There was something strange about the Tenant in the basement. Ms. Burrows had thought so ever since he’d answered her Craigslist ad and signed the lease.
When Ms. Burrows first met him to show off the basement, she couldn’t quite place his scent. It was like a sick mix of fresh soil, sulfur, and skunk was burnt into his too-big wool sweaters and ratty brown hair, pulled tight into a bun. She’d lived in her quaint little house in her quaint little neighborhood for a not-so-quaint fifty-something years, and bringing this young rag-tag ruffian into her home (or at least a part of it) made her a bit uneasy. But, with no other offers and her costs of living going up and up after her husband’s passing, the space was his.
“Thanks, dude,” the Tenant had said to her. They’d shaken hands, his clear-cut fingernails somehow managing to hide dirt beneath them, and the Tenant rushed around the house to the exterior basement door, hidden from street view by a few hedges. Ms. Burrows had looked down at her hand and headed toward her own front door, resolving to wash the hand thoroughly.
Now, however, after three months of the Tenant living beneath her humble home, her suspicions had reached a peak. There was always some type of sound coming through her floorboards (banging, whirring, and sometimes even opera), a faint purple glow that never faded escaped along the edges of the Tenant’s stark white door, he could never quite remember exactly how much the rent was each month, and the putrid smell persisted whenever she ran into the man.
On one fateful afternoon from her breakfast nook window, Ms. Burrows spotted the Tenant transporting his weekly bag of fertilizer into the basement. He slung the sack over his left shoulder, somehow supporting its weight on his thin frame and huffing his way down the stepping-stones of Ms. Burrows’ entrance. He veered off the path to the one he’d made on his own in the now worn-down grass and disappeared from her view. Ms. Burrows sat and listened as she heard the basement door open and close, the Tenant’s footsteps making their way down until she could hear them no more. This routine had gone on since the Tenant had moved in, and Ms. Burrows had had enough. She wanted to know just what exactly was going on beneath her feet.
She set down her cup of coffee and daily newspaper Sudoku and marched outside. She rounded the corner and went right on up to the Tenant’s door. Raising her fist to knock, she suddenly paused. Ms. Burrows much preferred to live a somewhat isolated life—knitting blankets for her grandchildren, filling in intricate paint-by-the-numbers, and watching reruns of Survivor from the comfort of her La-Z-Boy—and because of her naiveté for the world that had continued on without her, she was somewhat scared of the Tenant. His bloodshot eyes and perpetual scraggly beard was a combo she wasn’t all that used to, and as she stood there, ready to knock, she realized she wanted another opinion. Maybe this was just what the kids were into these days, collecting bags of fertilizer and listening to opera, but she needed to know for sure before asking the Tenant directly.
She mentioned the predicament to her friends LuAnne and Edith at their weekly meeting in the Bingo hall. “I just don’t know what he’s up to down there,” Ms. Burrows told them at their usual card table, stamping out B-26 on her Bingo card. LuAnne and Edith, not having a B-26, simply huffed and waited for the next number.
“Maybe he’s not up to anything,” LuAnne offered, fiddling with the elegant rings on her manicured hand. “Maybe he just smells bad.”
Edith scoffed and took a drag from her cigarette. “Oh, I’m sure he’s up to something.” I-47 rolled onto the stage’s screen, and the caller announced the number. Edith poured over her eighteen cards, but the number was nowhere to be seen. None of the other ladies had it either. “He’s probably growing the Weeds.”
“Weeds?” LuAnne asked, enthralled by the conversation.
Confusion washed over Ms. Burrow’s face. “Why would someone grow weeds in my basement?”
“Not weeds,” Edith said. She leaned in, her big frizzy orange hair blocking their view of the stage. “Weeds,” she whispered. “Like the drug.”
Ms. Burrows sat breathless, in shock by the news that the Tenant was making drugs in her house. Her stupor, however, was broken when LuAnne recoiled and gasped wildly from the clarification, her lipstick forming a red “O” on her face. The caller, who was just about to announce the next number that had rolled onto the screen, hesitated. “Are you okay, ma’am?” he called instead.
Edith took a puff from her cigarette and waved her hand at him. “Never has been,” she scoffed, “but she’ll live.”
“He’s going to blow up your house,” LuAnne shakily said to Ms. Burrows, once composed. “I’ve seen it on the TV. If they don’t grow the Weeds right, it explodes!”
“Explodes…?” Ms. Burrows trailed, staring off into space. They were talking about her house. Her home. The place that held all her most precious memories, the place with which she’d grown so familiar, so in love, that if she ever lost it, she wouldn’t know what to do.
“Maybe,” Edith shrugged, leaning over her cards as G-3 rolled onto screen. “Nothing good ever happens in the basement. You’ve got to get him out.” She turned away from the other two, looking over her numbers.
“Y’know, I saw on the TV that making the Weeds isn’t all that those people do,” LuAnne said. Her eyes widened as she came to a realization, and Ms. Burrows cringed, not wanting to hear it. “Like what if he’s a murderer, too?”
Ms. Burrows completely deflated into her seat, overridden with the possibilities of what the Tenant could be doing beneath her feet. Edith, meanwhile, danced in her chair as she marked off G-3, the last one needed to complete her row. As soon as the caller announced the number, she yelled, “Bingo!” The caller motioned for two officials to head her way.
LuAnne pulled a Prada handbag up off the floor and dug through it. Pulling out a small can of Mace, she then handed it to Ms. Burrows. “Take this. You might need it.”
Ms. Burrows took the canister, cold metal against her wrinkled palm. She’d seen them before, but never in her own hand. This was all so overwhelming. “Thanks,” she managed to say. She hoped she wouldn’t need to use it.
The bingo game wrapped up once Edith won, much to the chagrin of the other players. Ms. Burrows headed home, nervous but ready to investigate.
She slowly made her way to the Tenant’s door with LuAnne’s can of Mace in one coat pocket and her house phone in the other, just in case she needed to call for help. She didn’t know what to expect, but she wanted to be prepared. With her breathing heavy and with one hand clutched tightly around the canister to help keep it from shaking, she rapped on the door. As she waited, she noticed that the bushes on either side of the entryway looked especially green.
The Tenant opened the door halfway, revealing the dark staircase behind him. He peeped out wearing his signature stinky sweater and stared at Ms. Burrows with confused bloodshot eyes. The purple glow escaped the inner workings of the basement and crawled up the entry stairs, casting shadows against his profile. “Uh, hey, Ms. Burrows,” he grinned lazily, teeth yellow. “What’s up?”
“I-I think there might be something wrong with the furnace,” Ms. Burrows explained through chattering teeth, despite having rehearsed this speech forty-two times prior to the encounter. “The repairman I called recommended I check it out before he visits. Mind if I come in?”
The Tenant stepped aside, completely opening the door, and gestured to the staircase. “Come on in.”
This surprised Ms. Burrows. She’d planned on having to demand he let her in after multiple refusals. This all seemed too easy. Too simple. Too dangerous.
Her breathing quickened, her heart raced, but pushing against the fear building inside her, she smiled back at him and said, “Thank you. After you.”
The Tenant nodded and headed down the stairs with Ms. Burrows following behind. With the door closed, the soft purple glow crept up the stairway and took over the space, their shadows dancing maniacally along the walls. The wooden steps screeched under their weight, calling after Ms. Burrows and warning her not to go any further. Ms. Burrows’ heart began to beat two times too fast, pumping against her ribcage, dying to get out of the staircase and right back up to the safety of her home. She wanted to turn around. She needed to turn around before it was too late.
But then the Tenant’s silhouetted frame crossed through the basement threshold at the bottom of the stairs, and as the space opened up before her, purple light streaming from the room, she rigidly followed him inside.
Edith was right. The Tenant was growing the Weeds.
Ms. Burrows hadn’t been inside the basement since the Tenant moved in, but it didn’t look anything like what she remembered. The couches and tables and chairs and all of the furniture she’d provided had been shoved up against the sides of the living space to make way for three rows of what looked like triple-bunk bunk beds filled with green vines. Cylinders of purple light hung above each platform and along the sides of shelves against the wall that showcased a variety of brightly colored circular objects that Ms. Burrows feared were the Weeds. Bags of fertilizer were thrown about the area, orange globs of decaying gunk spread out across the tiled floor, and spray bottles, seed packets, spades, and soil cluttered worktables. Ms. Burrows had never seen anything like it.
“So what do you think is wrong with the furnace?” the Tenant asked. He turned around, ready to address Ms. Burrows directly. She couldn’t respond, however. She was completely frozen. Her heart pumped with fear and her breathing stopped altogether. The Tenant was growing the Weeds. She could only imagine how one misstep could make her home skyrocket into the air at any second. Ms. Burrows didn’t know what to do.
“Uh, dude, are you all right?” the Tenant asked. She didn’t respond, still staring at the elaborate set-up with nothing but trepidation in her eyes. The Tenant took one step toward her and she blasted into action, a primal survival instinct guiding her movements. Whipping her can of Mace from her pocket, she aimed it at the Tenant. He stepped back, arms up and eyes wide.
“Whoa, Ms. Burrows,” he said slowly. “You’ve never seen a Subterranean Gourd-Growing Vertical Urban Garden before?”
“You need to leave!” Ms. Burrows bellowed, drawing from a strength that only someone on the verge of losing their home has. “You can’t be growing the Weeds in this house, sir! You need to leave!”
The Tenant just grinned, trying to suppress a giggle. He ran a hand through his long hair, now unbunned. “The Weeds?” he asked. “I’m not growing any drugs, dude. Just gourds.”
“Gourds?” Ms. Burrows asked, slightly lowering the Mace. She narrowed her eyes, suspicious. “That’s not a code name for the drugs, is it?”
He stepped back and grabbed a gourd from one of the shelves along the wall. It was pear-shaped with carnival-esque orange and green stripes and with bumpy warts that skipped up its otherwise smooth exterior. Ms. Burrows stepped closer and realized that all of the other objects on the shelf were gourds, too — greens and oranges and yellows and whites and warts and smooths and curled tops and squat bottoms and pear shapes and pumpkin shapes and all sorts of gourds, gourds, gourds.
“No,” the Tenant replied. “I literally mean gourds.”
“So you’re not growing the Weeds?” Ms. Burrows asked, slowly lowering the can of Mace until it was at her side. She could feel the tension gradually leaving her, her fear of an exploding home subsiding.
The Tenant shook his head. “What? No.” He chuckled. “I try to get rid of all of the weeds,” he joked. “They suffocate the vines.”
“These gourds aren’t going to blow up my house, are they?”
“No,” the Tenant answered. “They’re perfectly safe.”
Ms. Burrows took a deep breath. She let her shoulders drop, adrenaline gone, and slid the can of Mace back into her pocket.
“But what about all the noise?” she asked. “The banging and the music and all that?”
“Oh,” the Tenant replied, perking up. He dashed into the converted bedroom at the back of the basement and returned holding a squat gourd painted brown with a hole drilled in its side.
“I make birdhouses,” he explained. “I like listening to opera while I work, and the music helps the plants grow.” He extended the birdhouse to Ms. Burrows, gesturing for her to take it. “This one is actually for you.”
The birdhouse was an exact replica of her longtime home — in gourd form, anyway. Its brown façade mixed with the painted-on greenery that bordered the drilled-in front door. Basement door on the side, breakfast-nook window right in front, black-shingled roof on top, everything as it should be. The stem had even been painted to look like her chimney. The gourd reminded her of all the precious memories residing within the walls of her home, and to have a miniature version to remind her of them every day meant the world to her. Ms. Burrows was so touched that she almost cried.
“I’ve been meaning to give this to you for a while now,” the Tenant went on. “But sometimes I get so caught up in my work that I forget things, like sleep, the rent, showering, giving this to you—”
“This is wonderful,” she sniffled. “Thank you.”
“No problem, dude.”
The Tenant handed off the birdhouse to Ms. Burrows, and as she swaddled it in her palms, she realized that she hadn’t quite known how much her home had meant to her before she thought she might lose it. This gift was truly something special.
She turned back to the staircase, ready to leave.
“Weren’t you going to check the furnace?” the Tenant asked. Ms. Burrows spun back around.
“Oh, I, uh…” she trailed. The Tenant grinned and crossed his arms.
“There was never anything wrong with the furnace,” he realized. “You just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to blow up your house.”
Unable to find the right words for a response, Ms. Burrows simply nodded, a sheepish grin on her tired face. She continued on her way, but before crossing the threshold to the stairway, she turned back to face the Tenant. “If you ever need an extra set of hands,” she said, nodding to the gourd-covered shelves, “I’m quite fond of paint-by-the-numbers.”
Ms. Burrows disappeared into the staircase and the Tenant returned to his work with a smile on his face, both of them leaving with a new understanding of the other and confident that their home was there to stay.
Lawrence Silveira is a current senior at Columbia College Chicago, majoring in Fiction Writing and minoring in Writing for Television. He’s set to graduate at the end of the Spring 2017 semester, and the prospect fills him with intense joy, despair, and confusion. When he’s not writing about underground gourd gardens, you can catch him complaining about the Chicago weather, talking about goats, or writing about other absurd things.