Midsummer was a time of challenges, as one recovers from a fire. The trash and broken glass, bits of fallen engineering all needed picked up out of the ashes- which needed tilled into the soil, which needed turned and composted, which meant new tools…
… which meant needing more money and more work put in the flower shop, waiting for people to suddenly need flowers for any reason in the slow and lazy month of July.
And each challenge sprang forth a new one like Athena from Zeus’s forehead- armed and ready to fight and/or weave a tapestry. One such challenge was-
Lou mumbled it, but it came out like a growl.
The Mid-Mountain Wedding Expo was not going well for him. He’d tried to get out of it this year since he’d already suffered a handful of big losses- namely his main flower supply becoming the victim of an unfortunate fire- but the hotel wouldn’t take his deposit back.
“No refunds,” he said, just after cursing Pam’s name, then cursing Pam’s name again.
His booth was embarrassingly bare: a few books showing examples of his floral work from weddings past and a couple hastily put together bouquets that made him feel shame in his own work, a handful of business cards. That was it. All the fancy tablecloths in the world couldn’t cover up the fact that he had next to nothing to show for.
He mumbled something about refunds again. “Pam.”
“Who’s Pam,” Reuben asked, shoving a piece of cake in his mouth. “He’s been grumbling through the gap in the curtains since we got here.”
“Rival flower shop,” Jane said, flipping through a bridal magazine. She paused, studied an ad for a bridal gown, and then tore it out with a disapproving face. “Pam and Lou’s mom have been at it since before he was born.”
“Well, I think it started with the Great Carnation Altercation of ‘82 when they both entered a flower design contest to see who was the best.”
“Well, who won?”
“It was a tie.” The way she said it seemed uncertain, as if ‘tie; was a placeholder for something much more complex. The statement ended in a question mark, possibly.
“So they’re equally good?”
Jane peered over her glossy magazine, the eyes of a blue-eyed model from a perfume ad creating a funhouse mirror as the page folded backwards. “Herrenville has this thing in their by-laws where if you wanted to settle a score with someone you would issue a Challenge, which has to be held publicly." She began counting off items on her fingers, letting the page flip backwards and breaking the mirror illusion. "So then there was the Bloom Brawl of ‘89, where Pam won on a technicality; the Freesia Fracas of ‘91, where his mom won but everyone says she cheated; and the Chrysanthemum Conflict of ‘93, where Pam literally threw a punch and knocked Rhonda’s jaw so hard she went into labor. And that’s the story of how Hayden was born.”
“Then what? You ran out of alliterative puns on War of the Roses?”
“Just going out on a limb here- you’ve never had to raise two boys and run a business at the same time.”
“Oh man, how’d you know?”
“Point is, the rivalry runs deep and he hates her.”
Reuben glanced at the gap, spying an arch covered in pink roses and some… green thing, and a line of girls in their twenties appraising bouquets for selfies under the arch. She did have an impressive setup- he had to give her that. But then- there wasn’t much to compete with. Sometimes, a man’s work actually doesn’t speak for itself.
“Want me to beat her up?”
“I mean… what is she- 80?”
“You’d beat up a senior citizen?”
“She’s not a senior citizen yet.”
Jane sighed and ripped up another page in her magazine, doubting that Reuben even knew how to throw a punch.
In truth, Reuben Weller had thrown exactly one punch in his entire life and, much to his surprise, it actually did result in more than one broken bone. Unfortunately, all those bones were his. This was how he learned that the thumb goes on the outside of the fist.
“Where did you get the mini eclair,” he asked, spying her plate of free samples.
She checked a business card. “Connie’s Cozy Confections, booth 74.”
He leaned over the edge of the table, spying on the eclairs and considering all the damage he could do in the course of the next few hours.“Wanna pretend we’re a couple so you can chat her up while I steal her food?”
They had crammed themselves into Lou’s comically small sedan and driven three hours to Allentown to stand for eight hours and watch Lou slowly become more irate as people overlooked the empty booth. They could have taken the company van and written off the mileage as a business expense, given that ‘Rhodes Roses’ was plastered along the side and back like a warning sign, but Lou seemed very dodgy about the entire idea. It was time to make the most of their trip.
Jane put down her magazine and glanced at her emptying paper plate. “You bet I do.”
Connie’s Cozy Confections was, in fact, very cozy. Her 10x10 booth was bedecked in a pseudo-Norwegian aesthetic that evoked a sense of eternal Christmas. A funny aspect of modern wedding shows is that the concept of a June Bride was only scarcely relevant, leaving vendors to scramble in hopes of hitting the jackpot on the next trending month. Connie was hoping for winter weddings.
Icing doesn’t melt for winter weddings.
However, it did melt under the hot lights of the convention center, and her otherwise perfect pearl-dusted rosettes were looking… somewhat obscene. To hide this, she rotated the cake so that the offending flower with its single edible pearl in what used to be the center was facing the back of the booth. She repeated this every time they melted, until the third tier was lined with anatomy.
In retrospect, perhaps buttercream wasn’t the most inspired of choices.
Connie made a point of standing between the worst offender on the cake when the little blonde from before returned with someone that… well… he just seemed wrong for her.
Well, she seemed happy at least- she was hanging all over him. Perhaps she was drunk?
“Connie, Miss Connie- we’re back!”
“Oh, glad to see you! I see you brought a friend.”
“Connie, this is my fiancé Ben. Say hi, Benny.”
“Oh congratulations! When’s the big day?”
“September 21st,” Ben said.
“So soon? And you haven’t decided on a cake yet?”
“September 21st of NEXT year,” the woman said. “You’ll have to excuse him- he gets ahead of himself. That’s why I do all the planning.”
“That’s quite the undertaking, Miss…”
“You’re sure you don’t want to go with a planner? There’s quite a few vending here today.”
“I think I can handle a little party planning. I was on the Homecoming Committee. But enough of that: we’re here to talk cake. Me and Benny L O V E your eclairs and we were planning on having a donut bar.”
“Oh, how T R E N D Y,”’ Connie said, picking up on the motif of spelling things out for emphasis.
“It’s not just a trend! Me and Benny met at a donut shop!”
“You don’t say!”
“Oh yeah, absolutely. I was traveling cross-country to find my birth parents’ grave.”
“Yes- I know. And it was late one night on my way from Columbus to Pittsburgh and all I wanted was some coffee and a jelly donut. I pulled off the side of the highway to a place called Maeve’s Hole-in-the-Nut and the place was just opening up for the morning and who do I see but Benny manning jelly injector. So I sat down and he fixed me a coffee, I started talkin’ about my life and he and I hit it off. Lo and behold, I fell in love with my barista!”
“Baristo,” Ben corrected from the other side of the cake. At what point in the conversation he migrated there, Connie was unsure.
“Three weeks later, he proposed,” Jennifer said, flashing a shiny ring for only a second. “But you know, we’re taking it slow. So I found out- my parents aren’t dead at ALL and I have eight brothers. Can you believe it?”
“... eight,” Connie asked, beginning to see dollar signs.
“And of course each of them has at least three kids of their own, plus the cousins- big Catholic family. Then there’s the mom that raised me and the girls from the orphanage… so we’re looking at a pretty modest guestlist of about four-hundred, give or take another fifty.”
“So I guess my question is- would it be at all possible to make an entire cake, and I’m talkin’ four tiers, out of eclairs with gold and maroon marbled icing? That’s our colors, see. Turns out his high school colors were the same color as the charity that ran our orphanage: Saint Edward the Confessor’s Hope for Tomorrow Fund? Turns out he bought a Lamborghini with all the charity money, but at least he confessed, am I right?”
“I… guess… so?”
“That’s great, because we will D E F I N I T E L Y use you come September. That’s N E X T September and not this one. I’ll just grab your business card right here,” Jennifer said, holding it with both hands. “And I will give you a call when we have firmer numbers, okay? Fantastic to meet you, Benny’s off getting lost again. Ciao!”
Jennifer took her leave in the opposite direction after her barista fiance, leaving Cozy Connie looking bewildered while she counted the cost of a 400-person wedding plus setup, delivery, and other specialty fees.
“Four-hundred and fifty,” she said to herself. She was so fixated on the number that the spelling bee bride gave her that she didn’t even notice that the tray of eclairs was empty.
The back end of the 80 block had the unfortunate happenstance of several no-shows and was mostly barren apart from two DJ’s that were dueling for dominance of the back row. This could have been an opportunity to turn the entire block into a mash-up, if the DJ’s were skilled enough to do so. The unfortunate fact of it was that they weren’t, and the result was country versus pop punk as the clash of the genres went mostly unnoticed because one officiant present had the foresight to hand out sets of earplugs with her phone number on them as swag.
“How many did you get,” Jane asked when they were safely behind the curtain of an unoccupied booth.
Reuben opened the canvas bag that he’d taken from a catering company. “Twenty… six.”
“Nice haul. Where did you get the box that they’re in?”
“Tupperware vendor. Where’d you get the ring?”
“I always carry a ring so people don’t hit on me in bars. I got it in one of those egg things at the grocery store.”
“Does it ever work?”
She made a measuring motion with her hands. “No, but it leaves a mark when I have to punch the idiots that can’t keep their hands to themselves. Sometimes you just wanna have a beer, you know?”
Reuben held a small moment of silence while he considered the bag full of eclairs. “You make a decent grifter,” he said.
“Pfft,” she said dismissively, digging through her purse. “Duh.”
“I’m serious. I thought the orphan talk was a little ham-handed, but the eight brothers hook kept her busy. Inspired.”
“Means a lot, coming from a scammer like you.”
“Scammer? Excuse me,” Reuben said, putting his hand to his chest in mock shock. “Scammers make phone calls about your vehicle’s extended warranty. I am a con artist.” He watched her fuss with her makeup in a tiny compact mirror. “What are you doing?”
“Contouring. How do you feel about sausage?”
“I got eyes on that charcuterie board in block 70. Think you can pull off a Russian accent?”
“Da,” Reuben said.
“Great. You were my lover lost at sea," she explained while blending her cheekbones in. "I thought you were dead, but you were captured by Russian intel because they thought you were a spy, where they detained you for three years. Upon your escape, you went into hiding and assumed the identity of a beet farmer in the Ukraine until the US Embassy could clear your name. We met through our high school Latin Club. Our colors are Tangerine and Moth Gray. We’re getting married in May. How’s my contour?”
She looked him square in the face and it was like he was looking at a complete stranger. “How do you even do that?”
“I watched a makeup tutorial for drag kings.” She stood and offered the crook of her elbow. “Ready to go, my love?”
“Da,” he said again, taking her by the arm.
This, of course, escalated.
By the time they circled back to block 40, not counting numerous trips to drop off their ill-gotten gains amounting to four full complementary totes and one fanny pack of unknown origin, their arms were tired. As they would be from carrying twelve mini bundt cakes, two whole summer sausages, twenty tubes of chapstick, thirteen chocolate-dipped strawberries, seven assorted blocks of cheeses, one half of a pizza, an assortment of mix tapes, a tray of swedish meatballs, two-hundred twenty-eight pens of various custom print origins, a mysterious number of dog treats, two jars of body scrub, sixteen ounces of Pennsylvania Amish honey, and a bag of chips… plus quite a few things that were not accounted for.
They were on-schedule to settle back into their sad little booth when they came upon a familiar arch festooned with flowers. Even from this side of the curtain, Reuben could hear it: low and quiet-
You’d only see Lou’s eye peering through the backdrop if you knew it was there, and now both Reuben and Jane were trying not to look.
“How about we switch gears to espionage,” he suggested. “I wanna find out more about Lou’s competition.”
“What’s to know? They’ve got chips on their shoulders over business shit.”
“You don’t get anywhere by looking at your competition from a distance. You’ve got to read their business cards and copy their ideas.”
He sized up Pam, who was busy glowing over a couple taking pictures under the arch, proudly displaying a bouquet of calla lilies. “I think… apathetic bride and groomzilla- keep it simple. I’ll do the talking, you’re there to make me look legitimate. Look hungover.”
She dug through her swag bag and produced a pair of cheap sunglasses from a DJ’s booth and an etched brandy snifter from a vendor doing custom monograms. “Got it,” she said, filling it with water.
“Excellent, let’s go check this lady out.”
The arch was, of course, the main attraction of the booth and there was a line for it. But Pam appeared to have ideas and visions about how flowers should be and it was not limited to bouquets and arches. Centerpieces were arranged from tall to short, corsages in every color, something that Jane called a ‘teardrop swag’- to the point that it seemed that there was no actual table and only an entire rainbow of flowers.
Reuben didn’t know much about flowers, but he did know that an amount of perishables like this was not cheap. Pam definitely had money, and she was keen to show it off.
The first point to take was that Lou was an incredibly modest person, and modesty did not operate well in a business based in aesthetics. The simple answer was that he needed more flowers- which he realized immediately was also a problem.
Actually, there were too many flowers. There were so many flowers that he couldn’t really see them all- he seemed to go a little cross-eyed trying to tell where one piece ended and the other began.
Pam was still busy with a couple and Jane was doing an excellent job of looking bored. Of course, until she saw the fish.
“Is that a fucking betta fish in that bowl?” She dropped her apathetic cover for a moment to gawk at the little red fish, looking criminally cramped in the little centerpiece bowl topped with draping greens and succulents.
“Holy shit, you can do that?”
“Obviously, you can. But I guess the question is whether you should.”
“Why?” Reuben cut in front of her to stand in between her and Pam’s line of sight.
“Because you’re not supposed to keep them in places that small. It stresses them out. And the top of it’s covered, so there’s no airflow. This thing ain’t gonna live to see the trip home.”
“So? It’s a fish.”
Jane judged the size of her glass and the glass bowl on the table. “Betcha can’t grab it with your hands.”
He squinted. “Really? The fish?”
“Bet I can.”
“Bet I can.”
Reuben held a stare for about three and a half seconds before scooting the loomi dish to the side and plunging his hand into the fist-sized bowl. The fish struggled to find a place to go, finding that the hand of this strange giant had filled just about every corner of his home. He went on the attack, flaring his fins in intimidation and lunging at the fingers.
All of which was fruitless- Reuben’s hand closed in around him and he was pulled from the water, gasping in the open elements. The thing wriggled in his palm and gave him the feeling like it might crawl up his arm if it had the wherewithal to evolve legs.
In a fit of disgust, Reuben threw the fish into the air and watched it arc through space and land loftily in Jane’s brandy snifter, already filled with drinking water as though she’d anticipated his reaction. The fish thrashed in his new surroundings for a moment, unsure of this strange sea before settling into an irate flared shape.
“Sorry, I’ll be with you in just a minute,” Pam said noncommittally, and Reuben pivoted tightly on his heel and put both hands behind his back to wipe the feeling of sliminess from his palms with his sleeve.
“Well, how-dee,” he said with energy, as soon as she’d turned back around to address the strange new customer hiding behind her centerpieces. Evidently in the process of deciding on a persona, Reuben had defaulted to the kind which greets people with ‘howdy.’ “Was just admirin’ your flowers here. Gotta say, these peonies sure are pretty!”
Pam eyed the hydrangea he was pointing to and chose not to correct him. “Well, I do put forth my very best. Flowers are my passion, you see.”
“I do see that. Now, you know I love these peonies, but can you possibly get them in blue?”
“That’s fantastic! You’re the only florist I’ve talked to who can get peonies in blue. It’s our colors, you know: blue and black. It’s a combination of our favorite colors.” He leaned in close. “Mine’s the blue,” he said, pointing to his uninterested fiancée holding a very large wine glass close to herself and staring off in the distance.
“I had a guess. So tell me about your wedding.”
“Well,” he said pensively. “We’re planning an October wedding- Marla LOVES the fall, don’t you honey?” Marla sighed and looked twenty feet away. “And no more than one hundred guests, so five centerpieces.”
“You’re having twenty people to a table?”
“We both come from very thin families.”
Pam looked past her rail-thin customer to his bride and her squatness, and chose to believe him. “I see.”
“And we’re just looking for something very simple, but the bridal bouquet really needs to be somethin’. I want this to be the piece day resistance- I want people to be talking about Marla’s bouquet for the next five years. What’s the one that hangs down?”
“I need it to cascade to her knees. She’s got this boat-neck dress that you would not believe and she needs to be the star of the show. What’s that gonna set me back?”
“Something that long would be about $500.”
Reuben felt like his heart was going to stop. Even if it was a fake appraisal for a fake wedding with a fake bouquet, five-hundred was a lot of fake dollars to pay for fake flowers. “What if we made that $150?”
Pam took one of the less popular examples from her display, which was a very simple nosegay made of roses. “This is our smallest.”
“And… that’s what I can get for $150?” Pam shook her head and mouthed the word ‘no.’ “Okay. We can allot more for the bouquet- the budget is pretty flexible.”
“Tell me about your venue. What kind of space am I working with?”
“We will be getting married at St Peter’s Catholic in Herrenville,” he said, proudly remembering that there was a St Peter’s Catholic in Herrenville. “There’s an aisle about-”
“I’m going to stop you right there,” Pam said, holding up her hand. “We’re discontinuing our service to the Herrenville area as of next week.”
This was the fastest he had ever uncovered something through corporate espionage that was actually useful. Usually it takes a week of installing secret cameras at the pawn shop across the street and hiring a local kid to try to hock a fake emerald to see if he calls the cops or not. He tented his fingers at his nose and tried to hide his surprise.
“I’m sorry, did you say you would no longer be servicing Herrenville as of next week? I thought you were based out of there?”
“I’m expanding,” she said, seeming rather disinterested in this conversation now that there wasn’t a guaranteed sale out of it. “Since I have three stores now and two of them are down the mountain, that first one just isn’t up to the task as the others. It was a terribly hard decision, don’t get me wrong. Herrenville is my home and I have many friends there. But it’s no place for a business to grow.”
“That’s incredibly disappointing, isn’t it Honey?”
Marla sighed and looked in the direction of something undefined in the distance. “Disappointing,” she said.
“So disappointing. Well, the venue’s already booked- is there a florist you might suggest instead?”
Pam gave this question quite a sizeable think. She shot a look at a pair of curtains across the hall, where a slight motion caught her eye. Whatever had been there was gone now, she turned back towards her former customer. “I hear the grocery store does weddings. Best of luck to the both of you,” she said, turning back to the growing line of brides to be and leaving the two of them and their fish to deal with their problem on their own.
“We have to tell Lou,” he told Jane when they were a safe distance away. “He is gonna love this.”
“I think we should wait,” Jane said. “He’s having a bad day.”
“Which means he needs to hear it!”
She pulled him off to the side, they were becoming close enough to Lou’s booth that he might overhear what they were saying. They hid behind a caterer’s stand-up menu. “Do not tell him this while he’s in the same room with her.”
Reuben, having trouble understanding the demand, punctuated his question with his hands. “Why?”
“He. Will. Gloat.”
Reuben leaned to look past the menu at the tiny gap where he could see Lou’s bored and permanently sad face four booths down. “Are we talking about the same guy? I mean, I saw him apologize to a moth yesterday.”
“Reuben, listen to me. This is two generations of petty Yelp reviews, cheap shots in ads, sabotaged truck deliveries, a murder accusation, and countless cheating. You cannot expect him to be the bigger man when he’s managed to stay out of it this whole time.”
“... did you say ‘murder accusation?’”
“Do. Not. Tell. Him.”
Reuben took a deep breath and put his hands up in front of him. “Okay. I won’t tell him. But only because I care.”
“Pfft. Do not,” she said, leading the way back to the booth.
Lou had decided that the very last hour of the bridal show was a good time to give up and had taken a seat in one of the uncomfortable chairs provided by the event center with his head down and scrolling through his phone. He scarcely moved a muscle when they returned with their final bag of stuff and slowly settling betta fish.
“Seems like y’all had a good time,” he said. “What have you been up to in the past four hours?”
“Networking,” Reuben said immediately. “Getting your name out there so they’ll come to your booth and all.”
Lou checked the time on his phone and looked up. “Didn’t work.” He squinted. “Why do you look different?”
Jane unpacked a facial wipe and began removing her contour. Reuben had forgotten that she had covered up his goatee with foundation and given him a believable moustache when they were trying to pilfer a quantity of gummy bears as the Accountant and the Plus-Sized Model. They met on the job, and their colors were gambouge and vermillion: two colors that Reuben had to look up to decide that he hated. He smudged the makeup off his face with a napkin from one of the bags. “Wanted to try out what a moustache would look like.” It wasn’t coming off.
“Not for me.” Reuben started working towards the mass of bags in the corner of the booth. “Well, there’s not much time left in the show, we should get this packed up and put in the car.”
It was at this point that Lou really took a look at all their goods. “Where… did all this come from?”
“They were free,” Jane said, packing one up under her arm.
“That’s an entire 2-liter of ginger ale.”
“And it was free.”
Lou looked at the bags, the smudge of eyeliner on his face, the expertly disappeared contour on Jane’s, back to the bags, and then at the way attendees simply walked past them in the aisle. “There’s a cooler in the backseat for the sausage and cheese.”
Reuben nodded, knowing he’d come around eventually. He grabbed two bags at once for maximum efficiency and began the trek to Lou’s sedan for the three-hour return.
“Wait,” Lou said, holding up a hand. “Leave the muenster.”
Reuben went fishing through one bag of goods before landing on a wedge of cheese. “I thought you were vegetarian.”
“Muenster is vegetarian.”
“Yes,” Lou said, picking off a chunk.
“Learn something new every day.” Reuben said with a shrug. He and Jane took their loot and left him alone once again.
He began the arduous task of clearing up his 10x10 booth: stacking all the signs and cards back together in their little boxes, brushing crumbs off the tablecloth. He handed his sad sample bouquet off to a passing bride, who blushed pinkly and asked for his card.
He smelled it on the wind before he even saw her. Stargazer lilies. The bitch could always get them out of season for damn cheap and she never let anyone forget it. “Pam,” he said under his breath.
“Hello, Lou,” she said sweetly. “How’s your mother?”
“Still in a coma,” he said bitterly. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“Just stopping by to say hello… and good-bye, I suppose.”
“Well… bye, then.”
Pam seemed confused. “I’m sorry, I thought they’d told you.”
“Who told me what?”
“Your spies. The one with the moustache and the little blonde one with the pointy chin.”
He righted a stack of rack cards. “Not ringing any bells.”
“Then I guess it’s down to me to tell you that I’m moving out of Herrenville.”
For the first time in the conversation, Lou looked her in the face. “Repeat that again?”
“The only reason I was even staying in Herrenville was to spite your mother and well… she’s d-”
“In a coma,” he corrected before she could say it.
“... so you see, there’s nothing really keeping me there. The place is a dump.”
“You watch your mouth.”
“I’ve eaten cups of yogurt with more culture in them and you know it.”
“Why are you telling me this? You could just quietly move away and let me find out for myself.”
“To brag. I’m moving away from that garbage pile of a town and I bequeath my crown to you, the new trash king. I hope you enjoy your reign- you’re going to be stuck there for the rest of your life.” She turned on her heel and waved a beauty queen’s wave.
They were entirely loaded up, the spoils of their grift taking up significantly more space in the trunk than the materials they’d come with. Reuben took the back seat of the car, putting his feet up on the seat next to him and already raiding the bags, Jane poking directions back home into her phone when Lou climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Fish,” he said.
“Fish,” he said, pointing to the glass between Jane’s legs.
"Isn't he pretty?"
"No, I mean… why is there a fish in a wine glass?"
"It’s actually a brandy snifter," Reuben claimed from the backseat.
"Same question, but with that."
"She won it in a game. Some kind of themed wedding concept where they set your party up like a carnival. They had one of those toss games with ping pong balls," Reuben explained. "You'd hate it. Lots of clowns."
Lou was starting to feel like he was being conned, but it was too late to back out of it. "Why does it have the letter 'T' monogrammed on it?"
"Because his name is Tyrone," Jane said matter-of-factly.
It was at this point that Lou chose to ignore all of the obvious lies and moved on with his life, turning the keys and starting the engine. He let it idle for a moment, contemplating something deep. "Anyone else want waffles?"
It was August 28th of 1989 and the people of Herrenville were itching for another showdown at the town square. The stands were set up, the buckets were lined up by the bronze statue of James Jay Herren, the judges had a table off to the side, and a food stand was selling funnel cakes for 50 cents each. The Herrenville Standing Band had prepared a few songs to play between challenges and all attendees were advised to bring a covered dish to the potluck.
But there was more at stake today than Nadine and her Brown Betty recipe. Rhonda Rhodes and Pam Kelton were at it again to see who would win in a battle of the best floral designer in town. The first incarnation of this competition was a whirlwind of a gathering and though no one could… quite remember what had happened, the people of Herrenville were thirsty for more.
And the feud would provide. And this time, the town decided to make a day of it.
The crowd was ushered to the stands to a chorus of "The Saints Go Marching In," the small brass band with one lone accordion finally getting the hang of the tempo around the third verse. Very few of the people filing in for this challenge gave two split hairs about the art of floristry, but every townsperson had a vested interest in something to break up a dull summer. Free food had much to do with it.
"Ladies and gentlemen of Herrenville," announced Mayor Normand Bessett, looking especially sharp for the occasion in a cleanly pressed brown suit. "Welcome to the Bloom Brawl: second of its kind. We are here to witness a feud to be settled: two amazing florists of unmatched skill-" a dismissive sound could be heard off-mic, but from which corner of the stage it was unclear. "-to compete in a juried competition of design. Introducing your contestants, please come on stage- Pamela Kelton of Pam's Posies." A round of applause percussed from the stands as a woman in her early thirties sashayed onto the stage.
"And Rhonda Rhodes of Rhodes Roses." It was clear who the crowd favorite was by the diminished clapping. One man from the audience, carrying a two year old with already wild hair on his shoulders, clapped loud enough for the rest of them.
"That’s the love of my life," he said, sustaining applause long after the crowd quieted. The child waved in a post-nap stupor, in the way that toddlers with limited motor control wave by making a grabbing motion in the air.
Rhonda, with her hair wrapped tightly in a green silk scarf, hardly acknowledged her two adoring fans. Instead, she kept her eyes on her opponent in case she tried something funny like last time.
"The competition will be judged by our qualified panel of experts: Arla Pendergast of the Herrenville Historical Museum, Chelsea Kitterow of the Walnut Street Gallery, and Walter Walters of Walter's Classic Bakery." A round of applause grew, and it dawned on Mr Walters that he should put down his pumpkin pie. "I will now pass the mic to Mrs Pendergast to explain the judging process," Mayor Bessett stepped away from the stand and gave the stage to a silver-haired woman in a magenta pantsuit carrying a clipboard.
The speakers rang a feedback frequency, causing several children to wail in response. The wild-haired boy covered his ears. "Thank you, Mr Bessett. As you all know, this year is Herrenville's bicentennial and our contestants will be celebrating the birth of our town by creating a flower sculpture that encapsulates an event in our town's history. Contestants will have one hour to build a scene of their choosing using the flowers provided by the Peace Lake Botanical Gardens," she motioned widely to the buckets now being filled with an array of flowers from a white box truck. "Engineering may consist of floral foam, wire mesh, wood, tape, paddle wire, and pins. Entries will be judged on overall design, structural integrity, and adherence to the theme."
Mrs Pendergast adjusted her glasses and checked her clipboard to see if she forgot anything. "Winner of the challenge will be given a feature in the Herrenville Times and a spot in the museum. While the competition is ongoing, please enjoy the festivities."
She turned around, where the two women were stationed behind tables braced for the starting whistle. Putting the whistle to her lips, she shot a stern look towards Rhonda and an even sterner look towards Pam. A sharp inhale, a sharper screech from the whistle, and the Great Bloom Brawl of 1989 had begun!
Pam began with a sheet of chicken wire, forming an armature from its matrix into something rising from the work station about two feet and curving inward. She selected an array of flowers, picking from the buckets hues in blue, green, and purple.
Rhonda, on the other side of the stage, appeared to choose a much more understated approach: collecting a variety of mosses and stones and only white carnations. Rather than building a tall piece, she opted for a long, thin bar of chicken wire, four feet long by one foot wide.
It was the collective opinion of the onlookers that while the main feature of these events was interesting in a quaint sort of way, the actual role of spectator in regards to floristry was quite dull. The crowd began to thin out after minute 10 in favor of the potluck.
And though the love of Rhonda’s life was dedicated to watching every second of it, the toddler on his shoulders was unable to resist the siren song of the buffet table. He squirmed uncomfortably on his father's shoulders and made struggling noises to see if he would respond. However, Ollie Vollinger was so engrossed in watching his wife compete on stage that he was oblivious to his son's desire for pie.
"There’s the little squirt," said a jovial voice. A man in uniform arrived, bearing a baggie of baby carrots for the boy. "How's my favorite nephew?"
"Ain't you supposed to be on duty, Mike?"
Mike took a look at the stands, slowly emptying towards the buffet of various casseroles. "Well, I bet if I did a headcount, I'd see everyone present and accounted for."
"Well, what if you missed somebody and they commit a crime?"
"Then… we'll know who's guilty because they weren't at the party."
"What if there's a bear?"
"Ollie, can't I just say hi?"
"I mean, sure you can say it."
This was met with a sort of bewildered silence. Mike took a look at the puff-haired child on his brother's shoulders. "I think this kid's gonna need more than some carrots to tide him over. How about I take him over for some of Ms. Gail's famous jambalaya?"
Ollie gently pried the toddler from his shoulders. "Sure man, I don't want to miss a second of this."
Mike took the kid into his arms and handed him another baby carrot, which he gnawed on with tiny teeth. "Let's go get you some real food, Lou," he said, whisking his nephew off to the grand potluck.
The line was already thinning out and someone had made off with an entire rack of ribs, but Mike took two plates just the same. After exposing Lou to a spoonful of the jambalaya and watching his face wrinkle like a prune at the smell of it, it was decidedly kinder to fill his plate with a sampling of beanie-weenies, macaroni and cheese, some apple slices, peanut butter, and a single chicken nugget dipped in homemade ketchup. (The contribution to the potluck wasn't the chicken nuggets so much as the ketchup, but bringing a whole bowl of ketchup with nothing to dip it in would have been weird, according to its contributor.)
Mike had filled his own plate so high that it was hard to tell one food item from the next. After learning that balancing two plates and a toddler was a talent reserved for experienced mothers, he set Lou down and they sat at the picnic table.
They sat in silence for a moment, watching the progression of floral design in a passive sort of way. Pam had laid a mountain of flowers in cool colors, working upwards with great calculation. Rhonda was hand-wiring and hand-taping an entire pile of white carnations. It wasn’t easy to see what, exactly, the two of them were making, but it was certainly part of the magic to see the parts become whole.
"I know this means nothing to you," Mike said to the toddler. "But I really am sorry about how I treated your mother through this whole thing. I was just doing my job, you know? It's my business to be in everyone's business."
Lou looked up at his uncle and chewed a hot dog loudly. He could have been listening, or he could have been wondering what the funny mouth noises coming from Uncle Mike were. Strong evidence indicated the latter- particularly the way he started scraping the bottom of his plate with the plastic fork.
"But your mother… now she is just weird," Mike continued. "She don't talk to nobody, she don't go to church, I don't think I've ever seen the woman sleep. Not that I really watch people sleepin' but you know what I'm sayin', right?"
Lou looked up at him with big, adoring eyes, and took a bite out of his macaroni.
"Right! And isn't it strange that no one remembers the last flower competition? I mean… I was there. I watched the whole thing. But I couldn't tell you who won- no one can agree. Strikes me very odd. You weren't born yet, so you wouldn't know."
Lou thrust out his arm in response and pointed at something on the other side of the lawn. "Duck," he yelled.
Mike swiveled around to the scene of one mother duck leading a line of five brown ducklings towards the pond in the middle of the park. "You wanna go feed the ducks?"
"Duck," he said again, more excitedly.
Mike stood and took Lou’s plate from him, wiping off a bunch of untouched grapes. "Let's go feed the ducks."
The race continued as the sun settled along the treeline. The crowd of people returned to the stands, anticipating the big reveal of the floral masterpieces. The final touches were added to the sculpture behind opaque barriers. Mrs Pendergast was micromanaging her watch with the whistle impatient between her lips. The second hand ticked stiffly towards twelve and an ear-shattering screech signaled the end of the competition.
"Put down your knives," she said into the microphone. "Let's give them both a round of applause," she suggested, as the brass-and-single-accordion band struck up another round of 'Seventy-six Trombones.' "Thank you, thank you. Contestants may step away from their staging area and submit a brief description of their inspiration."
The two of them scribbled something vague on a note card and handed them to Mrs Pendergast to read out loud.
"We will start with Mrs Kelton," she said. Pam began to roll away the barrier between her sculpture and the audience. "Pam’s submission is a realistic sculpture commemorating the discovery of Peace Falls: an important moment in our town's history as the clear water would supply James Herren with enough potable water to cross the Appalachias, before disappearing into the wilderness, never to be seen again."
The crowd peered in a silence caused by both awe and preoccupation with chewing. Pam had constructed a replica of their beloved landmark in only flowers: banks made of moss, trees made of bells of Ireland, a cascade of delphinium and wisteria falling into a pool of blue hydrangeas. A slow, respectful applause trickled in as the onlookers seemed unsure of the proper way to congratulate a person on their masterpiece.
"Thank you, Pam. And now for our second contestant, Mrs Rhodes."
Rhonda rolled the plaque away before she could begin the description. Where Pam's was an impressive sculpture, Rhonda’s was a striking statement: rows upon rows of single white carnations standing straight up, their heads peeking out over moss and stones.
"Rhonda’s submission is a memorial for the… oh," Mrs Pendergast said, stopping short of the full explanation to see the piece itself. She paused, reading Rhonda’s handwriting to make sure she was seeing correctly, and ripped the index card in half, then in half again. "I must remind the contestant that the theme requirements suggest that the events depicted must be true and not fabrications or rumors. The winner of the Bloom Brawl is Pam Kelton!"
The band joined a round of "Hello Goodbye" as the photographer from the newspaper fluttered a series of shots of the winner with her creation, hoping to get one of the loser's expression in the background.
Hours later, the photographer would wonder in disappointment why Rhonda looked so damn smug.
The fish had his own shiny red bar stool at the diner. "I'm not leaving Tyrone in the car, it's like 90 degrees out there," Jane said. And- "he can't sit on the table where the waitress might accidentally throw him out." And- "besides, he's family."
So Tyrone the ill-gotten betta fish got his own seat at the table, earning a few questionable looks from other Allentown tourists who assumed that everyone at the diner was a local. There was also the four bags of freebies that they didn't want to melt… which seemed normal compared to the fish.
"Clowns didn't give you any food for the fish," Lou said, shaking his head. "That’s just like a clown."
Reuben had been waiting hours to tell Lou the good news and it had been eating at him that he couldn't. "Well, we're out of the parking lot," he said. "Lou, I am about to make your day. Your worst enemy is leaving town!"
"Norm Bessett Sr is finally moving to Hilton Head like he's been threatening to do for twenty years?"
Reuben squinted. "No. Pam’s Posies is moving."
"Oh yeah, I know. That's why I got waffles."
Reuben watched the waitress arrive with their order, staring at him as she set down plate after plate of breakfast foods. "Are waffles vegetarian?"
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I thought everyone knew waffles were-"
"About Pam! Why didn't you say anything about Pam? I worked hard to get that intel and it feels like you didn't even appreciate it!"
Lou sighed, putting down his fork. "She called me trash," he said. "She called my town trash. I don't think you'd understand since you're… y'know… "
"Since I'm what?"
"Since you're not… from here. You don't have the same sense of… community that we do."
Reuben nearly jumped in to defend himself, but soon realized that even trying to lie would have been pretty fruitless. "Okay, but in my defense- your town is really weird and it smells funny."
"He's got a point, you know," Jane interrupted with a mouth full of sausage.
"Who," they asked in unison.
"Both of y’all. Reuben sucks at giving a crap about anyone, but also Herrenville has a cult and smells like an oil spill." She shrugged. "Facts."
After a moment of silence for their pride, the two of them nodded and resumed their all-day breakfast. But there was something about the diner that sent shivers up Reuben’s spine, as if a shadow had fallen over the entire building and unseen eyes were watching.
"So what's the plan now," he asked, trying to shake the feeling with the subject of business. "Get back to town and steal Pam's clients? I'm thinking a total rebranding campaign to show that you're young and hip as a foil. Give yourself a fake French name and just call yourself that from now on- you're artsy, people just accept that kind of shit when you're artsy-"
"We still don't have any flowers," Lou interrupted.
Reuben put his hands up to signify that he was thinking. "...okay so I'm thinking minimalism…"
"You're gonna want to see if her wholesaler will take your account now," Jane said.
"I hate talking to Florian," he said. "He always makes me feel stupid."
"She had to get those cutthroat prices from somewhere and you don't have a garden anymore, so…"
He shrugged. "I guess so. But man… she was so mean to-"
"YOU," accused a strange woman in a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey. There was a mania in her eyes that suggested she'd seen something she wasn't supposed to.
"Oh here we go," Lou said. Jane scooched Tyrone closer to her in a protective gesture.
"You, who do not see the power that lies within you. You, who do not believe in what you may become. You who do not understand the deepness of your soul. You cannot run from your-"
"Do you mind," Lou said, indicating his half-eaten waffles. "I'm trying to have a business lunch."
The strange woman blinked at his refusal of her message, appeared to awaken as if from a dream, and wandered back to her similarly-clad husband at their booth.
Reuben watched her sleepwalk back into something of a dazed stupor. "...huh. You’re not going to listen to that? Seemed important."
"It’s just something that happens from time to time. Sometimes I go into a room and a psychic goes into a weird fit. I figure it just happens to everyone.”
Reuben had a sudden mental image of Lou being present at a psychics convention, but he couldn't decide if it was funnier if they all started prophesying or if none of them did.
Perhaps he was coming around in his skepticism, although he wasn't entirely sure his brush with deity wasn't some kind of mass hallucination or… something. He hadn't worked out the science and he wasn't going to ask Lou any questions out of fear that it might trigger another episode. So his stance on the matter of Godhood stood at a firm and immovable 'eh,' until further notice.
But while he didn't know anything about this nonsense, he had at least read enough Shakespeare and Shakespeare parody to know an ominous prophecy when he saw one. And he knew that ignoring a prophecy was how the hero dies in the end.
Which meant it was down to him to find out what weird shit was coming at them next.
The husband was carefully asking if his wife was okay, but she still seemed to be of a twilight mind, drifting a little and trying to shake herself awake.
"Excuse me," Reuben said. The two of them looked at him, the woman seeming to have trouble holding any sort of attention. "Sorry about him, he's had a bad day. Would you mind… repeating what you were about to tell him?"
The woman in the Penguins jersey dozed quietly for a moment until her husband shook her shoulder gently. "Honey," he said softly.
She woke up, in the way that someone who is not fully asleep awakes from thoughtless daydreams. "Sorry, babe- I was miles away." She turned to Reuben with eyes full of purpose. "I'd like to order the All-American breakfast with rootin'-tootin'-fresh-and-fruitin' pancakes with a side of honey butter and your bottomless coffee, please."