Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m tired of apologizing for being a native Floridian. I’ve never ridden an alligator or cooked meth, and “Florida Man” headlines freak me out too. Some of us down here in the thumb of the country are nice, normal people, but I can’t deny that living in the weirdness of our little cesspool of spring breakers, cracker cattle, Mickey Mouse, Mar-a-Lago, and humidity can breed some great stories.
The man in the parking lot handed her a pink carnation. Sara reached automatically to take what the stranger offered as unconsciously as passing a fork when she used to help Mother do dishes. The man just smiled and kept going across the black asphalt that shimmered in the late afternoon heat.
Sara clutched the long green stem. What she was supposed to do with it? She remembered being similarly bemused when Will Engleman brought a trembling fistful of multicolored carnations when he picked her up for their first, and next to last, date while she was home from college the summer before her sophomore year. Mother had shooed her into the kitchen to get a vase-not the good crystal one-following her behind the closed door to remark that carnations were cheap trash flowers. Sara wrapped up that good vase-so heavy-in newspaper three weeks ago and put it in the box marked for Goodwill, her hands efficient and sure.
Suddenly a little lightheaded from the heat, Sara leaned her hip against the sensible Toyota that John had picked out for her. He’d said she could drive it forever as long as she remembered to change the oil. John was always right; she no longer had the husband, but the car still ran great.
John never brought flowers home to her, had never sent them to her office as a surprise. Mother said more than once, “They just die,” meaning, Sara guessed, that flowers were a waste of money. But that would make everything a waste.
Mother had taken a surprising interest in flowers when Sara and John planned their wedding. Sara wanted the peonies, drooping under the weight of their own beauty; the clusters of hydrangea that looked like mobs of butterflies; and carnations as pale pink as a single layer of a ballerina’s tutu. Mother insisted on the stern, wax-white calla lilies and roses so red that they looked more like an idea of a rose than a rose. Sara walked down the aisle next to her silent father, holding the bouquet her mother had proclaimed “so elegant” but that reminded Sarah of a circus tent. She’d held it steady under her chin, longing for the smell of carnations.
In the parking lot, Sara held the flower as she imagined one would a dirty diaper. She marched toward the garbage can by the entrance to Publix with the idea of hurling the flower into the trash with a satisfying downward motion of her arm, like a gesture that would accompany the refutation of an undeniably false statement.
She paused with the carnation shoulder-high and looked at the electric doors as they opened for another customer, swooshed closed, and then opened again. Sara pulled her hand close and touched the fleshy ruffles of the carnation to her nose, breathing deeply. It smelled like everything that was just for her.