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Authors: Jayne Pupek

Tomato Girl (6 page)

BOOK: Tomato Girl
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“Are you coming to see Mama, too?” I hoped she would say no. Mama would not want to see her.

“No, sweet. Your daddy wants me to mind the store while the two of you go to the hospital.” Tess sat beside me on the bed while I tied my shoes.

“Will you be sure to feed the chicks and turn on their heating lamp?” They should have been fed by now already, and would be scared their first day in a new place. “And don't forget the ones in the back office. They didn't eat on their own and need to be fed.”

“Yes, of course. Want me to keep your chick, too?”

“No, I'm taking him to show Mama,” I explained. “If Daddy will let me.”

Tess frowned, then said, “Well, okay. Sure. I understand.” She picked up her brush and ran it through my hair. “By the way, what's your chick's name?”

“I haven't named him yet. My mother is good with names. I was going to let her pick one, but then she fell.”

“Well, I'm pretty good at names, too.”

“You are?”

“Yes. When I have a baby, I'm going to name it Vanessa if it's a girl, and Rupert if it's a boy. Don't you think those are good names?”

I nuzzled my nameless chick. “Rupert is Daddy's name.”

Tess smiled. “Yes, I know.”

SIX
HOSPITAL

D
ADDY TOLD ME
to wait for the cab on the front porch. He wanted to talk to Tess before we left for the hospital. Tess was supposed to finish the breakfast dishes, then walk to the store to tend to the chicks and mind the cash register while we visited Mama at the hospital. He'd already gone over this twice with her before he called for the cab. Why did he need to talk to her again? I started to complain, but then remembered my promise to stop being selfish. All that mattered was to see Mama well and for her baby to live. I said, “Yes, sir,” and did as Daddy told me.

Rather than sitting down and risk messing up my dress, I hopped on one foot then the other, up and down the length of the porch.

Sheriff Rhodes drove by in his car and waved. His dog, Bubba, rode with his head hanging out the window, and I imagined myself on a police chase, hunting down famous bank robbers. I'd wear a big white hat and have rhinestones on my boots and holster. Mary says my idea of deputy clothes sounds more like a cowgirl outfit, but that's how I'd like it. What's the use in make-believe if it can't be the way you want it?

I'd worn the sheriff's hat a few times when he came to visit Mama for drawing lessons. After leaving his wide-brimmed hat on the table, he'd crack his knuckles, then sit at Mama's easel with charcoal sticks in his hand. For a man who handled criminals, you'd never guess how blank paper and charcoal made him so nervous. His brow shone with sweat and he blushed as Mama leaned over him. “The secret is to capture the shape and the shadows,” she'd explained as she put her hand over his to guide the charcoal's path.

A car horn broke my thoughts, and I turned as the yellow cab pulled up in front of our house. I tapped on our door to let Daddy know it was time to leave. He cracked the door and told me to go ahead and wait in the cab, that he would be out in a minute. His face looked red and glossy they way it did at the store when he'd lifted a lot of boxes.

I did as Daddy said. “My father will be out in a minute,” I told the cab driver. He held a fat cigar between his lips and grunted. The cigar smoke burned my nose and didn't smell sweet like Mr. Morgan's cigarettes. I didn't like the tilted way the cab driver looked at me in the rearview mirror, lids too heavy over his deep-set eyes. With my thumb in my mouth, I chewed the end of my fingernail and turned toward the window. Why was Daddy taking so long?

Finally the front door opened. Daddy walked out. Just as he stepped off the porch, Tess ran to him and grabbed his arm. She was giggling and trying to pull him back inside, tugging on his sleeve. Daddy laughed and shook his head as he peeled her fingers from his arm.

Before opening the cab's rear door, Daddy turned and blew her a kiss. That made me feel strange inside, but I didn't quite know why. It was only a friendly thing, but still it felt wrong. I looked quickly to see if the cab driver had seen the kiss, but he puffed his cigar and stared straight ahead, so I didn't think so.

Tess stood on the porch and waved. She looked small against
our house. A pair of crows settled on the porch railing near her, their blue-black wings folded at their sides. I'd never seen crows, or any birds, perch so close to someone.

The inside of the cab felt safe with Daddy beside me. As we rode to the hospital, I rested my head in the crook of his arm. He smelled clean, like Old Spice and Colgate. He had dressed in his good clothes, the gray trousers and white shirt he usually wore to church. Sweat circles had formed under his arms, but those would fade by the time we reached the hospital. Daddy pulled out his handkerchief and dabbed his forehead. “A warm day,” he said to the cab driver.

Mama would be pleased to see him dressed up. She likes nice things, and is sometimes disappointed with the plain things in her life. I've heard Mama say there is nothing more disappointing than an ordinary life, but I don't know. Sometimes an ordinary life is what I want most in the world.

I buried my face in Daddy's shirt and played with the buttonhole on his sleeve. “You lost your button, Daddy.”

He looked at his sleeve. “So I have. Guess I'll need to leave this with my little seamstress.” He winked at me.

I smiled. “I bet I have a button that will match just right.”

A few years ago, my parents gave me a sewing basket, just like Mama's, only smaller, filled with buttons, needles, and spools of thread. Mama had shown me how to thread the needle and tie a knot. I'd practiced until I'd gotten it right, and eventually I'd learned how to sew on buttons and even repair simple hems.

After I'd sewn on a button, Daddy would dig into his pocket and pull out a shiny coin to pay for my work, saying, “This is for my little seamstress.”

I kept the coins in a glass jar under my bed. It was my sewing money, I'd told Mary Roberts, holding the half-filled jar in my hands. I had plans for my sewing money, but never could settle on just one idea for long. Sometimes, a new red record player like the one in the window at Montgomery Ward's topped my list. Other
times I wanted a nice set of oil paints, or a stack of hardback books that wouldn't have to go back to the library because they were mine to keep.

Another jar held the buttons I collected to sew on Daddy's clothes. After sweeping the floors in the store, I checked the dustbin for any lost buttons. When we went to church, I searched the pews. In the market, I checked shelves near the cigarettes and dirty magazines where men most often lost their buttons.

Sewing Daddy's shirt was a job I loved almost as much as tending the Easter chicks. When I held his shirt in my hand, I believed Daddy was mine for keeps.

T
HE CAB PULLED
in front of the hospital entrance and while Daddy paid the driver, I counted six floors of windows. Babies were born on the second floor. I knew this because we'd sent a card to my third-grade teacher when her son was born. Fifth floor was for people who hurt themselves on purpose, which I knew because many times Daddy had reminded Mama that she didn't want to end up there. I didn't know which floor was for people who fell down basement steps, but I hoped Mama was on the first floor so I wouldn't have to go too high up to see her.

I'd been born inside this hospital, but that was too far back for me to remember. I'd been back there at age three to have stitches in my chin after falling against a saw in Daddy's toolshed. I don't remember the accident, only Daddy carrying me with a towel pressed to my face and the bright light in my eyes when the doctor stitched my cut. Daddy had been angry at Mama for letting me play in his shed. After we came home, he'd put a big padlock on the door and then sat out on the front porch, drinking so many beers he stumbled when he stood to come inside.

A
S MUCH AS
I wanted to see Mama, the hospital scared me. Daddy must have sensed how nervous I felt. He held my
hand as we walked toward the large glass doors, which opened like magic when we stepped on the black mat in front of them.

While Daddy held one hand, I carried my pocketbook in the other, my sleeping chick tucked inside. I whispered to him to stay quiet so Mama would be surprised. I hoped that bringing him wouldn't get me in trouble. This morning, Daddy had said it was against hospital rules for animals to visit, but Tess found my straw purse in the closet and told him, “Here, the chick will be able to breathe in this, and no one will ask to see inside a girl's purse.” Daddy threw up his hands, which meant Tess and I had won.

Just inside the door, Daddy stopped in the lobby and knelt in front of me. “Ellie, I don't want you to talk about the baby around your mother.”

“Why?” I didn't understand Daddy's serious face or why he didn't want me to talk about Mama's new baby. “If she thinks about the baby, maybe that will make her get well faster.”

“But the doctor thinks Mama's baby might not live, and that will make her very, very sad. Just because the baby is all right now doesn't mean that it's out of the woods yet. Remember when Nana and Grandpa died, how Mama's sad mood came on?”

I nodded. I had been only five when it happened, but I remembered, and I knew I'd never forget.

W
E'D BEEN EATING
supper when the telephone rang. Mama answered the phone and then only listened. When she hung up the phone, she screamed and dug her fingernails into her face, leaving red trails. Daddy had to hold her down on the floor to make her stop, and she kicked and screamed, biting his hand so hard blood came.

I remember I hid in the corner. Mama was scarier than any bad dream I'd ever had.

Daddy had called for a doctor to come and give Mama a shot to make her sleep. This was before he started giving her shots himself. Maybe it's where he got the idea.

The next day, Mama walked around the house mumbling to herself, a wad of tissue clutched in her hands.

Daddy and I drove her to the train station so she could go to the funeral in Georgia. I asked Daddy why he and I didn't go, too, and he said something about my uncles not being on speaking terms with him. We never visited them and they never came to Virginia, and I don't remember ever seeing a Christmas card from them. Daddy said some people carry grudges to their graves.

A week later Mama came home wearing a black dress that she wouldn't take off. She didn't want to talk or eat or play. That's when I started going to the store with my father, or staying at Mary Roberts's house.

One day we came home and found Mama sprawled on the kitchen floor, a bag of flour in her lap and a tablespoon in her hand. Mama was spooning flour into her mouth, and with each scoop, dough clumps stuck to her lips where the flour mixed with her spit.

The doctor came back. This time he brought a nurse and a colored man who made Mama get into the back of their car. They took her away, and I didn't see Mama for months.

She wrote me, printing her letters so I could read them. She told me how sorry she was, and said that losing a mother and a father was very hard. She said I would someday know for myself, and then I would forgive her.

Just before she came home, Mama wrote and told me how wonderful things were going to be. How she would sew me beautiful dresses and make angel cookies. We'd cut paper dolls from the Sears catalog, and at night, take our thick blankets and sleep under the stars.

We did do all those things. But only for a little while.

T
HE HOSPITAL SEEMED
to have grown larger since last night. Or maybe Daddy's warning made me feel small.

“I won't say anything about the baby,” I promised.

“And let me tell your mother about Tess,” Daddy added as he took my hand again and led me deeper into the hospital.

We passed through the waiting room where I'd sat last night. I was glad to see that the old man was gone, and a fat lady squeezed into a green dress had taken his place. The bad ammonia smell hadn't gone away though.

At the nurse's station, we stopped to find out which room was my mother's. “Julia Sanders is in 311,” the nurse said.

“How was she last night?” Daddy asked.

“You'll have to check with the nurse on the third floor.”

W
HEN WE REACHED
the nurse's station, Daddy stopped and asked about Mama's condition.

“Let me check her chart,” the nurse answered. She reached for a metal clipboard and read a few notes. “Mrs. Sanders seems to have slept well and her vitals are all good. No change in her status. Appears to be doing quite well.”

The nurse looked up to see if Daddy had another question.

“And the baby?” he asked.

“No change.”

“Thank you,” Daddy said, and took me by the hand.

“No change is good, isn't it, Daddy?”

“Yes,” Daddy said without looking at me.

We found room 311 and Daddy pushed the dark door open, a little at first, then wider.

“Good morning,” he said, nudging me toward Mama.

She looked small and thin in the big metal bed. Fragile, too. Her skin was so white. Her brown hair spread out like a fan on the pillow.

When she saw me, she smiled. She put her elbows behind her and tried to sit, but then winced.

“Should I get the nurse, Julia?” Daddy asked, rushing to her side.

“No, no, I'll be fine,” she insisted, motioning him to sit in the
overstuffed chair beside her bed. Mama wore a faded floral-print hospital gown with blue piping around the neck. A gauze bandage covered the stitches on her forehead. Brown dots of iodine seeped through the bandage so that it looked almost like a tea bag pasted to her skin. A blue-black bruise darkened the right side of Mama's face.

BOOK: Tomato Girl
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