This week’s Fiction Friday is also a Flashback Friday: The first story I had published, in my college journal. It was printed in the fall edition, my junior year, after an editor graciously accepted it on the condition that I cut the original ending. Although some people might be interested in that alternate conclusion, I think it’s removal was ultimately for the best (and I can’t seem to find that old draft anywhere, anyway).
So, without further ado, please enjoy the final draft of “In Bloom.”
It was on that first night in August when Lily Böhn tip-toed across the cobbles of Isola Bella to the Pier in her pink ballet slippers that she heard the gospel truth from Harvey Whittaker.
Wearing a pair of dusty khaki shorts and a bright red tie with his grubby, brown corduroy blazer unraveling at the cuffs, Harvey sat slumped over an empty bowl of Clam Chowder, his hairy legs dangling over the side of the pier. The graying curls on his head were mussed on one side as if he had been sleeping for days, as still as the stones beneath his sixty-eight-year-old bottom. The scruff on his sun-tanned jowls and neck made him look just as disheveled, but his eyes said otherwise. Wooden in color yet very much alert with consciousness, his irises seemed to simultaneously reach deep into some sweet and philosophical spot in a dark corner of his mind and out to the silently exploding colors on the horizon beyond the Borromean Gulf. An almost visibly salty sea breeze snatched away the remnants of the stifling humidity from the afternoon, causing Harvey’s eyelids to close as his chapped lips parted in a toothy smile.
It was in this state that Lily’s virgin feet came to rest gracefully behind him, under the shade of a stone pine tree. The little yellow barrette pinning back Lily’s fair hair stuck out at such an angle that suggested curiosity might get the better of it and cause it to jump right into Harvey’s lap. Still, the lips of both girl and barrette stayed latched as Harvey spoke.
“Sky’s cloudin’ up suh’m beautiful t’night,” he murmured wistfully, imbibing the lingering dregs of light and warmth from the sun. The star of the scene was now setting in a ring of silk-drawn clouds like the eye of a celestial storm. “Is just about time.”
“Time for what?” Lily asked without moving, her voice just far enough above a whisper to be carried to the end of the pier.
“Oh, y’know. Dinner, fer some. Dusk. Th’end of happy hour. Limbo, I s’pose.”
“What’s that?” She asked as if she hadn’t heard.
“I know what limbo is. What I meant was, I don’t understand.”
Lily had moved out of the shadows to sit on the northern edge of the pier, removing her shoes as she spoke.
“Don’ unnerstand what? If y’knows what limbo is, what’s else to make sense?”
“Well it’s after dinner for me, it isn’t even close to dusk and I don’t see any reason why happiness can only last an hour or what limbo has to do with any of it.” She stated these things more as fact than explanation and touched her toes to her little corner of the sea with their thirteen years of wisdom and wear.
“H’ain’t that the truth!” Harvey boomed, shaking into coarse laughter from a smile and a slap on his puddle of a knee. He set the empty bowl on his left, then turned over his right shoulder to survey his company. The knotty muscles in his face contracted and his mustache quivered as he realized Lily’s age. “Now, whatsa child like you doin’ out here so late?”
“I could ask you the same question,” Lily replied, sweeping the blond curtain between Harvey and herself behind her ear. Instead of meeting his gaze, however, she continued to look just north of the fiery glow receding behind the knoll across the bay, where the clouds had cleared and indigo was being gathered to the earth in a shower of stars.
“Well I s’pose you could, but it wu’n’t make much sense since I’m no child!”
“Aren’t you?” This time Lily delivered her response with a curious stare from her grey eyes.
Harvey raised his eyebrows. “Well shoot, I guess I am. Not in the way you might’ve heard though, I’d bet.”
Lily continued to stare but Harvey had turned his back on her and resumed the same paradoxically introspective and outward-reaching expression as before. After pulling her feet out of the water and back onto the pier, Lily gathered the skirt of her lilac dress and stood up. Abandoning her slippers, she painted watery footprints all the way up to where Harvey sat and waited to find the pair of glasses through which he saw the setting sun. Harvey looked up at her and scooted to the right to make a spot for the girl, which she quietly accepted. The two of them looked at each others’ knees, one pair white and nubile, the other dark and arthritic, riddled with traces of varicose veins.
Harvey chuckled. “These bones don’ look too young though, do they?” He turned to Lily as he asked the question but she was squinting out into the ocean again, still trying to see through Harvey-colored lenses.
“Aunt Rhee says you haven’t been back to America in years.”
Harvey’s lips peeled back in a smile. “Oh, well that’s true enough. I don’ suppose your Aunt Rhee’s been back there much ’erself if she been around here long enough to know that.”
“No, she went to see my sister in California last summer,” Lily said, missing the deeper meaning in Harvey’s words. “She said twenty-one was a good age for Ally to bond with her.”
“Ho-ho, well I bet!” Harvey’s rough laughter coursed through the air again. “If ‘bondin’’ means shootin’ the breeze with a bottle-a rum!”
Lily frowned. “Ally doesn’t drink that much. She didn’t even wanna drink when she turned twenty-one, but Aunt Rhee said it’s always good for a special occasion.”
“No, I s’pose your Aunt and sister’d be more the type for a bottle-a Madeira in any case,” Harvey said, ignoring the bulk of Lily’s defense. “But don’t you go gettin’ any ideas now missy.”
“Lily,” she interjected.
“My name’s Lily.”
“Oh, right then, nice to meet you miss Lily. I’m Harvey,” the old man replied, extending his hairy hand.
“I know.” Lily let her delicate white fingers be engulfed by his, twice as fat and not as long as hers.
“Well, alright then!” Harvey exclaimed in mock surprise. Pretending to be offended, he added, “I bet your Aunt ain’t told you everthin’ about me, and she don’ know the half of it either!”
“She says you’re the homeless island hermit.” An impish smirk grew on Lily’s face. She was goading him now, challenging him to disprove her.
“Ha!” Harvey barked, still in good humor. “I s’pose that’s true enough too.”
Lily was slightly disappointed that he had not risen to her bait, allowed them to be equals in the bickering of good friends. Then again, there were hardly any similarities that she could see between an old, homeless hermit bumming around in Italy and an American teenager fated to live with her Aunt for the next five years. Lily liked Italy well enough, but Aunt Rhee was not cut out for raising a two-year-old on her own, much less keeping track of Lily.
Her eyes were positively straining now with the brilliant red light resting on the sea, right at eye level. Lily thought of her sister Ally’s sultry red lipstick and wondered why she had not personally raided her Aunt’s supply already…
“But what was I sayin’ agin?’ Harvey broke into Lily’s daydream of what it would feel like to press the waxy paint to her lips. “Before you introduced yourself.”
The sun returned to its typical shape in Lily’s eyes, no longer resembling Ally’s ruby lips. “That I shouldn’t get any ideas,” she answered.
“Well that was rather dumb of me, wa’n’t it? You get all the ideas you want now, Lily, just take a page out of your sister’s book and go easy on the juice. ’Course you’re’llowed to have fun once in a while, when you’re young, but don’ go gettin’ sloshy every Tuesdee.”
“Oh nevermind,” Harvey said somewhat hastily. “Ignorance is bliss, eh? Or maybe naïve-ety.”
Again, Lily ignored Harvey’s misuse of the English language and said, “Aunt Rhee says that’s not a good saying.”
“Well why—how old is your Aunt Rhee?”
“Ah,” Harvey said knowingly, placing his hands on the pier behind him for back support. “Not too old, not young enough neither, I’d say. She probably feels more strongly about the second part though, eh?”
Lily interrupted Harvey’s chuckle. “I don’t know. She’s old enough to be a mom.” Gita’s fragile face appeared in Lily’s mind. She hoped Aunt Rhee remembered to put her to bed soon…
“Well, havin’ a baby won’ make you a grown-up but raisin’ one will!” Harvey coughed another chuckle and continued: “Growin’ up’s not the hard part though is it, stayin’ young’s the trick.”
“Aunt Rhee says she did.” There was no pause between their statements.
“Had a hard time growing up. Her parents got divorced when she was nine and Uncle Marlo left when she was my age.”
“Is that right? Well—and what IS your age?”
“Thirteen.” She tried to hide the annoyance in her voice at revealing such a signifying trait; age, in her experience, often had the power to change an adult conversation into something much more trivial in an insignificant amount of time.
Harvey whistled, but Lily had nothing to fear of him altering the tone of the conversation. “And your Aunt Rhee lets you out here so late?”
Lily shrugged, pulling the curtain of hair off her ear again. She neatly replaced it and said simply, “She’s fine.”
“Hmm,” Harvey mused, unconvinced. He tilted his heavy head back and eyed Lily skeptically, then found her face contorted in a contemplative frown.
“Why the long face?”
Lily ignored the misuse of the idiom and turned her face to him without meeting his gaze, answering, “What you said about growing up. Ally doesn’t want to pay bills and stuff like that like Aunt Rhee does, but she doesn’t have any problem staying young. She always tells me to be a kid but I don’t see what’s so bad about twenty-one, or sixteen…”
“Ho-ho, well you’ve got a while before that!” Harvey broke in. “Your sister’s right about that, not rushin’ things, but all that logisticals’stuff will come easily enough. She’ll be jus’ fine.” Harvey leaned forward again and rested the palms of his hands on his kneecaps. His arms were a bit short to meet them comfortably, however, so he pulled back a little and scratched at a stain on his right pant leg. The indigo blanket in the north had crept closer to the horizon, and the air was no longer warm enough to tempt teenagers into swimming. Lily waited for Harvey to say more, but when he finally spoke, the words were not what she expected.
Her face looked paler now in the dimming light, soaking up more “cold” colors than warm. “Yeah?”
“What’s your middle name?”
Lily resisted the urge to raise her eyebrows; she wanted to see where he was going without distracting him. “Anne.”
“Lily Anne.” Harvey put a hand on her arm and pushed that mysterious corner of his mind out a little further from his eyes. “Lily Anne, I want you to remember something. When your sister Ally or your Aunt Rhee tells you to act like a grown-up or stop behavin’ like a child, you remember that the only thing wrong with that, being a child, is embarrassing society, and society duh’n’t know you like Ally or Aunt Rhee, and nobody knows you like you do.”
Lily opened her mouth to form a response but nothing came to mind. She shut it, looked back and forth between Harvey’s eyes, searching for the crime society said he committed, and decided to answer his request simply.
Satisfied, Harvey lifted his hand from her arm and replaced it on his thigh, returning to the last purple lip of the sun’s light flowering into dusk.
“Well, I maybe misspoke earlier, but it’s gettin’ on dusk now and I bet your Aunt Rhee would like it better if you were home with her.”
Lily sighed and stood up, careful not to be unladylike with the flipping of her skirt. “Oh, she doesn’t mind. Little Gita gives her enough trouble, and she’s only two.”
Harvey opened his mouth to comment but Lily interrupted him. “Anyway, it was nice to meet you mister…well, what was your last name?”
“Oh we don’ need to be botherin’ with all that,” Harvey said with a shooing-motion of his hand, “but m’Daddy’s name was Whittaker, so I’m Harvey Anton Pearson Quentin Whittaker.”
Lily smiled. “All right, Harvey. Nice to meet you.”
“And you as well, Lily Anne.”
Lily padded back on the now-cold cement to pick up her slippers and hesitated. Harvey’s back was hunched and facing her in the same position she had found him. She thought of calling out to him, wracking her brain for some acceptable means of offering him a place to sleep. Finding none, she turned her back on him as well and retreated past the stone pine tree and away from Isola Bella. The walk to Aunt Rhee’s was short with Harvey’s words still in her mind to accompany her, and soon the little Italian flat greeted her with a warm bed and a view of the stars that transported her into dreams of fire, flowers and feet on a cobblestone pier by the sea.
Copyright © Caitlin Skvorc, 2012; Cait Buxbaum, 2019