A Garden Variety Love
By Benjamin J. Gohs
Milt the younger was right but the old man scoffed, and threw his book, scattering everything on the bedside table to the floor.
They stared: same steely eyes, long ginger foreheads, same trembling indignant jowls. Opposite walls, for a long while, they looked upon with angry breathing out of time with the drunken metronome tick of the large bug against the window overlooking the garden.
“Really look terrible, dad. Sure we shouldn’t get you checked?”
Old man picked at black fingernails. His mud-mottled face cracked in grimace.
Milt rolled his eyes and groaned. Gathered on hands and knees among newspaper, socks, candy wrappers. Picked up two frames—an old woman and young family trio—plastic tumbler, tissue box, and rusty nail clippers.
The old man scooched and propped his pillows against the headboard.
“Why you gotta make everything so difficult?”
“Sound like your mother.”
“Except you wouldn’t be pulling this shit if she was here.”
The old man leafed through the book and spoke as if to it, “Don’t talk about her like she’s dead. Anyway, nobody asked you to come.”
“No. I got a call from Miss Agnes. Said you were pulling weeds … with no clothes on.”
“Time was, man could do as he pleased.”
“Lucky she didn’t call the cops.”
Milt watched the kitchen clock for signs of life. He turned off the stove and set the table.
“Lunch!” he called and waited for shuffling in the hall. “Hello? Time to eat.”
After a time, he went back to the bedroom.
“Soup’s getting cold.”
“Starving to death won’t bring her back.”
“Never said it would.”
Milt went to the garden window. Bee had gotten between panes and was resting on the storm glass.
“What’re you reading?”
“Story of a complicated man.”
The bee suddenly ping-ponged furiously in its crystal cell. Milt flinched with a shriek. Old man shook his head.
“So, this your plan? Lie in bed? Wait to die?”
Old man lowered his book.
“I’m tired. If I wanna lay in bed all day or pick tomatoes for my breakfast—in my boxers, by the way, wasn’t completely naked—then I’ve every right.”
“Only cuz mom’s not around.”
“She’s fine with it.”
“See,” Milt said. He pounded the window frame. “I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or truly lost your mind.”
“Stuffy. Let some air in.”
Milt took a gardening magazine off the floor and rolled it tight. “Little sucker really wants in.”
“What is it?”
“Honeybee. Big one.”
The old man threw down his book and jumped out of bed. “Leave it alone!” He yanked the paper club from his son’s hand and struck him hard across the face.
“Ow. Jesus. S’wrong with you.”
“She’s here. She’s here,” the old man mumbled. He slid the window open.
“No!” Milt shouted and shoved his father onto the bed.
Wrinkled fist in his other hand, the old man giggled, keep-away hysterics.
Milt fought to open the rough fingers, but they were strong. Then, sudden as it began, the old man went limp. Middle of the palm, tethered by a tiny barb, it trembled.
“Where’s your shot?” Milt said, using the magazine to flick the bee to the floor.
“Gave her life.” Clean streams streaked the filthy cheeks. He looked up at his son. “To bring me home.”
Milt rushed and ransacked kitchen, fridge and cupboard. The bathroom medicine chest was empty but for expired orange bottles.
When Milt returned, his father was in the closet, one leg in tuxedo pants.
“Where’s your medicine? I can’t find it.”
“Need my tie. One I got for Christmas last year.”
Milt took his father by the shoulder and spun him to. The old man’s face swollen and neck splotchy.
“Threw it away,” he said between labored breaths. “Months ago.”
“Oh my god. Why?”
Old man shook his head and fell back into the closet.
Milt rushed to the kitchen and lifted the receiver. Stuck his finger in the zero and twirled the rotor.
Soft twang of a woman faraway: “Operator. How can I direct you?”
Screen door crash. Milt pulled back the curtain over the sink.
“Hello? Hello?” the operator begged.
Milt watched his father stagger between rows of Lemon Boys and Kentucky beans. The phone swung like a pendulum on a faceless clock.
Milt found the old man barefoot, suit pants and coat shirtless, in a heap under the arch of climbing roses.
Two fingers to his father’s wrist. Nothing. He put his ear against the old man’s nose. Late morning mist dissolved into heat and shine waiting for the body to move, the eyes to open, mouth to complain.
Milt went back to the kitchen and redialed. Told them where to come.
Out in the garage, he found a pair of rusty snips. Rolled the old man’s body out flat and picked through bushes for a medium Don Juan and clipped it off and stuck it in the father’s breast pocket.
Milt watched the backdoor, certain mom would float down the steps with lemonade.
On the edge of silence, down a lazy summer street, rose the long high whine of help too late. The absurdity of sorrow on such a beautiful—Milt cried because of it.
And when a bee bobbed on the crimson petals nearby, he smiled and was not afraid.