The Yellow Greenhouse

Janelle Bassett

A little girl who only eats prepackaged food has been stealing raw potatoes from her granny and hoarding them under her plastic sink. It’s a fake kitchen, but the theft is real, if minor. Nellie’s a pointless child, doesn’t help around the house or call out the answers her teachers are looking for, but she’s pretty keen on her potato plan—not so much on why she’s doing it, but on the act of it. She’s never had intent before, other than hunger and occasional pricks of spite. Plus she loves the part where she’s on her way home from Granny’s and she knows the potato is on its way home, too—to her room, to the musty place under her play sink, to the spot the garbage disposal and the household cleaners would be if Nellie’s weren’t a silly little baby with a silly baby life.

The first potato had been more of a rescue than a theft. Granny asked Nellie to bring a sack of potatoes up from the basement staircase. Nellie tried—it was hay season when Grandpa got extra hungry—but the sack was heavy. A tumble sent one potato rolling down the hall, and Nellie fell in love with that round little escapee. It looked like a baby’s foot that had been left out in the sun. Before dragging the sack to the kitchen, she hid the footie potato in a potted plant. Later, before her mother came, she moved the potato to her backpack, where it became acquainted with her gum wrappers. Back at home, she opened the plastic doors under her plastic sink and popped the potato inside, assuming that if her play kitchen could talk it would say, “Any friend of Nellie’s is a friend of mine.”

The Little Tykes kitchen was a gift from her dad’s brother, who’d gotten rich selling used cars to small-town knockabouts. He’d brought the kitchen to her birthday party with a green bow tied around the receiver of the yellow plastic phone that was mounted on the yellow plastic wall above the yellow plastic stove. That night, alone in her room, she used the pretend phone to call a pretend friend who lived in some plastic world on the other end of the line. She told her friend that no one listens to anything she says, but her friend was talking to someone else, someone in her own world.

Nellie now has eight potatoes collected behind those two plastic doors: Rocky, Lumpy, Mr. Fist, Booger, Bum-Bum, Ladybug, Skulltown, and Footie. Every day she waters or juices them, depending on whether her pink double-handled cup contained ice water or apple juice. The potatoes are rotting in there, growing long, skinny mutant eyes, becoming alcoholic and poisonous, but Nellie is pretty sure they’re happier in her sink than they’d be in the twisted intestines of her extended family. She enjoys the toxic root vegetable smell in her room, but she knows her mom won’t go for it, so she puts her dirty clothes in the bathroom hamper so her mom won’t have any reason to enter. 

After hiding her project for several weeks, Nellie decides to show her babysitter Beth what she’s been up to—a big reveal for her private garden. Beth is all upset because her parents are pressuring her to major in economics next year when Beth wants to major in stuff like running her fingertips along fences or sweeping front porches. “I want to embrace the tactile,” she tells Nellie. “I don’t want to study or master. I want to touch, to worship.”

Nellie’s mom says that Beth is a moony-ass dolt, but she charges a meager $15 an hour, takes out the trash without being asked, and doesn’t wear booty shorts like the last sitter.

Nellie pulls Beth to her room. “I want to show you something.” Beth is hard to pull, heavy from dreading her future. 

“Come on,” Nellie prods. “Maybe it’s something you can worship.”

Nellie says “ta-da” when she reveals her potato mass to Beth, but Beth does more groaning and gagging than applauding. 

“Are those potatoes? Why? Why would you do this?”

Nellie closes the plastic doors and decides she wants to major in never telling anyone why she’s doing what she’s doing.

That night, when everyone is asleep, Nellie tries to decide what to do with her potatoes. Beth promised not to tattle, but told Nellie she was definitely going to get in trouble if her mom found out. Nellie hated the idea of throwing her project away, especially the potatoes’ increasingly long sprouts, which reminded her of the gnarly yards-long fingernails she once saw in the Guiness Book of World Records. If those were a feat, then these were, too. 

Without turning on a light, Nellie crawls from her bed to her play kitchen. She opens the doors and stares for a while, then begins harvesting the ropey eyes from potatoes. It feels right to pull the flourishing sprouts from the melting spuds—to separate life from death. Nellie wonders if this was what the Sunday School teachers meant about souls, how they go toward the sky even when the body starts returning to the earth. Nellie isn’t all that religious—she believes in heaven the way she believes in dessert—but this soul business feels right, at least in this moment, squatting in the dark with her life and death piles.

Nellie ties the sprouts together with a shoestring, making a snaggy bouquet, and stuffs them into her pink cup. She decides that if her mom came in right now switched on the light and demanded to know WHY she collected eight potatoes in her plastic kitchen and WHY she watered them and let them fester and WHY she loved their truly bad smell and WHY she picked off the long eyes, put them in her pink cup and put the cup on her bedside table so that they’ll be the first thing she sees tomorrow morning, she’ll tell her mother, “life and death.”

Janelle Bassett’s story collection Thanks for This Riot won the Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize in Fiction and will be published by University of Nebraska Press in September 2024. She lives in St. Louis and is a fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine. Follow her on X at @hazmatcat.

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