S H O R T S T O R Y
b y j o n p i c c i u o l o ~ l o m p o c, c a l i f o r n i a
THE SEA breeze swept down the valley toward San Ignacio, skimming the lettuce fields, raising clouds of dust. Gritty billows hazed the mountains and powdered another layer of grime on Beth Varell's sedan parked in the Pacific Avenue lot.
She gripped the wheel tighter, regretting that snap decision of a year ago. True, that flaming terrorist outrage had been the last straw. True again, San Ignacio was a safe haven, a refuge from urban horror. But without her old Los Angeles friends, her traveling companions on a journey through middle age, the farming town smothered her spirit like volcanic ash.
Give it time, she told herself, reciting the words like a child's learned prayer: time to deliver new friends, even grudging acceptance by the clannish townsfolk. But the faint comfort she once found in that notion had evaporated away. Worse still, the vague misgivings about her marriage had become sharply etched.
The market supervisor blew a silver whistle, the shrill signal that sales could begin. The customers, mostly other overweight housewives, clustered around the produce tables shaded by faded awnings flapping in the wind.
As Beth stepped from her Volvo, she groped for the door lock. She hesitated, then left the car unlocked for the first time since she and Jim had moved. After all, she thought, this isn't LA anymore; and thank God for that!
She ducked under a rope festooned with shabby flags, then strolled up one side of the market and down the other, trying to ignore the chatty laughter. Her favorite vendors were ringed by waiting customers, three deep in places. She lingered on the fringe of the crowd, her back to the wind, fingering the roughness of her burlap market sack.
A flash of color caught her eye. She glanced to the last produce stand in the ragged line, almost at the edge of the asphalt. A young woman wearing a crimson beret sat alone behind a table bearing a small basket of purple fruit. The woman smiled crookedly and beckoned with a jerky foreign gesture. Intrigued that the smile was meant for her, Beth strolled in that direction.
"I have seen you before, yes?" said the woman as Beth approached. A few strands of her coal-black hair wisped in the wind. Her olive hawknose face would have been pretty in a mannish way if it were not for the thin scar on her right cheek.
Beth's half-forgotten childhood myths wormed their way out: mindless passions of the Mediterranean, cunning guiles of the East. She suffered an immediate pang, shocked that she could condemn another human so quickly. God, how LA had ruined her. Embarrassed, she pointed to the crowd: "I shop here every week. The produce in the supermarket isn't very good. My husband likes fresh vegetables, you see, and..."
The young woman raised her hand and smiled again, flashing one gold tooth. "Pah, men! What do they know about things from mother earth? Here, taste!" She thrust out a spotted plum. Intricate rings, worked from twisted strands of gold, glistened on her fingers. Silver bracelets tinkled and tumbled to her elbow.
Beth accepted the fruit and turned it in the sunlight: a mottled planet, sea-shiny. "It's pretty. I've never seen one like it." She nibbled through tart skin and rolled a bite of pulp around the tip of her tongue. "Mmm, not bad. What's it called?"
"I do not know. Grandmama brought the stones from old country."
"Old country? Where?" Beth toyed with the bitten plum.
The woman stirred an imaginary spoon with vigor. "Who knows? All those places jumbled together like stew. Tell me about your man."
Beth looked up sharply. The woman's bland expression suggested that the question was offered in innocence, a cultural gaffe perhaps. "Well, he has his own business," she replied neutrally. "Computer software."
"Ah, how fine to marry good provider! You are lucky woman."
"Yeah, well, maybe too lucky." The words rolled easily from her lips. It was the same smart-ass reply she would have fired back at one of her friends in Los Angeles.
"Yes? Tell me."
A buzzing wavelet of dizziness made Beth glance at the sun. The sun. That's it, she told herself: a little too much sun. She shifted her gaze downward and met the woman's eyes. How strange to find sudden softness there, a gentleness that waited. She drew a deep breath and the words flowed.
"Jim's work is never done. Weekends, too. Sometimes late at night I wake to find him gone from our bed. Then I hear the damned keyboard and...Oh, this is so silly!"
"No, no! Please, go on."
"Well, I wish he'd spend more time with me. I wish we could be like...like we were...before. Now, why am I telling you this? You must think I'm an old fool!" She felt hot redness spread across her cheeks.
The young woman laughed and took back the plum. "Do not worry. People tell me things. Tell me, does he like fruit, too?"
"What?" Beth noticed a bitter aftertaste. She hoped the woman wouldn't try to sell her more plums.
"Your man. Does he like to eat fruit?"
"Well, yes. Sometimes. But why...?"
"Here." The dark woman reached beneath her table and brought up a small basket. Thumb-sized clusters of glossy translucent globules glinted in the sun.
Beth stared into the waxy reflection of the skins. "Berries? What kind are they?"
The fruit seller shrugged. "They come from old country, too. Give to your man after dinner tonight. Maybe with ice cream, yes?"
"I ...I don't know. If I had a little taste..." Beth extended a thumb and forefinger and plucked one from its stem. She popped it into her mouth. It crunched juicily, tasting faintly of molasses with a musky underflavor. "Well, he might like these. Are they expensive?"
The young woman shook her head and shoved the basket forward, saying: "Free to my friend."
"You need friend, I think. Take them. Give to your man. You will not be sorry. Come back next week, yes?" She tipped the basket without waiting for a reply. Beth quickly opened her burlap sack. She felt dull thuddings as the berry clusters covered its bottom. She shivered slightly, wondering why.
Later, when her market sack bulged with a week's supply of produce and she was returning to the Volvo, Beth reviewed her encounter. There may have been a misunderstanding about the transaction, perhaps something cultural. Perhaps she had been rude not to have offered money. She shaded her eyes with her free hand and searched the crowd for the crimson beret. But the young woman was gone.
That evening during supper she tried to look attentive as her husband rambled on about software viruses. But her thoughts kept drifting back to the farmer's market. As Beth cleared away the dishes, Jim opened his pocket notebook and scribbled, a dismal sign that he was about to vanish into his office again.
She hinged shut the dishwasher and latched it. "Feel like dessert tonight, honey?"
He patted his belly and started to push away from the table. "Don't think so. Well, maybe. What've you got?"
"Ice cream. With fruit."
Jim reopened his notebook and wet his pencil point with his tongue. "Sure, why not? Haven't had that in a while. Got any chocolate?"
Without answering, Beth reached into the freezer and took out a quart of low-fat strawberry. She scooped some into two bowls, plopped a handful of pearly spheres onto each portion and returned the rest of the quart to the freezer. The berries melted into tiny pink craters.
"Looks good," her husband said, returning his notebook to his shirt pocket. He poked at the dessert with his spoon. "What're these things?"
"Berries. Found them in the farmer's market this afternoon."
"A...A new variety. Like them?"
He pursed his lips and ate one from the tip of his teaspoon. He chewed twice, then swallowed. "Hey, not bad. It's nice to have something new. Goes great with the choc...uh, the strawberry ice cream's good, too." He quickly spooned up the contents of his bowl, then wiped his mouth and crumpled the napkin. "Got a few ideas I want to try. I'll be busy with the computer for a couple, three hours..." He paused, staring into the empty bowl as if trying to remember something. "Hey, how long's it been since we took a walk?"
"A walk? Together, you mean?"
"Yeah, like that."
She tried to recall. But the notion of the two of them ambling along was as unlikely as their sharing a swim in the nude. Now, why did that crazy image occur to her? "Well, there was that time we went to Long Beach," she said, her heart racing. "For the software seminar, remember? About two years ago. On the boardwalk." She giggled at the notion of walking naked through a beachfront amusement park.
"What's so funny about that?" Jim demanded. "Let's go."
"Nice night. Let's go for a walk. Then later, maybe we could..." His words faded. He pushed back his chair and stood. Their eyes met. Beth caught a flash of desire she had not glimpsed in ten years. Late that night, after they made love for the second time, after Jim had drifted off with his hand resting upon her breast, Beth tried to sleep. But her head buzzed with the effort of trying to understand. It could not be a few pieces of fruit, it could never be a strange lady's gift. There had to be another reason: some alchemy of romance, some slow-smoldering spark suddenly flared white-hot. But the dark woman's words kept echoing through her thoughts: "You will not be sorry."
Which, then? Love, or—she winced at the dismal ring of the word—magic. Let it be love, she prayed. But there was only one way to know for sure.
So the next evening she served ice cream again. Chocolate this time, but without a garnish of berries. Jim finished the bowl without comment, then disappeared into his office. During the night she awoke to faint keyboard tappings and computer bleeps. She wept into her pillow and drifted back to sleep.
For lunch the following day, as a final test, she made fruit salad. Nestled on a bed of shredded lettuce, among chunks of canned pineapple and slices of banana, were the remaining berries. That afternoon after a long meandering stroll along the beach, she and Jim sheltered in the dunes from the wind. When they emerged arm-in-arm two hours later, Beth's mind was completely focused, but not on the pleasures they had just shared.
The rest of the week passed in an anxious blur. At last it was Friday, farmer's market day in San Ignacio.
Beth pulled into the lot at one p.m., an hour before the market opened. Already a few farmers had unloaded their rusty pickup trucks and were standing together, backs to the wind, smoking and talking the way farmers often do, scraping the asphalt with their shoes as if digging to where the decent soil slept.
Shortly before two p.m., a silver Mercedes, its windows deeply tinted, glided into the parking lot. It nosed into a space about twenty yards from where Beth sat watching from her Volvo. The dark woman, wearing her red beret, stepped from the sleek automobile as its trunk lid arced upward. She walked to the rear, pulled out a few small baskets covered with bits of cloth, placed them on the asphalt and pushed the trunk lid closed. With basket handles filling both hands, she stooped beneath the rope barricade and strode to her table.
As the dark woman passed the chatting farmers, they fell silent and averted their eyes. One furtively crossed himself.
Beth, puzzled by their behavior, waited in her car and watched. At exactly two p.m., the market whistle blew. It was ten minutes before the woman with the red beret had her first customer. An elderly man edged out of the crowd. A few words were exchanged, folded banknotes passed across the table and the old man limped away with a basket clutched against his breast. The fruit seller's next patron was a hard-faced woman who, after thrusting out a handful of cash, snatched up a basket and stomped away. Beth could see her lips twisting angrily, mouthing an obscenity.
What the hell am I getting into? Beth wondered as she locked the sedan. Once under the rope, she zigzagged back and forth across the pavement, examining the heaped produce of all the vendors but one. A half-hour later her burlap sack was full. She approached the final table.
The dark woman squinted into the wind. "Ah, my friend returns."
"Hello again," Beth said, trying to force steadiness into her voice. "Do you happen to have more of those tasty berries?"
"Berries?" The woman looked puzzled. "I have berries, yes. What kind do you seek?"
"Uh, those white ones. You remember...for my husband." Beth rested the burlap sack on the pavement. Drops of sweat trickled down her back.
The fruit seller reached beneath the table. "These? Are these what you want?" The pale, clustered spheres glistened in the sun.
"Yes! I'll buy them. All you have. Please!"
"You want so many? What a pity. So hard to grow." The dark woman stroked the fruit lovingly. "Soil here not like in old country."
"Please! How much? I want to pay." Beth struggled to mask the desperation in her voice as she opened her purse.
"For you, my friend, a good price. One hundred dollars. And perhaps, if I look carefully, I may find more for you next week."
"They ripen slowly. I harvest only when..."
"The price. What was the price? I thought you said..."
"One hundred dollars."
Beth took a step back. "For a few berries?"
"It is fair." The dark woman hefted the basket. "I satisfy my customers. You saw those others?"
Beth's face stung as the blush crept upward. "What ...What others?"
"Pah! You sat in your car and watched. The old one sells poetry. My apples bring him words. The other's boy is bad, very bad. Without my cherries he does evil, maybe even kills. And there are others, like you, who wish their men changed. You are not alone."
"But a hundred dollars?" Beth took her wallet from her purse. "I don't know..."
"Cash. No check." The woman extended her right hand, curled fingers upward, claw-like. Golden rings glinted coldly in the sun. A thin smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "You will be satisfied. I promise."
Beth extracted five twenties and folded them into a tight packet. The fruit seller pushed forward the basket. Beth placed her left hand on the wicker handle. Just as the woman was about to grasp the cash, Beth snatched back her hand.
"No, it's wrong. Wrong!"
The dark woman shrugged. "Fool! You think you can change your man without my help? Pah! It is too late. Look in mirror."
Beth jammed the money into her purse, grabbed up her market bag and lurched away. "Keep your damned berries! If I have to poison my husband to make him love me, what's the point? There has to be a better way!" She spun around so the woman would not see her tears.
The market crowd blurred into a smear of faceless mumbling forms shifting out of the way as she stumbled by. Beth groped toward where she thought her sedan was parked, but found herself trapped against one of the tables. She faced away from the crowd to catch her breath and wait until the wind dried her tears.
"Are you all right, Señora? Can I help?" asked the vendor, an elderly Mexican.
"I'll be all right. Just let me rest here a moment."
"She is evil, that one." Fear flickered across his face.
"I saw. You are strong, Señora. Whatever troubles you, you will find a way."
Beth nodded and wiped her face with her sleeve. She glanced down to smooth her clothes. "What are these?" she asked, pointing at an overflowing box on the table.
"Seedless grapes," the old man replied. "Golden fruit with a taste of honey. A simple pleasure from my own vines."
"Do they go with chocolate ice cream?"
"Never mind. I'll take two pounds, by God!"
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