I was buying fruit for my breakfast. I do it almost everyday. Same place, same basket size. It’s a quart of sliced fresh fruit. The type of fruit varies with the seasons. It’s a healthy way to start the day, and seems to keep me awake better than another coffee.
I had just handed my basket to the lady behind the counter, when I noticed an elderly gentleman walk up. He had gray hair, longish cut for most men his age, and was wearing gray slacks, and a red polo shirt. He paused in the narrow aisles near the man in a wheelchair. The man in the chair (Frank to his friends) asked if he was in the gentleman’s way.
“No”, he replied in a kind voice. And then, as an after thought, “not yet.” The last was delivered with a bit of a twinkle to show he wasn’t serious. Nice guy. Comfortable around others and funny.
The lady behind the counter asked how he was. Apparently he was another regular. Then she asked how his wife was doing. I could just picture him and his wife coming to the fruit stand every Thursday or something, and having a polite conversation while picking up some extra kumquats, or navel oranges, or the small red currants, bitter and still on the vine.
“Not too good, Elsie.” He even knew the name of the lady behind the counter. That was impressive.
Then, as if he didn’t realize what he was doing, he continued, “she fell down last week again. She wasn’t hurt much, but she suddenly stopped eating.”
These are not the words one expects in a friendly conversation. I saw Elsie’s lips compress just slightly, and her eyes seemed to fog slightly. Elsie is a busy lady, and she doesn’t always have the time to chat. We all know that. Apparently, the gentleman forgot that while friendly, she was also an employee. She was trapped by employee politeness, that somewhat difficult position in which showing polite interest while working is taken as showing personal interest.
The man was oblivious to all this. He continued, “she doesn’t want to see a doctor. I tried taking her to Dr. Kellar, but she wouldn’t get off the couch. She will let me get her things at the pharmacy, but nothing else.” He stopped for a second, as if to catch his breath, “I was hoping some fruit would bring back her appetite.”
I could just see him in a dusty brown living room, tan light coming in from the window, standing over the couch, and holding out a plate and saying, “but they’re your favorite plums dear. Elsie packed them special just for you.”
The man was still smiling, still polite. Too lost in the horror of watching a lifetime of shared courtesies, pinching pennies, buying a first car, and sharing late night TV next to each other on the sofa, to realize he had crossed that thin line from friendly to rude. After feet, yards, and even miles of things done together, his wife was dying by inches. And there was nothing he could do.
Elsie handed me my receipt. She had finished charging my card. I placed the slip in my wallet, and slipped the wallet into my backpack. Skateboard in hand, I quickly left the fruit stand, clutching my plastic bag with my quart of fruit, and my plastic fork. I passed the other fruit stands, and the leather repair guy, and was soon in the clear blue sunlight of the parking lot where no one was dying or talked casually about their life falling apart in a cheerful voice. I dropped my board, and made good time pushing my way to work. I was extra careful to watch for cars, especially at the crosswalk in the middle of the parking lot. The cars can’t see you coming, and they never expect someone to be moving as fast as I roll in a pedestrian space.
Finding work on my desk was a relief. Soon I was immersed; fruit container open, headphones thumping, and my mind not thinking. Not thinking at all.