Cherry Tomatoes

He looked at me, and I sensed trouble. Like he was checking my distance, like he might try and run off with you.

On the day we broke our contract and were set to leave, we walked to Mr. Jetnil’s house to get back your grandmother’s jade hair clip. It was supposed to look like a sea turtle but it had chipped so much it looked like a baby Buddha to me. I told you this as we walked, reminding you of my joke, but you didn’t laugh.

“I wonder if it’s grown,” I pressed on. “It could be a toddler Buddha now.”
I’m sure you would have preferred to go alone, but Mr. Jetnil probably wouldn’t give it to you without me there. And so I came, whistling when you wouldn’t acknowledge my joke.Only three years before a mysterious fishing boat had washed up on Arno Atoll. It was deserted and in the hold were baggie after baggie of pure cocaine. There weren’t many people on Arno, and so it was given out for free once people realized what it was. Party, party. Eventually, of course, people began to sell it on the main atoll, Majuro. Later, when that coke ran out, there was this whole population of addicts, used to getting it for free, or at least cheaper than loose cigarettes.
Mr. Jetnil was one of the first to find the boat. Because of this, his nose was forever misshapen.The whole sky seemed closer to the islands that day. It was like a blanket and we were the kids beneath—sweating and ready to be done with our game. Mr. Jetnil’s house was about a mile outside of the loose collection of ten or so squat concrete buildings people called Ine Town. His compound was bigger than the others because during the week he taught school, but it was also made of concrete. It was a structure prone to collect mold and dampness—a gift from the Japanese—and he was the only one living there. The rest of his family, his brothers and sisters, mother and father, had all gone to Majuro, the main atoll, looking for work.
Mr. Jetnil was in his vegetable garden when we walked up. He knelt over a head of lettuce like a father over a child—brushing something from its messy cheek. He heard us coming, I’m sure, but he chose not to notice. That was his way. Finally, he tilted his chin high so his vision cleared the brim of his hat. That nose, a thing made of putty, squished in and to the side, always with scabs mounting the nostrils, always startled me. I chose not to look and instead focused on his neck. The skin was taught around the point of his Adam’s apple because of how he was looking up.
“Iokwe,” he said.
You didn’t say anything so I had to step in.
“Hello,” I said. He chuckled to himself and looked back down at his lettuce as if the vegetable understood him best. From around its base he scooped up two handfuls of dirt. It was fine and rich chocolate in color.  Rumors was it had been shipped it in on containers to cover the hard, coral rocks by a non-profit in California. Without the imported dirt, those coral rocks that made up the atolls were salt-caked life-suckers. Only a few locals, like the hearty coconut and breadfruit, had any chance to grow naturally. He stood up, releasing the dirt as he did. The mist of it clouded the knee-high air, dropping right on the face of the lettuce. Some of the dirt stayed in his knuckles and around his nails.
“I was hoping you would come,” he said. I was surprised that he wasn’t surprised. “I can heat up coffee. Come inside?”
We followed him around the edge of his house and beyond to the room that was a classroom during the week. He pushed open the door but did not enter. He motioned for us to go inside. We went in, one after the other, pausing and holding onto the doorframe to kick off our sandals from our sweaty feet, standing close enough to Mr. Jetnil to hear the whistle from his nose on every breath.
“Sit, sit,” he said from the doorway. “I’ll be back with coffee.”
It was hot and muggy like every other day at the equator and so it was normal, unnoticeable, only I remember it now in the tiny beads of sweat that bubbled on your neck and above your upper lip.
Then you spoke in a voice small enough to fit in a gum wrapper, “Wow, would you look at those?” You pointed out the window. Outside, five or six piglets chased their mother around, jumping for a teat.
“They’ll grow up to be on a spit,” I said.
“Yeah, I used to like it.”
“I remember. I’d go door to door looking for someone having a kemim, or birthday, or anything that required a pig roasting on a spit.”
“Pregnant women can be crazy.”
“You can be crazy,” I said.
You gave me a dirty look and leaned back in your chair. Your shirt pulled tightly over your chest. Your breasts were still huge. “Look,” I said, “we can go. Look at me. We can go right now. Who cares about that clip? It doesn’t matter.”
You studied your hands and sucked air over your teeth. I’d said the wrong thing again. For a while that atoll was The Atoll of Wrong Things Said. “Do you ever feel like we’re giving up?”
“We could stay,” I told you even though we could never stay. I just needed to be the strong one. You needed that from me. Ever since you told me on that night we lay on the beach in a haze—me drunk on XXXX Australian Larger, you spinning from your third vodka-Sprite—I needed to be the one in control.
“No, we can’t stay,” you said. You looked back out the window, squinting because of the sun.
“Yes, we could,” I said in monotone, tiring over the repetition. That could have been my biggest fault, a refusal to play my part properly. “We could stay. There’s still a lot to do.”
You stared at me, telling me something with your tired eyes that I had trouble translating. I wondered if your eyes would ever look young again, but I knew they wouldn’t. Eyes, after all, are terrible trinket buyers in the vacation of life.The night we first came to the island to start our two years of service, we lay side-by-side sweating perfect shadows of ourselves into the bed sheets that smelled of dirt. This little hut would be our home and it seemed fizzy with excitement. I blew air on you. You were naked. I started at your belly and moved up to your face.
“That feels nice,” you said.
“Does it?” I asked, and blew harder.
“It’s an oven here. Give me a kiss.”
I leaned in and blew into your mouth, inflating your cheeks.
“Holy shit,” you tried to say, but your words were blocked by my mouth.
I rolled off the bed, laughing.
“I’m going to kill you.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“You about blew my nipples off.”
And then you were laughing too. We used to do things like that.Mr. Jetnil came back with a kettle and three cups, each already with a little mound of coffee crystals in the bottom. Remember how everyone loved hot coffee there? Could be a hundred degrees outside and people would still kill for a cup of joe. We sipped slowly and ripped off dense hunks of Mr. Jetnil’s sweet bread.
“I’m growing something new,” Mr. Jetnil said. He stared off into the middle distance with slack, unfocused eyes. “I’m growing cherry tomatoes.”
I coughed and because you wouldn’t say anything, I did. “That’s a strange thing to grow here,” I said. On this island so strapped for food, wouldn’t it be better to grow something bigger? Potatoes? “Have you had success?”
Mr. Jetnil didn’t answer for a long time and I let my eyes wander to the grey cement floor with the road-map cracks in it, to the cement-chipped walls, to the single pane windows caked at the edges with green mold. “I hope the cherry tomato will grow better and sweeter,” he finally said.
He looked at me, and I sensed trouble. Like he was checking my distance, like he might try and run off with you.
“Genny, you need to listen to me,” he said. “I should have been told, I should have known.”
You took one more drink of your coffee and then let the cup drop. “Ouch,” you said, even though the coffee had cooled by then. “I burned my fucking lip.”
Your cup smashed and your coffee spilled. You couldn’t see it, because you were already slamming the door, already escaping Mr. Jetnil, but it spread like a long tongue licking the floor.
“It’s OK,” Mr. Jetnil said. He stayed in his chair, his eyes latched to the absence of you. “It’s OK. Will she be OK?”
“Yes,” I said. “She needed the bathroom.”
“It’s OK,” he whispered to himself, and still, he stared at the space you once held.
♦◊♦
We came to volunteer teach because we were planning on getting married and settling down and how much adventure could be had in that? So you found the program and I signed on and they flew us to remote coral atolls to teach the populations youth how to speak English.
The only two white people on the island, Ripalles they called us, and there was nowhere to get away. How could we expect fights? How was that even a possibility? There was nothing around us, nobody who even spoke our language except old Mr. Jetnil who’d learned while working in the Tyson Chicken Plant in Arkansas in his 20’s. And yet you remember those bickering fights? It was like we were competing to see who was there the most. In the moment. Embracing the culture, learning the slang. As if that was the biggest thing.
I’ll admit I was more militant than you. I refused to watch American DVD’s that people sometimes showed on small TVs running off car batteries. I sometimes insistend on speaking my broken Marshallese to you even when you were tired, and just wanted to be comforted in English. I didn’t eat any of the dried and canned food your mother sent to us in a care package. Not even when you made a feast of it. I was wrong in that, I know.
So we decided to take a break. As best we could. Well I guess it should be said that I wanted the break. You have always made sure I remember that, and I do.
I slept on the floor of the hut and you the bed. We tried to spend most of the day apart from each other and then every night, in our close, humid hut, we’d listen to each other’s breaths and be just that much closer to forgiveness.
And then the island boys offered me a two-week fishing trip. They were after sea turtles for the chief’s birthday and while I didn’t believe in killing sea turtles, I did believe that just a little bit of real distance would save us.
You spent almost every day of those two weeks I was away in Mr. Jetnil’s house.I stood up. We were the worst of houseguests—bringing messes and drama in one swoop, heartbreak and regret in one smashed cup.
“We’re flying out,” I said.
“When?”
“End of the week.” It was only 11 months into the two years we’d committed to. We wouldn’t get back the deposit. And how was I supposed to feel towards this man with his fried nose? Jealousy, anger, disgust, or guilt? A mixture of all, I’m sure. But what proportions? It had to be just right, I knew that even in the moment Genny, because you would be able to read and judge just from my face. “We have to leave,” I said quietly, my breath stolen.
“I knew this.” He knelt over the broken pieces of your cup. Picked each one up and dropped it into his empty one. They clinked as they fell, and his fingers were shaking. He looked old, Mr. Jetnil, so how was I supposed to know his appeal to you? How could I have known he would be a threat? I’d have sooner expected it from my grandfather than our old, funny principal—his nose a disgusting used tissue of skin. My guess is that he truly loved you, and you noticed this.
He was picking up the glass pieces carefully but there were smaller shards that were too tiny to get all of, but still big enough to cut a bare foot. I hope he went through with a broom before kids came back for class.
I don’t know why, but I kept talking. “After losing it and everything… I’m sorry about the teaching contract.”
He stopped his work and stood up. He looked at me. He was amused, can you believe it? “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “If that’s the thing you are worried about then don’t. You can always come back and teach again too. Our children still need help.”
The way he said our children raked my spine. “Have you seen Genny’s hairclip?” I asked him. “She thinks she has left it.”
He ignored me. “Tell Genevieve goodbye for me.”
“You did this,” I told him. “This is all because of what you did.”
“You should not have left, it is—”
I didn’t let him finish. I pushed him hard in his chest so he tripped over a chair and lay tangled on the cement floor. I heard his head smack the floor, Genny, and it’s a sound I won’t forget. I rushed to his back room and yanked out drawer after drawer from a big armoire that must have been a hundred years old. I’d never seen anything like it on the island before. Mr. Jetnil was crying. I heard him saying, “oh, oh, oh,” over and over again. Then, finally, in a lower drawer I found the hair clip. The turtle come Buddha, and I grabbed it too fast and it flew in the air. It hit the wall and its head came off. Both jade pieces clattered on the floor. I picked them up, the two things that made the one thing you had left with him to twin with the one thing he had left with you, and put them in my pocket. I was sweating. My fingers felt itchy. I came back to the main room and he was standing again. His face was wet. I was breathing so hard, Genny, I didn’t know if I’d live or if I’d just use it all up.
I left and heard him rummaging though the scattered drawers I’d thrown down. I knew he would soon be rolling a joint. That’s how it was with Mr. Jetnil. Only thing to grow like a weed on the atoll, other than weeds, was weed, and he smoked a lot of it. He liked to go to the beach and fall asleep laughing and crying with the clouds moving overhead like prenatal dreams. Shapes of hills and white elephants.
I found you sitting by his tomato garden. You held a limp leaf in your fingers. You were twisting its stem and so it drooped back and forth. The walk home was rough. I held you firm to my side.
“It’s all no good,” I remember you saying. “Goodbyes are no good, I’m no good in this place anymore, and you never were… and the boat ride doesn’t help my nausea.”
“You’ve done fine.” I pulled out the Buddha clip and showed it to you, but it was broken and that wasn’t what you wanted just then. In your eyes I could see how you blamed me, even for this.
The wind whipped up the dirt in the Mr. Jetnil’s cherry tomato garden. It erased the ruts the man’s fingers made running around the bases of the vegetables. Nature, she’s like that with the things we make. It also brought up a warm cloud of dust. It could have seemed just like the fog from back in Oregon, except you could hear the dead, grey, coral rocks crunching beneath our feet, smell the thousands of plants all growing at once, feel the pressure of the heat and water in the air, and a thousand other things squealing, burping, squawking and suckling as is the way in a world completely different from the one you know—all can be vital.
You never asked after the clip again.
—Photo photofarmer/Flickr
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About Timothy S. Lane

Timothy Lane is from small-town Oregon and currently living, working and writing in New York City. His work has appeared in Pology and 4and20 Magazine.

Comments

  1. Justin Cascio says:

    This is such a lovely story, Timothy. The broken comb, like a promise. Thank you for sharing this here.

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