Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Grading the Lilies

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Grading the Lilies

Article excerpt

Margaret was usually so beat on Friday nights, she came home, baked a potato, and read travel books in bed. Flynn, her roommate, ordered a large pepperoni pizza and ate it in the bathtub with her boyfriend while they watched TV. The Friday night before Flynn had an abortion was no different except Margaret, who'd lent Flynn the money, couldn't concentrate.

The TV, usually blaring, was inaudible, and Margaret picked up every murmur and splash in the bathroom. She didn't care for Brian. He was a big, goofy, golden god, and all her life Margaret had unwittingly followed him through the parochial schools, to a big Catholic college out East, and home again. The TV was Flynn's, too. It was a 12-inch black and white affair with a grainy picture and a squat screen that made the actors look Lilliputian. The sound vibrated through tiny speaker holes and was always on, nattering away like a conscience. But Flynn loved the thing and carried it around the apartment as she went from room to room, the cord trailing behind her like a leash.

Margaret closed Graham Green's The Lawless Road and turned off her lamp. The moon was full and the wind high. The swollen tips of the tree outside her bedroom scratched back and forth across the moonlit walls. Her arms and shoulders ached from lifting clay pots all day, and her fingertips felt as though their minute furrows had been seeded with shards of glass. It seemed years had gone by since she'd been assigned to the lilies, though in reality, not even a month had passed.

"Why do you call it grading?" she had asked her supervisor, trying not to sound insubordinate, or worse, intellectual.

"Level, as in a rod,, he'd said. "I thought you went to college." In the .bathroom, t was a sudden flury ct ty. Water ran down the drain. A candle was snuffed. The warp door gave way. The plug dragged across the black and white tiles.

There were hundreds of lilies, lined up rank and file, and each day it was Margaret's job to rearrange them so that the tallest lily stood in the center of the row flanked by the shorter ones. The plants on the ends of the benches got more light than the ones in the middle. After a day or so, they were taller than the others, and the shifting began again. Her bare hands became more, not less, sensitive to the grit and cold that seemed the nature of a pot. Her vision blurred, and every time she went to the bathroom, she was surprised by the blue of her eyes.

Flynn coughed; the TV murmured again. An ambulance raced down the busy street at the end of the block. It was not a good neighborhood.

Once, Margaret had gotten lost in a corn field while playing Hide'n'Seek. She ran through the rustling stalks, changing rows and directions until she felt hidden. All she could hear, crouched down in a tight little ball, was her heart pounding like the waves against the bluff at home. She played with herself waiting for someone to find her. But no one came; no voice called out, "Ready or not, here I come!"

She didn't see a road but a maze.

In the morning, she waited until they'd left for the clinic to come out of her room. The pizza box was under the pedestal sink. She tried to visualize two people eating in a tub, head to foot, foot to head, but it didn't do anything for her.

Flynn had left the blue and white Dresden lamp on in her bedroom. She was always leaving things on; curlers, the iron, the water in the kitchen sink. Her room was the nicer of the two. It had French windows which overlooked the tree-lined street. Their apartment was on the second floor, one of six in the yellow brick building. Flynn's room could have been bright and sunny but the bamboo shades she'd bought kept the room dark as a hut. It smelled like one, too.

Margaret went back to her own room and looked in her bankbook. She'd lent Flynn the money without hesitation, but now it struck her as rather ironic that Flynn, who had a credit card and a real job-she was an assistant principal at a school for the handicapped-had to borrow money from her. …

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