A Couple Tomatoes

A Couple Tomatoes

She was good. She got used to it before I did, cleaning me up with a little black kit until it healed. The first check came about a month later and after the ten percent we gave to Vernon since it was his idea, I bought us a clock radio and some champagne. We scraped that linoleum up in the kitchen something fierce and she didn’t mind so much since the hand I used to spin her around was still there.

When the other checks arrived, I bought a new truck. I drove it to the department store two towns over where the rich lived. People stared, as I figured they would. There was sympathy in their eyes then. I’d get doors opened for me. I remember the shopgirl offered to carry my bag of all the perfumes and makeups I purchased to the car. I told her I could manage. I got myself a suit and had it tailored so the nub was less noticeable. The tailor asked what happened and I said what Vernon told me to. He said it was a shame, accident like that.

She picked herself out a new summer dress and one of them big white hats you see like in the movies. She looked like Donna Reed on summer holiday.

We thought about purchasing a little ranch maybe. A couple of dogs and cats. Try for a baby. We had all these dreams and we’d talk them to death until they felt within reach.

That was before the trouble come. Vernon was getting squirrely. He came by on his crutch and sat down at the kitchen table and asked if anyone had been talking about the insurance scam. He said we needed to listen to the chatter around town, just in case. I said okay since it was Vernon that got us in the money.

Vernon asked for a cold towel and undid his knotted pant-leg. He leaned back, relieved. You ever feel it sometimes?

Feel what?

Like a bad sunburn where your hand used to be?

I forget sometimes. Reach for things.

Vernon grinned. He figured it wouldn’t be long before someone got wise to the scam he cooked up and we couldn’t take chances.


I began to see more and more folks with eye patches and peg legs and arms gone some as high as the shoulder. Maybe two dozen in our town of two hundred. Began to feel like we’d just come out of a battle and the center of town was one big triage. Now when I went down the road to the department stores, I heard whispers. They knew where I was from.

She had it tough sometimes. She would get lost in the stares of unmangled people gawking, them maybe wondering what a pretty thing like her was doing with me. Strangers looked repulsed, confused. The war had been over a long time, so I couldn’t lay it off on that. It got to be rumor people talked about whenever the blinds were shut. They knew there weren’t murders here. People just disappeared.

I wanted to go upstate to the annual pigeon shoot. She didn’t come along. She said it was barbaric. I told her they could either spend thousands of dollars every year gassing the birds or do like they do and make it an event. At least this had a bit of sport. Last year I’d won silver. Without my left hand I had to make a little stand on the forestock. I rigged up a little loop out of an old belt that I attached to the butt of my bolt action rifle. I could cinch tight around my shoulder to help me pull back on the bolt without having to joggle the rifle each time. I’d been training on bottles in the woods to get a feel for the gun again, then I rigged up a little pulley system with some paper targets and a fishing rod. She helped, cranking the reel and watching me. It took a while to get used to. After some time in the backyard, I figured I was still good as ever. Maybe even better.


Before I left for Bensalem out in Bucks County, she asked me to help her hang a picture she’d bought. I looked at it leaning against her little Volkswagen. The sun was just up. The frame was this grand gold thing and heavy enough I wasn’t even sure how she’d gotten a handle on it herself, skinny as her arms were. It was a painting of a two white chairs beneath a polka dot umbrella on an empty beach. I could smell the salt of the water and feel the heat on my face. She asked if I liked it and I said I did and she said she missed the ocean most. I said there was no reason we couldn’t go back there. We almost had all the money Vernon promised.

She looked at the picture a while longer. Long enough for the morning to change color and make the frame glow. I told her I’d be back before too late tonight as I picked up the picture and carried it inside.

I had a tough time trying to get it at the right height she wanted over the mantel. She kept saying a little left, no too far, an inch or two to the right. I was sweating. I hadn’t shed my coat. I’d hung plenty of pictures, mirrors. But not with one hand before. She took some steps back and told me to hold it and framed her fingers and looked through them. The picture slipped a little and I cursed and she watched me struggling. I sighed hard and let the picture down and I asked her help. Told her to fetch my toolbox. I felt the teeth moving in my jaw.

She got two chairs from the kitchen and I marked off two little dashes with a pencil and I asked her to hold the nail in place for the hook while I swung the hammer. She looked at my face and closed her eyes as I swung. It happened fast. I don’t know if she flinched or if I just missed but I swear I heard the bone in her thumb crack. Left a quarter-sized hole in the wall. She screamed and ran to the kitchen and sobbed. She ran cold water over her thumb a while. Her fingernail was cracked. I just watched her from the doorway.

I knew then she’d be gone when I came back, leaving as quick as she’d come into my life. That picture leans now over the fireplace and I never fixed the hole. Every time I look at it, I see no beach. Just her bent weeping over the sink, and I hear no ocean, but the sound of running water. Women have a better lens on the future than men do—but we got them beat when it comes to knowing the moment it gets bad.

She looked up once, saw my reflection in the window over the sink. And I’ve had a long time to think about what she saw. She knew she’d have to loan a part of herself to me always to make up for what I’d lost. She’d have to settle for my diminished capability. Our wedding night, us walking together across the terrace instead of me carrying her. A filthy nub touching the precious forehead of a child’s skin. All the snow drifts coming through the doorway since I had to double-back to get the firewood I could no longer cut but had to purchase or steal. She saw it all in that window, in that shattered thumbnail.


They’d been trying to shut down the pigeon shoot for a long time, but the mayor was slick and he claimed it was a family event. He said out in Indiana, they lace feed with strychnine and let the kids toss it to the birds. Shooting them was quicker, cheaper, and more humane. Plus, Bucks County didn’t supply the weapons or ammunition—the competitors did, saving taxpayer money.

I made my way past the usual protestors who seemed to quiet when I passed. I was from that little town full of cripples and creeps who’d rather hack off their limbs than work. I tucked my nub in my jacket pocket.

I waited in line to register and the man at the little table there inspected my rifle.

He pointed to the sling. What’s this here?

Keeps it snug on the shoulder.

He eyed me and then the modified gun. I raised my arms. We don’t afford for handicaps, he said.

I didn’t ask for nothing, I said.

He handed me my rifle and spun this little wheel—the order lottery. This little bingo ball rolled down a slope. He read it and showed it to me and wrote down a five and sent me down to the shooting stalls.

The netting was set up like one big tent on posts. Past the netting were bleacher stands for the audience. The birds were loose and scattering. They had a couple young boys that worked the whole time to keep shooing them back in front of the stalls. There were eight of them in a row.

I waited for two kids to unhook the net and let me in. As I entered, some of the birds barreled over and the kids kicked them back. The pigeons had shit all over the plywood stalls that were painted green. The smell coming off them was sick with despair, rotten. A few pigeons had already tried to fly as far as their clipped wings could carry them and gotten stuck up in the canopy of the net. You couldn’t shoot the stuck ones for points, but you could sight your rifle with them if need be.

Most of the pigeons and their jelly necks cooed and cawed with dumb black eyes. They seemed resigned, almost bored. The netting above the pen was about ten foot high. Even so, the space was beginning to feel cramped. Beyond the net were all the spectators. There was no protection for them from the shots, which added some pressure if you were the one doing the shooting. But they knew if you wanted an up-close view of the contest, you took your chances.

In stall six was a man with a new Remington shotgun. I marveled at the weapon. He looked me up and down and offered it to me to hold, but I just nodded it away and set the regulation three clips for contest loaded with .22 LR down on the stall shelf. I had the advantage with nine shots—the man with the shotgun had to use birdshot and only got three shells. Trick was to line them out if you had a rifle or wait for a group if you had a shotgun. Once the shooting started, depending on your place in the contest, you’d have a harder time once the birds got wise to their fate as there’d be fewer targets after each interval and the pigeons left would be terrified and start acting wild.

When I heard the man with the megaphone counting down for the first contestant to begin, I closed my eyes and remembered looking over as shooting started from the first stall. I saw my fingers gone, my palm a bunch of tendons like strips of meat and all the blood.

I remembered Vernon standing above me. You ready? he asked.

I was gindrunk and I had the same belt in my mouth then that I’d stripped and fixed to the rifle stock.

Vernon’s son Jake had his boot pressed hard on my forearm against the hard ground with a towel beneath my hand. The tourniquet hung from his fist.

On three, Vernon said.

I nodded and closed my eyes. The ringing in my ears from the proximity of the blast—I thought of Daddy’s stories. The mortar fire. Bombs falling so fast and so close there was a lapse between what your eyes saw caught up to what your mind knew. Almost like you were dreaming. And that was when you were in the most danger.

I went dizzy. My legs trembled. I had to push my elbows against the wooden stall to keep my balance. The man with the Remington checked on me and I tore off the number I’d pinned to my coat and the boys lifted the net. As I walked back to the truck, the man on the megaphone called for a pause in the firing and noted that I was disqualified. Once you went in the tented net, you stayed in until it was over.

I felt like one of those goddamn birds, everybody watching me. If there was ever just one bird left in the shoot, it’d get pardoned. Let out to fly away. Makes you wonder what the truly guilty do with freedom. I’ve stopped pretending I don’t feel a little crooked about everything.


Her car was gone. I stood in the tracks her tires left upon the cold wet ground. When I met her she’d been on the arm of another man. Some big shot at the company moved up here who wore glasses that pinched his wide nose. She’d been big with a baby and when I saw her next she was without him and without the belly. We didn’t talk about it. She just said she was glad she ended up in the same basket as me. Us just a couple lucky tomatoes.

The door was unlocked. The door creaked open and I could hear someone inside. Vernon was at the kitchen table. His bad cigar’s smoke had replaced the scent of her, and he had a plate full of chicken bones in front of him and my jar of yellow mustard out. He must’ve been waiting a while.

How’d you do?

Didn’t place.

Well, next year maybe.

I put the rifle in the bedroom and looked for a note. A remnant. Anything of hers she might’ve left behind and would come back for. I poured a whiskey for me and Vernon when I noticed he had his right ear bandaged over. I didn’t need to ask.

We got trouble, boy, Vernon said. Big-time now. Can’t get no more insurance money.

How’s that?

People got greedy. Thought they could do it all without me.

What happened? I asked.

Vernon sighed. See, he said, I knew how to play it. You get policies with different companies. But too many people talked. And then some do-gooder made a couple calls. Man come down from a New York office to tell me Joe Cole took out a single $350,000 policy. Surprised the old man knew a number that big. Seventy years old, been farming since he was ten on the same damn land, and he expected the button-down boy to believe he mowed his own leg off on accident with a scythe three days after his policy was processed.

And worst of all, you don’t get your cut, I said.

Vernon’s eyes fixed on mine. Don’t crack wise with me, kid. You coulda followed the job out to Minnesota, young as you are. You wanted it quick and easy.

I drank. I knew he was right. Most of the men I knew left out because there wasn’t nothing else to do for work when the company shut down. The town shrunk down overnight. I didn’t want to go. I was tired of working steel. I only wanted to spend time with her. We’d only been together only a couple years, but we’d run the gamut of luck and loss. Crammed a decade into that time. You go up and down so much and so fast with someone your mind tilts and you consider wild things. How you get yourselves to that better life.

I finished my whiskey and poured another.

Shame your woman’s gone, he said. He pushed the plate in front of him towards me. She was a good cook.

So, what now?

Vernon pointed at his bandaged ear. This is the last of it. Just under the wire too. Premiums went up overnight, they’ve already been calling people. They’re looking into all the claims again. When it was just a few, no suspicion. Now we got near fifty cripples. No one’s getting insurance checks anymore. I been telling everyone to quit maiming themselves because they’re just gonna end up broke and useless less they do it my way. Vernon closed one eye over his glass. You still got some of your take socked away?


You got your hand hung up in a tractor while you was helping me. That’s all you need to say if anyone asks. Been the story since the beginning.

All right.

Vernon snuffed out his cigar in the plate of bones. Remember, that’s all you need to say.


With the house empty, I walked around town. There were still plenty of upright people, but you could find the other ones quick. Being amongst the fucked up and the freaks eased me. It was like we shared a peril that bonded us unlike the altogether folk. We were all hunched and hobbled and hurting. I had a couple drinks, lied about the pigeon shoot to people who asked. I thought of asking after her, but I knew better. She had no one to say goodbye to.

I thought of the foolish instant in which I’d lost my hand to Vernon’s shotgun. Life is but a series of flashes. I piled down the boilermakers. I saw her through a whiskey fog packing her little Cabriolet with the rust spots and stitching split in the leather seats. I had offered to get her something new once we had the money, but she said she liked to hold onto things the way they were.


A long year passed. Never knew the house could be so quiet. More people left, the ones who weren’t missing pieces. There’s not much of anything anymore. Everyone who could move on did. Everyone else just lived off their checks.

Joe Cole got $200,000 and bought all the land around his property right before his heart attack. Standing around the coffin, everyone’s formal wear had an amendment. A rolled knotted pant leg. Women with a prosthetic beneath black pantyhose. Even the preacher turned the pages of his Bible with his middle finger since his thumb and pointer were gone.

We heard about the movie. A Hollywood production about our town. Apparently, a writer had published an article about the agent who broke the scheme by chasing down all the claims. Someone else turned the article into a script and they made it a film.

Vernon asked everyone if they’d smelled a writer around or talked to anyone suspicious, but no one had. Brett at the roominghouse pulled out all his guest books and read through the names, but the writer must’ve lied when he signed in. Jake told me his daddy was worried, but nothing ended up coming out of it. The picture came and went, got fair reviews I heard. Paul Newman played the lead.

There’s no theatre in our town, but Vernon wanted to see the film. I managed to make some calls and get a reel of the movie sent. I drove up to Harrisburg and rented a projector. The kid who worked at the place had to put it in the car since I couldn’t manage it on my own.

Those who could still man ladders helped paint the side of the old steel plant white. A guitar player who couldn’t pluck or strum no more loaned us all kinds of speakers and cables. We were ready to see what the rest of the world had already witnessed. The curiosity was too great. We had to know what the world thought of us.

It was a comedy, but no one laughed. Everyone in the movie looked disinterested, as if they were just going through their usual motions for a quick check. A cast of nobodies. There was no one in the picture imperfect, save one or two extras with slings or casts or wearing eyeglasses with one blacked out lens. In the movie, when Paul Newman visited town, they just fixed the lens on his reaction—those big blank blue eyes of his cycling between sadness and confusion. Paul Newman was an insurance agent, and his firm won the case against Walter Matthau, the droop-cheeked mastermind who took advantage of the good insurance people for his own benefit. He didn’t help anybody out—the plot was he took policies out on the recently deceased and he was always the beneficiary. It was a stupid plot only a stupid man would try. Matthau was the villain of the film. They called him Mr. Verne in the picture.

Jake helped his daddy up when the movie was over. Vernon leaned heavy on his crutch and Jake drove him home. No one saw much of him after that.

When the spool ran out and the light of the projector illuminated the white wall, we sat in silence. California couldn’t show our kind of truth to the rest of the country. It’d be too much for them. I suppose we all wanted to see if in the movie, they’d let something beautiful get broken. Perfect actors all hacked up and wobbling and ugly as we saw each other. But they hadn’t even told the story right. Maybe because no one would’ve believed it.

I heard there’s a plan to widen State Road 96. More lanes to get to Shawnee State Park and Schellsburg. They’ll pass some bill without our consent and pay us off for our properties and flatten this town. Yet we’ll carry a little bit of this place along to God knows where else. After all it’s done to us. After all we’ve done to ourselves.



About the Author

Steven Vineis lives in Wilmington, NC. His work has appeared in Hayden's Ferry, Brooklyn Vegan, Shotgun Honey, Portals, GSU Review, among other publications. He won the AWP Intro Journals award for Fiction in 2021. He graduated with an MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington in 2022. He's currently seeking a publisher for his first novel, HARDWAY. 


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