Petite Suite Printanière
by Robert Wexelblatt
followed by Q&A
1. Ouverture en Ut Majeur pour Chœur Aviaire, Sonnette, Pivert, et les Jonquilles
Bessemer lolled in his La-Z-Boy drinking a cup of Earl Grey. Before his retirement he wouldn’t have touched the stuff. Iced tea in summer was fine, but only old ladies and Englishmen drank hot tea. He pictured the Earl as effete, snobbish, bewigged. Bessemer disliked that he liked that hint of bergamot and wasn’t grateful to his cousin Ida for sending him a selection of Twinings (how do you pronounce it?) for Christmas. But then he’d caught the first of the three colds he’d had that winter and found the tea made him feel better. Now he’d come to prefer it to coffee. The tea was at least more useful than the necktie Fred and Marcia sent him from Florida. “Be a snowbird,” said a card featuring tinsel on a palm tree. “Come on down.” The tie was turquoise with white gulls all over it. The last time he’d worn a tie was at Bill Burrell’s funeral; you didn’t wear a turquoise tie at a funeral, let alone one with seagulls all over it.
Bessemer glanced at the old man fishing on the cover of the L. L. Bean catalogue. For guys like that retirement is good. Not for him. For him it didn’t mean canoe trips with well-behaved grandsons; it meant tea-drinking and boredom. There’s no proper routine, nobody to shoot the shit with; you watch too much TV and start looking forward to shows as if they were visits with friends; you take afternoon naps and wake up checking for symptoms; you hardly care what you eat but put a lot of pepper on it. You drink hot tea.
The winter had been ferocious and interminable. He had hardly left the house but still he managed to come down with three colds. Where he lived March was called mud-time and for good reason. But this year the snow didn’t begin to retreat until the month was over. Now it was April and the Gormans’ daffodils were up. Bessemer imagined that, had he married, his wife would have planted bulbs so that when she left him or died he’d have daffodils every spring to remind him of her. Florida? It’s hot and flat, one big waiting room, hangs down like an old man’s organ.
Small as it was, his house had cost him more to heat than he expected. Not only was oil sky-high and the winter brutal but he was home all the time now, usually in an old fisherman’s sweater and a fleece on top of that. Twice the Jeep had needed a jump. The shoveling was risky; the sky usually gray; the prospect, in every sense, dreary.
When the doorbell buzzed he nearly spilled his Earl Grey. He hadn’t heard an engine, no car crunching up the gravel driveway; the Gormans never stopped by. The buzzing was odd, too—five short blips, as if the button were just being tapped rather than pushed.
He went to the door, stretched to look out the window at the top. Branches with a fuzz of pale green, empty sky. He opened the door cautiously.
The front yard was filled with birds, like in that old movie. There were sparrows, both brown and gray, junkos and chickadees, a pair of cardinals, four blue jays, a gang of grackles. The big bird on his step he recognized as a flicker. Black mustache and bib, barred feathers, gray skullcap, red blaze. There used to be a flicker came round but he hadn’t seen it for years. Maybe this was the same bird.
The flicker bounced once, examined him up and down with its yellow eye. “There used to be a feeder,” it said.
“Round the back. A feeder. For seeds.”
The host of birds set up a row. The flicker swiveled his head around toward them, then back to Bessemer. “I don’t particularly care for seeds myself, of course. Worms, ants, insects—seeds only on need. But these—” he swiveled again, the bright slash of red drawing Bessemer’s admiration, “these do.”
“Then why don’t they speak for themselves?” said Bessemer, feeling more amused than crotchety.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the flicker. “They can’t talk.”
Bessemer didn’t bother to ask why the flicker could. What he said was, “I see.”
“So . . ,” drawled the flicker, “they’d appreciate it if you’d maybe fix up a feeder, keep it stocked—sunflower seeds, please, for the jays—and, well, that’s about it.”
Bessemer considered. “Why didn’t you ask last Fall? It would have made more sense.”
“I was in Georgia. Look, it was a hard winter for these guys. They don’t migrate. Some of them even froze. You understand?”
“I suppose so. They don’t need a feeder now but they want me to get in the habit. For next year. That it?”
“Exactly!” The flicker hopped in a circle. The seed-eaters fluttered and set up a cheer, or so it seemed to Bessemer.
That afternoon he cranked up the Jeep and drove to Home Depot to get lumber and nails for a bird house, then to the garden store where he bought a trio of squirrel-proof feeders, finally to Costco, where he picked up two twenty-pound sacks of mixed millet and cracked corn. He was about to leave when he remembered to grab a ten-pound bag of sunflower seeds.
Over the next week the flicker alighted from time to time in Bessemer’s yard, snapped up a few grubs, checked out his work, and, apparently satisfied, flew off.
2. Le Hosta Énorme, Concertino Aigre-Doux en Vert et Jaune pour Piccolo, Flûte, et Absence
Home Despot her friend Julie quipped. It opened in March and by the middle of April Johansens’ Nursery announced it would be closing. Ginny knew the Johansens; she liked them and their store. She expected they would be resentful and make one of those angry Big Box speeches. In fact, they were almost giddy with relief.
“We’re not getting any younger.”
“Got a good price for the land. Better than we’d expected.”
“We’re moving to North Carolina—up in the hills, you know. Fine climate. Temperate.”
“Lots of ex-military.”
They were having a clearance sale. Ginny bought a pair of secateurs, flats of tomatoes and pansies. The perennials were mostly gone (perennial’s my favorite horticultural word, said Julie); but back in a corner, up against the chain link fence, half hidden by a fallen shelf, Ginny spotted an outsized green planter sprouting attractive bluish-green leaves striped with yellow. The hosta looked strong. There was no little plastic tag describing the plant, no watering directions or Latin name. Mrs. Johansen said she wasn’t sure what sort of hosta it was and called her husband over. He scratched his head, perhaps distracted by thoughts of hanging out with retired master sergeants and fighter pilots, and said vaguely, “Big one, I think. Dig down about at least a foot. Give her plenty of room; that’s the ticket.”
When she picked Jeremy up from school she told him she’d been to the garden store. When they got home she took him into the back yard to show off the new plants. She wanted him involved.
“What do you think? Row of pansies here?”
“Put the tomatoes by the fence,” he said like a son of the soil. “Dad said that’s best.”
“What about this?” She pointed at the hosta.
“What is it?”
“Hosta. Broad leaves. It’s a perennial.”
“That means it comes back next year. You know those things around the big maple in front of the Belfiglios’? They’re hostas.”
“Oh,” he seemed disappointed. “But this looks a lot bigger and it’s not all green.”
“I’d like you to take care of it. It’s yours.”
“What do you mean? It’s not like it needs to be taken for a walk, Mom.” Jeremy never missed a chance to remind her of the dog she wouldn’t buy.
“Don’t be fresh. I mean you get to choose where to put it. You dig the hole, you water and feed it. It’s supposed to be a pretty large one. Have to dig deep and give it lots of room.”
“How big will it get?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a couple of feet? We’ll give it regular shots of this.” She held up the box of plant food. “See? You screw this hopper thingee to the hose and just spray it on every couple of weeks. The water mixes with the powder. Pretty cool, eh?”
Jeremy shrugged. He was doing that a lot. But he went to the garage and came back with the spade.
“Change your clothes first.”
Stan was on his third deployment. He was supposed to be home in September, unless they declared another stop-loss or something worse happened. E-mails weren’t so frequent this time around, Skype conversations even less so. Ginny knew that meant he was in a rough place. Jeremy wasn’t taking it well; for that matter, neither was she. Jeremy sulked. Stan had missed his eighth birthday, their anniversary, Christmas, New Year’s, Groundhog Day. When the car broke down and needed a new what’s-it, money was a little tight for a while. Ginny caught herself looking at men in a way she didn’t like.
Jeremy insisted on pasting a map of Afghanistan on his bedroom wall. He’d sent away for it, paid for it with some of the birthday money from her parents. Ginny no longer put on the evening news and tried to distract him from updates about the war. It was useless.
Jeremy chose a spot a good four feet from the fence and dug deep. She gave him a handful of superphosphate and showed him how to mix it in. He shoveled some of the loose dirt back then filled the hole with water. “The roots will be able to spread out easily, get a good start. Right?”
He checked the plant every day, marked the biweekly feedings on the calendar, patted handfuls of red mulch around its base. The hosta took hold and began to grow; it grew fast. Enormous leaves opened out all the way to the fence, new ones sprouted above them, then more and more. By June it took up nearly a third of the yard and was taller than Jeremy. He invited friends home after school to admire the prodigy. “Check out how thick the leaves are,” he told them.
“It’s humungous,” they admitted. “Awesome,” they said. Ginny could see the children weren’t really interested in the gigantic hosta; they only wanted to please Jeremy. They feel sorry for him, she thought sadly. But then, so did she.
The last day of school was a feeding day and Jeremy rushed home to set up the hose. It was warm. Ginny poured two glasses of lemonade and took them out to the patio.
“It’s still growing, Mom,” Jeremy shouted across the yard, pointing to the top of the plant. It was nearly as high as the spruce tree. Maybe it wasn’t a hosta after all. Hostas aren’t tall.
Jeremy dropped the hose and came over to get a drink. “It’s like the beanstalk,” he said proudly. “You know. Jack’s.”
“Well, you’ve taken very good care of it,” said Ginny.
“I really have.” His face was already in the glass. He gulped and mumbled something.
“I call it Dad.”
He came up sucking air. “Daddy.”
He nodded. “Because it’s tall and I love it. And because it’s a perennial and you said perennials always come back.”
3. Cadenza Pour Alto Solo, Généralement en Troisième Vitesse
Where am I going, you ask? You want to know where I’m going?
Weeks ago, years ago, in some other life, in what I thought was real life, in May, in expectation, in distress, in spite of, in the face of, in an excess of confidence, in downright panic, I pedaled toward the sun, turned my back on a whole seaboard, my job, boyfriend, mother, sister, Honda Civic, cousins, needy niece, my boss, hairdresser, retirement plan, laptop, bagels, new black dress, Facebook, Nana’s pearls, Jane Eyre, my ex-boyfriend, married ex-lover, favorite bistro, Thai takeout, shoe store—weeks ago, years ago, I left for a Sunday afternoon ride, my customary route, the standard twenty-one miles, started pedaling west on Route 20 but didn’t turn on Weston and then didn’t turn off on Sudbury either and haven’t turned yet or needed to because I had my MasterCard and L. L. Bean Visa and Amex in my fanny pack and it costs hardly anything to keep going and not only is my health holding up despite rainstorms, wind, hamburgers and motels, but I feel powerful, lithe, a hard-bodied sylph; but, as you ask, it’s my belief that there’s still a long road ahead because, you see, where I’m going is as far as I can go.
4. Quator à Cordes avec des Fauteuils Roulants, en les Trois Movements, Assez Brusque, et Un Interlude, Pas Trop Longue
“April morning in the park. Not dark.”
“Nary an aardvark, loads of bark.”
“. . . Think that guy might be a nark?”
“Enough, my dear. I’m just not, you know, up to the mark.”
She guffawed. “Oh, you!”
It was one of their games of old. To her its source was lost in prehistoric mists; to him, the day before yesterday.
They both knew she came as often as she could so she never offered excuses and he never reproached. She had a big job running corporate relations for the Museum, and the hours weren’t exactly regular. He mused sometimes—not often, what was the point?—how it would be if she married, had children, if he’d had more of them, if his wife had gone on living for more than ten days after she was born.
Dad’s no complainer, she thought proudly. Not once since the accident, not an instant of self-pity. Wheelchair now, maybe an operation later. How did he fill his days? Well, he was drawing more. Last week he’d asked her to bring a soft eraser, a pad of number 80 textured paper, three pencils. He still went into the office on Tuesday mornings. He called one of those special cabs.
That it was so blatantly ironic only made it more cruel. She’d been a ballerina, had played tennis better than her husband, the athletic health-nut whose heart gave out so inconsiderately. Four times club champion. She had danced Odette, Juliet. Now her right hip was shot, like her husband’s heart, likewise her left knee, and she couldn’t stop being sore as hell about it.
“Hate this damned thing.” She struck the sides of the wheelchair.
“I know, Mother.”
“No. You don’t.”
He stopped at a bench and aimed her away from himself so she faced the meadow.
“After the physical therapy,” he said. “Then we’ll see.”
She looked around at him. “Why aren’t you mad at her?”
He sighed. “Because she was brave. Because she did what I didn’t have the nerve to do. I’m relieved. I’m grateful.”
“I never liked her.”
“I know that. So did she.”
-They might meet. They could pair off. Why not? For what other reason are they in the park? Age-appropriate. Seasonal. They all fall in love with each other. A double-wedding in June.
-Give me a break. That’s worse than improbable; it’s sentimental.
-Is it? They’re all damaged. So many wounds looking for balm.
-Exactly. One of them could pull out a pistol and shoot the others.
-You don’t like happy endings?
-I like superheroes and Ossian’s verse and the last inaugural address.
-You just don’t believe in them; is that it?
-Correct. These four people are in the park. It’s springtime. They’re all unmarried for various reasons; all lonely, incomplete, and crippled. The father and daughter are crazy about each other; the mother and son evidently aren’t. You want to be Jane Austen?
-I’d love to be Jane Austen.
-And you think she was happy?
-When she was writing, yes.
- Lizzie’s wit and D’Arcy’s cash. It’s an irresponsible satisfaction. It’s girlish.
-My, you’re pompous today. In dreams begin responsibilities.
-So they say. But not in fantasies. Fantasies are willed evasions.
-So, where exactly does a dream end and fantasy begin? He’s taken with the way she walks. She likes the sound of his voice. She remembers flirting with him at a dinner party long ago. He’d like to draw her portrait. He asks her to get a cup of coffee. Come on. It’s spring. Loosen up.
-While were quoting: April is the cruelest month. Remember?
-Sure, and February’s the longest. In fact, you’re still in it—or it’s still in you.
-. . . No wonder I love you.
-What’d you say?
-I said I love you.
-What? You do?
Children squealed as they ran after a ball. Pigeons flapped out of their way, not really scared. A terrier and a Labrador sniffed each other as their owners, in no rush, chatted. The sky’s blue deepened to navy; the breeze softened to a zephyr.
He pushed his mother’s chair and looked at the couple coming toward them. She had that indescribable way of walking he liked. Feminine.
She tapped her son’s hand.
“That man in the wheelchair.”
“I think he flirted with me, back in the Jurassic Age.”
“You never know. Could be an unlucky trophy wife.”
She patted her father on the shoulder, leaned down and whispered.
“How about we challenge them to a race?”
“Might be fun.”
“The man looks so sad.”
“The way a Stoic does.”
“I don’t know. It’s visible to me.”
As they drew abreast everybody examined everybody else.
“Don’t I know you?” she said.
“Hello. Could be.”
“Lovely afternoon,” she said.
He smiled, shrugged, looked toward the meadow and opened his arms. “Spring.”
She grinned. “Yes. At last.”
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play; his recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.
Q: What was your inspiration for this story?
A: In my experience, inspiration is mysterious and may reveal itself only long after it has done its work, or not at all. In the case of “Petite Suite Prinantière,” though it was the season itself—daffodils, air temperature, birds. As I have been writing a series of these Debussy-suggested suites, the form itself must have played a role as well.
Q: What have you been reading lately?
A: I just read Howard Jacobson’s novel, The Finkler Question.
Q: Where do you write?
A: In only one place: my study which has an overhead fan, a 16-foot-square desk, equipment for playing music, and French windows giving on my small garden.
Q: Deciduous or coniferous?
A: “After the age of five no man handles his affairs as well as a tree does,” wrote G. B. Shaw. I’d hate to have to do without either variety.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Grading 97 essays written by college sophomores. However a poem or two might get squeezed out, if I’m lucky.