The social club was dim, and yet I lived there for years. I probably looked plain in the lobby with its carved marble and granite. Portraits of dead members surveyed the riches from every wall. But I always assumed I fit in—no one there had more vigor—until one afternoon when a woman called me “common” to her friend. That was the word she kept using, that and “Hell,” which turned out to be her friend’s name. Really, it was Helen, but this woman said “Hell” with such strenuous precision. It was yet another reason that, while she spoke, I thought of the underworld.
Hell had a cold, professional air. Unlike her friend, whose name escapes me, she wasn’t married to a member of the club, and she did not belong on her own. Few women did, and she clearly was too intense for that well-behaved group from old money. Hell said my name in Latin and then explained how I am found where most could not survive. She used ladylike strategy as she spoke of the poor light in the back bar, but not in the third-floor bathroom. Her speech, while tactful, did not go over well with the member’s wife, who could not show emotion easily. Her face had been numbed and lifted too many times, so she used silence, ending a long pause with a brittle laugh.
“We have different ideas of common,” she said, her eyes sweeping over Hell. When Hell finally spoke, she complimented her friend, whose name was something like Happy.
And I was a fool to think I’d been saved. The label “common” was fatal in that club. I thought Hell would continue to protect me from the charge. But she returned to shoot me a look that could have killed and would have were it not for the person in this long, dark room. This sleeping body could be a plant, it is so still. From it rises a dream so strong that I can feel it rising in me—or else a sickly sweet emotion has come back to remind me of the more tasteful Decembers down at the club. The sun would grow so reserved. It barely dropped through the cracks between the buildings. People passed the glass front doors with briefcases and boxy bags of presents. Maybe Decembers down there could be oddly sentimental, like my memory of my last night in the club.
It was Christmastime when Hell returned to stare me down. One of her helpers yanked me out, rushing me past poinsettias. I would have ended up in the dumpster were it not for two workers in the club who took me into the coat check. I was joined by my twin and two mother-in-law’s tongues. While ignorant of Latin, I am good with common names, maybe because I’m common. I, however, am not crude and did not appreciate when one of the workers—she was a coat-check girl—told a man off while in the racks, her words muffled by fur and cashmere, or so she thought. I sensed enough to be relieved when she left. The worker who replaced her had such a controlled manner I could find nothing to upset me. I soon realized, though, that my offense had been a pleasant distraction. I panicked when the coats stopped coming and the lobby went quiet. The two workers began to whisper over the counter. I could not make out what they said until the loud girl whispered with dramatic force: “You’d think Dickens got a job upstairs in Events. You got to hear what’s coming next: the Order of Saint Margaret’s Orphanage Reunion.”
The reunion guests began to arrive. They had grown up in the same orphanage. The coat check turned colorful, the dark cashmere and fur giving way to rows of fuchsia, teal, and royal-blue cloth. I began to wish for a new home, one that I could never lose and so was not really of this earth.
How can such a weak moon draw out such memories? It only began to rise when it was late. The other houses near this one—there are two by the thicket—have gone dark. We have stayed with those same workers who saved us from being thrown out. When the buildings first gave way to fields, I relied on my twin to steady me in a quiet world of no distractions. With this new emotion in me, though, we are not the same anymore. I need a new reflection and have found one in this sleeping figure. The two of us are similar, this body and me. It is dreaming of the place that remains fixed in my thoughts: the club. Every weekend this body returns to Hell and the other characters there. Through nights and most of the days, it stays in the lobby. Right now, the body is dreaming of night in that room—or so I imagine as I try to mirror my new twin. I must take what the body holds so that the two of us can carry an idea of the club together. How much lighter that huge lobby seems when the memory of it is shared. The same bits of light always emerge in the dark there like scars. Under the clock on the western wall, the brass pendulum flashes, cutting through night. The lamps around the gilt-framed portraits glow. The dream rising from my twin is as endless as the painted stare that repeats inside those frames. That stare is so large, so unbroken, that it is not really of this earth.
And so, I leave the dream and return to this truth: We, all of us here, are at home beneath a dim moon. The windows may have gaps, but the house is warm enough. We are alone with a body in a long, dark room—but a light hits both me and the wall beyond. A car emerges from the thicket, following the bending road to this home. The light stretches further down the wall. This building is an unusually long rectangle, having once been a greenhouse. I may get thrown out again since I belong here as much as I belonged in that club.
On my last night there, I saw my replacement on my way out, a giant palm tree. Its branches reached up into the cold dark with enthusiasm. I was reminded of that woman who had called me “common” and her permanent look of mild happiness. Even when she had nothing better to do than to conspire against houseplants, she looked cheerful with her lifted face.
I remember her name. It was Candy. She seemed fake but was real. The palm tree had been real once, too, I saw as I came to rest on the lobby floor. The workers had stopped to talk to a member, old Mr. Gluck.
“Did my wife cross your palm?” Mr. Gluck asked, his voice close to a shout.
I continued to study the tree, which was drained of fluids and sealed in a preservative. It resembled the tree it had once been, just as Candy resembled the person she had been years ago. As soon as I understood the similarity, Mr. Gluck pulled out two ten-dollar bills to give as a tip. My memories of both the tree and Candy, I decided, must be valuable. I resolved to preserve them and have, although I forgot Candy’s name.
I forget people’s names since Candy threw me out. I don’t trust humans, even though I was saved by two of them. The loud one is back from work. True to form, she just slammed the car door too hard. I have never trusted her, and the same goes for the body on the bed. Earlier this evening it woke, staggered over, and rummaged through my leaves. Its erratic behavior has troubled me for hours—but I’m no longer afraid since the body is no longer human. It is now my twin and therefore a corn plant.
And it doesn’t matter about the loud woman coming in. Chances are she is too tired at this point to throw me out. Anyway, I deserve to stay here, being as exotic as a palm tree in deep snow.
“What’s that smell?” the loud woman asks—but I don’t care what she does anymore. I know I’m exotic because Hell said my name in Latin: Dracaena Fragrans. Someday I’ll learn what the first part means, but I know the second: Fragrans means “fragrance,” a sweet one.
“For Chrissakes! I’m not kidding. Where’s that smell coming from?”
“It’s one of those trees from the club,” says the body as it wakes. “It bloomed.”
CAROLINE WILKINSON’s fiction has appeared in DIAGRAM, Witness, Memorious, and Cream City Review, where she won the A. David Schwartz Prize. She received her MFA from Washington University in Saint Louis and her Ph.D. in creative writing at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Links to her work can be found at www.carolinewilkinson.com.