Zoe Yohn holds an MA in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama from University College Dublin. She has published short stories in The Honest Ulsterman and Flyover Country Literary Magazine, and her story “Language Barriers” was longlisted for the 2021 Exeter Story Prize. Zoe lives in Dublin, Ireland, by way of the Rocky Mountains with her husband.
One bitterly cold March afternoon, a damp day of perpetual ice-salt crust on the door mat, Maria found Paul while she was pretending to restock the display refrigerators. Far too late for holly, too early yet for daffodils and peonies, her plastic vases had been holding chilled and limp carnations for weeks, bouquets mostly bloom-less and half-full of backdrop greenery. It was the in-between season, stale weeks sandwiched by Valentine’s Day and spring engagements, when Maria struggled to find anything to put out and had to supplement with crap, cheap toy shit. She wondered if the entire world hadn’t frozen over and wholesale teddy bears now grew from the cold dirt instead of flowers.
She was straightening a row of cinnamon-scented candles when Paul wandered into the floral department and began to sift through the bare display shelves, tenderly lifting vases for price check. He browsed as though he were shopping for a new suit, aimlessly unsure, and after a few minutes, Maria asked if he needed help.
“Actually,” he said, “I’m looking for something for my daughter. She’s having her new boyfriend over for dinner this weekend and I thought it might be nice to have some flowers out.”
“How old is she?” Maria asked, more out of politeness than anything. She recognized him from her time at check-out. He was, like most customers, a fixture of the aisles, a wandering endcap with an ever-rotating selection of corduroy shirts. There were a lot of regulars like Paul, the kind of shoppers who liked to chat at check-out. They thought trading recipe anecdotes while Maria scanned their produce made for a special kind of friendship, but really, it was just another moment for them to talk about themselves.
“Seventeen. She’s starting at UNL in the fall.”
His daughter wasn’t much younger than Maria, but it was possible he’d started life later than she had. Most people did. His hair was starting to salt-and-pepper at his temples, as was the stubble around his lips. He had to have at least twenty years on her, and she remembered that he bought fiber-enriched cereal and Arm & Hammer deodorant. It was too intimate to know someone’s groceries. She was suddenly embarrassed standing face-to-face with him, even though she knew what brand of detergent was hiding in his laundry room.
“Do you have any kids?”
“I’ve got a girl, too. She’s only eight, though…still some time before I have to worry about a boyfriend.”
“It happens sooner than you think,” Paul said, and Maria knew he wasn’t wrong. Esther was already starting to pull from her. She’d rather listen to music in her bedroom than watch Disney movies and Maria had to walk quickly to keep up with her when they were running errands. Esther was always a few too many steps ahead.
“We’re a little low on stock,” Maria said, gesturing to the empty bouquet buckets behind her.
“Must be a lot of people going on dates,” Paul said. Maria wasn’t sure if it was a joke, but she laughed anyway. He brightened at the sound.
“Then I guess I don’t know the right kind of people. I can check in the back, see if we have anything?”
Paul shook his head and plucked at a balloon floating above the card rack. Congrats On Your Retirement! it screamed in shimmering orange letters.
“This probably isn’t what I’m going for, huh?”
Maria thought of his place—or what it must look like—a soon-to-be empty nest with plush beige carpets and cooling chicken fried steaks on the table, the retirement party balloon floating above his pissed-off teenage daughter and her horny boyfriend. It would only be a few years until that would be her and Esther. She laughed again despite herself, and he laughed with her.
Paul bought the balloon, plus a fresh cotton scented candle and a teddy bear, and left the store swinging his plastic bag. Maria knew he’d be back again.
When she was twenty-four, the old grocery store florist left without giving notice and Maria asked if she could take the position. There wasn’t any kind of raise, but the hours would be more regular, and she was sick of her cash register, sick of scanning the same cartons of formula and green bananas she’d been scanning for three years. The floral department was vibrant, a lush crop of linoleum drenched with the scent of honey and damp, soft soil. It was the only glamourous part of the place, and with its glossy greens and Crayola-bright blooms, it was the closest Maria would get to somewhere like Hawaii or the Bahamas. Working there would be something.
Management said yes, but she’d still need to work the registers on lunch cover. That night, she rented Aladdin for Esther, again, and they celebrated with Dairy Queen drive-through. Under the blanket Maria’s mother had crocheted, they watched the movie and ate Blizzards on the couch together, lips frozen and sweet.
There was a learning curve. The head of the bakery, a thick-packed woman named Charlie, trained Maria between baking bread and icing made-to-order cakes. They toured the swatch of warehouse behind the produce section, where there was a wooden worktop, heavy plastic-basin sink, spools of ribbon and shears. The air was cold but smelled surprisingly strong of greenery, as though a crop of fresh daffodils might be hiding beneath the peeling worktable, their buttery heads blossoming from stained concrete.
The first time Maria opened the door to the blue cool of the flower fridge, icy light poured from the bulbs and stained her skin a creamy periwinkle. In the chill, she felt petal soft, like Maria herself was a night-blooming moonflower. She reached out and fingered the ruffled cheek of a fuchsia carnation. It gave under her press and Maria quickly pulled her hand away, afraid she would bruise its tender flesh.
When Maria’s mother heard about the promotion, she was at the stove stirring a pot of baked beans.
“I’m not surprised,” she said. “You’re so creative, Maria, and you’ve always loved to watch things grow.”
The work was enjoyable, and in the evenings, Maria would pack her hail-rippled Chevy Impala with wilting flowers, a thank-you to her mother for watching Esther after school. While Maria’s mother cooked dinner and Esther dutifully colored in the letters of the alphabet at the same kitchen table where Maria used to do her homework, Maria would work on the flowers—refreshing their water with a splash of lemon-lime soda, cutting down stems, lobbing off deadheads. This was her life: her daughter, her mother, the flowers, and lingering under the smell of her mother’s cooking, the green scent of almost-decay and floral musk. When they all sat down to dinner together, Maria could pretend it was enough.
The flowers never lasted long, but Maria’s mother didn’t care. She kept them in old liter bottles of Diet Pepsi, empty pasta sauce jars, milk cartons, whatever she could find. Elderly blooms took over the coffee table, the kitchen counters. She wedged them between her makeup bag and boxes of tampons in the bathroom. Esther started calling her grandmother’s house “the garden,” and Maria’s mother thought this was the cutest thing she’d ever heard.
“No one ever bought me flowers,” she told Maria. “There was this thing in the school, for Valentine’s Day. They’d go around selling carnations and you could buy one for your sweetheart. They delivered them during math class. That I remember. I was awful at math and each year they’d come around with armfuls of carnations and when they left without stopping for me, I hated it even more.”
The boys Maria dated never bought her flowers, either. Esther’s dad had given her a ride to the pharmacy for the pregnancy test, but that was about it.
“Your daddy didn’t think about that kind of stuff much,” her mother continued. “He was too practical. Why spend money on something that’ll just die, that’s what he thought. Lynda Barnhardt, across the street? Her husband was always bringing her flowers. Almost every Friday I seen him get out of his car with a bouquet.” She laughed, but her eyes were dull. “I was so jealous.”
“They could have been apology flowers. Maybe he was doing something wrong.”
“I wouldn’t’ve cared. That’s what I thought sometimes. Everything in this house was so…brown. The carpets. The cabinets. I thought I’d happily trade your daddy stepping out for some flowers, just once!” This time her laughter was real. Deep and coarse, it sounded like childhood to Maria.
“And now look.” Across the living room were flowers in all states of old age. The soft rustle of petals falling on the carpet made Maria shiver. Plants were more alive than people, always in a fretful state of unfurling, stretching, shedding sweet tufts of pollen, loud enough to feel in the still night. “Guess it’s all about God’s timing. He gave me more than I bargained for!”
But Maria’s mother hadn’t known anything about her job then, and neither did she. It was just pretty flowers in the early days. After her mother passed, Maria didn’t know what to do with the leftovers. When the Manager was around, she plastered their cellophane with discount stickers. Otherwise, she took them to the dumpsters after her shift and threw them away at the first sign of rot. When they came to her, the flowers were already half-dead anyway. Decay was just rendered more beautiful by her sleight of hand.
Not long after he bought the retirement balloon, Paul asked Maria out. He’d started lingering around the floral department each time he was in the store. Sometimes they talked about their daughters, mostly he was curious about her work. He didn’t know much about flowers but toured the displays and asked Maria questions. Which months were the best for bulb planting? What varieties were the most fragrant? Paul was a good listener, even though Maria could tell he didn’t really care. No one had listened to her in a while, and she was happy to finally show off all of her secret plant knowledge, the cuttings and seeds she’d been cultivating since she took the position. And after all that, he still wanted to talk to her more.
“I don’t have a sitter,” she told him.
“Brianna can watch her,” Paul offered. “She won’t mind. She loves kids. She even took this first-aid class at the community college last year, knows how to do CPR and everything.”
He wasn’t a bad-looking man. There were a few years left to call him handsome, with his tall bulk and wide palms. Under the grey stubble, the cut of his jaw was still clean, slack-less. Maria’s apartment was small, but empty, and too quiet when Esther went to bed. She thought of the balloon and candle he’d bought that first day and suddenly, more than anything, Maria wanted him at her kitchen sink, with its lone coffee cup and Esther’s plastic plate soaking in the metal tub. She thought of him filling a clean vase for her, depositing a full, living bouquet on her kitchen table. And he was eager, not in the way of the guys she sometimes met at bars, who weren’t enthusiastic, just drunk, so she said yes.
She hadn’t been on a date—a real one, for dinner—in years, and the stress of picking out an outfit, of doing her hair, of makeup and perfume made her late. Esther sat on the toilet seat and watched her mother rub brown shadow on her eyelids.
“Can I have some?” she asked, fluttering her lashes, puckering her rosebud mouth for a swipe of lipstick. Maria declined Paul’s offer to let his teenage daughter watch Esther. That was too much pressure, like he needed them to be an easy-bake family before she even knew what he did for a living. Instead, she dropped Esther at a friend’s house, reminding her that this was not a sleep-over.
“Please? Please, please, please?” Esther begged from the back seat.
“No, baby, not tonight. Maybe some other time.”
“You haven’t let me do anything fun since Grandma died.” She kicked the seat and Maria ignored her.
Paul was already sitting at the table with a glass of red wine when Maria arrived. He’d picked an Italian place not far from the store and stood to pull Maria’s chair out for her as she peeled off her coat and tried to discreetly smooth her hair with her hands.
“Glass of wine?” he offered.
She let him pick the wine, then she asked him to pick the food. Everything on the laminate menu was unfamiliar to her—risotto and arrabiata and other words that sat sharp on her tongue, but not in an unpleasant way. They were the kind of words she’d always wanted to use.
“I don’t go out much,” she explained. An understatement, Maria couldn’t remember the last time she’d been out past eleven. He told her he didn’t have much of a social life, either, when Brianna was Esther’s age, just after his wife left. Dating was hard for a newly single parent without any help.
“Is Esther’s dad . . . in the picture?” he asked carefully.
“Not really. We had her so young, I was still in high school. I don’t even know where he is now. My mom was a big help, though. We lived with her until Esther was five. She made dinner if I had to work late, drove Esther to ballet.”
“Were you two close?” Paul swirled a bulb of spaghetti onto the end of his fork. Maria found she liked watching him eat. It was delicate, each knife slice, every bite considerate and calm. He was a man who was full, content, unlike the ravenous boys she used to date, who scarfed down pizza and Ruffles and Keystone like they were starved.
“Yeah, I guess. Esther took it really hard. They were partners in crime.” Maria smiled. “She loved flowers.”
“Just like you.”
He walked her to her car after dinner and kissed her. His mouth was tannin-rich and warm and even when his stubble scratched at her cheeks, Maria didn’t mind. She sank into his body, almost too easily. Her breath was sharp with alcohol, its fire laced her blood with heat, and she felt something begin to stretch and come to life inside of her, a piece of herself that had been hibernating like daffodil bulbs under icy dirt since Esther had been born. Two glasses of wine weren’t enough to make her drunk, but her head swam with possibility as she drove to pick up her daughter. How many years had it been since she’d been kissed? Months, a year maybe. She went to bed thinking of the warmth of other bodies.
The days slowly stretched out, the air grew warmer and buoyant. Leaving the store in the evening, Maria would pause at the dumpsters after throwing away her flowers and stare at the sky, its wash of cool blue and tangerine melting into mild lavender night. Although it had yet to rain, the sidewalks smelled fresh, and so did the asphalt in the street, the chilled metal fences, as though all things manmade wanted their seasonal renewal just like the greening grass and plush buds on empty branches had theirs.
After their third date, she agreed to let Paul cook for her at home. Instead of dropping her daughter off at a friend’s house, Maria arranged a babysitter for Esther, and asked for the overnight rate.
Paul’s address led her to a pleasant ranch-style house resting in one of the town’s first suburban streets, the kind of neighborhood Maria’s mother had always wanted to live in. American flags lifted their edges in limp greeting as Maria navigated the blocks of two-car homes and chalk-splattered sidewalks. His house was easy to find; a wooden sign in the shape of a volleyball jersey was planted in the flower beds out front, "BRIANNA #44" painted across its plywood chest.
Maria cut the ignition and sat in the car for a moment. Her purse was stuffed with discreet overnight supplies—a toothbrush and miniature tube of toothpaste; contact lens case; extra pair of panties. She tried to imagine what it would be like to touch Paul’s skin, until then hidden under layers of corduroy and down vest. His stomach sagged just slightly over his waistband. The last guy she’d been with had been young enough to be Paul’s son, his body still taut and pale and tense with the anxiety of the years to come.
She walked up the concrete front steps and rang the doorbell. A doorbell. Neither her house nor her mother’s had a doorbell. Visitors had to rap their knuckles on the metal screen door and the act of pressing her finger to ring for Paul made Maria flush and straighten in sudden formality. There was a minute when she thought of turning around, but there were no excuses now, no time constraints, minutes burning away before she had to extract herself and pick up Esther. She was at the mercy of the night.
“Hello!” Paul grinned as he opened the door. He held a glass of red wine in one hand and wore a grey-and-blue striped apron. He leaned down and kissed her cheek.
“Hi,” Maria said, stepping inside. “It smells good in here.”
Paul’s house was TV sitcom cozy, with plush, creamy carpets, an overstuffed sofa-set crowding around the television. For all the stiffness of the doorbell, Maria felt her bones begin to melt into the architecture of Paul’s home as she hung her purse by the door. The rooms were already wrapping around her, inviting her to take off her shoes, drink from the milk carton, sneak an afternoon nap on the couch. It smelled warm, frying garlic and blistering tomatoes and something else, a sweet, familiar scent like musk and honey, that almost overpowered the cooking. As Maria trailed behind Paul to the living room, she saw what it was.
Flowers, of all different hues, sizes and species watched them from every corner of the house. They were lined up on the kitchen island, the coffee table, the sideboard, sprouting from vases of pristine cut glass. Carnations grew from the television, tulips from the china cabinet. Maria counted three clods of freesias, vying for the warmth of an end table lamp, a sunflower patch sprouting along the wall separating the breakfast nook and living room. Something began to twist in Maria’s stomach. All of these flowers were too familiar.
There were no roses or orchids. These were the off-cuts, the cheap, common flowers of seven-dollar bouquets. And every single one of them was blemished, even if just slightly, with rot. Brown scabs had begun to grow under brittle, wrinkling petals. Their heads hung limp, some so exhausted they looked ready to snap and fall to the floor. Maria ran her finger along the sideboard, where a drooping cluster of lilies had coughed up a fine dust of pollen.
“Do you like it?”
Maria had almost forgotten about Paul, or maybe he just blended in too completely with the decaying blossoms that surrounded him. He was standing in the center of the living room, a wide, goofy smile stretched across his face, his arms outstretched like a Vegas magician. The room was too small for him, too colorful. He grew like a grey crooked tree from the carpet. Maria half-expected over-ripe apples to start spilling from his pockets.
“Where did you get all of these?” Her voice was colder than she meant it to be. It came out hard as iron. The perfume of the room was too much. Her stomach was fragile, like it had been shredded to tattered lace. The flowers were raging against the end of their lives and let out clouds of scent, stronger and sweeter and sicklier than when they were first pulled from the soil. They were no different than humans in that way.
“The store.” His arms fell to his sides and his smile began to fade. “I saw you throwing them away one night, out at the dumpster. You looked so sad, I thought you wanted to keep them.”
Maria’s mother had smelled that way, too. In those last few weeks, as though the folds of her mother’s skin were held together with sap, she’d reeked of the flowers she loved. How long would it be until her bones dissolved and so did the wood of her coffin, the blue dress spackled with hydrangeas Maria picked out for the funeral? A thousand years, maybe more, and Maria’s mother would bloom again from the soil, and who would be waiting with a pair of shears to watch her rot in a pool of murky tap water? Maria herself wouldn’t be long after.
“Don’t you like them?”
Paul was rooted where he stood. The pan on the stove behind him gurgled and popped and the thought of slurping down a plate of hot sauce made Maria’s stomach lurch.
“I’m sorry, my stomach…I’m not feeling great.”
“Oh, okay. Can I get you something? Do you want some water? We don’t have to eat here, we can go out if you want.”
“No, that’s okay. I think I just need to go home and lay down. It’s a headache, I don’t know, I’m just not feeling good.” It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the truth. Paul knew it and was too polite to stop Maria from collecting her coat. He followed her to the door and when Maria looked back as she reversed out of his driveway, he was still leaning against the frame, watching her cruise into the watery spring evening, as limp as the dead garden in his living room.
For a while, Maria held her breath at work and kept herself hidden away at her workstation as much as possible. As spring wore on and the floor displays began to fill again, it was easier for Maria to mask herself behind bouquets and shelves of potted herbs. She didn’t respond to Paul’s messages or call him back. Weeks passed and he didn’t come into the store.
Esther stopped asking about Maria’s dates and as she began to realize what the return to their former routine, to sharing late-night Blizzards and weekends watching old movies, meant for her new-found freedom, she launched a vicious campaign against her mother.
“You need to get a life,” she snapped one afternoon, when Maria told Esther she couldn’t go to a birthday sleepover.
“It’s family dinner, I’m cooking grandma’s pork chops. You love those! I can drop you off after,” Maria offered.
“I don’t want to go after! I never get to do anything! You don’t have any friends and I’m not your friend, I’m your daughter.”
Each day Esther was unfurling and the space between girlhood temper tantrums and teenage venom shrank smaller and smaller. In these fragile moments, Maria found herself punching in her mother’s number on her phone. Sometimes it would ring two or three times before Maria realized there was no one on the other end to answer.
One evening, just before close, Maria took a lap through the flowers with her spray bottle. She fingered each cellophane-wrapped bouquet and hitched the ones that were browning and weak under her arm. Anything worth saving got a quick drink of water and the rest were for the dumpster.
As she spritzed a thirsty patch of royal irises, she felt the same strumming energy Paul brought whenever he walked into the floral department. Maria’s stomach dropped, but when she looked up, she found a teenage girl with dirty bathwater blonde hair watching her from the card display. Maria recognized her instantly, and not just from the screensaver on Paul’s phone. She had the same tall, broad shoulders as her father, the same clouded grey eyes. For the first time, Maria thought of Paul’s ex-wife, and how easy it must have been to leave her daughter, this replica of her father, a girl with nothing for a mother to claim.
“Hi,” Brianna said.
They stood in silence for a minute before Maria asked, “Can I help you find anything?”
“Yeah,” Brianna muttered. She gestured around vaguely and Maria caught sight of a card in her hand. A New Chapter Begins! Congratulations on Your Promotion! it read in big blue bubble letters.
“It’s for my dad. Thursday’s his birthday, it’s just a joke. Kind of our thing. It’s stupid,” Brianna explained. Her face turned pink. She looked at the ground and hid the card behind her. “Anyway. He really likes flowers now, I guess, so…” she trailed off and wandered over to a display of roses, dozens of tightly packed, deeply fragrant buds. “I don’t know what kind to get him, though.” She checked the price tag on one of the bouquets and walked away.
Brianna was graduating soon, Paul had told her that. Her chin and cheeks were in the final stages of carving themselves into the face of the woman she’d be, and there was the boyfriend, too, but the way she spoke about Paul gave Maria the sense that Brianna wasn’t quite ready to grow out from under the comfort of her father’s home. Then again, who was? Maria had gone from girl to woman in the space of nine months. The years in between were lost; she was middle-aged at twenty-six. She’d be elderly at thirty.
“Here,” Maria said. She held out a bouquet of dying flowers, yellowing hydrangeas and peonies. “They were just going to be thrown out anyway. Go ahead. He’ll like these, they’re new season.”
The girl looked relieved and happily took the bouquet from Maria, holding it in her arms like the bundle was an infant. She breathed into the flowers, and although the cloying smell of rot, just beginning to burn at petal’s edge, had singed Maria’s nostrils, Brianna smiled when she lifted her face.
“Thanks,” Brianna said. They waited a moment more. Maria didn’t know if she should ask Brianna to say hello to Paul for her. In the end, she told Brianna to mix two drops of bleach with a teaspoon of sugar when the plant food packet ran out.
“Okay, thank you, this is great, thanks again!” Brianna started for the cash registers, turning every few feet and waving at Maria, mouthing ‘thank you!’ as she went.
Paul would like the hydrangeas. Even though they were beginning to wrinkle, their heads were still full. She didn’t get many hydrangeas in. People here didn’t appreciate them. They were strange flowers, remnants of some tropic, faraway place where the colors were muted and made soft by moonlight and the air warm under the overhang of heavy leaves.
There were countless flowers that Maria would never see, blossoms so different from the plasticky roses and stiff orchids that were delivered week-after-week to her storage fridge. Maybe she’d take Esther to the capital over summer break. They could go to the Botanic Gardens together, where there was a butterfly museum, steaming hot and smelling of honey nectar. Or maybe she’d go alone.
Maria walked to her car that evening, and the air was thick with milk-thistle. She was grateful she didn’t have to make the extra trip to the dumpster. Some things deserved to be saved.
“ Much of my work starts with place. In Moonflower, that’s the grocery store where I worked in high school. This story is a larger reflection on my rural hometown and the important lives lived in quiet, lost places. ”