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Authors: Jayne Pupek

Tomato Girl (10 page)

BOOK: Tomato Girl
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“You're kidding?” Mary asked, her eyes wide. “Have you seen her do it?”

“No, not yet. But sometimes, when she's mad, her body shakes a little, and I think she's going to fall on the floor and have one. It scares me. What do you suppose it's like?”

“Oh, it's awful, even worse than a woman's blood curse,” Mary said, her angel-blonde curls bouncing because she spoke so fast. “A spell comes over you like a fog, and you have some sort of fit, foaming at the mouth like a rabid fox. It's like being in the electric chair when the warden zaps you full of electricity.” Mary jerked her body to show me. “Sometimes,” she pointed her finger at me, “you pee your pants and flop around like a fish on dry land. If it goes on too long, you might bite off your tongue. That's why you have to put a spoon in their mouth. Always.”

No wonder Mama didn't seem too happy about Tess staying with us. Who would want to see someone flop on the floor, biting off her tongue?

Suddenly my stomach felt queasy, and I didn't want any more Cracker Jacks.

I sat on the front porch step and held Jellybean on my lap while I waited for Daddy.

Late afternoon, Daddy and I rode in the cab to the hospital. I wanted to take Jellybean, but Daddy had asked the cab driver to drop my chick off at the house first. Tess would keep him while we visited Mama. “We pressed our luck taking that chicken into the hospital the first time, so let's not try that again.”

At the hospital, Daddy carried the suitcase in one arm, and Mama's box of candy in the other. I trailed close behind, keeping my arms at my sides to avoid touching anyone or anything. I hated the hospital and its bad smells.

After the brief elevator ride, we walked the long, dull tunnel until we came to room 311. I wished they'd put Mama on the first floor. I didn't like being in the middle of the hospital, floors of sick people over my head and under my feet.

Daddy shoved the door open with his shoulder. I followed close behind. In a rush to leave the corridor, I nearly stepped on his heels.

“Mama!” I squealed. I'd seen her only yesterday, but it felt like days.

Mama held out her arms to me, her fingers dancing in the air.

I climbed into her hospital bed and buried my head in her neck.

“Guess what?” Mama's voice was soft and happy.

I sat up and looked at her face. Her eyebrows lifted, raising the white bandage like a little flag. The blue-black bruise on her face was softening into greens and yellows. She looked at me, then at Daddy. “The doctor said I can come home in the morning!”

I clapped my hands and shouted, “Hurray!”

We wouldn't have to come inside this hospital anymore until Mama had her baby, and that would be a happy visit. I'd have Mama home, and she would make my bad dreams go away. I wouldn't even need the magic chalk door Mr. Morgan had shown me.

Daddy leaned down and kissed Mama's forehead the way he kissed mine good-night. “That's good news, Julia. But is Dr. Cline certain you're ready? It's so soon.”

Mama frowned. “Rupert, you sound like you don't want me to come home.”

“Of course I want you home, Julia. I just want to be sure the doctor isn't making a hasty decision. You took quite a fall. The bed rest can't hurt.”

“Rupert,” Mama spoke in her impatient voice. “I can rest just as easily at home.”

“Yes, I suppose you're right,” Daddy said, a look of concern on his face. He dropped her suitcase at the foot of the bed. “We brought your robe and gowns, a few other things from home, but I guess you won't be needing those if you're being released tomorrow.”

“We can bring you a dress to wear home,” I offered.

“That would be wonderful, Ellie. Why don't you pick a homecoming dress for me?”

“I will.” I squeezed Mama's hands and smiled.

Daddy took the box of Whitman's candy and placed it on my mother's lap. “A get-well present.” He kissed her forehead again.

Mama blushed. She ran her fingers along the edges of the box, admiring her gift. She thanked him and wrapped her arms around his neck. “You didn't need to get me anything, Rupert.”

Daddy patted her arm, then lowered himself into the chair by her bed.

He never told Mama the candy was a gift from Mr. Morgan.

T
ESS WAS BEADING
a necklace at the kitchen table when we returned. Jellybean sat on the table near her, pecking at a blue bead. “Isn't it pretty?” she asked as she held up the wire half-strung with colorful beads. Tess smiled at us.

“Julia's coming home tomorrow,” Daddy said.

Her smile disappeared. “I thought you said she wouldn't be
back for days!” she screamed at my father. She picked up my mother's sugar bowl and threw it against the kitchen wall. The white porcelain shattered, leaving sugar and broken shards on the floor.

I gasped, sucking air into my lungs so suddenly it sounded like a noise an animal might make.

“Ellie,” Daddy said, “I want you to take Jellybean outside and let him walk around in the yard.”

My legs wouldn't move. I'd never seen anyone break something on purpose. Maybe a pencil or a toy that didn't work, but nothing that belonged to someone else. Nothing as pretty as my mother's porcelain.

Daddy didn't notice that I hadn't left. He didn't notice me at all.

He moved toward Tess, placed his hands on her shoulders, and whispered her name.

She turned her head as if she didn't want to look at him.

I watched Daddy take her face in his hands as if he held a precious shell. And then he kissed her.

Not on the forehead.

Not on the cheek.

Daddy kissed Tess on the lips.

TEN
RUNAWAY GIRL

S
EEING
D
ADDY KISS
Tess made me want to poke out my eyes. I'd never be able to erase it away. How could he do such a thing? My ears rang like somebody had hit me, and I felt light-headed.

I turned and ran outside, slamming the door behind me. Daddy followed me into the backyard and called after me. But I kept running, not sure where to go, just wanting to get away. I ran across the street, slipping between the tall elms that bordered the next yard. My movements disturbed birds that had nested for the evening. I heard them flutter and caw in the trees.

Behind me, the thud of my father's boots on asphalt made my heart race. Daddy was faster than me, but I was smaller and the sun had almost set, making it hard for him to see me. I moved behind trash cans and bushes until his footsteps no longer followed.

I reached the church parking lot, and started to go inside. I could sleep on the wooden pew, maybe find some communion bread and grape juice for supper. But I was not in such good favor with God and didn't want to push my luck.

Spending the night with Mary Roberts wasn't a good idea either. I'd have to walk a long way back and risk running into Daddy. Mrs. Roberts would feed me dinner and let me sleep in the white canopy bed with Mary, but she would also ask a lot of questions. What if I slipped and told her about the kiss?

I really wanted to stay with Mr. Morgan, to curl up in his lap and roll his cigarettes while he told me again about the special door. He wouldn't be at the store this late, and his house was too far to walk. I checked my pockets: one dollar and twelve cents. Not enough to pay cab fare to Mr. Morgan's house.

I decided to walk to school. There was no other place to go. Maybe the janitor had left a door open. Or maybe I could crawl inside an open window. I could even break a window if I had to. I knew how from watching Daddy break in our house the time Mama changed the locks and wouldn't let him inside. Daddy had wrapped his hand in his coat while he smashed the glass with a rock. I didn't have a coat with me, but I could rip part of my dress or use one of my socks.

You have to make do when you're a runaway girl.

Once inside, I'd have the building to myself. I could curl up in the library and read a book. Maybe eat leftover fish sticks in the cafeteria, then all the strawberry ice cream I wanted. If I cut myself on the way in, there were Band-Aids and peroxide in the infirmary. The brown plaid sofa beside the cola machine in the teachers' lounge might make a good bed. I could go to the music room and bang on the piano as loudly as I felt like it. If I stayed away long enough, Daddy would be sorry. He wouldn't kiss Tess again. He'd love Mama the way he did before Tess came.

I worried about Jellybean and hoped he'd forgive me for leaving. Early in the morning, I'd sneak back home and get him. I felt bad. He'd be cold, scared, and hungry. “Don't cry, don't cry,” I repeated. The tears came anyway. I wiped my eyes with my fists, then pinched my arm.

Runaway girls need to be brave.

I walked a long time to reach the school yard, and had to cut through the trailer park where country music blared from radios, and there were beer cans scattered across some of the front yards. I'm not allowed to play in the trailer park or on Gratton Street where coloreds live, but I've gone to both places with Daddy to deliver screens and plywood. Seems there are always windows and doors needing repair in poor houses.

The backs of my legs hurt. My saddle shoes were tight and making my feet sweat.

Fireflies began their nightly dance in the darkening sky. To keep my mind off troubles, I counted green blinks as I walked to Granby Elementary.

I didn't expect to find anyone at the school, but when I stepped around the corner to see if the back doors were unlocked, I noticed two women on the playground. It was Miss Franklin and Miss Wilder. I never guessed they came to the school after hours. Miss Franklin pushed Miss Wilder on the swing, and they both laughed like girls.

Miss Wilder spotted me before I could back away. She threw up her hand and waved. “Ellie!”

I waved, then turned to leave.

“Wait,” Miss Wilder called.

This time my legs were too tired to run. The backs of my knees ached. The soles of my feet burned and felt sore. My shoes probably had rubbed blisters.

“Hi Ellie, how are you?” Miss Wilder knelt beside me. She wore blue jeans and a yellow tee shirt. I was so used to seeing her in dresses, I couldn't help but stare.

“I'm fine.”

“Are you here with your parents?”

“No, by myself. I don't live too far. Grace Street.” A mosquito bit my forearm and I slapped it, smearing a drop of blood on my skin.

Miss Wilder pulled a tissue from her pocket, dampened it with
her tongue and wiped the blood from my arm. I was grateful Mary Roberts wasn't here to see that. She'd be sure to say that lesbian spit rubbed on your arm would only lead a girl to trouble. But I didn't care. I was already in too much trouble to worry about spit.

“Well, it's nearly dark, Ellie. That's a long way for a little girl to walk alone at night. Can I come with you?”

“No, I can make my way back.” I couldn't let Miss Wilder walk me home and run into Daddy or Tess.

“Does your mother know you're here?”

“Mama fell and is in the hospital. That's why I missed school yesterday. I was in a hurry to get to Daddy's store, and didn't stay home and get her onion, and she slipped. She's supposed to have a baby, but now the baby might die.” I hadn't meant to say so much, but the words came anyway. I didn't want to cry in front of my teacher, but I couldn't stop the tears.

Miss Wilder wrapped her arms around me. She patted my back the way a mother burps her baby. Her hand felt warm and solid.

Miss Franklin walked over, too. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Ellie's having a hard day,” Miss Wilder said. “Ellie, honey, Miss Franklin and I live near here, too. Just two blocks away. Why don't you come home with us now and we'll figure things out?”

I nodded and let Miss Wilder keep her arm around my shoulder. It felt good to have someone's hand steady me. As we walked back to their house, Miss Franklin followed close behind. She whistled a tune I liked but didn't recognize.

A vase of pink carnations decorated the kitchen table. By the window, a lime green parrot perched in a wrought iron cage. “Hello, Belle,” the parrot screeched and turned its head to one side to look at me.

“We bought Belle when we went on a trip to South America two summers ago,” Miss Wilder said.

At school, Miss Wilder kept clay pots and brightly colored
baskets on her desk, some filled with paper clips or apples. She reminded me of Mama, the way they both loved unusual things and were not afraid to be different, but Miss Wilder didn't suffer the moods Mama did. She might scold Belle for being noisy, but she wouldn't tape the bird's beak shut to quiet her.

“Does she know many words?” I tried to think of something to say to be a good guest. Seeing Belle reminded me that my little green chick was on his own unless Daddy or Tess remembered to feed him. I should not have left Jellybean. No matter how mad I felt at Daddy, or how much I hated Tess, my chick was small and helpless. New tears wet my eyes.

Miss Wilder guided me to a chair at the table where Lotus-shaped candles floated in a bowl of water. She handed me a box of Kleenex from the top of her refrigerator, then brushed my bangs away from my face. “Would you like some warm milk?”

Miss Wilder knows just what a person needs when they feel low. At school, when I stand at the blackboard and get the equations wrong, she touches my shoulder and makes me forget how stupid I feel. Once, when Mary Roberts tripped on the wet steps in front of the school, Miss Wilder brushed the dirt off Mary's dress. She checked and rechecked all the bones Mary swore she'd broken.

“Yes, milk would taste good.”

Miss Wilder stood at the stove and heated a pan of milk, then stirred in nutmeg and honey before testing the temperature with her finger. After pouring the milk into a bright blue bowl, she handed it to me.

“In Europe, the people drink coffee in bowls, not cups. Did you know that?” she asked.

BOOK: Tomato Girl
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