By David Vardeman
Mr. King’s son married Mr. Feinmann’s daughter. “We should get married too,” Mr. Feinmann said to Mr. King.
“Do you mean to each other?”
“I was thinking more of ladies.”
“Oh, of course,” Mr. King said vaguely as if he had just remembered about ladies and propriety. Mr. King was nearly an innocent and propriety a thing he had constant need to be reminded of. Mr. Feinmann was more a man of the world, and the existence of ladies was, naturally, as you’d expect from a man of the world, on his radar. He had been to a number of foreign countries and noticed the ladies in each of them and had much to say about them. He told Mr. King about the ladies of Italy, Greece, Spain, and Germany. Mr. King nodded along but had nothing to add. He had never traveled, and even if he had he would not have had much to say about ladies either individually or as a group. He was not adept at lumping things together. Nor was he adept at separating and categorizing. He did not know how to pigeon-hole.
“I like ladies,” Mr. Feinmann said, “because I like round and soft. How do you feel about round and soft, Mr. King? Do you like a curve? An hour glass? The pendulous?”
Mr. King was bewildered by this series of questions about shapes and textures. He said he liked things that festooned, but he was thinking mainly of tinsel garland and strings of cranberries and popcorn. As for pendulous, he had enjoyed taking a whack at the occasional piñata. He liked whirligigs and kaleidoscopes too but was at a loss to make them pertinent to the conversation, the subject of which, underneath it all, he suspected, was male lust.
“What kind of woman was your late wife?” Mr. Feinmann said.
“Alice threw the javelin, and I did the shot put. She was a champion, but I got dizzy and broke my elbow. Besides not liking to twirl that many times and sometimes losing count, I found the little ball very heavy.”
“My wife looked good in leopard,” Mr. Feinmann said. “If I could have gotten her real leopard, I would have, because a classy lady like my Corrine deserved real leopard.”
Mr. King thought better of telling Mr. Feinmann that Corrine was a homonym for a word that, in vaudeville days, meant a cheap chorus girl.
After all the hoopla surrounding the wedding events, Mr. King and Mr. Feinmann did not meet again for several months. Mr. King had given up all hope that Mr. Feinmann would call him and suggest they go out for a cheeseburger or to a sporting event. This was just as well. Nothing was further from Mr. Feinmann’s mind than calling Mr. King to suggest they meet for a cheeseburger or a sporting event. His daughter’s marriage had given him the idea, and he spent several of those intervening months out looking for a lady. He forgot completely about any Mr. King even though his daughter was married to one and had the King name tacked on to her real name. It didn’t matter what her new name was. Mr. Feinmann still called his daughter Sugar Choo-Choo, the pet name he’d given her the first time she smiled up at him from the bassinette.
The two men met again a night-blooming cereus party hosted by their children. As soon as Mr. King entered the apartment, he located Mr. Feinmann, and he went to him to shake his hand. “All this time, I have been intensely interested in seeing you again, Mr. Feinmann,” he said.
“Is that so? Can you tell me why?”
Mr. King rocked back and forth from his heels to the balls of his feet several times and blushed. “They tell me this cactus blooms only one night in the year.”
“That’s true,” Mr. Feinmann said. His gaze drifted toward some of the dozen or so other guests.
Mr. King grieved already losing Mr. Feinmann’s attention. There were indications Mr. Feinamnn had not spent the last several months intensely interested in seeing him again. Mr. King did not know that anyone had ever been intensely interested in seeing him again. He had thought his admission would flatter Mr. Feinmann, but that did not appear to be the case.
Yes,” Mr. King went on. “The bloom begins to open at sundown and closes by dawn.”
When he learned the nature of the party, Mr. Feinmann was perturbed. “I’m not sitting here all night. I can only spend so much time watching a flower open. Then I have to move on to other things. I’m a man who likes a moving a moving target.”
“It’s heart-rending, isn’t it?”
“Any flower that can only stay open one night should look for another job.”
The petals of the blossom trembled like the wings of a moth. The spreading flower gave off an aroma of honey and cloves and desert sun.
“But what if we hadn’t been here to witness it, Mr. Feinmann?”
“A lot of the most beautiful moments pass unnoticed and unseen.”
Mr. King thought this was true and made the present event all the sadder, but Mr. Feinamnn, who made the observation, used it as an argument to mitigate the importance of such moments.
Sugar Choo-Choo handed them each a glass of sangria and said, “We must all remember to speak in delicate whispers as the flower opens. Anyone who cannot speak in a delicate whisper on this most sacred occasion will be asked to leave and will not be invited back for next year’s event. We want the blossom to know it is everything. It has but the one chance to show itself off.”
Two rows of chairs were arranged in a semi-circle around the plant. Mr. King took a seat next to Mr. Feinmann. “I have a very good view of the night-blooming cereus from my seat,” he said. “Still, I have many unfulfilled dreams.”
At last, when Mr. King had nearly forgotten the thread, Mr. Feinmann spoke up. “A man your age should be able to reel off four to five dreams he’s fulfilled, like that.” He snapped his fingers.
“Otherwise, he’s not a man. You know what I’m saying? Same for this boring blossom. You can’t bloom once a year and call yourself keeping up your end of the bargain.”
Though Mr. Feinmann was irritated, he kept his voice to an acceptable level.
Mr. King’s eyes burned, and his throat was so rigid he was unable to swallow. He ran his fingers repeatedly over his palms.
Mr. Feinmann leaned closer to him to seal the confidence and went on in the same impatient tone. “Last month I had a lady in public, something I’d wanted to do for a very long time.”
“And will you now marry the lady you had in public?” Mr. King said.
Mr. Feinmann pulled back and gave him a look as if Mr. King had said the most audacious thing possible. Mr. King did not comprehend his error. He sought to cover it by saying more, forgetting the cardinal rule, that one should never say more to cover an error of speech one has yet to grasp.
“Was she pendulous? Was that the appeal? Or soft and round?”
At this, Mr. Feinmann threw his head back, clapped both hands to his broad chest, and laughed to the ceiling. “The appeal was, she was a lady, and it was dirty fun.”
Mr. King looked around nervously at the other guests as though he were guilty of the disturbance. Sugar Choo-Choo ran in from the kitchen where she had gone to eat a spoonful of peanut butter on the sly. She tried to swallow quickly but then had trouble freeing her tongue from the roof of her mouth. Instead of coming out, “You have to leave, Daddy,” the words sounded like, “Moo haw to wee, Addy.”
Mr. Feinmann grimaced at Mr. King. Mr. King felt himself to be the key to everything that was happening. It seemed perfectly natural that he would have to explain matters to Mr. Feinmann. “She wants you to leave, Mr. Feinmann. I am afraid you are too loud for the flower. I will leave with you, if you’d like. It is embarrassing to get kicked out of a party by yourself. It is so much nicer when a companion gets thrown out with you. A bad reputation is best shared among friends.”
Mr. Feinmann was so stunned to be kicked out of a night-blooming cereus party by his own Sugar Choo-Choo he couldn’t speak. He breathed rapidly and let Sugar Choo-Choo guide him from his chair to the door.
Mr. King followed them. “I am afraid this is my fault, Carole,” he said. (Sugar Choo-Choo’s legal name was Carole. Mr. King could not bring himself to call her Sugar Choo-Choo. That was solely her father’s prerogative.) “I don’t understand the language of men, even though I am one. I asked your father a ludicrous question about a lady. The question was so ignorant of the ways of men, he couldn’t help but bray like a wild donkey.”
Sugar Choo-Choo regarded Mr. King coolly and rotated her chin as she thought the problem through. “If that is the case, Mr. King, then you must leave. My primary concern is the health of the blossom.”
“I think we all want what is best for the blossom,” Mr. King said. “We are all rooting for it. It has such a short time on earth.”
Mr. Feinmann drifted away in the direction of a young woman who was standing alone on the opposite side of the room. He had noticed her several times sneaking interested glances at the powerfully-built handsome older man that he was.
Carole was saying to Mr. King, “You have a fine sensitive soul, but if you don’t know how to speak the language of men, you should not sit next to one at a night-blooming cereus party.”
Ronald King approached to find out what the whispering was about and why Carole had not thrown her father out. “Your father has admitted to being the real troublemaker, Ronald. He caused my father to forget all the rules of the blossom-watchers. Therefore he must go.”
Ronald King shook hands with his father. “Please consider all that has happened, Dad, and learn from it.”
“At other events it is fine to be raucous. Just not at this one,” Carole said. “It will be like murdering a ministering angel if we don’t give the blossom all our concern.”
“Of course,” Mr. King said. He bowed and left.
When Mr. King’s doorbell rang the next afternoon, he assumed it was Mr. Bravermann stopping by to thank him for getting thrown out of the night-blooming cereus party on his behalf. Instead, it turned out to be Carole. She handed him a white Chinese food carry-out box with a wire handle. “It is the shriveled blossom from last night,” she said. “I thought you would enjoy it.”
“So it did shrivel.”
“Right on schedule. Even though you misbehaved and got thrown out, I blaze a trail of reconciliation and peace by bringing you this ruined blossom.”
Mr. King shook the limp petals from the Chinese carry-out container onto his favorite blue saucer and placed the lot on his fireplace mantle.
“How nice to have the very blossom Mr. Bravermann watched open and drop off.”
“Daddy didn’t watch this blossom open and drop. He left five minutes after you did.”
“Perhaps that is why he hasn’t called to thank me and describe the evening.”
“He left with Miss Kwok.”
“Who is Miss Kwok?”
“A friend of mine he got friendly with.”
“I remember her. She didn’t look like a Kwok.”
“She was adopted by Kwoks.”
Mr. King was glad when Carole left so that he could be alone and think about how Mr. Bravermann had taken Miss Kwok from the party with him. “I wonder what it means that Mr. Bravermann took Miss Kwok from the party with him,” he said aloud as he studied the pieces of the shrunken blossom. “How odd. It was so early in the evening, and there was so much more for the blossom to do.”
The answer to Mr. King’s question of what it meant that Mr. Bravermann had taken Miss Kwok from the night-blooming cereus party came two weeks later when he received an invitation to their wedding.
“How interesting,” he said, turning the invitation over and over in his hands. “They must have had to leave the party to plan their wedding. Miss Kwok is probably the impatient sort who likes to get right on things once they are decided.”
The front of the invitation was a painting done by Miss Kwok of a night-blooming cereus flower. Inside, the invitation began “Come witness the blossoming of our love.”
Miss Kwok was an artist but not a very good one. Her blossom appeared as frazzled as the one on Mr. King’s mantle. He wondered that Mr. Bravermann would marry a lady who painted such poor blossoms, but perhaps Miss Kwok had other abilities.
Mr. King sat with Ronald and Carole at the wedding. “I could wring Miss Kwok’s neck,” Carole said, turning blue as Miss Kwok brought her dazzling smile down the aisle. “She’s my age! Twenty-one! Daddy’s twice as old. Good God! It’s the equivalent of me going right now to the maternity ward and marrying a newborn.”
Mr. King tried to calm her by telling Carole that she was already married to Ronald and that it was unnecessary for her to run to a nursery and marry a baby. He patted her wrist. She pulled away violently, determined not to be consoled.
The wedding over, Mr. King joined his son and daughter-in-law in the reception line. When it came his turn to greet the groom, Mr. King grasped Mr. Bravermann’s hand with both his own. Looking into Mr. Bravermann’s blue-grey eyes, Mr. King began, unexpectedly, to cry. However, this sudden weeping did not embarrass him in the least. He managed to say what he wanted in spite of his sobs.
“I hope you are not disappointed in Miss Kwok.”
Mr. Bravermann filled his chest with air to the point his buttons strained. His red face beamed with glory. “There is no more Miss Kwok. She is Mrs. Bravermann now, as you saw happen just moments ago, my friend.”
Mr. King’s voice grew hoarse. “But don’t you remember you once suggested we get married?”
“Yes, certainly. But not to each other. I made it quite clear at the time I meant to ladies.”
“But you didn’t do a very good job of explaining that. You talked about the ladies of other nations. I thought you did that because you were nervous for having suggested we get married.”
“I’m never nervous. Even now I could look a tiger in the eye and keep a steady hand.”
Mrs. Bravermann had listened closely to her husband’s conversation with Mr. King. She didn’t know what to make of the man. She took both his hands from Mr. Bravermann’s as if they were about to do the Virginia reel, pulled him along, and said, “Thank you so very much for coming to our wedding. The cake is this way.”
Mr. King noticed that Mrs. Bravermann’s eyes did not move in her head. They were stuck in one position. She had to turn her head completely to see different directions.
When they reached the cake, Carole and Ronald turned on Mr. King. They were furious. “You have no idea how much you embarrassed us back there,” Carole hissed. “Do you understand nothing at all about social propriety?”
Mr. King sought to defend himself. “Yes, but she is walled-eyed, your new mother. Her eyes don’t move. They are stuck in one position, like a Teddy bear’s eyes. How could you let your father marry a wall-eyed lady?”
“Don’t you talk about my new mother that way. She is a lovely lady and has lovely eyes.”
“But your mother wore fake leopard. This lady’s eyes don’t move, and she doesn’t wear fake leopard.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. Can you read the future? She might very well spend the rest of her days wearing fake leopard. She has yet to show her true colors.”
Carole turned to Ronald, who had started in on the cake and was already neatly licking his fingers. “Here. You deal with him. I wash my hands of your father.” She went off in search of cheese, saying that to her mind it was too early for cake.
Ronald was angry, too, but mostly at having to interrupt his cake-eating, now that Carole had abandoned him, to berate his father. Seeing men cry made Ronald furious as though he were watching the flag of America get shat upon. He leveled an icing-coated finger at Mr. King. “Stop that right now, damn it.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll try.”
“You’re odd. You’re one of those persons that apologizes when he bumps into a mannequin.”
Mr. King took his handkerchief from his breast pocket to dry his eyes, but the tears kept coming. “Is it so wrong to apologize to a person before you realize he’s synthetic? Most people will say a few more words even after they realize it’s a mannequin. It’s something in our nature, something in the way human beings are made. Just as our eyes keep blinking and our lips keep twitching for a while after our heads are chopped off.”
Ronald had so much cake in his mouth by the time Mr. King finished his little speech about chopped-off heads that he had to go off to himself for several minutes to swallow. When he happened not to drift back Mr. King’s way but instead queued up at the champagne fountain, Mr. King looked around for someplace else to be. Everyone was beginning to ask who that crying man was blocking access to the cake. Mr. King felt it wrong of him to draw all the attention when Mr. Bravermann was really the most important person at the wedding. He spotted a group of five slumped women looking very glum indeed in their flouncy ill-fitting best. They sat in a dim corner of the room holding pieces of cake on their laps though none of them was eating. Instead, each was in her private study, dejected and slightly sweaty, waiting for someone to deliver a sound justification for her being exactly who she was. Mr. King walked over to this somber group, the ones with the sick wet eyes.
With those sick wet eyes, the five glanced lifelessly at him as he approached. In their failed efforts to appear stylish, they all looked slightly wilted, dowdy, like cuttings that had been left out in the garden bed over night, forgotten and desiccating.
“Are you five sisters?” Mr. King said. They did look vaguely alike, with a stair-step age range. They were not quintuplets but could have been the work of active parents who had made a full family in seven years before deciding, “Enough, of that!”
The oldest-, tiredest-looking one, without taking her eyes off the floor said, “Sisters? Of a sort.”
Mr. King made further use of his handkerchief. “Here. Let me just finish drying my eyes, and then I will join your little group. I feel rather glum myself today. It is hard to find a really depressed-looking group at a wedding, so I consider myself most fortunate.”
The five glanced at him as if he had said something slightly off-color, but their interest was fleeting. One who could have been the middle sister said cynically, “Welcome to the corner of the rejects.”
Mr. King took a seat and crossed his legs and folded his hands on his knees. He was quiet for a minute. Then he said, “I was one of the rejects myself.” He waited to be pumped for information, but apparently the five were worn out listening to each others’ stories, and none of them more than sighed.
“Yes,” Mr. King went on. “Mr. Bravermann once proposed we get married, but apparently he was not serious. For, as you see, he has now married Miss Kwok, which is what brings us all together at this time.”
The youngest one dropped her fork on the floor but made no move to pick it up. After several more minutes, another reject lost control of her plate of cake, and the cake spilled on the floor, icing-side down.
In an effort to rouse the group and instill in it a feeling of solidarity, Mr. King said, “Maybe we should start a petition. That might help. Would anyone like to help me write it? We could all sign it and present it to Mr. Bravermann and see what he says.”
Each of the rejects turned her head slightly away from him, but not so they were looking directly at any of the others. Though they were grouped together, they didn’t want anything to do with one another, though each knew it would be even more painful not to be in a cluster.
Mr. King sat all afternoon in the corner of the rejects, watching with the others, waiting for some reason to move on. The others drifted off, one by one, leaving a crumpled napkin or a piece of brutalized cake in her seat, some evidence to show she had lived and died an entire lifetime that day and gone off to bury herself in her sorrow.
But Mr. King remained. He saw the entire day out. The bride and groom left in a barrage of shouts and rice-throwing. Mr. King watched and applauded but wept too, having been told he was odd, a thing that had never occurred to him before. Carole and Ronald gave him a dutiful disgusted glare and left without asking him if he wanted a ride home. The guests all left, the custodians and caterers cleared out, and finally the man with the keys came to Mr. King and said, “I’m about to turn off the lights.”
Mr. King smiled up at him. “But I don’t mind waiting.”
“I don’t mind waiting all night.”
Mr. King had pounded out many conundrums in his long lonely hours, but this was one of the meatiest bones he’d had to chew on. He’d be all night picking the gristle off this one. “Don’t worry,” he said to the key man. “I am used to sitting in the dark, waiting for answers.” He was being disingenuous. The answer had already come and gone and left him stranded, and the answer was Mr. Bravermann.
When the key man had knocked him off his chair (the key man was an impatient man, and there was something about Mr. King that made him want to hurt him), Mr. King said, “I’ll never be the same,”
meaning never the same after meeting Mr. Bravermann. But the key man thought Mr. King meant from the blow, so he hit him again. Only as he was picking up the pieces of himself did the thought occur to Mr. King that Mr. Bravermann might have sent the key man to get rid of him. But he was immediately ashamed of himself for having thought such a thing of the man he would never see beyond.
About the Author:
David Vardeman is a fiction writer who lives in Portland, Maine.