Dad’s hands were broad and thick and gnarled, the skin thick as cracked leather, the backs ridged with tendons and roped with veins. Scars stood out like lashings. His fingers had been smashed and broken and yanked out of alignment so many times that they extended in different directions. A chainsaw kickback had left an angry purple gash on the back of his left hand, two inches below where his Timex watch disappeared into his sleeve on its fake leather wristband. His right thumb had a crick to it where it had been pinched between the tractor hitch and the female end of a plow. His fingernails had been flattened and warped and dented by encounters with heavy machinery and animals and tools. Some had black striations extending into the cuticles; on others, yellow ripples pushed up against the concavity of his fingernails like miniature sand dunes. His hands held his curses, and his prayers, his hope that this year it would be different, his despair when it never was.
In the long slow evenings of winter, after the news—after the weather—Dad would sit beside the cast iron stove in his blue wingback chair and paw through the seed catalogs that filled the wooden barrel at his feet, tracing lines with distended fingers beneath the varieties that would produce the greatest bounty, the promise of the next season augmented by Rolling Rocks and the photographers at Burpee’s and Johnny & Co and Harris Seeds. It was as close as he got to optimism.
The packages would begin to appear late winter. Strawberries came as seedlings, their root systems woven into mats like old men’s beards. Fruit trees—apples, pears, plums, peaches—arrived as saplings, to be added to the orchard in early spring. Corn, the kernels pre-treated in purple fungicide, came in burlap sacks. Almost everything else—tomatoes, peas, beans, carrots, beet greens, chard, cukes, pickles, summer and winter squash, pumpkins, gourds—showed up as seeds in paper packets lined with inner laminates that kept the moisture out. The majority of a summer’s harvest, delivered by post.
Come the end of February, you could almost see Dad steel himself for the months ahead: big hands on the blue armrests, fabric gone shiny with use, heaving himself up, his winter’s rest done.
He’d begin in the dining room. Mom had tried to make it nice, painting the woodwork a teal green, covering the walls with faded yellow wallpaper and gathering the curtains back from the window frames with blue-and-white ties—but the room was an extension of the farm, useful, not pretty, and there was only so much she could do.
Dad laid out black plastic trays on the dining room table, then filled them with black plastic Jiffy Pots, three to a row, five rows deep. To these he’d add the seed-starting mix, a peat moss and perlite substrate dotted with constellations of fertilizer. Tomato seeds were small, a dozen to the head of a dime. He’d poke a hole in the soilless soil with a bulging index finger, drop in the seeds one by one, and gently cover them back up. Then, for a week, he’d wait.
His routine was as immutable as the seasons: wake at five—he always woke at five—dress (the jeans grease- and dirt-stained, longjohn tops poking out at the neck of his flannel shirts in winter), and descend the precipitous stairs, hands lightly on the wooden handrails for balance. The woodstove, filled before he went to bed the night before, would have burned down to embers, and he’d stir them with the stove’s handle, adding a couple of pieces of wood from the adjacent pile. Once he’d fixed his bowl of granola and poured hot water from the stovetop kettle into his cup of instant coffee, he’d turn on the TV, sit in his chair and watch the weather.
All other programming was expendable. The weather was not. You might call his obsession with it religious, but if so, his was a combative religion, some Old Testament shit, imbued with hope and fear and dread. The weather was never something that just happened. The weather had it out for him. The weather was personal.
The high priest of weather was the forecaster. He delivered his prognostications three times a day, morning, noon and night, identifying the lows and highs of our immediate future with his pointer stick. Dad would receive them with resignation and muttered curses. Our livelihood, our very existence, depended on those forecasts, and when they were adverse—too wet, too dry, too warm, too cold—the rest of us would suffer the lateral violence of Dad’s foul mood. The forecasts were always adverse. To watch the weather with Dad was to stand witness to our own impending ruin.
He was tethered to the weather by assumptions of calamity, of blights and potato bugs and corn borers enabled by those highs and lows, of fields overgrown by overwatered fescues, strangling the harvest, crop by crop. The chains that bound us to its fate were thinner than those that held him, but they were still unbreakable. Perhaps one day, if we could leave the farm, we could escape the weather’s wrath. He could not.
After the forecaster had finished with his morning sermon, Dad would drain the last of his coffee, sigh, and push himself out of his chair. The plants required daily watering, which he’d provide with a five-gallon plastic jug the color of artichoke with water from the bathroom tub, tipping it over each pot just enough for the moisture to reach the seeds without leaking through the pencil-sized holes in the bottoms and ruining the table.
A week after he’d buried the seeds, nudges would appear in the substrate, followed, a day later, by stems that emerged in unison, tentatively, so infantile a missed watering could kill them, so quiet you weren’t even sure they were there. There was a subtle symphony to the way they unfolded, my father murmuring silently as he watered them, coaxing them along.
Watch the weather. Water the plants. Talk to them in a frequency only they and he could hear. It’s a wonder they flourished, for they must have sensed the overriding emotion of his life—fear—but perhaps, unbeknownst to the rest of us, his hope was stronger, the love in his heart discernible only to them, for they continued to grow, stalks thickening, leaves opening, green as a statement against the black mixture.
When the seedlings’ leaves had unfolded into the canopy of a tiny forest, leaning toward the windows, it was time to bring them to the greenhouse. We’d walk them out of the dining room, a tray in each hand, through the squeaking front door that never sat cleanly on its hinges, across the front porch (nails protruding, floorboards worn clean of paint by the daily procession of dirty shoes), down the crooked front steps (dark gaps revealing a thin absence of light beneath the porch), onto the drunken line of flat stones Dad had placed in the lawn, to the grit-gravel driveway, dirt crunching under leather boots blown out at the soles by the clay of three seasons.
The greenhouse stood in the cow pasture, fifty feet from the front porch, five feet below the level of the yard. Dad had built a wall to keep the lawn from collapsing into the pasture with rocks he’d pulled from the fields with the tractor: round, oblong, square, trolls’ heads turned to stone by the sun. He’d seated them himself, one by one, imprecisely.
Twenty paces past the well hole that he’d filled after my mother had demanded he do so for fear we’d fall in, we’d walk the trays down the ill-seated steps into the greenhouse. We’d spent February wrestling its steel hoops into place, then draping and stretching opaque sheets of plastic over its bones, stapling them to the wooden siding and covering their ends in dirt to keep them from blowing away. The greenhouse’s interior was divided by rows of rough wooden boards milled from the trees Dad cut from the frozen forest in December and held in place by iron stakes driven into the ground with his short-handled sledge. With a care that was startling for someone so gruff, Dad would place the trays on the ground. I’d follow suit, and we’d return for the next load, again and again until the dining room was empty.
Inside the greenhouse, the heat smelled of kerosene. Moisture clung to the plastic. Electricity arrived via an orange extension cord that ran across the driveway, up the wobbly wooden steps at the back of the house and into an outlet just inside the door. Crouching like a shadow behind the plastic walls, Dad would transfer the seedlings to larger plastic pots, willing them to grow with a vibrational yearning that they would achieve an abundance he’d failed to realize in his own life.
Days passed. The warmth and humidity of the greenhouse were life-giving, and the seedlings responded with a growth that was deceptive. You might not notice it day to day, but if you could sit in the dense heat and watch without blinking, then compress what you’d seen into a minute and replay it in your mind, you’d witness them writhing with a ferocity that would scare you. The root systems gathered up in curls inside the black plastic, channeling their energies into shoots that poured out of the pots in all directions but up as they sprawled across the greenhouse floor.
The tomato plants began to smell. It was a hint, to start, something you didn’t notice until you’d walked out of the greenhouse into the chill of the April morning when the fragrance was already gone. But as the plants spilled over their pot tops, the scent crept up on you like a color, or a suggestion of what it might be like if you could fly: top notes of nightshade, hints of leather and moss, a whiff of acorn if acorn weren’t bitter.
Outside, the mid-coast spring was all rain and sun and wind and snow and ice and mud and thaw. Inside was verdant, the growth of the plants lascivious, egged on by Dad and the moisture that fell from the plastic in heavy languid drops.
Mid-April, nights above freezing, the ground began to yield, and Dad would start to plow, turning the fields over furrow by furrow, the shares laying the land on its side, exposing it to the sky. Moldbords, chisels, disks, subsoilers: each act of machinery rendered the land more malleable to human hands as the earth became finer and finer.
When at last he’d broken apart the remains of the previous year’s crops, burying their nutrients, we’d go to work digging holes.
If you were the one digging, you’d learn the math a few hours in. The rows began twenty feet from the fifty-mile-per-hour traffic of Route 1 and ended 500 feet later at the electric fence and the beginning of the pasture. A hole two feet deep required a dozen shovelfuls of dirt—or twenty, if you were a young boy incapable of lifting full spadefuls or if you hit clay or if it was raining and the mud spilled back into the hole almost as quickly as you could dig. One hole every three feet meant we had one hundred seventy holes to dig per row, give or take. Ten rows meant seventeen hundred holes, which meant thirty-four thousand shovelfuls at a minimum. Bend with the knees, lift with the legs, swivel with the torso, depositing the dirt in mounds a spadeful deeper each time, switching feet when the blade’s step began to hurt the bottom of your foot, the end of a row as elusive as the vagaries of a young boy’s imagination.
Most of our shovels were wooden, so their handles vibrated when you stepped on the blades, then creaked as you pulled back to loosen the soil. We had one shovel with a yellow plastic handle and an end that was sheathed in black rubber, but it gave back a deadened feel, muting your sense of the earth. We also had a post digger, which had two handles, and two blades; you’d step on one to get it started, then the other, rocking them into the ground. In good earth, well-tilled, you’d reach the tops of the blades quickly, and then pull the handles apart so they grabbed the dirt in between.
The post digger created holes of a certain beauty—round, clean of edges, with few of the harder angles left by the shovels—but we only ever had one post digger, and whoever was senior that day got to use it. Usually Dad.
If we were lucky, the spring sun would coax the shirts off our backs. Despite Mom’s admonishments, we never wore sunglasses and rarely wore sunscreen, and we’d begin our annual transformation from pale brunettes into towheaded blondes as our skin took on the color of the land. But we dug regardless of weather, and in the rain our sweat ran down the small of our backs beneath yellow plastic rainjackets, the water spilling off the sides of the shovel as we lifted, the sides of the hole collapsing with mud.
I learned to work carefully. If the sides collapsed, not only would you have more to dig out, but you’d distort the precision of the hole. I appreciated the aesthetics of a good hole. Beginners, or those who didn’t care, made cringe-worthy ones, shallow and sloping, more like excavations than the proper holes we’d need for the tomatoes. I hated those holes, because I’d have to go back and clean them up, adding to the trouble of the day.
Row after row after row. Incrementally, almost imperceptibly, the pasture that had been as distant as dusk at the start would grow closer, providing a clear incentive: reach the end. We dug then with new energy, lifting the land away from itself, the mounds stretching behind us as we worked. The pace was almost always the same, but the longer you dug, the more efficient your movement became, hole after hole aligning young muscles into a rhythm that tricked you into thinking you were going faster than you actually were. Place the blade; step, forcefully; rock the handle back and forth; bend to find leverage, a knee your fulcrum, then stand, the earth pulling free, and swivel to deposit the dirt. It created a cadence that sang of its own movement: shovel step rock leverage lift turn repeat, creaking handle and contracting muscles outrunning fatigue, a harmony between flesh and shovel and dirt.
Maybe that’s why the yellow handle didn’t feel right: it distorted the harmony.
The pasture was a hundred feet away, then ninety, and then, surprisingly, you could almost pick up a rock and throw it over the fence. Blade boot pierce rock pivot and then there were half a dozen holes left to dig which might as well have been one so fluid was your movement and at last you were done, pea-sized dirt clumps rolling down the hillock of the last shovelful of the last hole, and as you stood up and clasped your palms on the top of the handle and looked back at the mounds stretching to the tarmac, a sense of gratification might arise, for you’d done something tangible, something specific, something you could almost say was beautiful: you’d created a straight line of holes in the earth, hundreds of them, with your own body and a wooden-handled shovel. The accomplishment was deeply satisfying. For the briefest of moments, it would tickle a space between your ribs and your sternum before the reality of another row to go before dinner settled in.
Dad bought one new vehicle in his nearly fifty years on the farm: a red Dodge one-ton pickup, the bed removed to make way for a flatbed of his own design. He used the truck for the weekly run to the Boston Market—not the market frequented by tourists during civilized hours, but the market that opened to sales at 4 a.m. and closed by 9, the market populated by purveyors of the fruits and vegetables we didn’t grow ourselves, yelling and shouting their products and prices in an organized chaos that dissipated with dawn. Dad would rise at 1 a.m., drive the Dodge three hours, haggle with the vendors, the load on back growing stop by stop with crates of peaches and cherries and melons that we resold at the farm at a fraction of their cost in a supermarket. I marveled at that truck when he first brought it home, inviting friends to sit in the cab while I proudly blasted the radio until its tinny speakers rattled. It made me feel rich.
The rest of the vehicles, all of them trucks, were used: white Fords and green Dodges and blue Chevys, pre-dented, the cabs scuffed, all of them farm trucks that, like us, were never far removed from the fields.
Dad would back whatever iteration of the truck we happened to be using as close as he could to the steps to the greenhouse, then walk the trays, the seedlings big and healthy enough to stand upright, to the greenhouse door and hand them off to me. I’d march them up the stone steps and place them on the back of the truck. Some years, we’d have hired a field worker by then, and he (it was always a he) would pull the trays forward while I returned for another load. Most years it was just me, jumping onto the bed and sliding the trays up until it was one continuous layer of plants.
Dad could have navigated the drive from the greenhouse to the fields by the gravel crunching under the tires alone. Ease the truck out of the driveway, bank left alongside Route 1 past the store parking lot, turn left again into the field. I’d jump out of the truck as he drove, laying down the trays every twenty feet or so until the greenhouse was empty. Then, we’d reverse the process of digging and plant.
We planted tomatoes in the rain. In the sun. Under clear and cloudy skies, on calm and windy days, when it was hot and cold and in between. We lifted them carefully so as not to break the stems. Hole after hole, row after row, lifting and bending and kneeling in whatever weather the day served up, feathering in dirt from the adjacent mound until the plant was home, supported by earth.
Glorious spring days of perfect t-shirt temps; days of blowing dust that left dirt in your eyes and grit in your teeth. In rain, the sucking clutch of clay added pounds to every step and left a slurry between your toes while your fingers went clumsy with cold. Dirt was everywhere: smeared across cheeks, wedged under nails. We tracked it into the house at noon when we broke for lunch and Dad watched the weather on TV, then brought more of it back at days’ end, rinsing it down the sink when we washed our hands. At times, it seemed Mom’s sole task was to chase down the dirt and sweep it from the house. It was like trying to beat back the ocean with a broom.
But if you were lucky enough to plant in the sun, you were rewarded with the tomatoes’ burgeoning smell.
There is a molecular complexity to that smell that crowds out other senses. There had been hints of it in the greenhouse, but it wasn’t until we began to plant that we could appreciate it in all its magnificence: unctuous, redolent of ashes and clove, an accord between soil and hope. It leached out every time I lifted a plant from its pot. Ripe hay? Cardamom? It makes me mad at English, its vocabulary too threadbare to do the smell justice. Herbaceous tones, animalic, heavy and warm: the tomato’s pungency swirled around my head as I planted, dilating my pupils.
Left untended, tomato plants sprawl, their vines intertwined, and the fruit, once it comes, rots against the earth. Staking the plants—driving a thin wooden post into the ground a few inches from the plants’ root system, then tying them up with wire—keeps the tomatoes off the ground and lets you pick the fruit more easily.
Staking, though, is a two-person job: one to hold the stake and the other to swing the hammer. And farm work is hard. It’s dirty. It hurts: your back throbs after a long day in the fields, and it’s easy to get injured. It doesn’t pay well. Finding quality help was a perennial problem, another concern to be added to the swarm buzzing around Dad’s head as he contemplated the various disasters lurking around the corners of his day. Which is where my friends came in.
Warren, population 2,000 when Maine’s Minimum Security Prison—the town’s only claim to fame—was full, offered few avenues for professional advancement, particularly for kids my age. You could mow lawns. Or you could work on the farm.
Dad began plotting the hires months, if not years, in advance. He didn’t have a choice. People rarely came to him for work, and my brother Billy, seven years my junior, was still too young to work the field.
Curt was my best friend. He lived a quarter mile up the road, past the rolling hayfields of Robinson’s Field, in a standard-issue Colonial house—two floors, white clapboards, blue shutters—with an adjacent two-story, lightly used barn that was perfect for getting in trouble. His mother was a nurse; I was never quite sure what his father did, but it seemed aspirational, with the objective of making money as quickly as possible with the least amount of effort.
Dad intimidated my friends. He was six feet tall and strong and lean, a rugged kind of handsome who cut his own hair and smelled of sweat and grease and soil (and, in summer, poison; he never wore gloves when handling chemicals, just as he never wore a mask when spraying the orchard, and the toxins clung to him like body odor). He had soft teeth, and refused to do anything about them, so that over the years, as he ground them down, he compensated by narrowing his smile. This made him seem grumpy, but really he was just intensely shy, which in turn hid his insecurity, but my friends didn’t know anything about that, so they just thought he was stern.
Still, Dad had a charisma that drew people in. Part of his charm came from his lack of pretentiousness: he wasn’t better than anyone else, and he knew it, and he made sure others knew he knew it too. It was disarming. So was his laughter, which shot out of his diaphragm of its own accord, through lips held tight against their secret. He laughed more often with people than at them, and he liked to laugh, and people liked to be there when it happened, because it made them feel good about themselves.
Curt liked to laugh too, mischievously, without innocence. Dad liked Curt. Curt liked setting things on fire: the cobwebs in our barn, which we miraculously put out before burning it to the ground; the field behind his house, which we didn’t (“You better call the cops,” Curt’s father yelled at me when he got home to find the Warren Fire Department in full engagement, “because I’m going to kill him”). He liked fights: fist fights (though I always seemed to be the one to throw the punches) and throwing star fights (one ended up in my spine) and bb gun fights (he once shot his brother, Scott, but in Curt’s defense, we all shot at Scott) and bow and arrow fights (one ended when his father walked into the barn as the arrow hit me in the back). Curt thought those sorts of things were funny. Dad found those sorts of things funny, too.
After school and on weekends, when Curt came by to drag me, willingly, into trouble, Dad would ask him what he was doing for work that summer. “Nothing” was the logical answer for a twelve-year-old, but you’re never too young to get a job, and Dad would drop hints of the money Curt could make. Three dollars an hour over the course of a summer adds up, even for someone with Curt’s work ethic, which he’d gotten from his father.
Still, staking tomatoes was a tough way to start.
We staked the plants with wooden poles so old they could have been inherited. They were stored in a shed behind the store, in piles five feet high and eight across, the previous year’s dirt still clinging to the shafts. We pulled them out in armloads as heavy as we could handle, the stakes pinching skin as they shifted in our arms, and piled them in the back of the truck for distribution amongst the rows.
Holding the stakes was easier than swinging the hammer, and more dangerous. The stakes were as tall as our shoulders, and a young boy’s accuracy with a sledgehammer is poor. Whoever held the stake crouched, holding it as close to the base of the shaft as possible so the one wielding the sledgehammer wouldn’t hit him. But this meant that the stake wobbled, which increased the chances of a miss.
I shot for the head of the stake every time, I swear, but every twenty swings or so the sledgehammer would glance off, clipping Curt’s fingers. Curt would dance in anger and pain, cursing impressively as he clutched the fingers of one hand with the other while I apologized through fits of hysterics. When he was done swearing, he’d insist that it was his turn to swing the hammer, and then the process would reverse. We weren’t tall enough to hit the stakes consistently, and we weren’t brave enough to hold them up high. Mistrust and anger and fear and splinters traveled with us plant by plant down the rows.
In between the swings and the anticipation, we talked, our conversations punctuated by laughter and long stretches of monotony and fatigue. Curt didn’t like to work in general, and he certainly didn’t like staking tomatoes. But working with him was, for me, almost like play, because it gave me a friend for the day, which offered a glimpse of what it might be like if I didn’t have to work at all.
How long does it take two young boys to stake a tomato field? Days fell behind us like the pages of a book, the stakes a clear indication of our progress. After a week or ten days, depending on Curt’s absenteeism, we were done. It looked like a verdant cemetery then, each stake waiting in tribute to a plant that had yet to die.
Tying the plants to the stakes keeps the fruit off the ground. Suckering them—removing the shoots that grow out of the junction between the branches and the stem—concentrates the plant’s resources on its purpose of growing fruit. Tying and suckering are easy, but Dad was neither good with trust nor generous with control. He’d reserve these tasks for himself, lashing the plants to the stakes with Twist-Ease ties—thin flexible wires encased in green flush-cut paper to keep you from slicing yourself—and pinching off the shoots as he went. The plants rubbed off on him, staining his hands green in the process. Maybe he was in it for the smell: he trailed a sillage of crushed basil and cedar when he was done.
By the time the weeds began to flourish amidst the tomatoes, Dad was in his element. Nicking out the buckhorn and carpetweed and ladysthumb and nettle leaf from between the stems with a hoe is a kind of surgery, and Dad worked his like a knife, the blade thin and sharp, its metal burnished by thousands of days of use. He made nimble incisions, just deep enough to take the weeds out at the root, and moved with a slow, consistent elegance that evaded much of the rest of his life and that never disturbed the plant. It was a farmer’s dance: Dad, his hoe, a dip and a sway with each careful stroke, the blade glinting in the light as he worked.
I’ll give Dad one thing: he cared. It was easier not to. Most of the help we hired didn’t. I cared, too, but my strokes were coarse. I lacked the years to hoe the way he did. I also didn’t have his blade.
The handles of the hoes were interchangeable. It was the blade that mattered. Dad had had his since he first went to work for Louis Epstein on Rosedale Farm in Simsbury, Connecticut, when he was thirteen years old. It had been thinned over the decades by contact with the earth, and he sharpened it further each season with his whetstone. My blade was a hard metal rectangle, blunt, too dull and too cumbersome to fit between stem and stake easily. Dad’s was a weapon, and he used it to slice out the weeds with a precision that barely slowed his gait. He rarely knelt. If I wanted to cut out a shepherd’s purse at the base of a plant, I dropped to my knees to do so, plucking it out by the roots with my fingers.
We’d be back for another pass in a week or ten days; the weeds would envelop the fields otherwise. Get the weeds by the roots the first time and the next was easier. But it went deeper than that. It would have been an insult to Dad, and to the plants, not to get as many of the weeds as possible, not to extract them by the roots, not to look back, at the end of your row, at a job well done, the field free of weeds, a mix of dignity and fulfillment your return.
Most of the hired help didn’t get this; they ignored Dad’s complaints. I pointed out the fescue and thistle that remained after their passage, but I was easier to ignore than my father.
As the season deepened into May, and then June, the flower clusters on the plants thickened. Dad welcomed the bees from the hives he’d placed strategically around the farm; their wings created the vibrations that shook the pollen free. Sometimes he’d bend down and gently knock the pollen off by hand, talking to the tomatoes in his mysterious way, lending encouragement, willing them to bloom. When the flowers failed to produce a fruit set, withering, then dropping their petals, he took their barrenness hard, as if he were to blame.
Some evenings, Dad would walk the fields after dinner with his hoe as his walking stick, cutting out weeds without breaking his stride, but it seemed less about hoing and more of a quiet conversation with the crops before bed. I’d see him leaning against his hoe as the sun settled, scarred fingers folded over the handle, looking out over the fields he’d nurtured into being in a sort of peaceful communion. Not moving, just standing there in his blue jeans and short-sleeved shirt and faded baseball cap and crooked sunglasses (he sat on them) in the middle of the field, relaxed amidst his labor in a way he never was off the farm. If he’d been able to choose his own death, I’d have laid my money on those evening strolls: a short, sharp heart attack a few minutes before sundown, the fields awash in golden light, his hoe dropping softly to the ground.
The plants bore fruit. Curt and I picked tomatoes by the bushel, shuffling down the rows until the slatting of our brown wooden baskets bulged, then hefting them by wire handles onto knees and bumping them to shoulders in one fluid movement for the trek back to the store. Picking was glorious, for picking permitted the full olfactory experience of the tomato’s perfume, which tickled your nose and startled your senses. I wanted to do backstrokes in it, let it close over my head like a tide.
We were famous for our tomatoes. We were famous for our strawberries and corn and apples and pumpkins, too, but our tomatoes were renowned up and down the coast. They represented the totality of my father’s skills as a farmer, coaxed from seed into lustrous fruit picked fresh two or three times each day (selling anything older was blasphemous) and presented in overflowing bushel baskets from the overflowing brown table pushed up against the rolling red door in front of the store. The tomatoes competed with the baskets of peas and beans and summer squash for customers’ attentions; they crowded in amongst the quarts of blueberries and the heads of lettuce and the baskets of broccoli and beet greens and carrots and pickles, cardboard signs tucked into the slatting with their prices, the lowest on the coast.
The Wyeths stopped for bagfuls en route to their island. Helga, Andrew’s muse, would stop too, turning each tomato over in her granitic hands before making her selection. There was a certain excitement when Dad—the Farmer Himself—appeared to stock the baskets; the customers would fish him for insights, enhancing their purchase. With or without his commentary—terser in the morning when the stress was high, more likely to be accompanied by a diaphragm laugh the closer it got to closing time at 6 p.m.—their purchases were good because our produce was good; but the dazzling brilliance of our tomatoes, satiny red with splashes of yellow around the tops where the stems perched like crowns, rivaled summer’s headiest finds.
It was their taste. Good lord, their taste: an explosion of flavors that matched the intensity of the tomato plant’s smell, strains of acidity and sweetness, running with juice. I’d eat them as I picked, taking thick bites like they were nectarines. At night, we ate them raw, or paired them with cucumber slices splashed with red wine vinegar. They were a complement to any meal. Neither my mother nor my father were good cooks, but with the tomatoes it didn’t matter. They either improved the dinner or they stole it.
July, August, September, the tomatoes would hang low on their vines amidst the high-pitched whine of the cicadas, filling and refilling our baskets as the customers bought them by the pound. But as the days grew shorter and the dew began to sparkle in the fields at dawn like tiny diamonds, the end of their season drew near. You could smell it: a decay that marked not only their demise, but also the onset of fall. Once the frosts set in, their delicate tissue would soften and turn to mush. We’d store up what we could, rescuing tomatoes by the bushel after the first light freeze, but by the time the temperatures began dipping consistently, their season was over. The plants would wither a cold shade of brown, leaves hanging lifeless from skeletal stems held up by wire and stakes. Like a cemetery again, only this time with everything dead.
Come October, Curt and I would walk the rows after school once the ground had thawed, rocking the stakes back and forth to loosen them in the earth then plucking them out, returning the plants to the land. The mud, thin wire and faded green ties that clung to the shafts as we stacked them in our outstretched arms would be the dried dirt that greeted us as we filled the truckbed seven months later.
To plant a tomato is to create a cyclical bond. Dad whispered them into being on the dining-room table, then nurtured them in the heat and humidity of the greenhouse until they were old enough to transfer outside. Digging and planting and tying and suckering and hoeing and picking and selling marked the chapters of our summers. Their fruit, when it came, provided us with sustenance and enriched the bellies and meals of mid-coast residents and tourists alike. Until we put the stakes away, the tomatoes were our responsibility, our labor, our worry, our pride.
By the time we closed the store the day before Thanksgiving, the tomatoes were gone.