Her name is Violet Samson. She can not believe, and neither will you, how many times people get it wrong. “Violent?” they ask, upon introduction, and she says “No, Violet.” But they still don’t hear her correctly and they ask again, “Violent?” And she knows what they’re thinking: “How could anyone have such an awful name?” So she repeats it, louder this time, “Violet,” and sometimes she has to spell it, “V-i-o-l-e-t, as in the flower.” And then the chances are good that the person will say “Ahhhh, the flower, so you must be a gardener.” And she is not.
Violet Samson owns a toy store on Myrtle Avenue, next to the Stop ‘N Shop Supermarket. Which doesn’t matter except when someone calls for directions. Her store is small and easy to miss, and also basically without a name, so she gives directions based on her proximity to the Stop ‘N Shop. And still, people have trouble locating her. And the truth is, she doesn’t care.
The toys she sells are not new. Some are “gently used” and some are a total wreck. Only a very few are what could be called “special.” There is that tin caboose that might be worth something, but probably not, and before long she’ll let it go for $1.50.
She sells puzzles with missing pieces, teddy bears with whole patches of fur pulled out, board games without the dice, and dolls with broken arms or chipped noses.
People bring these things to her — the eyeless, the stringless, the shoeless — because it’s so hard to throw them out. Violet considers she is offering a service, and her customers feel that way too. It’s all a bit vague, the business end of things, and then there’s the fact that Violet does not particularly like children. The irony is not lost on her. She once thought she would be a librarian but here she is, in the toy business.
Of course there is the matter of the inheritance. She didn’t have to say yes, she could just as easily have opened her mouth and formed the word no. And then she wouldn’t be the owner of a used toy store. So how did it happen? She asks herself that question from time to time.
She didn’t say no to the other part of the inheritance, either, the large house on Castro Street, where she spent her childhood, physically, although her mind was often someplace else. The house with the garden that her mother adored, the garden that is now a ruin. She is not good with living things, hence a garden where the few flowers that have survived droop their way from sunup to sundown.
She is not good with living things but still they seem to seek her out. Her neighbor, Phoenicia, has three cats, and they could just as easily stay on their own side of the fence. Violet doesn’t understand why they insist on squeezing through wooden slats and prickly vines to make their way over to her. She knows there are three cats, but she suspects they are not always the same three cats.
It’s been many years since Phoenicia moved in next door. The cats keep visiting, always three in number, but not always the same size or color. And even though she is not, by any stretch of the imagination, what could be called a “cat person,” Violet is quite certain that felines do not morph. So she thinks, when she thinks about it at all, that at least two have died and new ones have taken their place. But she has no idea what they are called. She just calls them “Phoenicia’s cats,” and she wishes they would leave her alone.
The garden is dark, even during the day. That’s what happens when things growing from the bottom-up merge with things growing from the top-down. It is shady and musky and the perfect place for her when she can’t sleep, which is most nights. She doesn’t remember the last time she slept through until morning without a break of torturous wakefulness.
The garden is the perfect place for her and her thoughts. Lately, she finds her mind turning toward the dark place, the land of regret, of “what if” and “why not.” The garden is a hospitable setting for entertaining such thoughts, any time at all, but especially around midnight. She’s not certain why this is true, but it is.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Thoughts. Tonight she’s thinking of a letter she would like to write to Edith Fogelman who was once a friend, but not for the last twenty-seven years. It occurs to Violet that perhaps she should write an apology. It was inappropriate, she realizes now, the way she was always criticizing Edith’s eating habits. But then she thinks perhaps she should write and demand an apology from Edith. Edith is the one who borrowed her coral bead necklace and lost it somewhere in a snowbank. Or so she said. What was she doing in a snowbank, anyway? There was always something unsavory about Edith Fogelman.
In the end, she decides not to write anything at all. It would take so much effort, going into the house, searching out the necessary paraphernalia: pen, paper, envelope, stamp. She stays sprawled where she is, in the deck chair amidst the greenery and the brownery, and she continues to think her thoughts.
She thinks about Mooky Caraway, the teaching assistant in her Freshman English class, who wrote a poem for her, all those years ago, rhyming “Violet” with “amulet” in the first stanza, and with “omelette” in the third. Violet told Mooky he was forbidden from using her name in any other poem, ever, and even though Mooky cried and made one promise after another, it was all over between them, before anything had started. It's just not in Violet's nature to give out second chances. It surprises her to realize that she hasn't quite succeeded in erasing Mooky from her memory.
She thinks about the man who came into the toy store yesterday, looking for something for his nephew he said, and she told him she didn’t have anything electronic and he called her a fascist commie maggot pig, a phrase she is still trying to decipher. And she wishes she had had something better to hurl back at him, something more colorful than “degenerate creep.” It bothers her that her vocabulary is so limited, even under the best of circumstances, but especially when she’s under stress.
She thinks about the little accident she had in the kitchen, just that evening, with a knife that wasn’t sharp enough and a carrot that was too thick, and how even a dull knife can make a deep cut. She thinks about how surprised she was to discover that her blood looked like smashed strawberries, while all this time she thought it was the color of boiled beets.
And she thinks about her neighbor, Phoenicia, who used to be a hair stylist, and is now a certified (or is it licensed?) hypnotist. Violet wonders what would happen if she were to go to Phoenicia. Professionally, that is. It’s a mighty big if, but if she were to go, what would she ask for?
You probably have to ask something from a hypnotist, otherwise how will they know what to do with you? And Violet doesn't smoke, so that’s out. She doesn’t need help remembering anything, that is definitely not her problem. She has the opposite problem. Could Phoenicia help her with that? Could she help her to forget?
Could Phoenicia go Abracadabra, and when it was all over and she snapped her fingers, or whatever it is hypnotists do, would Violet open her eyes and see a whole different world? Or see herself different in the world? Or just not care so much? Is it possible she could just stop thinking her thoughts, even for one minute? She doesn’t think that’s asking too much. She wonders what Phoenicia charges for her services.
It is the shortest night of the year. Violet doesn’t know this, she doesn’t keep track of such things. She only knows that it is warm enough to sit outside in the garden in only her nightgown, with a light blanket covering her shoulders.
Without planning or direction her eyes close, all by themselves, and she falls into something that resembles sleep, for what is left of the rest of the night.
She doesn’t wake up when Stinky Marie, Phoenicia’s newest cat, a skinny gray creature who looks a lot like a boy’s gym sock, climbs up into her lap, to dream along with her.
Violet doesn’t believe she dreams at all. But if she knew that she did, and one of Phoenicia’s cats was sharing those dreams, she would not be happy about it.
Which is why Stinky Marie, who knows more than you might think it is possible for a cat to know, is gone by the time the sun rises over the wilting trumpet vine.