There was only one thing that Grandpa grew in his garden, and that was tomatoes. He dismissed the silly ladies who bothered with roses and flowers. He smirked at the acres of corn fields that reached to the sky just across the street. He even turned his nose up at the pumpkin patch where his grandchildren roamed in the fall. The one thing he did not dismiss was a proper patch of tomatoes, so when the first vine-ripened fruit of the season was stolen from his garden, it was a major event.
It had just started showing its signature red that week, after slivers of salmon and peach had erased the green, and he thought it could use one more day in the sun. On the following morning he rose, a proud man, slipping on his suspenders – red, in honor of what was to come – and, hurrying downstairs, ignored the cries for proffered coffee. When he reached the garden he was initially confused, thinking he had misjudged or misremembered where it had been. But he was certain – the third row, after the third fence rail – and upon closer inspection he found the stem that once held his magnificent fruit. A clean cut had severed tomato from plant, and a lesser-trained eye would have been altogether indifferent. The howl that resulted rattled even mother, who rarely showed signs of surprise at any of Grandpa’s idiosyncrasies, especially when it came to the garden.
He sat down with us kids later that day and explained the situation. There were a few usual suspects – rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and badgers – and then the more unlikely culprits – skunks, raccoons, dogs, and mischievous neighborhood kids. Until they were proven innocent, everyone in Grandpa’s eyes was guilty. His looks stung too, even if you had an alibi in summer camp, even if you weren’t within a fifty mile radius for the entire week of the incident.
From that day on, he sat on the back porch, eyes always on the tomato patch, from the break of dawn until the last firefly glowed its final exhaustive blink. He caught a few dogs sniffing around, grumpily disbanded a couple of roving bands of kids, and watched how the sun passed over his backyard, but there was no sign of the thief who had taken the first tomato.
He did expect that such treachery had taken place in the night, when the nocturnal animals did most of their damage. He’d heard stories of entire vegetable plots that were decimated by a single rabbit or woodchuck in one night, terrifying tales of gardens stripped of all meaningful vegetation, with nothing left but a few broken stalks, too tough to chew but damned if they didn’t try.
A little after noon one day, he took his straw hat off and slowed the rocking of his chair. Abigail had brought him a lemonade, and it sat sweating on the table beside him.
“Any luck?” she asked.
He contemplated her presence, shadowy and dark after he had been staring out into the sunlit yard all morning. “Nooo,” he slowly drawled, lingering and leaving a question at the very end. “But I am almost sure it happened at night. Not much happening here during the day. Charlie and Joan’s kids ran through, told them to leave us be, serious work to do and can’t have kids running through the place.”
Abigail sighed but said no more. She was always the most mature among us kids, the one who could talk to adults and have them listen. On this day she offered no more. The screen door clapped loudly against the house as she disappeared inside. The faint scuffling of her slipper-clad feet faded into the afternoon as Grandpa continued his vigil.
He wondered whether it was an underground job. There was an entire system of tunnels just beneath the earth, the elaborate maze of entrances and hallways dug surreptitiously by chipmunks and moles and voles that could suddenly collapse and deaden an entire row of vegetables, causing them to go mysteriously limp in a day, dead and without nourishment upon the unseen severing of their roots. He’d also heard tales of such animals appearing out of nowhere, wrestling a tomato from the vine, and disappearing underground in a few seconds flat. That could have been the covert operation that successfully tore his treasure from its ripening home.
He walked slowly around the garden, carefully examining where an intruder might have made his or her entry. The fence, about head-level, had been assembled by his own hands, using a large roll of chicken wire that had been collecting dust and spider-webs in the garage, on the stairs right above the ratty rugs that he hadn’t gotten around to cleaning. (Abigail had once presented him with a rug-beater to use on them. His look was such that she half-expected him to use it on her before she managed to scamper away. The rugs remained on their dirty perch.)
He ran his hand lightly over the hairy stems and leaves, inhaling their sharp fragrance. Was such a scent as intoxicating to the thief as it was to him? How could it be? This was the scent of summer, the scent of his childhood. Even in the arid drought of his youth, they managed a few tomatoes. And then a thief would have been unfathomable, or killed on sight. He felt the same today. His age had given him perspective, but his anger had not been dulled.
A few feet down from the scene of the crime, he looked at the pea-like cream-colored flowers dangling from a patch of pole beans, winding around the cross-hatching of the fence. He crouched down on his haunches, furtively peering through the thick wall of leaves. Through dappled pin-holes of light, like keyholes into a garden room, he saw movement on the other side of an enormous stand of squash. Reeling back, he lost his balance and fell on his butt, quickly righting himself with a deft roll to his right. On his feet almost instantly, he caught a flash of dark gray fur, mottled and almost leopard-like, and thought he saw the impossible outstretched web of a featherless wing, before losing his sight in the sun. The faint but powerful beating of displaced air, made by something that couldn’t feasibly be that big, did not betray the location of where what that had been had gone. Grandpa stood there, bewildered, but giddy with the sense of wonder. That the world could still surprise him was of unfathomable solace. He was still here. He was still alive. And the wilderness of that… thing, was all that he had never seen, come into his backyard, come into the end of his days.
He never did catch the culprit that summer, nor were any more tomatoes taken. A few years later he would tell me that story. He didn’t tell anyone then. I remember the stories and whispers that summer of some flying cat creature, a large rodent with wings, some small griffin, but dismissed them as the wild imaginings of kids with an empty summer. My bet was on it being some overgrown bird, or rabies-ridden bat, and it didn’t seem likely the latter was responsible for the tomato theft anyway. For that summer, though, it occupied my Grandfather. We all thought it was the principle of the thing, not realizing he had some something so other-worldly in mind (if that is, in fact, what he saw). And maybe it was just the first sign of his deterioration, insidiously slow at first, then gaining in rapidity, until the end was as unexpected as it was inevitable.
For him, seeing that creature, whatever it had been, was a pact with his remaining days ~ a covenant with the mysteries of the world ~ some rainbow that held the promise that there was always more to know, more to see. In time, he grew thankful for the stolen tomato, and we grew thankful, too. The remaining harvest was rich – bushels of the red fruit, boiled and canned, in sauces and sun-dried sheets – handed out to neighbors, shared with family, or sold to farm-stands. Most of them were enjoyed by the three of us in the simplest of ways: Abigail and Grandpa and I sitting on the porch, cutting up thick juicy slices that didn’t even need the dash of salt that he offered to us but never used himself.
We looked out at the bright garden from the shade of the porch, as tomato juice dripped from our chins. Grandpa, at first so irritable and suspicious, smiled at us a little – the most he ever smiled at anyone – and continued to do so as the season progressed. We would catch him looking up into the sky, thinking he was trying to figure out the weather to come, when all that time he was looking for was what he had only once seen, a clue to the universe, presented as a mystery, possibly conjured by his mind, and powerful regardless. The summer waned, as all summers do, and by the time the first frost wilted the tomato vines Grandpa had already given up on seeing that strange beast again.
Still, I see him there, waiting and watching, as if he was learning to slow the summer, to stop the sudden march of time, to retrieve his lost tomato and reattach it to the barren vine. His hands grew dark in the dirt and in the sun, his lined-face stoic and somehow expectant. The capacity of a human being. The short stay of a summer. The stolen tomato. Everything we did not know then, embraced and gently rocked, like a fever-stricken child, hot and damp and shivering in the night.
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