The Blue Flower Of Happiness
He was lounging on a balcony overlooking the room, watching the party like a cat on top of bookshelves. It was the most fabulous party anywhere in Manhattan that night, with the hottest music and oddest hors d'oeuvres; a party of sharp-tounged women and men as carefully touseled as after-shave ads, torn from jungle or Sahara and placed on a couch; a party made up of nearly a hundred people dressed in black trousers, black turtlenecks, black socks, and black shoes.
"If they had knit caps, they'd also be dressed for breaking into a warehouse," he said.
Lee wore a bright blue shirt, and bangs that fell over one eye.
"Where's Kacie?" he said.
Kacie is his girlfriend and my boss. "She sent me to find you," I said. "She told me to tell you to come talk to people."
"Tell her," said Lee, "that people should come talk to me."
I found Kacie sitting on a barstool, talking to a bald man in a business suit. Kacie is the publisher and editor of avant-garde city magazine, the first issue of which will be printed as soon as we can find just one more investor who doesn't mind losing money.
"We want to be the New Yorker for our generation," she was saying, "but for our generation, so we'll have much bigger pictures."
Kacie is madly energetic, a cartoon with its cells spread all over the room. She's tall, about twice my size, and generates four times as much light and heat. By the way she was turning her charm on the hapless bald guy, I guessed he was someone who might put money into the magazine.
"This is Claire, my deputy," Kacie said, turning to introduce me, because no one ever notices me on my own. "Claire, go tell Lee this man remembers his record from last year. Tell him the man who might invest in the magazine wants to meet him."
"Okay," I said.
Lee was lying in exactly the same position I'd left him in twenty minutes ago. A woman with painted toenails, filed to a point, was sitting on the chaise by his waist.
"I remember seeing you in all the magazines," she said. "You had some kind of song, didn't you? What happened to you? "
"I wrote more songs," he said, "which no one wanted to hear."
"That's terrible," she told him.
"I'll bet you were one of those people," Lee said.
His glare, even from a horizontal position, was enough to make her get up and take her cocktail elsewhere.
Kacie was coming up the stairs.
"I've got my investor occupied with some woman who has silicon boobies," she said. She thinks she's going to take him away from me, but I'm perfectly safe. He's gay! I just found that out."
Lee cleared a space for her by his elbow, and she sat down.
'He was really impressed with being invited to this party."
"Poor thing," Lee said.
Across the room, someone laughed at some entirely different joke.
"I just met a man who makes wallpaper out of great failed philosophical ideas, like socialism," Kacie said. "The words are gorgeous, really, and it's very pretty wallpaper. I want to do a piece about him."
I stood, and they sat, looking at the party all around us.
Kacie got up suddenly.
"I'm going to ask them to play your record," she said, "and then you come down, and everyone will notice you."
"Don't," said Lee.
"You need to promote yourself. "
He watched her walk down the stairs.
"Let's go," he said.
"I don't think Kacie's ready to leave yet."
"Let's go without her."
I looked for Kacie on way out, as we made our way through the crowd. A few people seemed to recognize Lee, to remember him from when he was on all the magazine covers last year, but maybe not. Maybe they were just looking at him because he was so tall and good-looking, and because he had on a blue shirt.
Wrapping our coats around us, we walked out onto the winter streets. There was no snow; it was too cold to snow. Lee was wearing a pink suede jacket trimmed with feathers, a gift last year from some fashion designer who had wanted him to be seen in it. I had a cloth coat that my grandma had given me. Walking down 45th Street, we must have looked like mates from the bird kingdom, where male is much more lovely than the female. I had never gone anywhere with him before.
I didn't talk at all. It was so cold, too cold to open our warm mouths to the cold air. It was unbelievable to be walking alongside him, past the same store fronts and street posters I walked past every day by myself.
We walked past newsstands hung with magazines that had the new it-boy on the cover, and I pretended not to look, but Lee did.
"You shouldn't let it bother you," I said.
"It's never bothered me," he said. His feathers shook.
We were coming into Times Square, and as we crossed onto Broadway we burst into a world of brilliant lights, of six-foot-tall gold whisky bottles and ten-foot red-lit coffee cups. It was the point where I had to go uptown to my grandma's house on Park Avenue, and Lee would have to go down to Kacie's apartment in the West Village.
"Good night," I said.
He walked off into the night, his hair turned red and orange and blue by the signs, forgotten, humiliated, and effortlessly and perfectly lovely.
"See, my vision of the magazine was something for fabulous New York people, except that they'll all think they're too fabulous to pay for it. They want free copies," she was telling him. "That's why I think we'll have to sell it to people who aren't really fashionable, just like they have to sell Playboy to people who aren't really playboys."
I went to my desk, which was covered with slides from photo shoots we hadn't paid for and loosely factual articles from freelancers. The basic staff of the magazine is just us two, but we've already put together two-and-a-half issues ready to go as soon as we get the money to print them. We do everything. We think up ideas for the pieces, we assign them to writers, we chase after writers when they don't turn in their stories, and when we finally have their stories, we fact-check them. It's mostly me that fact-checks, because Kacie doesn't like to.
Kacie hung up the phone, jumped across the room to throw out a pile of letters from bad or unattractive writers who'd found us before we'd even published an issue, and was back in a moment, carrying photo books of models we might use for fashion shoots.
"How's Lee?" I said.
"Fine," she said. "At home in bed. I'm sorry you got stuck with him last night. He makes operas wherever he goes these days."
Kacie picked up the phone again, and I went back to my piles of paper. I had been at the magazine since last year, when Kacie had only an idea for a magazine, and put an ad up at my college for an intern. I was the only one who could do it for no money at all, because my grandma was alive, then, and we had her pension and her rent-controlled apartment. Since my grandma's been gone there have been no more checks, and I even ended up putting all her life insurance into our project. I hope the magazine will start to pay me something before I run out of money entirely.
"Look," Kacie said, coming to show me a photograph. "This guy's trademark is photographs of the back of things...the back of statues, the back of buildings. I like it."
"I guess he's trying to say that the hidden side of things is never as good as the facade."
"Hey, yeah. Maybe." Kacie had lost interest already.
It was a long morning. I started looking out through the venetian blinds at the parking lot, at the way bright sun was bouncing off the roof of automobiles, peeping through the slats like a field of glaring stars. I could make them twinkle by moving my head, but that made me dizzy, too.
"Hey, Claire," Kacie said suddenly. "I have a writing assignment for you."
I looked up at her.
"There's this new weed springing up all over the city, and it's driving people crazy. Blue flowers. Between sidewalk cracks, on median strips. I've never seen them before," she said.
"I don't know what they are. But people were talking about them at the party last night, and everyone's noticed them, and I haven't see anything written about them. Just find out what they are, and where they came from."
"Why me?" I said.
"It's not worth calling anyone else for. Do it on your lunch hour, okay?" she said. "I need you to fact-check this piece about glass bowling pins. They're beautiful, but you can't use them for bowling."
It wasn't until three o'clock that I got time for lunch. I went out of the office to the median strip in front of our building, and there they were. Blue flowers, winter flowers, and bigger than ordinary weeds. They had small, heart-shaped leaves and red pistils. I tried to pull some up, but I couldn't . They had the strongest roots I had ever seen. Finally, I used a pen from my checkbook to draw a picture of their petals on the paper bag holding my lunch, and I went back inside.
Lee was draped across my desk when I came in, lounging, though he started to get up when he saw me.
"Oh, you don't have to move," I told him.
Kacie was on a phone call, and I unwrapped my sandwich and started to eat standing up. Lee reached over and tore off a little bit of sandwich for himself.
"I just came from outside," I said.
"It's cold out there," he said.
"I found some flowers," I said.
Kacie hung up the phone, and she came over and looked at Lee carefully. He was doing a crossword puzzle, chewing on a plastic drinking straw.
"You know, a lot of artists do some of their best work when things are at their darkest," she told Lee. "You could do some work."
"Nobody wants to hear what I've already done," he said.
The phone was ringing again.
"Claire, can you get to the library for me before it closes?" Kacie asked. "I need a picture of an ear. A medical drawing, with the ear canal, because we're doing a piece on earrings and I want to show what's inside the ear as well." She picked up the phone.
I put on my coat, and Lee put on his coat, too, and walked out with me. Behind clouds, the sun was the size of a silver dime.
It was an old library, one of the oldest ones in the branch system, and Lee walked around the wrought-iron balconies upstairs while I photocopied ears from the Encyclopedia Americana.
Lee came down with a huge pile of books, and sat at a table near the copier leafing rhythmically through them. He seemed so happy. I didn't want to go back to the office and have Kacie scold him again.
I decided to stay at the library long enough to look up the blue flowers. In the botany section, I found a shelf full of old books with scuffed covers and musty pages, their margins full of notes from college students who had already grown up and died.
There were hundreds of black and white line drawings in the books, none of which looked like my flower. One of the newer books had a color section, which only produced more flowers that my flower was not. It was not a violet, not an iris, not a hyacinth or morning glory. It wasn't a bluebell, or a blue flag, or a blue larkspur or a blue vervain. It looked like no flower I had ever seen.
"This is where I'm from," he said.
"You're from North Dakota?"
I looked at him, in his sequined shirt and his peach-colored scarf, and I tried to picture him in a farmhouse on the Plains.
"Did you like it there?" I said.
"I did, but they didn't like me."
When the library closed, it was already dark, a bluish early winter dark.
"Are you coming back to the office?" I said.
"I'll just walk," Lee said. "I'll just walk around a little. I lost my house keys when my guitar case was stolen. Kacie has the house keys. I'll just go home when she's home."
"Kacie didn't tell me your guitar case was stolen," I said.
"Kacie never listens to anything I say any more. "
A pair of headlights went by in the dark. It was getting cold, much too cold to walk around aimlessly for however long it would take Kacie to go home.
"You can stay at my apartment for a little while," I said. "I could just let you in and then come back to the office."
"If you want," Lee said.
Lee came with me on the bus, when I gave him a token, and we rode up to Park Avenue, to my building that looks so fancy on the outside. The apartment itself is so shabby that I was a little ashamed when I turned the key in the old lock and let Lee in. My grandma never had the money to replace anything that wasn't actively leaking or exploding. The kitchen was full of mismatched glasses and plates, the couches piled with dusty, molding cushions, and the iron-foot bathtub ran rusty water.
But Lee loved the apartment, and the tub most of all.
"A bathtub!" he said. "I grew up with a bath like this!"
When I took him into the main room he was even happier.
"A piano!" Lee said. It was an old piano, where my grandma had played the dozen songs she had on sheet music, over and over.
"I'm going to take a bath, and then play the piano," Lee said.
Kacie was alone when I came in, and the office was entirely silent.
"We got it!" she said, jumping up to meet me. "We got the check! The investor came through. Look at it!"
It was for $10,000.
"Oh, Claire," she said. "We can put out the first issue, and if we put out one issue, someone might actually advertise in the second one, and then we can put out a third and fourth and fifth, and we'll have a magazine."
"It's wonderful," I said.
"Have you written your flower story? We'll have to fill up the whole first issue right away!"
"I'll write it right away," I said. "I'll write it tomorrow, first thing."
Kacie smiled at me, and I felt good.
We worked into the night that night, rearranging all the articles so our best ones would be in the first issue, and updating the dates on pages. I finally left around 1 a.m., and Kacie was still working, and she never mentioned house keys once.
When I came home, the apartment was dark.
"Lee?" I said.
I looked in the front room, and I looked in the kitchen. Finally, I saw a light in the bathroom. I knocked on the door, and there was no reply, so I opened it a crack.
He was asleep in the bathtub, his cheek pressed against the hot-water knob.
I shook him, trying to wake him up, but he was breathing very quietly, as if he were in a deep sleep. I was afraid he would slip beneath the water and drown. Finally, I reached around his skinny body and pulled the drain plug. When I was sure all the water had drained away, I left him there and went to bed.
But this was for Kacie, this was for our magazine, and so I got up early Saturday morning to work on the blue flower story. I sat down in the living room with a half-used notebook from my last semester at school, ready to write. I sat there with my felt tip pen uncapped.
I sat down again, and uncapped my pen. Flowers, I wrote, in my big handwriting.
I had absolutely nothing to say. I'd only seen the flowers once, and I didn't even know what they were. I realized pretty early on that I should have called some people at the parks department and asked them if they knew, but it was Saturday now, and all the city offices were closed. I started to panic, afraid I might let Kacie down.
Lee was awake. He came into the living room barefoot, his pants all wrinkled.
"Is there anything to eat?" he said.
"There's some bread in the kitchen," I said. "Other than that, only candy."
He went in the kitchen and came out with a bag of orange circus peanuts.
"What are you doing?" he asked me.
"Writing something for Kacie."
"She'll never read it," he said.
He put the circus peanuts on top of the piano, and sat down to play. I had never heard Lee play, except on his record, and the people who used to be his band then had mostly been playing louder than he was. Now, in the living room on a tuneless piano, he was amazing. I don't know if what he played was his song or someone else's, but it left me breathless, like a mouthful of ginger.
"That's nice!" I told him.
"Too bad," Lee said, "it has to be packaged and sold like hot-dogs to be worth anything."
"I don't think so," I said.
The flowers were on a mission from heaven to earth, I wrote, here to tell people happiness came not from building or painting or writing things that made them seem larger in other people's eyes, but from accepting their place within the whole, accepting nature. People and everything they created would deteriorate and die, but nature was everlasting, even in a city where people manufactured too much light to see real stars. The blue flowers, I wrote, were tiny ambassadors from God on the sidewalks of New York.
Suddenly, Lee stopped playing. He shut the piano, and went in the main room to do one of his crossword puzzles. He had a whole book full of them now. I was shaking from writing so much.
"I'll read it," said Lee from the sofa.
I gave him the notebook and went into the kitchen, and I fixed myself peanut butter and bread. I took a long time to eat it in there.
When I came back into the room, Lee had a circus peanut in his mouth.
"If you write like this, you don't need music," Lee said.
"Thanks," I said.
"I need music," he said.
I stayed at home with him for a while, watching TV, even though I really should have been on my way back to the office with the blue flower story.
I did go later, but Kacie was at work on a piece about plumed hats, and she didn't have time to read it.
But it was a happy time, that first burst of success. I'd work longer hours than ever, but when I'd come home Lee would be around the apartment, watching TV or playing the piano. He had moved in his guitar - only the case had been stolen - and soon he was in my apartment most of the time, and then always, and Kacie was so busy she barely noticed. She was going out with a ballet dancer who wanted his picture on the cover of the magazine.
We still had no money coming in from the magazine, but we got a lot of presents. Everyone wanted the things they made to be in our pages, to show off to their trendy friends who would probably be in the next week's issue themselves. People sent us perfume bottles shaped like body organs, and boxes of Christmas cards showing trees with swear words hanging off them, and a lot of original paintings, which we stacked in the corner of the office. It was very nice, although money would have been nicer. I needed to pay the heating bill, because the city was going through a cold snap, and to feed myself and feed Lee. He lay on the couch most of the day, now, with his crossword puzzle books and the TV on. Sometimes he slept there, too.
"Maybe instead of getting a band together, I'll become a private eye," he told me one day.
"Then all this TV watching would be research," I said.
He made plans for both of us. When we were rich again, we were going to live in the dome of an abandoned basilica, waking up with stained-glass window patterns across our bedsheets. Another day he decided he wanted a species of rose named after him. He'd seen on TV that all the very famous celebrities had roses named after them.
"Where's Kacie?" he asked one night when I came home late. "Is she still in the office?"
"She's at the print shop, looking at some posters for the magazine."
"My face used to be on posters all over London," Lee said.
By the third issue, Kacie still hadn't run my story on the flowers. It was still in the same place on her desk, underneath a box of raspberries each tied with its own tiny satin bow, the gift of a gourmet shop. It was incredibly cold out, but I was still seeing the flowers everywhere, and I couldn't believe no one else had written about them. I kept looking in the Times or the New Yorker or New York magazine for some mention of them. Sometimes I though the flowers were something only I could see.
Kacie and I were there very late one night, putting together the fifth issue. We had the pages all set in the computer, ready to be put on disc and taken to the printer's, and were correcting galleys of the last few pages. The all-news radio station told us it was It was 2 a.m.
"Have you seen these layouts for the cover story? " Kacie said. "This is the guy who types novels onto IBM correcta-ribbon and then makes the ribbons into formal dresses. They're very expensive."
I was standing beside her, and I picked up the layouts as she was sorting through papers on her desk, pulling out articles and galleys and photographs, and stuffing all the financial papers, checks and bills, into a drawer. The cover story article consisted of a couple of photos, a little text and huge white borders.
"Is there space for my blue flower story in this issue?" I said.
She stopped for a moment, bent over with the drawer wide open.
"Claire, I don't know about the flower story," she said. "I don't know if people are that interested in natural beauty, you know."
"What?" I said.
"With natural beauty, there's nothing for them to do. Our readers don't have a role, the way they do with artifice."
"The flowers are a message from God," I said.
"Then I think God needs to publish his own magazine," she said. "This one's mine."
She held out the manuscript, written for our magazine, my magazine too. At least it had been typeset.
"It's not a personality story," Kacie said.
I left her there, leaving her with the magazine half-finished, hiding my story under my coat. It was so cold outside my breath turned to ice, but I was hot with anger. My whole life, I think, I had been searching for something to say, and now that I'd said it no one would listen. My bus home stalled out at 59th Street and I had to walk the rest of the way. I saw the flowers on every single block.
Behind the counter, they had children's chalk, in colors, the kind used for drawing on the pavement. I didn't have enough money for a sandwich and chalk, so I bought a roll and chalk.
I went outside the deli, bent down, and circled a patch of flowers with the chalk. I walked down the street and circled another bunch. All night I went up and down the streets of Manhattan, circling flowers. I ended up in Times Square, where I posted the crumpled manuscript of my story on a light pole with tape from the chalk box. At least I had said what I'd been sent to say.
"Kacie called," he said, from the couch. "She wanted to speak to you." His hair was dirty, and had been slept on the wrong way. "She woke me up," he said.
"I'm sorry," I said.
I sat down beside him, exhausted.
"Have you been circling those flowers on the street? She said she saw some on her way out for coffee."
My hands were covered with chalk. I showed him.
"She said that will make the flowers a personality story, so she can run it. She says she wants to write an article about you.".
"About me?" I said.
"I think that's pretty funny," said Lee.
I was just happy that Kacie was sorry. I mean, of course, if she wanted me to be in the magazine, I wouldn't say no. It would be fun to have all those trendy people in the office read it and find who I was.
"She also says she wants you to come down to the office," Lee said. "She says the issue isn't done, and she needs your help to get it out on time."
Lee wrapped himself in the blanket again, ready to go back to sleep. I was thinking about the article in the magazine, how when it ran I'd be recognized as the person who first noticed the blue flowers.
"Do we have any food in the house?" I asked Lee.
"No food," he said.
I sat there for a long time, hungry. It would be cool, I was thinking, if there were someday a statue of me, crouching over a blue flower, circling it.
The door was open, and all the computers were gone, their connection cables hanging listlessly from the tables. Kacie had her head on the table top, surrounded by scissored-away bits of photographs, her arm curved around her hair. Someone had put a pile of photographs on top of the gourmet raspberries, and their juice had soaked through a dozen black-and-white faces.
"Kacie?" I said.
She lifted her head.
"We haven't paid our bills," she said. "They took the computers."
I walked around the office, still piled with papers except for odd blank spots on the desk-top where the machines had been. I found the galleys from the night before.
The computers contained all our manuscripts for the next issue, all our subscription lists, all our newsstands, all our advertiser accounts and billing. I knew right away there was no going on without them. And without them, there was no way of collecting the cash necessary to get them back.
I sat down next to her, but I didn't touch her. There would be no article, and as soon as it rained, all the chalk would be gone. I was no better than the rest of them.
"I tried to make something great," Kacie said.
"You did, for a little while," I said.
I came out of the office and it was morning. The sun overhead was brilliant, but the shadow of the tall buildings blocked the light to the street. In New York, there are buildings all around you, so no matter what direction you pray there is always something between you and God, and you end up praying to that.