Part 3: Too Many Green Tomatoes
"How can we go away for ten days? I've still got 24 tomato plants in pots behind the house." Mary Lou grabbed her thinning hair and tugged as if pulling out weeds.
Helmut, wrapped in a reindeer skin, looked up from his computer magazine: "I thought you were looking forward to the package tour of Sicily. I thought you wanted to explore your own roots."
"I didn't know we'd still have tomatoes here in the middle of October."
"We haven't tasted a single one."
"They haven't turned red yet," she said sadly. "Too many chilly days this summer. Northern Germany isn't California, where people grow papayas and bananas outside. Aunt Rose wrote she's got tomatoes jumping out of her compost pile."
"So leave ours on the plants, honey. We should be home by the 21st."
"And what if a hard frost turns them black? I've raised over 200 tomatoes, fed them and pinched off their leaves since May." She held out stained hands.
"Now you've got a real green thumb."
"I've earned it -- and I want to eat those tomatoes."
"Why don't you pick them and stow them in the basement? Maybe they'll ripen by themselves."
"Good idea." She stroked his hair. "I've got plans for sauces and ratatouille. A ripe, red tomato is better than sex."
"I just made that up."
He pinched her bottom. "So we're going to eat like farmers, even if Eurogeddon doesn't come?"
Sicily teemed with ripe tomatoes: fiery red, fat and fragrant under the almost-African sun. Savoring them, Mary Lou wondered how her green ones were managing, cooped up in a row of shopping bags at home.
Moving in synch, like a school of fish, the Germans on tour browsed on Baroque churches, the ruins of ancient temples, and rowdy markets in crumbling towns. They complained about the soft, white Italian bread, and gorged on rich ice cream with flavors like watermelon, jasmine or black olive.
Mary Lou almost slid off her chair, tasting a pale green granita siciliana. The half-melted slush dissolved on her tongue like essence of pistachio, like summer.
"What's the matter?" Helmut demanded. "You're glowing as if we just had sex."
"It's delizioso," she burbled, and quickly he ordered one for himself.
She bought up jars of honey and black olives, and bags of dried tomatoes, figs and spices. This was one vacation to feast on all through the eight months of dark, north German winter. Helmut helped himself to the free samples, and dozed on the crowded bus beside her, the corners of his wide mouth turning up.
Bouncing along in the high-rise bus, which seemed to nose locals out of the way, Mary Lou gazed out at the humps of garbage heaped up around narrow-built, grimy Palermo. A crowd of ragged people in wheelchairs waited outside a closed church door, with one old woman yelling at herself. A bent man in black hurried up, with the key.
The bus veered away, towards the golden mosaics of Monreale Cathedral. Later, back aboard, Helmut asked, "So have you found your roots yet? Mary Lou Mastroianni, who married me."
"Here and there, honey. Look at that." They were rumbling past a fresh-painted subdivision carved from vast rows of olive trees. Most owners had left one tree in place, right in front of the house. "I can feel a bond with the land, now that I've started growing food. People here are holding on to their trees. When Eurogeddon comes, they'll be eating or trading the olives from their front yard."
"You speak of Eurogeddon?" the tour guide asked in German, emerging from the on-board WC. Giancarlo, plump and greasy, had chipmunk cheeks. "You mean what happens when we all go bankrott?"
"Exactly," Mary Lou said with gloomy glee.
"My wife is a pessimist," Helmut said softly. "She thinks the Eurozone is doomed. Although we haven't seen any news in a week, though, the world is still rolling along on its rails -- as far as I can tell."
Bracing himself in the aisle, Giancarlo leaned towards Mary Lou: "People here expect that Sicily soon will be falling apart, like Greece. You know there's a monk in Palermo who gathers up scraps of food for the needy poor. Soon everyone will be begging for help. That's why I'm glad I'm still fat as butter." He winked, and waddled forwards, back towards his seat near the driver.
"Hear that, honey?" Mary Lou whispered in English (no point offending the Germans on the bus). "The problem with Merkiavellian austerity is, it's not supposed to apply to Germany. Meanwhile Angela Merkel is forcing it down the 16 other countries in the Eurozone."
"We have to make them behave," said Helmut stoutly. "They want to use our credit card."
"Oh I had that problem with my luxury-loving mom in New York for 20 years. We used to cut up her credit cards, and she'd order more through the mail. You think you can make Club Med behave? Those countries don't want your wise advice."
"And what about the US deficits?" he countered. "Nobody's lifting a finger to fix them."
"Yes," a voice butted in from behind them, speaking German-accented English: "Why do Americans always think that you can solve other people's problems, while you neglect your own?"
"Sie haben recht," Mary Lou said gloomily, shrugged and turned to Helmut: "Honestly, honey, I sometimes think the whole Western world is a Ponzi scheme. Who can possibly pay for the entitlements? That's why I love our garden at home: what I put in is what I get out. Not like Social Security ..."
Unlocking the door at home, Mary Lou scowled at the dreadful reek. No, the cat litter downstairs looked picked (the neighbor's daughter had done her duty). This knock-you-down stink emanated from the cold room in the basement. Oh, woe ... The three shopping bags of perfect, green tomatoes had rotted brown and black, with fuzzy goo between them.
Mary Lou groaned as she sorted out the dead, many of which she recognized. Yet this was not a total disaster. Some tomatoes looked intact, still green or just beginning to blush.
She salvaged every one that looked safe, and wiped them with a rag, returning them to fresh bags. "Don't worry, I'll take care of you," she muttered, "and next time I'll give our crop to the neighbors. Serves me right for hoarding good food."
The weeks rolled along, and 67 tomatoes ripened in their own time. Some landed in salads, and some in sauce, the best as fresh-cut garnishes.
Freezing the pinkish ones made them honey-sweet, but even the tiniest, left at the bottom of the bags, turned red at last. Though they didn't taste as rich as her dried Sicilians, Mary Lou served and ate them with pleasure.
Meanwhile she painted five new fruit trees with chalk compound, and heaped straw mulch over their roots to protect them from the frost. Old bicycle tires and inner tubes held the loose straw down in the wind.
"I think they look chic," she said proudly one evening, and Helmut chuckled into his beard. Then he pointed at a solitary, greying plant still huddled in a bucket against the house:
"So why did you leave that dead one up when you cleared the rest away?"
"It's not finished with its life. This morning it dropped another tomato at my feet, like 'take this too.'"
"Are you becoming a garden romantic? Do you commune with every plant?"
"Well you don't mind eating what I produce here. Next year I'm adding beans, maybe pumpkins. I might grow some pumpkins on the roof."
"And what will our neighbors say if Eurogeddon never arrives?"
"Helmut, it already has," she said flatly. "You don't notice since I keep our books."
"There's no growth left in the Eurozone, and inflation has started rising already. The health insurance just jacked up our premiums again. Soon we'll be rioting, like the Greeks."
"I'm not going to worry, yet." His cheek twitched.
"Don't bother; you know I worry for two."
The sun was sinking behind the ghostly, twin apple trees at the garden's end. Gently Helmut pressed the wrinkle between her eyes, as if trying to smooth it flat.
"Oh it's part of the garden," she said absently, gazing out at the dwindling, golden glow.
"Honey, what are you talking about?"
"I accept our fate."