Sunflowers, Alcohol and Betrayal.

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This story first appeared in Rosebud Magazine, 2006. It will soon be part of a collection of short stories called “Would You Mind Not Talking to Me?”

Carole’s back in town now, sitting on my rug. She still calls it her rug even though I bought it from her a month ago. Everything she owned was sold or given away. The rug was the last of it. Her friend Helen dropped it off at my place the day she took Carole to the drying-out facility, up in Saint-Sauveur. As Helen was leaving, she said to me, “Tell Jerry he put her in a drunk house.”

Jerry was Carole’s boyfriend until he took off. That left Helen to clean up the mess. Carole had stopped eating, stopped caring, stopped doing much of anything. All she did was stare at those crazy sunflowers she’d painted on the walls.

“They’re everywhere,” Helen said when she brought the rug over. She was wearing overalls and work boots, no make-up. We rolled the rug out in the living room. It was a nice Persian, except for the paint spots around the sides.

“Thank Jerry for that,” she said as she was leaving. She wanted to get Carole up to the facility before noon. “She’ll be there about four weeks,” Helen said.

That’s all I heard until Helen called to say she was picking Carole up again. It didn’t seem like four weeks. I guess I’d been trying to put it out of my mind.

“She’s staying with me,” Helen said on the phone. “I’ll keep you posted.”

Helen’s been hanging around, watching her. There’s not much to do other than that. Carole has to sort things out for herself. Part of sorting things out is realizing where things started. The facility could only give her a starting point. The rest was up to her. As Helen said, “She sinks or swims at this point.”

The following Saturday, she called, asking if I could look after Carole for the day. She had a flea market down in Sherbrooke. Helen bought and sold vintage clothing. The flea markets were her bread and butter.

“I’d take her with me,” she said, “but she can’t stand crowds.”

Next morning, first thing, Helen and Carole showed up.

“Here’s our girl,” Helen said, putting a bag of mineral water in the fridge. Carole sat on the rug. She ran her long fingers through the nap. Her hair was cut short. It made her look at bit like a pixie. Her neck was long and elegant, but she had circles under her eyes.

“I forgot how beautiful this is,” she said about the rug.

“I’m off,” Helen said and I walked her out. “Watch her,” she said.

Carole was staring at the ceiling when I came back.

“Do you want some tea?” I asked.

She rolled on her side and nodded.

I put on the kettle, glancing out occasionally. She looked peaceful enough. I remembered the day Carole and Jerry bought that rug. They’d just moved into an apartment out in Notre Dam-de-Grace, the west end of Montreal.

Helen didn’t think much of their chances. She’d known Carole for years. They’d worked at a travel agency together before Helen got into selling vintage clothes. “He’ll chew her up,” Helen had said.

Jerry and I worked at the same advertising agency. Some mornings, he’d come in looking like hell. Helen said Carole was starting to look like hell, too. They started calling in sick. Jerry lost his job, then so did Carole.

Sometimes they’d come to the bar together, other times it would just be Carole. She’d sit there waiting for Jerry, but he wouldn’t show up. She’d wait and wait.

One night, Jerry didn’t come home at all.

“I told you he’d chew her up,” Helen said to me.

She’d been around to Carole’s place, but Carole wasn’t answering.

“I’m pretty sure she’s there,” Helen said.

When Carole finally let her in, the place was mess. Helen saw the sunflowers for the first time. They covered the walls. She called the facility and they said they’d take Carole. Then Helen decided to sell everything. She called me.

“I’ve already taken two loads to the Goodwill. You interested in a rug? There’s some paint on it, but it’s still in good shape.”

I said I’d buy it. I didn’t need it, but I took it, anyway.

Carole’s sitting by the window now. She’s listening to the drummers at the Mount Royale monument across the street. Every Sunday they come with their congas, bongos and timpani. Someone starts a beat and everyone follows.

“Do you want to go over?” I ask, but she says maybe later. When she talks, her hands have this small tremor. I ask if they’ll go away.

“I don’t know,” she says and goes to the washroom.

I listen in the hall. I don’t know what I’m expecting. Carole comes out with her hair wet and sits on the rug again. She lights a cigarette and looks off. She tells me about the deer in the orchard at the facility. Deer were always coming out of the woods to eat green apples. She sent me a postcard once, saying, “I saw deer today.”

Helen got the same thing.

Carole lights another cigarette, putting the ash tray on her knee. She says she remembers evenings at the facility with people sitting around talking. Some would get up and leave without saying anything. They’d just walk off.

One of the women was back for a third time. Her name was Louise. She would say things like, “Third time’s a charm,” or, “One more day of sobriety.”

Louise told Carole it got easier with time. Drinking was a process. Most of the people at the facility had been at it for years. “You’re a babe in the woods,” she told Carole. “You’ll be up and all spry before you know it.”

They talked about a lot of things. Louise had a husband, two kids. They were waiting for her to get better. When she finished at the facility, they’d pick her up and stop for cheeseburgers. She asked Carole about her life. Carole told her what happened with Jerry, him staying out, then her staying out as well. Louise said Carole had good reason. A pretty girl her age. What did Jerry expect?

Louise kept urging Carole on, telling her to talk away. So Carole told her about Jerry going out the door for good. She painted FORGIVENESS? on the wall.

The drunks nodded their heads. Who hadn’t done crazy things? One woman said she caught her husband with another woman. She burned the house down.

Louise told her to let Carole talk. So Carole described those first nights after Jerry left. She kept drinking, going out, coming back. The paint was there. She painted over the FORGIVENESS? and started the sunflowers. She added faces later.

Louise told Carole it could happen to anyone.

“So you painted some faces,” she told Carole. “No biggy.”

Carole and Louise became close friends. They’d sit in Louise’s room talking, smoking away. Louise was looking forward to going home. When Carole asked her how the drinking started, Louise just shrugged.

She didn’t even know. She had a good life, a loving husband.

“I guess I’m cursed,” she said.

They talked about getting together when they were better. Everyone at the facility did that. Nobody expected anything to come of it. Still, Louise made a point of giving Carole her phone number. She told Carole there were lots of deer out by her place. “They come right up to the back door,” she said.

The day Louise left the facility, she and Carole hugged on the porch. Louise’s husband was standing by the car. They were introduced and then Louise got in the passenger seat. She waved goodbye and they drove off.

Carole went back to her room and tried to sleep. The first week, they had her on sedatives. After that, she was on her own. They told her she had to get her time clock back. She’d been living on drunk time, getting up, going to bed between drinks.

She said she sat by the window, looking out at the orchards, waiting for the deer. “I thought everything would be all right if I saw them,” she tells me now.

Carole lights another cigarette. She smokes with short puffs.

“Let’s go across to the park,” she says. “I’m tired of talking.”

“I’ll get a blanket,” I say.

Out past the monument, we put the blanket on the grass. Carole sits and stares at the trees. She says it was like this at the facility, the lawn running right up to the forest. “That’s where I saw the deer,” she says. She goes quiet, listening to the drums, her arms around her knees. I don’t know what she expects me to say. I light a cigarette and look off. Then she gets up and walks away. I see her go past a couple lying there. She disappears up one of the paths of Mount Royale.

I grab the blanket and follow.

“Go get her, tiger,” the guy says to me.

I’m into the trees, going up the side of the mountain. I hear people above me. I find Carole over by the fountain at the top. She dips her hands in the water and splashes her face. I come up and try to take her arm. She pushes me away

“I wish you remembered,” she says. “I wish it wasn’t just me.”

She hails a cab in the parking lot. She doesn’t look back.

It rained last night. Water is dripping down from the eaves. I called Carole earlier and got Helen. Dishes clattered in the background. The stereo was going.

“How is she?” I asked.

“She said she left you in the park.”

“She wanted to go home.”

“I told you to watch her,” she said and hung up

I’m staring at the rug now. I cross my legs and look out the window. I can see the trees all the way up Mount Royale. I’m thinking about those deer. I asked Carole what they had to do with anything. She said they made her think of her mother — about her dying — and a song by Peter Gabriel that goes, Come he sayeth, Grab your things I’ve come to take you home.

“I wanted the deer to take me home,” she said.

The song she was talking about is called Solsbury Hill. It’s a song about hope — but it’s an omen, too. Back at that facility, people were told they needed hope. They needed a substitute for the despair in their lives. I guess those deer helped Carole somehow, although I still don’t get the connection.

I listened to Solsbury Hill a few times last night. I listened to the words, Had to listen, had no choice…It got me thinking about Carole’s mother. One night at the bar, waiting for Jerry, Carole told me about her. She’d been depressed for months. One morning, after everyone had left the house, she hung herself.

The family split up after that, Carole’s sisters going one way, the father the other. Carole stayed with him as long as she could. She even slept in his bed. But they drifted apart, too.

I told her she shouldn’t beat herself up. I even put my hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t,” she said. “I’ll start bawling.”

But she didn’t move my hand away. She put her hand on my hand.

I thought about that this morning, watching the water dripping down. I wanted to call Carole again. I wanted to tell her I remembered, too. When someone trusts you, when they put their hand on yours, you forget who belongs to who.

That’s what I wanted to say, anyway.

It’s probably best that I leave it for now. Helen’s got a handle on things. I’ll give it a few days. When she was here last, staring out the window, I asked if she was going to call that Louise. I don’t know if she heard me or not. She didn’t answer.

She was listening to the drummers in the park.

Robert Cormack is a novelist, blogger and freelance copywriter. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.

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I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.

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