Louise Atwater was born with a black thumb, but her old friend Robert didn’t know that — or at least not yet. When his job sent him abroad, he asked her to take on responsibility for the livelihood of the plants left behind in his stateside abode. She was no Master Gardener, but she aspired to be the Avant Gardener of Mercer County, relishing in her weekly plant whispering visits.

Oddly enough, her mother had worked at a plant shop — imaginatively named “The Plant Shop” — as her first foray into the working world after Louise’s father left for wilder pastures. Louise spent holidays potting and perfecting bows for Plant Shop buyers and admired the myriad botanical nomenclatures her mom knew by sight. However, she did not inherit the maternal green gene or knack for Latin. She barely knew the plants’ nicknames.

Just the other day, a little girl had tottered by her Hopewell cottage on her training-wheels and stopped, blurting, “That is the most beeeyuutiful wose in your yawd.”

Louise grinned and thanked her for the misnomer compliment. The “wose” in question was a lone red tulip hanging on for dear life amidst her sketchy attempt at mulch scattered around a tree. It had miraculously sprung out of nowhere, not having made an appearance during her first spring in her new old house.

A wose by any other name….

A scrum of tea roses flourished in her sliver of a side yard blessed with bright morning sun, along with a tuft of wild strawberries just beyond her garbage and recycling bins. Sadly, the roses were mostly visible only to her — when she parked in the driveway, emptied garbage, entered the back gate with her bike, or picked up dog poop out back (none of which was done by her sons unless under duress). Last year Louise cut them as they were about to fall off the vine but worried they would never return. Alas, they came back in full force. Were they perennials or annuals? She found this as baffling as waxing versus waning moons.

Hostas, azaleas, and hydrangeas also survived in her front yard, in spite of her recent presence, along with some potted rhodies bequeathed to her by a friend who moved out West. But anything Louise tried to grow from scratch, fuhgetaboutit.

Yet somehow, here she was, across town, being paid to take care of Robert’s monstrous rubber plant, praying that her presence would not send the plant into a long slow death march.

“How’s it going Bubba?” she asked as she gave him his Wednesday dousing of Princeton H20, two coffeepots full. She had always thought of Bubba as a male, bulky and obstinate.

Bubba did not reply. This was familiar territory to Louise, akin to the daily one-sided conversations with her son in the drop-off line at the middle school.

“Whatcha been up to? Had any company lately?”

Bubba seemed lonely, which was likely why a few of his leaves had yellowed. She hoped it had nothing to do with her lousy plant care abilities, but perhaps was due to overwatering by the housekeeper. Bubba was like an obese old dog, overfed not because of his owners but because he looked so mournful that anytime someone ran across him, he was given a treat.

“I know you’re wondering what’ve I been up to. Well, I’ll tell you. Work’s good, things are a little quieter with summer almost here. I got a promotion. My sons are almost done with lacrosse season. Hallelujah! My oldest has even started to shave. I about lost it when he asked me to buy him a razor. Boy do I feel old.”

She paused, waiting for an obligatory response along the lines of “No way! You must have been 12 years old when you had him.”

Silence.

She perched on the sofa across from Bubba and gingerly set her bare feet on the copper edge of the glass-topped coffee table. This was a no-shoe house, a practice which she had begun to adopt in her own abode except in the winter, as she was not blessed with heated tile floors in her kitchen. The linoleum would likely melt.

Louise looked over her shoulder and eyed Viola, Bubba’s African violet sister. Viola had experienced a rebirth of sorts recently, having teetered on the brink of death from dehydration, then overwatering, and now she was in a steady state of blooms. Louise was reminded of her mom’s violets that thrived in the greenhouse-like window of her kitchen. She couldn’t recall who adopted the plants when her mother died. Sad.

She stood and walked over to the plate-glass window.

“What’s up with you, V?”

Viola shrugged. Yet another adolescent blow-off.

“I wish I could adopt you guys so you had more company. My dogs would keep you on your toes. But if I moved you it’d be the kiss of death. Nothing lives in my house very long, except mold in my basement.”

Louise closed her eyes and listened to the quiet. Robert’s meandering ranch house hugged the cul-de-sac at the end of a long wooded lane. His great room overlooked a field of rangy wildflowers, with wetlands in the distance. Deer and groundhogs roamed the grounds, and the occasional hawk hovered above. She breathed in deeply then slowly exhaled. She often forgot to breathe, except when she was plant whispering.

A low quiet voice suddenly uttered: “Why are you sitting there with your eyes closed when it’s so beautiful outside?”

“Who said that?” Louise asked, startled. Robert’s security system was activated. The house was a veritable fortress.

“It’s me, Bubba. I thought I would finally respond. I felt bad for you. You looked like you were about to cry. I’ve been watered enough for one day.”

Louise shook her head, trying to wake up. Was she hallucinating? Dreaming? She took another deep breath and blinked.

“Did you really get a promotion?” Bubba inquired. “I thought you were just pulling my branch. You wouldn’t be plant sitting if you didn’t need the money.”

Louise blushed. Bubba had caught her in a fib. She had not really gotten a promotion, but at least she was gainfully employed in a tough job market.

Bubba continued. “We talk all the time, but no one’s ever heard us before. Robert never listens when he’s here. And you’re always running around, watering us and then checking on things.”

Louise responded. “Sorry about that. What did I miss?”

Bubba replied, “Hmm. Well. We’ve tried to give you advice.”

“What do you mean ’we’?”

Viola chimed in from the corner. “Bubba isn’t so good with advice. He cracks jokes and makes light of the situation. I’m the one who weighs in with my two cents.”

“What situation?” Louise asked defensively.

“Your love life situation. It’s pathetic. You come here, water us, and hang out. You should be out dating, talking to people, not plants.”

Louise blushed again. “How do you know that I’m not dating when I’m not here?”

“You wouldn’t just be talking to us about work and your boys and your dogs,” Viola said. “You’d be giving us the scoop on guys.”

Louise considered this feedback. Viola had a point.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Louise admonished. “My stories might make you lose more than a few leaves.”

“We can handle it,” Viola assured. “We’ve heard it all before.”

“You’ve heard what all before?” Louise asked.

“Robert’s housekeeper Lucia talks on her cell phone the whole time she’s here,” Bubba tattled. “We hear all about all her daughter’s boyfriends. It’s awful.”

“You guys speak Polish?”

“Plants are polyglots,” Viola explained.

Louise chuckled, then glanced over at the kitchen clock. “Hey guys, sorry but I gotta go. Believe it or not, I really do have a date tonight.”

“With who?” Bubba inquired.

“With WHOM,” Viola corrected.

“Schlemiel.”

“He sounds like a Yiddish male stripper,” Bubba observed.

Louise cackled. “That was a veiled reference to Laverne and Shirley. If I told you his real name you would Google it and I’d never hear the end of it.”

“Who’s Laverne and Shirley? And what’s Google?” Bubba asked.

Louise laughed again. “I guess you wouldn’t know. Google is a search engine, for the internet.”

“Oh yeah, now I remember. Robert’s daughter was talking about that. We can talk but we can’t type.”

Not unlike many of Louise’s online suitors, she thought.

“Ok guys, I gotta go! See you next week!”

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Bubba called out. “Don’t swap spit if he has a tattoo. He might have tuberculosis.”

“I think you mean hepatitis,” Louise replied.

Viola offered the last word. “Whatever you do, be careful. Don’t get in his car if it’s a first date.”

Louise smiled as she locked the door and headed out. That was just like something her mom would say.

Wendell Wood Collins is director of corporate relations at Princeton University’s Bendheim Center for Finance. She lives with her daughters in Pennington.

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