“Does it count as out of place if it’s dead?” I say to Jeff.
He’s taken cleaning house to a whole new level recently, ever since my mother’s Alzheimer’s got worse and we had to fly out to Texas to help her and my stepdad clean up their house and put it on the market. That house was a disaster in every way. Nails sprouting up out of the floorboards like steely, stray hairs. The fruit bowl coated in a silvery green mold. Mail dating back to three years ago still piled on the dining room table. Cockroaches watching us from every crevice. Jeff was appalled, but also he was amazing. He took a deep breath and he got to work. Directed me gently, like a preschool teacher wrapping a child’s hand around a pencil for the first time.
Now that we’re back in our own house, Jeff’s big thing is everything should have a designated place and if it doesn’t, there’s a good chance we don’t need it.
I told him everything in my office is where it belongs. Then he came in and pointed to the half-knitted scarf draped over everyone from Ellison to Eugenides, the tin of thumbtacks blocking his face in our wedding photo, the plant.
“Dead is worse.” He shakes his head. “You can’t keep anything alive.”
“That’s simply false,” I say. “I’ve been alive 46 years, haven’t I?”
“Your parents get some credit for the first 18. I get some credit for the last 18,” he says.
I can’t argue with him about the last 18. Jeff has probably saved me from myself more times than I can count. But as for the first 18, Jeff knows full well I’d reduce that figure to about 2. I was raised by the microwave more than the pair of humans who begat me.
Jeff says, “How long has it been dead? Days? Weeks?”
I pause before answering. The truth is I’m not sure that plant was ever alive in my office. Seems like it was a matter of hours after I brought it home from the nursery that it began to lean over. Leaning towards the window, towards the sun, I told myself. Plants will bend in all kinds of crazy ways to reach what they need. Hard to reach water, though, when it’s down the hall; second door on the left. It was a matter of days before that plant shriveled and its sage green leaves browned and crinkled.
“Years,” I say.
Jeff’s eyes widen. “Why would you keep a dead plant around for years?”
It’s a good question I don’t have a good answer to.
“Because it makes me sad to admit it’s dead?” I say.
This does make me sad. I have a vision of my house being full of thriving things. I go to the plant nursery on my lunch hour sometimes. I spend the whole hour stroking stems, breathing in that fortifying smell of damp earth, thinking about how this time I’m going to keep the plant I buy alive.
But I’m bad at follow through. That half-knitted scarf: I started it three years ago, a birthday gift for my friend Katrina.
“How many plants is this now? Twenty? Forty?” Jeff says.
“Don’t be cruel,” I say.
I don’t know why I don’t follow through on simple things like giving a plant water or disposing of said plant after it’s dead. It’s not that I forget exactly, more that I seem to surrender to things falling apart. Or maybe surrender isn’t the right word exactly. My shoelace starts to fray, and I pull at the threads. Help the lace along in its unraveling. It’s a genetic trait, I tell myself, or an instinct, something innate that is almost impossible to resist. Like a pig rolling around in the mud, making that mud pit wider and deeper with every twist. I remember how my father winced at what our two pigs did to his land. He bought those pigs when I was 9, around the same time he bought the goats and the turkeys and took up blacksmithing. His maker phase. He didn’t anticipate how much destruction his making would entail.
Jeff says, “How much longer would you have kept this dead plant around?”
“Honestly?” I say. “Maybe forever.”
Just like if it hadn’t been for my stepdad crying into the telephone, I don’t know that I ever would have gone out there to see my mother.
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