February 25, 2020

“Broken Hearts & Dead Flowers,” by Michael Summerleigh

“Broken Hearts & Dead Flowers,” by Michael Summerleigh

BROKEN HEARTS & DEAD FLOWERS (February 1970 – upstate New York) 

Josh stepped out into the beginning of the day, heard the steel door slam behind him as he pitched the black garbage bag into the dumpster.  He checked the door once to make sure it had locked, buttoned his denim jacket up around the paper sack of unsold apple crisps and burgers, jammed his hands down into the pockets of his jeans. 

It had been a slow shift, some heavy wind and a couple of inches of snow discouraging the stoners from boarding the Midnight Munchie train that usually kept the Jack-in-the-Box busy through the night. He’d sent Kyle and Donnie home at two, started shutting everything down around three-thirty. . .picking up wax paper burger wraps and empty Zig Zag sleeves in the small dining area out front, then sweeping and mopping the floors. He turned the deep-fryers and coffee-makers off. . .washed utensils. . .made sure all the soft-drink stations were primed with syrup. With the grill still hot, he dumped brine out of the five-gallon bucket of pickle slices, waiting for the cloud of steam to settle before he scrubbed it to a dull silver sheet of stainless steel, then emptying the grease traps.  Lettuce got chopped and tomatoes got sliced, stashed in the walk-in fridge. He fired up a joint. . . chewed old French fries. . .swept and mopped himself to the back door. . . .  

In the last shreds of darkness before daybreak the air was cool and damp. . .moving gently in memory of the wind that had bullied snow up against buildings and driven it under cars. . .open spaces and pavement glistening like oil in arc lights overhead he could hear them humming. . .electric trees. . .voltage like sap running up and down veins and arteries of industrial-grade copper wire. . . . 

He decided against trying to go overland. . .walked out onto Main Street instead and turned left when he got to P&Gs heading back up the hill to campus. . .shoulders hunched up around his ears his hair newly freed from down the back of his T-shirt floating out around him as he moved into the breeze. By the time he passed the library, sunlight was only just starting to creep over the parking lot between Bouton and College Halls. . .his boot heels made sullen echoes on the concrete walk. . .an early riser nodded in passing, sneaker-shod and silent on his way into town. . . . 

Drowsy in the cool air, Josh was only half awake as he skirted round Capen. . .a handful of windows softly lit from within showed tie-dye mandalas to the dawn. . .a flag hung listless from one window on the second floor. . .a sky blue field proclaiming Peace to the world in letters of olive branch and dove-scrolled ribbons. . . . 

He made a reverent mental obeisance to his Goddess Tree growing atop the hill in front of Stoddart. . .acid memories suddenly vivid and bright. . .arousal and anticipation of warmth. . .good morning with Maddy soon, very soon. . .he finished the joint staring up at the unshaded window in a stoned daydream where she stood there naked to welcome him home after a long night of burgers and fries, doled out one by one paid for in nickels and dimes by potheads stupid with smoke. . .he took the three steps to the flagged patio in front of the dorm in one long stride. . .flung himself through the doors and headed for the stairs. . . . 

. . .Up on the third floor he eased through the door, closing it quietly behind him, slipping out of his jacket and boots as he turned. . .caught the bag of burgers before it hit the floor set it down softly he heard sheets rustle and the thump of a pillow being beaten. . .a voice off to his right. . .muffled by blankets. . .sighing resignation. . . . 

“She’s not here. . . .” 

Maddy’s roommate burrowed deeper into her blankets only the top of her head showing in the first bit of sunlight to creep round the building and find its way into the room.

“Oh my God, Josh, you smell like a goddamn cheeseburger. Take a shower please. . . .” 

“I’m sorry Vicki I didn’t mean to wake you up.” 

“It’s all right Josh.  I was up anyway. . .as soon as the smell of whatever is in that bag hit me.” 

“It’s some hamburgers and apple things.” 

“It’s dead animal, Josh. . .and grease. . .and fake cheese and apple-flavoured goop with tons of sugar.  It’s garbage food and you smell just like it.” 

“I’ll take a shower. I’m sorry. . . .” 

He grabbed a towel from the closet and opened the door again. 

“Take the bag with you. . . .” 

He nodded okay to nobody and looked the other way when Gloria-in-just-a-towel said Fuck! as she came out of the bathroom. He whispered an apology to her closing door and ducked into a shower stall before anyone else showed up. . .dropped his unwelcome excuse for breakfast into a trash pail beside one of the sinks. . . . 

* * * 

When he slunk back into the room, Vicki had already crawled out of bed, padding around barefoot in a long T-shirt that fell to her knees. Dopey-eyed, she turned her head to him, brown shoulder-length hair spiked around her face she poured water from an electric kettle into a big ceramic mug.  

“Y’want a cup of tea?” 

“Sure that would be swell Vicki. . .” he said, making sure his towel was secure.  “I didn’t—” 

“Oh be quiet and sit down, would you please. . . ?”     

He sat on Maddy’s bed and kept quiet, watched her fill another mug and wondered if she’d forgotten a tea-bag until she handed it to him and he saw a handful of little round balls slowly extending leaf-like tentacles into the steaming water. 

“Wait a couple of minutes.  It’s good for you. Green tea. Dragon’s Tears.  It might even begin to reverse the ill effects of all the crap you’ve eaten in the six months I’ve known you. . . .” 

She went back to her own cot, sat down and leveled a weary look at him from across the room, seeming to come to a decision of some sort that had been a distasteful process from beginning to end.

“Y’know, I’ve picked up some wonderful pointers on how to fuck in four hundred different ways, Joshua. . .and someday. . .if I don’t decide to be gay because of it. . .maybe I’ll even find a love of my own who I can impress by licking my own asshole and playing the Moonlight fucking Sonata on the violin at the same time. . .but for now–” 

She took a breath and shook her head at him. . .spat out a strand of hair that had crept into one side of her mouth. . .swiped a hand across her eyes. 

“For now…for now it would be nice to be pleasantly plain and reasonably chaste without the entirety of my world reeking of. . .of. . .you. . .and Maddy. . .and it would also be good if you’d at least put your other pair of jeans on. . . .” 

“I’m sorry Vicki. I never thought—” 

“Of course not. Why on earth would you do something like that?” 

She sighed. Sipped her mug of tea. Wiped her eyes again. 

“Jesus. Listen to Victoria the bitter fucking spinster. . . .” 

“Vicki, I saved some money. . .I’m gonna get a place for myself. . .I’ll start looking this week. . .I promise. . . .” 

She looked away as he hiked his clean pair of jeans up under his towel. 

“I’m not pissed at you, Josh.  Well I am. . .a lot, actually. . .for being such an idiot. . . .” 

Josh didn’t understand. The warmth of the shower had stoned him harder. She kept shaking her head at him and it was too much work to try and figure out what she was really saying. 

“Maddy is not here Josh.  I’m not trying t’be a bitch.  Really I’m not.  You’re a good guy I know you don’t mean to be a pain in the ass. . .but it’s not even seven o’clock on a Saturday morning. . .you’ve been working all night. . .and she’s not here. . .and two weeks ago. . .all weekend. . .?” 

They drank tea.  Josh accidentally swallowed one of the green tentacle things. 

“D’you see where I’m going with this. . .?” 

Finally he did. 

“There’s been a bunch of times…since we came back after Christmas. . .she’s shown up a half hour before you. . . .” 

He gulped down the rest of the tea, pulled a clean T-shirt and socks from his pack in the corner. . . .

“I’m sorry, Josh.” 

She stared down at her knees and he tried not to look at her at all. . . . 

“You don’t have to apologise for anything, Vicki,” he said.  “Thanks for bein’ as patient as you’ve been. . .and for not bullshittin’ me. . . .” 

* * * 

He found a corner of the lounge and camped, just closed his eyes and tried to let the grass lull him into sleep he knew wasn’t going to happen. Mostly just all of a sudden tired.  Too tired to fully comprehend that what had begun upstairs was becoming a slow sense of betrayal. . .or the paradox of values he truly rationally held being at odds with his feelings. . .so he just closed his eyes and tried to sleep…drifted off somewhere his brain wasn’t working and his heart wasn’t hurting. . . . 

* * * 

When he started up awake again it was still way too early on a Saturday for anything much to be going on, so when he heard a siren coming closer. . .a vehicle pull up in front of the dorm. . .heard the footsteps of a rushed procession from the first floor girls’ wing to the door. . . .Doom rearing up uninvited. . .he got up slowly and followed it. . .dragging his jacket along behind him, boots slung over a shoulder, his hair still damp and stuck to him all over. . . . 

He recognised faces. . .processed two guys pulling a gurney from the ambulance parked outside. . .Carrie Olafsen had one of them by the sleeve and was pulling him towards the door. She was crying. Seemed oblivious to be standing barefoot in a patch of leftover snow dressed in nothing but her nightie and a short housecoat. She looked cold and deathly white in the dawn…the leading lady in a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. . .muscles in her thighs and calves taut with the effort of trying to drag the medic along faster than he could manage with his end of the gurney in tow.   

Jane Randisi and Jessie Kornfeld made up the rest of the cast in the drama. They, too, were only half dressed, not far roused from sleep, their faces flash-frozen into Greek masks to mirror unfolding Tragedy.  Josh couldn’t hear any conversation clearly. The three Sirens of Stoddart Hall moved past him in a wide-eyed blur of cotton, lace and anguish.  The two attendants were expressionless. . .facelessly professional all business. . .he followed them across the lobby, followed, in turn, by more students awakened by crisis they spilled down the front stairways to move in his wake bottlenecked at the door to 1-South milling around with only speculation for company the girls hugging themselves and each other the boys cadging early morning cigarettes from each other and trying on their cool.  

They all tried to ignore the muffled wail that came from the other side of the door—all tried to pretend they didn’t know what it meant. Both Dennis and Ross wound their way through the press. . .asked him what was going on. Josh could only shrug. . .remembered he had been very stoned not very long ago but it was gone now. . .the door to 1-South opening very slowly, the focus of every pair of eyes straining forward as they all moved backward. . . peeling themselves away from each other like the Red Sea parting before the staff of Moses as they encountered Space again. . .the expanse of the lobby behind them. . .they fled before the prow of Death’s conveyance. . .the two medics on either side fore and aft passed directly in front of Joshua and beneath the hastily-thrown sheet covering its cargo he could see quite clearly a peaceful face of peaches and cream and bee-stung lips grown pale and a spill of cornsilk-coloured hair that trailed in its wake like the fallen standard of  Love’s flagship.      

They followed. . .stood silent as they put her in the ambulance. . .closed the doors. . .watched the ambulance move cautiously away from the dorm off towards town and a hospital away north or south. . .of equal distance either way. . .of no consequence in any case there were no sirens for Karin. . .not even a wave goodbye, only the stunned silence from everyone there who had known her. . . .

Now the sounds stopped being a meaningless tangle in his ears.  Now someone said that her boyfriend had come down from Albany for Valentine’s Day. . .found out about her affair with Siana and stayed just long enough to call every disgusting thing he could think of. Siana had gotten angry at Karin for her crying over him. . . . 

“. . .And then she just walked out on her. Siana just threw her stuff into the VW and took off. . . .”

Joshua watched the ambulance slowly dissolve into the sunrise. Little by little, everyone around him started to shiver in the chill, started moving off in twos and threes, back into the dorm. . .heat. . .a desperate re-establishment of daily routine. . . .

He heard footsteps behind him. . .someone rushing past him up the steps. In amongst the others, he saw a brief flash of copper-coloured hair go through the doors and disappear into the lobby. . .     



Michael Summerleigh lives with a cat named Mina northwest of Kingston in rural Ontario, Canada. Years ago when he was someone else he wrote fantasy & horror fiction…sold stories to a number of amateur and semi-pro fanzines, as well as professional anthologies.  In 1979,  Donald M Grant published a short novel entitled THE BLACK WOLF. Prior to that he reviewed books and wrote Sunday features for the Montreal Star, as well as a Bookmans weekly article that became the  introduction to the Citadel Press edition of David Lindsay’s A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS.  Recently he has placed stories online with cc&d magazine (Scars.tv), Scarlet Leaf Review, Literary Yard, and another excerpt from his unpublished novel with Lamplit Undergound. 

He’s been a bookseller, done late-night public radio, CSR/dispute resolution for the telecom industry, engineered the 10th World Fantasy Convention in Ottawa in 1984,  and recently took a stab at some concert promotion (wherein he was never in any danger of turning a profit)… 

Fictional Cafe
#ambulance#college#new york#relationships#short story
1 comment
  • Anonymous says:

    Michael, Michael, Michael…good to see your putting your work out for us all to enjoy ( you leave us hungry for more).

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