Red Geraniums

A crow flew from the top of the telephone pole down to the snow-covered ground and cawed into the predawn darkness. It flitted about and ruffled its feathers, turned its neck twice and hopped to the garbage bags that had been set out the night before in front of the McMillan home. It poked its beak into the bag, puncturing it with one attack. It used one foot to rip open the bag further, to get a better look, continually turning its head to check its blindsides. Finally, it clamped onto a small piece of stale white bread and flew back to the porch railing on the McMillans’ second story. There it settled and began to eat, looking up frequently to view the house across the street—the Hall house, and the house next to it, where the Wrights lived. In the driveway across the street, something stirred.

 

Lana Wright knelt down to her bedroom window and felt the warmth of the radiator against her chest and belly. A shuffling outside startled her. Her body shook a little and her heart raced. Looking outside she saw old Mr. Hall lumbering to move his garbage can out to the curb. A crow cawed repeatedly in the distance and the sound of the snowplow scraping the street a few houses down shook her a little more. Mr. Hall wore a heavy blue coat that puffed up around him and stiff plain workman’s pants and she watched the icy wind blow against him, moving his grey hair in a long swoop off the top of his head. The man held both handles of the aluminum can and lumbered along dragging the can. Lana held her breath. The ice underneath the newly covered driveway threatened Mr. Hall. The thin man might just blow away if he didn’t have the weight of the garbage can to hold him down. “Everything is hard,” she whispered to herself. She wished Martin, or her father, were up and seeing Mr. Hall struggle, but it was early.

The wind caught the top of the garbage can and it came loose, threatening to fly away. Mr. Hall reached for the lid and this motion threw him off balance. He crashed to the ground with a thud, taking the garbage can down with him and spilling the contents of the can onto his driveway.

Lana was startled, but she ran out of her room, down the stairs. She put on her snow boots, brown winter coat and quickly wrapped a scarf around her head. Then she pushed on the heavy side door and was out in the cold, winter morning.

She rushed to Mr. Hall and knelt down next to him.

“I saw what happened. Are you okay?” He looked dazed. She tilted her head and studied him, worried that she might have bumped his head on the driveway.

“I can’t get up. Think the leg is broken.”

“I’ll get help. Stay here.” She darted back into her house.

Lana ran through the kitchen into the hall. She knocked on her parents’ bedroom door.

“Get up. Get up. Mr. Hall is hurt. Get up!”

Lana paced in the hallway, fidgeting with her scarf. She heard her father snore and knocked again.

“We need help,” Lana screamed. She pounded on the door with her fist.
Her mother opened the door. She looked nervous.

“It’s Mr. Hall next door!” Lana’s eyes filled with tears.

“What is it, honey? What’s happened?’ Lana felt her mother’s anxiousness.

“He’s fallen and he thinks his leg is broken and he’s out there now!”

Lana’s mother pulled her robe around her and looked back into the bedroom. “Tom, you better get up!” She went to the kitchen phone and called for an ambulance.

Lana ran back outside and the snow seemed to be blowing harder, thick heavy flakes that blanketed the neighborhood. Mr. Hall was being covered too and she went to his side.

“Mom and Dad are coming. Mom’s called an ambulance.” Tears streamed down her face and her bare hands shook.

She brushed some snow off Mr. Hall’s coat because she didn’t know what else to do. Then she saw the crow and kicked a stone towards him, trying to scare him away. “Shoo!”

 

That day, at school, Lana told her friends Kelly Marchand and Nicole Peters about what had happened. Kelly recalled when the girls had ridden their bikes on the corner of Mr. Hall’s lawn the previous summer and how he had yelled at them. “Keep your damn bikes off my lawn,” she said in a mocking, old man voice. Kelly said that she wasn’t that sad about the old man, that he was known in the neighborhood for being a grouch. “I bet he looked just like Oscar the Grouch with that trash can,” she said. And the girls, even Lana, for a minute, giggled.

After a few moments, Lana spoke. “I don’t know, there was still something really sad about it. He was so helpless lying there. All that snow covering him.”

Nicole remained neutral. “My great-grandmother fell and broke her hip a couple years ago. It wasn’t long after that she died.”

After her friends left, Lana stared out the classroom window. Can someone actually die from slipping and falling on some ice? She almost didn’t believe Nicole, but she knew it was true. Lana had never thought about dying like that. That life could be so…fragile. She’d not ever known anyone that had died. No more thoughts, no more dreams, no more feelings. Just nothing. She felt anxious.

After school, Lana thought about Mr. Hall. He had had a Mrs. Hall but she had died a few years ago. Lana thought maybe it was cancer that had killed her. It was a short walk from her elementary school to her house and as she passed the Hall house, she slowed. She didn’t see signs of anything being different. But she wasn’t sure exactly what she expected. She looked into Mr. Hall’s front window to see if he was in there, but from the sidewalk she had no luck making anything out. Lana had a thought—I should go up to the window and get a good look. So she put her book bag down on the snowy sidewalk and tiptoed towards the front of Mr. Hall’s house. There were large prickly bushes planted in front of the picture window and she had to work her way through the prickling of their leaves on her hands and legs. She got to the window and looked in. It was a living room with yellow and green striped wallpaper and lots of bookshelves against the walls. There was a beige sofa that was empty and a brown recliner that was also empty. She noticed a tall glass and a bottle on the small lampstand next to the recliner, and wondered if Mr. Hall had been sitting there at all that day or if the glass was from the previous day. It looked like no one was home. The television was turned off and the lights were off as well. Lana decided to back her way out of the shrubs and get going back to her house. The image of the house stayed with Lana for a bit—the hollowness of it made her think of an old dusty cave where trolls lived, and the emptiness, how there seemed to be nothing there but a grey pallor of fading light. Then there were the stained windows that made it harder to see clear lines. She thought of Mr. Hall as a ghost living there alone in stillness all these years after his wife died. Even the colors of the house seemed old and tired.

 

Later that night, the family discussed in detail how the ambulance had come and taken Mr. Hall to Memorial Hospital with sirens and lights. They had no real way of knowing how Mr. Hall was doing. Her father grunted something under his breath and asked Martin to pass the rolls while Shelly played with her food.

“Did you see the crow, Mom?” Lana asked her mother. “It was right near him, picking at the garbage.”

“No, I didn’t see the crow, Lana. But I wanted to tell you that you were very brave and helpful. Do you have homework?”

“Wait, there was a crow out there when Old Man Hall hit the bricks?” Martin asked.

“Yep.” Lana turned to her brother.

“That’s an omen, I’m sure I read somewhere that a crow is a bad omen,” said Martin, growing more enthusiastic.

“What’s an omen?” Lana asked.

Shelly chimed in, “When something really bad is going to happen, sometimes there’s an omen—a bad sign.”

“A crow eating out of a spilled garbage can is not an omen.” Her mother said. “Now, Lana, I want you to work on your homework tonight. Shelly, you and Martin have dishes. I’ve got to go, I have class.”

“Sabres are playing Boston tonight,” her father said to no one. “Perrault is looking at his 500th point. I bet he does it.” He sipped an Old Milwaukee.

 

Several days later Lana’s mother spoke to her. “Honey, I found out today that Mr. Hall did break his leg and hip when he fell. He’ll be home shortly. Now I haven’t spoken to him, but he’s probably going to need some help when he gets home.”

“What kind of help?” Lana asked.

“You know, just small stuff around the house—dishes, laundry. Maybe watering his plants. I’m pretty sure he’ll have a nurse visit but I was wondering if you would help out with the small stuff.”

Lana felt shaky. She didn’t want to go into Mr. Hall’s house. It felt spooky to her.

“I’ve already gotten Shelly and Martin to help with the trash and laundry,” her mother added.

“Yes, well, I suppose I can help.” Lana looked down at her shoes.

 

On Thursday, Lana gathered her courage and walked across the drive to Mr. Hall’s house. She didn’t know what to expect. She opened the side door and peeked in, then edged her way into the vestibule. “Hello, Mr. Hall, are you awake?” She walked up the entrance stairs and poked her head around the kitchen wall. “Hello?” Her voice felt small.

“I’m in the living room. Of course I’m awake. It’s 4:30,” he called.

Mr. Hall sat up in the foldaway medical bed. He wore a white thermal shirt and his legs were covered by a blue blanket. His eyes were blue and deep inside his head, or maybe it was just that the puffy skin around his eyes made it seem that way. His nose was quite large, ill-shaped and red. His grey hair was combed neatly to the side and Lana saw that something sticky was holding it in place. The room smelled like dirty laundry and she assumed it came from the old man, a stale smell. She wasn’t sure that was nice for her to think. For a moment she felt ashamed. She thought about Little Red Riding Hood and the disguised wolf in grandmother’s bed. Mr. Hall even had gray shoots of hair sprouting out of his ears.

“Come in here closer, girl.”

Lana looked around and noticed the room felt like it looked from the outside—hollow and dim.

“You’re the one who saw me fall, ran for help? Come here and let me get a look at you.”

“Yes, I’m Lana. Lana Wright.”

“Okay, well. Did you have a laugh then, watching the old man tumble?” Mr. Hall smirked.

“No, sir. I didn’t think it was anything to laugh at.” Lana’s eyes widened. She took a deep breath.

“Well, it wasn’t.”

“Well…how can I help you?” She didn’t like something about Mr. Hall’s words.

“Yes, yes. I’m afraid I’m in a dependent position. Who would have thought, after all these years?” Lana felt that Mr. Hall was speaking to himself. “Well, girl. If you’re here to help. I do have a few things. These plants need watering for one. Do you know how to water plants?”

“I think so, yes.”

“There’s a watering can underneath the stationary tub in the basement. Make sure you turn the light on when you go down there. Fill the can and bring it back upstairs.”

“Okay,” Lana said and she left the room, made her way to the basement and did as she was instructed. Before long, she was back up with a lime green watering can, filled almost to the top.

“Good, good,” Mr. Hall said. “Now start with these ferns over here and give them a good drink. You might have to fill the can twice. That doesn’t bother you, girl, does it?”

“No, sir.”

That afternoon, the first afternoon, Mr. Hall gave Lana simple directions and made sure she didn’t overwater his plants. He also had her clean a couple of dishes for him that were in his sink. The evening ended uneventfully and Lana promised to return in several days. Mr. Hall asked Lana to turn off the hall light and said that he was getting tired. “Next time, girl, would you please remove your boots in the hallway?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Of course.” Her face turned red.

Lana left the Hall house. She crossed the driveway between their houses and heard a crow caw as the dark night enveloped her.

 

At dinner that night, Lana brought up the old man. “What do you guys think of him?”

“What do you mean, what do we think of him,” Shelly asked.

“I mean, do you think he’s nice?”

“Old Man Hall, nice?” Martin chuckled. “He’s an old grump. He even tried to tell me how to take out his garbage.”

“Yeah, and his laundry is disgusting. And you know what else, it’s all the same—thermal underwear shirt, brown work pants. I mean I did two loads of the stuff,” said Shelly. “Did you smell his house? Blah!”

“That’s enough!” Her mother stopped the conversation.

“I don’t know, maybe he is grumpy, but I think he is in pain from the fall, maybe from other stuff too.” Lana said as she spooled her spaghetti onto her fork.

“It’s good for us to be helping him out. It’s what neighbors do for each other,” said her mother.

“Do you think he’s going to die?” Lana asked.

“Lana, you’re thinking too much again,” her father said.

Her mother lowered her voice and sighed. “It’s hard to say, Lana. Sometimes older people pass away after a fall.”

 

That night, Lana thought about Mr. Hall and his plants. Large ferns in floor planters, jade trees and even creeping plants that she didn’t know the names of hanging from plastic chains from the ceilings. Those were the hardest to get—it was good that the watering can had a very long spout. It was strange to her that all those plants didn’t really change the dimness of the house on the inside. She wondered where that dimness came from. Then she thought about Mr. Hall’s wife and she wondered what she had been like before she died.

 

Weeks went by and Lana continued to water Mr. Hall’s plants every couple of days. She enjoyed the task, if not the little visits with Mr. Hall, and even thought that despite Mr. Hall still being laid up in bed, his place seemed a little livelier.

One day Lana knocked on the door and walked in, removing her boots and placing them by the side entrance. She called out to Mr. Hall.

“You know where I am, girl. The same place I always am.” He laughed a little at this.

Lana entered the room and saw that Mr. Hall had a plain sheet of yellow paper in his hand. He looked up from it as he spoke.

“The supplies are in the basement. First we’ll need you to bring up two of the folding TV trays. You’ll see them down beneath the stairs. Then there are Jiffy pots and a bag of soil and the two flower box holders, they’re green and they’re on the shelf next to the washer and dryer.”

He smiled. “Lana, have you ever planted flowers from seed?”

“Hey, you called me Lana?”

“Well, that’s your name, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is, but you always just call me ‘girl’,” she said.

“Well, from now on I’ll call you Lana. Lana, have you ever planted flowers from seed?”

“No.”

“Well, today will be a lesson for you.” He looked uncomfortable as he shifted to his side. “Here, take the list, go downstairs. You’ll have to do your regular watering afterward.”

Lana made several trips and brought the supplies up next to Mr. Hall’s bed. She unfolded the TV trays and set the plastic flower box containers each on a tray. Then, following Mr. Hall’s instructions, she filled the containers with potting soil, which was fun to run her hands through.

Mr. Hall watched each step. He hummed a little while waiting for Lana to even out the soil. Then he produced from his pocket a pack of red geranium seeds—Huth Seed Inc, San Antonio, TX. He handed the seeds to Lana one seed at a time and instructed her to use her index finder to poke the seed deep into the soil. Lana noticed him smile once and thought his soft humming sounded very good.

When the pack was empty, Mr. Hall instructed Lana to water the two flower boxes and move the trays to the front of the room, for proper lighting.

Lana smiled a lot that afternoon and wondered how long it would take for the seeds to sprout.

“We’re a little late, girl…er, Lana.” But we’ll see sprouts in spring and flowers in late May. Full, red geraniums. Perhaps, we’ll transplant them to the side of the house in spring, or set up some hangers?”

Lana finished and put away the bag of potting soil under the basement stairs. She walked back up the stairs to put on her boots and heard a loud groan come from the living room. She felt panicky and didn’t know what to do. The groans continued and though she wanted to put on her boots and leave, she instead called out to him, “Mr. Hall, are you alright?”

“I’ll be okay, Lana. Thanks for your help today. Wait till you see those flowers!” His voice seemed weak to her, somehow different. She walked into the living room and saw Mr. Hall buckled over on his side, both arms holding his hip area that was obviously causing him intense pain.

Lana hurried back to the living room, next to the bed and put her hand on Mr. Hall’s shoulder. He looked at her, a kind of look that didn’t want to be seen. He looked at Lana. And in that moment the two reached an unspoken understanding. Lana was his only friend, the only one there to put a hand on his shoulder. The hollowness and dimness of the room mirrored the emptiness and loneliness inside the old man. Tears filled Lana’s eyes.

“I made choices, Lana. Bad choices. I was hard on people, never gave them a break. It won’t be like this for you. You’ve got something I never had—compassion.”

“But what about Mrs. Hall?”

“Mrs. Hall was a lot like you. She had all that big open heart stuff too. I just could never open my heart, I guess.”

“Do you miss her?”

“Oh yes, I miss her a lot. Think about her every day. She loved her gardens, especially plantings from seed. Geraniums were her favorite. There, now the pain has passed. Help me lie down.”

Lana helped the man lean back onto the bed.

“Sorry about my boots.” She looked down.

“It’s fine, Lana. Don’t worry about it.”

 

“We planted geraniums today,” Lana said.

“Where, at school?” her mother asked.

“No, me and Mr. Hall.”

Her parents looked up across the dinner table at each other.

“Oh. How is Mr. Hall doing?”

“I think he hurts a lot.”

“He’s still a grump if you ask me,” said Shelly.

“He says they’ll sprout in a few weeks and bloom in May.”

“They’ve always had such nice flowers around their house in springtime and summer. But I don’t think the flowers have been out there the past few years.”

 

That night, as she slept, Lana dreamed about a young couple in a time long ago. The man young, lean and strong, and the woman pretty. She carried a basket full of flowers. They walked hand in hand in a warm, sunny place. Lana woke a little past midnight. She realized that Mr. Hall was in fact dying, though she didn’t know how she knew. Lana thought about what it would be like, how there would be no more waterings, no more plantings. Just then, she had the saddest thought that she thought she had ever had—he wasn’t going to see the geraniums bloom. She cried herself back to sleep.

 

The first Tuesday of spring, Lana visited Mr. Hall. She removed her boots and called out a hello. His reply was almost too weak to hear.

“Lana, in here.”

She went in and saw that there was some more medical equipment in the living room, an IV going into his thin, veiny arm and now a tube ran down beneath his nose.

“Hello, how are you feeling today?”

“Hello, Lana, I just feel tired. That’s all. But you’ll want to look into the flower boxes before you do your watering.”

“Did they sprout?” She clapped her hands and smiled.

“They did. I haven’t seen them, but the nurse was here yesterday, said they’ve sprouted. Go ahead, go look.”

Lana went to the TV trays and was happy to see 20 or so green shoots puncturing the soil.

“We did it. They’re growing!” said Lana, smile beaming.

“Yes, we did…we did it.” He coughed. “I’m going to rest now, Lana, just make sure you close the door behind you.”

“Don’t you want to see them?”

“No. I’ve planted seeds like this for 40 years, I know exactly what they look like. I just wanted you to see them grow from nothing. It really is something to be a part of. Will you come back Thursday?”

“Yes, of course,” Lana hesitated. “Do you…need anything?”

“Just rest.”

 

That night, Lana thought about the seeds. How could they become plants from just almost nothing? How could something grow like that? And she thought of Mr. Hall and the opposite of growing, of aging and becoming sicker. It felt quite complicated to her, but try as she would, she couldn’t stop thinking about those two things.

 

In April, Lana went next door and called out to the man. But he didn’t answer. Lana went into the living room. She felt shaky. And when she saw the man lying in bed, for a moment she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Mr. Hall,” she whispered, “Mr. Hall?”

She walked closer to the bed and saw him motionless, more still than she had ever seen anything. His mouth was open and he looked peaceful. She touched the sleeve of his shirt, then felt his arm. Nothing. She saw no breath, no rising and falling of his chest. She knew she would have to go next door and get her mother. But for a moment she stood in the room.

Lana cried. She went to the flower boxes and picked a single flower.

“I’m going to do what we planned, Mr. Hall. I’m going to make flower boxes and hangers with our geraniums. You’ll see how pretty they are.” She wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

She went to the side entrance and placed the flower on the floor while she laced up her boots. She backed her way out the door while holding the geranium. As she crossed the connected driveways and reached her house, she saw a crow fly across the sky. In a moment, she would call out to her mother.

Robert T. Krantz was born and raised in Western New York. He studied creative writing and English literature at both Niagara County Community College, NY, and the University of Akron, Ohio. His short story “Down the Street that Lady Comes” was shortlisted for the Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction in 2014. Robert also published a chapbook of poetry and prose entitled Leg Brace Legato (2013), which earned him admittance into the Univesity of Arkansas’ MFA program for Poetry. His piece of fiction, “Crow”, took Best of Show at the 2015 Rochester Writer’s Conference and his work has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine, Watershed Review, Akros Review, Bare Fiction, Bitterzoet Magazine, East Coast Literary Review, Poetry Quarterly and others.

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