THE TOMATO GARDEN

Barbara Coy, earnestly believing that people are good and can be trusted, converted her big front yard into a community garden founded on the honor system. She balanced a pickle jar on a birch stump where neighbors could leave a dollar or two after helping themselves to some good tomatoes or blackberries or whatever.

Solomon Sidebottom, Barbara's corpulent neighbor, stood back in overalls watching her nail a Bead-dazzled sign to the gate of the garden. "This whole idea is bold, Solomon," she said, "and I know it. But if we can't trust our neighbors, then who can we?"

"Nobody," an unseen Gordon McGirk muttered to himself as he pushed some beautiful tomatoes down his socks. Gordon was scruffy and homeless and had a dog named Duke. They lived together in the alcove of a department store that burned down during the Tacoma dirt fires. He was glad to find Barbara's garden. Duke liked it too. They walked back to the alcove as the sun was going down.

"You aren't gonna let me down tomorrow, are ya boy?" Gordon grabbed Duke's face and fed him a tomato. "You gotta win for your old man! You got to, Duke! Just one more time and we can ditch this shit hole!"

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When Gordon woke up, Duke was missing. They always ate breakfast together, so where the hell was he? Gordon stumbled around town asking folks if they saw a German Shepherd. Nobody did. Goddamn... Duke had a fight to win! Gordon needed a couple hundred dollars! This was supposed be the big one!

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"Henry! There's a strange dog eating our tomatoes! I mean.. the community's tomatoes!" Barbara swatted the flowery curtain aside and pressed her face against the kitchen window.

"What?!" Mr. Coy shouted back.

"There's a dog in the garden! He's eating it!"

Henry grabbed a rolling pin and put a colander on his head for protection. When Duke heard the screen door slam shut it spooked him. He was too damn fast and possessed by something unnatural. Duke sunk his fangs into Henry's soft old-person throat. Barbara watched from the kitchen and reached for the phone while Duke ripped her poor husband apart.

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Gordon McGirk already owed a lot of money to the dog fighting boys. Now he didn't even have a dog. It was plan-hatching time, and quick before the finger busters came around.

The homeless, you need to understand, live within a special caste system. The filthiest hobo in the world might be held in very high regard for his sage wisdom. Or he might not. But Leonard Stroop, another new name in this slippery story, was a hobo sage and a problem solver and everybody knew it. So, strapped for ideas and sweating bullets, Gordon paid Leonard a visit at the creek behind Saint Smithers Medical Facility & Pork Sausage Distillery. He wanted his dog back. Or a whole bunch of money.

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Henry Coy's funeral was poorly attended. There was the widow of course, crying garishly at the foot of Henry's coffin, and Officer Spanglert who became a close family friend after Barbara was involved in a penny farthing hit-and-run (still unsolved and going cold fast), and Solomon Sidebottom (their corpulent neighbor in black mourning overalls this time), and a few members of Henry's remote control airplane & boat club (they called themselves Plane To Sea) and the albino Hafferty twins, connected at the ribs and uninvited.

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Back in town, Gordon's consultation with Leonard Stroop the hobo sage went surprisingly well. Leonard, draped in bubble wrap and newspapers (business section) and speaking from inside a slatted sausage extruder box, described a woman nearby who had recently become the beneficiary of a large sum of money, owing to an insurance policy paid in-full after her husband's extensive autopsy. Gordon recognized the address, but the sweetest detail was the widow's sudden change of world view. No longer did she see the good in people. She locked down her garden and even distrusted banks with her new fortune. Somehow Leonard knew all of this, and also where she kept the money, that is, behind a loose tile in the master bathroom.

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The night of the robbery, Gordon slicked his hair back and pinned his pants together and darted around the alcove in a nervous drill of self-preparation. He was ready. He slipped a jack-knife in his shoe in case things got hairy.

He reached Barbara Coy's house a little before dawn. He could see the lights on inside and they spread out and twinkled through the dew drops in the overgrown garden. He walked around back and waited for something. Maybe courage.

Then he tried the back door. It was open. Barbara was in the cellar combing through antiques and petting stuff her husband left behind. Gordon crept up the stairs and found the master bedroom easy as fuck. He felt the walls and navigated around some furniture until he reached the bathroom. He flipped the light on and saw a weird looking tile beside the sink. It came out nicely and exposed a big hole in the plaster where some very big stacks of money were hiding. "Diggy Doo!" he whispered.

After stuffing all his pockets with hundred dollar bills, he reached into the hole and grabbed a stack for each hand and shuffled out, leaving the tile on the bathroom floor. "Nothin' to it!" But as Gordon descended the stairs, Barbara felt a sudden urge to smoke, and went up to find a lighter. Instead she found Gordon, and Gordon couldn't take it.

"You stinkin' bitch! Why couldn't you just stay put! This was supposed to be my chance to make good! Well I can't let you wreck that!"

Barbara was paralyzed by fear as Gordon swept over and beat her with her husband's money. She was bleeding on the floor and making horrible noises, so Gordon mounted her and beat her again until her head bounced and cracked and everything went quiet. Gordon stared a minute, then got up and ran out the front. The screen door slammed shut behind him. That spooked old Duke who was eating tomatoes in the garden. Gordon tripped on the empty donation jar and landed face to face with his lost and very angry companion.

"Now Duke... be a good boy! We're gonna be OK! Look at all this money, Duke!"

Duke was not impressed.

"If we can't trust each other, then who can we?!" Gordon cried, inching back while Duke snarled and showed his fangs a little.

"Nobody," an unseen Solomon Sidebottom muttered to himself as he tossed big bags of fruit in the back of his truck, "Nobody."

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