Grounds – a short story
Mo’s tomato plant flowered the same day he was fired and the coffee ran out.
He walked out of his office at the fazenda, climbed into his truck with the tomato plant from his desk and a drawing done years ago by his son – and drove towards Patrocinio, along red dirt roads edged with jacaranda trees.
He gave the truck to the nearest car dealer. His severance letter contained a check for the equivalent of several thousand dollars. With the truck, it was enough to get Mo the orange and cream RV from the corner of the lot. Mo loaded up the tomato plant and kid drawing, and set off, the RV listing slightly to the left.
He parked under a withering cherry, and called his son in New York. “How are things there?”
“Mom says you’ve been let go. She’s freaking out.”
“Let go,” said Mo. He looked at the drawing, all angry stabs and splatters. “That’s exactly right.”
“The third time, Dad,” said his son. “First that screw-up in Missouri, then Norway. How the hell do you get fired by the Norwegians?”
“My chief scientist got fired,” said Mo. “Sticky fingers.”
“Mom even liked Norway. God knows why.”
Mo knew why. Those months of coming home from the lab to find Iris in slingbacks and a cloud of Guerlain, glowing as if she just ran a marathon. “Give everyone my love. And good luck.”
He walked past his usual cafe. People slumped in the yellow plastic chairs on the street, but no arabica was thumping through the grinder. Yesterday’s grounds were the only option.
Mo climbed the stairs to his apartment. His wife stood at their door, her arms folded.
Iris was dark-haired still, with severe eyebrows and a love of jade green – scarves in winter, shoes in summer, eyeshadow all year round. You saw Iris and thought of peacock feathers.
Mo wore crumpled cargo shorts and sandals with squidgy rubber soles, whatever. Iris said he always looked like the worst had happened. Well, today it had.
Indoors, Iris read the severance letter. It was pretty damning. Just about the only crime they didn’t accuse him of was theft.
“The supermercados are already low on food,” said Iris. “Fox News says there’s going to be riots.” Mo sighed. “This was our last chance,” Iris said. “I can’t believe I followed you out here.”
“It will be much worse at home,” he said. “Americans have no idea how to cope with shortages.”
“Oh god, this is worse than St Louis, GMO protestors on our doorstep.”
Mo put the tomato plant on the balcony, and got a lungful of lavender detergent from the laundry.
“And now I can’t even get a cup of coffee. No harvest this year, and last year’s numbers one big lie. You’re the fazenda manager and you never even said!”
“People wouldn’t listen,” said Mo. He shrugged. Coffee would only be the first thing to go.
Coffee is a sensitive tree. It likes hillsides and specific combinations of warm air and cool. Coffee is fussy. And the last eight, ten years, Mo had watched it get fussier.
Mo had catalogued the signs. He didn’t go to the media. He was discredited on three continents.
Iris said, ”Are you even listening to me?”
“Hey,” said Mo. He spoke so sharply that Iris stared. And Mo, who could see the end of the world in a dewdrop, stared right back.
Iris glanced away. “You’ve let the coriander run to seed.”
“Yes.” He waited.
“Oh my god,” she said. She came to the balcony and touched the tomato leaves. “You’ve been making seeds.”
“Not just those,” said Mo. He lifted the tomato plant out of its pot. Underneath was a plastic canister, bearing the company’s famous name and a barcode. Inside were tiny gold pips.
Iris grabbed a straggly dwarf bean. Its red flowers wobbled as she tilted it, revealing a second canister beneath its roots. This one held coffee beans. She drew a breath. “For planting?” she said.
“For drinking,” said Mo. “Let’s have a cup. But grind by hand, not the machine. I don’t want the neighbors in here.”
The bean flowers reflected red in Iris’s eyes, like the sun setting on an old idea. Mo the incompetent, Mo the downtrodden, sank below the horizon and away. “It was you,” she said. “Gerry never stole that seed from the preserve in Norway. You did.” She glanced down at her slingback sandals.
“I’ve got a good amount over the years,” he said. “All viable.” He watched her assimilate it: not her lover, but her husband, the culprit. Her husband, framing her lover to take the fall.
“I’ll make that coffee,” she said, and disappeared into the kitchen. After a pause while he heard grinding noises, she came back with a cup of sweet fresh grounds. “Norway.”
“Is about to become the most precious place on Earth. It’s not just coffee that’s failing. But the crisis needed to come into every home before anyone would listen.” He took the cup, inhaled its deep promise. “I’ve got a place,” he said. “Pack a bag.”
“Wait,” said Iris. “You mean you stole for us to grow -?”
“I bought an RV.” said Mo. “Bring that coffee.” He scooped up an armful of plant pots and was heading for the door when a siren blared outside.
“I called the police,” said Iris.
“What? You idiot!”
“I thought you were a thief! And I was angry about Gerry.”
“I am a thief. I stole the best hope we have of saving life itself-” He snatched up the coffee cup.
He backed out onto the balcony with the future in his arms. At the front door, men’s voices yelled, fists hammered. “I forgave you for Gerry,” said Mo. And he jumped.
Iris shrieked and ran to the railing. Mo was down on the pavement, straightening up, wincing but fine. His rubber-soled sandals had saved him.