The peonies were a hand’s turn past perfection. Instead of the tight, round folds Holly had expected, the flowers flared outward like grandparent arms open for a hug. The petals had become papery as their veins dried out in the sun, and as they curled back, the canary pollen rods below were exposed. Even if they smelled lovely, they looked cheap, and for that Holly was vexed. If the gardener had kept up on watering, they wouldn’t look so miserable. She wished the flowers would cooperate, dazzle for the stage with a snap of her manicured fingers, but their beauty had come and gone and loose petals cluttered the pavement in a rogue confetti. She would chew out the gardener next time he crossed her path.
Holly pressed her fuchsia lips together as she checked her Rolex: seven forty five and her clients still hadn’t arrived. Never a good sign for a house showing. She ran a hand through her cropped, blonde hair. White-wing patches stretched above her pointed ears. There was a difference in texture between the white and blond strands, even if it was in her mind. She swore she could tell them apart by touch.
Just behind her was a hole in the ground. It wasn’t a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms or bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit on or to eat: it was an eco-pod and that meant the latest green-architecture: the latest buzz words in a whole stream of paragraphs Holly had read up on lately. Surrounding this particular pod were nearly three dozen just like it. Their white faces peaked out from the green hillside and stared forward at the last few sweeping farmlands on the outskirts of Hemlock. The pods were squatty in nature like little stacks of stucco bricks. When Holly had first gotten her real estate license, all the green-roofs pods had been rounded out and smoothed into the hills. That design worked with the landscape, rolling into its curves like an extension of nature. These little square pods, though, they jutted straight out of the hills like an unnatural barnacle cluster on a mossy rock. Perhaps standing out was the point. They were crammed together, too: the green roof of one pod was the front yard of another. Before moving to the northwest, she would have wondered how anyone could stand to live so closely to strangers. Before, being the key word. She hadn’t decided if she liked the look, but her opinion didn’t matter so much. It’s not like she would ever live there.
She stepped off the grass into today’s feature, turning the knob in the middle of the door. This pod, like all the others, was drenched in that minimalist sentiment she had seen in decor magazine after decor magazine. The kitchen and laundry area, for example, were armed with stainless steel appliances. She was never one for those kinds. They were so unforgiving when they were dirty, showing off every smudge and fingerprint, but they were popular, that was for sure. Surrounding her were white walls with dark wood cabinets, shelves and ceilings. The dark wood, she loved. As she straightened a boxed picture frame of live succulents, she ran her hands over the grain of the door-frame. Maybe she would go for dark wood in her own place. Dark wood with hanging ferns and string-of-pearl succulents dripping down the shelves.
For the past hour and a half, she had been retouching the interior and exterior of the pod: rearranging furniture, straightening decorations and eyeing the cheese platter. The peachy sunlight streamed through the awning window, spilling onto the toes of her black heels. Holly caught herself tapping her foot. This was only the thirteenth eco-pod on the lot. Thirty-two more. Plenty of chances to be waiting on clients. It wasn’t worth it to get worked up over one, she thought, as her heel once again started pattering on the hardwood floor.
Holly took a seat on a sleek, black padded bench for what felt like the millionth time. The top part of the bench pulled off revealing an empty cavity perfect for shoes, books or other knick-knacks. Functional beauty: another buzz term sucked straight out of the magazines. It was hard to keep up at this point in her career. It was a fight to stay on trend. Functional beauty. She revisited the term. Aesthetic was no longer enough and beauty for the sake of admiration was out of style. Each item had to be multipurpose: it was the only way for a space this small to work. The eco- pod had a kitchen and living room space, bathroom, washer and dryer, loft master bedroom, and even a front porch, all for less than two hundred square feet. It wasn’t a mini home -those were roomy by comparison- but for someone of her miniature stature, it was perfect.
She hugged a decorative throw pillow and checked the list in her head. What could she skip to make the tour shorter? She thought of all the marvelous amenities she absolutely had to show: the wine cellar below the kitchen floor, the mirror that unfolded into a table, the panel that flipped up into a desk. God, she was hungry. The caprese hors d’oeuvres on the side table smelled so good. She’d already snatched a few and any more would make her thievery obvious.
After fighting with her knock-off designer purse, Holly pulled out a compact mirror and snapped it open. Her lipstick was still in line. Her blush could stand a touch up, but she had forgotten that at home. It was odd for her to absentmindedly forget makeup at home when she used to ride with suitcases full, each carefully packed and triple checked. Not just makeup, either: eyelashes, false teeth, ribbons, hats and dozens of fake flowers to clip back her once long hair.
That had seemed like a lifetime ago, and she supposed it was another lifetime. Faded Old Glory’s in every window, broken AC in a ramshackle trailer, miles of pavement, and endless flat lines on the panhandle horizon. The flatness of the land shot a straight contrast to the glitz and glory of the cities, the sounds, and the personalities in the south where everyone wore religion on their sleeves and inhaled politics through cigarettes filters. Still, to think the Texan sun was the same as the nectarine hanging in the nearby window unsettled her and the hills, however charming, made her claustrophobic. She could never grow deep roots, regardless of the garden. She was a potted plant. Maybe that’s why she sold houses: to have a slice of what she sold to others. She would own a house one day, she promised herself as she ran her fingers once again through her paling hair. One with a garden.
Headlights flashed through the front window. Holly snapped straight. The rough crackle of tires on grit ran up her spine as she stood up and smoothed out her unwrinkled skirt. “Smile,” said her mother’s voice. She could hear the twang in her head even now, decades after she’d been in any kind of beauty pageant.
The details of her very last pageant were foggy, but how could she forget the dressing room of Little Miss Texas? Fluorescent lights had framed the mirror as the sting of hairspray made her nose tickle.
“We gotta get that hair big,” said Momma with a snort. “The higher the hair, the closer to God. Jack it up to Jesus, that’s what your nanna used to say.”
Holly’s skin still felt tacky from the spray tan. They had laid down sheets in the grass last night in the sweltering heat and she prayed behind her squeezed lips she wasn’t sweating. She didn’t want zebra stripes, not like last time. As she brought her nails to her teeth, Momma slapped her hand down.
“Sugar bear, those are new nails. Just wait a few more hours before you stick your fingers in your mouth.”
Holly screwed up her face. “Momma, I don’t want to do this.”
Her mother drew back, finger still on the trigger of the hairspray. “What do you mean? I thought you liked the cowgirl outfit.”
Holly rolled her eyes. “No Momma, I don’t want to compete against those babies. I should be in the seven plus league. I’m ten years old. ”
“Then this should be an easy win for you.”
“Mom.” Holly stomped her pink, rhinestone boots on the salon chair footrest. “You’re not listening. I’m grown up. Maybe I’m small but I’m grown up.”
“Oh, sugar bear. You can’t beat those kids. You might be ten but you don’t look ten. You’re…”
A halfling just like Daddy. She wouldn’t say it but Holly could feel the pressure of the unfinished sentence. She crossed her arms and pressed her eyes together as Momma curled a wayward strand of long, blonde hair. “It’s not fair,” Holly mumbled.
“You know what isn’t fair? Your father kickin’ us out of the house to live with his replacement family while we slum around in a trailer. That isn’t fair.” Holly was suddenly aware of the heat inches from her face. Momma continued. “We need this trophy money. Now pop in your flippers and give me a smile. Smile, sweetie.”
“This is my favorite spot in the place,” said Holly, holding back her own twang as she led the clients outside at the end of the tour. Green fields rolled over the valley. Blue mountain silhouettes were painted on the backdrop of the horizon. And that nectarine sun swam through the blushing skies while the clouds sailed listlessly. There was a reason she had scheduled the viewing at this time. “Best part about living in the country: you really can’t beat the view.”
The clients said their goodbyes soon after. It wasn’t a done deal, but she knew even before they did. Excited smiles brightened their faces and Holly tried her best to shoot one back. She was excited for them, their new house and their new lives and all that bright newness surrounding young love. And as they left, they took the glory of the newness with them. Life walked out the door and the state-of-the-art eco-pod felt as lonely and dim as ever.
The sun had long sunk below the mountains and the vibrant colors of the landscape had dimmed to a cruel gray when she finally left. The drive down the hills was somber as she passed by other people’s homes. On her right, one customized with birch wood cabinets and a full moss garden. Her left, an herb garden and a turquoise koi pond. She would live in the countryside, she mused, one day when she had enough saved up. And she would plant real flowers in her garden and tend to them carefully, unlike the gardener her company had hired.
Her slug bug traced the countryside where wooly sheep and bison walked with ease. The soft corn stalks of Ezekiel’s farm were just beginning to feather out of the earth. She drove past the winding suburbs and quaint parks, and as she progressed inward to the city, the streets clumped together and the buildings pressed upward instead of bloating outward. At last, she rolled into a stacked, low-income housing apartment complex where all the living spaces were crammed together but no one knew their neighbors.
Stagnant air crawled into the hallway as she opened her front door. Half of her kitchen lights were burnt out. She never remembered to change them until she flicked the switch and she certainly wasn’t going to change them now. After kicking off her heels, she walked barefoot across the peeling linoleum tile. Her ankles were red and raw. Regardless of how often she wore heels, she could never kick the notion she was just a girl wearing her mother’s shoes. She opened her fridge: empty except for the boxed wine and a squeeze bottle of mustard. She avoided the cluttered dining room table where a stack of red-stamped bills were burning a hole through its tarnished finish. The garbage was overflowing with takeout boxes, too, but she pretended not to notice.
Instead, Holly shot a worried glance at her window sill as she poured a glass of boxed wine. Her plants were still alive. Full glass in one hand, she smiled as she pinched the blades of a spider plant. On more than one occasion, she’d left her perky greenery only to come home to dropping sticks. The heat, unfortunately, and it would only worsen through the summer. But today had gone well. She swirled the cheap wine in her glass fully well knowing the motion wouldn’t enrich the flavor. An involuntary action, she supposed. Her hand visited each green vision: fluttering jade, twisting devil’s ivy, the wide palms of a Swiss cheese plant. At last, she reached the Nonstop Orange begonia in the corner and her hand stopped. The tight bud she’d seen this morning had opened. It’s bloom was so far advanced, in fact, that the flower was loose and droopy. A single petal rested on her windowsill.
Holly retreated to her armchair and thumbed through one of her dozen decor magazines. The clients would probably buy the house. She could tell by the way they smiled at each other. As her thumb released the glossy pages, as she watched each fall like the sun behind the hills, her eyes welled up. It was a good match, the house and the clients. A few cloudy tears hit the magazine. She traced the bottom of her eyes with her fingertips and glanced at the black droplets gathering under her nails. A good match indeed. The rest of the neighborhood would love them.
The crying fizzled out as soon as it arrived, but it had done it’s work. Holly’s lipstick bloomed outside of its designated lines, her flaking mascara snowed onto her apple-slice cheekbones, and her eyeshadow drew dark lines through all of it. She was happy to watch her clients put down roots. Happy to know someone could. Holly sucked in a breath a stagnant air and exhaled in a shutter.
Her potted plants were alive, at least, and her begonia was beautiful.
As Holly drifted to sleep on her second-hand armchair, she watched the nectarine shimmer of the begonia flicker through her eyelashes. The flower’s moment had passed, it was beyond its peak, yet it was far more beautiful than the plastic clips she had once worn under the spotlight. Perhaps, she thought as her gaze landed on the single, detached petal, it was beautiful because it had changed. A faint smile teased her smeared lips before she finally succumbed and she fell asleep with an open decor magazine on her lap.