After Cal’s ma died, his father kept up with buying flowers from the market every Saturday. It was a sad thing, a man fixing flowers alone. The kinds he bought were never the same twice in a row; ranunculus, tulips, gardenias, those ugly but kind of beautiful cabbage flowers, baby’s breath because he married her in the 80s and she’d stuck some in her hair.
They didn’t talk about her much. There was a portrait of her in his dad’s room and when his new lady would stay over he’d put it face down, like he didn’t want her to see him fucking somebody else. Cal liked Martha because she was funny and already called him sweetheart. His dad liked her because she looked nothing like his wife.
Years before his ma died they took a trip to America as a family, and as a family they hiked and drove and ate big burgers in six states. At Yosemite she had pointed out the plants and taught them the difficult names of the trees — Sequoioideae, Pinophyta — spindly things reaching up and outwardly. She sang that Wildwood Flower song by The Carter Family, O he taught me to love him and called me his flower / that was blooming to cheer him through life’s dreary hour.
Cal’s friends still asked him ‘how’d she die’. It wasn’t drawn out like cancer, just an accident on the freeway in the morning peak hour — she was crushed. She was an accountant. The life insurance paid off the house. They felt greedy taking it but it made a hard time easier, lessened the blow.
There was a little money left over so Cal and his dad went back to the States. Cal couldn’t sleep on the plane but his dad did. His head fell on Cal’s shoulder somewhere over the Pacific. Cal didn’t wake him, even when he dribbled and it soaked through the shoulder of Cal’s shirt.
Their time back at Yosemite fell in midsummer and they were slick with sweat the three days they camped in the park. Cal’s dad stood on the edge of a cliff and did that thing that men do where they try to hold tears in their eyes with their fingers. It worked and Cal was quick to put the tissues back in his pocket. They kicked at the dirt and tied their jumpers around their waists. They were growing into friends.
When they pulled onto the highway to go back to Los Angeles the trees cleared away from the plains and there were miles and miles of yellow grass. Grass and strange rocks, strange trees and hot air. They stopped in Merced. It was sunset. They counted all these wild cats. Cal was used to the suburbs but not like that; he felt the unease. His dad let him wander while he went to see an old friend. Cal didn’t get ID’d and he drank this sweet lemon liquor in a gutter. Cars cruised past, low light.
Martha collected them from the airport. She put tentative arms around Cal and touched his dad’s face with both hands. The car windows fogged with hot breath as they drove back to the city. Cal helped his dad in the garden on the weekends and some nights the sky looked like silt had settled on top of it in one wide band of light.
Cal split his chin apart skating on the steps at the State Library. Martha looked at the wound when she came for dinner. She held one hand on the crown of his head and tilted his chin toward the light with the other, wiped the blood and said, ‘The boys that hang out there are arseholes, don’t be like them.’
Once, there was a re-run of Bye Bye Birdie as the Sunday night movie and Cal’s dad threw his wineglass at the wall. It must have caused a pain in him, another memory of her, one that Cal hadn’t been told about or was just too young to remember. Still, the thought of it must have hurt his dad in a staggering way; he only struck out when the grief was up to his neck. He let the wine seep into the carpet in the blue glow of the television. The title track was stuck in Cal’s head for a month.
(Yosemite trees. Photo provided by the author)
Laura Stortenbeker is a student writer / editor. She is tentatively working on a short story collection.
Jacky Hawkeswood is a Melbourne-based pharmacist with a camera, who enjoys drinking beers and talking about comics and films with enthusiasm.