Where did it all start? With a woman and a flower shop. And it ended in a tree house, with miles and miles of road in between.
As it all went down, we sped along, clueless. Afterward, we drove back, dazed by what we had done.
I was in the car all of the time that year, scrambling between west and east. Frontier, civilization. Birthplace, home of choice.
In the west I give you my ragtag scattered brothers and cousins; in the east my business associates, hook-ups and friends. West finds me waking up on the filthy shag of a basement rental. East finds me in a downtown loft, face down on that Ikea rug with the crescent moon that everyone seems to own these days.
In the west, I’m the guy people hit up for money, which cracks me up. In the east, it’s always where are you from, dude?
In the west, there’s usually some redneck in a pickup truck ready to beat me up for how I live my life. In the east, odds are improving.
The flower shop was in the east, in Minneapolis. The owner was a white woman. That goes without saying because everyone who runs a flower shop in the Midwest is white by default. White people are the ones who buy the stuff, too, the “good luck at the new job” potted plants, the nosegays for prom, the bathroom potpourri. White people particularly dig the bathroom potpourri.
Once upon a time, back in high school, that flower shop customer had been me. When a friend’s sister’s prom date bails, you do the right thing —find a jacket, buy a nice carnation corsage, head over to the auditorium two counties over. Because proms are boring, we ended up at a campfire with my cousins instead. Completely drunk. Totally innocent. Her parents didn’t believe that, though. They threatened to kill me the next morning, then outright banned me from their 200-person, one-stoplight town.
What happened to the girl? Some white guy knocked her up a year later. As for the corsage, I think it ended up in the grass somewhere. Returned to the earth except for its plastic backing, which a bird is probably choking on right now because unlike us, that crap doesn’t decompose.
A good thing this incident didn’t traumatize me for life against all things botanical, because that’s what my sorely needed new customer called me about: a website for her flower shop.
I was in South Dakota when I got the message, groveling before the largest ad agency (give me more work, give me more work) in the state’s largest city in a shirt all pressed and tight-fitting in a way I think looks sharp but people outside of Minneapolis cast me the side-eye for. New from H&M. Bold to be wearing out west.
“She said it was something wrong with the e-commerce system.”
I told Randolph about my new client as we chilled and ate takeout in his store. He’s my cousin through a distant half-brother. That’s how my family rolls — no tight nucleus but scads of sprawling tentacles, some more sprawling than others. For years, Randolph’s store had sold CDs, posters and concert t-shirts, but now it’s more like rolling papers, energy drinks and vintage vinyl. Plus bongs that you’re technically supposed to refer to as “smoking apparatus” with the illusion that you’re using them for tobacco. Or for spiritual purposes as a peace pipe. Randolph gets that joke nearly once a week. And each time he just smiles and says nothing in the inscrutable way of our people.
“Here’s her website.” I showed him on the laptop. It was a sad Mom-and-Pop template out of a box. But the products totally saved it from looking like crap. Flowers, flowers and more flowers —for birthdays, for anniversaries, for workplace promotions and high school graduations.
I demonstrated the malfunction to Randolph. “Check this out when I pretend to order.” I went through the motions of purchasing an obnoxiously large funeral horseshoe. After clicking through prices, delivery fields and options for size — standard, premium and deluxe — my cursor landed in an ocean of white space.
“This is the place for the personalized message,” I told him. “You can type whatever the fuck you want here. All of War and Peace if your fingers are up to it. Or Infinite Jest even. David Foster Wallace RIP,” I added out of habit.
It had been several years by now, but DFW’s suicide still saddened me. Why would someone with everything, someone who was so creative, so inspiring to so many people, off himself? Randolph, of course, offered no answers to such questions. “The hell — it’s not like you ever met the dude, Tristan. And did you even finish reading that massive book of his?”
And now, looking at the flower shop online order form, he snorted. Randolph’s a big guy, so he can get away with this. “Why would I want to write hipster bullshit with footnotes on a funeral wreath?”
I ignored him and got to the point of the problem. “The wrong messages go out with the wrong flowers. Condolence notes with wedding stuff. Job congratulations with new baby stuffed animals and balloons. After you click send, something gets seriously mixed up in the system.”
Randolph chortled. “That’s pretty hilarious.”
“Not if you own the place and you’re pissing people off. So that’s what I’m going to try to fix for her.”
“But you do design, not billing and database systems.”
“I’ll do it if I have bills to pay,” I countered, the colored-glass bongs in the window throwing rainbows in our direction like stained glass in the afternoon light.
And then our order stalled. Another problem I would have to try to fix. But not today. Looking at the store’s clock — Grateful Dead, attached to a lava lamp, who uses lava lamps anymore? — I repacked my bag and grabbed my coat. “Gotta run.”
“Where you going, dude?”
“Dinner in the Cities with an old coworker. She and her husband and kid.”
Kids plural, I corrected myself. A new one had joined our world last year.
Randolph was unimpressed. “Party on.”
They were cool, I assured him. She had made working for the corporate man tolerable, and he liked his beer.
“I can’t believe you’re driving back to Minneapolis this afternoon. That’s fucking nuts.” The flower shop abandoned, Randolph was now running his dust rag around a big glass inhalant delivery device, his motions perfectly in time with the old Slipknot CD playing over the sound system. “Like, what is that, a five-hour drive?”
“Four the way I do it.”
But not unless I got my ass on the road. As I cracked the door open, I shuddered at the contrast between the outside air and the patchouli-scented Moroccan tent of Randolph’s vape emporium. Winter was coming, as they say on that TV show with the dragons everyone was watching that year.
“Hey, what’s the name of the flower shop?” Randolph shouted after me.
Couldn’t remember, I shouted back. It was on the tip of my tongue. A common name, quintessentially Midwest and perky. “Why do you want to know?”
“Met a chick. Thought I’d send her a bouquet.”
“Didn’t know that farm animals appreciated flowers.”
“Fuck yourself, Tristan. And close that fucking door. You’re letting the cold in.”
I hot-tailed it to the interstate. My car, such that it was, creaked and rattled as I brought it up to speed. Eighty miles per hour was the limit now in South Dakota. Duct tape and rust weren’t meant for such speeds.
To blast out the noise, I cranked up my music, and as I crossed the Minnesota border and eased onto the two-lane road, the clattering settled. Wind turbines shot up on one side of the road; vast grassland unfurled on the other. Serenity. Peace. The scenery of home.
And just as I pulled into the Minneapolis suburbs, I remembered the flower lady’s name. Even though Randolph wasn’t present to see me do it, I smacked my palm against my forehead for effect.
Melissa greeted me at the door of this fancy modern-art log cabin with two red-headed kids now, the baby balanced against her hip and the boy scampering at her feet. Elisa, I remembered. That was her new one. A Hispanic name for one of the whitest children I had ever seen.
Undaunted by motherhood, Melissa still dressed like a Great Plains interpretation of a twee Brooklyn barista. “Leggings aren’t pants, Tristan,” she reprimanded me, an old skinny-jeans joke from our days in the corporate creative department.
“Minnesota ran out of Dockers and I had to cover up with something.” I cast a pointed look at her own attire. “And you’re a fine one to talk.”
Because telling someone to fuck themselves was inappropriate around a toddler, Melissa let my remark pass. “Say hi to Uncle Tristan, Lucas,” she instructed her son. Shyly he shook my hand then scampered off, leaving me to inhale the scents of our simmering dinner and take in the expanse of the place — all big windows, rich wood and soft light. Damn, girl knows how to live, I thought every time I walked through that door.
“I can’t believe you drove all the way from Sioux Falls today. I can’t believe I haven’t seen you since summer. How’ve you been?” She tossed my jacket into a closet and dispatched the kids to a toy-covered quilt.
“Decent,” I shrugged. “Worked hard on the business. Spent some time with the cousins in Pierre.”
“I always forget that you’re originally from South Dakota.”
“You always thought I was from Canada.”
“Why — because I’m polite and dress well?”
“Hardly,” Melissa snorted.
“Dude, I grew up on the Flandreau rez. Right next door to you. Why do you Minnesotans always disregard South Dakota?”
“It’s easy to disregard our redneck neighbors to the west. Bike rally, Corn Palace, Mt. Rushmore. That’s about it. But at least you’re not from Wisconsin. We especially hate people from Wisconsin.”
Just then, her husband Niko greeted me with a beer. It had been a telecommuting day, so he was casually dressed and relaxed. Today’s offering was rye porter, locally crafted. I generally preferred the lighter stuff like PBR because that’s what I grew up with and not because I was a bandwagon hipster. But I could make this work.
The guy from North Dakota, first introduced to me through a cell phone snapshot: he and Melissa on a balcony with a bunch of snow and deer in the background. Go inside already, there’s a warm house right behind you, had been my first thought.
How had they met? Higher-paid and way more senior, Melissa had been the first let go in the layoffs. With the market tight for art directors, creative directors, graphic designers and other artsy folk of our ilk that winter, the search for her next paycheck took her to North Dakota, to the oil fields of Williston of all places.
(“The pipeline, dude! How can you condone that?” Randolph always gave me shit when I told him. Who am I to control the ways of the white man, I retorted back – to a guy who pumped up young kids with sketchy energy drinks and the music of Satan, I helpfully reminded him. How can you expect me to save the world when I can barely pay my bills?)
As Melissa drove her delivery van— a step down in status but several steps up in pay — I languished in my cubicle, employed and secure but jealous of her freedom. Because every night there I was, working hours past sunset, living off hummus wraps from the morning’s white-boarding (more like water-boarding) sessions and listening to my copywriter friend bitch. First it was an op-ed. Then it was a thought leadership piece. Now they want a haiku about a fucking unicorn. Or something like that.
Innovation. Disruption. Brand ownership. Melissa’s stories— traffic jams on two-lane roads, wells with with flames shooting everywhere, the foreign strippers she met for happy hour, the redneck coworkers — were my escape from all that b.s. Especially when she got to the part about the guy.
“I think he’s just inviting me over to be nice.”
People always confide their romantic drama to me. Tristan the dating counselor. In our next call, I reflected upon their next courtship milestone: the couch and the DVD collection.
“We were totally making out through the entire movie.”
Define “making out,” I pushed her, just like she had instructed me to push the account team in project meetings, slightly different subject of course. Was it just cuddling to stay warm or hard-core, legs-entwined, I’d-rather-be-having-sex-right-now making out? “Because it makes a difference.”
“Take me off speaker phone, Tristan,” she insisted but kept on talking anyway. “I stay over because of the icy roads and we sleep in the same bed. But he’s being a gentleman, damn him.”
“Of course he is. He just met you.”
“I have my needs.”
“Would you prefer that he roofie you instead?” I pointed out — quite reasonably in my opinion.
Then, a week of silence. “Still a gentleman?” I asked.
“Oh my God no,” she replied after a long pause, her tone and that pause insinuating more than the entirety of my uncle’s carefully preserved Penthouse Forum collection. RIP. One winter, my half-brother Bertram and I discovered them behind the woodpile. Bertram studied them seriously, I noted the poor lighting and art direction, and we were both beaten severely when caught. I never did have a great impression of Miami Vice-era pornography after that.
And now here we all were —the uncle long dead, Bertram running around with real girls up in Sisseton, me being me and Niko and Melissa married, parenting and wallowing in wealth. Niko made a killing working for some oil company. And Melissa wasn’t exactly suffering. After North Dakota, she had started her own business designing custom-painted goalie masks for rich little hockey players. It was a market that defied logic on the surface but had no bottom. White people will spend money on anything. Beanie babies, yoga mats, kale smoothies and now hockey masks that looked like bears and monsters. An entrepreneurial success story thanks to Melissa’s talent and hard work. That and the website I designed for it, one of my first and — in my humble opinion — one of my best.
Surreal to be around friends with money, I thought every time I visited Melissa’s hockey- and oil-funded house. Surreal to be with people who weren’t two steps away from car repo and the bail bondsman.
Also noteworthy: How these rich parents could drink.
I used to think booze was a pleasure just for the poor, a rot-gut bone of consolation for not being able to buy something at the mall or vacation somewhere warm in the middle of winter. How wrong I had been. At this Restoration Hardware table, solid as a medieval altar, wine bottles plural — one for each of us, kids included — nestled between autumn gourd centerpieces and serving platters of expensive cheese. Plus roasted vegetables because, you know, health.
As a warm buzz spread through my body, the conversation turned to work.
“I got a new customer today,” I announced. “Well, actually I’m scheduled to meet with her later this week, so she’s not officially a customer yet. But she sounds desperate.”
“That’s awesome, Tristan.” Melissa navigated a spoon of goo into her youngest child’s mouth.
“She’s in a ton of trouble.”
I explained how the owner had just gone through a divorce and needed to find a way to support herself. “Guess no multi-level marketing schemes with baskets or essential oils were available. You go girl, right?”
Then I went into the bit about the online store and its troubles. “So you’re getting happy birthday old fart messages sent to funerals and wakes, condolence cards sent to weddings. Pretty funny, huh?”
But Melissa wasn’t laughing. In fact, she was staring down at her fingers, pensively picking away at an errant cuticle, her daughter’s dinner abandoned.
“What’s the shop called?” she asked.
“Shelly’s Flower Shop.”
“Shelly’s Flower Shop,” she repeated.
With that, she disappeared into the next room. I gave Niko a “what the hell” look and he of course offered no explanation, loyal to his wife and complicit in whatever revelation she was about to make.
Melissa returned with a thick photo album — real, print photos, old school, not like the digital frame in the dining room that displayed a new hologram every 10 seconds: the family at the farmer’s market, the family by the lake in Duluth, a pumpkin patch, a Christmas tree.
This album was the Kodachrome chronicles of a ridiculously attractive Minnesota farm family. Seriously, it was like a John Deere or Con Agra storyboard come to life.
We started our tour sometime in the 1990s, judging by the clothes and hair.
“Nice Nirvana t-shirt,” I noted, receiving a glare and an extended middle finger in return. “I’m serious.”
Melissa showed me a wedding photo. “My brother Brandon.”
Like many out here in the Midwest, dude had married young. Right out of school.
“And here are my nephew and niece. The product of this now-broken home. Poor Brianna is having a hard time with everything right now. I’ve tried to take her out on the weekends every so often, make sure she’s okay.”
We paged through photos of frolicking white toddlers who grew up into children, then teens, running around outdoors, climbing on things, doing what farm kids do. There were pictures from state fairs, snowshoeing, four-wheeling, hockey matches. I met Melissa’s parents, tough but friendly farm folk from the look of things. A happy family, from all appearances.
Finally she pointed to a more recent photograph, an attractive dark-haired woman in denim and a flannel shirt. About eight to 10 years older than Melissa, it appeared. Pleasant. No bullshit. Capable-looking.
“Is that her, Tristan?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t met her in person yet.”
“What’s her last name?”
“I’d have to look it up in my phone.”
“It’s not the same as mine? Well, she wasted no time changing it back.”
“You’re a fine one to judge. You’ve kept your maiden name, if I remember correctly,” I reminded her as Niko refilled our wine glasses.
“Have you ever attempted to spell or pronounce my husband’s last name? Besides, I am a modern, liberated woman.” She deftly wiped the baby’s mouth then turned her attention to Lucas, who was waiting like a perfect little gentleman with wide eyes, tousled hair and empty plate. “Are you ready for bed?”
The boy nodded.
“He is such a sweet kid,” I commented as they cleared his plate away. “So well behaved. And so is his little sister.” Shit, what was her name again? Ella? Emily? So I just waved. “Hey, cutie.”
This child, I continued to break the tension unexpectedly caused by my new client Shelly, was adorable. As adorable, in fact— I rifled my mind for a diversion —
“Have you seen the video that’s been going around?” Thank God. I remembered. “Picture this: A piglet is pushing a little wheelchair across a dusty barn floor. What for? Why? Well, we’re at a farm for abandoned animals. And then we meet his little buddy: a legless baby goat.”
Niko laughed. He had been among the millions worldwide moved by Leon Trotsky — get it? — during working hours. Melissa was less amused. Maybe this tale brought back memories of a favorite farm pet. Maybe she wasn’t a fan of pork — I couldn’t remember. “You’re comparing my child to a handicapped farm animal?”
“Only in terms of cuteness, not in terms of smell. And I think they prefer to be called differently abled. Speaking of farms, yours is really beautiful. Do you go out there often?”
“No, we sold it,” she replied, not meeting my eyes.
“Time to cash out to Monsanto, huh.”
“Not really. Debts.”
“Yeah, farming can be a rough business,” I commiserated even though I had no idea what the fuck went into running a farm. “Lots of overhead — all that equipment, livestock, labor, taxes,” I babbled on.
Now the kids were starting to get restless. “I can take them upstairs,” Niko offered.
“No, no, no,” Melissa insisted. “You’ve been with them all afternoon. I’m good.”
They conferred for a long moment in the hallway, whispering sentences I couldn’t make out. I started to clear the dishes.
Should I check my phone? Should I cancel that appointment with this Shelly woman — Melissa’s former sister-in-law— and her flower shop?
Then I pictured my bank balance, the blaring “past due” notice from my landlord. No, I would keep that appointment.
After dinner, Niko and I took to the family PlayStation for an hour or so of culturally sanctioned violence. Then we crept upstairs to the playroom to check in on Melissa. There she lay, sprawled on a pile of stuffed animals, softly snoring, a sleeping child on either side. Not one of them made a peep as we covered them with a quilt.
Then Niko grabbed a six pack of beer from the fridge and our coats from the entryway. He motioned for me to follow him outside.
If this hadn’t been Melissa’s husband, I would have been all “dude, where are you taking me?” with a mixture of fear and anticipation. But I had known the guy for a while and I figured this meant one of two things: either he just wanted to sit outside and drink in the cold weather because that’s what Northern Europeans do or there was something he wanted to tell me out of the earshot of Melissa and the kids.
The grass was crispy beneath our feet from the frost. By the time my eyes had adjusted to the moonlight, we had arrived at a solid oak and a tree house.
We unlocked the padlock and climbed up. Good thing both of us were in decent shape because the entry through the floor was tight, child-sized, and the ladder rungs leading up to it shaky. Upstairs was a tiny, half-finished main room and a porch with a full view of the moon. That’s where we sat.
“I started building it last year for the kids,” Niko said, rummaging through his coat pockets.
I handed him my keychain with the bottle opener. Always be prepared. “It’s nice. Solid construction. For the girl, too?”
“Of course. Melissa is determined that we not turn her into a little princess.” He took a swig from his bottle. “How much did she tell you about her time in North Dakota?”
“She drove a van and delivered stuff. Food, I think.”
“For Dickinson Catering. Raymond Fournier’s company. The man who was arrested for drug trafficking, who was later murdered in Quebec City. Maybe you read about it all in the news?
“Did she ever tell you why she left?”
I thought back to that spring and summer. It had been a crazy one, and I had been shitty about keeping up with everyone. “No,” I confessed. “I don’t think she did.”
“I think you see where I’m going with this, Tristan.”
Actually, I didn’t. But I have been accused of being remarkably clueless on occasion. I stared into the cold air in front of me, my breath warming it. I listened to the wind send a feeble gust through the treehouse’s leafless branches. I waited for him to continue.
“Her brother Brandon, the former husband of your new client, got her that job.”
I chuckled. Interchangeable Midwestern white guy from the photos? “Oh, I don’t think Brandon knew anything about any drug stuff. From the looks of it, all he does is watch hockey and work on the farm all day.”
“Worked on the farm,” Niko corrected. “And his livelihood didn’t exactly involve crops. I’ll email you a few articles for you to read later. But for now, let me tell you about the shed.”
The shed. I braced myself. Nothing good ever happens in a shed.
After Melissa’s parents died, he explained, they had traveled to the farm to help Brandon and Shelly pack up and settle the estate. Weeks and weeks of sorting old magazines, storing away old-white-people ceramic figurines, sharing meals in the dining room with Brandon glaring at them or making snide remarks. “Because I know everything. Also because of the first pregnancy, which technically had been a bit of a surprise.”
Then one day, Shelly, “who is actually quite nice,” Niko assured me, offered to take Lucas into town for the afternoon. Finally, for the first time in weeks, it was just the two of them. Privacy.
“Let me show you the back fields,” Melissa suggested. “While we still can.”
Well, Niko had never seen all of the place. “The weather was mild,” he continued, “and we just walked and walked and walked. All of this land, all in her family? I was amazed.”
For the first time since they had arrived, Melissa was smiling and laughing. Niko felt the weight lifting from his shoulders. Birds, squirrels scurried around them, getting ready to hibernate.
Finally, they arrived at a shed. “That’s what Melissa called it, but it was more like a very simple house converted for storage. Maybe some of the farmhands had stayed there in the old days. No official, paved roads led up to it, but there were deep grooves in the dirt from vehicles driving by, many of them fresh. Maybe hunters, I thought, or people looking for a shortcut across the fields. In any case, it was quiet and peaceful.
“I asked Melissa what was inside. I grew up as a city kid, so all of this was new to me. Equipment, feed, saddles for the horses from back when they had horses, she explained.
“But the door was locked. Here out in the middle of nowhere. This was new, Melissa remarked. We peered through a window.
“I expected to see all of the things she had mentioned, like equipment, saddles, feed, things stored away. But the room had recently been used. It was furnished with fold-out tables and chairs, one after the other. No dust and dirt. And on some of the tables we saw scales for weighing things.”
“Farmers weigh things all the time,” I remarked, even though I had a good idea where this conversation was going.
“No, these scales were not for livestock or vegetables. They were small, for grams and ounces. And next to these scales were guns and boxes of bullets. Melissa was disturbed by it all. She was angry, too. But she was not surprised.”
“What exactly are you getting at, Niko?”
He gave me a look, the look I don’t think he realizes he gives when he doubts people are keeping up with him intellectually. Even in the dim light, I could see that eyebrow arch.
“I know that you need the money, Tristan. But I would stay far away from Shelly’s Flower Shop if I were you.”
© 2016 People and Places. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Views of the characters do not necessarily reflect the views of the author.