Should I Bring Flowers
On the first day, I told Shadman that his true love left the house every morning at seven thirty three in order to empty the garbage. She stepped gingerly over the double layer of bricks that separated the pavement from her family’s garden, in whose corner there was a trash can where she deposited the remains from last night’s meal. Usually the plastic Key Food bag would leak grease at the bottom and have noodles hanging off the over-stretched handles. At seven thirty seven she’d be outside again in order to lock the door and run around to the front of the house to catch the seven thirty nine bus which carried her to Kings Highway and, I presume, beyond, but I didn’t tell that part to Shadman because it wasn’t part of our promise.
In school everybody called Shadman “Brown Bear” for all the obvious reasons. The promise I had with Shadman was for me to tell him one thing about his true love each day while we sat in my backyard doing whatever it was we always did. We were ten then when we started it, but this game went on for a long time. Shadman couldn’t find out about his true love himself of course because he lived 15 blocks east, closer to Flatbush, and she took a bus to school, far away. But she was my next-door neighbor.
The first time we saw her together was the second time I had seen her, and she was long legged and dark haired enough to make us both turn the corner and hide in the bushes while she was still three houses down. As she approached we furiously elbowed each other silent, thrashing leaves into each other’s eyes. I got a thorn stuck in my pinky. When she walked by, head turning neither to the right nor to the left, a scent of crushed wildberries overcame us, and her hair was dark like Shadman’s mother’s, and straight like lines drawn in glass.
The second thing I told him was that his true love was a girl. When I had started saying this, prefaced by the statement that I was going to say the second thing about his true love, Shadman’s eyes had gone wide like he was about to hear the Word or the announcement of Lebron James’s signing with the Knicks. When he processed what I’d said his eyes got narrow and he hit me hard in the shins with a whiffle ball bat that I’d made heavy with many-colored duct tape. I got angry and instead of telling him about the intricacies of her skin I said that her father wore a button down shirt to work.
I saw her father leave for work every morning—he drove. He came out of the house by the front door, suitcase and tie flying, throwing the papers he was always clutching to his chest into his car through the back window. Shadman’s true love always waved goodbye to her father from the front door. Then she would gather her books for the long trip to wherever school was hers. Sometimes she would peek her head out the doorframe to eyefollow his vanishing car under the trees and I imagined that she could see me, peeking through the curtains, but of course she never did. Then she’d go take out the garbage.
The third thing I told Shadman was that once, her glasses had fallen off when she went to push her hair back. I told him that when she grinned, the edges of her cheeks went up towards the corners of her eyes, and her eyelashes bounced up and down. I said that she wore a blue bracelet on her right wrist. Number six was that when she was in the shower, she sang “Stitched Up,” the John Mayer song. It was hard for her to keep her voice low and raspy like his, and I imagined her cupping a hand over her mouth to hit the low octaves. Seven turned into a field trip, as I showed him the corner where she got on the bus every morning. This was the same corner that was home to the foul pole of mine and Shadman’s home run derbies. For the eighth thing that I told Shadman I said that she was Asian, and he scoffed at me and said he already knew that.
Before I told him the ninth or tenth thing I asked him if he realized that I got the idea for this whole charade from a movie, one of my favorites, in which a shrimpy circus owner tells the actor who plays Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars that he’ll tell him one thing about the girl of his dreams every day as long as Obi Wan repays him in constant servitude. The things that he told him went like this:
“She like roses!”
Then Obi Wan would say,
And repeat the word,
while he raked the hay, or cleaned the elephants—“She like roses!”—or stood in the middle of a spherical cage yawning with the whine of high speed motorcycles. In the end the circus owner turns into a wolf, or a bear, or something heavyhaired like that, and relents. It’s a fairy tale ending of course. He tells Obi Wan all about Obi Wan’s true love, and then the story goes on from there, and Obi Wan brings his true love roses and eventually he goes to war and fights Commies and Siamese twins and all that, but at the end he sees his true love again.
“Right, but what’s the ninth thing?”
“She’s a lefty.”
“Not good enough.”
“She only has four toes.”
“No way you could know that.”
“She has a boyfriend named Athens.”
He pushed me and I fell backwards and my head hit the pole of the basketball hoop. It was one of those bumps where a piece of my head swelled into a lump immediately. I bit my teeth together so hard they went into the wrong grooves and I swung at him from the floor. I missed.
“Don’t say that,” he said, pointing an angry finger at me. “You’re making that up.”
The very first time I had seen her I had not been with Shadman and she had been moving in with her parents. Their moving truck was big and purple and said, “We Bump Less” on the bumper. She hopped out of the cab and stumbled a bit over the sidewalk, but caught herself before tripping. She saw that I had noticed and grinned at me, her cheeks collapsing into her eyecorners. My father went up to her father and said, “Hi,” drawing out the ending, as if it meant more than two letters. My mother shook hands awkwardly with her mother which was awkward because my mother hugged everyone. My father had on his Firehouse 92, “The Nut House!” t-shirt which he wore every Saturday, and the faded jeans that he put on after one o’clock.
Shadman’s true love’s father wore a nice watch and smiled nicely, I thought, and he introduced himself and his petite wife.
“And this,” he said, turning to true love who came hopping up beside him, “is Lily.”
The first time I talked to Lily it was snowing out, even though it was only November. It was the type of snowfall where the best snowball packing snow was on the car windshields. Shadman and I would have snowball fights with the windshield snow, and when you walked down the street you could see angelfingers on the glass over the dashboards where we had gathered the stuff into clumps and tossed it.
I was shoveling my front stoop, waiting for Shadman’s mom to drop him off, when Lily got off the bus at the bus stop on the other side of the street. It was one of those days when the street looked only half as wide as it normally did, because the snow was piled up on both sides, and the middle was merrily white, and there wasn’t much slush going black from the smog. It felt like a snowday even though it was the weekend.
Lily saw me from across the street and she smiled at me. She waved. She bent down and her hands were fumbling in the snowdrift and I noticed that the buttons on her jacket were robin-blue.
She was walking towards me with one hand behind her back, and I didn’t see the snowball sticking to her mittens until she was five feet away. When she threw it at me I was too surprised to avoid it, but when she laughed at the kaleidoscope it made on my chest I laughed too, and got her back with a nice firmly packed one right to the thigh.
She laughed while she brushed it off.
“You’ve done a nice job shoveling here,” she said.
“It’s not a big deal,” I said. “I can do yours too if you want.”
“No, no, that’s my job.”
“That’s what my dad tells me too!”
She smiled and didn’t answer, so I said, “I like your buttons.”
She looked down. “The blue ones?” she asked.
“Me too. Blue is my favorite color.”
I said that was cool, I liked blue too. Also that it would really not be a big deal at all for me to shovel her front. But she said no, no, that was her chore, and actually she’d better get to it. I said well I’ll see you out here. She said it’s a date.
Shadman has a round face and there’re stretch marks on the sides of his belly where the fat came dripping off when he started to play in the community soccer league. He had always been rolypoly before but now he was skinny and baggy, the folds of his skin like the loose jeans our friends would wear to school, the type that falls down without a belt.
Shadman loved soccer, particularly the way they served donuts on the sidelines during halftime. His mother, who was only adoptively American, would pack sandwiches for him stuffed with rice and barley and pieces of chicken, enclosed in thick rolls of hot bread. These would be packaged like sausage links and wrapped in tin foil, and when Shadman’s mother handed them to him at halftime they would tend to be greasy with kitchen oil.
Usually I ate them. I could afford to because I played goalie most of the time and stood just outside the net waiting for something to happen. My goalie gloves were always greasy from reaching into my pockets and eating bits of the chicken. Once, Shadman tripped in front of the box—he played defense—and the other team’s forward went right past him, just me and him and the ball. I had my right hand stuck in my pocket fingering for the last bit of rice. I almost blocked the shot with my left hand but the ball spun off behind me into the net. The kid threw his hands up and started running downfield.
“Sorry man,” Shadman said. I flipped him off and spit in the grass, rubbed it out with my shoe. I looked behind me instinctively to make sure that Lily wasn’t watching. Sometimes she went for a walk around the park and she’d stop for a second at the soccer games. I’d wave from the left goalpost. She’d stop at the midfield out-of-bounds line where all the parents sat, and say hi to Mom and Dad. Once I asked Dad what she says to them and he said “Tuh,” and shook his head towards Mom.
“We talk about great films, Johnny,” he said and rolled his eyes.
Then she’d walk back towards home. I began to notice the way that the back of her neck curved into her shoulders.
When I get angry at Shadman he knows it. There were often times soon after we’d met Lily when I’d be playing in his backyard and for one reason or another we’d be in a raging fight, and his mother would have to come around, straighten the hair out of her eyes, and yell at us sharply. How old are you, really? She’d bring us back inside and make me sit in one corner in a wicker chair while Shadman sat in the opposite corner. At first we stared over each other’s heads but then we just looked down at our hands. I’d trace patterns in the bamboo platform between my legs. Eventually he’d start to fake-dance in his chair, swinging his hips back and forth, humming pop tunes. Then he’d do the trick with his fingers that makes it look like his thumb is torn in two. When I kept ignoring him, he’d whisper, so his Mom couldn’t hear, “but I wanted to be head architect of the fort.”
“You were head architect last time!”
“You promised that I could be for two times in a row.”
“You hit me in the neck when we played whiffleball.”
“You could’ve jumped out of the way, stupid.”
Shadman’s mom walked back in and I flicked my nails against my thumb. He rolled his eyes when she wasn’t looking. I wanted to laugh but I didn’t, I kept my mouth tight.
“Tell me the one thing,” he said.
I ignored him.
Shadman leaned forward and whispered, “Tell me!”
So I leaned back and traced my initials into the wicker patterns. I said,
“But then I get to be head architect.”
He nodded hungrily.
“So her favorite color is red.”
He jumped up and shouted.
“Red! Red! She loves red,” he said.
Sometimes, when it’s sunny out, I like to sit at the window after school and watch Lily while she sits outside on her porch, reading. Mom walks by and says, you still like watching for Dad? I say yup, and she puts her hand on the back of my neck. Lily is curled around her book and I can see the way her hair falls, and how many pages she reads a minute. Some other things I like now that I’m older: soccer, ESPN magazine, knowing the exact number of steps in every stairwell of my junior high. I thought about writing a poem to Lily for English class but it didn’t work. I wrote about Shadman instead, and my mom read it and showed it to Shadman’s mom, but I made them promise they wouldn’t show Shadman.
The poem was about hanging out in Shadman’s room and the posters on his walls. It wasn’t about any time in particular, exactly, but when I read it over it reminded me of the new game we’d play in his room, now that I’d stopped telling him new things, because I said he knew pretty much everything that I did at this point. So we entertained ourselves, while playing videogames, by repeating old numbers.
“Four,” he’d say.
“The blue bracelet.”
“The thing that you hit me for.”
“Her hair looks blueish when it’s sunny out.”
“I told you that one. And I thought that was fifteen?”
Shadman jumped up and eased a piece of paper out of one of the hardcover books on the table. He took a pen from his pocket. He’d begun to carry pens in his pocket.
“We should write these down,” he said.
I watched him carefully fold the paper at the top, and above the fold write in neat letters, List. Underneath he put the numbers from one to thirty-seven. This was taking forever. Then as an afterthought he came back to the heading and wrote, underneath it, What We Know About The Girl That Lives Next Door To Johnny.
“Yo, this is a bad idea,” I said.
Shadman kept writing numbers. 38, 39.
“What if she finds it?”
His 40 was loopy at the corners.
“Shadman, that’d be so weird!”
He looked at me, surprised, and said, “We have to tell her about it eventually.”
I asked what he meant.
“You know, she’ll eat it up. Two guys writing things about how great she is without her knowing. We’ll show her the highlights. The top ten. She’ll think it’s really cute and then I can take her to the movies by myself.”
I grabbed the paper from him and ripped it into shreds, threw the shreds at him so they kaleidoscoped on his chest. After Shadman’s mother came up to ask what the hell was going on we stopped shoving. I went and sat in one corner looking at the computer desk and he took up the opposite one and hit Start on the video games. For a while Shadman’s mom stood in the doorway, pushing the straight hair away from her eyes.
A couple of days ago we talked to Lily for the first time together, on the bus coming home from school. It was cold out so we hadn’t wanted to walk. We were in the back sharing Shadman’s iPod when his eyes lit up and he nodded towards the front.
He jumped up and started swinging towards her, switching hands from one hand-hold to the next. Halfway there he turned back to me and mouthed come on, like I was crazy to be waiting, but I rolled my eyes and leaned back.
He stepped on an old lady’s shoe and said sorry, then squeezed past a baby carriage. When he reached her, her back was towards him, so he tapped her on the shoulder. She had earphones in. She took them out. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. At one point she put her hand on his arm, right above the wrist, and laughed. She nodded a couple of times up and down and widened her eyes. She shifted her weight to her right leg. She waved at Shadman when he waved at her, right before he turned around and started walking back to me.
“Did you see?”
I handed him back his iPod. “Sure.”
“She was everything you said she was.”
“And,” he said. He paused. “Well, I’ll tell you later.”
We sat there.
“What,” I said.
He lowered his voice. “She said we had a date.”
He looked back towards the front where she stood. He asked, “should I bring flowers?”
The thing about Lily was that she was an away-from-school girl. None of the girls in me and Shadman’s class were like her. They were pushy, taller than we were, always pointing and laughing when we stood up to go to the bathroom or whatever. I always had to step over the legs of Sophia, the worst one, to get to the door, and she always wore tight jeans that were lighter at the bottom than the top, and she would refuse to move her legs even a little bit. I’d accidentally brush up against her and she’d make that “tuh!” sound, point her thumb at me like check this guy out, and when I said sorry she rolled her eyes or turned to giggle with her friends on either side.
Lily wasn’t like that. When she sat outside reading she always had sweatpants on that bunched up around her waist. If she saw me I imagined she would pat the chair next to her and say to come sit. She’d show me the book cover and read me the first few lines from page 77, and I’d nod as if I didn’t know them already, know that the first words were That afternoon, and that the page ended with and later, following along, Jackson paused a minute and set down his sword beside the heavy wrought iron gates. He watched while the peasants brought the wheat and barley up to the
I had fitful thoughts about the two of them for days. Us living in the same house together, I don’t know why, in bunkbeds, me on the bottom and the two of them on the top, his leg hanging over the edge. I took our soccer pictures off the fridge.
School was a mess. I’d turn to look at him right before the bell would ring for passing and he’d always have this look on his face, smug.
“What?” he’d say, and smirk.
At home he came over like always, to play in the backyard. We’d recently gotten a ping pong table that was in the garage. We stood out there at opposite ends of the table with the radio on. I had bloody ideas. First I would throw my paddle at his face. He would duck and it would hit the Styrofoam boxes of Christmas ornaments behind him. I would flip the table over on its end. He’d be stuck between the old wooden ladder alongside the wall and the bikes that would fall in a heap. Then I’d start throwing things at him, baseballs, bats, more paddles, the old stereo. When he was lying on the floor with the inside of his elbow over his eye I’d jump over the table, stand over him, hit him in the side of the neck. I’d pick him up and throw him down so the ping pong table would start warping on one end.
“Have you seen Lily?” I asked him.
He nodded. “Yeah it was fun.”
I was throwing the things back in the garage and they were landing with loud noises. Shadman looked a little jumpy. I think he was afraid of me.
By the time everything was back in his mom came. As usual, she rang the bell in the front, and we could hear her and my mom talking even though the windows were closed.
“Shadman!” she called. He got up.
“Later man,” he said.
I stayed outside and practiced my soccer kicks.
The repetition of it was beginning to bow the red fence. It was about to be dinnertime when Lily walked by. She didn’t see me at first, and she turned around behind her to beckon towards somebody out of sight. I kicked the ball against the fence. It ricocheted against the chain link and she looked up.
“Johnny!” she said. I opened the gate to come out. There was a short guy standing behind her, wearing a Yankees cap and carrying Lily’s bag. She turned to the guy.
“Amir, this is my next door neighbor Johnny.”
He said hi. He leaned forward with his hand stuck out. I thought he was going to slap me five, but he wanted a handshake. Our fingers fumbled.
“How was school?” she asked.
“Not bad, not bad.”
“Ready for break?”
“Yeah it’ll be nice.”
“I know same.”
Amir grinned at me. “You play soccer?” he asked. I told him a bit.
“Cool,” he said. His fingers reached for hers.
“How’s your friend?” she asked. She laughed. “Shadman.”
“Yeah,” I said, “He’s ok. Just left actually.”
She turned to look at Amir, who stared at her blankly. He mouthed the word Shadman. She pointed towards our little patch of garden, with the gnarled berry tree whose trunk was weathered like an old man’s face, the flowers trampled from soccer balls, the basil growing up against the fence, the bits of trash stuck in the crumpled leaves. She pointed at the flowers. His eyes widened and he started laughing. She started nudging him towards her door. He put a hand up to say goodbye.
“Anyway, we better get going,” Lily said. She was laughing. She touched my shoulder. “See you soon.”
“Hey nice to meet you man,” said Amir. He kept giggling.
I think the very last thing I told Shadman about his true love was that it was her job to shovel the walk in front of her house when it snowed. This satisfied him and he reminded me of it every time we went shoveling together. Neither of us saw Lily much any more. He’d two-hand force his shovel into a particularly deep snowdrift, lean on it, take off his Knicks beanie to wipe his forehead and say,
“I bet she’s doing this right now.”
I’d tuh and say, “Yeah.”
We shoveled for money unless the people were old, then Mom forbade us to ask for it but we did let them know that yes, we were hungry. This year we shoveled an entire driveway for what felt like hours, and at the end the guy gave us four crisp twenties, and said get yourself something nice. But the shoveling had been so long and so hard. It was like shoveling an entire soccer field. It was just Shadman and me by ourselves for a long time. It wasn’t snowing any more. I made the same motions over and over again. I was sweating and grunting and tossing snow left and right like an animal. Towards the very end I didn’t feel human at all, and I couldn’t think how I was related to someone like Shadman, or the guy paying us, or anybody else. I felt like a bear, transformed, all sweaty and hairy in my nylon jacket, my arms and legs too long with tiredness, sweat spots appearing on my clothes. I kept tripping over my shovel. We kept working and I got more and more uncomfortable, my back sticking to my turtleneck, my blood going like mad.
Walking home we dragged our shovels behind us.