Brush [story] by Jeanne Althouse

The red-blooming bottlebrush tickled my hand as I strolled by, visiting my daughter’s California neighborhood, her small son asleep in the stroller I pushed ahead. We don’t have these plants in my new city, their fuzzy flowers the shape of a bottle-washing tool, the stamens the color of blood. Six months ago my job required relocation to the East Coast.

My heart seized from the memory of my dead mother. She visited me regularly in my first house where bottlebrush trees lined the path to the shore. Forty years ago she pushed my small daughter past these shrubs with the fuzzy-looking flowers composed mostly of stamens. She would pick a bloom, tickle the baby’s cheek and say “brush.”

I stop the stroller, hoping my grandson will continue his sleep. The sky’s puzzle of clouds is framed by a backdrop of blue, the breeze smells of lemon, and baby birds tweeting for food nearby make a magical baroque counterpoint. I caress a bloom, thinking of mother. Her death was years ago, but she is often alive to me in unexpected moments. I lean forward, touch the plant with my nose, and expect the pleasing citrus scent. Instead I smell White Linen, mother’s perfume.

Just after graduating from college my daughter paid an extraordinary amount from her first-job budget for a full-back tattoo of a bottlebrush tree in memory of her grandmother who had died the year before. Later, as she walked down the aisle, I saw the bloom of the brush on her shoulder, peeking out of her lace wedding dress.

Mother was a woman of strong opinions: though she loved the bottlebrush tree, she would not have approved of the tattoo.

The baby stirs. He is a blonde curly-haired boy of two, with his young mother’s beautiful face. Unlike me, who avoids conflict at all cost, he loves the challenge of a dispute, determined to get his way. I say he will be a leader, but some call him bossy, more like his other grandmother who lives down the block and sees him twice a week.

I regret again that I live three thousand miles away. But you are here today, I say to my clenching stomach.

I pick a flower and lean down to present it, careful not to alarm him. When he first wakes he is easily scared.

He stares at the flower I hold before him. “Brush,” he says.


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of Susan E. Sage’s poem “Vestige.”]

Image by Sarah Sammis

Jeanne Althouse lives in Palo Alto, California. Her flash fiction and longer stories have appeared in various literary journals, including Shenandoah, Pif Magazine, Pindeldyboz, Flash, The International Short Story Magazine, Madison Review, Redlands Review, So to Speak, Porter Gulch Review, Red Rock Review, the MacGuffin, Menda City Review and Jewel, a publication of Gray Sparrow Press. Her story, “Goran Holds his Breath” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her novel Children Left Breathing was Finalist in the Augury Books Contest.