Rogues and Roses
excerpt

Chapter 1

Dawson Mills, Missouri; Summer 1973

“I want to do something more exciting in this bedroom,” Mrs. Greenwald whispered.  She glided across the room, leaving a heady scent of jasmine in her wake, and sat down on the bed.  Kicking off her pumps, she patted the space next to her, and beckoned for the man standing in the doorway to join her.

“Come, sit here, Lehman, and show me what you’ve got.”  Lehman swallowed hard and did as he was told.  He figured her to be at least twenty years his senior, but still attractive in a vintage sort of way—and damn persistent.  

Lehman Post, paint salesman and self-proclaimed decorator, had spent more time in the bedrooms of Dawson Mills than some husbands.  He had learned to manage any awkward sexual advances with a line of smooth talk.  Though in Mrs. Greenwald’s case, it was a lot more challenging.  She was one of his best clients.  Forever redecorating and repainting.  Like so many middle-aged women of the 1970s, she was bored of beige and taupe.  Hell, she was bored with Mr. Greenwald, the town banker, who was the embodiment of beige and taupe.  She was ready to enliven the palette of her life anyway she could.

Juggling a mound of catalogs and fabric samples, Lehman plopped down on the bed alongside his well-heeled client.  He placed part of the stack between them and the rest on his lap.  The barrier provided a safety zone and he needed that today.  He opened a bulky carpet book and let one side of it fall onto her lap as he turned to the page he had marked.

“I have some wonderful things I want to do in this bedroom.”

“Me, too.” she cooed, as she leaned close to his neck, her sultry perfume wafting around him, sweet and tantalizing.

He slid the cumbersome book her way and she grabbed it with both hands before it could hit the floor.  Good move, he chuckled to himself.  He had her hands occupied.  Now if he could just get her mind occupied with decorating.  Before Mrs. Greenwald could make more inapt remarks, Lehman resumed his sales patter.

“We can liven up this bedroom with an avocado shag carpet.  He ran his palm over a sample to show the density of the weave.  “And continue the same look in the master bathroom with a shag toilet lid cover and throw rug.”

“Oh, how smooth and wonderful it feels,” she groaned, stroking the long, plush fibers of the carpet sample.  “I want it,” she said, placing her hand atop his.

Lehman gasped.  Today her flirtatious antics were more bothersome than usual.  She had always been a bit forward, as his grandmother might have described such women, but now she was pushing the limit.  

Seeking to put more space between them, Lehman got up, crossed the room, and picked up his briefcase.  “I have some exciting photos that might help you imagine what we can do in this room.”

Mrs. Greenwald perked up.  “Oh, really?”  She crossed her legs and leaned back on both elbows. “Tell me more.”

Oh, no, there she goes again.  This woman can twist my words like a braided pretzel.  Lehman took a folder from his briefcase and began spreading pictures along the dresser top, a move that required Mrs. Greenwald to get up from the bed to view the display.

“Take a look at this.  We can capture the new Bohemian look by adding a bright, chenille bedspread and perhaps a wicker chair in the corner and then freshen up the windows with a fabulous Laura Ashley print.”

“Chenille bedspread?”

“Yes, they’re making a comeback.”

“But don’t they leave marks?”

“Leave marks?  Where?”

“You know, on your face…on your body.  For hours.”

Lehman frowned and scratched his head.  “Well…I’ve…I’ve never had that problem.  But I guess it’s possible if you sleep on it too long.”

Mrs. Greenwald snickered and gave Lehman an impish nudge.  “I’m just kidding,” she said wrinkling her nose.  “Really, I love what you’ve come up with.  I saw something like it in House Beautiful last month.”

Lehman had seen the same magazine.  His stamp of approval gave her the confidence she needed to make the radical color and design transition.

“Okay, let’s do it,” she said, showing all the delight of a kid on her way to Disney World.

Lehman took the acclamation as an approval of his design.  “Great.  I’ll get started on it right away,” he said and began making notes.

Mrs. Greenwald lifted her heavily-penciled brow and placed a finger alongside her cheek. “Hmm…now what shall we do in my kitchen that’s fun?”

Lehman looked away and rolled his eyes.  Good, lord, does she ever give up?

“Let’s go take a look at the kitchen,” he said and began bundling up his catalogs and swatches.  The two walked down the hall and into the sunken living room that was ankle deep in shag carpet.  Walking across the room was like slogging through swamp grass.  Mrs. Greenwald tiptoed gingerly through the dense pile while Lehman trailed along behind her.  She paused and looked about the room.

“I want to put an oversized recliner in here.  I like having an occasional piece in the living room, don’t you Lehman?”  He wasn’t about to touch that one with a ten-foot pole.  Instead, he kept scribbling on his notepad as he trudged across the room.

Once in the kitchen, he stood for several moments, mouth tightened in a thin line, arms folded, eyeing the room from all directions.  He took a small device from his shirt pocket and started punching numbers.

“What’s that thing?” she asked.

Lehman beamed with pride.  “It’s the new pocket calculator from Texas Instrument.”

“What does it do?”

“Well, just about anything you’d want.”

“Well, I doubt that,” she responded with a sly grin.

Lehman ignored the comment.  “It adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides.  It’s like having an adding machine in my pocket.  They’re becoming very popular.”

“How much do they cost?”

“This one was about a hundred bucks.”

“My, my, that’s pretty steep.  There won’t be many around at those prices.”

Lehman returned the calculator to his pocket and began laying out his plan for decorating her kitchen.

“I want to give this space a cottage look.  It needs bright, sunny color.  Kitchens should be cheerful, because that’s where the housewife spends most of her time today.”

“Yes, I spend far too much time here.  It’s not my favorite room.”

Lehman cleared his throat and lowered his glasses on his nose like he often did when he was about to say something profound.  For a moment he looked almost professorial, at least, that was the look he wanted to convey.

“A room is a living organism.  It lives, it breathes, changing with its surroundings.”  He wasn’t sure what that meant, but he had read it in an architectural magazine once—or was it a biology journal?

Mrs. Greenwald tilted her head like dogs often do when they’re unsure of what they’ve heard, causing Lehman to explain his decorator jargon.

“Have you ever walked into a room and felt better immediately?” he asked.

“Yes, I have,” she nodded.

“That’s because each room has an invisible energy field.  We want to create the best energy possible for the specific activities intended for each space in your home.”

Her eyes widened.

“We can activate those energy fields by the proper placement of furniture and lighting and the addition of appropriate plants and artwork.”

She was nearly foaming at the mouth with excitement

“Does this make sense?” he asked.

“Oh, perfectly.”

“I want to create a dynamic flow of energy throughout the house,” he said, swooshing his arms in the air, “that brings a sense of harmony to each room.”

Mrs. Greenwald swooned.

Lehman strode over to the kitchen counter.  “We can start by coloring up this area with Harvest Gold appliances and putting a Mylar covering on these walls.  Then pull it all together with something earthy, like terracotta tiles on the floor.”

“Magnifico!  But what about my new fondue pot?  It’s avocado.  Will that work in this decor?”

“No problem.  It will be a great accent.”

“Oh, you’ve got me so excited!”

His first reaction was to say thank you, but he checked the impulse.  Instead he continued with the kitchen makeover.  “And, then, we can enliven that corner space with a hanging plant, perhaps a spider plant….”

“In a macramé holder,” she added, clapping her hand.

“That’s what I was going to say.  My, my, Mrs. Greenwald, you’re becoming quite the decorator.  Next thing you know, I’ll have a competitor in town,” he teased.

For the past few decades, Lehman had been stuck being a paint store owner in Dawson Mills compliments of his father, who died leaving him the paint formulas and the color schemes for nearly every house and business within thirty miles.  Lehman had accepted his fate and earned himself a fine reputation among the local housewives.

Unlike most men, he had an eye for color, style and texture.  He spoke comfortably of taupe, cobalt, chartreuse, periwinkle, fuchsia, cerise, and chestnut.  He could even form a sentence using the word puce—the ugly purplish color that poets had long associated with emotion.   Whether it was color or design, women trusted his judgment, as well as his advice on whatever was troubling them.

You could see Lehman’s touch in nearly every middle-class home in the rural Missouri town.  Rooms could be interchanged on any block and totally coordinate.  He had no problem with repetition; sameness made for harmonious households.  He called his decorating style “Country Renaissance” and women loved it.  

But now it was the seventies and a time to experiment with color and form.  Mrs. Greenwald was more demanding than most of his clients and definitely more distracting.  She wanted pizazz and service and was willing to pay for it.

“How soon can you get all this completed?” she asked.  “My DAR chapter is meeting here next month for our annual tea.  I want everything to be picture-perfect.”

“That won’t be a problem.  I’ll be at the Paint Proprietors’ convention in Chicago all next week, but when I get back, I’ll put you at the top of my list.”

“Wonderful, I love being at the top of your list.  You take such good care of me,” she said, giving him a soft smile and pat on the arm.  “But remember, I don’t want my house to look like all the others in Dawson.  I want it to be exceptional.  Very exceptional.”

When it came to design, Mrs. Greenwald was the Diane von Fürstenberg of Dawson Mills. With money inherited from her uncle, she was financially independent and able to pursue any stylish whim she fancied.  She was a client he couldn’t afford to lose—or offend.

Lehman nodded his head.  “I understand, Mrs. Greenwald.  I assure you there will be no other home in Dawson like yours.”

“Please, call me Betsy.  We don’t have to be so formal with each other, do we?”

Lehman took out his handkerchief and swiped it across his nose and brow, allowing him more time to consider the invitation.  “Certainly not, Bu-Buh-Betsy,” he stuttered.

Despite the likes of Betsy Greenwald, with her flickering eyelids and leggy displays, he always stuck to business.  There had never been a hint of impropriety surrounding Lehman Post.  No hanky-panky, nothing that would raise an eyebrow in the community.  The husbands of Dawson Mills felt as secure with Lehman in their homes as they did the family doctor or minister.  Few men with such access and adoration could have shown his kind of restraint.

Much like an old shoe, Lehman was easy and comfortable.  He was average looking, average height, and average weight.  Even his attire was that of the average man: the ubiquitous knit shirt and flared-bottomed, polyester slacks.  Only his nose was a tad longer than average, which was okay since it allowed ample space on which to perch his glasses, giving him an air of studied thoughtfulness.  Still, he didn’t lack in humor and was quick to make an occasional wisecrack when the time seemed right.

Lehman looked at his watch.  It was nearly five o’clock.   

“I think we’ve done all we can for today.”  He began stuffing loose papers into his brief case.

“Yes…for today,” she replied with a soft smile.

 As he stood up to leave, Mrs. Greenwald cupped his hand in both of hers and gave a firm squeeze. “Thank you for spending so much time with me.  You always make things better.”

Lehman grinned and shuffled his feet as he often did when he was uneasy.  “I do my best.  I hope you feel satisfied when we’re finished.”

Damnation, he’d done it again.  Why was everything he said coming out wrong today?

“Oh, I’m sure I’ll be quite satisfied when you’re finished.  To ensure my satisfaction, perhaps I should go with you to Chicago next week.  We could pick out just the right things.  Just the two of us.”

Lehman gulped.  “I’ll…I’ll think about it,” he said, as sweat began to form around his neck and collar.

Looking like an overloaded Sherpa, he trudged toward the front door and made his way to his car.  From the porch, Betsy Greenwald shouted after him, “When you come back next time bring me a bouquet from your rose garden.”

He nodded without looking back, got into the car, and slumped over the steering wheel.   There’s got to be a better way to earn a living, he said to himself, as he rolled his shoulders to help relieve the tension.  He took a deep breath, turned the key in the ignition and headed home.

Regardless of his schedule, Lehman was always home by 5:15.  He knew exactly how long it took to close up shop and drive the few miles to his “farmette,” as his wife, Violet, referred to their half-acre home site on the outskirts of town.  He could count on Violet being home.  He couldn’t remember a time, when she wasn’t.  Like a good timepiece, his wife of the past fifteen years was true and dependable.  In appearance, she was willowy with sky-blue eyes that radiated trust and sincerity.  She was in her mid-thirties, had a decent size chest, shapely thighs and a touch of sass.  Had she left her looks to nature, she would have been a dishwater blonde, a condition she remedied by occasional trips to the local beauty shop.

Upon her husband’s arrival, Violet was usually in the kitchen cooking a new casserole dish or trying out a dessert she’d found in Ladies Home Journal or Family Circle.  Lehman preferred meat and potatoes, so her efforts were often unappreciated.  They ate dinner in front of the television while watching Walter Cronkite relate the happenings of the day with a smooth, reassuring voice.  Then to bed at ten o’clock and up at six in the morning.  Year around, always the same.

Their weekly activities were equally predictable:  Monday was for household chores, a task that was relieved by the assistance of Felicia, the housecleaner, a single mother with three young kids.  Tuesday was set aside for dinner at his mother-in-law’s house in the next town.  Wednesday was the church carry-in supper, where Violet would take one of her signature dishes.  Thursday was grocery shopping day at the Piggly Wiggly.  Friday was held for whatever was offered at the one local movie theater.  Sex was on Saturday and church on Sunday.

Violet joined in the current activities that occupied the women of Dawson Mills.  For a few seasons, it was cosmetic and kitchenware parties.  Then came the book club fad and various town beautification projects.  One Easter she sold a dozen of her crocheted bunny rabbits for the expansion of the community center.

Still Lehman wasn’t sure his wife was content with the sameness of their lives.  She never complained openly, though there were occasional flashes of regret.  She let it slip during a recent argument that she was bored with him and his paint chips and that her mother was right when she claimed her daughter could have done better than to have settled for a paint salesman.  Violet later apologized, but he never forgot the outburst and the hidden truth it might have unleashed.

Though Lehman Port spent much of his time in bedrooms and kitchens, fingering fabrics and paint chips, he much preferred being outdoors with his rosebushes.  He understood roses.  Keeping them alive and healthy was a chore for most gardeners, but for Lehman it was pure pleasure.  He loved watching the tightly formed buds burst forth from their thorn-covered stems, filling the backyard with a heavenly fragrance and dazzling color.

He had read a lot about the mysterious flower with the silky, skin-like feeling.  Cleopatra supposedly entertained Marc Anthony in a room filled with eighteen inches of rose petals.  If he closed his eyes, he could imagine the intoxicating, floral fruitiness that pervaded the ancient room, as their warm bodies caused the petals to release their scent. He wondered if his new calculator could figure out how many roses it would take to fill a bedroom knee-deep in petals today, but dismissed the idea as an improper use of the new technology.

Lehman had come by his affinity for roses from his father, who had used rose oil to relieve stress and improve his memory.  “Trust roses, not people” he advised his son, “and you’ll never be disappointed.”  Lehman believed him.  The thorny bushes with their downy blossoms had more power than most people realized.  Their presence insured good fortune and their smell had a calming effect.  He wanted nothing but red roses in his yard, but the nursery had mistakenly sent a few pinks and yellows, which messed up his planned symmetry.

“Roses are red, dammit.  Things should be as they should be.”  

Still, he tended the mishmash of color as lovingly as he did his clients and the plants rewarded him with a lush blooming each spring.  He beamed with delight when friends and neighbors stopped by to view his backyard display and ask for his advice.  Lehman liked to think that he brought color to people’s lives or, at least, their homes and gardens.  Such a pastime might have spelled boredom for some, but for Lehman, it was his life.  It was the way things were and always would be.

Violet didn’t let on, but there were times when she envied the attention her husband lavished on roses.  She wasn’t a pet rock, for heaven’s sake, or a piece of useless garnish.  She was his wife.  Violet tried to put a positive spin on his hobby and sometimes joked to friends, “My husband has taken a lover and her name is Rose.”  It wasn’t like he was hanging out in bars with wild women.  He was right there in the backyard.   Still, there were times when she wanted him in their bed, rather than a rose bed.

Violet had read an article written by a sociologist in Redbook magazine, which put her to thinking about her life—or the lack of it.  The writer declared that all humans have four basic desires: the desire for security, recognition, response, and adventure.  “Like volcanic forces, these desires rage within, urging us toward their expression,” declared the writer.

Well, she certainly had security locked down—nice home, dependable income, good husband and friends and a small nest egg in the bank.  They had even installed a lightning rod on the roof.  If anything, she was overdosed on security.

But recognition—not so much.  What was there to recognize about her?  There was the blue ribbon she got at the county fair for her quilt entry a few years ago.  And the certificate of appreciation for heading up the town beautification program.  There were probably other small acknowledgments, but she couldn’t think of any off hand. None of it was the sort of thing you’d put in an obituary.  Lehman was the one who collected all the accolades.  Women blubbered all over him just for moving a few pieces of furniture around their living rooms.   All she could do was smile and bask in what little glory spilled her way.  Betty Freidan was right about it being easier to live through someone else than be complete yourself.  Despite the ridicule of many men—her husband included—Freidan and the other feminist advocates were beginning to make a lot more sense to her.

Violet didn’t rank herself any better when it came to the third desire—response.  According to the writer, a marriage grew stale when either partner felt emotionally unfulfilled.  Weren’t marriages supposed to become better over time like a good wine, not grow moldy like an overlooked pumpernickel left on the shelf too long.  Was that happening to her marriage?  When it came to claiming his attention, she ran a distant third to her husband’s clients and his roses and she wasn’t sure what to do about that.  A relationship was a two-way street, dammit.  Why couldn’t he figure that out?

And adventure.  Humph!  No check mark there.  How much adventure can you have living in a small town like Dawson with a husband whose idea of fun is perusing a Jackson and Perkins rosebush catalog?  The only adventures in her life were the few she lived vicariously through reading.  She needed to break free from the sameness of each day—of each year.  She wasn’t getting any younger.  Life was passing her by while she frittered her time away like an imprisoned hostage hoping for a liberator.  

The final sentence of the article had left her with an emptiness in the pit of her stomach.  “You cannot feel fulfilled, unless all four wishes are satisfied in some significant measure.”  Violet sighed and let her mind drift.  What should she do to get back into the game of life?  She picked up the magazine again, sat down on the sofa, and re-read the conclusion with its five self-help steps.

  1. Leave your comfort zone
  2. Take chances
  3. Be open to new people and places
  4. Attempt something when you don’t know quite what you’re doing
  5. Snatch new experiences from the throes of everyday life

Violet dropped the magazine back onto the coffee table.  Something had to be done.  She was stuck in a groove like an old record repeating itself until the needle was lifted from the rut.  She needed that lift—but how?

Lehman had put aside any thoughts he had about roses or Violet, or even Betsy Greenwald.   His mind was on his upcoming trip to Chicago, where the National Paint Proprietors met each year.  It was a week away, but Lehman was already getting excited, even though he always downplayed the event to Violet.  He “painted” the convention as being nothing but wall-to-wall lectures and boring demonstrations, a week in which he stayed in a cheap motel to cut costs.  The gathering was another bit of necessary nitty-gritty to enable him to stay current with decorating trends around the country, he said.

Violet went with him—once—years ago.  The whole thing was boring and hot and loud.  She stayed home after that.  This year, while Lehman was gone, she planned to catch up on her reading and lay out the pieces for a new quilt.  One thing for sure, she didn’t want to do yard work.

“What about the rosebushes?  Who’s going to take care of them while you’re gone for an entire week?  You know how much I dislike yard work, especially when it’s hot.  It’s not my thing.”

“No problem, sweetheart.  I’ve asked Donnie over at the landscape store, to send out one of his new, Mexican workers.  I think his name is Jorge, like George, except that in Spanish it’s pronounced ‘Hor-hay.’  He’ll be here part of every day to help with the garden and anything else you need doing.  Sound good?”

Violet nodded.  “That should work out perfectly.”

The next day when Lehman arrived at the paint store, the first thing he did was to pick up the phone and dial Chicago.  A proper sounding voice on the other end answered: “The Ritz Plaza on the Park.”

“Good morning,” Lehman answered.  “This is Jack Hyde.  I’d like to reserve the penthouse suite the second week in July.”

“Certainly, Mr. Hyde.  We can arrange that.  And will you have the red roses as usual?”

“Yes, I’ll need a dozen fresh, red roses in my suite when I arrive.”

“Consider it done, sir.  It will be a pleasure to have you with us again this year.”

Lehman hung up the phone and went back to the storage room.  From a locked cabinet he pulled out a large, leather suitcase.  Using his shirt sleeve, he wiped the dust from the old valise and eased it open.  It was already packed with a vintage, three-piece, pin-striped suit, a couple of smartly-tailored shirts, several silk ties, and a pair of black, crocodile wingtips.  Among the items was a velvet case containing a diamond-studded tie pin, matching cufflinks, and a Rolex watch.

From a small vial he took a whiff of his favorite scent, Rose Otto, the best steam distilled, Bulgarian rose oil anywhere on earth.  His father had left him the clothes and accessories, as well as the fragrance with instructions on when and where to use them.  A sealed Manila envelope tucked among the clothing items caught his eye.  Lehman smiled as he picked up the packet and read the neatly inscribed words in his father’s handwriting.  “always remove before using suitcase.  No exceptions!”  He placed the packet on the cabinet shelf just as his father had instructed years ago.   Lehman closed the suitcase, slipped out the backdoor and placed the bag in the car trunk.

When he returned to the shop, there was a note on the counter.

I stopped by, but you were talking
on the phone.  See you later.
Betsy

Lehman groaned.  Hopefully, she hadn’t overheard his conversation.  But what if she had?

 

 

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