The Man and His Tomato Plants
Glen and Becky discovered the man and his tomatoes in the spring and summer after they had purchased their cozy bungalow at Cracker Box Hill. The two had become empty nesters and, after 30 years, had broken dramatically with their grand house on Hamilton Park, the home where they had raised their children. Their big jump toward retirement – a move of just 40 blocks across Port De Lys to the quiet working-class enclave – had felt right from the beginning.
They were eager to explore the neighborhood they now called home. They established a routine of walking every evening, after supper, in all weather, without fail, their dog, Oscar leading the way. He was a quiet, observant, well mannered, mid-sized, gray brindle, black bearded mutt of speculative provenance.
Their route during those early days included a stretch of March Street, the thoroughfare that connected Cracker Box Hill to adjacent neighborhoods and led them to the local pizza parlor, tavern, storefront grocery, candy store, hobby shop, beauty salon and other diverting destinations. The man with the tomato plants house, and its side and backyards, also ran along March, from the alley up to Reading Street. The yard had an attractive slate patio with wrought iron furniture and a fancy brick barbeque, and well-tended flower beds separating it from an area of lush, well-tended turf divided by a badminton net. At the back of the yard was a vegetable garden by the detached garage at the alley. All this stood in plain view, protected only by chest high chain link – no privacy fence. Glen, Becky, and Oscar snooped past the house from the sidewalk across the street. They were drawn to the garden, especially the tomato plants.
The tomatoes had been planted on a compact section of the garden plot. The ground was covered by black landscape fabric, which created a weed barrier that neatly defined the bed. The vines were carefully staked. They had grown tall, taller than six feet well by early July. They also carried copious amounts of fruit without evidence of their sagging or being weighed down.
The plants were in continuous bloom with a paisley pattern of tiny yellow flower petals set against the collection of ripening fruit whose pigmentation was a color-wheel archetype of both “tomato green” and “tomato red.” Each piece was roundly sculpted and unblemished. The steady yield was interspersed among the muscular vines with random, hyper-realistic perfection.
Only occasionally they would see the man. He would be stepping carefully in the garden, inspecting more than tending. He might just have been admiring. There was much to admire. Glen thought of the man as an older but not yet “old” man. At age 57, himself, Glen felt qualified to assess the ages of men, and was especially interested in looking ahead to those who had moved toward the elusive demarcation past middle age but not yet to old age. The man with the tomato plants did not look, say, to be as old as in his mid-70s or older, and if Glen had to guess he would say the man, though he looked steady and able in his affect and ease of movement, might have hit 70.
The man wore dark shorts and t-shirt, and socks that slumped down along the tops of low tan leather work boots. He had gotten a lot of sun over many years. Glen thought of him as “Old World,” in part because of the man’s complexion, which seemed Mediterranean, but also because the man’s build and facial features looked like those of a figure of Rome, the unblinking eyes, unsmiling expression (pensive but not severe), wavy gray hair combed forward over a high forehead, and stocky build; a picture of that which seemed to prevail, at least in Glen’s idea of sculptural representation, with elder citizens of ancient times.
Glen was sure that one day he would have a chance to introduce himself to the man and compliment him on his tomato plants. He would do so as a matter of neighborly admiration. Glen believed in the power of well-chosen praise of others’ avocations. He would offer congratulations to, say, the writer who has read aloud a poem, or applause to the maestro of an amateur musical ensemble which has just completed a performance in a city park or he would convey most sincere thanks to the afterschool reading coach who, when courting other potential volunteers, offered a matter-of-fact account of the miracle of a child’s breaking through to literacy. Anyone who has ever been present at an opera house to hear a stranger’s simple expression of “Bravo!” understands how it adds luster to achievement.
But this never came to pass. Glen, Becky, and Oscar never saw the man in the garden after the middle of that summer. For a long time, longer than was reasonable, Glen chalked this up to coincidence. The man just happened not to be out of doors when Glen, Becky and Oscar happened to be walking by. Glen lost faith in this theory. He came to believe just the opposite, that persistent absence is seldom coincidence and indeed, when it involves people of a certain age, it is more likely explained by sudden change, including death or illness. Still, Glen resisted concluding that something bad had happened to the man.
Glen thought that if he ever saw near neighbors to the man’s house outside one evening, he would ask if they knew what had happened to the man. Summer turned to autumn and then winter, and the vines gray and brittle remained in place. Here again, the opportunity never presented itself in which Glen could inquire after the man. Glen felt that by now too much time had passed. He should let it go. Instead, Glen started to doubt his memory. Not that his memory was failing. Rather, perhaps his perception of the man and his tomato plants had been faulty from the start. The man did not live in the house. Maybe he was an uncle or a cousin or an old friend and was visiting the family that lived in the house. Perhaps the man’s appearance and disappearance was coincidence, but in a different sense than how Glen might have imagined it. Maybe the man was from Italy, and even from the Campania region along the Amalfi Coast, an area legendary for its tomatoes. Such travel all the way from Europe would account for his stay as a houseguest being much longer than we might otherwise expect. Maybe the man was a visiting scholar at Eliot University, staying with a colleague for the semester, which coincided with the early growing season. Maybe he had put in the tomato plants as a gift to the family and in appreciation for their hospitality, or maybe keeping a garden was a deeply ingrained part of the man’s routine, like old world habits of going to daily Catholic Mass, or taking care to make sure before one heads out of the house each day one has a shine on his shoes. In other words, it was no effort at all for the man to start a garden in his hosts backyard because that was his routine at home and without a garden to tend he would be nervous and homesick.
On the other hand, Glen felt that maybe he had gotten carried away and the plants, beautiful and copious as they were, were not as big a deal as Glen had felt. What did Glen know about growing or keeping tomatoes? Nothing, really. Weren’t tomatoes generally thought of as pretty easy to grow? Wasn’t it common for unremarkable people to have bumper crops, to arrive at their workplaces bearing and unable to even give away brown paper grocery bag after brown paper grocery bag full and overflowing with tomatoes?
Time passed and Glen and Becky continued with their walks, albeit with March Street becoming a less prominent part of their route. And by and by Glen felt a vague melancholy surrounding the man’s absence. Becky, on the other hand, never felt the mystery. She observed how they only had seen the man standing in the garden on a total of four occasions that spring and summer. She thought of him at most as a spectral figure. Maybe it was five occasions.
On the last of these occasions, the last Glen could specifically remember, the man had been leaning on a tall wooden garden tool with a claw at the end. It appeared that he was visiting over the chain link with two younger couples also on evening walks. Each pushed a stroller and held dogs on leads. The couples’ pointed to the tomato plants, and the man responded with cheerful sounding conversation and animated hand gestures. The dogs appeared impatient to proceed with their evening walks.
As time passed, Glen thought less about the man and his tomato plants. Harbingers of spring though would bring him back to that which he could not get over and Becky never could explain: Why had no one harvested the magnificent crop of tomatoes that first spring and summer? Why were the tomatoes left to proliferate well into the autumn but never collected? Why were they allowed to slowly rot on the vine?
The garden had been cleared the following spring by someone unknown, the old vines removed. The patch had been left unplanted for two growing seasons since.
Eddie Roth is pursuing a Master of Arts in English. He lives in a brick house in St. Louis.