Writers on Writing #39: Brandon Peters
Palmetto Rose, or What Showing Up, Revision, Practice, and Knowing Your Audience Really Looks Like
He starts with the palmetto leaf, long and lean. Three dozen more rest in a satchel at his feet, dangling inches above the cobblestone. He sits on a brick ledge, a planter of azaleas. He leans forward in army surplus: pants and jacket. Sandals. Palm turned toward the sky, fingers calloused and dusty. A smile.
Some days it is sunny and warm. Today it is cloudy. A breeze. It will rain. He runs the leaf between forefinger and thumb, feels the strength of the stem, folds the green edges together. His movements are practiced. The toes of his dangling right foot curl, pulling the heels of his sandal up against his calloused soles, and then releasing. He sits on a planter, or a fountain. He nods to passersby.
With a quick motion of his wrist, he separates the stem from the flanking plant tissues and breaks it from the whole, except for a few inches resting in his palm and against his wrist. The leaf now in two parts, he takes one blade and folds it over the other at 90 degrees. He grips the second and folds it over the first at 120 degrees.
The rose is born from the repetition. A repetition practiced many years. Raindrops begin to fall. The few early morning tourists walk quickly.
“Welcome to Savannah.”
They do not slow down or show interest. Colorful shops open their doors. The people enter. Leave with t-shirts, shot glasses, slogans to commemorate their navigation of airports and bank accounts that led them here. Souvenirs for those they left behind in offices, and classrooms, and homes.
Washington and Michigan, Texas.
The raindrops come more quickly. They darken the cobblestones and bricks, land on the protective plastic coverings of smartphones. The people run. They retreat. They rush to indoor seating, hotel swimming pools.
When the clouds are away and the people are out, he is a teller of stories. He is the teller of his stories, and the teller of the stories of others. The structure of these stories is a rose. He wraps the green blades around each other with forefinger and thumb. Always smiling, always talking. He is the Gullah Man. That’s what he is called. It’s not his name, but it’s what he is called. He knows about you. He welcomes you to Savannah. If you’ll stop for a second, he’ll tell you something.
There’s a man, who was a boy. Who-nah. This boy wants to be an artist, a master, and when he is a man he will become one. The Gullah Man is like that boy. He’s not a master yet, he tells you, as he closes his eyes and shifts the rose behind his back. He turns so you can see the deft movements of his fingers. He stares blindly up into the sky, the skin around his clenched eyelids lined and wrinkled. Always, if he is not speaking, he is smiling. The rose takes shape in his hands.
If you stop, he’ll tell you about his ancestors from low country and Angola. He’ll tell you about years of military service, and his discharge. He’ll tell you about studying business. About pouring concrete, and driving dump trucks and laying brick. He’ll tell you about spreading God’s love and the good will of mankind. He’ll tell you about Spanish moss and Savannah’s ghosts.
He’ll tell you about stories and how their shape is a false rose, woven from palmetto. How he decided one day that happiness isn’t retiring on a pile of money, it’s learning the stories, and sharing them. He has practiced his stories for years. He can hold them behind his back and close his eyelids, and still their rhythms will guide him to their perfect end. He won’t ask you for money, but he’ll thank you when you hand it to him. This is how he makes his living. God bless you.
On this day the rain sets with sun, and the people walk out of the hotels into the night, in search of oysters, and pulled-pork, and ribs. In search of Jazz guitar and Georgia home brews, warm air. It is winter in other places of the world. Music doesn’t spill out into the night.
We are no exception, and before we cross the busy streets, and before we fill plastic cups with dark beer, and before we fill our lungs with cigarette smoke, and before we dance with art teachers to Jimi Hendrix songs, the Gullah Man calls out. There are three of us, and him.
“It’s a beautiful evening. Where are you fine young people off to today?”
We stop, reluctant, because we are poor, and thirsty, and we are not looking for stories, or do not think that we are. We stop, reluctant, because he looks homeless and we are not. But we stop. He tells us his story and he tells us ours.
“I want each of you to take a rose,” he says. And, “You will remember this night forever.”
He weaves the three of us into his narrative. One in which we grow old and are still friends, one in which friendship is something deep and shared. He knows nothing of us, but he knows we are together now, and we are afraid of being alone one day. He smiles. And when we give him too much money he gives us extra roses to pass along to those we want to remember with. “Thank you. This is how I make my living. Thank you.”
As we walk away. We joke together, and discuss how much money we gave and how easily he took it. We debate who is going to buy drinks, and wonder if he is genuine or laughing at us. We give some of our roses away and some of them unravel. We drink, and walk, and dance, and smile. We tell the story over and over again.
Brandon Peters is an MA candidate at Northern Michigan University.