Knuckles Nicky Nunez had won the Ultimate Fighting Championship Middleweight World Title at Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena only three hours before pulling into the Jackpot Diner’s parking lot. Every part of him throbbed. Raul Ferro, a third-degree Jiu-Jitsu black belt and K-1 Grand Prix finalist, had beaten the brakes off him for two rounds. An elbow from guard had broken Nunez’s nose. A standing right hook split open his eyebrow. Before the third round, Nunez had thought, Hell with it. I’m goin out on my shield. Ferro showboated, his hands near his hips, chin out, and Nunez caught him in the temple with a left hook, wobbled him, and followed up with a barrage of punches to the head and body. As Ferro tried to circle away, a head kick sent the champ crashing face-first to the mat.
Las Vegas sports books were furious. The championship belt sat in Nunez’s trunk. His eyebrow stitches itched. His nose felt like a Bryce Harper line drive had struck it. I’ll probably get a 90-day medical suspension, he thought. And Ferro’s already callin for a rematch. For tonight, though, Nunez ruled the world, at least at one hundred and eighty-five pounds.
Limping and wincing and grunting, he entered the diner and took his usual seat near the restrooms, his back to the wall.
Milly, the fifty-something server who always seemed to be on duty, approached. Steak and eggs, she said. Short stack. Hash browns with tomatoes and peppers. White toast, dry. And two glasses of water.
You know it, he said.
I hear you won. I guess we won’t see you in this dump much.
He winked. I ain’t makin that kind of money yet.
You look like you got hit by a train, Milly said, winking back.
With its huge windows and red faux-leather booths and barstools that might have been new in the Eisenhower days, the Jackpot would not have looked out of place in an Edward Hopper painting. Its food was cheap and greasy, its coffee like battery acid, its hygiene questionable at best. Dusty ceiling fans swirled overhead. Still, Nunez loved it. Nobody bothered him here, even when he lost.
That’ll change, he thought. Everybody wants a piece of the champ.
Normally, the place reeked of burnt potatoes and week-old grease and desperation, but tonight it smelled sweet, like spring gardens. Nunez stood up and walked around the bar, searching for the source. A man stared at his phone and sipped a soda in the back booth. He wore a coat and loosened paisley tie, his top shirt button undone. He might have been thirty-five and looked like an accountant or bank teller. In the next booth, a woman stared at the man with the kind of concentration you saw at weigh-in staredowns. Her pony-tailed caramel hair bisected her long, tan neck. Despite the heat, she wore long sleeves. A pair of heavy work gloves lay on the table. Piled into the seat opposite her, a bushel of flowers with six-pointed purple blooms. She turned and said something to a server, revealing an aquiline nose, a strong chin, full lips, no makeup.
Nunez watched her, puzzled, until she turned to her meal. Then he went back to his booth. Milly came over and leaned down, conspiratorial. She’s been coming in here for three weeks. We call her Flower Child.
What’s her deal?
She sells them on the street. They’re hyacinths.
Huh, he said. Hyacinths.
Go talk to her.
She was lookin at that other dude.
They’re sometimes here at the same time, but they never sit together or talk. Milly appraised Nunez’s face. Now that I think about it, you might want to wait a couple days.
I’m still pretty, Nunez said as Milly walked off. She laughed and gave him a thumbs-up.
Hyacinths, he thought. I like that word.
Driving to his apartment on Arroyo Grande, Nunez’s whole body felt heavy, the sum of all he had put it through, not just the fight but the training, a brutal weight cut, the adrenaline dump. He needed a hot shower and sleep, yet he kept imagining the woman’s face in profile, those purple flowers. He could still smell them, as if they had taken root in his cilia.
Then he saw her walking up ahead, her arms full of hyacinths. She wore jeans and work boots and the gloves he had seen on her table. Nunez’s heartbeat quickened. His palms grew sweaty. Stop it, he thought. You’re a cage fighter, not a kid whose balls ain’t even dropped yet. Go home.
And yet he turned on his hazards and pulled over to the curb, where he crawled along beside her and rolled down the passenger window. She looked at him, eyebrows raised, still walking.
I saw you in the Jackpot, Nunez said. You need a ride?
She stopped. Nunez braked, leaned over, and opened the passenger door. She climbed in. Nunez rolled up the window, checked his mirrors, and pulled back into his lane.
Thanks, she said. Her voice was husky, like Miley Cyrus’s.
You’re welcome, he said. You always trust strangers so easy?
I’d rather trust people than lived scared. Besides, I’ve got a Glock 30S in my bag.
Nunez laughed. Okay, badass. Where you headed?
Home, she said.
Which is where?
I don’t trust strangers that much. Can you drop me at Amador Lane?
Sure. You always carry that many hyacinths?
Look at you, Mister Botany. Depends on where I’m going.
Why not drive?
I like to walk. You see more.
At Amador, Nunez pulled over, unbuckled, got out, and trotted around to her side. He opened the door and helped her with the flowers.
Once she had a good hold on them, she studied him. What happened to your face?
I got in a fight. But you should see the other guy.
Well. Thanks for the ride.
Sellin flowers don’t seem like a good way to pay the rent.
I don’t have to worry about that.
He waited for her to go on, but she said nothing else. Why hyacinths?
Ask me when you see me again.
The next night, Nunez patrolled the neighborhoods near Stephanie Street and south of 215, hoping to spot Hyacinth, as he had come to think of her. He drove slowly, waving cars around him, one eye on the road and one on the sidewalks. Finally, on the corner of Calle Cantar and Via Pacifico, he found her sitting on the sidewalk amongst her bouquets, a fanny pack around her waist. Probably her change purse, Nunez thought, turning off his lights and parking at the curb. Standing under the streetlamps like a spotlighted actor, her long-sleeved shirt stained with sweat, she looked lonely and ethereal.
Over the next hour, three people stopped, admired the flowers, talked with her, moved on. One of the interlocutors bought a bouquet and stored it in his trunk before leaving. And still Hyacinth sat there, patient as the mountains ringing the valley.
Later, another man stopped. He looked familiar. A natural fifty-fiver, Nunez thought. Tall, high center of gravity. You could probably hit a knee tap or a reactive double and take him out on the ground.
The dude stood with his hands in the pockets of his expensive-looking suit pants. His tie flapped in the breeze. Some kind of loafers—a desk jockey. He laughed at something Hyacinth said. When he turned, Nunez recognized him—the guy from the Jackpot. Hyacinth seemed at ease, laughing with him. When he bought a bouquet, she stood and laid a hand on his forearm. Next to him, she looked like an Atomweight.
Shit, Nunez thought.
Soon, Diner Guy got back in his gray Lexus and drove away. Only forty or fifty yards down the street, though, he turned into the driveway of a two-story house. The garage door opened, and he drove inside. Hyacinth watched the car with that intense expression that he had seen in the restaurant. Like all the cold-hearted assassins in the movies as they sighted in on their targets who were, in a real sense, already dead.
Nunez got out. She saw him coming and looked both puzzled and delighted, as if he were an old friend from out of town.
What are you doing here? she asked.
Just passin by, he said. More hyacinths, huh?
That’s right. Want some?
Sure, he said. What do you do with the ones you don’t sell?
She put on her gloves and selected a bouquet. I just leave them. Sanitation picks them up. Or somebody does, anyway.
Not bad. She handed him the flowers. If you handle the bulbs, you’ll want to wear gloves. They’re poisonous. Nunez must have looked strangled. No, not that poisonous, she said. They’ll just irritate your skin.
He took out his wallet and grabbed a twenty. Is this enough?
On the house, she said. I’m heading home anyway. I would have just left them here.
Well, thanks. So you said to ask when I saw you again, and here you are. Why hyacinths?
Her smile faded. They were my mother’s favorite.
I’m not the smartest guy, but even I know when I’ve stepped in shit, Nunez thought. Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.
She tried to smile, a polite expression that nearly broke his heart. It’s okay.
Open mouth, insert entire lower leg. Hell, he muttered.
Really. Don’t worry. I’d better get home, though. Tomorrow is another day. She started to walk away.
Hey, he said. That guy who was here before me—he was in the diner, too. Is he, like, your boyfriend? Should I step off?
She stopped without turning. I am become Death, she said. The destroyer of worlds.
Nunez had no idea what she was talking about. So not your boyfriend.
No, she said.
He watched until she turned the corner, wondering if she would always leave so quickly, floating away on the wind like pollen.
Nunez ran eight miles, showered, and dressed in clean shorts and a t-shirt. He did not feel like cooking, so he drove to the Jackpot Diner for an egg-white veggie omelet with a double side of fresh fruit.
Hyacinth sat in the back booth, facing the door, the purple flowers her only companions.
He smiled and waved. She smiled back, but it seemed pained, a little formal. He approached her anyway.
Can I sit? he asked.
If you can find a spot, she said, looking past him.
Nunez picked up the bouquets nearest the aisle, a few at a time, and stacked them on those against the wall. Then he sat down, stems from the leaning tower poking his arm. Hyacinth sipped coffee with cream. Milly brought him two glasses of water. He ordered.
So, he said. I haven’t seen you around for a few days. What’s new in your life?
Nothing, she said. Most days are exactly the same.
You know, I never got your name.
I didn’t get yours, either.
Nicky Nunez. My friends call me Knucks.
How’s the flower business?
But you can afford to eat out.
My parents had money. I’m okay.
Raul Ferro’s front kick to his solar plexus had not stung so much. He had stepped into another pile of shit. Fuck me, he muttered.
It happened a long time ago, she said, sipping coffee.
I’m an idiot.
It’s fine, said Hyacinth.
She nodded. Soon, his food arrived. He ate in silence for a while. She looked dreamy, distracted.
We came from New Orleans in 2005, she said.
Huh, he said, his mouth full. I don’t hear much accent.
Not all of us sound Cajun.
How come you moved to the desert?
Because Hurricane Katrina knocked our house down.
Nunez nearly choked on his honeydew. Goddammit. I can’t say anything right. Beside him, the flowers’ scent wafted directly up his nose, so thick that his eyes watered. He wondered how she could stand it. The smell probably coated everything she owned.
I’m sorry, he said again.
My parents were surgeons, she said. We lived near the lake. My room could have held most of this diner. I had a walk-in closet full of designer clothes. And I was a spoiled brat. I thought anybody who didn’t have all that shit must have been lazy or stupid. Like I had earned any of it. She shook her head. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
Because I asked, he said.
Momma told Daddy that she wanted to live somewhere without storms. She got a job offer here and couldn’t think of a drier place. Daddy let all the hospitals know he was available. Every day when I got home from school, he had done something to our new house—a storage rack in the garage, a hummingbird feeder in the little backyard. I missed my friends. I missed jambalaya and boudin balls. I missed sweet tea in restaurants. But we were putting life back together.
He had finished his omelet and most of the melon. And then? he asked.
Late November, a cool and windy evening. They drove west on Flamingo, headed for dinner at some fancy spot on the Strip. Try as she might, she could never recall which place. She sat in the back seat, her iPod’s ear buds blasting O’ Sailor from the new Fiona Apple album. Her eyes were closed, so she saw nothing, but when the Range Rover t-boned their car, the sensations etched themselves inside her like DNA: the jolt as the Rover’s grill plowed into her mother’s passenger-side door; the concurrent sound, a low whumpf followed by the scream of metal on metal and the almost musical shattering of glass; the searing pain in her neck, spine, and ribs as she was thrown about, the seatbelt nearly crushing her chest; the deploying airbags, her mother’s scream, her father’s curses; the vertiginous moment when the car turned on its side and skidded, sparks of metal on pavement bursting through broken windows; the gradual slowing, the cessation, the stillness; the sight of her mother hanging from the lapbelt, eyes open but unseeing, blood pouring like a waterfall; her father’s head, left cheek pressed against the asphalt and ground to the bone. And, almost imperceptible, Fiona Apple’s voice, whispering O' Sailor, why'd you do it…What'd you do that for…
Eyes open—swirling red and blue lights, upraised voices whose words came to her as pulses of pain in her head.
Eyes closed—her mother annoyed as Hyacinth inserted her earbuds, some comment about how they would appreciate talking to her once in a while cut off by the Beastie Boys’ No Sleep Till Brooklyn.
Open—firemen and paramedics and cops peeking in, someone telling her that she was all right, it would be okay, just stay calm and they would have her out of there soon, someone shouting for the defibrillator and a chest tube and intubation supplies and IVs and blankets and, improbably, bottled water, as if maybe her father just needed an aspirin.
Closed—waiting for pedestrians in the crosswalk, a fat woman carrying a large soda in a fast-food cup, a family of four, a scruffy old man pushing a shopping cart piled high with junk.
Open—faces hovering, cooing as if she were a baby; the claustrophobic feeling of the oxygen mask; her chest and upper legs constricted under the gurney’s restraints; someone saying guy was drunk, didn’t even know he had been in an accident, barely a scratch on the son of a bitch; something squeezing her neck and throat, hard plastic maybe, a neck brace, oh shit oh fuck what’s wrong with my neck; the dark sky overhead becoming a hospital ceiling, its tiles passing in their sameness like the background of an old Flintstones cartoon.
Closed—a momentary glimpse through the broken window and the Rover’s windshield, the round moon face behind its wheel etched in her memory like a daguerreotype.
When she woke, she still wore the neck brace. Casts covered both her arms from shoulder to mid-palm. She ached all over and groaned until a nurse came and injected something into her IV and then she fell asleep.
Soon enough, she learned that her parents were dead. She turned eighteen before she left the hospital, after which she came back for months of physical therapy. The man who killed her parents had been arrested—DUI, vehicular manslaughter, traffic violations. She inherited her parents’ estates and received an enormous settlement from the driver’s insurance company. She would never have to work again, and all it cost was her entire life.
When she finished, they sat in silence. She sipped coffee. Knucks drank several glasses of water and felt the day’s workouts letting go of his bones.
Finally, she said, Sorry you asked?
I always wondered—could you call them hurricane victims? We wouldn’t have been at that intersection if the storm hadn’t happened. Maybe Katrina killed them, and it just took us all those months to realize it.
He set down his fork. Listen, you wanna get outta here? Maybe get a slice of pie somewhere?
Something caught her eye. Nunez turned around and saw that same guy coming in. The man’s eyes were red, the wrinkles around his mouth deeper.
I don’t think that’s a good idea, Hyacinth said.
Nunez turned back. Why not?
Because I’m damaged.
So am I. I fight in a cage for a livin.
She picked up her purse from the seat, took out a twenty, and stuck the bill under a bottle of ketchup. Then she stood, leaving the flowers where they were. I’m the kind of damaged that stitches can’t fix, she said. Ask the server to get rid of those. I’m too tired to lug them home.
She patted his shoulder and started to leave, but he took her wrist, gently. Who’s that guy? The one you’re always starin at?
She shook her head and pulled away. Just another hungry traveler, she said.
Afterward, he realized that she had never told him her name.
For three nights running, Hyacinth did not return to the Jackpot. Nunez drove the streets, looking for her in dark places. He staked out the corner of Calle Cantar and Via Pacifico. The gray Lexus passed by and pulled into its garage every night. On the fourth night, after the garage door descended, Nunez got out of his car. He wore his workout hoodie, damp with the day’s sweat, the hood pulled up. He stuck his hands in his pockets and walked up the street, looking about. Lots of stucco houses, neatly trimmed bushes and well-pruned trees, rock yards. Signs for security companies, some blue garbage bins tucked in the side yards. Most windows were lit from within but curtained. Nunez walked past Diner Guy’s house three or four times, waiting to see if anybody looked out their windows, if anyone decided to walk their dog, if the police might appear. Nothing happened.
On his fifth pass, Nunez took off his shoes and picked his way through Diner Guy’s yard. The house seemed ordinary. A satellite dish clung to the roof, its concavity pointed toward the stars. The color of the stucco reminded Nunez of certain long and nauseating dumps he had taken after drinking too much coffee. The wind blew. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked.
To Nunez’s right, a window’s blinds were cracked. He eased his way down and peered in.
Diner Guy sat at a rectangular table of polished oak, occupying a single padded, armless chair. He ate meatloaf and mashed potatoes. A glass of something amber and on the rocks sweated at his right hand. He took one bite of meat, one forkful of starch, one sip. A poster-sized frame hung on the wall behind him, though Nunez could not make out the picture. Nothing else in sight.
In the table’s center stood a white vase full of purple hyacinths, some starting to wilt.
Nunez watched a while longer. When Diner Guy got up and carried his plate out of view, the Middleweight Champion of the World crept out of the yard.
Nunez could not get them out of his mind—the woman with the bright,