Petals fall to the ground as someone picks apart a flower and says, “they love me, they love me not.”
“Did you get it?” Loraine asked. “You did bring it, didn’t you?”
Before Donald could lock the car, his wife walked three steps ahead. For a seventy-year old woman with lumbago, she was moving. “Yes, I brought the rose, dear.” He tried not to ruin the moment by sounding exasperated. “You only reminded me three times before we left.” Maybe he should try a little harder, he thought. “Honey, do you even know where you’re going?”
“Well,” she said, looking around. “I thought we’d follow the crowd.”
“I don’t see any crowd. Just that man over there in the booth.”
“And we both know you’re not going to ask him for directions.” Loraine approached a man in a faded blue uniform. “Excuse me, sir. Do you know where we could find –”
“In the back,” the man said, before she could finish.
“But you don’t even know what I — ,”
“Sure I do,” the guard interrupted again, his words muffled by the Louis L’Amour paperback that hid half his face like an outlaw bandana. “Same as everybody else.” He looked up and pointed a fat finger past the gate. “She’s at the end of this row. Just around the corner.” He resumed reading, officially ending the conversation.
“Thank you very much,” Loraine said without a hint of irritation. She called back to her husband. “This way, Donald.” After a few steps, she stopped and allowed him to catch up. “Well, he was nice.”
“They love me,” the woman whispered as she peeled away a single rose petal and let it fall. Everyone brought roses. Roses were her favorite, so elegant, so beautiful, so like her. She caressed the hourglass bud with the tip of her finger. It felt like the red velvet Dior she wore to the premiere party that night in London. The show was a hit, and so was she. The dress opened in the back, tight around all the important curves, and soft to the touch, if any man got so lucky. That night she dined with Crawford and Gable. Joan went on and on about her performance, the music, the sets, and how she simply adored the whole business. Oscar wandered over and made her swear an oath to never leave the stage, even as Clark whispered in her ear about a new film that was perfect, just perfect for her. Champaign made its way around again, as Rose’s career began to bloom.
After navigating a series of turns and obstacles, Loraine found her way. “Look, Donald. She’s over there. Come on. Move it, slow poke.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming.” Donald struggled to keep up, but he didn’t complain. He knew Loraine was excited. He hoped he had remembered to put film in the camera, like she told him.
“And you’re sure you brought the rose?”
“Loraine, for crying out loud.”
“They love me not.” She plucked another petal and discarded it. Of course, no rose came without thorns. She supposed things might have been different if she’d answered those letters from home. But no one there knew her anymore, certainly not the boy who wrote those letters. She was not the same girl he fell in love with. And he most certainly couldn’t give her what she wanted. At least, not then. There would be others. The flower’s scent lingered on her fingers, a bitter sweet memory in the air. By any other name it would smell as sweet. Wasn’t that Shakespeare? She never played Shakespeare. She was more of a Tennessee Williams girl. More Hammerstein than Hamlet. She had been Blanche DuBois and Julie Jordan. She was Annie with a gun and Nellie on the Pacific. So many characters, yet no one ever knew the real Rose, not husbands, not lovers, not friends. To them she was nothing more than a provocative Helmut Newton portrait. Survival meant staying two dimensional. When a rose opened up, it was only days from the trash like all the other forgotten flowers.
“Move a little closer, Loraine.” Donald squinted into the small viewfinder. “I can’t get you in the frame.”
“Well, move back, then. I don’t want to crowd the poor thing, for Heaven’s sake.”
“I’m back as far as I can go, dear. Okay, just hold it right there.” Snap.
“All my life,” Loraine said, a bit embarrassed. “I wanted to be just like you.” Then, back to Donald, “Honey, take another picture.”
“Hang on. Let me wind it forward. Okay, smile.”
“They love me.” She smiled as she dropped another petal and remembered dancing with kings and yachting with earls. She owned the world, and not so long ago. She spent weeks on marquees and nights in the Lincoln bedroom. On the stage and on the silver screen, the world wanted its Rose. But soon other flowers demanded attention. Her old friends dined with new acquaintances. Big roles fell to new faces, as Rose’s fame began to fade. Harvey said the part paid well, and she should be thankful. Some agent he was. She made it clear to him that she would not, under any circumstances, play some two-bit part in a day-time television drama. Sure, she needed the money. But people could change the channel just as easily as they could their affections. Of course, it was just like Harvey to play on the heartstrings of a desperate woman. But Rose, he had whined, people gave you a shot. Couldn’t you give them one now? And so, for Rose, love became a game of chance. It was a 50/50 shot at best. But okay. On second thought, she told Harvey, make the call.
Loraine looked around once more. “You know, I thought there’d be more people here.”
“Yeah, so did I,” said Donald in a rare moment of agreement with his wife. “But hey, we made great time.”
“You think that’s her real name?” Loraine pointed to the granite plate near the flower vase.
“Nah,” the man said. “None of those people used their real names. Remember Norma Jean?”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” Loraine walked to the empty vase. “Okay, give me the rose.”
“What rose?” He winked, then handed her the flower. He watched her place it in the vase. He gave her a moment then walked to her side and put his arm around her shoulders. “Are you happy, Loraine?”
She kissed him on the cheek. “Honey, I couldn’t be happier if I was Rose herself.”
“They love me not.” Over the years, she received thousands of letters from adoring fans. But eventually, the letters from home stopped. It was then she knew there was no going back. Since the way forward was less than inspirational, Rose learned to simply live in the moment. Her current role wasn’t one she would have chosen. The stage was small, but the show’s run was indefinite. The fans who once screamed her name and threw bouquets now came by twos and threes, offering solitary flowers in silent tribute to whatever Rose they thought they knew.
“I’m getting kind of hungry,” Donald said. “How long do you think this will take?”
“How am I supposed to know?” Then, after a moment of doubt, Loraine asked, “Do you think it’s true?”
“I don’t know, honey. You’re the one who read the article.”
“Maybe just a few more minutes, then. The article said ‘Leave a rose upon the grave, and watch the petals fall away.’”
No sooner had Loraine spoken the words when the two gasped. The first of the rose petals, as if on cue, fell to the ground.
All her life, Rose lived by one axiom. The show must go on. And so, Rose plays her eternal game, love left to chance, until the final petal falls and the last Rose remains. “They love me.”
Brandon Abbott is a minister in Nashville, TN where he lives with his wife and three children. Raised in rural Alabama, he enjoys writing about the complexities of the “simple” people of the South. More about Brandon here.
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