by Becky Eagleton
On Christmas Eve, Edgar stood outside his neighbor’s house. He often stood there, on Christine’s flagstone patio, armed with a box or carton or package. Yesterday, he brought five pounds of peppered bacon. The day before, a case of generic allergy tablets. Though Christine had moved in three years ago, she’d not yet invited him inside. But Edgar, too, in his latest epic poem, could not pen any verse that would lead his hero through her door, though he was armed to the teeth and chasing a dragon.
Edgar was a bulk man. He bought in mass. On any given day, there was a case of yellow mustard in his pantry. When he decided to experiment with brining, he mail-ordered fifty pounds of black olives. The day after the ice storm, he bought two chainsaws, and a case of oil. When he needed new underwear, he ordered twenty boxes of white briefs off the Internet.
Edgar hired in bulk as well. He had a yard guy, a wood guy, a welder guy, a steaks guy, a haul-off guy and a haul-in guy. He had a computer guy, a furniture guy, a tax guy, a car guy and a trailer guy.
He even had good health in bulk. Twenty years without a dental check-up had yielded no cavities. Seven nights a week of red meat dinners left him with a below-average cholesterol count. His bowel movements were frequent and plentiful. He had a full head of black hair, and age had added only more to his nose, ears and back. After fifty years, his fingers were still nimble and could play any one of his eight guitars and two drum sets or his mandolin, banjo, or three keyboards. But music was only a hobby, along with fishing, train sets, sausage making, triathlons, coin collecting, taxidermy, roses and writing epic poetry.
Christine stood on a ladder, stringing lights in the young dogwood next to her kitchen window.
“I got a pole for that,” Edgar said. He was eating pistachios, which he pulled by the handful from a coat pocket. “I’ll get it.”
“Got it!” Christine said quickly. “And three more just like it in the garage. You sure you won’t take them back?”
“You might need ‘em.”
Christine climbed down the ladder, folded it and leaned it against the side of the house. The ladder looked rickety, and Edgar was glad she was down safely. He decided Christine’s thin form and fragility were a lot like the ladder’s, though hers was not the result of cheap manufacturing or too much rain. More like neglect, he thought, and his eyes scanned the bricks, the roofline, the drooping gutter over her bedroom window. He pointed at the metal’s dip that spilled leaves and twigs.
“I got a gutter guy,” he said. “I’ll get his number.”
Edgar hurried across their adjoining yards to his house. The exterior was like all the other small, brick structures on the street, but the interior was a Southwestern landscape, a maze of canyons, where the walls were not rock, but boxes and packages and sacks and crates and stacked pallets and bags. Edgar expertly negotiated a path that led to a large wood-working saw; beyond that was a foldable card table that held a rock tumbler, and under the table was a plastic bin with a sticky note: “feathers.” Across the table sat a refrigerator and a sink, and between them, a drum set. Behind the set was a cardboard filing drawer from which Edgar grabbed a business card for his guttering man. On his way out, he deftly snagged a case of jars from under the sink.
He ran back across the yards, hoping not to be too late. Christine was still there, kicking pistachio shells under her juniper bushes. She hugged herself and stared at the setting sun. She might be cold. He had a coyote fur from a botched taxidermy sitting right inside his front door. But maybe it was too big for her. There was that box of beaver furs in the hall he was sending off to get stitched together…
Christine faced him, her arched eyebrows pulling together as she stared at the case of jars he thrust out.
“Cheese Whizzo,” he said. “Got another case in the house. Take ‘em.”
Christine did not take the box. “How about just one jar?”
“Perry might need ‘em. Melt some on a cracker in the microwave,” he said. “Or just eat it straight up. Kids like the stuff.”
Perry was Christine’s fourteen-year-old son. Her mouth drooped when Edgar mentioned him.
“He’s spending the holidays with his Dad,” she said and turned a fierce glare to the orange and yellow horizon.
Edgar nodded. He knew that. Yesterday, from between the sawhorses in his bedroom where he was planing down the swollen edge of a closet door, he’d watched the boy trudge out to the idling Mercedes with a duffle bag. The driver drummed the steering wheel with gloved fingers as Christine hugged Perry’s unyielding body. Taking off his safety goggles, Edgar had stared at Christine standing and waving in the street, like a tattered banner in the wind, long after the car had disappeared around the curve.
Christine was still now, and Edgar put the case of Cheese Whizzo at her feet and then held out the business card he’d promised.
“My gutter guy. Fix you right up.”
She took it wordlessly. He pulled an orange from his pocket this time.
“Got a guy mails me these from Florida every Christmas.”
Christine looked at the orange.
“It’s a navel,” he said. “No seeds. Keep it.”
Christine sighed and with her other hand took the orange, slid it and the card in her coat. She had not yet moved to go back inside, and Edgar felt a little giddy and knew he needed to offer her something more.
“You got a Christmas tree?”
“Not this year.”
Edgar was relieved. “Got an extra. Artificial. Comes with the lights on it already.” He turned, picturing the tree in the storage of his stairwell.
“I don’t want the tree.”
“Gotta have a tree. It’s just under the stairs,” he called over his shoulder, “in easy reach.” Once inside, Edgar marched through columns of stacked crates towards the stairwell’s low storage door. The tree was in a black plastic bag, toward the back. He wrestled it out and lugged it to the front door, and across the yards, breathing hard. He’d toppled a precarious pile of potting soil bags on the way out but could restack it later.
Christine’s small body was still visible, huddled against the deepening afternoon, and Edgar felt a growing excitement. She’d never waited twice for him before. The tree was the right thing.
“I don’t want the tree,” she said.
“I got it right here,” he said and patted the sack slung over his shoulder. Edgar was undaunted. She had waited for the tree.
Christine straightened. “I will not take the tree.”
He’d heard that tone only once before from Christine, when she and Perry were struggling with their lawnmower, last summer. Edgar had itched to go to them as they turned the mower on its side and examined it. The boy threw up his arms and stomped to the street, kicked the curb. Christine fiddled with the undercarriage, the starter cable, the spark plug, all the while talking to the boy, reaching for him. Edgar could stand it no longer; he grabbed a toolbox and charged across the yards. She noticed him at the last second, whipped her head around where she crouched at the base of the mower.
“I’ve got something for that,” Edgar had said, unloading his tools in a neat line on the grass.
The boy, Perry, walked past them in slouching strides.
“Just call Dad,” he threw over his shoulder before storming into the house.
Christine watched her son leave, and then turned a stony face to Edgar.
“No thank you,” she said.
Edgar bent down and began repacking his tools. “I gotta guy can fix that right up. I’ll get his number.”
“I don’t want the number.” Christine had straightened, her arms dangling, hands empty.
Like the tools and his attempt to fix the mower those months earlier, the artificial tree was not the right thing. Edgar lowered the sack and let it rest against the case of Cheese Whizzo on the flagstone patio.
“You like praline ice cream? Got a couple of gallons in the garage freezer.”
Christine pulled her brown hair back in a single fluid motion and fastened it with a band she took from her wrist. The action was a beautiful economy of movement, and Edgar was impressed. A narrow shock of white hair streaked back from her right temple like a contrail. She crossed her arms again, nodded at the bagged tree.
“What do you not have?” she asked lightly and pushed at the sack with her toe.
Edgar ducked his head and smiled. For the first time, Christine joked with him. He knew it was a joke for he did have everything, didn’t he?
Christine stepped backwards, toward the house, and Edgar panicked. She rubbed her hands quickly together and blew on them in short bursts, her breath coming in little streaming mists that smelled of sugar. Edgar’s chest tightened, for he sensed that this was the right time to bring the roses. Because she had waited, twice, because she’d made a joke, because the rakes and the doorknobs and the pecans and the Reader’s Digest collection and everything else that had traveled in his arms for three years across their yards had not been the right things.
“You like roses,” he said matter-of-factly.
Her eyes widened and she placed her palms on her red cheeks. “Yes,” she said softly. “I do.”
Edgar sprinted across their yards and through his door, through the cargo piled against the walls, along the floor, and stacked like crooked pillars throughout, some piles even reaching the ceiling, toward the sweet scent of roses in his back room and the thirty-six, five-gallon tubs of potted roses that stood in a rough semi-circle around a low stool. Clasping a pair of pruning shears that lay on a stalagmite of packaged cake mix, Edgar sat and frantically began cutting stems.
Rose blooms of pink, salmon, crimson, peach, lemon, ivory, and magenta, some drooping, others straining upward, filled the clearing and draped across Edgar’s stooped back as he clipped blossom after blossom.
He knew Christine liked roses because she smelled of them. Often, when he handed her something after carrying it to her house, the scent would waft out from her neck or hands or when she turned to close the door behind her. He’d started raising the roses three years ago. Kept them on the back porch most of the year but moved them in every winter where he forced blooms year round.
He panted, shallow fearful breaths.
The room was getting dark, and Edgar donned a headband with an attached flashlight to continue his work. Moonlight played through a large picture window and threw the spiky rose stems in silhouette. Edgar could see Perry’s bedroom window and the reading light that burned brightly from where it was clamped to the boy’s bunk bed. A single beacon that Christine’d left on, Edgar realized. The rest of her house was dark. He’d decided against turning on his own lights because Christine liked the dark. He’d noticed that her house often seemed to sit in a shadow, the same gloom that sometimes hovered over her soft features. The boy, now his bedroom light would burn long into the night, but the glow from Christine’s front bedroom was usually out by nine.
Edgar had worried she didn’t have enough light bulbs and had delivered a carton to her house the week after she’d moved in. He remembered the curious stare she’d given him. Her bedroom and the whole front of the house still went dark at nine.
He’d bought the roses the day after that.
Edgar finished his stem cutting and then hesitated only briefly before also beginning the task of snipping off the thorns. His heart pounded, but she had waited on her patio and he had hope. Quickly scooping up the mass of blooms, he clutched them to his chest, and leaping over a capsized tub of tambourines, he lurched from the house. When he saw Christine’s petite form leaning against her house, he slowed and crushed the blooms to his chest to stave off a sudden bout of dizziness.
Still catching his breath, he stood before her, her face awash in the blueness of the moonlight. She squinted at something behind him, and he turned, could barely make out the trail of roses across their yards. That was all right, he still had plenty in his arms, and held them out to her. She covered her mouth. Her eyes watered.
“I got something for that,” he said and balanced the load of blossoms in one arm so as to retrieve the handkerchief from his back pocket.
Keeping one hand over her mouth, she gingerly took the white linen and balled it in her fist.
“Why so many?” she whispered.
“You might need ‘em.”
She dabbed at her eyes and shook her head slowly.
“But there’s only one of me.”
Her voice was like a puff of spring dandelion, wisping by him, and he wanted to reach out and cup it in his hand. But his arms were full.
She had waited and was still waiting, but the mass of roses was not the right thing, as he had feared, in his worst moments, tending the pots in his backroom. Edgar slowly placed the bundle of roses on top of the case of Cheese Whizzo. His mind ransacked his house and all its contents, searching futilely. Roses for Christine had been his savings, his fallback, his nest egg in case of dire need.
The wind whipped through the trees and whisked seedpods through the air, stirred the leaves into a whipping, snapping circle on her lawn.
Christine sank deeper in her coat, and Edgar knew he was running out of something and it seemed to him that it was time, minutes and seconds rushing past him carried on the points of sycamore leaves. He imagined standing in their formless wake with a large net or tub or crate and diving for them, trying to trap them to stack them in his garage. But now Christine was turning toward her door, pistachio shells and wind-tossed rose stems about her feet, errant petals in her hair.
He couldn’t leave and followed her right up to the storm door. She looked at him over her shoulder. His empty hands trembled in his pockets. Her face softened and her lips parted slightly. Edgar felt suddenly suspended in the winter air and realized he’d never been so close to her before.
“You have something?” she asked and smiled slightly. It was just a minute tug at the corners of her mouth, but he noticed it, as small and singular as it was. He recognized how complete her face was, how one extra pore or eyelash might mar the perfection of her features.
“You don’t need anything,” he whispered.
Edgar held his breath, for it seemed to him that the yards and the street and his ponderous house, all stuffed like a gorged snake, slithered away behind him. He was left weightless and naked at the vessel of Christine’s sparkling face.
She turned to him, held the storm door open with one hand and brushed her fingertips against his arm. He floated in a stillness, in a bubble devoid of everything save hope and himself.
“I have you,” she said quietly and moved aside.
Edgar stepped across the doorsill.