Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Growing Tomatoes by Arthur Davis

While his wife is away, Luther Canton - soldier, barber, loving husband, tomato fanatic - is impressed by a schoolboy genius, but they must both open their minds and hearts before they can become friends; by Arthur Davis

Luther Canton buttoned his shirt and gazed out of his window onto the broad rutted black seam of 125th Street that cut across Harlem. Luther had lived most of his spry seventy-eight years in this one building, in this one rambling apartment where his mother had given birth to him just as she had his two sisters on the same Tennessee hard oak bedframe.

He served as an infantryman in the Second World War, and would have eagerly railed against the Communist threat in Korea in 1950 if it weren't for the wound he sustained in his right leg defending the besieged French town of Bastogne in the Ardennes five years earlier. He received a Purple Heart for his bravery in that singularly infamous World War II battle which marked the last major conflict of the war. The citation hung over his bed along with his high school diploma and certificate of confirmation. He saluted the trio every night before going to bed and in the morning, before brushing his teeth for a full three minutes long before it was heralded as the magic amount of time in order to assure adequate dental hygiene.

"Look at those pearly whites," he would say, staring into the mirror after his morning ablutions, a word his mother had used unsparingly to refer to any good habit. He went into the kitchen and prepared himself breakfast as he had done for these last two weeks since Clara flew down to visit her sister in Florida. She would have set out his first meal of the day in grand fashion, complete with napkin, placemat and, when she could, some handpicked flowers from the small plot of land behind their four-story walk-up.

But Luther wasn't Clara. He knew that the first time he met her at an Army USO dance in Memphis right after the war. She was so pretty and young and he was so cynical and his leg was still thickly bandaged from his wound. She came right over to him as he sipped away at the punch that had been generously spiked with sweet Kentucky mash. Bourbon had always been his drink of choice, no matter how it was diluted.

"Would you care to dance?"

He was so startled by her boldness he nearly spilled his cup of punch all over his neatly pressed uniform. Except for the nurses in the Army hospital, he hadn't talked to a woman in over a year, and he wasn't too forthright with them before his tour of duty. "Good evening."

"You see we are required by custom here to ask one man to dance at the beginning of the evening. It gets things going - people moving about. I think it's a charming tradition."

"I didn't know that."

"And I chose you."

Luther was genuinely tongue-tied. There were soldiers that were certainly more attractive in the grand auditorium and most were unencumbered by wounds. "Thank you."

"Why, you're quite welcome, Corporal. Now, since you have that leg wound, why don't we just sit this one out?"

They sat and talked and spent the entire evening together. Luther courted Clara for a year, which was the time it took him to learn a trade and prove to himself that he could earn enough for the both of them. Clara was a nurse in a large Memphis hospital and protested that her salary should count in his tabulation, but he was stubbornly resistant. By 1947, Luther had saved enough money to bring her back to his family in New York.

Luther sliced a tomato just the way Clara had taught him, set it down on the kitchen table, and continued his reverie of his beloved Clara. He cut the tomatoes clean and thin just like Clara instructed. "You would think a barber who handles sharp instruments every day would know how to slice a simple tomato."

Of course, Luther did, but the first time she lovingly reproached him for his awkwardness he came up behind her and slipped his arms around her waist and wouldn't let go until she stopped laughing. Once he tightened his grip all she could do was giggle and protest and laugh some more. The magic of that soul-throbbing expression filled his heart and home and gave him courage he never thought he possessed.

A police siren wailed outside the kitchen window as Luther sat down with his toast and cheese and tomato and the local newspaper. He was a man much more interested in local politics than reading about those lying, thieving, bleeding liberal scoundrels in Washington. He glanced out his window to see which way the squad car was going. One hundred and twenty-fifth street was the spiritual and geographical center of the black community in New York and thus the soul of the black community in the United States.

He was proud to live on the block that so identified his lineage, and more so in recent years as old tenements were being razed and large, new apartment buildings put up in their place. Still, doubts lingered in his mind that this latest invasion of optimism and investment wouldn't make any long-term difference to his people.

He had enjoyed the tranquility of the post war years, lost what respect he had of the government as they stumbled through the troubled Vietnam decade, then endured the drug war era of the late 70s through the mid-80s with Clara close at his side. In the 90s, the police became more sophisticated in their operations through the use of computers, which he refused to understand and were of no value in his ancient art of barbering, and the area began to bloom with added commercial growth. It would never return to the steamy 20s and 30s - the heyday of jazz and booming influence of the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater. But that was all right with Luther. He wasn't a great fan of looking back anyway.

He flipped through the Harlem Chronicle pausing to read the human-interest articles while ignoring those related to drugs and crime and any other harbinger of the eventual downfall of mankind. Three women were trying to refurbish a small playhouse on 109th Street and Lexington Avenue so local theater groups could put on performances in a more professional setting. That was wonderful. The mayor of New York was making more promises to improve sanitation standards in Harlem. Luther laughed aloud at that one, but not at the brief description of a young boy in a neighborhood high school who had won a science contest because of his theory on how to improve the process of growing tomatoes.

Luther considered himself somewhat of an authority on the tomato, a favorite of his family for generations. The tomato was actually a perennial herb in the Nightshade family. They were quite similar to the potato and green pepper, also favorites when cooked with onions and sautéed over any kind of fresh meat. The tomato originated in Central America and was introduced into Europe by Spanish explorers. Luther wondered how many people knew the tomato was botanically classified as a fruit, but for purposes of trade, referred to as a vegetable. Luther prided himself on what he knew, and was reluctant to admit to what he didn't. And not just about tomatoes.

He tightened his glasses on the bridge of his nose, folded the newspaper into his lap, and reread the article a few more times. He was so delighted to see a youngster take such a mundane subject and, with some hard work and ingenuity, make a material contribution. It wasn't going to cure cancer or help us explore outer space, but a better tomato was something he definitely wanted to hear more about. He finished the last page and tossed the last layered fragment of toast, cheese, and tomato down his throat. That done, he washed the dishes, brushed his fine teeth again, put on his sports jacket, and went for his morning constitutional.

What with his aging bones and the damage to his leg that never really healed properly, Luther wished these days more than ever that he lived in a building with an elevator. Each step was becoming more and more of a challenge. He was already envisioning the time when it would be impossible to descend and mount these stairs at all. He didn't want to think that far ahead, of how much of a burden he might become to Clara, and he pushed himself out into the teeming late morning of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in his cherished New York.

Food vendors sat like predators along the edge of the street. Luther knew some had excellent homemade victuals while others were clearly skirting the health codes and taking advantage of the community. But he liked the mixture of smells and, when stirred with the frothy tumult of humanity along 125th Street, it was as much of a circus as Luther wanted in his life.

"Hey, Theodore," he said to the bootblack on the corner.

The man looked up from his labors and shot Luther his patented wink that distorted every muscle in his chiseled Caribbean face. Luther liked to address people by their full first name, not some nickname, or concocted moniker designed to elevate or sound cool. Those distinctions were left to the newest generation for which he had less and less regard. He knew that the more the children of today focused on being "cool," the less energy would be invested in being "smart." And "smart" pays the bills of life, not "cool." That's probably one of the reasons he was instinctively attracted to Aaron Siebel.

Luther toyed with stopping in the donut shop and getting a hot fresh chocolate-glazed donut. He had eaten one only yesterday. He knew that two in a row was a sure sign of advancing mental degeneration, but they looked so delicious. He stiffened his back and marched on as the owner of the shop shot him a questioning glance. Clara would be proud of his resolve. That counted for everything.

His normal morning route took him east a block to Park Avenue then down to 110th Street, back west to Lexington Avenue and home by lunch. With all his window shopping and talking to friends and some of his few remaining relatives, it was a long and invigorating journey. Except this time, it held a special detour for him. The Hastings High School was located on the corner of 128th and Park Avenue.

This was not the fabled Park Avenue of money and social prominence or of the fabulously wealthy captains of industry like the Astors and Vanderbilts. That Park Avenue existed below 96th Street in a world as immune and white as his teeth. Above 96th and certainly 110th, the other major east-west thoroughfare that sliced through Harlem, life and circumstances and the currency of humanity were very different.

There the word "ghetto" had special and tangible meaning. It was no longer the bucolic land settled in 1658 as Nieuw Haarlem by the Dutch, which remained a quiet farming region until the 1800s when rail travel made it accessible to lower Manhattan. It then became a fashionable summer resort, which Luther could never grasp, then the focus of a building boom that was rewarded with a torrent of settlers. After the beginning of the 20th century, the new subway system connected the area to the rest of the city, swelling the area with black workers who could not get inexpensive apartments in other neighborhoods. Despite the overcrowding and poverty that plagued it until World War II, Harlem served as the intellectual and artistic center of the black world in America. And that's the way Luther would always remember it.

Luther hadn't been by the Hastings School in years. But, even for a Saturday, the playground was crowded with children playing basketball and baseball, or just enjoying a game of catch. Luther noticed a clique of older boys talking, really looking like they were trying to convince several smaller ones of something.

The first thought that came to mind was that they were boasting of the hallucinogenic wonders of cheap drugs and chemical stimulants. He stood on the corner for a few moments until the eight dispersed for a game of basketball. Apparently, they were just choosing sides. Luther couldn't help think that he had come upon the one instance where older kids were treating younger ones with the compassion and thoughtfulness they deserved instead of trying to corrupt their future.

"Hastings High Science Fair," the tired red banner proclaimed as it stretched across the entrance to the packed gymnasium. Luther was put off at first by all the screaming and chaos, especially by the very young children who tugged at the shirtsleeves of their confused and frustrated parents. There were rows of large tables and on each sat a description and demonstration of an experiment or theory that might one day advance civilization. Now why would a young boy chooses the subject of tomatoes? Luther asked himself as he wound up and down the aisles listening and examining and asking questions to the youthful scientists.

"This will improve the taste of the water from your kitchen faucet," one girl claimed proudly as others announced, "This will let you lose weight real quickly. This will let you pick up trash without bending over and hurting your back. This will kill all the roaches and not hurt your babies. This will erase your spelling mistakes without having to turn over your pencil to the other side where the eraser is. This will grow the biggest and most delicious beefsteak tomatoes in the world."

Luther had finally found the right booth and the right boy, as had about a dozen other onlookers. But, how could that be? The boy was white and, unless Luther was wrong, Jewish. As the boy described his technique of germination and crossbreeding with poise and pointer to the eager crowd, Luther stepped closer and closer until he was at the front of the spectators, his attention enrapt by the boy's disarming insistence.

The large wooden backdrop was cloaked in black craft paper. The entire four-by eight-foot panel was secured to the back of the table and covered in drawings, photos, and printed details of the process the boy had developed. A large blue ribbon indicating the first place winner sat behind stacks of material instead of being prominently hung on top of the display. Luther thought that odd.

"You have to heat up the water and capture the highest level of organic movement across the osmotic membrane and then cross-fertilize before it returns to room temperature. It took me months to realize that was one of the most important elements of the process that will give you a tomato like this," he said holding up a red/orange tomato the size of a small grapefruit whose insides seemed to be bursting from its thin skin.

The audience was thoroughly impressed, more touched with gesturing ooh's and aah's after the boy sent around a paper plate heaped with thick, delicious slices of the tomato. A round of applause followed before they moved on to the next display. "That was wonderful," Luther said.

"Thank you. My name is Aaron Siebel."

The boy was thin to the point of being gaunt, about five-feet-five-inches tall and outfitted in a clean white shirt and baggy khaki pants that draped over the ever-present pair of sneakers. Luther could recall when sneakers were put on only to play sports. Kids nowadays never took them off unless one child held a gun to the head of another and stole them. How sad, he thought. How very, very sad.

"Well, Aaron Siebel, it's a pleasure to meet you," Luther said extending his hand to the boy. "My name is Luther Canton."

Bright-eyed, the boy stepped forward. "Did you know that your last name is also used to describe a Swiss or French territorial division? Isn't that interesting?"

Luther looked around as if the boy was addressing someone else. But, for the moment, they were alone. And he was being told something about himself he had never known. "Well, I didn't know that."

"So you learned something new and I made a new friend."

Luther couldn't get over the boy's bright, precocious nature. "I made a new friend too." Other parents passed by, walked closer to read the details of the experiment, and nodded approvingly to the boy. Several of his classmates also paid homage to the winner. Each was offered a slice of tomato and each openly praised the boy's reasoned research. But that was not enough for Luther. He wanted to do something special for the boy. Something no one else would have thought to do. "How do you feel about a hot donut after a day's work of demonstrating the best tomatoes there are?"

"No thank you, sir," the boy answered and returned to his table.

Luther caught himself. What did he expect the child to say? "Sure old man, I'll let you take me wherever you want?" How foolish of him. "I just thought we could talk. I love tomatoes and hoped you could tell me more about what you're doing." Luther backed away so as not to look too physically aggressive. He'd read too many stories where the public and certainly the police looked unkindly to what, twenty years ago, would have been considered a genuine act of hospitality.

At that moment, a man came over and patted Luther on the back. "What the hell are you doing here, old man?"

"Gene!" Luther noted. "Do you go to school here?"

"No, you old fool. I work here as the weekend janitor."

The man was over ten years younger than Luther but substantially heavier and wearing large, thick, black glasses that all but blotted out any other feature of his face.

"I thought you were exhibiting a project?"

"No, and don't you go bother my Aaron here. He's a special kid. A genius. He'll make it big if he gets a few breaks."

"I know. I've been asking him to give me a private lecture on how he does it."

"Luther's an OK guy, Aaron. You can talk to him like you would to me."

Aaron seemed genuinely relieved. "Thanks Gene."

Gene nodded to one of the impatient school administrators, wished them both a good day, and continued with his duties.

"You know him?"

"He helped me get stuff together for my experiment. He's a very nice man."

"Gene's one of the best," Luther said, thankful that his old neighbor had come by when he did. "So, if I can't buy you a donut at a great place a few blocks away, can I treat you to a soda in the cafeteria after you finish here?"

Aaron fidgeted with his handouts, and said, "I don't know everything about tomatoes."

"But you know more than I do, and I eat them every day and their taste gets worse and worse."

"Yeah. They're terrible."

"And expensive."

"And expensive," the boy said, now more agreeably.

"Then a moment of your valuable time might help me grow some tasty ones of my own."

Aaron looked up at the clock, "The exhibition closes in an hour."

"Why don't we meet at two then? Okay? Unless you want me to help you pack up when the show is over. Or are your parents coming to help you?"

"Two. I'll meet you there at two."

"Done," Luther said and moved on to the rest of the exhibits. He was struck by the difference between Aaron's depth and clarity, as well as the originality of thinking, and that of the rest of the youthful exhibitors. Aaron clearly was head and shoulders above his competition and yet for all the boy's intelligence, unless he was espousing the miracle of his horticultural technique, he seemed frail and uncertain. Given his age, which Luther overheard one of the spectators mention was fourteen, Luther concluded the boy was just less mature than he appeared. His parents must be so proud. If he and Clara had ever had children, he would have wished them to be as bright and sensitive.

"Since when were you so interested in science?" Gene said coming up behind Luther with a broom in his hands.

"Tomatoes. I love tomatoes."

"Then you've come to the right place. The boy's a real genius. Not only at science."

"Then what the hell is he doing here?"

"He goes to school here."

"I know that, you old fool. But he's white, or haven't you noticed? He's also Jewish. Or hadn't you realized that either?"

"So?"

Luther wasn't making his point clearly. "How many white kids do you have in this school, Gene?"

"Well, I don't rightly know."

"Would you like to rightly guess?" Without waiting for a response. "I'll bet less than a half dozen? Out of how many? Eleven or twelve hundred students?"

"Maybe one or two," Gene confessed finally seeing Luther's point. "But he lives only a few blocks from here."

"Doesn't it seem odd that a white family lives three blocks from an all-black and Hispanic school?"

"And he's Jewish to boot. You're right."

"What do you know about his parents?" Luther asked, knowing that his comments about the boy's color and religion were in a way a kind of reverse racism. It was just something Luther couldn't rationalize. It was as though the boy deserved to be in better circumstances than Luther's black community could provide.

"He hasn't any."

"He was born in a cave?" Luther asked, remembering something he'd once read about the mythology of the origin of Rome.

"He lives with his older brother. That's all I know. But you know it does seem kind of peculiar."

"Kind of," Luther agreed, and then changed the subject to baseball, Gene's real passion.

Gene returned to his duties leaving Luther to ruminate through his list of doubts and questions. He was so attracted to the little fellow he wanted to find out all he could if only to understand him better. No, it was more than that, he concluded standing on the steps outside the school and watching the children playing in the afternoon sun. The fact was that they were children and little Aaron Siebel, even though he was only a sophomore, behaved as though he were old enough to be their parent. Luther leaned against the stairs to give his leg a breather. He was going to meet Aaron in twenty minutes and was much less interested in learning about tomatoes now than when he arrived.

When Aaron came through the cafeteria doors, he looked even smaller and frailer than when Luther had first seen him. He had a pile of handouts in one hand and an overstuffed briefcase in the other. The closer he came to where Luther was sitting, the more it was apparent that the leather case was about as fragile looking as the boy carrying it. "How did it go?"

Aaron dropped his burden on the table and collapsed in exhaustion. "Okay."

"It's not easy being a celebrity."

"This was hard."

"But you won."

"I know."

"What would you like to drink?"

"Can I have what you're having?" Luther got up and retrieved a can of root beer from the vending machine. Aaron nearly took it down in one gulp.

"Have you eaten lunch?"

"There wasn't any chance. I'll find something at home."

Luther sensed the boy was only trying to be polite. "If Gene thinks I'm an okay guy, could I buy you something a little more nourishing than a donut?"

"Do you have kids here?"

"I'm flattered, Aaron, but no. I have no children, here or anywhere else."

"Where is your wife?"

Without wanting to mention that he might not have been married or, God forbid, might have been widowed, Luther answered, "She's out of town. She'll be back in a few weeks. And I can tell you that you would be one of the luckiest men in the world to marry such a woman. I love her very much. She is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." Luther wanted the boy to see the human side of him even if it meant exposing some of his most private, inner feelings.

"Love's important."

"Love's the most important. Without that, what have you got?"

Aaron didn't understand it was a rhetorical question. "I don't know."

"Without love all you have is emptiness."

"I guess you're right," he said lifting his handouts to his chest. "Where do you want to go?"

"There a great place down on 127th and Madison."

"Fudgies?"

"Then you've eaten there?"

"Once. A long time ago."

Luther smiled. What could "a long time ago" be to a fourteen year old? "Then it's high time you went again," he said hefting the boy's briefcase and ushering him from school.



Luther was home by five o'clock with more questions than answers. He made himself a cup of tea and sat down to read the two-page handout that described his new friend's experiment. It was as simple as it was elegant. When the phone rang at exactly six, as it had for the last two weekends, he knew who it was. He picked up the receiver. "Hello honey," he said to Clara, still undecided about whether he should not only share his experience, but his doubts and concerns.

Of course, Luther could never keep something small, even inconsequential, from his Clara. When he completed the amenities and endured the elongated details of how her sister was faring at the hands of her more-than-ever incompetent doctors, he asked her opinion about how far he should intervene in the life of the young man he had just met.

"Are you telling me everything?" Clara asked, instinctively unconvinced she had gotten the entire story. If she was talking directly to him, she would know to the last iota every thought that was in his compassionate, heartfelt soul.

"Did I mention he was Jewish?"

"No," she offered without hesitation, "but it hardly matters. I'm more interested in how you described him than his religion."

"Then you know everything."

"And you want my opinion?"

"As I always do."

"If I know you, you're not going to wait two more weeks until I return before you do what you're going to do anyway."

"Do I sound that mulish to you?"

"I haven't heard you so upset in a long while."

"I am upset. I think there is something wrong with the picture."

"Honey, remember two things; wrong in your eyes doesn't make it wrong in the eyes of others, and people tend not to want strangers butting into their personal lives."

"Clara, how can you say that? I'm no stranger. I am a fan of a budding tomato scientist." Luther grinned to himself at the clever conjunction of the word "budding" and "tomato." He knew Clara would completely miss it.

"I knew you weren't going to listen to me."

"But that doesn't mean I don't love you any less."

"What it means, you old scoundrel, is that you just wanted me to hear all about this boy Aaron before you go ahead and do what you're going to do, and I'll bet you don't even know what that is right now."

"So?"

"So nothing. So I love you, you evil old man."

"I'll speak to you on Wednesday," he said and dropped the receiver back into its cradle. How did she know so much about what he was and was not going to do? Women were so clever. He had always understood that. They sensed things long before men. That done, he called Gene and picked his brains, limited as they were, about what more he knew about Aaron Siebel. When he had gone as far as he could, he thanked Gene and hung up, now more resolved than ever that if the boy wasn't in some kind of trouble, then he was certainly a soul adrift at sea.

After leaving Fudgies, the boy had made a point of not wanting the old man to help him home with his baggage of material from the exhibit. Instead, Aaron said he was going to a friend's house at 128th Street and Park Avenue. The building Luther watched the boy enter had at least three other entrances and exits. Luther didn't believe for a moment that the boy was going to a friend's house, rather that he had used this ploy so many times to throw off anybody who wanted to find out where he lived that the refusal came easy to his lips. When he got home, he checked the telephone book. There were forty-three Siebels listed in the Manhattan directory and none above 87th Street. That told you something.

Luther went to bed that night filled with ideas on what to do but no real plan. He wanted to talk to the school principal. He considered going to a synagogue he knew on 87th Street and Madison Avenue. Maybe the rabbi would have some suggestions. He had a lot of issues to resolve, including the two Clara eloquently offered. Maybe he was butting his head in where it didn't belong? It certainly wouldn't be the first time.

Aaron was supposed to come to his apartment the following Wednesday after class to show him how to grow tomatoes on his fire escape. The idea had such a compelling appeal; he couldn't wait to hear more about how to start a "tomato farm," as Luther put it to Aaron, outside his fourth floor window. Luther kept that particular point from Clara. It was going to be a surprise, so that when she returned he would be well along with the process of guaranteeing a fresh supply of beefsteak tomatoes for them during the year.

But Wednesday came and went and with it a kitchen table overly-decorated with soda glasses, a bowl full of chocolate chip cookies and another, and Clara would appreciate this, piled to the top with the best fruit Luther's neighborhood had to offer. He had taken two arduous hours to clean up the apartment. Even Clara would have been pleased with his handiwork. He figured he was going to have to do most of it in two weeks, so why not get a handle on the problem sooner?

But as five o'clock turned into six, then seven, Luther knew his idea was a failure. Possibly the boy was apprehensive about going to an old man's apartment, a very black old man at that, even with the tacit endorsement of someone trustworthy to both the man and the boy. Why should this skittish young man be so trusting? Luther cleared the table, salvaging two cookies for his efforts, and then panicked when he realized he had missed his call to Clara. He grabbed the phone just as it rang with his almost distressed love on the other end of the line. Luther confessed everything except eating the cookies.

Clara would be furious with him for pilfering what he shouldn't be eating, but what the hell, he thought, he was so disappointed what did it matter if he chanced to gain the smallest tenth of a pound? He already knew what Clara's admonition would be: coincidentally it made reference to Gene. "If you ever get as fat as that old man I'll throw you - no - I'll roll you out of the house, and lock the door behind you." She advised him to take a few days off and think about his next move or to simply pull back for a while, maybe a week or so, then return to the school to see how the boy was doing. But Luther couldn't wait that long. At least his heart couldn't.

On Thursday after school, Luther walked right into the assistant principal's office and asked to speak to someone connected with the science fair. The secretary to the assistant tried to help him but she was either unable to locate the boy's address or was unwilling to give out that kind of personal information, but was reluctant to say so. There was no way Luther could be certain. Luther couldn't find Gene anywhere and stood in front of the building as he had a week ago in the same state of concern and anxiousness.

He had visions of the boy lying unconscious in his kitchen unable to move for lack of nourishment. Luther returned to the same secretary and managed to find out the location of the boy's homeroom. Maybe he was still in school? The only person in class was the teaching assistant who was stacking books and grousing about having to waste an entire evening scoring a quiz that wasn't even going to count in the children's grade.

"Aaron was in today. He seemed well enough. He doesn't talk much as you probably know, but when he does, the entire class listens, including the both of us," she noted referring to the class teacher as well as herself.

"I was so impressed with him at the science fair, I thought I would ask him if he could help me and my wife with our garden."

"How sweet."

"Do you think you could call and tell him Luther Canton is here and would like to speak to him?"

"You mean now? At home?"

"If it's not too much of an imposition."

"You know, I really wish I could but it's difficult now," she pointing to the classroom still in a state of disarray. "I'll be lucky to get out of here by six."

Luther phoned Clara that night just to bring her up to date again. "Do you have any suggestions?"

"Dear, why don't you just go to the principal and tell him or her what's going on in your mind."

"Don't you think I've already thought about that? I just don't want to make a fuss over a boy who clearly is working as hard as he can not to be noticed. He'd be really embarrassed if I did that and it would kill any chance I might have had to make contact with him."

"Try his science teacher. That's the one person who would know more about his personal circumstances than anybody."

"You're a genius."

"You know you have a week left to clean up the storm you made since I've been away."

"Aren't you at all interested in how much I miss you?"

"I am, but I also know that you can be as untidy as any seven year old."

"Clara!"

"Well," she started forgivingly, "maybe an eight year old."

Luther was excited the next day. He made his routine trek over to Park then down to 110th and back to Lexington, then realized he had no energy left to go up to the school over a quarter mile away. It wasn't simply the walk there, but the one back that nagged at his reason and his sore leg. Luther stopped for a cold drink and talked with friends for a while. By the time he got to the school, the playground was swarming with children escaping from the presumed hell that was their day. In a few years, they would be in the real world and would have to behave and perform in a responsible manner. That would make any pressures survived in school seem tame by comparison.

Luther recalled fond memories of his childhood schooldays. There were good schools and bad schools and both well-intended and poor teachers. There were no computers back then but there was respect and discipline and a cultured order that disappeared decades ago from the schools and soon thereafter from the streets and then from society as a whole. Luther knew that without that organized structure and learned morality, the young would never really mature. They would be forever condemned to roam the streets, their neighborhoods, even their homes, not fully formed or able to make as complete a contribution to society as they might have under more supportive circumstances.

Life in all its unpredictable extremes was reflected in the movement and sway of the children in this playground. One had only to pay attention to the prey and predators to see the torment of childhood that never reached a parent's ears, if there were any at home. That thought triggered the image of the barrenness of Aaron's apartment and, as he was discomforted by that thought, Luther spotted a small familiar figure leaving from one of the side doorways of the building seemingly as far away from the rest of the student body as possible. Aaron's arms were wrapped around the usual load of books. There was such a defensive aura about him, an institutionalized sadness as though he had long ago given up on the possibility of happiness.

Luther started to rush towards him as if he was actually capable of any quick movement then thought better of his forthrightness. He might have called out to the boy. He might have done many things, rather than follow a person without their knowledge; something he would never consider appropriate behavior. At first, Luther stayed close to buildings, pausing under awnings, standing with his face towards the trappings displayed in retail shops. Then he recalled the boy's comment of not having good vision. Aaron had mentioned that the glasses he was wearing needed to be changed for ones that were more powerful. Luther thought the prescription must be years old because the boy strained his eyes so much when they were walking towards Fudgies.

They had enjoyed their time, their brief hour, during which Luther plied the boy with the best chocolate ice cream soda in all of Manhattan. Sitting across from Aaron, it was plain to see the boy was hesitant to show either his emotions or his pleasure. When was the last time he experienced such simple delights? Luther asked himself. At once Luther wanted Clara to meet the boy and as quickly cautioned himself about creating expectations on which neither he nor the boy could deliver.

Following the boy was easier than Luther anticipated. What surprised him, but only at first, was the route taken. Again, Aaron trudged into the same building on 128th and Park. But this time, Luther followed him through the hallway and out the rear service entrance until they got to a run-down four-story building on Lexington and 132nd Street bordered by a garage on one side and an abandoned three-story building on the other. This area of Harlem was particularly unattended. It shook the old man that the boy was living only seven blocks away. Luther was only a few dozen paces behind when he decided he couldn't risk what little he had by losing the child in the building.

"Aaron!" he yelled. "Aaron, stop! Wait up!" as was the lexicon of all children calling attention to their whereabouts to their best friends. Aaron turned sharply. His body froze when he saw Luther limping up behind him. "I saw you back at 130th but was talking to a friend so I couldn't just call out to you," he said so breathlessly he thought he might have to sit down. "How have you been?" The shock in Aaron's eyes was telling, and equally disturbing. For a moment, Luther was convinced the boy was not some gifted genius, but a manipulative child with a secret that was not as innocuous as it might first seem. What if the boy was hiding something illegal? "Aaron, are you all right?"

"Yes. Fine."

"You look so surprised."

"I was just thinking - my mind was on something else."

"Not tomatoes?"

"No. Another project at school."

"Is it something I can help you with?"

"No. It's not important."

"You want help with those books?"

"No. I'm used to them," he said hefting them into a more comfortable position.

"Aaron, are you angry with me? Did I say or do anything to upset you?"

The boy was surprised at the comment. "No. Nothing."

"I just thought I had, considering you didn't show up on Wednesday."

"I, ah, was busy. I lost your phone number."

"Would giving it to you again help? I know how busy you are so if you can't help me just say so."

The anguish in the boy's expression made Luther apprehensive. Maybe this was simply the wrong thing to do for the boy? Maybe there was a line, as Clara had made clear several times recently, that you did not pass over. Privacy was important to preserve, as was the integrity of your own life. But Luther had protested, "We're talking about a lost soul here." To which Clara replied, "Maybe in your eyes dear, but not in his."

"I think asking you to help me grow tomatoes on my fire escape was too much of an imposition. Do you know what that means, Aaron?"

"I think so."

"It means that one person is either too busy to help another or doesn't want to for their own reasons, and those reasons are not something they should have to explain to anybody else."

"I understand."

"I think you're a fine young man. I think you have a first class mind a first class soul and if I am behaving too strongly for you, it's not with any interest in prying into your personal life. That's your business, just as my life and problems are mine. I rarely ask others to help me with my problems. They're usually too busy with their own to really care. And I get disappointed very easily."

"I know."

"So, you see, all I really wanted was help with my tomatoes."

"I know."

"And what seems easy for you to do may be hard for others, like me. Maybe that's why I was having so much trouble the other day at Fudgies understanding your theories."

"They're not that difficult."

"For who? You or me?"

"I guess me." Aaron stood frozen in his tracks as though he was afraid that the secret of where he lived might be exposed at any moment. Luther knew it was time to withdraw. "Someday, and I know that will be many years off, you will ask a stranger for help. I hope that person has the time and interest to help you," he said, scribbling out his phone number and address and handing the scrap of paper to Aaron. Luther wished him a good day and advised him not to be too hard on himself and then turned and walked away.

As soon as Luther turned the corner and was certain Aaron could no longer see him, he stopped to reconsider how aggressively he had acted. If he had been as assertive in his life in general as he was with this boy, well, who knows? The trip back to his apartment lasted an eternity. He fell into bed with a painkiller dissolving all too slowly in his belly. Luther wondered where the scrap of paper with his phone number on it was. Probably in the boy's toilet by now.

He was wrong. He picked up the phone on the second ring. Aaron's voice came across with some confidence. After a brief and quite unnecessary introduction, the boy said, "I can come by tomorrow for a while if you want."

"Is four too late?"

"Four is good. I'll see you Saturday," he said after a thoughtful, "Thank you."

Luther was so excited he thought of calling Clara, and then decided to wait. Who knows what another day in the life of this torn child might bring?



Luther slept fitfully that night and was hardly able to get himself out of bed the next morning. Why was he so possessed with helping this bright white boy? The streets were teeming with black children with one or fewer parents. Some children lived under the oppression and hysteria of a mother who was an alcoholic prostitute or a father who was doing drugs or selling drugs or both. Others were fortunate enough to have two hard-working parents whose lives were wrapped up in their children's welfare.

There was no accounting for the vicissitudes of life. Harlem - the world - was full of crushing inequities. There was no justice, no fairness or rationale. This he believed was truer of the plight of the black man. There was simply time and space and fragments of continuity. You just had to know which to grasp onto and from which to turn and flee. But there was something about the boy beyond his ability to grow tomatoes that tugged relentlessly at Luther Canton's heartstrings.

Luther fortified himself with a late morning nap instead of his constitutional and a slice of Clara's chocolate chip pound cake he retrieved from the freezer. He had been sheltering it there for just such an emergency. He would make a mental note to ask Clara to make another one upon her return. He could see her response now. "You eat them faster than I can bake them." Luther could tell how much he missed Clara. He was feeling sorrier for himself than usual.

Having missed his walk, the day passed slowly. By the time four o'clock flashed upon the digital clock in the kitchen, Luther was so drained of anticipation he didn't know where he would get the energy to listen to the boy explain how he could grow tomatoes on his fire escape. But the buzzer did go off at a few minutes past four. When he reached for the door, Luther Canton didn't know what to expect from the boy or himself. He felt he had been on this conquest too long without even having declared his intentions.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Canton."

"Good afternoon to you too, Mr. Siebel," Luther said quite struck at the sight before him.

"I brought you some donuts," Aaron said offering Luther a plastic bag with a box of fresh donuts in it. "I wasn't sure which ones you liked so I got a few of each."

Luther was so struck he could hardly speak. "You shouldn't have spent the money, Aaron. It was quite unnecessary, especially since you're the one doing me the favor."

"May I come in?"

"That's rude of me isn't it? Yes, of course," he said stepping aside.

"No. You probably thought I wasn't coming at all," he said moving cautiously into the apartment and looking around. "This place is really big."

"Yes it is," Luther said noticing the boy's hair was freshly combed. He couldn't recall ever seeing it combed, freshly or otherwise. "Here, sit down. Let me take those from you."

"It's just more tomato stuff."

"Tomato stuff? That from an internationally recognized expert on tomato fertilization and growth?"

"Some expert."

"What happened?"

"Nothing. Nothing at all," Aaron said. "My science teacher says it's too soon. She said we would send out an information packet on my ideas to some agricultural colleges and tomato growers but she hasn't had the time to help me prepare it yet."

"I see."

Aaron removed his jacket and shoved both hands in his pocket. "I don't know what I expected."

"But you did expect something."

"I guess I did."

"What do your parents think?"

Without missing a beat, Aaron answered, "They're pretty disappointed, too."

"I can see why your whole family would be. You have an older brother, don't you? I think I heard it at the fair, you being the celebrity and such."

"Marty. Yeah. He's not a fan of horticulture. He'd rather play baseball."

"Well, I think there's room in the world for another famous baseball player and another more famous scientist."

"You think?"

"I think it's high time we opened the box of donuts you brought and for which I am paying and I don't want to hear a protest from you or I'll toss you and your tomato stuff right back where you came from," Luther said, setting a five dollar bill in front of Aaron. "The next time we go out you can treat. Is that fair enough?"

Aaron looked slightly upset by how his gesture was received, but agreed not to disagree. "Okay."

"Aaron, I think I know where these donuts came from, besides the corner store. They came from your heart and for that, I am very grateful. But I feel uncomfortable taking anything from you but your kindness. Does that make it clearer for you?"

"Much. Thank you, Mr. Canton."

"And for the absolutely very last time, it's Luther."

"Luther."

"I'm going to get us some plates and juice and napkins, because I can get pretty messy, at least that's what my Clara says, and give you a quick tour of our mansion and then we'll get to your tomatoes and get you home so you can do your homework."

"Oh, don't worry about that."

"No homework?"

"I only have three classes on Monday and I've finished my homework for them. It was pretty simple."

"Then let's get on with this and if you ever meet my Clara, I hope you wouldn't tell her what's about to happen here."

"Why, what's going to happen?"

"I'm going to make a pig of myself and with a little encouragement. I hope you'll be foolish enough to join me."

"I'm not usually foolish."

"Then I am the perfect person to corrupt you, Aaron Siebel," Luther said cutting into one of the chocolate creme-filled donuts. A squirt of the dark oozy innards shot out from an opening in the side. "You get the squishy disgusting half."



According to the gospel of Aaron Siebel, because all species of tomatoes have a deep and complex root system, they are very difficult to grow on window boxes, which are traditionally only four to five inches deep. They also need sunlight through most of the day. Most window boxes would not be sufficiently deep to grow cherry or even dwarf tomatoes. Aaron suggested an old joint compound bucket approximately a foot and a quarter high by ten inches wide. Aaron walked from window to window until they had picked out two that fronted south onto 125th street. "These might work, but you have to keep the soil pretty moist. And remember, it's a warm season plant and they're very sensitive to frost."

They finally settled on a box eight inches deep by ten inches wide and five feet long. Luther didn't know anything about growing tomatoes but he did know how to build and seal a wooden box so it would withstand the rigors of sun and wind and soil moisture.

"Be careful that the boxes don't get too hot in July and August," Aaron said, as would any expert with characteristic off-handed self-confidence. It was a pleasure to see this young man so assured in his bearing. He wasn't at all like the boy Luther met accidentally yesterday near his house.

During the tour, Aaron learned about Luther's family and what it takes to earn a Purple Heart, and Luther learned that tomatoes are the most widely used canned vegetables in the United States. About 75% of the total tomato crop is processed into juice, canned tomatoes, sauces, pastes, and ketchup. New tomato varieties had been developed that could be machine-harvested green and chemically ripened, but they had very little taste compared to the vine-ripened fruit. By the time there was no more advice and instructions to exchange, only six of the dozen donuts remained. "I can't believe how many of those you ate," Luther said.

"You had a few, too."

"I hardly touched them," Luther said with his dry sense of humor. "It's a wonder I was able to get any at all with you using both your hands and feet to eat them."

"It's all technique," Aaron answered, finally realizing he wasn't being criticized, and embracing the old man's humor. "But you know I'm not full."

"For someone who looks like he hadn't had a decent meal in months you behave like a walking garbage can."

"I eat okay."

"Do you?"

"Sure."

"Your mother makes you a good dinner?"

"Sometimes," he answered, this time with a hint of discomfort. "She works a lot."

"And when she's not around, does your baseball playing brother pitch in to get things going?"

"Sometimes."

Luther had been bracing for this one moment for a full day, maybe since he met the boy. He had a heart full of unspoken words and unresolved intentions. His only fear was that they would come out all wrong and he would lose whatever little progress, whatever frail bond, he had been able to establish with Aaron Siebel of Nieuw Haarlem.

"Aaron, I need to talk to you. I have something to say."

"Okay," Aaron said, unable to take his eyes from the six remaining donuts.

"When I finish what I want to say you're probably going to be so mad at me that you'll storm out of here and never come back. I guess that means you would miss an opportunity to meet my wife. That would be unfortunate. But what I've come to believe is that your parents are not living in your apartment. There may be an older brother but I suspect he is rarely at home. What I am sure of, as sure as I can be short of visiting your apartment, and you'll have to forgive me for this, is that you live alone and have done so for a long time and you spend much of your waking energies trying to convince everybody who asks that your homelife is fine when it doesn't really exist. Now it's none of my business, as Clara has told me over and over, but I've taken a liking to you and since that hasn't happened to me in years, your welfare means something to me beyond your helping me grow tomatoes."

Aaron looked like he didn't know what to say or where to hide. "You're wrong," was all he could muster and gathered up his materials.

"Are you angry at me?"

"It's late. I think I should be going home."

"Because an old man, an old black man, is concerned about you? Do you think I would ever tell anybody what you entrust to me? If you don't know, then let me tell you the answer is no. I respect you too much to betray your confidence. That doesn't mean I don't want to try and help you. I probably can't you know. But I could at least listen to you. I'd like to think that if I needed your help you would offer it to me even if I was too proud or pigheaded to accept it." The boy continued to stuff his bag. "Aaron, son, please don't go without at least telling me what happened to them. The rest of your life is your business."

The phone rang. After a half dozen rings, the boy asked, "Aren't you going to answer it?"

"You know, I don't think there is anything more important right now than helping a very special young man. I only hope he's not going to hold my outspoken concern against me."

"You don't understand."

"I know I don't understand. There are many things I don't understand. But there are few people that have so inspired my interest more than you have."

"It's not important," Aaron said with his jaw hovering just above his chest.

"Would you be put-off if I had a serious problem and said that to you? I don't think so."

"I don't know."

"Aaron," Luther said changing chairs so he could be sitting next to where the boy was standing, "are your parents living with you? Just tell me that."

Aaron wiped the welling tears before they betrayed him. "They'll be back."

"I'm sure they will, but even the bravest and smartest boy still needs a friend under these circumstances. And if your brother comes by, well, then that's fine, too."

"Comes by? Where?"

"Here. I want you to think about having dinner with Clara and me one night a week. That's all. No questions. No problems. You can make the date and even not show up and we wouldn't get angry with you. Clara and I will be disappointed but never angry."

"Why?"

"Why should we be?"

"If I don't show up?"

"I told you how fond I am of you. You don't have to feel the same about me. Clara is a lot more compassionate than I am anyway. Everybody falls in love with Clara. I'm used to it. So she'll understand if you break your promise."

"Where is she?"

"With her sister in Florida," he reminded Aaron. "Her sister was very sick but she's better now."

"When is she coming back?"

"In a few days. I can't wait. I really miss her. And tomorrow I have to start cleaning up the house or she'll have my skin for it. I tend to get a little sloppy when she's not around, you know."

Aaron looked around the dining and living room again. "I can see."

"Hey, who asked you?" Luther barked in mock protest.

"You did."

"First you eat all those donuts than you call me a slob?"

The boy laughed. "The place is a mess. My apartment is cleaner."

"Fine. Then if you're such a smarty-pants, you can help me clean it up tomorrow."

"Sunday?"

"Yeah, Sunday. You're Jewish. The Sabbath is over. So you have no excuses. You get here by nine and I'll have a platter of scrambled eggs and bacon and fresh blueberry muffins waiting for you than I'm going to put you to work until you're satisfied the place meets your rigorous standards. You do know what rigorous standards are, don't you?"

"I do," Aaron answered, with the blink of a smile.

"You think you're up to the task?"

"Do you think you're up to the task?"

"What do you mean?"

"I doubt if the both of us working without a break for a week of Sundays could put this place back in order before your wife gets back."

Luther got up and took the boys shoulders in his grasp. "How about the two of us working day and night and only taking time out to eat more fresh chocolate creme-filled donuts? You think we could do it then?"

"It's worth a try, Luther."

"Good, because you know," he started, now unable to hold back his tears, "together I believe that you and I can accomplish miracles."

Aaron tried to nod in approval but was crushed by the weight of the old man's trembling embrace.

4 comments:

  1. maybe i´m not reading this the right way, i feel the old man has worn down the boy, has pushed him into accepting him in his life.there is a limit as to how much we should impose ourselves on others. nothing is really as we think it is.
    fascinating about the tomatoes!

    michael mccarthy

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  2. An excellent & heartwarming story.
    Elliot

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  3. Story kept me interested until the end.

    Burt Baum

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  4. The story has me wanting more. What will happen? What is Aaron's story? Touching - the character desriptions makes the reader love them both...and Clara too.

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