Rick's Space: Adventures in the Garden of Weird

Do I Look Like A Tomato To You?




Weekend gardeners are all the same.

We get out all of our stuff ready to plant, and that first glorious weekend in May the veggie garden takes shape.

Those tomato seedlings sure look healthy, you say. You think they are itching to get into the ground with that fertilizer and potting soil and climb to the sky.

Sometimes we put the stakes in right then and there, thinking, before we know it, those babies will be six-feet high.

Don’t do it. Don’t plant them. I learned the hard way.

Papa taught me a long time ago putting a tomato in the ground too early is like leaving your junior prom date out in the rain for two hours. There she soaks, her corsage dripping wet while she sulks and she plots the ways she’s going to get her revenge.

Papa always had a spring in his step Memorial Day. Even if it wasn’t sunny and warm, he knew his babies were ready to go on their own. They’d go into the ground early that morning — beefsteak, heirloom, cherry, plum — along with some marigolds and basil. Papa used to say water is size and sun is sweetness. So, every night he’d survey his babies but never micromanage them. They had to have good drainage in case it rained a lot. If the sun was really strong, they would get a little extra water — in the evening, always in the evening.

But one summer, Papa got sick and had to spend a lot of time in the hospital. My mom and her sisters tried to set up the garden as best they could but it never looked the same. It gave off a weird vibe — it was creepy, like a haunted mansion overrun with ghosts.

We had slugs on the tomato plants, giant things the size of zeppelins. (When Papa finally got home, he would pour a glass of beer on a table near the tomatoes and the slugs would spend the entire night slowly dragging themselves to their final resting place. More than a few old slugs in Sag Harbor went out more or less the same way.)

The most terrifying moment of my life occurred that summer. I was about five. I used to cut through the garden on Howard Street in Sag Harbor in the morning on the way to Mashashimuet Park.

It was pretty hairy in there, between the wasps and bees and runaway grape vines. I got creeped out and started running. Then, I stumbled and crashed down on a tomato plant. Luckily, the fruit was spared, but I cracked a vine in half. Anyhow, I kept going.

I ended up under a tree waiting out a rainstorm. My eye caught something moving just under my chin.

Then it emerged.

Slowly, a form seemed to rise from the shirt as if it had been embedded in it, and its color started changing from yellow to a sickening reddish greenish hue. The most grotesque creature I could ever imagine, shaped like a lizard, started crawling toward my neck. Suddenly a tongue flickered, and the thing, now multi-colored, opened its giant mouth like an alligator might.

I began thrashing it, knocking it to the ground, but it seemed to disappear in thin air. I stomped the earth to no avail until exhausted. I ran home, hysterical.

As I learned later, this fascinating thing was a chameleon, animals that looked like prehistoric monsters and could make themselves any color or shape. They would inhabit sickly tomato plants and given time, devour them leaf by leaf. They could take on the appearance of anything in the garden, and blend right in with a branch or a stick.

That night I told my big brother the sordid tale. He shut the light and pretty soon sleep set in. Only then did he reveal his secret: yes, a chameleon could mimic any living creature, take over any identity. He knew, he said — because it had happened the summer before to him.

He thought he had run away from it as well, but the opposite occurred.

I screamed and ran down the stairs, begging Papa to spray my big brother with soap water. He just kept laughing, a sinister laugh that penetrated my soul.

It’s been a pretty cruddy May, what with the virus and the cold and all. But a lot of people are coming here anyway. They think once they set their roots in the warm sun, they will be safe.

rmurphy@indyeastend.com