June 28, 2007

The fires of June

A 2,000 acre brush fire is smouldering fifteen miles north of my home. A couple weeks ago, we were surrounded on three sides; the smoke hung in the streets like morning fog. The fires have grown worse each year. I don't remember seeing any when I first moved down here sixteen years ago. And instead of hurricanes, we had an afternoon thunderstorm each summer day that soaked in by nightfall. Strange days, mama...

photo: Robert Garcia

June 24, 2007


He recognized her voice. It was Tracy Burns, the niece of Kate Pringle, an acerbic elderly lady on the third floor whom Tracy was visiting from out of town. They had met at a condo function, a pot luck. She had been tipsy, pleasantly expansive and a little snarky. They crossed paths at the elevator several days later and exchanged pleasantries. They seemed to be hitting it off with a subtly agreeable indolence, and parted smiling.

Now as the sun was setting, he could hear a voice, a call, floating up to the periphery of his awareness from somewhere outside. He assumed at first that it was a neighbor, or a television. As he approached the back bedroom it dawned on him slowly, impossibly, that it was Tracy's voice: "I like you... why don't you like me?"

She was out there for hours. The plaint, rising up into the deepening night, came at enigmatic intervals. "I like you... why don't you like me?" At first he was mildly alarmed, but titillated... then oddly comforted, lulled by its hopeless, intimate spell. "I like you... why don't you like me?" He never looked down to see her. At length, he climbed into bed and drifted off, the sad, audacious lament rocking him to sleep...

She returned to Pennsylvania sometime the next day; he never saw her again.

June 16, 2007

Down by the river

"Am I supposed to feel haunted?"

"Not really... but I guess I would too."

"Is it okay if I cry?"

"It's okay if you cry."

So that, surprising himself, is what he did. He threw his head in her lap and sobbed and sobbed until there was nothing left but laughter. Then they pedaled home where they smoked some weed and listened to the Goldberg Variations while the chili simmered.

June 9, 2007

Pisces 4

When she wheeled up with the grocery cart and opened the trunk of the car with the remote keypad, the egret didn't move. This filled her with a surge of delight. She transfered the groceries into the trunk with delicate stealth, hoping to prolong its stay. She brought the trunk lid down with an attenuated airborne swoop. As she approached the driver's side, she wondered if the bird would suddenly ascend, wings flapping chaotically. But it only shifted slightly on its matchstick legs.

"I've been waiting for you," it said, in a voice whose kindness left her breathless.

"You have?" she said, as a huge blanket of serenity seemed to waft down upon her. Her eyes welled with tears, and she could scarcely contain her joy.

"Open the door," the egret said calmly, craning its neck around to peer into her eyes. "We have so much to talk about."

She clicked the keypad and the door sprang ajar. Stepping slightly aside she opened the door, and the bird flew into the car, alighting on the passenger seat. She got in and drove off. Her license tag, a vanity plate, said PISCES 4. The boy was watching from his bike. When he got home, he went upstairs to tell his sister Megan. But she was gabbing on the phone, in that annoying overly-important way she had affected lately, and he decided against it.

June 3, 2007


The laelia is a Brazilian orchid species. Which is to say it is not a cross or hybrid but a species found in this form in the wild. When I first started growing orchids twenty years ago, this one, which I'd seen only in articles or the occasional catalog, was the one I dreamed about most... a dream that became a decade-long quest, and would find its awakening in Florida. Mine is in bloom, producing a record 26 flowers this year.

I've raised phaleanopsis, the "moth", flowers floating like its nickname on slim arching stems. Cattleyas, the showy hybrids that my mother wore, beaming with pride and girly delight, to Mother's Day lunch. I've nurtured tiny equitant oncidiums, colorful gypsies no bigger than a dime. I've stalked the New Jersey Pine Barrens for wild snow-white lady slippers, which would suddenly appear, in a ground-hugging flock, at the edge of a brook. But the laelia eluded me.

I went to the Miami Orchid Show a couple years ago, mounted at the Convention Center in Coconut Grove, a ravishing spectacle. Disorienting in its variety, it demonstrated one of the most remarkable properties of the orchid family: as a class of plants, it numbers more species than any other, and flourishes, cross-breeds, is hunted on nearly every continent of the world. I found it hard to believe, as I studied one of the flowers under a footbridge in the show's vast jungly central display, that the minuscule flowers, those tiny stiff sparks, growing in moss-like mats on volcanic rocks, could be related to the huge lavender showgirls that elsewhere floated perfumed and trembling in their spotlights amid crowds of doting fans. But I looked closer and, sure enough, there was the five-membered star, the seducing lip. However varied the theme, however wildly distorted or disguised, the sextuple motif persists. Three petals, three sepals.

Lavishly painted, intricately formed, orchids seem among the most pagan of nature’s inspirations. Gorgeous but unsentimental, they're out for sex and they don't care who knows it. Orchid. The word itself is from the Greek orchis: testicle, a reference to their conspicuous bulbs. Of course all flowers are, when you get down to it, nothing more nor less than the plant's flashy sex organs. "Choose me! Choose me!" they sing to passing moths, bees and birds. It's just that orchids are so blatant about it. They're beyond coquetry. Their sensuality is reptilian. Even the way they are traded is profane, in stalls and on stages like rare spices or exotic animals. But to look closely at a cymbidium is to encounter Matisse. Its war paint, its speckles, blushes, tints and frostings are outlandish, unnecessary. Its fragrance, one Chinese sage described as “melting.”

In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag claims that photography beautifies everything it touches. It usually does. But I have seen orchids in photographs that looked monstrous and mean, which in real life turned out to be hauntingly beautiful. Colors that seemed ugly on film, or merely drab, revealed rich jungle depth, a designer's sophistication and elan, to the naked eye.

The sheer sculpture of orchids looks both ancient and modern. They are, somewhat rarely among flowers, asymmetrical. In its more extreme configurations, this asymmetry pushes the flower close to animal or insect life in appearance, and that, I believe, is what accounts for much of its shocking beauty. You know it's a flower, but it's verging on something else. Its seductive invocation of its insect or avian pollinators has gone to extremes. It beguiles butterflies because it is an artful improvisation on the butterfly; it's a butterfly mythology, dressed for a royal honeymoon.

Orchids are gorgeous, but when it comes to sex, they're not smiling. They will be ravaged. One can only imagine the primordial world in which such luxuriant erotic strategies originated and flourished.I bought one small plant to take home. A small hybrid, purple-flecked cream in color, with a deeply rolled lip and a fragrance of licorice-scented grass.

I did find my beloved laelia at long last three years ago... or perhaps she found me. In the garden shop at the local Walmart for $15. Languishing in the gloom, shoved in a corner in the shadow of some ferns and philodendrons. There were two, mere sprouts, with exactly one stem of buds apiece. I decided to share my good fortune, and leave one behind, though I was, pulse racing, tempted to abscond with them both. I've been rewarded in succeeding years, I like to think, with a prodigiously flowering pet - the most "at home" orchid of any I've had the pleasure to own. She sits on my lanai, among her handful of cousins, in the trance of an archaeological sunset.