From my balcony I see a bus stop and a dumpster, lanes of traffic backed up by quarter of five, sputtering smoke snaking from a tan Toyota Tacoma, and a jagged skyline, squares of glass mirroring a merciless sun. There’s a thin strip of grass in front of a restaurant, another on a hill under a billboard. Dandelions force their ways up through concrete and whisp in the exhaust. Commuters on foot kick the feather-like seeds loose without realizing as they rush in the heat. In summer months the temperature reaches the low 100s—114 last week—and the grey-tinged sky shimmers, waving like an ocean over this arid city.
I’ve got two rooms to put my things—a scratched cookie sheet and scarred cutting board; a secondhand fountain with brittle, cracked tubing, water slurping all over my front when I try to use it; an old striped tabby who bites me when I stroke him; and a dozen plants I water, watch for wilting, and occasionally, new buds.
I wander my apartment in a thin dress, sweat holding it tight to my lower back, as I bring water from the kitchen to the plants placed haphazardly around the rooms. I make many trips back and forth, careful not to spill. I cut a dead frond, pull yellowed leaves from the pots. I want to grow something in this city, but all I have are two rooms and a tiny patio balcony, and so I settle for plants in an indoor space—delighting when they thrive, sad when at last the space proves too small, the indoors with the cat and me not enough to sustain them.
On my balcony I’ve managed to fit two Adirondack chairs and footrests, hard and uncomfortable, painted a crisp white at first, now dingy with the ash and dirt the air leaves. It never rains to wash them clean. The balcony is so narrow the chairs cannot sit side by side, and so when someone sits in the heat with me, we are so far apart we have to shout over the traffic to be heard. This place is not conducive to conversation. We sit facing each other, our feet nearly touching, uncomfortable by silence, even more so by shouting, watching traffic and the smoggy skyline to avoid eye contact until at last we retreat indoors.
On the balcony, too, are ceramic tiles I painted long ago—one with a cartoon coast, a yellow shore, blue sky, red umbrella, the other with a ring of colors dark in the center, fading to lighter colors at the tile’s outer edges. I wanted this second coaster to look the way abalone smells when one leans in closer—dank and briny, with the whisper of a secret—but really it looks like a stain.
There are also three crumpled cigarette butts that have been swept through the cracks of the balcony above mine, lifted to mouths like a kiss then tossed away. This happens often, when the neighbors above me fight so loud their dog begins to howl. Sometimes they throw things or shout, “I don’t even love you anymore,” before one retreats outside to stare at the darkness, a million flickering headlights and streetlights and billboard lights but not a soul in sight. Soon, the other comes out, too, and they stand with a wide distance between them, on either end of their balcony, pulling smoke into themselves like the smog that swirls overhead. Then one coughs, the other ignoring the sound, and at last they put the cigarettes out, snuff the flame beneath their feet, grind the butt down the crack in their floor so that it rains onto my balcony, out of sight. Then they go inside and it is quiet the rest of the night.
Recently I took a long screw and turned it into the bleached wood that serves as the ceiling of my balcony and the floor of the balcony above me. As the screw ground into the wood, the wood splintered, raining bits over my head. From this screw I hung a cylinder made of tarp material, filled with soil that left dark crescents under my nails after I planted a tomato plant inside. The tomato will grow upside-down, roots in the tube, leaves flowering out the bottom. The tube is pale blue—a spot of color in an otherwise gray-scale picture—and promises deep root systems.
At first the tube looks silly, as shiny as the rows of windows in the city or the metal trash bins and cars, a bit of plant dangling out the end. I sit inside sweating and watching the plant, creeping out at night when it’s cooler to drench it—water abundantly, the directions insist—frustrated when the excess water drips out the bottom and leaves a dirty ring on the balcony.
Soon though, the leaves are growing out and out, the diameter of the plant overtaking the plastic. It grows so big I can hardly reach my arms around. From the road I can see my tomato plant, the only bit of green in this glass and metal metropolis. I like to imagine commuters stuck in traffic avoiding eye contact with one another and peering instead out their windows to spy my makeshift garden. I am entirely pleased with myself and begin rushing to the window each morning to see the way the stalks thicken, the way this plant is hardy despite the elements, the way despite the heat and the sirens at night, the barking dog next door and the couple that shouts and smokes on the balcony above me, I can grow something that will flower and sustain.
The summer drags on, my old cat lounging in the sun and scratching my ankles as I pass, until one morning I spy bright yellow flowers beginning to form. They look like yellow starfish reaching out—to me, beyond me. The plant is a backwards study in gardening—roots stretched upwards to the sky rather than reaching down through the earth. This is how gardening works now—any land is paved over, the ground inhospitable and barren. The roots, like the tall city buildings, must instead reach up and up as though they are trying to find a way out through the layer of smog that surrounds the skyline.
I watch the star flowers grow, delight as they expand and shift, until one morning I see that a cigarette butt has found its way through the cracks above and managed to land inside a flower. All at once, I dislike my plant, hanging there upside down in a wasteland as if by a noose. When I spy my balcony from the road, it looks silly—a makeshift garden in the midst of this—a tangle of leaves and flowers swinging to the sound of squealing tires.
Now I lie beside my old cat, just out of reach of his curling claws, his tail thumping when I draw too near, and put off watering. I scrub my cutting board, knife marks stained red and orange. I move my indoor plants around, looking for some order to their arrangement. I fill the fountain with water but avoid turning it on, instead count the days until it evaporates or the cat laps it dry with his scratchy tongue. I grow exasperated when my dress sticks to my knees in the heat. At last I feel guilty at the sight of the drooping leaves and drench the tomato plant, kicking at the water pooling underneath.
When the first tomato appears—a hard, lime-green ball—I am hesitant to show my approval. I keep my distance, watering the plant as though I haven’t noticed. Soon I can’t help it, and reach out a finger to stroke the smooth skin. The ball is warm, as though it should be glowing, as though there is something living inside. I can’t believe I’ve grown this as I watch the trash blow along the freeway, hear the neighbors shouting, a door slam. I cup the fruit in my hands, wanting to pick it though it’s much too soon. I resume my vigil.
At last the tomato ripens and I twist it from the stalk, leave the tube swinging in the grey heat despite my ginger touch. Stepping over the cat, I don’t even mind when he lunges at my ankles with his front paws, bringing his hind legs up to kick my foot like he’s snapping a rabbit’s neck. I simply push him aside and take what I’ve grown this summer, in this city, to the kitchen.
My knife slides into the skin smoothly and juice fills the scars of the cutting board, staining them anew. I halve the tomato like a heart, and there, curled fetus-like in its center is a translucent worm. I toss the fruit away.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor for several years. She is the author of the chapbook, The Astronaut Checks His Watch, from Finishing Line Press. Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Southeast Review, Zone 3 and others.