by Corey Campbell
THE WOMAN LIVED in a mobile home park in a neighborhood outside town meant to evoke the French Riviera. The land was a flat green like a winter postcard. Small streets were named Toulon and Cannes and Marseille, which I admit I found charming when first driving through. But only a few who lived there embraced the nautical theme. The rest weren’t swayed by attempts to transport an eastern Iowa trailer park to France’s southern coast. Even if they’d had money to live in the actual French Riviera, the sun-soaked bright carefree one, I’m not convinced they would have, opting instead for Chicago or Des Moines, someplace homey and filled with relatives. Not saying they made no effort—their small yards had their own coziness, with watering cans and spinning windmills, American flags long before and after Independence Day, bicycles with training wheels just outside the screen door, under carports.
And many of them had plants.
Not elaborate usually but solid showings of tulips and daffodils, grape hyacinths zig-zagging in a line. We’d just come off a precipitously cold winter so any flower face was a burst of brightness to me—pansies and petunias, marigolds bought in six-count trays outside Lowes.
I arrived on a Saturday to visit a woman I’d corresponded with online. She was selling furniture and I needed some. She sounded honest in her emails. You wonder in these interactions what trap you’re driving into, entering someone’s domain and losing your way out. It seems silly to put forward such a risk: your own goddamned life. But my gut said this woman would be okay. Nelle, a horticulturist.
‘Amateur,’ she said, shaking my hand.
She taught special ed at an elementary but had a plant biology degree from a good ag school. Somehow along her path she must’ve become more interested in people than plants, but she supplemented her school hours with plants’ company. Huge terracotta pots of them lined the little deck outside her home. Smaller plastic pots filled her plant room—what would have been a child’s bedroom in some families, with low ceiling and salmon-colored carpet. A grow light apparatus was affixed to black plastic shelves, a whole array of succulents and violets basking underneath. She had dozens and dozens of plants and didn’t want any of them.
‘I’m tired of keeping things alive,’ she said.
I was tired of things dying.
I was there for an easy chair I wanted to buy for my Russian blue cat Ronnie. I realize it sounds frivolous, but Nelle was selling it for $30, not $300, and I trusted, by her trailer’s cleanliness, that it was in good shape. I have to be honest, Ronnie the cat is more handsome than I’ll ever be. His great big triangle face. And he needed a new place to climb as stimulation is so necessary for him. My last cat, an orange-striped named Sparks, had died under a Camaro’s tires and still I had anxious dreams about it. I’d lost my mom and sister that year, too, in a head-on collision on a back empty road near Maquoketa. Before the corn even had a chance to grow. Drunk driver in a rainstorm and then that’s it.
It’s a wonder I could approach cars at all, but I drove to Cannes Boulevard the first Saturday in April to pick up this old used easy chair—and it turned out Nelle wanted to give me her plants.
‘Do I look like I can care for anything?’ I said, feeling my scruffy, copper-colored, unshowered hair.
Nevertheless, she persisted. ‘Take them, please take them.’
It wasn’t bait and switch. Nelle was honest, a teacher like my mother, with the same pixie haircut, too, so I know. Said she wanted to travel. She needed space to breathe, and these plants stole her oxygen. (I wanted to question her on that point but held back.)
Now, I couldn’t take these plants from her any more than I could handle a lion cub if she offered it. Life wasn’t an adventure I wanted anymore. I wanted to buy this easy chair for Ronnie the cat, Mr. Triangle Head himself, and drive it home, see if he liked it, then maybe go buy him a cheap, clean plush blanket because I don’t like to run his blankets in the wash (too much litter), so I end up collecting dirty ones in a pile I never get around to laundering, and he likes the pile just the same, climbing up and lying down on it, kneading it with his paws and purring, but then I feel guilty for treating him so carelessly. I do care. But I hate laundromats, the awful exposure of them. Nobody needs to see our stained ugly drawers.
But, feeling my usual knee-jerk closed mind springing shut like a mousetrap—yet again—I wondered what I was up against. Why say no so often, as reflex? Is that the kind of person I am? No, no, no. I thought of the blurred past months, unspeakable grief, my two scholarship friends’ attempts at organizing dinners and movie nights I declined. I didn’t want to do most things people asked me to, didn’t want to ‘be out on the town,’ to explore campus or the river or art museums. Didn’t want to call home to hear my dad’s forlorn voice, or respond to all the voicemails that said, ‘Hang in there.’
It became clear I had to say yes to Nelle, or I risked disappearing. Couldn’t keep spitting out nos and still be a thinking, curious person—or be a person at all, which is what I’d always considered myself to be. And if I said yes to this, what else could I do? Learn piano or take French. Maybe become pen-pals with every third person in India, or Indiana, or at least write back to my cousin in St. Louis. I felt almost giddy.
‘Yes, I’ll take your plants,’ I said in Nelle’s tiny room off Chartres Street. ‘I’ll take every single one.’
She clapped and hopped up. ‘I’ll get a box.’
The one she returned with was scribbled all over with marker. A kid’s transformation into a school bus with red wheels and windows with children’s faces smudged against them.
‘I can’t take that from you,’ I said. ‘It’s too much.’
But Nelle insisted, nodding to her granddaughter’s framed photo: ‘She does this to every box. I mean, really.’
Nelle helped me load the plants into my backseat, whole galaxies of leaves, pots, and little stems, the grow light shelves behind them.
It wasn’t until I’d turned off Chartres and sailed down Toulon Way I realized I’d forgotten Ronnie’s chair. I’d have to go back. I’d have to go back—but not now. To be honest, there wasn’t any room with all that life crowding the backseat. How clever Nelle was, passing the torch and freeing herself! Venturing to the real Riviera if she wanted to, to outer space for all I knew. Now it was my turn to keep everything alive. It filled me with a desperate, sick, orange feeling. I’d sure like to think it was joy.
Corey Campbell’s short fiction has appeared in Story, The Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, Salamander, and the anthology Buffalo Cactus and Other New Stories from the Southwest. She has received support from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the University of Houston, and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In 2021, her work was awarded the Larry Levis Postgraduate Prize in Fiction from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.