Flowers in February
"Who's the newbie?" Honker asked the question as he plopped himself into the patio chair next to Ken's. He made a production of the effort, thin arms flailing about like a spastic drag queen. "He looks depressed," he added, as he stared, unabashed, at the newcomer sitting by himself at a nearby table.
The white-haired man was slumped forward in his chair, eyes downcast, ignoring them. His hands lay folded in his lap. The three men were alone on the terrace. It was too early yet for most of the other occupants of the Rainbow Assisted Living Facility, or RALF, as the occupants called it, to be out of bed. Their absence was due to their "still being on gay time," as Honker often jokingly referred to the habit of the others rising late, and then staying up even later.
"Wouldn't you be depressed, too?" Ken sounded critical, as he often did with Honker. "He lost his other half last week -- a heart attack and he has no family to speak of, at least none that gives a damn about him."
The balding Honker turned and stared at Ken, his watered-blue eyes wide. "Well, well," he said. "Darling, you're full of surprises. I thought I was the best one here at ferreting out information from the bulls."
"You're the most persistent, maybe," Ken said, "but that doesn't make you the best, just the most annoying. And don't call them bulls. They're good people, trying to help."
Honker gave a rude snort. "Faggots into leather playing at being the Gestapo, you mean. "God, if I so much as want the odd little toke in my own room, all hell breaks loose around this joint."
Ken's brown eyes narrowed, gray eyebrows furrowing into a frown. He had been a big man once, and although now beginning to stoop with age, and shrunken some in appearance, he could still present an intimidating figure. "You know that's against the rules," he said in a no-nonsense tone, "And, it's dangerous. They could close the place down if they think drugs are making the rounds here. They're just looking for any excuse."
Honker raised bony shoulders in a nonchalant shrug. "And we'd lose the first rest home designed just for us queers. What a truly dreadful loss that would be."
"It would be for me," Ken said, still frowning. "I like it here. It's home to me. And whether you realize it or not, whether you even care or not, you have to understand this is a big experiment, and an unfinished one. We're the first in Vermont, anywhere in the country for that matter. So you have to help out. It's for us, our people."
Honker's thin face scrunched into a pout at this reprimand. "Okay, okay," he said. "I hear you. You don't have to get all ratty about it. God forbid, I should jeopardize this gay elephants' graveyard. Anyway, it's not like pot's such a big deal anymore. So, there's no need to make a federal case out of it."
Ken hissed a long slow sigh, as if letting his impatience escape like steam from between his lips. Then he passed a hand through his cropped gray hair before saying, "That's exactly who would make a case out of it, the feds, and to their good advantage. Don't you get that yet?"
Again, Honker shrugged. He crossed his skinny legs. Since he was wearing shorts, this made his knobby knees all too prominent. Then he twisted in his seat, turning toward their silent neighbor, as if already bored with the subject closer at hand. "Yo!" he called to him in his high-pitched voice. "I'm Honker. He's Ken. Why don't you come over and sit with us?"
The fellow turned toward them, gray eyes regarding them with a blank stare. "What?" he finally asked. His voice sounded weak, as if he were on the verge of crying, or perhaps, already had been.
Honker gave a loud and theatrical-sounding sigh. When he finished he said, "I want to know if you'd care to sit with us. After all, it's the friendly thing to do."
"I'm afraid I'm just not feeling very friendly right now, so if you'll excuse me." The man started to rise from his chair.
"Oh, no you don't!" Honker was already out of his seat. He crossed the few steps between them, somehow managing to mince across even that short a distance. "You come sit with us, honey," he said to the now standing man. "It's no good your being alone right now."
The other man shook his head. This caused his white hair to flop to one side, revealing a combed-over bald spot. "I wouldn't be good company," he said. "It's better if I'm just alone for now, honestly."
"No, it's not," Ken called to him. "For once, God help me, Honker's right, which is a small miracle in itself. You come over and sit with us. Misery loves company, you know. What's your name, by the way?"
"I'm Bruce," the man said, as Honker grasped his right hand and towed him toward their table.
"That figures," Honker muttered under his breath.
"What do you mean?" Bruce asked as he settled into one of the two vacant chairs.
Honker flipped his hand in an airy wave. "Oh, you know that old line from Steel Magnolias, that all gays are named either Mark, or Bruce, or Steve?"
"Is that how it went?" Ken asked.
"Who knows?" Honker again sat in his own chair. "It's the way I remember it. And really, that's all that counts."
Ken gave a pointed sigh before saying, "Well, it's nice to meet you, Bruce. How are you settling in here at the Rainbow? Is everything okay? Anything I can do to help?"
Bruce raised sorrowful eyes toward him. "Do you work here?" he asked.
Ken shook his head. "Nah, I'm just sort of the unofficial host. I like to make sure everyone's okay."
"Big queen of the queers," Honker said, but he smiled after saying it. "So, Bruce, what's your story, honey? You want to tell us all about yourself and how you ended up here at this gay version of Stalag 17?"
Bruce shook his head. "I'm afraid I'm not really up to that yet. It's too soon, if you know what I mean." He added this last in a softer tone.
"Honker, why don't you go and find Walter? See if he can rustle us all up some coffee and doughnuts. Will you do that?"
Honker made a face, but he stood. "Valter?" he mocked in a thick, German accent. "That fat goose-stepping Nazi? Oh, all right. But don't tell any of the juicy bits while I'm gone."
"Well, hurry then," Ken said. "And no time-outs for soliciting blow jobs along the way. I want my coffee hot and cream-free, please."
Honker paused in his departure to turn and glance back at them. He fluttered his eyelids in a parody of a coquettish flirtation and then placed hands on scrawny hips. "Well, really!" he said, "As if I'd ever do such a thing." Then he opened the French door with a flourish, and flounced off the patio and into the building. His exit would have been smoother if he hadn't tripped over the leading edge of a floral-print rug just inside the door. He stumbled forward, barely avoiding a fall. With scrawny arms and legs flailing, he looked liked a marionette that had its strings jerked by some drunken puppeteer.
Ken smiled after him. Like it or not, Honker did supply an abundance of comic relief, intentional or otherwise. He noticed that even Bruce had a slight smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
"Is he always like that?" Bruce asked.
Ken nodded. "Pretty much, I'm afraid. He's one of our more outrageous characters and hard to deal with at times because of that, but Honker's a good soul. He means well and he's kindhearted. Like not wanting you to be alone; he thought of that before I did, and he was right."
"He looks like he's a little on the young side to be here. For that matter, so do you."
Ken smiled. "Well, points for flattery there, I guess. But you're right, about Honker, anyway. He's had a long-term problem with cocaine. It caused several heart attacks and a slight stroke. Now, he has an irregular heartbeat as a result. So, he decided to come here."
"To dry out you mean?" Bruce's expression mirrored surprise. "I didn't know this place doubled as a rehab clinic."
Ken shook his head. "It doesn't," he said. "He's like me, here permanently. That is, if they don't kick him out for bad behavior. Believe me, that one can be a real trial at times."
"I'll bet." Bruce attempted another smile. It was a feeble one. "And you, why are you here? I wasn't kidding when I said you looked a little young for this place."
Ken was quiet a moment before saying, "Well, I'm guessing it's for pretty much the same reasons that you came. My lover died several years ago. I've no relatives, no one left to love or who loves me, and no place to go where I feel at home anymore. Most of my friends have died a while back either from AIDS or old age. The few that still live just drifted away over the years. I hear one even lives with a straight relative who's a homophobe, poor guy. So, not wanting to end up like that, this place seemed like a good alternative."
Bruce gave a slow nod of his head. His eyes held a sympathetic expression as he asked, "And have you adjusted to life here, even though we're in the middle of nowhere and there's no gay life around?"
"Oh, there's plenty of gay life right here at Rainbow, if you want it. Just ask Honker." Ken smiled after saying this. "Then too, there is the one bar in town, and it has male strippers. The Hole-In-One, they call it. We all go there once in a while to see the low hangers and hang one on, just for old time's sake, so to speak."
Bruce sighed. "It all sounds so depressing. Our lives are over. We're all just waiting here to die. How do you make it here under those conditions, Ken?" His voice had taken on an urgent, even pleading tone to it. "How do you get through the days, find the effort just to get up each morning and face it all?"
Again, Ken was silent for a moment. Then he said, "By remembering my lover. That's how I do it, Bruce. I think back on the good times I had with my George. Thirty years we were together, and I remember how each day with him was worthwhile. Good times or bad, it made everything all right. That alone makes me get up, just so I can have those memories. Besides, he's not really gone, anymore than his message to me in the daffodils is."
"Did I hear someone mention daffy dills? Are you a florist, honey, or just into crazy big dicks?" Honker had just returned with a tray of coffee and glazed doughnuts. He laid it on the table with a flourish, as if imitating some waiter in a grand restaurant. Then he took his seat. "You play with posies, do you?" he asked of Bruce. "I've lots of friend, who are florists, they --"
"We're not talking about florists," Ken said, interrupting him. "I was telling him about George and his garden."
"Oh, finally. I thought you'd never talk about your great, lost love. Well, I'm up for a story, even if it is rather early." Honker sat in the chair, crossed his legs, and then folded his hands on the table. He batted eyelids at Ken, giving him an over-the-top expectant look.
"Oh, all right," It sounded more sigh than sentence. Ken reached for a mug of coffee and a doughnut. "But you make one crack, Honker, and I'll clock you one. You got that?"
Honker gave a slight nod of his head and then flashed a small smile.
"Well, as I said, George and I had been together just about thirty years," Ken said, continuing his story. "That's a long time by anyone's standards. We had ten acres back then, and a small house. It was at the front of the property, so our view was all out the back, looking down into a green dale and then across to a hill, and finally up onto a mountain covered in dense woods. Quite beautiful really..."
"George, what are you doing?" Ken's voice rang with exasperation and the effort to be heard. "You know what the doctor said about overexerting yourself. For Christ's sake, can't you ever listen?"
From where he stood on the far side of the dale, across the little stream, George straightened and waved to Ken. He had a big smile on his tanned and lined face. His expression was one of happy innocence, although Ken strongly suspected this was a deliberate ploy. George knew very well that he was supposed to limit his efforts, although he didn't know just how important it was to do so. That fact, Ken, in collaboration with their doctor, had carefully hidden from George. He had less than three months to live. The cancer had spread. It was inoperable. But the chemotherapy had supplied a temporary relief. George was acting like his old self, always out in the garden, digging and hoeing, spraying and planting. He lived in an idyllic respite, a bit of transitory paradise, but one with a terrible price soon to come. And Ken's beloved George had no idea about that. Ken intended to keep it that way as long as possible, to shield his lover from that dreadful knowledge. George would have what time remained to him without worry or fear of what was inevitably to come. Ken would see to it.
Shaking his head, Ken gave up the effort of shouting at his lover and instead walked down the hillside. Gingerly, he stepped through the small stream, cursing under his breath when his left shoe plunged into mud up to the laces. He toiled up the next hillside, making his way through the foot-high grass, wary of snakes that might be hiding there. The day was a sunny one and warm. Although early fall, George had his shirt off. He was glistening with sweat when Ken arrived by his side.
Out of breath and out of shape, Ken puffed as he asked, "What the hell do you think you're playing at? You know what the doctor told you about your recovery. You've got to take it easy, damn it!"
George had the good grace to look sheepish as he said, "I'm just planting a few bulbs, Ken. That's all. It's not hard. I'm just sweating, because it's so hot."
"Yeah, daffodils. Before I'm through, they'll be everywhere. Just wait until spring. It'll be beautiful."
Ken was silent a long moment, working to control his emotions, because he knew his George wouldn't be there come spring. He pretended to survey the area, buying needed time to recover. "That'll be nice," Ken said at last, his voice almost breaking, but not quite. It took a supreme effort of will on his part to avoid that happening. "After the snow, it'll make a nice bright change."
George grinned, blue eyes sparkling. "A promise of new things to come, right?"
Ken managed a nod. Later, seated on a bench in the shade of a red cedar tree, with a weak breeze to cool them, the two talked long about events from their past. It was at Ken's prompting. He'd realized that even after almost thirty years, there were still things about George's childhood or early years that just weren't clear to him. Ken wanted to know all he could, to preserve as much of George and his life in his own memory as possible, to lock him away in his heart for safekeeping always.
"You ever just lie on a hillside and stare up at the sky?" George asked him at one point. "You know, just watch the clouds, and try to make something of their shapes?"
"Not since I was about eight years old."
"Well then, you're overdue. Let's do it."
"What? You mean right now?"
George nodded. "Sure," he said, his tone enthusiastic sounding, "Why not?"
"I'm not so crazy about lying in the grass. It scares me," Ken confessed. "Snakes and stuff hang out in there."
"Oh, come on," George urged him in a soft and cajoling tone. "It'll be fun."
Giving in, Ken followed George to a spot where the grass was reasonably short. (No snakes could sneak up on them there, as George promised him.) Lying on the matted green stuff, they both looked up at the fleecy-white clouds floating by above them. Great towering things, they drifted across the deep blue of the sky, looking like an ancient armada of fluffy ships, their sails filled and flying full.
"You know, when I was a kid," George said, "sometimes when I'd lie on a hillside like this, it was almost as if I could feel the earth moving, rotating with me on it. It was just an illusion, of course, probably caused by the movement of the clouds, but I swear, Ken, that at times it really was as if I could feel the earth spinning, and me with it. I had to spread my arms and legs out to help anchor me, afraid that somehow I'd whirl away off it from the centrifugal force. It was a powerful and wonderful feeling. It was as if I could feel the universe's clockwork mechanisms in motion, as if I was a part of it all."
Ken didn't say anything. He just lay there, staring up at the sky. He tried to feel what George had once felt; a world spinning like a carousel or big beach ball with him on it, little George watching the sky as it rolled by overhead, as if the clouds were just paintings or false images stamped upon an inverted blue and turning bowl.
The sweet grass scented the air with a fresh hay smell as the two lay there. The breeze was cooler and stronger now, ruffling the hair on Ken's arms. The clouds caused shadows to race over the verdant hillsides, changing light greens to dark, engulfing the two of them in their ephemeral shade, that tide of shadows. Then seconds later, Ken and George would be in the autumn's golden sunlight once more, the clouds sweeping on by, deserting them.
Was life like that, Ken wondered -- just a fleeting thing, a mere shadow between bouts of eternal celestial light. It was a nice thought, a soothing one. Later, Ken would remember that day as one of the most relaxed and pleasant he'd ever spent with his lover.
However, their idyll was short-lived, even shorter than Ken and the doctor had hoped. Still, George had several more weeks of relatively pain-free existence, before the rapacious cancer returned with a malicious vengeance. Before its arrival, George spent much of that time planting his seemingly inexhaustible supply of bulbs about the hillside.
Daily, Ken would watch him from the house, as George, stripped to the waist, tanned to a deep mahogany, and gleaming with sweat, toiled away. He moved through the grasses, parting them with a purpose, as Moses might have once parted the Red Sea. George would plant his daffodils and then move on to virgin territory. It made Ken smile to watch him, his own Johnny Appleseed of the daffodils.
"You know," Ken said one night, as the two sat on the back porch, watching a stray cat with its kittens playing in the yard. They called the mother cat Mama Kitty. They'd taken to feeding her when she'd first shown up on their doorstep, fat, waddling, and deeply pregnant. "I'd love to make them all pets, but what with our three indoor cats already, it's just impossible."
"Seven cats would be a bit too much. The neighbors would start calling us the 'crazy old cat couple.'"
Ken chuckled at this, but then his mood turned somber once more. "Still," he said after a long moment of silence, "It hurts not to be able to help them more, the poor little innocents playing here, acting as if they didn't have a care in the world between them. Then all too soon, reality has to intrude. How can you keep them safe from that? How can you protect all the little kittens in the world from that fate when our resources are so limited? There's just too many of them and not enough of us."
As if it heard them and somehow understood, one of the kittens, a little black one, paused in his antics to stare up at them with its black button eyes. For Ken, it seemed to regard them with an implicit look of trust, although that was probably just his imagination, a projection of his own emotional pangs of guilt.
"It's heartbreaking, not being able to help all these little lost souls, to make their lives safe."
George shook his head. "You can't do that, Ken, not for them or anybody else. Besides, who would want a safe life anyway? It would be one devoid of everything -- the good and the bad. No. All you can do is your best; just try to make it a little easier for those we meet along the way, to help them down the path of life. Now cheer up," he ordered. Changing the subject, he added, "Look at that sunset, will you? Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?"
Ken did as told and focused on the setting sun. It was almost gone now, a ball of orange sinking behind the mountain, which was now more a dark silhouette than a thing of substance, or any earthly reality. The sky seemed to catch fire at the very last. It lit up, blazing with one last gasp of incomprehensible and crimson beauty before fading to velvet darkness. Later, Ken realized with a start that George had been the one he'd really been talking about earlier, and not the kittens.
George died less than a month later, his final bout with the dark enemy a quick one, his stolen time too soon over. The only thing Ken could say about that horrible period was that it had been quick, too quick, for it had occurred with a terrible and vicious swiftness, one that left Ken feeling dazed and deserted.
One week, George lay there suffering, large blue eyes staring up at Ken from the hospital bed, seeming to communicate not his resident pain, but his unassailable love, a love that even the cancer couldn't steal from him. It was all Ken could do to stay there, to watch his lover depart under such circumstances, for his grief was so great, so monumental a thing. If he could have torn the universe apart, rend its very fabric to shreds, Ken would have, anything to find that cruel God, to seek out that great coward's hiding place and confront him as to why this terrible necessity had to take place.
At the very end, when George breathed his last, Ken sunk to his knees beside the bed, laid his head on George's now still chest, and sobbed. He stayed that way for a very long time. Afterwards, everything happened for Ken in a gray blur, the funeral arrangements, the funeral itself, and then the going home alone. Ken was numb. He couldn't think or feel for weeks. Everything was just a monochromatic gray for him then, drabbed, and drained of all aspects of life, painted in ashes.
Time dragged relentlessly by and Ken felt no better -- actually worse. He knew that every second, every minute, and every damnable hour removed him further from the time when George had been there with him, alive and happy. It was as if time was building an unassailable wall of moments between them, one through which Ken couldn't break. One day, George was alive. The next, he was dead, buried, and bricked up behind ever-thickening hours of time's steady passage.
Ken knew, too, that being merely human, his vivid memories of his George would fade, shrink, and diminish despite anything he could do to try to stop that corrosive erosion. That which Ken clung to so dearly, was as sand clutched in one's fist while swimming in water. It dribbled away, unstoppable, despite one's best intentions.
So Ken just went through the motions of maintaining the house in a semblance of a livable condition. He went out only when absolutely necessary, talked to no one, and did what he had to do, before rushing back to the house and its emptiness. Ken fed the kittens, now almost grown, but paid no attention to them otherwise. He'd sit for long hours on the back porch, watching the sunsets over the mountain. He'd stay sitting there until long after dark when the brittle stars came out, shining indifferently down upon him, when the autumn's night chill invaded his body, making him feel stiff and tired. When winter set in, he gave up even in that small comfort, that solace of reenacting happier times. Ken lived as a hermit indoors, as the cold weather, with its occasional snows, gripped the surrounding countryside in a chill paralysis.
It wasn't until the following February, on an unseasonably warm day, that Ken once again sat on the porch, rocking with a mechanical rhythm in one of the two rocking chairs. The absence of his lover seated in the other one was too painfully real for him, so Ken avoided looking in that direction, pretending instead that George was also there. Ken gazed out at the far hillside where George used to be. In his mind's eye, he could still picture him there, moving slowly about, bending and stooping, planting his many bulbs, seeming so happy and content. The hill was all brown now, the grasses long-since killed by too many frosts and freezes.
It was then that Ken noticed faint patches of fresh green, almost chartreuse in color, amongst all that brown. The areas appeared as so many pale splotches on the hillside, scattered about, looking like an impressionistic painting, rather than something real. Then it dawned on him; these were George's bulbs sprouting in their multitudes at last. The fruit of his lover's labors was finally appearing. The daffodil bulbs had survived the winter.
As the days went by, Ken spent long periods on the back porch, bundled up against the residual chill of that winter's closing hours, staring at the plants growing like weeds all over the hillside. It was almost as if they formed a pattern of some sort, but Ken couldn't divine what it might be. It was too vague or probably not even there at all. It could just be Ken's imagination, playing tricks because of an emotional wanting or some subconscious need on his part.
Then the plants began to bloom. At first, it was a strewn, random sort of flowering, with patches here and there bursting forth in a buttery-yellow radiance. As more time passed, the slower plants added their color, until at last they were all in bloom, hundreds, and hundreds of sun-golden daffodils nodding their heads to the cold breezes, rippling like waves before that spring wind. Now the pattern was complete. It was real, there for any and all to see. Now Ken knew, as if in an epiphany, what his George had been so intent on accomplishing in those final days, why he had labored so long and hard.
There on the hillside, spanning almost its entire width was a message to Ken from his beloved George. "I Love You," it spelled out in yards-long letters, printed out in the thing that George knew best -- his flowers. And so, he had known he was dying. He had known, and kept it a secret from Ken, not to make things easier for himself, not to live an illusion or lie, but instead to help Ken by playing along with his charade. George had wanted to make things easier for his lover at the last, for the one who faced the awful task of having to go on living alone. George had done his best in those final days to do good for Ken, a last and wonderful message, a living gift from George that transcended that wall of time and misery.
The three at the table were silent a long while after hearing this. Their doughnuts lay untouched, their coffee turning cold in the cups. Tears trickled down Honker's face, glistening silver tracks on hollowed cheeks, a mute testimony to the power of Ken's personal revelation.
Bruce spoke first, his voice sounding suddenly aged, disused. "How could you ever bear to leave that place and come here," he asked. "I couldn't."
Honker nodded. "Are the flowers still there?"
Ken dipped his head in acknowledgement. "They are. And I didn't leave right away. I stayed for several years, and the message grew bigger, brighter, and more wonderful. It kept me going. It gave me the strength to face each day, knowing that his sign to me, his love, would express itself on that hillside each new spring. Without that, I know I would have died."
"Then how could you manage to leave there?" Honker asked. "I'm with Bruce on this one. I couldn't have ever gone away from such a place."
"But the flowers kept growing you see, multiplying. There came a time when the message grew vague, merging into one vast sea of yellow daffodils that covered the whole hillside."
"Oh," Bruce said. "So that's why you finally left. The message was finally lost."
"Oh, no." Ken shook his head. "Not lost, Bruce, merely transformed, and hidden. It's still there, but now only I can see it. What's more, I don't have to be there to see it. It's in here now, at last." He tapped his chest in the area of his heart. "It took a long time to get there, but now it's safe. Nobody can steal it from me. Nobody can take it away, mow it down, or dig it up." Then Ken smiled and added, "So, Bruce, does that answer your question as to how I get through the days, how I survive now in the last part of my life, when most of my options are gone or already played out? That's what you have to find in yourself. It's there you know, if you look for it. And when you do find it, when you get to know and understand the strength it gives to you, you'll find life's not so bad really, not even here, at the very end of the rainbow."