The unforgettable vegetable

The strawberry and the tomato — a cautionary love story

Untitled Document He made a get-by living, writing crime stories and science fiction for magazines before the booze killed his promise. He was nearly broke when an editor friend tossed him a bone: Write a kid story, early-teen stuff, 650 or 700 words, filler, $300. He knew nothing of kid stories, except that they had dancing vegetables and fruit in ’em, usually took place on a farm, and offered up some life lesson. He ordered a beer and a bowl of clam chowder and wrote it on a bar napkin.
In a tired tavern between somewhere and nowhere he watched his hand try to pick up the dime on the bar. He struggled with the task. His fingers were callused from years of hard work. He finally gave up and backhanded the dime to the floor — a tip for the sweeper man. Except for his strawberry head, he looked much like the rest of the bar patrons. His body was thick, his once sharp outline had rounded away. A taunt came from the dust-covered jukebox: “Strawberry head! Strawberry head!”
Billy Taylor, with a face forever crimson from years in the field and bright-red hair, paid no heed. He looked into his beer and saw a man with disconnected definition. He’d played some football in his day, and maybe the game defined him — he was an offensive lineman: bedrock, foundation. He did his job, and after the game ended no one remembered that he’d played. He never danced an end-zone dance. He loved football — he played until his sophomore year in college — and then he went home to work the family farm and live his life from fence to fence. It was a one-sentence life: He worked the farm for 30 years and then, blindsided by unrequited love, boredom, and an eviction notice from the bank, he lost his land to corporate strangers. “I do a little writing now,” he muttered. The bartender said, “What?” and “Ya want another beer?”
“Hit me, Sam.”
And then Billy Taylor asked his beer, or the bartender, or the jukebox: “Do you remember Roxanne Livingston?”
Roxanne Livingston! The unattainable dream of every guy in high school: prom queen, cheerleader, eyes full of slow-burning fire, a teasing smile that melted hearts, lips blossoming full and ripe? In the language of the day, she was a tomato. When Billy was in high school, he watched her from afar and practiced the words he’d say should they happen to meet in the hallway. He said the words a thousand times, but when they met he never spoke. And 30 years slipped by and he worked the farm and lived his life from fence to fence, and never danced a dance. “Rain comin’,” said the bartender. “You Billy Taylor?” asked the jukebox, “the one what played a little football, way back when?”
Billy, who didn’t hear the question, continued his Roxanne tale: “We e-mail now, or, better said, Roxanne e-mails — she found me through one of them classmate-find sites on the Internet. “She writes, but I don’t answer. I’m still tongue-tied concerning her. What I need is a poetic fruit, maybe a peach who could be, with the flick of an e-mail setup, Cyrano de Bergerac to my Christian de Neuvillette; he could court Roxanne, and I could be blind-copy.”
And in the foam atop his beer, the fantasy — or the reality — played out. Everyday e-mails. She lived in Europe for a time; her last husband was Baron Something — but late one night she confessed that her life and many affairs had been mostly bad. “I never took root,” she wrote. “I should have stayed home and led the simple life.”
The talkin’ peach parlayed Roxanne’s confession into a date — with Billy. Billy sent the peach in his stead, for who would know who looked like whom after 30 years in the rain? The rendezvous took place in a garden gone to weed, Roxanne lived there now. She was still a tomato, a beefsteak tomato — a very, very large beefsteak tomato. Her once-smooth skin was pocked by a life lived hard. The peach and Roxanne were married in June. It was an outdoor wedding. They never reached the reception. Their appendages took root immediately after the ceremony, and the next day a fishmonger happened by and picked ’em, peeled ’em, cooked ’em into a pie, and ate ’em, because he had no clam chowder. And then Billy Taylor danced his first dance, to a soundless tune from an unplugged jukebox, and he lived happily ever after. The end.
The phone rang, and the bartender answered, then turned to him: “Hey, Billy, it’s your old lady, Roxanne. Wanna take it?”
“Hell no! Tell her I just left with a fishmonger — and pour me a shot, will ya, Sam, some of the good stuff? I got $300 owed me. Pay ya tomorrow.”

Contact Doug Bybee Sr. at

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