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In the Garden, a Late Flower Blooms


Jerry Oltion

The sphere was out of round. Anne lifted her brush from the canvas, leaned back on her stool, and eyed the painting critically. A dozen pastel primary shapes rested on an infinite plane, with shading to indicate a single light source overhead, but the sphere definitely bulged on the left side. It looked more like an egg.

“Damn it,” she said aloud, “you'd think as many as I've painted, I could get them right by now.”

Nobody answered. Norman was evidently ignoring her again, or else he was out of the house. Out in his garden, probably, where he seemed to be spending more and more of his time these days. In the year and a half since he'd retired, he'd practically come to live out there.

She looked at the painting again, wondering if she could just go ahead and let it be an egg, but an egg would look ridiculous among all the other symmetrical shapes there.

“How can you tell?” Norman would ask if he knew what she was thinking. He always said things like that about her work. “Why don't you paint something people can recognize?” or “What's wrong with a little color once in a while?” He didn't understand the subtlety of abstraction. To him it wasn't art unless it looked like a fuzzy photograph of something in nature.

Sighing, Anne cleaned her brush and dabbed at the tiny spot of yellowish green on her palette, all that was left of the color she'd mixed for the softer shapes. There was hardly enough to coat the brush, much less repair the sphere, not light green over brown. And she was out of avocado, so she couldn't make any more until she went to the art store. Double damn. She was just about done with this one, too. Almost ten down; only five more to go and she'd have one for every room in the motel.

She stood and stretched. The odor of paint and solvent invaded her awareness for the first time since she'd sat down over an hour ago. She'd forgotten to open a window. Grinning sheepishly, she crossed the studio and cranked open one of the tall casements on the west side, secretly proud that her creative nature so often overcame her practicality. Norman attributed it to other things, of course, senility being one of his favorites, but she'd learned to ignore his comments.

“Norman!” she called out the window. “I'm going to the art store.”

No answer. He was probably watering his tomatoes or something, and couldn't hear her over the hiss of water from the sprinkler.

She went through the house, snagging her purse from the studio doorknob on the way, and let herself out the kitchen door into the back yard. She could tell Norman she was going out and just walk around to the car from there.


His garden took up the entire back half of their oversized property; a whole city lot devoted to fruit trees and vegetables and flowers. It was his refuge from the world, a place where he could go to be close to nature without driving thirty or forty miles to the forest. The front of it was a nearly impenetrable wall of ivy-covered trellises, with one archway in the middle leading into the shadowed interior. Anne stepped through, hoping Norman was nearby so she wouldn't have to search far for him. His garden gave her the creeps. He let the apple and cherry trees grow so close together they formed a nearly complete canopy overhead, and the plants underneath seemed as if they had grown overlarge leaves to compensate for the shade. They were enormous things. Roses the size of dinner plates, and tendrils of zucchini or pumpkins or something twining through the grass like African snakes. The plants weren't all of it, either. She was always walking through spider webs and stepping on squishy things when she went in there, which wasn't often.

“Norman, where are you?” she shouted. A green plastic hose led off toward a rhododendron bush in full purple bloom; she followed that, thinking, Lead me to him.

When she rounded the bush, though, the hose ran out and Norman was still nowhere to be seen. Anne turned once around, but she saw only trees and flowers and grass.

Grass? This was the first time she'd noticed grass in his carefully tended garden. It wasn't even trimmed.

Norman hadn't been in this section recently, then. He was a veritable mowing and trimming machine. He had a power tool for everything—edging, hedge clipping, mulching, you name it—and he used each one at least once a week.

“Norman!” she called again, turning back toward the house. If he didn't answer her, she would simply go to the art store without telling him. He'd never know she was gone anyway.

The garden seemed even more overgrown on the way out. Anne had to stoop under a low-hanging apple branch, and sure enough, she blundered right into a spider web. She leaped back with a shriek, slapping at herself, sure the spider was crawling around in her hair or down her shirt, but when she forced herself to calm down and look for the thing she saw it still dangling from the shreds of its web. It was an ugly, leggy creature at least an inch across, and its web had stretched from the branch overhead all the way to the ground. How she'd missed it on the way in was beyond her.

She walked wide around the spider and continued on toward the house, but when she passed beneath a second apple tree and still hadn't come to the ivy she realized she'd somehow gotten disoriented. She turned around self-consciously, sure now that Norman was right behind her, laughing at her incompetence in the wild, but she was still alone. She walked back past the spider web, looking for the garden hose. She could follow that back easy enough.

Except she couldn't find it. She found the rhododendron bush it had led her to, but now there was no hose at the base of it. Norman must have pulled it away when her back was turned.

“Norman, where are you?” she asked. “Answer me, damn it!”

A squirrel chattered at her from overhead. Off in the distance, a bird squawked.

Shaking her head in exasperation, she strode off on a new tack, and after a couple dozen paces she saw brightness ahead. That had to be the opening in the ivy. She pushed past a rose bush, snagging her pants on the thorns, and stepped out into the back yard.

Except it wasn't the back yard. It was just the yard. There was nothing for it to be in back of; where moments ago their three-bedroom frame house had stood, now a field of wildflowers danced mockingly in the breeze.

The neighbors' houses were still there, though they seemed farther away than Anne remembered them.

She turned back toward the garden. “Norman?”

The street was the same one she'd lived on for years. Anne stood on the sidewalk next to a bright blue car she didn't recognize and eyed the houses around her. There, directly across, stood the Fraleys' yellow and brown two-story, and beside theirs the Duncans' slate-gray split-level. Beyond that—where was the Millers' place? The lot it had once dominated was now another field of wildflowers. No loss, really; the Millers had a whining dog and half a dozen screaming kids that drove Anne crazy when she tried to concentrate, but seeing it gone still shocked her.

And beyond that, down at the end of the next block, stood something even more shocking: an entire mountain rising up into the sky, its flanks covered in forest and a stream cascading down its face. A hiking trail wound its way back and forth up the side of it. Anne tilted her head back, then looked down quickly. It was a dizzying distance to the peak.

She suddenly realized that the entire neighborhood was silent. Save for the Wilsons' furry black cat licking its paws on their porch, nothing moved on the whole block. Anne walked across the Wilsons' lawn to their step and rang the doorbell. She bent down to pet the cat while she waited for someone to come to the door, but it backed away and hissed as if it had never seen her before.

Nobody answered even after she'd rung the bell four more times. Nor could she get an answer at any of the other houses on the street. The entire neighborhood seemed deserted. Anne walked back toward her own . . . place, the sight of the missing house jarring her anew every time she looked up. Somewhere deep inside her a tiny spark of fear had begun to grow, and she knew it could flare up and engulf her at any moment. So far the peacefulness and bright sunlight and relative familiarity of her surroundings kept her from giving in to it, but Anne knew herself well enough to realize she'd better figure out what had happened by sunset. She didn't think she could take this kind of thing in the dark.

Her watch said one-fifteen. She had painted right through lunch, but it was still early.

She stopped by the blue car and looked it over. An old Mustang convertible, restored by a loving hand. Norman would appreciate this car. He'd always wanted a Mustang. He'd threatened to get one all through the thirty-some years of their marriage, but he never had. She'd expected him to do it when he retired, but he'd fooled her. He'd taken up gardening instead, and he'd hardly mentioned cars since.

This one was sure a beauty, though. Anne wondered who it belonged to.

There, she thought. There's one question I can answer. Without worrying that she was trespassing—hoping, in fact, that someone would confront her about it—she reached over the passenger door and popped open the glove box, rummaged through the maps and sunglasses and fast-food napkins inside it until she found the registration slip, and read the name on it.

Norman Morrow. Her husband.

The dirty son of a bitch. He was leading a double life. She must have gotten turned around in the garden after all, come out the back side, and found his getaway car. She turned away from it, ready to rip Norman's garden out by the roots until she found him, but when she saw the mountain a block and a half away her conviction vanished like an alarm clock dream. She wasn't on the back side of their property. Whatever had happened to her wasn't that simple.

She opened the door and sat down in the Mustang's passenger seat, glad to have something she had a claim to even something as unfamiliar as the car—to hold onto. She had her purse, but that was small comfort in a world where mountains grew up like mushrooms in the lawn. At least she could sleep in the car.

On impulse, she dug her keys out of her purse and tried the one for the Escort in the Mustang's ignition. It slid easily into the slot, and when she turned it to “Acc” the radio boomed to life with a richly orchestrated score and a clear, high woman's voice singing foreign words to its melody. Norman liked that kind of thing, and Anne thought it was pleasant enough, but she hated radio, hated commercials interrupting the music. She switched it off, then scooted over into the driver's seat, pushed in the clutch, and started the engine. It came to life with a resonant growl.

The car lurched and died when she let out the clutch. The Escort had an automatic. Anne started the engine again and let out the clutch more slowly, giving the engine a little gas, and this time the car rolled smoothly away from the curb and accelerated down the street.

She shifted once, then left it in second gear even though the streets were as empty as a ghost town.

Was that it? Was she a ghost? Maybe she'd died of a heart attack, hunched over her easel, and her spirit had come here to this not-quite-familiar world. If so, then maybe she was supposed to climb the mountain, where she would no doubt find a set of golden gates and a crowd of angels who would decide her fate.

Or maybe she'd croaked from smelling paint fumes all morning. She had forgotten to open a window, after all.

She looked in the rearview mirror. The mountain looked like the Grand Teton or something, looming upward even as she drove away from it. To hell with climbing it. Maybe if there was a road up it she would drive, but not just yet. The Mustang had a full tank of gas; she could afford to explore a while first.

She turned onto Main street and headed downtown. A couple of other cars drove past the other way, but their drivers didn't pay any special attention to Anne, and she didn't feel like trying to stop them and ask where the mountain had come from, or where her house had gone. They would probably just look at her as if she were crazy and drive away without answering anyway.

Besides, both of the drivers were slinky, cover-girl blondes obviously on their way to or from sunbathing in the park. Anne always felt nervous around women like that, afraid, perhaps, that an older woman with no makeup and loose clothing would look even worse by comparison.

She felt relieved to see other people, though. At least she wasn't completely alone here. In fact, this part of town looked perfectly familiar. There was the Taco Bell restaurant where she and Norman went for lunch at least once a week, and across from it the bank where they kept their checking account. Anne considered going into the bank and trying to take out a loan—that would establish quicker than anything whether or not she had a history in this town—but when she came to the intersection she turned the car left instead of right and rolled into the Taco Bell drive-thru line. She wasn't hungry, but her mouth felt dry; she could at least get something to drink.

She didn't recognize the voice over the speaker when she ordered, but when she drove up to the window to pick up her lemonade she thought the girl there looked familiar. It was hard to tell, they changed jobs so quickly in these fast-food places, but Anne thought this might be the same tall, skinny one who'd been there for the last month or two. If so, she'd certainly filled out some. Her hollow cheekbones no longer stuck out so severely, and her breasts strained the buttons on her striped uniform. Anne didn't remember the uniforms being so low-cut, either, but she supposed it attracted more customers. Lord knows, Norman would certainly appreciate it.

He would no doubt appreciate this whole situation. He was always complaining about how far he had to drive to get into the mountains, and he liked the more curvaceous kinds of scenery Anne was seeing today, too. Too bad he wasn't along for the ride. But maybe he was already here. Maybe that's why she couldn't find him in the garden.

When the girl smiled and handed her the lemonade, Anne asked, “Do you remember my husband, the gray-haired gentleman who usually comes here with me?”

“Oh yes, of course, Norman,” the girl said, and her voice was not the voice a woman wants speaking her husband's name.

Anne pushed ahead anyway, determined to find out what had happened to her world even if that knowledge destroyed it. “Have you seen him today?” she asked.

“No Ma'am,” the girl said. “He's hiking today. Up the mountain.”

“How do you know that if you haven't seen him?”

The girl looked puzzled. “Everybody knows what Norman is doing.”

“Everyone except his wife,” Anne said in disgust. She let out the clutch and the tires chirped as the Mustang lurched away from the drive-up window. She had turned back onto the street before she realized she hadn't paid for the drink. Well good. Let the little tart report her, then maybe a policeman would come and Anne could get some real help.

The mountain loomed before her again. All right, she thought. She'd drive up to the top of it and see if the girl had told her the truth. And if so, Anne would be waiting there when Norman made it to the summit.

She had to drive halfway around the base before she found the road. It only took her a few minutes; the mountain was evidently smaller than it looked. But when she started driving up it, Anne began to wonder if she hadn't misjudged it again. She drove back and forth around switchback after switchback, crossing the stream she had seen from below half a dozen times and passing overlooks that grew increasingly lofty, but the peak seemed no closer.

She looked down to the odometer, thinking she could at least check the mileage from here on up. She looked up again just in time to stomp on the brakes and slide to a stop, killing the engine, only a few yards away from a woman standing before an easel in the middle of the road. The woman dropped her palette in surprise, then bent to retrieve it from the pavement.

Anne didn't bother to start the car again. She got out and walked on shaky legs to the person she'd nearly hit. “What are you doing in the middle of the road?” she demanded.

“Painting the waterfall,” the woman said. She straightened up with the palette in her hands, and when Anne saw her face she stepped back in shock. She recognized that face. She'd seen it enough in the mirror, maybe twenty years ago.

It took her younger self a moment longer to recognize Anne, but when she did she asked, “What are you doing here?”

“I might ask you the same question.”

“I'm Norman's fantasy wife,” the other said. “I belong here.”

Anne couldn't suppress a shrill little laugh. “Where is ‘here?' ” she asked, but she knew the answer already. Norman's fantasy world, of course. The one where the neighborhood was always quiet and his beloved mountains were just at the end of the street and all the people in town were beautiful, eye-pleasing bimbos.

And where Anne was younger and didn't work in her studio—didn't even have a studio!—but instead set up her easel in the middle of the road and painted . . . what? Waterfalls? She moved around the easel to have a look at her other self's work.

She expected to be disappointed, remembering her own dismal efforts at painting natural settings years ago, but what she saw froze her to the spot in rapt attention. It was sensational. This Anne had captured the sense of motion in the water, and the trees on either side of it almost seemed to sway in the breeze. Rocks glistened with brilliant reflections, and a rainbow in the mist glowed in vibrant, nearly fluorescent color.

But as she watched, the colors dimmed, became the subdued pastels she had come to use in recent years, and the smooth, graceful arch of water twisted into an angular abstraction.

“What—?” She turned toward her other self and saw that she, too, was fading. Anne could see the waterfall right through her.

“Wait! Don't go away!” she cried.

“I have to,” her younger version answered. “Norman's fantasies could never stand up to reality.”

“Norman, Norman, Norman!” Anne shouted. “I'm sick and tired of everything revolving around Norman.”

The other Anne shook her insubstantial head. “Then create your own fantasy world,” she said.

Anne was still trying to come up with a reply when her other self faded away entirely, leaving her with the easel and the abstract waterfall painting. She tossed both in the back seat of the Mustang, put the brushes and palette and paints in their box and put that in the car as well, and drove on up the road.

Create her own fantasy world, eh? Just like that. What did that Normanized version of herself think she'd been trying to do, locked in her studio all these years, turning her dreams and her frustrations into abstractions for other people to buy and remove from her life. Did she think Anne hadn't tried to create a place for herself?

Evidently Norman thought so. This was his world, after all, patterned on his impressions of reality. Anything Anne discovered here—even herself—would naturally be his version of things.

So Norman thought she should paint waterfalls, eh? And look like herself of twenty years ago. And set up her easel in the middle of the road so the first car through could drive right over her. Was that what he wanted? Did he want her dead?

The Mustang's tires squealed as she yanked it around a switch-back. She'd always thought he loved her. Admittedly, he loved her in a distant, tired sort of way lately, but after thirty years she didn't exactly expect Don Juan. He did love her, though, she felt sure of that. He couldn't want her dead.

If this were a dream, she'd say that her appearance in the middle of the road symbolized a desire for her to be seen, for her work to be out in public where people would notice it. Motels were public, but even Anne knew that hardly anyone actually looked at the paintings in the rooms. As long as they broke up all that white space on the walls without jarring the eye, nobody paid any attention to them.

Was that why she painted them? Did she want the relative obscurity of a hack artist's career?

The road curved around one last ridge, then led through an open meadow on the mountaintop to a spring that bubbled quietly from a hole in a bank into a rock-lined pool. Water flowed over the rocks and trickled down the mountainside, no doubt joining other spring water to become the stream Anne had seen below.

The road ended in a gravel parking lot just big enough for one car to turn around. It was empty now. Anne parked the Mustang next to a two-posted wooden sign with a trail map carved into it. It looked like the trail split into over a dozen different routes down the mountain's flank, giving the hiker a choice of scenery, but all of them led to the same point at the bottom. The end of the street where Anne and Norman lived, no doubt, and ultimately to Norman's garden.

She got out of the car and walked a few paces down the trail, careful not to turn an ankle on the gravel, until she could see the rest of it below her, winding its way down into the trees. A tiny figure worked its way upward. Norman, almost certainly.

She considered waiting for him in the car, listening to the radio and maybe painting her nails while he sweated his way to the top, but the sight of him climbing so steadily, unaware of what waited for him, softened her resentment at discovering this hidden paradise of his. She didn't know how either of them had gotten here; she had nothing but questions to show for her whole experience, but she didn't think he had set it up to entrap her. She didn't even think he'd been fooling around with any of the women in town, either. She knew him better than that.

In fact, nothing she'd seen here really surprised her much. She knew how Norman liked the outdoors, and she knew he liked to look at women, and she even knew how he felt about her artwork. She'd just been given a more vivid glimpse than usual of his true desires, that's all. She supposed she should feel lucky; most wives never saw their husbands quite this clearly.

She turned away and walked back to the car, suddenly self-conscious about spying on him. She'd learned enough. Maybe more than enough.

The easel and canvas still rested where she'd tossed them in the back seat. Anne considered using them to start a campfire, but she didn't want to put up with the smoke. Besides, it was a warm enough day as it was. A perfect day, actually, with the sun shining brightly and just enough clouds in the sky to provide occasional patches of shade. The air carried the scent of wildflowers, and the water splashing over the rocks sounded almost hypnotic.

She glanced over at the spring. One of the rocks on the far side of the pool looked just like the egg-shaped sphere she'd been painting this morning. That weathered granite texture, though; she wondered if she could capture that on canvas.

The image of the waterfall she'd caught herself painting earlier rose to haunt her. Could she really create something like that?

It was worth a try. She lifted her painting supplies from the back seat and carried them over to the edge of the pool. The canvas was blank now, but the palette was still bright with colors she hadn't used in years.

Her entire body tingled with anticipation. As she lifted the brush to the canvas, she wondered whose fantasy world she had stumbled into after all.

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