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"Tomato Cages," short story excerpt

Sunday 10/17/21

“Did you get paid?” my mother would ask me after I got home from Mrs. Bannerman’s house, the first thing out of her mouth. Not a “Oh, hey, you’re back, nice to see you, how was it?” Always “Did you get paid?” as if there were a familial till into which I was meant to deposit my earnings of an afternoon so that pa could afford that replacement milch cow because Old Betsy was fading fast and next week we’d have to put her down, only we lived in the suburbs, and it wasn’t 1861.


“Yes, she paid me,” I told her, feeling like I was sitting on my own tongue to stop it from moving as much as it wanted to. It felt more above board to put it that way, rather than, “I got paid.” There’s something about pronouns that shifts responsibility, but leaves the actual meaning all alone.


Mrs. Bannerman was only thirty-seven, and her husband had died. Which is not the way I would have put it, but rather how it was talked about. He was in his forties, looked like he was twenty-eight. Taught English, and had around 5000 books. Actually had 5000 books. I was making a list of them—titles, authors, publication date, condition, as if I was an estate assessor and had a clue when I scribbled down, “Fair to Good, light damage to flyleaf”—so that Mrs. Bannerman would know what she had, go to a dealer, or an appraiser, or someone who would know, and sell the books so that she’d never have to see them again.


That’s how she put it to me. I’d wonder if you really saw a book, or anything, if you didn’t open it, even though there it was, and you could note the size and color, just like I’d wonder if she ever thought that way about people or her husband. There were just the spines on display on so many shelves, out there in the open, but in a limited way all the same. Which is still more than you can say for a lot of people, I guess. The bookcases were built into the walls, and you couldn’t remove them, I assumed, without knocking down the whole house, that’s how ingrained they seemed, part of the integral structure of the place. Those shelves would have looked weird to me just staring you back in the face all naked, and each day when I went through another fifty books, it was like taking off another layer of clothing, the house dangling a new part of itself in front of my eyes. “Look away,” they said. “But also, don’t.” Sometimes, I think, you hear the words you’re not reading.


Mr. Bannerman was one of those people who was always doing something in his yard, as if the inside drove him out, or his own insides did. Harvesting buckets of tomatoes. Staring up at the sky in early evening with a telescope. Running sprints between these mini-orange cones he arranged in a trapezoid pattern. Patching a bike tire. He’d gotten a metal spike and he pounded it with a hammer into the ground in their backyard. I don’t know what a spike like that would have normally been for. Marking off property, I suppose, with twine wrapped around from spike to spike.


There were a couple others of them in a corner of the garage with a Fred Lynn model baseball bat from the 1980s, which is when Mr. Bannerman grew up, and a few tomato cages. The tomato cages seemed to fight each other, like it was impossible to balance them in the same place. They just fell sideways, as if tomato cages were private, solitary beings, like white sharks, but columnar and telescoping, and for the garden, which is as un-ocean-like as you get, though a garden next to an ocean always made sense in my mind. Dueling fecundities. I’d read that sharks make excellent fertilizer, but that just seemed so specialist, like there were people out there who’d want the fine powder of mako bones and guts sprinkled in their garden’s top soil and then they’d maybe reflect on a shark having his hunt as they bit into a cucumber in their salad at dinner.


I was aware more or less what Mr. Bannerman had done, so it followed that those were the kinds of spikes. For all I knew one of them was the actual spike. He hammered it into the ground upside down, so that the pointed part was what he hit with the sledgehammer and which stuck up into the air, and he threw himself on it. Took a running start, got some altitude, came down in an arc. It was the arc that threw me in a different way. The trajectory aspect. The cuspy-ness. “Here, at this side of the arc, just as it starts, I am one thing. In the middle I am another. And now, as I travel downwards, I am about to be something else.” I was on some kind of a cusp. Fifteen-years-old. You want to privatize your thoughts about how you think the world works, as if you really get it and other people only sort of get it at best, but you’ll still race to your dad, for the calling in of the big guns, when there’s this reality that you don’t want to be a reality. You need it explained always as something else.


So I asked my dad as to the validity of this report, which was akin to a rumor that eventually trickled down to you, like run-off in the water table, and he said, “Everything is an arc,” as if he both couldn’t be bothered to go into the tautly braided mysteries of life, but then again, he had, that was all of it, and what more could he say?


My dad’s dad had told me this story once about a neighbor of his that he mentored. My grandfather was a lawyer who did some teaching himself. The neighbor had all of these guns, and my grandfather told me that he got this weird vibe, like he wasn’t just a collector, or even mostly a collector. But what can you do or say?


“There isn’t anyone you’re ever really going to know,” he said to me.


My dad had passed through the room and overhead that bit. “Dad,” he said, one of those one-word rebukes, as though I’d just been taught a word that no one in your family should be teaching you, especially if you’re a child, like once when my grandmother told me that moolinyan was Italian for eggplant and what Italians used to call Black people, with it turning out that the first part wasn’t even true, which I believe was the point of her lesson in linguistics. My grandfather apologized. It was a decorum apology, not a “wait, that’s not close to true, I spoke incorrectly,” mea culpa.


I wanted to ask him if anyone ever really knew themselves either, but I was actually scared he’d say, “rarely,” or “no, never,” or, perhaps worst of all, “only when it’s too late,” and there are some things you’d rather learn later on, when hopefully you won’t have to learn them that way then, because you’d already skirted the problems they’d posed with other discoveries you’d made.


The acolyte guy invited my grandfather over for dinner, and my grandfather was going to say something—after they talked about the law and Dean Martin because they were each passionate about both, and my grandfather was a diehard believer in easing you in—about how maybe he should talk to someone, that kind of thing was more accepted now, it didn’t mean he was weak, all of that. My grandfather goes over the house, has all of these excellent intentions. The man didn’t come to his door, so my grandfather goes in. He smells something cooking. Lasagna. Some pasta dish. He walks towards the kitchen. The lasagna wasn’t baking—it was out on the table, with a salad. There was a bottle of wine, glasses, a couple of plates set. The man was in one of the chairs at the table and the whole side of his head was gone, because he’d shot himself. My grandfather always insisted on cutting his own grass even when he had plenty of money, so I wasn’t sure if that’s what he’d been doing and why he hadn’t heard the shot. And he also listened to the baseball games with his radio cranked, which I assumed was an old man thing, but it might have gone back into the past and his middle aged years. He didn’t speak to that, though. He just said two last things to me on the subject.


“I couldn’t believe that he had made the lasagna,” was the first. Which he followed up with—such that I could barely hear him—“But I bet he could.”


And that, as I understood it, was supposed to be everything. And that may be the only story that anyone has ever told me where I was certain from the first that I hadn’t missed any part of it, even as it was beyond me. Some stories are stories you can say back to someone else, pass it on, as it were. Other stories feel their way into you. They lodge, no matter your intellect or your intentions of how open or closed-minded you’ve decided to be. That was a lodge story.