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A Sheltered Climate

Charlie Lee


Julia called late Friday night. I must have fallen asleep, because the lights were still on. I picked up the phone with a grunt, half-buried in a dream, mute, delirious, but her soft voice trickled through.


“I know we said we wouldn’t call,” she whispered. “I just wanted to tell you—my flight gets in at eight on Sunday morning.”


She waited a moment, then:


“It’s going to be a tight connection in Toronto—just so you know. My mother thinks I should wait a few more days—but she’d always say that, I guess.”


“Ok,” I said. “Just let me know if anything changes?”


“I will.”


“I love you.”


I drifted off with the phone on my chest, feeling her there in bed with me, her legs tangled with mine in the sheets, my hands remembering, wandering her hips, her breasts, her neck.


I wake up that morning and the garden is the first thing I see. Spring. It’s two hours before my alarm. The grass is gray-blue in the fog-lit glow. Through the windows the dogwoods seem taller, stronger than ever, stretching out their white-flowered limbs. I blink: last day. Tomorrow we’ll pull in as the sun rises and go out back to see the garden, the white dogwood flowers, just like this, in the morning light. Her voice still throbs in my ears, though my memory of our conversation is already blurring around the edges, muffled by sleep. I pull myself out of bed and shuffle to the kitchen to put the coffee on. My body feels strong and lean under my robe. I’ve lost weight, I think.


I haven’t counted the days. That’s a source of pride. I’d only realized the month was nearly up a few days ago when I noticed the book, some favorite of Julia’s, some classic, sitting uncracked on my bedside table. I’d promised to read it. A fine layer of dust had gathered around its edges. I’m going to show her that: don’t worry, the dust might say. Not a thing has changed.


When Julia told me she needed time away—just a month, a moon, two fortnights, she’d said, to break the tension—I was surprised at my relief. I hadn’t realized how much we both needed it. The last eight months had been hellish in a quiet, plodding way. Eight seething months of silent conflict. When I think of the days before Julia left I see her sitting across from me at dinner, fork hovering in a tiny circle over the plate, eyes down. I felt despised, responsible, somehow. I’d been half-jokingly warned, I admit, by friends with unhappier marriages than mine, that year four is when the cracks start to appear, but they don’t know dead hopes the way we do, the way Julia does. The daughter we’d hoped to have—Grace—never breathed when she was born, never opened her eyes. Last August; that was the end of that.


Shuffling through my morning routine—shave, push-ups, cereal in the same bowl, poured up to the milk-ring stain—I feel I notice everything, see it through her eyes, as she will see it soon. The house feels emptier than usual, the light passing through from the front windows to the back, the sofa and armchairs arranged for company. I wonder if it’s better this way, with everything in the house just as it was.


I pour myself a cup of coffee and look out the kitchen windows, down the hill toward the water, where I can see the fog settling over the flats. It’s a low fog, the fastest kind, blowing in from the ocean over a mile of rocky coast and creeping across the marsh to the mouth of the river. A clutch of pelicans wheels mutely over the water, heading north up the coast, their wings wide and motionless. Only the top of one tall mast is visible over the fog, swaying, disembodied, like someone trying to keep her chin above water.


Yes—it’s better this way. We’ll make the house new again together. She’ll judge my time alone here kindly, lovingly, I think. I see my marks everywhere: the circle from my mug on the counter, the depression in my chair cushion on the porch, the blonde beard hairs clipped into the sink, where they look gray.


I know I should do something different today. Run on the beach, swim in the ocean, go fishing even. Instead I end up on the back porch, as usual, with the pot of coffee, admiring the garden as the sun begins to angle over the roof. The neighborhood is silent, save for the soft ringing of the windchimes hanging from the gutter.


The dogwoods have already grown to dominate the garden, their thin branches drooping over the lower growth. I squint across the lawn at them. They’ve grown wilder, it seems—with Julia here they stood at attention in their row at the back of the garden, but in her absence they seem to have grown and knotted their branches into a twisting circle. Still, their white flowers shimmer delicately in the breeze—not everything has to be perfect, after all.


Julia had said we needed to do something to mark the spot where we put Grace in the garden, which is why we got the dogwoods last October. We picked them out because they would grow fast and bloom white. I remember the day we bought them, at the garden store at the edge of town. The garden store was a big half-cylinder greenhouse, with friendly dirt-smeared teenage boys working the register and a special room for orchids in the back. It was our first day out of the house in a month, like coming up for air.


It took just two days to plant it all—Julia trundling the empty wheelbarrow to the driveway and back again, me with my knees in the dirt. Her smile as she rounded the corner, a glimpse of the way things were, what they could be again. After that Julia never wanted to plant more flowers, only green things. It would be criminal to distract from the bloom, she would insist.


The sprinklers turn on next door—odd, given all the rain lately. I stand abruptly and walk barefoot across the damp grass. I bend down to touch the hosta first. Their big elephant-ear leaves are spotted light brown and black around the edges. Their pointed tips droop down onto the soil.


I straighten up and a wiry branch scrapes my head. The dogwoods bloomed too early, I realize with a pang of sadness. Only a few days ago, it must have been, the speckled flowers were perfect, four red-veined petals like a dangling cross. I thought they would last. Up close I see they’re wilted and dirty, a dark-stained white. They smell like rotting apples. I go back inside to try and read.


The doorbell rings in the afternoon. I’d dozed off on the sofa, the book splayed face down on my chest. Still in my robe, I stumble to the window and look out. On the front stoop is a tall, bearded figure. Tully. I open the door with a smile.


He stands there with his hands behind his back looking down at me. Tully is Julia’s oldest friend, from college. I like him—he’s the only one of her friends who never tries to talk to me about books or politics. He has thick arms and legs, the brash physicality of a rower or a swimmer. I have a vague idea that he swims the length of the beach every morning.


“Hey, Peter,” he says with a tentative grin. “I was in the area, thought I’d come say hi.” He’d been running, judging by his shorts and the damp sweat stains on his t-shirt.


“Come in, come in!” I say. I gesture toward the porch, and he follows me. I can feel his eyes on me, thinking, wondering. I imagine how I must look, unshowered and pale, in my food-stained robe. Suddenly it occurs to me that Julia might have asked him to come and check up on me, to see how I’m doing before she arrives. Probably not, though he’s never dropped by when she’s not here.


We sit in comfortable silence for a while on the porch. Tully is good at making silences comfortable.


“You must be excited for tomorrow,” Tully says finally, squinting in the sunlight.


“I really am. This place is too quiet on my own.”


Tully nods and gazes off at nothing over the fence.


“It sounds like it’s been a really good trip,” he offers. “I know Julia’s always sad she doesn’t see her mom enough.”


“I hope so—we haven’t talked much. She wanted to be off-grid,” I tell him.


“Right.” Tully looks over at me; sunglasses have appeared on his face.


I’ve been picturing Julia cooped up in her mother’s country house, resting, reading. Like a

nun, or Emily Dickinson. I hope it’s been good for her.


“Do you think you guys would ever move out of this house?” Tully asks abruptly.


“Sell it?” I look at him, surprised. “I don’t think we could do that.”


I look back across the garden. The fog is gone by now.


“It’s a shame she’s missed their bloom,” I say.


“What?”


I nod at the gleaming dogwoods.


“Julia. She loves them. They mark where we put Grace. The flowers are wilted already.”


“Oh,” Tully says softly.


“I was thinking I might pick up some flowers in town to plant before she comes tomorrow.” I haven’t thought of this before; it comes into my head and I say it. “She only likes the dogwoods but I’m worried she’ll be upset if she comes home to them like this.”


Tully listens. He nods slowly, looking at me intently from behind his brown lenses. He seems unsure of what to say; I might have made him uncomfortable.


“That sounds like a very kind idea,” he says at last, slowly. Then, “I was going to head back soon, anyways—we could walk down together, if you like.”


I smile. Tully has a way of making plans materialize.


I dress quickly, in old jeans and a loose gray sweatshirt. In the mirror my body looks unfamiliar—wiry muscles, a tight-knit veiny brow. A man who might run cattle or fix old cars.


I meet Tully on the stoop and we set off down the block in silence. The day has grown hot, the hottest it’s been in months. I feel pleased with this whim, glad to have Tully’s company for the moment. At the corner we turn onto the steep street leading to the beach and the town, our strides quickening. The houses grow newer, more preened, as we approach the water. Tully and I shake our heads and comment vaguely on this intrusion. I look down at my feet and imagine the flowers I might buy: white tulips, still closed, their petals streaked with faint green veins, a throng of pink-flecked lewisia, star-blue camass, and currant flowers to bring the hummingbirds home.


On the outskirts of town we pass fishing shops with painted driftwood signs. The road is nearly empty—a motorcyclist, an idling truck, nothing more. In the center of town there are more people, sitting outside cafes and restaurants, chatting, reading. I try to hear what they’re saying but I can’t catch anything. Nobody looks at us as we amble past.


“We should get dinner the three of us, once Julia’s back,” Tully says. I like this idea; we should spend more time out of the house, especially now that the weather is good again.


“Let’s do that.”


Tully leaves me when we get to his apartment in town. He gives me a long, searching look before he goes.


“I hope she’s ok,” he says. “You guys should let me know if you need anything.”


“We will,” I tell him.


He pauses, half-turned.


“Julia—she needs a lot of energy around her.”


I look up at him, unsure what to say.


“What do you mean?”


Tully studies me.


“I just think it will be hard to come back to the same house, you know?”


“Why?” I shift back and forth uncomfortably.


“Where—where Grace still is, where it all happened.”


“Oh.”


“I’m sorry, Peter. I just thought I’d mention it.”


“Of course—thank you Tully.”


He leaves and I’m alone again. I suddenly feel silly for coming all the way to town; I wonder if flowers are the right way to mark this new start. Maybe Tully is right. How could we ever leave this place behind, now? We could dig Grace up, sure, and move her somewhere proper where we could go visit, but wouldn’t that be worse? I should call Julia, hear her voice, see what she thinks—but no. I walk faster so as not to second guess myself.


I’m sweating by the time I arrive at the store. It’s smaller than I remember it, wedged between an ashen blue townhouse and an ugly church with a flat roof. The curved windows of the greenhouse are crusted with white grime. As I enter, the air envelopes me in a sea of heat and moisture. There’s just one other person in the store, a large man wearing a soiled football jersey behind the register.


“Everything twenty-five percent off,” he says in a bored voice.


Most of the store is obscured by wild vines and lichen. They tickle my skin as I walk toward the back. Spiked red flowers hang on either side of the aisle, yellow-tipped, opening wider as I pass, claw-like; I wonder if they eat insects. At the back of the store is a stone basin covered in moss and filled with water, with a fountain trickling quietly overhead. I lean over the rim to look inside, only to jump back—a mass of koi writhe furiously in the water, overcrowded, their fleshy sides rubbing against each other, churning the pool.


“Want one?” a voice breathes behind me. The man from the register. He leans over the basin and submerges one hand in the water, looking at me.


“Fifty percent off,” he says, his hand still in the water.


I look away to the front of the store, my face suddenly burning. Vines hang down from the walls in front of the door, their dark leaves like dripping spearheads. I feel bland and overpowered in the heat rising from the slate floor. I wonder what happened to all the teenagers who used to work here.


“No, just—just flowers,” I say.


I leave with a tray of small, multi-colored flowers, their colors bright and simple as plastic toys. In my hurry to leave I don’t catch their names.


The walk home takes a long time. My arms burn from balancing the tray of flowers. I curse myself for not driving. I take a different route without meaning to, circling back through an unfamiliar neighborhood with small houses packed closely together. As I walk the late afternoon sky grows dimmer, richer. Heat infects the fading light with a sickly dark-yellow tinge. Old women in black dresses gather on sagging porches with pitchers of lemonade.

They watch me silently as I pass by.


I arrive at the house as if in a dream. It’s never felt so anonymous, so similar to those around it. I walk around the house to the yard. The sun is nearly gone behind the fence. The quivering shadows of the trees stretch darkly across the lawn toward me. I’m losing time. I kneel, placing the tray of flowers on the grass, and begin to work.


I crawl the length of the flowerbed with a trowel, slowly, cutting a shallow trench in the soil. It crumbles in my fingers, loose and gravelly—still, I say to myself, I’ll make the place beautiful for her. My hands, deep in the soil, feel tough and leathered. I dig blindly, calm and deep within myself. When I’m finished there’s a long half-moon trench around the garden, a haphazard line of blue, yellow, pink. I haven’t gotten the intervals right, but it doesn’t matter.


When I stand up it’s almost completely dark. The days are getting longer; it must be later than I thought. The shadows are fading quickly off the grass into darkness.


The dogwoods look worse now. Tangled and bare, they stand silhouetted against the blank indigo sky. I begin to panic, looking at them. I imagine their soiled flowers falling like ashes to the ground. The petals will curl and rot atop the soil.


I reach out and grasp a dogwood flower, wrinkled and gray in the darkness. I picture Julia running barefoot across the lawn tomorrow morning to see the garden. The white flowers lying dead in her cupped palms. Without realizing what I’m doing I pull on the flower in my hand. It tears off the branch easily, without a sound. I throw it over the fence. There must be thirty more, hanging like bloodied gloves from the black branches. I pull them off one by one, methodically, throwing them over the fence. They make my hands wet. When they’re all gone I turn back to the house.


In bed I close my eyes and picture Julia walking out of the terminal, white-scarfed, her long arms bare and lovely under the dawn streetlights. I could cry at the quaintness, lovers reunited after their long journey. I wonder what kind of homecoming it will be. Through the darkness of the room I can just make out the thin red second-hand of the clock on the wall, gliding endlessly on its circuit in one smooth and lazy motion.


I wake up to the alarm feeling cold, pinned to the mattress. A body in a bedsheet. There’s time to shower before leaving for the airport, if I hurry. The light is beginning to break through the fog. Through the window I see the trees standing still in the windless air, under the shadow of the looming empty house.

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