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Authors: Jayne Pupek

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BOOK: Tomato Girl
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EIGHT
JOE'S DINER

W
HEN
I
CAME DOWNSTAIRS
, Daddy was trying to coax Tess into coming with us to Joe's Diner. He whispered in her ear to make her laugh. She wriggled and squealed, “Okay, I'll go!”

She went upstairs to change her clothes. I thought about her nightgown on the floor of my parents' room, and my stomach felt queasy.

A few minutes later, Tess came back downstairs wearing a short denim skirt, red tank top, and silver spoon earrings.

Daddy kissed her cheek. “Beautiful,” he said.

And she was.

T
HERE'S A DONUT SHOP
in town that also sells sandwiches, and a bar that serves food on weekends, but Joe's Diner is Granby's only sit-down restaurant. I felt grown-up whenever we ate there. I loved the black-and-white-checkered floor, the tables with ashtrays and plastic flowers in slender bottle vases, the blue gingham curtains, the paper place mats with treasure maps and word scrambles printed on them.

At the diner, all the men looked at Tess. With her long blonde hair, red lips, and red nails, she looked like a girl a prince would marry.

We ordered Monday's special: hamburgers, french fries, and pie with ice cream for dessert. The waitress chewed gum and tucked a short pencil behind her ear. The name tag on her chest read “Betty.”

“Betty needs to wear a lighter foundation,” Tess explained after the waitress left our table. “Did you notice how orange her skin looks, and that line under her chin where her skin and makeup meet? That's a common mistake,” Tess added. “A demarcation line.”

That sounded serious. I nodded in agreement, but hadn't actually noticed a thing wrong with the waitress's face. I had so much to learn.

Daddy ordered a beer with his food. Tess kept stealing his brown bottle and taking a sip. “You know you're not old enough to drink,” Daddy scolded her.

“I'm not old enough for a lot of things, but I don't hear you complaining.”

They both laughed, and my father held the bottle to her lips to let her drink his beer. Her red lips made a perfect seal around the bottle's mouth.

I laughed along with them, but didn't understand why.

E
VERY TIME
I'
VE
been to Joe's Diner, I've seen someone I know. Tonight was no different.

Miss Wilder, my teacher, sat three tables away, where she ate pizza with the librarian, Miss Franklin. Mary Roberts claimed they were in love, but could two girls really be in love? Mary said yes, that the word for that was
lesbian,
but not to tell a soul, because if anyone heard me say it, they might think that of Mary and me. “Then,” Mary had explained, “we would have to stop speaking to each other, at least in public.”

I may have made better grades, but Mary understood all the things that really mattered. She knew about God, the blood curse, lesbians, and even how to tell if two people were in love. I guess when your mother doesn't have moods, she has time to tell you things.

While we ate, I watched the two teachers share a pizza and laugh. Miss Wilder reached across the table and wiped something from Miss Franklin's face. Maybe a hair, or smeared tomato sauce? Did that mean they were in love?

I nibbled the last of my fries, my mind full of questions about Tess. I knew so little about her really. Where in Granby did she live? What about her mama and daddy? Did she have any brothers and sisters? What was she like when she had seizures? I had a lot of things to ask her, and with her sleeping in my bed I'd have a chance to ask her.

Music played from the jukebox in the far corner, a country and western song. A boy in jeans danced with a girl near the jukebox, his hands holding her close as he rested them at the small of her back. Nobody else in the diner was dancing, but they seemed not to care. They were what Miss Wilder would call “oblivious” to the rest of the world.

While we waited for the waitress to bring the tab, Daddy twirled a toothpick between his lips. Tess dabbed at her mouth with a napkin, then put on more lipstick. Blotting her lips on the folded napkin, she explained how that was a trick to keep lipstick from smearing on your teeth.

Daddy put a wad of money on the table and asked if we were ready to leave. Just then a man wearing coveralls and a plaid shirt walked in the door. I wouldn't have thought anything about him except for Tess. She squinted when she saw him and said, “Shit!”

I didn't know the man, but both Tess and my father recognized him. Tess said more curse words. Daddy patted her arm, told her not to get upset, that he would handle everything. I wondered
if the man had stolen from Daddy's store or if he was one of the cripples who live with Mildred Rogers.

The man saw us and threw up his hand. He walked over and greeted us with a wide grin. He seemed friendly. “Well, hello there, Rupert, how're you doing?” he said, his voice harsh and loud.

Daddy extended his hand, just as he did to his customers. “I'm doing all right, Mason. Just brought the girls out for dinner.”

“And the little wife, she's on the mend, I hope?”

“Yes, Julia's much better. We saw her today.”

“And how's my Tessy darling?” He touched her shoulder. The grooves in his fingers were dirty, and his thick yellow nails were dirty, too. Maybe he had been in the store and I just couldn't remember him.

Tess gave a half smile. “I'm fine, Papa.”

“You taking your medicine, girl?”

Tess nodded and folded her arms across her chest. Her shoulders curled forward a bit, and she lowered her head. It was like watching a flower wilt.

I couldn't believe this man was Tess's father. It seemed impossible. He was nothing like Tess.

Daddy introduced me. “I don't think you've met Ellie. This is my daughter. Ellie, this is Mr. Reed, Tess's father.”

“Hi,” I said.

He leaned over to shake my hand. He smelled like the men who slept on the bench by the post office. I couldn't believe that this dirty, smelly man could be kin to someone as beautiful as Tess. I shook his hand and pulled back as quick as I could, wiping my hand on my napkin under the table where no one could see. No wonder Tess wanted to be near my daddy, who smelled as clean as soap.

“You sure are a pretty little thing,” he said as he grinned at me. His teeth were small and dark, like kernels of dried corn.

“We were just getting ready to leave, Papa,” Tess said.

My father pushed back his chair and stood up. Tess and I did the same.

Daddy offered his hand again. “We'd better be getting home. Nice seeing you, Mason.”

Before we left, Mr. Reed touched Daddy's sleeve. “My girl, she's working out then, not giving you any trouble?”

“She's working out just fine, Mason. There's no trouble. Tess is a godsend to me.”

“Well, don't count on keeping her forever, Rupert. I got lots of things at my own house that needs tending. I only let her come to help out while your wife's laid up, you know.”

“Yes, I understand.” Then Daddy's jaw locked together the way it does when he is angry.

I held my breath until we were outside again.

T
ESS DIDN'T SAY
much during the walk home, and Daddy kept his arm around her shoulder. I didn't know what was wrong, but figured it had something to do with her father. The few words she did say were bad words that I'm not supposed to say.

When we got home, I tried to cheer up Tess. I offered to let her feed Jellybean or play Scrabble with me. I suggested we play Avon Lady and I'd be the makeover girl.

Tess didn't want Jellybean, Scrabble boards, Avon, or me. She only wanted my father.

D
ADDY TUCKED ME IN
bed and sat Jellybean's box beside me. Then he kissed me good-night. “Kiss Jellybean, too!” I begged.

He uncovered the chick and kissed his downy head.

“Will Tess be all right, Daddy?” I snuggled under the comforter, suddenly feeling very tired.

“Yes, she's just a little sad. But she'll be fine.” Daddy patted my head.

“Why does she have to take care of things at her house? Doesn't she have a mother?”

Daddy looked down at the floor then turned back to me. The lines in his forehead seemed deeper in the soft lamp light. “Tess's mother died when she was little, so her father has raised her alone. She's had things hard, and needs us to be good to her, understand?”

I nodded, my chin digging into the thick quilt. “But what will happen when she has to go back home to Mr. Reed?”

“I'm not going to let that happen.” Daddy kissed my forehead once again and left my room.

Thinking about Tess without a mother made me feel suddenly sad for her. She'd had no one to cut out paper dolls, kiss her skinned knees, or braid her hair. Instead, she'd lived with her father who looked and smelled bad, with no woman at home to make him take a bath. I pictured Tess as a girl my age, standing at the kitchen sink while trying to figure out how much milk to pour into the pancake batter, or how to peel a potato without cutting her thumb. And here I'd been mean to her over something so silly as sewing on buttons.

I got out of bed; I needed to say I was sorry, to tell Tess she could sew Daddy's buttons whenever she wanted.

As I neared the top step, I heard Daddy and Tess downstairs. Tess was crying, and as she spoke, her voice broke. “He'd wait until … my seizure … and then … Oh, Rupert … Awful … It was so awful …”

I listened from the stairs, hearing her terrible story, how she'd wet herself during her seizures, and afterwards, her father took off her panties and rubbed between her legs. How he scolded her for being a big girl and still wetting herself, and wouldn't let her have clean underpants unless she let him touch her down there. “He started keeping my panties out in his room, and told me I'd have to earn them. If I didn't … If I didn't do what he wanted, he hit me, and held me down.”

I heard my father's voice say her name, over and over: “Tess,
Tess, Tess. You should have said something … You should have told me!”

Then, in a deep, fierce voice I didn't know Daddy had: “I'm going to kill him, Tess. I swear to God, I'm going to see that bastard dead!”

Daddy's voice was like thunder, and I hurried to my room, my heart beating so fast and hard it felt like a hammer against my chest. I didn't want to hear the rest of the story, even though questions filled my mind. Why did Mr. Reed do those bad things to Tess? And what would Daddy do now that he was so upset? Daddy's angry voice scared me. I knew he couldn't have really meant that he'd kill Mr. Reed, but his threat sounded so real.

Back in my bed, I held Jellybean tight. Even though my room was warm and my body wrapped in thick blankets, I couldn't stop shivering.

I tried hard to stay awake, to keep my eyes open. Why didn't Daddy and Tess stop talking? I slid over to one side of the bed, remembering that Tess would be sleeping with me. I kept wishing she would hurry; I didn't like being alone, not tonight anyway.

My eyes eventually closed, but only bad dreams swirled inside my head. Mama's voice called me, but I couldn't find her no matter which direction I ran. Her voice was like God talking: it filled the air around my head and yet, I could never see her face.

Tess must have had bad dreams, too.

When I woke in the middle of the night, I found her sleeping in Daddy's bed.

NINE
CHALK DOORS, CHOCOLATES, AND A KISS

T
HE NIGHT'S BAD DREAMS
left a heavy fog inside my head. After finding Tess asleep in Daddy's bed, I went back to my room. I'd thought about nudging Tess awake and asking her to come back to my room where she belonged, but I was afraid of what I didn't know or understand. Her seizures scared me. The things her father did to her scared me, too.

When it started getting lighter outside, I felt a little safer. I fell asleep again, this time without dreams.

I woke later, not as tired, but still uneasy. I hoped I'd slept too late and missed the school bus. I wanted to go to the hospital to visit Mama instead. I hurried from bed, kicking the tangle of blankets from my feet.

I still felt unsettled, though—nervous and confused. I even had trouble brushing my teeth, ending up with toothpaste all over the place. I hoped breakfast would help.

Coming downstairs, Jellybean peeped inside his box and I almost tripped on the steps. As I crossed the floor, the whistle in the teakettle blew, and my heart jumped into my throat. I couldn't remember ever being so nervous. It was as if a wire had been wound too tight inside me.

When I finally joined Daddy and Tess at the kitchen table, I felt glad that the chair held me up.

The telephone rang. Daddy rose to take the call. I tried to hear what he said, but Tess blabbed on about the breakfast she'd cooked, making it hard for me to hear Daddy's voice.

When Daddy returned to the table, he said that some boys had broken into the school and shoved burlap bags and old shoes into all the toilets. The school was flooded, which meant our Easter holiday would begin today instead of Thursday. I was glad, because now I'd be able to see Mama.

Tess rose and went back to the stove. She asked if they knew which boys did it, but Daddy said no.

I knew it was probably Hank Shipes, the worst troublemaker at school. But I didn't day anything. Mama was all that mattered to me.

Tess placed a plate of food in front of me and stood at the counter grinding more beans for coffee. The smell was good, but the noise just made me more jittery.

Suddenly, someone knocked on the front door. Startled, I dropped my fork on the floor and nearly knocked over my glass of milk. What if Mr. Reed had come back for Tess? I thought about the gun in the shed and worried Daddy might use it to make Mr. Reed leave.

Daddy pushed his chair from the table and walked toward the door.

BOOK: Tomato Girl
11.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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