Garden Party

The thistle in the garden was wilting. Andreas snipped the heads off the flowers, the new stems no longer than his index finger, and pocketed the clippers. Inside, he filled black pebble vases with water and placed one at the small key table near the front door, another on the crooked mantle in the den, and the last atop the window ledge overlooking the highway. Almost immediately, the tiny purple petals fell from the flower heads and speckled the pebble vases. Andreas had wet the glass for exactly this reason. Against the black of the vases, the petals glowed, but attached to the drooping, bog green bulbs of the flower, the same petals looked musty and cancerous.

“An interesting dichotomy,” Ramona whispered over his shoulder. A puddle of wine hung in her glass and a cicada charm dangled from the stem. Before Andreas could accept her compliment, Ramona pointed through the window to the young couple in the backyard, the Department Chair’s youngest son and his girlfriend, both shy of their twenties. “He’s rubbing elbows while she’s sinking into the ground.”

It was true. The chatter of the other guests and muffled roar of the nearby highway folded all sounds into a murmur, but the young man’s exuberance and deliberate ease with conversation was visible, even from Andreas’s living room. From the same distance, however, his girlfriend looked scarcely there, more an apparitional shell, her face void of color, her reactions murky and dulled.

“She looks nervous,” Andreas said with more sympathy than he intended. He had not invited the young couple and worried how they would fit in amongst the other cultured, sophisticated guests. Not worried on their behalf, but on his. Children, he thought, always ruin things; someone must always watch over them. His guests weren’t the ones to do it. They were to enjoy his party.

Ramona asked if it were okay to open another bottle. “Sure,” Andreas said, nodding toward the kitchen, “but I’ll get it for you.”

Aside from the bumblebee on his glass, only the cicada was missing from the tray of wine charms Andreas had set out. He sighed, asking why he even spent money on such things, and uncorked a chilled white. Back in the living room, Ramona was gone, replaced by the Department Chair and his giant, unlit cigar. He held a match in one hand and raised an eyebrow toward Andreas. Andreas lightly splayed his hands and cracked a tiny smile, as if he had been waiting for the Department Chair to christen his living room.

“Our boy finally gets published. And the first thing he does is buy a little bungalow in spitting distance from the highway. Who knew the Maltese were worth so much?” He laughed and sputtered into a cough, gripping Andreas’s shoulder, leaning his weight into him, his head surrounded by a cloud of smoke. “I have to say, Andreas,” the Chair continued after straightening himself, “it was good writing. Good research. I especially liked the bit about the prison ‘rising monolithic from the harbor.’ Poetic.” He opened his suit jacket and extracted another cigar, slimmer and presumably less pungent than the one currently staining the stucco ceilings and soiling the clean fabrics and offered it to Andreas.

Once the Chair was outside, Andreas slid the cigar into his pocket with the clippers. His choice of pants for the evening was too tight, for as soon as he bent to open the living room windows, he felt the cigar break in two and the loose tobacco tumble. It felt good the Chair was gone, it meant he could relax again without mitigating himself, without positioning his thoughts in relation to outcome. But it felt better the Chair had admired his article. That was what Andreas had been aiming for. Poetry. Poetry and admiration.

He searched the ground floor of his house, balancing his glass of wine in one hand and the entire bottle of white in the other before finding Ramona upstairs, near a window in a room still

empty save for a few boxes and a spare, unadorned mattress, looking down upon the little garden party. Andreas filled her glass.

“We’re the only two who used the wine charms,” he said, flicking his yellow bumblebee.

Ramona smiled. “I don’t know why I chose the one I did. Cicadas always depressed me. They’re hideous, especially when you see one emerge from its dank little burrow in the ground after hiding down there for God knows how long.”

“Seventeen years.”

“Right, seventeen years. How monstrous, a thing like that underneath our feet for that long! When I was a little girl, their buzzing always meant summer was coming to an end and school would start soon. I hated that feeling. It was so hopeless. Now, even though the end of summer means nothing to me, their hum still feels like a weight pressing on my chest. It must be something about the repetition, being stuck in a cycle beyond our control.”

“I always liked them for the same reason,” Andreas said as he opened the window. The cigar smoke had followed him up the stairs. “Not the hopeless part—school was good for me. So are habits, or, as you call them, repetitions. The cicadas are dependable, and their shells, their husks, are interesting, like little ghosts.” He paused for a moment. Outside, the guests crowded around the Department Chair. He had brought out a bottle of wine from Andreas’s kitchen and was filling glasses while motioning his son to grab another bottle inside. In the far corner of the yard, his son’s girlfriend stood by a municipal lamp post, scrolling through her phone. What an odd bug, the cicada, Andreas thought. It lives underground for nearly two decades, then suddenly finds itself flying about, clinging to tree trunks, depressing young girls, shedding exoskeletons continuously, all for one hot season. Or was it longer than that? He realized he didn’t know if the cicada died in autumn or

found a way to survive the winter, if the creature outside one’s bedroom window or stuck in one’s cellar was the same as the year before. “Now, all I hear are the cars from the highway,” he said at last.

“Yes,” Ramona said. “It’s not so bad, though.” She gave Andreas a peck on the cheek and touched his arm before leaving the room, the clack of her heels burying the creak of the stairs as she returned to the party. She had forgotten, or perhaps left, her glass of wine on the windowsill. Andreas filled his glass with what remained in hers and took the cicada charm, too, leaving the bottle of white behind.

The house itself was a lovely drop of white in the surprisingly green brush that separated the property from the interstate. Andreas had spent the previous weekend applying a fresh coat of paint in preparation for the party. Unable to resist once outside, he found himself inspecting last weekend’s handiwork on the house as the party continued behind him. Many guests had the same slim cigars the Chair had given him, though most were struggling to puff, unaccustomed to the unfamiliar sucking motion one must do with their cheeks, so dissimilar from smoking a cigarette.

There was some light peeling around one of the corners, the last corner he had done Sunday evening as the sun was setting, out of reach from the light of the municipal lamp post. But on the whole, it looked good. Andreas was pleased. Never before had he attempted such a thing, such a large undertaking. He pinched one of the peeling flakes of paint and slowly stripped it off the house, leaving a six-inch scar of naked, untreated wood underneath. He stuffed the dried paint in his pocket with the tobacco and garden clippers. This way, he thought, I’ll remember to revisit this spot later. And although it was his own house, peeling felt subversive, and he was careful to see if anyone noticed him. They hadn’t. In fact, they were acting as if Andreas was not there at all. Some guests had taken it upon themselves to bring chairs from inside out onto the lawn and one gentleman, an archivist by profession, sat cross-legged in the central lavender bush of Andreas’s garden. When the gentleman lifted his empty wine glass, the Chair’s son strode over to refill it.

Andreas supposed he should be irritated at the guests overtaking his own house and party, but he wasn’t, and suspected his own empty wine glass contributed to that absence of feeling. After all, there was something Roman about the whole ordeal, wasn’t there? A cutting loose? A demasking? Out here, miles away from the nearest neighbor, wombed by the highway’s noise, the guests could be as loud as they wanted and sleep indoors if they drank too much. When they woke the next day, Andreas could make a giant breakfast to help nurse their monstrous hangovers, he could make fresh squeezed orange juice. After they had all showered and recovered, they would think back to Andreas’s party with warm, bashful feelings. Andreas himself may even share these feelings.

“Andreas, my boy,” the Chair shouted from across the lawn, “I had my son get some top-quality wine from my trunk, I hope you don’t mind! It’s real good stuff!”

Andreas dismissed the offense with a wave of his hand. “I want some myself!” he shouted back as he made his way. He hadn’t made it very far when he noticed two shadowy figures perched against a dark wall of the house. Perhaps they had forgotten how to get inside or they, too, were inspecting Andreas’s paint job. Or, worst of all, it came to him, they had spied Andreas peeling the strip of paint and were now frightened of their host and feared what else he might be capable of doing. Explanations were in order.

But it was only Ramona and the young girl, the Chair’s son’s girlfriend. Andreas sensed he had interrupted something, and in the silence, he heard one or both of the women sniffle. His buzz deflated, leaving a mild irritation in its place.

“Is everything alright?” he asked Ramona, his voice hurried, eager to return to the elation he felt a moment ago.

“Yes,” Ramona said, wiping her nose. “Palma here is Maltese,” she added quickly, touching the young girl’s arm as she spoke, not unlike she had touched Andreas’s upstairs.

“Excellent,” Andreas said, pausing for a long time afterward. “Are you enjoying the party?”

More silence followed. Eventually, Ramona made an effort to praise the quality of the wine and the gaiety of the guests, but Palma did not so much as nod, did not so much as thank Andreas for opening his home to her, a guest of a guest. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw both women had taken their shoes off and were standing barefoot in the overgrown grass, digging their toes into themselves. Palma was wearing a black dress that looked to be made of crushed velvet—something more suitable for a gaudy funeral than a party. Continuing upward, he saw a small, ghastly panther tattoo on Palma’s forearm. A gold necklace fell against the black of her dress, a circular medal of something indistinguishable. And she was crying. Her tears fell slowly, but they colored themselves with her mascara before they ran down her face and left little streaks of black in their wake. When Andreas looked over at Ramona, she stared at him, eyes dry, but with a clenched jaw, commanding that he not move a muscle.

In the distance, the Department Chair was telling a story, periodically repeating himself for emphasis and for the enjoyment of the guests. His story was punctuated with other’s laughter, his son’s an octave higher than the rest and louder than all. Tucked close by the wall of the house, though, Andreas, Ramona, and Palma mostly heard the whir of the highway, and Andreas felt his stomach drop into an anxious urge to return to the real party, to enjoy some of the top-quality wine before it was gone, to hear the Chair’s story, likely one he had not yet heard before. It was only a loyalty to Ramona that made him stay. Palma, he thought, would have probably preferred to be alone.

“You know, Palma,” Andreas began with a story of his own, “I recently published an article on Malta. The Knights of Malta, to be precise. Or, rather, the Order of Malta, the Knights

Hospitaller, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. You know.” Though Palma’s body remained the same, withdrawn and desolate, and she turned her head not toward Andreas, but toward Ramona, Andreas continued, believing it rude to leave without departing something memorable upon a guest, something worthwhile. In another way, it was a lesson for Palma. How to hold conversation at a party.

He told her how this last summer was his first time traveling outside the country since he was a child, and his first time ever in Malta. He gave the abstract of his trip, and thus his article, in broad strokes. The Knights of Malta were a religious order ostensibly founded to alleviate sores and wounds of pilgrims in the early centuries. And they did, for many years, but eventually the Order’s true talent announced itself: waging bloody crusades to reclaim the Holy Land. Their relative success in these matters—they killed many— brought them fame and respect, and their rigorous internal structure, with their own laws and court system, meant they weren’t accountable to anyone, not even the Pope. The highest ranked among them enjoyed a considerable status and luxury. Thus, in the late middle ages, it was common for noblemen to buy their way into the order without enduring apprenticeship. Some wanted to be part of such a storied organization, while others harbored dreams of battle. Buying one’s way into the Knights of Malta, however, had its own dangers. The slightest infraction was cause for a tribunal, and many Knights were defrocked in arcane, intricate ceremonies for mercurial reasons, such as insulting another’s honor. For a time, the entire island, and indeed much of the Mediterranean, all revolved around the Knights and their ancient, insular, unstoppable mission to defend and advance Christendom.

As Andreas continued talking, he felt more casual and narrowed in on Palma. “But we all know how that ended up,” he said with what could only be a chuckle. “The buildings in Malta are still in remarkable condition despite suffering damage in the war, as I’m sure you know. They’re so

big and so yellow because they’re made from sandstone, you see, I don’t know if you knew that part, and the prison, which rises monolithic from the harbor—"

“Why are you telling me this?” Palma interrupted.

Stunned and slightly insulted, Andreas said, simply, “Because you’re Maltese.”

Ramona, though she was the first to mention Palma’s point of origin, looked nonplussed at Andreas’s response. Palma, on the other hand, didn’t react. “Only my grandmother has been there,” she said without a hint of an accent, and Andreas realized at once she was not that sort of Maltese. “But I’d like to go one day, Mr.” She hesitated.

"Mr. Andreas,” Andreas said, purposefully withholding his hand for proper introduction, as he felt a nagging sting of embarrassment from his Maltese remark, and he didn’t care about her grandmother. Children knew nothing. He then excused himself. Guests had lit a bonfire in the yard, the smoke more plump and menacing than that of a few lit cigars.

The bonfire burned sensibly far from the garden, but dangerously close to municipal land. “Andreas!” the Chair shouted, standing alone above the fire. The other guests sat with their knees pulled closed, the gentleman fond of lavender left the bush but held onto a flower and was tickling the knee of a woman sitting next to him. “Where’s Palma!” the Chair continued. “Palma! Come here quick! The boy is about to tell his first story!”

Palma brushed Andreas as she passed him from behind. Her stride was more energetic than before, less like a waif, but somehow still dead and hobbled. She took a seat among the other guests without indecision, as if she had prior instructions. Andreas stood still. The Chair and his stories no longer interested him, much less whatever story his son would tell. Fate, Andreas thought, was another uninvited guest that evening. One that must be abided, like a visiting dignitary. Normal

customs must be put on ice until the guest leaves, whereupon the host can finally loosen their cummerbund and relax.

“This can’t be fate” came Ramona behind him. Andreas was baffled, and made to say so, but he had misheard. A date, she had said. Not fate. “This is more like an initiation ritual,” she continued, nodding toward the bonfire, Andreas’s improper Maltese remark already forgotten. Now, the Chair’s son was the only one standing, a miniature version of his father. Less fat, less sagged, with more hair and more blemishes, but with the same round spectacles, the same spotted bowtie. His voice was dimmer than his father’s, his story harder to decipher from where Andreas and Ramona stood, but his actions more animated. Maybe his story was about someone hunting, or studying, or going to war.

Bottles of all kinds littered the lawn leading from the house to the bonfire. Cheap wine that must have been a last resort, Andreas’s carefully selected yet affordable selection, and the top-quality stuff, identifiable by its beveled label and thick glass. Missing were the chairs guests had brought outside. Andreas had a brief moment of panic and glanced toward the bonfire, but it was burning clean, and he made out the outlines of logs and kindling beneath the flames. Whatever buzz he once had was beyond the pale now. He was ready to lay down and for the guests to go home but felt too strong a bond to his earlier hope for a memorable party that he dared not ask anyone to leave. “Come with me,” he said to Ramona, and the two walked along the edge of the property, hovering close to the licking shore of the fire before passing the municipal lamp post and wading deep into dark and uncharted territory.

“What were you two talking about when I interrupted?” Andreas asked in an unnecessary whisper, far away as they were from everyone else.

Ramona didn’t reply. She knew Andreas well enough to know he wasn’t really interested, he thought.

“You should have brought your shoes for this part,” Andreas said as he hoisted himself over a low barrier. The other side was gravel, and the moonlight hinted at bits of glass and other rubbish hiding in the midst.

“Give me yours.”

And, without thinking, he did. His socks were thick and protective, but every other step still brought a little pebble into the fleshy underside of Andreas’s foot. Ramona, who had big feet for her frame, fit comfortably in Andreas’s shoes, a respectable pair of Oxfords made from buttery leather. Somehow, Andreas still held onto his wine glass with the two insect charms.

He brought her to a small enclave he had discovered before he had even purchased the house. The realtor, who had unsuccessfully listed the property for three months prior and no longer had any hope for a sale, made themselves comfortable in the air-conditioned car while Andreas roamed the property unaccompanied. Initially, Andreas had wanted to see how far the property line extended when he discovered the enclave. He was far off, of course, for as large as the property appeared, the amount of land that actually belonged to Andreas when he bought the house was considerably small. Still, he was able to fancy the idea of owning an estate, even if only for an afternoon, before he signed any papers.

It was a small rock, almost like an island, that jutted out between two thin trees. Because it jutted out before curving it on itself, it gave the appearance of extending over the highway. Andreas ascribed the sensation to an illusion, but standing on the rock, it still felt as if one were hovering over the cars streaming below.

“The cars are moving too fast to see us, and even if someone did, they would just tell themselves they were crazy,” Andreas said with a giggle.

It must have been late. There were few cars on the road in either direction. Minutes passed where the moon lit the bare asphalt. The painted dividing lines shimmered, and the open expanse of field across the highway looked milky and oceanic. They sat. More cars passed. When Andreas looked to Ramona, her head hung limply. She was sleeping.

He didn’t want to wake her. He wished he could fall asleep himself, high up on a rock in the cool night air. Cigar smoke wound up the path behind him. Andreas’s body clenched in preparation, and he hurriedly stood up.

“Andreas, my boy,” leaked a falsetto. It was Palma. She chomped on her cigar, but in an exaggerated way, and as soon she reached the rock, she threw it as far as she could into the highway. “Jesus Christ,” she said as she sat. By now, Ramona was lying down, fully asleep.

“What about him?” replied Andreas, an old joke he had used since childhood. Palma didn’t reply but rubbed the medal around her neck between her thumb and forefinger. Andreas, not conscious of it, was doing the same with the cicada and bumblebee charms around his wineglass. He moved next to Palma.

She picked at some loose gravel next to her and tossed a few pinches onto the highway. “I don’t know why I threw away that cigar.”

Feeling exceptionally funny, Andreas brought out the loose tobacco from his pocket and offered it to Palma, but the wind blew it away before she saw the tobacco and registered it as a joke, so to her, Andreas simply held out his open palm.

“My grandmother treated sailors during the war,” Palma said. “She was a doctor. Not a nurse, a doctor.”

Andreas listened. When he was younger, in college, people believed late nights prompted deep, probing conversations, where, under the influence of alcohol and the moon, one could spill

secrets usually kept locked away. Palma, it seemed, also shared this belief, and Andreas braced himself for mispronounced French theorists.

But mispronunciations did not come. “She grew up on the sea and her older brothers were fishermen,” Palma continued. “Often, a wound taken at sea heals easily, but sometimes it becomes infected and festers in ways quite divergent from, say, land-based wounds.

“Most sailors under her care got better. Very quickly, in fact. She earned a reputation around the hospital. As orderlies unloaded sailors from gurneys, the men would shout ‘Oh my god, I heard she healed the entire regiment of so-and-so’ ‘She is a living saint!’ Things like that. A great feeling of hope welcomed them to the hospital.

“Sometimes, though, my grandmother was helpless. Bacteria had made it too far into a sailor’s bloodstream or they had been contaminated by something extra, like a piece of rusty shrapnel, and they died. Of course, it’s sad when someone dies, though death’s ubiquity and reoccurrence during times of war blunts the edge a bit, or so they tell me. But in my grandmother’s ward, the few souls who died were surrounded by sailors who had survived. If they made it to a hospital bed, especially my grandmother’s hospital beds, they had survived the worst—the torpedoing, the explosion, the gunshot, the shark bite. It was supposed to be over. Death in that ward brought extra disappointment.

“In other parts of the hospital, the administration did their best to conceal the dying. They put up partitions and moved the ill-fated to separate wings, though, as my grandmother says, to call them separate wings is an overstatement. More likely, the dying were moved to hallways, boiler rooms, storage closets, areas unused for a reason.

“My grandmother was different. She treated the dying with the same respect as the living in her ward. She made no distinction between the two. This sentiment rubbed off on the sailors, who

never complained when they woke up and discovered their compatriot had died during the night. Instead, they mouthed prayers or gave impromptu eulogies amongst themselves.

“But there was one patient that gave her and the others great, great trouble.” Palma said this last phrase with emphasis, shaking her pointed finger with each syllable.

Ramona was still asleep. Andreas, too restless to sit any longer, balanced on the balls of his feet as he listened to Palma’s story. He noticed she had come all this way without shoes. She must have left them in the grass by the side of his house. The bottoms of her feet were peppered with dirt and little rocks that stuck to her skin. In some spots, Andreas saw blood.

“This one patient,” Palma continued, “would not die. Sometimes, my grandmother said, he would go entire minutes without breathing, his skin bruising into a purplish black color before he exploded with breath and the color receded like the tide. He was too weak to eat or drink, and, since IVs were in scarce supply, my grandmother titled his head all the way back and dripped a liquid mixture of food and water down his throat that he passed or vomited shortly afterward. If that wasn’t enough, his body rejected all topical creams and bandages. Ointments fermented and curdled, whereas bandages turned brittle and fell away, leaving his various wounds open and gaping. This went on for weeks. Each time the doctors thought his time had come, he somehow only got worse.

“The other sailors were frightened of the dying man. Respect for the dying mattered nothing to them anymore. They whispered to the nurses, snuck notes to other doctors, and carved out crude messages on their food trays, all pleas to move this man as far away as possible.”

“They must have thought he was a bad omen—a troublesome portend,” Andreas added, backlit by the headlights of a slow-moving semi trucking pigs.

“No,” said Palma. “That’s not it at all. This was the 20th century, Mr. Andreas. Most of these sailors were English or American and didn’t put stock in folk tales. Rather, the problem was his

smell. My grandmother said the dying man smelt corruptive.” She laughed under her breath at this part, and Andreas did, too. “It’s not that the other men thought the dying man would bring their deaths, but that he gratuitously reminded them of their own. That eventually, their ticket would be punched, too, so to speak. And, like I said, having survived a battle, a bombing, an ambush, they all felt very lucky. Who wouldn’t want to savor that luck? That triumph of fate?”

Andreas splayed his hands, similar to when the Chair held a match in his living room.

“The point is, my grandmother never gave up on this man, even when the rest of the ward was against her. She kept him company, no matter how bad he smelt, how absolutely dreadful his presence was—a slowly dying man, who, by all accounts, no longer had the will to live, but had no choice in the matter, either. Imagine being around someone like that. When his sores grew even more icky and gaping, she gave him sponge baths. Rubbing her palms over the lesions on the man’s skin, she said, was like passing your hand over a hole in the ground. And, remember, she was a doctor. Not a nurse, a doctor. Think of all her other responsibilities at the time.”

Impressive, Andreas thought, but didn’t venture to say aloud. Palma’s story opened an intimacy between them, an intimacy that belied Andreas’s initial dismal of her, her boyfriend, her story. At first, Palma’s mild rebukes, her mocking the Chair as she came to the rock, and her depressive demeanor had all coalesced into a faint distaste for her. But her story changed things for Andreas. Now, strangely, he felt fear. He was afraid of Palma and what she might know about him, what she secret knowledge she might have, what futures she saw into. The thought she held some sacred truth remained, even as Andreas began to view her entire story as an elaborate lie.

“Finally, my grandmother arrived at the hospital one day after a long weekend to find the dying man no longer there, replaced by a minorly injured sailor. ‘Oh no,’ she thought, ‘he must have died!’ But no, the nurses and other doctors told her. He had been moved.

“And who had made the request? The dying man himself! Can you guess what happened next?”

Andreas made no attempt to answer. The backs of his calves had fallen asleep in his strange squatting position and were beginning to twitch. Ramona, awake and sitting up now, was somehow further removed from the scene than she had been while she was sleeping. She hung her legs over the very edge of the rock.

“That first day back was very busy. Eventually, in the late afternoon, my grandmother went to check on the dying man in his new, isolated, though thoroughly decrepit room for the first time,” Palma continued. “The man took one look at her. My grandmother said hello. Then he died.”

The night was almost over. Dawn had yet to announce itself, but the dark night sky was beginning to fade, and the first cascades of morning traffic dribbled onto the highway. Andreas stood up and, his tingling legs giving him a strange, horse-like gait. Thankfully, Palma did not seem to expect any sort of response from her story and retreated into her earlier state—sullen, silent, and tearful. Once again, she played with the medal around her neck.

“What is that?” Andreas asked, his fear pushing the question through his mouth in a vile, threatening way.

“I won’t tell you,” Palma said. She didn’t cover the necklace with her hand, as one might be expected to do if protecting a secret. Nor did she sound guarded. She sounded open.

“Come on, let me see it,” Andreas said. His tone softer now.

“I’ll trade you for it.”

“I’m not wearing a necklace.”

“You must have something else.”

In his pockets were only the strip of paint and the pair of clippers. He had his wallet, too, though it held no cash. He looked at Ramona, but she wasn’t paying attention. She must have had strange, frightful dreams. Palma had already taken the medal off her neck, seemingly willing to concede to any offer. Andreas took the clippers out and held them in his open palm, much like he had with the tobacco that blew away. Palma quickly put the medal into Andreas’s hand, taking the clippers for herself.

With the clippers, Palma would puncture the tire of a car she believed to be the Chair’s, but was, in fact, the lavender gentleman’s, which happened to be the same make and model. She wouldn’t be caught; indeed no one would even suspect her. She’d leave the party with the Chair and his son, her boyfriend. Andreas would offer his unadorned mattress to the lavender man, who would graciously accept. Ramona would stay the night, too, but would be gone by the time Andreas woke up. He’d spend the morning cooking breakfast for the lavender man and the two would get to know each other. The drive into town would be pleasant, and, later that day, when the lavender man came back to Andreas’s with a spare tire, the two men would spend more time talking, having found they have much in common, such as an interest in old certificates and documents.

But before that, before Andreas headed back to the party and said goodbye to the guests, to the Chair and his son, before he waved goodbye to Palma and was ignored, before the Chair apologized for the mess, before his son asked Andreas about Malta, he stood on the rock with Ramona, he in socks, her in his shoes, the morning traffic now in full swing, rubbing the lone strip of paint in his pocket, looking at Palma’s medal. It was nondescript, bought at a religious store, likely, and featured a nameless saint. It wasn’t real gold and was starting to oxidize in places. He felt foolish for taking it from her, and he felt slightly insane for being afraid of her. She was just a kid, Andreas told himself. She knew nothing. Nothing to fear. He slipped the medal into his pocket with the strip of paint. In the morning, it would fall out when he put on his pants, make its way under the bed, drop through a floor crack, and would never be seen or thought of again until Andreas needed to buy new garden clippers.