By COREY CAMPBELL
“The thing about plants,” Neal said, “is you can’t just water them. You’ve got to rain it down on them.”
Cecilia next to him in the greenhouse poured water on a pepper plant from an old mason jar. It was late July in north Georgia, and the heat had soaked them in waves. The plant leaves had shrunk into themselves, twisting around the stalks or else falling to the dirt.
“Like this,” Neal said, grabbing the jar and dribbling water slowly from the side, controlling the flow with his finger. “So they don’t know we’re people. Just part of nature.”
Cecilia said, “Plants are smarter than that.” She’d been helping Neal at his greenhouse for a few months, since he’d fallen in the Starvin’ Marvin parking lot and broken his nose. Before that, she was his no-name neighbor from up the street who passed his property on long evening walks with her basset. Those nights she passed, she’d been startled by frogs near the sewer grates and fireflies stabbing the black shade of a tree. Always on the side of Neal’s house, she saw one small window lit blue by the TV, the rest of the house dark.
In the greenhouse, she said to Neal, “You even talk to your plants.”
“They don’t know what I’m saying,” he said. “It’s just the calming sound of my voice. Like God.”
“Like God?” Cecilia walked away from him down the row, past the thyme and sweet basil, nearing the tomato plants which had yet to bear fruit. “I’ve heard you ask them important questions,” she said.
He cocked an eye at her.
“What should I do about my broken radiator?” she said. “How long will Momma be in the hospital?”
For the past couple of years, Neal’s mother had moved back and forth between a nursing home and room 73B in Comer Hospital, wearing tubes in her nose and falling in and out of consciousness. When Neal stopped by last week, she was convinced she saw her dead husband standing on a cloud outside her window. He was wearing a suit. No one could convince her otherwise.
Neal pulled yellow leaves off a fern that might not make it through summer. He shrugged and said to Cecilia, “And I guess you listen in.”
She watched the back of him leaning over the pots, handling the plants like they were children. He had the thick frame of a man raised on butter beans and biscuits, and shuffled his feet with the ripped bottoms of his pant legs trailing behind him in the dirt. “Sometimes,” she said.
She set down the jar and headed across the yard to Neal’s small brick house. A pecan tree stretched over it like a canopy. Neal had never married, and she’d never known why. Her own husband had died in a head-on collision almost two years ago. He had been in Oklahoma at a conference, didn’t know there was a Ryder truck in the passing lane. An Oklahoma City police sergeant had phoned her the next day. So sorry, ma’am, he’d said.
Cecilia made iced tea in Neal’s kitchen, stirring in the juice of two lemons from the yard. The only wooden spoon he had was sticky with grease, so she used a fork. She liked the sound of ice sloshing against the side of the pitcher. Neal wiped his work shoes on the rubber mat by the door.
“Where’d you go?” he said.
Late afternoon light came up from the carport behind him so that he was just a silhouette in the doorway, some mythical creature coming down from the sun.
Beside Cecilia on the counter, a small bucket of half-ripe plums. “What do they say when you pick them?” she said, pulling two tall glasses from the sink and wiping them with a dish towel.
He sat down hard at the table. “What do who say?”
“What do you think they say?” he said.
She filled the glasses with iced tea, spilling it down the sides. He didn’t see the drops falling on the floor. “You’re hurting me,” she said, leaning her head back to put the cool glass against her forehead. “Why are you taking my children?”
“No,” he said, taking off his mesh ball cap, brim yellowed from sweat. On the front: Old Fart, though the “t” was peeling off.
“They’re relieved,” he said. He rapped his knuckles on the table. “You’ve taken my burden.”
She said, “But some of them don’t want you to take it. Blackberries. I scratched up my whole leg trying to get a pint. Arms, too. And the snakes. Am I putting my hand on a briar or in the mouth of a snake?”
“Got to be careful,” he said.
She sat down next to him and put her hand close to his on the table. She could see the dirt under his square fingernails. A buzz of heat came from his skin. He was nothing like her husband, who engineered at Lockheed-Martin for years in Atlanta before settling with her in this small town. He moved his hands to his lap and stood up.
“Long day,” he said, nodding at her as he left the room.
The day Neal broke his nose a few months ago, the temperature had hovered in the low 110s, unusual even for the northern part of the state. He’d passed out cold putting gas into his pickup and had hit his face on the cement when he fell. Blood poured from his nose, staining his shirt like ink.
Cecilia in the air-conditioned pod of the Starvin’ Marvin, picking up the latest Redbook and paying for her gas, decided he needed to see a doctor. The check-out clerk, a teenager thumbing through UFO landings in the Weekly World News, didn’t disagree.
That day, Neal kept apologizing in the front seat of her Honda. He was using all her Kleenexes. He’d gotten blood on the door handle, and now on the seat. Don’t even ask him to roll down the window, he’d get blood all over that, too. “Don’t worry,” Cecilia said, “it’s okay.” I almost had a child, she thought. Want to see blood? Years and years and years ago she and her husband had wanted children, while they were still young. It didn’t quite work out.
In the car, she turned on soothing music, first the Beach Boys, then something bluesy on the radio that just barely came in. They passed a lumber yard, a Hardees, and a schoolyard with an ancient twisting slide. Just below the parking lot to the medical center, she saw a sign outside a church: “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.”
In the medical center parking lot, they stopped next to a rusted yellow Bug. Neal leaned back with his eyes closed.
“Let’s go in,” Cecilia said.
He waved his hand. “Can I sit here for a minute?”
She left the key in the ignition and dropped her hands to her lap. The air conditioner vents blew cold air, as though the car were still breathing. “Okay.”
“Once they start touching it, it’s gonna hurt like hell,”he said. Already, a bruise was pooling under one of his eyes.
“Are you sure you weren’t in a bar fight?” she said.
He opened one eye.
She said, “We could just go to a movie instead.” The only theater she knew of was 20 miles away in Athens, but on hot afternoons she was willing to make the drive.
He smiled. “Or drive to the ocean.”
She looked out the window. Two kids on their skateboards were attempting to skate down a hand rail. One already had a skinned knee with a hint of blood at the surface. “That salt water would help,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said, and they both were quiet. She could hear the skateboard wheels along the pavement.
“I should go in,” he said, sitting up straight again. Abruptly, he got out of the car. “Thanks for the ride,” he said and nodded. The medical center building stooped down to let him in the doors, and then he was gone.
That night, home from the medical center, Cecilia had stood in her kitchen at the sink. The streetlights had turned on their soft orange glow, but she hadn’t turned on the kitchen light yet. Something about the darkness soothed her—she could be anonymous for a few more minutes.
At 58, Cecilia thought her life would have turned out differently. She had just sliced her hand on an iced tea glass she’d accidentally broken in the living room and was holding her hand under the tap water, waiting for it to get cold. Her feet were bare, and she wasn’t thinking of the glass shards that had fallen on the floor. She didn’t care. She’d always been a thin woman but was gaining weight around the waist. A couple of her favorite shirts didn’t fit well anymore, and she was terrified of buying new ones, shirts that her husband would never see, and who would be there to compliment her? She thought of the blood seeping through Neal’s shirt, spreading across the fabric like a conqueror, like Napoleon, leaving a stain that wouldn’t come out.
Sometimes in the mornings just after her husband’s death, Cecilia’d gotten as far as putting her bra on, then had fallen back face down on the bed, just waiting there for some reason to keep moving. One time over a year ago, she was like that when her neighbor across the street Alma Grace had scared her by coming right in (the screen door was open, she said) and seeing Cecilia half dressed in her room.
“Just checking on you, honey,” Alma Grace had said and brought in a plate of pound cake. Cecilia had yelped and covered her chest with a sweater. Alma Grace said we were all God’s creatures and put a gardenia bloom in a bowl of water. She watered the potted plant on the kitchen counter—a plant Cecilia had forgotten about and probably would have let die without realizing it.
Cecilia got to the greenhouse by accident that first time. On an overcast day in early summer, she wanted to walk her basset down by Hurricane Shoals, but had ended up in a cemetery near a Baptist church in a part of town she didn’t really know. But the clouds hung in low, so it wasn’t too hot, and she had nothing pulling her back to the house, so she kept going into the woods, until her mental compass meant nothing to her, until the leaves and branches blurred. And when she emerged from the darkness of the woods, she was in a soybean field behind a house she knew, and there was the greenhouse. She had tried to sneak right past, just along the edge of Neal’s property line, but a slouching figure appeared in the carport.
“Hi,” he had called. A white bandage covered half his face, but he didn’t seem to notice, and above it, a black eye like a rotted plum. “Thanks again for the other day,” he’d said.
He turned on the hose and filled a bowl of water for her dog. She wanted to keep going, said she had letters to write, but he said no, no, sit a while, the dog was panting enough, let him be. And she did.
In Neal’s house, the hallway was narrow and lined with photos, cross-stitched irises and mirrors rimmed by Savannah seashells. It had been his mother’s house, but Neal moved back when she was transplanted to the nursing home more than 10 years ago.
Cecilia stopped by early as was their routine this summer. Coffee in the kitchen, then out to the greenhouse for replanting, pruning, watering, fertilizing, watching the new leaves sprout out of the dead places, and sometimes just giving the healthiest plants to customers who pulled up in their Buicks or Nissans. It’s Mother’s birthday. What do you got that’s pretty? My sister just had twins. Our cat was run over by a car.
We want to plant a tree for him. Sometimes Cecilia just wanted to hug them. Her parents had died years ago.
At night, on the way out, Neal gave Cecilia a bunch of lilacs, said they were too old to sell, she should take them home and put them in water. Cecilia left them on the front seat of her Honda when she stopped by the Pick ‘N’ Save, and they were still there when she came out. She thought about throwing them out the window. It was raining, and she didn’t feel like being home.
At Comer Hospital, visiting hours had ended, but a nurse let Cecilia pass through anyway. Neal’s mother’s door was open, and a rerun of “Mork and Mindy” blared from a TV inside. Mindy was taking Mork on a rollercoaster.
Cecilia pushed open the door. The room smelled like jello and dried milk. The yellow curtains were closed, but you could still hear the rain against the window.
Neal’s mother turned her head. “I wondered when you’d come,” she said. Her body was wrapped in a blue blanket, her eyes barely open.
Cecilia stopped. “Really?”
“My husband said you’d come.”
Cecilia found a hospital mug and filled it with water for the lilacs. She put them on the table next to Neal’s mother’s bed.
Neal’s mother said, “All the army wives will be here.”
Cecilia watched her face for a few minutes. On the TV overhead, Mork zapped the rollercoaster operator. “Well, I made it,” Cecilia said.
“You’re the first one. Terrible what’s happening to them out there,” she said. “Blown up, some of them.”
Cecilia ran a hand through her wet hair. “I’m glad your husband survived.”
Neal’s mother closed her eyes again. “Always been lucky. It’s not even our war.”
“I have a feeling we’ll win it, though,” Cecilia said.
“I always liked your optimism. What about your husband?”
Cecilia looked around the room, a painting of a boat over Neal’s mother’s bed. “I don’t think he made it,” she said.
Neal’s mother opened her eyes again just partially. “I’m so sorry,” she said, then closed them again. “Where are the others? We’re going to be late.”
Cecilia stood up. “Maybe I can go find them,” she said quietly and walked from the room. She took the stairs down instead of the elevator.
It was after 11 p.m., still raining. She stood under the carport and knocked on Neal’s door. She didn’t know what she was doing. Neal had patterns from the couch printed on his cheek. His voice held the weight of his drowsiness. “Cecilia?”
She realized she shouldn’t be there, it didn’t make any sense. She thought she could hear the TV inside, but the rain was louder. “You’ve got to take care of your face.”
He stood looking at her. His hair veered off in 20 directions. “Okay,” he said, wiping his face.
“If it heals badly, they’ll have to break it again,” she said.
“Do you want some tea?” he said.
She thought about it, but what would happen in there? Would they just sit on opposite ends of a room staring at each other? She shook her head. “Sorry,” she said. “Never mind.”
In the morning in Neal’s house, the coffee percolated in the metal pot on the stove. He still used gas, and the blue flames circled the base almost menacingly, owning the pot. Neal must have been in the shower. Cecilia could hear the water a few rooms away and thought of Niagara Falls, those crazy men going over in barrels. She’d brought apple danishes at the grocery store. Would he rather have the cherry? All she usually saw him eat was dry toast.
In the hallway, she lingered at a photo collage Neal’s mother had made when her mind was still bright and alert. A birthday party around a lake, Neal’s father holding up a bucket of catfish, a series of dogs running through the soybeans and napping belly-up in the sun, a younger Neal with crew cut in elementary school, and an even younger Neal wearing a cowboy hat and spurs, staring right at the camera. She knew that expression—there was something sweet about it.
“Coffee’s ready,” he called from the kitchen.
She headed down the hallway. “Didn’t know you were out.” She could feel the warm moisture hanging there.
In the kitchen, Neal was wearing a suit. His hair was combed back, though a gelled piece fell across his forehead.
“What’s going on?” she said.
His ball cap sat on the chair. She’d wash it if she could sneak it away from him.
“There’s something I have to do today,” he said, shoving a mug of coffee in her hand.
Something tensed in her throat. “No, really, what is it?”
He put a thick hand on her shoulder and turned her toward the door. “Come with me.” He snapped out the kitchen light and led her outside toward the greenhouse. The sun gave everything an odd painted quality, the light so strong it reflected off windshields and window panes and garden tools.
In the greenhouse, Neal told her to wait, then turned to the back room. In the greenhouse alone, Cecilia breathed in the fresh air from the plants, wanted to lie down in a field of them, like a kid running bare toes through the grass. A spider dropped from a hibiscus leaf, almost hitting Cecilia’s elbow.
Neal came back with a heavy potted gardenia and told her to hold it. Its fragrance billowed around it, above the coffee smells and fresh-cut lawn. Neal scribbled a note on a pad and taped it to the greenhouse door: “Back later.”
In the car, he was quiet. Cecilia held the gardenia on the floor between her knees.
“Is it your mother?” she said. “Is she okay?”
He kept his eyes on the road. They passed a building that used to be a peacock farm but now sold dog food. “Just wait,” he said.
The unease filled her, but she didn’t say anything. He drove past the town hall ringed with cannons from the Civil War, past the drug store and antique stores, the drive-thru bank, all the places of money and commerce, through the winding road to the cemetery.
He stopped the car under a dogwood tree just inside the iron fence. “We can walk,” he said.
She carried the gardenia, dirt falling down her leg. Why did she wear white pants today? She propped the pot on her hip like a toddler. And then she knew the way. She hadn’t noticed that Neal had stopped on the side of the path almost 20 feet ago. He looked like a lone figure from a western. He called to her, “You should go on.”
She shifted the gardenia to the other hip. “Are you sure?”
He shook his head. Cecilia nodded and turned up the hill, her sandal strap rubbing on a blister, the sun already too hot for this time of day.
She stopped at the stone for her husband, though she and Neal both knew that her husband wasn’t down there. His body didn’t survive the crash. She set the pot next to the stone and thought about digging a hole and planting it, and watching it grow over time. But she didn’t. She just left it by the grave and patted the dirt down, and when she turned around, Neal was sitting down beside a tree, wiping the sweat from his forehead. Grad school never prepared me for this, she thought.
She met his eyes on the way back to the car. He looked like the kid from the picture, taken many years ago, in the time of the Lone Ranger and Howdy Doody. He looked like someone she knew. He turned on the radio on the way home, but he wasn’t heading in the right direction. They passed the next town and the next, and pretty soon they found the freeway. He wasn’t sure just where he was going, and it seemed all right by her.
Corey Campbell, of Los Angeles, is a student in Warren Wilson’s Master of Fine Arts Program and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. A 2008 runner-up for Open City’s RRofihe Trophy, she has been published at Anderbo.com, and her work was showcased in the New Short Fiction Series at the Beverly Hills Library.
Editor’s Note: This story was a finalist in the 2008 New Southerner Literary Contest.