Two Painted Flowers
It was just after my folks helped lay old man Dobbs to rest in written in fingerprint by lonely people who wanted someone to know
a windswept cemetery on a hot, cloudless June afternoon that I came they spent last Saturday night there, repeating their signatures as they
to see her in our farm community in Mission County. She had moved did every Saturday night in their small town lives. It was an all
into neighbor Dobbs’ place as silently as he left. I remember the day, around beautiful day and I was simply celebrating it being Friday,
as there were so many like it, where summer was met with a certain five p.m., and being older and wiser.
amount of dread, and dust hung on every sight, sound and syllable. I "Here you go, Hon," she said as she took a swipe with the
could sense it mostly in my father's voice. Summer struggled through bar rag at my elbows and set the frosty mug on a doily.
to a folding into September and my lazy mornings on the hill west of She looked at me and I saw that curvaceous smile beginning
my house were to be replaced by school books. On early summer to turn into a blossoming joy. Miss Kelly was someone special when
mornings the hill would gently rise from the prairie around it. It had she smiled. It'd make my heart jump a little just to hear her deep
a cover of green, a toupee of thick, meshy, sleek grass with two laughter and see her gearing up for a quick reply in her sparkling
flowers framing it. Just two. Like a child's painting the two flowers eyes.
had big petals. It was a mound of green under a blue sky. She loved "Got an assignment for you," she said smiling.
it there. I saw her in those mornings pasted against the blue sky "Are we allowed to do that?" I asked her innocently.
always moving and restless, a skinny redheaded little thing with dark "I would with you but I like you too much."
eyes and a toothy smile. She favored loose fitting summer dresses "So what's the assignment?" I asked her, drawing the foam off my
with a pair of jeans on underneath and a pair of red denim tennis beer.
shoes with the big white plastic toe. She used to stop and spit on her "I need you to find me a man," she said.
thumb and clean the toes until they were sparkling white. Then, one "You already got one. Or at least had one last week," I replied.
day, she just wasn't there. It was the same day in fall my mother left. She looked at me, her glasses tipping small shards of sunset into
As I grew up I thought a lot about the two of them. I her blue, lashed eyes.
searched for them in the books I crawled into as the years passed. "No. All I've got is lousy judgment," she said, rinsing out a glass
But they were just words with shadows whereas my playmate and in the dull silver sink. "I just keep getting them worse and worse,"
my mother became shadows without words. she said. "I want you to pick 'em out for me."
*** "Won't work, Miss Kelly," I said. "I want you for myself, so none
"Hi Miss Kelly. Give me a beer," I said as I entered Silva's of them will be good enough."
Hollar. Silva's was one of those places that felt lived in and "There has got to be one somewhere."
everybody knew you even if you weren't a local. I was traveling "They opened Siberia yet?"
through Rawhide Buttes like I did several times a month to help "Cute. I'm half serious about this, you know."
the staff at the local newspaper. It was a fall afternoon and the sun "So, what am I supposed to do? The half that's serious now,"
shone through the west windows, mosquitoes blazing a trail through I said, smiling at the game I thought we were playing.
the shafts of sandy-colored sunlight. They landed on faded names, My attention wandered to a blonde who had just walked in.
She smiled at me, I smiled at her, Miss Kelly glared at me for a Everybody referred to her as Miss Kelly. No one at Silva's ever
moment and I could see the miles etched on the blonde's face. A real called her anything but that and they did so with a respectful tone.
round of communication. I turned back to Miss Kelly. She commanded the respect generally accorded to people of position.
"Well, what do you want from this guy I'm supposed to find?" It wasn't in her nature to take any grief although it undoubtedly filled
She folded the dishrag and set it on the ledge. the top half of her job description. The other question was why I felt
"All I'm looking for is a guy who will give me some respect, I had known her forever.
show me a good time, and who wants to invest in a little sex. It's I thought about all this as I finished my beer. The sun was
been two weeks.” just setting past the water tower, throwing windmill reflections onto
"Since you had respect?" the hardwood floor behind me. I casually eyed Miss Kelly, waiting
"No fool, the other," she said, a laugh catching in the strands of for her forgiving smile to crop back up so I could kiss her goodnight.
her syllables. She eventually stopped scrubbing the counter. She poured beers and
It was the laugh that threw me. Aside from my absolute crush on took them over to a couple of guys at the end of the bar. I envied
Miss Kelly, hidden through my self-perceived wit and beer foam, I them in their simple retirement: worn blue Dickey workshirts rolled
never grew tired of studying her, of looking for that slow smile that haphazardly up their arms as they rubbed their chins and reminisced
edged its way up as she peered doe-eyed around the horseshoe bar. I about old times. Finally, as I set down my glass, she sauntered over
had never been introduced to her formally; we just sort of collided at to me, leaned across the bar and smiled. "Goodnight, Miss Kelly," I
5 p.m., swapping lies and flatteries. I looked forward to each passing said in my most formal tone.
month in Rawhide Buttes. As far as I was concerned, my editor skills "Goodnight," she said. "Remember your assignment."
were really going to be needed. "I will. But I'm telling you..."
"You're serious about this, aren't you?" I asked, sliding my At that instant her lips brushed mine and I felt much like the
beer glass to the spigot where she promptly refilled it, tipping it away long wooden bar table as Miss Kelly left her print on me, signing
from her with grace and movement resulting in a half inch cap of herself across the deeper parts of me, butterflies like mosquitoes
foam. She handed it to me and leaned across the bar. darting on the sun shards that quivered through me and hoping it
"Yes," she said. "I am. I simply don't know what's good for would be this way, every night, in a small town life.
me anymore. You have an insight on people. I can tell from your ***
columns. Besides, you know me." I had truly given Miss Kelly's assignment some serious
"Do I, Miss Kelly?" thought. She deserved someone nice, someone who would treat her
Her smile vanished as she turned away from me. She with the right balance of respect, affection, and tolerance to her
cleaned a counter behind her and I could see the rapid circular formidable moods. I mentally ran through the list of guys I knew but
strokes of the bar rag announcing her irritation. I hadn't struck onto anything significant even two weeks later as I sat
My reply was a little catty since it brought up the only conflict at my desk writing my column for the next week's edition. I probably
between us. Miss Kelly wouldn't talk about herself at all. I had two wouldn't be back in the neighborhood for two or three more weeks
main questions burning in my mind all the time and she wouldn't and I had failed so far. Somehow, I couldn't
answer either one. Why "Miss Kelly" instead of just Kelly. feel too bad about it. As I turned back to my column, noting that in
an hour I'd be sitting at Silva's, the phone rang. dropped and abandoned on the mournful prairie, entirely out of its
"Rawhide Buttes Clarion, Tom speaking" element and forced to root itself down in its new home. Perhaps it
"Tom." I didn’t recognize the voice for a moment. "This is was what brought us: the point, Miss Kelly, and myself together
Silva." under an afternoon sun, the world beneath us yet the crushing of
"Hey Silva. What can I do for you?" I paused for a moment whatever it was we couldn't escape from.
sensing a note of worry in her voice. I parked my motorcycle at the base of the hill off to one side of the
"Have you seen Miss Kelly?" two figures atop the point. I could barely see her as I had parked far
"No. I am going to see her in about an hour at your place. Is enough away so as not to disturb them. I saw another figure standing
everything OK?" across from her, gesticulating, arms flailing up and down and making
"I don't know. Some old man came in here about an hour ago grabs at her. She stood her ground as I started up the hill, a prickling
asking for her. I hadn't seen him around before. They talked for a few of tenseness across my shoulders. I saw him grab her arm and
minutes and she got this look on her face. I can't describe it. A few attempt to pull her away. She pulled back, a "No" rising in the wind
minutes later, almost in tears she was, she took off her apron and and I picked up my pace.
asked me to cover. Then she went storming out with the old man on As I gained the top, neither Miss Kelly nor the old man had
her heels." seen me. I stood back from them, wanting to help Miss Kelly but
"Did she say where she was going or when she’d be back?" also wanting to see if this meeting would unfold the questions in my
"Neither one. She just said she was going to have this out on mind.
her terms and he, whoever he was, would get the point." His faded blue bib overalls hung on his body, the denim legs
"Was there anything else you remember?" I asked, rubbing snapping in the breeze. His worn flannel shirt moved easily with him
my hand across my forehead as if the answer might rub off. as he punctuated his points. His sleeves, one half rolled up and the
"Yeah. She wanted me to call you. Said you'd get the point other unrolled entirely, flexed against his once muscled arms. He
too. You have any idea?" was holding his farm cap in one hand and the wind rolled over his
While being a journalist doesn't allow for a lot of spiritual sparse gray hair. He grabbed her again and Miss Kelly pushed him
intuitiveness it occasionally visits me in the form of a soft green hill away. He stared at her for a moment. They stood as two statues on
with two flowers on it. It flashed through my mind, pointless in its the point, motionless accept for the whipping of Miss Kelly's dress
application and timing yet a possibility wandered out from my mind, and the snapping of denim. The wind had pushed Miss Kelly's honey
shadowy and as definite as my feeling of loss several Augusts ago. blonde hair over to one side away from her, curling it madly around
"Yes, Silva. I have an idea. I'm on my way." The dying hum itself and I caught a scent of light perfume. Her hand brushed across
of my computer followed me out of the office into the summer her forehead, spilling hair away to fall back around her chin. She
sunlight. stood rigid, her back a perfect vertical line against the horizon. Her
Lowery's Point was a smooth incline that overlooked anger shot through the breeze like rain. I could feel it as if the wind
Rawhide Buttes. It rose from the prairie floor steeply and abrupt. The had laid something solid on my hand. I had never seen anything
top 10 feet jutted up like a cap, flattening out as smooth as a dance more beautiful or strong pasted against a summer sky, and I saw a
floor on top. It had traveled with some long ago glacier and had been flickering of a girl in a sundress and a hillside with two flowers that
took me through youth in that moment. distance away. She sat down, her dress swirling around her knees. As
I saw the man's hand close in a fist as he stared at Miss she brushed her hair back, I began to walk away, sensing this was
Kelly. I moved loudly across the rocks within his line of vision. He something she needed to work out on her own.
looked surprised. His hand twitched as I approached. Miss Kelly "Please, stay," she said softly.
didn't turn around but stood defiantly, unmoving, as if trying to melt I took off my leather jacket and laid it around her shoulders. The sun
him away. I walked beside Miss Kelly, placing one hand on her arm had settled further to the west and it was cooling down.
and the other on the small of her back. "That was my father," she said flatly.
"Miss Kelly," I said softly. I felt her relax slightly even "I figured as much," I said. "Where did he want you to go?"
though her gaze never left his. "Away. Somewhere different. Like we always have. I just
I could see the time-worn courses through his tanned face as couldn't do it this time," she stared off again at where she had last
our eyes collided. For a moment we were locked and I had to fight a seen her father, a look of sorrow on her face as if wishing he would
sense of looking away from the intense blue that was boring through come back.
me. His eyes then dropped and his fist unclenched. "The truth is, Elizabeth, it's none of my business but I can't
"It's time to leave, Elizabeth. It's time to meet Miss Kelly," very well find you a man if I don't know whether to call you Miss
he said. His tone was firm, without pleading but softly and without Kelly or Elizabeth. You've made this assignment pretty difficult."
the anger he had been showing earlier. He reached for her and I laid I glanced out of the corner of my eye, seeing her reaction. I
my hand on his arm. smiled at her, hoping it would break the lace of sorrow that bound
"No," she said. "I'm not leaving again. Goodbye." her. She turned to me and rewarded me with a smile.
The old man stood, his body sagging. He reached up slowly "Do you have one in mind?" she asked.
wih his other hand. I watched him closely but his hand only moved "Yes, I do. He's perfect for you. Other than the name
up to her cheek and caressed it lightly. His arm fell away. He looked problem I think everything will work out just fine. I'm almost
at her for another moment and walked away slowly, the sun catching jealous."
the brass buckle of his farm hat as he pulled it firmly on his head. "Just almost?"
Miss Kelly watched him walk away until he was lost "Yeah," I said as I sent a rock skittering across the smooth
from sight as he descended the rock ledge. As she turned to me there surface of the point. Our eyes met for a moment, I felt her lips
were tears in her eyes, washing color into that brilliant blue and it quietly breathe on mine and the old bantering spirit rose between us
struck me that I had witnessed the parting of a father and daughter. and we both relaxed.
She didn't move into my embrace and I didn't force it. Her "How well did you know your mother?" she asked.
hands were enfolded in mine as we both stared at where the old man The question caught me off guard, considering it was not a line of
had last been seen. questioning even vaguely related to the events of the afternoon. I
"Miss Kelly?" thought about evading the question but I knew Miss Kelly well
"Elizabeth," she said, managing a smile as I brushed tears enough to know I might get some answers by answering her
away from her cheek. questions, a journalistic ploy that comes in handy when someone
She moved away and walked over to a rock pile a short doesn't want to talk to you.
"Not real well. She left when I was seven. Just up and gone stayed in. He would fill her with promises of something better or
one morning. Even before then she was a shadow in the house. whatever and we would find someone traveling with us. Dad always
Sometimes I wonder if she was ever there at all. Anyway, my father wanted us to call her Mother. But she never stayed around very long.
raised me. All of that seems so long ago. It was if I lost my mother She would see through the promises and when it came time to move
and a friend at the same time, or at least, close to again, sometimes she would come with us. But often, she would be
the same time." gone. And we would move on and it would happen again. And
"How can a mother be like a friend when you were only always, just when we started to feel safe, he'd tell us that 'it's time to
seven?" see Miss Kelly' and we'd be moving on again."
"No, that's not what I mean. My mother took off but I contemplated her words, turning them over in my mind,
somehow I knew she was all right. Better off maybe. But there was a seeing the many forms of abandonment and forming a picture that
friend, a neighbor girl that spent the summer before my mother left. made me hurt for both of us.
I'm the only one who seems to remember her. Sometimes I think I "Two years," Miss Kelly said softly. "She was with us two
made her up. My father wouldn't say anything about her. Or why my years."
mother left for that matter. I know it sounds stupid but it was like "Was she good to you?"
they both just disappeared one morning and I never knew who I "Better than most."
missed most. I had a mother so I figured I must have made the girl "I thought she might be," my voice was expressionless as I
up. Kind of like an imaginary friend. But she was special." Miss thought of her as I had known her. After a moment I turned to
Kelly smiled, fresh tears in her eyes, Elizabeth.
"What was she like?" "You chose Miss Kelly as a name so you could..."
"She was almost like a shadow. She'd come over this hill that "I chose Miss Kelly to make it end. I became a reminder of
had flowers on it that she really liked and she used to wear a flowery what Dad had done to us. It was my way of saying that we were
sundress with blue jeans underneath. She used to taunt me until I staying. If we had to find Miss Kelly then I would become her. Does
chased her. I think she even kissed me once. But she would never let it make any sense at all?" she asked.
me go past the top of the hill. One day she just didn't come back." "Yes, it does," I said as we stared off into the late afternoon
"No," Miss Kelly said," "She didn't let anyone go where they sky. "It makes a lot of sense."
might see her life. You were too close." She folded her hand in mine and said nothing.
"Is that your life or hers?" I knew I was pushing but "You kept using 'we' - you and your dad?" I felt her hand
something in that remark said too much squeeze mine as if looking for a warm hideaway.
"Because Mamma had died and dad was raising us. He was "I had a sister. She was always getting into trouble, running
afraid someone would find out that he was a single parent and take off from whatever farmstead we were living on. Dad always chose
us away from him. But sometimes Dad would take someone else farmsteads because it was more difficult for people to spy on us. She
with him. used to run off across fence lines and ditches, exploring and romping
"What do you mean?" through the fields. I used to envy her so for her lack of fear. She
"Sometimes he would meet a woman in the communities we knew Dad would punish her when she got home but she'd do it
anyway. I was too scared to leave the yard and I would watch her footing in the dark and fell in, trapping her foot on some old wire.
until she became a speck on the fields and when she came home, We were gone and no one knew who she was. I found out through a
before Dad got to her, I'd ask her where she'd been. She would hug newspaper story. I wanted to go back but Dad said there was nothing
me and dance around and tell me all about her adventures and Dad we could do. She had just had her thirteenth birthday. Did you know
would take a strap to her. The next day she would do it again. Then, that?”
one day Dad went to take the strap to her and she refused, holding "No, I didn’t. Why does he want you to leave now?"
him at bay with a pitchfork. He'd told us it was time to see Miss "Because of you."
Kelly again and she refused to go." "Me?"
"I'm not going to see Miss Kelly. I'm not going anywhere "Yes. Something in one of your columns. You wrote about a
with you." hillside and a playmate and the Dobbs place. Dad knew I was living
He took off his belt and folded it in half. "You’ll do what here and he must have come by my house. I had that column on my
you’re told to do girl. Now pack your stuff. We’re moving out refrigerator. He must have read it. Then, when Dad saw you he
tonight." remembered who you were. That’s why he wanted us to leave.
"I’m not going," she said. The belt struck her on her I wondered if he remembered a gaunt dust-stained child's face
shoulder. She grabbed a nearby pitchfork and held it out, points staring out of an upstairs window watching his mother put her bags
down. in a man's car, not his father's, and drive away just before dawn.
"I said I’m not going anywhere with you," she hissed. "Hey "You probably wouldn't have needed me, but I'm glad I was
Sis, you know who Miss Kelly is? Kelly was our real mother's here anyway."
maiden name. When she was young and beautiful, before he got to "I'm glad you were too," she said. "It's odd, but after telling
her. We can't visit Miss Kelly because Miss Kelly is lying cold and you this I remember the strangest thing she used to do. After she'd
dead an..." tell me about her adventures and she would see Dad come across the
She never finished as he struck down the pitchfork with one yard with the strap she'd kneel down and lick her thumb an..."
hand, the other sweeping her hard across the mouth, knocking her Without thought I looked down at Elizabeth's feet. She was
down. As she got up she wiped away the blood and started backing wearing canvas tennis shoes with a large white plastic top over the
away. toes. I kneeled down before her, licked my thumb and ran it across
"I said I'm not going. Come with me, sis. Let him find Miss the white toe until it was sparkling white.
Kelly by himself. He knows where she's rotting. He probably put her Elizabeth looked down at me, her eyes large in surprise and
there." joy and memory. I looked at her and everything fell into place.
"I wanted to go with her but I was too scared. We watched her run "So she was real. I didn't make her up. Your sister’s name
and I knew, as I was stuffing things into our bags that I wouldn't see was Cleva," I said softly, more to myself.
her again for a long time." We ran over the hill and picked flowers and looked for
"Have you seen her since?" snakes, her sundress flapping like a kite and she would tease me and
"No. She was found in a canal under a bridge several days get me to chase her and she would always make me stop at the top of
later by some people catfishing. It looked like she had lost her the hill, push me and tell me not to follow her. She would run,
somewhere then, and it would be just me on our hill, my painting my painting. The flowers that may have been a mother and a best friend
aloneness, my childhood peace, until the next morning where I disappearing on the same day. Yes, I was there."
would hope to see her again. The sun was letting go of its last feeble rays. I held Elizabeth
We both stood up. My hands moved to Elizabeth's shoulders and close as we stood on that lonely rock watching the town lights
she bowed her head onto mine. getting brighter, etching life across the sky.
"Yes, Cleva," she whispered. She looked up at me. "You Taking her face in my hands I kissed the curl on her
were somewhere on the other side of one of those hills she wouldn't forehead.
tell me about, weren't you?" "Let's go home, Elizabeth."
"Yes. The hill with the two flowers that looked like a child's