Tomato Juice

By Keegan Trofatter

You see Tomato Head before he sees you. You walk up to the house, the same it has always been: faded red bricks nestled in thick plaster, a cream-colored door layered with a glass one and a screen, a lawn that smells like it has been recently mowed and grass that is somehow still always overgrown. You see Tomato Head before he sees you because his belly sticks out half a second before his eyes do. Tomato Head, most definitely, is all-parts tomato, and no vines. His belly is plump and sloshy, The sun crests rays of light upon it Before his feet round the corner, And enter the garden. His button-up shirt is pulled tightly across his middle Like thin skin. All the juice is kept inside. You look down and kick a piece of gravel that has maneuvered onto the smooth pavement of the driveway. You hear a car door slam, a jingle of keys, and a sigh: your mother. She moves towards him up the path to the house, her arms outstretched. She reminds you of an airplane landing, the way the wings sway in the thick atmosphere, the way the cabin hovers in the suspense of held breaths and silent prayers before touching down to hard earth. They hug. You’ve managed to kick the piece of gravel all the way from one side of the car to the other, successfully— twice. Your mother’s ringing voice calls out your name as you go for your third shot. You miss. Your sneaker skids the ground and knocks you off balance. You look down to see the bright blue rubber scraped to reveal the inner white. The piece of gravel stays where it’s at, laughing. You shuffle to the back of the car, shimmy your duffel bag out from between the seats, and make a big show of slinging it over one shoulder. It’s not really that heavy, but it’s heavier than you would’ve made it if you had packed for yourself. Granted, you’ll probably be grateful for the extra pair of sneakers when the ones you’re wearing get wet or muddy or your toes push the fabric thin. You are grateful for a mother who knows how quickly you can kill a pair of shoes, and who is right about most things. She helped you put your blonde hair into two French braids this morning and made you blueberry pancakes. You would be grateful for that, too, if you knew she wasn’t just buttering you up for what was to come. You try to make eye contact with her now in one last hope that she’ll change her mind. She’s kneeled over petting one of the cats. Last time you visited, you named him Little Brother. A month later, Little Brother had seven kittens. You watch her ringed fingers and manicured nails as they scratch behind Little Brother Mama’s ears. You think about the argument you had in the car, your feet kicking hard into the dashboard in front of you, sending pangs of instant guilt up your legs and into your stomach. You don’t want to move away from the car. Every step is just one closer to losing. You don’t want to make a “scene” because that would mean losing, too. You see no other option than to walk up the path and give Tomato-Head a hug, to respond to his question of how you’ve been with a “pretty good.” You do these things. Your awkward shoulders are like bags of rocks tumbling downwards. It’s the weight of the duffel bag, and it’s something else. You decide that you dislike all greetings—formalities—people. When the “one last hug” and the “waving at the green Ford until it pulls completely out of the driveway, pivots, and bumps away down the gravel path forever” is over, you follow him inside. You make your first stop in your mother’s old bedroom— blue floral wallpaper and a matching blue toilet. The rug is plush, and blue, too. The room has two queen sized beds, a fact which used to blow your mind. There are two closets and space to spare. At least, you imagine there used to be space. Now every spare inch is full of books, dresses, shoe boxes, newspapers, and everything you could ever imagine ordering off the television commercials. There’s a little island of bare bed that seems like it’s been cleared away purposefully, which you assume is yours. You throw your bag down and head for the spiral staircase you just came up, pausing only to press on the electric keyboard in the hall. No sound comes out save for the drum of your fingers on the plastic. Down in the kitchen, he is waiting. “Cranberry or grape?” he asks, gesturing to the row of newly bought juices in the fridge. You think that you would have rather had apple. But at least it’s not prune. You always see other people’s grandparents on the TV trying to get people to drink the godawful stuff. You imagine what it must taste like, and your face shrivels up into a grimace. The ding of the plastic cup on the counter lets you know that he is disappointed. You look up and see that he has his very own frown buried within the wrinkles on his face. You think of explaining the face you made. The idea of prunes. The idea of grandparents. You don’t. “Grape!” you say, adding in some extra nodding to show him you are actually very excited about this option. Silence breaks. He pours it out, carton to cup, and throws in a bendy straw. In the living room, you cuddle up in your grandmother’s plush rocker and sip slowly. He puts on a Shirley Temple movie, and sinks into his Lazy Boy with the newspaper. You keep one eye on Shirley’s feet as they fly across the screen. The other tries to catch him smile. Tomorrow, you will go outside. It is a promise. Tomato-head, most defiantly, lives in the garden. Roots break through the soles of rubber boots, Dirt finds home under fingernails. The backyard is not big, but some mornings you cannot find him. Clippers, shovel, and all, He has buried himself in freshly dewed soil. You yell “Grandpa” three times, running downhill past the apple trees and rows of muscadine plants. You catch him just barely sprouting up aside the rose bushes. You slow down when you see him, and become quiet. He is on his knees in what looks like prayer. When you are two feet away you see he is pulling out leaves among the tall grass. “See this? Great for bug bites.” he says, waving a bundle of the stuff around in the space that separates you. He goes into detail about the plant’s uses and how to spot it. You wonder how it is that everyone in this family knows everything, except you. It becomes hard to listen to him once you’ve realized where you’re standing. You’ve tried to steer clear of the rose bushes since you arrived. Peeking out behind the blossoms, sit dozens of stone figures. They are placed in a semi-circle, facing East. When Nana showed you the stone angels last summer, you thought that you did not like them at all. Their wings were cracked and their faces were streaked vertically with moss and age. You pitied them in their creepiness, and wrote them off as just another one of her “manic” collections. Your mom had used that word a few times when describing your Nana. She had used “hoarder.” You thought of the piles of unopened shoe boxes in the bedroom. She had used “bipolar.” You remembered her sitting you down all serious and emphasizing your role in being understanding. Nana could always recognize when you were upset— or hungry. She could read your mind. She had looked from you, to the angels, and back. She’d explained that when a loved one dies, you have to do something to remember. Her gold ringed finger pointed to an especially small angel towards the center of the bunch. “That’s my cousin Rich,” Nana explained, “he was fifteen years younger than me, bless his heart. Died the winter me and Pop bought this place.” Your chest stirred, and you felt guilty. You couldn’t look the angels in the eyes. You looked at the roses. Pink, red, yellow, white, coral. You count out the colors again, now. They are the same. The leaves are green. Tomato Head’s palms beside you are dark brown. The back of his neck is red. You still can’t look them in the eyes. Tomato-Head can. Sometimes you swear you can even hear him talk to the angels. They are his personal congregation. You think this makes sense as they must be really good listeners. Tomato juice isn’t juice at all, When you think about it. You have to mush up the whole things. And bring them to a boil. Seeds and all. That’s why it’s thick like that. That’s what makes it real. “Is that hers?” your finger points out the newest addition to of the tribe of winged-stone. “No.” Tomato-Head turns red when he is lying. “I don’t like the angels” you say. Tomato-Head turns redder when he is angry. His voice raises and pulp flies from his mouth, making contact with your forehead. You shrivel. You say that you only said that because of the wings. With wings of stone, how are they supposed to fly? It’s something to ask. It’s better than asking about her. It’s better than asking which angel is your Nana, now. The garden is quiet, again. Wind tap dances on leaves. Your throat is dry. You think that you will never open your mouth again. You swear it to God. Tomato-Head wipes hands on denim. His belly draws in and out of the shade. One eye watches boots kick a riff in dirt. The other watches his twitching cheeks, his trembling eyes As tomato juice drips down stubbled cheek. And drops into the soil.