“If you didn’t cut it,” says Mikey, “it would grow and grow until it was as tall as the Empire State Building.” He is sitting on the lawn chair, licking some kind of cartoon-shaped popsicle that is turning his tongue blue, and getting (of course) all over the front of his white shirt. The popsicle, despite being marketed as ice cream at the deli around the corner, does not contain any animal products. “Wouldn’t it, Dad?”
“Obviously,” John tells him, “which is why we have to cut it.” He is in his underwear and a T-shirt, kneeling in a yard that is big for this area of Brooklyn, whatever his ex-wife thinks. His shins are coated with a thick layer of what John calls dirt when talking to his son, but calls repurposed industrial waste to his friends. Two years ago John tried to grow tomatoes in the yard. Tomatoes weren’t his first choice; Mikey loves tomato sauce, but John never has time to make it from scratch, and neither of them like raw tomatoes very much. John loves, more than (almost) anything else in the world, the smell of tomato leaves, but he didn’t think that a smell alone was really worth the trouble of gardening every day. But Mikey convinced him. “We’re gonna have a thousand tomatoes, Dad,” he had said, “we’re going to have so many tomatoes that you’ll have to make tomato sauce or they’ll all go bad, and we can give the extras away to Mamacita,” which is what the basement tenant (who does not have direct access to the yard herself, and who does seem to cook a lot) has told Mikey to call her, even though John knows her name is Diana. Despite his better instincts, John was sure his son was right, because of how sure Mikey had sounded when he said it. And so he bought five packets of tomato seeds and spent an afternoon with Mikey in the yard, with John digging five parallel rows and Mikey coming behind and sprinkling seeds in each row, one packet to a row. “There are going to be so many of them,” Mikey had said, “there’s going to be a forest of tomatoes in our yard,” and he had laughed excitedly, thinking about what it would be like to be the only one at his whole school with a forest of a thousand tomatoes in the backyard. “We could tell people we live in Tomato Forest Hills,” he had said, and dissolved in an uncontrollable fit of laughter. John had had to explain (to Mikey’s dismay) that only some of the seeds would sprout, and of the ones that did sprout some of them would grow bigger and stronger than others, and they would have to weed out the weaker ones and in the end there would only be a dozen or so plants per row. Mikey had cried thinking about all the poor plants they would have to kill; he had asked if we could take them to the park, where maybe they would have some more room, and John had said no, plants don’t like to be moved when they’re that little, and Mikey had said well maybe they don’t like to die either, couldn’t we at least try it, and John had said no we’re not allowed to go plant tomatoes in the park, and Mikey had cried some more and finally John had relented, OK, OK, we can transplant some of them to the park, but we have to do it at night. In the end it had been a moot point. Despite Mikey’s meticulous watering, only nine plants sprouted, and only two survived long enough to produce any tomatoes: one per plant. The one that grew closer to the fence was scraggly, orange instead of red, deeply wrinkled, and delicious; the two of them made a Caprese salad out of it, with mozzarella from D’Agostino’s that John was pretty sure was made upstate. They had eaten the whole thing as a snack. The other, the one that made it in the center of the yard, was big, bright, round, and full from the core to just inside the skin with foul-smelling green mold. The leaves on both plants had no smell at all. Mikey didn’t ask about tomatoes last year, and John has been telling his friends that their yard is built on the ruins of a chemical plant, which he hasn’t confirmed with historical records but which seems to him like the only likely explanation for the tomatoes’ failure. After all, Mikey had been very good about watering.
“I don’t get why we have to cut it,” Mikey says.
“Because,” John says, snipping the grass and remembering his days as a child watching his father cut hair, “the city won’t let us have grass as tall as the Empire State Building.”
“That’s stupid,” Mikey sighs, resignedly. He is used to the city being the reason for so many things they can’t do, like have a car like Mom’s (actually, John can’t afford the insurance, even now that they have a tenant), or have a pig, which the city actually won’t let them do, which is a good thing because John really does not want a pig. John is almost done cutting the grass, tossing the clippings over to the area of the yard where no grass grows, trying to cover it up so it is not so obviously barren. “How tall are we allowed to grow the grass?” Mikey asks curiously. He finishes his popsicle and holds the stick between index and middle finger, like Mamacita’s cigarettes.
“It has to be shorter than Trinity Church,” John says, “they passed a law in 1733.”
“And we still have to obey it?” Mikey is shocked. “That’s like three hundred years ago.”
“Laws don’t go away,” John asserts.
“There are so many taller buildings now,” Mikey muses. “They should change it. How tall is Trinity Church?”
“A hundred feet.”
“Well, the grass isn’t a hundred feet tall yet.”
“The taller you let it get,” John says, standing up, “the faster it grows.” He surveys the yard. He has done a good job. He walks over to the lawn chair and sets the scissors down on the armrest. “Take these inside. And throw out your popsicle stick.”
“Couldn’t we let it get a little taller next time?”
“We can talk about it. You might have to write a letter to the city.”
“I’ll write it right now,” Mikey exclaims. He grabs the scissors and runs inside. John sits down in the unoccupied lawn chair and looks at his work some more. He sure has done a good job. The clippings are covering the bare dirt like a turf mat. A few more days of this heat and it will all be dry and brown, but for now, he can imagine the yard verdant, sprouting, full of life. While he’s at it, he imagines the grass growing tomatoes, a ball-pit’s worth. Seems like anything is possible here.