Ballad of the Tomato Lady by Nickalus Rupert

2016 Neutrino Short-Short Prize Honorable Mention

At first glance, you might not follow the tomato lady’s game. She waits with clergical patience, neck threaded through a hole in the naked plywood, but she’s thinking that there are never enough throwers, never enough tomatoes. On the crowd-facing side of the plywood box, a painted jester’s body. Her very real head completes this crude illusion. Along the plywood’s outer edge, a pile of fallen tomato pulp attracts pot-bellied flies.

Around the corner, minstrels sing of sly courtesans and long-dead kings. The vendor sells an enormous turkey leg. The mead peddler comes close to losing his patience with yet another patron too distracted by his iPhone to pay for his pint. This is the Split Meadows Renaissance Faire, where lower-tier theater types go to die.

You might think it a cruel game as you passed by. Why pay to hurl fruit at this woman’s head? But she would not use a word like cruel, and she would reject your view entirely. Sporting, she might say, but never cruel. And, mister, have you ever got the wrong idea about her being locked in. She’ll have you know that she likes it in there, and if she’s confined, it’s only for the protection of all those helpless saps passing within earshot.

She spots her next victim—a bookish type. Black-rimmed glasses, left hand stuffed in the silk-lined pocket of a handsome charcoal pea coat. He’s only medium-short, but he’ll do. On his arm, a blonde who’d be more comfortable at an art museum or a wine tasting. The tomato lady startles like a hungry cat. Doesn’t matter if this guy has a bald spot, doesn’t matter if he’s five pounds overweight, or underweight, or if his front teeth overlap. Her insults aren’t prefigured, but algorithmic. Each new contestant suffers a modified sting. Her gift, her blessing. She thinks of herself as a true democrat in this regard. The tomato men think of her as a maestro.

Mr. Pea Coat hasn’t noticed the tomato lady’s booth, hasn’t detected the hostile energy she’s radiating. He steers his girlfriend through the crowd like they’re traipsing any old squirrel-ridden park. The faire is something they can laugh about—the clumsy attempts at Middle English, the corny wares, the goofy outfits. Only now, during this man’s moment of ease, does the tomato lady’s mouth fly open. Her voice is a high-speed drill bit. She volleys a dig so vile, so deliberate and inflammatory in its intent, that the minstrels forego their song, the turkey guy sneers, and the beer vendor starts drinking from his own stock. Pea Coat’s astonished girlfriend unweaves her arm from his.

Five dollars later, Pea Coat holds a small carton of spoiled tomatoes in his quaking hand. His first shot cuts a bitter arc and detonates a full arm’s length from the tomato lady’s head. He’s got better control than she would’ve guessed, but it won’t matter. She can slip tomatoes the way Willie Pep slipped punches.

If you asked her, off-hours, she might mention the loneliness and heartache that come with being the park’s only tomato lady. It’s the sort of occupation usually associated with alcoholic, self-loathing men. Carnie work. She might confess that like you, she only wants to be understood, that it bothers her when people don’t take the time to consider the depth of her artistry.

The tomato men all wear goggles, which she disdains. Her eyes are perpetually red from tomato acid, and she takes pride in this, the same way collegiate wrestlers take pride in cauliflower ears. Her pitch man is forever asking her to let him score the skin of the tomatoes with a blade so they’ll break apart mid-flight, but this would violate the sanctity of the game. He doesn’t understand. She has bled from the mouth, from the nose. On the coldest days, she has endured the impact of partially-frozen produce. She can shift several of her bottom teeth with her tongue.

She knows about tomatoes, knows that ninety-four percent of their weight is water. She knows the delayed impact of a plum tomato (egg-shaped, stealthy, and near seedless), or a beefsteak (globular, slow-moving, with seeds that burst in a fan-like spray), or a Campari (small, quick, lethal). She knows them by taste, by texture.

Would it surprise you that over the years, she has taken home more than a few throwers? She has bedded impartially with baldos and shorties and ugly ones—men who are often disappointed to find that her wit doesn’t extend as far as the bedroom, where she becomes shy, and strangely self-conscious. She likes the idea of intimacy. The idea.

She has been a bank teller, a paralegal, a veterinary’s assistant, and a barista. None of these occupations made her heart ring the way it does when she sits behind that plywood.

She probably holds more college degrees than you do.

She was the class clown, but never the malicious kind. She was never one to light the woods on fire. She has never keyed the car of an ex-lover.

She takes the same garden variety anti-depressants you take.

The man in the pea coat still has three tomatoes. That’s three chances to prove whatever it is he would prove by nailing her in the mug with a nice fat Tasti-Lee. She waits. The act of throwing is another form of intimacy, the tomato’s path binding tomato, thrower, and target. A happy trinity. Noble, even.

But she wants more from this desperate Pea Coat. The game offers her so little in return. She would remove his coat, strip away the glasses, send away the coquettish blonde. She wants to know what’s left of a man after you’ve cast off the trappings, the affect, the imperfection. Is there anything beneath, or would she only meet her own reflection?

Listen: This is a love song.

Listen: Butterface, Bubblebutt, Hooknose, Sasquatch, Swamp-Ass, Mama’s Boy.

She waits for you, and you alone.

Nickalus Rupert spent most of his life near the Gulf Coast of Florida. In 2015, he completed an MFA fellowship at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he is a second-year PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he also works as an associate editor for Mississippi Review. His fiction is forthcoming in Pleiades and Gargoyle and appears in PANK Online, The Pinch, Tin House’s Flash Fridays, and elsewhere.

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