Last Week's Rhododendron
1400 words long
A suburban arboreal satire, sort of.
Notes from the author:
Some writers famously dream entire stories, complete from beginning through the middle to the end. They wake up, they write them down, they revise perhaps for clarity and phrasing, they're done. Or so they say. Me, I have dreams that make me do all the work.
One night during high school I told myself, "Whatever I dream tonight, I'll make a story out of it when I wake up." I dreamed that I was looking at the front page of a section of newspaper (probably the Times-Picayune). It was section "U," with the section title "Rhododendron." That was all, except possibly for the faint sound of my subconscious cackling wickedly off in a corner when I woke up.
On Wednesday morning, the newspaper said "Rhododendron."
The headlines came as no surprise to Paula, who was accustomed to finding Section U sandwiched between the Living and Money sections every Wednesday morning. "U" stood for "Undesignated," and the section's name changed with the whim of the newspaper staff. Last week they'd called it "False Teeth" and had filled it with dentally approved lists of toothpastes and floss, advertisements for salsa flavored denture cream, and advice on carving jack o lantern fangs just right. The week before that, under the title "Poetry Showcase," section U had featuring the winners of last month's contest in Barbie and/or Ken inspired sonnets. (The winning entry had been an Elizabethan verse lyrically lamenting the effects of near-anatomically correct dolls on innocent minds.) The Undesignated section with its well-loved, free-floating absurdity could be found nestled in picture frames and scrapbook pages across the city. Paula had never bothered to save clippings so fanatically, but she looked forward each week to reading Section U the way one might look forward to reading one's horoscope.
The front page of this week's Undesignated section bore vivid pencil sketches of rhododendrons in full bloom and hundreds of neon hues. The second page boasted interviews with the most celebrated gardeners of Europe. And since page three featured a column entitled "FROM SHOOT TO SHRUBBERY: Raising Your Very Own Rhododendron," Paula decided she'd give it her best shot.
Predictably enough, the supermarket was well stocked with rhododendrons and garden supplies. No matter what far out craze section U could throw at them, the store managers were always prepared. (A conspiracy was suspected, but as yet no one had managed to unearth sufficient proof for an accusation.) The supermarket was also well stocked with shoppers. Paula found it nearly impossible to navigate through the monumental crowd that flooded the aisles. Nevertheless, half an hour and many bruises later, she staggered back to her car with the object of her quest cradled lovingly in her arms. She gently set the tiny potted seedling on the floor in front of the passenger seat, and gingerly pressed the car door shut.
The drive home was an agony of worry. Every bump jarred and jostled the precious little rhododendron until Paula was sure it would tip over. She breathed a grateful sigh of relief when she finally pulled into the driveway, and wasted no time escorting her baby to the backyard.
A hassled five minutes of ransacking the garage produced spade, rake, and fertilizer, unused since the days of her father's hobby sized vegetable garden. He'd never had any problem turning out foot long cucumbers and round, shiny tomatoes, so Paula naturally assumed the green thumb must run in the family. It should be simple to produce the pretty pink flowers whose pictures had gleamed up at her so invitingly from the front page of the Undesignated section.
By noon she had completed her task, and the tiny rhododendron seedling stood newly planted in a quiet corner of the back yard, shaded from the harsh sunlight by her neighbor's pine tree. She'd watered the little plant, murmured to it affectionately, and even tied a pale pink ribbon around its spindly trunk. "Now, you be good," she told it sternly, and went back inside to cool off with a glass of lemonade in front of the TV.
On Channel 4 there was a live broadcast of the city's First Annual Rhododendron Parade. A team of expert reporters from the morning news stood in front of the downtown mall and kept up a running commentary as the floats rolled down the avenue, splendidly adorned with all varieties of the celebrated flower. Having read and re-read Section U all morning, Paula could easily distinguish pink R. arboreum, purple R. augustinii, yellow R. lutescens, and even blue R. yakusimanum, all at a glance from her living room couch.
The players in the marching bands had garlands of rhododendrons draped over their flutes, wound about their trumpets, and wreathed round their bass drums. Each celebrity riding in the parade proudly bore a corsage of the much praised blossoms (pink "Temple Belles" for women, Paula noted, and scarlet "Addy Weries" for men). They cast flower petals into the swooning crowds. The celebration moved the more sentimental of the spectators to tears, and Paula had to run to the bathroom for a fresh box of tissues when the mayor began his speech.
"Friends, I cannot begin to tell you how -- how exciting it is to be standing here among you today! My mother, God rest her soul, always told me -- she told me, 'Son, as you go through life, always remember to stop and smell the rhododendrons.' Most people would say 'roses,' but my mother knew what special flowers these little darlings are..." He paused to wipe the nostalgia from his eye and to hold a pink blossom to his nose. Then he threw it into the air and blew it a kiss. The crowd erupted into cheers. "So that's exactly what we're going to do today..."
The phone rang. Paula's eyes remained fixed upon the floral extravaganza as she reached to pick up the receiver. The voice of her best friend, Clarice, bubbled ecstatically into her ear. "Oh my God, Paula, do you have the TV on? It's, like, so incredible!"
"Oh, Clarice, isn't it wonderful? I've never seen anything so -- hey! Look at that!" They paused as float #13 drifted in elegant dignity past the camera. "Wow. Section U didn't mention that they came in that color."
By the time the parade was over, the TV off, and the phone hung up, it was well after dark. Paula put her popcorn bowl away in the kitchen sink, vowing sleepily to do the dishes as soon as she woke up tomorrow. She tiptoed into the backyard with a glass of milk, a dish of chocolate chip cookies, and one of her all-time favorite bedtime stories to read to the baby rhododendron. By the time she reached "they lived happily ever after," though, she'd realized that the plant wasn't going to eat the cookies, so she poured a little milk over its roots and ate the cookies herself. They were overdone but otherwise delicious.
The next morning, to Paula's chagrin, the rhododendron had not managed to produce any pink flowers. Maybe it wasn't used to its new home, she speculated, and fetched the fertilizer. "What you need," she declared as she drenched its roots with the foul smelling stuff, "is some positive reinforcement." She tied on another pink ribbon and told the baby plant to imitate it.
But she wanted to be absolutely certain she was doing this right, so she dug through yesterday's newspaper in search of section U. "With proper care and plenty of love, your rhododendron will produce stunningly beautiful blossoms all through the spring and early summer," Paula read aloud. She stopped, and looked at her calendar. It was the 21st of August. "Some varieties may take years before blooming, but when your garden finally explodes into brilliant color, you'll be glad you took the time and trouble."
"Time and trouble," Paula echoed. "Hmmm..."
Next Wednesday morning, the newspaper said "Mountain Goats." Paula was lying out in the back yard, reading yet another reprint of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." She was bored; Clarice was off rock climbing somewhere, and the TV was locked into Swedish wildlife documentaries. She sighed, and turned the page. Occasionally she murmured endearments to her new pet as it left cloven hoof marks in the turf, nibbled at the foliage, and went "Meahhhhh." She tied a couple of pink ribbons to its collar. Later, before she went inside, Paula put it on a leash in a quiet corner of the yard, in the shade of her neighbor's pine tree. Her new pet bleated happily and munched on clover, autumn weeds, and last week's rhododendron.