Sunday Stories: “Isabel”


by Dylan A. Smith

Newly alone I found work in a small café that also sold flowers. Or, as I preferred then, a small flower shop that also sold coffee. Framed this way I felt more like a florist, like my father, which I liked. It was important to me the café was small because this meant I worked alone.

All winter I’d had nothing to do. He’d left in late autumn, after the colors of the season had yellowed and faded. Alone I’d wake late and disoriented to the hollow sound of the city and have food delivered to the apartment, eating just enough before lying down for the rest of the day to think. Weeks drifted like this, the light unchanging in the room.

Soon I had let the plants under the window curl into themselves, their leaves fainting to the sill, and as night fell faster I would watch myself appear in the glass above them. Clumps of hair grouped in piles on the cold hardwood floor and greens decomposed in the refrigerator. 

Somewhere I feared critical things were going ignored, but I never found where or what they were until it was too late. 

I remember wishing for a body wound to match what was happening inside me, something tangible I could show people and tend to like a garden. At the very least I felt I deserved some binding paperwork, something legal to frame and hang from one of my bare walls. Although we never married, we were together for several important years. 

Winter deepened like a cave. The days became formless and dark, my skin cold and oily. Feeling the need to speak I spent time on the phone with my father, who after a period of sympathy began quietly insisting I buy groceries. This is what he had done when we lost mother, he told me. Soon I stopped talking to even my father. 

But time passed and with the end of February I bought groceries. The outside was threatening rain and I felt the discomfort of humidity, the way it squeezed and held a blue raincoat to my body. People walked under trees with their dogs and children, and at the store I bought fistfuls of brussel sprouts and mushrooms, deciding to become a vegetarian for simplicity. I planned to rid my life of any unnecessary object. 

On the way home the clouds hung low and grey, but light was breaking through in bright splinters. I remember having an idea about painting, that I would try to do it again. That was when I passed the café and read the help needed sign. The space seemed nicely lit and empty, so I went inside. 

The flowers leaned out of one grey wall and against the other was a group of tables and chairs. There was a man behind the counter who smiled when I walked in but neither of us said hello, which I took as a sign of recognition. I spent some time in front of the flower wall, considering arrangements. 

Most the flowers were familiar to me, and with time I felt I had chosen the most coherent grouping. A perfect island of color climbed out of my hand in a blurry way that reminded me of a painting, and I was proud taking the creation to the man behind the counter. I handed it to him like a resume, showing him my smile. 

“Yes,” he said. “You like the flowers.” 

He was a middle aged, fatherly-looking man with black eyes and thickly rimmed glasses. He seemed like part of the café’s design, his glasses matching the tables and chairs, his skin the wood. 

“I do,” I said. 

While he wrapped the arrangement I told him about the flower shop back home, about the summers helping my father there. I was surprised at my eagerness to speak, going on about the flowers of my childhood and their affect on my early paintings. I was reminded through speaking that I held opinions.

“My family, they love flower paintings,” said the man behind the counter. “You should show me. You could hang them here.”

“I would like that,” I said. 

“Do you like it here?” he asked

“Yes,” I said. “I like it here.” 

“Well I need help,” he said, holding the flowers away from me as if for ransom. “This is my shop. I’ve been open two years with no help. I can’t do this. And you already know about flowers. Do you know coffee?”

“No,” I said. 

“It is difficult to find good people. I will pay you cash, cash and tips. Please, coffee is very simple. I will show you, it is a quiet place.”

“Okay,” I said. 

We arranged a meeting for the following day and it didn’t rain until I got home that night. I opened my window to the sound of the water and placed the flowers in a small glass cup. While boiling the vegetables I called my father, who wouldn’t believe I had bought groceries and become a florist in the same afternoon. 

After eating I rearranged things, turning the apartment into a studio. With my old brushes and paints on a wooden table I made a canvas out of cardboard and set it in front of the window. Then I took all unnecessary things out to the wet street, where the reflection of a mauve sky was swirling with golden leaves and cardboard in the gutter, and I felt better. 

By spring my weeks had taken shape in routine. The owner taught me to fill small paper cups with different ratios of espresso and steamed milk. He gave me keys to the building, taught me what to do with money. Once I felt comfortable doing these things I rarely saw him. 

Alone in the mornings I developed a taste for coffee while watching people pass through the blooming park across the street. Soon the faces of the late morning regulars became familiar. It was busiest before noon and I served the crude, tired side of people. Most of them were vulnerable and embarrassed, readying themselves for jobs they didn’t like. In this way our interactions felt intimate, like waking with a group of strangers.

But in the afternoon it became quiet again and I would be alone. Time would open as I tended to the flowers, wrapping the wilting ones in paper for my paintings. By then, with caffeine, I was often harboring some important new idea about painting, eager to walk toward the canvas and lilac tones of evening.

On some nights and Sundays I would walk through the park, sitting on a bench near the garden where the dogs were. Flowers the color of sea foam climbed the iron-gated border and I enjoyed sketching scenes there, studying how the dogs’ bodies moved. 

This is where I first saw Isabel.

Wesley was a thick man with bad posture and a face that fell with the weight of some ancient, tragic thing. The first time I saw him he entered the park with Isabel and sat down beside me, pulling a water damaged book from his heavy coat. He sat reading in the warm sun, Isabel playing with the other dogs or circling itself independently near the flowers, sitting in the sand. 

That first day it sat for a long time and I made several sketches of its body and face. It was a dalmation with different colored eyes – one grey and the other blue, like winter. When it wanted to go home it approached the bench, nudging Wesley’s knee with its nose and making a strange little sound. It showed its teeth like a human when he pet it, and before walking away they both looked to me and smiled. 

Then I saw them regularly on Sundays, sometimes closely and sometimes from afar. Wesley was always reading from the same book, a baseball cap pulled over his eyes. I studied him, the way his shoulders sunk under his heavy jacket, the way he underlined important things. From watching him I had the impression that he was an actor, and a serious one. 

He seemed like the kind of person who understood the unbearable things that come with life, the kind of person who could become another kind of person. 

One Sunday Isabel nudged me while I was sketching Wesley, as if it knew I had been studying them. I itched its ear and checked its dog tag, acquiring information. I learned the dog’s name and that it and Wesley lived above the café. It sat at my feet and we watched Wesley read together. 

We watched him for too long, and when the dog never stood to nudge his knee Wesley looked up. Seeing us together he waved and walked toward us. 

“She likes you,” he said, sitting on the bench.  

“I think so,” I said. “I’ve been petting it sometimes.”

“Which one is yours?” he asked. Some people stood in circles talking, some threw balls at the dirt for the dogs. It had never occurred to me that you might need a dog of your own to sit there. I could feel the heat radiating off his coat. 

“I don’t have one,” I said. “I just like to draw them.” 

“I see,” he said. “That’s how I feel about kids. You can love Indian food without opening an Indian restaurant, like that.” 

“I guess so,” I said. “It’s more like, it just never occurred to me to get one.”

“That makes sense,” he said.

Before he left we introduced ourselves and shook hands. His were delicate, as if he’d never had to build or break any real thing. 

“It was nice to meet you here,” he said. 

We started sitting together on purpose. Sometimes we would talk and sometimes he would go straight to reading. There were days when he seemed too heavy to speak to me, like gravity was doing extra work on him. He was unpredictable and shifting in this way, but he always wore his heavy coat and baseball hat. 

They seemed to insulate and protect him from the outside. 

A closeness grew out of these meetings and there were times, on his quiet days, when I felt like I’d known him from before. I started bringing him coffee and throwing a ball at the dirt for Isabel as if I’d always done those things. We exchanged phone numbers, and on nights when he couldn’t sit in the park I would do it for him. 

Isabel began to recognize me, nudging my knee when it wanted to leave.

Then he asked if I wanted to get a drink. It had been a cavity of a Sunday, deep and silent. The sudden shift in tone startled me and I looked at the things around me. 

“What time is it?” I asked him. 

“I don’t know,” he said. 

We walked a few blocks and sat outside a bar. After two drinks we were able to talk about things other than the dog. He was writing a play for a local theater, an adaptation of a classic, the one he carried in his coat. The writing was difficult, he said, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to finish. He worried about writing the same play the rest of his life, a play someone had already written. 

There was something disarming about the way he drank, the way it loosened him. He had his coat off, his baseball hat on the table next to his book and beer. The hair on his head, like his beard, was the color of rust. I told him about the café, about the flowers, about my paintings.

“My grandfather is a painter,” he told me. “He lives alone in Mexico.”

“Do you visit him?” I asked. 

“I would,” he said, “I mean, I’ve thought about it, going there to write and spend time with him. His age. But I would have to find someone to watch this thing.” He gave Isabel a nudge with his foot. It looked up, puzzled and dazed in the sun. 

“I would,” I said. “I could, I mean. I would watch it.” 

“You would?” He considered it, pausing as if something significant had been overlooked. “That makes sense. Isabel does really like you, I think.” 

“It would be nothing,” I said. “You live right above the café. And anyway, I’m always sitting in the dog park. It would be nothing.”

“You’re right,” he said. “I do live above the café.”

That night we got drunk and slept together, and in the morning I woke above the café with a hangover and some regret about the things I’d committed myself to. 

In his room there was a writing desk pushed against an open window that looked over the dog park. There were birds screaming from inside trees and the room was thick with heat. Wesley’s books were stacked all around, most warped by rain. He was already gone but had left an unsigned note leaning against a lamp on the nightstand. 

There was a sentence about helping myself to anything in the refrigerator and another about how to find dog food. 

“Not even the rain has such small hands,” he wrote at the end.

Isabel was sitting at the foot of the bed making its strange little sounds and showing me its teeth. I drank water, avoiding the dog’s winter eyes, and went downstairs to open the café.  

Then it rained for too long, a darkness settling over the city. On the first day it didn’t fall so much as swirl – a circular, weightless mist, and I passed through it, toward the café, thinking about my paintings and the things Wesley had said. 

Inside there was no internet and the flowers fell heavy with water. I tried fixing the connection by pulling wires in and out of the router, and when nothing changed I called the internet company. They didn’t answer. I sensed that some damaged thing was affecting the building’s connection, that the neighborhood had become detached from the rest of the city by the storm.  

The owner came by in late afternoon, the first person I’d seen all day. He looked like someone close to him had died. His sad eyes were bloodshot, a new beard grown grey. He seemed afraid to touch anything, his hands in his pockets as he looked in and around the sink.

“Why is there no music,” he said in a broken voice. We had been standing in silence a long time and the rain had sharpened. “What has happened? This place is horrible.”

“The internet isn’t working,” I said. “I tried to fix it, but I think it’s something we can’t fix.” 

“It’s the storm,” he said. “Everything goes bad here in rain season. It’s so dirty. I remember from last year. It won’t go away. I saw on the news, they said the city would stop because the trains would flood. The rain makes me feel so small. An animal or tiny boy.” 

“I think I kind of like it,” I said.

“Me and my family, we’re escaping, to my mother-in-law in California. You can close early, whenever you want, just leave. There won’t be customers, no more flowers until after it passes. If there is a problem with flooding you must call the fire department. I will have my phone in California for you to contact me.” 

When he left there was no sound but the single note of rain on the window. 

At home I called my father, who quietly insisted I buy groceries and prepare myself for the storm, that it was important to be ready for these kinds of things. 

By the dripping window I painted an acrylic still life of wilting flowers, a thick bouquet of chrysanthemums that were newly swelled with the water in the air. When I finished I went to the deli to buy canned beans and as much rice as I could fit in my bag, feeling free of perishable things.

In the mornings I would pass through dark rooms slowly, dawn delayed by the storm. I’d come to feel my first waking moments were most important, that if I slowed my breath and movement I could pass through time unaffected. I wanted to will the day’s cadence, to dictate the intensity of the storm through intention. I focused on slowing my thoughts and I blinked, slowly, in the dark. 

But the rain didn’t notice, intensifying over the trees like liquid coming to a boil. To reach the café I had to walk through the sinking marsh of the park where wind and water blew horizontally, plastic bags and the new leaves of summer pressing against my body. Flowers were pulled against their will from soil and human things like metal and glass went bending in the wind. 

The dog park had flooded with grey water from the street and around it leafless trees swayed at the root. 

Inside the café the air was never cool or warm but the exact temperature of my body. I looked for ways to occupy myself, wiping things with a wet rag and tending to the last of the flowers while branches fell from trees in the park. After time, though, there was simply nothing to do. The barriers of familiar things became confused, the walls soft to the touch. I was in a kind of fever, chilled and sweating behind the bloated counter, my hair and clothes always wet. 

Without tasks time fractured, minutes changing at odd and inconsistent intervals. I started closing without checking the time, without thinking to. The rhythm of the rain was unchangeable against the blank blurriness of the fogged window, the trees rendered abstract and featureless like smears of wet paint, and I began to lose track of days. Gently there were no Sundays, no Mondays, only the feeling of water falling against granite and other water. 

I started to stay home, drugged by the consistency and thickness of the weather. Regular sleep was swept away and I took short, evenly spaced rests through time, the space between dream and reality constricting. 

I lit my room with candles after losing electricity and shadows flowed through the room in ripples. I remember subway tracks and animal bodies floating under dead street lights, rain trickling through light fixtures, black water rising at my bare ankles. 

I remember sitting for long, broken hours painting by the candlelight. I painted well then, my focus tightening with the lack of distraction, with the simple sickness and hunger. 

By then I had traded slowness for precision, wasting no movement of the wet brush. Paint was my antidote to water and I opened myself to it in buckets, closing off all else. I felt untethered from time, from consequence, and in that wet room I became an artist. 

As the light changed in the room and the days took shape again I feared, for a moment, that some critical thing had gone ignored, that I was going to find it and be too late. But when I searched the small, wet world of my apartment I found no trace of anything but my work. Other than my paintings, I couldn’t think of a single thing that needed tending to.


Dylan A. Smith is based in Brooklyn and is currently writing Letters to Red

Photo source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

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