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Authors: Jayne Pupek

Tomato Girl (3 page)

BOOK: Tomato Girl
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My father didn't laugh.

A few minutes later, Daddy and Mr. Nelson carried in four wooden crates, each holding twenty-five dyed chicks. Daddy turned on the heating lamp and left me to move the tiny chicks into their new home. They would go on sale tomorrow, and I knew that immediately my little brood would begin to dwindle. For the rest of today, though, they were all mine. Daddy never sold them until he saw that they could stand and eat on their own. Any that seemed too weak would be kept in a box in the back office and fed a special gruel with powdered vitamins mixed into it.

While Daddy locked the cash register, I knelt next to my chicks. They felt a bit damp from the rain, and I quickly moved them to their place under the lamp to prevent a chill from settling into their small, thin lungs. I'd never lost a chick, not even last spring when the shipment arrived during a late frost.

As I finished moving the last of my brood, a tiny green chick stumbled over his feet and brushed against my hand. He wasn't bright green like a lime or lollipop, but a softer shade, the color of pistachio ice cream. Daddy said he'd climbed out of the dye too soon for the color to deepen.

The chick pecked at my thumb, and then stepped onto my finger. He wobbled, but caught his balance as his tiny clawed toes gripped my skin. With his head tilted, he chirped as if to say, “I did it! I did it!”

I laughed and kissed his soft head.

I knew then that this chick would be mine, and today I would carry him home.

“W
E BETTER GET
to the house,” Daddy said, looking at his wristwatch. He rolled down his sleeves, buttoning the cuffs.

“Don't forget the holes,” I reminded Daddy, handing him the box lid.

Daddy took his knife from his pocket and poked six or seven holes in the cardboard lid. With his thumb, he brushed the openings clean so that no dust would fall on my chick's head.

I scooped up my green baby and tucked him inside his oatmeal box. All the other chicks were warm, dry, and fed. Only two had seemed too small and weak to eat all by themselves, so Daddy and I fed them with a dropper, then placed them in a box in the office. In a day or so, they'd join the others.

D
ADDY AND
I walked the four blocks to our house. The rain had stopped, and the clouds that had hung overhead like plump mushrooms a few hours earlier were thin and distant now.

A pale pink light softened the sky as we crossed Elm Street and turned onto Grace. I hugged the box in my arms and hummed to calm my chick. I hoped he wouldn't be afraid in a new place.

We passed the small brick post office and the row of painted houses where mostly renters lived. Mama sometimes talked about renting one and turning it into a coffee shop for artists and writers. She wanted to paint the walls bright colors, hang spider plants from the ceiling, and place matchstick blinds in the windows. Writers could sit at small round tables and drink coffee with cinnamon on top while artists gathered at the back to sketch nude women. Mama had said her own figure was good enough that she could even model herself. I worried that Mrs. Roberts would find out about the naked women and stop Mary from being my friend, but Daddy said not to give it a thought. He'd already warned the landlords and banks about Mama's behavior.
Erratic
was the word he'd used with other people, but I knew Daddy meant Mama has
her moods. To make her happy, Daddy let Mama keep dreams that would never come true.

Daddy once said he'd picked the best house in Granby considering Mama's moods. Having boarders for neighbors meant there were fewer regular folks who saw the odd things Mama did. Transients, Daddy had explained, are not as nosy as townsfolk, and I guess he was right. None of the boarders ever asked about anything Mama did; most folks only knew she suffered headaches and crying spells.

As we neared the row of dark hedges marking the edge of our yard, I walked faster. I couldn't wait to show Mama my new chick. She'd help me name him. Maybe she'd stand at the kitchen sink and mix warm water and cornmeal to make his bedtime gruel, then press a handkerchief with her iron so he'd have a warm blanket in the bottom of his box. I'd seen her do these things when I'd once brought home a wounded sparrow.

Mama, like me, loves fragile things, but she can hurt them when she's troubled. Sometimes something comes over her, and she doesn't realize what she's doing, or how it will turn out bad. She once poured bleach in the fish tank because she'd dreamed the black mollies grew wings and teeth. The fish all went belly-up, and Daddy had to flush them down the toilet. Later, Mama stared at the empty tank and cried, but Daddy wouldn't let her fill the tank with more fish.

Another awful time, Mama wound tape around our parakeet's beak because the bird wouldn't be quiet. Each time Paco chirped, pain shot through Mama's eyes like swords. She'd only meant to quiet him, but she wrapped the tape up too high on his beak, covering the holes where Paco breathed. The little blue parakeet died. I'd found him that evening when I came home. Daddy dug a small grave in the yard to bury him, but explained we could not mark it or ever talk about the parakeet again. “It will upset Mama when she realizes what she's done,” he'd said. “And other people wouldn't understand. This is best forgotten.” I'd nodded then
tucked away my sadness, like a handkerchief in my pocket. Keeping secrets came easy after so much practice, but some things you just can't forget no matter how hard you try.

Mama had been in a very bad mood then, but lately she'd been better. I couldn't imagine her hurting my chick. Besides, I was older now and knew to look after him. If I covered him with a blanket when I was at school, he would be perfectly quiet and Mama wouldn't even notice him.

“Slow down, Ellie, before you fall,” Daddy warned from behind. But I was already up the steps and through the front door.

“Mama! Mama!” I called, leaving the front door open as I hurried to the black-and-white-tiled kitchen where my mother would be setting out the heavy bowls for supper.

A sharp, burning smell stung my nose.

The pot sat on the stove. Dried broth spotted the front of the oven where the stew had boiled over. The knob had been left on, scorching the pot and spilling grayish white threads of smoke.

Mama was gone.

The onion.

I remembered the onion.

Fear shot through my body. It reminded me of the time the dentist's drill slipped and hit my gum. The jolt had sent my body forward in the chair.

The box with my new chick slipped through my fingers and hit the floor.

“Mama!” I ran out the screen door toward the basement steps.

At the bottom of the stairwell, Mama's body lay folded in half like a paper doll.

Dark red blood stained her face.

THREE
GOD PROMISES

I
STOOD AT THE TOP
of the basement stairs and screamed until Daddy came and pulled me away.

I wanted to go down the steps and sit with her, but my legs wouldn't move.

An ambulance came. Its spinning red light sent splashes of color through the trees and made me dizzy. If the siren sounded, I knew my heart would split open and bleed.

I watched from the top of the stairs as a short man with reddish-brown hair and glasses knelt beside Mama and placed a mask across her face. A colored man with white wool hair helped the other man lift my mother onto a long stretcher. They strapped her in place to bring her up the stairwell.

Mrs. Roberts had shown me a picture of the risen Lazarus walking out of the tomb after Jesus rolled the stone away. I prayed to see Mama rise from the stretcher and walk up the steps on her own. I wanted her to laugh about how she'd tripped, and tell me the gash in her head didn't even hurt.

But she didn't speak and she didn't move.

She isn't dead,
I told myself. Daddy had said she was just hurt. But maybe he didn't know. Or maybe he couldn't tell me. Daddy always wanted to make a bad thing sound better. He'd never tell you to be worried or afraid, even if there was good reason to be.

The men slid the stretcher into the back of the ambulance. They made it look so simple, like sliding a pan into an oven.

“You'll follow us to the hospital?” the red-haired man asked.

Daddy shook his head. “We don't have a car.”

He didn't tell the man how the last time we owned a car Mama had taken off for three days. Sheriff Rhodes had found her parked near the river just sitting in the car, with no food, no belongings, only the nightgown she'd worn the morning she left. “I drove and drove and just couldn't remember the way back,” she'd explained. Daddy said he couldn't see how a woman could forget her way around a town she'd lived in for years. He'd wanted to know what man she'd been with and held her by her wrists to make her tell. That only made her cry. Daddy said he was sorry and cried, too. He sold the car the next day.

“I could call a cab,” Daddy offered.

The man scratched his cheek and said, “No, that's fine. I can let you ride with her. But you'll have to find a way home. They never release a patient with head injuries. They'll keep her under observation for at least a day.”

Daddy nodded and gripped my hand as we climbed into the back of the ambulance.

I sat on Daddy's lap. He pressed my face to his chest to keep me from looking at Mama's bloodied face. The siren blared when we came to the stop sign. I covered my ears with my hands. The red light flashed on top of the vehicle, sending swirls inside the ambulance. I closed my eyes to block out the light, but the red kept flashing behind my shut lids.

I knew I should keep my eyes open, pay attention. Mary Roberts would want to hear all the details. This would be the sort
of tale to impress even the toughest boy in class. But I knew I'd never want to talk about it.

At the hospital, we sat on an ugly plaid sofa in the waiting room while doctors tended to Mama. By then, I'd started to believe that Mama wasn't really dead. People came to the hospital to get well.

An old man slumped in a lounge chair in the corner near the television. A string of drool ran from his lips to his chin.

In the opposite corner, a tank of guppies gurgled on top of a bookshelf. I pitied the fish who had only this awful room to look at day after day. They must have seen more sadness than any fish on earth.

A nurse walked over and offered Daddy coffee in a Styrofoam cup. Her thick legs bulged in her stockings and made a swishing sound when they rubbed together. She handed me a coloring book with seven dwarfs on the cover.

“I don't want to color.”

“Here's a nice picture of Snow White. You look a little like Snow White yourself with those blue eyes and dark hair.” She turned the page. “And here's the witch with her apple.” She pulled out a fat red crayon and put it into my hand. “Don't you want to color the witch's apple?”

I took the crayon, broke it in half, and shoved the coloring book back to her. “No, I don't.”

Daddy wrapped his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. He whispered to the nurse that I would be fine and thanked her again for the coffee. My father has always been kind and understanding. He's a person with too much love inside.

“I'm sorry for being rude, Daddy,” I said after the nurse went away.

“It's okay.” He pulled me closer. “People say things they don't mean when they're upset. The nurse understands, really.”

I buried my face in Daddy's warm neck, and stayed there until I fell asleep.

When I woke sometime later, a man in green pants was talking to Daddy. I figured he must be Mama's doctor because a stethoscope hung around his neck.

“Your wife suffered no permanent damage, Mr. Sanders. She's regained consciousness. We stitched her forehead, gave her a muscle relaxant and something for pain. Her back is sprained, and she'll need to spend the next few weeks recovering. No bending or lifting. No heavy housework, laundry, or cooking.” The doctor cleared his throat. “And I'm sorry to have to tell you that the odds are not good that the baby will survive the trauma.”

Daddy nodded. He rubbed his head with his hand, and his fingers disappeared in his thick, dark hair.

“What baby?” I asked. No one had told me Mama was going to have a baby. I'd always wanted a brother or sister, somebody smaller than me to help look after. I thought about my mother's belly rising like a soft loaf under her apron and knew what the doctor said could be true.

Daddy hushed me. He asked the doctor if my mother knew.

“No, we haven't told her. She's still a little incoherent.”

“Doc,” my father said, then paused. He seemed to be searching for words. “My wife, well, she's prone to moods. And this baby, we didn't think we could have more, so this will be real hard on her. I'd rather not tell her until we know for sure. Let her get a little stronger first.”

“I understand. Certainly,” the doctor said.

“When can we see her?” Daddy asked.

“You can go in for a few minutes now. Then you both can come back tomorrow during visiting hours.”

“I want to see Mama, too!” I jumped off the sofa and tugged on Daddy's sleeve.

My father was firm. His large hands picked me up and sat me back on the sofa. “Tomorrow I'll bring you to see Mama. I promise. For now, Ellie, you'll sit right here until I return.”

There was no point in arguing. Sometimes
no
means
maybe,
but not this time. Daddy was seldom firm with me, but when he used that tone of voice and stared at me without blinking, I knew he would not budge.

I sniffed back tears, folded my hands in my lap, and watched Daddy disappear down the long hall.

Waiting alone was almost as bad as the ambulance ride. The hospital scared me. The old man coughed, pulled a wadded bandanna from his coat pocket and spat into it. The nurse drifted up and down the hall. A woman came in holding a baby with blisters on its fat legs. The baby screamed so loud it made a dull drum sound inside my head. I thought about how Mama sometimes curled up on the sofa with her hands pressing her temples when her migraines came.

BOOK: Tomato Girl
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