There were ten colored pencils for the off-season and twelve for the holidays. Dolores had worked at Bodie’s only florist for more than ten years, and she could count on one hand the number of times she’d needed to actually type an original expression for the enclosure card. Like a short-order cook, Dolores had an efficient code system for the most frequently-used sentiments.
“It’s you that I love,” the philanderer would dictate. “It’s always been you. We deserve a fresh start together.” Dolores would make a tick with the chartreuse pencil on the back of the tiny card, her other hand already reaching for the tiger lilies. Later, she’d transcribe it just as he’d said, for it was always the same apologies for infidelities. If she was feeling generous, she’d flick a few drops from the vase across the message to give the recipient the impression of contrite tears.
It was the same innuendo for the pursuit of secretaries, the same smarmy thanks for the previous night, the same awkward condolences. Red, orange, violet. Small colored checks as her reminders of the sentiments her customers each gave thoughtful consideration, not knowing that their very personal prose was exactly the same as hundreds before and hundreds to come. The flower selection was rote now as well. She could handicap even the most hip and independent senders. The purple pencil was dedicated to those messages that some customers imagined no one else had the passion and vision to send. These, too, were relegated to shorthand: a purple “D” for a popular line from Dylan Thomas, “4” for Hugh Grant’s stammering dialogue in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and “FF” for the aching Foo Fighters’ lyric delivered with irises.
When it came to love and lust and loss, it seemed that there were no new ideas and no new words for which to express them.
The marigold pencil was for congratulations, and there was usually little more to say than that. Though, with marigold, the bouquets tended to be obnoxiously large, as if to show the recipient that regardless of their accomplishment, the sender was still wealthy enough to afford the gesture. The grass green pencil was short, used often in the small, conservative town for perfunctory birthdays and anniversaries. Green was for married love. Aquamarine was for birthdays of family members, both the inevitable ribbing of those “over the hill” and the “you’ve grown so fast” of those grandchildren who never remembered to send thanks or write back. Indigo and magenta pencils were saved for the major holidays. One used for general seasonal greetings to family or businesses; the other used to apologize to the party who was romantically neglected because the sender was spending the holiday with said family.
The blue pencil was the longest, that is, the instrument least in need of sharpening. Dolores saved this for true love. She was a regular customer at Calhoun Art Supply, replenishing worn pencils with disturbing consistency. The blue was so infrequently used that she’d still have three in the jar when it was time to replace the other eleven.
The assignation of each color to each sentiment had happened so long ago, and was now so hard set, she could not recall most of the correlations. But there was a man she dreamed of still that smelled of salt and sand and sea, and that was the reason for blue.
No one had equaled Dean in her affections. Though, truth be told, there was little opportunity for new romance at the florist. Whether a customer was ordering flowers for a funeral, anniversary, flirtation, or contrition, he was anything but eligible. The few guys who came in to buy arrangements for sick mothers seemed kind and guileless; and, after the paying for their purchases, she never saw them again.
In early November, it was quiet in the shop. Dolores prepared her orders of amaryllises, roses, and lilies, of gilded pinecone picks, of endless spools of shimmering ribbon. She sharpened magenta and indigo pencils. She stenciled snowflakes on the display windows with a special spray from Calhoun’s. Dolores completed these tasks with the pragmatism of one accustomed to holidays alone. In rare moments of indulgence, she added brandy to her coffee mug and read from a dog-eared Auden anthology she kept underneath the counter. W.H. Auden, she observed, should be the one quoted on the enclosure cards, if any poet should.
“The years shall run like rabbits,” she read. “For in my arms I hold… the flower of the ages and the first love of the world.”
The cluster of bells in the doorway chimed and Dolores hid her book. She twirled the pencil cup, hedging which color she might choose only from a glance at the customer’s boots.
Heavy work boots, worn blue jeans, and a brown leather jacket distressed to softness. It was the type of jacket, so impressed upon her memory, that Dean had been wearing when he was sent upstate a decade before. It was the same jacket and the same man. He was mildly distressed himself, like a piece of sea glass that had been tossed and traded its luster for opacity. The seven once-dark stars tattooed on his wrist had faded to marine blue.
There were flecks of silver in his hair now and dark circles under his eyes, though the same was true for her. The stood in silence, just remembering. After he’d gone to prison, his last letter to her was to free her from the solitude which he was sentenced. He’d told her not to wait. Against his heart, he’d urged her to find a better man. He did not want her life to be limited by his circumstance.
Before she could speak, or even know what to say, Dean advanced toward the counter. He took a little card from the stack and a blue pencil from the cup.
He wrote only two words and then handed the card to Dolores.