It’s him again. She sighs, pulls off her gloves and leans back on her heels, listening to his voice message through the open window. If there’s no emergency, she’ll finish weeding the basil and marigolds. Sure enough – everything’s fine, at least for the moment. He was asking, as he did most days lately, when she was going to sample that jar of pickled tomatoes, the one he made especially for her, the one that’s been sitting on her pantry shelf for over a year gathering dust. She doesn’t like her tomatoes green, she doesn’t like them pickled and sour, and she remembers vividly how sick they made her once as a kid, sick enough to keep her out of school for two days with nausea and vomiting. She hasn’t eaten them since, no matter how many jars he’s given her. Rallying enough courage to try them now, even when Uncle Herman’s health is failing, has proved impossible.
He was the only one left of her father’s ten brothers and sisters, and he raised her. Well, they all raised her after her mother died. She had a bed in each of their houses, and when the pranks and petty thievery in one house escalated, she packed up her few belongings and moved to another. No fanfare, no hard feelings, just clean sheets and quiet. Most of the time, though, she stayed with her dad and bachelor uncle, Herman, who moved in together to save money. It wasn’t calmer there, and it certainly wasn’t cleaner, but there was more laughter, and a pinochle game was always in progress, a game in which homemade pickled tomatoes were the snack of choice. She never liked them, but everyone else did, and while they were distracted with eating and smacking their lips into sour faces, she won every hand and took their change in winnings, relieved that it needed no hiding place.
Uncle Herman had been good to her, and she knew she owed him all the time and attention she could muster now that hospice had been called, but she didn’t understand his insistence about the tomatoes. Maybe it was frugality. He’d started the garden out of necessity, a way to keep food in the house between jobs. When he chose the seed packets, he didn’t much care about which variety had the boldest flavor or the densest flesh, just their yield. The more tomatoes, the better. There were dishes in the sink and a stove with only two burners working, but he spent hours weeding, caging and plucking the suckers to make the strongest, most productive plants. She learned the most about growing vegetables from observing him, not from questions. When she’d asked why, at the end of the season, he didn’t layer the green fruit in brown paper bags until they ripened, he shook his head and said he didn’t have patience for any of that once the tomatoes left the vine. “Cook ’em and be done,” he’d barked, but despite his gruff manner, she’d seen how tenderly he held the globes, no matter what color they were.
She thought about that photo on the mantle, the only one of the three of them – her dad, herself and Uncle Herman. She was six and white-knuckled with holding on, one arm around each of their shoulders. In the corner, a small cluster of jars, filled with coins, was haphazardly arranged on the table. She didn’t take notice of them in the photo, but now she remembers that after each pinochle game, her uncle would carry the empty jars to the sink and soak them, to get rid of the vinegar smell. The next morning, they would be clean and dry and ready for her winnings. She suddenly wonders how her meager winnings, usually a quarter or two per game, amounted to a sizable savings account that had paid for all her textbooks in college and allowed her the luxury of sleeping in on Saturdays rather than getting a second job for spending money. Had Uncle Herman added his own coins to hers?
As she returns to pulling pigweed and chucking it into the growing heap behind her, she decides to toss Uncle Herman’s last effort and keep the empty jar on the counter to collect her loose change. She’ll come up with a half-truth to explain it. Looking at her own thriving tomatoes, she knows why she prefers them red and ripe. They grow anywhere, one on top of another, sucking sunshine, and when they’ve had their fill, when contentment overcomes them, they drop warm into her palm at the slightest touch.
Marybeth Rua-Larsen’s poems, essays, flash fiction and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Raintown Review, Lilt, The Shit Creek Review, The Flea, Measure, Verse Wisconsin, The Nervous Breakdown and Newport Review, among others.