Charley's coworker at the hedge fund gave him the tomato plants. She'd planted too many seeds and ended up with baskets full of the things. Her roommates were going to choke on seeds and skins, their dreams run with caterpillars and nightshade hallucinations, whatever, sounded like a bad scene to Charley. But he liked the idea of taking care of something.
There were three of them, each with her own plastic pot: green, white, terra cotta. Charlotte, Emily, Anne, he decided.
--And I'll be Branwell, he said. --Done right.
His coworker chuckled between bites of the plates of fries that were all she ever ate, at her desk, during work hours and after them. They'd both been working a lot lately; the fund's chief holding, JJ&K, a small aquaculture and chemical processing firm, had just poisoned all the water, they guessed, or something terrible like that, so they had a lot of overtime dealing with all the new investors jumping on the low share prices. Mostly they spent their overtime listening to Pandora Internet radio or applying for sculpture grants and things.
--They're pretty easy to take care of, she said.
--I know, he said. --So I wouldn't really want to be like Branwell. --It was just kind of a joke. You know that, right?
--I know that, she said.
--Branwell was a really selfish person, Charley said.
She chuckled again, handed the plants over in Trader Joe's bags, went back to monitoring markets.
Emily was Charley's favorite. He'd watered her twice when he'd only watered the others once, and he read long novels to her that in retrospect must have upset her.
--Live, he'd said. --Drink. Absorb the molecules into your xylem, your phloem, whatever you have.
He sat on the fire escape over Brooklyn, cross-legged, shirtless, smoked a Camel, holding it at arm's length away from Emily so she wouldn't be hurt by the monoxide smoke, and he watched her leaves rustle in the wind and imagined the water inching its way through her soil, up drop by drop through her roots, nourishing her every chloroplast in her every cell until her leaves shone with vitality, beamed green healing rays into every bedroom opposite Charley's and made people forget about, he didn't know, the economic crisis or some shit, the gentrification that afflicted the neighborhood, everything bad for them.
That night it rained. He guessed it must have been the extra glass of water he gave Emily, the extra love, that plus the rain. That was why Emily was the first to die. He found her in the morning collapsed, her stem turning sickly yellow and her frail toddler roots in the air, the wind tickling bits of dirt off their once tender tips. He put down the egg and pepper sauce sandwich he'd made for himself and crawled onto the fire escape, his face close to her pot, and watched her as his wind chimes whispered above.
He let her lie there a couple of days, in state, in part because he couldn't bear the thought of putting her in the black garbage bag for trash pickup later in the week, in part because JJ&K stock wobbled and the bank called him after close of market Friday to spend the weekend putting in transfer orders, making sure that every over-leveraged investment in the horrible chemical company he worked for would drop snugly into place like rescued Jenga games on Monday when money began to move again. He came in Monday at 2 AM after sleeping in the office Saturday and Sunday nights, listening to Smashing Pumpkins songs on his iPod, and fell into bed, then woke up with cardinals circling over the blank grass and dirt of his backyard far below, the disassembled pieces of his super's barbecue grill newly rusted with weekend rain, Anne and Charlotte rustling, their leaves beginning to curl. Charley bundled up Emily, cradled her sick second-growth leaves in his hand, and wrapped her gently in the comics page, washed her discarded pot, set it on the highest shelf of his closet to remember her. He was listening to “In the Arms of Sleep” on his headphones when he buried her in the garbage. Emily's song, he decided.
He had to transfer his affections to either Charlotte or Anne. He searched for qualities in both of them that he could love as he'd loved Emily's shy mortality. In the end he chose Charlotte for the opposite quality: her strange horsey determination, the way her stem reached out to the black iron ladder to the rooftop, twined around its rungs in thick healthy self-support, while Anne still flopped around alone, short and prepubescently skittish and waving her frail leaves in the breeze. Charley sat with Charlotte and smoked with his Camel again arm's length away, ran his finger up Charlotte's no-nonsense stem, and he really loved her, this survivor in her terra cotta pot. He guessed he loved Anne too. There were qualities about her he guessed he loved.
September was blowing in around the three of them. He was careful now not to overwater, poured half a glass only for each of them, imagined their greedy stems sucking up too much and their cells coughing, choking, vomiting photosynthetic death; he drank half of each glass himself to save them, choked on Catskill silt and zinc deposits. He read to them, avoiding depressing modern fiction, sticking to poetry, especially pretty sounding French poetry where he didn't have to worry about whether what he was actually saying was harmful to them. They probably didn't understand French.
But forgotten Anne was the one who sprouted tomatoes first, a fat green demimarble below her leaves that Charley noticed when emptying the ashtray on his windowsill, cinders blowing back in the wind over the cellulose surface of the child that he brushed off with the tip of his pinky.
Why was it Anne? Why not dependable Charlotte? She was so much taller, healthier, more advanced—why was she behind on production? He began to buy special plant foods for Charlotte, wink at her when spinning out phonetic lines from Bateau ivre or Fleurs du mal, trying to even the scales. But the slow marble dreaming on Anne's vine was beginning to deepen, darken, and even reading Baudelaire didn't work; he found himself captivated by the strange reddening life inside of her. Something he cared for was creating something new. He was taking care of something.
--Sorry I haven't like called, he told his sister on the phone. --Been really busy with work. And with my tomato plants. Anne is almost ready to yield.
--It's creepy that you name them, she said.
He knew that, already felt terrible, so he let her go on for nearly half an hour about the skin disease on her foot that she was fighting, how it had made it impossible for her to wear thick socks or even shoes at all without bandages changed three times daily. He let her go on while he smoked and looked through his window to silhouetted Brooklyn trees and the L train breaking above ground on its chugging path to Canarsie, all of the dark and saturated background to the red ruby that grew fat in Anne's tiny arbor, and he thought: shit, this is actually a perfect moment. This is a perfect world.
The market hiccuped again over the weekend—new disclosures were coming out about the JJ&K cleanup efforts, the stock prices swung up and down and threatened to spill hissing risk into the rest of the portfolio—and his manager asked him to pull another all nighter doing corrections. The all nighter stretched into three nighters and a half-day spent sleeping on a tatami mat in his cube. He hung out with his coworker on the last night. They split a plate of fries with Wisconsin cheddar sauce and he read an entire blog about solar conversion for brownstones while waiting for Peachtree data to back up on the office thumb drives. It rained the whole time, record rains, and he never thought about the implications until he was eating halal food on the street at 2 AM after trying and failing to get to sleep in the creaking office, and he remembered and hit the subway without clocking out. But he was too late; he knew Anne was dead before he even opened the door to the bedroom and saw the drop-spattered glass of the window to the fire escape. She was brown and wilting with one tiny red tomato thrust upward from her dying bulk like Moses floating in his basket over the rushing reeds.
His cell buzzed; it was his coworker.
--Everything okay? she asked.
--Yeah, Charley said, faked it admirably, his fingers resting in the beating rain on the edge of Anne's white pot. --Everything's fine.
--Cool, she said. --So I guess I was just wondering if you were coming back in to work tonight.
--Of course, Charley said. --There's just a family emergency.
--Cool, she said. --It's no problem. I can cover, you know, two people's overtime. I was just wondering.
He didn't hear how she eventually got off the phone. He was watching Charlotte, how she stood next to Anne, leaves grimly bowed and raindrops dashing against her thick-haired stem, like a vagrant queen dying of cirrhosis, still pulling from her brown bag for courage.
He climbed out the window and onto the fire escape, lit a cigarette that the rain quickly extinguished. His blue work shirt was soaked through with cold and he shivered, wanted to go in, told himself no. Anne is dead, he thought. You are weak. You'd rather go inside with your radiators and dry towels than honor Anne. You're a piece of shit.
--Piece of shit, he said aloud.
The tomato peered up through Anne's leaves like a firefly deep in the mines.
He tried to light another smoke, failed, thought about his coworker suddenly, how she'd given him the plants initially, thought of her with cold fries at her desk watching money flow through markets like the rain flowing down the fire escape girders and the sides of buildings and into the faraway dark asphalt. Her own tomato garden lush with plants would even now be dying, tarpless and untended, tomatoes sagging and resting in the soft black mud. He reached into the nest of leaves in Anne's slowly cooling body, plucked the red tomato, crushed it between his teeth.
Maybe what happened next was due to everyday guilt, maybe it was more that he and his coworker had done their jobs too well in managing JJ&K's fresh flow of investments and so stalled the cleanup that the poison had already hit the Catskill water table, deposited its active ingredients into his faucets and glasses and into Anne's soil and children. But whatever the cause, he heard a cracking sound when he bit into the taut red skin of the tomato, and the tart red juice and seeds released into his mouth like a self-administered sacrament, terrifying communion and unction at once, instant karma! There was fever in his cheeks, salt sweat mixed with the rain on his brow, his smoker's lungs and heart strained and the cauliflower stalks of his alveoli wrenched open to drink in the oxygen that was suddenly denied him. And into his eyes leaked a vision:
The yard below, once full of weeds and rusted barbecue parts, was suddenly full of tomato plants.
They were tall, winding, growing shaggy and wild, no one on the ground to build stakes for them, supported only, impossibly, by one another.
He squinted; he could see it, the plants far below growing, thriving, living out entire green generations between the fence of cinder blocks and razor wire in this terrible place where he lived, the L train chugging irrelevantly by.
The poison rain was falling on all of them.
They were wiping off one another's leaves like it was nothing, and mysterious purple and blue tumor fruits were swelling from their vines.
The fruits broke off, rose and burst like bubbles in a dead green sky.
There was a touch on Charley's arm—he turned, and Charlotte's leaf had wound around his shoulder. Her great coughing, surviving bulk clutched tenaciously to the island of soil he'd stolen from the earth and caged her in, the withered green orb of potential pulsing and purpling at the center of her fading yellow flowers.
--Weeeee forgive youuuu, said Charlotte.
In his final moments, Charley couldn't have said why he was on the ladder from his fire escape to the moonsilver roof; he guessed just to put some distance between himself and her grasping thick arms; from her arms' sudden assurance that maybe the poisoned world would in the end be all right with his continuing to be alive. Neither could he have said whether he'd just fallen off of the rain-slick ladder or whether some delayed cosmic justice had actually killed him, maybe with a bolt of lightning or something. If the former, then fine: the worst he could do would be to put some of the plants out of their misery on impact, feed more of them as his body slowly decomposed there in the shadow of the cinder blocks and L train, a kind of ethical average. But he feared the lightning. Being singled out for instant vaporization, the base elements of him rising in an obscene and twisting wind into the clouds, all the chemical poisons the people whose investments Charley protected had to offer, there, hanging malignantly at the center of circling clouds, becoming fat, foaming, finally swelling and lancing and vomiting evil into the soil, wiping out all life, reducing even memory to Camel tobacco ashes as the rivers swelled with careless death and the planet grew cold in its roller-rink cruise around the sun.
Either way, impact or lightning, he thought about his coworker in the end; who would stay with her on her overtime shifts now, protecting investments. Who'd listen to his sister as she tore layers of adhesive and thin white skin from the soles of her feet. There'd be no one.
Bio: Jeanne Thornton writes and draws in a Brooklyn sweatshop of her own making. Her work has previously appeared in the Evergreen Review, Prick of the Spindle, A Capella Zoo, Word Riot, Night Train, and other places; a complete listing to date of her work and projects can be found at http://fictioncircus.com/Jeanne. Her story "Satan In Love" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010. She is an undying fan of the Beach Boys and is currently writing a novel about them.