It was one of those gorgeous early summer days that made just being outside feel like an extravagant outpouring of grace. The sun was warm, the air was cool, the leaves and flowers, all new and shiny, were as spectacular as a Matisse painting. Illy sat on the front step of her building and admired a crabapple tree that was covered in pearly white blossoms. She remembered how her grandmother used to watch for the crabapple blossoms every spring and at the first sign of a flower would always say, “I can smell the jam already.” Later in fall Illy would gather pails full of crabapples from her grandmother’s tree for the long-awaited jam, but for Illy it was the blossoms, signaling the arrival of summer, that were the best part. She’d spend hours lying beneath the branches and staring up at the delicate white flowers, imagining she was a Japanese princess.
Illy arranged some of the fallen white petals into a flower pattern on the sidewalk. This time she had her keys with her and was relieved to just soak in a few of the sun’s warming-up-for-summer rays without having to enact any phony arrival ritual. She had been writing for a while that morning—an honest, self-deprecating account of her first encounter with Simon and Sally that she was planning to slip under their door as a thank you for the fudge—and thought she’d allow herself the luxury of some petal art therapy. She added a few stalks of grass to her design.
Illy imagined covering the whole sidewalk with white and green flower designs as a surprise to her neighbours, but the breeze kept blowing the petals around and it just wouldn’t have the same effect with scotch tape. I tape crabapple petals (white as teacups) to the sidewalk for you. There was a poem in there somewhere, though she wasn’t enough of a poet to do it justice. Maybe late at night after a couple glasses of wine she could give it a try just for fun. Her high school English teacher used to make his students write poems with their eyes closed to unleash their wild inner poets. Illy had loved the bizarre torrent of words that filled her pages and sounded like they were written by a brave stranger. Maybe she should try it for the crabapple poem.
She looked up from her sidewalk art to see the Maniacal Whistler getting out of her car. The woman moved gently like she was trying not to wake a sleeping baby on her back. After she pressed the door shut, she leaned against the car and stared back down the street where she’d just driven. Illy looked at the sidewalk. Watching felt like an intrusion somehow, even though she couldn’t tell why exactly. Eventually the woman walked towards the building, still moving in that silent underwater way.
“Those are beautiful.” Illy started a little at the sound of the woman’s voice. She looked up and noticed thin glistening lines drawn down her cheeks. She remembered the butterfly poem from that first Writers Club meeting.
“Thanks. I was just wishing I could make them stay so everyone could enjoy them as they walked up. But at least you’re seeing them.” Just then a gust of wind blew the leaves off the sidewalk. “Or saw them.”
“Nothing ever stays.” The woman continued to look down at the bare sidewalk. Illy tried not to get fidgety in the silence, although she wasn’t sure where to look. She decided on the same spot of sidewalk the woman was watching. Then to her surprise, the woman sat down beside her.
“Can I join you? I’m not quite ready to face an empty apartment.” She started to collect petals and small leaves and placed them on the sidewalk like a Buddhist monk creating a mandala.
“Of course. Please. There can never be too much petal art on the sidewalk, as I always say.” Illy winced. She sounded so trite.
But the woman only gave a slight smile and nodded. “I couldn’t agree more.” They sat there side by side for a while, Illy making the same daisy shapes over and over both because she loved them and because she couldn’t imagine any other shape to make. The woman beside her laid her petals down in elaborate swirling patterns, and when the breeze blew and Illy tried to pin down as many of her daisies as she could, the woman just watched her beautiful design blow away and started again. “Irene died today.”
Illy was pretty sure she had no appropriate response to a statement like that, made by a stranger on the front step of an apartment building, so for once she didn’t say anything.
“I just couldn’t figure her out. Her death seemed so conflicted and confusing but I don’t know why.” Illy watched the patterns emerging in the petals and leaves that the woman placed rhythmically around her feet as she spoke. “Her family was there and her priest, and they all seemed so loving and attentive, but there was this undercurrent of…I don’t know what. Something more than sadness.”
Illy let her daisies blow away, then started gathering little pebbles into lines and piles as she listened. They sat there like that for a long time, the woman who was no longer the Maniacal Whistler talking about Irene’s life and children and fear of the dark. Illy, mesmerized and still, eavesdropping on something holy that she didn’t want to disturb. Then, without warning, the woman placed one last leaf at the edge of her design, right beside Illy’s bare toes, and stood up.
Illy looked up at her and squinted against the sunshine. She just had one question.
“Sorry, before you go, what’s your name?”
“Pam.” She turned and unlocked the door.
“Thank you, Pam.”
“Thank you too, flower lady.”
The door swung shut. Illy stared at the petals for a long time without moving.
Continue Reading: Chapter Thirty-One