Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Great Growing - JP Kemmick

   It’s hard to say what drove Jeanie and I to plant the seeds in our pores. I think for Jeanie it might have been the stories passed down from her grandmother of an earth where things still grew, where we planted seeds that grew into things we could eat or at least admire. That was all before they had finished the Project, before the powers that be had decided we were all better off without dirt, before they moved the farms to the labs. I didn’t really have an opinion either way.

   My mother called Jeanie an old soul. She looked at least five years older than she really was; tangled hair, thick eyebrows, jewelry my grandma might wear, little wrinkles crackling from the corners of her eyes. It’s safe to say she looked wise.    

   She read my palm the first time we met, told me there was a lot of pain in my past and that my future was flecked with disappointment and indecision and then just traced the lines of my palm up and down, saying nothing, like she was lazily following some river across a map. It was one of the sexier things a girl had ever done for me and helped me forget that just a moment before she had essentially called me a fuck-up.

   Looking back on our time together, I think she was probably just confused. Confused I was someone else. I’d like to think I never misled her; but I probably did, an innocent half truth here, a white lie there. She was beautiful though.  Just really gorgeous in a way that was both retro and futuristic like some time traveling gypsy.        

   She never outright professed her love for the old world, but she would get this look in her eyes whenever someone would bring up an idea from the old days, like farming. I thought it was romantic at the time.  I thought her ideas were hip with nostalgia.      

   In early June we climbed to the top of our apartment building and lay down on the hot tarry surface. That morning in bed we had slowly, hypnotically pushed seeds into each others bodies. We kept the blinds drawn so the sun creeping through the slats made the room glow and made the searching for each pore that much slower and deliberate. It was a muggy summer morning, our hair plastered to our foreheads, the smell of our sweat wrapped in the sheets and hanging in the air. A piece of wallpaper had started to come unglued.        

   I’m not sure how Jeanie came by those seeds; maybe they were hand me downs from lost generations, buried in the back of some photo album. Jeanie’s family kept everything.  

   We had made the process sexy, the leisurely massaging of each seed into our pores, and we had giggled, it tickled. And then we bathed, letting the water soak into our skin, our seeds, until we shriveled up like raisins and climbed the stairs to the rooftop, naked, letting the sun iron out our wrinkles.            

   Maybe it’s not hard to say why I did it. Love, or the assumption thereof. I don’t know, maybe there was some sense of elementary school science fair nostalgia in there too? I was pretty ambivalent about a lot of things back then. I thought I was going with the flow, but in hindsight the flow was at best a trickle. Or maybe it was Jeanie’s flow and I was just some drowning shipwrecked sailor she was doing her best to fish out.          

   If Jeanie had wanted to set fire to the sun I would have done my best to aid her. As it was she wanted to lie naked with me on the roof for a summer and I could think of worse things to do with my time.            

   Looking back on it all I think we were coming at the summer from entirely different angles. She never said anything about principles, about some deeper meaning; but, I’m pretty sure it was there, whirling around her mind all summer. There had always been a tinge of rebellion to her eyes. Her mother had once told me she thought Jeanie's persistent squinting was an attempt to crack her almond eyes. Jeanie probably knew I wasn’t the person to share that side with, even if she couldn’t get herself to admit it. At the time I was fairly preoccupied with her naked body, with her coy, trickling laugh. I was also young, simple enough.

   For the first week the seeds did nothing, just sat inside us, thinking about the possibilities, about how they thought they’d missed the opportunity a long time ago. Second chances. So Jeanie and I enjoyed ourselves. We pretended to ballroom dance under the summer sun, humming some old classical number, out of tune and interspersed with laughter, our feet black with the soot on the roof. We had daily picnics, lying down on towels with ham sandwiches on our chests, cold beers nestled between our legs. It was slow, peaceful, good.      

   I spent an entire day perched near the edge of the roof, watching people below. Our apartment was on a slow street, but the occasional car would hum along, its battery gently buzzing. I watched a little kid with a bouncy ball spend an hour throwing it off some steps and trying to grab it as it went flying at crazy angles back at him. I bet on a cat fight, lost money on a fat old tabby.  

   Jeanie occasionally would come and put her arms around me and stare out over the city with me, looking at all that metal and pavement, reflecting and sucking up all the sun. She said something at one point about the color green and sounded wistful for some reason, but I can’t remember exactly what it was.            
   At night when things quieted down a little you could hear the hum of the Conversion Factory, sucking in the CO2 and spewing out oxygen for us. It’s a nice system, efficient.  

   At first the roots tickled. It was as if some small creature had found its way into my system and its little paws tip-toed under my skin. I told this to Jeanie and she called me adorable and kissed me, two quick short pecks.          

    We watched planes fly overhead for hours at a time, lying naked on the roof, soaking up the sun to feed our submerged seedlings. I watched a Scrubber work its methodical way across the sky, hardly bigger than a dot, keeping us all alive.      

   Sometimes one of us would let out a little shuddering giggle as a root system explored new territory inside our bodies. We’d be sitting on the edge of the roof or wandering around its periphery and we’d release a short laugh over the city, letting it free to make its own mischief. We laughed a lot back then at the little things. A bird shat right on Jeanie’s belly one day and we laughed hard for at least an hour. We were happy and we both thought we could nurture the seeds with our devotion, like we were raising a child. It makes little sense now, but we were young and empowered with an incomprehensible love.          

   One day Jeanie suddenly stood up and made a mad dash for the stairs and came back a few minutes later with a paint set. She spent the rest of the day painting rainbows and fruits and vegetables on the side of the stairway door entrance. She wasn’t much of an artist, but her rainbows were pretty stellar; her strawberries looked like daggers. She shouted something to me about cave paintings, but a street cleaner was humming by down below and I didn’t quite hear her.    

   When I walked over to inspect her work more closely she told me to lie down and then painted a rainbow across my chest, lifting her brush carefully wherever a seedling had begun to sprout.  Sometime during that first week I watched a colony of ants slowly form and build a mound over a thin snaking crack in the roof. They were resilient little creatures, hauling bits of asphalt and cement in place of the dirt that had long since been covered when the Project swept over the world. In history class they teach that the Project had been a common unifying goal, bringing all the world together under one purpose. It was cleaner, easier. We knocked off a few diseases in the process. Made sense.

   I saw what looked liked little bits of glass on the backs of a few ants as they built up their asphalt mound.          

   In those first weeks we had a lot of sex, rolling around, constantly tumbling under and over each other to avoid contact with the hot roof for too long. The tips of greenery were showing through our skin and we ran our fingers over each others’ bodies, feeling the fuzzy spouts protruding from within.  By the end of the first month we could see the roots meandering through our body like veins underneath our skin, now a dark brown hue from the sun and the roots. It became tougher, more taught as the roots bulged underneath. We could feel the weight. Things got a little more sluggish, our energy was going elsewhere.          

   Early in the second month I caught a glimpse of reflected light off a neighboring roof. It was an exceptionally hot day and the roots were feeling heavier than ever under my skin, but I managed to prop myself up with one elbow and squint in the direction of the reflected sun. I could just make out the figure of a person on the other roof. I slowly realized that the light was reflecting off a camera lens, that we were being photographed.        

   Within the week there was a media blitz on our roof, all the local stations wanting in on the story. We were cast as renaissance souls by some, backwards-looking outcasts by others. Nobody went after the love angle.          

   We just took it in stride, annoyed, but little more, and waited for them to leave. Stories like ours popped up in the paper occasionally with headlines like “MAN GROWS OWN APPLE.” But we weren’t doing it for them, we were doing it for us, for a youthful summer of excess love. At least I’m fairly certain that was the original intent, but we let it gestate, let the seeds grow, long enough for that to change.            

   By the end of the week all the media had left. My younger brother, in his early twenties and sporting a suit and tie, stopped by one afternoon to see it for himself, called us freaks and took off, walking fast back towards the staircase, like he was afraid I was going to hit him.  

   Both Jeanie and I were far along with the growth. It was getting harder to move around and we spent most of the days just lying on the roof. The days seemed longer, we talked less. I had green frilly carrot heads poking their way through my chest hair and a big head of purple cabbage sprouting from my belly button. I had a patch of strawberries growing on both thighs, little green things, hard to the touch.            

   Growing tan under the sun one day, Jeanie asked me if she somehow managed to find a piece of real earth somewhere, the dirt kind, if I would farm it with her. I told her dirt was long gone, that the Project had taken care of that.        

   “But what if, hypothetically, the Project had missed a patch somewhere?” she asked.

   “I was thinking of getting into business at some point,” I told her.

   “My dad has some connections at the port.”          

  She responded with a look that she wouldn’t take away and I glanced down just as she muttered, “Business.” I’m not sure why I felt ashamed; I thought the port was a good deal, solid future, but Jeanie had a way of confusing my senses.        

   We had a big thunder storm mid-July. I hauled out an old tarp we had brought up just in case and we huddled under it while the storm raged down on top of us. Jeanie thought that maybe we should try and soak up some of the rain for the seeds, but I told her I sure as hell wasn’t going out into that storm. She gave me a look, more disappointed than anything, and threw her side of the tarp off and sat out in the rain. I lifted a corner of the tarp up and watched the rain pour down her body, her long hair plastered to her back, the water coursing over her breasts and causing the tips of the vegetables to sway against her body. She looked purposeful and also, sexy as all hell.    

   I woke up one morning and hauled myself up to take a quick walk around the edge of the roof to keep my circulation going. A little breeze rustled the stems and leaves of my body. Walking past the stairway entrance I noticed an addition to Jeanie’s painted rainbows, tomatoes and strawberries. "THE NEXT PROJECT" was scrawled in shaky handwriting across the top, looking somehow sinister next to the colorful childlike rows of the rainbows. That was the first, and just about the only, tangible sign that our summer was coming to and end; maybe why I allowed myself to feel so surprised when it actually did.  Like I had needed concrete facts written in a well organized report.    

   It was a day or two later that it became near impossible to talk. A few of the roots had found their way into my esophagus and conversation became painful. Jeanie was having the same trouble. I did my best to assure her it would be okay. I croaked out the occasional, I love you, and tried to say as much as I could with my eyes, but I’ve never been the best with non-verbal communication. Something about a subtleness I’ve never had. I accepted the pain, convinced myself that it was all part of that imaginary flow I thought I was cultivating, that it would take me where I needed to go.  

   Jeanie was getting more distant. She returned my croaked loves with a certain sad look in her eyes, that only later did I realize was as much for me as her.    

   One day I looked to my right and saw a crow not even a foot from my head, just sitting there, staring at me, asking me what the fuck I thought I was doing. They had kept the birds alive with centralized feeding stations, a small caveat to the few who had insisted on the old world ways. It was weird to see a bird so far away from the nearest station. I stared back at the crow, tried to explain that the pain of the roots twisting throughout my body translated to some kind of love, but I couldn’t seem to make it understand. I didn’t understand, how could it? Eventually it hopped to the edge of the roof and jumped off like a suicide.        

   I looked back over at Jeanie and she was staring straight up into the sky, looking hard at it, concentrating. I raised an arm heavy with onion bulbs and brushed my fingers across her face and whispered, “I love you.” She kept focusing on the blue sky, didn’t say anything back.  

   Any halfwit could have seen it was coming to an end, but I was lying naked on a rooftop next to a beautiful young woman with carrots sprouting from my chest. To say I was not thinking my clearest would be an understatement. And besides, I’ve never been good at letting love go, have always held onto the wreckage long after the ship has gone down (sometimes after the rescue boats have come and gone).              

   Two nights later I woke up to the sound of sobbing. Jeanie was sitting up next to me, pulling at the stems and stalks protruding from her body. It was a full moon and bright. The stems protruding from her chest swayed and bristled in the moonlight, giving the whole deal a horror movie vibe, like Jeanie was pulling out the tubes her creator had used to bring her to life. A small pile of vegetables was piled between her legs, tiny little carrots, a few miniature zucchini. Little dabs of blood showed where she had yanked each carrot from her skin. She was crying.      

   “Jeanie,” I said. It sounded more like a painful hiss than anything. My vocal cords had nearly surrendered.   “This isn’t what I thought it would be, Michael,” she said. And then quieter, “I don’t know what I thought it was going to be.” Her sobs and her strangled vocal cords mingled to create a sinister rasp. She yanked at another carrot and it popped forth from her sternum with a strange soft pop.  

   I lifted my hand and put it on her thigh, overgrown with strawberries, but she just kept plucking away and the pile of food kept growing between her legs. I didn’t know what to say. Within twenty minutes she was vegetation free and she stood up. Little multi-colored flecks fell off her chest and legs. Standing there in the moonlight her body looked so different than it had when we’d begun. It was dark, tough, more taught, like she had pulled all her skin tight against her bones and pinned it there. She looked ancient and beautiful and a little crazy.      

   “It shouldn’t be this hard,” she said. “It shouldn’t hurt this much.” And then she walked away.

   I waited a few days for her to come back, to show up on the rooftop, still naked, and admit that love conquered pain, conquered all. By the fourth day I wanted her to show up to remind her that it had been her idea, that she had pressed the first seed into my flesh. On the fifth day I pulled the first carrot from my chest suddenly and within half an hour I had added my fresh produce to her small, wilted pile.  The painted rainbow was still there, flaked and cracked and looking like a perfect chronicle of the summer. My body looked like something that could no longer exist in this world, like something from the days before the Project, when things still twisted their way up from the earth.  

   I stood up and looked out over the world, paved, loveless.

-JP Kemmick grew up in Montana.  He now lives in Seattle, WA.  He draws his inspiration from the places his bike and feet can take him and from the myriad threats to the natural world.  This is his first published work.

-Photo by Christopher Barrio
-Model in Photo: Matthew Bauer