Sugar Baby Crimson Sweet or Snapshots of a Summer
“Hey sweet lady, how you doin’ today? Look at you in them fancy shades!”
I’m sitting on the curb, double fisting water and iced coffee like I’ve been outside for five hours instead of five minutes. It’s Wednesday, our long day working at the Farmer’s Market, and I need all the hydration and energy I can muster before customers show up. The man who spoke is one of the many public housing residents the city employs to set up the great white tents that provide us and the produce with shade. He never fails to crack some sort of witty salutation in my general direction and now plops down beside me, leaning forward to rest elbows on worn knees. We both smile. Neither one of us is able to start work until my boss pulls in, hauling his bed of produce behind a red truck old enough to spew rust instead of smoke.
When Ed and Rob the Watermelon Guy finally drive up, I heave myself off the curb and direct the lumbering truck-and-flatbed trailer ensemble into its designated double parking space. The Hickory Farmer’s Market fills half the downtown parking spaces with large white tents and the other half with the cars of customers eager for fresh fruits and vegetables. After Ed painstakingly inches the truck to a satisfactory spot, I begin relieving the flatbed of its load: scuffed white tables, boxes holding our two scales, crates on which we stack baskets of produce. We – Rob the Watermelon Guy and I – shake out the tables, kick open their legs, and swing basket after basket of peaches, okra, tomatoes, bell peppers, and more over the sides of the truck bed.
I’ve been working for Ed since late May. Rob and I have found a steady rhythm now, weaving between each other, the crates, and the truck itself. It takes us half an hour to set up our sizable stand. Ed putts around while he tells me the weekly price changes – today it’s okra down to $1.49 per pound and watermelon, one for four dollars and two for six. I make new signs for each and stick them, along with the rest of the Sharpie-ed notecards, in baskets, between the wooden slats of the flatbed, and on the tables. We stuff fistfuls of plastic bags between the baskets, under produce, everywhere in sight. No matter how many we put out, at least once an hour some hook-nosed old lady will grasp at my attention while I’m making change for another customer, demanding a plastic bag when there are several in the wooden baskets right under her giant nose. Half the time I smile sweetly and tell her I’ll be with her in a minute; the other half I just point as if to say, right there, lady, it’s right there.
I landed the job of assistant produce seller to Ed Husk with a smidge of friendliness and just the right amount of dumb luck. While shopping one day, my mother overheard one of the older vendors commenting on how busy his stand was and how he could use some young help. I already had two jobs in the food industry and wanted another – job, industry not particular – so she volunteered me. Ed’s sixty-seven, but a lifetime of farming has weathered his skin and his posture so much that he looks like he’s going on eighty. When I came by the next week, there was no interview: he just started naming off prices for strawberries and onions and showing me how to work the scales.
I need the wages I’m making to pay for an adventure involving transatlantic travel, which is probably why my parents are crazy enough to support their hardly-adult daughter working roughly sixty hours a week. What they don’t realize is that most of the reason I’m determined to work constantly is that I plan to keep myself too busy to think about the young man I handed my heart to the summer before, who’s been inadvertently twisting it slowly for the better part of a year.
We met in the grocery store that continues to employ us both and started dating the summer before my farmer’s market gig,. I like to think that you can tell some people are kind just by looking at them and, if this is true, then Brian is one of those people. He works in the meat department and I’m a customer service clerk, which is a fancy way of saying that I deal with everyone’s complaints, employees included, and fuss at the cashiers and the baggers when they need fires lit under their asses.
The summer before this one, I fell in love with Brian’s home, a beautifully quaint cottage on a hill with windows open even in July; his parents, who are wonderful, kind, funny people; and him, with his easy smile and his slightly gauged ears and his ability to hold a great conversation. It hardly mattered that he was nine years my senior, had served overseas with the Army Reserves, already graduated from college, and was trying to make enough to get out of his parents’ house while paying off student loans. Perhaps this was all part of his charm: he was a grown man, standing in stark contrast with the boys I had been dating. We spent most of that summer together, cooking dinners at his house and shooting pool at mine, having a thousand conversations about everything and nothing, both of which mattered.
We ended slowly and painfully as my freshman year of college progressed. I couldn’t seem to shake him out of my head with the help of my new friends, alcohol, or even legal campus activities, so when I came home the next logical remedy was trying to become a temporary workaholic. Being sad saps your energy, and I figured that if something was going to wear me out then it might as well be productive. So I started running myself to the ground waiting tables, working at the grocery store, and selling produce at the market.
We’re a good team, Ed and Rob the Watermelon Guy and I. Well…Ed and I. As the first round of customers begin trickling in, we juggle produce and small talk, all while weighing scoops of half-runner snap beans or handfuls of baby red potatoes still dusted with dirt. Rob wanders off to smoke at the earliest possible opportunity, leaving me to clamber up into the bed and lug watermelons – Ed offers to do it, but I don’t want this amiable old man maneuvering around the heavy fruit – for customers who say, “Oh, I want that one…no, this one…oh, is this one good?”
Yes it is good, thank you very much. Like I would tell you even if I were sneaky enough to sell bad produce. Which I am not, and I don’t. Ed only sells the best and, if you do have a complaint, he’s “make it good,” which is a slang way of saying we’ll give you a new batch of okra or snap beans or another watermelon.
Some customers think they’re slick, coming back every week or so saying that the watermelon they bought was too ripe or not quite sweet enough, and every week we give them a fresh one. Ed knows exactly what they’re doing, and I do too, but he keeps giving them free fruit anyway. He thinks it’s good business. There’s one lady – shaped like a watermelon herself, great bulge in the middle and a penchant for bright, monochromatic clothing – who sometimes sends her husband to do the dirty work for her. He brings a slice of the previous melon in a plastic baggie to demonstrate whatever she says is wrong with it. Whenever they buy a few pounds of tomatoes or zucchini, I round the total up generously. Ed shouldn’t lose money on their account every week.
It’s still early, but an older woman I don’t recognize comes by with a fresh complaint. She says that she cut open her watermelon yesterday and it was overripe, too mushy. “Well,” I ask, “When did you buy it?” She doesn’t quite remember, perhaps sometime within the last week. I ask when she plans to cut the one she’ll get today, then give it to her free of charge. “This isn’t the ripest, but it’ll be best if it’s cut in a day or two,” I tell her. I shake my head after she leaves: if you wait a week, of course it’s overripe! We sell fresh fruit here, no preservatives added. Our watermelon is sweet, crisp, but left unattended will ripen past its peak and turn into mush. Don’t blame the organic produce vendor when natural, untreated food goes bad more quickly than the stuff steeped in preservatives.
When I signed on for this produce selling job, I neglected to take into consideration the affinity Brian and his parents share for health food. He or his parents tend to stop by the market at least once a week. Sometimes I think I’m even fonder of Lamar and Sara than I am of their son. I’m like that mom, always pulling out her kids’ pictures and showing them to strangers because she just think they’re that fantastic. Except, figuratively speaking, I do that with my ex’s parents.
After working here for several months, I can understand the Kennedys’ adamant support of the organic food movement, if only because our fruits and vegetables are so delicious. I’ve been living off fresh produce since right after I got this job. After the first big wave of business each day, Ed and I crack open a watermelon or cantaloupe, giving free samples to customers and eating substantial portions of the sweet melon all by ourselves. As customers browse, I tend to go for their little kids, who make adorably cute messes as they squish thick melon slices into their faces. If they like the fruit, they quickly convince their parents to buy one – it’s an easy sell and the kids always make me smile. Ed loves them too, but a lot of them are scared by the wrinkled old man, so he lets me amuse them while he does business with their parents.
By early afternoon, my grandparents bring my young cousin to the market after his coach-pitched baseball game. Jake hasn’t changed out of his dusty uniform yet and I can see sweaty cowlicks of his brown-blond hair stick up as he hugs my knees.
I’ve learned how to crack open a watermelon with my hand because I’m convinced that I’ll cut one of my fingers off whenever I use the giant bread knife we keep handy. The hand trick only takes one quick stab of the knife, enough to get my fingers inside the rind. I show Jake and the kid squeals, loving it. He doesn’t like candies or cakes but he loves fruit, so I scoop out the seedless heart of the melon. He’ll make a sticky mess, but he’s already dirty from sliding into third base, according to our grandpa. Ed’s always telling me to take a break when my family comes by, even when we’re knee deep in customers, but I hardly ever listen to him. Family’s family but work is work and, even if Ed doesn’t mind, it isn’t fair for him to pay me eight dollars an hour if I’m standing around chatting. I can multitask, counting change for customers while talking to my family and Ed as we work.
This is the only farmers’ market in a small town; whether it’s my grandparents, Brian, or regular customers from the grocery store, I see a fair number of people I know at the farmers’ market each week. Brian has an awful tendency for coming to bother me while I’m working, as if we don’t have enough awkward encounters at the grocery store. Whenever I’m there, whether I’m working or just dropped by to pick up a gallon of milk, it feels like something pulls me to the meat counter to say hi to him. Perhaps that’s what happens to him when he comes to the market for produce. Whatever the reason, he always surprises me, popping up while I’m weighing someone’s okra and making change in my head. The way my stomach drops each time feels like panic and reminds me of the feelings I’ve been squashing. I’m a constant combination of irritated and pleased when he visits.
I’m determined to get used to being around him again, and equally determined to stop moping about the end of our relationship. I’ve been borderline catatonic since it hit me that he didn’t want to be with me and I still cared about him, but I’m fed up with feeling sad about it. Six months is long enough, approaching on pathetic, and throwing myself into the hurly-burly of juggling three jobs seems as good a way to get over him as any. It’s working: I’m too tired to have extra energy for sadness to feed on. More than that, I actually enjoy working here, in the summer heat of the farmers’ market.
The market’s relaxed, open atmosphere is less confining than the grocery store and I can sass the worst of the annoying customers. There’s no corporate office to call and complain to here after your produce seller makes ever-so-slight indictments involving your intelligence. I’ve never been nasty, but I throw my share of sarcasm at the customers who ask for it, like the ones who can’t see the handful of plastic bags in front of their noses or just plain expect to be waited on as if they’re some kind of famous. I tend to be sarcastic to Brian too, when he shows up. The market is my time to get my hands dirty, break a sweat, and his presence threatens my newfound sense of comfort. He bookends his trips here with stops by our stand to say chat with me and, in between the hellos and goodbyes, I often catch myself craning my neck back and forth, trying to keep him in my view before he disappears again.
Today, Brian stops by our stand while Ed’s roaming around talking to his farmer friends, but my hands are too full to do anything but nod recognition at him. There’s an ornery woman asking me what types of watermelon we sell. “Well, ma’am,” I reply, “We’ve got seedless and seeded, but seeded is sweeter if you want my opinion.”
“I know that,” she says, “I want to know what types they are.”
I had no idea that there are different varieties of watermelon, aside from the seeded/seedless bit. Ed appears out of nowhere and, in his old Southern man’s heavy drawl, tells her the small seedless are Sugar Babies and the large, oblong seeded are Crimson Sweet. She wants to know where they’re from and if we grow them. Ed, quite matter-of-factly, explains that North Carolina soil doesn’t grow sweet enough melons, so he drives to Georgia or South Carolina once a week and these are from Columbia, South Carolina. The woman hems and haws, but eventually settles on a Crimson Sweet, and after she leaves I thank Ed for coming to the rescue.
Now that Ed’s back from his wanderings, he decides that he’s hungry. We’ve worked into this groove of making tomato sandwiches in the afternoon. Ed sends me to the sandwich shop down the street to fetch a few slices of bread, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper, along with a giant cup of sweet tea. It’s a nice walk, and the waiters at Groucho’s Deli usually provide the sandwich stuff for free because we give them a great discount on a bushel of tomatoes and cucumbers each week. Heading back to our produce stand with a takeout container of bread and condiments, I realize that Brian probably came to say goodbye. It makes me smile that he may have come by while I was gone, but I’m even more pleased that I forgot he was at the market in the first place.
As he always does, Ed asks if I want a tomato sandwich when I return and, as per usual, I tell him no. They look delicious, but I know that as soon as I slice a tomato I’ll hate the smell and won’t be able to eat it. He usually eats two to make up for my restraint. Ed tells me to pick one of the more ripe tomatoes out for him, one out customers may not want to buy. Everyone has been talking about how sweet our Cherokee Purples are, heirloom tomatoes with purple skin and brownish-blue insides, but Ed prefers the normal red Celebrity. He says the Cherokee Purple tried too hard and it’s an expensive plant besides. I crack a grin at this old man, stubborn enough to refrain from eating his more costly produce. We both lean against the scuffed white tables, him with his sandwich and me with a sugary white peach.
The white peaches are my favorite, short-lived and sweet. They’re only in season for a month or so, and when we do have them we usually sell out by mid-afternoon. Last week, though, there was a huge batch of soft, overripe ones that didn’t sell, so Ed sent them home with me, seven pounds worth of peaches. I made smoothies for a week, washing the peaches gently and splitting out the pit before dropping both halves into the blender. The white peaches mixed perfectly with the raspberries that another vendor, a one-handed glassblower who sells all sorts of berries, gave me for two dollars less than the regular price.
By the end of the day, clouds come rolling across the horizon and a breeze picks up, cooling my skin. A young boy walks over to our tent from his mother, who’s preoccupied with the homemade bread loaves at another vendor. He hands me four dollars and says he wants a watermelon. I pick out a fat ripe Crimson Sweet, half as big as this skinny kid. He wants to take it so he can show his mama and, in spite of my reservations, I hand it to him gingerly. The boy takes off, running up the strip of pavement between the two lines of tents, watermelon clutched tightly to his chest. His untied shoelaces leap up around his ankles and he stumbles, sprawling on the cement. The watermelon flies through the air, arcing upward before crashing onto the blacktop in front of his head. Everyone turns at the noise and watches as the boy pushes to his feet, dusts crumbs of asphalt off his knees, and keeps running.