By Wayne Scheer.
After a colder winter than usual, spring finally settled into the little town of Thornton, Mississippi. Jimmy Rob, who loved his red-plaid flannels, switched to T-shirts. Aside from changing his clothes, springtime meant something else to him. He had promised himself a year ago that by spring he’d have a better job and a steady girlfriend, maybe even a wife.
He lay in bed watching the morning sun slip through the blinds, forming bars of light in the small room he had occupied since childhood. Squinting to see his football-shaped alarm clock, Jimmy Rob saw he still had an hour before the alarm would go off.
He had been working at Holcomb Nurseries for nearly ten months, loading and unloading trucks. Now, with pansies in full bloom, they were getting in marigolds and other spring to early summer plants. Jimmy Rob hated marigolds. The smell got under his fingernails. Marigolds were worse than unloading forty-pound bags of cow manure with pinholes just big enough for shit dust to get in his hair. At least it washed off, unlike the marigold stench. Even after scrubbing with industrial soap, he could still smell the damn marigolds.
He knew people planted marigolds around their vegetable garden to repel insects. Jimmy Rob feared the marigolds also worked as a babe repellent. The smell had repelled Carolina, his latest true love. She thought it was insecticide, no matter what he said.
“That ain’t no flower smell,” she told him. “It’s the stuff that’s supposed to keep skeeters away but don’t.”
They finally split at the end of the summer. He blamed the marigolds.
There were a couple of girls during the fall and winter when he unloaded racks of pansies and ornamental grasses and hostas, plants that had hardly any odor at all. But none of these relationships lasted much longer than the flower on a day lily.
He knew he didn’t have much going for him, even without stinking like marigolds. Carolina once said that his stringy blond hair and beanpole body made him look like a mop with an Adam’s apple and a dick.
Jimmy Rob rolled onto his stomach. He thought if he humped the bed for a while he’d forget his troubles, but that didn’t work. His parents were awake, and he didn’t want them to hear the springs squeak.
At twenty-four Jimmy Rob still lived with his parents, and his father never let him forget it. He hoped to save enough to move into his own place. But even with free rent, it was hard saving anything from a $7.25 an hour job. He had made good money as a welder out of high school, but the plant had “downsized,” a fancy word for firing him. Now his choice seemed to be working as a short order cook at Bosco’s Diner, and smelling like hamburger grease, or working at the nursery.
He had sold aluminum siding for a while, but it was mainly a commission job and he barely sold enough to pay for lunch at McDonald’s. Besides, he hated trying to persuade people to buy something they didn’t really need. Vinyl siding, another salesman had told him, was really much better.
He needed a job that would earn him some money, almost as much as he needed a girlfriend.
Most of all, he needed to get away from Thornton. The town’s logo, he once told his high school buddies, should be a Dead End sign. The women in town that he’d grown up with were either married by now or moved away. He was too old to cruise the high school for the new crop, and the Thornton bar scene consisted of fat drunks bragging about their past exploits on the football field and the bedroom. That included the men and the women.
There was nothing for him in Thornton. His mama, bless her, said they’d always have a place for him at home, but he heard her tell her friend, Miss Ethel, that she’d like to turn his bedroom into a sewing room some day.
But where could he go? In high school, his guidance counselor had talked to him about going down to Jackson. He could attend the technical school there. “That’s where opportunities are for a young man like yourself.”
But when Jimmy Rob visited Jackson, he felt out of place. Too many folks and too many rules. Straight off, he got a ticket for parking too close to a bus stop. It was the only spot he could find, and his back fender was just touching the yellow line. Fifty damn dollars it cost him. And all he got to do was fill out an application for enrollment. No one contacted him, and that satisfied him just fine. Jackson wasn’t for him.
He’d been up to Memphis a couple times, but he couldn’t imagine living there. The town was full of folks wearing suits and ties. To Jimmy Rob, it looked like everyone was headed to a funeral.
He liked Yazoo City well enough. An old high school buddy of his had moved there, and Jimmy Rob visited him a few times. But Louis went off to the army, and the last time he heard from him he was headed for Iraq.
At one time, he thought he, too, should join the army and see the world. But he got the welding job after high school and never got around to signing up. Besides, with all the trouble in the Middle East, even his old man, who had been in Vietnam, says only a damn fool would volunteer for that nonsense.
He and Louis used to talk of hopping into Louis’s Chevy and driving until they ran out of gas and money. They’d pull into some town they never heard of and get work. That’s how Louis ended up in Yazoo City. Jimmy Rob was supposed to go with him, but he chickened out at the last minute. After all, he had a job at the metal fabricating plant and couldn’t just leave.
That was before the downsizing.
But when he thought of hopping into his own car and finding work in a new town, his heart thumped like he had run out a fifty yard pass.
He knew what the feeling meant. He had felt it before. It meant he was afraid. A damn coward is what he was. He slapped at his pillow with his open hand and kicked his mattress. He was a coward and dumb. A dumb, damn coward. And ugly, too. A dumb, ugly damn coward!
His life wasn’t supposed to be this way. When he learned welding at the vocational high school and got hired at Thornton Iron Works, he thought by now he’d be pulling in decent bucks and have himself a wife and kids.
Instead, he smelled like marigolds.
What he should do, he thought, was kill himself. Who would care? He knew where his father kept his hunting rifle, or he could use the old shotgun in the closet by the front door. He even planned out how he’d write a note explaining everything
But he knew he’d never go through with it. Too much of a coward. And too dumb to even write a good note. He’d probably misspell everything. He could see Ms. Garner, his English teacher at Thornton High, red-penciling his suicide note.
Jimmy managed a smile. She’d probably send his suicide note back for a rewrite. Now that would be hell. Doomed to rewrite your own suicide note for eternity.
Besides, his mother was just barely holding on, and he didn’t want to be the one to push her over the edge. His father said she was never the same after she had her miscarriages. That’s when she started going to church, and his father took to long hunting weekends alone.
“I’ll take you with me when you get older,” his father would say.
Jimmy Rob was still waiting.
Instead, his mother would drag him to church. She’d scrub him clean, make him wear a scratchy shirt and itchy pants. At first, he kind of liked it, despite the clothing. He and his mother would talk about God and sin and being saved.
But he never felt the Holy Spirit. When folks would start shouting and dancing and making weird sounds from deep in their throats, he’d laugh. At first, his mother would just give him dirty looks, like he had passed gas at the dinner table. But then she started jumping around and shouting. She even called him a sinner.
“Once your mama got saved,” his father once told him, “she got mean.” Still, he assured him, “She’s a good woman. Just a little high-strung, is all. You and me, we got to watch out for her.”
She spent more time in church, trying to get Jimmy Rob to attend. But he and God weren’t on speaking terms. He stopped going to church as soon as he got too big for his mother to drag. For a while, after high school, he considered going back and acting like he was saved just to meet girls, but decided that would be wrong. Just in case there was a God, he thought it wise not to anger Him.
Jimmy Rob stared at the clock on the little nightstand beside his bed. It was almost time to wake up, start another day at the nursery. He remembered his original plan: this was going to be the day he’d quit. He’d do the right thing and give them two weeks notice. He would never just up and leave them when truckloads of plants were due, even if they were marigolds.
But what if he couldn’t find another job? And even if he did, would he like it any better than the one he already had? Should he just try to get used to the damn marigolds? After all, it was spring, and a lot of pretty girls in shorts would be coming into the nursery to buy flowers.
Just the other day he tried talking to his father about his predicament. “Boy, you won’t always be unloading trucks. Do your job and learn the business. Someday they’ll have you buying the plants. Then you can save your money and buy your own nursery.”
His father had always spoken of someday owning his own hardware store, but he still worked for Jackson Mott at Mott’s Hardware.
Jimmy Rob tried going back to sleep, but the morning sun made the bars across his bed clearer.
The alarm rang and he slapped at it. He heard his father making coffee downstairs. What he really wanted to do was bury his head under the blanket and not come out. Instead, he unfolded himself from the bed he had slept in since he was a boy, stretched and scratched and flat-footed his way to the shower. With his hair dripping, he stepped into a clean pair of jeans and a fresh Holcomb Nursery T-shirt. Downstairs, his father had placed a box of Cheerios and a container of milk on the table with two bowls.
“Coffee?” his father asked.
Jimmy Rob and his father sipped the black coffee, making identical “ahhh” sounds with every taste.
They sat in silence. Finally his father spoke. “Trouble with spring is the grass starts to growing. You need to mow it after work today.”
“Sure thing,” Jimmy Rob said.
In his mind, he was hitching a ride out west where he’d start a new life.
“They got some nice flowers at the nursery, marigolds and stuff,” Jimmy said, after a long pause. “You want me to plant some in the flower bed?”
“Sure thing,” his father said.
WAYNE SCHEER has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. He’s published numerous stories, poems and essays in print and online, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories. (http://issuu.com/pearnoir/docs/revealing_moments). His short story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting” has been made into a short film. (http://vimeo.com/18491827).