CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|Rhododendron, Tradescantia, Tillandsia, Bromelia
translated by Mara Faye Lethem
When she returns from the room at the back of the store that serves as the flower shop’s storage room, she discovers that someone has left a wallet on the counter. She looks up and sees the store’s automatic doors open for a moment and through them the last customer slips out; an instant later, the customer is swallowed up by the sporadic river of people who move through the mall, shopping or not buying anything at all. She picks up the wallet and is about to run after him when a customer holding a stupid, snub-nosed dog in her arms—the only customer who’s come into the flower shop in the last hour besides the customer who left his wallet—asks how rhododendrons should be watered; she asks if she can wait a moment, but the women responds that she’s already waited long enough and she has no choice but to help her. Naturally, the explanation doesn’t satisfy her and the woman with the flat-faced dog doesn’t buy the rhododendrons or the ferns that she asks about next; after the woman has left, she goes out into the hallway but he’s no longer there. She glances at the adjacent stores, the sweets shop and the one across the way that sells pants and, at this hour of the day, gives off a weak light and a funereal air: The saleswoman in the pants store—with whom she sometimes has lunch in the food court and sometimes also sees at the mall entrance smoking a cigarette quickly and anxiously, the way she does on her breaks, too—is finishing a crossword puzzle behind the counter and can’t hide her disappointment when she looks up and discovers that she’s not a customer. When she goes back to the hallway, she sees that a couple with a boy has entered the flower shop and so she turns around and goes back to the store.
The housing development is located on the outskirts of the city and hasn’t yet been finished. Even though it’s still daytime, the apartment she moved into a few weeks earlier is already in penumbra from the shadow of the block of apartments that they’re building on the other side of the street; like every afternoon, she arrives home after finishing her shift at the mall and drinks a glass of water leaning against the sink and looking out the window at the progress made by the workers during the day: Sometimes the progress is minimal and related to the building’s internal structure—installing the electrical system, placing tiles in the bathrooms, things like that—but sometimes she can notice structural changes as well, just by observing that the mountains of materials that surrounded the building in other stages of its construction have disappeared and are now incorporated into it in mysterious ways. When she’s finished drinking, she leaves the glass in the sink and sits at the dining-room table and pulls the wallet out of her bag: During the metro ride from the mall to her apartment she had been compulsively sticking her hand into her bag to make sure that the wallet was still there, and then pulling it back immediately, as if the wallet were electrified; having it in front of her, however, it seems harmless and childish, like a fish in a fish store: leather and muscles of an animal dead for some time.
Inside the wallet she finds a twenty-euro bill, another five-euro note, and a total of two euros and forty-two cents in coins of varying value. She finds a ticket for a jacket from the dry cleaner’s at the mall, a shopping list that only contains two items—which furthermore are completely heterogeneous: a liter of milk and an indoor plant—, a membership card for the mall’s Blockbuster, two credit cards, a swipe card for a bank building, an ID card, and an expired driver’s license. The license is pink and has his name and his birth date, which is a day in a month in the year 1972, and a series of numbers that she doesn’t understand; also, an uppercase letter “e” surrounded by stars that she knows is a reference to Spain but which looks to her like an abandoned traffic sign beside an imminent, dangerous curve that no one stops at. She carefully puts all the items back into the wallet and then closes it and stares at it for a moment; then she opens it again and pulls out the ID, which repeats the information shown on the driver’s license but also includes an address and a photograph, in which she recognizes her customer, the face grooved with lines and curves intended to make forging the document more difficult. Then she puts it away again inside the wallet and walks over to the light switch, even though it’s not yet completely dark.
A year later, the apartment building across the street has been finished and sunlight no longer enters her apartment. Two plants die from the lack of light and when she stops watering the ones that are still alive three more die: Finally there is only the thinnest trail of bindweed, which grows unchecked, dragging itself along the floor and seeming not to need sunlight or water to stay alive. The wallet remains on the table; as she had predicted, its owner had returned to the flower shop the next day and asked her if he’d left a wallet there the day before. She said no and stared at his face imagining that it was grooved with lines and curves so it couldn’t be forged. Then he thanked her and once again went out through the store’s automatic doors and vanished amidst the mall’s visitors and she leaned against the counter, not thinking about anything at all. A woman came in and bought six calla lilies and then a man entered asking about a former employee and she said she’d never met her and sold him a fern. Then she saw the woman with the stupid, flat-faced dog approaching through the mall and she threw her uniform onto the counter and left the store quickly before the woman could slip into the flower shop; she crossed the mall’s food court, tripping over a couple of kids waiting their turn in front of the ball pit who then started to cry, she bought some sunglasses that covered a good portion of her face and went all over the mall looking for him but couldn’t find him. Before returning to the flower shop, she went into a store that sold phones and searched for his number in the telephone directory; she jotted it down on a card that the woman who worked there handed her and then threw the glasses into a trash bin in front of a tattoo parlor and felt happy and free as if she’d just committed a crime.
At first she called him once or twice a week from a phone booth near a basketball court in front of her housing development: Most times she hung up without saying a word when he answered and just stood there listening to her heart beat in her temples until the beating died down completely; other times she said things before hanging up: She would say “rhododendron,” “tradescantia,” “tillandsia,” “bromelia,” all names of plants that she was very familiar with but which she imagined would leave him perplexed. One time she also said “Constanza,” which wasn’t the name of a plant but the name of a girl, a name that made her think of perseverance and the saints found in books.
After that she started following him on the street; she would leave her apartment before dawn and cross the city in the metro until she reached the bank building he worked at and she would wait there for him to show up, watching the bank employees arrive gradually and enter the still-dark building and turn on the lights at their desks and in their offices, which at first flickered intermittently as if they themselves were unused to their own glow; when he arrived, she would leave and begin walking toward the mall through streets filled with cars and recent housing developments and lots where there was nothing yet but where there would soon be blocks of apartments, arriving at the mall long before her shift started: Every time, the supervisor scolded her and threatened to fire her but never did. Sometimes she didn’t go to the bank but to his house, and she watched him leave the building and take the metro but didn’t follow him, or she’d leave the mall without returning to her apartment, instead installing herself in front of his house and watching him return from work and turn on the lights in his apartment and then cook something in the kitchen and watch television, a stream of blue light bathing his face. For a while he was visited by a brunette who always wore skirts and also another whom he came home late with and led through the apartment without switching on a single light, but then the brunette stopped coming and the redhead showed up. One day, at the mall, she saw the redheaded woman walking hastily toward the cash machine and she ran until she was right behind her and she stuck out a leg to trip her. The redheaded woman fell to the floor with a cry of pain and she went back to the flower shop. Sometimes, in the beginning, when he was with some woman in his apartment, she would ring the doorbell and run; once she bought some wide, sticky tape and used it to cover all the bells in the building, which started ringing simultaneously as the inhabitants screamed; a couple of days later, the incident was mentioned in the newspaper, just a small note on teenage vandalism in the city’s new housing developments that looked like a death notice.
She began to imagine that they shared a life together, and this, in a way, was true: She paced around her apartment and pretended that she was getting everything ready for his return from work. She told her last remaining plants—their children in her game—to go out and greet their father, and then she made a lot of food and ate in front of the television, directing brief comments at the news. After that she’d clear his and the kids’ plates into the garbage and watch some movie that they were showing on television or read a magazine until her eyes began to droop.
A couple of times during that year he went back to the flower shop and bought flowers and a plant that were probably for the brunette who always wore skirts and perhaps for the redhead. She served him just like any other customer and with a certain indifference, as if she didn’t know him or didn’t want to. He asked her on both occasions if anyone had ever turned in a wallet with his ID and other documents, but she shook her head and, once he’d left, leaned on the counter and cried for a while. One time a woman came in and bought a dozen tulips and then another, older—really, really old—woman came in and said that she wanted some flowers for her mother, and she wasn’t sure if the mother of the really, really old woman had died or not but she handed her the best bouquet she had and said it was on the house. And while she was saying that she was crying the whole time, for herself and for the woman with the tulips and for the really, really old woman and her mother but mostly for her and for him and for all the visitors to the mall, which wasn’t a terribly large number—anyway—at that time of the morning.
Now let’s say that some years have passed, at least four: She still keeps the wallet but no longer calls him; sometimes she plays that game in which he comes home from work and the indoor plants are their children, but then she stops caring even about that. One day he comes into the flower shop carrying a boy a few months old in his arms: Behind him enters the brunette who always wore skirts, but this time she’s wearing a long coat and pants. They buy rhododendrons and some ferns that the woman who wore skirts says will go well in the boy’s room. She takes the plants out of the display window and wraps them in paper and then in transparent plastic and hands them over; when they’ve just paid, the woman who wore skirts also asks her for an enormous palm tree and if she can help them carry the things to the parking lot. She hesitates; behind the backs of the woman and the man, in the mall hallway, she sees her supervisor chatting with the saleswoman in the pants store, who hasn’t eaten lunch with her in quite some time, and her supervisor nods and looks at her and then she too says yes and closes the store and starts to walk with them, carrying the plants against the intermittent flow of people who go through the mall, shopping or not buying anything at all or simply taking advantage of the heat that tempers the cold of those final days of January. None of them says a single word as they cross the mall, go out into the parking lot and head toward a car, which lets out a whine when he triggers a remote key; then he asks her to hold the baby while he loads the plants into the trunk of the car and she responds that she can’t, that she’s never held one. The three of them look at each other in confusion for a second. The brunette who always wore skirts says it’s really simple and takes the boy from her husband’s arms and hands him to her and then picks up the plants that she was carrying and passes them to her husband. She rests the boy on her shoulder as a small bubble of saliva bursts on his lips and she feels a warmth and an inexplicable smell of mold that she’s never experienced before: For a second she’s about to start crying. When he finishes putting the plants in the trunk, the woman who wore skirts takes the boy delicately from her arms and they both thank her for her help and get into the car. A second later, she has to move to one side to keep from being run over and she stands there watching as the car leaves the parking garage with its occupants and heads toward the exit and out into the distance. Then she walks to a trash can and pulls the wallet out of her purse and throws it into the garbage as if it had fulfilled its function, whatever that was, and she feels happy for the first time in a long time and comfortable there, out of the mall, above the metro, far from her housing development, on the exterior of the outer reaches of the outside of wherever she had always been.
Patricio Pron’s most recent book is My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain (Knopf, Vintage, Faber & Faber,) translated by Mara Faye Lethem. His short stories have been previously published by The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Granta, The Paris Review, A Public Space, The Chicago Review, and Zoetrope, among others. He lives in Madrid.
Mara Faye Lethem has translated novels by Jaume Cabré, David Trueba, Albert Sánchez Piñol, Javier Calvo, Patricio Pron, Marc Pastor, and Pablo De Santis, among others. She is currently working on a novel by Toni Sala for Two Lines Press.