Of all the things that passed over Skid Row--tourists, taxes, taxis, the police, garbage collectors--the sun was not one of them, although if it had free will, it would want to. Even if its rays could penetrate the cloak of smog, they would only illuminate further greyness: grey streets and sidewalks, grey buildings, grey people. The same sun that harkened dawn over Central Park, letting joggers know it was time for their pre-work dash across the green; signaled the Union Square Farmer’s Market vendors to unload their trucks and set up their stands; created a shining halo over the one hundred-story Stark Tower; even reached the underground and signalled the subways to run at more frequent intervals--that same sun could not change the corpse-like pall of Skid Row.
Bruce Banner, who arguably did have free will, did not pass over Skid Row, either. He worked in Skid Row’s sad little flower shop that somehow stayed open, even though he, with his genius intellect, would be hard-pressed to explain how. He lived on Skid Row, in a tiny slice of a room above the store. Straight out of Dickens, his little box: furnished with a cot, lit by candle, heated by a nest of blankets.
He began his mornings--the mornings that he did sleep-- relieved to escape his sleeping nightmares and resume his waking one. Depending on how bad his dreams were, he’d extricate himself from a tangle of blankets. Otherwise, he’d unceremoniously rise, blankets tumbling to the ground. Visitors--if he ever had them, which he didn’t--might fill in a Gestalt picture of uncleanliness based on the location, lighting, and dreariness. In fact, the floor was clean, so it was no great sanitation hazard when his blankets reached the floor.
Next, in a fluid sequence he’d:
- Set a pot of water on the hot plate
- Brush his teeth
- Let a thin stream of alternately frigid-cold and scalding-hot water drip onto him.
When he first moved into the apartment, the shower had been one of the most unpleasant surprises. Instinct told him to hop away from the water, especially when it burned, but Bruce was nothing if not adaptable and good at nothing if not resisting his impulses. Soon, he could slump in the shower, let whatever hit him hit him, and suffer the slings and arrows of his fortune .
By the time the shower ended, the pot of water would be boiling, and he’d treat himself to a mug of tea and a newspaper, science journal, or book, depending on how depressed he was.
He’d put on one of three pairs of slacks and one of five button-downs, then head downstairs to his shop. That was where the plants lived. It was also, really, where he lived. He slept in his apartment, but downstairs he watered, pruned, swept, experimented with different soils and sunlight exposures, rearranged plants and furniture. Sometimes, if he had a customer--which he usually didn’t—he would chat.
And some days, he’d have The Customer.
The most exciting thing to ever happen on Skid Row--if you didn’t count muggings, robberies, and murders, which Bruce didn’t--happened at Bruce’s flower shop: sometimes Tony Stark, the Tony Stark, the Tony Stark of Stark Industries, the Tony Stark of Stark Towers, stopped by Bruce’s store. Luckily, people on Skid Row--to borrow a phrase from the neighborhood--didn’t see shit, and if they did see shit, they wouldn’t say shit.
Bruce wasn’t starstruck. In fact, Tony’s visits irritated him. Well, not irritated. They should have been irritating, but they were flattering. Or they should have been flattering but they were irritating. Or there should have been a precise, identifiable emotion Bruce could name. Yet for all the hours he spent, sitting on carpeted floors next to Duplex blocks and wire roller coasters, as a kindly social worker asked him to look at flash cards of feelings and discuss his own (“How do you know when you’re angry, Bruce? What about happy?”), he was at a loss when it came to Tony.
But it was objectively cool that Tony Stark visited his shop. No one with savings and more than a four-figure salary had any reason to venture down, down, downtown into that metropolitan Underworld. And billionaires? They didn’t exist in the same universe--except when Tony Stark was within Bruce’s walls. So that was kind of special.
Tony Stark Days were irregular, but moderately frequent: no less than nine days apart, no more than two weeks. Today was a Tony Stark Day.
Instead of the usual trumpeting fanfare (an A-list celebrity bellowing “TOOONNYYY STAAARK!” to an adoring crowd of thousands), a door chime signaled his entrance. Titan of industry, most powerful man in the world or not, he was still just a man and thus not immune to small metal jingling.
Head cocked, Tony surveyed his surroundings as if he had never been in any store before, let alone this one. Eyeing the hanging plants in the corner, Tony unzipped his microfleece. (The store ran hot and stuffy in the winter, and even hotter and stuffier in the summer.) Next, the sunglasses came off. Aviators, Tony painstakingly corrected him, but to Bruce they’d always be sunglasses. His brow furrowed at the larkspur, then he nodded approvingly. He ran a finger across the hydrangeas.
“Hey, Tony,” Bruce said. Tony turned his attention to Bruce as if he was just now realizing there was another person in the room.
“Dr. Banner!” He approached Bruce’s desk with his arms spread wide, greeting his old, old friend from ten days ago.
“What can I get for you today?” Bruce asked.
“Another pair of hands in the lab! A set of agile, nimble fingers that can coax life from plants and metal.” Tony grabbed Bruce’s hand and pressed his thumb against Bruce’s palm, making his fingers lay flat. No one dared touch Bruce in this way; no one else dared touch Bruce, period--well, except Audrey, who’d fling herself on him with casual hugs and only occasionally notice that he flinched.
After a moment past awkward, Bruce extracted his hand from Tony’s grip.
“What can I get for Pepper, then?”
“This Saturday is either her grandmother’s birthday or her grandfather’s funeral. Does that make a difference?”
“I like a challenge. One birthday-funeral special coming up.”
Bruce knew it was for a birthday because Tony would never be so flippant about a death in Pepper’s family. Bruce never met her, probably never would, but he knew she was special: Tony gushed about her almost as much as he did himself.
“If you liked a challenge, you’d be working with me instead of wasting your life and that beautiful brain.”
“I’m not wasting my life. I like it here.” Bruce puttered around his store and plucked flowers from here and there: the larkspur that Tony eyed, the hydrangeas he’d fingered. Then he filled in the rest, something festive yet classy. He’d seen Pepper on TV, holding press conferences, and though he would never meet her and never cared about impressing anyone, he could tell she was a woman of impeccable taste. Maybe he did want to impress her a little bit.
“You’re too smart to believe that.”
And you’re too smart to believe that I could be happier anywhere. Bruce returned to his desk and arranged his selections on top of a red foil sheet. Tony studied his every movement, trying to figure out what every flip, switch, and placement meant. Moments like these, Bruce felt they were two valuable components of the same ecosystem, each filling a niche that the other could not: Tony could run an international mega-conglomerate; Bruce could arrange flowers in aesthetically pleasing displays. They were equals.
“Pick a card,” Bruce said, tossing a handful of options in front of Tony so that he would have something to do while Bruce tied the ribbon. Handmade cards were one of the little-known perks of the little-known store. They had all been drawn and designed by Audrey. Bruce discovered her talent one idle summer day when it was too hot to kill time with needless time cleaning, and the exertion of energy would create sweat-odor. Bruce read an austere science journal, heavy and cumbersome on his lap, and Audrey sat on the floor. He assumed she’d be on her phone or something, some online dating service or playing--what was the cool thing now? Kardashian? CandyCrush? When he set his tome down he glimpsed her drawings out of the corner of his eye. They looked...good. They couldn’t have possibly been that good.
“Can I see those?” Bruce asked.
“Oh, uh, sure. They’re nothing really.” But she immediately gathered up her scraps of paper and handed them over.
He flipped through them. She had created two-dimensional black-and-white replicas of his desk and the flowers on the back of receipts. He glanced up at the room to compare her drawings to their real-life counterparts. The details, the shading...it was almost spooky how exact they were. But still-lifes were still-lifes. It was the landscape paintings that struck him. She’d created a world outside her immediate surroundings, a world of her own design. Identical houses and identical lawns that in real life would bore Bruce to death somehow took on a sweet suburban life when rendered on the back of a flyer. He realized why: they were drawn with love. They were Audrey’s dream.
God, who on earth loved the suburbs?
“Audrey, these are really good.”
“Aw, Doctor, you don’t gotta…”
“No, I’m serious. Do you enjoying drawing?”
“I love it! If I could make money as an artist--well, if I wasn’t working here--I mean, I love working here, but--”
“It might be a good idea to have some cards on hand. Would you like to do that?”
“I’d love to!”
He’d dipped into his savings for a couple of hundred sheets of canvas and linen cardstock and some art supplies. Audrey filled them up within a week. He expected many of them: cute cartoons with cheap jokes and bad puns written in dialogue bubbles, bubbly Happy Birthday cards.
But some were downright tasteful, classy even, and he couldn’t imagine where Audrey had gotten that kind of eye.
Most customers waved the cards away. Tony, though, took his time with each of his options, staring at them as if he were selecting which million-dollar painting to hang in the living room of his penthouse.
“Audrey drew these, yeah?”
“They’re really good.”
Tony slid a simple yet elegant red card with gold edges towards Bruce. Bruce dug into his drawer for his calligraphy pen.
“How old is Pepper’s grandmother?”
“Turning 97,” Tony said. He leaned over to watch Bruce’s fingers stroke the words Happy 97th Birthday inside the card.
Tony told him, and he wrote it on the front of the card.
“If science isn’t your thing,” Tony said, throat sounding suddenly dry, “we could use an in-house calligrapher.”
Bruce ignored him and added a few flourishes.The tail of the final “y” grew out in a curve and swooped over the other words. Then he taped the card to the vase.
“Can I keep this one?” Tony held up one of the cards, a brown-and-white spotted palomino. When Bruce first saw it, he had no idea what occasion anyone could use it for, but the drawing was quite good. Now, he guessed, it had found a purpose.
“Of course. Anything else?” He said, tapping the pen against the counter.
“Dinner. On me. My choice of restaurant. All you have to do is show up.”
Bruce slid the completed bouquet over to Tony. “Say hi to Pepper for me.”
“I know a vegan Indian place that is absolutely divine. Quiet, low-key, you can come dressed like that.” Getting no reaction, Tony pressed on. “Or you can stop by Stark Tower, check out my tech. But I’d recommend bringing everything you own, because you won’t want to leave.”
At the word “tech,” Bruce glanced up. He couldn’t help it. It wasn’t the first time Tony brought up a job offer—it wasn’t even the first time that day—but that word, in Tony’s voice, dinged a Pavlovian response. It filled Bruce’s mind with the stuff of fantasy--well, sci-fi--well, sci-reality, thanks to Tony Stark. He couldn’t help but envision himself in the middle of an expansive, expensive lab, working on gamma tech or nano tech or whatever is heart desired that day.
“We can negotiate starting salary later. I’m sure you’ll want to talk me down, but I’m gonna remain firm: seven-figure starting. You can choose the digits and whatever order they go in.”
“Tony. You know I can’t work for you. I’m poison. It would be a PR debacle that even you couldn’t handle. It’s just not worth it.” I’m not worth it, Bruce thought.
“Poison can’t make plants grow like this.”
Tony tilted Bruce’s chin so that they were looking at each other. Eye contact wasn’t Bruce’s forte. Neither was touch. But if he kept his expression carefully neutral and stared at Tony’s eyebrows, averting his gaze from those sharp, probing eyes--maybe he could hide that. Neither heard the door chime. They could not say the same for Audrey’s accompanying chatter.
“Hey, Mr. Stark! You know, it’s so funny, you look exactly like that guy in the papers all the time! And your names are the same. You sure you two aren’t related? At all?”
Tony instantly drew away from Bruce but, Bruce figured, not fast enough. “Audrey Fulquard. You are more radiant than the sun. Thank goodness I have shades.” Tony lowered the sunglasses--Aviators-- over his eyes. “Speaking of radiant beauty, you drew this?” He held up the horse card between two fingers.
“Yeah. It’s just a doodle.” Audrey blushed.
“Doodle or not, it’s incredible. Let me know if--” He stopped short of shifting his job-offering attentions to her. “Let me know if you ever have an art show, OK?”
Audrey giggled. “I can’t tell if you’re teasing me.”
“Tony would never be disingenuous.”
“That’s right. I am only ever ingenuous.”
“I’m sure your lawyers can attest.”
“And several hundred hours of court transcript.”
“You talk so fast with each other! I can’t tell who’s smarter.”
Bruce smiled, bracing himself for some up-close, brand name, moderately-insulting Tony Stark Ego. Everything Tony did made headlines, from his latest innovations to his most recent vacations, and everything in between. The man couldn’t stand next to a woman without both winding up on Page 6. No tweet escaped cable news analysts’ probing eyes. But nothing evoked as much ire and dissection as his ego.
Popular consensus was that a person should have some humility, and even if they didn’t, they should at least act like they did. Popular consensus was that Tony Stark did not. But Tony’s most egregious transgression was that his swollen head was thoroughly earned.
So it took Bruce a split second longer to register what Tony actually said:
“Oh, that’s easy. Bruce is.”
The billionaire pecked Audrey on the cheek and departed.
Bruce replayed the conversation in his head. Either he’d missed a sentence or two, or Tony was teasing or flirting or flirt-teasing, or.
Or he’d meant it.
“I wish someone looked at me the way Mr. Stark looks at you,” Audrey sighed. Moments like these tempted Bruce to hug Audrey, but there were so many ways it could go wrong. Like, they could accidentally smack each other going in. Or his hug could be creepily long or offensively short. Worst of all, she’d had bad experiences with men, nothing but awful from what Bruce could tell, and he knew that, rather than offend him, she would accept an unwanted touch. He never wanted to put her in that position
Instead, he simply said, “You broke up with the dentist?”
“Oh, um. No.” Audrey blushed and dusted off the racks.
“Oh.” Bruce didn’t like to pry, but he felt that he really, really should. Or shouldn’t. He busied himself with the stack of cash Tony left on the counter. It was more money than the bouquet had cost (“You’re low-balling me, big guy.”) Actually, it was more money than a hundred bouquets would cost.
Maybe that was how they stayed in business.
“Why don’t you and Mr. Stark--well, you know? You’d be such a cute couple! I bet he lives somewhere nice. Uptown. Like Hamilton Heights or Inwood! Right near Lin-Manuel Miranda! You could watch those smart game shows together, the real smart ones, like Jeopardy and Family Feud.” She leaned against the counter, staring at a spot just above the door, lost in fantasy. “Ooh, you could cook him dinner, and he could buy you flowers--well, maybe not flowers, but books! You could buy him flowers!”
“Tony’s a flirt. He looks at everyone that way. But I think you should find someone who looks at you the way Tony—the way you think Tony looks at me. And if the dentist doesn’t, you should find someone who does.
“Oh, I...I don’t know. He's not so bad.” Audrey turned away from him and resumed dusting.
I’ll protect you, he thought, from the fallout that can be as bad, worse, than staying, but you need to want to leave first. Please want to leave.
Bruce felt the old churning inside, that roiling, hungry rumble. The one part of him that didn’t come from his brain but from some place primal and evil. He’d tried to tuck all the vestiges from his medieval spleen into the folds of his brain so that they were neat and manageable and safe, but there was still...that…
“I’m gonna go for a walk, OK?” Bruce said. “You can hold down the fort while I’m gone?”
"Of course, Dr. Banner," Audrey said, flinging her arms around him and squeezing him tight. "You go clear your head."