Mr. Svoboda reaches his withered hands toward the trays of tomatoes that the woman has pointed to. Alice, she said her name was, or Alicia. He’s already forgotten, but the woman’s name is not important to Mr. Svoboda. She’s here in his greenhouse to buy his tomato plants, and that is what matters most. Nothing matters more than tomatoes.
The trays are made up of plastic squares, four compartments to a tray, with one set of wispy, green leaves in each square. Mr. Svoboda takes two trays in each hand, heaving them from the floor. But as he sets them on the work table, he falters, and they slip from his hands.
Alice reaches in. “Let me help you with that.”
“I got it. I got it!” he barks. She steps back, and his heart softens. But he doesn’t apologize for his tone. She can handle the tomatoes after she’s paid for them. Until then, they’re still his. He makes a guttural noise in his throat, leans over, and spits into the soil at the base of each plant. Alice jumps again, her eyes wide. Mr. Svoboda laughs.
“A trick I took from my father,” he explains. “Gives them just the right amount of salt. Most Americans don’t know this trick.”
Alice smiles and asks if Mr. Svoboda’s wife cans the tomatoes during the summer.
He snorts. “I can them,” he says, pointing to his chest. “Now, what else would you like?”
Alice explains that she came just for tomatoes, but Mr. Svoboda lives in a more specific world than this. He can’t fathom that she’d drive so far into the countryside for only the two varieties she’s already taken. He moves through the rows, pointing and naming each plant: Brandywine, Early Girl, Roma, Sweet 100. She asks for some Early Girls and Roma. Mr. Svoboda suspects that this is an arbitrary selection, but he bends down painfully and collects them anyway. There’s no harm in randomly trying different types. All of his tomatoes are good.
He asks if she wants any Black Krim as well. “Most people, they come for the Black Krim,” he says. “Good for your health. People who eat Black Krim, they live very long lives.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of them.”
He grins and claps his hands together. This is an unexpected opportunity to evangelize. “I have grown them for many years. They were my wife’s favorite. Take a plant along. No charge.”
Alice tries to tell him that he’s too generous, but he’s already placed not one, but two plants in the cardboard box along with the others. “I still have some Black Krim in the freezer inside. Last season’s, still good for soup, salsa, whatever you want. I’ll get you some.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s no trouble. I got all the time in the world.” He shuffles through the greenhouse and holds the door open for Alice. “Take that box to your car. I’ll meet you out front.”
Alice takes her tomato plants and walks around the side of the house. Mr. Svoboda goes inside and pulls some tomatoes from the freezer, the icy plastic bags stinging his fingers. He walks through the house, past yellowing family photos, and steps outside.
Just as he emerges into the sunlight, he feels something strange and horrible. Like someone has reached inside his chest and squeezed his heart to the point of bursting. It’s a maddening, sickening pain that makes his eyes widen in surprise. The bags slip from his hands and fall to the concrete patio like bricks, and Mr. Svoboda falls beside them. He looks from them into the sunlight to see a woman standing over him.
“My God,” he says. “Marlena.” Didn’t Marlena die twenty years ago or more? And yet, here she is, as though no time has passed at all. Mr. Svoboda smiles, but his wife is shouting. Frantic. “Marlena, what’s the matter?” The words come to his mind, but he doesn’t know if he’s saying them or not.
“Mr. Svoboda!” the woman shouts, shaking his shoulder. “Mr. Svoboda, stay with me!”
This makes the man smile again, Marlena’s calling him Mr. Svoboda like that. She does that from time to time. “Yes, Mrs. Svoboda. I will stay with you.” He’s never felt more content, but Marlena is still upset, still shouting.
“Mr. Svoboda, I’ll call someone!”
She turns away, but Mr. Svoboda reaches for her hand, which is soft and cool and reminds him of those glorious spring days when he and Marlena worked side by side in the garden. He suddenly remembers how nice it is to be near her, how much sweeter the tomatoes taste when they eat them together.
“Please, Marlena. Everything is all right. Look — the tomatoes are ready.” All around them are rows of perfect, deep purple tomatoes bathed in sunlight. “The Black Krim are your favorite. And they give such long life,” he reminds her. They each take one from the vine and eat them as they sit together under the rich, blue sky that stretches to infinity.
Mary Caffrey Knapke is a freelance writer and English tutor in Ohio. Her work has appeared in print and online publications, and she is currently at work on a novel. She also blogs about Irish music at whilethesunsmiles.blogspot.com.