My father was the only person in Jersey City who took the state’s nickname “the Garden State” to heart and planted vegetables in the sandy Princeton Avenue dirt in a backyard that had never grown anything but rocks, dandelions, and maybe a juvenile delinquent or two. He stood in that yard tilling earth, like some farmer-prophet from the Old Testament, turning spade after spade of dirt polluted by a century of being neighbor to a railroad and an industrial complex. None of us believed anything would grow, but all my father talked about was the vegetables he planted and how at harvest time we’d feast from the sweat of his brow.
So he was even talking like a farmer-prophet.
The days rolled on and then came the weeds, weeds who had never known such soil, weeds that must have lain dormant since Squanto. My sister and I were dispatched to pluck them. We spent entire afternoons ripping out green things from the roots. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t resent it, didn’t wish we paved the whole yard like the Scanlons, or installed a swimming pool like Eddie Spaghetti. And as if the weeds weren’t bad enough the bugs came in July, bugs we had never seen before, bugs there weren’t even human, beetles that reminded us of the monsters we saw at the drive-in movies, ants like the ones that crossed paths with Leiningen. My father sprayed the yard so often it smelled worse than the Dow plant that killed the fish in Global Lake. But still, at dinner, over vegetables bought at the Shop-Rite, he told us about the coming harvest and the horn of plenty.
By early August Dad realized something was wrong. Things that were supposed to sprout didn’t, things that did were misshapen. After digging one up, and seeing only a shriveled yellow finger, my father capitulated on the carrots; next were the potatoes, onions, and whatever other vegetables grew underneath the ground. But the broccoli fared no better, and the peas would have made Mendel question his theory of genetics.
My father held one last hope. It’s the tomatoes, he told us. So we concentrated on them, plucking weeds, spraying insecticide, and we waited.
We couldn’t believe it, but they grew. They grew and grew and grew. Nobody in the city had ever seen anything like it. Neighbors came to our fence and gawked, mouths open, shaking their heads. So my father invited them to our backyard to see the amazing tomatoes of Jersey City.
And they were amazing, round, red, plump. You couldn’t find anything like them in Shop-Rite. To see a tomato like this you had to go to the library. My father became a minor celebrity. He smiled, patted backs, shook hands. They called him Ragu John, but Dad thought Ragu Job was more accurate..
Just a little elbow grease and faith, he said, and you can do anything.
And that might have been the end of a happy story had my father not given the tomatoes to the visitors, who took them home to their families, sliced them open, and found them green on the inside, or smelly, or rotted. Those who tried to eat them raw doubled-over with cramps. One lady landed in Christ Hospital emergency room. The phone rang every four minutes. Someone threatened to sue. Someone else threw tomatoes at our front door. The bus drove right by my mother without stopping to pick her up.
And so late one evening, under cover of darkness, my father told me to start digging up the plants. We plucked them, shook the dirt off the roots, and jammed their carcasses into a garbage bag. And after we were finished, my father kicked the dirt with the side of his shoe, smoothing the land even. Like nothing had ever been there. He never made a sound, not even a sniffle, and come the next spring he installed a swimming pool.
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