A Floral Arrangement
Paul A. Toth

In the backyard, I had breakfast laid out on a checker-clothed picnic table, with bottles of wine, lots of eggs, three kinds of bread, watermelon, peaches, plums, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries. The birds twittered. The sunlight came through the trees, and the clouds drooped with a languid purposelessness, for they would not rain. I waited for my twin brother Roy and his wife Missy with my shoeless feet crossed under the table, playing footsie with the dandelions. I ate a banana and tossed the peel behind me into the woods. They were coming for my sperm. Roy wanted it in a cup. I had something more traditional in mind.

Then I heard the SUV—they already had one!—crunching into the gravel driveway.

“Well,” I said, “come. It’s been a long time.”

My brother looked at me. Even on a summer picnic, he wore wingtips.

“Jesus, Chuck,” Missy said, “you didn’t have to do all this.”

They ate fast.

“So?” Roy said.

“You know my feelings.”

“Don’t you two argue again,” Missy said.

Her black Italian eyes dilated under the shade of a tree. It should have been an olive tree. There should have been a sea behind us, a great galleon in the distance. The captain? Roy. The boarding pirate? Me.

“I don’t want kids,” I said. “Why should you have them from me? It doesn’t seem right.”

“The only thing you’ve done right is make one good investment, for which, if you remember, I provided the stock tip. You cashed in and bought this place, but I might as well own it. Keep that in mind.”

“What’s mine is yours, brother.”

“But, Chuck,” Missy said, “you know that’s the only reason we ask. The child would be as close to our own as if—”

“Fuck him. If he doesn’t want to do it, then fuck him.”

“Forget the past,” Missy said.

“Forget,” I said, “that it was you and me at the start, you mean?”

“Don’t get into that,” Roy said. “I’m the one who should have a thing about this.”

“Why, because you employed inside information that I’m a drunk to sway her your direction? Told her things she didn’t need to know? Made me sound even worse than I am? Take that away and she’s still my girl.”

“That’s not true,” Missy said.

“You are a drunk,” Roy said. “Who’s the wine for? It’s ten in the morning.”

I poured a tall glass and drank it.

“Impressive,” he said. “Let’s forget it.”

“Well,” I said, “let’s not entirely forget.”

“Let’s just go, Missy. Fuck him.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” I said.

Roy stood, but Missy pulled him down.

“Oh, what’s the big deal?” I said. “Is it like tennis, how I beat you even when I was drunk? At least you made it to deuce on those occasions.”

“You make me sick.”

I listened to the birds. I watched bees get it on with flowers.

“If you want this to happen,” I said, “there’s only one way. You stay down here, Roy. Have some wine this morning; it won’t kill you. It’ll be over in—well, I’m probably not as fast as you. Maybe an hour. Is this a good time? Missy, are you ovulating?”

“That’s it,” Roy said. “Let’s go.”

He grabbed Missy’s arm and yanked her from the table. Soon, the SUV crunched back out of the driveway.

I poured another glass. My life was all so carefully arranged, the way time slurred like bum speech, poetic in its way, idiotic but not without heart and soul. The clouds drooped still lower, like milkless breasts. Poor Missy. Twins? A matter of degree. One of us had the juice and the other didn’t. One of us was the busiest man on the planet Earth and the other couldn’t give a damn about the business of the earth. I won once on his investment advice and quit playing when I bought the house, but Roy had to keep winning. But just before they left, my toes stroked Missy’s calves beneath the table, her skirt lifting. I saw what looked like the start of a smile on her face, and then it retreated as Roy dragged her off like the unproductive ape he was.

I finished two more bottles. I climbed the stairs to my bedroom and took a nap that lasted the rest of the day.

I slept well in a drunken way, dreaming of my few months with Missy, before Roy stole her from me. My dreams told me he was right when he said I had brought it on myself, as each time I appeared on the movie screen of my eyelids, I was drunk. I saw the time I crashed into her father’s convertible when picking her up, and the time we went to a dance and I passed out in her arms, dropping through her grasp to the floor. But I also remembered the fine moments, when I thought she would be mine forever, when I held her in bed and believed I could be forgiven anything, that all would be forgotten, that a drunkard’s angel would fly in formation with me through life, even if I occasionally ran my beak into a wall.

I heard a door opening, but that was not part of the dream. At first, my head seemed to swell, and an obnoxious anger rose within me. It was the wind, probably, starting my hangover early. I turned on the light and heard the lightest footsteps. My mood lifted. It was Missy, I knew, come in secret to make love with me one more time. My foot had sent its signals that morning, and she had decoded them. She knew I wanted something more shapely than a cup.

“Here you go,” Roy said in the bedroom doorway, flinging a pornographic magazine and specimen cup at me. In his other hand, he held a check. “Ten thousand dollars,” he said. “That’s worth another one of your solo love affairs, isn’t it?”

I looked at the cup and magazine. Then I threw them back at him.

“I don’t think so.”

“You’ll do it,” he said. “You owe her for the time she wasted on you. And you owe me for the house.”

“Really?”

I stood and walked toward him.

“What are you gonna do,” he said, “hit me?”

“I’m getting a drink downstairs,” I said. “I prefer to drink alone, so goodbye.”

He let me past him, but then he took a swing. I ducked. He went over my body and down the stairs, the magazine and cup trailing along. His head caught the wall at the bottom, blood splashing everywhere. I chased after him. He was my brother. And it looked like murder. What would Missy think? What would the cops think?

Cleaning up the mess would only implicate me. I called 911, and then I called Missy. During both calls, I tried to sound neither too hysterical nor too calm.

Surprisingly, the cops bought my story. I think I would have failed a lie detector test because it felt like a lie, but somehow they figured out the way I told it must have been the way it happened.

At the funeral, Missy whispered to me, “He shouldn’t have gone to your house like that, in the middle of the night.”

“Shhh,” I said, “he’s lying right there. People are listening.”

She held my hand throughout the funeral. People looked at us. Perhaps they thought we twins had been switched, that my brother had killed me and I was lying in the casket. But Agatha Christie had no hand in Roy’s fate, and my personality was split only by the headaches which greeted me in the mornings.

There was a reception. Now Missy was neither his nor mine, and suddenly my house seemed to belong less to me than him, just like he said, thanks to the stock tip without which I would still be living with Mom and Dad.

I had to move out. I couldn’t look at the wall his head had struck without thinking myself a murderer, even though I was, by all but the most psychological of accounts, innocent. I found a buyer for the house in two weeks, and the papers awaited loan approval. I wasn’t sure where I was going next, but it would be somewhere singular and disconnected, like an island in the Pacific.

Missy let me stay at her place—their place—that night. I slept on a couch Roy must have picked, black leather sleek as his personality but much more comfortable.

Not to be Martin Luther King, but I had a dream. A long dream.

“Why don’t I go with you?” she said in the dream.

“No, it can’t be.”

“But you’ve changed. You quit drinking.”

“I did? I hadn’t even noticed.”

“Your face is clearer. And you don’t smell like alcohol.”

“I don’t know why. I guess I just forgot to drink.”

“Alcoholics don’t forget to drink. And that’s why I left you, remember?”

“That was a long time ago. Besides, you want children.”

“Not now. It would be too complicated.”

“You might change your mind. I won’t. My life is carefully arranged.”

Me forget to drink? No, I was taking tranquilizers supplied by my physician, and with their aid managed to quit drinking...most of the time.

First, we slept on the couch together. The night after that, we kissed for hours but went no further. The next night, we went to her bed—their bed—but still we only kissed. Finally, one week later, she said, “I think I’m ready now.”

“No, not yet,” I said. “What about birth control?”

“I know,” she said. “You’ve worked so hard to avoid working hard.”

“It’s too late for me to have it any other way. If you go to the doctor and get on the pill, then we can go the rest of the way. In turn, I won’t drink again, even when I forget why I forgot to drink, and all the trouble it caused us both.”

The next day in the dream, she returned with an oval container of pills. I watched her swallow the first pill, and we finally made love. Like running into a friend not seen in years, it took a while to get past the wedge in time. But the wedge narrowed, and our relationship came as close as it could to what it had been. So I couldn’t say a word when I found her unswallowed pills under the basement stairs, nor could she when she left them next to my already hidden bottles.

Finally in this dream, nine months later, I dropped off our daughter at soccer practice. I took the SUV to the bank and transferred more money to checking, to pay the bills which doubled with every year of our daughter’s existence. Then I picked her up from practice and took her to the movies, and after that dropped her off at dance class. Every now and then, I snuck a drink and laughed at what a haphazard arrangement my life had become, wondering whether I had a hand in all the roses and thorns.

When I awoke, Missy set a cup of coffee on the table beside the couch. I drank and let it awaken me, but the dream was sticking to me like honey. It felt as though we had slept together and both regretted it.

“I’m going back to my house,” I said. “I’m backing out of the deal. We really shouldn’t see each other anymore.”

“You’re probably right. There’s bad chemistry between us. But why stay at your house? Won’t it make you remember what happened with Roy?”

“We would have had a beautiful daughter.”

“What?”

“Just a dream.”

I called a contractor that day. It took them a week to build the tennis court. It ruined the view, destroying much of the supposedly glorious nature which had once occupied its place. I had no opponents besides a ball machine, but I kept score. I never lost a point unless I was drunk, when the ghost of Roy made it to deuce before losing.