Zinnia

by William Baker

Ramira Santiago watches Pazel as he enters the house with their seven and nine year old sons, Casson and Mateo, marching a slow hangdog behind him. She notes that even at the end of the day, her husband looks starched and professional as he did when leaving the house in the morning. Pazel stops at the stairs, the little carbons of their father halt, heads down.

“Now you do as I said,” Pazel says. “Put your backpacks away, wash up, no electronics.” The boys march upstairs without looking at their mother.

“What is this?” Ramira asks. Unlike her, Pazel is not easily upset at what the boys do.

“Those little devils,” he says. “Your sister was at your mother’s house with her boys, you know how she let them talk, these two decided to join in and were disrespectful to your mother.”

Ramira places the back of a hand on each hip, curls her fingers, tosses her head and lets out a “Ha! We will see about this!”

“I already handled it.” Pazel says. “It won’t hurt for you to say something, but they have their discipline.”

“Of course, my love,” she says. The boys know her as enforcer, their father in the role carries weight. “Poor Mama. Was she upset? I’ll call her later.”

“Oh, no. She was laughing. She says those two look like me but act like you.”

Ramira’s hands fly to her waist, palms out, chin heavenward. “Ha!” she turns to the dinner preparations. “How was the office after I left?” she asks.

“Good. Parnell called about his issues. I told him we will look at it and get back to him,” Pazel says. They discuss the day’s business. Pazel and Ramira Santiago are the first in either family to attend college and, as owners of a financial services concern, they are the first to have careers not involving manual labor.

Ramira asks, “No electronics, those two? How long?”

“I didn’t say. A week?” he says.

“That means they will have nothing to entertain them, you know?”

“They may have to go outdoors and play. What a punishment,” he says. “I thought we could do things with them. Play games, you know. Spend time with them. They are too attached to tablets.” He holds her at the waist as she busies at the sink. “Maybe after playing games, when they are asleep, we can play games too,” he kisses her neck.

“Uh-huh,” she says. “Too many games and soon we have more little devils running around talking disrespectful, ever think of that?”

“Sure, only the next ones will look like you, but act like me.” At the stairs, he calls the boys.

Ramira watches out the kitchen window as she works. She sees a Real Estate agent put a Sold sign next door. At dinner, she asks Pazel, “Did your brother put his bid on the house?”

“Alejandro? Not hardly. He says maybe next month,” Pazel dishes food to the boys. The Santiagos live in the last house on a short dead-end street. A long neglected area of rental properties. Their house cost less than they could afford and they had it renovated. Their long-term plan is to have family and friends do the same for other houses.

“Ha!” she exclaims. “That brother of yours! He waited too long, as usual. The house is sold.”

“Ah!” Pazel says. The boys find this funny. They talk on through dinner and play games into the night.

***

For months, Ramira notices the work crews and the renovations next door, then a man is there on a Saturday morning, with a garden tiller. She waves at him and they meet at the fence, talking until she must prepare lunch. Later, she sends the boys with food.

Pazel returns from his day at the office and Ramira tells him of the neighbor. “I waved at him from the driveway,” he says. “The old white man?”

“White man!” Ramira says. “What difference? A nice man. A Godly man. I baked extra and had the boys take to him.”

Pazel says, “You know what we want. For this to be our street. An example for our people.”

Her hands fly to her hips, her head up, “Ha! Our people! White, Black, Hispanic, Democrat, Republican! That’s all this country can talk about. Instead of how we are different, how about how we are the same? We are all our people!”

“Ah!” Pazel hands aloft. “She bakes a man a cookie and forgets all we are trying to accomplish!”

“Mr. DeHaven is more like us than these our people you talk about,” she says.

“How?” he asks.

“He was born in Jefferson, Indiana, like us. He went to Jefferson College, like us. He married his high school sweetheart, like us. He loves God, like us. He started his own business, like us,” she says.

He surrenders, “Okay, okay. We have done some of the same things.” Their points made, they settle into a discussion about their neighbor. A retiree returned to his hometown after successful business years elsewhere. Pazel says, “All of that is fine. I am sure he is a good man, but what about the plan? What about our neighborhood?”

“What about it? There are plenty of houses on this street. Tell Alejandro and the others to stop wasting time.”

“But, but!” Pazel gestures to the house next door.

“Eh, So? It is his neighborhood too. He isn’t hurting a plan.”

Pazel shakes his head.

***

“Now this,” Mr. DeHaven hands a plastic bag over the fence, “is called Dragon’s Tongue Bean. It is a wax bean. Another heirloom plant. What do you think of those Casson?” he asks the boy.

“I don’t think I like them. Thank you, sir. They have purple on them,” Casson says.

“That’s right, they do. But watch when your mother cooks them, the purple fades out,” the old man says.

“They are lovely, Mr. DeHaven. Thank you,” Ramira says.

“You are quite welcome, Mrs. Santiago. A few beans are little enough for all the wonderful food you send my way.” He hands her two more bags.

“Oh, my!” she says, “don’t give us all you have.”

“I have plenty for cooking and canning and more on the vine,” he says. “Oh and this,” he hands her a flower. “I always like to plant flowers too. An Heirloom. This one is a Zinnia Isabellina, a beautiful creamy butter yellow. There are all kinds of Zinnias. My favorites.”

“Beautiful, thank you, Mr. DeHaven,” she says. “For that, I will say an extra prayer for you.”

***

It is a season exchanging produce, casseroles and baked goods. In late summer, Pazel returns from work to find Ramira in the kitchen as usual at this time of day. “Where are the boys?” he asks.

“Out back,” she says.

He spots the bulky grocery bags on the counter. “What are these?” he asks.

“Those are Charentais Melon. The tastiest melon in the world,” she says.

“From Kroger Supermarket? Why did you buy so many?” he asks.

She laughs, “No. They come from Mr. DeHaven’s garden.”

“Why does he always give us so much?” Pazel narrows his eyes.

“He grows too much.” She turns to her work.

“And why?” His hands fly to the ceiling. “Can’t you see what is going on?” He is angry. “He… he… I’m going to put a stop to this right now!” He pulls a yellow post-it note from the refrigerator, starts writing and talking to himself. “He doesn’t know who he is dealing with. We are not…” Ramira cannot understand as he mumbles.

“Are you crazy? What are you talking about? What are you doing?” she asks.

Pazel gives no answer but shoves the note into a bag, takes the melons and marches out the door with Ramira following. “He thinks he can…” he continues. He halts at the fence, drops the bags over, turns to the house for more and stops with Ramira on his way.

“What do you think you are doing?” she asks. The children gather at a distance.

“He thinks we are some Mexican charity case and we are not even Mexican! He hands out groceries to the poor beaners! I am a professional! I am not a charity, I give to charities!” he says with a finger skyward.

“Would you listen to yourself? No one thinks that,” she turns to the boys, “Mateo, Casson, would you please bring the bags your silly father dropped over the fence?” The boys freeze and she turns, hands on hips, “Look what you do to your children.”

“Woman, I am telling you, we will not take any more from that man,” he says.

“No.” She folds her arms.

He says, “We are Christians, right? Remember the speaker this very Sunday? I am the head of the house, I know best, you must do as I say and I say, no more from him.” He looks at her.

Slowly, her hands go to hips, chin up and she loudly proclaims, “Ha! Jesus, our Lord, says differently. Who is the speaker? A man. Who is Jesus? Man, but God. I do what Jesus says. And besides, you do not believe that anymore than I do.”

He asks, “How do you figure? It’s all in the Bible, the Word of God.”

“What Jesus says is the Word of God, everything else must agree with that. Jesus says to love one another. Jesus does not say this race or that, man or woman. All commandments are this, Jesus says love. Love God. Love others. Neighbors give, neighbors share, that is love. If anyone thinks the Bible says something else, they are reading it wrong.” She turns to the children. “Please boys.”

Casson and Mateo look at their father, who nods. Pazel changes the subject. “Did Vandervier send the paperwork over today?”

Her arms fold, “Yes. It is on my desk, I’ll show you tomorrow. I think we should do it, I almost told him but wanted you to see first.”

He looks away. “You could have. You can decide.”

“No,” she says, “we are in business together, we decide together. We raise a family together. We love our neighbors together. All under God.” The boys hand her the melons. She looks in a bag, reads the post-it note, which says WE ARE NOT ON WELFARE!, sighs and shakes her head.

“What’s for dinner?” he asks.

“Chicken and rice,” she says, pulling a melon from the bag. “And Oh! Welfare Melon!”

“Ah!” he cries. The boys laugh without understanding.

“Ha!” She is only able to put one hand on her hip.

Pazel addresses his sons, “boys, I am telling you, marry a woman like this. You will walk a straight and narrow path and she will never do as you say.”

Mateo says, “But Mommy is the most beautiful woman in the world.”

“True,” Pazel says “if not, I would have locked her out of the house.”

Ramira switches the bags to the other side in order for that hand to have the satisfaction of her hip and throws back her head. “Ha!”

Pazel moves the boys forward, “Let’s eat.” He reaches to her. “I’ll take those.” He motions to the bags.

“Why? What are you going to do with them?” she asks.

“Eat them.” He laughs, taking the bags. “Come welfare melon, momma.”

***

“This is the last of the tomatoes, I believe.” Mr. DeHaven hands a bag over the fence. “Mr. Stripey is a personal favorite.”

“You kept for yourself?” Ramira asks.

“More than I need,” he says. “There are still other things to harvest if we don’t get a hard frost. So, I’m counting on you to rescue them while I am gone. By the time I get back, it will certainly be too late for anything.”

“Of course, we will,” she says. “Don’t stay gone long, we will miss you. I will pray for your return.”

“And I never forget the Santiagos in my prayers. A few weeks, a month. I will see how it goes,” he says.

“Your family will be happy to see you,” she says.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” he says and gives her a bouquet of flowers. “There are still flowers.”

“Beautiful,” she says, showing them to Casson and Mateo.

“Zinnias,” Casson says.

“That’s right, you remembered,” Mr. DeHaven says.

“Hello, Mr. DeHaven,” Pazel says. They have not heard his approach. The men shake hands over the fence.

“I am going to finish dinner. Mr. DeHaven you will come?” Ramira asks.

“No, not today, thank you,” he says.

“I will send the boys later, then. I won’t even tell you what. A surprise!” she says, leaving.

“Pazel, you have a wonderful wife. She reminds me of my Anna.” DeHaven says and the men talk at the fence.

***

On a late fall afternoon, Ramira Santiago looks out her kitchen window. Mr. DeHaven is gone far longer than he said, and now there are people next door. Automobiles fill the drive and park in the street, there are many people. A knot grows in her stomach and Ramira grabs a dish towel. She watches a thin, tall man leave the house, clutching a dark overcoat against the brisk wind. He is a younger Mr. DeHaven. He walks the empty sidewalk towards them. “Pazel!” she cries as he watches football.

Pazel turns off the television when he sees her wringing the dish towel and looking toward the door. “What is it?” he goes to her.

“Someone is here,” she says as the bell rings. “Please, I don’t think I can.”

Puzzled, he touches her arm and answers the door. Ramira goes upstairs to check on the children and stays looking out a window. Pazel talks to the visitor and she does not join him until he is alone. She sits at the dining room table and Pazel brings hot tea. They talk as the tea turns cold.

***

The house next door is again vacant, the Santiago’s work to clean up the garden and distribute what remains. Ramira clears the dead flowers and there is left only a small row, sheltered from the advancing winter by the side of the house. She looks at the silver ground cover of hard frost, the flowers will not last long. She is disappointed, only a few wilted blooms remain. She longs for one final bouquet, but these are good only for compost. On her knees, she uproots the spent flowers.

It is there, among the stems and hidden, closer to the shelter, perfect, alone, untouched. She studies the singular unmarred beauty of a double bloom flower with subtle shadings of buttercream and antique yellow. She breathes it, touches its petals, feels the softness and color. In a few days, it will fall like the others. The seasons are His, Ramira thinks. She looks across the silver carpeted remains of the garden to her family and turns back to the bloom. She knows that for all of her life, she will remember.

She pulls stalks, piling them together, but leaves the clump with the lone flower until last. The flower has resumed its place in the back. She considers cutting it for home or adding it to the compost and decides neither. She only looks at it, losing track of the minutes. Pazel kneels beside her. She feels the boys at her shoulder.

Ramira frees the bloom from behind the dead to let it see the cold, poignant sunlight and feel the biting air. Togethe,r they watch the Zinnia Isabellina dance and weave.


William Baker has his short fiction published a number of times since 2013. He lives a positive and purposeful life in Yeshua and resides with his family in Central Indiana. His author website with links to previously published work is found at sylbun.com.

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