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ralph robert moore
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the tiniest green bell pepper in the world
july 5, 2003
Mary and I mostly grow old-fashioned flowers in our backyard, the type you can bend over and sniff and feel good about our world, but occasionally, not every year, we'll plant vegetables. We do it mostly because it's just so weird you can put a tiny, ankle-high bush in a hole in your backyard, and before too long it produces something you can actually eat.
The first time we ever tried to grow vegetables was when we lived in a second story apartment in Carrollton, Texas. The apartment included a wooden balcony, accessible through sliding glass doors from the living room, the glass doors hidden like in a child's mystery book behind sliding peach fiberglass drapes, the drapes themselves sparkling with pinholes of light during the day from our cat Elf's manical front-clawed climbs up the drapes to reach the ruffled top, and meow at us.
Here are two of the many memories I have of that apartment:
Once we moved to Texas and found jobs, it happened we both started work the same day, February 13, 1989. That evening, reunited, we decided to do a videotape of our conversation recounting what our day apart had been like. At one point near the end of the videotape, both feeling hungry, we wonder what time it is, then suddenly, simultaneously, realize we're wearing watches that can tell us the time (because we never wore watches when we weren't working, because time then was unimportant). Looking at the videotape, at both of us hoisting our left hands to see the time, I realized how similar a watch, strapped around a wrist, is to a handcuff.
And that Carrollton apartment was also the last time I ever saw my mother alive.
We rarely went out onto our balcony because it's so damn hot most of the year in Texas. We did go out on the balcony the day we moved in, and by then it was late evening, New Year's Eve, after eleven, so many unpacked boxes in the apartment behind us; it was cool outside, and black, starry, and as we stood at the wooden rail, one story below, the alternating blue and red top lights of a boxy white ambulance swam by, through the parking lot, followed a minute later by a police car, with that weird, night-piercing pale blue pulse cop cars started using in the eighties. It turned out a couple of apartments over, a woman had stabbed her boyfriend to death.
But in the second year of our living in the apartment, as Spring came by, and we drove through different neighborhoods, seeing how homeowners had landscaped their yards, we felt drawn to go to a local nursery and buy a lot of different envelopes of seed. One of the biggest differences between living in an apartment, and living in your own house, is that you're able to grow things, big things, not just the wandering green vine from the blind beige eye of a potato chunk set in the dirt of a coffee can, and we were yearning for that freedom, we had talked about buying a house, something huge and vulnerable to dampness we actually owned, a big step, all those lawyers, all those lawn-mowings, and we wanted a foretaste of that freedom.
So what we did was buy a whole bunch of pots, the smaller ones clay, but the really big ones (so huge that if you put one upside down over your head, such as you might do at a wild party comprised entirely of gardeners, the wide rim of the pot would circle below your jaw), made out of clay-colored hard plastic. We filled all of them with bought dirt, poked our right index finger down here and there, like God, in the top surface of brown earth and white styrofoam speckles, meant to absorb moisture, dropping into the shallow holes seeds of all different sizes, shapes and colors, brushing dirt over the top of each buried treasure.
We planted I don't remember how many different vegetable seeds, although certainly they included tomatoes, corn, and lima beans.
After a week of watering, all the pots showed tiny twin leaves rising, on little green stalks that would keel over each rewatering, but eventually the stalks grew tall enough to where we knew they actually were plants, not weeds.
By the time a month passed, we had pots full of healthy plants, including, incredibly, corn stalks. It got to be something we looked forward to checking each day as soon as we got home, petting the cats' heads, feeding them, then both of us, raising our eyebrows to each other, going out onto the balcony to see how our crop was doing.
As is typical with us, we started solemnly discussing when we should harvest (though the crop at that point was just green bushes with yellow blossoms).
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the heat, our inexperience, too much water, not enough, we wound up, from our entire array of pots, with a harvest consisting entirely of exactly three lima beans.
I still remember us sitting at our kitchen table the night we "harvested", poking the three little pale green beans around on the table with our fingertips. We wound up not eating them, since they really wouldn't make much of a side dish.
But in our backyard garden, we've had much better success.
This early Spring, a little after March 15 (the usual end of the "frost-danger" season here in north Texas), we planted four tomato plants, three bell pepper plants.
We knew enough now, with the tomatoes, to strip all the lower leaves off the fledgling plants, then bury that stripped-free length of the stalk to get a good root system going, and also to circle a strip of torn paper around the base of each plant, to confuse the fearsome cut worm, a mild, undulating traveler who might otherwise chew its way through the cellulose of the stalk.
Our greater concern was with the mockingbirds who live in the trees in our garden. In years past, we'd watch "our" tomatoes slowly ripen from green to yellow to pink to red, only to come out and discover the tomato we were going to twist off its spindly vine that evening had a notch-edged hole in one side of its ripeness, like a large asterisk. The first time that happened, a few years ago, once I saw the asterisk I started looking around our garden for the footnote, and sure enough, there it was: *Mockingbird.
A few days later, there were a lot of asterisks. The footnotes all read the same: *Ibid. *Ibid. *Ibid.
So we twisted together a cage of chicken wire to put around the remaining tomatoes, and in fact, although I rather casually refer to the structure we created as a "cage", one would not be too grandiose to call it instead a "Castle of Chicken Wire", since we did devote an extraordinary amount of time to its construction.
This year, though, we really didn't feel like committing to that elaborate a project, so we took our chances.
Sure enough, the first ripening tomato, as we twirled it off its vine, rotated to reveal the tell-tale asterisk.
So what we did then, with the next tomato, was pluck it while it was still orange, because I remember as a kid how my grandmother would pick her tomatoes early, then let them finish their ripening on a windowsill (probably for the same reason).
We brought the lovely orange tomato inside, placed it on a windowsill in our breakfast nook, and almost immediately, the smallest of our kittens, the runt of the litter, Button ("They call me 'Button' because I kick butt"), stalked across the vinyl floor to just below the windowsill, looking up at this strange addition, eyeing it the same way the late Leo Gorcey, of the Bowery Boys serials, would eye Huntz Hall just before he bitch-slapped him.
"Button, there's nothing to see here, just go back to wandering around the house."
But of course, the next time we came inside from the garden, the windowsill was tomatoless, the tomato itself located out in the front foyer, its side split, a lot of claw marks on its skin.
So I don't know what we're going to do.
But the good news is the bell peppers can be picked before they're red, so we can pull them off the bush before the birds peck at them, and eat them before Button plays with them.
We never grew bell peppers before, so didn't know what to expect.
The plants produced blossoms just like the tomato plants. After the blossoms had been open for a while, Mary, excitedly, bent over one hot afternoon, pointed at the plant. "Look! Look!"
I leaned over, following her finger. Out of one pale white blossom grew the tiniest green bell pepper I have ever seen, smaller than my thumbnail.
It's now almost supermarket size. Yesterday, I got down on my knees in front of it, staring at it, crisp, shiny, jade. I saw into the future. I saw a golden pool of extra-virgin olive oil, slowly heating in a skillet.
In last week's Lately I mentioned my disappointment at trying Omaha steaks, which photograph nicely, but don't really taste that good. The most extraordinary thing about them is their high price.
I'm pleased to report that I did, in the intervening week, find a meat that is, in fact, quite good, if you're a liverwurst-lover like me. It's Ehmer Pate-style Delicates Brand Liverwurst.
The texture is quite good, thick but spreadable, with a nice mouth feel. The flavor itself is complex, with a pleasing mildness.
It gets the SENTENCE Seal of Approval.