A Short Story from Nick Kocz
Rhoda, my sister, knows a place where tomatoes grow wild on vines that are as thick as Jack’s beanstalk. She’s been picking them all morning and has lugged a weathered bushel basket of them up to the room we share on the third floor of Old Man Trash’s boarding house. How they grow in the wild, I do not know, but she boasts it as proof of America’s natural abundance—so many good things to be plucked for free!—but the only cornucopia I’ve stumbled upon recently are the stacks of old newspapers I’ve wrangled from neighborhood recycling bins. Twenty years ago, when I was eight, we fled our Armenian homeland, and now she says her tomatoes are more luscious than any we could have found there. Snips of their leaves stick to her strawberry-pink halter top. Her tomatoes are ineffable, requiring no more than a haunting sigh to be understood. She speaks of them as “fruit” (something to cherish), instead of “vegetable” (something to avoid), but I am skeptical.
“Where did you get them?” I ask. “Maybe they’ve been crop-dusted. Have you thought of that? Maybe they’ve been poisoned with insecticides and fertilizers and sprayed with all sorts of whatnot that, believe you me, is going to bore some tomato-sized carcinogenic tumor in your heart one of these days.”
Cocking her head, she looks at me as if I’m the stupidest guy in the planet. To her, I will forever be her stubborn little brother who came here not knowing a word of English, but I’ve got my neighbor’s old newspapers and I know what goes on in this country: businesses everywhere engage in all manner of unsavory practices with little regard for the economic and environmental havoc they wreak, all so they can squeeze extra bucks from people.
“That’s where I get them,” she says, pointing out the open window to a place I cannot see. Beyond the ravine that she would have traversed to get to her cherished tomato vines, a flannel-shirted scarecrow governs an overgrown field of rye grass and clover. Though a rusting scythe is roped to its arm, vivacious crows alight on its shoulders, undeterred. “Tell me: who do you see out there spraying poison whatnot on the fields? What planes do you see in the sky dropping chemicals and fertilizers on those plants?”
Her sprightliness surprises me, she raises a valid point: neglect renders those fields safe; no one poisons them, for in America, abundance means that fertile cropland goes fallow while, throughout the world, people starve.
“Ha! You’re deluded!” She snaps off the stem from a tomato, crinkles it between her fingers. Sunburnt from hours in the fields, skin flakes from her arms and shoulders, but only when she crosses those arms and rubs her hands over her shoulders, kneading her sore muscles, do I grasp how she toiled to obtain her free tomatoes. She sighs, exhausted. “No cancerous tumors are going to bloom from my tomatoes.”
True to her expectations, the tomatoes are glorious. On first bite, juice splatters down her chin. An aroma that can only be described as green fills the room and I remember how, when we were still in Armenia, we trudged behind our mama’s draping skirt into the village square each morning. Horse-drawn carts along the market’s edge displayed an astonishing variety of tomatoes: cherry; Roma; tart green ones with the curves of a teardrop; and, on one occasion, yellow ones with a tiger’s black stripes. While Rhodanya played with the tarnished copper bell that dangled from the front of the cart, Mama demonstrated for me the proper way to inspect for ripeness. The trick was to test with the soft pressure of one’s fingertips, hoping to find one that held the impression for a moment before its natural suppleness returned it to its form. Not long after that, during Armenia’s period of crisis, my father, a surgeon with known nationalist sentiments who helped galvanize popular support for independence, disappeared on the night that Soviet troops parachuted into our country. To survive the winter, Rhoda and I cut maple saplings with kitchen knives to use for firewood. I snared a squirrel that fed us for a week. An international refugee agency learned of our father’s disappearance and somehow secured for us political asylum. Overnight, we were flown to a foreign land but even in this new country the food Mama prepared remained distinctly Armenian: ratatouille and yogurt dishes, the substitution of fatty pork blade meat for her beloved stringy lamb being the only concession she made to our new-found Americanness. Rhodanya became Rhoda, shedding letters from her name with the same ease that she raised the hemlines of her skirts and slashed the arms from her saffron dresses. She was sixteen when we immigrated, twice my own age, and I looked up to her for support; in our time of trauma, she was a bedrock of stability. On the morning of my first day in American elementary school, she spat into her hand and smoothed a cowlick on my head while I waited for the bus. “You’re not Alecko anymore. No one in this country is named Alecko.” The bus suddenly lurched into view, coughing a haze of diesel smoke behind it. “From now on, you’re Alex.”
Rhoda takes another bite from her tomatoes and smiles, but when I pick up one of the dusty tomatoes from her basket, she tells me not to eat it.
“Because I’m going to make something special with them. That’s why.”
Our room opens up to a small kitchenette equipped with surprisingly modern appliances. She turns on the stove and soon its heating coils glow orange-hot beneath the glass cook top. Preparations are made. Steam gushes from a stockpot of boiling water and glistens on the crinkled sun-yellow wallpaper that cloaks all the walls in our rooms. She dunks the tomatoes into the pot one at a time, counting fifteen seconds off her Timex before ladling them into a glass bowl of iced water. Once cooled, she slides off their skins.
I take another swig of arak, the colorless alcoholic spirit that I drink to link me to my homeland. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Stop wasting your days sitting around doing nothing,” she says, wiping the perspiration from her brow with a paper napkin. “All you do is drink. You’re healthy. Get a job.”
I try to explain about the ennui of American life: the relentless mundanity of televised sitcoms and national sex scandals, hurricane forecasts and Powerball tickets. Everyone is pursuing a personal fairy tale of life transformation and total body makeovers. “Who wants to participate in such nonsense?” Rhoda shrugs; she has heard my excuses before. All things lead to dreams; all dreams revert to nightmares. Last week, in Houston, a woman drowned her six children in a bathtub of sudsy bubbles and an armada of rubber duckies. Why did she need all those duckies?
“What’s wrong with dreams?” Rhoda asks, pouring a bag of sugar into a copper pot. She is a woman who woke this morning with the desire to make ketchup; for such women, nothing is impossible. The sugar liquefies from the heat, running first as clear as my arak but, caramelizing, transforms to a pale gold before becoming an unappetizing burnt umber.
“You sure you’re doing this right?” I ask.
Rhoda pulls the Fanny Farmer cookbook from the shelf and points a wooden spoon emphatically at the recipe. “It’s the sweetness that binds.”
She chops skinned tomatoes with the same steel cleaver that I once threatened to whack into a boy’s neck during eleventh grade civics class. The other kids did not like the way English words sputtered from my mouth or my habit of translating our teacher’s questions into Armenian before answering. One morning, I hid the cleaver in my backpack. Billy Simpson, a boy who shaved his head bald to emulate his favorite basketball star, laughed when I said that the Constitution had something to do with the Civil War. “Foreigners are so stupid,” he said. Plucking the cleaver from my backpack, I leapt from my seat. Simpson’s head shrank into the neck of the football jersey that he wore every day throughout the year. Someone pounced onto my back and wrestled me to the floor. I thought Americans had a high tolerance for expression of any kind, but my threats landed me in juvenile hall for eighteen months. By the time I was released, our mother had died of an aneurysm and Rhoda required public assistance to support us.
Schwack. Halved tomatoes spin like the heads of butchered chickens, slip-sliding in their juices across the carving board. Rhoda tosses them into the pot with the caramelized goo.
“They’ll simmer all night,” she says, fanning the steam from the bubbling concoction. “You know how thick ketchup can be.”
The next morning, the stuff is thicker than snot. Smoke billows from the pot, overwhelming us with the stench of burnt tomatoes. Rhoda jabs her wooden spoon into the tomatoes but they don’t budge.
“Looks like giant tomato turd,” I say.
“They’re puce,” Rhoda says, correcting me. “It’s exactly how they should be.”
“Whatever. You aren’t going to be feeding me any of that shit. Even if you pay me.”
Rhoda, she’s got this indomitable spirit. Dressed in a pink nightshirt, she charges around the kitchen pulling utensils from drawers and marshalling all manner of other ingredients from our refrigerator. I cannot believe one pot of tomatoes produces so much smoke. Even with the window ajar, I can barely see across the room. She opens the pantry door and grabs the vinegar jug from behind stacks of sardine cans, then pours the vinegar into the tomato shit, causing more smoke to whoosh from the pot. Suddenly the fire alarm above the stove lets out a piercing electronic meep meep. No sooner do I yank the battery from its plastic housing, silencing it, than an alarm in the hallway outside our door goes off, followed quickly by a third alarm going off in the apartment next to ours.
The phone rings and it’s the building supervisor, Old Man Trash, telling me not to burn the house down. My eyes are tearing from the vinegar vapors. “Do I need to sic the fire marshal on you crazy-ass foreigners?” Old Man Trash asks.
His words touch off a crazy anger. Like bile, the anger burbles through my internal organs and up my throat. “Fuck you,” I say, almost shouting into the phone.
Rhoda lifts the spoon from the pot, chastising me with her gaze. “You shouldn’t have said that.”
I slap my hand over the receiver. Already I feel contrite, but I don’t know what to do. We stand there, Rhoda and I, staring like a couple of strays at the phone in my hands. There’s a chance Old Man Trash didn’t hear me, but if he did, he’ll come pounding on our door right pronto.
“What should I do?” I ask.
Rhoda shrugs. Tomato gook has worked its way into her hair and drips down her cheek. “When are you going to learn to watch your temper?”
“But he called me a foreigner.”
“Who?” Rhoda asks.
It strikes me as impossible that she wouldn’t know. “Old Man Trash.”
When I put the phone to my ear, all that I hear is a dial tone. Old Man Trash has hung up on me.
“That is good, no?” Rhoda says. She shakes a spice jar over the burbling ketchup. Her hair, all moist from the steam that rushes from the pot, tumbles down over her shoulders. She pulls out the spoon, a red dollop beaded on its end, and waves it at my lips. “It’s ready. Taste it.”
The ketchup is hot on my tongue. Cinnamon rifles through my sinuses. The stuff is sweet, juicy like the lush Armenian tomatoes of memory. Nothing has ever tasted so good. As she sees my reaction, satisfaction glows over her face. When she is happy, her brown eyes become alive with the gold flecks that crowd the edges of her irises. I say, “We’ve got ourselves some tomatoes.”
“Not tomatoes,” Rhoda says. “Ketchup. We will put it in Mason jars and sell it. We shall make lots of money today!”
There are perhaps two gallons, tops, of ketchup in the pot. Soon, Old Man Trash will come bursting into our apartment and threaten to boot our asses into the street if I don’t apologize, yet all she can think about is her ketchup. We’ll be destitute urchins, our worldly possessions amounting to nothing more than what we can wrap into rucksacks. A picture forms in my mind of Rhoda rolling a pushcart through neighborhood streets, the rusted bell at the front of the cart tinkling at every pothole we cross. Rednecks in pickup trucks will race past us, honking, as old ladies gawk from behind the windows of their comfortable ranch houses. At the town’s busiest intersection, Rhoda will ring her bell for a solid hour, yet, knowing that she is a foreigner, no one will emerge to buy a jar of her ketchup.
Rhoda grabs the wooden spoon from my hands and licks it free of its remaining ketchup. The gold flecks reappear in her eyes. “This will be the beginning of something special. Everyone will want to buy our ketchup. We will sell so much!”
Nick Kocz’s short stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, The Normal School, and Web Conjunctions. He completed his MFA at Virginia Tech in 2009. That same year, he was awarded a MacDowell Fellowship to work on a first novel, which is now finally & thankfully complete. He is now a regular contributor for The Nervous Breakdown. Sometimes, he blogs.