The Freeway Flower Salesman

Reynaldo did not set out for his profession–if one could call it a profession–to be freeway flower salesman. As a boy living in East New York, he had high hopes around the age of five, when the post-World War Two era washed away all traces of white immigrants and instead drew in Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans like Reynaldo’s family, the Acostas, who decided to leave their small town of Isabela in shame after Reynaldo’s older brother, Andrés, was caught in a back alley dressed as a woman while gratifying the genitals of another man. This would be embarrassment enough in any small town, but the fact that Andrés and Reynaldo’s father, Juan, was a member of the local government did not serve to soften the blow (no pun intended).

Without saying a word to Andrés, and to prove that the Acostas had no tolerance for such behavior in their family, Juan made the executive decision that he would leave the territory to make an assertive, renouncing statement. But Reynaldo’s mother, Asuncion, was difficult to sway, as Andrés was the son she favored most, mainly because he shared the same facial features as she–and yes, ultimately, being a parent boils down to narcissism. But Juan was physically persuasive, practically shoving her on the plane in addition to a garden variety beating. Though Asuncion tried to forewarn Andrés of their plan to abscond, she was forbidden, commanded by Juan to consider Reynaldo her only son. The one to invest all her energies in now. This didn’t stop her from sobbing softly as she looked out the window of the plane, Reynaldo blissfully asleep between her and Juan, knowing instinctively that they would never come back to Puerto Rico and that Andrés was now, for all intents and purposes, dead.

In 1966, East New York was in the full swing of forming itself for the future of its illustrious state as a hub of economic decay. But the Acostas were still laboring under the misconception that there were employment opportunities aplenty there. Juan’s hopes, dreams and all traces of dignity were quickly smashed when his job search digressed into a fruitless, Sisyphean effort that eventually led him down the path of regular drug use. Heroin became his go-to.

By 1970, just a few days shy of Reynaldo’s ninth birthday, Juan overdosed, not to be discovered for days after doing so by the night manager at the hotel where he preferred to entertain his binges, the Jacuzzi Inn. When the police informed Asuncion, she did not react other than to nod her head and turn his body over to the authorities for handling, as there were no finances set aside in their bank account for anything, let alone funerary matters. She closed the door and turned to Reynaldo, gleefully engrossed in a used comic book Juan had bought for him about two years ago, an older issue of Strange Tales that could entertain Reynaldo for hours on end no matter how many times he read it. But the death of his father was a catalyst toward the death of Reynaldo’s fantasy land. He put away delusions of a happy life so that he could care for Asuncion, whose beauty and mind waned like an unwatered flower upon Juan’s passing. It was maybe for this reason that Reynaldo sought a position as an apprentice in a florist’s shop on Liberty Avenue, called, more than somewhat grimly, Sympathy Florists.

At ten, he swept up vine and petal debris; by fifteen, he was given creative license with the floral arrangements; by twenty, the owner, Vato, promised him the coveted role of head floral designer once their current one, 54-year-old Toro Sanchez, retired. Naturally, Toro, with ten children and a useless wife to support, was not willing to step down so easily. He even became better at his job, more dexterous really, just to prove a point to Vato about how in his prime and infinitely more skilled he was than Reynaldo.

Reynaldo even overheard old Toro deriding his abilities to Vato after coming back from a delivery one day.

“He will run what’s left of this shop into the ground,” Toro cautioned with an ominous lilt.

Reynaldo knew then it was time to move on; neither Vato nor Toro would ever really cede Sympathy Florists to him. It was just as well, he thought. The name was depressing, telling of a neighborhood that only bred flower-giving based on the shed of blood. He was ready to try something new.

Asuncion, by this point, had entered a total state of catatonia, never bothering with tasks she used to, like laundry or cooking. Reynaldo was in charge of everything, and their apartment was the only thing of value they owned.

On the way back from Manhattan for an interview for the role of stock boy–hours spent getting to and from there by train and bus–Reynaldo approached his block to find that it was riddled with smoke and flames, all coming directly from his building. He knew right away that Asuncion was responsible, that her madness had driven her to burn everything she associated with her life’s failure, not caring that it left Reynaldo with a very literal nothing.

The Acosta name, once of import in Puerto Rico, meant nothing to those Reynaldo sought help from, which is, invariably, how he ended up in and out of men’s shelters for most of his twenties and thirties, until finally fashioning his own port in the storm near Rockaway Beach, where he carried out his days in solitude, occasionally selling bouquets along the freeway that he grew from his own garden.

More often than not, those who bought flowers from him did so out of pity, and that was fine; he was desperate enough not to care what motivated their patronage. It wasn’t until a black Mercedes-Benz pulled up to him one day that Reynaldo questioned the motive.

The person in the driver’s seat slowly rolled down the window to reveal herself as a prim-looking middle-aged woman with a tan complexion and sleek, shoulder-length brown hair.

“Reynaldo?” she asked with a masculine rasp.

No one had actually addressed him by his name in so long that the sound of it seemed utterly foreign to him.

Finally he said, “Yes.”

“It’s Andrés. It’s me, your brother.”

Reynaldo loosened the grip on the bouquet he was holding, causing a number of the stems to get away from him enough for the wind to sweep them to the ground. It was thus that Reynaldo retired from his “profession,” joining Andrés back in Puerto Rico, where her wealth from lending sexual satisfaction to diplomats made Reynaldo’s existence in New York look like a Third World one.

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