medium light, low maintenance

By Taylor Jordan Pitts

Tom Farraday wasn’t raised with houseplants. 

His mother had tried her hand at owning one once. She bought a cat-puke-brown starter pot from Walmart, filled it with a spindly green plant, stuck it in a corner, topped it with water, and promptly forgot it existed. It grew into the infrastructure of the house and was hauled out and placed on proud display on the counter when there were visitors, which there never were.

The plant lived and lived and lived, and then it died. 

Tom took the emptied-out pot to his closet when his mother wasn’t looking, picked out the leftover dirt, and tucked it away like treasure.

He accepted his genetically inherited black thumb the way one accepts a crooked nose or flat feet. When Tom went away to college, he took the plant pot with him and used it in his dorm room to hold pencils and loose change, and at times single packs of condoms. After a gathering of fellow literature scholars found him flailing to his room at half-past three in the morning, he somehow pushed through his veil of inebriation and emptied the contents of his stomach into the laundry basket rather than the conveniently sized planter perched on the nightstand next to his bed. Later, a girlfriend placed in the pot a fake flower that also functioned as a pen, but Tom didn’t care for the disturbingly vibrant rubber petals and was relieved to see it go when the girlfriend did.

When he finally found a wife, the pot came with them. It sat patiently on the bedroom windowsill of the new house and accepted ritual offerings of inanimate items: keys, paperclips, half-used tubes of chapstick. Many years later, Georgia became ill, and she looked over at the empty pot. 

“You need a plant,” she said.

Tom was taken aback. He had never, he realized, expected this. “What for?”

He was allergic to cats and hated dogs and had no friends, Georgia pointed out, and the company would be good for him — you know, after. 

So Tom drove to Walmart. He asked a worker for a plant that was impossible to kill. The hardiest plant alive, he didn’t care what it looked like. She conjured up one with green leaves and red veins spilling out over the plastic casing. Tom read the label.

Philodendron: “Congo Rojo.” Medium light. Low maintenance

The worker also gave him some vitality concoction called Miracle Grow.

Tom put the new plant in the pot on the windowsill closest to his wife’s side of the bed. At first, he watered the philodendron only when Georgia reminded him it needed doing. But soon it became a habit, and he even remembered to add a few drops of the Miracle Grow to the tap water. You weren’t supposed to add too much of the stuff — houseplants couldn’t take it. Soon Tom could barely see the speckled brown pot through the leaves. 

One day, gazing at the plant, Georgia said between fits of coughing, “You should name it.”

Tom thought about that for a long time. When he didn’t respond, Georgia delivered her closing argument.

“It’s a plant.” 

And then she coughed and coughed and coughed, until she didn’t anymore.

After, Tom forgot more things than he remembered. Some days he forgot to use the bathroom, and then he couldn’t for the life of him recall why the bed sheets were wet. The houseplant sewed its leaves into the curtains, rooted itself to the windowsill, and disappeared. 

The lack of green in the room was so silent and sudden that Tom jumped at the blackened leaves sitting right there in the windowsill. How long had it been there, he wondered, dying? 

He hurried to the bathroom and took out the bottle of Miracle Grow. But when he unscrewed the cap, he forgot it was for the houseplant. He tipped the bottle up and swallowed—and swallowed. Some of the green liquid trickled onto the hardwood floor at his feet. He sat down on the bed and stared at the plant in the window, dead after all.

Tom took the pot into his bed. The nausea came within minutes, forcing him to lean over and spew runny toxin all over the floor before curling back into a fetal position and succumbing to a feverish sleep, the plant’s dry and crumbling leaves prickling his face.

When Tom woke—how much time had passed?—he sat up slowly. His shirt was crumpled against his chest with dried sweat. Sun filtered through the curtain and stained the wood floors; dust swirled in the spotlight. Tom looked over at the pillow next to his own — an unbreakable habit — and saw the philodendron, redder and fuller and louder than before.

He touched the leaves. The bottle of empty Miracle Grow lay on the floor next to the nightstand. When Tom drew his hands back, he saw that the tips of his fingers were stained a light red. He scrubbed them in the sink, but the color remained, and when he returned to the bedroom the plant was still there, taking over the pot with his vast leaves — leaves that were, just hours ago, Tom was sure of it, black and so very dead. 

He thought about that for a long time. 

Tom dressed, wondering at the new feeling in his hands, the new clarity in his mind, the certainty that life had been restored to something entirely, thoroughly, unquestionably dead. In the small kitchen, he filled up a cup with tap water and emptied it into the pot. Then he carried it to the car, the outside of the pot damp with water spilling over the top, and thought of a name. After the cemetery, he thought that perhaps he would make a trip to Walmart.

Taylor Jordan Pitts works in children’s book publishing in New York City. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals, and she is currently pursuing an MFA in writing for children and young adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can follow them on Twitter @TaylorJPitts or visit their website taylorpitts.com.

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