Monday, August 24, 2009

The Quest

Tomato season is upon us, and like the parched animals of the African plains rushing out to revel in the first rain drops of the rainy season, those of us without our own gardens are making a dash to the local produce stand in search of a good tomato, a red orb that truly tastes the way God intended, not the way grocery stores have convinced us is good enough.

The quest for a good tomato can be a serious endeavor, and no one was more earnest in the search than my stepfather James, a man who worked outside all day and usually came home stinking of sweat and tobacco juice. The driver’s side door of his car, a brown Chevrolet Vega, was covered inside and out with tobacco juice from his halfhearted attempts at spitting out the window as he drove. He had a square jaw and a stubbly beard, and he was on the short side, which may have explained some of his Napoleonic posturing. I despised him after I got to know him, mostly because he never had a kind word for me and found some way to blame all of his troubles with my mother on me. He was the kind of man who could yell at a 10-year-old boy for not petting the cat right.

While James struck fear in me and made me twitch my foot endlessly in a nervous fit, he struck other adults as amazingly immature and petulant. James had grown up in South Georgia, on a farm, and his country credentials were even more bona fide than anyone else’s in my family. This was a man who had to have fresh vegetables on his plate every day, no matter what, a notion that seemed extreme to those of us who grew up eating Hamburger Helper and salisbury steak TV dinners during the week. He wanted his meals the way “Big Momma,” as she was known to her family, cooked them, and bless her heart, my momma was never going to get it right.

James had a particular obsession with tomatoes, considered the Holy Grail of vegetables by many in the South. Those who have eaten only the bland, mealy pink tomatoes from the grocery store won’t understand what a man like James wanted in a tomato. We grew our own every summer, of course, and they were fine tomatoes. But if our vines hadn’t produced a particularly good crop, or if we were on the fringes of the fresh tomato season, James would often go on his quest. Any time we were driving around, his eyes would be peeled for roadside produce stands with bright red, plump tomatoes, and he wasn’t shy about trying to get tomatoes right out of a man’s garden. I once was in the back seat of the car, listening with some interest as my mother and James discussed whether I could watch “All in the Family” on television that night. I wanted to, and James never gave any thought to what I watched before, but for some reason he was deciding that “All in the Family” was too adult for me. It was actually, and I didn’t get half the jokes. But I still wanted to watch it, and I was about to join in and start whining when James slammed on the brakes and pulled the car over to the side of the road. My mother dropped cigarette ashes on herself and let out a little yell while I was thrown forward into the seat in front of me. My mother and I looked up to see what was wrong, and I thought somehow James had anticipated my whining and had pulled over so he could yell at me more effectively. Then James suddenly exclaimed “Tomatoes!”

We looked off in the direction where he was gazing, his hands still tightly clenching the steering wheel. My mother had just a moment to say, “Oh James, I don’t know...” before he had flung the door open and was striding off toward the vegetable patch in some fellow’s back yard. My mother and I just sat there. We both knew what he was doing. I was mortally embarrassed to be in the car as my stepfather walked up to a perfect stranger and offered to buy tomatoes, but I had seen it many times before. It wasn’t that buying tomatoes from someone’s garden was such an absurd idea; once the vines started producing well, most people were glad if you took a sackful off their hands. But I knew what James was like, with everybody.
We just sat there and watched, my mother smoking her cigarette quietly and me hunkering down in the back seat in case anyone I knew came by. James made his way up a small hill in the front yard and over to where the man was working in his garden. We couldn’t hear any of the interaction, but we could tell exactly what was happening. The man greeted James in a friendly way, but with an expression that asked why this stranger was approaching him with such determination. James asked for some tomatoes, probably in a nice way at first, but then the man shook his head no. I slunk down a little lower in my seat. James reached for his wallet and started to pull out some money, and the man continued to shake his head no and put up his hand to fend off James’s money. That’s where James lost his temper and started shouting at the man, waving his arms frantically and probably calling him lots of names that he wouldn’t repeat at church. James turned sharply and started marching back to us, still swearing at the man and by now turning beet red with fury. The innocent tomato grower stood there looking perplexed and angry, his morning no doubt sullied by this tomato-seeking madman. James jumped in the car and slammed the door, screaming “Damn fool wouldn’t sell me any tomatoes even after I offered him five dollars for just three of ‘em! Can you believe that? I was going to give him five dollars for three damn tomatoes and he wouldn’t do it!”

We frequently went off on tomato-seeking expeditions, with me and my brother in the back seat, bored and hot because James didn’t believe in using the air conditioner. James would tear through the county’s back roads, drinking a succession of Miller beers that came in tiny little bottles he would hold between his legs as he drove. It was typical for him go through a dozen on a single tomato expedition, reaching out and slinging them over the car’s roof and onto the side of the road when he finished each one. His driving would get wilder as the trip progressed until we were racing through the county, James finding offense in the way every other driver got in his way and slingshotting the Chevrolet around them with a curse. I tended to just go into my own world and start daydreaming, occasionally looking up to see what would happen when James went charging up someone’s front yard, beer on his breath and a wildly insincere smile on his face, to inquire about tomatoes. I believe the people who said no were just trying to get him out of their yards and would have gladly given him some tomatoes if only they had known that would get rid of him faster.

But at least it wasn’t as bad as the family of a little girl I knew at school whose mother was always looking for snow. At the first mention of possible snow flurries, Amy’s mother would pile the family into their station wagon and start driving into the North Georgia mountains and on into Tennessee and the Carolinas. The children loved it the first few times, since snow was a wondrous, rare occurrence to us, but then they started getting scared by their mother’s snow obsession. If she were successful in finding snow -- or more likely just ice -- they would end up sliding all over the icy roads in their station wagon, Amy and her brothers unbelted and sloshing around in the big car. Amy would tell me about their snow trips, and I could imagine her and her brothers sliding from side to side in the station wagon, terrified looks on their faces and desperately trying to grab anything to hold onto as the car sashayed to and fro on the icy roads, wheels spinning and Mom up front with a look of glee on her face. Ever since the time they got stuck outside Chattanooga and had to sleep in a Salvation Army shelter, Amy was cautious about getting in the car with her mother when the weather was cold.

James continued swearing at the man as we drove away, the big blue Chevrolet kicking up gravel as we lurched back onto the road. He cursed the man all the way home and was still angry about it when we got there. At dinner, he grumbled the whole time about how his cube steak was no good without tomatoes, and he found a way to yell at me for the way I held my fork. That night, about 9 p.m., after it had gotten dark, James said he had to go to the store and just walked out of the house. The next morning, there were three tomatoes on the kitchen counter. I was sure they didn’t come from the store.

I will eat a fine tomato this evening, and I will take the time to ponder the lengths a man will go to for such a simple pleasure.