Good or Dead
The corner of 5th and Triangle. The Elderflower Lady—hair like bunched white blooms, Age of Aquarius muumuu—arranges a corpse in a cowboy hat. She sets one knee over his other, adjusts a lighted Pall Mall in his left hand which dangles off the bench’s armrest like a flaccid tuna. The Justin Ropers he wears are too new to have seen much bootscootin’, but are perfect to die in. She smooths down his jacket, tugs at his jeans, brushes away a dollop of powder residue at a small aperture in his shirt near the heart. He has the nerve to bleed. Even an hour later. The Elderflower Lady blots with a handkerchief. She performs this task with no concern who’s watching.
There are three witnesses to this event: an itinerant laborer scanning the street for work, a homeless vet shaking a cup of coins, and a busker playing “Paint It Black” on the accordion. They do not mess with the Elderflower Lady. They have seen her here before, with other men, too stiff to manipulate. This one is the freshest. Somewhere there’s a siren. She does not flinch.
The corpse does not mind her ministrations, although his mouth droops a bit in the heat, and the cowboy hat wants to slide off his head. She pushes it back and sits down. She slinks her arm behind his shoulders and takes a selfie of the two of them. He’s never taken a bad picture his entire death. The Elderflower Lady uploads the image to social media. Twenty-four Likes in less than a minute. More Likes will be forthcoming. She has a following.
The Elderflower Lady used to follow the “Missed Connections” section in the newspaper to snare her men. The men were so hopeful, always certain she was the blonde they saw on the flight to Singapore or Cincinnati or Seattle. She reminded them of their conversations, how they discussed Kant and Nostradamus, pop art and Euclidian geometry, how they were so kind as to reach for her satchel in the overhead bin, so that she could pull out her tarot cards and give them a reading. The men felt utterly bewildered by her, because they did not remember these conversations at all. Did they speak about Kant? Did they even know who Kant was? Something to do with reason being the source of morality? They couldn’t remember, but the Elderflower Lady had a way of persuading them. Reminded them that they drew the Emperor and the Queen of Hearts from the deck, which meant true love. She would send them a picture of her goose, Penelope, and one of her blonde friends on Facebook to jog their memories. Though the men were quite certain she had them confused with some other man, they agreed to meet her again anyway, the next time they were in town. To be polite.
The Elderflower Lady got tired of waiting for them to fly into town and now meets most of her men in the Craigslist personals these days. Like this cowboy.
“Can you play something besides the Stones?” asks the Elderflower Lady. “I find them grim.” (Though, to be fair, nothing sounds grim on the accordion.)
“How about Broadway?” asks the busker, breaking out a medley of “Surrey with a Fringe on Top,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” and “Shall We Dance.”
She takes another photo of the corpse. “Old school. I like that.”
The Elderflower Lady really thought this time they could make it work. When the cowboy arrived at her door with a bouquet of gerbera daisies and kissed her hand with all the flourish of 19th Century gentleman, she was sure that he’d be the one to rope that bull, her heart. He even sang “Two Glasses of Buttermilk,” like Jimmie Davis, Louisiana’s singing governor. But he was just like all the rest, after a week or two. He did not appreciate Penelope, or her tarot cards, or the way she’d natter at him not to slurp his soup, and he hated shepherd’s pie, which was the only thing she’d deign to cook on a Thursday. (That, or pancakes. He was not fond of pancakes either.) He said things weren’t working out. That he needed to find himself. That he was glad to have known her, but after all, what did they have in common? This reminds her of some cowboy wisdom she once heard: Any cowboy can carry a tune. The trouble comes when he tries to unload it. The way he tried to unload her.
For the Elderflower Lady, men are either good or they’re dead. The cowboy is dead. As are the gum-smacker, the two-timer, the walrus, the ballet fanatic, the guy who only ever ordered orange chicken when they got Chinese and, like Bob Vila on This Old House, always measured each piece twice before he cut once—and Mr. Dimesworth. Mr. Dimesworth had died in a car wreck. She can’t complain. Sometimes, she even looks back fondly on her time with “Tencent,” as she called him.
Eighty-two Likes now. She is going for 100.
The itinerant worker crawls into the bed of a white truck labeled “Lemon Construction Co.” next to some other men and a stack of 2x4s and does not look back. The Elderflower Lady wonders why anyone needs a company to construct lemons, but her mind is literal like that. The busker asks her timidly if she has any requests, and she tells him, “Cowboy songs, if you know any.” He doesn’t, so he plays a polka. The homeless vet shakes his coins to the music. She checks her notifications. She adjusts the cigarette in the cowboy’s hand. She watches the traffic. She checks her notifications again. 103 Likes.
She reaches down into her “Dancers don’t digress—they’re always en pointe” bag (a gift from the ballet fanatic) and pulls out a spray from her elderflower bush, a cluster of white flowers, tiny and perfect, smelling of cream and summer. She pins it to the cowboy’s lapel. The Elderflower Lady doesn’t like long good-byes. She kisses him on the cheek and walks away. Behind her, “Somewhere My Love” hangs in the air like a gunshot.