The Man With the Round Tomatoes in the Square Basket
by Melissa Mulvihill
The man at the roadside stand with the round tomatoes in the square woven baskets is re-arranging every tomato we pick up to scrutinize for maximum summer freshness. And he is scowling while we sniff his produce. He is shuffling and pacing behind his folding table grimly eyeing us with a muttering sort of agitation that rolls right off him and onto me.
“Are any of these riper than others?” Dennis inquires making an obvious effort to be neighborly.
The man snatches the tomato out of Dennis’s hands and replies angrily, “You’re lucky to get any at all with the growing season this year. And don’t touch my tomatoes. People keep picking up my tomatoes and then putting them back down and the edges of my tomatoes are getting smashed and bruised. Don’t do that.”
I feel like this man is not sure he likes the ending he is being given or he is mistaken that he has reached his ending. Maybe he’s agonizing over his diminished cosmic presence or maybe his farm was slaughtered by the tariffs and the #NoPlant19 season that ravaged Ohio this year. This man is not for keeping and he is determined to ensure that his little woven square baskets stay balanced and overloaded each with four huge tomatoes. His hands are for wringing and his brow for pained furrowing. He is quick to tell us that the baskets are his and not ours for the taking and he immediately fills the empty little basket with four more large tomatoes whose edges will need constant guarding from the people who come to touch and smell the fragrant tomatoes he nurtured and tended to and hovered over.
I am not born all at once. I come into the world through a series of moments that are like the hours in which I sit up in bed like someone has called out my name loud and strong and with urgency. I swallow the silence while we stand here at this farm stand and listen to the man add up what we owe him for our corn, peaches, and tomatoes and I know why I always think that midnight smells like paper and why I cannot manufacture certainty where there is none and I know why I can tell that I am real.
When my hand reaches for him Dennis receives it like he always knew I would be reaching out to him in that moment so he could remind me that, no, we were not consumed by the combustion of things we could not change. I squeeze his hand back telling him that he did not turn me into things he needed through it all. His hand swallows mine and I pull my fingers into a ball, the press of my touch saying that the next time we see the face of the man who keeps four round tomatoes in teeny square baskets it will be a cliff, a permanent edge. Dennis holds my fingers in the way he does and I think he disagrees with me. When he strokes my wrist the trace of his convictions reminds me that humans have a tremendous capacity to rearrange the same things over and over to seem different. While we walk to the car the warmth of his palm assures me that salvation is usually a last minute business.
On the way home, What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes sails on the sweet, humid air and I know why my edges are not permanently smashed and bruised. Here I can see what I love. I know I am for keeping. Even if I rearrange things for a good long while or go a painfully long time between moments in which I am born.
“That. Was not about tomatoes,” he states like he’s telling me that air is for breathing or that, of course, he sees the same color blue I see. Like we are fact.
“No. It was not about tomatoes at all,” I agree.
The rest of the way home his hand holds mine as if he’s certain that midnight will always smell like paper to me, as if certainty does not matter, as if I am real.
About the Author
Melissa writes from northeast Ohio where she lives with her husband, her sons, 18 and 23, and her dog, Luna. She has been published in multiple issues of The Blue Nib Literary Magazine, The Blue Nib Intermission, The Write Launch Literary Magazine, Poet's Haven Digest, Strange Land Anthology, The Distance Between Insanity and Genius Anthology, The Dark and Stormy Night Anthology, and the Feminine Collective. Her poem, Your Phone Call, appeared in The Blue Nib 2017 Anthology. She graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in psychology and from John Carroll University with an M.A. in counseling.