Eli Griffith

Illustrator, designer, explorer

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3

The Hothouse

Step 1 – Dating profile.

Based on NYTimes Online Comment – “I wonder how many members of the United States Congress or The New York Times Editorial Board know what the cosine of pi over two is?”  I loved this comment more than anything else I could've found, so this prompt will be the basis.

I imagine the commenter to be a male in his early 30's. 

His profile would read:

"If you’re looking for a suitable sagacious equal, you’ve no doubt realized, as I have, that there is no method of appraisal existing on this matching site. As I have neither the time, nor inclination to construct a much needed solution that our problem demands, I succumb to the limitations of this description of myself.

My most cogent opponents in debate clubs have described me as “sapient, reasoned, and contemplative.” I consider myself a logical positivist, although prone to whimsy when engaged in pursuits of ornamental botany and will relinquish all rationality in the presence of ideal specimens of orchidaceae. I am currently lobbying the mayor’s office for the inclusion of hot houses within community gardens.

My hobbies include dialectology and glottochronology. As there is a word limit, you’ll note several of my profile photos are images of text: a curated collection of literature, and a listing of preferred scientists, orators, and leaders of thought. I have also included two photos of my most valued and prize winning orchids, expertly bred and raised."

Step 2 - Short story based off character development

                                                       The Hothouse

Paphiopedilum Barbatum. This was one of Jacob’s favorite and most coveted orchid plants. It had a regal shape; each blossom had a pinstriped sepal and burgundy petals like bird’s wings that floated high above a thick base of speckled green leaves, tethered only by a long, delicate stem. This juxtaposition of grace and functionality impressed Jacob. He looked forward to seeing it, and had tended to it religiously each time he visited his father’s office.  But he hadn’t been by since his parents’ separation, and as he entered the office, he was taken aback by its pathetic display.

“No, no! That’s too much light. Paphiopedilums require light to be no more than 20,000 lux. This is at least 65,000 lux.”

His father, immersed in paperwork, looked up for a moment, then returned to his task.

The orchid pot was indelicately positioned on a dusty windowsill at the rear of the office. Burning light poured through the window. Its long, formerly meaty leaves were now shriveled and tinged red from months of roasting in the sun. Water spots stained the wall beneath the plant. On the floor below the sill, a collection of discarded leaves formed a wrinkled pile, topped by a faded card – “To my dear husband, all my love, Audrey.” On the plant, a single blossom remained at the end of a towering stem, lifting its head above the mess.

“This is unacceptable! I left strict instructions on its care, and it wasn’t supposed to be moved. ” Its former location on the top of a bookcase was now cluttered with engineering manuals. He gestured towards the bookcase. “The light is at 17,000 lux in this location, which is precisely why this genus of orchid is suitable here.”

Dry silence filled the room. Jacob scanned the office as he waited for his father to respond.  The walls of his father’s office, once filled with photographs of his best projects, now seemed utilitarian and were of sparse decoration, save for the requisite degrees and certifications proving competency, and a few empty picture hooks. The multiple awards of distinction – even the “Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement” plaque – had also been removed from the wall, and were stacked on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. The collection of award-winning papers on urban drainage was locked away in a dull metal filing cabinet. The desk was piled high with various papers – diagrams, blueprints, and assorted forms – and a computer keyboard with the letters worn off.

His father’s pen scratched at the documents on his desk as the minutes dragged by. Sunlight continued its slow burn through the window over the remainder of the plant. Finally, his father set his work aside, looked down at his hands, and cleared his throat.

“Son, I need space. This is my office, not your mother’s greenhouse.” His father glanced at the time and rose from the chair. “I have a meeting in minutes. What do you need now? More books?” he asked, moving towards the bookcase.

Jacob struggled to avert his gaze from the plant while he framed his request. “I was wondering about your feedback on my proposal for the hothouse as an addition to the community garden. Have you looked at the schematics I left for you?” His father shifted direction and reached for the plant.

“We should just throw it out.” His father grabbed at the stem. “I gave it water and light, but nothing lasts forever.” Jacob leapt forward to rescue it from his father’s grasp. “Give it to me. You know you can’t just pick it up by its stem. Paphiopedilums have tenuous stems that can’t support the weight of the leaves, although most of them have fallen off. You have to hold it here,” he demonstrated, “from the base of its pot.”

His father laughed. “It’s a just a plant. Easily replaceable. Do you want to waste your time as a gardener, just like your mother?”

“She’s not a gardener; she’s a botanist specializing in…”

His father interrupted, “Trying to turn a hobby into a career. Look where that got her. This is more trouble than it’s worth.” He muttered as he collected folders from his desk, “…no idea why you keep these things… you and your mother…none of this is important.”

Jacob kneeled down to pick up the discarded leaves. “Dying leaves produce ethylene gas, which contributes to rapid aging in the plant. They have to be removed immediately.”

“Leave that. The cleaners will get it later,” his father called out as he left the office, but Jacob continued to issue admonishments and instructions as he attended to the orchid, and didn’t notice his father’s absence until he looked up. Realizing his father had left, he began searching through the bookcases for material that would further prove the necessity of the hothouse. Underneath the main pile of books, he discovered his proposal, still sealed in its envelope. He stared at it for a moment before pulling it from the pile and placing it on his father’s desk. Then he collected the remains of the orchid and left the office.

 

                                                                      ***

“Your blooms are glorious.” He praised the delicate specimen as he placed it alongside the other prized orchid plants. They seemed to nod in agreement. They had a new brother, another friend on the shelf. Jacob’s community of beautiful rejects overflowed from windowsills and bookshelves, lay scattered along tabletops, and cascaded from tiny handmade boxes in the south facing window. On the long table near the kitchen, he kept a thick stack of journals filled with meticulous, detailed written records of the care schedule for every orchid.   His bookcase contained borrowed books on Victorian architecture and greenhouses, and a few original editions of orations from which he would read aloud to the orchids each night. A humidifier kept them happy; Jacob kept them company.

He set his phone atop one of the stacks of papers on the table and played voicemail over the speaker so he could attend to his injured treasure.

“This is Stan Overmeyer, from the 6th Street Community Garden planning board. I understand you’ve submitted your proposal for the conservatory project. Well, um, we need to speak. Please call me at…”

“Hothouse, not conservatory,” Jacob stated, ignoring the remainder of the voice message. “These people prefer to misinterpret everything I’ve shown them. My proposal was very clear.” The orchids nodded again.

He plucked the latest sketch of the hothouse from the table to admire it, and felt his spirit lift. It was a ritual that brought comfort, performed every afternoon and on occasions when he felt that his efforts were obstructed. He admired his work as he imagined his father might, once it was completed. And there was so much work yet to do. Of course, the land needed to be cordoned off, and the plots that Ms. Avers used would be built over, but no one needed heirloom tomatoes anyway and snap peas were a thing of the past. He sometimes laid awake at night, conjuring new designs, scribbling ideas furiously in a notepad he kept on the nightstand. He planned every detail - from the stained glass windows, to the teak potting benches - with exacting specificity. He would oversee all aspects of the construction, and once it was finished, his father would inspect it with pride. Imagine, the many rows of his award-winning orchids displayed in a meticulously engineered hothouse.  Maybe his father would offer him a position at his firm?

The next message was from his mother. “Jacob, come over for dinner. Did you get Henry’s message? He wants to talk to you. I’ll make soup.”

 

                                                                     ***

He was only halfway up the front steps when his mother opened the door and unleashed a flood of information.

“Jacob, come in. Hurry! Henry’s been leaving you messages for weeks. You don’t return his calls. He’s on his way home right now. He’s been at the planning meeting – did you know your father was there? – and has some information that will help you.”

He snapped the door shut behind him. “I hardly think a carpenter is of any use to me. I’ve given them all the information they need and I certainly don’t need his help. The project speaks for itself.”

“Well, son, people aren’t always willing to listen. Sometimes they need to be convinced. He’s almost home. He’ll explain everything.” She paused for a moment. “He’s not a carpenter. Why do you keep referring to him as a carpenter?” she asked, disappearing into the kitchen.

Jacob ignored his mother’s question and wandered towards the bookcase. She kept a selection of favored orchids in a row of pots on top of the bookcase, which he admired. He adjusted the pots until they lined up neatly. “I was at Father’s office earlier. I took his orchid back to my place to revive it – the light was too strong there.”

His mother busied herself by clanging pots and pans, dropping spoons, and clinking glasses for several moments before calling out, “You knew he would ignore it. If it isn’t one of his projects, he has no time for it.”

“It’s one of the easiest orchids to care for. I did most of the work for him.” Why didn’t she see that? He picked through the bookcase, pulling books out at random to examine them. Henry’s choices in literature were appalling. Jacob exchanged them with more suitable selections from his mother’s collection.

She didn’t ask why he had written the card; unlike his father, he was not skilled at hiding his intentions. Instead, she emerged with a steaming soup pot and placed it in the center of the dining table. “I’m trying out a new recipe – chicken farmer soup. Wait ‘til you taste the carrots – they’re from the latest crop.”  

“It smells delicious.” He slid a book from the shelf for a better look.

“Good. Leave the books alone for a moment and help me set the table.” Just then, the front door opened and Henry stepped through. Jacob greeted him with a glare and shoved the book back on the shelf. Maybe he would feign losing his appetite.

“Oh, Jacob, you’re here already. I was at the city planning meeting this afternoon. There’s some information that will interest you.” Henry set his work bag down and looked over to the table. “So that’s the soup from the new recipe?”

“With the new crop of carrots,” Jacob’s mother replied.

“Sounds good.” He turned towards Jacob. “I’ll tell you everything. Let’s get some soup.” He helped himself as Jacob stood staring.

“There’s no need. The minutes are posted online after each meeting. I’ll read them later.” Why would Henry imagine himself to be the bearer of all things important?   If anything noteworthy was to occur, his father would tell him.

“Not everything is included.” Henry took a bite of his soup, closing his eyes to savor it.

“The key pieces of information are there. I don’t need to hear about the minutia.”

It was now or never. Henry took a deep breath, looked firmly at Jacob, and let the words spill out.

“I’m afraid I have some news for you that you won’t find online. They have to dig up the land from 7th Street down to 4th Street. There won’t be a community garden.”

“What? They? Why are ‘they’ digging up land? This isn’t possible.”

“Yes, actually, it is.” And Henry began to relay details from the meeting, pausing for a spoonful of soup every few minutes.

The afternoon had been the climax of many months of meetings, in rooms filled with heated debates and accusations, all focused on a myriad of issues dating back to a decades old urban renewal project. Only the mayor, a handful of city council members, Henry, and Jacob’s father were included in these discussions, and they were never made a matter of public record. Jacob wondered silently why Henry would ever be included.

It had taken many years for the problems to reveal themselves, and each of the patches and individual repairs were only tiny bandages on a deep and sputtering wound, Henry explained. He listed each and every problem that had occurred: the crumbling roadways, the shifting foundations, buildings on the verge of collapsing, and on, and on. Though the information was familiar to Jacob, his interest was only piqued at the mention of his father’s involvement, so he allowed himself to succumb to Henry’s steady drone.

Henry paused for a bite of soup, and then shifted his discourse towards the urban renewal project. He spoke as if Jacob was familiar with the project, but Jacob privately struggled to remember any details, until it occurred to him that he was at boarding school during that time. Studies are important, his father had insisted, and then sent him away to his alma mater. His father was focused on an important project for the city. That work - and the subsequent awards - begat more work, and Jacob rarely saw his father. Jacob suddenly realized the ill-fated project that Henry was rambling on about was his father’s work. He struggled to find mental footing while Henry explained that Jacob’s father had proposed the sale of the community garden land to raise money for the repairs.  That afternoon, Henry said, the buyer was introduced and the contracts were signed.  The papers would announce it tomorrow, but “you should hear about it now,” assured Henry.

Good ole’ Henry.

It was too much to bear.   Jacob looked back at the perfect row of orchids, not falling apart.

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