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, 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, kind, or just grateful at my efficiency. He smiled me, a wry smile, 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.
“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 pixilation. 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.
Stace had called me earlier that morning. Late enough in the year that the day had not yet decided what it wanted to be, and its blurriness spilled into me, as I gazed at the blinking name. We had had been friends for over four years – nearly the entirety of my time in New York – but
this was one of the few times I’d heard his voice on the phone. It came out thinner; I couldn’t hear the Cheshire smile that formed so much of its backbone.
“Got something for you,” he said. He sounded pre-emptively gruff, like what he had was something I’d been hounding him for, and the only way he’d fork it over was if I’d take it meekly, no questions asked.
I knew what the something was the instant I saw the Post. (Stace hadn’t told me; all he had said was that I would find my gift in the bodega across the street. I love puzzles, and solving them; his prolonging the gift had been a kindness.) I bought a copy and eight unripe persimmons and read the pilot’s story right there on the sidewalk, letting the wind whip the paper’s irrelevant guts across the street, the persimmons’ strain in their own plastic bag striping my wrist in angry candy canes.
The pilot’s name was Lynn Groot. Her 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. It was her husband who’d found her, the Post noted. 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. She was thirty-two years old; the nine years between us should have felt like a gulf, but they did not. Maybe it was her gaze; in photos, mine holds the same fixed determination.
Lynn had been flying for almost half of her life, first at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and then in the Air Force itself. 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. The Post spoke to 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 quiet in the well of my mother’s lap, watching Tara Lipinski skate for the gold in Nagano. (We were a winter Olympics family, to the extent that we watched at all. In Finland, my mother had grown up skiing to school and the store and even, when the weather was bad enough to close the roads, to church, though this was a side of herself – hurtling, wind-swept – which she revealed less and less and whose occasional resurgence grew more and more surprising.) 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.
“Never.” 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 Lynn’s 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. By the third or fourth replay, I knew, with electrifying certainty, that Lynn Groot would anchor my next perfume.
When I die, by the way, the Post’s pun will involve smell, not flight. “THE NOSE GOES,” perhaps, or “TO WHOM THE SMELL TOLLS.” Maybe something involving a “SCENTS-LESS DEMISE,” if death comes early or strange and the editor is feeling kind. Whatever the headline says, the story should note that, for a period of time, Lena Abramahim was the best nose in the world. It’s the truth, after all, and isn’t that what death brings out?
I’m not yet twenty-four, but of course I’ve thought about it. Dying, that is. Or, more accurately: what happens after. I’m a perfumist, after all, and perfume has been circumventing death since the days of ancient Egypt, when supplicants wrapped the bodies of their royal dead in linens drenched in myrrh, camphor oil, cassia; stuffed the cavities with cinnamon. All to ensure a warm reception in the afterlife — and no doubt, it worked: then the British archaeologists exhumed Tutankhamon from his tomb, the boy emperor, in his chrysalis of muslin, smelled only of clove and agar, scent and bone.
Is it so wrong to want the same for myself? At my lowest point, this past summer, I wrote out a death plan. Each part of my body is to be anointed with one of my perfumes. On my left knee, Dandelion in the Ziggurat, with its weedy adolescents. On my index finger, One Night in Melinda, for its twitchy evocations. On my nipples, I Dream of Jeanine. Along my spine, Crepuscular Baby. And in my cupped palms, My Mother’s Jacket.
Oh, it thrills me to imagine my fragile flesh succumbing to scent! The natural order of things subverted: gasses beating solids, air beating earth. Centuries hence, some crenellated being will exhume my grave, and on the wefts of its breath, I’ll rise again, I and the dandelions and Jeanine and Melinda, though they scarcely matter, and my mother, who matters very much.
But enough of that. Stace’s gift threw a wrench in my obsession with resurrection: suddenly it was Lynn’s I wanted to enact, instead of my own.
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. Goodbye Julius and his legion of garlic, hello something softer but 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. Straightforward, and it would echo my own journey into her story – and yet, I hesitated. I had built my reputation on the backs of difficult, prickly perfumes, but the opening semen in Crepuscular Baby would seem like Marc Jacobs’ Daisy compared to a dead body. The top note is why 95% of consumers buy a perfume, and it was critical, vital even, that consumers buy Lynn’s perfume in the same volumes they had once bought My Mother’s Jacket.
So, Lynn’s death might need to come in the middle, or even at the end, unless I could present aspects of it that were more first-blush palatable. Lynn had died inside a plastic bag, and plastic was not first-blush palatable, exactly, but it was banal, benign. I stared at the red sack of persimmons. “How could you do such a thing,” I demanded. I dumped the 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 did not, I decided; 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 at some point bound, but they must have been. They must have been bound and then – I reread the article and found an aside I had glossed over before – they must have been ubound, for when she was found, she was holding a bouquet of flowers. Like she was all ready for her funeral. Even the Post must have considered this a tidbit too morbid to dwell on, but the shiver that came over me as I read was anticipatory, delightful. Instinct told me that Lynn’s bouquet had come from Stace’s shop, that he had multifaceted reasons for getting me involved.
“The plot thickens!” I texted him. He texted a question mark back. I waited, knowing he would be unhappy about what I was about to ask, then asked it anyway.
“What was in the bouquet?”
He didn’t respond, but I knew he would tell me eventually. In the meantime, I put what little I knew about Lynn into a Word doc, along with notes on the sensation of being clogged in a plastic bag. I titled the doc The Last Breath.
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 a lot 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 in the vicinity of our mid-afternoon rush – between two and three, the coffee line often grows enough to double in on itself. ‘Flustered origami,’ my friend Lena calls it. I remember noticing Lynn Groot pacing around the gladiolas and feeling slightly anxious, because Rally had gone down to the basement to throw a few mugs, and I wouldn’t be able to help her for a few more 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 unplucked flowers were disturbed. She watched me wrap the finished bouquet intently – most of my female customers don’t trust a young/black/male/quasi-hipster not to quash their 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, Irish 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 to my current state. “Am I a suspect or something?” I wanted to ask, but wouldn’t the question make 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. My hands had just about stopped shaking when Lena stropped in like a Murray Hill girl who’d left her purse at the bar the night before: entitlement grown fully over the place that embarrassment was meant to occupy.
“How’s business?” she asked, right off the bat.
“Normal,” I said, ignoring the scent of rubbernecking that threatened to overwhelm the flowers. I tried to concentrate on the uncut pile of tiger tulips before me. It seemed suddenly urgent that their stems be snipped to military uniformity.
“I thought there might have been a pickup.”
“I don’t really cater to ghost-chasers.”
“An epicure dining at Crewe / Found a rather large mouse in his stew / Said the waiter ‘don’t shout / Or wave it about / Or the rest will be wanting one too!’”
“You were shouting just now.”
But she only smiled, implacable. If Lena doesn’t want to feel annoyed, she won’t. That’s something I admire about her.
“So, Stace. If I were choosing the flowers to take me down the River Styx, what would you recommend?”
“Of course, given a fucking murder, you’d focus on the flowers,” I snapped. My voice was much louder around the fucking than I’d meant it to me. Snip, snip. I pretended the stems were Lena’s words, preemptively shorn before they could pass from her hard little mouth.
“Naturally. But what did she buy?”
I wanted to resist, but I had used up all of my resistance on the cops. And besides, the bouquet was a distraction, but maybe it would lead Lena to the truth, I reasoned. Because of course I wanted to know why Lynn Groot died. However unintentionally, she had swept me and my shop into the maelstrom of her death, and only concrete, definite answers could get the both of us back to safety.
I walked between the vases, trying to visualize Lynn’s flowers. Camilla buds, I remembered. And Easter lilies, blue hydrangea, caspia, green hypericum. For an amateur, Lynn had picked well; the white/blue/violet/hunter green combination wasn’t one I’d seen often, but it had a pleasing color-wheel-adjacent harmony and a nubbly texture, like a fairy pillow. A fairy pillow? My stint as a florist — or as Lena’s friend — was clearly wearing on my vocabulary.
“Caspia?” Lena wrinkled her nose.
“Sure. It’s fairly popular.”
“Ugh. It smells like old urine.”
“Dries nicely, though.” I felt sort of protective of the poor caspia. Normally I got the dark purple variety, but the farmer’s market hadn’t had any on Monday. I inhaled. The faint tea scent from the camillas and spice from the hydrangea were perfectly pleasant, but the lily gave off dry-rot, the hypernium, paint-thinner, and the caspia, okay fine, old pee.
“Can I keep it?” Lena asked.
I shuddered. “You’re sick, you know that?”
I hoped, now that she had what she’d come for, Lena would blaze back on out. Instead she stayed, inspecting the contents of every vase, pouring her fingers over Nicolette’s new domino masks, which she’d fashioned from hundreds of interlocking paperclips. Lynn’s bouquet dangled from one hand, and as she walked, bits of caspia flaked off, like purple dandruff. Despite myself, I couldn’t stop staring.
“Hold up,” I said, followed by a hurried apology to the woman whose coffee I had splashed across the counter.
“Something’s off,” I announced, and from the way Lena looked at me I could see she’d thought so too, that that was why she’d been lollygagging.
It was the hydrangea. The blue in the original bouquet had been darker; I was sure of it. And the petals had been tighter, more belled in. Shape makes a big difference in a bouquet; you have to use a lot more filler for the tight buds.
“You have Quickbooks, right?”
“We keep things analog around here.”
“Can I take a look at whatever you’ve got?”
A trio of moms wearing those baby snaggy things came in as I was coming up with the inventory book, so I gave it to Lena to look through while I apologized for having neither almond milk nor a steamer to froth it with. One of the women wanted to know where we got our coffee beans, and looked satisfyingly dismayed when I pointed to an open can of Bustelo.
Lena’s wraggling eyebrows cut short my pleasant thoughts about the inexplicable popularity of this place.
“You didn’t buy hydrangeas last week.”
“Yeah, I was thinking – it’s definitely past season for them. So, did you solve the mystery then?”
“The thing is, not only did you not order hydrangeas, you didn’t order anything that looked like hydrangeas. You didn’t even order panicles, for instance.”
“I sort of hate panicles.”
“Are you sure the flowers looked like hydrangeas?”
“Lena, does it really matter? I thought this was going to be a perfume about a fighter pilot, not a bunch of flowers.”
“I don’t know. It might.”
“Then no, I’m not sure.”
“I thought you were the God of Small things!”
“I guess it wasn’t small enough. Or I’ve lost my touch.”
Unlike a normal friend, Lena felt no need to offer audible or visible dissent. She only scowled, and banged out the door. A camilla petal drifted behind her.