Also by Margaret Dilloway
An Exciting Preview of SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW
Winslow Blythe’s Complete Rose Guide
This month is when you will see the benefits of the severe pruning you gave your roses last month. Sometimes a little tough love is good. Greenhousers may see blooms early in the month, while the rest of us will have to wait until the end.
Now spring is nearly here. Your roses will need a great deal of nourishment after the hard winter. Use a general fertilizer (20-20-20) to give them a solid start with strong foliage.
The first critters of spring make their appearance now, out in force after the winter rains subside. Organic gardeners, arise early and pluck all the snails from the roses. Try out ladybugs for natural aphid control, or handwash your roses. Poisons should be used according to directions; keep out of reach of the kiddos and furry friends.
FOR A MOMENT, I THINK I HAVE MADE A MISTAKE. MY TWEEZERS pause and shake over the yellow rose. I have already stripped the petals to expose the stamen, which will release the pollen from this father plant. But is this the rose I had put aside earlier? Or did I want the white rose with orange-tinged petals, with a bloom so open it looks more like a daisy? These parents are known only by their codes: G120 and G10. I double-check in my rose notebook. G120. G10. I do not breed the plants without writing down this information. That way, I can recreate an outcome, or adjust by breeding with another plant. My memory has been suffering lately, though I refuse to acknowledge this aloud. I adjust the lamp, calm my twitching hands, and continue.
I am a rose breeder. Not just a rose grower. Most rose hobbyists grow only roses that other people have already perfected. I invent new varieties.
Breeding roses is not something I do for fun. Not solely for fun, anyway. It’s the kind of fun most people classify as “drudgery,” but then again, I’m not like most people.
Roses are my hobby, and what I want to be my vocation. Someday, I hope, I will wake up, find a prize-winning rose peeking out at me in the greenhouse, quit my job, and devote myself to roses full-time. My pastime inspired me to dig up my nice neat suburban lawn and plant a wild thorny mass. A homeowner’s association would have booted me long ago.
You would have to be nuts to want to do what I want to do with these roses. Which is, to make a never-before-seen Hulthemia rose and bring it to market. One that will be prized for its scent and distinctive spots and stripes. If I can produce this rose in my little garden, I will take it to one of the smaller rose shows. If it wins a prize, I might be brave enough to enter one of the larger shows, like the American Rose Society convention show. If a rose of mine wins Queen of Show, it would be like a Barbizon modeling school dropout winning Miss America. It would give me the confidence that my rose was worthy of a pricey patent, a process costing at least two grand before attorney fees.
My greatest hope is to get a rose into the American Rose Society test gardens, where a few select new roses are grown in different climates to see how they fare for two years. Of these, the rose society selects one or two varieties as the best of the best.
How long are my odds? Consider that a big rose company, with endless resources, will come up with hundreds of thousands of new seedling varieties every year. Of these, only two or three make it into the market.
And consider me, Galilee Garner, an amateur with an extra-large yard and perhaps a few hundred new seedlings, at best, trying to compete against professional growers. It doesn’t look very good for me, does it?
However, there’s something more important at work here. Luck. You can’t overestimate the importance of luck. It’s like playing the lottery. Sometimes, a person playing one dollar in the lottery wins it all, while the person who spends one hundred dollars a week for a year walks away with nothing.
Take the man who bred the Dolly Parton tea rose in his Michigan basement. He was growing all sorts of rose hybrids when he found an ugly little red-orange seedling with only twelve petals at first bloom, not the twenty you might expect. Just as his hand closed around the seedling to yank it out, he thought to smell it. And its smell was incredible.
He left it alone. It grew into an enormous sixty petals, inspiring its name, blossoming into one of the most popular roses ever. That man retired off the Dolly Parton, I believe. All because of luck.
And I grow roses that need a lot of luck. I didn’t pick the easy roses to breed, the sort you can find in any old garden center or big-box store. I love the Hulthemia roses. They are difficult and obstinate, thriving when I introduce them to an impossible variety of conditions. Like any rose grower, I have my own particular methods of doing things, my own fertilizer formulas, my own routine. I pay as much attention to temperature as an ice cream maker does in the middle of the Sahara, though I know one day my successful seedling will have to survive in a variety of punishing climates. I apply the exact amount of water and fertilizer necessary, at exactly the correct times. When fungus appears, like powdery mildew or black spot, I attack it before it spreads to other plants. I set loose ladybugs to eat those little green aphids, the tiny bugs that have plagued roses since before the time of Moses.
And as long as no other event occurs to throw them off course—which doesn’t happen often, in my mostly protected greenhouse—they do wonderfully.
Difficult and obstinate. Thriving under a set of specific and limited conditions. That pretty much describes me. Maybe that’s why I like these roses so much.
A student of mine described me in these words—difficult and obstinate—on the Rate Your Teacher website my school’s headmaster, Dr. O’Malley, set up. A silly website. Another place where everyone is the expert, but no one knows the real story. A website I imagine the headmaster and parents clucking over while they sip their coffee at Headmaster Coffee Break. “That Ms. Garner,” they probably say. “Won’t she ever learn?”
Obstinate. I was impressed with this anonymous student’s word choice and by the apt description. If this student put as much time into my biology class as he did into writing this review, maybe he would have passed. I suspect the student is a “he,” because the student added as a postscript, “Constant PMS. Get over it.” Females take exception to such accusations.
Most people are surprised by my rose hobby. I look more like I’d have a secret science lab in my basement, a torture chamber, perhaps, than a rose garden. Visually, there is no good explanation for my rose obsession. Roses are frilly and soft and sweet-smelling, which I am not. If you saw me in the teacher lineup, our faces bathed in harsh light against the black height lines, would you pick me for the rose lover? No. You would pick someone like Dara, the art teacher, with her carefully messed halo of Botticelli curls. Or Mrs. Wingate, the English teacher, whose fluffy circle skirts sometimes remind me of roses in their layers and frilliness. Not plainspoken me, squinting unmercifully back at you, my eyes barely visible behind my round gray-tinted lenses. A garden gnome without the jolly expression.
I am short, due to the childhood onset of my failed kidneys, an inch under five feet on my best day. I have never been called “pretty.” More like, “she looks pretty good, all things considered.” My face is always puffy. My skin, while not glowing, at least has been spared freckling from the sun, thanks to my sunblock and hat diligence.
If you looked at the rose more than superficially, you’d see why I am drawn to them. Florists strip those thorns for you so you don’t stick your fingers when you buy them, while some breeders have engineered the bite right out of them, creating smooth-stemmed varieties. I personally wouldn’t try to strip mine down for anyone. I love roses, thorns and all. People should learn to take care.
My house is in Santa Jimenez, a small community inland of San Luis Obispo, in central California. It’s a great place to grow roses, with fairly mild winters and early warm springs. We have a mix of houses, from small tract cottages, to working farms, to mansions of the well-to-do where we get many of our students.
I live on the outskirts of town, on a long and narrow rectangular acre of land. My house sits near the front, my land stretching out behind it. I would have preferred a square so my neighbor wouldn’t be as close.
It’s a far different place from where my sister and I grew up in Encinitas, down in Southern California. The lots were postage-stamp-sized, and you could not only spit on your neighbors but say “Bless you!” when they sneezed. My parents still live down there in the same three-bedroom ranch they bought for a song back in the day.
A muffled rap sounds at the vinyl door. The greenhouse is vinyl, glass being out of my price range currently. I push my golden-wire-rimmed glasses back up my sweaty nose. “Come in.” I’m not very much concerned with strangers. I’ve been on my own for far too long to worry about anything except what is right in front of me.
It’s my friend Dara. Dara taps on her bright yellow plastic watch. “You’re not ready.” Her curly hair is bound up in a ponytail. I move my own dark brown bangs off my forehead, out of my eyes. We met in the teachers’ lounge of St. Mark’s School, nearly three years ago, when Dara was new to the school.
I had asked Dara for help drawing the Hulthemia I’m trying to breed, since my sketches are little better than cave drawings. She responded by creating a watercolor painting of my dream flower, so beautiful that I had it framed and hung it on my bedroom wall. After that, Dara asked to see more roses, and would come over to my garden just to sketch. Then Dara asked me for photos of DNA sequencing to use in some of her conceptual art projects. Before long, she was dragging me to see artsy films and I was dragging her to popcorn flicks. Our friendship has taken off over the years. She is my closest friend.
Today, in my greenhouse, her face is red and two semicircles of sweat are forming on her midnight blue silk blouse. It’s March, unseasonably hot this day as Southern California sometimes gets, but I have not noticed the temperature, even out here in my sweat lodge of a greenhouse. Where we live, the summers cook to over a hundred degrees, and we are too used to air-conditioning. The results are people like Dara: unused to real air, they get overheated and cannot handle it. Humans are not meant to live in overly controlled climates. I’ve kept my temperatures as close to natural as I can, given my health restrictions.
“You’re interrupting me at a very crucial moment,” I say to her, though I am in fact almost done. “I’m making a new rose baby.” Dara says roses are a Freudian substitution for my lack of love life. I tell her I can’t miss something I’ve never had. Well, there was once that fellow biology student I met in college. I thought all our late study-dates and joking banter were something more, but he saw it differently.
“Are you ready?” Dara does look like she’s about to swoon, so without moving my arms I kick another stool on wheels toward her across the concrete floor.
Dara could be my twin sister, if twins were polar opposites of each other. While I am small, she is tall and long-limbed. Where I am thin, with hanging skin that makes me look two or three decades older than I am, she is muscular and firm. My hair is nearly black, and hers is that gold blond people try to get out of a bottle. Add to this that she is the art teacher at the private Catholic school where we teach and I am the biology nerd, and we’re perfectly yin-yang. The only matching thing between us is our feet, both size ten. The big feet look better on her height; even I, the non-artist, can tell that.
Of course, she would never deign to wear the practical sneakers I own, while I would fall over if I tried to wear her spiky-heeled, pointy-toed shoes that the Wicked Witch of the West would choose. “It’s what they say to wear on What Not to Wear,” is her response.
“They’re telling you not to wear it. It’s the name of the show,” I always say, teasing her. “Besides, I don’t believe in cable. It’s expensive, and life’s too short.”
To this she rolls her eyes, as though she’s my young teenage sister instead of a colleague only four years younger than I.
“You’re going to be late.” She leans her elbow on a table and points her sweaty face toward the fan. “I’m surprised you’re not dead out here.”
“I could have driven myself.” I transfer the stamens, now free of petals, into a clean glass jar. Later, the anthers at the tops will shed their pollen, which I will then collect and transfer to the mother plant.
After I set the pollen from the father rose into the mother rose, I will leave it alone. In fall, if I’m fortunate, the mother rose will ripen into a rose hip, containing the seeds. I cut this seed pod open and put them into peat moss, then put the seeds in the refrigerator to induce dormancy. Next spring, I will plant these seeds, and from this new variety will hopefully spring a magnificent new rose, with the best traits of its parents.
• • •
THE MOTHER IS A HULTHEMIA of vivid magenta, with an equally vivid crimson sunburst in its very heart, bleeding outward toward the petals. Hulthemias are not widely known to consumers; they are relatively new and the most difficult type to grow. Most amateurs simply don’t try to undertake their breeding. These blossoms are round, like an old-fashioned rose, but the center opens up to reveal the welcoming yellow stamen and the distinctive dark blotch at its heart. “Blotch” is not the prettiest word to describe the color, but it’s how breeders refer to it. The blotches are usually red, but can also vary from deep pink to purple to orange. It’s always darker than the surrounding petals.
If they look different from any other rose you’ve seen, it’s because they are. They are not a true rose. These roses are hybrids of flowers called Hulthemia persicas, which the Persians considered weeds, with barbed vines running amok. In 1836, an accidental Hulthemia hybrid growing in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris caught the attention of rose breeders. They coveted the red hearts for regular roses.
It took one hundred forty-nine years to get there. The first Hulthemias, including that specimen in the Paris garden, were homely and infertile. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that an Englishman named Jack Harkness, of the famous Harkness Roses, was the first to get a breakthrough. His friend Alec Cocker decided that if the flower could exist by accident, it could exist if he bred it. He got more Hulthemia seeds from Iran and gave some to Harkness. In 1985, Harkness finally got a Hulthemia variety that could reproduce: Tigris. These early Hulthemia were crossbred with true roses, a project taken on by multiple other breeders, and eventually we got what we have now.
There are specific attributes a Hulthemia needs to be successful with the casual rose grower. People want a rosebush that will not get too gigantic for their small backyards. They also want a fragrant bloom. They want a rosebush that will produce dozens of blooms over and over again throughout the season. This repeat blooming is something that was only fairly recently bred into our modern roses, obtained from Chinese roses. The French began to cross Chinese roses with European roses around 1798.
In short, the consumer, as always, expects the impossible. At a mass-market price.
To date, this Hulthemia doesn’t yet exist. Whoever is the first Hulthemia grower to bring this kind of consumer-friendly plant on the market will make a fortune. Her (because I plan to be the winner) name will be sung by the rose-breeding bards.
Of these assets, fragrance is the most difficult thing to come by. It’s been bred out of modern stock. Generally, rose breeders wanted hardiness and disease resistance at the expense of fragrance, which ensures growers can massively produce and ship roses all over the world, at any time of the year.
Fragrance tends to appear more randomly, not always linked to a recessive gene, not always predictable. For example, if a rose’s grandparents were all fragrant, it doesn’t mean the grandchild will be. Perfumed roses also tend to be more delicate, and most casual breeders do not want to attempt them.
I have a repeat-blooming Hulthemia on my hands, a fifth-generation plant I’ve created after five years of crossing its ancestors. Last year, it bloomed in the spring, summer, and fall, generating bloom after bloom as I clipped it. I’m going to take it to a rose show in San Luis Obispo next month.
I haven’t officially named the rose yet. It is only G42 to me, an orange Hulthemia with that crimson center. This year, I hope to have the scent as well. If it does make it to trials, it will be known as the “Gal.”
The rose is top secret, occupying a special spot in my greenhouse. My father, a retired contractor, built this greenhouse for me from a kit during a visit five years ago. Here I have workbenches, built to my modest height, and a rolling seat. No bees are allowed inside, though a few, like the aphids, find their way in. Bees are not my friends. I am the only one who will pollinate these roses. I am their mad scientist.
I have always been somewhat of a mad scientist, beginning in my teen years when I bred roses as a science project. In one season, I was hooked. I turned my parents’ garage into a de facto breeding center. Though none of my creations were unique enough to go to a rose show, I could never stop. The hobby is addicting.
Now, with Dara perspiring next to me, I clean my tweezers with a sterilized cotton ball and alcohol and return them to their plastic case, where they rattle with the other tweezers. “But now that you’re here, you might as well take me.”
Dara grins and pops pink bubble gum. “You can’t get home alone.”
I smile at my friend and punch her lightly on the arm, tomboy-style. “Thanks, kiddo.” I don’t know what I’ll do if Dara ever gets her own life.
“Let’s get going.” She shifts her water bottle in her hand. I know she wants to take a drink, but she remembers I cannot have any liquid before the procedure, and so she won’t. Dara is too polite like that. She shouldn’t be. Yet I do not encourage her to take a drink, because it really will make me thirstier. My mouth is dry and sticky and I wipe my chapped lips with the back of my hand.
I point to the black notebook on the table. “Brad’s coming in today. Remind me to leave the greenhouse key under the mat.” Brad is the football team quarterback, the starting pitcher on our baseball team, the student body president, and inexplicably the best student in my AP Biology class. As his required community service project for high school, Brad helps me with the roses. Brad is, of course, my favorite student, on some days the only reason I make myself go into the classroom.
Brad has the ability to remember the Latin names for things, the groups, the subgroups, the phylum and the subphylum, and the grouping. He does this as easily as some young boys do baseball statistics. He has an attention to detail I appreciate. Our brains work alike, though I would never tell him so. I considered naming the rose after him, though I decided not to. Roses aren’t usually named for men. No man wants to buy his wife a bunch of Brad roses.
It’s because of students like Brad that I got into teaching in the first place. Shaping young minds and all that. It’s fun, as long as they’re willing to be shaped. That and the summers off, plus the early day, make teaching perfect for me. It leaves me time to tend to my roses, in spite of my other problems.
“Come on,” she says, extending her hand to help me up, though privately I think she’s the one who needs help, clad as she is in an impractical, impossibly tight pencil skirt.
“I’m pretty sure your skirt is against school dress policy.” I get up as she totters back.
She rolls her eyes and pops her gum again. “It’s called ‘style.’ You should get some.”
“Form follows function, Dara. An art teacher should know that.” I shut the greenhouse door and lock it. From the other side of the fence, I see my neighbor, Old Mrs. Allen, watering her lawn in her black silk kimono robe with her big black straw hat, looking like an extra from a silent film. From here, I can see the red slit passing for her mouth. I lift my hand in a wave and she almost waves back, then remembers who I am and lowers her hand with a scowl. The stinky fish emulsion I used on the roses caused a police visit to my door last year, courtesy of her. The neighborhood kids call her the Old Witch. If I were a kid, I probably would, too. I wonder what the kids call me. Nutty Rose Lady?
I smile at Dara and slide into the front seat of her car.
• • •
THOUGH SHE KNOWS THE DRILL, Dara insists on staying put in the waiting room. I check in with all the seven layers of hell security slapping wrist tags on me like they’re tagging wildlife. Then again, I wouldn’t blame me for running off. The hospital’s been my second home since I was a kid. Two kidney transplants and years of dialysis will do that.
The paper pusher, who must be new because I’ve never seen her before, pauses in her typing to actually take me in. “Galilee Garner?” She can barely spit the name out.
“Yep.” I sit back on the hard chair. “You can call me Gal.”
Galilee is the name my parents chose to saddle me with after a hippie trip to the Holy Land back in the 1970s. The Sea of Galilee.
By the time I was two, it was clear I was not a Galilee. “Galilee” rolls off the tongue, a musical of notes, meant for a curly-haired little girl in pink dresses with bows. Not me. So they called me Gal for short.
My older sister had it much better. Becky. No one has ever misspelled my sister’s name or asked her to repeat herself.
“You all right?” the woman asks, eyeing my sallow skin, my tired eyes, the scars on my forearms.
I nod. I make hospital workers nervous, if they don’t know me. If I go to the emergency room, I get pushed to the head of the line, even if someone else’s leg is sitting in a cooler beside him. I have that look about me, I guess. The look of impending doom.
The woman asks me all the standard questions about where I was born and what my insurance is.
Today, in the Miami Vice–like waiting room, there’s an elderly woman with hair resembling light pink cotton candy swirled atop her head, and a middle-aged man with an impressive potbelly, who belches every minute or so. I wonder if the hair is pink on purpose, or if her red-haired dye job didn’t do the work.
Then there’s Mark Walters, an older man who is holding Road & Track up to his face because he forgot his reading glasses. Everyone calls him Mark Twain, because he sports a full white handlebar mustache and has a head of wild white hair. I think he looks more like Einstein. He’s always wearing some uniform of white, as if he fancies himself an angel. Today it’s white jeans, a loose white V-neck shirt that shows his white chest hair. I wish he’d cover up. Even from here, across the room, I can smell the Old Spice aftershave. It makes my nose itch.
As if he feels my eyes on him, he looks up from the magazine and winks, one bushy eyebrow almost covering his wrinkled eye. This does not embarrass me. I’m always staring sternly at people, particularly at my students. A nurse comes in to fetch him. I recognize her as Nurse Sonya, a large Russian woman who seems to take about as much joy in her work as an undertaker.
“Mr. Walters, you’re looking fit as a fiddle!” she singsongs.
My eyes pop wide open.
“A fiddle that’s been left out in the rain at the beach, perhaps.” His voice is raspy, his breathing a little strained. He gets up slowly and she holds out her arm.
Mark. Mark is here because he did not take his blood pressure medication. He was too busy eating steak and boozing it up to bother. Lost his liver first, got a transplant for that. And now, because he caused his own kidneys to fail, he is on the waiting list.
And he just got higher priority than I.
I was born with reflux. This means the flap at the end of the passage from the kidney to the bladder didn’t close properly. My mother could not change my diapers fast enough, I made so much urine. Constant bladder infections were the result, then kidney infections. By the time the doctors figured out what was wrong, when I was four, one kidney had already withered away. The other one, already on its way to failing, went when I was twelve. My mother was the first donor; that one lasted for twelve years. The second was from a cadaver, someone who checked the box on their driver’s license. That one lasted only four before my body decided it was definitely a foreign object. I’ve been on dialysis for eight years.
Dialysis basically cleans your blood, like a kidney. You’re hooked up to a machine attached to a vein, and all your blood pumps through and gets filtered. There are different kinds of dialysis, but I do the kind where I have to go in every other day. You can do dialysis overnight or during the day. I do dialysis overnight because it’s simpler and I can sleep. If you skip a treatment, you will feel like you have the flu and your brain will stop working so well. If you stop dialysis altogether, eventually your organs will all shut down and you’ll die.
There are more than half a million Americans on dialysis. Theoretically, people can survive for a very long time. It depends on the accompanying problems of a patient. During the first year of dialysis, twenty percent of dialysis patients die, half within the first three months. These folks most likely have more pressing problems, like high blood pressure or diabetes, which caused the kidneys to fail in the first place. Infections are another issue; your immune system is nonexistent, so a little cold can turn into a deadly problem.
The odds of death go up with each year you spend on dialysis. In year two, the survival rate is sixty-four percent. Year five, thirty-three percent. By year ten, it drops to only ten percent.
I am approaching year ten statistics.
Thus, it’s vitally important to get a kidney as soon as possible, but there simply aren’t enough to go around. People don’t line up to donate kidneys like they do to donate blood.
Today, I’m at the hospital for a blood flow test, to show how well my blood will move around a new kidney. The doctors would not want to give me one of those precious kidneys, only to have it expire because it can’t get any blood.
I take my place in the waiting room chair. The same nurse returns to take me back.
“You ready, Ms. Garner?” Nurse Sonya is already walking away.
I try to think of a joke, something to make her laugh. Nothing comes to mind. I’ve seen Sonya for the past five years, and she’s never commented on more than my blood pressure and pulse.
I decide to hell with it, and her, and Mark. I don’t care. I shuffle along behind her, painfully aware that my gait is no better than Mark’s, though he’s at least thirty years older.
IT IS NEWLY DARK WHEN DARA BRINGS ME HOME, THE AIR chill. A California chill. People from the East would be wearing shorts; I have on a heavy jacket. I thread my hands together on my lap. Dara and I have been avoiding talking about the test. We generally do not speak about the severity of my situation. If I dwelled on that garbage, I’d be more of a basket case than I already am. I say it anyway. “If I ever have to do that again, it’ll be too soon.”
The MRA test I’d just had was more like a medieval torture chamber than a modern medical exam. First, they injected me with a protein-based dye. Then they strapped me to the top of an iron frame and stuck me in the machine. Turns out I’m claustrophobic, because it wasn’t long before I was hitting the panic button. They gave me a sedative, so I was able to lie still for the ninety minutes I had to listen to the machine whirring around, hoping no one had left metal in the room that would go flying. The only way I got through it was by closing my eyes and visualizing my rose breeding. It worked. I came up with an idea for a new parent combination to try out when I get the seeds this fall.
“You got through it. You always do.” My friend glances at me.
Dara pulls onto my street. I’m glad to see the lights blaze in the greenhouse and a beat-up faded red Honda Civic is parked on the street. Brad’s silhouette is inside and the hose rushes water.
“He’s here late.” Dara frowns. “Doesn’t watering at night make fungus?”
“Drainage is what matters. As long as your soils drain well, you can water at night.” He was supposed to be out and done by six. It’s seven.
We make our way up the front walk as the lights turn off and the greenhouse door closes. Brad bounds up, his teeth shining in the porch light, the bright light of his cell phone shining open in his hand.
“Sorry. Practice ran late.” He flips his hair out of his face, worn in that fashion requiring such constant flipping, one bang over one eye. It’s a little girly-looking to me. Brad himself is almost too pretty for a boy, with a finely turned nose and very light green eyes marked by lashes so black it looks like he’s wearing eyeliner. He’s got the strong chin of his father, though, and the big ears, which offset the femininity.
Brad Jensen is a scholarship student. At some schools, this might mean he would be an outcast. At our school, he’s the most popular. Hardworking, bright, and polite. Everything you want your kid to be. Every mother of every girl he’s dated has practically adopted him. No one begrudges him his scholarship, not when his mother died in Iraq when he was a toddler and he’s being raised by his single dad, the school janitor.
“I’d rather have you home studying than here too late.” I take my key out, fumbling for the lock. Dara watches for a second before taking it out of my hand. “Hey, I can do that.”
“Don’t want to wait all night.” She undoes the deadbolt.
“It’s no problem, Ms. Garner. I told you I’d do it and I did.” Brad shakes his hair back again. I really don’t know why the girls love it so.
“You should get a haircut. You’ll see better.” I go inside. “Good night, Brad.”
“G’night.” Before I get all the way inside, his car has started.
“That kid. What isn’t he interested in?” Dara turns on the light. “Do you know what he was talking to me about in study hall? French cinema.” She snorts. “As if he knows anything.”
“Trying to impress you, I expect.” Dara’s the prettiest and youngest teacher at the school, a mere thirty-two. Of course all the boys have crushes, though she is never anything except professional. I put my hand on the hallway wall, making my way to the bedroom, past the very clean and nearly unused powder room. If you’re on the kind of dialysis I am, you don’t have to pee. Ever. The one convenient thing about it. “He’s a very well-rounded kid,” I continue. “I think he’ll have his pick of colleges. I’m only sorry he’s graduating.”
She goes ahead of me. The bedroom is pale green with pink accents. The bed is my four-poster from childhood, with a white canopy I’ve replaced with gauzy white curtains. I’ve spent more money in here on bedding than I have on my living room furniture. It’s the place where I spend the most time.
She turns down my covers. “There you go. All ready.” Dara sags against the door frame.
Suddenly I realize how tired she must be. Almost as tired as I am. “Thanks for staying with me, Dara.”
“I’ll stop by and see you tomorrow.” It is Friday night.
She’s got too much to do as it is. I am time-consuming. “No. I’ll be fine. I’ve got cans of chicken soup to eat.”
“You’re ridiculous if you think I’m not checking in.”
I wave her away. “Get along, now.”
I hear the front door latch as she leaves.
The red light is blinking on my machine, and I know it’s my mother before I check. I am not ready to talk to her. I get up and turn on the strong outdoor porch lights that lead the way into the greenhouse.
I should be lying down; a sedative still runs through my veins. But right now, I feel more relaxed than doped, and I want to do just a quick check on the roses.
The greenhouse is divided into different sections. At the short wall opposite the entrance, I have a desk, with shelves of my notebooks detailing my parent plants and how they were bred over the past decade.
In the middle of the greenhouse, I have three shallow boxes, four feet wide by six feet long, containing potting soil and topped with peat, which looks like white pearls sitting on top. These are my seedling boxes, where I sprout my new roses.
Farther down along the walls, I have tables of my older potted roses, the parent plants, spaced carefully apart from each other to prevent accidental pollination, two and half feet apart to ensure proper air flow. Each one is carefully tagged on the pot and cataloged in a notebook as well as in my computer.
And then I have my top-secret rose, the repeat bloomer, G42, in its special spot on my worktable. Though I’m hoping for fragrance this year, as a repeat bloomer it will be enough to get me into the market.
Outside, on my property, are rows and rows of my flowers. These are also categorized. Nearest the greenhouse, separate from the others, I have pots of my rootstock. After you get a good seedling, you take it and graft it onto rootstock to generate more of the exact same kind of seedling. Then you try growing these outside to see how they do. Not all will do well outdoors; a good many will die off. Some will return and surprise you in unexpected ways.
Then I have other roses grouped by type, mounded together with dirt paths in between. Though Hulthemias are my favorites, I have all manner of roses out here: hybrids, teas, climbers. Some of these are my second favorites: English roses, David Austin roses, big-headed and fragrant, almost like delicate cabbages.
My landscaping is functional and farmlike, not an aesthetically pleasing garden. Many casual rose growers plant other flowers that will bloom when the roses finish. Freesias with heady fragrance or ranunculus bobbing on their stick stems are popular. I don’t bother.
Out here is where the bees roam free, where I let nature take its course, more or less. In November, birds eat the rose hips and crap out the seeds during their migratory flights. I’ve thought of placing a tracking device in the rose hips to see where they end up.
There, I unlock the door and survey the scene. The hoses are put away, the water is off, the pruning shears are placed back on the pegboard hanger. I turn off the lights and lock the door, making sure the key is not under the mat.
Now my sleepiness hits me. I go back indoors.
It’s dark inside. The only sounds are the refrigerator humming and my own breathing. I make my way through the unlit house into the bedroom, taking a carefully worn path so I don’t run into any furniture. I switch on the dim bedside lamp and regard the blinking light of the answering machine again. I take a breath, dialing my mother back on speaker as I take off my shoes and socks and change into my nightshirt, a long football jersey handed down from my father.
“Hello, how are you?” I ask when she picks up. My voice sounds unnaturally loud in this house, and I fight the urge to whisper.
“Fine, thanks, and you?” This we must go through, no matter how many times per day I speak with her. “Let me call you back.” She hangs up and so do I. Mom does not want me to incur long-distance charges.
The phone rings. “How did it go?” Mom tries to sound cool, but underneath, worry vibrates as plainly as tight violin strings wail.
“Dara took me. I’m fine.” These are two things Mom wants to hear: that I’m not alone, and that I am all right.
“Will they make you do the IVP test?”
“I don’t have any results from this test, Mom.”
The MRA test was a last-ditch effort to measure my blood flow. The best way to get the results is through an intravenous pyelogram, or an IVP test, and I’m allergic to the dye. I’ve gotten a CO2 test, where they pump carbon dioxide through you: results inconclusive. And now this MRA. If the MRA doesn’t work, the doctor will insist on the IVP test, allergic or not.
I change the subject. “How was the library art show?”
“Great. I sold a watercolor. Gal, I can be out there tomorrow morning.”
“You sold a watercolor?” I don’t want her to visit. “Congratulations! That’s major, Mother. How much?”
“It doesn’t matter. Do you want me to come?”
This is one reason I left my birth city. If my mother is here, she will be all over me, too guilty and busy to go outside and make her plein-air landscapes.
“It was noninvasive, Mother.” I muffle my sigh in my pillow. My parents are going to France soon, to sit in the French countryside, visit Champagne wineries, and eat moldy cheese that would be outlawed here. I am not going to have my mother miss her trip for me, though she always buys travel insurance “in case Gal has something come up.”
“Are you sure you’re all right? You sound off.” If she were here, she’d be making me tea and stroking my hair. For a moment I want her here.
“I’m on a sedative. I’ll be more coherent tomorrow.” I put my glasses on the nightstand and rub the bridge of my nose. I want to change the subject. “Heard from Becky lately?”
She hesitates, oddly. “I have.”
My eyes close. I am so close to sleep that I regret asking, yet I can still detect there’s more to come. “What’s up? She lose her job again?” Becky is a pharmaceutical sales rep, traveling her region and selling pills to doctors. Like me, she has a degree in biology, and on the surface, she looks like a well-respected suit-wearing white-collar worker, with flat-ironed shiny hair and carefully applied makeup.
“Not lost it. She got a new one. More travel.” Now Mom’s voice sounds funny. “Riley’s coming here to stay with us. After we get back from France.”
“Really?” I yawn. Riley is Becky’s daughter. Father in and out of the picture, out for good now.
“I’m not sure it’s a good idea.” Pot lids clang on Mom’s end, meaning she is more nervous than usual, even after one of my operations. “We’re to visit Aunt Betty this summer after her knee surgery . . .” She trails off. “Teenagers are a lot to handle.”
“Did you tell her that?” Mom lets Becky walk all over her, sending her money whenever Becky goes over budget, which I’m sure is more often than even I know. “Did you say she didn’t need to create another new problem?”
Mom ignores this, so I know she didn’t say a thing. “I’m sure it will work out.”
“Always does, one way or the other. Even if it’s badly.” I smile at my little joke.
My mind drifts. Poor little Riley. The last time I saw her, I was still living at my folks’ house. I haven’t seen her in, what, seven years? She’s fifteen now.
When Riley was a toddler, perhaps two years old, I’d stopped by Becky’s townhouse in San Diego. Becky had been laid off from her first pharmaceutical sales job. At the time, Becky had been a party girl, a pot smoker and drinker, perhaps more. We suspected “laid off” was a nicer term for “let go because you showed up hungover.”
I was dropping something off. I don’t remember what. The door was unlocked. Her cat meowed at me.
“Riley? Becky?” I moved into the house.
Becky was stone-cold passed out on the couch.
I shoved my sister. She didn’t respond. I slapped her face. “Becky? Where’s Riley?”
“Uhh?” Becky managed to open her eyes, but could not focus.
Then I heard crying from the backyard. Riley was on the patio, dressed only in a sagging diaper, clutching the nape of the old yellow golden retriever Becky had inherited from her ex. Her eyes were reddened and stood out Christmas tree green, her face was filthy, her arms covered in mud, but she was all right. She held her arms out to me.
I scooped her up and took her over to my parents’ house. It was hours before Becky woke and realized her daughter was gone.
Riley went to live with her father after that, and we thought everything was all right. His mother watched Riley while he worked. Becky cleaned up, stopped partying, and saw her daughter regularly. We chalked the incident up to immaturity.
A few years later, Riley’s grandmother passed away, and Riley’s father got another woman pregnant. A woman who didn’t like the fact that Riley’s father had had another family before hers. He married her and moved to Boston, and Riley went back to Becky. I understand that Riley’s father hadn’t offered more contact than his monthly signature on the support checks.
Becky had moved to San Francisco for her new job, at a different drug company. Now, if Becky partied, she made sure to show up to work sober, or at least functional, because she’d held on to this job for years. I’d suspected that though she’d slowed with the alcohol, she wasn’t averse to the occasional super-strength pain reliever, palmed out of her samples. I could hear the fog in her voice on the rare occasions when we talked on the phone. Though she pulled in a good salary, she was always, somehow, in financial straits. Her boyfriends had been numerous, and always had questionable job titles like “nightclub promoter.”
My mother refused to believe anything was wrong. “Riley would tell me,” she would always say. Mom would fly up to get Riley, fly back down with her, keep her for weeks at a time during the summer. I had to think my parents had a stabilizing influence, as had her paternal grandmother, during her very young years. I had to believe Riley couldn’t remember her earlier neglect.
“Riley doesn’t want to be taken away from her mother,” I said. At eight, Riley showed a fierce and undeserved loyalty to my sister.
“Everything is fine, Aunt Gal,” she told me on the afternoon of her eighth birthday, when I phoned.
“Look in your cupboards and tell me what’s there,” I challenged her.
She had responded immediately. “SpaghettiOs, pizza, and a lot of vegetables. A lot of vegetables. My mother makes me eat them.”
I caught her out. “You keep pizza in your cupboard?”
“I thought you meant freezer.”
And it was always like this, Riley protecting and covering up for her mother, Becky wheedling whatever help she could get out of my mother, without admitting she should have given up her daughter long ago.
I remember this as I stare at the ceiling, listening to my mother make excuses for my sister. At last I say, “What Riley needs is a good education in a stable home. Her mother’s ruined her.” I think of my colleagues with children. The first child gets free tuition. It had always pained my frugal little heart that I could not take advantage of the program. “She oughta come here. Get a free private school diploma.”
“You couldn’t handle her.”
“You haven’t seen me in action with my students.” I chuckle. Oh, I’m close to sleep. I think I’m on the beach in San Diego, dipping one toe into the frigid Pacific. “Pollution levels are high,” I mumble and slur. I’m dreaming of another high school science project, testing the ocean water.
Her tone softens. “I better let you get to resting.”
It’s all I can do to hit the End button on my phone receiver. The pain medicine is better than a sleeping pill. The moonlight comes in, dappled through the chiffon curtains, making abstracted rose patterns on the ceiling. I close my eyes and picture my rose family pedigrees. Hulthemia. They rise three dimensionally around me, dancing like I’m Alice in Wonderland visiting those snotty flowers. I smile in my delusion. Maybe I can breed the pink to the yellow. I cross Hulthemias in my head, their offspring reborn as quick as film passing by. Until I fall asleep.
ON THE MONDAY AFTER MY PROCEDURE, I WALK UP AND down the front of my classroom, my sensible athletic shoes squeaking on the black linoleum. All the science rooms have black linoleum floors and black counters. At Halloween, I decorate it to look like a dungeon. I don’t have Bunsen burner gas lines like the chemistry room, but I do have an array of microscopes along the counters under the mottled-glass ancient windows. It’s a room students tend to daydream in, on the second floor of the building, overlooking an array of still-bare treetops and the athletic field, where a P.E. class is engaged in a flag football game.
There are no pictures of saints on the walls, like there are in the religious studies’ room; most Catholic schools these days are not really very Catholic. There aren’t even any nuns here; not enough to go around. Our priest comes in only once a month or so, to lead Mass. Otherwise, it’s essentially like any other private high school.
I’ve worked here for eight years, starting right before my kidney failed again. I came from a public high school, with indifferent faculty and even more indifferent students. A smaller private school was a welcome change.
The headmaster, Dr. O’Malley, looked worried when he first met me at my teaching interview, glancing from the top of my head down to my feet. “How will you keep the kids in line?” he had asked.
I straightened to my full height. “First of all, I come from a public school and never had any problems. I thought this school was intolerant of bad behavior. Second, the tongue is mightier than the sword.”
Dr. O’Malley had smiled. “I think that’s the pen. And you’re right. We do have good kids here.”
“I know what you’re thinking.” I leaned across his desk. “I’m going to get sick, cost you lots of money.”
He started to demur, but I held up my hand.
“Let me say this. No one knows what will happen. A perfectly healthy person could get hit by a semi tomorrow. But I guarantee you, no matter how much time I have left, I will leave the school a better place than when I found it.” I sat back in my chair, my case presented.
In the end, of course, the board had not found a reason they couldn’t hire me. They certainly couldn’t say I was short, or unqualified. I have been here ever since.
Today, the class will learn about osmosis. Osmosis has to be one of the simpler concepts to understand, and a fun lab to boot. I’ve brought in potatoes. We’ve sliced them up and put them in beakers of water: one plain, one salted, and one sugared. They’re supposed to explain why the salted potato got so soft, why the sugared one didn’t get as soft, and why the plain one got harder. Osmosis causes water to move toward the salt.
A girl with a red ponytail in a cheerleader uniform raises her hand. The cheerleader uniforms are not too unlike the regular uniforms: a plaid skort and a sweater emblazoned with St. Mark’s instead of a white blouse and skirt. “Can we use the same glass for all three?”
I have already gone over the directions, but she had been staring off outside. I turn to the rest of the class. “Anyone know?”
John, a boy wearing a school sweatshirt, clinks his beakers together. “Um, Sarah, how many beakers do you have in front of you?”
The rest of the class titters. If she were a cartoon character, she’d have a giant light bulb go off above her head. “Oh! Got it.”
“I thought cheerleaders were supposed to be kind of smart at this school,” the boy mutters, shaking his mop of black curls.
“Hey. There’s only room for one smart aleck in here.” I tap my fingers on the table in front of John.
He grins sheepishly. “You?”
I nod and smile. “Everyone, if you have any further questions, John will be more than happy to assist. Without commentary.”
He blows air through his lips and crunches his shoulders together, but does not say anything else.
They at last all settle down and begin working in earnest on the lab. The class lasts about fifty minutes, and they have almost forty left.
I sit at my workdesk in the back of the class, where I have a good clear view of them all and they can’t see me. Despite spending the weekend resting, I feel run-down and hope I’m not coming down with something. A kid near the front coughs and I listen carefully. Sounds like a dry allergy cough to me. After nearly twelve years of teaching, I can tell the difference now. Aware that I was holding my breath against the germs, I allow myself a big yawn.
On the desk is my water bottle, filled with half a liter, half my daily allotment. If you’re a patient that still makes urine, you’re allowed more than this. It’s not much, but it’s better than the first time I was on dialysis, when I was allowed the equivalent of only one can of soda per day.
This lack of liquid gives my skin the lizard look of lotion commercials. A bottle of plain white hand cream sits on my desk. In a locked drawer are the pills I’m supposed to take regularly, and my nondelicious, low-phosphorus, low-potassium, dialysis-friendly snacks. Eat too much of these and you could trigger a heart attack. I should market my own diet. The slogan will be, “It’s so unappetizing, you’ll lose weight.” I grin.
I open my rose file on the computer. The family tree of my roses spreads out before me. G42 should bloom any time now; I hope it’s sweet-smelling. Its parents were the multiblooming rose from last year and another multiblooming rose. The grandparents of these roses have fragrance. In my strains, the fragrance seems to appear about once every other generation, like blue eyes do in some brown-eyed families. This is what I’ve intuited, though I’m not always correct. It’s always a surprise in the end.
Dara appears beside me, quiet in her black ballet flats. She has no students right now; it’s her prep period. A twinge of irritation wells. She shouldn’t be interrupting my class because she’s bored. Also, I admit, I was doing something I’m not supposed to, thinking about my roses during class time. I click off the screen so she can’t see what I’m doing. Dara has been known to lecture about such things before.
“Finally come to learn about osmosis?” I swivel around in my seat. “Or is there a matter of importance I should attend?”
She sits in the hard plastic chair next to mine. “I was walking by and saw you weren’t busy.” She looks pointedly at the computer screen. “I just had a great idea while I was drawing up plans for next semester.”
Teachers really aren’t supposed to visit with each other like this. I can see why. All the kids are interested in us, not in their projects. “We can talk at lunch, Dara. Not in front of the kids.”
She ignores this. “What if we do a joint project? Biology and art.”
“My students can’t draw. That’s why they’re in biology.” I wink at the watching students.
She blinks, and I notice how much mascara she has on, and how heavy her eyeliner is. It’s run into the small creases beneath her eye. “First of all, plenty of biologists can draw. Plenty of artists can do biology. Who do you think illustrates anatomy textbooks?”
“All right. I was just joking.”
“It didn’t sound like a joke.” She crosses her arms. “Darn it, Gal, this is a good idea. Don’t shoot it down.”
I realize what I said wasn’t just a joke, and if I think it was, I’m kidding myself.
I open my mouth to apologize, to explain myself. The kidney. It’s always the kidney. I shouldn’t use my illness as an excuse for anything anymore. I should know how to control my mood swings. This lack of water might be drying out my brain. My eyes are dry and I rub them behind my glasses.
I had snapped at Dara the weekend before last, arguing over where to sit in the movie theater for a showing of Black Swan. She said middle. I said I didn’t even want to see the movie in the first place, therefore we should sit on the aisle like I wanted. I had won. I usually did. That didn’t mean I was correct, though.
Dara continues. “The project’s conceptual. They don’t need to know how to draw. The art students don’t need to know biology. Though they probably do.” She points to the students. “I see ten students in here who are in my art class.”
At this my irritation returns and increases, especially because now everyone has abandoned their work, openly staring to see what will happen. Dara is a popular teacher. The cool teacher who lets them eat snacks during class and go outside to draw. I am the mean one who makes them think and doesn’t accept extra credit. “That explains a lot about their scholarship.”
Her neck flushes red and blotchy and I know I’ve crossed the line. Cheap shot, Gal. She stands.
I feel terrible. “Dara.”
“Forget it.” She leaves, the lining of her wool skirt making a scratching noise.
All the students are watching now, whispering, laughing. A few are shocked at what I said. Staring at me. These kids are wolves. Any sign of weakness and they descend.
My nonworking fistula for dialysis, a piece of plastic tubing implanted in my inner right arm, itches painfully. I want to rip it out of my flesh. This foreign object, battering me. I try to speak, but my voice has a frog, so I take a tiny sip out of my daily water allotment. The students, these children whose greatest daily obstacle has been which type of sugary cereal to choose for breakfast, snicker. It’s an overreaction, but I feel like overturning a table suddenly. “Back to work, all of you!” The sound of my voice echoes in this room, bare of softness, and hurts my eardrums. Thankfully, they all bow their heads and leave me alone.
• • •
HOME. A SIMPLE DINNER of a fried-up hamburger, made myself to be low-sodium. Tonight I have dialysis. My bag is already ready with its extra toothbrush and fuzzy slippers; my teaching bag, with ungraded papers, sits on top. I always keep the hospital bag packed, like a perpetually pregnant housewife.
I walk my outdoor rose garden, wandering in and out of the paths, pulling a red metal child’s wagon behind me to throw in the detritus. I have my rose gardening gloves on and carry my shears, snipping at random tendrils threatening my feet. Brad has taken care of most of the strays. This is one of his jobs. Easy enough. I itch to be in the greenhouse, tending to the rose for the contest, but at this point there’s nothing I can do except wait for its bud to open in bloom later this month, to see what I’ve got. It’s like waiting for a chick to hatch.
Near an American Beauty, that pure red rose, a shoot pushes through the organic mulch. I can’t tell if it’s rose or weed at the moment. It’s just a green shoot. If it’s a rose, it’s not one I planted, but some unwanted accident that will suck up my real rose’s nutrients, choking the roots of the beauty. Which is pretty much the definition of a weed. I could pull it out and start it in its own pot, but who has the time? Heck, if I did that for every possible rose, I would have no more pots left. I yank it out and throw it into the wagon pile and continue on.
• • •
I BRING MY photo album of roses to dialysis and sit looking through the photos in the waiting room. Here are all the roses of the past ten years, since I got really serious about my hobbies. The Hulthemias stretch back about six years, when I first discovered them.
One of my favorites is a pink one with a nearly maroon-colored blotch. It’s my earliest cross. I called it G21. Nothing particularly special, no fragrance. It was simply the first Hulthemia I had created.
“Those are some roses.”
I stiffen. Walters is peering over my shoulder, so close I feel his breath on my scalp. I shut the album abruptly.
“I meant that in a nice way, you know.” He ambles away, giving me a wink on his way out.
“Gal,” I hear my name called.
On my way to my room, I pass Walters’s, that rogue who shouldn’t even be on the list. He’s chatting up Nurse Gwen, as usual. What is it about him that these women adore? I don’t see it. He gives me a dapper little wave, and I fight the urge to flip him off with two middle fingers.
Into the bed I go. Nurse Gwen slides the needle into the plastic graft inside my leg. When my arm shunt got permanently jammed, they switched to the leg, and when that got clogged, they used my jugular for a while. One tube into the machine, one tube out of the machine with the clean blood. It sounds horrific to have a needle jammed into your neck, but after all the years of pricking it’s not so bad. The tissue inside, I’m sure, is roughened and scarred.
“You comfortable?” she asks. She reminds me of Flo from Mel’s Diner, all brassy blond and pink-lipsticked. Her hands smell of cigarettes and baby powder.
I give her a thumbs-up instead of speaking. She makes the room dark.
These hospital beds are as familiar and comfortable to me as my own. The medicinal scent of the sheets, their rough texture, the plastic bars at the sides. I haven’t added it all up, but I’ve probably spent almost as much time in these beds.
Once, when she was ten, my sister, Becky, fell out of a tree and hit her head. It knocked her out. She awoke in a hospital room. My pediatrician, seeing the name “Garner” appear in the roster, rushed over. For once, it was a different Garner. The doctor asked if she knew where she was. “I’m in Gal’s bed,” she said.
The pediatrician was sure Becky had a brain injury, until my mother had a realization. “She thinks the hospital is Gal’s bed, because Gal’s always here.”
When my mother tells the story, Becky ignores the point. “So the doctor was relieved it wasn’t Gal? Just me?”
“Gal’s been through a lot more than you,” my mother replies. A well-worn explanation.
In the dialysis room, the sound of my artificial organ lulls me to sleep. I don’t even wake up when the blood pressure cuff beeps on anymore.
I awake feeling more or less like the old Gal, which is to say, moderately okay. A normal person like Dara would probably feel like she had the flu, but this is my new normal.
When I get back home, fog covers the rose garden. I haven’t looked at the weather report to see if it will clear. I unlock the door. The house air is stale and unpleasant, so I open the kitchen window. The sink holds the dirty dishes from my dinner last night. I should have put them into the dishwasher and wish, out of nowhere, that there was someone to do it for me. I boot up my computer and make myself a cup of tea. In the yard next door, Old Mrs. Allen is out there watering again, though clearly she watered plenty yesterday. “You’re gonna kill your precious lawn,” I say. She’s in a black lacy robe with a thick flannel nightgown peeking out from underneath. I step back before she notices me.
I take a sip of my tea. My mother sent it, though it’s central California, not outer Siberia. Mom reads up on herbal remedies and sends me crates of vitamins and supplements that have no scientific research to back them up. I used to tell her it was a waste of money, but now I set the boxes in the teachers’ lounge and write “Free” on them. They’re always gone by noon. No one ever thanks me.
At my desk, my MacBook, purchased at a sizable discount through the school, tells me I have a new e-mail. My heart pounds a little bit harder. It’s probably only an alert from the online rose forum I belong to, telling me I have a new message on my Hulthemia discussion thread, but I’m hoping it’s something else. I feel my face cracking into a broad smile, so big and out of the ordinary that it almost hurts. It is. It’s Byron.
Excerpted from The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns : a Novel by Margaret Dilloway
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.