It was a little like following a trail of beautiful blood, Percy thought as he stared at carefully dropped blossoms and then wondered what was wrong with him, anyway. They were lovely camellias yet surprising, somehow a bit shocking as he plodded along. He did hope no one just plucked them off the branches willy nilly.
He had decided to get out since his miserable cold had abated but he hadn’t gotten too far. Buster Keaton, his lame Jack Russell terrier, was more eager to walk him than the other way around. He gave a firm command; his dog heeled. The red petals seemed to interest the dog very little, while Percy found them by far the most intriguing event of his day. But it was only noon, no telling what was next, he had the rest of the day ahead of him to look for something, anything, of interest.
This was the trouble with the aptly yet oddly named “sunset years.” He’d been warned that unless he rediscovered or developed new hobbies, took a couple of classes or an exotic trip, he could end up bored beyond tears. He waved off the suggestions; he was a homebody at heart. He liked to cook, he liked to read and write meandering letters, he liked to listen to opera while tending his vegetable garden. And he went out on (very easy) hikes now and again in good weather. He had Buster Keaton and some human friends.
Although being bored to tears was a silly saying and an overstatement, there was something to be said for at least having a fine dog that engaged attention. If you could call taking him for brief walks twice a day and explaining to him the finer points of antique and flea market treasure hunting during favorite t.v. shows–as Buster gazed at him with barest interest–actual attention for either of them. His well-behaved dog was amenable; he was a quieter canine, being twelve and sort of gimpy (a broken leg had not healed correctly). He liked to snuggle beside him on the sofa, but not too much. The truth was, they were both a bit humdrum these days. The sunsets they witnessed had not been so utterly wonderful as what the later life forecasts had insisted.
But this flower trail was interesting. Percy gently poked at the first flower with his walking stick. It had been plucked or gathered a couple of days, he ascertained, as it was not quite browning about the edges but more wilty than fresh should be. They were placed in a deliberate pattern, each one set upon the intersections of sidewalk slab lines. It was puzzling out red dots with occasional dashes, a sort of code. Every now and then one was off-mark. Percy wondered if this was due to walkers or creatures kicking aside a few. Or perhaps the flower dropper got distracted.
Percy sighed. This sad little activity he was undertaking! It was a relevant summation of his life since leaving his active position. He was the founding half, the Rowell of the co-owned Rowell and Randall Interiors. So little to get excited about yet his doctor had warned that peace was essential for a long lived heart. It was only himself at home, he affirmed when inquisitive people pelted him with questions about his private life–except for good Buster Keaton. He had never been deeply moved to marry. He had frankly not really met a singular woman–oh, he’d known a few, if he only could have melded them into one–more interesting than his four best friends. And his varied dogs, let’s face it, they were the most loyal of all.
Perhaps this had resulted from staying too close to home. He’d worked long hours, sometimes arriving home around ten at night, exhausted. His business partner, Wilkie Randall, still found plenty to do with a wife and three kids and now those grandkids he never stopped talking about. And they traveled and they entertained a slew of relatives and friends and so on. Percy had been to a good many dinners, was quite fond of the colorful family. It was all well and good for Wilkie but it usually left Percy desperate for fresh air and resounding silence after two hours. They had people coming and going all day long at the store, wasn’t that ever enough? But Wilkie was nearly twelve years younger, he had yet more steam.
And now every day Percy had all this substantive, variable… quietness.
Good grief, the blossom trail kept on. Buster sniffed here and there after he completed his task. Absolutely no one was about–no, wait, there was a fully grown up skateboarder cruising along with purple helmet and plaid Bermuda shorts, for goodness’ sake, and the trusty mailman was scurrying from house to house. But no person was strolling about with a basket of camellias on her arm. It might be a girl of perhaps seven or eight who’d been playing the evening before, he had about decided. Sunlight brightened sky and streets longer since spring. Children were often outdoors past seven-thirty, about when he was sitting down to dinner.
It might have been created with a friend or for a parent close behind or for her own simple entertainment, he thought. To intrigue people like Percy, the ones who had nothing better to do than look about and dawdle. But it seemed intentional, as if it meant something more. He and Buster Keaton kept on, following until they rounded a corner and the trail changed. It got more flowery, small groupings of white as well as red in a pleasant if quite artless design. Now it curved at a driveway, made its way to the base of a tree. Percy gawked and recalled the attractive contemporary house belonged to the Saransons. They had additionally built a well proportioned, two-roomed tree house. It perched in an ancient chestnut tree in the side yard near the garage. It was built when their sons were born. He stepped onto the grass. What were their names?
Something fell onto Buster’s head; he shook it vigorously and the tiny twig somehow caught on his collar, bounced off. He then barked right up the tree. Another object struck him on the back, this time a green plastic cap off a drink bottle; it slipped off Buster’s back, then rolled down the driveway.
Percy was worried about what might be next so stepped back into the driveway, yanking at Buster.
“Ahoy, there! My dog doesn’t like being thunked. Show yourself.”
“This isn’t a boat in a tree, it’s a very small house if you take a good look.” The disembodied, irritated voice was not easily identifiable as male or female. More branches rattled for emphasis and ensured movement was being made to likely disembark. Or climb down, more realistically.
“Well, Captain, I can see that, home interiors is my business!” Percy tried again, this time lowering his voice. “Sorry for the misnomer. I’m Percy Rowell of Taylor Street”–he gestured in the direction from which he came–“and this is Buster Keaton, said dog. Which of the Saransons are you?”
“Oh, hey Mr. Rowell, I know you. It’s Jeremy.” There was a creaking of wooden limbs, a jiggle of more branches. “Sorry to bother Buster. It wasn’t on purpose. Really.”
There was a pause, then a thud as the boy’s weight made contact with decking around the tree house. Percy could just see flashy tennis shoes, then frayed hems of jeans. Jeremy bent down, poked his head between bright green leaves and put on a fair smile through which very white, slightly crooked front teeth showed. The boy turned around, backed down a handmade ladder nailed to the old tree.
When Jeremy touched ground, he plunged his hands into back pockets, long arms now all jutting elbows. Nodded his head. “Mr. Rowell.” He bent down and slowly reached to Buster, then patted his smooth head. “Hey Buster you survive, little buddy? I was just cleaning up junk.”
“Don’t you have school?” Percy asked, eyeing both houses suspiciously. His parents worked, he knew.
“I had a cold. One more day to recuperate.” With his sneaker toe he pushed a rock onto a hole in the concrete driveway, then gave it a swift kick.
Percy thought he looked well enough, hair tufted and unclean, perhaps. A gangling boy on verge of growing up. Nothing at all like he, himself, appeared when he’d hazarded a glance in bathroom mirror a couple of days ago between sneezes: drawn, sallow face with reddened bulb of a nose smack in the middle of a saggy mess. But Jeremy was all of maybe thirteen or fourteen. Kids bounced back from most everything.
“Going around. Just had it myself.”
He studied the tree house now he was up close. It had screened windows, green shutters. Two folding camp chairs were on the deck. Peaked roof with a circular window at the point. Compact, made of redwood like the grown up version next to it.
But he thought about the flowers, how they’d petered out at the driveway; this was why he’d stopped.
“Impressive–it must’ve been fun for you and your brother.”
“Me and Todd. He graduated last year.” He shifted his weight, as if deciding whether to take off now or keep chatting with the neighborhood retiree. “I still escape there sometimes. Like last night, then today.”
“I recall he’s at Notre Dame. Say, Jeremy, I was wondering…” His eyes turned toward the camellias, a few bunched up flowers here and there, some crushed by the tires that ran over them as the boy’s parents left for work. “Do you know who dropped these around the neighborhood? They put effort into making a pretty trail. Maybe it led to you…?”
When he looked up, the boy’s head was hanging. “Uh, yeah.”
Percy’s eyebrows shot up but spoke with nonchalance. “Oh, I see.”
“Yeah, I was making a fun thing for a friend of mine, you know, wondering if she’d notice it, then–well, I was just fooling around, that’s all, it was actually stupid to do. Dad said to clean it up today since I’m basically playing hooky as my cold is actually gone.” His cheeks pinked up and he sounded almost angry as he bent down to rub Buster’s ears, who playfully barked twice. “They were mostly fallen, so I was moving them out of our yard!”
Percy picked up a couple of deep pink blossoms, smoothed their silken thick petals. Curious flower, luxuriant, strikingly vivid for a short time and then a fading, slippery mess as they plopped to the ground. And with nary a fragrance.
Curious thing for Jeremy to do.
“I have to walk Buster back home and get him a treat. Want to walk with me as you pick them up? I sort of wish you didn’t have to, they make the sidewalk more attractive.”
“I can do that, I guess. They were supposed to look nice–to get her attention.” He threw Percy a half-smile as they started off. “But it didn’t work out.” He folded inward a little, loped along beside the rotund older man and a re-energized, limping dog, then began to pick up blossoms and put them on the side of the walk.
“Here’s an extra doggy bag to put them into. Less mess by the sidewalk as they decay.” Jeremy took the bag and stuffed more flowers in it.”I can’t imagine what was wrong with that girl you mentioned. It seems a good idea, following flowers to a nice boy who has an interest. She live around here so she could see even the trail?” He glanced at the boy, who looked sullen. “None of my business, sorry.”
“It’s okay, I don’t care. It’s Loreena, on your street here, across and down a few houses from you.”
Percy strained his memory to bring up a picture of Loreena and could only get the barest hint of a tow-headed child on a small red two-wheeler. He had no idea who she was now. He saw all the kids at the annual summer block party and on the street at times, but their faces apparently had either blurred or never evolved as they aged.
“I’m sorry. I do remember a blond child of maybe eight or ten? Always racing her red bike with the rest of you up and down the streets?”
“Yeah, she’s still athletic. Anyway, she’s fourteen now, like me and I thought, I mean, we’d always been really good friends, and at school we talk sometimes and then…” He smashed more blossoms into the plastic bag then stopped. “Dumb ideas I get! That maybe she liked me, too, you know?”
“I see. Well, it was a thoughtful thing to do, I’d think anyone should like it. Maybe she was just not around?”
They were close to Percy’s house and he wondered if he should ask Jeremy to sit on the porch with an iced tea, would that be an awkward thing to do? Buster was starting to tug at the leash.
“She was out, alright, with her girlfriends. They sat on her porch talking and laughing–they saw me– and when I got halfway up the block with the camellias they went inside. I just tossed the rest and went back home. I’d left a note in her locker to follow the trail…” He kicked at the blossoms before him. “I saw a movie once, there were rose petals that led the girl to, well, bed, but that wasn’t what I was trying to do, I just really like her. You know? She’s special. I thought.”
The hurt had surfaced now, was spilling out despite a small shred of dignity left, and bottled up outrage. Percy didn’t know what to say to him. It was such a romantic thing to do that Percy wondered it Jeremy had the heart of an artist or poet.
Well, yes, his father had mentioned he played piano and guitar, and said he was quite good. He must have true leanings of a dreamer. How hard it was to be fourteen.
Jeremy had gone on to gather the rest of the flowers and now turned back to Percy, face blotchy and eyes half closed, downcast.
“I’m just so glad she’s at school so she can’t see me doing this! It was bad enough that she knew I was outdoors, all those lying there for her!”
Percy reined in Buster who barked impatiently. It was time for his treat. Percy would read the historical novel he had just begun, then they might doze a little. Still, something nudged him.
“You like an iced tea? It’s so nice I thought I’d sit on the porch a bit.”
“What?” Jeremy looked at the man he’d been talking with so openly as if he saw him for the first time. “Oh, Mr. Rowell, I have to, well, I should–” He rubbed his messy hair with a knuckly fist then let his whole trunk go slack. “Yeah, why not? I’m sort of thirsty. Not much else happening.”
Percy arranged two medium-sized glasses–he didn’t want Jeremy to feel trapped there by a full taller glass– with a bowl of sugar and a spoon on the small metal table. He set down a plate of Girl Scout chocolate mint cookies as well. Jeremy took a seat in a matching chair, then Percy sat opposite. They sipped and ate cookies, watched the cars go by. There was a decent view of the house where Loreena lived, Jeremy said and pointed it out. They talked about the warming spring weather and all the dogs taking over the neighborhood and then a little about his school.
“You married, Mr. Rowell? I think you live alone here, right? Sorry if I shouldn’t ask.”
Percy looked down at his glass in hand. He shook the ice cubes around, felt the wet chill of the tumblerin his warm hand, how it meant summer was coming, too. “It’s alright, everyone asks. No, I never married any gal, Jeremy. No, I’m not gay.”
“I didn’t mean that–I wouldn’t care. To each their own.”
Percy lifted his glass and Jeremy lifted his as well in a gesture of solidarity.
“No, I never found the right one, so to speak. They say there is a someone for everyone but I’m not entirely convinced. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. I was driven by my work, I’ve really loved interior designing. Then there was the store’s solid and growing success. I guess I dedicated my life energy to making things look and feel aesthetically balanced and exceptional–to following an artistic sensibility.” He looked at the boy, who nodded.”I dated some when I was young.” He cleared his throat. “Yes, there was one girl.” He took a quaff of tea. “She was always on the arm of another college man, a football player, of course, right? We had been in classes together a couple of times. I got her attention by painting a watercolor of public gardens she said she liked. She loved it, fell all over herself with appreciation and gave me a kiss… on the cheek. Though she liked me, I was not him, not the right guy, it was that simple.”
They sat in silence a few moments.
Jeremy turned in his seat. “Was she smart and cute? Loreena really is… But you just let her go, huh?”
“Oh, she was more than cute and smart, she was elegant and brilliant and sporty all in one. I thought she was about perfect. No, there was no hope. We both became interior designers, remained friendly after college. She married someone else entirely. But except for our paths crossing now and again, that was that.”
Percy felt emptied. Felt sweaty, a bit breathless, as if telling that nearly forgotten story had hollowed him out. But he remained calm and waited for Jeremy to say something.
“Yep, I could about see Loreena come and go if I sat here. Well, not a good idea, either.” He turned to the aging gentleman. “I guess we all have this stuff happen. I’m sorry for us both, kinda, you know?”
“Jeremy, just give things in your life a chance, some patience. You might see her in the future or you might find another girl. Or you might end up with just your music and be entirely happy.” He glanced at the boy, who looked surprised. “You dad told me you’re a musician.”
“Yes I am, Mr. Rowell, or sure hope to be.”
Percy fidgeted. He was feeling a smidgen self-conscious now and restless. He longed to go in, jjust read that next chapter in his book. Buster Keaton was scratching now and then at the screened door.
“Well, I should get back home. I’ve got more cleaning up and honestly, I’m sorta tired out by the mess I made of things.”
Jeremy finished off the tea and one more cookie then stood up. It was clear he’d be a taller man, likely gaunt like his dad, perhaps a good thing as a moody musician. But he had honest and quick brown eyes, a good way about him. He held out his hand to the much older man.
“It was nice talking to you. Really, thanks.”
Percy grasped the strong hand. “I’m glad I was curious about your camellia trail. I’d like to hear your music one day. I’m a quite good cook. I need to invite the three of you over for a meal. And by the way, if you ever want to make some cash doing lawn work…” He gestured at his grass and bushes, in need of help.
“Both sound good, catch you later!” Jeremy ran down the steps, waving.
Percy watched a fine boy, a soon-to-be-young-man, a decent human being in the making. He felt quietly happy. Entered his house, scooped up Buster Keaton who put his damp, cool nose on his double chin. Found a treat for the creature and then his book. They settled in for who knew how long. Percy knew they had just the right amount of time left in the day and any others to come.