Word Count:  5,778

  Ceremony

By Ray Squires

The problem with holding a ceremony was that Melanie didn’t think of herself as a religious person. She and Joel didn’t go to church. They didn’t even have a traditional wedding, just a ride up in his beat up Corolla to one of the twenty-four hour chapels in Gatlinburg after college. The closest she got to praying were the savasanas at the end of yoga classes. But after nine unsuccessful years Melanie had finally decided to stop trying. She didn’t tell anybody, and since she had the run of the house this weekend she figured she’d be ceremonious about it. That’s what her latest book suggested anyway. When the time for change presents itself, face fear with celebration. She wasn’t going to do anything extravagant like buy five-hundred-dollar shoes or spend the next forty-eight hours nude. Digging up the dry and jagged cold hardy palmetto palm she planted last summer seemed right, the one Joel teased just wasn’t hardy enough for this year’s winter.

Melanie opened the tailgate on her Subaru wagon parked at the top of the driveway, and as she bent to load the four six-packs of zinnias and two bags of self fertilizing soil into the garage her phone rang. Still in her yoga outfit from earlier that morning she dug it out of her purse, shook her head to get the bangs out of her eyes, and rested on the open gate to talk.

“You bored yet? Ready for our big night?” Tracy had left a message earlier with the same questions.

Melanie closed her eyes and leaned her face back into the sun. Atlanta’s winter had been unusually long and cold. A light breeze carried the scent of her neighbor’s blooming magnolia tree. “I don’t think so. I need to dig up the dead palm that’s gracing my front walkway.” Melanie stood up and bent sideways to look over at her front door. “Joel’s right. It looks like a leftover Halloween decoration.”

“Joel’s in Las Vegas without you. So he gets no say. Come on, Katie’s safe with grandma and grandpa. You need to take advantage and have fun.”

“I don’t know, Coach.” Melanie closed the gate and went inside through the garage. “And why do you keep saying it like that? It’s for work. It’s not like he’s there on vacation.”

“Yeah but still. You should go out.” Tracy started taking clients as a life coach in March and was hell bent on getting Melanie to come back out of her shell. She told Melanie again about a play in town. “It’s supposed to be really modern and for adults only. Like a dinner theater. Doesn’t that sound cool?”

Melanie picked up her daughter’s purple socks from a corner of the couch and dumped them in the laundry room. “If we think it’s cool, it’s probably not cool.” The other day Katie told her that was a good rule of thumb.

“Come on. We haven’t gone out in Little Five Points in too long. After the play we’ll get a couple beers and catch up. You can put the palm off one more day."

Lying on the kitchen table was Melanie’s latest book. She sat down and pulled out the list she’d made at her office the other day. And then a few minutes later Tracy called back to say she’d talked her husband Rick into driving them back down to get their cars tomorrow, if they needed him to, before the Braves game started. “That way if we decide to indulge, we can take a cab home.”

“I am not going to drink that much, Tracy. That’s crazy.”

Melanie hung up and walked back out to the garage. She stared at the tools already laid out next to their pop-up camper: a shovel and a wheelbarrow. With her hands still on her hips she walked through to the driveway again to survey the front walkway of the house. How the hell she was going to get the root ball out of the ground, or the Chattahoochee rock she’d spread all over the soil? The rock was supposed to help hold moisture in and also give the front of their colonial style brick house a more tropical look. At least that was Melanie’s intention when she planted it last summer after their beach vacation. She was so sure it would take this time. Now, with weeds growing up and some of the rock washed away, the soil bed along the curvy walkway looked more like a dried up river bed than a tropical scene. Oh well, she’d figure it out tomorrow. After unloading the flowers and the soil from the back of the car, she went inside to shower.

---

The problem with holding a ceremony was that Melanie didn’t think of herself as a religious person. She and Joel didn’t go to church. They didn’t even have a traditional wedding, just a ride up in his beat up Corolla to one of the twenty-four hour chapels in Gatlinburg after college. The closest she got to praying these days were the two minutes of savasana at the end of yoga class.

After getting out of the shower REM’s Document streaming from her laptop brought back college memories and she twisted in front of the mirror now, naked, to inspect her tattoo. She had sketched it in an intermediate drawing class in preparation for her twentieth birthday, the number nineteen encircled by a leafy vine. Weeks could go by now and she would forget she even had it since it was behind her and hidden below her panty line. She had thought she was so cool for coming up with the design, and she’d gotten it the same day as the Twilight Criterion, a big bike race that sped through the wide streets of downtown Athens at sun set. Walking among the crowds that night, Melanie had pulled her loose skirt low in the back at least twenty times, showing off the bright marking still glistening with antibiotic ointment to friends a few strangers.

That long peasant skirt was still in her closet somewhere. She wrapped a towel around her head and went to look for it. She found it, way in the back, behind her work suits and winter coats. A simple brown tank went with it, and she covered up what she considered her loose underarm skin with a light sweater which she let hang open. After blow drying her hair she twisted it up in a clip to hide the new gray and pulled some wispies down around her face. Katie would be proud. But then Melanie frowned at herself in the mirror. The wedding set Joel gave her for their fifth anniversary killed it. Athens Townies didn’t wear diamonds. She set her engagement ring on the bureau and went to look for some of Katie’s less formal accessories.

Melanie loved the smell of her daughter’s room, like baby powder and dirty feet. Katie was allowed to decorate it herself this year. A purple and black comforter replaced the Winnie the Pooh bedspread, and blinds covered the windows instead of curtains. Natural light poured into the room and spotlighted a poster of a girl rock band Katie liked on the far wall and a goofy looking boy actor whose name Melanie could never remember. The print of Christopher Robin and Piglet helping Pooh get unstuck from a honey pot had been retired to the attic.

In an open jewelry box on the dresser Melanie found a beaded string bracelet of earth tones and small shells, something Katie made at day camp last summer. Melanie used a feather pen on Katie’s desk to write her an IOU in case anything happened to it before she could put it back. That was their deal with borrowing stuff. And then she left one for the anime backpack hanging on Katie’s desk chair too.

An hour later in her Subaru wagon, Melanie’s sandaled foot rode the break as a shortcut through the in-town neighborhoods to avoid traffic took longer than she’d intended. She was rethinking a left turn at the last stop sign when Joel called. Before answering, she muted the radio and rolled up the windows.

“Little Five Points, huh?” he said after she told him her plans for the night. “You girls be careful.”          

 “Oh Joel, please. It’s just kids down there.”

“I gotta hang out with kids tonight too.”

“Oh yeah? What kids?” she said, and then, “oh shit,” when she realized she should have turned right.

“The new recruits are like twenty-three. I feel like the old balding uncle at a bachelor party. What’s ‘oh shit’?”

“I just went the wrong way. I’m fine.” She pulled into the driveway of an old Victorian to turn around. “Anyway, you know you’ll have fun. It’s Vegas, baby.” She imitated a line from a movie they liked.

“How can you get lost? You have GPS.”

“Yeah, but I don’t need it. I’m fine.” The day had turned hot and she wanted to get off the phone so she could roll the windows down again.

“Use the damn GPS, Melanie.”

She hesitated in the silent heat of the car before going in reverse.

“I gotta go. I’m supposed to play a round of golf before the awards dinner,” he said, and they hung up.

Melanie turned rolled the windows back down and continued driving.

---

The in-town Lowe’s had plenty of wood chips. The two big bags she bought jostled in the back of the wagon as Melanie pulled into the theater’s gravel parking lot. A familiar sour odor made her grimace. Great. She’d forgotten deodorant.

“You look cute,” she said to Tracy, who obviously had the same wardrobe idea, a peasant blouse over jeans.

“When in Rome.” Tracy hugged her. “Ew, I like that essential oil. You smell like college. What’s with the backpack?”

“Thanks.” Melanie exhaled a brief laugh through her nose and then adjusted the straps on her shoulder. “I brought my book with me in case I got done early and had to wait on you.”

Outside the theater a group of tired looking teenagers in tattered clothes huddled around a basket filled with a few dollar bills and coins. Tracy put a dollar in the basket.

“Thanks,” said one of the girls without lifting her blond dreadlocked head from the haunch of a pit bull.

When they were far enough away Melanie whispered to Tracy, “I don’t think those kids are really homeless.”

“Hmm.” Tracy stopped walking. “I think you’re right.” She turned around and dropped in a business card too.

“Why’d you do that?” Melanie said when Tracy caught back up.

“Maybe they’ll pass it on to their parents.”  

The theater in Little Five Points was part of a big cement block building dedicated to community arts. Melanie had taken Katie there several years ago for a Christmas presentation commemorating Dr. Seuss stories. The main stage had amphitheater style seating and the cement block halls outside it looked and echoed like a 1960s school building. As Tracy and Melanie approached the ticket counter they realized the dinner part of the dinner theater turned out to be Papa Johns and Two Buck Chuck.

“Katie would think this is cool,” Melanie said as they carried their paper plates and glasses of wine to their seats.

“That’s because we’re still cool.” Tracy balanced her glass and her plate as she sat down. “So what are you celebrating? You still haven’t told me.” The lights dimmed and a man nearby cleared his throat. Tracy winked at Melanie and took a sip of her wine.

“I’ll tell you later,” Melanie whispered.

The play was definitely adult. A muscular young man played the lead character, a rural teenager struggling through puberty. The opening scene depicted his first sexual encounter, an explicit session with his older cousin. He stayed naked for the remainder of the three acts analyzing the experience through monologue. As the curtains went up Tracy fanned herself with the show pamphlet. “Good God that kid was hot.”

Melanie smiled and nodded in agreement. “We need a drink.”

---

The neon lights and colorful signs framing the shops and bars made Little Five Points look like an amusement park. In the plaza near the main intersection, groups of people spilled out of bars and gathered around street artists. Melanie and Tracy walked passed a drum circle, and then a bearded man holding a pad of paper and pen asked, “Do you like poetry?” Melanie smiled and waived her head no. Further up around a corner a couple came out of a pub and as the guy held the door for the girl, Melanie heard garage band music. She raised her eyebrows at Tracy and they went inside.

 “So when does Joel get back?” Tracy shouted.

“Uh, Monday.”

The place was reminiscent of nineties grunge with exposed brick and a sticky concrete floor. Thick wooden columns held up the ceiling. They found two empty seats at the bar next to one of the columns. “Tell me again why he went to Las Vegas for a week without you.” Tracy settled onto her stool.

“Don’t life coach me, Tracy.” Melanie tried to get the attention of one of the bar tenders who stood closest to their end of the long bar. He was tall and skinny with an intricate anthology of tattoos covering his arms and neck. “Two PBRs and two waters,” she yelled, cupping her hands over her mouth. He nodded at her but showed no other expression.  

“I’m friend coaching you.” Tracy touched Melanie’s arm.

“Team building,” Melanie said reaching for her wallet in Katie’s backpack. “His company takes them somewhere every year. Last year it was Jamaica. The year before it was Hawaii. Remember?” She put a twenty on the bar and the bar tender put a tall boy can each in front of her and Tracy.

Tracy took a swig of hers. “And spouses aren’t supposed to go on these trips?”

 “I’m sure I could go if I really wanted to.” Melanie hung Katie’s backpack on a hook under the lip of the bar. “But it’s a work thing. For his sales team. So they can team build.”

“So he says.” Tracy looked directly into Melanie’s eyes. “Team build what? Like a shelter or something? Habitat for Humanity? You guys used to do everything together.”

“It’s his work.” Melanie stared back. “Why are you giving me such a hard time about this?”

“Because it’s weird that it’s over the weekend. And you don’t seem affected.” Tracy put her beer down. “You’re more concerned about gardening. That’s not healthy.”

“Well, I’m gonna get a shot. Is that healthy? I’ve just decided I’m going to sleep in.”

“Then you need a valium, not a shot.”

Melanie yelled to the bar tender again. “Two tequila shots.”

Tracy held up a finger, indicating just one. “That a girl.”

The bar tender lined up a shot for Melanie. “To team building!” she said and gulped it back. After sucking the lime she smirked up her face as if digesting acid, and when she could speak again, she confessed. “I’m a mess,” she said and folded her arms on the bar. As she went to plop her head on top of them, the hair clip at the top of her head snagged the pop top of her beer and pulled it toward her. Suds saturated her head and arms. “Shit,” she said, “this stupid thing.” She took the hair clip out and shook off the excess water. “I look like a lion now, don’t I?”

“Here, use your sweater to dry off.” Tracy helped her take her arms out. “You do look a little wild, but your arms look great.”

“Thanks, I’ve been doing yoga.” Melanie hugged herself and tears welled in her eyes.

“Oh honey, don’t be sad. Be angry. Your fucking husband is in Las Vegas with a bunch of young female sales assistants and you’re getting over your fifth miscarriage in six years.”

“I don’t even care anymore, Tracy. Let him have a good time. It’s so strained between us.”

“Oh sweetie,” Tracy put her hand on Melanie’s shoulder. “I know the last one was hard.”

“They’re all hard.” Melanie cleared her throat and sat up taller. “Can you hand me that water?” She waited for Tracy to hand it to her and then took a long sip. “I’ve decided to stop trying.”
            “Really? Are you sure?”

“Yes. I don’t feel like starting all over again now. I mean, Jesus. Katie’s going to be eleven this summer. She stopped asking for a little brother three years ago.”

“You know you don’t have to decide anything.”

“No, I do. I need to feel like a person again.” She drank down the rest of her water.

Tracy jolted in her seat. “My stupid phone is vibrating.” She pulled it out of her jeans pocket and looked at the screen. “Oh God.”

“What is it?” Melanie stood up.

“Rick.” Tracy scrolled through a text message. “The kids have puked all over the house.” She looked up at Melanie. “He thinks he’s gonna be next.”

“Evil stomach flu. You have to get home.”

They made their way to the front door and when they stepped outside Tracy asked, “You ok to drive?”

“Oh yeah.” The bleach smell of a Bradford Pear temporarily sobered Melanie, and her eyes opened wide as she tried to waive the scent away with her hand. “I’m fine.”

When they reached the parking lot Tracy stopped short and released her head back. “God, I can’t believe I have to face this nightmare.” She looked at Melanie. “What are you doing with yourself tomorrow?”

“Plant the new shit I bought.” Melanie scratched her shoulder. “Jesus, I’m all sticky.”

“You sound angry. That’s good.” Tracy fished her keys out of her purse.

            Melanie felt for hers. “Damn. I forgot Katie’s backpack at the bar. I need to run back. You go. Get home to the exorcism.” She hugged Tracy. “I’ll be right behind you.”

“You sure?” Tracy climbed into the driver’s seat of her suburban.

“Yes, please go. I’m fine.  I’ll text you when I get home.”

---

By the time Melanie made her way back to the bar the music had changed. Several girls swayed around a DJ booth Melanie hadn’t noticed earlier, their skinny arms undulating to bongo drums and baselines that swooped around as if they just ate hallucinogenic mushrooms. Katie’s backpack was still hooked under the bar. Someone else sat there now, but Melanie ducked in and grabbed it. When she stood back up she realized she felt a little too buzzed to drive, but she didn’t feel like waiting it out at the bar. A little walk, some fresh air, and she’d be good. Maybe even read a few pages in her book on a bench somewhere away from the crowds.

Outside she decided to get a candy bar from the convenience store she’d seen on one of the corners. Heading back to the main intersection she avoided responding to anyone asking for money or handing out flyers by keeping her eyes on the ground. When she reached the little store she winced at the condensation on the glass door. She was still pretty wet from her spill.

Inside was cramped and the cold air conditioned air raised the hairs on her arms. She squinted up her eyes in the glaring light.

“You need to leave your bag up here, miss,” said a large balding man behind the counter.

She handed it over. “I just need to get a candy bar.”

He pointed to an aisle behind her, and she took her time looking at wrappers for the lowest amount of fat. Eventually she settled on a pack of peanut M&Ms. “Might as well get some milk too,” she said to herself and walked over to the refrigerated section. She slid the glass door open for a half gallon carton, and then she grabbed a couple sugar-free fruit flavored sodas too. As she walked back toward the counter she remembered she needed paper towels and grabbed a roll and then a box of cereal for the morning. Captain Crunch. At the counter a package of scented matches caught her eye.  

“Oh, these are neat,” she said.

“It’s incense.” The man looked annoyed. “You want a bag?”

Katie’s little backpack already held Melanie’s beer soaked sweater, her wallet, phone, and the book she’d brought. “Yes, please.”

Loaded down with two plastic grocery bags and Katie’s backpack, Melanie headed back toward the car. The night air was still heavy with humidity and her shoulders sagged as she walked down the lumpy sidewalk. Thank goodness they’d come to Little Five Points and not the strip mall sports bar down the street from her house. Hair frizzed out, beer and body odor. What if she’d run into one of Katie’s teachers: “Oh, hi Mrs. Gardner. Katie’s doing fine. I’m just back from a nature retreat.” At the thought of Katie, Melanie felt tears coming again and she stopped at a bench to sit. She released her bags on either side of her and bowed her head. Damn fucking palm tree. Already into her twelfth week. They’d even almost told Katie this time.  She sighed and leaned back against the bench. Joel had pleaded with her to let it go, or adopt. He wanted a vasectomy.

Another small group of young homeless kids sat on the steps of an old converted factory building just a little further down the street, a girl and two boys. One didn’t have a shirt on. His face was covered with a beard and a mustache and his shorts hung low, revealing the crease of each narrow hip. He gestured with his arms and talked politics, something about the Libyan Republic. The other boy and girl sat at his feet, the girl leaning back against the guy. They looked up at their friend and laughed every once in a while at the end of a sentence.

“That’s what I’d do,” the bare-chested guy concluded and stroked his thumb along the hollow below his sternum.

Melanie took a deep breath and gathered her belongings. Loaded down again she headed for the car. As she passed by the steps of the building a break in the sidewalk caught her toe. “Owe,” she said and stopped to examine it.

“You ok?” The bare-chested guy called out.

“Oh yeah, I’m fine.”

He walked up to her, and she stepped back.

“I’m not gonna hurt you,” he said. “You got a lighter?”

Up close he looked older than she’d thought, and she remembered the scented matches from the store. “I’ve got these.” She dug them out of one of the bags.

“Cool.” He smiled. “Hey, it’s just about four-twenty. Want to join us?”

She hadn’t heard that expression in years, a ritual given up when she got pregnant the first time. “Oh, I’m about to head home.”

“Even better.” He smiled and looked up at the sky. “Pretty night.” He waived her to come as he started walking backward toward his friends and the male stink of him convinced her he was at least in his twenties. She followed him over to where his friends stood, behind one the buildings’ pillars.

“I’m Tully,” he said. “This is Ciara and Mitto.” They each said hello to Melanie.

“My friends call me Mel,” she told them and set her bags down. “Anybody want a grapefruit soda?”

Ciara said she did, and smiled when Melanie handed it to her. Mitto took out a joint from a pack of cigarettes and lit it with the matches. 

“Won’t the cops come?” Melanie said.

“We won’t stay too long.” Mitto puffed and passed the joint to her.

“Oh no, Ciara first,” she said.

“You’re sweet.” Ciara waived her hand. “But I can’t smoke. Go ahead.” She stepped away from them and swayed to music that wasn’t playing.

 “Ciara’s got a big job interview Monday.” Mitto handed the joint to Melanie.

Melanie felt her heart speed up. She hadn’t smoked in years. She toked softly, trying to take it easy, and then passed it to Tully.

“You don’t have to go light,” Tully held his breath a few seconds and exhaled, “Mitto has plenty.”

Mitto took a big hit and then handed it back to Tully. “Ciara come here,” he said, holding his hand out, and they walked together to the bottom of the steps.

“Nice people,” Melanie said.

“Yeah, they’re good friends.” Tully brought the joint to his lips. “So what do you read, Mel?” He puffed it several times and then passed it to Melanie again.

“Uh, motivational stuff lately,” she said. Tully looked pleased with her answer. Feeling a little more relaxed this time, she smiled as she inhaled and filled her lungs. In college she had smoked a lot, and for a moment she felt very at home. The loft she lived in her senior year looked a lot like the outside of the building they stood in front of now and she tilted her head back to look up. As she handed the joint back to Tully she started coughing. She couldn’t speak for a while and couldn’t open her eyes all the way. Tully must not have been able to notice because he went on explaining that Ciara and Mitto were old friends and that he was staying with them for a couple days. Like through a tunnel Melanie heard him say something about leaving tomorrow for Montana and after that the Peace Corps. By the time she regained the ability to control her motor skills he was talking about how Ciara and Mitto lived around the corner.

“So you want to go back to their place for a little while. I think Ciara’s ready to crash.”

Melanie definitely couldn’t drive now. The pot had hit her hard. She could barely speak let alone program her GPS. “Um, yeah, just for a bit,” she said. “That’d be good.”

---

Getting to Ciara and Mitto’s place seemed to take a while. Melanie’s bags of groceries felt like bowling balls, but the walk was pretty. She could see the downtown skyline in the distance and the stars and blue-black sky peaked through the holes of the canopy the trees made with their newly budded leaves. Ciara and Mitto’s place was one of four apartments in an old Victorian house that looked a lot like the one Melanie saw earlier when she was talking to Joel. She shivered.  

“Sorry to be a party pooper, but I’m wiped,” said Ciara once they all got inside. “It was nice meeting you, Mel.” She went into a room off the kitchen.

Mitto took Melanie’s bags from her and made a spot for them in the fridge. “Don’t forget ‘em.” He filled a glass with water and then saluted before closing the bedroom door.

Tully sat on a blue denim couch and was already deep into an explanation about a type of bug in Montana that was eating the bark off the trees when Melanie realized she could sit on the couch too.

“But they only come around like every thirteen years,” he said. “It’s just part of the cycle of life for the wilderness there.”

She wasn’t sure if she was supposed to speak next. She wanted to hear more about where he was going in the Peace Corps, but he stared at her as if he was waiting for something. Goosebumps outlined the firmness of his shoulders and the stiffness of his nipples. She couldn’t decide if he was good looking because of all his facial hair, but his chest and arms looked great. The only thing she knew to do at this moment was to kiss him, and she did. Then she was on top of him horizontally on the couch and wrapped in his arms and hands. They made out for what seemed like forever. It felt like high school. Every step closer they got to going all the way she said to herself, I can’t do this, but then she kept going and leading him further along. Finally they were naked. He pulled out a condom from his shorts pocket and then it happened. Like losing her virginity all over again, it went in. Between the shock of him inside her and how amazing it felt, she came before she could feel guilty enough to stop. A few moments later he pulled out of her and pressed against her pelvis until he released into the rubber. And then they both relaxed.

He giggled as he pulled away. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m extra careful.”

“Right,” she said and took a deep breath. “Right.”

After they each used the bathroom, he picked up a pile of blankets she hadn’t noticed earlier. “I can walk you back to your car if you want, but you might as well sleep a few hours.”

She didn’t think she’d be able to sleep, but she helped him line the couch with the blankets anyway. They smelled like the same laundry detergent she used. “Maybe just a few hours,” she said.

---

The next morning, sunshine filled the room and Melanie sat up. Tully was asleep in a ball on the floor. She looked around and got her bearings and then got up. She put the blanket on top of Tully and tiptoed into the kitchen to get her groceries out of the fridge. Without waking anyone, she got her backpack and her shoes and stepped outside of the house. From the porch steps, the tops of Atlanta’s downtown buildings looked like pink prisms reflecting the early morning sunlight. She took her phone out of Katie’s backpack and used its GPS to figure out where she was. It only took fifteen minutes to reach the car. She gripped the wheel hard until she got on the interstate. The sky was clear, and the sweet morning air rushed in through the cracked windows. The reality of what she just did settled into her mind, and she focused on breathing for several miles. At her exit Melanie picked up the phone and held it to her chest before dialing Katie. The line rang a few times, and then, like a shot, came Katie’s voice.

“Oh my sweetheart. Are you having a good time?” Melanie hoped the noise of the car hid the crack in her voice.

“Oh yeah,” Katie said. “Grandpa just stopped for gas, again. Hang on a sec, Ma.”

Melanie could hear Katie telling Joel’s mother that she was going to use the bathroom.

“You ok?” Melanie asked her when she heard Katie get back on the phone.

“Yeah. I’m ok. Just needed some time to myself. Grandma and Grandpa can be a little clingy.”

Melanie smiled. Katie explained that they were going to Dollywood and would be home the next day. “What have you been doing?”

Melanie paused for a moment and bit her lip. “I went out with Miss Tracy last night. I borrowed the bracelet you made at camp last summer.”

“That’s cool. You can keep it,” Katie said. “I’m gonna make a new one with this arrowhead I found yesterday.”

“Thank you. That sounds great. I can’t wait to see it.” She told Katie to be good and to enjoy herself. “See you tomorrow, sweetheart.”    

Ten minutes later Melanie pulled into her subdivision. She put the car in park at the top of the driveway, and walked up to the palm tree. The sun beat down stronger and the breeze was gone. Katydids and someone’s lawnmower buzzed in the distance. Melanie looked at the ground around the palm’s trunk and tears welled in her eyes. Dotting the base, several green fronds had sprouted through the dirt and what was left of the Chattahoochee rock. They were still tight and barely above the earth, but the cold hardy palm had survived, after all. It had re-sprouted. She dropped to her knees in the dirt and rock. Goddamn tree. She put her head to the ground and sobbed. If she cut back the dead stems it might grow back by the end of summer, as big as it was when she planted it. Maybe she should try again. She lifted herself back up and took a deep breath. No, she needed to be done. No more cruel hope. She went to the garage and got the shovel, and with tears streaming down her face and her peasant skirt knotted up around her legs, she dug up the trunk and all its green shoots. She shoveled it, rock and all into the wheelbarrow and carted it to the end of the driveway. She hauled the sacks of self fertilizing soil from the garage and dumped half a bag into the hole left by the palm. Flecks of dirt clung to Katie’s bracelet. Melanie jerked it free, dropped it where the palm had been, and poured more soil over top. The zinnias wilted in their plastic pots. Melanie loosened them, breaking a few roots, and planted them in uneven rows. After patting the soil down around them tight, she got the hose from around the side of the house and gave them a good soak. Then she got the wood chips out of the back of the wagon and scattered them on top of the soil. She used all of it, and when she finished she stepped back to look at her work. She ran to the car and got out her phone. She took a picture of the new flowers and sent it to Joel.

Inside, she stripped down and put her filthy clothes in the washing machine. When she got out of the shower she didn’t bother to dress but sent a message to Tracy: “Sorry I forgot to text when I got home. How’s the puke? Let me know if I can help.”

As she walked through the living room she grabbed a candle off a shelf and set it in the middle of the kitchen table and lit it. She fixed herself a bowl of the cereal she’d bought at the convenience store and sat in the nude at the table while she ate every last crunch, staring at the image of her new flowers on the screen of her phone. When she was done she drank the milk from the bowl. She put the bowl in the sink, threw the box of cereal in the garbage, and blew the candle out. Then she closed her eyes and prayed. She was done.

 

After nine unsuccessful years Melanie had finally decided to stop trying. She didn’t tell anybody, but she had the run of the house this weekend, so she let herself be ceremonious about it. That’s what her latest book suggested. When the time for change presents itself, face fear with celebration. She wasn’t going to do anything extravagant like buy five-hundred-dollar shoes or spend the next forty-eight hours nude. Digging up the dry and jagged cold hardy palmetto palm she planted last summer seemed right, the one Joel teased just wasn’t hardy enough for this year’s winter.

Melanie opened the tailgate on her Subaru wagon parked at the top of the driveway, and as she bent to load the four six-packs of zinnias and two bags of self fertilizing soil into the garage her phone rang. Still in her yoga outfit from earlier that morning she dug it out of her purse, shook her head to get the bangs out of her eyes, and rested on the open gate to talk.

“You bored yet? Ready for our big night?” Tracy had left a message earlier with the same questions.

Melanie closed her eyes and leaned her face back into the sun. Atlanta’s winter had been unusually long and cold. A light breeze carried the scent of her neighbor’s blooming magnolia tree. “I don’t think so. I need to dig up the dead palm that’s gracing my front walkway.” Melanie stood up and bent sideways to look over at her front door. “Joel’s right. It looks like a leftover Halloween decoration.”

“Joel’s in Las Vegas without you. So he gets no say. Come on, Katie’s safe with grandma and grandpa. You need to take advantage and have fun.”

“I don’t know, Coach.” Melanie closed the gate and went inside through the garage. “And why do you keep saying it like that? It’s for work. It’s not like he’s there on vacation.”

“Yeah but still. You should go out.” Tracy started taking clients as a life coach in March and was hell bent on getting Melanie to come back out of her shell. She told Melanie again about a play in town. “It’s supposed to be really modern and for adults only. Like a dinner theater. Doesn’t that sound cool?”

Melanie picked up her daughter’s purple socks from a corner of the couch and dumped them in the laundry room. “If we think it’s cool, it’s probably not cool.” The other day Katie told her that was a good rule of thumb.

“Come on. We haven’t gone out in Little Five Points in too long. After the play we’ll get a couple beers and catch up. You can put the palm off one more day."

 Lying on the kitchen table was Melanie’s latest book. She sat down and pulled out the list she’d made at her office the other day. “Ok, but I want to check the new garden store down there to see if they have wood chips. The one by us is out.”

Tracy said she wouldn’t be able to finish her last appointment in time to do Lowe’s and get to the play. For a moment Melanie thought she was off the hook, since it was ridiculous to take two cars all the way into town, but then Tracy’s life coach training kicked in again.

“You get your wood chips, sweetie. Our grandmothers would be proud. I’ll meet you at the theater at seven.” And then a few minutes later Tracy called back to say she’d talked her husband Rick into driving them back down to get their cars tomorrow, if they needed him to, before the Braves game started. “That way if we decide to indulge, we can take a cab home.”

“I am not going to drink that much, Tracy. That’s crazy.”

Melanie hung up and walked back out to the garage. She stared at the tools already laid out next to their pop-up camper: a shovel and a wheelbarrow. With her hands still on her hips she walked through to the driveway again to survey the front walkway of the house. How the hell she was going to get the root ball out of the ground, or the Chattahoochee rock she’d spread all over the soil? The rock was supposed to help hold moisture in and also give the front of their colonial style brick house a more tropical look. At least that was Melanie’s intention when she planted it last summer after their beach vacation. She was so sure it would take this time. Now, with weeds growing up and some of the rock washed away, the soil bed along the curvy walkway looked more like a dried up river bed than a tropical scene. Oh well, she’d figure it out tomorrow. After unloading the flowers and the soil from the back of the car, she went inside to shower.

---

The problem with holding a ceremony was that Melanie didn’t think of herself as a religious person. She and Joel didn’t go to church. They didn’t even have a traditional wedding, just a ride up in his beat up Corolla to one of the twenty-four hour chapels in Gatlinburg after college. The closest she got to praying these days were the two minutes of savasana at the end of yoga class.

After getting out of the shower REM’s Document streaming from her laptop brought back college memories and she twisted in front of the mirror now, naked, to inspect her tattoo. She had sketched it in an intermediate drawing class in preparation for her twentieth birthday, the number nineteen encircled by a leafy vine. Weeks could go by now and she would forget she even had it since it was behind her and hidden below her panty line. She had thought she was so cool for coming up with the design, and she’d gotten it the same day as the Twilight Criterion, a big bike race that sped through the wide streets of downtown Athens at sun set. Walking among the crowds that night, Melanie had pulled her loose skirt low in the back at least twenty times, showing off the bright marking still glistening with antibiotic ointment to friends a few strangers.

That long peasant skirt was still in her closet somewhere. She wrapped a towel around her head and went to look for it. She found it, way in the back, behind her work suits and winter coats. A simple brown tank went with it, and she covered up what she considered her loose underarm skin with a light sweater which she let hang open. After blow drying her hair she twisted it up in a clip to hide the new gray and pulled some wispies down around her face. Katie would be proud. But then Melanie frowned at herself in the mirror. The wedding set Joel gave her for their fifth anniversary killed it. Athens Townies didn’t wear diamonds. She set her engagement ring on the bureau and went to look for some of Katie’s less formal accessories.

Melanie loved the smell of her daughter’s room, like baby powder and dirty feet. Katie was allowed to decorate it herself this year. A purple and black comforter replaced the Winnie the Pooh bedspread, and blinds covered the windows instead of curtains. Natural light poured into the room and spotlighted a poster of a girl rock band Katie liked on the far wall and a goofy looking boy actor whose name Melanie could never remember. The print of Christopher Robin and Piglet helping Pooh get unstuck from a honey pot had been retired to the attic.

In an open jewelry box on the dresser Melanie found a beaded string bracelet of earth tones and small shells, something Katie made at day camp last summer. Melanie used a feather pen on Katie’s desk to write her an IOU in case anything happened to it before she could put it back. That was their deal with borrowing stuff. And then she left one for the anime backpack hanging on Katie’s desk chair too.

An hour later in her Subaru wagon, Melanie’s sandaled foot rode the break as a shortcut through the in-town neighborhoods to avoid traffic took longer than she’d intended. She was rethinking a left turn at the last stop sign when Joel called. Before answering, she muted the radio and rolled up the windows.

“Little Five Points, huh?” he said after she told him her plans for the night. “You girls be careful.”           

 “Oh Joel, please. It’s just kids down there.”

“I gotta hang out with kids tonight too.”

“Oh yeah? What kids?” she said, and then, “oh shit,” when she realized she should have turned right.

“The new recruits are like twenty-three. I feel like the old balding uncle at a bachelor party. What’s ‘oh shit’?”

“I just went the wrong way. I’m fine.” She pulled into the driveway of an old Victorian to turn around. “Anyway, you know you’ll have fun. It’s Vegas, baby.” She imitated a line from a movie they liked.

“How can you get lost? You have GPS.”

“Yeah, but I don’t need it. I’m fine.” The day had turned hot and she wanted to get off the phone so she could roll the windows down again.

“Use the damn GPS, Melanie.”

She hesitated in the silent heat of the car before going in reverse.

“I gotta go. I’m supposed to play a round of golf before the awards dinner,” he said, and they hung up.

Melanie turned rolled the windows back down and continued driving.

---

The in-town Lowe’s had plenty of wood chips. The two big bags she bought jostled in the back of the wagon as Melanie pulled into the theater’s gravel parking lot. A familiar sour odor made her grimace. Great. She’d forgotten deodorant.

“You look cute,” she said to Tracy, who obviously had the same wardrobe idea, a peasant blouse over jeans.

“When in Rome.” Tracy hugged her. “Ew, I like that essential oil. You smell like college. What’s with the backpack?”

“Thanks.” Melanie exhaled a brief laugh through her nose and then adjusted the straps on her shoulder. “I brought my book with me in case I got done early and had to wait on you.”

Outside the theater a group of tired looking teenagers in tattered clothes huddled around a basket filled with a few dollar bills and coins. Tracy put a dollar in the basket.

“Thanks,” said one of the girls without lifting her blond dreadlocked head from the haunch of a pit bull.

When they were far enough away Melanie whispered to Tracy, “I don’t think those kids are really homeless.”

“Hmm.” Tracy stopped walking. “I think you’re right.” She turned around and dropped in a business card too.

“Why’d you do that?” Melanie said when Tracy caught back up.

“Maybe they’ll pass it on to their parents.”  

The theater in Little Five Points was part of a big cement block building dedicated to community arts. Melanie had taken Katie there several years ago for a Christmas presentation commemorating Dr. Seuss stories. The main stage had amphitheater style seating and the cement block halls outside it looked and echoed like a 1960s school building. As Tracy and Melanie approached the ticket counter they realized the dinner part of the dinner theater turned out to be Papa Johns and Two Buck Chuck.

“Katie would think this is cool,” Melanie said as they carried their paper plates and glasses of wine to their seats.

“That’s because we’re still cool.” Tracy balanced her glass and her plate as she sat down. “So what are you celebrating? You still haven’t told me.” The lights dimmed and a man nearby cleared his throat. Tracy winked at Melanie and took a sip of her wine.

“I’ll tell you later,” Melanie whispered.

The play was definitely adult. A muscular young man played the lead character, a rural teenager struggling through puberty. The opening scene depicted his first sexual encounter, an explicit session with his older cousin. He stayed naked for the remainder of the three acts analyzing the experience through monologue. As the curtains went up Tracy fanned herself with the show pamphlet. “Good God that kid was hot.”

Melanie smiled and nodded in agreement. “We need a drink.”

---

The neon lights and colorful signs framing the shops and bars made Little Five Points look like an amusement park. In the plaza near the main intersection, groups of people spilled out of bars and gathered around street artists. Melanie and Tracy walked passed a drum circle, and then a bearded man holding a pad of paper and pen asked, “Do you like poetry?” Melanie smiled and waived her head no. Further up around a corner a couple came out of a pub and as the guy held the door for the girl, Melanie heard garage band music. She raised her eyebrows at Tracy and they went inside.

 “So when does Joel get back?” Tracy shouted.

“Uh, Monday.”

The place was reminiscent of nineties grunge with exposed brick and a sticky concrete floor. Thick wooden columns held up the ceiling. They found two empty seats at the bar next to one of the columns. “Tell me again why he went to Las Vegas for a week without you.” Tracy settled onto her stool.

“Don’t life coach me, Tracy.” Melanie tried to get the attention of one of the bar tenders who stood closest to their end of the long bar. He was tall and skinny with an intricate anthology of tattoos covering his arms and neck. “Two PBRs and two waters,” she yelled, cupping her hands over her mouth. He nodded at her but showed no other expression.  

“I’m friend coaching you.” Tracy touched Melanie’s arm.

“Team building,” Melanie said reaching for her wallet in Katie’s backpack. “His company takes them somewhere every year. Last year it was Jamaica. The year before it was Hawaii. Remember?” She put a twenty on the bar and the bar tender put a tall boy can each in front of her and Tracy.

Tracy took a swig of hers. “And spouses aren’t supposed to go on these trips?”

 “I’m sure I could go if I really wanted to.” Melanie hung Katie’s backpack on a hook under the lip of the bar. “But it’s a work thing. For his sales team. So they can team build.”

“So he says.” Tracy looked directly into Melanie’s eyes. “Team build what? Like a shelter or something? Habitat for Humanity? You guys used to do everything together.”

“It’s his work.” Melanie stared back. “Why are you giving me such a hard time about this?”

“Because it’s weird that it’s over the weekend. And you don’t seem affected.” Tracy put her beer down. “You’re more concerned about gardening. That’s not healthy.”

“Well, I’m gonna get a shot. Is that healthy? I’ve just decided I’m going to sleep in.”

“Then you need a valium, not a shot.”

Melanie yelled to the bar tender again. “Two tequila shots.”

Tracy held up a finger, indicating just one. “That a girl.”

The bar tender lined up a shot for Melanie. “To team building!” she said and gulped it back. After sucking the lime she smirked up her face as if digesting acid, and when she could speak again, she confessed. “I’m a mess,” she said and folded her arms on the bar. As she went to plop her head on top of them, the hair clip at the top of her head snagged the pop top of her beer and pulled it toward her. Suds saturated her head and arms. “Shit,” she said, “this stupid thing.” She took the hair clip out and shook off the excess water. “I look like a lion now, don’t I?”

“Here, use your sweater to dry off.” Tracy helped her take her arms out. “You do look a little wild, but your arms look great.”

“Thanks, I’ve been doing yoga.” Melanie hugged herself and tears welled in her eyes.

“Oh honey, don’t be sad. Be angry. Your fucking husband is in Las Vegas with a bunch of young female sales assistants and you’re getting over your fifth miscarriage in six years.”

“I don’t even care anymore, Tracy. Let him have a good time. It’s so strained between us.”

“Oh sweetie,” Tracy put her hand on Melanie’s shoulder. “I know the last one was hard.”

“They’re all hard.” Melanie cleared her throat and sat up taller. “Can you hand me that water?” She waited for Tracy to hand it to her and then took a long sip. “I’ve decided to stop trying.”
            “Really? Are you sure?”

“Yes. I don’t feel like starting all over again now. I mean, Jesus. Katie’s going to be eleven this summer. She stopped asking for a little brother three years ago.”

“You know you don’t have to decide anything.”

“No, I do. I need to feel like a person again.” She drank down the rest of her water.

Tracy jolted in her seat. “My stupid phone is vibrating.” She pulled it out of her jeans pocket and looked at the screen. “Oh God.”

“What is it?” Melanie stood up.

“Rick.” Tracy scrolled through a text message. “The kids have puked all over the house.” She looked up at Melanie. “He thinks he’s gonna be next.”

“Evil stomach flu. You have to get home.”

They made their way to the front door and when they stepped outside Tracy asked, “You ok to drive?”

“Oh yeah.” The bleach smell of a Bradford Pear temporarily sobered Melanie, and her eyes opened wide as she tried to waive the scent away with her hand. “I’m fine.”

When they reached the parking lot Tracy stopped short and released her head back. “God, I can’t believe I have to face this nightmare.” She looked at Melanie. “What are you doing with yourself tomorrow?”

“Plant the new shit I bought.” Melanie scratched her shoulder. “Jesus, I’m all sticky.”

“You sound angry. That’s good.” Tracy fished her keys out of her purse.

            Melanie felt for hers. “Damn. I forgot Katie’s backpack at the bar. I need to run back. You go. Get home to the exorcism.” She hugged Tracy. “I’ll be right behind you.”

“You sure?” Tracy climbed into the driver’s seat of her suburban.

“Yes, please go. I’m fine.  I’ll text you when I get home.”

---

By the time Melanie made her way back to the bar the music had changed. Several girls swayed around a DJ booth Melanie hadn’t noticed earlier, their skinny arms undulating to bongo drums and baselines that swooped around as if they too just ate hallucinogenic mushrooms. Katie’s backpack was still hooked under the bar. Someone else sat there now, but Melanie ducked in and grabbed it. When she stood back up she realized she felt a little too buzzed to drive, but she didn’t feel like waiting it out at the bar. A little walk, some fresh air, and she’d be good. Maybe even read a few pages in her book on a bench somewhere away from the crowds.

Outside she decided to get a candy bar from the convenience store she’d seen on one of the corners. Heading back to the main intersection she avoided responding to anyone asking for money or handing out flyers by keeping her eyes on the ground. When she reached the little store she winced at the condensation on the glass door. She was still pretty wet from her spill.

Inside was cramped and the cold air conditioned air raised the hairs on her arms. She squinted up her eyes in the glaring light.

“You need to leave your bag up here, miss,” said a large balding man behind the counter.

She handed it over. “I just need to get a candy bar.”

He pointed to an aisle behind her, and she took her time looking at wrappers for the lowest amount of fat. Eventually she settled on a pack of peanut M&Ms. “Might as well get some milk too,” she said to herself and walked over to the refrigerated section. She slid the glass door open for a half gallon carton, and then she grabbed a couple sugar-free fruit flavored sodas too. As she walked back toward the counter she remembered she needed paper towels and grabbed a roll and then a box of cereal for the morning. Captain Crunch. At the counter a package of scented matches caught her eye.  

“Oh, these are neat,” she said.

“It’s incense.” The man looked annoyed. “You want a bag?”

Katie’s little backpack already held Melanie’s beer soaked sweater, her wallet, phone, and the book she’d brought. “Yes, please.”

Loaded down with two plastic grocery bags and Katie’s backpack, Melanie headed back toward the car. The night air was still heavy with humidity and her shoulders sagged as she walked down the lumpy sidewalk. Thank goodness they’d come to Little Five Points and not the strip mall sports bar down the street from her house. Hair frizzed out, beer and body odor. What if she’d run into one of Katie’s teachers: “Oh, hi Mrs. Gardner. Katie’s doing fine. I’m just back from a nature retreat.” At the thought of Katie, Melanie felt tears coming again and she stopped at a bench to sit. She released her bags on either side of her and bowed her head. Damn fucking palm tree. Already into her twelfth week. They’d even almost told Katie this time.  She sighed and leaned back against the bench. Joel had pleaded with her to let it go, or adopt. He wanted a vasectomy.

Another small group of young homeless kids sat on the steps of an old converted factory building just a little further down the street, a girl and two boys. One didn’t have a shirt on. His face was covered with a beard and a mustache and his shorts hung low, revealing the crease of each narrow hip. He gestured with his arms and talked politics, something about the Libyan Republic. The other boy and girl sat at his feet, the girl leaning back against the guy. They looked up at their friend and laughed every once in a while at the end of a sentence.

“That’s what I’d do,” the bare-chested guy concluded and stroked his thumb along the hollow below his sternum.

Melanie took a deep breath and gathered her belongings. Loaded down again she headed for the car. As she passed by the steps of the building a break in the sidewalk caught her toe. “Owe,” she said and stopped to examine it.

“You ok?” The bare-chested guy called out.

“Oh yeah, I’m fine.”

He walked up to her, and she stepped back.

“I’m not gonna hurt you,” he said. “You got a lighter?”

Up close he looked older than she’d thought, and she remembered the scented matches from the store. “I’ve got these.” She dug them out of one of the bags.

“Cool.” He smiled. “Hey, it’s just about four-twenty. Want to join us?”

She hadn’t heard that expression in years, a ritual given up when she got pregnant the first time. “Oh, I’m about to head home.”

“Even better.” He smiled and looked up at the sky. “Pretty night.” He waived her to come as he started walking backward toward his friends and the male stink of him convinced her he was at least in his twenties. She followed him over to where his friends stood, behind one the buildings’ pillars.

“I’m Tully,” he said. “This is Ciara and Mitto.” They each said hello to Melanie.

“My friends call me Mel,” she told them and set her bags down. “Anybody want a grapefruit soda?”

Ciara said she did, and smiled when Melanie handed it to her. Mitto took out a joint from a pack of cigarettes and lit it with the matches. 

“Won’t the cops come?” Melanie said.

“We won’t stay too long.” Mitto puffed and passed the joint to her.

“Oh no, Ciara first,” she said.

“You’re sweet.” Ciara waived her hand. “But I can’t smoke. Go ahead.” She stepped away from them and swayed to music that wasn’t playing.

 “Ciara’s got a big job interview Monday.” Mitto handed the joint to Melanie.

Melanie felt her heart speed up. She hadn’t smoked in years. She toked softly, trying to take it easy, and then passed it to Tully.

“You don’t have to go light,” Tully held his breath a few seconds and exhaled, “Mitto has plenty.”

Mitto took a big hit and then handed it back to Tully. “Ciara come here,” he said, holding his hand out, and they walked together to the bottom of the steps.

“Nice people,” Melanie said.

“Yeah, they’re good friends.” Tully brought the joint to his lips. “So what do you read, Mel?” He puffed it several times and then passed it to Melanie again.

“Uh, motivational stuff lately,” she said. Tully looked pleased with her answer. Feeling a little more relaxed this time, she smiled as she inhaled and filled her lungs. In college she had smoked a lot, and for a moment she felt very at home. The loft she lived in her senior year looked a lot like the outside of the building they stood in front of now and she tilted her head back to look up. As she handed the joint back to Tully she started coughing. She couldn’t speak for a while and couldn’t open her eyes all the way. Tully must not have been able to notice because he went on explaining that Ciara and Mitto were old friends and that he was staying with them for a couple days. Like through a tunnel Melanie heard him say something about leaving tomorrow for Montana and after that the Peace Corps. By the time she regained the ability to control her motor skills he was talking about how Ciara and Mitto lived around the corner.

“So you want to go back to their place for a little while. I think Ciara’s ready to crash.”

Melanie definitely couldn’t drive now. The pot had hit her hard. She could barely speak let alone program her GPS. “Um, yeah, just for a bit,” she said. “That’d be good.”

---

Getting to Ciara and Mitto’s place seemed to take a while. Melanie’s bags of groceries felt like bowling balls, but the walk was pretty. She could see the downtown skyline in the distance and the stars and blue-black sky peaked through the holes of the canopy the trees made with their newly budded leaves. Ciara and Mitto’s place was one of four apartments in an old Victorian house that looked a lot like the one Melanie saw earlier when she was talking to Joel. She shivered.  

“Sorry to be a party pooper, but I’m wiped,” said Ciara once they all got inside. “It was nice meeting you, Mel.” She went into a room off the kitchen.

Mitto took Melanie’s bags from her and made a spot for them in the fridge. “Don’t forget ‘em.” He filled a glass with water and then saluted before closing the bedroom door.

Tully sat on a blue denim couch and was already deep into an explanation about a type of bug in Montana that was eating the bark off the trees when Melanie realized she could sit on the couch too.

“But they only come around like every thirteen years,” he said. “It’s just part of the cycle of life for the wilderness there.”

She wasn’t sure if she was supposed to speak next. She wanted to hear more about where he was going in the Peace Corps, but he stared at her as if he was waiting for something. Goosebumps outlined the firmness of his shoulders and the stiffness of his nipples. She couldn’t decide if he was good looking because of all his facial hair, but his chest and arms looked great. The only thing she knew to do at this moment was to kiss him, and she did. Then she was on top of him horizontally on the couch and wrapped in his arms and hands. They made out for what seemed like forever. It felt like high school. Every step closer they got to going all the way she said to herself, I can’t do this, but then she kept going and leading him further along. Finally they were naked. He pulled out a condom from his shorts pocket and then it happened. Like losing her virginity all over again, it went in. Between the shock of him inside her and how amazing it felt, she came before she could feel guilty enough to stop. A few moments later he pulled out of her and pressed against her pelvis until he released into the rubber. And then they both relaxed.

He giggled as he pulled away. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m extra careful.”

“Right,” she said and took a deep breath. “Right.”

After they each used the bathroom, he picked up a pile of blankets she hadn’t noticed earlier. “I can walk you back to your car if you want, but you might as well sleep a few hours.”

She didn’t think she’d be able to sleep, but she helped him line the couch with the blankets anyway. They smelled like the same laundry detergent she used. “Maybe just a few hours,” she said.

---

The next morning, sunshine filled the room and Melanie sat up. Tully was asleep in a ball on the floor. She looked around and got her bearings and then got up. She put the blanket on top of Tully and tiptoed into the kitchen to get her groceries out of the fridge. Without waking anyone, she got her backpack and her shoes and stepped outside of the house. From the porch steps, the tops of Atlanta’s downtown buildings looked like pink prisms reflecting the early morning sunlight. She took her phone out of Katie’s backpack and used its GPS to figure out where she was. It only took fifteen minutes to reach the car. She gripped the wheel hard until she got on the interstate. The sky was clear, and the sweet morning air rushed in through the cracked windows. The reality of what she just did settled into her mind, and she focused on breathing for several miles. At her exit Melanie picked up the phone and held it to her chest before dialing Katie. The line rang a few times, and then, like a shot, came Katie’s voice.

“Oh my sweetheart. Are you having a good time?” Melanie hoped the noise of the car hid the crack in her voice.

“Oh yeah,” Katie said. “Grandpa just stopped for gas, again. Hang on a sec, Ma.”

Melanie could hear Katie telling Joel’s mother that she was going to use the bathroom.

“You ok?” Melanie asked her when she heard Katie get back on the phone.

“Yeah. I’m ok. Just needed some time to myself. Grandma and Grandpa can be a little clingy.”

Melanie smiled. Katie explained that they were going to Dollywood and would be home the next day. “What have you been doing?”

Melanie paused for a moment and bit her lip. “I went out with Miss Tracy last night. I borrowed the bracelet you made at camp last summer.”

“That’s cool. You can keep it,” Katie said. “I’m gonna make a new one with this arrowhead I found yesterday.”

“Thank you. That sounds great. I can’t wait to see it.” She told Katie to be good and to enjoy herself. “See you tomorrow, sweetheart.”    

Ten minutes later Melanie pulled into her subdivision. She put the car in park at the top of the driveway, and walked up to the palm tree. The sun beat down stronger and the breeze was gone. Katydids and someone’s lawnmower buzzed in the distance. Melanie looked at the ground around the palm’s trunk and tears welled in her eyes. Dotting the base, several green fronds had sprouted through the dirt and what was left of the Chattahoochee rock. They were still tight and barely above the earth, but the cold hardy palm had survived, after all. It had re-sprouted. She dropped to her knees in the dirt and rock. Goddamn tree. She put her head to the ground and sobbed. If she cut back the dead stems it might grow back by the end of summer, as big as it was when she planted it. Maybe she should try again. She lifted herself back up and took a deep breath. No, she needed to be done. No more cruel hope. She went to the garage and got the shovel, and with tears streaming down her face and her peasant skirt knotted up around her legs, she dug up the trunk and all its green shoots. She shoveled it, rock and all into the wheelbarrow and carted it to the end of the driveway. She hauled the sacks of self fertilizing soil from the garage and dumped half a bag into the hole left by the palm. Flecks of dirt clung to Katie’s bracelet. Melanie jerked it free, dropped it where the palm had been, and poured more soil over top. The zinnias wilted in their plastic pots. Melanie loosened them, breaking a few roots, and planted them in uneven rows. After patting the soil down around them tight, she got the hose from around the side of the house and gave them a good soak. Then she got the wood chips out of the back of the wagon and scattered them on top of the soil. She used all of it, and when she finished she stepped back to look at her work. She ran to the car and got out her phone. She took a picture of the new flowers and sent it to Joel.

Inside, she stripped down and put her filthy clothes in the washing machine. When she got out of the shower she didn’t bother to dress but sent a message to Tracy: “Sorry I forgot to text when I got home. How’s the puke? Let me know if I can help.”

As she walked through the living room she grabbed a candle off a shelf and set it in the middle of the kitchen table and lit it. She fixed herself a bowl of the cereal she’d bought at the convenience store and sat in the nude at the table while she ate every last crunch, staring at the image of her new flowers on the screen of her phone. When she was done she drank the milk from the bowl. She put the bowl in the sink, threw the box of cereal in the garbage, and blew the candle out. Then she closed her eyes and prayed. She was done.