Sammie is thinking about the Dr. Who episode with the weeping angel statues when she first notices the old man hovering just inside the door. He appears disorientated, like maybe he is from the future—minding his own business, living his life, about to give a bundle of flowers to his wife—and now, suddenly, he has been hurtled back in time to this bank lobby. The flowers hang from his grasp, and droop to his knees. A fat security guard knocks into him; and the shower of pink and yellow petals cascading to the floor makes Sammie want to cry. She glances at her mother, who is briskly tapping at her iPhone screen with her perfect French manicure.
Sammie watches the man try to recover. He clutches the bundle of flowers to his chest, and she can see, with relief, that they are mostly still intact. He shuffles his soft brown shoes in the little puddle of petals. He is tall but somewhat stooped, with a mop of soft white hair. In fact, everything about him seems soft—his shoes that look like rabbits, his slouchy pants, his sweater vest—soft, kind clothes. Sammie imagines this is what a grandfather would look like, if she had one.
Her mother growls at her phone, which Sammie easily ignores. The man seems to be psyching himself up for something. He stands up a little straighter and begins to scan the crowd—possibly for his wife? The flowers could be for her birthday, or their anniversary, or a celebration of an achievement. But the shaky determination on his face puzzles her. Maybe he is waiting for a blind date, or meeting an old friend. This begins to feel exciting, like a game, and she eagerly begins to study the people in the bank, to see if she can guess who he is looking for.
A large, bald man in a leather biker vest with nothing on under it, some older men that look like they may work in a garage, and several women in alarmingly shabby medical scrubs stand in line for the tellers. Behind them, a couple of guys in paint-spattered clothes are bullying an overweight teen-age girl who appears to be Sammie’s own age. The man with the flowers sweeps his eyes back and forth, several times, over this line and seems to grow more confused. He takes a couple of steps in the direction of the waiting area to Sammie’s right, but then stops again. This area must be for more serious banking, for those waiting to be called into the glassed in cubicles. A group of chairs surrounds a central table with a large beaded toddler toy. Nothing else is on it. Not even a magazine or a newspaper. Sammie wonders if this arrangement is meant to encourage friendliness. The chairs, however, are full of people trying not to meet the eyes of those sitting across from them.
Maybe the man is searching for someone who works here. She watches the bank employees bustle in and out of the cubicles, disappear into the back, return to the lobby. They all wear pleasant non-threatening smiles and pleasant non-threatening clothes—khakis and button-down shirts, sundresses with cardigans and flats—probably meant to put worried customers at ease. Her mother, on the other hand, is wearing a black, designer pencil skirt with a silky, fitted jacket and cranberry-red patent-leather pumps. Sammie watched her, this morning, wage war on her naturally curly blond hair until it was ruthlessly flat-ironed and tamed into an organized knot at the back of her head. The scent of her expensive cologne clashes with the stench of stale cigarettes wafting from the clothing of so many here waiting, which makes Sammie nauseous. Her mother has made a point to stand apart, so as not to be mistaken for just another customer.
Without looking up from her phone, her mother wonders out loud why these people can’t do their banking online. At the same time she says this, Sammie can see, through the glass entry doors, the security guard trying to prevent a scruffy old lady from manhandling a shopping cart into the bank. Sammie’s heart lurches as she realizes the woman is probably homeless. Over filthy men’s work overalls, she is wearing a huge flowered tent of a blouse that has a gaping tear across the chest that Sammie would swear is heart-shaped. Her red knit cap, totally wrong for mid-June, has a huge pompom on top that dwarfs her shriveled features and one of the long ties that hangs limply down the sides of her face keeps getting stuck in her mouth as she yells at the guard. He grabs her forearm, and she starts thrashing her head from side to side, so violently that Sammie fears she will crash her head into the glass. The scary-looking biker with the vest heads to the door to exit, and Sammie is overcome with dread. However, when he opens the door he says, kindly, “Steady on, love,” which Sammie hears, distinctly, in one of those odd lulls in background noise. He steers the shopping cart and the woman, who immediately calms, away from the bank.
This scene has wrung her out. Sammie recognizes that she feels ashamed of her own inability to act. She can’t understand why it appears that no one else in the bank has even noticed the incident. But what was she supposed to do? After all, she is only fifteen years old. She used to believe she would someday acquire a magic key, an adult key. But more and more often, she observes that most adults not only do not acquire this key—they don’t even seem to care that they don’t.
Sammie glances at her mother, who is listening elegantly to a bank employee grovel and apologize for the extreme delay with Mr. So-and-so’s schedule, and wishes, not for the first time, that she had a different kind of mother—a mother with no sense of style who wears mom-jeans with hiking boots and drives a mini-van and lets them have a big messy dog and sings out loud to embarrassing songs on the radio. Sammie scans the bank for the man and sees him in much the same spot as he was moments earlier. He is staring at the door. The distress on his face makes her believe that he, also, has been upset by the scene. A sense of unease lingers with Sammie and the game-playing mood, that she felt only moments ago, withers away.
“Yeah?” She drags her attention back, cringing at the way her mother always manages to pronounce her full name with a hint of a fake British accent. The bank employee is retreating, undoubtedly relieved. Her mother is back to her phone. Sammie can tell that she is annoyed at being kept waiting by the stiffness of her jaw. Everything else about her is still frosty calm.
“Where is your phone?”
“In the car.”
“In the car? In this kind of neighborhood?” This kind of neighborhood. Sammie can’t remember what New York city they are in now—she thinks maybe Utica. The neighborhood they drove through to get to this bank had looked, to Sammie, exhausted. Yes, the homes and businesses are a bit rundown, but a tiny park across the street from the bank is filled with children. Are the weary people here supposed to be a threat of some kind? The biker who had helped the homeless woman—a woman who, according to Sammie’s mother, wants nothing more than to add a smartphone to the other items in her shopping cart?
“Won’t your friends be texting you?” her mother asks.
“I guess? Maybe. I dunno. Does it matter?”
“What about your friend, Fred?”
“He’s at Comic Con.”
“Won’t he be texting you from there?”
“He doesn’t like to interrupt his flow. He said he would call later.”
“Hmmm;” she can tell that her mother is not really interested. Sammie tries to tune out the blah, blah, blah about the ‘incompetence of this place.’ They are supposed to be on vacation, but her mother is making the trip about work. Sammie knows her job has something to do with finance, but is totally in the dark as to the details. Her mother’s employee, who usually does these road trip visits, has jury duty. The only one who could do it instead is her mother. Or so she says. Every time her mother complains, it sounds more to Sammie like enthusiasm. Sammie is missing Comic Con and the first week of summer dance classes so that her mother can enjoy playing the big-shot boss.
Only after they have spent several days traipsing across upstate New York, can they go to NYC for a few days before returning to Boston. Sammie looks forward to doing the museums and shopping, like they usually do. Her dance teacher almost had a heart attack when she heard that they have tickets to one of the most important dance recitals of the year. But, Sammie thinks it would be fun for a change to go to an amusement park—to eat bad-for-you food and ride a
roller coaster until you have to throw up—or go camping, in a tent, and leave your hair unwashed for days, or do something cheese-y and tourist-y like Niagara Falls.
Her mother says, “Oh, I forgot to ask. What did you do yesterday during the business conference?”
Sammie wonders how a mother could be so busy with paperwork all evening that she could forget to ask what her kid did all day.
“I went to the gym.”
“Oh, good. You don’t want to stiffen up on this trip.”
Yeah, that. And Sammie could read Y the Last Man, in peace, on the exercise bike, without her mother launching into her usual rant about graphic novels. She especially relishes flinging around words like misogynistic and homophobic.
“What else did you do?”
“Nothing much.” Just spent several hours riding elevators and roaming corridors until she somehow ended up in the hotel kitchen. There, she had become fascinated with watching all the workers, until a fatherly chef, with a warm Mexican accent, had to finally ask her to leave.
Looking up from her phone, her mother suddenly asks, as if she has only just now noticed, “Why are you wearing that hoodie? Isn’t it too hot for a sweatshirt?”
Sammie’s stomach seizes. She tries, but cannot stop the creeping sensation—that feels like poison coursing through her veins—from beginning its crawl down her arms. In the weeks since she first noticed the hair on her forearms, she is convinced that it has multiplied. Sometimes she thinks that she can actually feel it pushing through her skin. And even worse, it is much darker than her bland brownish-blond hair. She fears that something may be wrong with her, like genetically. Her mother, of course, has perfect skin and flawless, hairless arms. Never mind that Sammie has no father in her life. The man, whoever he was, has cursed her with the arms of a gorilla. Or maybe an alien has taken over her body. She has begun to live with the knowledge that sooner or later everyone around her will discover that she is some sort of freak.
“It’s cold in here?”
Sammie wonders if she should try to shave them. Her mother would kill her if she tried a tanning bed, but maybe, it would at least bleach the hairs lighter. She knows she must get a grip on this before she returns to her dance classes. How will she ever wear a leotard again? A girl, with whom she has danced since they were four, now has curves and a chest, a large chest. Katie’s entire personality has changed. She walks differently. Dances differently. She sometimes appears awkward and hunched as if her body has played a trick on her and she doesn’t know how to move anymore. But at other times, she seems oddly smug. At all times, it’s as if she is now just a walking pair of boobs.
Her mother is giving her the eagle eye. Sammie tries, “You know. With the air conditioning.”
Her mother stays silent for a moment and Sammie is certain she can read her mind. But then she just says, “Okay.”
Sammie pulls the bunched up hoodie down over the hips of her cargo pants. She balls up her hands and tucks her fists up into the sleeves. She almost wishes her mother would object to her choice of clothing or her interests or her friends outside of dance. To Sammie, her mother’s casual indifference implies that she doesn’t think it’s important enough to care about. Sammie suspects that her mother presumes her nerdy-ness to be a phase—that her real self is the dancer and future Ivy Leaguer. Why does her mother get to decide this about her? What if it’s the other way around?
A little boy starts shrieking and shoves the beaded toy onto the floor. The woman with him snaps, “You shut your fucking mouth. Right now. Sit your ass down,” and she slams the contraption back on the table.
Horror floods Sammie and she watches most of the people around her quickly look at their shoes. Sammie’s mother mumbles, “Lovely,” and turns her back on the waiting area, readjusting her own shiny red shoes so that they realign in perfect symmetry. Sammie feels rubbed raw. Who knew the lobby of a bank could be so stressful? She is overcome with a shocking desire to hold her mother’s hand, but stops herself. She searches her mother’s deliberately composed face and finds it—the hint of a warm twinkle and the ghost of a smile that she knows are just for her. Her insides unclench. The creeping in her arms eases.
Her mother breaks eye contact to read her phone. “Finally,” she says slightly too loudly, and starts aggressively typing. Sammie thinks her mother might actually be flustered, which surprises her. She also wants the feeling of connection they just had to last, so she tries to be concerned.
“I’ve been waiting all day for Aunt Abigail to text me back.”
Instead of saying, Well, Aunt Abigail is not attached to her phone 24/7 like you are, she asks, “Is anything wrong?”
“Your grandmother and your great-aunt Jeanne have decided to book their safari this afternoon.” She sends a text with a little clack of her nail.
“Oh. Cool,” Sammie says and braces herself.
“This has got to be stopped.” She stares at her phone, waiting.
Sammie doesn’t respond that she thinks it’s awesome that her Nana and her Great-Auntie, who are both close to seventy, are going to Africa. She doesn’t try to convince her mother, yet again, that Aunt Abbey, despite being worried, thinks they should go. She especially does not say that she thinks her mother is being a control freak and should mind her own business. Of course, her mother does not notice that she is not talking.
“I’ve been talking about this until I am blue in the face,” her mother says.
Yes, you have.
“I know they will listen to your aunt.” Sammie’s cool-as-a-cucumber, uber-professional mother now has that whiney younger sister tone in her voice. Sammie doubts that her mother and her Aunt Abbey will ever take any adventures together. Come to think of it, she can’t even imagine her mother old.
And then, suddenly, he is there. Standing right in front of them. He is even taller than she thought, but he does a bendy thing with his shoulders that looks deliberate, like he doesn’t want you to have to strain too much to meet his eyes. He has little moles sprinkled across his neck that look like poppy seeds. He arranges his face into a chivalrous, smiling expression, but Sammie can see a great battle waging behind his eyes. Her mother glances up from her phone, glances back down, looks up again and ever so slightly raises her eyebrows. Her facial expression says, Yes? But she remains silent. Sammie’s heart is ricocheting around in her chest.
Oh dear God, what is he doing? She wants to shield him, to stop him, to lead him to a comfy chair, but it is happening too fast.
He holds out the flowers to her mother and begins to speak in what sounds like a rehearsed speech from a play, “For you.” He falters at her passive, yet authoritative demeanor, and then forges ahead, “One never knows when one may receive…”
Surprise barely flickers then dies on her mother’s face and she coolly says, “No,” pauses for a beat, then says, “Thank you,” managing to make what is supposed to be a courteous expression sound exactly the opposite. Simultaneously, the bank employee appears and puts his hand out to guide her away to her meeting, stopping just short of actually touching her elbow.
Sammie has been struck dumb. Her brain is screaming at her to say something but her throat is paralyzed. She watches a dark cloud wipe the expression from the man’s face. For a second, it looks to Sammie as if he may even fall to the floor.
Sammie rips her eyes away from the man and sees that her mother, who has walked several paces, is turned back and trying to get her attention, “Either wait for me here in the lobby or in the car. Get your phone. Do not wander around in this neighborhood. Okay?”
Why is her mother talking about the neighborhood?
“Okay, Mom;” She wants to hate her mother, with a pure unforgiving rage. But Sammie has seen, briefly, on her face, an openness that looks like sunshine. She understands that her mother, in that moment, is not simply being a snob but is worried for her safety. Then she disappears into the netherworld of money.
Immediately, Sammie feels awkward, almost frantic, stranded in the middle of a bank lobby, with no purpose—without her mother’s purpose beside her, anchoring her. It’s like the nightmare she sometimes has where she is suddenly alone on a stage and she has forgotten all her dance steps. Her emotions seem strangely tethered to those of the man and she casts her eyes urgently around the lobby, trying to find him. She sees him struggling with the door until a burly woman with a baseball cap yanks it open impatiently and barely waits for him to stumble through it. At the same time that Sammie feels compelled to follow him, she knows that she will not, and she fears that she has lost something valuable.
A boy, with greasy red hair hanging in his eyes, rams into her and mumbles a string of swear words so intense that Sammie’s eyes finally fill with tears. Miraculously, a chair empties and she falls into it. Images repeat through her head like a film loop—flowers—her mother, the ice queen—the man with the sad eyes. His intent dawns on her. He hadn’t been looking for someone he knew. He had intended, all along, to give the flowers to a stranger. This gesture strikes her as being superhero heroic, and at the same time, achingly intimate. What had prompted him to attempt this? Had he done it before? Why did he choose her mother?
She remembers something that her Aunt Abbey once told her about secrets. Everyone may keep secrets on purpose, usually about the big, serious matters of life. But, even small things—those that may seem insignificant to others, that you don’t ever tell anyone else about—can change, and shape you. Sammie thinks about the sorrow in the man’s eyes, and suddenly realizes how truly blind she is to those around her. Her aunt is also fond of saying that we should always live with our eyes open. This makes Sammie think about Dr. Who again—how not blinking prevents the weeping angel statues from devouring your future life energy. And how terrifyingly hard it really is to keep your eyes open.
Sammie watches people walk past outside, on the other side of the wall of windows facing the street. She wonders if the man is okay, if he has a car or has to walk, if he has a dog or a cat to welcome him home, if he can have a cup of tea with a friend and try to shake off his traumatic morning. The sun finally comes out and bathes the window ledge in gold. She gets lost in watching the shimmering patterns of pink and yellow light, until she realizes that the colors are not sunlight at all but the bundle of blooms, lying perilously close to the edge of the ledge. He must have abandoned them there, and something about their dejected look of surrender drives Sammie from her chair before her brain has time to catch up with her intentions. As she wades through the crowd, she feels strong enough to cast the people she is dodging aside, to commit any action necessary to rescue the flowers.
At first, Sammie cradles the bundle like a baby. Despite their tumultuous journey through the bank, the blooms are still hearty and plentiful, interlaced with delicate daisies that she hadn’t been able to see from afar. The sheer loveliness of the smell fills her and negates everything ugly about the day. The tough endurance of something so fragile prods her heart to action. Even though she will never understand why he was going to do it, she can finish his mission.
She cannot be in this crummy bank for one more second. When she steps through the doors, it’s as if she has entered another world. The air outside is rich and full, dense with humidity. The sun is vibrant and energizing. She wants to be free of her hoodie, but can only manage to unzip it while still holding on to the flowers. Life buzzes around her. Children shout from the park across the street. A delivery man is unloading supplies for the pizzeria next door. A man who looks like a football quarterback walks by with a petite white poodle on a sparkly pink leash. A crow with tattered feathers picks at a discarded sandwich. The bank doors open and close. People flow in and out, and on to their days. Sammie is fascinated by each and every one of them.
She considers that she will never know how receiving flowers will change someone’s day, and this not knowing is oddly thrilling. An instant of glorious and powerful joy—a pure sense of being in her own skin, of being herself alone—overwhelms her. In this moment, when she is in total control of what she will do next, she claims the ability to drive her own future. Nothing will consume her energy.
She will choose whom to give the flowers to.
She will not blink.
Tina Klimas is currently completing a collection of linked short stories, one of which was a semi-finalist in Nimrod’s 2014 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, and another published in The First Line. Her poems have appeared in THEMA Literary Journal, Bear River Review, and The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review.