I’ve been set to autopilot. I have been for a few years, with the occasional break. My job consists of walking in relatively straight paths and stopping to repeat the same task. I only have a few routes, which themselves rotate only semi-regularly. The task, essentially the only non-administrative duty of my job, is reading and recording the content of gas meters. The nature of my one task would make a deviation from autopilot a liability. It would not help my job but complicate it where there is absolutely no room for complication. To re-think my process would inevitably lead to insanity.
“Would you like a flower? It’s from my grandmother’s tree.” This voice was an absolute surprise to me, as my silence had been pure once I’d stopped at this meter. I did not jump, but turned slowly to my right. It was a girl of maybe six or seven, healthy and pretty. She held a small magenta flower in one hand and a wicker bucket of them in the other. I squinted at her a little.
“No, thank you,” I said, trying to be as polite as possible, feeling guilty as soon as the word “no” was out. She looked confused and frowned.
I realized that it was stupid to say no. I tried to make it look like I had some kind of a reason for saying “no” beyond that saying “yes” would have required me to deviate from my routine.
“Do I have to buy it? Or do you mean for free?” This puzzled her further.
“OK, then. Sure. I’ll take it.” She placed it in my hand. “It’s very pretty.” It really was. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d noticed a flower and in spite of that, this might have been the prettiest I’d ever seen.
She walked away after that. After I finished reading her family’s meter I snuck a look at the backyard and noticed a tree bearing more of the flowers. Then I left, keeping it in my front shirt pocket. I snuck looks at it throughout the rest of the day, for some reason pleased with myself for accepting it even though I had only done so after the girl had pushed it on me. When my shift was over, I put the flower in a little slot in my car as I drove home. This was in June.
In October, I found the brown remains of the flower. It turned into dust as I picked it up. I leaned down toward the floor mat and could not find a trace of brown among the black, as if it had totally disintegrated.
Late at night, I parked far down the street from the house where she’d given me the flower. Dressed as criminally as possible, I skulked into her backyard to examine the tree. It was, of course, bare. I would have to wait maybe until June to check again whether that tree had really produced such flowers.