Friday, December 09, 2005

Green Carnations

A while back I wrote a short-short story for a Flash-Fiction contest hosted by Artvoice, the Buffalo alt-weekly paper. I'd forgotten completely about that contest until I picked up the current issue, and discovered therein that I had not, in fact, won. Oh well.

The assignment in the contest was to write a story of less than 1000 words, and using somewhere in the story the Buffalo Central Terminal, which for newer readers is a beautiful railroad station in Buffalo that is no longer used and is a continual focus for Buffalo's architectural-preservation crowd. Anyhow, the three winning stories can be found here.

Of the two "Honorable Mention" stories, I liked "The Sun of Marshes", although parts of it felt forced and it's not entirely clear just what "Frank" is doing. I liked "Green's Predicament" a little bit less; it's got a good mysterious and creepy vibe going, but I think the limit on the word-count imposed by the contest rules kind of kept the story's author from really developing that theme. A decent effort, though.

But I outright hated the contest's winning story, "For the Birds", which was printed in the actual paper, as opposed to just appearing on the Artvoice website, as was the case with the two Honorable Mentions. I just didn't like the tone of the whole story, the bitter and sarcastic "Look at what you f***ing morons have done to your city", shame-on-you subtext, right down to the story's closing line. Plus, it's not even really a story -- it's a monologue, much of it straight history, delivered by a pigeon; and the dialect with which the pigeon speaks at the beginning of the piece is abandoned for pretty flowery language toward the end.

Anyway, what follows is my failed entry. I make no claim that it's better or worse than the stories that won, but it's mine.

"It's too cold today," Margaret said.

"Get my blanket," Judith replied. "No, the plaid one."

"The plaid one's too thin."

"The plaid one," Judith insisted.

Two orderlies stepped in to help Margaret escort her mother to the car, and then into the vehicle's passenger seat, wrapping the plaid blanket around her.

"It's too cold for this," Margaret said again as she got behind the wheel. Judith said nothing; she only took in a deep breath of air that for once didn't smell of antiseptic cleanser. Then she held out her hand. Margaret sighed and handed her mother the green carnation.

"Dad hated this ritual of yours," Margaret said. "You know it hurt him."

Judith only nodded. Of course she knew. That's what marriage had turned out to be: knowing that you were hurting the other person and doing it anyway.

Margaret drove. The streets of Buffalo rolled by Judith's window, but Judith only looked at her wedding ring on her left hand and the green carnation in her right. These weren't the streets she had known. The names were the same and even some of the houses were still there, but the old life was gone and today wasn't about the new life anyway. It was about remembering the morning she'd said goodbye to him, one last time. Her sixty-third time coming here on a certain November morning. At 83, Judith didn't figure to be back for a sixty-fourth.

There was light snow in the air as the Terminal came into view, the brown stone of its tower stark against a gray sky. Judith fancied that she could hear the whistle of trains, but of course that was just in her mind. The trains didn't run anymore.

Margaret pulled into the parking lot, stopped the car, and got out. Judith insisted on walking herself, leaning on Margaret's arm. She'd never needed help before. Even when Henry had brought her here, he'd stayed in the car; and she wouldn't have asked him, anyway. This was her ritual, not Henry's or anybody else's, and even after he'd brought her here sixty-one Novembers in a row, it still amazed her that the only time they'd actually spoken about it was when he'd got himself drunk and yelled about how one day a year he had to compete with a ghost. But Henry was a ghost now, too. Judith had two ghosts to remember: one struck down in his 80s by a heart attack, and the other struck down in just his 20s by Japanese bullets.

Clutching Margaret's arm with the other, Judith hobbled toward the doors of the Terminal. So much was gone from the building now, but Judith's mind filled in the details as surely as if it were back in 1942 again. Even though the doors were locked, Judith knew that if she went inside, she'd see that old stuffed Buffalo standing there, its hide being rubbed for luck by all the other boys going off to war. Just as he had. She'd never gone inside the Terminal again, after that; she'd promised to be there when he came home, and he never had.

"There were lots of trains in those days," Judith said. "Snow in the air, snow blowing through the steam, the sound of whistles and wind and people yelling. People saying goodbye on all sides. You can't say goodbye like that to someone in an airport."

Now they came to the doors, where Judith braced herself against the icy stone of the outside wall. She took a deep breath, and another, and another.


"I need a minute, dear. Just a minute."

Margaret squeezed Judith's arm and then she stepped back, moving not more than ten or fifteen feet away, but she might as well have not been there at all. In her heart, Judith was sixty-three years away.

Judith recalled his embrace, the smell of his freshly-pressed suit, the sound of his whisper in her ear, the warmth of his lips and the softness of his fingertips on her cheek. A few minutes, there on the Central Terminal main concourse, and then he'd been gone. Gone to war, and beyond.

Two years later she'd met Henry.

"I think you'd have liked him," Judith whispered. "Henry loved a good fight too, and he treated me well. He was in France, you know. I met him after he got back." She glanced down at the green carnation, still in her hand. "I think you'd have liked him, even though he preferred white roses." She reached up and pushed the stem of the carnation into a crack in the wall, beside the door. "I'm not going to make it next year, my love. I don't have any more Novembers. But I had sixty-three more than you did, and I hope I lived them well. Parts of them were for you."

She was almost finished. She stuck a folded scrap of paper into that crack in the wall as well, a scrap she'd kept with her for so many years. A scrap that, when unfolded, bore a faded typed message that began, "We regret to inform you".

Judith gestured to her daughter, her Margaret, to help her back to the car. The snow was picking up.

It was, as Judith had said, her last time. She died the next February.

On a colder than normal morning the next November after that, a vagrant awoke in his spot against the wall of the Central Terminal. He looked around and shook his head. It had been a dream, obviously, but he'd thought for one second that he'd been sleeping on a bed of green carnations and white roses, and that he'd heard the whistles of those long-departed trains.

For more on the Central Terminal, go here.

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