Pamela Painter

Indoor Gardening

He had been watch­ing her for four years—watering her plants, groom­ing her plants.   First in grad school, then when they moved in togeth­er in Cambridge, and lat­er in their first house as a new­ly mar­ried cou­ple with house plants.  It had tak­en years for him to cred­it:  to observe, to sus­pect, to hypoth­e­size about, and final­ly to believe.

Her plants—their plants he’d thought at first—sat on pedestals, long bench­es, and gleam­ing wood­en foot stools in front of win­dows sod­den with sun­light.  Numerous trips to the local flea mar­ket, an old dri­ve-in still show­ing first-run movies, had pro­duced this odd assort­ment of plant stands.

They had been mar­ried for two years when he first became curi­ous.  How dili­gent­ly she plucked off old leaves, inspect­ed them for mites, mixed drops of dark fer­til­iz­er into their broth.  She hov­ered, swooped, and some­times knelt before them as she watered their soil.  For one of their anniver­saries he bought her a cop­per water­ing can, its long spout a per­fect curve, capa­ble of safe­ly snaking in among the leaves to reach the care­ful­ly cul­ti­vat­ed earth.

Then the day came when some­thing, what?, made him real­ize that the leaves on a Christmas cac­tus had begun to droop alarm­ing­ly.  Their link-like stems were limp, green arcs, a green that verged on brown.  He went to the door of her study to sug­gest that he might water the plants for her, but she said oh no and assured him she was keep­ing an eye on them.  They were real­ly just fine.  Besides he had bet­ter things to do with his time.

Did he?  He sup­posed he did and returned to his own study where he was putting the fin­ish­ing touch­es to a paper on the polit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry British cartoons.

The day came, though, when he was sure.  He put on his glass­es and peered down one row of plants and then anoth­er, stooped over two low bench­es, poked his fin­ger into the soil of a ficus tree.  Dry.  The plants were almost dead—or in var­i­ous stages of dying.  When he sum­moned his wife to see what he saw, she said, “Darling, they’ll be fine.  Don’t give these plants anoth­er thought.”

And then she moved into action:  water, fer­til­iz­er, prun­ing, dust­ing, pet­ting, sun­light.  It was some­how famil­iar:  how gen­er­ous her glee had seemed at first, before he under­stood her par­si­mo­ny.  Children?  Perhaps it was why he nev­er want­ed a child.  It is why she is no longer his wife.


Pamela Painter is the author of three sto­ry col­lec­tions, Getting to Know the Weather, which won the GLCA Award for First Fiction and was reprint­ed as a Classic Contemporary by Carnegie Mellon, The Long and Short of It, and Wouldn’t You Like to Know. She is also the co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, now in its third edi­tion. Her sto­ries have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, PloughsharesSmokelong Quarterly, Iron Horse Literary Review, Mid-American Review, and Quick Fiction, among oth­ers. She has won three Pushcart Prizes and Agni Review’s The John Cheever Award for Fiction. She teach­es at Emerson College.