Read Tomato Girl Online

Authors: Jayne Pupek

Tomato Girl (23 page)

BOOK: Tomato Girl
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“No, of course not. I can't even stand Roger Cline. I don't know who it's from, honey, I swear. Go on and open it if it means so much to you.” Tess wiped the corner of her eye as if she didn't want Daddy to see her crying. She looked so broken I almost felt sorry for her.

“It's from her daddy,” I said, looking down at the tiled floor. “The postman brought the mail today while I was outside. He said the letter was from Mr. Reed, and I forgot to give the letter to Tess when I came inside.”

“Daddy wrote me?” Tess asked, her voice quivering. She seemed shocked and afraid, not happy to hear from her father, but then he was not the kind of father anyone would miss.

I thought I'd be in trouble for keeping the letter in my sock, but neither Daddy nor Tess paid attention to me. A heavy quiet settled in the room.

“You want to read it?” Daddy finally said. He looked at Tess.

She shook her head. “No, I don't want it. Throw it away, Rupert. Just throw the damn thing away. I don't want to hear a word he has to say.”

Daddy placed the envelope back on the kitchen table and didn't say anything, just kept staring at the envelope.

Tess's eyes darted from Daddy to the envelope on the table. Did she want him to open it? Did she care what it said, or did she wish, as I did, that Daddy would rip the letter into pieces so small no one could read the words?

Even as I wished differently, I knew Daddy would read the letter. Mama likes to hide from the hard things, but Daddy is more afraid of what he doesn't know than of anything he can see.

Finally, Daddy spoke. “That bastard wants something. I don't trust him. I want to know what he has to say. No need to be operating in the dark, now is there?”

Before Tess had time to speak, Daddy shoved his thumb under the loose corner flap and ripped open the envelope. He pulled out the piece of notebook paper, unfolded it, and read. He mouthed the words to himself.

Tess and I waited.

“That bastard!”

I covered my ears, but could still hear my father cursing.

“That no-good fucking bastard!”

“Rupert, what is it?” Tess stepped forward, reaching for the letter.

Daddy shoved the paper into her hands. He stood up and pounded his fist against the wall.

Tears filled my eyes. Daddy's loud voice and glaring eyes scared me. “Daddy?”

“I'll be back,” Daddy said. “You both go ahead and start supper without me.” He ripped his keys from the hook on the wall and stormed out of the house, slamming the door so hard the table shook under me.

“Rupert, please don't,” Tess called after him. She wadded up the letter and threw it down, then ran out the door behind Daddy.

Would Tess be able to calm my father?
I wondered. Or would he pace the sidewalk or go into his shed and chisel wood until the last angry sparks inside him were gone?

I looked around.

The letter lay on the floor.

Reading somebody else's mail is wrong. Still, I had to know what Mr. Reed had written. I wanted to know what upset Daddy so much.

I picked up the crumpled paper and spread it flat on the table. The letters were fat and black. They slanted downhill like mine had in first grade. Some were even backwards. I read the letter as fast as I could, but Mr. Reed spelled most of the words wrong, and I had to think hard to figure them out:

deer Tess,

i seen you com here and took your tomatos. Look here, young ladie, I want you to com home rite now. i wud com git you mysef but i turnd my ankl on the porch step when i seen them tomatos gone. you hav staid with that man long enuff. so i wrute to you to tel you to com hom rit away. you is my gurl Tessy. com home to yur daddy. i need you with me. i miss your voice and your purty pink skin.

If that man you is with don't let you com home I wil sind Raymund Witters out ther to git you, Tessy.

al my lov

yur daddy

Mason Reed

My hands shook as I crumpled the letter and tossed it back on the floor.

I knew Daddy would never let Tess go back to live with Mr. Reed. Even if the man had treated her right and Tess wanted to go back, Daddy might not allow her to leave. What would happen if Mr. Reed's ankle healed and he showed up to take Tess home, or if he sent someone for her like he'd said in his letter? Daddy would do anything to keep her. I knew it in the way he looked at her, watched over her, and kissed her.

I walked to the kitchen window and looked at Daddy and Tess. They stood in front of Daddy's toolshed, arguing. I couldn't hear their voices, but I knew they were angry. Daddy's clenched fists hung at his sides. Tess leaned toward him, tugging at his shirt, her face red and shiny.

I didn't know what to do. Hide upstairs with Mama? Go outside and try to stop Daddy and Tess from arguing?

Deciding that keeping busy was the best thing to do, I began to clear the table. I moved the plates and glasses first, a habit I'd gotten into because leaving glass out in the open too long made Daddy nervous, especially when Mama was upset.

As I picked up a bowl to carry to the sink, the door opened. Tess walked in, crying. “Oh, God, Ellie. I couldn't stop him.”

I turned, startled. “Where's Daddy? Stop him from what?”

“He left. I begged him not to go,” she sobbed, collapsing on a chair. She buried her face in her hands and leaned forward until her head landed on the table.

I rushed to the window and looked out to see Daddy's car gone.

“What are we going to do?” Tess said. “He took the gun, Ellie. He took the gun!”


meant that Daddy took his gun. Tess knew, too. She paced the kitchen floor and chewed her nails. “What are we going to do?” she asked.

“Why did you have to come here, Tess? Why couldn't you leave Daddy alone? He isn't yours! He belongs to Mama and me! Why couldn't you pick Roger or somebody else? Why couldn't you sell your tomatoes and buy a bus ticket to some other town?”

“Please, Ellie. Don't be mean to me,” she pleaded like a child. “I didn't plan for things to turn out this way. I love your Daddy, I really do. I never wanted anything bad to happen. I tried to stop him. Honest, I did.”

“But you didn't stop him, Tess. He's gone, and we don't know if he's coming …” I couldn't finish. My words turned to sobs. I sank to the floor and cried, pressing my face into my hands.

Tess sat down beside me and touched my hair. “Oh, Ellie. Don't cry. Please don't.”

I pushed her hand away. “Leave me alone, Tess. You were supposed to help my mother, but that's not why you came, was it?
You stole Daddy, and made Mama sad. You dropped … you dropped my chick in the river. You … you're bad!”

Tess frowned. “I didn't do it on purpose, Ellie. I mess up things sometimes. I don't know why.”

“I don't want … to talk about it … anymore. Just leave me … alone,” I said between sobs.

A siren blared outside, and Tess and I both ran to the door, then out onto the porch.

We watched an ambulance drive by, headed toward someone else's house, down Grace Street.

Daddy was still safe. At least for now.

Tess walked back inside, but I stayed on the porch. Before Tess came, Daddy and I would take walks on evenings like this. Sometimes, Mama came along, too. There were whole weeks when Mama acted like everyone else's mother. No tears or broken things, no giggles that wouldn't end, only cookies and a quiet voice.

I tried not to think about Daddy and Mr. Reed arguing, but whenever you try not to think of something, you always do. Tess lived out in the country, so the drive would take Daddy some time even if he drove fast, which I figured he would do. Maybe the drive would calm him down and give him time to think. The car might even run out of gas and Daddy would have to hitch a ride back into town. Maybe Mr. Reed wouldn't be home.

When I came back into the house, I noticed Tess washing the dishes.
She's probably right to keep busy,
I thought. I picked up a towel to dry the plates. Their smooth surfaces reflected my face and showed me how worried I looked.

“Thanks, Ellie.” Tess spoke in a low voice, barely a whisper. Her pale blonde hair lay flat across her head, all her salon curls washed away.

The clock told me Daddy had been gone for just under an hour. He'd be at Mason Reed's house by now, walking up to the front door.

Tess rubbed her forehead the way grown-ups do when they have a headache, pressing fingers against their skull. She pulled the plug in the sink, and I heard the dirty water run down the drain.

The clock ticked, sending the red second hand around and around.

Daddy would be knocking on the screen door by now. He'd be running his fingers through his hair, waiting for Mason Reed to pull himself up from his sofa and limp to the door on his twisted ankle. The inside of his house would surely be filthy with Tess gone.

Maybe Daddy would walk inside this nasty house and decide Mr. Reed wasn't worth the trouble. Not even for Tess.

I tried to focus on the plate in my hand, the china smooth and warm against my skin.

Tess leaned against the sink, her flat belly pressed against the counter. She moved both hands to her head and groaned. All the arguing must have given her a very bad headache.

Mama's bottle of pain pills were on the window sill. I thought about offering Tess one, but decided not to.

Tess wobbled at the sink. I glanced at her face to try to figure out what was the matter. Her eyes blinked fast, again and again, and all I could see was the white part. It was as if her eyes had rolled into her head and locked there. A few seconds later, Tess collapsed on the kitchen floor, falling like a marionette with cut strings.

“Tess!” I screamed. Could a girl stand at the sink washing dishes and seconds later drop dead? Kneeling beside her body, I touched her arm. She felt stiff.

What was happening?

Her skin turned pale and splotchy, then her legs twitched, both legs at the same time, as if they were joined to a single wire. Next, her whole body jerked. She thrashed on the floor.

Epilepsy. Seizure.

Mary Roberts had described what they looked like, but seeing Tess this way frightened me.

Her body rose a few inches, then slammed against the floor, flopping like a fish tossed on the river bank. Her head made a thud every time it hit the floor. Her arms flew out, hitting me. I lost my balance, landing on my back.

I turned and quickly stood up. How long would this last? What should I do?

Just then, I remembered the spoon. “You have to put a spoon in their mouth or they'll bite their tongue off,” Mary had said.

I thought if the time came, I wouldn't care if Tess bit off her tongue, but I was too scared to be mean to her now. “Don't let her die, God,” I prayed. If Daddy came home and saw I'd let Tess bite off her tongue, he wouldn't love me anymore. Not ever. He might even go to that place in his mind where Mama goes.

A spoon. I had to find a spoon and get it into her mouth. As Tess thrashed on the floor, I reached into the sink, pulled out a teaspoon.

Kneeling beside Tess, I saw drops of blood coming from her mouth.
Oh, God, don't let me be too late. Please.

Her face was gray, and her skin felt cool now. I couldn't help but think of Jellybean, cold and stiff in his little grave, and Baby Tom, floating in his jar. Tess couldn't die.

“I'm sorry, Tess. I didn't mean those bad things I said. Please don't die.”

It took all my strength to lift her head onto my lap. My hand hurt from my own cut palm, but I tried to hold her still. Her head thumped against my legs so hard I thought my knees would crack. I tried to slip the spoon inside her mouth, but her teeth clenched down.

I remembered how Mama got me to take medicine when I'd refuse to open my mouth. She'd pinch my nose closed until I opened my mouth to breathe, then in with the spoon.

Maybe that would work with Tess. I reached for her nose, but
her head wouldn't stay still for more than a second. Every time I tried, her head rocked in my lap and I lost my grip. My fingers, wet with blood, slipped when she moved. I pressed my hand across her nose like a cup, hoping to force her mouth open for air.

A few seconds later, I saw a small opening and shoved the spoon inside. Her teeth clamped down hard, and she almost bit the tip of my finger. I barely managed to hold onto the spoon, but gripped with all my might and pushed it deeper until her tongue was under it.

I sat on the floor with Tess and waited for the thrashing to stop. My arms hurt from holding her so tight. Sweat ran down my face, burning my eyes, but I didn't dare move my hands.

I looked at the clock again. Only a few minutes had passed. It seemed much longer. I wished Daddy would come home and tell me what to do.

Floorboards creaked overhead. I prayed Mama would stay upstairs. She'd only make this worse. She might even be happy to let Tess die.

The toilet flushed, and the soft thud of feet followed. I held my breath, listening for the door. The creak sounded more like bedsprings.
I thought.

Tess jerked one final time in my lap, then grew still. At first, I thought maybe she'd died, but then she groaned. Her eyes searched the room as if she didn't know where she was. I slipped the spoon from her mouth, glad to see her tongue move as she licked her blood-smeared lips.

“You'll be okay, Tess,” I whispered.

She didn't seem to hear or see me.

I eased her head from my lap and let it rest against the floor. “I'll get you a blanket.”

As I laid the spoon on the floor and moved to stand up, I noticed a yellowish puddle spread on the floor under Tess.

“I'll bring some clean clothes, too.”

I hurried upstairs and found clean panties and a blue dress for
Tess. I didn't want to go to the hall closet for another blanket and risk Mama hearing me, so I pulled the quilt from my bed, and carried the bundle back to the kitchen.

BOOK: Tomato Girl
10.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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