Yellow Tomatoes

by Tena Frank

“You're not the boss of me!” I said this with bare feet planted on the porch and fists resting on my hips. She stood at the bottom of the steps, so I was the tallest.

“Yes, I am!” This should have been the truth. My sister was two and a half years older, and in fact, my parents had told her to watch me when they left to visit my little brother in the big hospital in Kalamazoo. He had been there for more than three weeks already being treated for a bad case of whooping cough. They were afraid he might die.

“I'm almost nine. I don't need babysitting.”

“You do if Mom says so.”

I turned my back, stomped into the house and up the stairs to my part of the bedroom. Weeks before, she had convinced our mother to let her hang a sheet across the middle of our shared space. That gave her the biggest and most private part of the room. She insisted I ask permission to enter if I wanted to go to her side. I had the side with the door.

I threw myself down on my cot and ran through the many ways I could pay her back for trying to do her job. The mid-afternoon sun beat down on the porch roof just outside the one window, half of which I owned, and I thought about climbing out there. I had done that once before and it scared me. The slippery, shingled surface seemed dangerous. The roof sloped down toward our yard on one side, the sidewalk at the front, and the steep gravel driveway on other side. In a couple more months, we would rake a huge pile of scratchy leaves onto the driveway just below the porch railing and jump into them. No one ever got hurt doing that. I figured I could pay her back by climbing out there and accidently falling off. But I wasn’t willing to take that big a risk just to prove a point. So, I lay there on my cot thinking up other ways to get my revenge. I had a long list of possibilities before I fell asleep without making a decision.

When I woke up, I went back to sit on the porch steps. We lived on Main Street. That name makes it sound like an important place, but the part of Main Street with the IGA grocery store, five and dime, butcher, and other shops was only two blocks long. We lived in a little house a ways up from downtown. Everyone around us had big houses with yards bigger than ours. But we had a good car. Dad had bought a brand new 1952 Mercury two years earlier and it still had only two small dents in the bumper. Mom would probably have liked the car but it was brown, and she hated that color for some reason. I knew this because Dad had given her a pretty brown dress for her birthday the year before and she had pouted and refused to wear it.

One time a convoy had driven through town right past our house. That was a good day, because I was sitting on the porch then, too, and got to see it all. Camouflaged Jeeps full of Army guys snaked slowly by and everyone came out to wave. The soldiers waved back and flirted with all the girls on the street. This went on for a long time, maybe twenty minutes or so. After they were gone, one of the neighbor boys ran up the street yelling that the convoy had stopped at the Dairy Queen. We all hurried down there to meet the soldiers. Exciting stuff like that didn't happen often and I wasn't expecting anything interesting to happen that day either.

My sister came up from the backyard and sat down across from me just as an old pickup truck stopped in front of our house. It could have been a hundred years old from the looks of it. It was probably green once, but now it was mostly rust with sagging wood railings that looked like old farm fences tacked on to make the sides of the bed higher. The tires were caked with mud.

Mr. Lambert climbed out of the truck and walked around to the tailgate. His faded overalls hung loosely on his slumped shoulders and he had on the same threadbare plaid shirt he wore every time I saw him. He lifted a tattered straw hat off his head and scraped back limp graying hair with his crooked fingers, then snugged the hat back on. He looked over toward us and nodded.

My sister said, “Hello, Mr. Lambert.” She was always the polite one.

“Good afternoon to you, young ladies.” He had the tiredest smile I'd ever seen. He lifted a bushel basket from the back of his truck and walked up our sidewalk. “Is your mother home?”

“No, sir.” That was my sister, too. I just sat there, elbows on knees, watching him closely in case he did something even more interesting than walking up our sidewalk with a bushel basket of something.

“Well, I have this here bushel a’ tomatoes. Thought she might like to have ’em.”

“She won't be home ’til later.” Guess who? Not me. I was just watching.

He kept on coming. “Tell ya what. I'm gonna leave ’em right here on the porch.”

“You can leave ’em here if you want, but we don't have no money.” My sister was acting all adult-like.

“If she wants ’em for canning, she can pay me two dollars next time I come around. They’re the last thing left over from today's pickin’ and I got no use for ’em at home.”

“What if she don't want ’em?” Seeing my sister negotiate with an old farmer? Now that was interesting, but I wasn’t about to tell her so.

“Well then, they're my gift to you.” He plopped those tomatoes right down between us and shuffled back to his truck.

Those were some pretty tomatoes, and they were yellow! I picked one up and it filled my whole hand—big, heavy, and still warm from the sun. I brushed off some dirt and turned it over slowly. I sniffed at the stem end and smelled the green. I pressed it to my lips and imagined biting into it. You know how people ask you that dumb question about being stranded on a desert island and you can only have one food and what would you want it to be? Tomatoes. That's my answer every time.

“These are some nice yellow tomatoes.” Those were the first words I'd spoken to her since our fight a couple hours earlier.

“Sure are.”

“You ever seen yellow tomatoes before?”


“I thought they were always red. Can I have one?” I don't know why I said that. Asking permission seemed the same as saying, “Okay, you're the boss of me.”

My sister pondered this for a long time, maybe a minute or two. Then she went into the house and came back with a saltshaker.

“He gave ’em to us. Mom doesn't have to pay if she don't want to.” My sister picked up the very same tomato I'd been holding earlier and bit into it. Juice dribbled down the sides of her mouth, then her chin and onto the front of her favorite dress—the one she wore almost every day. She didn't seem to mind.

“I cleaned that one off for you.” My arms were hooked across my chest now and I was sitting straight up giving her the evil eye. She picked up another, wiped it clean with her skirt and handed it to me. It was as perfect as the one she was eating. Our fingers touched lightly as I took it from her. She smiled at me and I smiled back.

I pulled off a tiny strip of the smooth, taut skin with my teeth, then shook on some salt and took a big bite. The sweet, acidic, salty juice, seeds, and flesh satisfied every taste bud in my mouth and sent a thrill though my whole body. I gobbled that tomato down and reached for another. My sister kept pace with me. By the time we were done, we had eaten almost half a bushel of those tomatoes and neither one of us got sick from it.

And neither one of us got punished either. When Mom and Dad came home from the hospital, they went their separate ways—Mom to their bedroom where she smoked her Salems, one after the other, lying on her side with smoke curling up from the cigarette she held between two yellow-stained fingers, Dad to the couch, hidden behind his newspaper, with his feet up on a footstool. Neither one of them told us anything about our brother.

My sister and I did our homework and watched Ed Sullivan. Then we went to bed. That night I didn't have to ask permission to enter her side of the bedroom and she didn't have to ask mine to use the door.

Tena Frank thought she retired when she left New York City in 2002 after having worked with homeless adults for sixteen years. She landed in Asheville, North Carolina, a year later and now spends her time managing her real estate rentals. Her first novel, Final Rights, was published in 2014.