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Authors: Jayne Pupek

Tomato Girl (9 page)

BOOK: Tomato Girl
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I held my breath.

But it wasn't Tess's father. It was Mr. Morgan, who owned Daddy's store.

Seeing him was like a smile had washed over me. I jumped from my seat and ran toward him. “Mr. Morgan! Mr. Morgan!”

“There's my girl!” He wrapped his arms around me and hugged me tight.

I was so happy to see him. Mr. Morgan was like a grandfather to me. He was old and twisted with arthritis, but I loved him with my whole heart.

I didn't have grandparents to call my own. Daddy's father ran off when Daddy was a little boy, and his mother grew lumps in her breasts and died. Afterwards, Daddy and his two sisters were put into separate foster homes and Daddy never saw them again. “I figure they got adopted by fine people and live some place real nice,” Daddy would say whenever I asked him about my aunts, Kate and Suzanne. He seldom mentioned them, but when he did, they were always twelve and nine, the ages they were when their mother died.

Mama's parents both died in the accident; they'd lived in Georgia, and I'd never seen them. Their pictures hung in gold-leaf frames in the foyer. Mama had her father's fair skin and bright eyes; her mother's dark hair and round cheekbones.

If I couldn't have grandparents of my own, Mr. Morgan was the next best thing.

Daddy warned me not to squeeze Mr. Morgan so tight.

“Oh, you can't hurt an old codger like me.” Mr. Morgan laughed. He tousled my hair with bony fingers that felt as light as stalks of wheat.

“Would you like some coffee?” Daddy held out his hand toward the kitchen table.

“That would be nice. Thank you, Rupert.”

Tess greeted Mr. Morgan. “Morning, Pops. What do you take in your coffee?” She stood by the kitchen sink with Mama's apron tied around her waist.

“Sugar and cream. Loaded with both,” he said as he eased himself into a chair. He'd brought a large shopping bag from Spangle's Gift Shop. I watched as he pulled out a yellow box of Whitman's candy. “This is for your mother,” he said, then shook his finger at me. “Now don't you go and eat it up!” He winked at me as he sat the box on the middle of the table.

“I won't.”

He reached back into his bag and paused. “Close your eyes now!”

I squeezed my eyes shut, listening for any sound from the bag that might give me a clue. “What is it? What is it?”

“Patience, my girl. Okay, now you can look.”

I opened my eyes and saw a wooden box that looked almost like a dollhouse, with a shingled roof and shuttered windows painted on the front. Jellybean's name was printed above the door in bright gold letters.

“A house for Jellybean!” I squealed and kissed Mr. Morgan's face.

“Somebody told me you had a chick from my store,” Mr. Morgan said, and winked at Daddy. “And well, you can't go around with him in an oatmeal box forever. He'll outgrow that in no time flat. Or worse yet, peck a hole right through and escape.”

He showed me how to unlatch the door so Jellybean could walk in and out to suit himself. “Be sure to keep the latch closed like this when you're not watching him, or he'll open it up on his own and take off after some pretty hen.”

“Here's your coffee,” Tess said as she placed a steaming cup in front of Mr. Morgan.

“Thank you, dear.” He sipped some coffee then returned his cup to the table and sighed. “Ah, that hits the spot, Tess. You sure do know how to make a cup of coffee. I was surprised to hear you'd moved in here to help out. It's mighty kind of you, but who's looking after your father now that you're staying here?”

“He can tend to himself, I imagine. Nothing strange about me moving in here. Lots of people have live-in girls to help out. Besides, I always wanted to live closer in town.” Tess turned her back to Mr. Morgan and used one of my mother's sponges to wipe the kitchen counters clean. She scrubbed so hard her body shook, and I remembered her epilepsy, wondered if she could shake herself into a seizure. I was used to Mama's spells and knew how she might cry for days. I didn't know much about seizures. I'd have to ask Mary Roberts.

Mr. Morgan and Daddy didn't seem to notice any problem with Tess, so I took that to mean she was fine for the time being.

“Well, I hope he takes care of those tomato plants. I'm counting on having your fine tomatoes in my store front window again this summer,” Mr. Morgan added, then cleared his throat.

Tess turned around and looked at Daddy. “I was thinking maybe I could bring the plants here, set them out back in the garden?”

Daddy nodded. “Of course. I'll go over in a day or two and get them.”

“You must be planning on staying here awhile then?” Mr. Morgan added.

Tess started to speak, but Daddy interrupted. “Julia's going to take quite awhile to mend, and with her difficulties, Tess being here will help out more than you know.”

Mr. Morgan nodded slightly, as if to say he heard but maybe didn't agree.

The idea of Daddy going to Mason Reed's house scared me, but I understood why Tess wanted to tend to her own plants. I felt the same about my chicks. Even though I knew Mr. Morgan would take good care of them, I wanted to go to the store and care for them myself.

Mr. Morgan gulped more coffee, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He addressed my father. “Rupert, I want you to take as much time as you need to get Julia home and settled in. I'm getting old, but I can still ring the cash register and lift a few buckets of paint. Take care of your family first, you hear me?”

“Yes, Mr. Morgan. And thank you, sir. I appreciate it.” Daddy extended his hand and shook Mr. Morgan's.

“Oh, don't mention it. And before I forget, I left a roll of wire by your shed. Make my girl a pen for that chick of hers.”

Daddy nodded. “I think I can handle that.”

“Now, I need a smoke after this fine cup of coffee. You still know how to roll a cigarette, Ellie?” Mr. Morgan had taught me when I was little.

I smiled. “Of course!”

“Well then, you put the little chick in his house and let's go outside. I don't want your Mama coming home and smelling my cigarette smoke in her pretty curtains. A woman can always tell when something in her house is amiss.”

to Mr. Morgan on the front porch step and rolled his cigarette, just as he'd taught me, careful not to spill any brown tobacco bits. I handed it to him and watched him light the end, then drag on the cigarette. He breathed strands of white smoke into the clear sky. “Ah, perfect,” he said.

“How are the chicks at the store?” I asked him.

“Oh, just fine, honey. Sold a couple just this morning.”

“To good homes, I hope?”

Mr. Morgan chuckled. “Well, I don't reckon any of those chicks will end up in homes as fine as young Jellybean's, but I make sure they go to decent folk.”

I nodded, satisfied. “How are the ones we put in the back office? Are they eating yet?”

“Oh, yes, they are gobbling that mash up like nobody's business. Be moving them out with the others tonight.”

“Good,” I said, glad Mr. Morgan would see to them.

“How are things with Tess living here?” Mr. Morgan asked, changing the subject.

“Fine,” I said, twisting my shoelaces between my fingers and thumbs.

“You like her?”

“I like her okay, I guess. Daddy likes her more than I do.”

“I can see that. Think your mother's going to like her?”

I pulled a dandelion from the cracked sidewalk and blew away its cottony head. “I don't know. She didn't seem to like the idea when we told her yesterday.”

“I see.” He flicked ashes into the grass. “Ellie, sometimes things work out when you don't expect them to, and other times, things
that look perfect can just fall apart. Nobody's fault, really. Life is unpredictable. Understand?”

I didn't, not really. But I nodded my head, pretending to know what he was talking about.

Satisfied, Mr. Morgan moved on to another subject. “You still like to draw?”


“You got any chalk?”

I nodded. “Upstairs, in my room.”

“Go fetch it while I finish my smoke.”

I returned in a few minutes with my box of chalk. Mr. Morgan pulled out a long white stick and knelt on the sidewalk. He tottered a moment. I thought he might fall, but he caught himself with his hands.

Mr. Morgan drew a large rectangle, nearly as tall as me. Then midway down the rectangle, to the right, he drew a round circle, and colored it in.

Mr. Morgan had drawn a door.

“When I was a boy, Ellie, I stuttered. The other children, including my own brothers, taunted me. Called me Stuttering Stanley, Mumbling Morgan, and worse names I won't repeat in a young lady's company. They put gum in my hair, punched my back, and hid my books. I wanted to quit school. I wanted to hurt them back. Then my mother, God bless her, drew a door like this and said, ‘Son, no matter how bad they treat you, remember you already have a way out.' She touched my forehead and said, ‘Just use your mind. You draw a door, and see yourself step through it. On the other side, their words can't hurt you. On the other side of the door, you'll be safe.'”

“Did it work?” I asked, amazed at the idea of a magic door.

“Absolutely. The other children still teased me, but on the other side of the door, it didn't matter. And after awhile, when they saw their harsh words no longer bothered me, they stopped teasing me, and I didn't need the door anymore.”

I nodded. “Will the door work for me, too?”

“Yes, of course. That's why I'm telling you about it. Anytime things get too hard, you draw yourself a door and step on the other side, you hear? You are always safe on the other side of the door.”

Mr. Morgan stood up and handed me the piece of chalk. “Now, speaking of doors, I need to get back to the store before all my customers leave!”

Mr. Morgan hugged me good-bye.

. M
, I went back inside to help Tess finish cleaning up the kitchen. I hadn't done any chores since Mama fell. Tess had scrubbed the stains in the kitchen, cooked breakfast, and washed the dishes. I needed to do more to make sure God didn't think I'd broken my promises. Toast crumbs and spilled sugar on the kitchen table only took a few minutes to sponge away. “Is there anything else I can do to help?” I asked Tess.

“You could sweep the floor if you want.” Tess put the last of the breakfast dishes in the cabinets and lined up the teaspoons inside the drawer where Mama kept all the everyday silverware.

I took the broom and dustpan from the back porch and swept. Most housekeeping jobs I'd learned from Mama. She'd taught me how to sew on buttons, make sandwiches and deviled eggs, dust furniture, and make my bed. Sweeping was something I learned from Daddy. He believed in keeping the store spotless. That was no easy job. Rainy days meant farmers walked inside with mud on their boots. Children always seemed to step in messes and track them inside. Sweeping the kitchen seemed easy after cleaning up mud, chewing gum, cigarette butts, and wet leaves.

Sweeping made me think about Daddy. “Did Daddy go to the store with Mr. Morgan?”

“No, he's upstairs shaving. How's the floor coming?”

“Almost done.”

Tess smiled. “You're a hard worker, Ellie.”

Just then Daddy came down the stairs in his bare feet. He wore his undershirt and had wrapped a thick towel around his neck the way he always did when he shaved.

“You look like a boxer, Daddy,” I teased.

He laughed and came at me with curled fists, pretending to swing punches at me. “You remember that match I took you to in Fairfield last summer? Well, I could have beaten both those featherweights!”

I leaned the broom against the wall and threw up my hands to defend against his make-believe blows.

Tess came to my defense. “Come on, Ellie, we can take this man down,” she said as she came at Daddy, tickling him under the arms.

I scrambled to help her tickle Daddy. He pulled his towel from his neck and began swatting both our behinds.

We kept tickling Daddy as he backed into the living room and fell on the sofa. Tess and I jumped on top of him, laughing, and sat on him until he gave in, crying, “You win! You win!”

Then I remembered Mama lying in the hospital bed and suddenly felt ashamed for having so much fun. I crawled off the sofa and walked away. “I better go check on Jellybean.”

no hurry to go back to the hospital. He suggested I play with Mary Roberts while he and Tess picked up groceries and finished a few chores.

“But I want to see Mama,” I pleaded.

“I know, Ellie, and we will in awhile. But I have some bills to pay, need to pick up groceries and do a few things around here. I already called Mrs. Roberts and she said you could have lunch with Mary. I'll pick you up in the cab when it's time to go to the hospital.”

“Can I pack Mama's suitcase first?”

Daddy agreed, so I went upstairs and gathered things Mama
might want from home: her terry-cloth bathrobe, makeup bag, Jergens lotion, Noxzema, the McCall's magazine, and two books from her bedside table.

Mama would be happy that I remembered her Jergens. Before I slipped the jar into Mama's bag, I dabbed a little on the palms of my hands and rubbed the lotion into my skin until the white cream disappeared. I closed my eyes and breathed Mama into me.

I stood on the steps of her front porch and ate the box of Cracker Jacks her mother had given us after lunch. Jellybean slept in his little house, his tummy full of the warm oatmeal Mrs. Roberts had made especially for him.

“Tess has seizures,” I said, keeping my voice low so Mrs. Roberts couldn't hear through the screen window.

BOOK: Tomato Girl
6.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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