Right behind him was his social worker, a woman named Casey Grange who was proof that some stereotypes are in place because they are true. Short and round, she had white hair on her chin and hazy eyes to go with a soft Texan drawl. She stared down her plastic rimmed glasses at me as though I were a stain in the carpet.
"You. You are from *******?" she stated as much as asked. I would have lied rather than risk her wrath. I nodded and she grinned at me, showing crooked teeth turned straw yellow by the fluoride.
"You aren't supposed to be here," she said dropping the duct taped suitcase she held and taking Sam's grocery store bag of clothes, "but since you are, say hello to Samuel." I briefly considered telling her that she was early but abandoned it in the interests of self preservation. I looked at Sam, who stood a good six inches taller than me. His clothes barely fit. It wasn't that he was too large, it was that 6'6 men should weigh at least 150 pounds. Sam could not have been more than 120. Sam stretched out his freed hand and shook mine, pumping it.
"Sam. I'm Sam, and my plant is fine," he said. I explained that I was fixing the kitchenette faucet and excused myself. It was two weeks later that I saw Sam again.
HUD homes were repossessed homes for the most part and that usually means that the former owners took poor care of them. In the case of this house it meant that many things were sabotaged. Concrete was poured down the toilets, screw heads were drilled out and rotten meat stuffed into holes in the broken sheetrock. I spent a lot of time on Sam's house before he ever showed up. It was no real surprise that I had to go back out again. What was surprising was that the coordinator said they had specifically asked for me.
When I got there Mrs. Grange was waiting for me. I didn't make it to the porch before she waved me over with her middle finger.
"Sam doesn't like new people in his house," she said, "but I told him you've been there before, and he's ok with that." That is how I became Sam's personal handyman. The first call was for a light switch. A good light switch lasts for years. I personally put all the switches in and there shouldn't have been a problem. The switch was clearly broken though and a quick glance at the bathroom switch showed the plastic was stressed white there, the kitchen, the living room too.
"Sam, how are you?"
"My plant is fine," he said, shuffling his feet.
"Sam, what happened to the light?" I asked under the social worker's watchful eye.
"They don't click."
I tried the switch and it worked fine. Sam walked over and eyed the switch, then flicked it up and down.
"It doesn't click." He said, flipping it harder and harder. Now the light came on for me. A trip to the hardware store later I installed industrial light switches, each tested carefully to make certain it made a audible click. The situation was resolved. For a month.
This time the stove breaker had tripped. The stove was far from new, one of the few relics from the previous owners, with chipped avocado green porcelain. The fault, however, was not the stove. The stove was not designed to operate with a pool of water in the control tray at the front of it.
Once I cleaned it up I started looking for a leak. I took the ivy off the stove and put it on the counter and started looking under the sink when Sam filled a glass of water in the sink and poured it onto the ivy. The ivy was already saturated and water ran out the back of the pot and onto the counter. Now I knew where the water came from.
Ivy is a hardy plant, tough under most circumstances but it's not a aquatic dweller. You can kill it and one good way is to rot the roots off. I wanted to explain this to Sam but Mrs. Grange was after me before I got half a sentence out. She should have been a prison guard or interrogator because she crushed my hand and like a school child I was marched outside to face the principal.
"Don't mess with the plant," she said.
"He's killing it," I started but she glared at me.
She stalked to the trunk of her car and returned with another Ivy. Now it was my turn to stare. She fixed me with a gaze that drove back the simmering July heat and proceeded into the house. She returned moments later with the old ivy. That's how thing stayed for the next year. I went back to that house four more times. Each time there was a slightly different ivy.
Mrs. Grange finally decided that it was probably safe for me to come unsupervised, so Sam and I talked mostly about what kind of food he cooked. The thing I remember most about Sam was his innocence. He never struck me as stupid, just gullible. In another day and time Sam would have been an ordinary man known for holding his tongue and working hard. My wife reminded me of a movie called "I am Sam", in which the title character cares for a daughter while being mildly retarded. The Sam I knew would have never been able to care for someone else. Sandwiches were a real challenge at times for him. He had learned to make cheese sandwiches and I introduced him to buttering the bread first. We shared a cheese and butter sandwich meal before I left and his face blossomed into a wide grin when I said I'd see him next time.
The next call was almost eight months later.
Sam was different. He smiled when I met him at the door and even showed me his certificate from the stocker service where he worked. He had put on weight too, he was now at least 140 pounds.
"I made me a grilled cheese," he said with pride, offering me a plate with half a sandwich, "I made you one too, but I was still hungry." I ate it happily, feeling much like the animals at the zoo as Sam watched with pride. When I took the plate to the kitchen I sighed. The Ivy was, as always, perched on the stove. One side of it looked wilted, so I gave Mrs. Grange a call.
"There's nothing wrong here a plunger won't fix, but his Ivy could use...a friend," I said.
"Bollocks, boy," she snapped back.
"It's dying - what the hell did he" I started as I ran my fingers over the crumpled leaves.
"I'll be right over," she said in her "You've done it now, boy" voice. Right meant about forty five minutes later till her Deville pulled up. She rolled down the window.
I was not in the mood for food. Answers though, those I could deal with, so she took Sam to Clown Burger and got him some fries. He watched the cook raptly as the man worked a vast griddle like a orchestra conductor producing Mozart's Fifth in Bacon Grease and Lard. Mrs. Grange lit a pair of light cigarettes and took heavy drags on them, then began to speak.
"Sam's a good man," she began, "a good man. He just needed a little help."
"So what's with the plant?"
"He's only barely retarded. Good worker with a good job close to home. In a neighborhood like this he ought to be safe. He's been back in care housing for three years off and on. And he doesn't have to be."
"And the plant?"
"He's got a real confidence problem. He's smart enough to know he's safe with us and just slow enough to need a hand now and then."
"Get to the plant?"
"Routine's the key. We train them to follow a routine. Lock the door. Turn the lights off at night. Cook a good meal. Shop for the same things every time. Even learn to have fun if they like something."
"Last thing we do is add a plant to the routine. A flower or something to cheer them up. If they keep to their routine, tend it every day, it grows, it blooms. We tell them that if their plant is well so are they."
"He killed an Ivy. That's some black thumb."
"He killed a dozen. You never saw him at Hildalgo Home. He's been ready to live independent for a year and just afraid. As long as that plant is fine so is he. Let it lose a leaf and he doesn't eat. Or waters it constantly."
"So you just swap in a new ivy every few weeks? That works?"
She paused to take an extra long drag on her double barreled smokes.
"He's held down a job. He plays dollar bingo on Thursdays. He weighs more than his clothes do. He's happy. What do you think, boy?"
We drove back to the house, and after a quick trip to the grocery store I took the sack from her inside to "finish up". Later that evening before I fell asleep I relayed the story to my wife and she shook her head.
"He's going to kill that one too," she said.
"Not this time. I moved it to the shelf in the hall way and told him to only water it if the red button on the stick pops up."
"How often does it do that?"
"Whenever the temperature in the hallway reaches 450 degrees. She swapped the ivy for a Hedera Dupontis."
"A plastic plant. He can't water it to death and the turkey thermometer I stuck in it is never going to pop up. If it does the house is on fire and a plant is the least of his problems."
"So Sam looks good?"
"Better than ever," I said and turned out the light.
I wonder about Sam sometimes at night, in the darkness between daylight and sleep. Somewhere in Texas a quiet man still tends a plastic plant. It neither needs his affections nor prospers from them, but each morning when it is healthy Sam harvests from it a fresh crop of confidence, the true fruit borne by the Ivy of self sufficiency.