Would the young boy never decide? Mortimer checked his wristwatch one more time and looked to the door. He should flip the sign to Closed and lock the child in until he made his choice, but it would be unprofessional and inappropriate. Still, he needed to close down the shop for the day. His Margaretta would have dinner on the table by now. He could almost taste the rich aroma of his favorite homemade tomato and mascarpone sauce wafting down the back staircase.
Coins clinked together as the towheaded boy in the ratty shirt and hole-spattered jeans counted the money in his palm again. He eyed the medium-sized bouquet of red roses displayed atop the glass counter in front of him. Valentine’s Day was only around the corner, but surely this scrap of a boy couldn’t afford such a bundle of deep-ruby petals.
“What’ll it be?” Mortimer didn’t mean to sound so gruff about it. The day had worn him out. Four orders had been cancelled, due to breakups mere days before the most romantic holiday of the year. Poor chums. Hadn’t found a true pearl like his Margaretta. He decided to soften his tone a bit and try to encourage the lad to make a quick decision. “Have you considered the daisies? There’s a full rainbow of colors to choose from, just in the bins behind you there.”
The boy turned his torso to look for a long moment at the various shades of daisies not far beyond where he stood rooted to the linoleum tiles that had seen better days. When he turned back around, his shoulders curled forward, and his chin nearly disappeared into his t-shirt. “Didn’t sell my bike to Tommy for no stupid daisies.” He swiped a wrist beneath his nose as he sniffed.
Mortimer couldn’t miss the glimmer in the kid’s eyes.
His old heart ached with indecision. He couldn’t spot the kid any money. Obviously, he wouldn’t be able to pay it back. Money was tighter than he liked these days, so he really couldn’t be giving away merchandise either. He looked back at the doorway and the stairs just beyond that would take him up to his wife of forty-three years who’d traveled an ocean with him on a dream of making a better life for their two children.
Those two children now had families of their own and jobs that paid well enough, better than Margaretta and he could have imagined those days so long ago in the home country. What he hadn’t done for them, what he wouldn’t still do for them…
“I guess I’ll take this one.” The boy held up a single pink daisy that was one of Mortimer’s personal favorites because his younger daughter had cherished the pinkened middles when she was no more than a tot holding on to his apron strings as he worked hard to cut stems and arrange flowers to attract the most customers.
His little Charlotte would be ashamed if he took the boy’s money for such a flower as this, knowing it wasn’t what he wanted, that it wouldn’t make him happy.
Carefully, with great and tender attention, he took the flower from the boy and pulled a piece of pale-yellow tissue paper from beneath the counter. It would perfectly set off the pink petals. “Who’s this beautiful flower for, son?”
“Mom. Her birthday’s on Valentine’s Day, and Dad left me in charge. I can’t ask her for money for her own present, so…” He sniffed again but managed to peer up at Mortimer this time. The kid’s eyes were awash with tears that made the blue shimmer like raindrops falling from the sky. “Tommy said I could buy back my bike if I earned the money to pay him two extra dollars.” He ducked his head. “Not sure how I’ll do it, but I’m sure gonna try. Mom’s had a hard year already, with Dad leaving and all.”
“Oh? Is he away on business?” Mortimer didn’t want to hear the kid’s answer as he tied a snip of ribbon around the tissue-wrapped stem.
“Nope. Said he had to go after some opportunity. Some dream he wanted. Said I couldn’t come with him, that I had to stay back with Mom and be the man of the house.” He plunked a couple of dollar bills and all the change he had on the counter and gave it a shove. A couple of coins rolled off and plopped onto the carpet behind the counter. “Sure wish he’d have stayed to do that himself. Tommy’s lucky his parents like each other and don’t yell a lot.”
Now it was Mortimer’s turn to sniff back the knot in his sinuses. Maybe he was acquiring a floral allergy.
“Is that flower about ready yet? I gotta get it back to Mom so she’ll stop crying.” The boy hitched up his pants and looked expectantly at the single, pathetic flower.
No tissue paper could make it sparkle as much as the half-dozen roses.
Mortimer snipped off a little excess ribbon from the tail of the bow and tucked the scissors back in his white apron’s pocket. “It’s your lucky day, you know.”
“How do you figure?” The kid tilted his head to the side and scrunched up one of his eyes.
“We’re running a special. One day only. You see that bundle of roses there?”
Both eyes narrowed now. “Yeah…”
“Just so happens that it’s ‘buy a daisy, get six roses free’ today. Limited time deal.” Mortimer extended his arm, holding the simple daisy out where the boy could reach it. “What do you say? Want to take ’em off my hands?”
The boy’s entire demeanor changed in an instant. His shoulders reached up and back, straightening his spine as they went along. The face brightened with a gap-toothed grin only a nine-year-old could pull off. “Are you teasing me, mister?”
“Nope. And I’ll tell you what.”
Mortimer came around the counter and bent his knees, lowering himself the few inches his bulky middle would allow. He grasped the boy’s shoulder and looked him straight in the eyes. “Why don’t you come back here for an hour after school each day.”
“Why? Did I not have enough money? Roses cost a lot, don’t they?”
“Bah!” He waved a hand through the air. “The roses are in the deal, like I told you.”
“So why should I come back?”
“You’d like to earn your bike back, wouldn’t you?”
The boy’s mouth dropped open. He worked it a couple of times before any words would come out. “You mean… you’ll… you’re giving me a job?”
Mortimer straightened to his full five-foot-five height—making the boy in front of him only about half a foot shorter than him—and held out his hand. “You can call me Uncle Morty. And I’ll expect you to work hard while you’re here.”
The boy heartily shook his hand. “Oh yes, sir. Yes, sir!” He took the daisy from Mortimer and grabbed the stubby vase of roses from the counter. “Thank you, Uncle Morty. Thanks a lot!” He raced over to the door and flung it open.
Yet, he paused and let it whap his backside. He turned back and grinned at him. “Mom’s going to be real proud of me now. That’ll make her stop crying for sure!” He slipped out the door.
Mortimer moved to the door and turned the lock, then slowly flipped the sign over. The boy crossed the busy road, pausing here and there for cars that honked at him. He scrambled up the stairs of the brownstone across the way and kicked the bottom of the door.
With fingers moving at the speed of a slug, Mortimer untied his apron strings and removed the apron from around his neck. Once he’d draped it over one arm, the door across the street opened.
The woman who stepped out onto the porch was no taller than he. Her dark curls hung limp around her blotchy face. Even from this distance he could tell she’d been weeping something terrible. The boy shoved the roses and daisy into her arms and started chattering animatedly. Before Mortimer knew it, the boy was pointing his direction, and the woman looked up and pressed her fingertips to her lips. She lifted the daisy and saluted him with it.
He raised a hand but didn’t wave it. The simple gesture was enough.
“She misses you, you know.”
Mortimer cleared his throat and waddled back to the counter, where his roly-poly wife waited for him.
“Why don’t you cross the street and make amends?”
“Don’t push me, Margaretta.”
“She’s sorry she married the dead-beat. She’s sorry he ran off with all her savings. Why can’t you forgive her for not listening to you?” Margaretta took his apron and folded it properly.
Instead of answering, he puttered around the store, straightening this and rearranging that. Wasting time, really. His heart twisted with ten years of pain he’d never released. Why couldn’t he let go of his little girl? She’d grown up. She’d defied him in many ways, the worst of which was marrying a man Mortimer knew would be disastrous and possibly cruel.
Yet, she was his little girl. His Charlotte.
“Remember what you said the day you opened this shop, Morty?”
That softened tone meant no good for him. He turned to face her anyway.
“You said you’d give the girls and me the world.”
“I remember.” His voice was gruff from the emotions he wanted to stuff down, but there wasn’t any meanness in it.
“If that’s still true, why don’t you prove it?” Margaretta smiled that “I’ll see you after you’ve made the right decision” smile, patted the countertop, and retreated up the stairs, leaving the folded apron resting next to the register.
He eyed the locked door and the street and brownstone beyond. The weight of his biggest regret pressed on his chest till he thought it’d explode and leave him collapsed on the floor for his wife to find in the morning. But he still stood.
Only, now he moved forward. He flicked the lock and tugged open the door.
The woman—his precious Charlotte—was slipping away, going inside her home. If he waited a moment, she’d be gone, in for another night alone with her child and her sorrow.
Why hadn’t he comforted her since her husband left eight months ago? Why hadn’t he extended an offer of peace before now? Why had he stuck to his pride and let his daughter suffer alone?
“Char—” He had to clear his throat again. “Charlotte, wait!”
She stepped back outside and turned her hope-filled face toward him. There was such longing in her widened eyes, such yearning that would be crushed no more.
“Would Joe and you…” He paused for a burst of traffic to pass by. “Would you come for dinner? Mama’s made plenty. Enough to feed the entire block, you know.”
She called into the house without looking away from him. Soon, Charlotte and Joe were crossing the street, hand in hand, with her still clutching the vase and daisy against her stomach with her other hand. When they reached the flower shop she’d grown up in, she smiled through a veil of tears. “I’ve missed you, Papa.” She leaned against him and kissed his cheek.
His arms came around her, and he held her close, finally letting loose of the pride he never should have grasped on to in the first place. Eventually, he heard a stomach growl, but he wasn’t sure if it was Charlotte’s, Joe’s, or his own.
The three of them laughed over it.
“I guess that means we better get inside and up the stairs before Mama loses her temper.”
“Oh, Papa…” Charlotte tapped his nose with the daisy. “You know it’s you who has the temper.”
As she stepped away, he grabbed her hand, feeling the tissued stem of the daisy between their fingers. He wanted to say he was sorry for all the wasted years, sorry for not supporting her when she needed it most, but he couldn’t find the words, or maybe they wouldn’t step off his tongue. “Welcome home, Charlotte.”
Her eyes twinkled, and he knew she understood his meaning.
“Come for dinner anytime.”
She handed the vase of roses to Joe and motioned in the direction they’d be taking, and he scurried up the back stairs ahead of them. Charlotte switched the daisy to her right hand and tucked her left one around Mortimer’s elbow. When she leaned against his arm as they walked across the flower shop floor, his heart broke free of the chains that had held it captive for over a decade. New beginnings and happy birthdays sure felt great. Having his daughter and grandson in his life again…?
His Margaretta had been right to push him, as she always was.
He may not be able to make his daughter’s dead-beat husband come home again and be the proper man he ought to be for his wife and son. He may not be able to get back the years they’d all lost because of his stubbornness. But he could still give them a piece of the world, if not the whole thing.
Right now, as he climbed the stairs after his long-lost-yet-right-across-the-street little girl, he’d give every flower in his shop to find the words to fully express the joy blooming within his spirit.
What are your thoughts on second chances?
Is it ever too late to give or receive a second chance?
Why or why not?