A Short Story
by Roselee Blooston
It stood on the balcony, twisting itself towards the south, reaching for horizons of sand, rejecting the island of concrete and steel that kept it aloft in the captivity of civilization, roots curled into a gigantic clay pot that could not possibly substitute for its natural home. Stranded in this ridiculous container, it made the best of the situation and grew, year after year, demanding of its keepers ever larger accommodations. It fought off mealy bugs, root rot and general neglect during the busy coupleís second honeymoon, their business junkets, as they raced on parallel trajectories into the stratosphere of success. The plantís disgruntled existence barely registered on their radar.
Meg and Tom had no idea when they shared their first guacamole in their first apartment in the glow of pre-marital bliss that the pit they planted under the influence of a pitcher of sangria would become, lo this decade and a half later, the living embodiment of everything good and bad, healthy and wounded in their life together. They took minimal care of it, watering it regularly, almost never feeding it, transplanting it when forced by its insistence on growth, moving it inside in the winter and out in the spring and carting it from apartment to apartment, from ground floor with garden to skyline view with balcony as their double-income-no-children lifestyle propelled them upwards. Meg and Tom were always on the move, separate rafts staying on course together more by force of habit than by choice, negotiating white water with blindfolds. Restlessly in search of a home befitting their self-image, they were headed for another change. The plant felt something akin to vertigo as they swished past with armfuls of cardboard and it had had enough.
This final move demanded professionals as the plant would no longer fit in their Saab. The couple only realized how much it meant to them when they heard themselves shouting in alarm to the two perspiration-soaked haulers struggling to get the damn thing in the truck, "Be careful! Watch the top branch!" Then, a month after settling into their dream abode, the plant got sick, black spots punctuating its formerly flawless leaves. Suddenly, after years of inattention, it became the center of their concern. Like the secret bulimia a good child could no longer hide, the illness manifested itself as an over-night emergency.
"What could be wrong with it?" Meg turned to Tom, still buried in the paper.
"Donít know." Tom had no idea what she was talking about.
"Look at it!" Meg was outraged at her husbandís apathy, though she had hardly noticed anything beyond the perimeter of her mirror for years. "What?"
"The avocado! Thereís something wrong with it."
Tom reluctantly put down his paper. He hated any interruption in his morning ritual and walked over to the sliding glass door that separated the kitchen/dining area from the 6 by 9 foot patch of freedom that convinced him to fork over half-a-yearís salary as down payment.
Next to the Weber grille and the wrought-iron chairs stood that silly plant. They used to laugh every time they had to transplant it to a bigger pot. Couldnít believe it was still around. Looking at it now, leaves brown or dropping, trunk, if you could call it that, contorted in osteoporitic pain, Tom felt old and inexplicably sad.
"Doesnít look good." "Well do something!" Meg had become near-hysterical, zero to sixty in three seconds flat.
"Do what? Do I look like a plant doctor?"
"When?" Meg was grilling him now. This threatened to become another one of those division of labors arguments that always ended with Tom making defensive promises he couldnít keep. Yes, he would clean the refrigerator once a month and straighten his closet weekly. What was she doing in there anyway? A man had to have some space of his own. Itís a closet for goodness sakes. It wasnít as if they gave dinner parties in his closet. And of course he couldnít remember the last time he watered. He usually waited until the leaves drooped, pathetically begging for relief.
"I donít remember. Maybe last Tuesday and Thursday."
"Thatís too much. Youíre over-watering it!" Meg could never understand Tomís insensitivity to living things. He didnít see what was right under his nose. Last weekend as they were driving out of the city for the quiet and pastoral beauty of Connecticut, he ran over an innocent squirrel because he didnít see it. He loved killing ants, mosquitoes and spiders. He chortled as he whacked them. Her friends said this was hard-wired into the male psyche, but she just couldnít accept his callous indifference to nature. No wonder he loved the trading floor! He relished the arena, a gladiator roaring and swinging his club, vanquishing without mercy. She looked at him, standing there in his Brooks Brothers pajamas, pinstripes even in bed. No, she wasnít fooled. The civilized veneer was just a ruse. She had married a Neanderthal.
"We canít let it die."
Tom couldnít believe it. Meg was actually crying, over a plant.
"Why not? Itís been around a long time. ĎTo every thing there is a seasoní and all that".
"Donít go quoting the Bible! This plantís been with us for almost our whole relationship. Weíve got to do something."
Tom thought he was quoting Pete Seeger, but whatever. "We could always plant another one."
"No! How can you say that? Thereís never going to be another one like it. I mean the fact that itís lasted all this time is amazing. Itís a miracle."
Meg was prone to assign deep significance to the smallest details of life. "Meg, really." Tom was going to be late. He inched towards the bedroom. One of the biggest issues in their marriage was his tendency to cut and run as soon as a discussion, any discussion exceeded two minutes. Meg had actually timed him once. Unfortunately, his inner alarm clock could not be shut off at will. "Seriously. Remember when I threw it out the window?"
It was endearing how Meg remembered everything and sucked him in by telling unflattering stories about herself. Tom couldnít help smiling at the thought of Meg screaming bloody murder as the pot, then only 8 inches high, flew off the sill of their five floor walk-up, their "penthouse" love-nest, propelled by Megís over-zealous dusting arm. She was cute, charming and a total klutz. "Yeah, so?"
"So, itís remarkably resilientÖlike us." She looked coyly at him, knowing full well that Tom couldnít resist her.
"You planning on throwing me out the window?" "Not if you sit down and take this seriously."
Tom pulled his cell phone out of his pajama pocket. Damn, no messages, no way out. He called his secretary. Told her he was in a jam. She assumed traffic. Excuses held up better at work than at home. Meg was stewing now.
"Maybe we should move."
"What?" He was not hearing this.
"Maybe it doesnít like the new apartment." As if to prove her point the plant chose that very moment to drop yet another brown-edged, black-spotted, hole-riddled leaf.
"See!" She was almost gloating. Even Tom could not ignore the timing. "Okay, okay. But instead of moving ourselves, why donít we move it?" "Where?"
"How about the bedroom. Thereís great light. When Iím working late you wonít be so lonely."
"Now youíre making fun of me."
All of their arguments ended here: Tom flip, Meg over-sensitive, then Tom capitulating into action. Maybe Meg was right. He did feel a strange affection for the damn thing. He realized that, for better or worse, the avocado was their baby and it was in trouble. Besides, he hated seeing Meg miserable. "Iíll call Fred. Heíll know what to do."
Fred was Tomís college roommate. Heíd become a landscape architect but spent most of his time in the cityís concrete gardens supervising the planting of the obligatory natural oases that every major corporate structure proudly displayed. His interior waterfalls, greenhouse lobbies and tiny terraced parks wedged between long blocks of skyscrapers called out to pedestrians and office drones to rest their feet, eat their lunch or simply to meditate on why such artifices were necessary. Fred knew everything about plants. Fred would know what to do.
"Hi, guy. Yeah, itís me. No, no things are okay."
Meg mouthed behind him, "NO THEYíRE NOT!"
" Listen, the reason I called. Meg and I have a bit of a situation here. See, we have this plant."
Meg, pacing now, gave him that "You fool" look and silently screamed, "AVOCADO".
"An avocadoÖ and itís not doing so well. We donít know whatís wrong with it and we wondered if you might be able to come over and take a look." Meg crossed her fingers. "Great, great, thanks, see you then." Tom turned to Meg. "Heíll come on his lunch break." Meg sighed into the over-stuffed Crate and Barrel sofa that was their first purchase together.
"Would you stay with me until then?"
"Donít you have work to do?" Megís part-time turned full-time holistic health consultancy was still pretty loosey-goosey though surprisingly lucrative. "Iím so worried, I wonít be able to concentrate. Please!" Tom had to admit that this was eating him up too. He didnít exactly understand why. But he did something he hadnít done since their newly-wed days. He turned off his cell phone and called the office again, this time using his "flu" voice.
So all morning they sat together, still in their pajamas, holding hands like teenagers at an R-rated movie, staring at the plant, willing it to be all right. They didnít say a word but their thoughts were precisely the same. This crisis had brought them closer as never before, not Megís surgery for the removal of an as-it-turned-out benign cyst, not the death of their dog, Binky, nor even the agonizing process of watching Tomís father drift further and further into the abyss of Alzheimerís. And this was more than the telepathy of their early years, Meg telling Tom with a look that she wanted linguine with clam sauce for dinner. No, this was simultaneity. One mind. One anxiety. They started to think about what would happen to them if anything happened to this plant. What if it didnít make it until Christmas? Their anniversary?!? Their guilt about ignoring it blanketed them and they huddled closer.
The plant seemed to scold them with wounded condescension: "How dare you jump to my aid now, after all these years of neglect? Maybe I donít want to recover. Maybe I donít like you!" Meg and Tom looked at each other in horror. Not since they dropped acid together had anything scared them in exactly the same way. The doorbell rang not a moment too soon.
It was Fred, lumber-jack-bearded, carpenter-handed, ivy-league-educated Fred. Thank God! Fred took one look at Tom and Meg, their pale, disheveled, demeanor begging for aid and said, "Whereís the patient?" Tom answered without a word, pointing over Megís shoulder just as she stepped aside to reveal the plant in all its stricken glory. For a split second no one moved. Then Fred, galvanized by the atmosphere of emergency room panic, strode purposefully to the sliding door, thrust it aside, thunderously shaking the glass and stepped out on to the balcony. The couple, scuffed along in their slippers, following him like puppies.
Meg could hardly stand the silence as the three of them surrounded the plant in a diagnostic triangle. This reminded her too acutely of the teaching hospital where she had had her surgery. The surgical resident, a bonafide hot dog, the interns, desperate to impress but totally without a clue and the surgeon, cool and masterful, had surrounded her bed and picked her case apart as if she were an insect and they, demented children pulling off her legs one at a time. She imagined the plant suffocating under their collective gaze and taking a voluntary dive over the railing, free at last.
"Well? What do you think?" She tried not to sound impatient but Fredís rhythm was much slower than hers. She had briefly fantasized about dating him during a period when she and Tom were having problems over his relentless ambition. But the very thought of anyone this laid-back made her stir-crazy. She went back to her hard-driving guy with renewed appreciation.
He inspected the holes. "Some parasites, no big deal. But this," wrapping his massive hand around the blackened trunk, "this looks like a fungal infection, a potentially fatal one at that." Fred put their worst fears matter-of-factly on the table.
Meg gasped. "Potentially fatal?! Ohmygod!" Tom said nothing but retreated indoors to the safety of his favorite chair, a bentwood rocker. Fred and Meg watched as Tom rocked, a shade too deliberately like a seriously disturbed five year old.
"You really should have started treatment when the symptoms first appeared.
From the look of things that must have been about two or three weeks ago."
Fred tried not to scold Meg. He could see that they were completely discombobulated by this, but Fred loved plants and this was a clear case of negligence.
"Yes, I guess it was. Iím not sure. We just moved in, you know. Actually it seemed to have happened over-night." Meg couldnít remember, anything, not how the plant looked when it was healthy, not when it got sick and not how she and her once hyper-alert husband had become so oblivious.
"See how discolored the bark is," Fred lectured. Meg blushed and nodded. She couldnít remember what color the bark used to be.
Fred went on, gently but firmly instructing her in the plantís dire condition. "That means itís systemic. Youíve got to treat it now or youíll lose it for good."
"Weíll do whatever you say."
Fred suppressed a smile. He had never seen Meg so cooperative. A long time ago, he had toyed with the idea of taking her out but found her need for debate too challenging. Pulling his "prescription" pad out of his multi-vest pocket, he jotted down two names, one for the parasites and one, the miracle cure, a heavy-duty fungicide.
"You can get this at the nursery on Third. Follow the directions on the bottle to the letter. Wear rubber gloves, goggles and a face mask. Itís extremely toxic. Whatever you do, donít get it on your skin and donít breathe the stuff." Meg took the note from Fred, pausing to press his hand with gratitude. "Thanks so much, Fred. I donít know what we would have done without you." Fred swallowed the desire to say something dismissive. He loved Tom and Meg, but if ever there were two people who shouldnít take care of anything living, it was these two. He said a silent prayer that they wouldnít bring children into the world. "Weíd better check on Tom."
"Sweetie." Meg never called him Ďsweetieí, but Tom looked so pitiful sitting like a lump in the now still rocker. "Fredís figured out whatís wrong. Iím going to get dressed and go pick up the medicine."
"Fungicide," Fred corrected. Tom stirred.
"Fungicide," Meg repeated, then anxiously, "How long before we know ifÖ?" She couldnít bear to go on.
"You should see a change, one way or the other, in about a week. Gotta go." Fred pecked her on the cheek and waved to Tom who blinked back, slowly surfacing from his stupor.
For the next week Meg and Tom cared for the plant with almost religious devotion. In truth, it was Meg who played doctor, basking in the power of rescue. Tom just didnít have the stomach for it. He did, however, help her adjust the goggles and tied the face mask over her ears, his adorable snorkeling physician. He watched with renewed admiration as she measured the life-saving brew and poured it into the pot, taking great pains to soak every inch of dirt. Meg was so competent. She was his hero.
So each morning, even before the first cup of coffee, they stood, arm in arm, on the balcony checking for signs of recovery, a greener branch, newer growth, fuller leaves. Tom came home early now, sometimes even before the market closed, so he and his bride could have dinner on the airy terrace, watch the sunset and check on the effectiveness of the dayís dosage. It felt as if they were starting over, rethinking everything. It felt wonderful. Meg knew from her profession that it took more than medicine to heal the physical. It took faith. She focused all her considerable psychic energy on making their leafy charge well and slowly but surely the plant obliged.
It still longed for more tropical climes, but less urgently. As it reached higher and higher, basking in its new-found health, it achieved something akin to wisdom. Being an avocado in the city under the now vigilant care of this transmogrified duo was odd but acceptable. In the years to come, when a myriad of preoccupations threatened to split them apart, the plantís longevity challenged them. If this solitary fruit, born of a whim, could survive, so could they.
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