August in the Central Valley smells of road-kill tomatoes. That’s what we call them in our house, the piles of red, spherical refugees huddled in the bend of every ramp to and from I-5. The smell wafts in from the fields at first, a gentle nudge that summer’s true hell has called to say it’s about 15 minutes away. During harvest, the fields emanate a musty sort of odor, damp earth and leaves, with a light dusting of tomato. It’s the sort of smell that reminds Valley natives that the few triple digit days we’ve had so far were really just a tease, and that summer is about to get serious.
By the time that the road-kill tomatoes appear, the smell has changed to something more pungent, a sort of squashed vinegar. We’ve always joked with the kids about the tendency of tomatoes to leap for freedom. “Don’t eat me!” we cry as a red ball bounces from the top of a wobbly pyramid on the trailer in front of us. Freedom is a fleeting and perilous condition for tomatoes. My husband has been known to aim for the escapees that straggle along the white line. “Putting them out of their misery,” he says.
I like to think that the tomatoes leap in hope of bettering their condition, but I know that really, there were just too many and someone had to go. My daughter and I have developed a tomato code. The tomato analogy began on the drive home one evening. Caitlin was about seven and was entertaining one of her intermittent “all adults, especially my parents, are idiots” phases. She’s not too far wrong, but it would have been nice if she’d waited till 14 or 15 to out us. That particular day, I had forgotten something critical like bake sale or water day; as a consequence, Caitlin had arrived at school without the proper supplies and was destined to be a pariah and would probably have to spend the rest of her life wandering the desert. “I’m sorry, honey. I just forgot. I’ll try to remember next week.”
“Mooommm, why do you always forget stuff?” No one can do italics like an aggravated second grade girl.
“Well…” I scanned the road, hoping for inspiration or a good distraction. A squashed pile of tomatoes greeted me. “See all the road-kill tomatoes?”
“Well, why are they on the ground?”
“’Cause there were too many of them on the truck, duh.”
“Not because they leapt for freedom?”
“No. That’s just what you and dad say when you think you’re being funny. The truck was just too full, that’s all.”
“Well, sometimes my brain is like that truck. Sometimes there are just too many things to keep track of, and some of them roll off.”
“So your brain is a tomato truck?” Caitlin giggled. I think I had just validated her world view.
“Kind of, yeah.”
Ever since that afternoon, whenever I forget something, my child will announce to the world that another tomato has fallen off of Mom’s truck. Some time ago I told this story to my husband. He wanted to know what happened to the thoughts at the bottom of the truck; did they turn into ketchup?