The theme for November’s Story Slam at the Midtown Reader was “Harvest.” This was my submission, which I read yesterday.
Four weeks before the house burned to the ground, we planted baby tomatoes in containers on the pool deck. This was to be our big-kid house, so we needed to do big-kid things like grow vegetables and keep the pool sparkling.
And we did. For four whole weeks.
The fire occurred on a hot, dry day at the end of June. A mid-afternoon lightning storm made the air crackly and the animals jumpy. A bolt from the blue struck the gable end of the house, entered the wiring in the attic, and lit all the paper insulation on fire. Within minutes, the top half of the house was alight.
All we could do was watch our house burn, and be vaguely grateful that we’d not yet upgraded our standard-issue IKEA furniture.
Every day thereafter, we visited the ruins. With the distinctive smell of house fire infusing our hair and clothes, I would water the tomato plants and my husband would scoop the leaves from the pool, which was quickly turning an alarming shade of green. After a week, tadpoles appeared in the stagnant water. We named them, collectively, Steve.
The tomatoes and Steve felt like the only living things left in our life. Flowers appeared on the tomato plants, and then tiny green fruits.
I watched. I waited. I talked to the tomatoes, congratulating them on surviving such a traumatic experience, encouraging them to grow. The potting soil smelled like burning insulation.
My husband talked to Steve, asking how their day was going, if they’d slept well. He offered to spend the night by the pool, to keep them company. We were both losing it – displaced, grasping for purchase in an avalanche of ash.
The tomatoes failed to thrive. The small green fruits refused to turn red or grow any bigger. I kept my vigil. This was, after all, my first attempt at horticulture. Maybe my tomatoes were special. Maybe they had PTSD. I sang to them, stroked the leaves.
One evening, we arrived as the sun was setting, painting the sky with fire above the charred trusses of our home.
Steve was dead.
The pool, now a deep olive, was completely still and littered with tadpole carcasses. My husband looked long and deep into the water, and then his shoulders slumped. The slump continued down his body until he was sitting next to the pool, head in his hands.
With a sigh, I turned to the tomato plants, which were sparsely decorated with stunted fruit.
The harvest took all of two minutes. I cradled the pitiful crop in one hand and sat down next to my husband. We stared at the water. The wind shifted behind us, bringing to our noses the faint scent of the fire. I wondered if I would always be able to smell it.
He held out his hand, looking for mine. Instead, I gave him half our harvest – four tomatoes the size of grapes. I wondered if they were safe to eat. I discovered I didn’t care.
I placed a tomato in my mouth and bit down until it burst. It tasted vaguely of tomato, but also of burnt metal and plastic, of ash and char, of futility and dejection.
I spit it into the pool, then took my husband’s hand and hauled both of us to our feet. With a nod, we threw the remaining tomatoes as far as we could into the yard.
We walked back to the car in the gathering darkness.