Vot? I Look Like I Got No Tomatoes?

It’s been an odd year for the garden. It’s been an odd year to be me. But I figure what the hell, I still got tomatoes.

The tomato thing comes from a story I heard years ago on the radio by Andrei Codrescu, an NPR commentator with a cute Romanian accent. He said, visiting Israel, he witnessed a tradesman and a female customer shouting at each other in the marketplace. He didn’t understand the language so he asked his friend, “What are they fighting about?” His friend said, “They’re not fighting. She said, ‘You got tomatoes?’ and he said, ‘Vot? I look like I got no tomatoes?’ ”

I found that outrageously funny, and now every time the cashier at Ingle’s asks me if I have my Advantage card I say, “Vot? I look like I got no Advantage card?” And the casher smiles patiently and wishes I would shop at Food City.

I’ve been thinking about the garden and my life and tomatoes because it’s that time of year again: In August, when the tomatoes come in, I add another digit to the already unthinkable tally of my age. The yearly wonder of it! How can a person be old enough for gray head hairs and black chin hairs before she’s developed the rest of her secondary sex characteristics? How is it possible to grow old before one grows up? Am I going to be the only assisted living resident who won’t eat eggplant because it looks like slugs and mayonnaise because it looks like snot? I’m 12, damn it, just with sufficient wrinkles and back fat they let me buy beer.

Every year I feel there’s been some mistake made, but this year it’s worse because so much of it has been stolen from me. Particularly the summer. As a post-adolescent chronologically eligible for AARP, I still have the idea summer is for fun. But since I broke my leg April 30 on the way down to the garden to plant cucumbers, fun has been thin on the ground.

I sucked as much as I could from the knee walker, basically a toy scooter for cripples—boodin-boodin! toot-toot!--and from whizzing around the grocery store on those little motorized golf-carty things usually reserved for people whose only visible disability is planetlike obesity (a condition to which my months of infirmity have pressed me nearer but let’s not go there).

But mostly life has been a grim procession of wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and compression socks, a recipe for self-pity for a fun-loving farm girl like me. And the joke of it is I’m not that crazy about cucumbers!

I planted a bunch last year because I was experimenting with recipes for those sweet-hot pickles commercially known as Wickles. My first few batches weren’t “wickle” enough so I called them Church Picnickles. Finally I put enough hot peppers in them to make them seriously evil, to the point I labeled them I Shot a Man in Texas...and a year later, they’re still sitting in the pantry twirling their six-shooters malevolently. I had forgotten I no longer have a social life, and there are only so many homicidal bread-and-butter slices a family of two can choke down. So I shouldn’t have planted any cucumbers at all this spring but I thought, hell, a few for salads, and clutching my seed packet down the hill I went to my rendezvous with destiny. Splat!

I’ve done my share of wallowing and whining during the ensuing months of post-splat invalidism. But I keep finding myself next to an amputee in the doctor’s waiting room or a woman learning to use an artificial leg in physical therapy. Once in a school board meeting when one of my crutches fell clattering to the floor, I said, “I am sick of being handicapped! I am so over this.” I got an odd look from the woman sitting in front of me and realized she directed programs for kids with disabilities—she was probably not eat up with sympathy for somebody like me whose handicap was, after all, temporary.

So I’ve tried, in between sniveling sessions, to keep some perspective on this thing and I suppose it’s broadened my horizons. It has in fact broadened me and that’s one point I want to touch on after all:

You might imagine that several months of post-splat invalidism, for a person who is normally a hiker and farmwife, might also be a recipe for out-of-control weight gain. In fact, calories and fat grams are irrelevant to a person convalescing from a serious injury. The body expends so much energy repairing itself that the invalid may eat cheeseburgers and ice cream all day long, washing them down with cases of beer, and never gain an ounce.

That’s crap, of course. I’ve blown up like a balloon. But I heard it somewhere, and each time I’ve considered trying to limit my intake I’ve opted in the end for this alternative theory of reality. I do not argue for the science of it. I merely sit on the porch and drink beer.

When I had been switched from the boot to the ankle brace, I was sitting in the Subway sandwich shop trying to figure out how to put it on. It’s got eyelets, laces and four different straps that go flying over, under and around like the Kama Sutra, except when they get all get stuck together in a Velcro clump and you’ve got to pry them apart like dogs. It took me forever to get the damn thing on and when I did I limped to the counter for a chocolate chip cookie.

For my next act I tried walking in the new brace into the CVS to buy compression socks and here’s the epiphany I had there: In childhood, we cry because of physical pain. In adulthood, we cry from emotional pain, because somebody dies or leaves us for a Waffle House waitress. But try searching the wilds of the drugstore in an ankle brace after three months of no walking and you go back to the basics. OMG the pain! But the point I am trying to make with this story is that it may surprise you to learn that CVS now sells wine and cold beer, from a case located conveniently close to the cash register in case you happened to be crippled.

There you go. Right or wrong, eating and drinking are not just means of nourishment but can provide comfort to sufferers and I elected to avail myself of same. As I keep writing these days about the tax digest, I decided to “accept growth.” For the first time since adolescence, I haven’t worried about my weight and it’s been liberating in a fat sort of way. For months, I couldn’t have stood on the scales if I’d wanted to, and now that I can put both feet down I refuse to on the grounds that knowing how much I weigh might prevent my going out in public. I expect there will be hell to pay later on but for right now, hey, everything looks fine from in here.

Fashion is something else you give up in this sitch. Not that I was much of a clotheshorse in the first place, gearing my efforts--blue jeans and a top, usually--not so much toward looking good as not looking like a clown.

Now I can’t think about wearing even Fat Jeans until after I pay some of the aforementioned hell. I wear stretchy gym shorts, black tennis shoes because the right one fits around the ankle brace, a black-and-pink-striped compression knee sock (they were on sale) on the right leg and a little white one on the left. Shorts, white socks and black shoes are what I call the Uncle Milroy Look, after a certain hairy-legged brother of my grandmother; throw in the different sock on the other leg and what you’ve got is full-blown Clown.

Add the weight gain and the Quasimodo limp and you’re talking Swamp Thing from Hell, but I’m here to talk about my garden, not me, and I’m sorry to tell you it looks even worse. I had most of it planted when I got splatted, but as any gardener can tell you, planting is only the fun part. You have to mulch or you have to weed, usually both, to keep the garden tidy. Sitting on the porch drinking beer doesn’t cut the mustard.

When I still had a cast I wrapped it in garbage bags once or twice and butt-surfed down the hill to do battle with the weeds, but realistically I didn’t get past the porch steps much until July, when I was switched to a boot. Then I hobbled down there more frequently but by then it was a losing battle. I make fun of people who plant gardens in the spring, then spend the summer inside in their air conditioning, eating bonbons and reading movie magazines. This year, my garden looks like theirs! I’ve got so many weeds, you’d think I’d know who Brad Pitt is sleeping with, or how Mila found it in her heart to forgive Ashton.

One row of potatoes I lost to ants. Another was infested by small brown snakes, a new one on me—tater snakes?—but then, so are fractured fibulas. After spending last winter buying sack after sack of them frozen, I planned to specialize in green beans this year and planted three neat hedgerows of them. Now they’re so overgrown, if I want to harvest them I had better bring in tanks and ally myself with England, France and Russia. Back to the frozen section!

So it’s all been grim and unhappy, a far cry from happy Augusts past when I spent birthdays with my beloved friend Mary Petruska drinking Bloody Marys made with juice from my homegrown tomatoes. One birthday, she came and sipped with me on my porch after my husband and I had hiked down Cloudland Canyon. The next, I took the juice to her house and we were sitting on her lawn when one person after another “happened to drop by” for a Bloody Mary. It was my first-ever surprise party, and I was particularly surprised because she’d gotten my birthday a week early!

Mary Petruska died last spring, casting a darkness over the ensuing summer that eclipses my little difficulties this year. But it’s the same basic problem: Life is unpredictable, humbling, temporary. We can’t have things as we wish them but can be smacked to the mat in a split-second by forces we don’t understand and are powerless to resist. Splat! Every year, and every birthday, that becomes more evident. I think they call it “the human condition.”

But rough as this summer has been, I realized recently it’s summer anyway. I had this epiphany as I was sitting with my husband on the porch eating vegetables we’d salvaged somehow from the tater snakes and drinking—guess what? The tomato plants, anyway, have survived this year’s regime of benign neglect.

And as the tomatoes turn red and ripe, I’ve regained my mobility just in time for the good hard work of canning them. Last year I wrote in my tribute to Mary Petruska how she rejected the whole sweaty, finger-burning process of canning with a curt New York “f—k this s—t.” I never minded it, myself, and after my months of enforced idleness, I find this year I love it!

So this birthday finds me sadder and older, but I’m grateful to have two feet on the ground again! I’m grateful for the beautiful mild summer and I’m grateful to have somebody I love to sit on the porch swilling Bloody Marys with.

Hell, I’m just proud to be here. I may look fatter and I may look like the fashion police should wrestle me to the ground. But at least I don’t look like I got no tomatoes.

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