Story: Petunia, Under the Sun

By: Wylie Strout

underthesun

“You forgot your smile,” says the cashier. Constant indigestion. Constant chewing. No one approaches, anymore.

Worlds of people living behind closed doors. Hiding from the air; hiding from the sun.

Petunia locks the car doors. Heading home after a routine errand. A routine day. “How exhausting my life seems. How uneventful my life seems,” Petunia ponders. She arrives at her home, an apartment complex of similarly situated concrete single family efficiencies, unlocks the door, walks in, puts down the grocery bag and slips into her nightgown and bathrobe. It’s five o’clock. Nuke a potato. Make-up residue clings. “Scrub it off now,” she says out-loud. Ocean waves play over the audio guide and she attempts to relax. She tells herself: “It’s time to relax.”

Petunia’s page boy haircut frames a smile that is disproportionately large and beaming on a small head. She is awkwardly tall (some might say gangly) and moves much like one would envision an erect locust walking slowly on its back legs.

Petunia is unemployed. Her case worker doesn’t check in anymore. She collects checks from the state. She waits and waits. One day life will change. Fifty years old and waiting for everything everyone always told her would come. No friends. No lovers. No neighbors to talk to. The rental office sees her once a year. Her family is busy with their lives. She lingers.

What to do when hope is the only hope? Fidgeting she plays on the Internet. No news worthwhile. Earthquake in Haiti. She dreams she is there. Petunia sees herself needed in Haiti; desired in Haiti.

Historically, Petunia prefers seclusion amidst the masses. A voyeurist’s voyeurist. She tries very hard to be out in the world. On her wall she pegs the places she will go on a large modern wall map. She aspires so.
What to do when the world holds you down? What to do when the world gives you something else? What to do….

Fly on a kite. “Fly, fly,” she mumbles.

On the other side of the wall, Jefferson saunters. Jefferson observes.

Every-once-in-a-while Petunia aspires to begin life again.

This man, with his round whimpering eyes and long lashes, watches. Following Petunia; he scurries to her gym; scurries to the grocery store. Time has caught up with the balding Jefferson, making him round and soft. “Distinguished,” he would tell himself, staring at his reflection.

Petunia notices Jefferson often peeking out at her from behind his curtains and then ducking down to hide again. A living mole, she thinks. Better than a dead mole, she thinks again.

He knocks once in a while on an adjoining wall. She hears and will stop what she is doing, perhaps blow drying her hair, and listen.

And why not a hello? A “may I borrow a cup of sugar” visit? A “was that an earthquake” moment? Say the word. She embodies it. He attempts to reach over it. Suspicion. Sospecha. Sospetto. Méfiance. Vedächtigung. Universal qualms, doubts, misgivings, skeptism. Total défiance. Mistrust.

It is springtime. The rain comes down on a surprisingly sunny day. Timing. All it ever is, ever was, is timing. Society’s misfits, the dysfunctional, the unwanted, now find themselves together in the hallway of this enclave.

Jefferson sees Petunia fumbling with her lock. Courage, he thinks. “My name is Jefferson,” he says encouragingly. A burst of spontaneity.

Petunia’s widening eyes peer back quickly before she returns to concentrating on unlocking her door. Bending her head up towards him, a word is heard: “Petunia.” She opens the door and moves to go inside – quickly beginning to shut the door.

In a glorious instantaneous moment of transmotional hope of something, Jefferson’s arm limits the door from shutting. The lady feels his breath. The gentleman says her name.

“Petunia, like the flower?”

“Just like the flower, although I only have geraniums. Jefferson, like the TV show?”

“Just like the TV show.”

“I have some gin. If you like gin.”

“It’s 10 a.m. Sure. You’re absolutely dead on. Gin would be lovely.”

“It’s funny. Over time, my ice cube trays have come in rather handy. More than anything else that I’ve bought. Strange, as I don’t often have visitors. Mother liked ice cubes.”

“Ice cubes would be extraordinary. I never bought the trays myself. Should I shut the door?”

“I don’t know,” Petunia hesitates.

“You don’t know?” Jefferson responds.

“I don’t know what that means,” she insists.

“It means we would be conversing with a layer of privacy between here and there; the there being the people who live above you, the people living below you and the people living on either side of you.”

“No, no, no. Not today. I need to feel the air.” Continuing to gaze at this Jefferson, Petunia awkwardly moves from under his arm to the refrigerator, only to re-arrive with the ice cubes in the middle of this living room attached to a kitchen.

“Indeed. I’ll wedge the door open then, unless you just want me to hold the door and drink from here?”

“I suppose you can close the door. Take a seat… if you’d like. I have the couches, you see, or you could sit in the chair there. Yes, by the kitchen.”

“Couldn’t really make any money giving tours of this place, could we?”

“No. Don’t think so.” Petunia returns to the kitchen to fix the cocktails.

“Everything is compact. We live in cells. All of us. No one wants architectural tours of the cells. What I’m thinking is, in fifty years, the cells will be some type of monumental historical site to show life how it once existed before the extinction.”

“Our extinction?”

“You don’t think they will keep us around much longer?”

“They? Who? We have purpose.”

She hands Jefferson a dainty glass of gin with ice.

“Purpose?” He smells the drink and sips.

“You’re talking about others. We have purpose, Jefferson.”

Jefferson is not sure where to sit. It is not a matter of being comfortable; he will not get comfortable. He sits on the couch. On the left side of the couch.

‘Did you ever see “The Misfits?”’

“Yes,” Petunia answers.

“All of us in cells are as lost as Clark Gable trying to rope the wild mustangs.”

“Jefferson, you remind me of Clark Gable. Just a little. I see similarity of desperation.”

“You can be my Marilyn. Do you think there is a problem with the water?”

“No, I thought you would prefer gin with ice. Straight with ice. If I thought there was a problem with the water, I would not make ice, out of the water.”

“Do you ever cry?”

“No, Jefferson, I don’t cry anymore.”

“I cry when I realize I can’t see. I’m roped in. Maybe that is all it is. I keep my head down out of respect and indignation. Respect that I don’t have it to be one of them and indignation of their non-acceptance of my being.”

“You’re very passionate.”

“Scream for me.”

“Sorry?” Petunia starts back pedaling.

“You never make sounds. Let the world know you are alive, Petunia. I will scream, if you will scream. Let’s scream together.”

“I can’t remember.”

“You can’t remember?”

“No. No recall. No memory. Aren’t you the combative one! Challenging my being. It’s none of your business whether I make sounds.”

“What if you share with me?”

“Share with you? Petunia puts one hand on her forehead and holds the other up to indicate for Jefferson to suspend this dialogue. “It’s hot in here. I’m going to wedge the door….”

Unrelenting, the formerly sheepish Jefferson is standing tall, handsomely demanding the lady to respond. “Scream, Petunia, scream.”

Trembling, Petunia questions this interruption, “What would it mean?” Dropping the gin, her glass shatters. Without missing a beat and rather instantaneously awkwardly composing herself, she lets out a simple, “Good-bye, Jefferson. I need to straighten.”

Jefferson’s demeanor reverts and he silently returns to his abode.

Holding on, Jefferson glances out towards her doorway time and time again, day after day, with hope of seeing his Petunia. He begins giving food, when she gives food. He begins giving plasma, when she gives plasma. He seeks redemption where she seeks redemption.

Ignoring Jefferson, Petunia lives on.

The years pass quickly. The neighborhood is very much abandoned. Dismantled awnings, broken windows and chipped paint surround. The remaining inhabitants continue to grow more insular and seek the free air less and less.

Jefferson grows darker. Ever lurking, he increases his attempts at engagement in the interior hallway. Yet hope fades.

The moon is bright the night Jefferson last seeks his flower (yet the sun has not yet set). He sees Petunia responding unusually to something out in the abyss. Ignoring the years; the weathering; she ventures out into the shifting sky and finds an opening. Jefferson follows.

The two now overlook a once flourishing earth that no longer presents hope of meaning, of love or wonder. With dilated vision, Petunia gazes up seeking a different realm.

“Oh my love, my glimmer of glimmer in this life of mine,” Jefferson says under his breath, not believing. Not believing the finality. It is tragically apparent to him as he sees her in this very moment that he is infinitely separated from her. “If only you would come away with me.”

Imprisoning Petunia from responding, white noise showers down with the now setting sun’s rays; the moon will freeze her misdirected vision in a lost gaze.

* * * * *

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