(Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about the adventures of the memorable Ciampa sisters of Snow Hill Street– Lena, Evelyn and Josie – and their attempt to solve a puzzling mystery.)
One spring at the approach of Memorial Day, Lena suddenly reignited an annual household debate with her two younger sisters. Should this be the year for them to grow vegetables on the tiny deck off the second-floor bedroom? Because this space was bathed in the shadows of taller adjoining four and five-story buildings, Lena expressed doubts about exposure to enough sunlight. But, she changed her mind after spying buds on a respectable crop of tomatoes in a barrel perched on a neighbor’s fire escape across the way.
Once Lena made up her mind, there was no going back. She ordered Josie (the only one in the house with a driver’s license) to gas up the Chrysler and drafted Evelyn on a forced shopping expedition to every garden center within a 10 mile radius of the North End. They agonized over plant selection as they scouted out containers, bags of soil, drainage pebbles and fertilizer. Arriving home, there was a lot of huffing and puffing in lugging all this stuff out of the trunk and up the stairs. It took a whole afternoon to pot and stake the plants in place. Lena was tired, but content as she gazed upon her garden-in-the-sky. Josie and Evelyn crumpled into living room chairs and nodded off in front of a TV quiz show.
And so it went. Late May dissolved into the sunlight of June and the heat of early July as Lena lovingly watered four large pots and watched the plants grow tall enough to be staked and, unmistakably, bear shiny round fruit with the shape and color of green marbles. We received Lena’s daily reports as her tomatoes grew in size. She was already fantasizing about tomato, basil and mozzarella sandwiches in August when things began to unravel. I got an early morning call from Lena which would be the first of many:
“Lena, what disappeared?”
“Lena, what the heck are you talking about?”
“A tomato. There’s one missing. I counted them.”
“You counted them?”
“Yeh, every morning. There were twenty-two of them. The size of golf balls. Now there are only twenty-one.”
“Maybe it blew off the vine. Maybe it rolled in the gutter. Maybe it fell into the yard.”
“No way! I looked everywhere. Do you think someone reached out a window with a long pole… maybe an apple picker.. and snagged one?”
“Lena, c’mon. Who would risk their life leaning out a window to steal a green tomato? Spiderman? You’re getting a little overwrought, dear.”
There would be more distraught phone calls. More disappearing tomatoes. More weeping and gnashing of teeth with some colorful Neapolitan oaths thrown in for good measure. No one understood what was happening, but everyone agreed on two things. Lena was definitely coming unglued. And, she was driving her sisters bonkers.
Now the Ciampa house is no more than 100 feet or so from the scene of the notorious 1950 Brinks robbery, but Lena’s missing tomatoes were turning out to be a bigger deal. For Lena, this was personal. But she was veering from obsessive into delusional, and Evelyn and Josie were living at close range with paranoia. It was like waking up every morning on the set of a Hitchcock movie. Everyone was buzzed up. They were consuming unbelievable amounts of coffee. And, each lady was smoking her brains out – so much so that a blue haze settled over the kitchen table like an LA smog. Something had to give. And soon enough it did.
One bright Saturday morning, my 9-year-old daughter and I greeted Josie upon her return from the supermarket. As we carted bag after bag of groceries up the stairs, we paused briefly in the middle of the quiet street to catch our breath. Without warning, a green tomato, dropping from above, spattered against the asphalt a few feet beside us. I looked up at the second floor windows half expecting to find a distraught Lena lobbing one of her green beauties in a pre-emptive act of defiance against an unknown vegetable thief. But my eyes wandered to the attic gables where I detected a nose and two beady eyes peering over the highest point of the rooftop.
There in all its glory, spread-eagled with four clawed paws, a gray squirrel gripped the tar shingles for dear life. Josie began to scream – not in fear, but in relief. The scene had now turned primal. Lena threw open a window with Evelyn in tow. She craned her head upwards and immediately came face-to-face with the scuirus carolinensis (L. genus). She went berserk and grabbed a bamboo pole used to unclog their occasionally leaf-choked gutter. Thwacking it to and fro, she lunged upwards at the frightened creature which jumped forwards and backwards, stalling in an attempt to extricate itself from a deranged human. Ignoring the fact that — taxonomically speaking — it was not a flying squirrel (glaucomys sabrinus), the animal flung itself into the air in desperation. Dropping one story below with a belly flop and thud onto the rubber roof of the abutting building, the critter leapt from house to house until disappearing down a gutter.
Ordinarily you might assume that the mystery of the missing tomatoes was solved and turn to something else. But, then you would not learn about the rematch. (ADVISORY: Readers who are members of PETA need not continue beyond this point.)
Lena waited for her heart rate to return to normal before she raced to her bureau to retrieve a handful of torn nylons. Then she pulled apart a hall closet in a frantic search for a box of mothballs. She plunked herself down at the kitchen table where she spent the next several hours feverishly crafting little sachet bags that she tied on the wrought iron railings of the balcony surrounding her beloved tomato plants. She had read somewhere in a gardener’s manual that the smell repelled marauding animals. And, if they were poisonous, all the better in her battle to the death with that ‘filthy, rotten, rabid rodent’. One might say that she was somewhat upset. As a matter of fact, she could have won a spot on Psycho Nature Channel. But, she was prepared for the worst, even keeping a broken umbrella next to her bedpost so that she could spear the little bugger if she got lucky.
The mothballs seemed to do the trick. For several days, Lena swaggered back and forth on the balcony feeling mighty pleased with herself. By now some red-ripe tomatoes were ready for harvest, and she was beaming from the top of the dinner table as Evelyn and Josie sampled the first of what looked like a bumper crop that would take them deep into the golden days of late September. But, the next morning, Lena found two half-gnawed tomatoes at the base of a pot. Yes, it had returned with a vengeance. And, by taking gratuitous bites out of each, it seemed as if the squirrel was intentionally tormenting Lena. She became so enraged that she stormed off to the hardware store when it opened and returned with an arsenal of mothballs and enough nylon fabric to fashion a dozen more bags of improvised poisonous repellant. She fastened the tiny sacks on the plants like Christmas ornaments.
Intending to lay in wait for the reappearance of the creature, Lena’s set her alarm for daybreak on the following morning. Upon rising, Lena, tiptoed to the balcony door and cautiously peaked through the window shade. She could not believe what she saw. On its haunches in an upright position, twitching and bushy tailed, Lena’s adversary was nibbling on a mothball rotating between two paws like a delicacy served before a main course. She tore open the door, startling the cornered squirrel, which dropped the appetizer and once again did its flying-squirrel impersonation. Clinging to a cable wire like a trapeze artist, it dropped into the yard below and bolted over a wall.
Lena was in no mood to be consoled by her sisters. And, even though it seemed doubtful that that the squirrel would ever again attempt a return engagement, she yanked the plants — roots and all — and tossed them in the trash. Forever after it would be silent spring, summer and fall on that deck. She felt violated. Besides, who would ever want to eat those contaminated tomatoes? And, who would ever want to attract a rodent within feet of their bedstead? Thus, the grand experiment with high-rise gardening came to an abrupt, unceremonious ending at the Ciampa house. It was weeks before Lena finally stopped emoting and the blue haze over the kitchen table lifted. And, somewhere curled in a leafy nest atop the swaying crown of a Copp’s Hill elm, a sleeping squirrel with an extra layer of fat rested peacefully while exuding a curious odor that seemed to keep the mites and fleas at bay.
North End resident, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.