Joyland

New York |

The Value of Certain Things

by Sativa January

No peach. Also, no roses. Peach roses reminded Ann of dead people, of her dead grandma. Ann's mother, Mona, was building the bouquets for the wedding. Mona's ‘disease’ would fall away with the clipped blossoms. This would be good for her. ‘Chronic pain’ was just self-flogging anyway, a brittle prison created by guilt. Ann admitted to her fiancée, the best veterinarian in Napa Valley, that if her mom’s florist skills failed to impress his parents—much more classy in their wine country florals than Mona and her bedenimed third husband—it would sting more than anything Mona’s ‘fibromyalgia’ could inflict.

Would you like a loose or a tight bouquet? Mona said, calling one month before The Day.

You can decide, Ann said.

I just want to make sure I give you exactly what you want.

Just what looks good.

Tight or loose then?

Look at some magazines. We’re sage and apricot. Not peach though.

Why not peach?

Because peach is wrong.

Of course. Of course it is.

No roses. Too seventies. Stay away from baby’s breath as well—God, please.

No baby’s breath?

Nobody’s doing baby’s breath anymore.

Ann couldn’t help bringing up embarrassing moments suffered at the hands of her mother. Like her first date with Boris Pinnelli, to which she wore a revolting teal pant suit stitched by Mona. Mona sewed for weeks, but Ann squawked because the legs flared hazardously. Ann was supposed to look curvy, but she was thin, concave and brooding, with chigger-bitten titties. A baggy fuchsia sweatshirt from Macy’s would have at least been respectful. Instead, in groovy lamé, Ann dangled next to Boris like a limp blue shoelace. Mona made an effort. It was just wrong. As wrong as her hair with the hippie center part.

I’m still so sorry about that. I didn’t know disco was out.

You could have paid attention to what other people were doing.

I didn’t care about what people were doing. I’m not a lemming—

Obviously. Obviously you do not care about what people are doing.

I don’t decorate sweatshirts with puffy paint. I’m not that kind of mother, Ann.

Clearly, Mona.

Do you want it loose or tight?

I would like it tight, please.

*

By the age of fifty, Mona understood that her nerves were atrophying. It started with her wrists then moved to her knees in spurts and shots of sparkling pain. She lay awake at night, tears slipping from her eyes, afraid to roll over and cry into her dear husband’s arms for fear of appearing psychotic. The pain invaded, every nook aching more than before, each pore sweating. Doctors didn’t believe her at first, and she visited so many. Where’s the discomfort? They would ask in their white coats, standing stiff. Here. She would tell them. And here. She would show them. But still they stood stiff. They would only stand stiff. And here. She would point to the joint behind her right ear. They would fondle it. She would feel relief. But then, they stood stiffen again, in their very clean white coats. She resigned as director of Cowgirls and Flowers, a high-end floral design boutique and collected disability, but that was a fight too. The government skeptics so rude in their rejections, demanding paperwork and numbers. They said that it was an invisible illness. It bled her.

In the beginning, at her worst, she could not wash her own hair, could not walk, could not wipe her own behind. Her third husband Till loved her enough to perform this last task, and at some point she shamed herself into thanking him. Now, the opiates had relieved her so effectively of her suffering that she could walk, but she slurred her words. Yersweet. She always said. Yersweet. By sixty, as a way to preserve herself, Mona kept her hair long and tinted with henna. The length was to hide a subtle hump that had grown near the top of her back, a symptom of bad posture that also showed on her daughter’s body, but barely. Mona never exercised—group activity chaffed—while her daughter sweat every day, climbing and cycling to fend off impending calcification and the inevitable droop. Ann’s muscles would probably last longer and not sag early like Mona’s in their fragile casings of Irish skin, so freckled and fragile. As a tiny girl, Ann would touch Mona’s moles and recoil, hold up her baby arm to Mona’s maternal one and compare tans. Ann was always darker. Her biological father, a partial Choctaw Indian, gave her melanin. That was all. They named her something odd enough for the time, words that Ann clearly never wanted to repeat—a Greek deity and a kind of gemstone, actually—prompting her to legally change her name when she was twelve and old enough to buy her own factory-inscribed moniker in a signal of relevancy and wear her name on her chest, attaching a small, ceramic heart-shaped pin with the letters A-N-N spelled out in lovely prefabricated italics. Changing her first name was, understandably, the first stomping step Ann made on Mona’s spinning floor of community beds, revolving fathers, and shifting neighborhoods. Despite Mona’s free-living and radical-convention shedding, her daughter told everyone: I am Ann. I am here. Now Ann would change her last name to Cooper. Cooper had a story and proper ideals. To be Cooper was to be healthy, solid, and wise. Scorn the inadequate, this is what they do, those who are well-raised. They have health insurance, dinner at six, and an exacting curfew. There’s recreation for the grandkids in actual backyards, there are smiles and braces for the cracked ones. No doubt, even Mona herself sometimes thought, climbing up to her eco-trailer in the remote northwest Austin hills, becoming a Cooper was really becoming.

Roger’s mom also wants to know what color you are wearing.

How am I supposed to know? Air escaped from Mona’s lungs.

It’s standard for the mother of the bride to tell the mother of the groom what she will be wearing.

I’ll be wearing a dress.

It’s a courtesy.

A fat dress.

So that you don’t cross colors.

How am I supposed to know what color I am wearing and how not to cross it?

Can you just?

I just don’t have those kinds of clothes. Mona fingered her split-ends.

Well, now might be time.

I want to lose twenty pounds anyway and it’s still three months away.

Still three months? Only three months.

That’s exactly what I said. What did I say?

Also the parents of the bride should gift the parents of the groom.

Gift? With what?

It’s etiquette.

Etiquette has never been one of my strong suits.

Clearly. How hard is it to pick a color?

I’ll decide on the day.

*

The week before The Day, sunlight slipped through the northern California trees, shadows of leaves imprinted themselves on black asphalt streets, and a cucumber air breezed through windows. To challenge herself in the wake of nerves, Ann baked her first real cake: Red Velvet. She opened the drawer filled with logs of aluminum foil and pushed around Roger’s grandma’s ancient collection of random kitchen things. She found the eyelet apron that had been left for her. Ann sometimes wore it to parties when some of her more progressive friends began to crochet. She tied the apron around her jeans. This cake will touch Roger’s insides. It will make him soft. Wafts of nutmeg will soothe him like Meemaw's kitchen soothed her. This is a good valley. You could raise a child in Napa Valley. There were proper trees and clean streets, so much better for growing than her own childhood apartments, with Mona and her boyfriends covered in whipped cream, blaring 'number nine, number, nine, number nine' from that Beatles album, sliding naked down hallways like overgrown toddlers with butts and titties flapping—hippies with their multiple partners and abstract art. Ann dripped Red Dye No. 5 into the bowl. As a teenager, sweets were the only things she could wield (in shields of cupcakes and hard candy) to scare the new-agers away. Meemaw’s house felt so much more like a home: banana bread on the stove, tea towels, blueberry pancakes, cabbage and pork chops. Roger agreed that these were values they both shared in common. Ann, I love you, Roger had said when she first moved in, but I don’t do yoga, tofu, or herbs. And fine. Fine. Neither did she. Ann tried hard to toss out the sequined Moroccan sandals she borrowed from Mona her first year in college and the bohemian wrap-around trousers Roger always seemed to enjoy unwrapping. Instead she kept them both hidden in a special drawer next to her horoscope books. The more she shed, the more she clung.

She cracked three eggs on the side of a mixing bowl and pierced her thumb with the shell—fuck, she could never crack an egg without shell bits lodging under her nail. She dumped a full bottle of cinnamon into the batter instead of sprinkling. The recipe said to ‘dust’ the loaf pan. Dust the loaf pan? How was she supposed to know what a loaf pan looked like, and especially how to dust it? She was not a wife yet. And Mona never showed her how to cook. This was her first marriage. Her only marriage. Mona was on her third. Ann preferred to be effectual, and here she was destroying a good kitchen. Ann beat hard at the batter, punched at it with a strange little square rubber spoon, then attacked it with Roger’s electric blender, slinging ropey red dough onto her cheeks and forehead. She would live with Roger in the vineyards, under the sugared air of the grape crush, raise children in the way she knew they needed to be raised: not rushing off to work at some florist shop, leaving her daughter to let herself in after school so independently with a key hanging off a knotted purple necklace of yarn, dodging the dangers that scrambled around corners like daddy long-legs… It’s all over now, Ann said to herself and sucked batter from her fingers.

It’s just beginning, said Roger from the hallway, loping into the kitchen, smiling and blinking with his generous but translucent lashes under the fluorescents. Roger held on to Ann’s shoulders, nosed her forehead and nudged an erection into her belly.

Hmmmm. You smell so old fashioned.

A honk outside. Ann grabbed a gingham tea towel to wipe kitchen goo from her hands. A little silver Mazda hatchback zipped up to the curb. The car smelled of a long summer highway. Ann’s father number three, Till, tall as a tree and grinning, unfolded himself and then held out his hand for Mona to leverage her body out of the car. Ann noticed Mona was not wearing a bra. Not that it was unusual for her boobs to hang. They had hung for Ann’s entire life. There, nipples and all, under whatever material, it didn’t matter, you could always just see the natural jiggle. The years had pulled on these mother’s boobs. Northern California wine country prided itself on its well-groomed, flossed, buffed, and contained women. Mona’s lobules, large soft hips, soft white tennis shoes, and peach sweatshirt, did not correspond. But Mona hugged Roger. Fully and heartily.

We should go inside, Ann said. She grabbed her mother’s suitcase.

Mona held Roger’s jaw in her hands. I see the love in your heart. She squeezed his bearded cheeks. His eyes watered.

Let’s go inside. Ann waved at everyone.

Why should you be embarrassed? Mona said. She shook her head and wobbled up the steps of the home whose basement apartment was reserved, Ann said, for Mona and her medicines, eventually. Ann rushed to ensure that Mona did not have to open the door. Mona let what remained of her khaki teeth show in a smile when she entered and took in the home Roger had provided for her daughter: the berry-colored couch, the cherrywood floors he’d fitted himself, he was proud to say. A lot of work, Mona said gazing at the tall windows, high ceilings and putty-colored walls. Good. He’d take care of Ann in a way she obviously never could.

Till and Roger situated themselves upstairs in the living room facing each other with Till on the couch, Roger on the mod recliner. Mona and Ann crawled down to the basement, where sheets of dust had only recently been removed, but they were removed, Ann had made sure.

So, then. No problems? Ann dragged her mother’s suitcase. Hot whiffs of butter and cocoa blossomed through the house. Perfect timing.

Mona slumped herself onto the bed. Bouncing. Testing. It’s only a bowel thing, she said.

Toxic shock.

I don’t have toxic shock, Ann. But yes, my stomach.

Since high school. Do you realize? Ann felt brave. It’s always been something.

You’re not being fair, Mona said and gathered her hair into a bun, lifting her curls from off her neck, letting oblong sweat stains dry out from her shirt. She held her bun with one hand and fanned herself with the other. Ann could imagine Till and Roger upstairs: Till drilling holes into Roger’s pupils with his goony old-man gaze. Ann unzipped her mother’s luggage. She pulled out old sweaters and folded them on the bureau, seam-side out, the way sweaters were folded at Macy’s, certainly not in the way Mona had ever shown her. Mona winced.

Are you serious?

Ann, I don’t feel good.

How’s your disc?

Spine C6 and C7.

Yeah. Well. You seem to be walking fine.

Mona’s eyes looked cheated.

It’s not that I don’t believe you. I do.

You’re not able to believe me.

Ann noticed a smolder to the air, the dangerous smell of Sandalwood from her mother’s skin, or was it something else?

I just want to make sure that you’re okay. Are you okay?

As okay as I’ll ever be.

I can hire a florist. I don’t want you doing anything you can’t do.

I’m here to do this for you. Mona rubbed the back of her neck. A florist can’t come by tomorrow.

You don’t have to.

Oh, yes. I do. Mona’s voice was onerous.

Through the ceiling above, Ann heard Till shout, and then shrill beeps rang out loud and insistent. The smoke alarm. The cake. Burnt sugar. Roger laughed a loud roar that vibrated through the house, and Ann felt him stomp to the kitchen.

Mom. What do you need?

Mona grimaced, or maybe it was a smile. Do you have buckets?

We can get buckets.

Do you have ice?

We have ice.

Do you have clippers? I need tape.

We can get everything.

Everything will be fine.

Making bouquets could really help your hands.

Ann. Nothing’ll help. Mona rubbed her fingers and exhaled. Let’s go. Can we go? I need to get started. I’m already late.

*

The morning of The Day, Mona sat in a small iron chair at the island kitchen of the Ink House, a tall, yellow, Victorian bed-and-breakfast, with what seemed like acres of blossoms surrounding her. It had been some time since she’d fondled blossoms. Her old florist days seemed so faded. She had secretly tucked away a piece of lace from her mother’s old wedding dress, Ann's Meemaw, and wrapped her red hair in this lace in order to give it some sweat. Just a little sweat. It won’t smell, but the family’s genes, in multiple generations, would be carried into the first few seconds of Ann’s matrimony.

Mona had raised Ann to be independent, to understand without equivocation that marriage was an inculcation ploy devised to ensure that women were disposed of in the halls of irrelevant labor. But somehow, her daughter had still slogged through those meringue-puff dresses to prepare for a ritual designed to siphon off whatever passion was left in a woman’s heart after falling in love and doing laundry and dishes and screwing. Her little traditional daughter had voluntarily wrangled a vintage strapless champagne lace-detailed gown with satin layers, an empire waist, and a retro bustle of antique silk that would fall behind her in a river of what could have been. Mona brought green florist tape with her to Napa, but she forgot her florist clippers. Could she even remember how to wrap stems? Massive piles of flowers had to be arranged, she’d placed them in ice water to prevent wilting. It was about to start. She had only a day and a half. She counted the hours. She counted the flowers and the arrangements. Here she was again, sorting out yet another tradition for her daughter. Why couldn’t they all just pick the damn flowers? When she thought about it, her shoulders ached. How many times had she seen that look in Ann’s face? That downward gaze. Such disappointment, as if she were a neglected child. Every time Mona tried to relax and focus on herself, Ann had come knocking: her bloodied eyeball when she was five, walking in her grandma’s high heels then falling down onto a broken coke bottle; her burnt little fingers from touching the dinner candles; and then the fish tank incident, an explosion of glass that sunk into the backs of Ann’s legs, her back, her waist and the side of her face leaving a flock of awful scars. Mona’s wrists stung, a bright hot burning. She had been high back then. It made everything so much easier.

Winery wives in kitten-heels ran past Mona, distracted. Nobody could find proper shearing clippers. Gripping a pair of inferior scissors, Mona knew it would hurt like hell. Her hands were fragile and damaged. She’d made phone calls, arranged, and then purchased with money from her own meager bank account close to three-hundred-and-fifty single flowers. She couldn’t pay for the entire wedding, of course, but she had to do something. Otherwise, Ann would insist on her inadequacy. She grabbed a handful of shrubbery and dug cuts into the tender green of the stems, they didn’t give, and her hands hollered at her. She squeezed and clamped her teeth down. She groaned out loud. She had taken her meds. Doubled them. After long minutes of severing and sawing on one stem, finally a bloom fell to the table. It was the first of many.

*

Ann always kept her nails short, but on this day she succumbed to a French manicure, with its white plastic tips. The girl from Napa Nails agreed, for an extra fee, to tug and tighten Ann’s bridal corset, a cincher made by hand at the gothic fetish shop in San Francisco, though Ann had requested it be made in pale egg-shell pink. Ann held on to the column of the stairwell and the girl gripped the silk ribbons and jerked. She cinched. Twenty five. Twenty four. Twenty three inches. Pulling. Yanking. Make it super tight.

Till stood with his camera in the back doorway of the Ink House watching. He’d met Mona and Ann so long ago. He wanted to capture a natural look for the photographs, no poses, so that he could frame them later for Mona. Ann braced with her hair pulled tight into an up-swoop of overt curls. Till could almost see through her waist. Mona would want a picture of this, he knew.

Don’t get my face!

I’m not getting your face.

I’m not ready yet! I look ugly right now.

You look like a beauty queen.

Ann slid her eyes over to meet Till’s. He had halfway raised her. He looked tired. How is Mona?

Your mom’s okay.

Does she have everything? More or less. Her hands?

They hurt, Ann.

This’ll help, she said.

Nothing’ll help. She’ll only get worse.

If you let her. She needs to be hard on herself every once in a while. Move around. She has to take initiative. It’s important.

Till’s face grew tight in his sagging skin. He was near seventy. He had loved Mona for more than twenty years. He had met them both when Ann was only fourteen. She had not always been this way, but there was often something.

Understand me. Right here, he said. You need to forget she’s getting better.

She needs to move around, for healing.

This won’t help.

This’ll be good for her.

This’ll exhaust her. Till held on to the camera.

This’ll make her feel better about herself. She needs to accomplish something, rather than just doing whatever she wants. She needs to be disciplined about something.

It’s hurting her hands.

Ann's insides swelled.

Your mother’s not going to improve. They’ve told us. She’s going to get worse, and she’s not going to get better. She wanted to do this for you.

But I know a man whose wife had the same problem and she walked around the block ten minutes a day, every day, and she got better. It just takes a little bit of effort.

You have to accept it, Ann.

I’m getting married. She’s doing my flowers.

This is not going away. It’s going to get worse. Within a month. Or sooner now...

Ann found herself trying to breathe. She always imagined herself spoon-feeding the aging Mona bananas and organic flax seeds, and sneaking marijuana into Mona’s nursing home puddings, making Mona wear old-lady clothes from the Nordstroms outlet, restricting her medicines. She also imagined letting her own voice grow flat on the phone when Mona begged for visits: I’m not that kind of daughter, she would say. Then, despite her squeezing her eyes shut and tilting her chin to the ceiling, she imagined herself rocking a shrunken Mona in her lap, to Dylan or Simon and Garfunkle or the Beatles. Let it be, let it be. She always imagined it would be this way.

Someone should have said something to me.

Till’s eyes widened. Then narrowed. Then closed.

I don’t want her hurting. I’m getting married. I don’t want her hurting.

Till walked away from Ann, the first time he had ever, in his life. He walked down the hallway, and into the kitchen where Mona sat with her scissors in her hand, her tongue digging into her lip, the color of blood pushing against her cheeks, and her hair dampened and darkened with sweat.

The bridal bouquet is on the floor just there, Mona said to Till. It’s cooling on the air conditioner vent, we don’t want it to wilt, and I ordered these flowers here to plump up the front porch arrangements which I’ll need you to help me with because I know Ann will want volume, in order to impress all of the guests you must have volume, it’s the only thing that really matters in the long run, the guests won’t care about what kinds of flowers, just that there are flowers, and many, many, many of them, it’s what everyone will talk about after it’s over, everyone will care about only this—if you can impress with volume, then you’re doing pretty good, in fact, better to have twenty cheap arrangements than a singular expensive one, so I’ve ordered the cheapest flowers as filler, nobody will notice, they were bought to make the most impression with the least amount of money, which is good because the most is what she will want, the most is what everyone else is doing and I figured I could build up and enhance each arrangement with the filler but then bring in all these substantial lilies as signature flowers where the eyes rest, where the people will gaze as they wait, flowers that say ‘I am here, I am everything, look only at me, look only at my perfectly built petals, look only at my preserved blossoms, look only at how I haven’t wilted yet, how I’m here where I am supposed to be, and exactly how I’m supposed to be, because certain things matter.’

And here Till knew that the slurring had been cured by multiple doses. And this was okay. At least for today, it was okay.

*

After pacing in the waiting area and coiffed already for an hour, Ann emerged from behind the trees in her vintage strapless gown with its champagne-hued satin layers positioned over the corset tugged tight, tight, tight by the girl from Napa Nails. She tiptoed into the front yard of the yellow Victorian where the new proper family who she’d be spending the rest of her life with stood in anticipation of her arrival. Grasping Till's left arm she walked down the gravel of the front path by a fountain where—joyous day—there lay a single stargazer lily. She held her chin high to make the rising and falling of her chest less noticeable when she saw the guests, the garden, and Roger standing there with a stretched smile, shiny cheeks, hands clasped behind his back, and a bud on his lapel. There were hundreds of peach roses above him and around him, peach roses above and around everyone. Peach and peach and peach along the front steps and behind the guests and in between the wooden chairs and over the tulle canopies. Peach in a blanket so complete that Ann sucked in half her breath—shallow under the pressure of the whalebone corset—to protect her from that final collision between what she wanted, what she needed, and what she knew, soon, she would have to endure.