by Jennifer Ahlquist
I found my brother again at the garden center. I was sure I’d imagined his voice, just over my shoulder in line for the register. He’d only been dead six weeks and I’d read that things like that could happen. Auditory hallucinations. But then it came again – Paul’s growl, unmistakable and very close. Becca, it said. I swiveled, bumping into pansies and tomato vines around me with the unwieldy fern in my arms that Dr. Chakiryan said might help bring life back into the apartment. I thought this was a poor choice of words, or maybe an apt one because he also said that we find the meaning we want to in what other people tell us. Ben hadn’t come with me, so I couldn’t ask him if he heard it, too. He’d said he couldn’t take any more paid time off after the funeral since it was his girlfriend’s bereavement, not his. Again I heard it, practically on top of me. Becca.
Issue #133 soundtrack: Zigtebra “Where Have You Gone?”
Paul? I whispered. The fern in my arms rustled. Paul? I looked down.
Hi, Paul said, waving his frond.
The woman behind me pressed her flat of flowers against my back to tell me the next register was open.
Shhhh, Paul said, don’t freak.
I started to protest when they wrapped Paul’s roots too tightly in burlap, but he waved again to shush me up.
Beautiful plant, the cashier said, really a home-maker.
Thank you, I gushed, and clutched my brother to me across the counter.
We drove home in silence. He draped a frond out the passenger side window and we both listened to the breeze whip through the car. That was one of my favorite things about Paul – the way we could be quiet together. It’s what made us good friends and better roommates, and what had united us against the loud, untidy lives of our parents. Once, we spent the whole drive from Indianapolis back to Mamaroneck in total silence just to give them the spooks. They didn’t fight for a week after that. When they divorced mercifully a few years later, Paul took me to the driving range while the movers ferried our stuff to Mom and Darrell’s new place the next county over. He liked it better there than at the mini golf course. Too messy, too many noisy families. Thwack! Thwack! Our hits rang out and the dimpled balls raced each other into the turf. We didn’t know how to golf. We said nothing but we felt better. I felt better. Dr. Chakiryan said I need to stop using “we” when I talk about Paul.
At home, I had to grab Paul’s stalk with both hands to wrestle him into the pot. He wasn’t very large, but the weight of his roots surprised me.
I’m sorry it’s just terra cotta, I said.
You know I’m not picky about my pot.
He rustled, so I laughed, too. I put him in the sunniest window and grabbed a couple of beers. I stuck the long neck of one bottle upside down in Paul’s soil and sank into the couch.
Thanks, said Paul, I’m sick of water.
We air-toasted to being alone together again.
I skipped lunch with Ben the next day, said I was finally sorting Paul’s stuff. I held things up and Paul said yes, keep it, or no, I don’t need a toothbrush anymore. We kept all the vinyl because we could still listen to them together. I remembered reading somewhere that music helped plants to grow.
I’m sure he would have been glad to see these put to good use, the Vietnam Vets donation guy told me when he came to pick up Paul’s clothes.
Well, they don’t fit me, I said, and he smiled at me like Darrell had when he brought Mom over to the apartment after the burial. A toothless smear of well-intended pity. Darrell and Ben had sat in our secondhand armchairs drinking iced tea and watching football like it was Thanksgiving instead of a funeral. I didn’t even know we got the sports channels.
Ben, it means so much to Darrell and me that you were a pall bearer today.
Mom’s voice was thick but didn’t falter. She hadn’t removed her ridiculous black hat with its bird-cage netting and clutched a black silk bag in her lap. I could see the tag poking out of the top. She’d probably return it later, and I hoped she’d only get store credit.
It was so special to see everyone who loved him, all his most important people, there together for him.
I left them in the living room and got in bed. Mom ushered Darrell away from the game and out the door without saying goodbye. Dr. Chakiryan said that my non-confrontational attitude was why I hadn’t gone to the funeral.
Limited to his terra cotta pot, Paul talked more than he ever had with legs. Things I barely noticed him doing as a person became the subjects of lengthy tutorials. The filter on the air conditioner had to be cleaned, the couch cushions rotated, the glue traps reset under the oven. The prickly fuzz on his stems bristled whenever I didn’t follow instructions quite right. An internet search told me they were called rhizomes. I wanted to know everything about him. I learned how much sun he needed and not to over-water. He walked me through setting the right rpm on the record player, taught me how to make his perfect pan-fried quesadillas (low heat, patience), and finally explained how to get the TV to sync up with the DVD player so we could re-watch Ingmar Bergman movies until I passed out on the sofa.
Are you asleep, Paul? I asked once, after Through a Glass Darkly.
I don’t think I can, he answered.
I didn’t sleep much that night either, and when I did, I dreamt of a terrible spider crouched in Paul’s leaves. I dusted him in the morning in spite of his protests, just to be sure.
Before we became roommates, I’d visited him in his first and only year at college. He took me to a house party where I wore a skirt Mom didn’t know I owned and got drunk fast on vodka mixed with Kool-Aid powder. When one of his friends offered me a bump from the crook of his thumb, Paul swatted the guy’s hand away. He handed him a ten for the spilled coke and practically frog-marched me back to his dorm. We ordered a pizza and Paul made me sleep on my side. He didn’t tell me off ever, but the next night at the next party he tallied my whiskey punches in pen on his arm. I was never as good at keeping track of him as he was of me. He’d gotten in the habit of staying away overnight while he was using, and I was so used to the quiet that it took more than a day for me to find his body. I’d made breakfast, done the dishes, slept in a bedroom that shared a wall with his. I hadn’t even gone in to see him, I just wanted to borrow his headphones.
Oh Bec, Ben had said when I called him from the hospital. Honey, please don’t tell me you’re surprised.
And then I was ashamed of both of us.
When the 24-pack of beers ran out, I invited Ben over. I hadn’t gone back to work yet so cash was running low, and besides, I was beginning to miss my boyfriend. I told Paul that he was coming over and the leaves at his crown drooped.
Couldn’t you just pick something up? he asked.
We hadn’t had anybody else over all week, not counting the Vietnam Vets guy.
C’mon, just the two of us.
I tied the sleeves of a blue flannel shirt I’d held onto around his pot, to help him feel more like himself. The doorbell rang.
I’m not ready, Paul said. Brrrong went the doorbell again.
You look awesome, Paul, I said.
Ben’s a prick, said Paul.
Hey pretty, said Ben when I answered the door. He took a bottle of whiskey out of his bag and gave it a little shake. I grabbed two glasses and a turkey baster from the kitchen while Ben dropped his stuff in the living room.
Are you making something?
He watched as I tipped a generous pour into each glass, and stuck the baster into the fifth of Johnnie Walker, sucking liquor into the rubber bulb. I handed Ben a glass and shoved the long tube of the baster into Paul’s dirt. I hoped he’d loosen up soon.
Do you want to watch a movie? I asked neither of them in particular.
Ben swallowed whatever he had been preparing to say. I picked Paul’s favorite Bergman, Fanny and Alexander. He hadn’t said a word since Ben came in. The apartment got too hot, even with the windows open. Paul’s smallest leaves were looking spindly, and sweat condensed where my back pressed against the sofa cushions. Life got worse for Fanny and Alexander, despite their well-meaning family. Ben was bored. The turkey baster was only half full.
It was always like this when the three of us hung out – which had been rare. Ben and Paul rooted themselves in opposite corners while I tried to bridge the space between them. I couldn’t blame Ben. He didn’t know he was ignoring Paul because I hadn’t told him anything yet. I felt the room grow more oxygenated as Paul completed his vegetal respiration furiously in the corner. I refused to speak for him. He’d been so forthcoming all week, I resented guessing at his thoughts. I hated him sitting there like an impotent chaperone. He could have tried. He could have asked for help.
Ben’s hand slid from my knee to my thigh, and upwards still until it found the Y of my jeans. I stiffened, Paul swayed in the corner. I closed my eyes and breathed through my nose. Dr. Chakiryan’s voice counted in my head. In for seven. Hold for five. Out for nine. Ben’s lips found my neck, my collarbone, my earlobe. We hadn’t had sex since Paul died.
Maybe we should go to your room? Ben asked from deep in his throat.
No, I said, and pulled his face back towards mine.
I pushed my tongue past his teeth and leaned into the cushions, arching my back so he could slide a hand around to unhook my bra. Paul said nothing. I pulled Ben’s shirt over his head, and he grinned. He reached for my breasts with both hands, his mouth a hard line. I turned my head to offer him my neck and saw Paul, perfectly still by the open window despite the breeze. We had never seen each other naked. His leaves were curling in on themselves, and I knew he’d have to say something soon. I stared, daring him.
Jesus, the blinds, said Ben.
He stood, red-faced, a hand outstretched to move Paul from the window sill.
Don’t touch him!
We stood facing each other in the cramped, too-hot room.
Him? I watched the confusion settle across his face.
I think I fell in love with him because I always knew what he was thinking. I wished I didn’t now. The quiet in the room was heavy. I felt it settle at the bottom of my lungs like cold air.
You okay, Bec? Ben asked, his hand resting on the edge of Paul’s pot.
My stomach felt too full of whatever vomit is when it’s still inside you. The Johnnie Walker made my skin too hot. They stood there not seeing each other, and I didn’t want them to. I didn’t want to be seen by them, either.
You should go, I said, grabbing my shirt from the sofa. I have an early session with Dr. Chakiryan.
I’m sorry, Becca, Ben said.
He kissed me on the forehead and left the whiskey as he went.
Paul was still quiet. I called out to him as soon as the door was closed, but he didn’t answer. I was still sweating and felt dizzy.
Paul, are you still…?
Paul didn’t stir. I got down on the floor next to him, my cheek on the rim of his pot. I stuck my fingers in the dirt and dug and dug and dug for his roots, twisting my fingers through them until they turned purple. The rest of the whiskey trickled out of the baster and made my hands and face muddy.
Paul, I’m sorry.
I tugged at the flannel, tipping soil into my lap while I held him. I petted his fronds and kissed the tiny, woolly leaves.
Paul, I’m sorry.
I spread his dirt across my legs, rubbed it into my arms. I buried my head in the fullness of his leaves. We stayed like that until early morning when I woke up in a puddle of booze and dirt with broken fern fronds in my hair.
I rewrapped Paul, now turning yellow and brittle at his edges, in the burlap from the garden center and carried him outside to watch while I dug in the shared lot behind the apartment building. He stayed silent, stretched his leaves and turned toward the sun. The sun felt good on my face, too. I nestled him down into the fresh hole, packed him in with topsoil. He looked much bigger out in the yard than he had in the apartment. I knelt in close to pat down the earth around his stalk.
Thanks, Becca, I thought I heard him whisper.
I said nothing. I wiped my hands on the blue flannel tied around my waist, and went back inside for the watering can.
Jennifer Ahlquist is a Philadelphia-based writer with a background in theater and social media marketing. A recent transplant from NYC, she is currently working towards completing a collection of very short fiction.
L.K. James is an artist making books, comics, and other things in Portland, OR. For more, visit lkjames.com or follow the artist on Instagram.
Zigtebra is Zebra (Emily Rose) and Tiger (Joseph). They are half-siblings who met in Chicago in 2010 while performing in the Pure Magical Love dance troop. Armed with a cassette of collected songs ("The Pink Line"), they set off across America on a summer road trip/tour. When they returned to Chicago they locked themselves up at Observatory Studios and recorded new material for their first studio album "The Brave," which released October 2014 in limited white vinyl from FPE Records. For more, visit the band on Bandcamp, Soundcloud, or on zigtebra.com.