The Old Man and the Plant
The plant was an oddity for sure. Ted Peebly had never seen anything look quite like it.
Fragile, and green, and bent over itself and very unsure of itself. When held at an arm’s length it took on a gnarled and ancient stature, reminding him of the veins on the back of his hand. But then, when brought close to his eyes, he could see that tender baby-like softness on its outsides. It carried a scent on it, not strong like cologne but if he held it close enough, he could just make out this faint, sweet fragrance. Horribly interesting.
Ted had found the plant in his neighbor’s mailbox. He happened to despise his neighbors; Mr. and Mrs. Bug. They were horrible and ostentatious and young. They’d moved into his neighborhood at the beginning of the last year and caused a useless amount of fuss. The neighborhood was built in the bronze style, bronze roads, bronze gutters, bronze fences programmed to open when you approached, and sitting all exactly the same distance from the road, bronze TimeHome units. It was laid out like a true neighborhood, from the days when there had been yards to maintain or bird feeders to restock. Those things had been done away with years ago, in favor of more sanitary, and more predictable bronze. But the Bugs, with their money, and their fashion, had been insistent on having a gold TimeHome. There had been a mandatory neighborhood board meeting to discuss the new house, and it was only when Mr. Bug offered to pay the fees for the borough cleaning committee out of pocket that things were resolved. But the trouble was, the Bugs’ TimeHome was next to his TimeHome, making him look particularly archaic and unfashionable, and so for the last year, Ted had been stealing their mail as revenge.
It was raining that day, and rain was always so hard to bear, the metallic way it pinged against the road and that oily, rusting smell from the orange haze that came up and hung in the air after a storm. He was taking the TimeTram back from the city, and it moved miserably up and down its paths. It gave a little ding upon arriving, marking when a passenger’s time to get off at their stop began, before again dinging and slinging along in the rain to the next road. The stop times were exactly sixty seconds, which experts and analysts at TimeCorp had all agreed was a practically generous amount of time for a passenger to leave the tram.
When the TimeTram bell dinged for his stop Ted had difficulty moving fast enough. It was getting harder and harder to keep up as the years passed by. Sure, those doctors had all the latest fixes, pro-bionic knees and plastic hips and muscle stimulant injections, but there was no stopping time. The ding for when the TimeTram moved to the next stop went off just as he made to step off of it.
There was a jerk and he was very unceremoniously dumped onto the slippery wet bronze right outside the Bug’s golden front porch. That had been when he’d seen it.
The color caught his eye, not tinny or copper colored but bright and green, in a parcel leaning on the Bugs’ mailbox. It was not a very big parcel, but had been apparently damaged, perhaps by the rain so that the cardboard top had disintegrated a little, allowing for this disturbing shock of green to peek through.
It was a plant. He could hardly believe it—even thinking the word plant felt a little devious, taboo even. One did hear about these things, and read about them, but it had no business being here, in the city. What were Mr. and Mrs. Bug doing ordering such a solicitous little creature? But there it was, reaching out from that soiled cardboard packaging were little leaflets on thin, weak green branches. He had never laid eyes on one, plants had been long since done away with when people realized they carried nasty insects and molds and viruses and god knows whatever else inside them. It could put one’s health at risk.
But perhaps they are coming back in style, he thought with envy. If anyone these days were to know the fashions it would be the Bugs’, with their money and their golden house. He detested them. So, he took the package and scuttled away through rain, carrying it under his long coat, trying not to slip on the smooth bronze streets. He had some trouble with the gate, which was timed to open just a few moments earlier, if only he’d left the TimeTram and headed directly home as he was expected to. But no matter, he could manually open it anyway. His TimeHome looked like the others on the street, a round brassy structure with its welcoming little windows with warm twinkling light shining out. The TimeHome had his post-work tea already made and sitting out on the kitchen table just a few minutes before (usually it was timed to be piping hot and, in his hand, just as he walked through the door) but Ted drank it warm anyway, and breathed a sigh of relief. He was glad to be out of the rain at last. It felt good to be home, here the cacophony of rain pinging off of metal surfaces was insulated, and all one heard were the comforting clicks and ticks in the walls and floors as the various gears and clocks went rhythmically about their business. Ted placed the package down on his dining room table, pulled out the plant, and stared it down wearily.
What did one do with these exactly? He reached out and pinched a leaflet between his fingers. This was how they all said babies felt. Ted had never had children. They seemed to be the byproduct of romance, and that particular ailment had never tickled his fancy. Back when he was young it had all seemed one big impossible hurdle, all those other young people and their sleek hair and long legs and loud voices, how they were always checking calendars and scheduling drinks with one another and calling up each other and chatting and drinking and shouting and having babies and yelling at them to stop yelling and it all seemed so exhausting and noisy. He liked things quiet.
Of course, everything had changed once the TimeCorp party won the city governance seat back in the 70s. People just didn’t waste time going on dates and having drinks like they did anymore. To be young was to be efficient. Productive. A contributing civilian. A piece in the grand productive masterpiece known as “New, New York City”. New New York was clean. It was progressive. It wasn’t wasteful, as the big TimeCorp advertisements in TimeSquare reminded him on the way to work. The display showed a husband and wife dressed in clean, white garb, drinking high-efficiency coffees with wide, white smiles, the tagline reminding “Don’t WASTE!” The TimeWalks that carried Ted from their offices to the TimeTrams went right by in every day. He supposed those two were the idealistic couple of the New New Era. The kind that shunned bars and opted for high-efficiency coffee shops and ThinkTank dates. The parents with children that moved out of the country into the city, for fast-paced, high-quality, non-wasteful education. Ted had no idea what families with the slow children did. Perhaps they moved back to where they came from.
Ted was startled from his thoughts as he blew steam from his tea and watched the little leaflets on the plant ruffle chaotically, as if caught in a severe wind. What was there to do with it now that he had it? It was late now, and he didn’t want it up near his bed, in case the nasty bacteria and insects that he’d heard lived inside of these jumped out of the plant and assaulted him in his sleep. He supposed he might leave it in the kitchen, by the window, and program the house to water it every few days and simply see what happened. He went to the switchboard, located under the stairs, and cranked the associated gears and pulled the right lever to tell the TimeHome to give the plant water. It was all robotically programmed of course, merely by sensing his touch the TimeHome could tell what he wanted and the most efficient way to do it. But TimeCorp had found people actually liked the physical movements associated with programming. It gave them a feeling of control.
That night Ted had trouble sleeping, tossing and turning. He dreamed he could hear the plant breathing softly downstairs.
The next morning Ted had completely forgotten about the plant until he reached the kitchen. He had been humming and abruptly stopped, startled by that shock of green sitting in the sunlight that came through the window. “It wasn’t a dream then,” he realized, a little nervously. Ted took his breakfast, gave the plant a polite, if not hesitant, nod, and headed off to catch his TimeTram.
Work was unbearable that day. He worked on the 153rd floor of the old stock building, and usually didn’t mind the work, but on that day he would suddenly be seized by a petrifying fear that he’d programmed the TimeHome wrong. He had visions, the house might detect the little green intruder and blast it away, the way it did fleas and mites. This fear would catch him mid-sentence typing or on his way to the bathroom and he would suddenly be paralyzed until he could comfort himself. After all, it was just a silly plant, what did it matter if the house did away with it? But then the fear would again catch him, and his fingers would be trembling on his keys, slipping around his coffee cup.
It was long hours, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. every day, but that’s what a company had to do to keep up with Eurasia these days. Finally, the TimeOffice closing gong struck and in a flurry of paper and pressed suits the people around him began packing up to go. No one moved faster than Ted Peebly, which was considerable given that he’d recently received a commemoration for becoming the oldest employee at the company. But it made no difference how fast he moved as the elevator was timed to wait just enough that every employee could line up and squish into it together, rather than going uselessly up and down and up and down like the elevators had in the old days. On the TimeTram he jostled his feet and tapped his cane on the ride there, the fear that something had happened, that the plant had been knocked over or flooded with water or snipped by the TimeHome grew stronger on his mind. He leapt off the TimeTram and bust through the bronze door of his ticking home.
And the plant was still there, same as before, looking green and unsure of itself. He slumped against the door frame.
I’m too old to be working my heart like this.
So, he picked it up the sprout and made to throw it in the dumpster. But when he moved it swayed ever so gently in his hand and he thought of what that vivacious green color would look like among the trash and rubbish. He set it back down and wagged a finger at it.
“You’re a formidable little foe, do you know that?” One of the many clocks of the TimeHome when off, series of pleasant chimes that signaled it was time for him to head off to bed. And he did, used to slapping his feet onto the stairs in rhythm with the chimes. But halfway up the stairwell Ted paused, having a naughty thought.
Suppose I didn’t go to bed right now. He was still worried about the plant after all. Did it need watering? He had programmed the TimeHome to water it, but was it enough?
He slapped his feet down the stairs again and bent over to touch the plant’s soil. It wasn’t dry, but it wasn’t damp either, just crumbly and giving enough that he could bury his fingers under, until they looked like they too were sprouting up from the soil. He withdrew them and observed how they’d been tainted brown.
My hands are dirty. What an absurd thought. He’d never been dirty in his life. Ted walked over to the sink, still marveling, and was equally thrilled at the notion of turning the sink on himself. He reached confidently, at first, for what he assumed was the faucet, but it turned out to be the nozzle. Ted had never had to use the sink, as usually the house washed the dishes for him. When he found the faucet, it squeaked delightfully when he twisted it—bronze on bronze. Then there was a whoosh and out came water, spraying every which way and painting the sink in hundreds of little droplets, like a tiny rain. For a moment he just stood there and listened to it, running without any purpose simply because he had turned it on, then remembered himself. He cleaned his hands, took time to flick some of the water onto the plant, and then hummed to himself as he went up to bed, listening to how the thumping of his feet sounded without the TimeHome’s bedtime chimes.
For the first time in a very long time, Ted had a secret, a precious thing that was all his. Sure, he’d stolen mail from the Bugs before, but that had been a habit, a dirty little scandalous foundation out of which life was now growing. He was fascinated by the tenacity, the organic simplicity of the plant’s existence. When it wanted to grow in one direction, usually towards the sun, it did, and it moved and stretched and adjusted itself ever so leisurely, like it had all the time in the world. If the plant wanted to shed its leaves, no amount of encouragement or self-directive advice from him could re-attach those lost soldiers. He’d had spectacular plans for it in the beginning; a nice big healthy plant (whatever that might look like) displayed as a centerpiece in his lounge room and when he had guests over they would gasp at the very audacity of him and say something like, “Oh Ted, still got that eye for style I see!” However, the plant seemed in no particular hurry to get that way, so he found himself hiding it away in the cupboards or his closet when guests were over. And realistically, it just wasn’t something one could share with each other. He didn’t think it was illegal, but it was certainly frowned-upon, like showing visitors where you picked your nose or bragging about how often you liked to nap. Those sorts of people often were reported. Ted didn’t think he’d fare well in the TimeCorp prison, where they sent all the city’s degenerates and inefficiencies who were going around taking unsanctioned vacations or attempting suicides and ruining the schedule for everyone else. He ought to have been more nervous about the implications the plant could cause, but it was such a resilient little thing, and seemed to him like it had just as much right to be there as he did. It was his little companion, a green thing to come home to during the nights.
There was one particular day in which he came home from work to find the entire organism flopped over as if it were throwing a tantrum.
“That is just unacceptable,” Ted warned the plant. “I won’t have it!” But nonetheless he rushed to its side and prodded the weak, trembly stem. He could prop it up with his hands, cradling the poor thing like a baby (or however it was he assumed one cradled a baby), but as soon as he set it’s pot down on the bronze tabletop, the plant flopped over again. He reached for his phone—meaning
to call in sick. He’d never once taken a sick day, and his hand trembled a he pushed the numbers for his company reception.
“Mergers and Acquisitions, Northern Hemisphere Tech Headquarters, how can we help you, Ted Peebly?” a cool, robotic
voice greeted him.
“Ah—yes. I’d like to call in sick for tomorrow. I’m afraid I won’t make it.” There was a sound of some processing before the robot buzzed back onto the call.
“We have reports from health monitors at your desk, your vital signals report was perfectly normal from today. Cameras on the TimeTram and from TimeSquare displays show you on your way back from work this evening, there seem to be no disturbances. When did you first begin showing symptoms?”
“After I arrived home!” He could hear his heart beating wildly echoing in the phone. Could they hear his heartbeat increasing?
He knew what would happen if he were caught lying—not prison, no they would send him to one of those wretched old person TimeHomes. The ones filled with faint, skeletal people whose breakfast consisted of rainbow-colored pills from pillboxes, being doped up and set to do menial tasks like alphabetizing information New New York government or pounding sheet metal into the little thousands of gears that went inside TimeHomes.
“Can you think back to any potential site of illness contraction? Was it likely at home or at the workplace?”
“I’m…. I’m not certain. I’ve just now begun feeling faint and I wanted to report it right away.” His voice sounded whiny, false.
“Your promptness is appreciated. We can schedule a stop by with a company-certified doctor to assess your condition.”
“What’s that! No, it won’t be necessary. Wouldn’t want him to catch it too.”
“The company doctor is impervious to all form of illness—”
“That’s very nice but all the same I’d like to spend tomorrow resting.” This was absurd. Didn’t a man have a right to a sick day anymore?
“Very well. Your illness will be documented, and tomorrow’s earnings will be taken from your pay. Good day, Ted Peebly,” said the robot and there was a click. Ted breathed a sigh of relief, his flabby cheeks swelled and then deflated like a balloon.
“Well you were no help at all! 64 years and never once a sick day until now.” He scolded the plant, then carried it upstairs to his bedroom with him. He had deprogrammed the chiming alarm feature of the house, and found he rather liked going upstairs in contemplative silence. There was something promising about the stillness. Revealing.
On nights when he’d wake in the middle of the night—to relieve himself or sometimes for no reason at all, just age, he liked to do research about the plant. There was so much useless information on the internet these days that most sections were closed off, so
he’d had to order books from the mail service. They were heavy and often quite dusty, but they had all these radical ideas about plants and how the world had been, back when plants and animals lived among people. There was a ridiculous something called “pruning,” which was an arcane method of gardening by which people had once tried to keep plants alive. Ted had never seen a garden in his life, much less met a gardener. But he began to have wildly reckless fantasies, a whole row of green little buds sprouting up from the soil. A pot full of something called flowers, which were said to be very colorful and smell fragrant. Usually color was something assigned a purpose in New New York. Restaurants were painted green to simulate health and freshness (a concept stolen from a bygone era), productive workplaces featured a scientific blend of yellow and blue decor to stimulate energy as well as creative thought. But from what Ted learned, these flowers produced color with no grand purpose at all, like the way hair was colored on a baby’s head when it was born.
He began to dream of a nursery, a room where buds were tucked away into dirt floors beds, where colorful flowers sprouted and swayed on the window sills, where the walls bursted with ripe, green leaves that shook when the wind blew and sipped up the water he fed them. In these dreams when Ted sat in his calm, cool nursery and listened to the stillness, he could hear faint breathing and whispers and murmurs and hums and a quiet away from the omnipresent ticking that permeated city life. There was that feeling, like when he’d go upstairs in silence, that something was about to emerge from the stillness.
“Mr. Peebly!” He was being shaken awake.
“What’s that now?” Ah, he was at work. There were some rather stern company officials in white smocks standing over him. One of them had glasses, but otherwise they could have been twins. In fact, they probably were. “Oh dear. Did I drift off?” The officials exchanged glances.
“Mr. Peebly, falling asleep on company time is a very serious offense. You’ve wasted valuable productivity that we could perhaps be receiving from a...younger...more alert employee,” said the official with glasses, raising bushy eyebrows. Ted felt suddenly self-aware, and glanced about the office space, where people were looking over as if witnessing a spectacle. He uncomfortably remembered Thomas, a sickly employee who was discovered taking indecent amounts of “bathroom breaks” on company time. He had been forcibly dragged out of the office by these very same men. Or Gerard, who died on his desk and had to be taken out.
“Gentlemen, I have given this company sixty-four good years of service. I will not be removed for such a menial offense,” Ted said, mustering all the haughtiness he could.
“Sentimentality has no use in the corporate world, Mr. Peebly,” said the official without glasses. It was clear something was about to happen. “A few of your coworkers have mentioned this is not the first incident. There have been accusations of...pauses at work. Slow typing. Daydreaming even.” This final word caused some mutterings to ripple around the workplace. He felt his face turn red.
“I would like to accuse them of distraction by taking an undue interest in the activities, coworker!” Ted snapped back.
“You may collect your things and walk yourself out, or we will forcibly remove you. Either way, you’ll be going,” The one with glasses warned him. Ted paled. He wouldn’t be able to find a job after this. They’d black mark his resume as a TimeWaster. And if he failed to pay his bills they’d cut the power to his TimeHome.
“Where will I go?”
“That’s none of our concern. You can submit an appeal to the city council for repentance. Or you can leave.”
“..leave?” He’d never left New New York. How could he? How could you live in a place without timekeeping? He could feel something coming on like the rush of water before it exploded from a faucet. He thought of his dream, of the dirt floor and the whispering buds. “Have either of you ever heard of a garden?” The officials exchanged glances. The one with glasses cleared his throat.
“I assume you mean the place where those things—plants—were kept? In the old days? The dirty outdoor places with the insects and vermin.”
“A garden,” Ted said, smiling with knowledge and slowly getting louder and louder, “is a place where Time and TimeHomes and TimeSpaces and TimeTrams don’t exist. Where the minutes and the hours going by don’t matter at all!”
“Mr. Peebly there are no places like that.”
“Maybe not in New New York,” he said, raising a finger. “But somewhere there must be. And we’re going to find one!” “Who?”
“Me and my plant, of course!” he shouted, not caring at all how mad he seemed. He stood upon his chair and waved theatrically. “Goodbye! Goodbye to all! I am going looking for a garden!”