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Authors: Jayne Pupek

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BOOK: Tomato Girl
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The worst part about the hospital was the smells, a mixture of medicines and sour milk and bleach. My nose wrinkled.

I thought about my green chick, how I'd dropped him on the floor.
Where is he now?
I wondered.
Walking on the cool kitchen floor, or alone in a dark corner with the smell of scorched stew burning his small lungs?
I felt bad for him, left alone and hungry on his first night in a new place. When we went home, I'd fix him something warm to eat, and I'd give him clean bedding.

I wanted this awful day to disappear. I wanted to go back to the day before, when Mama was home and well. I didn't want to be in this bad place. I didn't want to be alone.

I slipped my hand into my pocket to rub the soft rabbit's foot Mary Roberts gave me for my tenth birthday. “It's for luck,” Mary had said as she pressed the furry foot into my hand. “You rub it and make wishes.” I felt bad that a rabbit was left to hop on three feet just for me, but I needed all the luck I could get.

Sitting on the hospital sofa, I closed my eyes and grasped the rabbit's foot. Then I prayed, “Please God, let Mama live, and let my baby brother or sister live. I will be good forever, I promise. I won't make fun of the blind man on Gale Street. I won't touch myself down there anymore. I'll give back the blue marble I stole
from J. D. Wilson. And I will always stay home to fetch onions for my mother. I will cook, sew, and wear dresses like a regular girl, so I can grow up to be a good wife like Mama. Amen.”

After what seemed like a long time, Daddy returned to the waiting room. He hugged me and told me not to worry, but his furrowed brow said he was worried himself. He kissed my cheek and said, “That's from Mama.”

My throat felt raw and tight, and I locked my arms around Daddy's waist and sobbed into his shirt.

“Don't cry, angel. The doctor gave Mama something for pain and she will sleep all night. We'll come back to visit her tomorrow. You'll see. Everything will be fine.”

With Daddy's arms around me, I believed everything would.

Since we hadn't eaten supper, Daddy bought us grilled cheese sandwiches in the hospital cafeteria. Mine tasted like rubber, not warm and buttery like the ones Mama made. But I remembered my promises to God. I ate the sandwich, washed it down with a bottle of soda, and said it tasted good.

Afterwards, we rode in a yellow cab to our house on Grace Street. Through the cab windows, I watched dark branches that reached up into an even darker sky.

green chick huddled in a corner, his tiny feet tangled in cobwebs. I scooped him up and held him close, whispering in his ear. “Poor baby. I'm sorry for leaving you, little one.”

“He must be hungry,” Daddy said.

I nodded and held the chick close to my chest. “And cold.”

Daddy mixed cornmeal and warm water in a bowl. While the corn mash cooled, he used pliers to bend a teaspoon, making a little funnel.

After touching the mixture to make sure the temperature was just right, I spooned the cereal into his small beak. He gobbled down three spoonfuls, stretching his thin neck to swallow more.

With my chick fed and fresh paper placed in the bottom of his box, Daddy carried us to my bed. He pulled off my shoes and socks, lowered me onto my mattress, and tucked the covers under my chin. I cradled the box with my tiny chick inside, placing one hand inside the box to warm his small body. The evenings this time of year were cool, and my little chick mustn't get chilled.

“I'll turn up the furnace before I go to sleep,” Daddy promised. He sat next to me on the edge of my bed, his body strong and warm beside mine. His rough, wide hand stroked my hair until I drifted to sleep.

The night was filled with bad dreams. In them, Mama's face was streaked with blood and the hospital nurse kept circling the room, saying, “Would you like to color the wicked stepmother? Would you like to color Snow White?”

I was glad when the warm sun on my face woke me. I blinked my eyes. My lids felt thick and sore, as if salt had been rubbed in them. When I sat up in bed and pulled away my covers, I saw I was still wearing my jeans and red sweater. I tasted what was left of the grilled cheese in my mouth. The hospital and bad dreams came back to me.

I wanted Daddy.

Grabbing my box with the chick inside, I hurried across the floor. As I opened my bedroom door, a girl's voice rose from the kitchen.


. A girl's voice. Sounds that were familiar, but so unexpected. Then I remembered the voice. It belonged to the tomato girl. She and my father were in the kitchen. Why was she here? She'd never been to our house before.

I crept downstairs and tried to be invisible behind the railing.

The two of them stood at the sink, making coffee. Daddy spooned dark beans into the grinder while the tomato girl turned the handle to crush them. He teased her, spooning the beans faster than she could grind. I watched her scoop spilled beans into her hand and shove them deep inside my father's pants pocket.

“Daddy?” I called from the bottom step. Being invisible sometimes means seeing things you don't want to see.

When he heard my voice, my father stopped laughing and pushed the girl's hand away. “Ellie, you remember Tess, don't you?” Daddy quickly filled a glass with water at the sink, then drank it.

The tomato girl smiled at me. “Hello,” she said, her voice so small and airy it made me think of butterflies and garden fairies.

I nodded. I'd arranged her produce in bins at Daddy's store. Tomatoes and sometimes yellow squash, ears of corn, a few pumpkins. I never called her Tess, though; I knew her only as the tomato girl. She usually came in the mornings, while I was in school, but I'd seen her a few times on Saturdays. Even without seeing her, I always knew when she'd been to the store, because her baskets would be filled with tomatoes as red as her lips. Each time she visited, her honeysuckle perfume lingered behind, filling the store. Sometimes, even the gloves and paintbrushes smelled like honeysuckle.

Because I'd seen it, I knew that when the tomato girl came to the store, Daddy ran out to open the truck door for her. He held her hand while she stepped down, easing her onto the asphalt as if she were a princess. He hauled in her produce and placed it near the front store windows, checking to see if she was pleased with how he'd arranged the baskets. He hovered over her as if she belonged to him. Sometimes Daddy took her by the arm and led her to the back office to pay her for her goods. If there were no customers, he might lock the door, and they'd stay in the room a long time. Occasionally I'd hear them laugh, but mostly, they were quiet. I figured Daddy gave her special attention because of her hard life and her infirmity. People talked about it, but no one ever told me the details. They only shook their heads and said something like, “That child has had a time of it.” I understood how Daddy could feel sorry for her, but I still never really liked her. I resented the easy way she leaned into him, and how his face became happy when he saw her.

One Saturday a few weeks ago, as the tomato girl was leaving, Daddy carried out the lumber she'd bought for her father's chicken house. Daddy had told me to refill the jars of penny candy and arrange the new shipment of yardsticks, but before I even got started, the telephone rang and I had to go to the front of the store to answer it. Someone wanted the price of a gallon of oyster-white
paint, which I knew would be listed in the special catalog Daddy kept on a hook by the window.

That's when I saw what my eyes weren't meant to see. They were both inside the truck, and Daddy lit a cigarette, then placed it between Tess's lips. She drew on the cigarette, then leaned close to him, her mouth only inches from his neck. Very slowly, she blew little smoke kisses against my father's neck.

I felt a kind of panic run through my body as I stared, not accepting what I'd seen. Daddy's neck didn't belong to her. He belonged to Mama. And to me. Why didn't he make her stop?

After she drove away, Daddy returned to the store, whistling when he came inside. Then he noticed me by the front window, and he stopped. He knew I'd seen them.

I kept staring at the spot where her truck had been, deafened by a roaring in my ears.

When Daddy called my name a second time, I turned toward him. His face took on a worried look, his eyebrows coming together in one tight line. He squeezed my hands in his and warned me not to tell Mama. “You keep quiet about this, Ellie, and when the Easter chicks come, you can choose one for your very own.”

I didn't want to keep Daddy's secret, but it seemed the only thing to do. I knew if I told Mama, she'd get upset and maybe try to leave Daddy or even hurt him. She might even hurt herself. Keeping the secret seemed the right thing. And I did want that chick.

the kitchen and held the box with my chick inside close to my chest. We almost never had visitors in the house because of Mama's moods. It was impossible to predict when Mama might do or say something that might frighten or shock someone, so Daddy mostly kept people away. I could probably count on one hand the folks who came to our house to visit in any regular way. Daddy always told folks that Mama wasn't
well, and not up for much activity or visitors. Sometimes that made for a very lonely house.

So it felt strange seeing the tomato girl in our kitchen, wearing Mama's apron as if it were as ordinary as toast for her to be here. Turning back to the sink, she wet Mama's sponge and cleaned the stove where stains darkened the oven door.

I felt confused. How did the tomato girl get here? And why was she in Mama's kitchen, laughing with Daddy? Why were her thin fingers touching Mama's things as if they were her own? She'd never been here before, yet she acted as if this were her home.

And then I thought,
Isn't this what happens when your mama dies?
I'd read about this in many fairy tales. A new woman moves into your home and takes your mother's place, and she is very mean to you because you are not her child. She makes you wear hand-me-downs and work your fingers to the bone. Sometimes, you lose your father, or at least your father's love. Then one day, you are sent away, banished to another place entirely.

But the tomato girl was too young and too pretty to be an evil stepmother. And if Mama had died, why was Daddy laughing?

Seeing the confusion on my face, Daddy placed his hands on my shoulders and guided me to a chair. “Let's leave the chick here for a minute,” he said. He took the box from my hands and set it on the table.

While Daddy talked to me, Tess knelt on the floor and scrubbed away the brown stains. Her skirt slid up her legs as she moved, but she didn't try to pull it down. The harder she scrubbed, the higher her skirt rose on her thighs. Didn't she know we could see her bare legs?

“Tess is going to be staying here with us for awhile, to help out,” he explained.

“Is Mama dead?” I asked. Tears filled my eyes.

“Of course not,” Daddy insisted. “Mama will be fine. And after you eat breakfast and get dressed, I'm taking you to see her, just
like I promised. But we'll need some help around here while your mother recovers, and Tess kindly agreed to stay and pitch in.”

supposed to help Mama. I promised. And if I break my promise, God will let Mama and the baby die!” It felt all wrong to me, that someone else would do Mama's work when I was meant to do it. I was supposed to make up for my mistake. I hoped God might overlook my selfish ways if I worked hard and helped Mama.

My father squeezed my hands and smiled. “Don't worry. There's plenty to do around here. Dishes to wash, floors to sweep, laundry, cooking. Tess will see that you help, too. Now listen to me, nothing's going to happen to your mother, Ellie. I swear to you. And the baby, well, the doctor said we will have to wait and see, but if the baby doesn't make it, it isn't your fault. It's because your mother fell.”

I couldn't tell Daddy that Mama's fall was my fault. If I'd only taken a minute to walk down the stairs and fetch an onion from the bin by the door, my mother would be home making oatmeal or bacon for breakfast. The tomato girl would not be in our house scrubbing my mother's kitchen floor.

“Now how about some breakfast?” Daddy offered. He poured cereal and milk into my morning bowl and handed me a spoon. Daddy sometimes boiled hot dogs for supper to give Mama a break, but he never cooked breakfast.

I was hungry, and the cereal and cold milk tasted good. Daddy let me scoop on all the sugar I wanted. I swallowed gulps of sweet milk to wash away the bad grilled-cheese taste that still lingered in my mouth. I tried to pretend that Mama was in the next room sewing, or out in the yard weeding her flowers.

Daddy sat next to me while I ate. He opened the newspaper and began to read, but I could tell he was pretending. His eyes drifted to the girl on the floor, to the back of her legs, where the edge of her white panties showed.


the tomato girl, I finished my cereal, giving a pale pink Froot Loop softened with milk to my chick.

“All done,” I said, showing Daddy my empty bowl. I'd eaten all my cereal and drank the last drop of sugary milk.

Any other Monday, I'd be getting ready for school, rushing upstairs to brush my teeth and trying to get the barrette in my hair straight, but Daddy had said last night that I could play hooky just this once. He'd promised to take me to the hospital so I could see with my own eyes that Mama was alive. I needed to hear for myself that she wasn't angry at me, that she still loved me even though her fall down the basement steps was my fault. What if her baby died? Would she tell Daddy I was to blame? If Daddy knew, would he make me give back my chick? My mind swarmed with worries.

BOOK: Tomato Girl
2.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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