a short story by Jerry Zinn
Lorraine tended an herb and flower garden of English sensibility. It took shape over decades, between their cedar shake cottage and the long bend of Binkley Street. Starting first with easier plants like mint and Zinnias, she grew adept at cultivating varieties. In a South-facing section, seven species of rosemary coexisted. Smelling sprigs between her fingers, Lorraine differentiated each type to demonstrate her expertise.
Early on, Lorraine shared knowledge with her husband Ed. He nodded at the mention of hybrids and aromatic notes. It was the same with comments she made about planting arrangements. She doubted whether Ed paid genuine attention, and gradually she opted to write the facts in the leather journal her sister bought her in London. While Lorraine wore tidy capris and linen shirts, Ed dressed in triple-stitched workwear. When her clothing ripped she replaced it, but each tear and hole in his outfits was a mark of experience.
Ed looked after the brick-lined beds, the flagstones, the sandy gravel — structural elements. He was most active at these jobs while Lorraine bathed on the other side of the house. When she was not there, he considered it his garden, having constructed it from the patchwork lawn that came with the house. Generally, Ed remained in his workshop, tucked into the corner of the garden like the sock drawer in which he stored his folded clothes. Dwarfed by towering Delphinium, the structure was built of thickly painted siding and housed the tools of a craftsman.
Lorraine woke that morning with an uneasy stomach. On her stroll through the garden at that early hour she visited Ed’s workshop, making an unnoticeable adjustment and tucking the key into her robe when she left. The walk settled her stomach, but her nerves remained heightened. Lorraine drew a hot bath and settled into Epsom salts with a dogeared paperback of Elizabeth Barrett Browning poems.
Ed coughed himself awake an hour later. He noticed Lorraine’s absence in bed, which was often the case on days of note. Putting on jeans and a chambray, he shuffled to the mudroom. Unusually, the key was missing, so he grabbed the spare from the lowest drawer. In his workshop, Ed anxiously searched the stack of blueprints and hardware receipts until he found the envelope. He withdrew the solitary airline ticket, running his finger over the destination: “RIO DE JANEIRO.”
Ed’s eye caught the propane gauge, its pressure needle at zero. Despite a weak sense of smell, he knew gas filled the room. Holding his breath, he tightened the connection and used a razor to slice the seals on the windows. Pressing against years of disuse, he pried them open. Once the fan reached full speed he left the shop and stood by the patch of alfalfa near the street.
Beneath the porch, the stone steps glowed in the light of the flickering sconce. Years earlier Lorraine complained the top step was uneven. He had double-checked with a level — another instance where he could have said “I told you so” but didn’t. While the gas cleared, he went to the stair with a trowel and fixed a bucket of cement. By the time the sun peeked over the trees, he had finished removing the stone and recementing it. It would take hours to set, but it appeared as level and stable as before.
The air in the workshop was clean, but he left the fan running. On the workbench sat the Georgian birdhouse, on which moisture had eaten through the waterproofing and rotted the door. Building a miniature replacement required a steady hand and strong patience. And while his hands never shook, his patience was often tested on the birdhouses.
Lorraine emerged from the house refreshed, the warm summer breeze catching her hair—a shade of hazy red staving off the whiteness of age. Around midday she had a habit of checking the mirror, when her lines faded from hydration and sunlight. She looked sixty or younger, an opinion eagerly supported by friends. They simply couldn’t believe she was in her seventies!
Two tarragons sat in the thinning canvas bag on her shoulder. Ed purchased them from the neighborhood shop following her directions, explicit and red-penned. “Just hand this to them,” she had said. They weren’t the best specimens, but they were correct.
“This is the Russian tarragon, and that’s the French. Russian is bitter, naturally. The French, of course, is strongly anise,” she was prepared to tell visitors.
Lorraine was admiring the tarragons when the freshly laid step gave way beneath her. Reaching out to break her fall, the bag slid off her shoulder and cushioned her head. Barely an inch separated her temple from the sharp edge of the basil bed. The crash broke Ed’s concentration through the magnifying glass. Setting the screwdriver down, he leaned out the window.
“Lorraine? Everything all right?”
She drew her knees in and rolled over, protected from her husband’s gaze. If only she could remain there, motionless, watching the clouds break apart.
“Yes, dear! Cleaning up loose soil!”
“Long as nothing happened to you.”
“Don’t be daft. I’m fine!”
Affixing the door was the final step in the birdhouse restoration. Of the four birdhouses on their property, this was Ed’s favorite because it was home to bluebirds. Bluebirds were firm and self-assured, independent. Ed removed the newly built door from the vice grip, a fine specimen, and placed it on the workbench. Then, selecting a rubber mallet from the pegboard, he smashed it, scattering splinters in every direction.
“What are you doing in there! Banging symbols?” called Lorraine.
Ed swept the fragments into the trash with a horsehair brush.
“Will that birdhouse be soon done?”
“It’s taking longer.”
“That pole looks sparse without it. I do wish you’d hurry up about it. We’ll have omelets this morning. Once I finish planting, I’ll collect the herbs.”
Their conversations were often staccato. Lorraine pinched tissues between her hands to stop the bleeding. The abrasions were mild, but healing took longer at her age. Securing the bag on her shoulder, she walked to the workshop, fighting a slight limp.
“Ed? D’ya hear?”
He smiled that easy smile, without showing his teeth. It transported her back to when he stole her heart. It was the way his hair curled behind his ears, how dutifully he listened to her stories. His eyebrows remained prominent, sharply angled, framing honest brown eyes. How poorly those traits translated to the realities of a relationship.
“I’d like a cocktail tonight. To celebrate,” Lorraine said.
“Last time you drank a cocktail was at the Morris’s Christmas party, when you—”
“Don’t be cruel. I thought it would please you to make something special for our anniversary.”
“You’re right. That would be nice. Who’d’ve believed fifty years would take half a century.”
Ed clapped the sawdust from his hands.
“To think, I once found your wit attractive.”
“Glad you’re alright. I heard a crash, and I worried.”
Lorraine turned to her garden.
“There’s never reason to worry about me. Remind me to take that pill with breakfast. I made it halfway through yesterday before you said something. Dr. Horvath was very clear that I must take it at eight o’clock every morning.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll make sure this time.”
On her way out she paused, digging her nail at the razor line in the windowsill.
“Don’t you always keep the windows closed?”
“I wanted fresh air.”
Beyond the typical culinary plants in the garden, Lorraine kept special herbs that were otherwise useful, which she described as, “glorified weeds.” Some of the glorified weeds required caution to pick, and for those she used disposable gloves. Kneeling on a neoprene pad, Lorraine cautiously trimmed what she needed. In her younger years there were more enterprising men—more passionate lovers, promising different lives. Such thoughts arose regularly in the vicinity of the special section.
Armed with the requisite herbs, Lorraine hurried inside for a glass of cold water. The gas range, Ed’s sole insistence in the remodel, held a prominent place in the kitchen. Initially Lorraine balked at the cost, but she came to prefer the rawness of flames. Its industrial shimmer mellowed with use, making it more friendly to her aesthetic. Old Christmas cards and pictures decorated the hood.
She divided butter between two pans and watched the edges melt to a sizzle. Turning the heat down, she chopped the spinach. In a bowl she whisked heavy cream into the reddish yolks, dividing evenly between pans. To mince the herb, she donned latex gloves. Lorraine sprinkled the small green flecks into one omelet and, with separate spatulas, plated carefully.
“Ed! Breakfast!” she yelled from the porch.
Along the narrow shelf above him sat differently labeled vials. Previously, each contained a medicinal tincture; their effects were mild and entirely psychological, but the containers were well-suited for other concoctions. From the selection he plucked a sample labeled “ELIXIR X.” Ed locked up and avoided the loose rock on the stair, which Lorraine had poorly replaced on the wet cement. Now it was uneven. Ed washed his hands in the garage slop sink. Lorraine forbade him from using the one in the kitchen.
The circular dining table was draped with a seasonal cotton cloth. Spring was a rose pattern, winter a mélange of Christmas kitsch. Presently, woven palm fronds dotted with coconuts represented summer. Lorraine adored the whimsical prints, while it reminded Ed of the places people went to die. At those facilities they served banana pudding on St. Patrick’s Day laminate. He’d visited his father too many times at that depressing place, Jacaranda Villas, where there were neither Jacarandas nor villas.
“Happy anniversary Ed.”
Lorraine gripped his hand with a gardener’s strength. She had a way of sitting—erect, on the front edge of the chair as though she’d had fusion or a royal upbringing. Even in repose, in the privacy of their home, she never relaxed.
“Happy anniversary Lorraine.”
“I hope you like your omelet.”
“I certainly am hungry.”
When he recognized the green flecks in the omelet, Hemlock, his appetite escaped. Ed peppered generously as Lorraine chewed.
“That jazz station of yours would be wonderful about now,” he said, setting down the shaker. “Would you mind turning it on in the other room? You know how terrible I am with that machine.”
Lorraine couldn’t stand watching him fiddle with the buttons while the radio blared pop music. Though Ed discovered the channel that played Ellington, Hancock, and Brubeck, they called it hers. Just as the gas range, nicely patinaed, was now “Lorraine’s stove.”
Once Lorraine left the room, Ed dumped his eggs into the trash and stuffed paper towels atop. Piano music drifted in from the family room, and he eased into the chair quietly. When Lorraine returned, Ed slipped the empty fork in his mouth and pulled it out slowly, as though savoring a final bite.
“You inhaled that!”
“I was hungry. And nothing beats your herbs.”
Lorraine rotated her engagement ring, feeling the teardrop’s facets, just as sharp as when Ed placed it on her finger under the black walnut tree. She savored her omelet while Ed watched the hummingbirds feeding. Jazz filled their silence. It was the same reason Lorraine kept the television on while working around the house—dusting the porcelain figurines and folding laundry. Soap operas gave the fullest illusion, as though real arguments were happening in the other room.
Lorraine missed their old place. While their current kitchen accommodated what was important, it was nothing like the one they had back in Pennsylvania. Entertaining was a weekly affair. Ed displayed a mastery of cocktails, twisting classics to impress their friends. To Lorraine, that house back north with the slate roof was home, and the “new house” was where they spent the last 35 years.
Most of their friends moved out of the small town after them, to Florida and South Carolina. Charlie and Mauve Coumantaros, who lived in the yellow house with gingerbread trim, were the last of the old guard. The Coumantaros called three times a year and updated Ed and Lorraine on the town. Never, “you’d just adore what they’ve done with the community pool!” but instead, “they imploded the old Braithwaite Inn, but there’s no plan to remove the rubble.” They talked of the good years, when they could go for midnight strolls under the full moon. Charlie and Mauve stopped night walks in the late 90s, around the time neighbors began locking their doors.
For the early part of their marriage, Ed endured living in that first home, the one in which his wife was raised. Even in the new house, the furniture, the decorations, they followed him. Lorraine assured Ed they would be unhappy in the South, a half-right prediction.
“Will you clean up and make coffee?” Lorraine asked. “The normal way.”
“My methods are traditional.”
“I’ve seen your traditional. There isn’t a soul who’d agree. You’d turn hotel instant into spoiled lobster bisque.”
Lorraine moved to the sunroom, which opened to the porch in need of resealing. Next to the microwave was a pot-style coffee brewer. Ed heaped grounds into a new filter, adding a pinch of salt—a Popular Mechanics tip. Drying the scooper on a strawberry dish towel, he clicked the machine to “strong.”
“Don’t dress mine. I’ll do it,” directed Lorraine from the other room.
“Of course, dear.”
The machine whirred when it finished. He filled his mug near the top and hers three-quarters. Ed pulled out the vial from his shirt pocket. He added ten drops to Lorraine’s cup, observing the color, which did not change. Carrying the tray into the sunroom, he approached slowly.
“You didn’t put anything in it, did you?”
Lorraine studied her mug.
“I have all your accouterments. Make it the way you like.”
She dumped in two teaspoons of sugar and a healthy measure of cream, while mulling over a crossword clue. Ed cringed, imagining the sweetness.
“8-letter word: religious ball and stick game.”
“Lacrosse,” Ed replied.
His answer satisfied. She left out completed crosswords as trophies when friends came for luncheons of cream cheese and fresh dill sandwiches. When they noticed her puzzles, she removed them with apologies. Ed went for errands during those get-togethers, so he didn’t have to hear her feign humility, “They’re not terribly hard if you follow instinct.”
Ed blew the layer of heat off his cup and drew a sip, watching. Lorraine stirred her coffee and scrunched her forehead.
“Aren’t you gonna have yours?” he asked.
“This last clue’ll fill the row. I washed your undershirts. They’re sitting on the bed where you can fold them.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“I swear if I wasn’t here to take care of you Ed, you wouldn’t last a day. You can’t comprehend that. Why don’t you put them away before you forget?”
“I’ll put the shirts away, and you take that pill. I set it beside your coffee. Doctor—”
“Yes, yes, I know what she said. I can remember.”
When Ed was out of view, Lorraine watered the bird of paradise with the full contents of her mug. She went to the kitchen and pulled a raspberry sparkling water from the fridge. Swallowing the pill, the bubbles burned her throat. On the hood was a picture of Lorraine in a floral dress and cat-eye glasses after high school graduation. The years that followed had been glorious. Unmarried youth. She’d become so sure of its perfection as time polished the memories. There were no critics in that basement apartment she rented from the Schreibers. Though the towels were borrowed, she could put her feet on the plastic card table, because it was hers.
In the bedroom, Ed’s shirts laid on the bed. To fit in his drawer, surrounded by Lorraine’s things, the undershirts had to be tightly packed. Originally he and Lorraine had three drawers each. Incrementally, she embarked upon a decades-long campaign to annex his territory. There hadn’t been a discussion, no mention of the expanding borders, only, “Ed, will you keep your things to your side?” as it shrunk.
Ed thought of his plane ticket. He was prone to a particular set of fiction, the kind that sensationalized places like Rio. Graham Greene novels wedged between the spines of woodworking and brick masonry manuals. Samba rolling through lush mountains, over winding streets and onto pristine beaches. Rio was far away and populated by beautiful people—exotic and infected with joie de vivre. What a treat to have warm sand and cold caipirinhas.
On weekdays at 1:00PM in the workshop, Ed turned on his jazz channel. That was when they played Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, and without glancing out the window he pretended he was in a grand hotel on Copacabana. Outside, young people played volleyball and suntanned.
After cramming his shirts, Ed stopped in his office—the guest bedroom, as Lorraine referred to it—to grab the newspaper. On his desk sat a shot glass, “Forever” in script lettering. Repurposed as a candle. White flower pedals, curled like coconut shavings, sprouted around the wick, providing an unusual texture. Ed recognized the species from Lorraine’s glorified weeds.
He returned to see the 8:00 pill gone. Generally, when Lorraine finished her coffee, she relocated to the loveseat, continuing to sit bolt upright. Yet Ed found her in the wicker chair with an empty mug and collapsed posture.
“Whence the girl came. 7-letters. Starts with an i.”
He’d been careful, paid with a Postal Service money order, hidden the airfare. Packed a few items a week in the suitcase covered by oilskin coats in the closet. When he renewed his passport he did it through his secret P.O. Box.
“Exactly what I thought.”
He tried to dismiss it as coincidence, though he was never certain what she knew. Once, Lorraine and Ed nearly reached an emotional inflection point. The discussion was about children. He came from a big family, and she was an only child. Lorraine felt it was a travesty, what children endured under their parents. But more so, she knew she would resent giving up her life for kids. That’s how she saw it. Not as an added joy but as a sacrifice. Sensing Lorraine was on the verge of boiling over, Ed conceded. They never spoke of it again. Not in passing, no “what a cute child” as neighborhood kids raced scooters and grew taller in nearby houses.
As their friends raised children, Lorraine watched them struggle. “You’re so lucky, you and Ed. You have each other, and that’s more than enough. Ed is as handsome as Cary Grant, and you’re as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe. Kids will take that from you,” they said. That made her feel special. Every time friends gathered they praised Ed and Lorraine. “Yes,” she would say, “we are supremely happy,” and she and Ed would hold hands, which felt foreign.
“I found this on my desk. Your handiwork?”
Ed set the candle on the table between them. Lorraine rotated her engagement ring. She flashed a glance at the candle then returned her gaze to the puzzle.
“It’s an anniversary present. One of the most unique flowers in the garden. It doesn’t look like anything special, but it is. Light it when you pay the bills. It’ll relax you.”
“How thoughtful.” Ed turned the candle over in his palm. “Why don’t I light it now?”
“No!” Recovering herself, “It’s for you.”
A matchbox from the Waterstone Resort sat beside a stack of Garden & Guns. They spent their twentieth anniversary there, tucked into the fog of the Poconos. Now defunct, the matchbox and a few pictures were all that remained of the resort. Ed set the matches beside the candle.
A question welled inside him. For decades he’d wondered. It was the kind of question living on his tongue, perpetually five seconds from verbalization, like when he was on the precipice of asking Maria Salvero out in seventh grade. Those five seconds came and went, and with them, Maria too. This time was different. After five seconds, and fifty years, he let it out.
“Why did you choose me?”
“I thought you were the best person to give it to on our anniversary.”
“Not the candle, Lorraine. Fifty years ago, why did you say yes to me? There were other men. You’ve always been strong-willed. You could have said no. Looking deep into my eyes you said, ‘of course.’”
Lorraine set down the pen and pulled off her readers. She made the face of a teacher preparing to deliver a condescending comment.
“You’re being silly, Ed. I loved you.”
And he felt silly, hearing what he already knew. He chuckled morbidly.
“I’ll fix that drink.”
“Right now? It’s not even noon.”
Yet there he was, in front of the bar cart of whiskies and lightly used vermouths. Ed drank only rye Manhattans, with Luxardo cherries and a splash of cranberry. Lorraine preferred unoaked Chardonnay. She liked the smaller glasses with long stems. Ed fixed two Manhattans in the etched glass tumblers from their wedding over ice.
“We should talk, about what’s been going on,” Ed said, handing Lorraine her cocktail.
“You’re being awfully dramatic, Edward. Especially on our anniversary.”
He struck an old match a few times. It wouldn’t take.
“Don’t light it! I already told you, it’s for you! Don’t you listen?”
“A special candle. Takes thought to select ingredients and put them together, carefully. To keep the scent from getting out until it’s lit. I’d like to share it on my anniversary with my wife.”
Despite the time, she took a sip of her Manhattan. Ed scratched another match, which whooshed into flame. His hand steadily lit the wick. Lorraine slouched deeper in the chair and took another sip. Heat consumed her insides, and the Manhattan gave her a heavy feeling—nothing like the agreeable high of Chardonnay.
Finally, Ed said, “You didn’t think I’d recognize white snakeroot. Or the Hemlock in my eggs. I can name every plant in that blessed garden.”
Wax pooled at the base of the flame, but the smell had not diffused. Lorraine knew the progression from research—headaches, then excess salivation, which led to intestinal discomfort. How long until the fatal stage of the poisoning would take, she wasn’t sure. With pursed lips, Lorraine tapped her ring against the glass.
“Edward, I think that Manhattan is muddling your senses. I knew it was too early for you to drink. Honestly, don’t you know your limits?”
She gritted her teeth and revisited the crossword.
“I know this one. Making sure. Fruit company that doesn’t sell fruit, 5-letters.”
It was as though the heavy curtain, raised only for an instant, descended between them again, still caked in decades of dust.
Lorraine moved to the loveseat and felt a wetness in her nose. She leaned against the arm and turned her back to Ed, so he wouldn’t see the blood spreading on the tissue. Her migraine worsened; how quickly it was unfolding. Ed’s hands tremored. His chest felt trapped under the weight of a chair. Brazil was more distant than its thousands of miles, Rio melting down the side of the globe and away like hot caramel on a sundae.
Through the bay window, holding the tissue to her nose, Lorraine looked onto the garden where the azaleas danced, and the sun lit the mint and Zinnias. Where her fresh tarragons were at that moment taking root. How long would the garden remain as it was, after she was gone?
Ed finished his Manhattan, exacerbating a shortness of breath. He wasn’t sure why Lorraine was crying now—she was almost whimpering. There the couple sat, feeling the cruel effects of the white snakeroot candle while admiring the garden, each hoping to claim the final breath—the last word.
“What a wonderful couple,” people would say. “They never argued.”