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Authors: Jayne Pupek

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BOOK: Tomato Girl
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The only thing Miss Emily is particular about is that no one comes to the table without first washing their hands. I wash mine ten, maybe fifteen times a day, so that is never a problem. In fact, Miss Emily says she'd be real happy if I forgot to wash my hands. That isn't likely. No matter how many times I wash, I see Mama's blood on my hands. Some stains you can never wash clean.

My bedroom is on the second floor. Miss Emily decorated it with dried sunflowers and big wicker baskets, then bought some paint and brushes and told me to cover the walls with pictures of my own. “Sometimes picture making is the best therapy,” she'd said. I didn't want to argue with her, but the pictures inside my head aren't the pretty ones a girl can paint on walls.

So I paint pictures of Easter instead: Easter sitting in my doll carriage. Easter eating kernels of corn. Easter standing on the bureau looking at himself in the mirror. Mary Roberts will be surprised when she sees how well I can paint now.

Mary hasn't seen my new room because she's spending the summer at church camp near Richmond. Every week, her short letters arrive on pale pink paper with matching envelopes.

I wanted to go to camp, too, and pretend none of the bad things happened. Only I couldn't go because of my therapy sessions. I don't much care for therapy, but that's the only way I'll be able to visit Daddy. The judge who sent me to live with Miss Emily says I have to go, it is an order, and more important than summer camp.

Daddy writes me, but Sheriff Rhodes gives the letters to my therapist, Miss Cassidy, so we can read them together. In his letters, Daddy always says how sorry he is for leaving. He says he's
talking to a new lawyer to handle his case. When he gets out of jail, he promises things will be different. He's coming to get Tess and me and make a home for us.

I want to go home with Daddy, but I don't want Tess to live there.

Tess stays at Mildred Rogers's convalescent home where invalids and retarded people live. I haven't told anyone, but I walk by there sometimes, just to look at her. I don't know why. It's as if I need to see her for myself so I can remember what is real. It would be so easy to live in a make-believe world like Mama's, to imagine things entirely different than they are. When I see Tess, I know the difference between make-believe and real.

Tess is not the same girl. She doesn't look as pretty now. I have walked right up to her a few times, but she didn't seem to know me. When she laughed, ribbons of spit unfolded in the corner of her mouth.

Last week, I dug up one of Miss Emily's tomato plants, put it in a pot, then left it on Mrs. Rogers's front porch with a note that read, “To Tess.” Daddy, I know, would want me to help her in any way I could.

The next day, I saw Tess pacing the sidewalk in front of Mrs. Rogers's house. She had the plant in her arms. Her thin fingers stroked the leaves.

That is all I can do for Tess. I don't want to see her anymore.

In his letters, Daddy keeps asking me to check on Tess. This makes my therapist angry. She says she is going to visit the jail to speak to him about it, but no, I cannot go along.

Miss Cassidy doesn't understand how much Daddy lost because of Tess. He will never give her up now.

is like a classroom with a big chalkboard and shelves lined with books. But it's different, too, because there are sofas instead of desks, and large, woven pillows piled on the floor. On her desk, she keeps pens, a scented candle
that always burns, and large white cards with inkblots on them. The cards are not like Clara's, which predict your future; these cards tell about your past. I don't like them.

I try to like Miss Cassidy; she is soft and kind. But it is hard when she tries to make me talk about all the things I want to forget.

The first time she brought up Mama, I walked to the chalkboard, picked up a stick of chalk, and drew a door. I moved my chair so I could sit behind the door where Miss Cassidy's words couldn't reach me.

Now I keep a box of chalk with me all the time, and use it whenever she wants to talk about something that makes me hurt inside.

She asks me to draw pictures of a person, a tree, and a house. She hands me a set of cloth dolls and wants to watch me play with them. Sometimes, she shows me the white cards with inkblots.

I look at the cards, but try to see nothing

I won't draw a house, tree, or person.

I won't play with her dolls.

I draw another chalk door. I'm safe there.

, Miss Emily gets her hair done at the salon, then shops for groceries. While Miss Emily is at the salon and market, I spend the afternoons with Clara. I don't know if Miss Emily would let me visit Clara if she knew about the magic, so I keep quiet about it.

Clara teaches me all the magic—about the lines inside the palms of my hands, and how to swirl tea grounds in the bottom of a cup and read meaning in the patterns they make. She talks to me about colors and words, and how spirits live in stones, a handful of dirt, or the branches of trees. She's helping me grow an herb garden in a window box, and tells me which leaves and roots work to cure sickness, which ones bring good fortune, which ones lead to a long life.

Today is a special Tuesday. We are meeting beside the river. I haven't wanted to be here since Jellybean drowned, but Clara says it is important not to blame the river. “Water nourishes. It cleanses. It is good magic for carrying troubles away. Water washes away fears, regrets, and is a fine place to get rid of things we don't need,” Clara says. She stands on the bank with her feet placed apart, and her eyes fixed on the water. “Sometimes, magic is a light thing, like planting a found coin in the time of a new moon to bring on luck or more money.”

“Or burning pink candles while holding a rose petal on your tongue to bring love,” I add, remembering the spinster who visited last week for Clara's advice on how to draw and keep a man.

“That's right. And sometimes, magic calls us to do something hard, to give up something we don't need, so we can grow.” Clara looks at me. “Like that box of chalk you carry.”

I look into Clara's gold eyes. My hand reaches inside the pocket on my dress to touch the box. I open my mouth, but don't know what to say. Finally, I tell Clara about Mr. Morgan and the chalk door, how he told me I could be safe behind the door, and it was like magic to go there.

Clara listens. She nods as I speak. When I finish she lets out a deep breath. “I understand,” she says. She walks nearer the river, gazes across the water, then turns to face me again.

I look at Clara with questions in my eyes.

“The chalk door is good magic to shut out cruel deeds and words from others. That was a gift from Mr. Morgan, something he wanted you to use to protect yourself from rumors and name calling. But you use the chalk door to hide. To learn real magic, you have to face things that scare you. You have to face the hurt inside here,” she says, pointing to my heart, “if you are ever to be rid of it.” Clara walks away from the river, away from me. “You decide,” she says over her shoulder.

I look out over the river. Behind a curtain of cattails and bent reeds, the water is a ribbon unfolding itself. It flows in ripples
downstream, moving like something alive and determined. I take a deep breath and smell the water. It reminds me of moss, wet bark, and old shoes, but there is something reassuring and safe about it.

I reach inside my pocket again and touch the smooth box. Without the chalk door, I might tell Miss Cassidy about all the sad things that have split my heart into pieces. I might tell her about all the bad dreams and voices, or even spill secrets I'd promised to keep. I'm afraid of how much that will hurt, afraid of what it may cost.

But I know Clara is right. I am tired of carrying so many dark and broken things inside me. I can never do magic with so many fears, hurts, and secrets. They weigh down my heart like a stone.

I kneel at the edge of the river. I pull the box from my pocket and open the lid. Five pieces of chalk. Five smooth, perfect pieces. When I turn the open box upside down and shake it, the chalk drops into the water. I watch the thin white sticks bob in the blue-green river, then come together like a hand, to float quietly away.


My deepest gratitude goes to the many people who made this book possible:

To my husband and children, for inspiring me to dream while keeping me grounded.

To my parents, who indulged my early love of books and never censored what I read.

To the members of the Internet Writing Workshop, who read and critiqued the first draft and gave me encouragement as I stumbled through the process. Their ongoing support is a blessing.

To my editor, Chuck Adams, who not only showed unwavering enthusiasm for the book, but worked magic to make the story clearer and whole.

To my agent, Sandy Choron, who is a champion without rival and the best reader a writer could hope to find.

To good friends and amazing teachers, not only for encouraging me to write, but for daring me to take greater risks on the page.

Published by
Post Office Box 2225
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27515-2225

a division of
225 Varick Street
New York, New York 10014

© 2008 by Jayne Pupek. All rights reserved.
Published simultaneously in Canada by Thomas Allen & Son Limited.
Design by Anne Winslow.

This is a work of fiction. While, as in all fiction, the literary perceptions and insights are based on experience, all names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available for a previous edition of this work.

eISBN 9781565126657

BOOK: Tomato Girl
7.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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