It was Lena’s idea to go out on the roof. She wanted to bottle the wind. She said she had bottled it when fall was switching to winter; now that winter was changing to spring, she wanted to do so again. I went along with her even though as far as I could tell, winter wasn’t going anywhere. It was early March and the ground was covered in a hard pack of snow stained brown with mud and grey with exhaust, like ice cream cake. I couldn’t remember a day I hadn’t had to wear my coat. Georgia said the light was late to change this year; like the sun was still in hibernation.
But I was bored of fighting with fourth graders for rights to the slim sledding hill and of helping Lena make potions that invariably smelled of things and people I’d have rather avoided: our boggy English readers, the inchworm Scottie McLaren kept in his pocket, Mrs. Meltzer, the mummified librarian. The roof, at least, was new, and when I inched out onto it, I felt more alive than I had in months.
“We have to go up to the ridgeline,” Lena piped up, but it took her longer to scale the six or so feet of incline. I put one leg on either side of the ridge, like the roof was my placid pony. The wind whipped and I opened my mouth to catch it. I tasted wet earth as well as ice. Lena was right about the seasons changing. She was panting when she hoisted herself up beside me, and her face was pinched from effort.
She handed me a mason jar and told me to hold it into the wind. I felt foolish, and slightly unsteady, but in seconds it was over, and Lena was rescrewing the caps on the jars.
When she told me we could go back inside, I found myself protesting.
“We only just got up here.”
“We have what we came for.”
“No. You have what you came for.”
Lena looked up from her jar, surprised. She was nearly two years older and tenfold bossier than I; I had never spoken to her in this way and it intrigued rather than irritated her.
“What did you come for?”
“To fly.” (The first thing that came to my head, but it was true.)
Lena’s face lit up.
“You can fly?”
I shrugged. I had been flying in my dreams for almost a year. Always at night, amongst stars that were not much bigger than they seemed on land. In my cupped hands, they jittered and glowed like fireflies. Now the stars were hidden, all but the faint sun, and the sun didn’t seem like it’d take kindly to being captured. But maybe that was just appearances. “Oh, that’s just appearances,” was something I’d hear Georgia say on the phone, laughing the laugh that meant she didn’t really find it funny.
I spidered to the edge of the roof and looked down, into the clutch of azaleas Lena had grown herself, from seeds. It had seemed to me magic, far more improbable than flying.
“You’re not going to fall on my azaleas, are you?” came Lena’s worried voice from behind me. I shook my head, but what did I know? In my dreams, there was never any gearing up to fly: I just flew.
“I think I need to stand.” Lena’s house was not that tall, and there would be limited time for me to switch from falling to flying. If I jumped from a stand, it would easy to clear the azaleas, if nothing else.
“If you say so,” Lena whispered. I could tell she was starting to wonder if she should talk me out of this. But she was the tough one, the brave one. If I wasn’t going to backpedal, then neither was she.
I got to my feet and turned them inwards for balance. The wind buffeted my back, causing my blue coat to billow like a cape. In my dreams, apart from the hands that clasped the fireflies, I hadn’t had a body at all. Maybe that was the trick to flying: weightlessness.
“Hey—” Lena began, reaching out to grab my leg. I jerked it free and leapt.
People say that time is not itself in our integral moments: weddings and births flip by, cars spin in slow motion, bullets full-stop above our hearts long enough for us to watch our highlight reels. As I flew, I felt myself sandwiched like icing between the snow and the sky, and there wasn’t really any time at all; I had always and never been sandwiched there. Georgia appeared right before I hurtled into the top of an apple tree. She wasn’t dressed like an angel or anything: she was wearing her Saturday hostess clothes, leopard-print dress and slasher heels. She didn’t speak, just gave me one of her classic Georgia pouts, but the dancing kind, not the angry kind. I reached out to her and then I was being pummeled by hundreds of tiny, icy branches.
I hung in the tree, still as an icicle, until the sound of Lena’s shouts punctured my daze. When I dropped down from the lowest branch, she was there waiting, hair ablaze, eyes starry.
“You weren’t lying,” she whooped. The apple tree was at least twenty feet from the house.
New York, 2010
The flower shop on Bleecker Street was profuse with choices. Violets. Iris. Unsurprising roses in ballet colors – parchment, milk, blush. Surprising ranunculus, tight rolls of tangerine and blood-orange. Clouds of baby’s breath. The vivid scarlet cockscomb of celosia. Tim was bored, but I felt punch-drunk, and Emmy, in her stroller, gazed rapt at this new and variegated universe.
“Did I ever tell you the greenhouse I had when I was a kid? It was so lush, Tim. It was really something.”
Tim shook his head.
“I’ve never heard you use that word before. ‘Lush,’” he said. He was half elsewhere, sleepy off fancy pancakes, and dulled by my impending departure.
“Check the database,” I ordered. “If it’s not there, add it. When she was fifteen, Lynn had a greenhouse and she loved it more than anything in the world.”
“I’ll add it,” Tim promised, though surely he’d forget.
The flower shop was also a café, and thick with people curled into small tables. I inhaled deeply, wanting to capture the spicy-sweet flowers and fresh, hot coffee and hold them with me always. The line to pay was long, and I pretended to consider my selection as I waited. People dithered. What to get for a dinner party, a host, a visiting in-law, a lover returning from a year of teaching English in Osaka. When my turn came, I chose swiftly, plucking stems from clear glass vases. White, green, purple, blue. The counterman was young, and kind, or just grateful for my efficiency. He smiled me, wryly, as if we were in on something, he and I against the unsure world.
Back on the sidewalk, Tim reached out for the bouquet. He could stash it in the stroller pocket he said, but I refused. The bouquet was a patch of medieval beauty within the warm fall day, and I wanted to revel in it while I could.
It’s not easy to run out of a TV studio; there are fucking PAs and security detail and managers and publicists everywhere. But I shoved blindly, and hard until I was standing alone among the tourists and suits traversing the wide-winged grey divots of Rockefeller Plaza. They all seemed to have a place to go, but I did not.
I could feel my phone buzzing like a hornet in the depths of my bag and hear the tinny counterpoint of Mozart’s 41. At least in one respect, my public apology had succeeded: my mother had broken her two month silence. But why hadn’t I been able to bring to it the same vehemence I brought to my defense of using real semen in Crepuscular Baby, of deconstructing Chanel No. 9 — each and every aldehyde, brought to its knees! — and refashioning it as a frothy, eighties bouffant for You Would Cry Too? Why had I abruptly abandoned the apology to tell Olivia Lee, Rise and Shine’s longtime — and still elegant–host that she was a ‘tasteless teat-sucker?’ And why, why, why had I dumped my still-hot coffee onto Olivia’s pristine ombre bob?
Because this time, there was nothing to defend, and I have never been good at real apologies.
I didn’t dare jump in a cab, not with the sidewalks belching burnt nuts and every third pedestrian trailing sulphur. No doubt the cab would turn into a cavernous circus peanut, my least favorite smell of all. I watched a tall man in a bright red bomber jacket spring across the plaza and disappear through a swinging door beside a flickering yellow sign. The Hornet. I had never been in a bar before — well, maybe I had, but not in Rockefeller Center and not alone and never to actually drink anything.
If I were to make a perfume called No Time Like the Present, it would contain that thoughtlessly rushing plaza and the quiet, wood-paneled sports bar and the drink, bright blue in its belled jar, the bartender handed me.
“It’s called A Look on the Bright Side,” he said, but it was all bright sides.
No Time Like the Present would end with newspaper, slightly inky from condensation and porky at the corners from where the bartender had flipped it while he finished his breakfast sandwich. It would end there because after, there wasn’t any present, there was only past, reconstructed for the future. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“PILOT FELLED BY PLASTIC BAG.”
Fat white caps across a black page, leaving just enough room for the subject. The pilot in question looked suitably determined, and determinedly plain: a square blue suit, starry shoulders, a snub nose poking like a hitchhiker from a wide spans of beige face. Her hair, or what I could see of it beneath her cap, was also beige, though that could have been the pixelation. Only her eyes jumped out at me; they were the light, white-green of long-frozen ponds and they were fixed straight on the camera.
The pilot’s name was Lynn Groot, but when I knew her, she was Lynn Clougherie. Clougherie after her mother; her father laid no claim to her.
I pushed away my Look at the Bright Side without drinking it and ran to the bodega next-door, where I bought a copy of the Post and eight unripe persimmons and read the rest of the story right there on the sidewalk, letting the wind whip the paper’s irrelevant guts across the street.
I was three when my family moved next door to the Clougheries: Georgia, young and dramatically, insolently beautiful, and her baby, Lynn, who even at a year resembled a gargoyle: sloop-shouldered and solid as a boulder, with batwinged ears Georgia taped back until they stayed that way.
I was five and chatty as a magpie when Georgia, yelling of a headache, picked me up from the cavernous couch where Lynn and I were watching Animal Planet and deposited me on my own front stoop. I clung to her neck not out of fear but out of delirium: she emanated a balmy, forest floor scent, rain-damp and heavy with ursine heat.When asked, she, untwining the last of my fingers, said it was a hangover, kid. But later forays into her room revealed the true answer: a ruby-red bottle of Maroussia. Lynn was only three; she could only watch through her hands as I uncorked the gem-like stopper and inhaled again and again, until I was high and flying through some Slavic, nightless taiga.
I was seven pushing eight and Lynn a quiet kindergartener when I made my first perfume in her kitchen. She had found five dollars on the street (or so she said), and gone all by herself to the Cumberland Farms to buy ingredients. But she had forgotten the vanilla.
“It’s not important,” I assured her. Oh irony! Oh luck that Lynn knew better. There was an unopened bottle of vanilla in my own kitchen; when I opened it, I forgot all about the cookies.
I was eleven, and Lynn, nine, when Georgia moved to the east side of Hamlet, closer to the old Beddington mill where, as third and fourth and fifth graders, we had stamped paper towels with rose buds and stems and covered our ears against the clatter of empty looms. Was it because of the move that we had drifted apart? Or was it due to My Mother’s Jacket, the perfume that launched my career and changed — for the better but also, in ways that became apparent only over time — my life?
Now I was thirty one and she, twenty nine, and I was, or had been, the best nose in the world, and she was, or had been one of the best fighter pilots in Iraq. After high school, I had made a beeline for New York, but Lynn had gone to the Air Force Academy, college and bootcamp rolled into one. Five years of special ops in the Middle East, another two with an elite squad called the Thunderbirds, and then back to the Middle East again, after her daughter was born.
To me, my own path seemed preordained, but Lynn’s did not square with the girl I remembered, who had learned to make my mother’s twice-boiled mint tea and helped me pluck juniper berries off discarded holiday wreaths. “The earth is for the meek, Lenu,” my mother might say. But the woman in the photo was unflinching as steel.
I finished the article as I was climbing the stairs to my apartment. Lynn’s body had been found the day before, on the kitchen floor of the apartment she shared with her husband and daughter on the Upper West Side. Her husband’s name was Tim. I didn’t know Tim. The last time I’d seen Lynn, she’d been with someone else, a boy I knew only by scent.
It was Tim who had found Lynn. Cause of death: acute asphyxiation. In the dumpster, police had uncovered a Chinese takeout bag that contained strands of her hair and smudges of lipstick.
The Post had spoken with Lynn’s wing commander, who said she was “the smartest pilot on this base, and I’d bet one of the best in the whole theatre.” A screen grab from a video of the 2009 Thunderbirds performing at a Veteran’s day parade in Daytona accompanied the pull quote. Online, I found the actual video quickly, and hurried back to my apartment to watch it. The video opened with Lynn and her five compatriots knifing down a runway and shooting like a single firework into the sky, soaring and soaring and then breaking apart in glorious, attenuated arcs. Lynn’s jet was easy to spot, because it was the only one that was upside down.
I remember being six and sitting quietly in the well of my mother’s lap, watching Tara Lipinski skate for the gold in Nagano. At one point in the free-skate program, my father commented that Lipinski moved like a starling; you could almost see the feathers growing out of her hands. My mother disagreed. It was Lipinski’s compatriot, Michelle Kwan, who soared over the ice, Kwan who was effortless. The effort raged from Lipinsky; it was evident in the clash of her skates against the ice, in the lines – taut, straining – her body made as it battled the air.
“So it is Kwan who will win, do you think?” my father asked, and my mother answered him harshly.
To my mother, the effort itself was what made the performance.
Lynn Groot was encased in metal, a dark triangle I could squeeze between my fingers, and yet, watching her fly stirred the same tension I’d felt watching Lipinski land a triple Salchow. I was keenly aware of both her desire to rise up and the earth’s desire to bring her down, and the grappling between these two forces — the effort it implied – was what riveted me. When Lynn spiraled towards the earth, I held my breath almost without realizing; I gasped when she pulled out flat.
When the video finished, I played it again, and again, until the little jets’ white tails clustered across my red walls and fuzzed behind my eyes. Each time I watched, I forgot I knew Lynn; it was only in the lag between plays that I remembered. The gulf was mesmerizing, bewitching. She had transformed herself; it wasn’t just appearances. But how, and why? By the third or fourth replay, I knew, with electrifying certainty, that Lynn would anchor my next perfume.
To say I was in need of a new perfume, a “real winner,” in the words of my accountant, would be an understatement. And I am not known for understatements. The last I’d checked, the House of Abramahim’s most recent effort, Delilah, had sold under one thousand bottles. Well under. The Subway Series hadn’t been pilloried the way Delilah had — I hadn’t been compelled to apologize to some daytime talk show host for it — but it had barely broken three thousand bottles. Crepuscular Baby had done okay — the semen controversy helped — but the star ingredient was surprisingly expensive, and finicky to work with, and the asphalt I’d insisted on for the bottles had cost four times as much as glass. I hadn’t had a “real winner” since The Morning After the Morning After Christmas.
The previous Monday, my accountant summoned me to lunch to tell me, over $72.50-worth of smoked sturgeon and lox, that I had just over a month of runway left. No more loans — that runway was a loan, for chrissake. A loan whose interest alone outweighed current revenues.
“At the very least, you need to make an immediate reduction in force,” he said, but he knew as well as I did that apart from my mother, there wasn’t any force left to reduce. He waited for me to respond while I tested whether I could lift one bare thigh from the leatherette booth without making a sound. (After two minutes: no.)
“I’ll think of something,” I said, at last.
“Hail Marys only happen in movies,” he said, but I knew that wasn’t true, even if right then, it was hard to believe it.
Now I was tempted to call him back. Do you know what a hail mary smells like? But first, I needed to find that out for myself.
Modern perfumes have three stages, or notes. The top note comes first; it’s what comes barreling out of the atomizer, grabbing your hand or pulling your hair or sneaking into the back of your throat. Eucalyptus! Whee! Marigold! Sneeze! Pineapple! Bite me!
Anywhere from twenty to forty-five minutes later, after you’ve left Sephora and are three forks into an over-dressed Caesar salad, the middle note, the heart note, kicks in. This will be something softer than the top note, but factors more complex: a citrus or a powdery floral, like rose or geranium (oh, geranium!), or an earthy herb like sage or a bright one like bergamot. And then it’s midnight and instead of turning into a pumpkin, you become a Janus, deep and playfully multi-faceted: stewed fruit with a hint of ammonia (cassis), wet stream beds and clean grandmothers (lily of the valley), a shoreline scattered with a few dead horseshoe crab (ultrazur). Actually, the base note isn’t two-faced; it’s three-faced. The third face being your own body, the unique effects of its chemicals and pheromones.
The obvious way to arrange Lynn’s perfume would be to put her death in the top note, her adult life in the middle note, and her origins in the base note. And yet, I hesitated. There was such a wide gulf between the beginning, or what I knew of it, and the end. Lynn Clougherie was quiet and dun as a field mouse, smelling, as mice do, of hidden away snacks and a persistent, low-level must. Lynn Groot was dropping bombs over Afghanistan three weeks after giving birth. One of the best in the whole theatre. Lynn Clougherie went squeaky white around the edges when Georgia came home early. Lynn Groot carved double wheelies above a great roaring crowd of the sort of people I assumed might also go to the Indy 500.
The gulf called to me, but I had no sense of its parameters. It was not at all unlikely that what I was calling the beginning — Lynn in Georgia’s kitchen, helping me seap birch bark and reduce lemon juice — was in fact closer to the middle. At least with the end, the facts were concrete, if sparse. I could fill them in without worrying about the vacillations of memory.
I turned back to the paper. Lynn on the kitchen floor, running out of breath. The Upper West Side. What a boring neighborhood for scents! Oh but the park. Psh. The park was the least interesting part. Humans were what made a place interesting.
If I kept it scoped to the kitchen, then. What else was in it? She’d been found on Monday evening: perhaps there were remnants of lunch still on the table, the baby’s puree-streaked tray in the sink. And if she’d died before lunchtime? Toast crusts? Bits of rubbery egg? Did she still love Frosted Flakes above all other food?
What about the baby? Where was she when all this was happening? In her crib? In her room? Surely the killer hadn’t left her to crawl around the apartment. I reread the article again, but the only mention of the baby came in the “survived bys.” Along with her husband, Captain Groot is survived by her daughter, Emmaline, and her mother, Georgia Clougherie. I checked AM New York and the Daily News and neither of them mentioned Emmaline, but towards the bottom of the Daily News report, I found something else that made me shiver all over. When she was found, Lynn was holding a bouquet. A bouquet! Like she was all ready for her funeral.
But what was in the bouquet? The detail was too specific to picture in abstract. I sent two emails, one to the Post reporter who’d broken the story, and another to my contact at the 44th Precinct. (My nose can distinguish hot dog water that’s one day old from the bungier two and three-day stuff, and it can ferret out a faux-mink from a fox-posing-as-mink from the real deal in microseconds, but it can’t cut through four solid feet of stone. Cops can, and there are always a few who are happy to spill — for a fee.)
A persimmon escaped the bag, which had bloused unattractively across my counter. I slid the remaining persimmons into a bowl and slipped the bag over my head. It blanketed all but the basest shapes of my kitchen, the lip of my counter, the light of my stove. The plastic drifted on my exhales and collapsed on my inhales. I tied the handles loosely and the plastic flocked closer, adhering to my nose and then my mouth. Did I feel light-headed? I decided I did not. There was still plenty of air swirling about. I tied the handles tighter, until the plastic stretched across the bridge of my nose and up along my cheeks. Moisture accrued quickly. I breathed slowly. The bag grew purple spots. I shut them but the spots remained, thickened into caterpillars. With trembling hands, I clawed a hole.
There was a point: you could only die in a plastic bag if you couldn’t claw your way out. The Post had made no mention of Lynn’s hands being bound, but at some point, they must have been. And then unbound, and wrapped around the flowers. I checked my email. Nothing from the reporter, but the cop had sent me a one line response. “62nd’s processing her.” And then, as I was replying, another: “Once Upon a Vine.”
The Doc calls me “The God of Small Things,” because it’s the small things I notice. With Lynn Groot, I noticed her baby first, because it was tucked into a cheap plastic stroller, one of those collapsible deals that are all but banned around these parts. (I’ve got nothing against infant safety, or whatever, but from a business standpoint, I prefer the shitty strollers, because they’re less likely to jostle the vases.) Baby Groot wore a hand-knit stocking cap the color of new pumpkin, and black tufts of her hair pronged out of the gaps in the yarn. Mr. Groot had similarly dark hair and unflattering rimless glasses. He looked like someone who would keep using a candy bar cell phone just for the holster. Mrs. Groot, on the other hand – I mean, I’m looking at this through the shining prism of hindsight, but if you’d asked me to guess her profession in that moment, I’d have gone with either military or cop or the part of the FBI that does take-downs. She strode with a restrained bounce, like she’d rather be running. Her face, too, was restrained, with the set jaw and blank eyes of someone whom outside forces had compelled to cut an argument short. What else? She was white – they both were. She had the kind of hair I believe is called “dishwater.” Together, they were a couple whose power dynamic was immediately apparent, I guess is what I’m saying.
The Groots arrived during the mid-afternoon rush – between two and three, the coffee line often grows enough to double in on itself. I remember looking up to see Lynn Groot pacing around the gladiolas and feeling anxious, because Rally had gone down to the basement to throw a few mugs, and I wasn’t going to be able to help her for another few minutes.
It ended up fine. (In the context of the visit, I mean. Obviously it did not end up fine for Lynn.) The coffee line dispersed and I went to help Lynn and she stopped pacing and told me what she wanted. She was brisk, but polite. In several instances, she reached into this or that vase herself, and this too she did with polite briskness, so that none of the other flowers were disturbed. She watched me wrap the finished bouquet intently (like most of my female customers, she probably didn’t trust a young/black/male/quasi-hipster not to quash the buds). “No need,” she blurted, as I went to stamp the butcher paper. I think her husband attempted to pay and she said “no need,” again. She paid in cash, I believe. If anything, the time was the only thing that stood out — the entire transaction took about a minute, roughly a quarter of what the average custom bouquet transaction takes.
“I’d imagine she could make up her mind pretty quick, her being military and all,” the male detective offered, more to his partner than to me. He was the tan kind of Asian, Filipino, if I were to guess, and fat enough to be a hindrance, but his partner was hot in the no-nonsense, Ireland-via-Southside way of TV cops: the kind of hot that would chew you out and then bang you in the storage closet.
The two detectives had arrived roughly half an hour earlier. Initially, I’d been relieved that she would be doing the grilling while he dusted for fingerprints and roused customers and manhandled my forsythias, but twenty minutes in, I was beginning to worry about the proportion of questions that focused not on the Groots’ visit but on the semi-deus ex machinic path that led me from directing high-concept documentaries through tweaking septuagenarian backhands and scoping the wallpapered bedrooms of their pill-popping granddaughters, to here, a West Village flower shop. “Am I a suspect or something?” I wanted to ask, but didn’t, in case the question made me one.
At long last, after a piling on of requests that I reach out if I happened to remember anything else, and a further piling of assurances that they’d be in touch either way, the two detectives departed, leaving a quiet, rustling unease in their wake.
Rally, appearing out of nowhere, slicked in clay, dropped down beside me as I was cleaning up a second dropped coffee pot.
“Shit, Stacy. You want to take the rest of the day off? I can cover for you.” Normally Rally’s voice is deadpan, fried as a small-town waitress caricature, but today it was straight, smooth as milk.
I shrugged her off. The cops were just doing their job. It would have been worse if they hadn’t come.
“Not for you.”
“Rally–” I was about to tell her to go back down to the basement, throw a couple mugs. We were what? Twelve behind? But she leaned in.
“You see that girl over there by the asters? She’s been here at least an hour. Since before I went down.”
I nodded. I had noticed the girl during the interrogation. She’d been at a table then, writing in a bottle green notebook. She wore a black satin dress with voluminous sleeves that hung down from the table like a cloth. Her bare legs were the color of dried pasta, and pasta-like in the way they crossed twice, at the thigh and calf. You aren’t supposed to sit at one of the tables if you aren’t having a coffee, and she was not. It had rankled me, a little bit, not for the money but for the asymmetry: five of the blue metal tables had one or two orange coffee cups; hers had none. And now she was literally pawing at the asters. I watched in disbelief as she plucked a petal and crumbled it beneath her fingers and then raised it to her nose and recoiled, as if it were roadkill.
“He loves you not?” I asked, approaching her from behind. She turned around, slowly, with an expression like a Murray Hill girl come to reclaim the wallet she’d left in the bar the night before: entitlement grown fully over the place embarrassment was meant to occupy. But I forgot my annoyance as her features — pitch-black eyes surrounded by pitch-black moats of kohl, a nose like a Swiss alp, dagger cheekbones, dagger everything, really — dinged into place and announced that I knew her.
“You’re Lena Abramahim.”
She raised the crumpled aster petal to her nose again, and again recoiled.
“We’ve met. At a reading you gave in Greenpoint.”
She raised an eyebrow. Her eyebrows were her face’s exclamation points: very dark and wide as a child’s pinkie. When one moved, the rest of her face followed along with it.
“What were you doing at my reading?” she asked, in much the same way she had told me I was going to be late to it, four years earlier.
My ex, Bertie, had badgered me into going. “She’s like the Mozart of perfume. A prodigy!” I wasn’t interested in listening to the Mozart of anything except maybe New Wave cinema — and who am I kidding: I wanted to make my own, not listen to some old French dude tell me how it was made. But I was headlong in love with Bertie, she of the owl glasses and hook-and-eye boots and friends in some of downtown’s most impenetrable places. Plus, she’d given me two of her mom’s Xanax, with the promise of more if I behaved.
When we’d arrived, the first floor of Crooke & Anchor was packed, the table at the front stacked with hardcovers and a few bottles of perfume, cut like jewels and gleaming like them too, under the heavy lamplight. Amidst the excited hubbub and angling for seats, I’d slipped away to the dusty warrens of the third floor, where the travel books were kept. Lena Abramahim was in aisle 2, flicking through Eimi with a tarsia’s rapid, lollipop fingers.
“You’re going to be late to your reading,” I’d said. I hadn’t meant to be so familiar, but Lena took it in stride.
“You’re going to be late to my reading.”
“How do you know I’m here for your reading?”
“The selection here sucks,” she’d said, flapping at the shelves.
I’d followed her back down to the first floor. She didn’t greet the audience, or thank them for coming. ‘I’m talking fathers, today,’ she’d said, almost crossly. Her book had stayed shut, in her lap. I could tell Bertie was disappointed, but I was intrigued. I’d moved closer to the front of the crowd, not trusting Lena to speak up.
Lena’s father had grown up in Lebanon, a hundred miles outside Beirut. The only son of pomegranate farmers. Desperately poor. (Farmers who grew only pomegranates? And were still poor? The pomegranates at Butterfield’s sold for $8.99 a pound, smacked of gold and goblets and greedy pharaohs.) Lena’s father didn’t go to school; he stayed at home, in the small kitchen, and plucked red seeds from fleshy pith. When he was twelve, he ran away to the city, where his dexterous fingers got him a job as a cigar roller. But his fingertips were stained fuchsia to this day, Lena told us. She created It’s All in the Pith to capture the bookends of her father’s choice — the pomegranates and the cigars and the hot tar of the road he walked to get from one to the other.
I’d made sure to lean in as she signed Bertie’s copy.
“Nice story,” I said, though I wasn’t sure if it was a nice story. What had happened to the parents, deprived of their picker?
I wasn’t trying to buy a book, but Lena had signed one for me anyway.
You smell like a sun-soaked soccer ball gone to seed. Call me if you need air — and then a number.
Now she was in my flower shop, inspecting me with the same intensity my Nanna gave to antique German nutcrackers.
“That does sound like something I might say,” she said.
“So did you?”
I shook my head and she frowned.
“I wasn’t sure if it was just a line,” I admitted.
Her laugh was as sharp as the rest of her.
“I don’t have any lines. At least, not intentionally.”
Once more I felt myself under her microscope, and then she exclaimed, more to herself than to me.
“The East River.”
She clapped her hands.
“What can you tell me about the pilot’s bouquet?”
She’d moved onto the console table I’d filled with drying flowers: thistles and white mugwort and silvery-blue sea holly.
I stared after her.
“Did you really just ask me that?”
Her back was to me as she stooped to examine the hollies. Thin hairs crosshatched up her neck like the backs of nice stockings. I cast about for Rallie, but of course, now that I needed her, she was nowhere to be found.
“Please. I just need to know what was in it and then I’ll be out of your hair.”
I felt uneasy and annoyed in equal parts. Lena Abramahim made perfumes that were — what had Bertie called them? ‘Snapshots.’ It was one thing to recreate a ‘snapshot’ of her father, but of a stranger? A stranger who had been murdered just two days before?
“She was a friend of mine,” Lena said. Her back was still to me.
There were three people in the coffee line, glancing from the card reader to their phones, as if I were hidden in an app that kept freezing.
“Look me in the eye when you tell me that,” I said, quietly.
Lena turned around. Her eyes flashed defiance but her voice trembled in the repetition.
“Fine. Camilla. Easter lily. Caspia. And blue hydrangea.”
Lena wrinkled her nose.
“Ugh. It smells like old urine.”
I shrugged. “I have to go,” I told her.
But she stayed, continuing her inspection, trailing those tarsia fingers through the English ivy and the domino masks Nicolette had fashioned from hundreds of interlocking paperclips. Unbidden, the Doc’s lecture-grade voice boomed over my internal PA. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, Eustace. I mean, no kidding, Doc. But why?