversized, chipped vase, as if she were watering the world. She was serene, her eyes cast down. The lip of the vase rose to cover bared breasts, the base hid her sex.
He gawped until he felt awkward and had to move. From paces away, he could see too many zeros on the tag looped around her ankle. Tears itched behind his eyes. “Just a statue!” he muttered and left.
Two days later, the hem of his oversized pants still damp with mop water, Edmund rushed to the nursery after work.
The night after he’d first met her, he couldn’t stop thinking of her. His thoughts eventually turned to pleasure. In the clotted dark of his bedroom, he pictured her coming to life, pressing her sun baked flesh against his naked skin. After the sex was done, he fantasized staying together, holding each other. He shared his stories in whispers. Eyes stinging, he stared at the dull glint of the window pane, his imagination turning mold and alley stink to the smell of soil and stone.
The next day, he told himself he was crazy; or stupid. He tried to put her out of mind. Throughout his graveyard shift, his hands stayed busy. He scrubbed, sorted, swept. The smell of chemicals wafted from buckets and towels. But his mind turned to her. He saw her down the hall, or at the end of lockers, even across the playground. Sometimes his eyes lost focus, until he startled awake from dropping a bottle, or the sting of cleaning solution on his fingers. He found himself calculating how many months he would have to save up for her. After his shift, when morning filtered light into the rooms, he was on the bus and halfway to the nursery before he realized he wasn’t heading to his apartment.
The air in the garden was redolent of rich earth. Edmund left several times, ambling around the directionless maze of the city streets, to return to the cool sanctuary of the nursery. He wandered among the plants until daylight waned. He glanced over his shoulder, shifted positions, pretended to peruse and admire plants, all the while watching the statue. He studied every curve and angle, her cheeks and eyes, her mouth with its candid, playful grin. His body warmed, desire pulsed through his limbs. He avoided the nursery employees and left just before they closed so they wouldn’t have to throw him out.
That night he thought of her again. He imagined they made love in every room, passionate and free in a way he’d never felt. When it was done he was exhausted. The reek of rotted wood and peeling plaster disappeared, replaced by the scent of stone after a rain. He clutched his pillow and pretended it was her. He confessed all the terrible things he’d done, and he revealed the horrible things that had been done to him. “I hate my new job,” he told her. As a boy, he hadn’t pictured himself cleaning toilets for rich elementary school brats. “Keeps the lights on,” he laughed. “And keeps me fed.”
He realized he was talking to a pillow, pretending it was a statue, not even a real woman. The apartment was a hole, he had clothes in a trash bag, and the last person who cared about him was gone. A shiver rippled through him and he wept. Edmund buried his face in the pillow and pretended it was the statue’s supple shoulder.
Panic crept through Edmund’s chest.
He had forced himself to stay away from the nursery for three days. Each day, he felt like a child standing thigh deep in the sea, with the tide yanking his legs. She exerted as strong a pull as any drug he’d taken. He was helpless, drawn. After three days, he’d shown up at the nursery just before close. He’d had to see her! But she was gone….
He ran to the street, his hands shaking. He found her — strapped into the flatbed of a pickup truck! She seemed to peer at him, as if pleading. A shout welled in his mouth and he held it back. The truck pulled onto the road. Edmund flagged down a cab. His gut clenched at what it might cost, but he had to follow her.
They trundled past the edge of the city and into the suburbs. The truck stopped near a large house with pillars and a brick wall. Rage bubbled in Edmund. He passed crumpled bills to the driver and hunched behind a copse of trees down the street.
His stomach dropped when they hoisted her from the truck. “Careful!” he rasped, gripping bark. They took her through a painted wooden gate in the side of the wall. He watched, jaw clenched, as an old man met with them at the front door moments later. The old man signed papers and the truck left.
Edmund felt like his insides had been shoveled out. He sat on the ground, staring at the house, until night came.
It wasn’t his first break-in, it wasn’t the worst he’d done, but he was ashamed. Climbing the wall felt like the life he’d left behind. “This is different,” he grunted to himself. His arms strained; his ankles hurt when he landed.
The old man’s garden was lush, expansive. Trees, flowers in a score of colors, a pond, fountains. It was a little paradise. Edmund found her near a stone bench, surrounded by roses. He stood in front of her, not sure why he’d come or what he’d do, knowing only that he’d had to be near her again.
“You came,” she breathed.
He started, looked around, and pushed his hands in his pockets. His heart hurt in his chest, confusion wrestled against desire. “Of course. You’re… not real!”
“I’m real to you,” she said. Her dark eyes turned sad; and soft with longing.
“I don’t count,” he looked at his shoes. “I’m just a crazy addict.”
She eased her vase to one arm, her gentle fingers lifted his chin and she gazed into his eyes. Her long black hair fell over her shoulders, framing her collar bone and covering her breasts. “Your stories touched me,” she whispered. Her scent was mossy rocks after a storm, electricity infused the air. “You count to me.”
“If I made you real,” he couldn’t believe his own words, but he didn’t want to stop. If he stopped, if he looked away, this moment might end. He fixed on her, let her become his world, everything else was an intangible blur. His chest tight, he went on. “Then you can come away with me. We can be together!”
“You hate your job,” her smile spread heat through his body. “You have no one to care for you, and all you think about is being somewhere else. Someone else.”
“You won’t leave with me?”
She laughed and the sound thrilled through him. He felt his cheeks turn red. She pulled him close, put her arm across his shoulder. “You’ll be happier in my world. I’ve heard your stories, Edmund. Will you hear mine?”
“Yes!” he felt weightless; tears formed in his eyes.
A mistake had been made, Howard decided.
After breakfast, he paced his garden in his robe. His legs were weaker, soon he’d need a walker. Still, he’d walk while he could. He stopped by the Koi pond to admire the new statue. She was attractive, a beautiful sight for dying eyes.
But the day he’d found her, he hadn’t noticed her arm propped over the shoulder of a young man. He was a swirled red-brown, like some exotic, fine sandstone. Howard remembered her eyes being downcast, but now she grinned sideways. The man returned her look with a shy smile.
Howard sat on the stone bench and thought for a moment to send them back. Perhaps they’d brought the wrong statue. Was his memory that bad? Or had he put the wrong number on the form?
A breeze lifted and carried the scent of roses. Seeing the two together, framed by the flowers his wife had planted, somehow it felt right to him. His chest warmed and he smiled. Howard remembered his wife, the moments they had shared, the years they’d spent together.
“Oh well,” Howard said. He grunted to his feet and patted the stone man on the shoulder. “Welcome home,” he smirked. And with that, Howard shuffled back to his house, leaving the lovers to share their secrets.