I wrote this novella ‘Adventures in Flower Arranging’ in 2001. I thought I’d transferred it from my floppy disk (remember them?) onto the hard drive that I took with me to India. Seems that only half of it made the journey. I’ve decided to publish the half I have….
Everyone talked to Domingo. Maybe because he looked as if he knew something. Maybe because they were gluttons for punishment. From his six foot one and a half-inch frame, he looked down on the other residents with ease. His thick-lensed spectacles, through which he inspected rather than perceived the world, blew up his eyeballs into hard-boiled eggs and his irises into shooter marbles. His face was eroded by an ever-flowing cataract of minutely twitching muscles, for his mind was relentlessly a-twitch with thoughts that traveled in packs like dogs, hunting the digestible truths that would build and fortify them to faster and ever more brutal kills.
As he coursed through the day room, the steel-capped heels of Domingo’s stiff leather shoes rang like shotguns against the cold linoleum—until Gabriella stepped into the line of fire.
“How am I doing, Domingo?” The thin girl’s hair bled gold beneath the fluorescent lights. Her face was pock marked with confusion, but her eyes betrayed a secret loveliness.
Domingo turned the scope of his gaze in on the specimen before him, that shook slightly with over-medication, it’s puppet-head making tiny incessant nods.
“You are….” He began.
The young girl’s eyes grew wider. Cervixes of virgin births.
“You are…” Domingo hesitated, finding her innocence momentarily unsettling. But then he remembered himself. He hunched over until the tip of his bony nose was level with hers. And began.
“You are a flea bite on the hand of a tortured man. You are a mote of misery in a leper’s eye. You are….” His egg-ball eyes rolled up into his skull, searching for the word.. “Redundant.”
Gabriella stepped backwards, bumping into a table leg,, thin-skinned hands clutching at the damp corners of her mouth. But Domingo didn’t register her pain. He saw himself like a person in a fun-house mirror, with a giant chin of righteousness and diminutive hands, incapable of evil. He dismissed Gabriella, satisfied that the master of truth had been served. Domingo regarded himself as a connoisseur of truth, and others seemed only too happy to confirm the title. He had opinions on everything—elaborate and ornate opinions that glided stingray-like over the obstacles of dissent, never surfacing to breathe the air of doubt.
He had arrived at the psychiatric home on a storm-soaked Sunday morning. A Guatemalan orderly had christened him ‘Domingo’ when he refused to give his name, and now there were few staff members who knew him as anything else. Even they had been known to seek his counsel on occasion, though he rarely waited to be asked. With Domingo, advice flowed like the Ganges, and all kinds of seekers and hopefuls came to wash themselves in its waters, oblivious to the half-burnt corpses and rotting sewage floating by. He gave advice on relationships (although not on sex), on drugs, on religion, on diet and politics. But what the residents of Unit 5 enjoyed the best were his poetic, concise, and deadly declarations of the human character (as long as it wasn’t their own.) In this way, he served as both confessor and judge. Anywhere else he would have been a ranting busybody, but here he was the closest they had to a sage.
There was a new admission today. Brenda was trying to fit a book into a small metal cabinet. She had found it in the admitting room and had convinced the admitting nurse to let her keep it, squeezing it against her chest and burrowing her chin firmly into the cover. The nurse had acquiesced, as this was a “progressive” institution, where the patients were called “guests” and allowed to wear their own clothes and hold onto a few “non-threatening” possessions.
Sam the Squeeze had her in his sights the moment she arrived. He’d followed her down the corridor, sneaked passed the cleaning trolley and through the door of the women’s dormitory. After checking to make sure that he hadn’t been spotted, Sam moved in on her. Short and long-armed, he rocked from foot to foot like an excited chimp. Knees bent. Legs spread wide. Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward, one step back. Brenda didn’t notice him, too busy tucking the book beneath the mattress, using her tee shirt as a glove.
“Oh, they won’t let you keep that there, no, no they won’t, no ma’am.”
Brenda looked up and the book thudded to the floor. Her features were squashed as if her face only existed in two dimensions, and an oil spill of lank black hair lapped about her face. She was small—just over five feet—but her body was large and unwieldy, clumsily hidden beneath a black tee shirt four sizes too large (when it came to clothes, Brenda’s philosophy was the bigger the better). Her arms revealed thin white skin. The kind that bruises easily.
Sam the Squeeze was happy, his flabby penis wiggling in his hand. He made it peek in and out between his fingers.
He was giggling out of control, tongue swaggering across his lips. A shadow filled the doorway, and Brenda clutched at her stomach as her body began to exhume the memory. A coal-bin wall. The stench of raw onions. The bed time story voice whispering obscenities.
“Screw you,” was all she could think to say.
It was the voice of defeat and it sent Sam the Squeeze squeaking with triumph. He pushed her onto the bed and began ramming his groin into her face, yet Brenda remained expressionless and Sam’s member remained limp and bloodless through it all. His face, looking older than its forty four years, flickering in a strobe of lust and despair.
The shadow in the doorway moved, and the blonde-haired psych tech strolled over. Sam was bouncing his balls on top of Brenda’s head when the psych tech tapped him on the shoulder.
“Time for your medication, pervert.”
“Awwwwww! Do I have to?”
He was led away still grinning.
Medication? For the radiation poisoning? Brenda tried to breathe less deeply to reduce her chances of being contaminated, but she soon felt as though she were suffocating. Then came Vivien, humming up a storm. Hardly a wrinkle betrayed her age, and her wavy shoulder length hair, though mainly gray, still clung to a memory of strawberry blonde. Vivien had her own special version of the world around her—one that mirrored a fairytale, but without the dragons or wicked stepmothers. To her, everyone was a noble knight or a rescued damsel in the making. Her eyes were sapphires set in the rings of medieval queens, reflecting only the light from her fantastic land. She lifted the book from off the floor, and with her gaze fixed inward, she slowly tore out the pages, one by one, and arranged them around Brenda’s crumpled form.
Fingers of light stretched through the blinds above the bed and rested their tips upon Brenda’s clenched body. She watched the dust whirling up and down in dervish ecstasy and worried that it was fallout. She wanted to move, but she was so tired. It was probably too late anyway, she thought. She tried to comfort herself, wrapping flabby arms around her emptiness. With snot gooping on the thin gray blanket, cellar door eyes bolted shut, she lay like an error, half-erased by the shadows that crept over her.
And in a circle all around her, pages and pages of the flower arranging book, budding and blooming and bursting. Tall lady-like irises. Girlish daisies. Tentacles of ferns. Lush verdant leaves in matte and gloss. Big-bowed Christmas baskets of holly and fir cones capped with canned snow. Funeral wreaths dripping with tasteful sympathy. Easter lilies tucked between painted eggs belted with ribbons. Wedding bouquets of tight white roses and baby’s breath. Valentine crimsons deep as secrets. Flowers for all seasons and occasions.
Time passed. Later, a woman in a white coat asked if she’d like to go to the day room.
“But it’s day here,” Brenda mumbled in reply.
The white coat tried to take her by the arm, and Brenda snatched it away. The woman said that she wasn’t going to hurt her, but her voice sounded like a lie.
“You’re safe her,” she said.
Brenda followed her, making sure to avoid the woman’s footprints. It’s safe here. What did she mean? Were the dormitories not radioactive? Maybe she wasn’t contaminated yet, after all. Maybe she had another chance. The white coat took her out into the corridor and through a pair of gray swing-hinged doors. The day room was long and narrow. Another room about half it’s size annexed off to the left. The walls were projector screen white—perfect for visions. The air smelled of stale smoke and Clorox. Directly opposite was another pair of swing doors just like the ones she had come through. An old piano stood against the far left section of wall that opened to the annex. There were four brown armchairs, six wooden chairs, and a worn beige couch with a low white plastic table that held two brimming tin ashtrays and a number of Styrofoam cups.
The floor was pattern-less gray linoleum. Tall, barred windows all around. A coffee machine over on the wall to her right emanated a low hum. A television in the far right corner hung bolted into the wall. The sound was turned down low, and on the screen, soap opera characters mouthed their parts to a restless audience. Around the room were the rest of the prisoners, some of whom she recognized from the round table. Shuffling, smoking, drinking coffee. Sounds of humming, smothered grumblings, fractured sentences, sudden retorts to soundless questions. They must have succumbed to the radiation, she thought. She began to plan her strategy. She wouldn’t be able to avoid the floor, but perhaps she’d be safe if she kept to the area least traveled. The chairs looked dangerous.
A black man in his twenties crouched on the floor and stared up at Brenda. He held a pen, and his hand trembled over a note-pad as he sucked in one cheek, as if trying not to laugh. He turned his head a few degrees to the right towards where Domingo was seated, but his eyes stayed fixed on the note-pad.
“What do you see, Domingo. Huh?”
Domingo’s eyes narrowed as they focused in on the new girl. He took his time loading the barrels of his tongue, beginning quietly, almost fondly.
“Hands have lain her to waste. She dreams to die and meet her maker, but she’s afraid he’ll have fingers of stone. All happiness has sunk in her like treasure from galleons of antiquity. Cast from the depths, she now lies. Flotsam on a comfortless shore.”
Others began to approach. They shuffled towards Domingo, lured by the scent of the hunt. He scanned the faces of his audience for his front-row fan, but Sam the Squeeze was down the hall, getting an injection and a thrill from the feel of plastic gloves against his buttocks. It was the young black man with the reverent, scholarly gaze that spurred Domingo’s performance. “She has been licked dry by the tongues of demons, penetrated by Satan with his vile rod….”
Domingo stood up from his chair, letting his height punctuate his speech. As he rose, so did his voice. He moved slowly, deliberately, followed by a few of the patients, like the head of a funeral procession, towards the east corner of the room where Brenda was standing—the television murmuring above, eyes downcast, head to the wall, arms crossed tightly across her chest, hands kneading the soft, cold skin at the tops of her arms. She was soon surrounded with onlookers bobbing and grinning in excitement, wetting eager lips and working fingers into musty folds.
“…Satan who has thrust his twisted truth between her sheets, engorged himself on her naked flesh, and spat her out like some noxious phlegm.” Domingo was now only couple of feet away from his target. His voice seemed to burst into flames and eyes gleamed brighter in the darkening room. To Brenda it was a voice that could split atoms.
“Her putrid sins are legion. Carrion circle above her gaping heart which reeks of violence and betrayal. She carries the carcass of her innocence through the deserts of her dreams, rotting through every pore of her diseased and disgusting life. And,” Domingo wiped his glistening brow, suddenly looking as if his efforts had taken a lot out of him, “she needs a shower. She smells like old meat.”