by James Cato
When I see my wife Rena watering her garden, goosebumps pop on my arms as if being pecked by invisible drops. Something’s wrong. I hobble outside and ask, “What are you doing?”
“Karter died,” she says. I blink. Karter is the last man Rena made love with, her affair. He is gone on the drought’s third birthday. Rena’s plants have been estivating, wrinkled down waiting for rain, and with this false hope they will certainly die.
I stand with my wife, cracked and cratered as the dirt, seventy-two years old. My left leg twitches because it wants to dance but I grind my heel, holding firm. Rena sobs without tears, a thunder cloud refusing to open. For a single day, these flowers will bloom again.
Karter oversaw the vegetable garden behind church. He wore slick black boots, the shade of soaked soil, while my old rusty pair reflected dry clay. First time he saw Rena, he tore a fistful of asparagus and a bell pepper from the ground and gifted them to her like a bouquet. “Want to learn to talk to plants?” he asked as I sneezed from the pollen. “Not all of us men can handle our roots.” She laughed by accident, the shade of sunset. I had already lost her. To this day that pepper lives on, pickled in a jar behind the jellies and jams, a yellow beak growing sour.
I keep my vivarium in the basement. With Karter, my wife transfigured our yard into an Eden of vine-espaliered arches, great gaping sunflowers, and tall saguaro cacti with arms like men begging for their lives. In turn, I retreated to the basement and doctored a hundred-gallon aquarium into a tiny universe. Underwater, silver schools (tetras and guppies and knifefish) dart between lethargic fronds (corkscrew grass, duckweed, and spiderwort) which feed stinkpot turtles. Bullfrogs bridge liquid to land where a sculpted mountain hosts bonsai trees and mushrooms and tufts of moss. I arrange posed miniatures across the scape, fairy doors for the amphibians, drowned castles for the fish, tiny picnicking couples on the hill who never grow tired of each other’s company. All it requires is sunlight from the fire-escape window, the same portal through which I observe Rena in her own controlled world.
The morning Karter died began normally, at least by post-affair standards. I heard the telltale shift of Rena, bathrobe on cushion, then slippers transitioning from carpet pads to tile slaps. I only rose after she left the room.
Then, to the music of trickling water, I ventured downstairs, finding comfort in the ebbing warmth of her couch cushion. I made sure that my arrival was appropriately stentorian, clearing my throat and clubbing my heels against the floor.
“You want tea,” she called, hearing me.
“Yes, thank you, honey.”
I heard her pouring again, enough water for me, then heading upstairs—I had since fled to the bathroom—without seeing me at all and me not peeing at all. Now that she had gone to dress I took a few minutes of freedom to roam. I kneaded out the cricks in my knees and fetched the newspaper on the stoop, turned it to the funnies, and left it by her tea before slinking into the basement, a place she would not follow me. Though I resented the garden, the dry had withered it and I pitied her.
I caught them cheating as I looked through the basement fire escape when Rena thought I was shopping at Macy’s. I saw my wife tangled in that garden, half-disguised by leafy curtains, lunar curves of skin rolling through the petals. My father’s old gun lives in the closet behind the racks of suits. I left it there. I drove to Macy’s and crawled inside a clothes rack, where I shuddered in a private cave, holding onto tears as people’s nice shoes whisked past. When I returned, it was as simple as asking Rena to stop. Afterwards, our lives became separate in a shared house.
But today Rena follows me to the basement, and drops the old pickled pepper in my vivarium. The turtles whiz up and drag it to a muddy grave. “When’s the last time you got fresh air?” she asks, opening the window. “Come sit in the garden.” Together we gaze at lush vegetation, every leaf full, every flower bright and blooming, the necks of stalks straight as jail bars, bloated with water in the three-year drought. By night they will curl and collapse. My fingers find Rena’s, lingering on this moment like a votive offering. “The soil wasn’t ready at first,” she says. “The water just pooled.” I sneeze.
That night, we find ourselves touching in bed, our old bodies webbed with wrinkles and worries. We are beautiful. As if by a divine hand, raindrops start to fall in great slashes, machine-gunning gutters, washing a gas grill down the street like a phantom ship. We stop kissing when the gushing sound enters our home. Rushing to the cellar, we discover that the open fire escape has become a coffee-colored waterfall streaming straight into my vivarium. Rena’s garden rides through the hole, sunflowers and jades splashing amongst the turtles, until a saguaro cactus thunders down and busts the glass into shards. Fish flit around our ankles. The bullfrog croaks on a recliner beside my painted miniatures, all enjoying each other’s company. “Free at last!” Rena giggles, dancing in the wet.