“The Scent of Gardenias” By Michael Anthony

Standing in the maroon bathrobe that is his daily outfit since the oncologist told him the chemo wasn’t working anymore, Alberto Bartholdi stares out the screen door, waiting for that nice real estate woman who will arrange the sale of the place he has called home for three decades and at a price she said was the best he could expect for a house in such run-down condition. Besides, with his family gone, there’s no reason to keep it.

The distinctive scent of gardenias floating on a rare Los Angeles morning breeze carries Al from the doorway of the blue stucco house back thirty-six years to the hot Oklahoma day he met Norma.

On a ten-day furlough from Fort Sill but with barely enough cash for five and certainly not enough to get back east to Secaucus, Al strolled Lawton in search of a bar. After a couple of cold ones at the Lucky Sevens Lounge, Al sauntered out into the unrelenting Oklahoma sun that turned the street into a washed-out postcard and his eyes into narrow slits.

Still adjusting to the blinding sunlight, he paused at the corner; then stepped off the curb heading towards Holliman’s Dry Goods to get a sport shirt for later that evening when he would shed his uniform and scope out the bars for some female companionship, which hopefully wouldn’t cost more than a few drinks. The moment he did, a battered pickup rounded the corner and slammed him to the ground with a bone-jarring thud.

A girl with a gardenia tucked behind her ear and who looked all of eighteen, screamed out the passenger side window. Convinced her uncle, who was driving, had killed a man; a United States soldier no less, the girl buried her crying face in her hands. If her uncle was lucky, it might just be jail time, but with tensions running high in Lawton, he’d likely face immediate and bloody justice meted out right on the street. She flung the door open, accidentally hitting Al square on the back of the head as he was trying to stand. He went down hard a second time.

“Oh mister, I’m so sorry,” she cried.

“Jesus Christ, you tryin’ to kill me?” Al yelled back.

“You all right?” the girl begged from behind the trembling hand now covering her mouth.

Al shook his head, trying to clear the fog that had settled over him.

“We didn’t see you!” the girl said.

Al’s bruised leg gave out and he pitched towards the street again. Instantly, the tall girl curled her arm around his waist. Possessed of newfound strength, she lifted Al and moved him to the open tailgate.

“Your uniform is a mess; and that knee,” she said.

Blood: fresh, red, and wet, stained the government issued khakis. A jagged opening the size of a dollar bill exposed his leg below the knee. The flesh looked like ground meat.

“That’s gotta be cleaned,” she remarked.

“I’ll be fine,” Al said. “Just give me a minute to catch my breath.”

The scent of the gardenia in the girl’s lustrous ebony hair mesmerized Al. The sudden squeal of tires skidding across hot asphalt and the serious slam of a car door stopped their conversation. All color drained from the girl’s face.

“What’s goin’ on ‘ere?”

Neither Al, nor the girl, nor her uncle who still sat behind the wheel, answered.

“I said, what’s ‘appened ‘ere? You all deaf?” The Comanche County deputy peered at Al’s uniform, then directly into his eyes.

“I walked into the truck, but I’m okay,” Al said.

“That leg don’t look too good,” the deputy sneered.

“Bad scrape, that’s all,” Al replied.

“Got your papers, soldier?” the deputy demanded.

“Yes sir, right here.” Al fished the base pass from his breast pocket and handed it to the deputy, who studied it as if sighting a rifle; one eye closed, the other drawing a bead.

“What ‘bout you two? Little far off the reservation, ain’t ‘cha?”

“We were headin’ to Indian Affairs on Euclid,” the girl answered.

“Say you walked into the truck, boy?” the deputy asked Al without looking away from the girl in tight dungarees and an even tighter denim shirt that strained to stay closed.

“Yes sir.” Al emphasized the ‘sir’ hoping to cut off any more questions. The girl’s arm was still around Al’s waist.

“You drunk, soldier?” the deputy barked.

“No sir. Had two beers. That’s all.”

The deputy glared at Al. “If you ain’t drunk, then how is it you walk clear into a pickup truck? Can’t be bad eyes, otherwise you wouldn’t be wearin’ that artillery brass.”

“Wasn’t thinking, I guess?” Al offered meekly.

“Got a mind to bring you all in and sort this out at the station,” the deputy snarled, then folded his muscular arms across his chest.

Al spoke up. “Sir, I’m really okay. These folks didn’t do anything wrong. It was all my fault. A little antiseptic and a bandage, I’ll be on my way.”

“Come ‘ere old man,” the deputy ordered the girl’s uncle out of the truck. He moved towards the officer in silence, all the while avoiding eye contact. Waiting until he was close enough to smell the old man’s breath the deputy asked, “You the drunk one here, chief?”

Convinced he wasn’t, the deputy returned Al’s papers and let loose with a mouthful of chaw that splattered the old man’s boot. “Get on outta here. All of ya.” The deputy leaned into Al until the brim of his Stetson bumped Al’s forehead. “You already used up your day’s worth of luck. So, don’t go playin’ any poker, soldier.”

“Yes, sir,” Al replied, recoiling at the rancid stench of chewing tobacco oozing from the deputy’s open mouth.

Thankful Al didn’t implicate her uncle, the girl insisted he at least let her clean the wound and stitch his pants. With no real alternative and that fragrance of gardenias still in the air, Al agreed.

He spent the rest of that afternoon with the girl in a small house just outside of Lawton. She told him her name was Norma Roan Eagle from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and was visiting her uncle, Lester Little Moon; her aunt Inez; and their five children. Norma knelt and cleaned Al’s leg with a cloth she dipped in water boiling over a severed oil drum that was the family’s stove.

Using the point of a hunting knife she passed through the open flame, Norma picked out dirt and tar fragments with the steadiness of a surgeon. The touch of her hand cupping his knee soothed Al. When Norma leaned to retrieve a gauze pad, a patch of bronze skin and the fullness of a breast showed she wore no bra. The heat stirred by her nearness rivaled that burning beneath the oil drum.

The old man spoke to Norma in his native tongue. Then, she turned to Al, “My uncle wishes you to stay with us tonight. He says it is the only way he can repay your kindness and courage with the deputy earlier.” Al was all set to decline when Norma looked into his eyes and said, “Please. It is important to him…and me.” He stayed.

Roofed by a patchwork of discarded metal signs and tarpaper, the house was really one large room partitioned into smaller ones by sheets of plywood salvaged from railroad shipping crates. The place was thick with the smell of mesquite.

It couldn’t have felt more foreign if Al was huddled inside a yurt on the fringes of the Gobi Desert. Yet, there was also something inexplicably familiar about this misplaced group of Oglala Sioux. Perhaps it was the generous welcome of food and lodging that reminded him of his own Sicilian relatives back in New Jersey for whom the biggest insult would be to refuse an invitation to share a meal.

That night, sleep came in short intervals between longer periods of wide-eyed restlessness and leg pain. Twice, Al sensed someone else lying awake in the flickering amber glow of the smoldering fire. He was convinced it was Norma, but he could make out no features, only the feather soft sound of her breathing and that scent of gardenias.

The following morning, Al awoke to a breakfast of cornbread, eggs, and coffee. Norma drove Al back to Lawton and spent the day with him, having lunch at a diner near the railway station. As the sun set they chose to spend another night together, this one alone in a motel out on Highway 36. With Al in his mended uniform and Norma with a gardenia above her ear, they exchanged wedding vows in front of a justice of the peace on the last day of Al’s furlough. When his tour ended some eight months later they headed west to Los Angeles, which Al told Norma was the city of the future for a bricklayer like himself. The twins, Janice and Judy, were born the following month. Al planted a gardenia just outside the front door to mark the occasion.

They had another child, a boy named Jeffrey. But, Norma, who hated the brown smog that passed for sky in LA, yearned for the plains of South Dakota and the canopy of stars that blanketed them at night. One afternoon some seven years later while Al was working in El Segundo, Norma and the kids caught a bus to Rapid City.

Al found Norma’s note taped to the refrigerator. It said she wanted the children to be raised with their Sioux family. His unanswered letters to her stopped some months later. After saving enough money, Al traveled to South Dakota to see his children. When he arrived, and for the three days he remained there, he was told multiple different stories by Norma’s extended family members and neighbors. The only thing they had in common was that the children were not nearby. The reservation police were of no help.

Al returned to Los Angeles a broken man. Despite a few fleeting relationships, the remainder of Al’s life was solitary. Eventually, he became known as “that old guy” on the block and when the cancer returned, “that old sick guy.”

Other than some short walks to the market three blocks away, Al hasn’t left his house in nearly a month. The deal to buy his property should give him enough money to find a place closer to the hospital where he might qualify for a clinical trial of a new drug. But, with his weight dropping steadily and now hovering around 111, he doesn’t hold out much hope. His cough is getting worse too.

Before the woman arrives for their nine-thirty meeting, Al changes into a wrinkled navy blue suit, gray tie, and a dim shirt that once, many years ago, might have been white. The jacket hangs from his skeletal frame and the cuffs of his pants pool around shoes that still have a military polish. The ashen skin on Al’s face sags like a bad slipcover and if he were to lie down, you’d think he was already a corpse.

A knock at the door draws Al to the entryway. Expecting it to be the real estate woman, he is surprised to find the postman. “Here’s your mail, Al.”

“Thanks,” he replies while taking the stack of medical bills, food market flyers, and a large manila envelope. Al moves to the card table where he opens the large envelope postmarked Lawton OK and pulls a handwritten note from it.

 

Al,

I found this while cleaning out my parents’ things. Thought you might want it.

All the best,

Calvin Little Moon

Al’s heart pounds as he stares through tears at a faded photograph of him in his newly repaired Army uniform leaning against the pickup truck that had sent him crashing to the ground. That captivating eighteen-year-old girl with a gardenia tucked in her coal black hair stands at his side, her arm looped through his. Al smiles, then closes his eyes trying to relive every second of that memorable day.

A neatly dressed woman peers through the screen door to see Al seated at that card table with his back to her. “Hello, Mr. Bartholdi? It’s Lorna from Curley Real Estate. Mr. Bartholdi?”

Though the scent of gardenias is heavy, Al does not answer because his now still heart aches no more.

 

 

THE END


Michael Anthony is a writer and artist living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry, and illustrations in literary journals and commercial magazines. Recently these include Second Hand Stories Podcast, Route 7 Review, The Write Place At The Write Time, Scarlet Leaf Review, Bull & Cross, and Storyland. The American Labor Museum exhibited Michael’s photojournalism essay on the waning of the textile industry. 

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