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Episode 4: The Swamp
Squirrel Tomatoes chronicles my attempt at growing tomatoes while battling squirrels.
It will also feature guest writers who are gifted $50 by me to write anything they want as long as it is at least 69 words in length. I do not edit them, and they retain all rights to their work.
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Wear a fucking mask.
Kat made a donation to Save the Children in honor of her mother. Squirrel Tomatoes made a matching donation. Thank you to Kat for her ad.
Episode 4: The Swamp
My neighbors are fighting.
The old fence, decaying flat wood with unusually sharp points, came down last fall. Fungus that looked like barnacles covered my side like it had been lifted from the ocean. We don’t live far from the Atlantic, but it doesn’t matter much to me. I don’t think about it. A whole ocean forgotten.
They’re fighting over water. We live at the bottom tip of a suburban peninsula, tilted downhill and surrounded by rivers of faded pavement. The three of us neighbors share a backyard that seems to exist solely to collect and hold the water of our more fortunate uphill neighbors. My neighbors’ properties sit side by side, and my yard backs into theirs.
I can see into their houses if wanted. I do not.
I cannot fathom why they might want to look into mine. They have had my back, literally but not metaphorically, nearly every moment of the day during quarantine.
I do not know their names. Neither of them came to greet us eight years ago, four days before Christmas. I haven’t forgotten, and I refuse to remember.
I used to work for a personal development company early in my career. Winning. Friends. Influencing. All kinds of people. It was a cult on the inside. As is every organization. But this was a cult. One of their tenets was the importance of learning people’s names because they are “the sweetest most important sound” to the person. Because of that, I refuse to learn most people’s names. I’ve had people very close to me, people with whom I’ve shared wonderful and devastating moments, and I’ve never been quite sure of their names. My sister-in-law...I’m not confident how many Es she has in her name.
Tell me their names again, I say to my wife before going outside.
She tells me, and I let them pass through me faster than I can catch hold of them. They’re gone again.
I step outside on to our deck, a pressure-treated contraption that our home inspector told us eight years ago we had to tear down. Immediately. It’s not safe, he said. Look at that support post, as he shined his yellow flashlight that was too large for the job at hand as if my home and problems were smaller than he was accustomed to evaluating. That post is leaning. It’s not safe. Get it down immediately. This was on December 19. Getting a shaky deck down for Christmas didn’t feel like a priority, and we didn’t have the money to do it since everything we wanted to spend had gone into buying this tiny house for five. This forever home, we said. We had moved four times in 18 months, including a hurricane that took out half our belongings in storage and filled my car with flood waters up to the steering wheel, which bloomed a fine layer of green mold across every surface. It’s not the water that’s the problem, the manager of the storage facility where we had parked our stuff and car while we waited to move into our home told me. It’s the mold.
My jaw tenses and juts to the left when I want to hurt someone. The construction mask protecting my lungs from the spores was askew as I explained that the mold doesn’t come without the water and could you tell me, please, the best way to appeal this denial of claim since you never disclosed the proximity of this storage facility to the Raritan River which backed up when Sandy hit and the ocean came crashing into my things? Why didn’t you tell me the river was right across the road?
His eyelids tightened, and he smiled. How many times did you have to drive your U-Haul over that river to pull in here? We are not responsible for acts of God, sir. But we put a couple dumpsters outside for everybody. You can throw your things in there.
I was sick for two months following that cleanup. The mold got into my lungs from the hours spent cleaning out the storage space, throwing mattresses and furniture into the dumpsters, pulling out pictures from soaked albums, cleaning hundreds of photos by hand. A deep terrible cough.
So that deck with its leaning support post. How long can I leave it, with six days to go before Christmas? What’s the risk? The inspector turned off his flashlight. It’ll be fine for the winter. It’s only 18 inches off the ground. If it falls, you’ll get a jolt, but you’ll be fine. Just get it down in the spring. I nodded.
The deck finally came down this summer, eight years later. It was holding up just fine, even with the leaning post. But then water trickled into our basement during a tropical storm, a hurricane that had lost some of its power. We had thought it was a crack in our foundation, but once the deck was down, we could see the problem for what it was. Big gaping holes where wood was supposed to be. Seems the previous owner, who had inherited it from her parents when they died, had attached the deck without any flashing, a metal strip to divert the water away from the wood holding up our house. That leaning support post, it was slumping because our house was being eaten away.
As I walked out on the deck one last time, there was a policeman standing in my backyard looking at me. Masked up, hands on his hips with his gun jutting out.
I kept waiting for him to say something. Nothing.
Finally, he looked back to his left. One of my neighbors, whose name I could not remember but who I will call Jeff, came walking out with a large paper he was unfolding. Jeff and the cop turned their backs to me as Jeff pointed out his property line. Seems our other neighbor who I will call Steve had dug on Jeff’s property. Steve had wanted to fix the swamp of our backyards. He wanted to run a French drain right down the middle of our property lines to get the water out to the road. He was going to get a trencher and fight through the tree roots, lay down a bed of rocks, then perforated pipe rapped in fabric to keep out the dirt, and a final layer of rocks to capture all the extra water and get it to the nearby street drains. He was going to fix this. For free, even. Just let me fix this for all of us. I agreed and offered to help dig. Steve had it all under control.
But Jeff never said yes. And Steve started digging. First on his own property and then on Jeff’s.
And that’s why a policeman was in my backyard. Jeff wanted his dirt back where it belonged. So, he called the cops. Make him put my dirt back, he said to the officer. He had no right to dig.
The next day, I went to buy some tomatoes for my garden. We live near the Great Swamp in New Jersey. A huge wetland area created by a glacier. On the edge is the garden center where we get all our plants. They took the name of the swamp, so it’s easy to remember where it is. I got some cherry tomatoes, some San Marzano plants, some sweet 100s, and a black beauty beefsteak. I had some hope for good things.
When I returned home with the plants, Steve had workers putting up a new fence. This one taller than the last.
The dirt had not been moved back. And the water remained.
Please join us later this week for a guest post from Tyler Kord and an interview with Cathy Barrow.