“Lady Azalea” by Stephanie Joyce, winner of the 2018-2019 Winter Fiction Contest

            Pete wrestled the wooden stepladder into the azalea thicket. Like him it was old. Unlike him it was getting heavier every year. Ducking, sidling, backtracking the ladder like a dance partner through the thrust and wallop of the branches, he headed for the spot he’d chosen. Right between the two oldest azaleas. He had done this slow (and lately, painful) tango every spring for forty years, but last year, with Carol and the disc surgery and everything that was going on, he hadn’t gotten to these two. And he didn’t have much time left.

The two azaleas were still thick with blooms. Lavender and peach. He’d planted them too close together—just eight feet apart—back when he was a new, greedy beginner, but the beauty of the blunder was, you could trim them both at once. When he finally shrugged into  the sweet spot just between the outer branches, that thing with his shoulder happened, and the ladder set itself down hard. There was a ponk. “Shit.” It had landed right on Carol. “Sorry, hon. Shoulder let go again.”

Carol was in an old Folger’s coffee can, a gravelly rattle of ashes and little lumps of bone. Pete had wanted to bury her out here, where the two of them had spent so many hours in near-silent companionship. But Joanie had forbidden this.

“Dad.” Patiently, pushing her dark forelock aside exactly—exactly—the way Carol had. In Carol’s voice she had explained about the high pH, sodium toxicity, excessive minerals, bla bla, and suggested a decorative tile made with the ashes. Pete nodded, but he had already changed his mind without figuring out what else to do, and he’d dialed down his hearing aid and turned away to rinse out the coffee mugs again. He loved his daughter deeply, but she was so like Carol that sometimes, looking at her made him want to curl up and moan.

So he carried Carol’s coffee can around with him when he putzed about the garden. Only the backyard now, because the house was getting ready to be sold so that he could move into a “lovely unit” that Joanie had found. The realtor, “Call Me Kath,” a wizened blonde with a voice like an angry goose, had already “upgraded” the front garden. She’d brush-cut the big grasses and amputated the shrubs into a muddle of stumpy branches that stretched uselessly toward the sky. That was another reason he couldn’t look at Joanie—she’d hired the creature. Anyway, he put his gimpy foot down after that. “I’ll tend the back garden till it’s sold,” he said.

Call Me Kath pouted—pouted! Fifty-six if she was a day!—and looked at him out of those weird gold eyes. “Those bushes need trimming. Better for your sale price.” She always honked extra loud when she spoke to him. He recognized her expression, arrogance and pity mixed with diamond-hard greed—he’d been a realtor too, back in the day—and set himself against her. “I’ll tend the back garden,” he said again. The creature and Joanie shared a Look. Then they went down to examine the pine paneling she’d had “brightened up” by painting it gleaming white, leaving him to stomp around the kitchen, which so far remained mercifully unedited.

“Tilting at windmills,” he said to Carol now. “I know. I know.” He planted the stepladder securely, a solid foot away from the coffee can. The two queen azaleas stretched up above him, twelve feet high, their central trunks nine inches thick. The blooms were fading now but still glorious. He clunked the loppers and secateurs onto the clamp-on attachment, a sort of open box, that he’d had screwed along the very top of the ladder. Carol had insisted on that box, and he had blessed her a thousand times for it. Carefully, he levered his good foot to the first step, then dragged up the other. This landed him in the midst of a salmon-rose cloud. He grabbed the secateurs, reached out. And paused, glancing down at the coffee can. “Oops. Almost forgot.”

He fumbled around for his reading glasses until he remembered them hanging on the chain round his neck. Amendment made, he peered through the cloud, focusing on a single flower. Azaleas looked so female. The long funnel, a tender coral waist, its slenderness lit with a subtle luster. The petals, like blood-streaked sherbet skirts wafting back. The stamens, gangly yellow-shod limbs flinging themselves outward. The flower looked like a dancer finding herself falling ass over teakettle. Pete’s cheeks felt weirdly tight. He was smiling. Carol had instilled in him this unwilling habit, this seeing. Even on their honeymoon, she’d made him analyze the colors of the Mediterranean, where they were floating along on a rented blow-up raft.

“It’s blue. Give me a gold star,” he said, and tried to undo the strap of her bikini.

She pushed his hand away. “We have a room, you know. We just left it.”

“Let’s go there again.”

“No. Let’s slow down. Look at the water. See those ripples? How one side’s orange and the other’s yellow?”

It took him a while, but once he’d seen that, he started seeing other things. How water translated fish into ghosts and shadows. How sand wasn’t really sand-colored and tree trunks weren’t brown. Leaves of any color, in the morning, were golden. Faces kept their known, familiar shape until suddenly they’d shifted, sprouted creases and blotches, grown softer or harder or older or more beautiful. More precious. Faces disappeared behind winding sheets and never came again, not even in prayers, not even in dreams, unmindful of the unthinkable peril that they would slowly, second by second, be forgotten.

Christ. The wet cheeks again. Pete swiped at his eyes and folded up the glasses. “Your man’s a mess, Caro,” he said. He got to work.

He trimmed both the shrubs, sliced out the weak, whippy canes, and pulled them out along with their clog of leaf and bloom. He dragged himself up the second step, then the third, laboring away while the sun rose high and sizzled on his bald spot, tossing the cuttings into a pile behind him, until he’d opened up six or more feet and exposed the heart of the bush.

He stopped then, and looked. The trunk was reddish-gray, and plated with layers of shaggy bark. It was gnarled, popping and pugnacious with life. And now, with the sun so high, he thought he could smell the perfume of the flowers. Back when Joanie was a toddler, the lemon-cedar fragrance used to make him almost dizzy.

He twisted around cautiously to look. Quite a pile of ruin down there. The shrubs themselves looked splendid—fat and full of juice. They flanked each side of the ladder like a pair of gorgeous women, like ornamented, many-armed Amazons, reaching out as if to bear a loaded tray of life. Now that he’d thinned the branches he could see through them to the house, elegant and spruce in its fresh coat of white. He looked at that for a while, noting the familiar nicks in the brick and the one he’d had patched secretly, just recently, before this moving thing, where he’d smacked the corner pretty hard with the car.

He was sweaty, achy at the collarbones and elbows, and he could feel his right ankle swelling. But the house was empty. He’d gotten an estate company to come by for an estimate on the furniture and rugs. Carol had found some good antiques, and he had gotten the auction habit, so they had a couple of really fine rugs. Joanie asked him to call before the estate people came, but he didn’t. Carol had done the decorating, hung up the pictures, placed the rugs, made the curtains herself. It was hers; it was Carol, and she was gone. They made him an offer he should have refused, but it was worth it. They’d come prepared, with a moving van. They took everything away the same day.

Pete looked at the house, away from Joanie’s horrified face filling his mind’s eye. “How could…what were you…why didn’t you…oh, the brass planter…” she said, and a couple more variations on that. Joanie was like him in that respect. In anguish she became incoherent. Carol, in the time it took to cross that empty, echoing living room, would have told him exactly what she thought of such a stupid, ill-planned, thoughtless, selfish move; and of course she would have been right. Secretly, selfishly, Pete felt relieved. Yet the desolation in Joanie’s eyes that day still haunted him.

So he didn’t much want to go inside. Without the rugs with their slip-proof carpets the floor was treacherous. He’d had a fall a few days ago in the middle of the living room, and slammed his hip so hard that his whole leg went numb. He couldn’t push up with his bad ankle, couldn’t sit up, and it had taken him two hours of rocking and starfishing around on the floor before he finally hooked a hand under the good knee and levered it over so he could wind himself sideways to the stairwell and pull himself up on the rail. And anyway he was out of milk; what he should do was go to the store. And for all his careful looking, damned if he hadn’t left a couple of big dead branches right above the place he’d cleared out. They were practically waving at him.

He pulled himself one more step up the ladder. “Hand me those loppers, will you, Caro?” he said. Sure, Sweet Pete, she didn’t say, not slapping the tool into his hand as if they were surgeon and nurse. He had to pick the goddam thing up himself. He pressed back a springy cane to get at the deadwood. His hand slipped and the cane snapped back at him and sliced his cheek, nearly got his eye. He jerked back. The ladder tilted. Pete snatched at a branch, but something snapped in his bad shoulder and he let go, and the ladder tilted further until the pressure made his ankle gave way. The ladder clanged off to the left, and Pete flew, so slowly, to the right, to land spread-eagled in the arms of the azaleas, gazing through them at the sky. The arms bounced a little and then settled.

Pete’s shoulder howled and his ankle smoldered. He couldn’t stretch his arm to reach the trunk, couldn’t reach the ladder, was afraid of how he might reach the ground that was oh, five feet below. He was shaking. Breathe, breathe, Carol would have said.

He breathed. His heart no longer thundered in his temples. His ankle was on fire but his shoulder was only mewling piteously, and his burned pate, though it prickled, was shaded down here, for the sun came dimly through the rose and violet petals. Behind them the sky was so blue. It was like being in a church, but not as peaceful. He didn’t think he could turn over to get up, not without a worse fall—who knew what it would do to that lumbar disc? And there was a sensation of fullness in his lower abdomen. That was going to be a problem pretty soon.

He had things to do, but they were not going to get done. Not right now. The good thing was that his back didn’t hurt at all, supported as it was by the limbs of Lady Azalea. Joanie had said something about coming over tonight, or was it tomorrow? Anyway, Carol was here with him, not in any satisfactory way—not at all, really, but in a sense he was near her, they were together. Someone would come along and find them both.


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