The passion flower had doubled back on itself, the curls of new growth returning, a snake on its own tail, twisting and thriving on the stems of dead older siblings. Stacia did not know if the old growth eventually fell away, or if it became green again, and this ignorance caused some anxiety and grief when she batted away dried leaves that might have just been sleeping.
Farther down the chain-link fence, away from the flowering vine, several wooden crosses were bound to the wire. On the ground beneath the crosses plastic purple tulips, red poppies, and faded blue forget -me-nots pretended to grow from weighted pots. Purple heart, veteran’s flower, cheesy sentiment, Stacia thought when they first appeared, and assumed the victim the shrine had been erected for was someone’s grandfather, taking a turn too wide one evening. Perhaps he’d become a poster child for the care of veterans, signs saying “if only he’d been able to afford new glasses…”
But no such signs were placed, and Stacia learned the victim was a young woman named Poppy who loved purple tulips. The forget-me-not sentiment was the same, though Stacia reminded herself less cheesy because of the faces she grew to know through the fence.
There was David, a young veteran turned agriculture student. He’d gone to high school with Poppy and told Stacia one day while she was checking her mail that though they’d broken up he had still “held a flame” for Poppy. Stacia found him the least irritating of the mourners. His skin (tinted red yearlong, from cold or sunburn), weathered cowboy hat atop his 6’5 height and glowing white blonde hair gave him the look of a Texan arch angel.
The other visitors to Stacia’s yard included Poppy’s parents, dropping flowers every Sunday, as well as colleagues and classmates (but those faded away, making occasional appearances, often crying about things Stacia suspected had little to do with Poppy).
In October parking for the Marigold Parade took up Stacia’s street. Tourists and locals painted their faces to mimic bare skulls and littered the ground of the nearby park with deep orange flower petals. Perhaps it was because of their association with the Day of the Dead that Stacia thought the marigolds smelled like sickly sweet decay.
She’d moved to the neighborhood a little over a year before, months before Poppy’s accident, but still forgot about the parade that forced her to park several streets away. Maybe she ignored it, much in the same way she never kept her a/c running into the hot desert fall, or ignored the warnings to avoid downtown during monsoon season when roads were underwater. A refusal to let her surroundings dictate her actions. Stacia parked a few streets away and walked through the dispersing festive crowd. She watched a man on stilts remove his giant papier-mâché skull mask and wander away with his disproportionate white hands.
She left when she ran into one of Moira’s kids. It was years since the nights she climbed the fence to join Moira in her children’s clubhouse. The children were grown. Moira miles away.
David was standing by her fence with a bouquet of poppies and a few added marigolds and fern stems.
“Isn’t it customary to meet in the cemetery?” Stacia asked, stepping around him to open her gate.
“Her family never liked me, and your yard is so pretty. I think Poppy would have liked it.”
A strange compliment, one that reminded her of nights when she could have sworn she saw a figure in the yard, but dismissed it. Just because you died somewhere didn’t mean you could make yourself at home. It was bad enough Poppy had more guests than Stacia ever did.
She checked her mail and carried the bills and groceries inside. From the kitchen window she watched David rearrange the flowers, removing faded forget-me-nots and putting them in Stacia’s trash bin.
With effort she opened the window and called through the screen, “Do you want a drink?”
David had to bend over to enter her adobe home’s doorway. He removed his hat, and suddenly it seemed strange that this was the first time he’d come in. Stacia felt she should give a tour, but instead she pointed to the two closed doors and said, “Bedroom, bathroom, follow me through here to the kitchen.”
She had bought herself sunflowers and arranged them in a blue pottery vase. The petals were already turning brown and curling.
She offered him a beer, and they made their way through the remaining case, using the game of the rock, paper, and scissor printed on the beer caps to fill the awkward silence.
“Have you lived here long?” David asked.
“I should tell you, I hate small talk.”
“It wasn’t, I meant, were you here when it happened?”
When they finished the beer, David filled the bottom of two juice jars with whiskey. Stacia plucked the dying petals from the sunflowers and stuffed them into her empty bottle.
“No one asked me if they could put the cross there,” Stacia said. “One week there’s cops and an ambulance, and the next my fence has become the meeting place for a support group. You know what I did for my birthday? I drank a bottle of red wine alone.”
“When was that?”
“Same as Poppy.”
“Yeah, I know. Want to know how I know? Because there was practically a birthday party for her out there.” Her own mother was in a hospital that year, and Jenny triggered into a sadness that kept her at home, though she’d agreed to go with Stacia to visit the following day. “I’m in competition with a dead body.”
David drained his glass and poured a second. “Not a body. A soul. Anyone who knew Poppy loved her.” He reached into his back pocket for his wallet and removed a photo.
“Come on,” Stacia said, annoyed at the Lifetime movie direction the evening was taking.
“Look at her,” he said.
Poppy was thin, almost boy-ish in frame despite her floral print dress. Her hair was a deep red and perfectly straight. A little too clean cut for Stacia’s taste, but someone she might have flirted with in a bar. The kind who might get embarrassed or surprise you.
“It was more than that though.”
Through the screen door Stacia could smell the irrigation. She was fostering a dog, a terrier mix named Oden. She’d let him out on the porch where he snapped at minnows circling beneath the step.
“You can tell me one thing about her. Then we drop it.”
David walked to the door and they went outside to join the little dog. David scratched behind Oden’s ears. His paws were brown from irrigation water.
“I miss how all my Chapsticks used to turn pink from her lipstick.”
A search for more liquor yielded nothing. David reached into a pack of cigarettes and offered a joint. Stacia was surprised.
“Medical. PTSD,” he said.
Her trees were on higher, drier ground and they sat beneath her hammock passing the joint back and forth till the stars were pinholes in a giant black box. She stroked the apricot pit shape of his Adam’s apple. Apricot, apple, so much fruit. Stacia tested the sinew of his forearm, tested his loyalty to the dead girl.
They finished the joint and watched the ebbing miniature wave of irrigation before moving inside to her bedroom, hands brushing, bodies leaning on another till they reached her bed. David tugged her jeans while she lifted her black shirt above her head. Stacia could feel the girl in her room. Poppy was the bathrobe hanging on a hook by the door, the pile of clothes on a chair, it was Poppy—or Moira’s?— freckles Stacia saw in the flecked mirror of her wardrobe door.
Every sound David made sounded like the beginning of Poppy’s name. Stacia wondered how Poppy made love. Was she the kind who moved her hips like the plastic hula dancers on dashboards? The kind who laid still. She was the kind of girl who made men feel important. She was the kind who said their names over and over.
“David,” Stacia said, her voice a near octave higher than usual. His body responded. Somewhere in her chest cavity Stacia felt something loosen, as though she had opened herself into a hand puppet for the dead girl. And then it wasn’t David inside her, but the girl, her thin fingers manipulating Stacia’s body.
Stacia was grateful when Oden’s short demanding bark called her back to the yard. She stepped barefoot onto the wooden planks of the porch and listened as the front door, though closed in what was an attempt to be quiet, echoed over the irrigated yards. The rumble of David’s truck faded, and the frogs rose from their perennial graves to croak their pleas for companionship.