The Ficus tree was six feet tall and bushy, so he needed to watch where he was going, which meant looking up. Alby had always looked down. Walking, he'd trace glints of mica in the sidewalk, a deceptive, reflected light. He tended to bump into things. Now, carrying the Ficus, he stopped every block to wipe sweat from his eyes and wonder again if this was a good idea.
He should have had it delivered, but it was on sale and the fee cancelled out any savings. On the other hand, he had eight blocks to go, and the elevator in his building wasn't working. Still, it would be nice to look at his window and see something green, not dull bricks and the hoarder’s apartment across the yard. There had been a real tree out there once, which colored the glass from the other side, but the super cut it down.
He stopped, set the plant down, and considered, as the crowd split then streamed around him. There was no choice but to keep going. Traffic on Third Avenue was hectic. He'd never get a cab, even if he'd wanted to pay. Anyway, the tree wouldn't fit. He sighed, picked it up, walked.
He remembered the Schefflera. It was even bigger, but at least the elevator had been working. He guessed he'd overwatered it. The Palm had been easier to carry. It was winter then, so less sweat, but the cold walk harmed the roots. It never thrived. Now, sunny and in the sixties, he was hopeful this one might live. But first he had to get it home, up five flights of stairs, and then there was the cat.
He blotted his eyes and waited for the light to change. It was time to turn east. Second Avenue would be quieter. He'd cheered when this Home Depot opened in Manhattan. Before that, the nearest was in Long Island City, and far from the subway. There had been a problem with a nine-by-twelve rug. He blinked, crossed with the light and focused on the cat. She had eaten the Lucky Money tree soon after he brought it home. He never got the chance to water it. Softer, leafier shoots were most appealing, but she could gnaw tough palm fronds down to stubs, and anything that flowered disappeared. Other plants went ignored, withering for reasons of their own.
Three more blocks. He worried about leaf-drop. He'd read that a twenty percent loss was normal, but dreaded bare twigs and a crunch on the floor. How to judge the percentage was another question. First he would count the leaves that fell. Then he'd estimate the total number on the tree. It wouldn't be exact.
Arms burning, he started to walk faster. He should buy some kind of cart. It was hard to find something practical. A hand truck would be best for this, but not very useful on a daily basis. Other types, made for shopping, wouldn’t hold the weight. He was tired, but getting closer, soaked with sweat and unwilling to stop. He thought of other times he'd come this way, other growing loads. The lights worked in his favor and he paced to keep up. Hunched and pitching forward, he made the last turn to his street and approached the building. At the doorway, he rested. He still had the stairs.
The sign on the elevator was angrily in place. He began to climb. The first flight was easy, he breathed on the landing. After the next, he paused longer. As he made it up to three he caught a second wind, but at the fourth floor he sat down. He would need to rethink this for the next time. Stairs weren’t always an issue but he should have a plan, leave room for possibilities. He wasn’t getting any younger. Collecting his strength, he strained for the last steps. At the entrance to his apartment, he opened carefully, wary of the cat, and dragged the plant to the window. The door slammed shut. He was home.
He wanted to collapse, but first needed to shower, fill the food dish, eat something himself. He put a frozen pizza in the microwave, headed for the bathroom. Under the hot water, a memory of his first cat, a big male, came to mind. He pictured his large head and skeptical eyes. Glancing downward, he imagined the drain clogged with leaves. His body melted in the steam. When he finally sat down to eat, he was nodding. He barely finished. Later, he lay on the bed, his back warmed by soft fur. He closed his eyes and began to drift:
He was floating above a forest, green to the horizon, edged in neon at the sun. Carried with the breeze, he heard a rustle from below. Sailing, he turned downward and was guided through the trees, past storied limbs and gently to the ground. He looked around. It wasn't what he expected. At the beginning, he couldn’t see anything. Dense foliage hid the sky. Surrounded by darkness, it took time to adjust. He made out shapes, then tangled vines. Every way was blocked by growth, massive trunks, coiled roots, pointed stalks. There were sounds. He was terrified, frozen. Time passed slowly, nothing changed. Abruptly, his face was poked by something sharp and he bolted awake. The cat was hungry. It was dawn, he'd slept all night. Rumpled and groggy, he went to feed her.
He splashed his face with water and set up the coffee maker. He thought about the last cat. Sleeping late hadn’t been a problem with her. She would huddle near his feet and wait patiently for him to rise. This one was more demanding, but seemed healthier. Wandering from the kitchen, he looked at the Ficus for the first time that morning. Sunlight filtering through it warmed the room, streamed lit patterns on the walls and floor. Hesitantly, he went to it. Kneeling, he began to count. Seven leaves. For some that was a lucky number.
Arnie Kaye is a graphic designer living in Manhattan.