"Choppo, you believe in UFO's?" Terrell said. Terrell was always chatty after we finished working in the greenhouse. We came out here every day during fourth period. It was the easiest elective on campus. We watered our trays of clippings, transplanted the adolescent plantlings into pots, trimmed our larger pots of their flower buds, yellow and brown leaves, and runaway tendrils. Then, unless we felt like looking at the cows next door at the farm lab, we were free to wait in the dingy field trip van.
"Nah, man," said Choppo. His real name was Lam, but Terrell early on named him Lamb Chop, then Choppy, then settled on Choppo. Choppo was quick to reject the UFO idea, but quietly, carefully. You didn't want to push the wrong button on Terrell.
"Well you better start, man, because it's true!" Terrell leaned around in his seat, a finger in Lam's face. "Oh, Choppo! Me and my boys were driving up Mount Lemmon this summer, and we came around a bend to a big open valley and there the fucker was! Big motherfucker! With lights and flashing shit, just like E.T. Phone Home, same thing. And we all turned around and looked at each other, you know how you do, and in a second, when we looked back, the fucker was gone!"
"Eh, you're bullshitting." That was Eddie, sniggering from the back of the van. I'd begun privately to think of him as "Eddie the Weasel." He nudged the snotnose freshman kid whose name I never learned. This was the kid who once grabbed my purse as a joke and ended up spilling my stuff all over the greenhouse floor.
"You wanna tell me I'm bullshitting? You better be careful, Eddie." You could tell Terrell knew Eddie wanted to start something, something that probably wouldn't be worth his time. Terrell was a senior, like me, so his ego wasn't involved in much of this stuff anymore. He used his seniority, though, whereas I mostly just listened, pretending to do my Calculus, or my reading for AP Government.
Sadie and Elizabeth appeared in the doorway. They climbed into the van, Elizabeth with a bounce, and Sadie slowly, deliberately, guiding her seven month-sized belly onto the second row seat. The boys got all awkward and quiet. They just didn't know what to do when these two came around. Sadie was always so flushed and tired. And Elizabeth had explained earnestly to us all at the beginning of the semester that she was willing to do just about anything with a guy, so long as she didn't lose her virginity.
"Hey Choppo, what'd you bring to the baby shower?" Terrell said. Elizabeth had thrown a shower for Sadie the night before, to kind of a weak showing. Only myself, Lam and Muhammed, the exchange student, showed up. Terell came to class that morning with a tiny pair of sneakers wrapped up in newspaper, since he'd had football practice too late to make the party. Nobody else had remembered.
"Oh, all kinds of baby shit." Lam, I think, had gone shopping with his mom for presents, or had asked his mom to shop for presents. He came bearing all kinds of complicated gear: bottle cleaning kits, replacement nipples, bottles that fed the baby at the most advantageous tilt. He looked a little surprised by how deeply Sadie thanked him.
Terrell frowned. He turned to Sadie for a better answer. "What'd he get you?"
"All kinds of baby shit," she laughed. She was good with these boys. On the days when she was absent, things were different -- insults were much more scathing, and punches were thrown, and sometimes trays of soil would get chucked around and the garden hose turned on anybody and everybody, just for kicks -- but they looked our for Sadie, stayed on their best behavior for her.
Muhammed climbed on. He sat down behind me and started playing with my hair. He was from Germany, so he dressed all Euro-stylish, but he was also Muslim, and sometimes told us about Allah and so forth. I'd been giving him rides home lately, so I guess we were getting pretty chummy. He'd told me the day before how he couldn't get into a dental vocational school in Germany because they thought he'd refuse to treat women patients or something. "I don't have to treat women exactly like in the Quran," he told me. "For example, I can make love if I want. You know. If it's right." After that, I couldn't help freezing up when he touched me. I didn't shoot my mouth off about it in class, but I was a virgin, too. I hadn't even kissed a boy, except for once in seventh grade. I later found out someone had dared him.
Eddie and the freshman kid had been talking about condoms for a while -- what brands they preferred, that sort of thing. "But you know what," Eddie said. "I don't even use condoms. I won't. I don't believe in them."
Elizabeth snapped around. "Then you don't deserve to be having sex!"
"Whatever, tease, you want me."
Muhammed let go of my hair. "Think of your sister when you speak to these ladies," he said.
"My sister's got better tits than these three any day." Eddie was on a roll.
"You're a prick, Eddie," said Sadie. "You don't believe in condoms, Christ. I don't know why any girl would touch you anyway."
"You're one to talk, all knocked up," Eddie said. That was all Terrell needed to hear. He flew out of the driver's seat and down the narrow aisle, which normally made you stumble and squeeze. Terrell's adrenaline had shot off so quickly that, even with his huge frame, he easily flew at Eddie and grabbed him by the collars.
At this point, I ducked. Terrell was dragging Eddie across the seats and I didn't want to get a shoe to the face or a zipper burn. Everyone else was kind of ducking, too. Elizabeth was covering Sadie. When the van stopped shifting, I looked up. Out the window, Terrell had his boot to Eddie's throat. Eddie was writhing and rolling, all with a smirk as he choked and gagged. Terrell got down in his face, said something, then let him go and climbed back in the van. Eddie got up and hobbled inside the greenhouse.
"That boy's had a whoopin' coming for days!" Terrell did what he could to break the tension. Elizabeth started talking about Metallica. It was almost time to drive back to campus.
After Mrs. Ames locked up the greenhouse, she put her arm around Eddie and walked back to the van with him and Bong, the Vietnamese kid who was obsessed with his plants. Bong wasn't talking to us much since the day he told everybody about living in a tree before he got refugee status. I was absent that day, but Mrs. Ames told me about it. "He talked about eating monkey brains, you should have heard him," she said. "Terrell got real quiet. You know it's serious when Terrell gets quiet."
The three of them got in the van without a word. Terrell moved over to shotgun, and Mrs. Ames started the engine. Eddie sat in the space on the floor between Mrs. Ames and Terrell, his face hidden between his knees for the whole ride.
When I signed up for the class, I imagined us growing houseplants. Instead, we planted hearty ground covers, mostly, and a few varieties of stiff, scratchy shrubs. Stuff that could wait for weeks to be watered -- in between tenants, during lengthy stretches away from home, or in periods when life simply took too much out of you for yard work. I began to notice these plants after a semester of Horticulture, to prefer them even. They grow anywhere: hard clay, muddy silt, neglected pots in remote corners of low brow strip malls. When they do bloom, they bloom in sharp, brassy flowers of bright purple and pink, budding emphatically from the plants you walk past every day. The kind you train yourself to see as merely landscape.
About the author:
Andrea Gregovich is working on her M.F.A. at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She spends a lot of time keeping track of professional wrestling, as well as translating Russian short stories and essays (a few of which will appear in a forthcoming collection called Amerika). Her novel, which she hopes will be finished someday, is called Martyred Cars.