Bitter Fruit

by Jane Hertenstein

all of us in life have eaten bitter fruit

Last summer I worked at a fruit stall at a Chicago green market located at State and Division. I started at the bottom of the ladder, assistant to the assistant peach purveyor; Katie knew her fruit. She always let me know when I was doing something wrong. In terms better suited for the job than myself, I was green.

The Russian ladies shopped for Old Golds, a variety of apples good for cooking. “It reminds them of home,” Paul often repeated. My boss Paul never liked how I stacked, “put up,” the apples. He had a system riddled with contradictions. First he warned me not to over handle the fruit, yet I was required to touch every piece. Once he instructed me to find the small ones and put two in the bottom of a quart size basket, then four more on top of them (that way they won’t roll off, he explained) and then a large one at the summit. Okay. But the next time it was one at the bottom, medium-sized, and then four, followed by one more (Why so big? The customers will think you’re trying to trick them.) I couldn’t win for losing. I don’t even like fruit.

I began to attach narratives to our customers. Just as the Russians were drawn to the apples because they reminded them of home, the gays were like bees swarming the peaches. I let my imagination go. The little old ladies were tempted by the blackberries as if that were their only vice. They carried them home like eggs in their handbags swaddled in plastic bags wrapped twice around. Kids were ga-ga over the blueberries, snitching stray ones off the table and popping them into their mouths. I liked to think their mamas read them Blueberries for Sal.

I never mentioned my theories to Paul or Katie. They lacked an aesthetic for fruit selling. For them it was meat and potatoes. Left-brained. Don’t stand around. Don’t cut the samples so big. Don’t use the big bags; use the small ones. And above all else, DON’T give away the baskets.

It was back breaking work, leaving  little time for narrative-making. I was on the go from the minute I got to our corner of the closed-off street until time to pack up the truck. I had to be there at 5 a.m., and I wasn’t a morning person. I moved in a fog with Paul and Katie shouting conflicting orders. Move that over there. No, I need it here. Put it under the table. Why are the Honey Crisps under the table? I would have quit except that I had promised my mother I would pay back all that I owed.

The market was actually a second job, on top of my 9 – 5 Monday through Friday gig manning the phones at a real estate office. I had graduated from high school and was trying to save up for college. I’d been accepted at Middlebury College, a complete surprise as it had been my long-shot. At the same time my mother suddenly went berserk about money. I’d been good about saving but had dipped into my account to pay for a new laptop. And since I was going away I got a little freer about spending. I bought a coat on sale at H & M. Mom wrung her hands, worrying that I was going to run short—and how was she going to pay for my schooling? I told her not to make such a big deal. That’s when she went through the roof.

I shouldn’t put her down so much. She was working two jobs herself—ever since dad went underground after the state started garnishing his wages. For two years she’d been trying to get him to pay child support. Once I turned eighteen he was off the hook, but remained a fugitive from his family. So I signed up at the alderman’s office to work Saturdays at the fruit stand.

I couldn’t tell a peach from a pear, let alone a White Star from an Autumn Glo. Once a customer asked about a “freestone.” I thought he meant the pit. I knew certain watermelons were seedless, bred to be barren. Why not peaches? Katie explained to me that freestone was a term applied to peaches that when sliced fall away from the stone instead of clinging to it. She treated me like a numbskull. Little did she know that inside of everything we sold were stories. The white peaches had grown up in the deeply segregated south. Years of genetic engineering had robbed them of their bronze glow, their inherent peach pride. The taste was subtle, as if they were hanging back, afraid of being easily bruised. I bid my time until time to quit and leave for Vermont.

On my last Saturday it poured rain. I sat in the cab of Paul’s truck waiting for it to slacken. The humidity made it feel like a sauna, condensation competing with precipitation; moisture ran down the windows. Finally we decided to get out and brave the elements. Paul and I and a guy named Bill set up the tents and tables and hauled cases of fruit out back of the truck. My shoes squished as I sloshed around. There was no avoiding the puddles. After five minutes I was thoroughly drenched. My poncho clung to me like a freestone—or was it the other way around?

I waited for Katie to put up the peaches until finally Paul told me to go ahead. She wasn’t coming. At first I was surprised that he trusted me, but he was more concerned with water pooling on the roof of the tent. He used the blunt end of an umbrella to lift the sodden corners, unleashing a Niagara that sluiced down onto the deserted street. For a change he hovered over Bill, fretting about the blackberries. Don’t let them get wet! Which was ironic, seeing that the deluge was as thick as milk. The sewers were unable to handle the run-off; oily pools banked along the curbs. Paul reminded me of my mother, poking and hovering and complaining that he was losing money by the minute. Where were the customers?

The one or two shoppers I’d seen hurrying by were on a mission, stopping for the sole purpose of grabbing a few tomatoes, an ear of corn, or leek stalks. No browsing, no leisurely smelling or feeling of the peaches. They ran from tent to tent liken frogs leaping from lily pad to lily pad, furtively hoping to stay dry. I could tell by the patter overhead that we were a long way from a let-up.

I grabbed the knife and cut open a ripe Fantasia and sliced it so that the yellow flesh lay like sunflower petals. A bit of sunshine in an otherwise dismal day. I stood behind the table and held out a half-pint container offering free samples to passersby. A man under an umbrella, his face scarred from acne, looked at me skeptically as if I was trying to sell him a $3 bill. He shook his head, the corners of his mouth turned down. A woman, hunkered over, her hoody sweatshirt pulled up over her head kept on walking.

Paul was threatening to send either Bill or myself home early. I hated thinking I got up before the sun for only a fraction of what I normally was paid. I would have to be proactive to lure the customers in. I spied two women under the mushroom vender’s tent next to us. One was older and the other one held a white poodle, which shivered every time a drip caught him in the middle of the back. “Try a sample.” They savored the peach for a second and then held out a limp bill. They each bought a quart. Paul left to go buy hot coffee for Bill and me.

I ventured into the midway. I felt like Hans Christian Anderson’s poor little match girl or a character out of a Charles Dickens’ novel. I pushed aside my bangs plastered down over my eyes. Please, won’t you try a free sample? I sold four more quarts and restocked the baskets.

I reckoned these peaches must be like sex, irresistible—which if that were true then why did my mother scorn men? Perhaps the taste was like one’s first, Fantasia nature’s gold, all others sold as seconds, slightly marred, blemished. But how would I know? I’d never been kissed, let alone in a relationship. I sat out prom, telling myself I was saving money.

I took a sliver and held it on my tongue as if I were taking Communion and waited to be resurrected, lifted up into glory. Leaden raindrops plunked overhead. If only it were as easy as eating a peach to find contentment, a place, soul safe, where worries and self-doubt don’t exist. A cozy sensation came over me. I was soaked through, jeans, socks, shoes, yet I felt a rush of warmth as if I were submerged in a hot bath. Euphoric, as if under a spell or a drug. (What is cocaine anyway but in its original state a food?) I closed my eyes to shut out the drumbeat of rain. I remembered being young, maybe three or four, and my father pushing me in a swing. I often dreamed of flying, punching holes in the clouds with my feet. I remembered once again what it felt like to be me, before I even understood there was a me. Before I realized that my parents weren’t separate from me, indeed, before they separated, and dad went away. A sublime satisfaction lingered on my tongue and then dissipated, left me with a craving for more. But the peaches were gone, all sold.

That fall at school I sought to relive that moment. I experienced my first. His name was Twain and I met him—where else—but in an American Lit class. We sat next to each other and after a week I got up the courage to talk to him, ask him what he thought of our prof, a middle-aged bearded man who insisted on being called Mark and who didn’t hesitate to use the word fuck in class in order to drive home a point. We sat at a coffee shop and laughed about Mark and his obvious mid-life crisis. I asked Twain about his name and he said his parents once owned a complete set of the master’s works. He nostalgically described tawny spines with a strip of red with Twain stamped in gold. Perhaps it was this sense of infamy that gave him an elevated impression of himself, I’m not sure. He exuded self-confidence, and this, more than anything, drew me to him. Me, a freshman, at an up-scale school, where one semester cost more than my mother made in one year. I was terrified of making a mistake, of being sent home early, of failing.

It was on our first date—not merely coffee, but where we agreed to a time and place to meet, though he didn’t pay for the movie—we went back to his dorm, to his bed. Nothing happened. I think he was nervous, expecting his roommate to walk in. He left me hungry for more, on the verge of Fantasia. Later, walking back to my resident hall, the Vermont night air cooled my hot cheeks. I had the feeling as I passed strangers on the sidewalk that they suspected, smelled the scent of ripe passion. Throughout the week I would revisit the movement, the sensation, the impression his tongue made in my mouth, poking around my back molars.

After a second date he informed me his roommate was out of town. We left the bar and went back to his place (since I lived in a quad with five other girls). To say I wanted it, doesn’t exactly express my true desire. I wanted something. I lay back like a peach, waited to be peeled, de-pitted, and succored.

But the whole time he was making love, I was making thoughts, ever conscious of arms, legs, noses. I was distracted by the hollow of his throat, a mole on his shoulder, the swirl of bumps in the ceiling overhead. For a split second it felt like I was flying. Then suddenly I recognized a pattern in the stucco—what looked like Abraham Lincoln staring back at me. Afterwards, after our breathing returned to normal and he’d picked the bedspread up off the floor, after the dreamy sex magic had worn off and we’d gotten dressed, I felt deflated. For some reason I thought this, this thing between us, might return me to me. I left his apartment expecting to turn a corner and recognize . . . myself.

I saw Twain off and on that fall semester, but he and I weren’t meant to be. Winter break I didn’t go home, I didn’t want Mom to see how much I’d changed, become more like her. Soured on the subject of men. So I threw myself into schoolwork and signed up for J-term, where I met my second. Our tongues, again, did what tongues do—but without tasting. I no longer remembered the flavor of Fantasia. It was lost to me.

This summer I gladly returned to work the market. I was promoted to chief peach pusher. Paul remarked recently, I really know my peaches.


Jane Hertenstien is the author of the non-fiction book Orphan Girl. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in: Cantaraville, Rosebud, Word Riot, flashquake, and the Tonopah Review.

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