She caught the bus at the bottom of the hill. Clutching her purse, she stepped up, paid her fare and moved stiffly toward the empty seat beside me.
We chatted as we watched the city – the schools, the hospitals and the houses – roll by.
She’s lived in this city her whole life, she told me. She married here and raised a family here. She watched her children grow up, move away and have their own children.
She buried a husband here.
She’s seen good times and bad times, she said.
We talked about the weather, the way summer was on us at last and about the high prices at the pump and at the grocery store.
She has always had a garden, she said. Ever since she was a little girl and her mother planted a Victory Garden during the war and canned fresh vegetables to see them through winter. Now, with the arthritis, she said, pointing to her knees, she couldn’t manage more than a few pots beside the back door. But she always plants a tomato.
“I love ’em,” she told me. “Nothing tastes better than a tomato picked right off the vine.”
I left the bus at my stop and I watched it move away, carrying the woman. Walking slowly home, I thought about her and imagined her solitary life.
I stopped to pick a tomato off the vine I’d planted in my backyard as soon as the weather was warm enough to put it into the ground.
Holding it in my hand, I imagined the woman living in a little house not far from mine, doing the same thing. I could see her open the screen door, so accustomed to the squeal of the hinges she no longer heard it, and step carefully outside.
Picking one fat, red, ripe Early Girl, she would take it back into the dark, cool kitchen, where the fan moved back and forth, creating a breeze, fluttering the paper napkins tucked into a plastic holder on the kitchen table. Using the big knife – the one that had been a wedding present – she would slice cleanly through the still-warm tomato.
Standing over the sink, she would sprinkle a little salt on the slice she held and with each bite, she would fall back into other summers. Back to when she was a child, playing nearby as her mother worked in the garden. To when she was a bride, anxious to prove that she was a good mate, a woman who could grow a few things, who could make a man happy and make a good home. To when there was a toddler in the high chair, fretting and hungry, making faces at the bits of tomato sandwich on the tray, poking at it with fat fingers and kicking his feet to jingle the little bells on his shoes.
Life has bent and shaped the woman on the bus the way the wind twists and sculpts the gnarled pines that cling to the rocky face of a mountain. She is old and alone and embedded in the landscape.
But for the few weeks every year when the sun is hottest and the days are longest and tiny yellow blooms bring fat, red fruit to the plants in the pots by the back door, she is young again.
That’s when the years are harvested with the tomatoes, and alone in a house full of whispering spirits, she feasts.