Send Her Fruit and Flowers
by Charles Haddox
“You won’t find pepper trees this size anywhere outside the tropics. They have to be kept above seventy degrees at all times.” The guide rattled on and on.
With thirteen-year old impatience, I was aching for the water lilies and bromeliads. I let Selene, an extremely forward girl from one of the upper grades who was supposed to be a “student mentor,” rub my arm because it was stinging. Arielle had tackled me, just for the hell of it, inside a greenhouse while the teachers weren’t looking. She had also given me a punch that clearly hurt her more than it did me. In front of the adults, Arielle put on her best Ellen Terry impression, soulfully imbibing the scents of flowers and gently parading a shiny Noble Chafer on her soft little palm. If the beetle had been one of her fellow classmates, she would have crushed it with glee.
“I’m going to take off for a little bit,” I told my friend Henry. We were on a school field trip to the local botanical gardens. “If anybody asks where I am, tell them I needed to use the restroom.”
Henry would do anything I asked. He once went so far as to call Arielle a slut because I asked him to do it.
I followed a path that was concealed by a fence covered with yellow hedge roses and honeysuckle, as I searched for the eccentrics of the plant kingdom. On a stone bridge spanning the neck of a pond, I saw a girl with a pale, narrow face and long, fair hair. She was leaning over a parapet framed by ancient oaks and alders. As I approached, I saw that it was Arielle, terror of middle school, in the midst of water and light, crying softly. She had wandered away from our group at about the same time that I had felt the need to escape the chatter of the official guide.
When I recognized Arielle, my first impulse was to flee the scene, but curiosity won out. I stopped at the edge of the bridge and asked her if she was ok.
She bit her lower lip and shouted at me, “What are you doing?”
“I just wanted to see if you were all right.”
“Why were you spying on me?”
“I wasn’t spying on you. Why would I want to spy on you?”
“’Cause you’re a freak. What do you want?”
“I told you. I just wanted to see if you were ok.”
“I’m fine,” she said as she dried her tears with the sleeve of her sweater. “But you’re not. I’m going to kill you, Dusty. I mean it this time.”
I walked a little closer, but stayed out of range of her sparkly red nails.
“I just wanted to see what was going on with you.”
“You were trying to feel me up.”
“I was not. Why’d I want to touch you?”
“I’m going to let everybody know you tried to feel me up.”
“That’s a lie.”
“No it’s not.”
Arielle thought for a moment.
“Did you bring a lunch?”
“Yes.” I smelled trouble.
“Did you get a dessert?”
“I think there’s pie.”
“Give it to me, and I’ll keep what you did to myself.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Give it up, pie boy.”
“How do I know you won’t tell anyway?”
“’Cause I could take your pie either way.”
“Okay. But you have to tell me what you were crying about.”
“Never. Take it or leave it.”
“Alright. But we should be getting back.”
Following a macadam path that led past flowering shrubs with fire red clusters, whorls of pastels and bunches of champagne foam, azaleas and spireas and hydrangeas, tall serrated grasses, lilies with tongues and stripes and hanging stamens, under copper and silver beeches that guarded the edge of a marsh, we walked side by side like friends. Arielle’s eyes were red and puffy, but she seemed strangely pretty to me. I dared not let her catch me looking at her delicate profile as I pretended to admire the boxwoods and witch hazel, the curiousness of a potted aloe or a solitary old man cactus. Until that moment, I would never have thought of Arielle as someone to whom I could be attracted. She was all sharp edges–broken crockery and stinging nettles.
I noticed a filigree dragonfly barrette in her sun-burnished hair.
“That’s a cute dragonfly,” I said to her.
“In your hair.”
“What are you? A fashion mogul?”
“Do you have a cigarette?” she asked me.
“No, but Chris Smith does. He has a lighter, too.”
“Great. How does that help me? He didn’t even come today.”
“Hey, it’s the best I can do. How long have you smoked?”
“I don’t know. How long have you been an idiot?”
“At least as long as you have.”
“Do you want me to hit you?”
Lunch had already started by the time we got back to our class. Mrs. Daniels upbraided us in front of everybody.
“It’s all this boy-girl craziness,” she proclaimed to the class.
Arielle and I went to sit at separate tables among those spread out under tulip trees. She came to collect as I finished my sandwich.
“Where is it, pie boy?”
I handed over a piece of cold apple pie wrapped in foil, and she ate it in front of me with her fingers.
“Why’d you give her your pie?” Henry asked me.
Arielle answered for me. “It’s all this boy-girl craziness,” she said, licking her fingers and winking at me.
“That Arielle’s a bitch,” Henry said, making sure she was out of earshot.
“Yeah, but you’ve got to admit that she’s getting kind of cute.”
“Hey, she looks at least as good as those girls from St. Mary’s that we tried to talk to at the pool.”
“They didn’t try to beat us up.”
“Maybe it’s true that girls only hit guys they like.”
“In that case, you and Arielle are already married.”
On the way back to school Arielle sat at the back of the bus with her best friends, Cindy and Gwen. They played on their phones and talked loudly. Cindy had brought bubble gum, and they blew bubbles and stuck gum to the roof of the bus. As we pulled up in front of our school, she and her friends pushed their way into the line of exiting kids. Somebody stopped to thank the bus driver, and Arielle was momentarily stuck beside my seat.
“Tell your mother I liked her pie.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“Would have been great with a cigarette.”
Mother goddesses once lived among us. Hero mothers, but we now live on our own. I wanted to reach out and touch Arielle’s skinny leg, as if it was the broken wing of a lark. I wanted to walk with her in a garden.
“Thank you, Dusty,” she added softly, hitting me on the shoulder as she pushed forward to the exit.