The Conservatory

(This story was written in response to the prompt:  ” A fan letter to your favorite piece of architecture in San Francisco,” by Jen Schnell)

The docent at the Conservator of Flowers found the man just before closing time, unconscious among the hothouse orchids, with a letter taped to his chest.

He had no ID.

He was non-responsive, but alive. The public was escorted out of the building as an ambulance was called. The manager on duty, a low-level city parks employee who didn’t know anything about flowers but was related by marriage to the an aid to the mayor’s chief of staff, wanted to leave the letter untouched for the police. But one of the horticulturalists, who actually fed and watered the flowers and knew their names on sight, said that he wanted to read it. He was going to open it. The manager on duty had been told not to get in the way of people who knew what they were doing, and it was a skill that had gotten him everything he had in life.

So he let the horticulturalist open it, even though officially the horticulturalist worked for him. Many of us are only kept where we are by official fictions.

The letter was opened where the man lay, in an artificially hot environment enclosed by glass in a famously temperate and foggy city. It was addressed to “The Conservatory of Flowers” and written – apparently – by the unconscious man’s roommates, who had snuck him in after they found him sleeping off another heroin fix during the middle of a juice cleanse.

It began with a list of their roommate’s good qualities: he followed modern poetry;   he knew all the city’s best bakeries; he was good at Sodoku and Scrabble and solving puzzle games online. He was mostly tidy, and usually considerate. He was a good listener, and they’d never seen him stab anyone in the back.

The problem, the letter stressed, with enough emphasis to sound defensive, wasn’t that he couldn’t pay his rent. It wasn’t about the money he owed them, or the drain on their resources – month after month – that he had become. No, these were just symptoms of what the house had agreed was a larger problem, one they did not know how to solve:

There is no longer a place for people like him in this world.

Life moved faster than he could. He was always staring at the sunrise when everyone was getting too work; talking to the delivery man who brought the office lunch when everyone else had gone back to the meeting; he was too soft; he was impractical; he did not monetize. He was not his own brand.

He had been sleeping too much since the layoff, and his habit had gotten worse when his unemployment had run out. But it wasn’t the money, the letter said again: it was that they couldn’t be responsible for someone like him. A human being, even a useless one, makes demands that a cat or a dog do not. It is fine to have no point if you are decorative, but to be useless and ordinary at once …

He had to go.

They had brought him here, to a place where fragile blossoms from around the world were kept in the precise environmental conditions they needed. They had brought him here, and left him among the orchids – flowers that die if left untended – in the hope that he, too, could be tended.

Surely we can do for a human being what we do for flowers? In any case, they’d taken his ID and his wallet: he couldn’t come back. There is no going back.

The volunteer staff laughed uncomfortably. The city was developing a Comprehensive Plan to turn the Conservatory of Flowers from a park attraction for local residents into a world class tourist attraction. To fund exhibits to pull in Japanese tour groups and Saudi princes, they would need to raise the ticket princes for everyone, and end the discounts for children and senior citizens. A number of their regular patrons would be priced out. They had reconciled themselves to this because charity and simplicity are not virtues but luxuries. The marketing consultants the city had brought in had been very clear: you grow or you die. There is no way to opt out of the world. We’re all stuck, however hard it gets and however soft we are. There is no choice by to be your own brand, and monetize it.

But the manager on duty stood underneath the great glass dome supported by curved wooden spires, staring through the windows at the setting sun. This was one of the oldest buildings in San Francisco: built in 1878 and shipped to the city from England. A historic place, protected. No one would ever build a structure like this out of wood again. And he did not get paid to tend it because he was clever or good, but because he had been lucky enough to be related to someone who had a place in this world. And because be was just smart enough to keep his head down and not cause trouble.

If forced to carve a place for himself in the world today … and he had often thought about this … he would probably starve. He was humble enough to admit this. Humanity, his in-laws had always told him, is a problem. They wanted him to stop it.

He walked back to the horticulturalist, who was also not laughing. They exchanged looks, and the manager on duty began sending the docents home.

He met the ambulance outside of the building when it came. “False alarm,” he told the paramedics. “You weren’t needed here.”

Inside, the horticulturalist gently tied vines around the nameless man’s legs. “Sleep as long as you like,” he said. “There is no winter here, and I believe I have just the soil for you. We’ll talk when you are ready to wake.”

A place for him could be found on staff, when he was prepared, guiding others through a gentle world of useless beauty, preserved for hundreds of years. He would be able to turn his face to the sun.

Like this?  Benjamin’s collection of short fiction “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City” is available. 

“Benjamin Wachs reveals a distinctive and highly personal flair for storytelling that will engage the reader’s total and rapt attention throughout.” – The Midwest Book Review