Happiness used to happen more often. Once upon a time, people were happy without realizing it. Nowadays, those who are unhappy have the choice of remaining miserable or of being hectored into a different state of mind by some inexplicable force of nature, or merely distracted from life by social media long enough to forget what made them miserable. Such was the case with the man who became the subject of an article I was asked to write for a newspaper I used to be employed by.
The story did not end happily, so don’t expect an ever-after. It ended, and that’s really where it begins, at least from the perspective of the story. I got the scoop.
My editor asked, ‘Who told you all this?” and the honest answer is “A little bird told me.” A hectoring bird is a push-over for mulberries. Birds get drunk on the juice. When I had the avian well-away, he spilled his entire story.
He told me later I wasn’t being fair to take advantage of him like that.
There’s a rule in journalism that if someone blurts out an entire story, they are on the record and the reporter has a duty to report what he encounters. The bird kindly told me all about Jules just when I thought all my leads had gone dry. So let’s begin with what the bird told me that he told Jules.
Jules was not a particularly good gardener but he promised his wife on her deathbed he would do his best to keep the plantings in proper order. Had she been able to speak, Jules’s wife would have asked that he nurture the beds with care, compassion, and passion, if he understood what passion was.
She loved roses. During her youth, people tossed them at her and for good reason. She had been a ballerina with one of the major touring companies. She appeared to have wings. She floated.
Jules wasn’t fond of ballet, but when a friend gave him tickets at the last minute one evening when he was in his late Twenties, he spotted her in the chorus of dancers and returned night after night to see her appear, on point, as if she were about to fly. On the second night, as the prima came out to take her bows and the secondaries were clapping for the parade of principals, he approached the apron of the stage with a bouquet of pink roses. As the prima reached for them, thinking they were for her, he withdrew the gift and pointed to the woman who would become his wife.
The event, as usual, caused jealousy in the company. That evening, as the troupe was boarding its bus to return to the hotel, the prima was in the process of turning to say something to the upstart dancer from the chorus when she slipped and fell on the bus steps, injuring her ankle. She could not dance the next night.
The lead’s understudy suffered a similarly odd fate. She was calling over her shoulder during the warm-up of the troupe. She was intending to say something to the dancer from the chorus that tonight was her night and she was not to accept roses from any admirers who approached the state. The roses were hers and hers alone.
As the understudy spun around, having asserted her point to the crestfallen young dancer, she turned and walked into the doorframe of the exit staircase. She could not perform with a badly broken nose.
The director of the company had no choice. The woman who would become Jules’ wife was tapped to dance the lead, although director told her that his first inclination was to shutter the performance and look for a suitable replacement with more experience; yet when she danced, when she emerged from the left leg of the stage with her arms fluttering gracefully above her head and her toes on point as she leapt higher and higher into the air so that Jules thought she had become a graceful bird rising from a paradisal pond, his heart soared with her.
Few people or things in this life spoke with the elegance of a prima ballerina performing not merely a ballet but a dance that inspired awe in at least one beholder. She must have spotted Jules in the third row, transfixed and thunderstruck. He was spending almost every spare cent he had on seats closer and closer to the stage. Each night he presented her with a bouquet of roses, and each night as she bent to take them into one arm, she placed the other on her heart to show him how the gesture touched her deeply.
As the young dancer caught passing glimpses each performance out of the corner of her eye of the boy with the roses in the orchestra rows, she gave each pirouette, each leap, and every landing more and more of herself. A passion deep within her was suddenly awakened. She was dancing for him. She triumphed.
The next week, with the principal and her replacement shaken by the unusual turn of circumstances against them, the two former primas of the company resigned. One excused her departure by saying she had been offered the lead in a company from Michigan while the elder opted to retire and assume a position at a conservatoire. Jules’ wife became an overnight success. Each night he presented her with the roses. Then, on the last evening of the run, he handed her red roses and asked her for dinner. There were several hours for the hands to break down the set, for the dancers to finally enjoy a bit of the town, so she accepted. That is how Jules and his wife fell in love.
Dance was her passion, but her dream was to own a house with a garden. She told him the roses were lovely. She had taken one from each evening’s bouquet and pressed the flower between the pages of her diary. When the spine of the book began to spread and crack from the pressure of the covers around the flowers, she bought a Bible and pressed the open buds between the pages of the Song of Solomon.
Jules’ wife had a name, and the name should be mentioned except for the fact that after she passed on, after she struggled through years of radiation and chemotherapy, he could not bear to hear her name spoken and would not let it pass his own lips. He remembered her through the garden she had tended. To him, every rose bore her name it is perfume. The pink ones were especially beautiful. If he did a Minnesota tilt on each plant, half-burying the bole, the roots, and the lowest shoots before the first frost came in late October, and if he were there on the first warm days when he was certain the good weather had returned to the areas of morning sun and afternoon shade that suited the roses best, he could get two blooms from each bush. If the season were good, the year would give him three. The final one would be an encore of the first two.
He felt fortunate he had been able to give his wife the garden she desired. During her time away when they wrote to each other or shouted through the static of long-distance calls or trans-Atlantic trunk lines, she said her dream was to leap into the air with her eyes closed during her final performance and land in the fragrance of her own garden.
She traveled for four years with the company and then, as the times and her profession demanded, she had stepped aside for a new, younger dancer, and married Jules. He asked her once if she regretted giving up the stage and she replied that she had found her heart’s desire in their garden and their lives together. Jules was unaware that the cancer that would eventually pass like a shadow over their final years together was already growing inside her. The doctors had told he she could not have children and explained her infertility as a physical matter, perhaps the result of the disciplines to which she had subjected her body as she trained for her career as a dancer.
Jules rose in the publishing firm he had joined around the time he met the ballerina. His eye for finding the unique and the original caught the attention of his superiors and eventually he became a partner in the imprint. He loved the idea that a publisher was someone who imprinted words on a page. In the early mornings, after his wife had been up to tend her roses before dawn, he could clearly see her footprints imprinted on the grass next to the beds. He could see where she had stood. Her toes were always pointed out, never in. Her balance was immaculate. Jules would bring his coffee into the garden before he left for work and his wife would hold up each full floribunda, cradling it in her hand, sometimes balancing on one foot or bending into a plier that had become second nature to her stance. On the morning she died, he snipped the long stems of pink roses, some of the as yet unopened, and brought them to her bedside. She opened her eyes briefly and held the flowered heads to her nose to inhale their perfume. Then she ran her fingers over the buds that had not burst, and Jules thought he saw a tear in the corner of her right eye for the flowers that would never fully express their lives. Then she closed her eyes.
The summer began to warm. He needed to write her obituary. She had been famous. His life had shied away from the limelight. He was the unseen hand behind the text. She, on the other hand, had been the focus of each night she danced. Her name was well-known. The owner of his publishing firm asked if Jules might write a biography of the famous dancer, but for the immediate future Jules struggled to find exactly the right five hundred words the local paper had requested from his to sum up the passion of his life. The exercise, Jules thought, was not only cruel, though if the newspaper editor had not asked and left the task to a less caring writing, the result could have been disastrous. Jules stared at the page in his typewriter. He felt the loneliness of white paper. The empty stage was staring back at him. The sets had been struck. The theatre was empty. He waited for her to appear from behind the legs just as she had done when he was a worshipful fan and she the star, the open rose, of the production. But she never appeared.
By tending her garden, he was not only keeping his promise to his wife: he was searching to see her shadow in beds that received the first light of day. When she thought he wasn’t busy with his work, she would try to pass along gardener’s knowledge to Jules. She taught him to weed small intrusives by pinching their stems at ground-level between his thumb and forefinger. He knew he should never water the roses in the heat of the day, or if the sun was directly upon them.
Missing her, and having ignored her when she was present, weighed on Jules. He stared at the grass along the border of the beds to see if she had left her footprints in the fine shreds of green, an English grass that he had imported for her to give her garden the final touch of delicacy. But she was not there. She had not bent over the beds in the first green ribbon of dawn. And she had not weeded the soil and split the clumps with her gloved fingers to let the water or the rain at the roots. She was gone.
One summer morning after a stormy night, Jules was raking leaves out of his southern-exposed flowerbed beneath a large uncooperative hydrangea that bloomed if it felt like it but stopped blooming, perhaps out of grief for the loss of its tending hands when its gardener died. Jules bent over to scoop up the leaves when he heard a voice speaking to him. The voice was clear and articulate, and Jules straightened up, looked around, and wondered if someone was in the garden with him.
“Hello, Jules. Do not be alarmed. I am from the sky. I want to talk with you.”
As far as he could tell, he was alone in the garden. The neighbours on all sides of him were at work or away on holidays. The postman would come to the front door but not until later in the morning. Perhaps he was hearing things. His ears had been ringing and sometimes buzzing since his wife passed. The doctor told him it was merely a sign of gradual hearing loss that comes with age, but Jules speculated that the sound might be that of a spirit trying to speak to him in a barely audible note. He wondered if bending over was hard on him. He wasn’t young anymore. He was wealthy at last and could afford to have someone do the gardening for him, but the act of raking leaves and plucking weeds made him wistful and happy.
“Did you hear what I said? Jules. We need to talk, but we can’t be seen talking. Just go about your business and follow my instructions.”
“Who’s there?” he asked with astonishment. “Who are you? What am I hearing?”
“I am the bluebird of happiness. I am the winged creature you have been seeking. You probably thought I’d gone for good or that I never existed at all. You were busy living your life no matter how much you thought happiness was within your grasp. You loved your wife, but loving is not merely adoration but the ability to understand the passion that your other poured into what she did. Do you understand the passion of this garden? Have you bent down and smelled the roses? Maybe I do not exist. I only speak to those who deserve happiness. Not the moral imperative kind of happiness, but the pleasure of seeing the world through what someone close to you sees and feels and smells and touches. You are not someone who enjoys gardening. I can tell. You breath in sighs as you bend over the roses. You are tending them out of duty, but duty and love are two different things. You never asked your wife what she loved about her garden or her roses. You admired her work. You would tell people you knew, “Yes, my wife loves her garden.” But did you? From what I observed of your relationship with your wife, you took no pleasure in her pleasure because you were so caught up in your own pursuits.”
“I had a position. I had work to do. I had deadlines to meet. I was good at what I did. I was happy to doing it. Who are you to comment on the nature of my happiness or my late wife’s happiness?”
“I’m only saying that it takes two to be happy. The happiness of the chosen other, the partner, is what makes happiness possible for you. You would have done anything to make her happy, no? Then why did you make no effort to learn to garden? That was her sublime happiness.”
“I think you’re out of line, whoever you are.”
“No, not out of line, but lined up behind all the things that preoccupied you in the past. And now that you have lost the one connection you had to reciprocal bliss, don’t you think it is time to understand what you missed?”
“I watched her dancing for years. I thought being there for her would bring her joy.”
“Oh, it did. But you were one of many who found joy in her points and pirouettes. You were not alone in that. I am only saying that happiness, the kind of happiness that makes a garden grow, requires a meeting of minds and souls. After all, that is the way it was in Eden. Adam and Eve, never to be parted, ‘bliss or woe,’ as John Milton put it.”
“I told her everyday her garden was splendid.”
“But did you get down on your hands and knees and help her make something grow that you could share? Happiness is not beholding. That is art appreciation. Happiness is sharing without words and finding delight in the bitter and the sweet of what is not said. The rose and the thorns”
“I’m happy enough.”
“Enough is never enough when it comes to happiness. You can’t measure happiness. You can only seek to live it. It isn’t a meal where you push the plate away and say, ‘Oh, I’ve had enough.’
“If you are a blue bird of happiness,” Jules said, “have the good manners to show yourself .” and with that the bird hopped to the frontmost branch of the hydrangea tree, turned his head to one side, and looked directly at Jules.
“When your wife tended her roses, did you ever notice that sometimes her forearms would get caught on the thorns and bleed? She was good at hiding that from you. She didn’t want you to know that what she loved hurt her. Instead, she’d come in a put a crystal vase of long-stemmed roses on your desk, and sometimes, without looking up from your manuscripts you’d say “thanks,” and she’d stand there looking slightly hurt though she was certain you’d bend over and smell them when you were finished doing what consumed your time.”
“Beauty and the happiness it provides comes with a price. A fine rose in a crystal vase is not the rose or its perfume but the pain of the thorns that rip the flesh. A rose is a dance. Your wife presented you with roses, just as you had presented her with roses, to show you that out of the thorns something wonderful blossoms. She thought of the bloom as that moment in her leaps when she thought she’d never come back to earth. She was reaching not for the skids hanging above the stage but for you, Jules. The dance is beautiful but the dancer pays the price in pain.”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” he grunted at the bird.
Nor I to you, but it is part of what I do. And the truth is we can’t be seen talking to each other. If anyone saw us conversing, even like this among beds of bushes you are trying to restore I’d be plagued with questions. I’d have no rest. Even the bluebird of happiness can wear thin from too much use.”
Jules wanted to tell the bird to go away, but thought better of it. Perhaps the ringing in his ears was the herald of the bird’s arrival in the garden, and rather than chase the creature away, Jules decided to hedge his bets and find out what would happen next.
“Well?” he paused. “Happiness was mine, at least I thought it was. I’ve had my share. Do you think I need more?”
“I think you need to take stock of what you had and perhaps still have. I want you to be happy but that’s a difficult challenge when you’ve spent so long overlooking what you had and still have.”
“I’m good with things as they are,” Jules said. “I don’t think I require any special treatment, at least not from the bluebird of happiness.”
The bird hopped down several bough in the thicket of the hydrangea.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” the bird said almost in a whisper, looking around, craning its neck from side to side to make sure no one was listening. “I have to be careful. Too much talk leads to unhappiness. Take a miracle, for example. Something wonderful happens. Something that is impossible to explain. A girl in the chorus of a ballet touring company catches your eye. Why her? Was it the lightness of her steps? Was it the fluid movement of her arms? Was she exactly on beat when those next to her were slightly off? If you explain a miracle it too much it vanishes. Take it from me. I want you to go inside, into your family room. Lift the fireplace screen to one side and lying on your back and look up the chimney. That way I can sit on top of the chimney and converse with you and any passerby will think I’m building a nest or checking out a suitable place to sing. And when I sing, you should listen.”
“You’re exhausting an old man.”
“Apologies. I try to take a philosophical approach to happiness rather than just dropping out of the sky and telling someone, ‘Surprise! You can be happy.’ I tried that long ago and it scared people. Sudden happiness can be harmful. So, let’s play a game. I know, this sounds stupid, but people always find their happiness if I ask them to do something stupid. If they don’t do anything unusual, it means they don’t want to make the effort to discover something important.”
“I’m too old for this. Why don’t you go away?”
“You’re never too old to see things as you have never seen them before. And besides, you haven’t tried looking up a chimney while lying on your back since you were a child. The flue might need cleaning. You might discover you have a family of racoons living above the damper. You never discover something new until you put yourself in an absurd situation. Most great discoveries happen when a person puts themselves out of their proverbial box. Let’s give it a go.”
“Not bah. I’ll fly up to the roof. Birds are even worse than humans at wanting to talk about happiness. That’s why we sing first thing in the morning before the sun is up and just after the sun goes down. I think of birdsong as a type of routine. A regimen. Routine not just what separates art from life, but a frame that keeps a picture from escaping into the world. So we sing our hearts out. I know you wake up before dawn on summer mornings. You leave your window open so you can hear us. Secretly, you want to hear what we have to say but you haven’t the foggiest idea of what we’re saying, so here’s your chance. You’re not only getting the inside track on what birds do but what we say.”
Jules went inside and followed the bird’s instructions. As he opened the damper and looked up the chimney there was the bird on the lip of the flue looking down at him, encircled by the darkness of char and bricks but surrounded by a bright patch of blue sky that framed his beak and head.
“Halloo down there. Can you hear me? It’s like looking through a telescope, isn’t it Jules? Do you remember you had a telescope when you were a boy. You could see things far away up close if you looked in the proper end, but you lived with your parents in a small apartment and there wasn’t much of any faraway to be seen, so you turned the spyglass around and everything looked smaller and more remote. Remember that?”
“What of it?”
“I’m taking you back to a time when you created your own perspective on the world. You wanted things to be far away because you didn’t want to have to deal with them up close or with any sense of intimacy.”
“You’re sounding like an analyst. I’m not paying you by the hour.”
“Quite right. You did very well in your business dealings. You made a lot of money because you put a distance between yourself and others. When your authors sometimes turned tragic on you, you didn’t reach out to them and try to rescue them. You let them and the things they did to themselves run their course, and when they spontaneously combusted as social entities, you found you had an additional marketing tool at your disposal for the books you’d published. Very clever. And you did very well. That’s why you had a long and storied career. Are you sorry you made money such an important thing in your life?”
“No,” said Jules, “not at all. Money bought me my future.”
“But it couldn’t save your wife, could it.”
Jules became frustrated with the bird.
“Is this one of those ‘money doesn’t buy happiness lectures? Coming from some avian who claims to make happiness his purpose for existing, this cliché is wearing thin very quickly. If I were editing this piece I’d stop right here and tell the author that I’m not interested. Because if it is, I don’t want to hear it. My wife died not because I didn’t have money but because her doctors didn’t have a cure. Money can’t buy more time.”
“But until today, it bought you space, a distance from what you could have loved with a passion. Did you ever garden with your wife or did you just sit on the patio and watch? Because I know the answer. You are a member of life’s audience. You tried it once or twice when she urged you, but you abhorred getting dirty in the earth in order to create something beautiful. Gardening is a good thing to do, not merely as a physical activity but as a doorway to contemplation and reflection, and of course your relationship with your late wife. Contemplation and reflection, to say nothing of sweat from hard work, are what lead to beauty, and dare I say because it is my line of trade, happiness.. Think of the writers you have published. They sat at their keyboards and typewriters through long, snowy nights, peering into a vision no one else could see. They believed they could make the imaginary real. You could see when what they wrote was good, but you couldn’t see the fact they spent their lives walking a tightrope through the fog while only guessing there was someone holding up the other end. It is tragic that a few of them wrote to make you happy and you never even realized it. That’s passion. But above all, that’s love.”
“I’m am getting up now, bluebird of happiness,” Jules said. “I’m hungry and I’m going to make myself breakfast. I’ve been busy since the sun came up and I’m not a morning person.”
“Have you planted anything?”
“This season. This year. Have you decided to see what you can grow on your own?”
“Why no,” responded Jules in a frustrated tone. “No, I haven’t planted anything. My wife did that. I now have people who do that. I pay them well. I have even left a line in my will to have the little parkette at the end of the street planted with flowers every year as a kindness to the community. I’m a philanthropist.”
“Okay,” said the bird. “Philanthropy, Jules, begins with what you do for those closest to you and grows like a rose bush from there. It puts out shoots. You have to be careful it doesn’t put out suckers. You need to prune those carefully or they will sap the energy from the buds.”
“Please, not another optimistic maxim. Is this a lesson on gardening or happiness?”
“Ah, both. And there are more maxims to come because this is essentially a philosophical discussion we’re having. You want a story? Okay. Here’s a story. Once upon a time, there was a man who had happiness right in front of him but he lost it because he didn’t realize he was happy. And to wrap up the story, he didn’t realize he was happy because the hardest thing to imagine is yourself. And you, Jules, are that man. But here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go, have a nice breakfast, lie down, take a good nap, and come back and look up the chimney around eleven o’clock tonight. I’ll be here. I promise. I’m not supposed to be up at that hour, but I make house calls late a night if the cases warrant it, and I believe you warrant it. Do you promise to return at that time?”
“I don’t know why I should, but if it means I’ll come to a better understanding of happiness when all I’m feeling is emptiness and grief, then, okay. I’ll be back.”
“Good,” said the bird.
When Jules woke he rose from his bed and walked downstairs to the family room. The fireplace screen was still set to one side, the damper open, and the bird was there staring down the chimney at him. Jules could see the bluebird of happiness backlit by a tiara of stars.
“I knew you’d make it,” the bird said. “I have lots to show you. Do you see over my shoulder? Tell me what you see.”
“It is a fine, clear night,” Jules noted. “I see the stars.”
“And do you remember that night beside the lake when you and your wife trekked for hours through the bush to find a place of perfect darkness where the stars grew brighter? The night was moonless. The constellations joined hands. The Milky Way was there. You said it was a place where no one had been before, that you two were likely the first human beings to set foot there, and that the stars above you had never been seen from that particular place before. That’s the wonderful thing about the bush country. You can be the first person to stand in a particular place and the odds are you will be the first. You brought along your toy telescope in your backpack. Your wife asked why and put the magnifying end to her eye so that the stars would appear closer. And you reached over and took it from her hands and turned it around. Do you remember why?”
Jules paused. “I have trouble remembering things these days. No, wait. I know what I said to her. I said, ‘Turn the telescope around and the stars will seem smaller because they are inside you and the hardest place to find anything is inside you.’ She was surprised. But do you remember what she said? She said, ‘I know.’ ‘I know.’ What do you think she meant when she said that? Do you think she already knew where happiness resided and was waiting for you to join her there just as she joined you on that long, dark bush trail with mosquito repellent slathered all over your bodies?”
“When I was a boy,” Jules said, his voice distant as if he were somewhere else, “the lights of the city drowned out most of the stars. They were hard to see. They had to be brought closer. But that night in the dark beside the lake, there were so many of them. I remember now. My wife asked me, or perhaps she said to me, every star was coated in someone’s wish, whether that wish had come true or not, and I told her I didn’t know, but felt my whole purpose in life was not merely to reach for the stars because they were close but because they were even farther away than I had thought. I said that. I never thought I was capable of doing that. I encourage others to say things I am incapable to feeling or doing myself. That’s been my life’s work. I felt I had so far to go, and that my dreams would only come true if I went farther and farther than I could ever hope to go. Hard work is what gets you to the stars, I said.”
The bird nodded and looked up at the sky.
“Even when birds fly as high as they possibly can go, the stars are not an inch closer. But why look at the stars? Why not look at what is right in front of you? Look at what you have done. Look at the people you have helped with your efforts, your kindness, and, yes, your money, because you went too far searching for something that was so close. Tell me, Jules, where is happiness?”
“I buried her several weeks ago.”
“Yes. That’s true. But a person lives for their passions. The passions don’t die. You didn’t bury what she loved.”
The old man was silent. He remembered his wife as they lay by the lake. The had slipped off their clothes in the still, starry night air and slid their bodies into the calm waters, parting the reflection of the night sky with every gentle stroke forward, deeper, and deeper into the depths. And turning toward each other, they had embraced, sinking at first, and then by some miracle rising to the surface and floating just as their breath was running out. They made love sinking and rising, their kisses broken only by their breaths when they surfaced. He whispered to his wife, “Let us hold on to each other and never let go, and hold on to everything we do and never let it fly from us.”
“Jules, I am going to be honest with you. I may or may not be all I’m cracked up to be in terms of delivering happiness but I am all the things you loved and wanted to hold that slipped from your grasp and rose into the night skies of the days and months and years when you forgot to hold on. I think you should go to bed now. You are looking tired, and I have another long day’s work ahead of me. I don’t give people happiness. I only ask them where they can look for it if they think they have lost it. I am the spirit of what people forget they have or were or are, and I come to them merely to set the record straight but to remind of what makes them human before it is too late.”
Jules made his way up the stairs and he found a man lying in his bed, in his spot, and when he leaned over to see who it was, an intruder or a ghost, he realized it was himself and he had never awakened from his nap.
Jules money did many fine things.
The local gardening club planted some stunning beds in the parkette at the end of his street.
The legacy Jules left included an annual prize for the best painting by an artist in the country, scholarships for students to study astronomy at his alma mater, the university where he had worked as a night janitor after his Latin class in order to put himself and his wife through their degrees. His obit said Jules had been a man who cared about those around him, a beautiful, gracious personality.
But three weeks after he had been laid to rest beside his wife, I was asked to write about Jules’ life. The obit files were full of useless public information. I wanted to write a story about the gardener but I wanted to do it without seeming to have an axe to grind against the old man. What’s the point in beating up a dead guy?
But I broke all my rules that day. I’d had a wet lunch that day, and banged something out and sent it to my editor too close to deadline for him to do little more than remove a few extra letters that had slipped into my piece. What got published was a nasty op-ed piece. In that piece, I said I had met Jules and interviewed him almost fifty years before, and all I saw in the man was someone who was determined to make as much money as possible by saying yes or no to thoughts, words, ideas, phrases, and dreams. And though I know this won’t remain off the record, the truth is he had rejected my first novel and driven me into a life of reporting. Most newspaper people won’t admit to it, but they all have novels, first loves, first dreams, that they poured their souls into and either burned or tore to shreds when someone wrote a scathing rejection letter. I would have been happy if he’d just put a red stamp on the front saying REJECTED, perhaps slanting toward the upper right-hand side of the title page, but no. He wrote me a long detailed letter that made me feel as if my soul had run over by a harvester. So, in my drunken state, I wrote what I wrote and I figured Jules had it coming.
Members of the local gardening club were appalled.
The painters who had won the prize in his name and the star-gazers who were part of the astronomy club Jules had endowed wrote to the paper and decried the slander leveled against their benefactor. One astronomer, of course, got it right and accused the article’s author of beating up on a dead guy.
“Where’s the journalism in that?” he asked in a letter to the editor.
Had Jules still been alive, he probably would have told them not to bother. Getting upset would change anything. Everyone does what they do or feel they have to do. His life, if he could remember it, had been about love, though what and how he had expressed with that love remained a mystery to him.
The said journalist had merely seen what he had seen at that particular time and set it down on paper. Maybe neither Jules nor the journalist had felt kindly to each other that day. Understatement. I can’t write this portion of the story in the first person anymore. It feels wrong. The journalist agreed with Jules. People have bad days on both sides of the writer’s or editor’s desk. Maybe the reporter had never taken the time to look up the chimney and see the stars and remember all the ways he had seen them in his life. Everyone finds something to fix their sights on.
The journalist, looked out his apartment window one Sunday morning and saw a rare bird sitting on the railing of the balcony. The bird was looking in on him. The newspaper writer reached for a file he had on his desk. He opened it and reread the article on Jules and his famous wife. Perhaps he had been hard on the old guy. As a journalist, his tough-minded approach to his subject hadn’t earned him the recognition he thought he’d gain by writing it. His editor published the piece but when the journalist ask if he could do a follow-up piece the editor shook his head.
“You beat up on a dead guy. That doesn’t take any skill. I’ll listen when you have something more than dirt to throw on somebody’s grave.”
When the bluebird stared in the window from the balcony, the journalist felt as if the creature was trying to tell him something. It was as if an idea had been planted in his head. He decided to follow up. He’d been unfair. Something told him there had to be another story there and he wasn’t seeing it because something deep inside him, a distrust of the book trade, a dislike of Jules, the dismissive answers from long ago, were getting in the way of what he needed to write about.
The journalist opened his balcony door and spoke to the bird.
“You really are trying to tell me something.”
“You aren’t listening. No one wants to listen the way they used to. Maybe it’s a sign of the times,” the bird said, shaking his head, “but happiness still abounds. People say it isn’t what it used to be. I beg to differ.”
I looked at the bird. “Is there a place we can go and talk? I mean, I’m standing here in my bathrobe. I’d like to shower and get dressed. Can we talk after that?”
“Where?” asked the bluebird.
“I know a place. It’s not far from here. Nice and shady. You might like it.”
I should have told the bird it was a set up. Maybe he knew it was a set up. Maybe he was tired of lugging everyone’s miseries and sorrows around with him and just wanted to get it off his chest. So, I gave him directions to the park and he flitted about the trees until he spotted me beneath the mulberry tree.
“I should have known you’d bring me to a joint like this.”
“Hey,” I responded in an attempt to make amends as the bird began dipping his beak in the purple berries, “trees such as this have a history. They were planted in England in an attempt to create a silkworm industry there. That didn’t work. The winters were too cold. They were planted here, but silkworms are rare in these parts because the birds get to the berries first.”
After chewing up most the low-hanging fruit, the bird hopped down to a lower branch and gave me the story I wanted. Just before he flew off, the bluebird suggested I go and see Jules’ estate for myself. A walk around what was left of the house of roses and constant tending of the beds might give me a better sense of the blooms so I’d see past the thorn.
The next morning before dawn, just as the birds were beginning to sing, the journalist drove to Jules’ house. The estate people had come and gone. Some movers were busy carrying the last pieces of Jules’ life out the front door – a desk, a filing cabinet full of letters that was dumped at the curb, half a crystal vase that had been knocked over during the contents clearance and had broken in half, and a set of garden gloves that poked out of straw hamper where the glint of a trowel caught his eye. He walked around the back of the house to the garden.
The gardeners Jules had hired to keep the place in good order were finishing up their last visit. A woman carrying a clipboard who introduced herself as the real estate agent, said they were putting the final touches on the empty house for a showing that would take place later in the day.
As he turned to leave the garden the journalist’s eyes were drawn to the rose bed where a long-stem red rose and the almost-open bud of a white floribunda twined themselves around each other as if the blooms were looking into each other’s eyes, sharing a secret or perhaps only the charm of their own fleeting loveliness.