The clique of the Good Hands Insurance Company collectively held their breath as Esme Johnson strolled down the aisle holding a massive bouquet of white roses. Flowers again. Last week it was pink, and the week before red. Her deliberate stride allowed them to contemplate why anyone would send a girl like Esme flowers.
Beaming like a Prom Queen she never was, she sashayed, hips swinging, down the carpet walkway between the rows of cubicles. Esme could not stop glowing if she wanted to, a smile oscillated from a smirk stretched across her lopsided face. They were curious, painfully so, for all they knew about her was the years of employment and recent promotion to senior representative. A hard worker, punctual, and quiet, her studious nature was interpreted as reclusive, and it was her intent to keep it that way.
Esme was a thin girl with the face of an otter. She had large black eyes that slanted downwards with excessive folds that gave the appearance of impaired vision. Her oblong head appeared out of sync with her body and when she wore a hat, it appeared ill fitted, prompting the folds of her lids to retract with her eyes nearly popping out of sockets. She was seen by many as innocuous looking, bland in style and demeanor. When she laughed it sounded like an asthmatic jackass suffering an attack. Her wheezing laughter was irksome to everyone including the cleaning folks, the only people she interacted with.
They smiled, joked with Esme in their broken English and called her fea, ugly in Spanish.
Everyone made fun of her, but Esme laughed along, not caring a wit if she was the reason behind it. Laughter in the past was foreign to her, so was the joy of smiling and Esme had much to make up for. Her young life was such a consignment to misery that she numbed herself so nothing hurt. Shortly after completing the second grade, Esme became a ward of the state. Happiness was the first to go, shortly followed by everything else she once knew.
Two decades in a group home with forgotten children followed her Grandfather’s unfounded accusations, the half-truths and finally the implosion of lies that took her parents away. Grandma sat mute, afraid of his words and him. But he did not want Esme either. He told the judge he had no time for children, he was too busy with a struggling florist shop. No, his wife was too feeble-minded, an invalid, to care for the child. Esme stewed in institutional purgatory until the state freed her at eighteen. More like a jail sentence served. Her crime was an unbalanced mother who wanted an abortion, and an imprisoned father. Mama spoke of voices dogging her in a haze of high. The second grader sat quietly as she argued, cursed, begged, and reasoned with the noise in her head. She lit another joint, inhaled then exhaled a cloud of confession. Mama died of uterine cancer before Esme’s twenty-third birthday, four years ago. Esme did not grieve; she was thankful the voices could not torment her mother anymore.
Papa sang at the funeral in his signature soprano voice that resonated to heaven, and shook the fall leaves out of the trees. He loved her despite her madness and his demons. Clinically depressed the moment he exited the birth canal, Papa took the money from his deceased wife and embarked on a journey to Thailand. Leon Johnson, Jr. died, too, and Leontyne, (in honor of her favorite soprano,) was born.
She ran away with her boyfriend to a city where it was okay to be different. Ms. Leontyne set up home in a Victorian in the heart of the city, where she thrived as a popular vocal coach and piano teacher. Esme received cards for her birthday and Christmas gifts from Ms. Leontyne professing how much “your Papa loves your sugar.” Esme frequently dialed her father’s number listening to her delicious voice instructing her to leave a message, sung in Ms. Leontyne’s signature four octave range.
Years later, Grandfather tried to forgive himself by taking Esme in to live with him in his lonely, neglected home. He had grown old, a widower now with time on his hands and too much to think about. He took on the defective daughter of his own defective child, hoping to correct the wrong he’d done. For being a man who preferred to nurture the flowers in his shop rather than the people he could not love.
He tried. It was the best he could do.
There goes that jackass wheezing again. Co-workers shot up from their cubicles like burrowed prairie dogs to survey the plains as Esme laughed at herself, her life, and the parents that God, in Her warped sense of humor, had given her. Bitter, of course not. Angry, to what end? It would not change a thing.
The suspense was killing them. Esme’s smile widened until the lines wrapped around her ears and nearly strangled her. The clique engaged many times in a quid pro quo to no avail. They’d start off talking about themselves and others to bait and extract information, yet Esme’s response was always the same: flat line smile and expressionless eyes that left the challenger with a profound feeling of being skewed for public view. Their exhaustive efforts wore them down and bitterly they decided to make Esme the office pariah. She was spoken to only when expertise was needed, greeted with a limp hello in the morning, and given a perfunctory birthday card with very few signatures. They were quiet when Esme walked by their cubicle, placed handbags on vacant seats at meetings, and ignored her at all other occasions. The sting did not bother Esme, who sat quietly at her desk not affected by their mean girl antics and who was secretly admired for it.
But right now she was the group’s topic–who gave her those flowers? Does she have man? And who would try, again, to extract information from her. Janine Jones sucked her teeth as Esme raised the vase to the alpha female’s peripheral. Esme laughed as Janine’s green eyes followed her stopping frequently for admirers. Janine spun around to Tameka Williams, barking at her to do the inquiry on Esme.
Tameka recoiled at the command. A pliable girl, she was warned to ignore Esme her first day at the job, following the mindless majority all the while wondering why, as Esme was always kind to her. She admired Esme, respected her and wished she had an ounce of fortitude.
“Esme doesn’t talk to anybody, you guys know that.”
Their voices were a malignant chorus chanting over and over for her to do it. Tameka froze like a timid child, and was reminded she was a friend, not a foe. Pastor Williams would counsel them with prayer, expecting his daughter to do the same. But she did not succumb to the demand that she approach Esme–not yet.
They stood sentry at a distance as Esme gingerly placed the vase on her desk at the edge of her cubicle for full view, still smiling at her roses. Those silly girls and their juvenile antics, bragging about their exaggerated boyfriends and perfect lovers, eventually bursting into tears as the facades crumbled, too upset to work or to tell the truth.
Esme eavesdropped, listening without judgment. She empathized with them despite their mean ways and when they came to work in tears with swollen eyes and burning cheeks; they were no different--desperate to be loved.
“There’s a lid for every pot,” Sharon Barry said. The argumentative Sharon was second only to Janine in the mean girl hierarchy. She was a tall girl, with an encroaching nose, eyes like a cow and acne scarring makeup did little to conceal. Esme began employment with Sharon who initially was receptive to her. Resentment seeped through Sharon’s bitter pores as she was overlooked for the promotion given to Esme. But Esme was still the sounding board as Sharon tearfully spoke about the abuse in her life, including her boyfriend who beat her without mercy. He called her ugly, as did the clique behind her back too. They called her ATS: Automatic Teller Sharon. Esme remain tightlipped and never revealed the hurtful words that were said behind Sharon’s back. She pitied Sharon’s inability to free herself from those who hurt her.
“Not looking like that,” squealed Janine. Pretty, mercurial, with clear skin and celery green eyes, she had a voice only the hearing impaired could tolerate. She was contumelious to everyone, including management, but got away with it. She was in love and miserable, a combination that made her mean.
“Who’d send that thing flowers?”
“She’s so full of herself. Look at those stupid glasses, like she’s famous or something,” Angela Hart added. A chocolate girl with puffed lips and long eyelashes; she was the envy of the office and the opposite of the ghastly Sharon, who hated her. But Angela was reticent around the omnipotent Janine, who dismissed her input with the wave of a manicured hand. She shifted, anxious to partake in torment of Esme, who, (thank God), was of a socially lower rank than her in the office.
“Who do you think sent her the flowers?”
“Genius, that’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Sharon hissed.
“I’m not talking to you,” Angela snapped, then stepped back, head lowered, eyes fixating on the knot knitted across Janine’s forehead.
Janine ordered them to shut up as Angela mumbled her intent to help, prompting Janine to glare at her into submission. She then slithered up to Tameka and said,
“Go on girl, take a peek,” she softened the command with a wink.
Tameka reluctant to do her bidding was more afraid of if she refused. She waited until Esme left her desk and stealthily approached the cubicle, and then gently removed the card from the holder. Scanning quickly and looking for Esme down the hall, she walked briskly back the cubicle. “It says Love, Diego.”
The group mirrored the same puzzling look.
“It sounds Spanish,” Tameka shrugged.
“He’s one of the cleaning people,” Sharon affirmed, arms folded.
“Are you sure?” Angela challenged.
“You think I’m lying?” She barked.
“I do see her talking to some guy after work,” Tameka offered.
“She is the only one who stays late, even on Friday,” Janine chimed as Sharon puffed her chest at Angela.
Tameka cautioned, “She talks to all of them, but I don’t think his name is Diego.” Sharon leaped to her feet, “Yes it is!”
“How do you know?” Janine asked Tameka.
Tameka retreated from Sharon’s hot face, “I’m not sure what his name is.”
“You’re always the first out of here at five,” Angela said to Sharon with a hand firmly placed on her hip.
“I saw him at her desk talking to him. I heard her say his name, Diego.”
“It should be Elmer Fudd,” Janine squeaked.
“Look at her–that’s the best she can do,” Angela piped in, staring at Sharon. Janine leaned forward then fell back laughing.
“How hard up can you be? Esme’s dating an illegal alien.” she slapped palms with Sharon. “I knew it was one of those cleaning people.”
“She’s teaching him English; he can teach her how to dress,” said Sharon.
“Ugly matches with ugly,” Angela added eagerly.
The three girls traded hateful words and malicious laughter, some natural, some artificial, all of them suffocating Tameka. “Maybe it is love,” she said, visibly bothered.
“Yeah, for a green card,” said Angela as Janine wailed louder. She sat upright placing an elbow on Angela’s needy shoulder. The manager came out of her office reprimanding the boisterous women, directing them back to their desks. Tameka was the first to leave, grateful to the manager for rescue. The group was quiet as Esme walked back to her desk. As they dispersed, each took a hard look at her, at the flowers, and then threw a giggle at her like a hand grenade. And at their desks, they exchanged knowing looks and giggled some more.
Already at the door, the dog jumped on her upon entering the shop, greeting Esme with a wet, sloppy kiss. She knelt down, playfully grabbed his ears and dodged his sticky tongue. Dogs are so forgiving. She forgave them too, all of them: father, mother, group home, grandfather, and the estrogen gang. She thanked God for being beautifully human, to see the beyond the ugliness of people, and still be able to love. She was grateful she did not have the capacity to hate, that her heart did not possess bitterness.
“Diego, you need a bath.”
The pit bull’s owner appeared from the behind the curtains holding a large vase of freshly cut yellow roses.
“Will these do?” he smiled.
Esme stood up and gently cupped a rose inhaling it. “Thanks, Grandpa.”
“’Love, Diego’, again?”
She tilted her head and let out a laugh, smiling. “No, we’ll change it up. It’ll give them something to talk about.”
Margaret Buckhanon's fiction has appeared in Birmingham Arts Journal, The Delmarva Review, Mississippi Crow and Shalla Magazine. Her short fiction, The Homecoming, was a featured reading on NPR. Ms. Buckhanon's novel, Siren, was published in 2000.