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The Flower Woman
WHEN GOD'S SKULL WENT INTO geosynchronous orbit above the Western hemisphere, reflecting the sun by day and rivaling the moon each night, Nora Burkhart tried not to take it personally. But in recent years she'd known so much bereavement — a father lost to throat cancer, a mother to Alzheimer's, a husband to coronary thrombosis — that the omnipresent death's-head seemed to be monitoring her life alone, beaming down a grin of dark mockery and sadistic glee.
Nora Shafron and Eric Burkhart had fallen in love under conditions simultaneously public and private. The event occurred before six hundred pairs of eyes, but only Nora and Eric knew what was happening. He'd brought his magic act to Cary Hall in Lexington (a low point in his career) and needed a volunteer from the audience. Nora raised her hand. She thought him Byronic. Seconds later she ran onto the stage, and by the time she'd plucked the outsized Jack of Spades from the pack, displaying it for everyone except Eric to see, the two of them had achieved mutual infatuation: so said their incandescent stares. When Nora knocked on his dressing-room door that night, Eric the Uncanny was already pouring the champagne.
Even by the standards of newlyweds, Nora and Eric were an unusually self-absorbed and hermetic couple. On their best days they functioned as each other's closest friend, cleverest therapist, wisest mentor, and wildest obsession. On their worst days they argued bitterly, words coated with gall and saliva, but even these distressing exchanges boasted an energy that made Nora and Eric loath to waste their uncommitted hours on gossiping with neighbors or prattling at dinner parties. Better the ordeal of honesty, they felt, than the narcotic of chitchat.
Eric died on the job, two weeks after his thirty-eighth birthday and seven days before their fourth anniversary. Having just imprisoned his marginally clothed female assistant in a plywood sarcophagus, he was merrily skewering it with a scimitar when his heart suddenly ceased to function. With a guttural groan he clutched his chest, stumbled forward ten paces, and, as the audience's murmurs filled the Cabot Theater in downtown Boston, fell into the orchestra pit. He was a corpse before he hit the floor, bequeathing to Nora but three sustaining circumstances: a $75-a-month pension from the North American Conjurers' Guild, a steamer trunk full of magic props, and a male embryo developing in her womb.
Eric's mother rose to the occasion, changing half of the first two hundred diapers and feeding the baby from bottles of expressed milk, but it was little Kevin himself who really rescued Nora, soothing her grief with his chirpy laugh and talent for buffoonery. Although her child could not claim Eric's comeliness (he looked, in a word, goofy), he had clearly inherited his father's theatricality. One hot August afternoon in 1998, when Kevin was nine, he rounded up the neighborhood kids and made them watch a vaudeville show featuring Kevin the Incredible telling jokes, juggling tennis balls, and performing magic tricks. He charged each child twenty-five cents; the take, $3.75, went into the family till. As an eleven-year-old Webelos Scout, Kevin routinely enthralled his peers around the campfire by spinning out versions of Edgar Allan Poe stories more lurid than the originals. For "The Pit and the Pendulum," he astutely increased the number of tortures from two to five. For "The Tell-Tale Heart," he exploited the possibilities in other organs, adding a tell-tale sneezing nose and a telltale farting colon.
With an amalgam of pride and wistfulness, acceptance and melancholy, Nora watched her son grow older, turn inward, move beyond her. Santa Claus had long since vacated Kevin's pantheon. The boy hadn't gone trick-or-treating since 2001. He still did magic, but his act had recently grown morbid, the standard disappearing goldfish and transmigrating rabbits supplanted by routines such as "The Gourmet Ghoul," "The Giggling Mortician," and "The Brainless Brain Surgeon"— not to mention "The Roman Oracle," in which Kevin, posing as a soothsayer, would seemingly sacrifice a live cat on stage, open its abdomen, and pull from its innards a dozen plastic Easter eggs filled with predictions about upcoming Red Sox games and presidential elections.
What endured was his generosity. Some months he donated as much as twenty dollars to their communal cause, though usually more like ten. They needed it. On Kevin's sixth birthday, the Lexington School Committee had informed Nora that her English-teaching position at Paul Revere Junior High School no longer existed — dwindling enrollments, atrophied ideals — and after that the only job she could get was clerking and driving for Ray Feldstein's Tower of Flowers in Copley Square, her salary barely sufficient to buy the groceries, pay the phone bill, and appease the landlord of their East Cambridge apartment. Thanks to Kevin's magic act, their life together included many small amenities, from pet turtles to cable television, compact discs to take-out pizza.
Working for Ray Feldstein had its perks — pleasant scents suffused Nora's day, stray cuttings beautified her kitchen, and Ray let her use the delivery truck after hours — but she yearned to get back in the classroom. An English teacher was a person. An English teacher possessed a name. In the mouths of admiring ninth graders, "Mrs. Burkhart" had sounded almost like a military rank or a hereditary title: Mrs. Burkhart, English teacher, captivating Lexington's adolescents with Greek myths and Norse legends. But now she was just the chick at the cash register, the lady behind the steering wheel, the girl with the gladiolas.
She resolved to make the best of it. The Tower of Flowers appealed to Nora's philosophical side. A human life was measured out in bouquets, was it not? New mothers received them. So did graduating seniors, young lovers, blushing brides, and the dead. A flower woman was time's avatar, colorizing the hours, perfuming fleeting instants. Aided by the shop's battered copy of The Language of Flowers, Nora took satisfaction in pointing customers toward blossoms to which tradition had attached particular sentiments. Chinese chrysanthemums meant "cheerfulness under adversity." Jonquils said, "I desire a return of affection." Red carnations cried, "Alas for my poor heart." Yellow tulips stood for coquetry, geraniums for anxiety, ferns for sincerity, dame violets for watchfulness.
Flowers, Nora noticed, were rarely given lightly, and never received so. The beneficiaries reacted with gratitude, amusement, happy surprise, a sentimental tear, a gasp of ecstasy — though sometimes the gift caused pain. In such cases the recipient often sought Nora's advice, knowing intuitively that a sympathetic and intelligent listener stood on the doorstep.
"He loves me," averred Wendy the Somerville waitress — purple eye, puffy lip, bruised brow — as she carried the dozen fresh-cut roses into her kitchen and hunted around for a vase.
"You think?" said Nora, following.
"He sent me these flowers," Wendy argued.
"They aren't about you. They're about him."
"You don't understand. Mickey hates what he did."
"And if you go gushing over these roses, he won't hesitate to do it again."
"We have a complicated relationship," said Wendy.
"Tell me about it," said Nora.
"Everything's about him."
For the next twenty minutes the waitress recited the assorted indignities, psychological and physical, to which Mickey Morgan had subjected her. Whatever decadent echelon the orbiting skull occupied, Mickey's moral plane was evidently even lower. As Nora set off for home, she was gratified to see Wendy start the therapeutic process of ripping the petals off every last rose.
Nora's metaphysical difficulties began on the first Friday in September. Kevin had just started seventh grade, an event that by all appearances had further strengthened his resolve to put childhood behind him. That particular morning, however, he forsook sophistication and smiled joyfully when he saw an unopened package of breakfast cereal on the kitchen table. A magic trick lay concealed in every box of Wizard of Oats. Collect all sue, kids. To Nora's delight, Kevin suggested that they upend the box then and there, dumping out the cereal until the treasure showed itself. His enthusiasm did not surprise her. The universe of illusion was so important to Kevin that even its most degraded emanations thrilled him.
As Nora pulled a stainless-steel mixing bowl off the shelf, her son scanned the back of the cereal box. "I hope I get the Chinese rings," he said. "The rubber thumb would be good too."
She set the mixing bowl on the table, reading the box over his shoulder. "I like the Indian rope trick."
Kevin inverted the box. The auburn nuggets tumbled over each other as they avalanched into the bowl. Myths were embedded everywhere, Nora thought, even in the hyperindustrialized West Cereal, from Ceres, Roman goddess of grain.
He said, "Maybe it'll be the vanishing coin."
Excavating cereal boxes had been for Kevin a singularly pleasurable activity ever since, six months earlier, he'd hit the jackpot. Attack Force Flakes was among the many products spun off from a popular TV cartoon series about a United Nations commando unit battling its way across the oil fields of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Nora hated the cereal's politics, but Kevin loved its taste. Each box came with a trading card portraying either an Attack Force hero or a member of the fanatical opposition, but every ten-thousandth box also concealed a coupon good for one Swiss Army knife. Despite the odds, Nora's third purchase of Attack Force Flakes yielded this very bonanza, the precious paper fluttering out of the box like an origami bird and landing on the kitchen floor.
Within a month the amazing Swiss Army knife arrived. Nora and Kevin marveled at its versatility, prying up each tool and testing it (scissors, bottle opener, corkscrew, magnifier, insulation stripper, wood saw), and soon afterward they began mythologizing the great knife's prowess. If they got a flat tire, Kevin would say, "We'll have to use the lug wrench on my Swiss Army knife." If he seemed to be running a fever, she would say, "Time to use the digital thermometer on your Swiss Army knife." And so it went: time to use the snow shovel on the Swiss Army knife, the hedge clippers, the welding torch, the posthole digger, the chain saw, the jack hammer — a running gag that never ran out.
The Wizard of Oats box was nearly empty before something other than a nugget appeared atop the mound. Curiously, it wasn't a magic trick but a simple magnifying glass, no larger than the lid of an olive jar, distinguished only by an odd inscription on the plastic handle:
LENS * LOBO * LIGHT OF GOD
"They made a mistake," said Kevin, twisting the handle of the magnifying glass, hoping to unscrew it. The prize remained intact. "Lens, lobo, light of God ... what does that mean?"
With a measuring cup Nora transferred some oats into his cereal bowl. "Beats me. Lobo is Spanish for 'wolf.'"
Kevin slapped the magnifying glass onto the table. "I was hoping for the Chinese rings."
"I'm sorry, honey." Surreptitiously she surveyed his face: his ill- proportioned features had lately acquired a certain offbeat charm — stark china-blue eyes, thin mischievous lips, large upturned nose, sandy hair that curled every which way like wheat in a storm. "Maybe if I mail it to the company, they'll send us a real trick."
"You think so?"
"Not really, no." She glanced at the clock. The school bus would be at the corner in nine minutes. "Shit, we're running late."
"Can we get another box next week?"
"Sure. Better eat."
Her gaze drifted toward the kitchen window. Jehovah's gigantic headbone — the Cranium Dei, as the classically inclined called it — flashed her a smile. What a strange and frightening phenomenon was upon them. God dead, His corpse decayed, His skull in orbit. Nobody in the present age, no theologian, philosopher, psychologist, poet, or English teacher, could discuss it coherently.
She closed her eyes and said, "Come on, Kevin. Eat."
"Do you think it was meant just for us?" He stared through the magnifying glass while simultaneously inundating his Wizard of Oats with milk.
"No, I don't. Eat, darling. Have you got your key? Is your homework in your backpack?"
"I think it was meant just for us." He put a spoonful of cereal in his mouth and chewed. "Somebody's trying to get our attention."
"He sure got mine."
The enigmatic magnifying glass not only seized Kevin's attention, it ultimately claimed Nora's consciousness as well. Instead of sending the prize to General Mills and demanding a magic trick in its place, she kept it near her at all times, removing it from her handbag during free moments — coffee breaks, lunch hours, railroad crossings — and running a finger along the etched handle. Lens, lobo, light of God. The words sounded oracular, incantatory, like Dante's forbidding "All hope abandon, ye who enter here," or the prophet asking Ishmael and Queequeg, "Shipmates, have ye shipped in that ship?"
Nine weeks after the magnifying glass arrived, Nora was assigned to deliver a thousand orchids to Brookline's Arborway Cemetery in advance of a 4:00 P.M. interment — her last stop of the day. Striding toward lot 49A, she watched as three grimy workers used cranes and winches to lower an intact 1999 Cadillac Catera into the hole. A battered backhoe rose from a nearby knoll like a mutant steam shovel. Having just scooped out the oversized grave, the backhoe operator, a rangy man with a gold tooth and a bad shave, was enjoying a cigarette.
She approached the Catera and looked through the windshield. Behind the wheel sat the embalmed remains of an elderly gentleman dressed in Bermuda shorts and a splashy Hawaiian shirt. His teeth were bared in a grin of astonished joy, as if he'd just won the car in a raffle. Nora wasn't surprised. She'd expected some such burial since noticing that the crib sheet specified a scion of the fabulously wealthy and extravagantly nutty Gansevoort family. In April of 1993, Estella Gansevoort had roared into Heaven astride her beloved Harley Davidson. Two years later, Horace Gansevoort had gone to glory in his speedboat. The previous summer, Roger Gansevoort had piloted a Cessna through the Pearly Gates.
Climbing out of the backhoe cab, the operator volunteered to help Nora unload the panel truck. He looked her in the eye, flirtatiously. What her face had going for it, she felt, was not beauty but rather a certain drama: black irises, full lips, ambitious cheekbones — features that had proved particularly useful in staring down unruly students.
"Offer accepted," she said. There were times, such as today, when she missed sex so much that doing it with a semiskilled laborer in the cab of a backhoe would seem, on balance, more earthy than degrading.
"First time I heard about these wackos and their crazy coffins, I thought it was pretty funny," said the operator, wrapping his long arms around a cluster of orchids. "Now I think, what a waste."
"It's always a thin line between panache and decadence," said Nora, wondering whether the man knew how blatantly he was staring at her breasts.
"Whatever. Personally, I don't get why people bother with funerals anymore." Approaching the hole, he set down the flowers and nodded toward the celestial skull. God shone brightly in the clear autumn sky. "If you want my opinion, Heaven's been locked up tight for a long time now. These days, even a billionaire can't get in."
Later, leaving the scene of the impending funeral, Nora steered the panel truck along the labyrinthine roads of Arborway Cemetery. A colossal granite vault loomed before her, more lavish than any residence she was likely to occupy in either life or death. Whoever these aristocrats might be, their mausoleum could easily accommodate a dozen generations.
The Cranium Dei's rays poured down, streaming through a stand of poplar trees and throwing patches of divine light on the tomb portal. Above the greenish black steel door, chiseled deep into the lintel, the name LOBO glinted amid the shifting shadows.
Pulse pounding, Nora pulled over. She grabbed her handbag, quit the truck, and rushed toward the mausoleum. Framed by leaf shadows, a brilliant spot of skullshine danced atop the first O in LOBO. Tiny printing, inaccessible to the unaided eye, filled the oval like an engraved motto on a gold watch.
She took out the magnifying glass and positioned it over the minuscule words, easing them into focus. Three distinct inscriptions hovered before her gaze. She blinked. The top quotation, deadly serious, was the most commendable sentiment she'd ever seen attributed to the central figure of the English Civil War.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Eternal Footman"
Copyright © 1999 James Morrow.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
The Flower Woman,
A Crisis in the West,
Not by Bread Alone,
GILGAMESH IN GREENSBORO,
The God's Ear Brigade,
Nora Joins the Circus,
The Flagellants of Montrose,
Waiting for Lucido,
The Olmec Innovation,
Matters of Life and Death,
About the Author,