Buddy, my sometime husband, got it in his mind that my folks thought he was no good because he got me to run off, but the truth more likely was that I ran off with him because my folks thought he was no good. At any rate, I owed him forever for getting me out of their house, away from Texas, on my own two feet. He'd made what living he made repossessing yachts for a repo outfit that operated out of Florida. Sometimes he got a windfall; sometimes he lost our shirts. I did nothing, which is what I knew how to do, and waited for him to show up again, to fall into bed with me again. One day a woman whose yacht he'd snatched asked him did he know someone could water her houseplants while she got out of town for a spell. He told her that was my specialty. 'She's trained in horticulture,' he said. At that time the only plant I'd ever watered had been a runty ruby begonia I'd drowned. From such beginnings came careers.
His bad end had some upside. The last time he left me, he left me pregnant, for which I still gave daily thanks. And, since he never bothered to dissolve our legal entanglement, he also left me with an insurance policy that let me buy this elderly duplex and get my Chevy overhauled. News of his death out in the Gulf aboard someone's delinquent sailboat came to me not by way of his mother, who might have forgotten my name, but from the woman he'd been living with, who thought he might have gone back home. The whole thing was sad, including what felt like everyone's relief. My daughter Birdie could say that her daddy was dead, instead of that she never saw him and didn't know him from Adam. And my mother could discreetly recast me as a 'young widow from Louisiana,' or so my sister had reported. Mostly I hated his being gone because even now I would probably be holding a crumb of hope that one day he, Buddy Marshall, might blow back in along with the summer's first hurricane and decide he'd like to stick around and get to know his family.
Earlier today, my mind a blank, I'd gone to find a new rose to tell Mother about. Old Metairie, steamy and sunken and surrounded by waters (the Mississippi, Lake Pontchartrain, the squalling Gulf), was infatuated with old roses. I could have asked most anyone. Some of the homes where I plant-tended had rose arbors and shrubs on their grounds, past reflecting pools and pebbled paths. But I would never have asked one of the women who hired me; I was just another of the several helpers who came in when they fled the stifling summer heat, taking off for the mountains, to Europe, to the rocky coast of Maine: house sitter, pet sitter, plant sitter, security service. My favorite source was Henry (Henri), the head rose gardener at Belle Vue, a stately mansion with a series of lavish old gardens through which strolled peacocks and in the branches of whose trees songbirds made their nests. For a nominal fee, the grounds were open to the public, including me. He always had something for me, and, in return, I offered a pair of ears into which he could pour the story of his family's centuries in France, the likelihood that a great-great-grandfather had been gardener to the Empress Josephine.
Today he'd told me how the rose fanciers were bringing him their summer finds, something they spotted up a dirt road outside Shreveport, something growing on the wooden side of an AME church in Tuscaloosa. 'Everybody thinks they have an Old Blush,' he said, shaking his sunbaked face to indicate they usually didn't. I told him I was looking for something new. 'Just got this in from England.' He showed me a nearly perfect quartered rose, deep pink to fading palest pink. It didn't smell like tea (like the Teas) or banana (like the Chinas); it smelled, well, like a rose. 'It came out of Hamburg when that was part of Denmark, an Alba bred with a Damask, likely. The Brits call it Queen of Denmark. I don't know what the Danes call it.' We laughed. Queen of England' He touched the blue-green leaves. 'Flourishes anywhere.'
Excerpted from Ella in Bloom by Shelby Hearon Copyright 1/1/01 by Shelby Hearon. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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