#96. Fran Shipley, Florist

“Might I help you?”

She’s invariably standing there with hands clasped in front of her, looking flustered, frumpy, but friendly, and somehow very pink as you come in to Dora’s Florist Shop. You know immediately: this is a flower person. Fran happens to be a great sales person. Customers invariably leave her shop happy and smiling. She is very good at making them feel comfortable. And also, special. She is also very good at helping them find a flower arrangement or plant that they believe they selected on their own. “Never force a flower on someone. Let them force themselves on the flower.” Her flowers are, in one sense, children to her. Or maybe lovers. She cares for them and cares about them. But that doesn’t stop her from selling them and watching them leave her store, never seen by her again. “I am happy when I know they are going to a good home.”  And, as far as she knows or says she believes, they all go to good homes to do what flowers do – give and get pleasure. This has been Fran’s secret to a very nice living. In short, it is hard to know where her Pollyannaish viewpoint ends and something else – shrewdness perhaps but also sensuous joy – begins. She is not about to tell you either, if she knows herself. She was brought up to be modest and very discrete. An orphan at six, she was raised by her maternal grandmother and great-aunt, both of whom came from families that had been “in service” for generations but over time had accumulated wealth. As a child, Fran was always called “Francine,” a name she secretly hated. “Sounds like a petroleum product,” was how she described it. She never complained though. “Better to say nothing and smile,” was a lesson drilled into her. She learned it well. But there was another lesson that went with it. “What they shall not know, will never harm them,” was the way Gram said it. Fran married young, eighteen, right out of high school. She was naïve as a lamb. Her wedding ceremony was wonderfully romantic. Her wedding night was something she laughs to herself about, the rare times she thinks back on it. “What was he thinking? What was I thinking?” She never asks those questions aloud. And whatever he was thinking, she never let on how she felt to him. When asked, she always says, “It was sheer bliss.” She married the first boy who asked her, perhaps because she thought it rude to say ‘no.” She always says, “Of course we were in love. Madly.” But recently, when she had had a couple of glasses of wine with a friend, she admitted, “We got married because it was expected. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We were in the same high school class and the same Bible study group. And we were told that a man and a woman should be married. And so, we did.  It lasted about five years. Fortunately, there were no children. Not that there would have been. He had his own interests and who was I to stand in his way. And, of course, I had my own interests as well. He walked out into the woods one day with a pistol and shot himself.” Fran never gets emotional when describing the end of her marriage, other than allowing it was a sad time. She never cried and went about her daily life as if nothing had happened. Back then, she was just a part-time employee of the neighborhood florist shop she would one day own, expand, and help to flourish beyond her wildest expectations. And, except for the day of her husband’s funeral and another day spent on legal matters – including a visit from the police inquiring where and when her husband got the pistol – she never missed a day of work. Some reasoned she was putting up a brave front while keeping the emotional shock of a violent suicide deep inside. Others wondered whether there wasn’t something quite right with Fran. One or two harbored darker thoughts. “Didn’t she know her husband was suicidal?” “Did she put him up to it?” Or even, “Do you think she did it?” Fran closed up the apartment she had shared with her husband, moved back with her grandmother and great-aunt. In addition to continuing to work at the florist shop, she took on the task of caring for the two older women. Her great aunt, who was in mid-seventies, had begun to show signs of senility, and was in particular need of help. More than once, Fran said, “Perhaps it is just as well my marriage ended as I was needed at home” as a way to reconcile others and perhaps herself to the sudden end to her husband’s life. She also became active in her church, doing as she put it, “good deeds when and where they are needed.” One thing about his death she did not want to talk about was the pistol. She told the police she did not know her husband had it, when he got it, or where. That was not quite true. She also said, if her husband had been harboring suicidal or violent thoughts, it was news to her.  That too was not quite true. She knew all about the pistol. The day he came home with it, he threatened to use it to kill her. She wanted to keep a secret, not just because it would look bad for both her husband and herself but also because it would reveal the deep misunderstandings that contributed to, if not directly led to, her husband’s death. Men typically took one look at Fran and assumed she was the most asexual woman alive. They agreed that she was pleasant looking but somehow not “interesting.” Even in high school, there was something “grandmotherly” about her. In some measure, it was her clothes. Both men and women commented on them. “Who knows where she gets them. It’s like they are from another time. Maybe like something I’d see in an old photograph, back when women were supposed to be pure and virginal.” But the truth ended up being quite different. Fran had only a hazy idea what to expect on her wedding night. She had never been in bed with a man. Before their marriage, she and her future husband had shared only a chaste kiss, mostly for show in front of family. Most of what she knew about sex came from her own personal exploration and from her great aunt who explained “making the baby requires a man and woman to lie close together with their eyes tightly shut for modesty’s sake.” Some of what happened on her wedding night was more than just a surprise to Fran. But, on the whole, she liked it. Actually, she like it a lot and wanted a repeat as soon as possible. And on a regular basis. Her new husband had a different reaction. He was mortified by Fran’s unexpected enthusiasm for sex. Prior to that first night with Fran, he was almost as naïve as she was. He firmly believed that, for women, sex was an unpleasant, even disgusting burden. His pre-marital instruction had come from his pastor who explained, “You must perform copulation at least once every month but no more than that as the only purpose of cleaving unto your wife is to produce children. And it should be done quickly so as not to arouse any baser instincts in your wife.” The pastor cautioned, “Raising such baser instincts might lead your wife to wonton excess, infidelity and even prostitution.” Before her marriage, Fran had heard much the same story and, like her husband, assumed it true. So, finding sex to be anything but a burden troubled her. At least initially. Within a couple of months of married life, she decided the “monthly duty” would not do. She wanted more and went about hoping for more in her usual manner, the way she sold flowers: never directly, always smile, be gentle, be persistently attentive, and let the customer choose. Her husband would have none of it. He was convinced something was wrong with Fran and began to worry about her fidelity. And worse. He became suspicious. “What was really going on at that florist shop? Who did she meet there?” He also worried about her boss, Dora, a woman whom, he suspected, may have decidedly immoral tendencies. She always seemed so friendly. He started keeping track of Fran’s comings and goings, insisting that Fran come home right after work and not go out unless he was with her. Fran put up with it all, smiling, being nice. Her husband started accusing Fran of immoral tendencies and when she sympathetically smiled and tried to reassure him, he insisted she confess her sins. She said, “But, Herbert, there is nothing to confess, I am a good and virtuous wife.” To him, this denial was as good as a confession. He went more than a little crazy. There was a lot of door slamming. He hit her more than once and showed little concern when she cried. The more he thought about her “immoral lustfulness,’ the more he wondered if his wife was possessed. He went to his pastor. The pastor had seen this sort of thing before and knew he must stamp it out quickly and for good. He cautioned Fran’s husband to be strong. “If she refuses to obey your requirements, don’t get upset, pray for her redemption, or leave the house and go for a long, vigorous walk to calm yourself. You must resist anger.” The pastor also agreed to counsel and, if necessary, to admonition Fran. But his visit with Fran did not go well. One reason – Fran had been talking to Dora at the flower shop. At the time, Dora had married and divorced once or twice and was considering a fourth. So, you could say, she knew something about men and marriage. Even more important, she had a very broad sense of humor and a wild, cackling laugh to go with it. Fran’s husband was right about one thing with Dora; she was having a decided influence on Fran and not in the way he might have wished. There were long periods at the store when they were between customers and Fran and Dora passed the time – while seeing everything was spotless, tending to their merchandise, and creating to-order bouquets and corsages – talking about anything that came to mind including each other’s lives. Normally, Fran was very secretive about her feelings and what was happening in her life. But with Dora, it seemed different. Fran had come to regard Dora as the big sister she never had. Little by little, she let things out.  Dora’s first reaction to Fran’s marriage situation: “Dump him and get a life, sweetie pie.” Fran said she couldn’t do that. It was against her religion. “And anyway, what would I tell my grandmother? She would be devastated.” Fran also wondered if the problem was all her fault. “Maybe there’s something wrong with me. My husband thinks so. Maybe he’s right. I have some kind of emotional abnormality.” Dora would have none of it. “You seem pretty sane to me. Just a normal, healthy woman. A little innocent for someone your age. But that’s all. I’m telling you, dump this guy before he drives you really nuts. Or worse.” Fran thought about it. When Fran told Dora about her husband waving a pistol and threatening to kill her unless she behaved, Dora said, “That’s it. Go to the cops.” The other reason the pastor’s visit went badly was it came right after Fran’s husband had come home with a pistol and threatened to shoot her. Fran had been brought up to be polite so she listened quietly as he admonished her for her shamefulness. When he was done, she thanked him for his visit. Later that day, when her husband showed up after work, she told him his pastor had visited. Sitting in a big easy chair with a book in her lap, she explained she listened to what the pastor had to say. “He is probably very well-meaning but I had to tell him, despite what he and you might think, I am not some sort of pervert or harlot. I’m not. I am a normal woman, not some sort of demon or something. No, I’m not.” Her husband stood over her for a minute, turned, and went to his desk for the pistol. Pointing it at her, he threatened to kill her. For some reason, Fran wasn’t scared. Fran had dealt with an irate customer or two at Dora’s shop. Her usual reaction was to wait patiently saying nothing, then smile, offer an apology, and suggest some way to make things right. But this was something different. Fran was offended and somehow resigned. She did not smile or try to temporize. In a very quiet and slightly shaky voice she said, “Herbert, if you are going to shoot me, do it. But it might be best if you shot yourself instead. In any case, if you keep behaving this way, I shall have to leave you.” Her husband didn’t seem to know what to say or do next. He just glared at Fran who had become quiet and composed. She even gave one of her slight smiles. After a second or two, Herbert turned, went to the hall closet and got his coat, put it on, jammed the pistol in a pocket, and left, slamming the front their apartment door behind him. Fran sat in the easy chair for a while. Then, she made a supper of macaroni and cheese and spent the evening reading the book that had been on her lap when her husband was threatening her. It was a romantic novel, the kind of book she had been told not to read. She became worried when Herbert did not return by bedtime. She knew exactly what must have happened when, next morning, a policeman came to her door. He explained that an early-morning dog-walker had come upon her husband’s body and called the police. When he apologized for having to bring her this terrible news, Fran smiled and said, “It’s all right. You have your duty.” She politely agreed to come to the hospital to identify her husband’s body just as soon as she called Dora, her employer, to say she would be at work a little late that day. She told the policeman she would dress as quickly as possible but would like something for breakfast before leaving for the hospital. “And you look like you should have something to eat yourself, officer.” She made them both tea and toast. Later that day, the policeman told the detective writing up the suicide how nice the victim’s wife was. “So polite. So brave. Never shed a tear. Made tea before going to see the body. But, you know, a little too cool and collected, seems to me.” The detective agreed. He decided to visit Fran to get a better idea of what this young widow, barely married five years is all about. He showed up at Fran’s door a couple of days later around suppertime. She had been at the florist shop all day and was beginning to organize things so she could move back in with her grandmother and great-aunt. “My name’s Jimmy Ransome. I’m from the local police station. Might I come in and ask a few questions about your husband’s death. So sudden wasn’t it? How are you coping? Oh, and call me Jimmy. Everyone does.” Fran smiled. “Of course, come in. You’ve caught me in a mess. I am in the process of clearing out this apartment. With my poor husband gone, I’ll be moving back home.” She called herself “Francine “which she used sometimes to be more formal with strangers. And she referred to “Jimmy” as “Detective Ransome.” She offered to make tea, apologized for not having much in the way of cookies to have with the tea, and answered questions about her husband’s health, about anything unusual in his mental state, about her own mental state, about any money problems, about the state of her marriage, and about the gun. She answered all the detective’s questions in the same voice she used to serve a customer. She smiled, appeared to be helpful and patient, warm and friendly. She claimed to have been taken completely by surprise by her husband’s death. Suicide was nothing she imagined. She said their marriage was just fine. Both she and her husband were happy and content. He had a good job and she did too. And she said she knew nothing about the pistol. She also claimed, despite outward appearances, to be distraught and barely composed. She said she had been brought up to believe strong emotions are private matters. That last comment, at least, was true. While answering Jimmy’s questions, Fran made tea, found a few cookies, and laid it all out on her dining room table. And she asked him questions about his family. She commented on how his work must be sometimes very hard and sometimes dangerous. In the end, Jimmy thanked her for her time and for the tea and cookies and came away feeling Fran is either one of the more bizarre people he’d ever met or she was hiding something.  He also suspected, if there was something here, it was not something to concern him. He figured he would never run into Fran again. He was wrong. When Fran moved back into her childhood home, she found a situation different from when she left for married life. Her grandmother was suffering from congestive heart failure. And her great-aunt was increasingly senile and needed regular attention. It meant her job at the florist shop was the most restful part of the day. And the sanest. Dora was great company. She was also supportive and truly understanding. It helped a lot. But despite the two relatives at home and Dora’s friendship, Fran was very lonely. And that’s how things were until, five years after moving back into her childhood home, things again changed suddenly. She called the police immediately when her great-aunt seemed to have wandered off. An officer came by and took a lot of information including pictures of Fran’s great-aunt. They looked everywhere. Nothing. A week went by. Two. Nothing. Fran and her grandmother dreaded what they knew was coming. And it did a month later. A body had been found, trapped in the branches of a tree fallen in the local river, about twenty miles downstream. “She had been in the water all along, poor thing.” The officer her brought the news said. “She must have wandered down to the park along the river and fallen in.” He told them that a pathologist would confirm the identity but Fran and her grandmother immediately identified the rings and the bracelet found on the body. Beyond that and the pathologist’s report, there wasn’t much else identifiable. The policeman didn’t say anything about what some animals had done to the body. Fran knew better than to ask to see the remains. And her grandmother was too upset to ask anything. Two nights later, Fran’s grandmother had a massive heart attack. She was four days in intensive care and another week-and-a-half in the hospital. And, when she came home, she seemed much older than her seventy-nine years. A couple of weeks later, Jimmy Ransome asked to see his supervisor. One of Jimmy’s chores is to review all coroner’s reports and the minute he saw the one about the Shipley women in the river, he remembered Fran Shipley, the young woman whose husband had shot himself. How oddly cool and distant she seemed. How she served tea and cookies. How polite she was. How old-fashioned and virginal she seemed. The cookies, he recalled were cheap and stale but served as if they were just purchased from some expensive bakery, the sort of place his wife likes to go for a special treat. “Probably nothing but maybe not.” He asked to see his boss and told her the whole story. She said, “Jimmy, you are a paranoid nut. I don’t think there’s anything here to worry about.” “But, Gloria, I’m a detective. They pay me to be paranoid. If you don’t mind, when I get a minute, I am going to buzz by Ms. Shipley to offer my condolences.” As he describes the visit, “It was the same rigamarole all over again including the tea and the same damn cookies. She must have a lifetime supply for visiting policemen. I still can’t figure her out. She is polite but always steers the conversation where she wants. Which is in the middle of nowhere. I think if she was running a hot-and-cold running whore house in an upstairs room, she wouldn’t let on and no one she doesn’t want to know would ever know either. But, if she’s hiding something, I’d think it would be maybe something a little nutty. One thing is for sure, the odds of her tipping that old, senile lady into the drink are not high. I’m staying away.” Over the coming months, Fran’s grandmother began to get back to normal. She was up and down stairs. Out shopping. And feeling good. Fran could back to working full time at Dora’s florist shop. She had been working only 30 hours a week because her grandmother had needed a lot of attention when she got back from the hospital. Back working full time again, Fran struck Dora as happy but needing a bit of excitement. Fran was a little surprised when Dora suggested she should attend this year’s annual florist show. It would be three days and four nights away from home in a fancy hotel. And maybe another day to see the sights. “A great chance to meet people, show some of our stuff, and have a little fun. It’s a lot of work but also a really good time. And I’ve talked to your grandmother about it. I’ll watch out for her while you’re away. So, don’t give me any trouble. You are going.” Dora’s prediction was correct and then some. There was a lot more to do than Fran might have guessed. Getting the hotel reservations and plane tickets was the easy part. She had to design a display table, put together sales materials, arrange for everything to be shipped to the show and made sure it was set up correctly. When she finally arrived at her hotel, she was a wreck. She had never traveled on her own before. She had no idea how to deal with a lot of the people she met. Some were very rude. Others – like the funny, little man in the seat next to her on the plane – didn’t seem very sociable. When she asked how he was and how he was enjoying the plane ride, he gave her a funny look and got out some business papers to work on. Fran had been taught that it was rude not to speak to those nearby, to “exchange pleasantries” and to make “polite small talk.” She did not quite know what to do when, late in the day, after she had settled into her hotel room, “freshened up,” and stopped down in the exhibit hall to check on her display table and materials, a man with a big smile said, “Hello.” Her grandmother had told her to be polite but distant with strange men if they accosted her. And this man had definitely accosted her. Flustered, she gave one of her usual “customer” smiles and said, “How might I help you, sir.” He smiled. “Well, you seem an interesting person and you have a very nice display table, a lot nicer than mine, so I thought I’d say ‘Howdy’ is all. I see from your name tag your name is Fran. Mine is Stan. And we are both florists. And we are both alone at this big convention so why not have dinner together and talk about each other’s businesses. Beats eating alone in the room with the TV and a movie I wouldn’t watch otherwise which is what I usually do. And, who knows, we may learn something from each other.” From Fran’s perspective, politeness made it almost impossible to say no to this man. After all, he seemed courteous and had made a friendly invitation. But everything she had been taught from girlhood onward caused her to say, “Oh, I really couldn’t.” To which Stan said, “Oh, sure you could. I do not bite.” As Fran admitted to herself about a week later, this was an almost-word-for-word fantasy of what she imagined might happen at this convention. She had to admit Stan could have had three heads and made funny-duck noises and she would have said ‘Yes.” And she did. Stan suggested that they go to their respective rooms, change for dinner, and meet in in the lobby in forty-five minutes. He would make reservations. They had a wonderful time. Stan suggested a drink. She said that she shouldn’t. He ordered her a wine spritzer. She sipped at it. He ordered her another. They talked about their jobs and the business they were in and a little about their personal lives. Stan told Fran about his wife – a marketing executive – and his kids. She told him about her grandmother and that she had been married but is now single. She did not mention her husband’s suicide or her great-aunt’s drowning. And she asked why Stan had come up to her of all people and asked her to dinner. He said, “I usually find someone to have dinner with at these things, at least for one of the nights. Mostly with one or two gals but not always. I asked you for a couple of reasons. You seemed a bit lost and in need of a friend. And you seemed safe.” She smiled one of the smiles she gives customers and waited for him to go on. “I didn’t think I’d get into trouble with you. You seemed so proper. But since you asked, I’m not so sure now. And this dinner has been more fun than I’ve had in a while. My wife is always telling me to get into a little trouble; it would be good for me. But I never have.” Fran didn’t say a word. She had no idea what to think. Stan said, “What about dessert?” Fran said, “Oh, no. I couldn’t.” Stan said, “The chocolate bombe is what we’ll get. We’ll split it.” Fran ate all of hers and some of his. They both thanked the other for a delightful evening, hoped to see one another next day, shook hands, and said goodnight. Fran had not felt the way she felt that night for a long time. Perhaps never.  Fran did not see Stan the next day. She went to lectures in the morning, ate a box lunch with others convention attendees, and answered questions at her display table all afternoon. There was a cocktail hour at five. She went but didn’t stay. When she got back to her room, she changed and freshened up, ordered dinner, and settled down to an evening of television. She was feeling a very funny feeling – not just because Stan might have left the convention without so much as a goodbye after their “lovely evening” – but also because of a sense of regret and of guilt. Fran had hoped for more but also felt, if she got more, she would be taking something not hers. She turned on the TV and watched whatever was on without really looking. She must have dozed off when she heard something. A note had been slipped under the door. It was from Stan. An apology. He had hoped to see her but was called away by business. He was back now and wanted to have dinner with her tomorrow. Fran’s first thought was to turn him down. He was married. This was wrong. But she couldn’t. So, she hatched a plan. She would join him for dinner, thank him for his kind attention, wish he and his wife the best, and get up and leave when the meal was done. Of course, none of that happened. When Fran got back home, Dora had a feeling something was different. Fran was still the frumpy, flustered Fran she’d always been but different somehow – brighter, more relaxed, or maybe more enthusiastic about her work. Dora couldn’t tell exactly what it was. But it helped her to clinch a very big decision. A week or two later, Dora said, “Franny, I want to retire. How about I sell you the store at a very good price.” Fran ran into Stan two years later. By accident. At an airport. It was one of those rushed, between-flights reunions – ten minutes at most – not much more than “How have you been. We must get together. There is so much to tell you.” They touched hands goodbye. And never saw one another again.

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