She loved saying the name.
The scientific name being Echeveria elegans.
It sounded like the name of a drag queen.
Now coming to the stage to perform “Stand Back” by Stevie Nicks, Miss Echeveria Elegans!
Muriel Stanley had heard succulents were difficult to kill, and so she purchased one at the supermarket. When she brought the little plant to the express check-out, the cashier remarked that her cousin loves plants. The cousin’s name was Steve and he no longer comes over for Christmas, because he’s invested in online conspiracies, but everyone in the family is glad he has his plants, because that’s something at least.
While Muriel was listening to all this, she was thinking about what she could name the plant since you couldn’t call something by what it was even though Echeveria would be a lovely name. She had read somewhere that naming a plant was as important as naming a pet, and that if you select the right name, the plant might live to be three or four hundred years old. Muriel loved the idea of something outliving her. She would have to bequeath Echeveria to someone and she made a mental note to contact her attorney upon returning home.
Her house was located in the liveliest section of a dead end street. Lots of children and families. People walking dogs. A wayward koala that had escaped from the local zoo years ago and somehow managed to survive in suburbia. Life was quirky enough to prevent boredom onset and quiet enough to allow the days to slip away in the silence. Muriel would often go down in her basement and scream at the furnace simply to contribute some noise to the Universe. One day she forgot to close the window in the basement before wailing, and her neighbors ran over to see if she was all right. She told them she thought she had stepped on a garden hose, but it turned out to be a snake. Her neighbors agreed that a hose would be a terrible thing to step on, but snakes get stepped on all the time, so they’re used to it. They invited her to brunch the following day, but she said she plans to get her eyebrows lifted. These were the sorts of conversations had on a dead end street where everyone was pretending that the world only seemed slightly off instead of fully deranged.
Muriel had been looking for something to cement her as a grown-up. At the age of forty-seven, she was still unsure of her own maturity. Her job at the funeral home was certainly proof that she could be counted on to care for herself financially, but she was startled by how happy she was at work when everyone else seemed so somber. It wasn’t that she was unaffected by the presence of death all around her. She simply couldn’t suppress the feeling of immense relief that she would never be the cause of so much grief when she passed. Her family consisted only of her deceased parents. Her father died while she was in college of a rare form of cancer and her mother died a month later when a torpedo hit the cruise ship she was vacationing on. One death was common aside from how exotic the cancer was and one was exceedingly strange in spite of the fact that torpedoes do exist and they’re bound to hit something they’re not supposed to if you fire enough of them. The experience had not soured Muriel to cruises, but she was determined to never attach herself to anyone who would be left behind if she should happen to die suddenly.
Echeveria would be the exception.
Oh to hell with it, she thought, I’m never going to think up a better name than that.
She considered several places in the house where her new charge would be happiest. There was not a lot of natural light available, but the kitchen window offered a small square of it that fell onto the kitchen table where Muriel did her taxes and ate her Raisin Bran. That was where she placed her plant. She had read online that when you find the right spot for your new roommate, you’ll know immediately, because your heart will stop for a total of three seconds. Muriel did feel a slight pang in her chest when Echeveria was in her new spot, and that gave her a thrill. She had done something correctly. And now she had a plant. A plant that would never die. A plant she could leave to a charity after she was gone. A charity for children who love plants, but can’t afford any, or some sort of Botanical Home for Orphaned Succulents.
Muriel wondered if plants are capable of grieving.
The thought brought her within striking distance of a sob. She got herself a glass of water, and dropped a thimbleful of it into the topsoil remembering that succulent leaves can’t soak up water the way other plants can. She was proud of Echeveria for being so resistant to influence in that way. If you wanted to impact her, you had to go through the dirt. At the root. The foundation. That was where you had to start or don’t bother. Muriel approved of this. She understood it. She admired it. Her own roots were too far down to reach. As deeply as she craved affirmation of her own growth, she knew stagnation had taken hold. Bills would be paid. Meals would be made. A trip here or there that would offer her a glimpse of landmarks and warmer sunshine. Other than that, life would be lived here in an aubergine living room.
And was that so horrible?
She poured more water into her glass from the sink and tried not to worry about lead levels. She refrained from giving Echeveria any additional water, because she knew that a succulent could be killed if you hydrated it more than you should. She moved it an inch to the left and knew right away that was the wrong thing to do. When she moved it back, there was a pang. Yes, that was the proper spot. No denying it.
It was not unusual for Murial Stanley to give herself a task with the assumption that it would take all day to complete only to find that it required far less time. That was how she wound up watching reruns of The Bob Newhart Show most afternoons after thinking that mailing a letter or carving up a pineapple would consume her entire day. There was always too much time or never enough and you couldn’t be sure which was the problem until you’d already ingested the wrong kind of medicine. The succulent was secured. What now?
Rather than take another trip to sitcom therapy, she sat at the kitchen table and told Echeveria about her parents. The plant was only the size of a soda can, but it seemed sturdy enough to handle the weighted details of lost life. Muriel began with her father’s haircuts--how they were always asymmetrical, because he insisted on doing them himself. She talked about her mother’s fascination with denim. How she would never wear it, but would comment anytime anyone else did. Look, Muriel, she’d say, barely whispering, They’re wearing denim. Can you believe it? Denim. I can’t believe it. My goodness. Denim. Wow.
She spoke of her father’s strange way of pronouncing the word ‘queso.’ Her mother’s infinite luck when it came to scratch tickets ($20,000 in winnings). The Barbados honeymoon they took after they’d been married for six years, because the first one was cancelled when the bed and breakfast they had booked was washed away in a flash flood. The food poisoning her father had gotten on that honeymoon because he ate a garden hose he thought was a snake. The way her mother laughed whenever someone would forget to return something. The time her father taught her how to resist a sneeze without anyone noticing. The week they all spent in a Tuscaloosa used bookstore searching for an autographed copy of The Valley of the Dolls.
When her parents died, there was no one to tell all this to. Her neighbors came by and left quiches and notes of sympathy, but none stayed to listen. They thought talking would only expand her sadness. They wanted to give her space. The space they gave turned into a void. The void took in light and sugar and joy and turned it into the opposite of a living thing. It turned all the walls in her living room aubergine instead of the original beige. It took all the natural light and reduced it to a square. It turned every garden hose into a snake and it made the furnace feel insufficient. Muriel Stanley sat at her kitchen table and felt as though her world was both miniscule and monumental. How could there be so much all around her and yet there was nothing to hold onto?
She looked down at Echeveria. All those memories had gone down into the soil. Now she would do the impossible. She would kill a thing that could not be killed. All because she couldn’t hold her bereavement in any longer. It was now foisted upon this poor elegans. Surely it would cause the plant to shrivel. The leaves would fall off. There would be nothing left but dirt. Muriel would deserve it. She could not be trusted to take care of anything or anyone. Even the koala should be advised to steer clear of her.
While Muriel was berating herself, Echeveria decided to branch out a bit. It sprouted a few more leaves, and--enjoying the feeling--it sprouted a few more. It permitted itself to go up a foot, then two, then another two. Muriel looked up in time to see her succulent nearly hit the ceiling. Echeveria made its way all around the house. It filled up each bit of space it could find. When it ran out, it opened a few windows and let its leaves drop down onto Muriel’s front yard. One of the neighbors passing by remarked that the neighborhood could use a good jungle.
Inside, Muriel saw the walls wiped clean of their purple-tint. Instead, they were now blue and bold. Her television was replaced with a bookcase and each book contained a chapter dedicated to a time in her life that she had made herself forget. The Raisin Bran in the cupboards was replaced with hot sauce. The planner at her desk had its squares filled up with outings and adventures. The lead was sucked out of the pipes and the furnace was given a pep talk until it finally felt like itself again.
Muriel Stanley stood up from her kitchen table and noticed all the oxygen that up to now had just been air. She knocked on her chest and felt the sturdiness of wood. Her hair smelled like apples and peaches and mint and aloe. Her ears could hear robins and bluejays and any kind of songbird she could imagine.
More than anything, she felt her roots.
She felt them soften. They were opening up. It was conceivable that they could absorb again. And doing so would not weaken them. They were not the immovable kind. They were not impermeable. They were not going to hold her in place.
Outside, a man was walking a dog down the dead end street. A woman was yelling for children to come inside and have dinner. Two teenagers were talking about hitchhiking to Alaska as soon as they turned eighteen. A sprinkler system went off. A roof in need of repair lost a shingle. A fence moved a little to the left.
And nobody noticed.
There was so much and it was all happening so fast.