Jason Peck

Green Thumb

I had a green thumb once, back when I first moved in to college. Pots hung from the curtain rods of my new room and framed the windows with emerald trimming.

“I’m majoring in botany,” my roommate said, almost as an apology. I didn’t know what I was. I changed the subject.

But wasn’t college for trying new things? Why not plants?

That year I grew seedlings off a sponge. I grew spider plants from Mason jars. I coaxed ivy from sprouts, trained it to climb my bedpost like party streamers. The talent came from nowhere, certainly no inheritance.

My old house had a garden out back, overgrown with weeds, the soil nearly scorched to white by the sun. Nothing grew in my mother’s killing field. I remember the sight of her, wiping her forehead and clutching the backhoe so tight I could practically see veins through her deerskin gloves. They told her she needed a hobby after Dad left. From the air-conditioned window I had watched her anger in bloom, the houseplant leaves crumbling, our house always wanting for visitors.

“Do you talk to the plants?” My boyfriend asked when I’d show him the seedlings I grew under sweating plastic lids.

“They don’t talk back,” I responded.

“I’ve heard different,” he said. “They can if you listen.”

My boyfriend. I had one of those, too, for the first time. He had green eyes like azalea leaves. He was long like a snake plant and told me I smelled like fresh field daisies.

Flowers analogies? Please.

He was nice enough, though. He landed in my life as my talent had, and after he fell asleep, I’d think of the steps that would follow. Keep the grades solid and graduate. Then the proposal, the engagement. Marriage. A home with a greenhouse. I laughed for once at the world that my mother had always cast as hard and miserable with odds against happiness that even college degrees couldn’t balance.

For months, he and I lay in bed, and the leaves tickled my ears, the air heavy with vapor. The vines entangled everything, regardless of my efforts. I’d grown that good.

“You at least have to water them,” he said with concern, fingers brushing a solitary yellowed leaf.

He just didn’t understand. Things happen the way they’re supposed to. For millions of years, the plants grew without tap water and shade, without pots or fertilizers. In abandoned cities devoid of attention, their branches break windows, their roots crush sidewalks. Why work on things that take care of themselves?

I laughed and stubbed my Parliament in the damp soil with a shrug, listened to the slow hiss of it extinguishing and left the butt there. With my luck, I could grow a tobacco plant.

But now the plants grow slowly, reluctantly. No more buds pushing through the hard bark. I moved them aside to the windowsill. I tried selling them off for beer money with excuses. Then plants began to die.

I would come from class and see the leaves dead and brown like old confetti. My boyfriend would pick them up himself, absent-mindedly during the breaks in our conversations. He would graduate soon, we needed to talk. But he left before we ever did. My grades slipped. Guys came, but never stayed. We’d chat, nothing clicked. The dead leaves stuck to their shoelaces on the way out.

Desperate, I sat in on botany classes. But the talent came mysteriously, and left without announcement.

“This is hard work,” the professor told me, a dozen emails later. “Your roommate checks the Ph levels, she dilutes the fertilizer and I’ve seen her layering rocks and soil. So maybe you had luck before. But this is serious work. Sometimes they die despite everything.”

He raised an eyebrow at me. “Who taught you about plants?” he asked.

By then, my mother had actually taken to planting artificial flowers in the front yard, gaudy like pink flamingos. At least remove them in the winter so the neighbors don’t notice, I pleaded. Get a hobby, my mother responded.

They came and went in the years since I graduated. An azalea. A palm fern. A Christmas cactus. A guy with a soothing touch like aloe. A med student, pale like peace lilies. A computer technician who ended things abruptly by texting – I need to make things work with my wife, followed by: Did I mention her?

That week I killed a cactus. Impossible, I had always thought.

Trips to the ground floor of my apartment building late at night became routine – for laundry, for mail pickups, for dead plant-drop offs. I’d leave trails of dirt behind me, like tracks in the snow. Anyone could follow me to my room.

That’s how I met him, when I tossed a date palm in the dumpster.

“I can help you with that,” he said, looking at the plant and not me. His eyes were bright like wax begonias. The one remaining leaf of my plant reached like an outstretched hand.

Jason Peck’s fiction has either been published or is forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Fabula Argentea, Smokelong Quarterly, Pretty Owl Poetry, and 3Elements Review. He also serves on the editorial board for After Happy Hour Review, whose third issue is scheduled for Spring 2015.

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