We're delighted to announced that Zane Andrea's "Kitsch Kills" won our novelette contest. Her story is featured in Volume 7. An excerpt of Zane Andrea's novelette follows.
If Bernice Robinson’s son hadn’t died in that dreadful car accident near Exit 72 on southbound I-75 one spring day, her artistic genius might have remained dormant for the rest of her life, unaroused from the peaceful slumber of suburban consistency. Fortunately for Michigan’s cultural elite, Dick Robinson did make that fateful decision to day drink on St. Patrick’s Day 2000, climbing behind the wheel of the ‘91 Skylark that his former wrestling coach manipulated him into buying after graduation. In his 90 MPH attempt to make it to Bennigan’s before the Danny Boy karaoke challenge started, Dick clipped a school bus full of students from Our Lady of Holy Holiness Catholic High School, returning to school after a day of finding homes for abandoned puppies at Pleasant Ridge’s second most indigent retirement community. For once, the crash did not make it into the annals of Ironic Drunk Driving Accidents. The sober innocents walked away from the accident, while Dick was spread on I-75 like schmear on an asphalt bagel.
This came as a great relief to dozens of Catholic parents who spent that evening doing double-time on their rosaries. But of course, Bernice had less reason to give God a thumbs-up. However, after a week of requisite crying, chest-beating, and flipping through piles of Mothers Against Drunk Driving pamphlets, Bernice finally poured her grief into designing, financing, and creating the most timeless of heartfelt memorials: the roadside floral arrangement. And although Bernice never fully recovered from the death of her son (at least not according to her agent’s monthly press releases), her place in the minds of artists, critics, and obstinate temperance groups everywhere was cemented by the flowery monument she erected along I-75 to commemorate her heartbreaking loss.
It was, quite simply, the most beautiful roadside floral arrangement in the world. It was an immense wreath, nearly nine feet in diameter, made of roses in every color imaginable: strawberry red, sunset orange, blushing virgin pink, genetically engineered indigo, rose-of-Texas yellow, and manic-depressive blue. The vivid blooms were woven into a thick ring with just the slightest hints of green leaves between the spaces. Inside the wreath was a mass of virgin white orchid petals pinned to a green foam background with cloves, creating a sea of white ripples speckled with brown that interrupted the usual miasma of fuel exhaust with wisps of a floral, spicy perfume. (Philistines who wondered aloud why Bernice couldn’t have just filled the open circle of the wreath with cardboard or plywood, received disdainful glares from those in the know and were quietly removed from invites to gallery openings.) On top of the orchid petals, Bernice had lovingly pinned clusters of deep purple African Violets to form the letters of her son’s first name (DICK), his year of birth (1974), his year of death (2000), and a sentiment of her heart-wrenching pain (YOU ARE MISSED). It was vivid, lush, sentimental, and radiantly beautiful. More importantly, it touched the hearts of the I-75 driving community in a way that no previous roadside memorial had, not even the ones with teddy bears on them. Everyone who drove past Exit 72 on southbound I-75 would be touched by the knowledge that Dick had died here in the year 2000, and that he was missed.
The memorial was an instant smash with artists, florists, and MADD chapters all over the country. In the first month after Bernice unveiled her masterpiece, newspaper reporters and art critics flocked to her house to interview or photograph her before she left the house to continue her care of Dick’s Wreath, as the memorial came to be known. Bernice visited Dick’s Wreath twice a day with armfuls of flowers, cloves, and florist wire to replace flowers on the memorial that had drooped or been torn off by winds or squirrels. In her home, Bernice would talk about channeling her heartbreak into Dick’s Wreath and how she valued pricks in her fingers from the rose’s thorns or the clove’s surprisingly sharp heads, because the physical pain was no match for the unyielding ache of Dick’s demise. Frequently, a photographer would be fortunate enough to goad Bernice into dropping her head onto a pile of striped orchids and shedding some photogenic tears long enough to snap a few shots.
The responses of the freelance art community paled in comparison to that of the drivers on I-75. The normal lightning speed of commuter traffic would slow to a placid 74 miles an hour as drivers from all walks of life would swiftly bask in the glory of Dick’s Wreath. From hardened truck drivers to capitalist car-poolers to Saturn owners sporting “Hate Is Not A Family Value” bumper stickers, every driver who passed Dick’s Wreath would lower their cell phones, place their coffee cups between their legs, and turn their heads from the cold, murderous highway to gaze at Bernice’s labor of love. Hells Angels who whizzed past the memorial on their noisy Harleys would later become amateur Shakespeares as they tried to relate to their fellow gang members the visual poetry of African Violets rippling in the breeze, making DICK seem to come to life in a fluid dance. Soccer moms who caught a quick whiff of roses and cloves as they passed the wreath felt pangs of guilt as they reflected on whether they would have enough strength or stamina to create such a loving tribute if one of their offspring were to someday smash their brains out on the highway. “Truly,” they thought, “the unconditional love of a mother is a powerful thing.”
Art students from small but somewhat sophisticated communes stopped on the side of the road to draw sketches and paint watercolors. Florists left bunches of roses and orchids and African Violets by the wreath so Bernice wouldn’t have to pay for repairs all by herself. Sunday school teachers began bussing their classes to Exit 72 to ride back and forth on the highway to use Dick’s Wreath as a metaphor for Christ. (Fortunately, none of the kids thought to ask why Dick’s mom wasn’t in church if they happened to see her on the side of the road making that day’s repairs to the wreath.) Dale Carnegie classes included a trip to I-75 to see the wreath and admire its embodiment of the drive to overcome personal obstacles and get on with your life when somebody moves your cheese.
Inevitably, the day arrived when another woman’s son got himself killed in a car accident near Exit 72 on southbound I-75. The young man, whose name was George Franklin, was nearly as young and pretty as Dick had been. He’d been driving home from an evening of go-carts and batting cages when, like thousands of drivers before him, he was distracted by the beauty of Dick’s Wreath. Unlike the previous admirers, though, George was so mesmerized by the wreath, he veered off the road and smashed his car into the base of the bridge ahead. Investigators who recreated the accident later determined that George most likely became aware of his mistake and tried to correct it, too late. So, they sadly concluded, George’s last moments of life were not spent reveling in the kaleidoscopic visual orgy of the wreath, but more likely gripping his steering wheel and screaming, “SHIIIIIIIIT!!!!!!!!!!!”
After George’s fatal car crash, some of the less cultured local newspapers ran editorials suggesting that perhaps Bernice should remove the wreath from the side of the highway to prevent other drivers from becoming distracted. Bernice’s supporters wrote angry letters in response, begging Bernice not to betray her son by destroying his memorial. For two weeks after the accident, Dick’s Wreath remained where it was as the controversy seethed. But while Bernice didn’t remove the wreath, neither did she maintain it. The orchid petals started to wilt and turn brown. The roses drooped. Fans of the wreath, (or Wreathlings, as they liked to be called) feared that the flowers would eventually die, and with them, the memory of Dick, who was born in 1974, who died in 2000, and who was missed.
Then, on the 15th day after the accident, I-75 commuters were greeted by a sight that caused their hearts to soar and their eyes to tear. Dick’s Wreath had regenerated. The rose buds were tight and fresh, glistening with dew. The orchid petals were as white and waxy as bridal candles, and the cloves were fixed in place, filling the few spots in the air not reserved by fuel exhaust with their aroma. The African Violets were brighter than ever, and outlined the name and dates and YOU ARE MISSED completely. But although drivers were happy to see the renewal of the monument, this was not the main cause of their celebration. For this was the day that the world first met Dick’s Wreath’s new companion: George’s Cross.
George’s Cross was an eight-foot tall, four-foot wide masterpiece woven from calla lilies, floral wire, and sorrow. The firm, conical blossoms were as pure yellow as a cherub’s halo, giving commuters a sense of sunrise as they passed its fantastic glow. The cross was edged with a thin line of blood-red snapdragons as a precaution, lest observers forget that this work of splendor was born of death.
Near the top of the cross was a placard bearing letters. According to the Bible, Pontius Pilate added a sign to Jesus’s cross that read, “I AM THE KING OF THE JEWS” in three different languages (Greek, Latin, and either Hebrew or Aramaic, depending on the translation). Crucifixes that adorn the altars of Catholic or Orthodox churches usually shorten this to the ambiguous but holy-sounding “INRI.” The sign on Bernice’s latest tribute simply read, “GEORGE.” The letters were not formed from flowers, but painted on a piece of plywood; causing a few Wreathlings to wonder if Bernice wasn’t starting to slack by deviating from the Rose Parade standards that had made her famous. However, most observers noted that the plywood was of high quality, and the name printed with a very pretty calligraphic script; and hence it did not detract from the arrangement’s botanical angst.
Bernice made an appearance by the wreaths at noon that day. That section of I-75 was shut down for three hours to accommodate the hordes of reporters and art lovers that swarmed to the scene. Bernice was not alone during the press conference, but rather flanked by her new sister in sorrow, Susie Franklin, mother of George. When Susie took to the microphone, she explained to the world that she shared with Bernice the pain of losing a child; and like Bernice, wanted to channel her grief into doing something so that her son’s death would not be in vain. However, Susie did not share Bernice’s knack for artistic foliage, so Bernice dug deep into her heart and worked with Susie to design and build George’s Cross.
Unbeknownst to the public, Bernice had also dug deep into her bank account to cut a check for Susie; though she felt that “settlement” was such an ugly word. In fairness, it is unlikely that the public’s loving sympathy for Bernice would have changed had the knowledge been made public. Bernice also knew that Susie was not only coping with the loss of her son, but with the loss of her husband as well. George’s father, whom Susie came to think of as insensitive and uncultured, misinterpreted the birth of George’s Cross as his wife’s willingness to trade her son’s memory for a bushel of calla lilies and a front page picture in the Detroit Free Press. George’s father filed for divorce from Susie and eventually moved out of the state, trying to escape from the bizarre destruction of his family as well as the increasing volume of hate mail he received from Wreathlings who questioned his fitness as a grieving parent.
George’s Cross was a smash, and complimented the splendor of Dick’s Wreath. To handle the ever-increasing flow of donations and volunteers, Bernice developed the Highway of Pain Foundation. The donations were used to replenish the flowers and to pay volunteers to help maintain the two memorials. Soon, anyone who included working on the Highway of Pain on a resume was virtually guaranteed a job at any of Metro Detroit’s finest floral shops. Some judges sentenced first time drunk drivers to a number of hours performing community service on the highway. The experience left most drunk drivers with mixed feelings; heartbroken at the thought that they might have left another parent with nothing but a colossal mountain of flowers to remember their offspring by. At the same time, they considered their interaction with the monuments to be divine.
The combination of the highway’s unquestionable beauty and the sociopathic driving techniques employed by the majority of Michigan drivers ensured that more memorials were inevitable. Despite the heartache represented by Bernice’s arrangements, many were almost glad to see the Highway of Pain expand as the months passed. Dick’s Wreath and George’s Cross were joined by Julie’s Wreath, Mark’s Cross, Amy’s Heart, and the Star of David, a nine-foot tall, six-point star of purple carnations built for the first Jewish victim immortalized on the Highway of Pain. There was a rumor that the victim’s family successfully petitioned probate court to legally change the victim’s first name from “Irving Matzlebaum” to “David Israel” on his death certificate in order to make the arrangement’s name more symbolically relevant. This was never confirmed to anyone’s legal satisfaction.
As fall approached, Wreathlings and other Highway watchers began to worry that the cold Michigan weather would kill Bernice’s creations and force parents to lose their flower children as well as their real children. This problem was tragically but timely solved when Chad Hampton, son of the famed Alex Hampton and heir to his father’s massive molasses fortune, got drunk and tried to drive his Camaro through the center of Dick’s Wreath. Thanks to a serendipitously placed pothole, Chad didn’t touch the wreath, but he did flip his car into the air and land it upside down on top of 85-year-old Nona Sharpton’s Cadillac. Both Chad and Nona were killed instantly. Alex Hampton had never liked his son very much, but he knew an opportunity to advance his booming molasses company when he saw one. Not only did Alex solicit the Highway of Pain Foundation to build a 10-foot tall replica of an electric guitar out of lavender lilacs and pussy willows, he donated the money to build a massive greenhouse to cover and protect the memorials that made up the Highway. By the time that frost started appearing on the grass, the greenhouse was completed, with heated blowers and thick, protective glass that allowed commuters to enjoy the displays as much in the winter as in the summer. Bernice praised Alex as a godsend and made him the honorary co-chair of the Foundation.
Nona Sharpton wasn’t represented on the Highway of Pain. She had no children, and her husband, who suffered from mild dementia and a bad heart, had a fatal coronary when he learned of his wife’s death. Alex and Bernice would have sprung for an extra floral arrangement for Nona if there had been any relatives who demanded it. Bernice was slightly relieved when no noise was made. For better or worse, the Highway of Pain was a monument to drivers lost in their youth; Nona’s presence would have messed up the theme. Bernice did send a nice bunch of daisies to Nona’s grave; she felt it was the Christian thing to do.
....To read the rest of this wry tale, you may purchase Volume 7 on Amazon or in our bookstore.
Zane’s fiction has appeared in the Luna Review, Santa Barbara Literary Journal, The Broke Bohemian, and Delirium Corridor. She can write almost anything, but has a special affinity for flash fiction.