a short story by Jean Sica-Lieber
About the Author
Author Photo | Ed Rawady
Jean Sica-Lieber grew up in New York City but has lived most of her adult life in upstate New York.
Primarily a nonfiction writer with items published both locally and nationally, she returned to her childhood love of writing fiction and poetry many years ago.
Jean is a technical editor with over 25 years of experience in the communications field, including but not limited to public relations, advertising, marketing, editing, proofreading, copy editing, and writing.
They moved into the old vacant house that backed up to the woods. He was of this world, a seller of money to millionaires. She of somewhere else, a vendor of tomatoes grown lovingly on front yard vines, advertised with blue poster paint on corrugated board: “Homegrown — 10 cents.”
When she wasn’t tending tomatoes, the woman was taking long walks in the woods. With her dog, she moved quietly for hours, among tall pines, through wild-raspberry brambles and under canopies of black walnut trees.
The century-old house had sat, sadly, for many years, its maroon crowns reaching to the sky. Framed by a forest, it looked upon a busy road parallel to a row of new white homes. When the young hungry realtor showed it to the middle-aged couple in early winter, the husband immediately commented on the house’s excellent location, about investment and resale values.
“Location, location,” he said to his wife. “Location, location,” he said to the realtor.
“You’re so astute,” the realtor replied.
The man’s wife smiled knowingly and nodded her head as her eyes wandered to look out ceiling-high lead glass windows onto unkempt grounds. Location, location, she thought to herself as she mentally listed the rich varieties of bushes, trees, and long-ignored perennials.
The man peered under cabinets to check plumbing, climbed to poke at roof shingles, tapped on walls searching for insulation. “How wise you are, so many buyers don’t even look,” the realtor said.
The wife smiled at her husband’s rising shoulders, as her legs led her outside. There, she bent to rub the cold-mulched soil between her fingers, reached to stroke the bark of patient old oaks.
By late winter, the man counted the money required to buy the home and modernize it. The woman rubbed the garden soil between her fingers, testing it for life.
Spring brought the moving truck and the new owners’ possessions. Across the road, the vinyl-sided houses stood at attention as the neighbors kept hidden watch. Not one of them would consider living in such a home. “Resale values,” they explained. “Good for the neighborhood to have that thing fixed up.”
The air warmed. The once lonely house across the road began to present a happier face. Workers added a garage for the man, and landscapers built stony, raised flowerbeds for the woman.
Each morning, before the school bus arrived, the man who lived in the old house bolted from his garage in a silver car. After he joined the stream of workers on their way to the city, the woman appeared on the front porch with her dog trailing her heels. After tending the tomato seedlings she had transplanted to the growing beds, she’d step slowly across the thyme lawn, stretch to breathe in a blossoming stem, and walk to the gently sheltered pathway beside her house that led to the forest behind.
Neighbors, gathered to wait with their children for the school bus, would sometimes notice the woman as she left for her daily travels, her eyes focused on the path in front of her, never seeming to notice the waiting group. Afterwards, when the green or brown of her clothing had gradually disappeared into the woods, the female neighbors would often retreat to one or the other’s kitchen for coffee and chat, to discuss the man and woman who lived in the old house.
The earth warmed, the tomatoes grew, and school buses were stored in bus garages for the summer. The ritual gathering of the neighborhood women shifted to waiting for the morning mail. One late summer morning, after the man had left, the woman came out of the house and placed a small wooden table against a front yard tree. Upon the table, she rested a sign: “Red Tomatoes — 10 cents each.” She then set out a dozen large heart-shaped fruits and an empty espresso/coffee can upon the table, never lifting her eyes from her tasks. Then she and her dog walked down the path into the woods, the sight of her berry-red slacks and earth-brown blouse blurring with the distance. The waiting neighbors watched with squeezed eyes, scoffing at the notion of purchasing tomatoes from the roadside. The mail arrived, and the group scattered.
Later that day, as a neighbor battled scraggly yellow blossoms in her lawn, spraying copiously with some store-bought gray concoction, the aroma of tomatoes warming in the sun drifted from the across the road. A quick glance and she jogged to the tomato stand, placed a few coins in the can and ran into her house with three tomatoes.
Soon, many neighbors were buying tomatoes. They never called out to the woman as she placed the tomatoes on the wooden table each morning. They never waved to her as she and her dog passed across the old lawn into the woodland path. A new ritual had been established: they waited for the woman and her dog to disappear into the forest and then paraded across the road to buy tomatoes.
One cool morning, the neighbor who lived in the third white house sat upon her plastic folding chair with crossed legs beneath a khaki skirt. She watched as the man in the old house left for his city job. Then the walking woman came out of the house, her dog close behind. The woman placed a few more tomatoes on the table, greeted the ground cover and the bushes, and walked into the woods, her image seeming to melt. The neighbor refocused her eyes from the sight of her own neatly pressed khaki skirt to the distant image of the walking woman and wondered how someone who could grow such wonderfully tasting tomatoes could have such bad taste in clothing. When the others arrived, the questioning neighbor shared her thoughts with them.
After that, the neighbors started watching more closely, sometimes using binoculars. They soon noticed that the walking woman dressed in a way that blended her into the forest.
In early fall, the tomatoes stopped ripening. School buses returned. The neighbors gathered at the bus stop and surveyed the old house across the road. They saw the man rush from the garage in his silver car and the walking woman meander off the porch with her dog. They noted that the walking woman wore clothing fashioned to the season: deep oranges and light browns.
The air got colder. Brown leaves gathered in hills upon wet ground. School buses took regular routes. The mail arrived each day on schedule. The woman walked into the woods each day with her dog. Now her garb took on the somber tones of early winter: white, light browns, and some green. The neighbors gathered at the bus stop to wait and watch, often hurrying their children up the bus steps without even a farewell pat.
All winter long, the neighbors watched. After each morning’s school bus left for the city, the neighbors would often scatter. They watched quietly, privately, hidden behind bedroom curtains and living room blinds. The man who lived in the old house continued to hurry to his job in the city, and the woman continued to walk in colors.
A year had passed. Tender greens poked through gray white on the edge of the forest floor. The woman wore light green and gray for her daily excursions. The neighbors still watched, now from covered porches and sheltered front steps. They waited in dreary afternoon shadows and thought of fresh red tomatoes and things they could not fathom.
A waiting game cannot last forever. Soon, lawns needed mowing. Annuals needed planting. Children in fresh air needed more attention. When locally grown produce became available at the grocery store, memories of the walking woman’s tomatoes returned to the neighbors. Instead, however, they noticed tall weeds in the garden beds.
By the time the daffodil leaves had browned down into the lawns, the neighbors had lost interest. “At least the house looks good. Doesn’t look run down any more,” said a tall redhead to her husband one day.
“Maybe we should call the town about having them take better care of their landscaping,” said the woman who lived on the corner.
One gray day, the silver car emerged from garage across the road, as usual. However, there was no sign of the woman. One neighbor told other neighbors. The next morning, a small group gathered at the time the man usually left for work. When the garage door of the old house opened, these neighbors quickly crossed the highway and waved to the man to get his attention. The silver car stopped dead. The group pressed close.
“Hello,” ventured one of the neighbors. “How are you doing?”
The man in the car peered at the group, responding only with a nod of his head. The neighbor spoke again.
“We were wondering how you were doing and how you and your wife were getting on,” the neighbor stumbled over his words. “She’s not sick is she? She didn’t plant any tomatoes this year, and we haven’t seen her taking her daily walk in the woods.”
The man behind the leather steering wheel grimaced at the faces filling the space between the rolled-down window and the metal window frame. “She’s gone,” he said, his eyes barely meeting theirs.
A blue jay screeched down from its post in an old oak. The man displayed the large palm of his left hand, and the crowd took a sudden unified step backwards. Retrieving his hand, the man glanced at his gold Rolex wristwatch. “I came home one day,” the man said quickly. “She wasn’t here. The dog was on the front porch. Covered with raspberry brambles, thistles. Stinking of pine needles.”
Then he pressed a button, and the car window slid up, tightly shutting out any additional questions from the people staring and standing with hollow mouths. The neighbors backed away some more, this time slowly. They watched as the man and his car disappeared into the flow of traffic.
“Gee,” a female neighbor mused, as the assembly returned to their side of the road, “I guess we’ll have to buy our tomatoes at the supermarket from now on.”
“Camouflage” Copyright ©2003 by Jean Sica-Lieber.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles.