Just for the record: this plant is not stolen. Our building management said I could dig up a geranium from their planter and take it indoors out of the frost. Here is how it looks now.
That night I was last and late leaving work in the basement stock room. I locked up the office and stepped outside into six inches of water. The wind took my breath away and threw me back against the door. My rain slicker somersaulted up and off; I yanked it back on and pinned it down with one arm, shielding my head with the other from the horizontal rain.
The main street was empty; not a soul or car in sight.
A shopping cart raced over the curb and spun out in the road. Metal trash cans flipped end to end, spilling and splitting their bags of garbage. Some window behind me broke in a shower of glass. Up on a half-finished building, Tyvek wrap was all booming shreds. Streetlights jolted like hanging effigies with their lights spelling empty black.
Taking off my steamed and streaming glasses I peered through my fingers to slide along a drug store wall and cower in the doorway for the next hour, waiting for a bus that came an hour later. I’d always been afraid of bad weather, and ashamed for feeling that way. But even for me, all this blowing debris seemed extra scary. There were no pay phones in the area to call the house. Maybe I should go sleep in the stock room at work? But that would mean walking all the way back through those dark streets to the empty building. Some sense told me to just stand right there in my little nook at the drug store, and shelter in place.
Next I was hit in the chest by a potted plant. It was a hefty armful of leafy tree in a planter, bounding down the street. On some impulse I picked it up, and then saw the bus headlights. Wait, how would the driver see me in the dark? I ran out to the stop, hopping up and down and waving the tree. The driver swerved and pulled in. I fell breathless up the bus steps.
“Gwan gwan move IN,” the driver ordered as I fumbled for the fare. “Get back.”
The bus was jammed with delayed commuters. I wedged in, holding the tree sideways out of their way. Potting mulch and rain streamed down me and on to the floor, already a trampled sludge of fallen leaves and newsprint. A young man in a good suit and London Fog coat gave me an indignant glare. “That is a stolen tree. That tree and planter were stolen right out of my house.”
Passengers turned and stared at me. I thought fast. “And now, here it is! I didn’t know where the tree came from. I was getting on the bus and it flew right at me. Here you are, Sir.”
He waved me away. “Whoa no. I don’t want it back. That was all my tenant’s idea. The plant was all dried out at the curb on trash day, and he dragged it home. He got it all blooming again. White flowers and little oranges.”
An orange tree! The passengers and I took a more appreciative look at the five gallon bronze colored planter with scalloped edges. The tree was about four feet tall, covered with jet black leathery leaves. “It’s frost-bit some is all,” I said. “I can re-pot it and care for it a while. Then your tenant can have it back as a surprise.”
“No,” he said. “That is… no but thanks. He died last year.” The passengers turned and stared at him. “He named it Clara.”
“Clara it is, then. She can stay with me, and be his memory tree. He must have cared about plants. Did he work in a plant nursery?”
“He worked in two restaurants. But he moved here from Delaware to stage ‘The Nutcracker.’ That was his whole big dream. He rented my ground floor. Every spare minute he was building sets and models in his rooms downstairs, like a whole little stage world. Playing the music, learning the score, walking through choreography, drawing costumes and decorations, moving panels and curtains around. He was all excited over this dead plant. He always said if the tree makes it then he’ll make it too. Like, ‘It’s you and me, Clara. All the way. Together.’ And when the tree grew back, he was so happy.”
“And ‘The Nutcracker’? Did anybody see his stage set?” I asked.
“Couple of guys came over and looked at the plans and talked with him. Then he caught a cold and didn’t get better. In and out of the hospital. At home he lay in bed looking around at his stage and playing the music, making little Christmas ornaments to hang on the tree. When he died his parents came and picked up all his things.”
“They took the stage set to Delaware?”
“They took it to the dumpster in pieces. I found it there that night after they left.”
“The tree too?”
“They didn’t get the tree. After he died…” He stopped and cleared his throat, looking around. We all waited for him to go on. “I had this dream about a group of men. They were whispering this little song, like chanting. They joined hands and walked in a circle all around the tree. And I woke up and jumped out of bed thinking ‘My God, those men are inside the house!’ And I ran downstairs. But no, the place was all quiet and locked. Then I saw an orange blossom by the front door. I opened up his room. Everything there was right the way he left it, but the tree was gone.”
Passengers took a long collective breath. Then they stirred, looking around.
“Where are we?” A couple sitting nearby wiped the steam off the windows and bobbed their heads to see past the rain. “We missed Washington Street. Six blocks ago.”
“We missed Maple before that,” said another.
“I just missed Rutherford,” said the young man.
The driver stopped the bus. “Jeez, you coulda rang the bell. Folks, this is bad out there. I’ll have to circle back to Maple, let ya’s all off at your stops. And you, Miss. Young lady with the tree. Where ya headed?”
“Center Square, Sir. Last stop.”
“Stay put while I loop around.”
The bus emptied out. At Rutherford the young man left the bus. “Good luck with that.”
Clara and I took a seat near the driver. I dropped my coins in the fare box. Center Square was the last stop. I stood up to leave.
“How far you going, Miss?” The driver turned around. “Top of the hill? No, you can’t lug that thing. Sit down and point out the way I’ll drive you.” That night our residential neighborhood, all soaring sycamores and pines and three-story family houses built in 1900, had an off-duty Metro bus ease along the flooded street and right to my door. “Get in safe, Hon. Take care of yourself. And your little tree there.” I thanked him and waved goodbye, and rushed for the house.
The rain roared down on roofs and tall rocking trees. I groped my way over fallen sycamore limbs and up the porch steps. Unlocking the front door and sliding along the wall I eased sideways up to our apartment on the second floor. I carried the pot down the hall to the bathroom off the kitchen, and set it down in the bathtub along with my shoes and socks. Then I sat down on the edge of the tub and realized that I’d forgotten for a while to be scared of the storm, because now there was something important to care for, a tree with a story and a name. What if it really did start to grow again? It would look so pretty in my room, and make a nice story for our guests. Best of all, maybe that young man’s spirit would feel pleased that Clara was doing well and in good hands.
On the first floor, all the lights were out; our neighbors were away for the weekend. In our household upstairs the four other guys and gals were all at home, but not for long. The gal headed over to her boyfriend’s for the night. The guys were heading to the pub with their friend Trigg to shoot pool and play darts. The fellows urged me to join them. “It’s a gloomy evening for sitting home alone,” Jared pointed out, tuning his guitar on the sofa; “They’ve got a Trivia Night. Maybe the bonus topic will be Russian Grammar, and you’ll win.” But I was too wary of heading out again for a late night in rough weather. I wanted to tend to the orange tree, then warm up and get to sleep.
First I grabbed my rain tarp and rubber sandals, and ran down to the garden. I emptied an extra five-gallon clay pot, rinsing it well under the rain spout. Then I picked up and threw in a quart of rocks, and hauled it all back upstairs. I was cooking the rocks over the stove in my laundry-boiling pot when Trigg strolled in to the kitchen for a hello and a hug, and took a look in the pot. “Short ’til payday, Love?”
“Hi, Trigg! I’m sterilizing these stones to transplant an orange tree. It flew along and hit me at the bus stop.”
“Full-blown gale, trash flying all over hell. This one has to drag it into the house.”
“Can you have a look and tell me what it needs? It’s right there in the bathroom.”
“Sure… Wait, that sorry ragmop in the tub?”
“What’s it mean when the leaves turn black?”
“Means ‘plant death.’ Let it go, Dear. Could have mites or who knows what. I can walk it to the bin for you.”
“Oh, it used to be dead to begin with. But a young man from Delaware was staging ‘The Nutcracker,’ and he nursed it back to health and named it Clara. I’m at least the third owner.”
“You’re likely the last. You got all that from what, the note in the foundling basket?”
“Owner’s landlord was on my very bus. Somebody stole the tree from his house, but he didn’t want it back. Let’s see if it perks up in a few days. I think these rocks are done.”
“Why not give it up and come with us.” Trigg ruffled my hair. “I’ll have the van at the door in ten. And look, I’ve got a houseful of plants and trees, Pet. I’ll bring you something healthy with a fightin’ chance.”
Jared on the sofa left off practicing his guitar and put his boots on, and the men got ready to go. “I enjoy watching Mary do her life,” said Trigg to the fellows as he left to bring the van. “She’s all hero’s journey. Like a kitten fighting its way out of a sandwich bag.” The sound of their voices trailed off, and their bootsteps creaked through the ceiling as I grabbed the clay pot of rocks and headed down to the basement.
There was a van horn and the flash of Trigg’s headlights. “Is that the downstairs lights you’ve left on?” he yelled up to the house. “Aw Jaysus, no — that’s your girl down cellar coddling that roadkill in a planter. What’s wrong with you lot, letting her catch her death of damp and mold! She’ll be haunting the house next. Go get her out of that and into the van and I’ll buy her a pint.” After some calling back and forth and slamming doors, the men drove off.
The project took a chill drafty hour or more. There was a trip four flights up to the kitchen bin for newspapers to spread on the floor, a trowel, scissors to cut open some construction sand to spread over the hot rocks, then a wrestle with the large bag of potting soil, then another trip to the kitchen for an old platter to put underneath, then later another trip for a jug of distilled water and fertilizer liquid and paper towels. Finally the planting and sweeping and cleanup were done. I locked up the cellar, turned out all the lights, hoisted up the pot, and began to struggled up the four flights of back steps. The wet clay pot and rocks and watered earth and mulch were so heavy that halfway up I nearly fell, and had to half-drop it on the stairs.
And with that final jolt, all but one black leather leaf fell off the tree in a heap. I sank down to the steps, head in hands. Maybe this whole Saving Orange Clara fantasy was all about me wanting to reach out and connect and do something helpful and feel all special. Huddled on the steps I just felt crestfallen and chagrined. The emotion felt familiar. Where had that feeling come from before? Then, the memory came to mind:
It was a hospital room, with a young friend on a lot of monitors and machines sitting up in bed and me perched in the doorway being quiet, just to keep him company. He’d been there for weeks, and for some reason that day it felt important to go get on the bus and visit him. When I tapped on the door frame with a soft hello he didn’t look at or speak to me. But he seemed acutely sensitive and aware of everything around him. He knew exactly who I was; it’s just that now his energy was fixed on a smaller more focused circle of rapt attention. He was staring hard at the wall, working to keep his head upright while watching some vast epic that I couldn’t see, playing out all across the white painted surface. His vigilance was so tense that at one point I stood up with some murmur of reassurance, and slowly reached over to touch his hair. His head snapped back. He flashed his eyes at me like some captive bird of prey. Clearly my intervention had disrupted his epic, and possibly its entire outcome. I backed away on tiptoe to sit down again. Two nurses rushed in to the room and hurried me out. He died the next day.
“Clara? I was wrong this time too.” I picked up a black leaf. “I rushed in and intervened in your epic. I wanted you to get well and to stay with me! But you just want to be an orange tree in heaven, don’t you? You just want to see your young man again.” I took a deep breath. “Here you go then, just like he said: ‘All the way, together.’ Goodbye.” I wrenched the tree roots out of the pot.
When I did that, an immense wave of grief and despair, something more than any wind or weather, swept from basement upwards, straight up and out of the house. I cowered down as the cloud passed over. Then, to my immense relief, loud men’s voices rang out loudly upstairs. The fellows! They must have turned back to spend the evening at home! I leaped up to call out to the four of them and join their good company. But then I realized that the voices were strange men, in our house. At first I froze. Was it the police with news of an accident? Were they people breaking in? Should I run upstairs two flights, and out the back door? What if there were more men outside?
It took a long moment of fear and a musical commercial break to tell me that the voices came from the television. Creeping up the stairs, I peered into the living room. Sure enough, the television showed a basketball game, with commentators hollering about the score. But why hadn’t I heard it, trudging up and down to the kitchen for the past hour? And why would the guys turn it on before going out? We housemates almost never watched TV at all. That black and white set was left from some long past generation of tenants. It was a large wooden console with sound panels of scratchy gold fabric, and an old-fashioned on/off button — push in hard to turn on, push in hard again to turn off. I pushed the button.
And at that, the set turned on.
It wasn’t basketball. It was white snow static and no reception at all. I crawled behind the console and yanked the plug out of the wall outlet, using both wrists because my hands were shaking so hard. Then for some reason that I can not explain, I ran down the back stairs and grabbed the clay pot, ran right up two flights, and put the orange tree right out of our home. The 1900 house had a closed pantry porch at the back. It led to a closed yard with a tall chain link fence. The porch floor boards were so warped and loose that we never used that door ourselves, so I settled the tree there. Then I slammed and bolted the porch door and house door, charged up the two flights to our back kitchen, and locked the stair door and the kitchen door. Still shaking hard I changed into dry clothes.
My bedroom was all windows, and the wind and rain were pounding on the house. So I settled on the living room sofa in a Jared-shaped space in the cushions, and fell asleep next to his guitar with my rosary. At least it was a comfort to think about the unexpected fellow-feeling on that city bus, and the kindness of that driver. By looping around and driving us home, he might have kept us safe from walking around with flying branches or downed wires. Here it seemed like I was out saving an orange tree, when maybe the tree saved us.
That was the weekend of All Saints/All Souls, 1991. Later on we found out that those wind gusts reached 75 miles an hour. The nameless hurricane that people in the city still call The Perfect Storm passed over us. Thirteen people lost their lives. The Andrea Gail sank off the coast.
In the morning I woke up and ran downstairs to place the tree in our compost. I searched the porch, the chain-link yard, the steps, the basement, and even asked my housemates whether they had moved it. But the tree had vanished, pot and all, leaving one black leaf by the door.
We were fortunate that night. Everyone got home safely. At 2:00 am Jared woke me up and marched me back to my room. I was mainly walking in my sleep, but happy to see him. “How was Trivia Night? Was it Russian Grammar?”
“That’s right. We all lost. What were you doing sleeping with my guitar, Mare? I think this rosary is yours, not mine.”
“Is the TV off?” I worried, getting into bed right in my street clothes and too sleepy to care.
“TV? What?” He just smiled, sitting down at the foot of my bed. “Sure it’s off. We weren’t watching it, and neither were you.” He tucked me in, then stopped in the doorway on his way out. “Mare? I won’t quote his exact words, but Trigg says your orange tree isn’t gonna make it. Tomorrow he’s bringing you a Peace Lily from his sun room. Sweet dreams.”