Featured Story for the week of 09/30/2015


by Courtney Gustafson

Annalise was having dreams about picking flowers late at night, from the private gardens of residents who were likely too asleep to notice. She imagined them waking up the next morning, taking a headcount of their tiger lilies — those were most popular this time of year — and noticing that exactly eleven were missing.

The dreams had started around the same time that Annalise had started dating an absurdly tall man named Charlie. She used to see Charlie around town, jogging without his shirt on, doing some sort of paperwork — grading papers, maybe — in coffee shops, and back then, when he was still nameless — before he introduced himself at one of those very coffee shops — his height was such a prominent aspect of his physical person that it was difficult to mentally refer to him as anything but the very tall man. The first time they went to dinner, Annalise had to make a very conscious effort to remember his name, to reconcile the soft, round sounds of Charlie with the starkness of his height.

Once, in his apartment, Annalise had studied the magnets and newspaper clippings and photos taped to his fridge while he made guacamole. He called it guac and he always said it with something of an apology in his voice. Sometimes, lying next to each other in bed, still naked and covered in a sheen of sweat, he would turn to her and apologize: “I think I’m going to make some guac.”

Charlie kept a collection of old ID badges taped to the fridge: his student ID from college, various employee badges from various jobs, expired licenses. They were lined up neatly and in chronological order, so that the effect was that of a timeline of Charlie faces, documenting an array of facial expressions and haircuts and a very, very slight receding hairline. Maybe it was just the way he was smiling.

Annalise found this line up of almost-but-not-quite-identical faces to be a little disconcerting. She thought at first that it was just that: the almost-sameness of the pictures. Or maybe the opposite: the way one person can look so many different ways. It took her several weeks of looking at the photos (Whatcha lookin’ at? Charlie would ask as he squeezed limes into a bowl of guac) to figure out what it was about his face that bothered her. And that was it: it was his face. It was his face, so entirely detached from the absurd height of his body. His face was not meant to exist like this, decapitated and framed in a rectangle on a plastic card. It was essential to her recognition of him as Charlie, as the very tall man, that he have a body, that he not exist as an isolated face. She barely recognized him in those pictures. If, she thought, he was discovered to be a serial killer, if his face was shown on the five o’clock news, on wanted posters, would anyone even realize it was him? Did anyone even look at his face, way up there?


To see Charlie, Annalise parked in the lot of a nearby CVS and walked one street over to his building. The sidewalks along this street were lined with wildflowers. The flowers were tall and bright and sunny and Annalise pictured them in glass jars around her apartment, catching the morning sun. Her apartment, she had been realizing recently, was overwhelmingly beige. She had tried to decorate in a soothing palette of neutrals but it had turned out to mostly just look bland, like an enormous and vaguely textured egg. And so it was hard not to imagine these flowers, even just the green of their stems, along the windowsills.

She was leaving Charlie’s apartment — he had made her a gin and tonic but she hadn’t liked it, had left it sweating on his side table — when she decided to do it, to pick the flowers. It was late. She never spent the night at Charlie’s. All her dreams, all the sneaking into gated gardens and the careful pruning and the arranging of someone else’s flowers in the dark, happened in her own bed, alone.

She tried to do it casually. Instead of picking each plant individually, Annalise plunged her hand blindly into the green and made a fist, and when her hand came back up it was clutching a mess of ferny leaves and broken yellow petals. She was embarrassed and felt suddenly like she was under some sort of surveillance. She glanced backward at the buildings behind her and she thought of Charlie — his face! — and she dropped the crushed flowers and she hurried on, back to her car. She felt like crying. When she got home, her apartment was an egg.


Charlie’s face was square and bony and always moving. Expressive, he called it. He had a habit of pausing before answering a question, catching himself before speaking too soon, and in those moments when he was unspeaking the muscles in his forehead moved and his face flashed through a series of expressions. Often, Annalise realized she was tracking the movements of his face instead of listening to what he was saying. Maybe this was the strangeness of his photos: the stillness of a face that was never still.

Annalise had fallen into a habit of missing things before they were gone, of viewing everything as it would someday exist in her memory. When she picked flowers, she thought about how long it would take for them to become wilted and waxy and brown, about how long they would sit like that, the water in their jar turned filmy and greenish, before she got around to throwing them out. For a while, she couldn’t meet a man without imagining how his face would look on the eventual night when she left him. Now she just imagined what he would look like dead.

Charlie walked Annalise to her car in the CVS parking lot exactly once. He was walking that way anyway, he told her, to meet up with friends. Walking next to each other, Annalise was hyperaware of his height, his hugeness next to her. As they moved along the sidewalk, he snapped off a single daisy without stopping and offered it to her. It took effort to see past his torso, to look up at his unmoving face.


Courtney Gustafson writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts. Her work can be found in Rust + Moth, After the Pause, Maudlin House, Dirty Chai, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter at @cgust.