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Funny Romance American

“Pardon me, do you have any papayas?” an unfamiliar voice asked.


Lauren Miller was lost in a daze as she removed the checkout divider and numbly watched the conveyor belt ferry the next customer’s groceries her way. She looked up with a start. She glanced first at Coleslaw—her nickname for the sixty-something-year-old bachelor whose shopping basket lay in front of her with its predictable staples: white bread, milk, sardines, apples (always three!), and, of course, coleslaw. But Coleslaw’s face registered the same uncertainty as hers. Behind him in the line slouched Wholegrain, the sinewy, sandal-clad hippie wannabe whose basket, she could be certain, would contain a mixture of wheat bread, granola, and beer—lots of beer. In lonely moments, she sometimes fantasized about the feel of his greasy ponytail on her bare skin, or what it would be like to wake up naked in his heavily tattooed embrace. But it wasn’t Wholegrain’s lilting, liquid voice she’d heard.


“Excuse me, miss . . .”


A gentle tap on her shoulder stopped her mid-scan, sardines in hand (her stomach churned at the thought of a silvery fish sliding down her gullet). She turned to see a young man roughly her age, mid-twenties, with clear blue eyes and dark brown tendrils peeking out from beneath a woolen hat.


“I’m sorry to interrupt.” Her mind reeled as she tried to place the accent. Not local, of that she was certain. Maybe more of a city twang?


She stood, mouth agape, and stuttered, “Um . . . no problem. What can I help you with . . . sir?” She couldn’t recall the last time she’d said “sir” to a customer; the clientele at Shop ’n Save were as familiar as family in the small town of Jasper, Pennsylvania. Formalities, if such a thing had ever existed there, were a vestige of the past. Rarely did she come across a face that she couldn’t place, either from her schooldays, the library, the Quilting Museum (the pride of Main Street!), or one of the handful of local businesses that had managed to stay afloat amid the deluge of out-of-town superstores selling everything from live lobsters to ammunition.


“I was just wondering, miss, if you have any . . . papayas today?” the stranger continued, speaking slowly, as if savoring each word.


“Papayas in winter? In Jasper?” Coleslaw scoffed, before Lauren had a chance to reply. She shot the ruddy-faced old man a glare, even though she knew he meant no harm.


“Um, I don’t think we have any papayas today,” she said, abruptly bagging the sardines. In actual fact, Lauren couldn’t have picked out a papaya from a pumpkin. As far as she knew, she’d never seen one in her twenty-two years of life.


The young man’s face fell, his features softening into a slight frown. “Oh,” was all he said in reply.


“But we do have some nice pears?” she ventured, pointing to the produce section with its paltry pickings. “And sometimes—I’m not sure about today—we get a few grapefruits?”


“Grapefruits?” he repeated, his brow crinkling. “Unfortunately, that’s not what I’m looking for,” he said, adding a polite “thank-you,” before heading in the direction of the door.


As she watched the stranger walk away—perhaps never to return!—she’d have given anything to conjure a papaya. But this was an apples and oranges town; there was no taste for that sort of thing here.


What if she could find one somewhere outside of Jasper? There was the Walmart in Franklin, only a half-hour away. And wasn’t it open twenty-four hours? Yes, she determined, she would find a papaya. She shimmied her way out from behind the cash register and ran up to the man, suddenly self-conscious of her drab brown uniform bib, her creased pants.


“Sir!” she called, just as he was reaching for the door. She had to resist the impulse to grab his sleeve and pull him back. He turned. “If you come back tomorrow, I’ll make sure we have some papayas. I’m working the morning shift . . . eight to twelve.” His face lit up, highlighting his smooth-shaven chin and straight teeth. Her heart swelled.


“Thank you. I would like that,” he said, then, drawing closer, eyed her nametag. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Lauren.” He bent his head in a slight bow, just enough to expose the soft downy nape of his neck. She flushed. Then, before she had the sense to ask his name, he was gone.

***

She’d had a boyfriend once: Jackson Baker. He’d pursued her relentlessly in her freshman year, squishing love notes through the slats in her locker (“you’re the sexiest girl in the school, please go out with me!!”; “you look so hot in those jeans . . .”). Eventually she’d given in to his advances—more out of boredom than interest, let alone love—and lost her virginity in the fall after her fifteenth birthday. It was nothing special, though she tried to pretend otherwise. More uncomfortable and awkward than earthshattering, she thought in retrospect. They’d lain together in a clearing in the woods next to Jackson’s house. She watched the leaves pirouetting around them, a kaleidoscope of color littering the ground on which she soundlessly writhed beneath his gangly frame. His animalistic grunts had caught her off-guard, and she worried they would attract the attention of hunters (it was the season) or, worse, the black bears that were rumored to roam hungrily that time of year. When he was finally finished and she’d wriggled out from under him, her eyes settled on his crumpled jeans draped over a branch like one of the faded, century-old quilts in the museum. She cursed her own naivete. What had she expected? Fireworks?


“That was amazing, wasn’t it?” Jackson said, breathless with awe, like a child on Christmas morning. He leaned in to kiss her cheek.


Lauren stiffened, disappointment welling like untapped sap from a sugar maple. Then, willing herself to play the role of the satisfied partner, smiled weakly and replied, “Sure was.”


It was the first of many times they’d had sex, and sometimes she enjoyed it, if she could step out of herself long enough to imagine she was somewhere else, with someone else. It wasn’t that Jackson didn’t try to please her—he was attentive enough, and always careful—but his advances were as predictable as a power outage after a winter storm. Yet, with no better prospects—she’d had a crush on Billy Walters but he’d left town sophomore year—she stuck with him throughout high school, their break-up in the final semester as natural as the changing seasons. He would go off to college, never an option for her, with her mother barely making ends meet, leaving her to wilt in Jasper. And though he humored her by saying he wanted to “make it work,” she had enough sense to know better. So she spared herself the humiliation and broke it off. He cried—pitifully—and promised he’d “keep in touch,” which, as predicted, he didn’t. Soon after graduation, she managed to get a part-time job at Shop ’n Save, her future there as certain as the cracked asphalt underfoot.

***

That evening, as she did most Fridays after work, Lauren had planned to have a quiet night watching Netflix. Since finishing school, she’d moved from her childhood bedroom into the basement of the house she shared with her mother; it was cozy enough, and she had some privacy, not to mention her own mini fridge and microwave. Sometimes she’d invite her friend Mandy over—one of the few who had stayed in Jasper after graduation—and they’d share a bottle of wine. But increasingly Mandy was working extra shifts at the nursing home to try to save up for her own place, so Lauren had grown used to nights spent alone. On occasion she’d ask her mother to join her; and she would, if she didn’t have anything better to do.


But when Lauren got home from work that night, even her mother could not ignore the uncharacteristic skip in her daughter’s step as she breezed through the front door, glided past her in the kitchen, and plucked an unblemished banana from the fruit bowl on the counter.


“Good day at work?” Ms. Miller asked, spearing, and then twirling, a forkful of spaghetti.


Lauren paused mid-peel. “Uh huh,” she replied, prompting a raised eyebrow. “What?” she added defensively.


“Nothing. You just look a little brighter than usual. And won’t you at least take off your coat and sit down?” Lauren knew her mom could read her like a book. But it wasn’t the time for another lecture on “choosing wisely” when it came to men. Right now, Lauren had more pressing matters to attend to. She finished her banana and reached for the car keys.


“Where are you off to?” her mother asked.


“Just need to find something,” she said casually. “I won’t be too late.”


“Don’t do anything you’ll re­g—” her mother cautioned, but Lauren had already shut the door.

***

“Papayas, also known as ‘papaws’: a tropical fruit most commonly grown in South and Central America. The sweetest fruits have a vibrant yellow-orange skin that yields to the touch when pressed gently. Its gray-black seeds are bitter and peppery, but edible. The flesh is very versatile for use in smoothies, sauces, and salsas. It can be scooped out with a spoon, similar to a melon. Unripe fruits can be cooked like squash.”

***

Like everyone who’d lived in Jasper for the past couple of decades, Lauren was well versed in the details of her birth. Teenage pregnancies were hardly unusual, though in more recent years, sex ed had been ramped up in an effort to stem the tide. As her mother often reminded her, she had never had the opportunity to finish school. Lauren was born when she was seventeen, just weeks shy of graduation. It was a Friday afternoon, the school day nearly finished, the air buzzing with anticipation for the weekend ahead. Few spoke to ‘Loose’ Louise Miller in the last couple months of her pregnancy; no longer a novelty, she had joined the ranks of the other outcasts—the special needs kids, the self-harmers, the goths. Just another freak.


Louise tried to ignore the growing discomfort as she sat wedged at her desk in eighth-period German class, while the teacher, a Mr. Schmidt, droned on about the correct usage of ‘wissen’ and ‘kennen’, both verbs meaning ‘to know.’


“Ich weiß, du weißt …” the class conjugated in dull monotone.


As the warm walls compressed around Lauren’s tiny, fisted form, Louise let out a low groan.


“Louise,” the teacher barked. “Was ist los?”


“Nothing,” she uttered, then, catching herself, corrected, “Nichts.”


Three hours later, Louise gave birth. She’d made it to the end of class before her waters broke in the girls’ bathroom and the school nurse was called to transport her to the local hospital. The father, a certain James Wright—a 21-year-old mechanic who had seduced Louise with his good looks and the promise of marriage after graduation—disappeared that day and never came back. Some say he jumped in his Ford pick-up and headed to Canada, where he could slough off his old life like the snake he was.


The way her mother told it, it was a cautionary tale, always ending with, “And that’s why you need to be picky when you choose a man—”


“I know, I know,” Lauren would agree wearily. “True love is more than skin deep.”

***

“Eating papaya has numerous health benefits, including anti-cancer properties, contributing to bone, skin, and hair health, reducing the risk of type two diabetes, improving digestion, and protecting against heart disease . . .”

***

Lauren pulled into the parking lot of the Walmart Supercenter in Franklin just after 9 o’clock. It was surprisingly busy for a Friday night, with SUVs and pick-ups occupying the closest spaces. She noted whole families pouring out of the exit, shopping carts brimming with bulk-buys of toilet paper, Mountain Dew, pretzel rods. Lauren and her mother didn’t frequent the larger stores, staying loyal to Jasper’s mom-and-pop shops. There was something about the sheer amount of stuff stacked in a space as big as an aircraft hangar—so much stuff!—that didn’t sit well with her.


But among the shelves of processed food, pet supplies, and plastic toys, Lauren knew without a doubt she would find what she was looking for. She crossed the parking lot with a sense of purpose, and when the automatic door slid open (almost regally, she mused), she boldly stepped over the threshold, intent on one thing. It didn’t take her long to find the aisle she sought: FRESH PRODUCE.


She followed the sign, weaving her way through the maze of carrots and potatoes, onions and cabbages, past bins brimming with apples, pears, melons. But papayas were tropical fruits. They would have their own special section, shared with pineapples, mangoes, and kiwis. These she found, lingering a moment over the kiwis, whose fuzzy, animal-like skin she’d always found disconcerting. But where were the papayas? Her heart sank as she noticed the empty space next to the mangoes. Leaning closer, she read the label beneath, her worst fears confirmed: OUT OF STOCK.


Panicked, she scanned the store floor looking for the bright-blue bib of an employee. And then she saw one, the bold white print on the back—“How may I help you?”—screaming out to her. She rushed over to the hunched figure, who was carefully maneuvering a large cart piled with boxes labelled FLORIDA ORANGES. She watched as he wheeled it to a stop, then deftly lanced a box open, ready for restocking.


“Excuse me,” she said a little too loudly.


The sandy-haired young man stood up straight and turned, flashing her a disarming dimpled smile. “Just a sec,” he said. In his hands he held two oranges, which he gently, almost tenderly, placed in the display, positioning them in such a way as to ensure none tumbled out, or were bruised. Then, he took a step toward her and said brightly, “What can I do for you?”


“I’m sorry to bother you . . . um, Gabriel . . .” she stuttered, reading his nametag. Something about his dark, deep-set eyes had caught her off-guard. Or maybe it was the hint of bemusement etched in his soft, boyish features as he waited for her to continue. “Uh, I was just wondering if there are any more papayas? The label says they’re out of stock, and I was hoping to get a couple . . .” She trailed off, suddenly feeling disoriented.


“Ah, yeah,” he replied. “Sorry about that. There seems to be some issue with the shipping. Weird though—we don’t have a shortage of anything else. I don’t know what the big deal is about papayas.” He shrugged. “Last I checked, we should be getting some by the end of next week. Is there anything else I can help you with?” he asked, still smiling. She noted a missing tooth and the slight shadow of stubble on his chin.


The momentary sting of regret she’d felt regarding the missing papaya was quickly replaced by an unexpected interest in a different fruit. “Yes, actually, there is.” She pointed to the boxes stacked waist-high next to him. “Those oranges look good. Have you tried any?”


He reached into the open box, delicately rifling through the pickings, and pulled out a large, pale-skinned orange. With a couple of steps, he bridged the space between them and offered it to her in his outstretched hand. “Yes, I have,” he said. “They’re the juiciest ones you’ll find anywhere around here—at their best in the winter. Don’t let the color put you off. This'll be the most delicious orange you’ve ever had.” He winked.


She reached for the fruit, anticipating the feel of its familiar leathery rind. But as her fingers brushed against his, her body awakened with the promise of something new, and sweet, and strange. She cradled the orange in her hands and saw her future, and his, in its pocked, unpolished peel.



December 16, 2021 22:46

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2 comments

Jon Casper
12:19 Dec 24, 2021

I enjoyed this story very much! Well-written. Dialogue is superb. "Some say he jumped in his Ford pick-up and headed to Canada, where he could slough off his old life like the snake he was." -- This is a great line. You did a great job capturing the muted despair of being stuck in a small town while others move on to bigger and better places. Yet even in the small town, there is adventure, and the hopeful dreamer that comes through at the end was a nice touch. Nice work!

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Julie Frederick
14:47 Dec 24, 2021

Thank you, Jon. I appreciate the comments, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. Have a lovely holiday, and I look forward to reading more of your work as well.

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