By the time Ellie and her fox-faced husband Marv arrived to pick, the sun had dried the dew on the field. The tomatoes shone fierce and red from the vines. Their two boys still sleeping in the car would have to amuse themselves during the long day. After a few baskets, Ellie straightened up and fetched a Mason jar of sweetened black coffee from its place between her rows. Unscrewing the lid thoughtfully she took a few sips surveying the red-topped baskets behind her.
I wondered about the mysterious gap where Ellie’s front teeth should have been and if it was easier to hang onto a dangling cigarette because of it. Marv always refused her offers of coffee. Jabbing into the vines or lifting the baskets, his muscles shifted under the skin of his neck, under the skin of his forearms, under the flimsy cotton shirt, faded from sun and washings. His eyes hid beneath the bleached out cap but I knew they darted across the field, sometimes probing me.
I picked faster than either one of them. The heat of the late August sun soaked into my back and lifted my mood but I was counting the days until the start of school when I’d sit at a desk. Then at lunch and recess, I got to spend time with Norma, my best friend.
“Hey, Jess, do you want a drink?” Mum strode over the rows, a jug of water dangling from her finger. “Going pretty good,” she said, counting the baskets behind me.
“I’m trying for a hundred again.” One hundred baskets was the gold standard my mother had established, although these days with the plentiful crop she picked almost two for each of mine.
“You should make that easy.” I gulped a mouthful of the warm water, the jug still smelling faintly of the vinegar it once contained. “Take it over to Ellie and Marv.”
“But Ellie has her coffee.”
“They might like some water.” Mum turned away, the polka dot bandana around her hair, elbows pumping against the sides of her substantial body, the fabric of her cut off denim pants rasping with each step.
Their boys were out of the car, a rusting heap painted dull gold. Artie disappeared into the cornfield beside it and his little brother sat on the hood biting into a tomato. “What trouble will those little buggers get into now?” Ellie mumbled.
“Want some water, Ellie?” I called out.
She jumped. “Jeez-us! You took me by surprise.” I focused on her eyes to keep from staring at the mesmerizing dark slit of her mouth, her narrow lips twitching to maintain an apologetic smile. “No thanks. I have my coffee. If I drink too much I’ll have to run into the cornfield.” She laughed absently, preoccupied with the activities at the car. Now Artie was digging for something in the trunk and Timmy toddled over to grab another tomato from a basket. “Marv might like some though,” said Ellie.
“Want some water?” I raised the jug, calling from a few rows away from him. He barely nodded and motioned as though he expected I should rush on over.
“Well, are you going to bring it to me or not?” The water sloshed against the sides of the jug as my running shoe caught on a vine and I stumbled towards him. “Clumsy, aren’t you?’ he said. He wasn’t trying to tease me. Under the shade of his cap, there was no smile, but I could see his eyes, beautiful amber with clouds of green and brown.
“They’re at it again!” Ellie took off running towards the car. Artie had slapped the screaming Timmy and was throwing clods of dirt at him. “Artie! Stop right now before I tan your ass again.”
“Kids! Son of a bitch,” Marv muttered. He lifted the jug to his mouth and, as he guzzled, his Adam’s apple worked through the sinews inhabiting his neck. He smelled of sweat, dusky, pleasant and unsettling. Now Ellie was calling after him waving her arms. “Stupid woman.” The ferocity in his heavy steps meant business.
Scrubbing your hands with a tomato was the easiest way to dissolve the green-black resin stain left by the vines. The sun-warmed tomato with its seeds and skin rubbed against the knuckles and around the fingernails worked away most of the dirt. A dribble of the water from the jug rinsed our hands clean enough to eat with.
“Here.” Marv poured water from the jug over Ellie’s hands. As she shook them dry, her wedding band slid up and down her thin finger. Holding out my hands to the warm trickle my mind was captured by Marv’s eyelashes thick and sun tipped. I imagined those lashes grazing my cheek. He screwed the cap onto the jug while I stood there stirred up in a way that was hard for me to describe.
“You can put your hands down now,” he snorted.
A corn-scented breeze barely stirred as we sat on blankets in the shade between the cars and the cornfield. As usual Mum had packed a loaf of bread and a cooler filled with a few cans of pop, lunch meats, hard boiled eggs and a head of iceberg lettuce. My empty stomach grated up against my spine when I saw the bag of Oreos. In order to restrain my appetite, to limit myself to only lettuce and one egg, I had to conjure an image of my body slim and elegant.
I concentrated on the bite of egg in my mouth, the white of it cool and firm, and the creamy yolk melting. Women’s magazines said that by eating slowly a dieter needed less food to satisfy her. I pulled a chunk of crispy leaves from the iceberg lettuce and as I chewed I studied the row of cornstalks sharply green, the cobs hardening inside their husks.
“Jess, for Pete’s sake, make yourself a sandwich.” Mum was always after me to eat more. I didn’t want to be fat like her. “She’s trying to lose weight before she goes back to school,” she said to Ellie and Marv. She just had to let everyone know I was doing something crazy.
“She wants to look nice,” said Ellie leaning past Marv to look at us. “You’re going into grade eight, aren’t you, Jess? I wish I hadn’t been so stupid in school. I hope our boys do better. Artie starts this year.”
“Jess, you go up to the house and fill up the jug with fresh water,” said Mum.
I hated doing it, not just because of the dusty walk with the sun banging down on me or because I might not get to my hundred basket goal with the time away from the field, but because of the high risk of running into Grandma, my least favourite person. Grandma used to bring us fresh water most afternoons, but at her last doctor’s appointment, he’d advised her not to exert herself because of her heart. Unfortunately, he didn’t tell her she shouldn’t exercise her tongue.
“Mum, can I go with Jess?” Artie scuffed his toes in the dirt.
“Rose, is it OK if he goes with Jess?” Ellie asked Mum.
“Sure,” said Mum.
Artie scampered ahead of me, beating up the dust around his eager feet.
“Where the hell is he going?” Marv stepped out from the corn a few feet away from me and I startled.
“He’s going with Jess for water,” said Ellie.
“You do what Jess tells you, fella. If she has any trouble, you know what’s in store.” Artie slowed down to a shuffle and the back of his head nodded.
Grandma spotted us at the pump, and to my relief, simply waved before going back into the house. Artie helped pump water into the jug.
“I’m thirsty,” he said when we were halfway back to the tomato field.
“OK, have a swig,” I held the cold and sweating jug up for him. His brown hair was wispy like his mother’s, his sly face sharply angled like his father’s.
“Oh, that’s good. Refreshing.”
“That’s a big word for a little guy.”
“I’m not so little. I’m starting school.” His little hands curled into fists.
“What are you looking forward to most?”
“I want to play with other kids,” he said. “But if they want to fight, my dad taught me how I could show them a thing or two.”
“So you know how to take care of yourself,” I said. “That’s a good thing.”
“My dad says if you don’t know how to take care of yourself, nobody else is going to bother.”
A couple of crows, lazy black apparitions against the almost cloudless sky called to one another, their cries melancholy. But the sun felt mellow on my skin. The tomatoes glowed with heat, piled over the tops of the half bushel baskets behind me. Only fourteen more baskets before I would make my one hundred basket goal.
After looking down for so long, it felt good to let my body unfold, to stretch my arms up overhead, to stretch my gaze across the acres of farmland. Ellie and Marv sat side by side on upturned baskets smoking. As they chatted, Ellie’s arm poked the air around them while Marv sat with his elbow on his knee leaning forward, his gaze lowered like the sculpture in the art book that I’d borrowed from the town library. Suddenly Ellie started cackling, pointing towards the bush.
“Take a look at that!”
The bull was mounting the back of one of the cows, his scarlet penis enormous and glistening while the cow stood planted in the grass looking stoically ahead. Marv nodded, flicked his cigarette away and looked in my direction. Ellie’s laughter ricocheted over the field and I crouched back to the tomatoes hiding my flushed face.
“How do you think Ellie lost her front teeth?” I asked Mum on the drive home. “Tooth decay?”
“Tooth decay, shit. She was likely mouthin’ off when she shouldn’ta been,” interjected my stepfather. “Marv just hauled off and let her know she should keep her trap shut.” He always was saying extreme things to get a reaction from Mum or me.
“Marv is tough, but I don’t know,” said Mum. “He seems to care about her, don’t you think?” My stepfather shrugged and shook his head as though we couldn’t possibly understand. I wondered if Marv cared about Ellie, and kept thinking about his amber eyes and his golden lashes and his wiry muscles moving under his shirt.
In their first big argument, my stepfather slapped my mother across the face. I was close to Artie’s age. It was all about an outing to visit Mum’s friends. The shouting started when my stepfather came home late from the hotel stinking of beer and stale cigarettes. Mum complained. Loud. He snarled, “Who do you think you are, expecting me to chauffeur you around to your god damned friends?”
Then she yelled, “Just give me the keys, I don’t need you to visit my friends,” and he rushed towards her with his arm cocked. His open hand landed with a loud smack, its imprint hot and red on her cheek. She recovered, righted the angle of her head, pushed down her shoulders and stood quietly. I shuddered with tension but kept watching. My mother, charged with some mysterious current drawn through the linoleum squares of our kitchen floor, stood strong. “Just give me the car key,” she said extending her hand, holding it in confident expectation. “You will never slap me again.” Each word rang with a quiet power that I did not know she possessed. And she did not move.
“You don’t have a goddamned license,” said my stepfather looking past her.
“But I do know how to drive.” I watched her presence grow massive while my stepfather’s bravado shriveled.
Once she drove out of our lane onto the gravel road I could start to breathe again. The colour had faded from her cheek, but her knuckles were bone white gripping the steering wheel. She cleared her throat. “Jess, it’s best not to tell anybody about this, okay?” I cleared my throat too, in solidarity. “That means Grandma doesn’t need to know.”
The town fair the week before Labour Day signaled my tomato picking days were coming to an end and school would start. Norma and I had arranged to meet. She lived on the next road over and rarely did we see one another during the summer. Her house didn’t have a phone, so she called me once or twice from the neighbour’s. Her family didn’t have a television yet, which Norma didn’t mind. She occupied her time reading books that she pilfered. “Do you think the empty schoolhouse is going to miss them all summer when I could be reading them? Don’t worry! I’ll bring them back.”
The frying onions lured the two of us to our first stop, the hot dog stand. She nudged up alongside me at the counter. I wore my new black shorts with the white trim, paid for with my own tomato money, and a sleeveless red blouse that Mum had given me saying the colour was becoming for my tan. I wasn’t sure. Norma slouched, at ease wearing drab hand me downs that I recognized as her older sister’s—a limp flared skirt and a dully patterned top. Her shoes were the same ones she wore to school, cracked brown oxfords with the heels worn into thin triangles while my nail polished toes twinkled pink in my summer sandals. On their small farm, her family didn’t have the benefits or require the effort, afforded by twenty acres of tomatoes. “They don’t like to work hard,” was what Grandma told me.
Norma’s cheek bulged with the hot dog she had already bitten into. “I have to have mustard,” I said trying to determine the best angle to smear it around the glistening mound of fragrant browned onions.
“No dieting tonight?” It was Marv. I made an effort not to linger in his gaze for more than an instant.
“I was saving myself for tonight,” I said.
“Saving yourself, eh?” A shivery tremor stirred through me in the long silence before I could think what to say next.
“Where’s Ellie? And the boys. Are they here?” Standing next to Marv but oblivious of him, Norma concentrated on each mouthful of her hot dog. Under the cap he wore tonight, different from the one in the field, his hair looked moist, just washed. The collar of the shirt stood crisp against his tanned throat.
“Ellie’s with them over by the merry go round. I’m just having a little look-see around here.”
Norma wiped her mouth then licked every single fingertip before crumpling the napkin in her fist. “You haven’t even started yours,” she said, almost reproachful.
“Well, you’re with your friend,” Marv said without looking at Norma. “See you.”
As I scraped mustard from the bottom of the jar, I watched Marv’s back disappear in the jostling stream of families and high school kids, through the noise of grinding gears and chugging motors, through the cries of the carny men ready to take our money in return for a little promise.
As we swooped to the top of the Ferris wheel we squealed whenever Norma made our basket swing. A spasm of fear pulled taut the muscles in my belly.
“Stop it, Norma!” I said although I didn’t really want her to. She pushed harder so that we rocked almost onto our backs to see the faint glitter of stars in the indigo sky, the platinum sliver of moon; the sky-bound bodies looking down at us. As we dipped forward, the flurry of human bodies surged along the paths between the fenced in rides. Mum was there somewhere. Ellie and the boys. Marv. At the apex of our upward ride, Norma sat peacefully. Our basket swayed back and forth as though floating on the surface of a deep and tranquil pool.
“I like it up here,” she said. “It feels like a place where nothing can touch you.”
“I’ll be glad to get back to school,” I said.
“I like this place better,” said Norma. “And thanks for the hot dog.”
We were on the way to the Tilt-A-Whirl when Ellie saw us and waved me over.
“Don’t you look nice, Jess,” she said. “And who’s your friend?” I introduced Norma who promptly dropped away into the background, crossing her arms over her chest and resting her backside on the merry-go-round fence.
“Marv said you were around. I seen your mother with somebody on their way to the exhibit hall. The boys, they’re ready for another ride.”
Timmy’s scraggly arms hung on to his mother’s leg as he watched the horses rising and falling. Similarly spellbound, Artie clutched the wire fence; his face intent on the circling carousel. Ellie’s dress hung from her bony shoulders and skimmed her narrow hips. I saw scars on her arms and dark bruises across her legs that had been hidden by the long sleeves and pants she wore to the field. The rhinestone barrette pulling back her frizzy chestnut brown hair exposed the edge of a plum coloured bruise above her temple that, during the day, was covered by her kerchief.
“Is it OK if Norma and I take the boys on the merry go round? A little treat?” I said. I didn’t like what I saw on her body.
“They’d love that, wouldn’t you, guys? Say thanks to Jess.”
“Norma,” I said, “This is Artie and he’ll start school soon. Can you help him get on his horse?”
“I don’t need help. I can get up myself,” he told her.
“Going into grade one, you’re getting pretty big,” she said, almost smiling. I was grateful she was being a good sport.
I lifted Timmy’s unsubstantial weight up onto his black stallion and held him gently to make sure he didn’t writhe off the saddle. From his palomino, I heard Artie tell Norma, “I want to be independent.” She took the hand on his back away. The boys waved at Ellie as they rode past dipping and rising to the accompaniment of “You are My Sunshine” banged out on a xylophone and distorted by the battered speakers.
“Did you have a nice ride?” asked Ellie.
“I got up on the horse all by myself,” said Artie.
“You told Norma you wanted to be independent, didn’t you? He knows some big words for going into grade one,” I said. Marv was puffing his cigarette a few feet away.
“Let’s go. Time to take those big words home,” he said.
“How do you know those people?” Norma demanded. There was a long line waiting for the Tilt-A-Whirl and anxious ticket holders jostled us. “Right away that creep reminded me of Ayla’s boyfriend.” Ayla was Norma’s oldest sister who had moved to Wallaceburg for a job in the glass factory. “Knocked out his wife’s teeth, didn’t he?”
“What! How would you know?” We ran to an empty car and the carny man secured the bar in front of us. I gripped it.
“Ayla would come home to us, all bruised. ‘Oh, I’m clumsy. You know how clumsy I am. Tripped on the landlord’s step and banged my face. Oh, those scratches happened at work—you know how accidents happen at work. You get bruises.’ Stories like that.”
The ride lurched to a start. Mum loved the Tilt-A-Whirl. She’d lean into the seat, the back of her head resting against the heavy wire mesh, her face soft and smiling the whole time. But the car threshed me from side to side and I felt my insides shaking. Behind my eyelids tightly shut, I saw tomatoes tumbling. Firm skin splitting, bruising, scarring. Norma sat beside me, settled like a stone.
Fran Turner is a graduate of Humber College’s correspondence program in creative writing. In 2016 her short story “It’s Nothing” was awarded second place in the Scugog Council for the Arts Literary Contest. This is her first published story.