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Harvest

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.

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The Sweet Smell of…Success!

A couple of months ago, I entered the Midtown Reader’s monthly Story Slam, but ALAS my tale was not chosen. I entered again in June, and my story was selected! Along with three other writers, I read my story (out loud! to strangers!) last Thursday night, and then sat through a Q&A with the audience. It was a ton of fun and I hope to do it again.

Here’s the story I submitted:

I am sitting on the floor outside my mother’s bathroom, a place I have occupied every Sunday evening since I was seven years old, grinding my teeth. Shortly after my dad had just about enough of my mother, she instituted “Sunday Night Spa,” which mostly involved putting on face masks, or playing with her makeup, or French braiding each other’s hair. When I was seven, this was a huge treat. Now that I’m sixteen, not so much. My mother will not allow me to make plans that conflict with Sunday Night Spa, and since I do not share my mother’s overriding interest in her own face, I sit outside the bathroom door while she dyes her hair or plucks her eyebrows or whatever. This is her idea of a generous compromise. Some nights she spends hours watching makeup videos on YouTube while I pray for an asteroid to hit the house. She can tell you all about sheet masks, but can’t identify which political party the President belongs to. Did you know you can contour your toes?, she’ll ask. God, her brows look amazing. 

The soundtrack for these Sunday evenings – and every other evening, for that matter – is a running monologue detailing my mother’s misery and bitterness at finding herself divorced. But in the last few years, the target of her ire has shifted from my father to me. When I finally hit puberty, my head transformed. Suddenly, I looked like my dad in a wig. His nose sprouted from the middle of my face, and my hair became thick, wavy, and unruly. My mother saw this as a calculated affront, like I made my face look this way for the sole purpose of tormenting her.

That’s when my mom started knifing me verbally. “You poor thing,” she’d say, “you got your father’s ugly nose.” Or “Why don’t you let me straighten your hair? It could be pretty like mine.” She offered to get me a plastic surgery when I turn 18 in a couple of years, and got very upset when I declined. The more she insults my father, the prouder I am to look like a dude in a wig. This drives her insane. I mean, more insane. My dad is just a regular guy, and I’m pretty sure the amount of time he thinks about my mother or their marriage is zero. He’s moved on in the last ten years. This also drives her insane. She’s marooned in the past – for her, every day is the day he left. The anger is always that fresh.

Even now, through the bathroom door, she’s offering to get me the same color hair dye so we can match. Remember when we used to wear matching outfits?, she asks. Remember when you loved me best? Remember when Daddy ruined the life we had planned?

She knows that I hate Sunday nights.

She does not know that I have substituted her hair color base for Nair hair remover.

It turns out that I have also had enough of my mother. I’ve had enough of being her therapist, her substitute spouse, her best friend. Over the last few weeks, I have been squirreling away my most prized possessions in my car. I’m 16, so they fit nicely under the piles of clothes and water bottles and books.

I’m going to my dad’s, and I’m not coming back.

In the bathroom, the timer goes off, and my mother turns on the shower. My heart rate picks up speed, my palms slick.

I hear the sharp breath before a scream.

I walk out.

 

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