It’s time to plant tomatoes. I saved seeds from my perfect little yellow pear-shaped gems last fall, and it’s time to start them again on the windowsill. This will be the second year I’ve managed success from tomato seeds, and I feel the joy of accomplishment. Hopefully they’ll be as sweet and plentiful as they were last year.
Cherry tomatoes make me think of Mr. Lutsch, who summer gardened on several acres next door when I was growing up. He was a horrible man, and I was glad he only lived there in the summers. My sister said he was from Transylvania, but I’m pretty sure he was an ex-SS German officer, or maybe Mengela’s evil twin – but he did grow very good tomatoes. He put baskets of his excess bounty on a small table flaking lead white paint by the road with a box for people to put money in in exchange for the produce. When the weather was still nice, I passed that flaking table every school day on the way to the bus stop.
I coveted the tomatoes. I burned inside for them. I think the main reasons I wanted them so badly is because they were verboten and because I hated the man so much. Before you think of me as simply a hateful child, you’ve got to realize that Lutsch was the type to get girls to climb trees so he could look up their skirts and tried to touch them when offering candy. Bad man. He deserved to get his tomatoes stolen, but I lacked courage to swipe them when he strategically placed that peeling table in view of his house across the street. My sister and I would discuss taking them, but it took Melanie to accomplish the deed.
I could write novels about Melanie. She was a colorful child, and let’s just say she had some anger issues she needed to work out. She lacked the normal sense of boundaries or a full understanding of cause and effect. It was probably a good thing that she was my sister’s best friend because otherwise she might’ve been mine, and then who knows how much trouble I would’ve found myself in. As it was, I was sometimes allowed on the periphery of Melanie’s exploits, and sometimes got tomatoes. Melanie was generous. We ran and laughed while German cuss words floated through the air behind us, and we ate stolen fruit at the bus stop.
Ironically, there wasn’t any need to steal tomatoes. We all had gardens with tomatoes in the back yards. We wanted Lutsch’s tomatoes. We wanted to make him hurt for looking up our skirts, or maybe for what he did at Auschwitz. I looked in the money box a couple of times. I was curious to see how much he was earning, but I never took his money. In my convoluted child thinking, I thought taking the money was wrong, but taking his yield was justice.
Lutsch and his codependent wife lived extraordinarily long lives, both living over 100. Maybe we helped by giving him extra exercise running after tomato thieves? I have to admit that I felt renewed irritation with him when the paper printed a celebratory article about the couple's 75th wedding anniversary. Melanie didn’t fare as well. She was killed by her husband a few years ago. She never did seem to get over her anger issues, or learn the value of cause and effect, but who would’ve thought that she’d be murdered?
This is a sad ending, but I like to think of those happy moments when Lutsch was yelling “Ach, ach, ach!!” (plus some words that I suspect were truly colorful in the German language) and the feeling of running effortlessly with Melanie when we were fresh-faced, laughing girls. I remember the best of Melanie when I eat cherry tomatoes, and my saved tomato seeds will ensure that my garden reminds me of her often this summer.