Before the tomato season

She blinked once, twice. Bent rectangles of light stretched across the ceiling. Once, twice. With hands splayed on sheets, she inhaled deeply, listening to the sound of her own breath. Mornings, for her, were always a time unbroken. She could be as buoyant as air, immune to the wear of past hours. Her gaze remained on the quiet shapes above. She thought only of sunlight, and she was still.

But it was time to get up. Hans, her son, would soon ring the bell, bringing yet another set of relator’s forms he needed signed. He had seen her walk around sleep-eyed before, but today she wanted to look nice. So then: thin legs off the side of the bed, hands reaching for slippers, nightgown riding up—indecently, she thought, looking at the blue veins and the fish-belly skin of her upper thigh. She smoothed her white hair with her fingers and dabbed her wrists with oil from the lavender-scented bottle on the bedside table. The colorful dress she pulled from the back of the closet slipped loosely over her shoulders, and she hummed as she fixed the creases.

In the kitchen, she busied herself with the faded steel kettle on the stove, and popped two slices of bread into the toaster oven. She wiped crumbs from the counter with a dishcloth and rinsed the mug she had left on the table the night before. Her husband used to scold her for letting tea go cold, but in the house where she had lived for forty-six years, every step was taken out of habit. She knew Hans would ask why she was not already packing, why everything was still in its place, but she did the morning crossword at her usual pace. In an extravagant gesture, she put two-and-a-half spoons of sugar in her tea.

Her feet took her into the garden, behind the mint patch to the plastic table, beneath which the watering can lay. She grasped the spout and walked past what used to be red peppers and radishes. Most vegetable plants had not sprouted since the bad rain a few years prior, but besides the weeds, the slender tomato stalks still brushed against the fence. For a moment, she thought of the slippery sundried fruit soaked in olive oil, and the colorful salads that used to adorn the dinner table. Today, the plants’ leaves looked slightly wilted in the sun, but when she checked the undersides for diseased spots, they were clean. Two months from now, by the middle of June, the tomatoes would be ripe. There was time still.

The whining electric bell sounded three times in succession—Hans had arrived. He had said he would come at nine to finalize the house’s sale, and he was not a minute late. By the time she reached the door, he had already started knocking, and when she opened it wide, he entered with the usual flurry: quick stride forward, perfunctory kiss on the cheek, coat flung on the chair.

“Hey, Mom, nice to see you,” he said, already headed to the kitchen. He rummaged in the cabinet in search of the stainless-steel coffee maker he had bought for her birthday last year. With his instruction, she had learned how to use it, but she preferred her tea, so it returned to the cabinet after each one of her son’s visits. Hans, pleased with his find, turned toward her: “You been well?”

“The same as usual,” she replied, waiting for him to sit at the living-room table. He found some old coffee grinds, sniffed them discontentedly, and filled the machine to the brim.

“Mary-Anne’s in Sag Harbor with the kids, but she says hello. They’re coming back on Tuesday, so she might swing by next week.”

“Lovely. Tell her to bring the kids when she comes.”

In his blue suit and white pressed shirt, Hans looked authoritative. But he functioned, she thought, like a motor stuck on high-speed that, sooner or later, had to give out. His leather shoes were scuffed on the end and she wanted to straighten his unkempt hair, perhaps give it a trim. But they were past those days. She wondered where he had learned to talk so loudly, like a man who has to prove his size.

“It looks like you haven’t started clearing yet,” he said, taking large steps around the living room, looking at the small cuckoo clock, the mail-in rebates piled up by the television, and the framed photos on the wall. The pictures had lost much of their color, but the faces were all still there: her brother waving from the first car he bought, her grandmother yelling about the state of the union, her parents kissing on the beach. Hans was there too, with his favorite striped t-shirt and a gap-toothed grin; he was perched on the knee of an unsmiling man with a pair of oversized wire-frame glasses—Aidan, Hans’s father, had never been good in front of cameras.

“When are you going to start?” Hans asked, standing in front of his mother.

She looked at him. “When it’s needed. Sit down and have your coffee.” The house had been the same for generations, ever since her own parents had walked in with every scrap they owned stuffed into boxes. Several kids later, they had accumulated an endless supply of wind-up soldiers, motheaten sweaters, and folders bulging with papers. The family always intended to throw out old documents, but once the gold-trimmed certificates and requisite health reports settled into the attic dust, they were there for good. The became fixed to the small, triangular room, as much part of the space as the peeling walls and the rocking chair someone had left there years before.

Hans did not understand these collected generations, she mused, as he stalked off to the kitchen. He never met his grandmother, who passed early, and the house had not changed much since the family’s arrival. She and Aidan had tried to decorate after the others had left. A bouquet here, some off-white trimming there; that was all.

She watched her son move around the kitchen. He pulled out a mug and was reaching for the handle of the coffee maker when his knuckle touched the metal: “Fucking hell!” He shoved the offended finger into his mouth. She wondered if his children heard him swear like that, or if they saw him little, now that his office days were so long.

“Are the girls doing well in school?” she asked, trying to placate him.

He took the finger out of his month, looked at the reddened skin, and sighed. “Mira’s got a real knack for science, and all the teacher’s write that she’s such a good kid. The younger one’s not focused, but Mary-Ann makes her get her homework done, so at least she comes back with half-decent grades.”

“She’ll work it out. My mother used to say the youngest kids always think they can get away with more, but they’re the street-smart ones in the end,” she said. She thought of Hans in his room, sitting by himself for hours. The teachers never liked him, but he was good with his hands, building model cars and fixed broken gadgets with the toolkit his father had left for him. She wondered if she could have helped him more.

Hans brought his coffee to the table, and as it cooled, he looked up at her expectantly. “Ma, did you hear what I said?”

Had there been a question?

“We have to get the forms finalized. There are waivers and contracts and all kinds of files that you need to look over. Did you look at the developer’s plan I left here last time?”

She got up to tidy the kitchen, though everything was already in place. “To be frank, I haven’t had a chance.”

“What do you mean you haven’t had a chance?” he said stiffly. “I’ve been on the phone for hours each week to try to arrange this right, but you’re too busy doing your crosswords, or something.”

She snatched up his coffee mug and headed to the kitchen sink. She let the water run of her hands for a few minutes before she spoke: “I know they’re going to take down the house. What about the rest?”

He looked at her. “The rest of what?”

“Will they dig up my garden?”

“They’re trying to maximize the number of apartments they can get.”

She unscrewed the coffee maker and pulled out the cleaning bristles.

“We’ll get more money out of it that way.”

If only she could go back to that first moment of morning, when she was unfathomably light and alone. She wished that Hans would leave so that she could climb back under the covers and wait, with her eyes closed, for the feeling to return.

“What am I supposed to tell the guy when he calls me up and asks if you’ve signed off?” he said, standing so that she would face him.

She did not move. “Tell him I’ll do it after the tomato season.”

“When’s that supposed to be?” Hans asked, but his mother had already dropped the kitchen sponge and turned toward the back door. She retreated into the garden, pulling her sweater around her as she walked. In the middle of the plants and weeds, she looked at all her years of work. The hard, green fruits looked the same; hidden between the leaves, they waited for summer. What she wanted most was to pluck one straight from the branch, to bite into it whole. With her hands wrapped around her sides, she tasted the sweet juice filling her mouth.

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