She punched the radio off. It annoyed her that suddenly everybody on the radio was a weatherman. "The three H's again today," said a disk jockey on WHOO-FM, "hazy, hot, and humid." Reports already placed the number of heat exhaustion deaths in the state at two hundred. To make matters worse, the water had been shut off in most of the outlying areas in order to prevent further shortages.
Record-breaking temperatures made early evening rush-hour anything but rushed. Long snake lines of cars were jammed in both directions of Route 46. Some of them overheating puffed white smoke from under uplifted hoods.
Now and then somebody blew a horn, but for the most part it was quiet outside. Nothing moved. The highway seemed quiet as a cemetery.
The word "cemetery" raised the hairs on her neck. She thought of Foster dying or perhaps already dead. He had called her about an hour ago, desperate, pleading. She could hardly decipher what he was struggling to say. But this much she knew for certain: he was in some kind of deep trouble and he needed her now.
"I'll call the police!" she had promised him.
"No! No! Don't do that. Hurry!"
And here she was--stuck in traffic, stuck in the middle of Route 46 with the nearest exit a mile away. Her trembling hands whitened as she gripped the steering wheel as if squeezing it could somehow--magically-- start the traffic moving. Foster needed her. God, get me there before it's too late!
Guilt wormed its way inside her head and sat there like a nagging mother. Only days ago she had finally decided to call off the whole affair. Affair? There never had been an affair. Foster said he loved her; he wanted to marry her. Yet, in all these months, since that cool February morning they had met outside the science lab, he had never even kissed her. At first she was excited by his aloofness. How different he was from the usual out there who thought kissing on the first date was old-fashioned, nothing but a waste-of-time preliminary. Foster was not at all like them.
February over, March roared in as unpredictably as ever. In fact, though some days were warm, for the most part the month was cold and snowy. She hadn't seen Foster during most of March. He said he hated the cold. As a kid he had loved it, especially the snow, but he had come to hate it, so much so that he rarely left his apartment during the winter months. Luckily there was the telephone, both of them calling each other and spending what she referred to as "long-distance quality time." Still, it was a weird kind of relationship. She had fallen in love with a very brilliant, generous, and handsome man--maybe the handsomest she had ever laid eyes on!--but he did not as yet demonstrate in any physical way this undying love he insisted he felt for her.
Funny, she did not even know his first name. "Everybody calls me Foster," he had said. "I'm Foster and my uncle is Dr. Foster, head of the Science Department here at the university."
About two years ago Dr. Nathan Foster had won the coveted Academy of Science Award for his groundbreaking work in botanical genetics, particularly with flower hybrids. It had been Dr. Foster who had given the world its first taste of the now famous Tomato Rose, the reddest, most fragrant of the velvet-soft roses that bloomed throughout the summer months. In early autumn, when falling rose petals start to discolor and wilt to a dry thinness, the huge petals of the healthy Tomato Rose are picked and added to salad bowls or placed inside sandwiches. What had been a rose of beauty to admire in spring and summer became a tomato more delicious than any natural tomato had ever tasted. Dr. Nathan Foster had opened the eyes of scientists everywhere to the unlimited possibilities of cross-pollination.
Carolyn found it hard to believe that Foster, the timid recluse with whom she had fallen in love, was really the nephew of the outgoing, creative genius who restructured botanical genes. It was true, however, that Foster was also a scientist of sorts. He had told her that he was seriously involved with his uncle in another of his scientific projects, one that required much of his time. He hoped she would be patient with him, at least until he managed to tabulate his findings and publish them in one of the prestigious botanical journals. When she had first met him in February, he was leaving the university lab as she was entering. At the time, Carolyn was in her final semester, taking science, never a favorite of hers, just one of the left-over, save-them-for-the-end courses she had to sweat through in order to graduate. Three months later at the end of May, Foster was there at the ceremony to watch her receive her B.A. in Communication Arts. He said she made him proud.
Up ahead Carolyn could see the traffic moving, not as quickly as she'd like, but a highway policeman was now directing cars around the stalled vehicles. At least she was moving.
She wondered what she would find when she got there. It would be the first time she'd see his apartment. He had always put her off with "It's not a pretty sight. A mess is what it is, but it's the only place I can get my project going." Now, weeks later, on the phone, in his desperation, he had blurted out, "The Harlowe Apartments. 23 Davison Road. Hurry!"
On the radio Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand were singing to each other, "You don't bring me flowers. You don't sing me love songs." She had to smile at that one: Foster didn't think it was right to yank flowers out of the ground just to satisfy weddings or funerals or women who would do better to look, and touch, and smell the flowers where they lived and grew.
Oh, let me hear it one more time! she thought sarcastically. Tell me again, damnit, that the weather out there is hazy, hot, and humid. "We're having a heatwave, a tropical heatwave," sang the disk jockey in mock overkill.
What made Foster so puzzling? she wondered. There was something about him that downright scared her. Sure she had loved him; sure he still claimed he loved her, but love wasn't everything.
"Love is like a flower," her mother told her often enough. "You water it, give it sunlight, take care of it day by day and that flower will grow. Neglect it and it will die."
I've done all I can, she reassured herself. What have you done, Foster? But when she had asked him for answers, he had none to give. He was too busy with his work; he hated the cold; things would be better once the spring and summer came.
For awhile, during May and June, he had kept his word. They took in movies, went out to dinner, though Foster rarely ate. "But don't mind me, Carolyn," he'd say. "I love to watch you eat!" Then he'd pop some more of the countless number of vitamins he took every day and swallow them down with a tall glass of water. When the heatwave came, Foster made himself scarce again. He did not like the cold; he did not like extreme heat. For God's sake, what the hell did he like?
Finally she could feel what little warm wind was out there drafting through the open windows of her car as she accelerated to fifty-five. She debated calling 911 and letting the police find Foster. How could she think like that? she wondered. How could love that seemed so strong and promising just end? The sad part was Foster had no idea she had given up on him. He had this naive idea once his project was over, they would marry and live the proverbial happily ever after. Carolyn was sorry she'd have to hurt him, but what choice did she have?
At last she swung left onto Davison Road and parked the panting Chevy inconsiderately in two reserved spaces in front of The Harlowe Apartments. Hurriedly she moved towards the numbers on the apartment units, searching for 23.
"My Uncle Nathan," she remembered Foster telling her months ago, "says the Tomato Rose is only the beginning. He honestly believes the day will come when beautifully fragrant flowers in all their shapes and colors will be genetically manipulated so that they will live as long as you or I. And humans who seem so determined to kill each other off, will in time learn the peacefulness, the contentment, the velvet softness of the flower."
Carolyn made an attempt to knock, then decided instead to call out "Foster, Foster," but he did not answer her. She turned the doorknob. Though the hallway was beastly hot, she could feel the cool breeze that was blowing through the crack in the opening door. She could hear the whirring sound of a fan inside.
At first she did not see him. Looking into the kitchen, she saw it was bare except for a very bright fluorescent light that shone like a kind of sun on the dirt floor. Cautiously she turned towards the bedroom, tiptoeing towards it.
Flowers everywhere! Their scent pinched her nostrils, gagged her almost to nausea. Flowers of every imaginable variety; flowers in every conceivable size and shape: an explosion of color. Here too the floor looked like someone's backyard dirt. She walked carefully so as not to step on the stalks and stems of flowers growing out of the dirt, but not carefully enough. Carolyn screamed. Then she screamed again and again and again.
Beneath her feet lay the strange man named Foster whom for a few months she had loved so much. His handsomeness was gone. In its place thin green stems sprouted like whiskers from every pore on his face. Instead of his dark-brown curly hair, thick spokes of yellowing grass grew tall and unruly; patches of dirt marked his scalp. In place of eyelids, wilting pink rose petals fluttered above his blue eyes. He resembled a humorless Scarecrow, a pathetic figure made of grass dying to hay, frightening enough to keep away crows and humans. His lips moved to speak. Lips red and velvety, sweet as roses, thin petals trembling in the breeze of an overhead fan. In his gnarled brown fingers of tendrils and bark he held the spigot end of a long green garden hose from which only a few drops of water dribbled in the cracks of his hand.
"Water," his lips said in a voice soft and not at all like the deep, resonant voice of the once handsome Foster. "Please. Some water."
There was no water anywhere, not for hours. Not for who knew how long. She could do nothing to save him. From the corner of her eye she saw the two notes under the paperweight on Foster's desk. She saw that he had written them in crude cursive print. Moving towards them, turning from the pathetic look of Foster's lips and fluttering petaled eyes, she read one: "Carolyn, help me," then the other: "Uncle," he had scrawled almost illegibly, "A rose by any other name?"
Salvatore Amico M. Buttaci: Recently published poems and short stories in POETRY MAGAZINE, GREENWICH VILLAGE GAZETTE, THE MANHATTANITE, PENNY-A-LINER, AND OPUS LITERARY REVIEW. Co-founder of "Saturday Afternoon Poets," a poetry-reading group that conducts readings and workshops at various New Jersey libraries. Currently teaches English at a local elementary school by day and a community college by night. Former editor of POETIDINGS and of New Worlds Unlimited.
Return to the Aphelion main page.