One day when I was grocery shopping, I overheard two stock clerks in the produce section talking about their mothers.
I heard one of them say, “I call my mom Betty, ‘cuz that’s her name.”
And thus this short story was born.
After his mother’s funeral and his grief played out, Den drove his 2008 Dodge Challenger north to New England to reconnect with an old friend who texted him, “Dude come hang at my place 4 awhile.” Den landed in Rhode Island with a few clothes, a bad haircut, a chip on his shoulder, and ready to be defeated by life. He arrived at his friend’s place only to discover that a girlfriend had already moved in, leaving no room for Den. He decided to stick around anyway and find another place to stay.
Someone mentioned that the Fruit Mart in Middletown was advertising to hire a stock clerk. Den drove by and saw the Help Wanted poster displayed in the storefront. The awning above the front entrance boasted the store’s slogan: Don’t Mind Us, We’re Always Fresh!
The store manager interviewed Den and gave him the job on the spot. The produce department was short-handed and Den was available to start right away.
When Den showed up for work on his first day at the Fruit Mart, Carl his supervisor was waiting for him in the employee break room. Carl, stocky and 26, looked and dressed younger than his age. Carl lived in the basement of his parents’ home, and his mother Betty had never stopped buying his clothes. Thanks to Betty, Carl had an impressive collection of Disney-themed t-shirts, in addition to a Mickey Mouse belt. He often wore his Harry Potter cotton briefs or his Star Wars matching t-shirt and briefs.
It didn’t take long for Carl to figure out that Den was going to be a unique challenge. The store manager, known as “Double-B,” a reference to “big boss”—he was a large man—had said to Carl, “Show the new guy Den the ropes, but keep an eye on him. He seems to have issues.”
When Carl introduced himself to Den, Den couldn’t help noticing Carl’s unbuttoned Fruit Mart work shirt and the tank top that he wore underneath. It happened to be one of Carl’s favorite tops, a “scratch and sniff” style featuring bananas on the front. When his mother Betty had seen it in a store, she couldn’t imagine how it could be more perfect for Carl to wear to his job in the produce department.
“You’ll be given some Fruit Mart shirts. It’s mandatory to wear one every day to work,” Carl said, when he saw Den staring at his chest.
Carl had seniority in the produce department and reported directly to Double-B. Carl, as Den’s supervisor, would be training him in. The training would last at least a couple of days. Carl would find out soon enough that Den’s personality tended toward cockiness. Den, 30 years old, had quickly decided on that first morning in the break room that he wouldn’t need to take his new supervisor—with his acne and adolescent clothing—too seriously.
The Fruit Mart’s produce section took up most of the store.
“Our produce is the reason people shop at the Fruit Mart,” Carl told Den on his first day, repeating the mantra from Double-B. Carl felt a responsibility to make sure Den didn’t screw up. Impressing on him the value and importance of all the produce seemed like a good way to start Den’s training.
Sharone, a co-worker in produce, was out of town for a few days so Carl and Den had time alone to start getting acquainted. Over the course of the next few days, Carl noticed that Den mostly kept to himself and neither initiated nor readily participated in banter. Banter was an important part of Carl’s daily regimen. When Carl tried to engage Den in light conversation, he began to notice that Den’s default facial expression was a gloomy one. And not just with Carl, but with the customers, too.
Having the extra pair of hands in produce was going to be helpful. But, at the same time, Carl wondered what was in store for him with this new guy.
On the positive side, Den was a fast learner. He had quickly gotten the hang of wielding the pricing gun, and had become easily familiar with all the different fruits and vegetables. Den also wasn’t stymied by the basic software programs he had to learn—something that stumped many of the other employees. But after those first couple of days, Carl began to feel slightly in over his head supervisory-wise. He looked forward to Sharone’s return. Although she was short in stature, Sharone by her nature lent gravitas to the produce department. The other Fruit Mart employees knew that if Sharone got guff from anyone, she gave it right back.
The following day, a pallet of tree-ripened stone fruits—plums, pluots, and white and yellow peaches and nectarines—was delivered to the Fruit Mart. The 50 cartons of fruit needed to be immediately unloaded from the pallet. Most of the shipment would be displayed for a special sale on a large mass display shelf at the front of the store. The remainder of the cases would go into the produce cooler. Carl told Den that because they were short-handed, the job would take them most of their shift along with all their other duties. To help pass the time, Carl decided to tell Den about the story that he was thinking of writing for his dad. A recent stroke had left the elderly man frail and almost blind.
“I don’t know if the old man’s gonna be around much longer,” Carl said. “I want to write an interesting story to entertain him.”
“What makes you think you can write a story?” Den asked. His impertinent tone caught Carl off-guard; he said nothing.
Den continued. “I don’t know you, but somehow I don’t see you sitting down with a pad of paper and a dictionary.”
“Well, I can try, can’t I?” Carl said finally. Adept at grabbing peaches two in each hand out of the cartons, Carl was stacking the fruit in tidy rows on the shelves. “Anyway, you’re right; you don’t really know me.”
“Fine by me,” Den said. Den looked as though he had not slept well the previous night and was stacking the pluots haphazardly.
Following their afternoon break, Carl continued to banter about his story idea.
“First, I have to think what to write about,” Carl said. “Take this peach, for example.” He held up a random one from a carton. The carton label read Finest Hand-Picked From South Carolina Orchards. “If this peach could talk it would say ‘I’ve come all the way from South Carolina, y’all.'” Carl amused himself with his attempt at a southern drawl.
“What d’ya know,” Den said. “That peach couldn’t wait to leave the state of smiling faces and beautiful places. Just like me.” He spit out the words like tart juice.
“Oh,” Carl said. “So, what brought you to the Ocean State, brother?”
“I just needed a change, that’s all.”
The peach display grew row by row as Carl and Den emptied the cartons.
“What about this for a story idea?” Carl said after a minute. “I’ll write about a lonely peach that’s not ready to leave home. It’s plucked right off the tree. It goes on a long journey and ends up in a place full of strangers.”
“Why is that interesting?” Den asked. “Who cares about that?”
Carl stared at the peaches in his hands. He pondered Den’s awkward and aggressive attempts at conversation, and decided to ignore it. For now.
“Well, the peach has no friends,” Carl said. “It doesn’t know anybody. It looks good on the outside, but inside it’s harboring a sickness.”
“Hah! How poetic,” Den snorted. “Does this peach of yours have a pit in its stomach? Does it have a heart of stone?”
“Laugh all you want,” Carl said. “I’m writing it all down when I get home. I think my dad will like it. He loves peaches. Always has.”
“Well, your story sounds gimmicky,” Den said.
Sharone was back at work. Seven years ago, when she graduated from Middletown High School, she had added an “e” to the end of her name. It was her small declaration of individuality in this familiar town in the middle of Aquidneck Island. Every so often, she still had to remind some former high school friend to pronounce her remodeled name correctly: “It’s Sharone, like Simone, with a long ‘o’.”
Carl and Sharone—she was two years younger than him—liked working together in produce. Their jobs at the Fruit Mart provided structure to their lives that they might not otherwise have had. Not knowing exactly where their relationship was headed, they had been coy with each other for the past year.
The day of Sharone’s return, the work shift began quietly for the trio. Den came to work wearing the same rumpled shirt and stained pants for the third day in a row. He was sullen all morning. He barely acknowledged Sharone’s presence when Carl introduced her.
Carl asked Den to restock the tomatoes first and then work on the Fujis and Galas. Carl’s morning banter included a mild boast to Den about how he had navigated a big Listeria scare earlier in the year that resulted in a regional apple recall. Most of the Fruit Mart’s supply had been depleted. Carl told Den that after handling the apple recall “virtually on my own,” he felt tested and was considering asking Double-B for a promotion. Sharone reminded Carl that she had played an important role in managing the recall.
“You remember I was the one who completed most of the paperwork,” she said.
Den returned from the produce cooler with trays of vine-ripened tomatoes stacked on his cart, as Carl had directed. Den pulled the cart over to the tomato counter. He grabbed a tray filled with tomatoes and hoicked it above his head, flipping the contents onto the display counter with a reckless thud.
“Hey, brother! Not so rough!” Carl said. “Don’t just dump stuff on the counters like that. The produce should be placed, not tossed. If Double-B sees you do that, I’m in big trouble.” Carl looked over at Sharone. She rolled her eyes. Den muttered something, which the other two couldn’t hear.
“Is it my imagination, or does the new guy have a bug up his ass?” Sharone asked later when she and Carl were alone. “And why isn’t he wearing a Fruit Mart shirt? His clothes look dirty.”
“I don’t know,” Carl said. “I’m going a bit easy on him while he trains in. Double-B said he’s got issues.”
“I can see that,” Sharone said.
Semi-rumpled was a phrase that some might have used to describe Sharone’s appearance. Her clothes were always clean, but normally wrinkled. Her pony tail bore the look of hair bunched together without prior brushing. Never one to use expensive face creams or perfume, she nevertheless exuded a scent of cocoa butter, which Carl happened to like. Whenever the opportunity arose, Carl made a point to walk a few steps behind her to enjoy the aroma.
Sharone’s return to work changed the dynamics in the produce department. Den had officially completed his 16 hours of training spread over one week. He now seemed to resent being told what to do by Carl. He also seemed annoyed by Sharone and Carl’s continual bantering. The two of them entertained each other with silly jokes that excluded Den, albeit unintentionally. Den felt more and more alienated, and it showed.
It was the beginning of Den’s second week on the job. One morning, under the glare of the fluorescent lights in the break room, Sharone confronted Den and accused him of having a bad attitude.
“You are being disrespectful to Carl,” she said. “He’s your supervisor.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Den said.
“I heard what you said this morning after Carl asked you to bring the melons from the cooler. After he walked away, you said ‘What a jerk-off.’ He didn’t hear you. But, I heard you.”
“I think you should do your work and mind your own business,” Den said. He tossed his half-eaten doughnut in the trash bin and walked out.
Carl continued developing his peach story out loud to whomever would listen. Sharone liked giving him feedback. She was starting to imagine Carl possibly becoming a famous writer. She and Carl had an ongoing fantasy business idea that involved selling wholesale candy that looked like different kinds of animal feces. Sharone came up with the brand name “Sweet Poo” and said that kids would go crazy for it. She and Carl assumed that the Fruit Mart would be their first retail customer, and their business would take off from there. Maybe Carl could become a best-selling author, too.
“Our candy will have to be displayed at kid height in all the check-out lanes,” Sharone said. She had researched candy flavors online, which Carl thought was a waste of time. He told her if the candy looked realistic, they should just stick with chocolate and licorice flavors.
“You’re planning to sell candy doo-doo?” Den said when Carl told him about the business idea. “That sounds like a half-baked scheme, if I ever heard one.”
“Well, we’ll see,” Carl said. “Don’t bother asking me for any free samples when you see Sweet Poo flying off the shelves.”
“Like that’s gonna happen.” Den went back to unpacking some garlic.
“So, back to my peach story,” Carl said. “The peach gets stuck for many hours in a carton, traveling in the dark. Its delicate skin has been bruised from rough handling during the picking and packing.”
“Your peach is going to need tough skin to survive,” Den said.
“No!” Sharone interjected. “To be the best peach it can be, it has to have delicate, fragrant skin.”
“The peach has no idea where it’s headed, but it dreams of a new life,” Carl continued.
“Your peach story sounds like the pits,” Den said, and coughed out a laugh. “Hell, did your poor little peach blush at its rough handling?” He snorted.
Carl ignored the gibes and continued.
“I think finally the peach arrives at a store with bright lights and friendly shoppers,” Carl said. “Like the Fruit Mart.”
“Oh, I like that,” Sharone said. From over by the lemons, she gave Carl a thumbs-up.
“So, the peach’s one hope is to end up in a good home with a nice family,” Carl said.
“That’s … just … peachy, Carl,” Den said. His mood had turned sour from imagining the behind-the-scenes intimacy that surely was taking place between Carl and Sharone.
Den strolled into the break room in the afternoon and found Sharone and Carl sharing a muffin. Den didn’t envision a long-term career at the Fruit Mart, so he figured what the heck.”Have you two done it yet?” he blurted out.
“Shut up!” Sharone said. “You’re a real jerk, you know that?” Den was really starting to get on her nerves. “Does your mother know you’re a jerk?”
Den scowled and stared at the floor.
“What do you think of this idea,” Carl said, overlooking the tension between Sharone and Den. Ironically, Sharone had recently suggested that Carl add some tension to his peach story.
“When the peach arrives at the store it gets attacked, so to speak, by the guy with the pricing gun. Ow! That’s gotta hurt! Especially with its delicate skin.” Carl chuckled at the thought of his creative juices flowing. “I might be pretty good at this writing stuff.” Sharone nodded and smiled.
“Sure, Carl. And I’m gonna be the next pope,” Den said. “Who is the hero of this gimmicky story, anyway? Is there a moral to the story?”
Before Carl could answer, Den yanked his phone out of his pocket, glanced at it, and yelled: “Stop sending me this crap!”
“What did you say?” Sharone asked.
“My sister! She keeps sending me these goddamn stupid memes. I’ve told her a million times to leave me the hell alone.”
“You have a sister?” Carl asked. As a young boy, Carl had begged his mom for a sister. But one never came.
“Yeah, I have an older sister,” Den said. “We’re not close. She was an orphan when Betty adopted her.”
“Who’s Betty?” Sharone asked.
“My mom,” Den said.
“Betty? You call your mom Betty?” Sharone asked. “Why not mom?”
“I call her Betty ‘cuz that’s her name … was her name … she’s dead now,” Den said.
Carl looked at Den while swallowing the last crumbs of muffin.
“Oh, man. I’m sorry, brother,” Carl said.
Den’s face pinched into a grimace. He said nothing.
“I’m sorry, too, Den,” Sharone said.
It was Father’s Day and the Fruit Mart was open for business. Carl, Sharone, and Den had to work their regular shift together. Double-B told Carl, and Carl asked Den, to move the card rack with the Father’s Day cards close to the main entrance of the store.
A shipment of local green beans and zucchini had arrived at the loading dock, and Carl said it all had to be out on display by lunchtime.
“I guess a lot of dads are going to be eating healthy today,” Carl said.
Sharone seemed peeved about having to work on the holiday, but got busy with loading up the carts to wheel to the display shelves. After a minute, she looked over at Den. He was scowling at the zucchini.
“Den, did you send your dad a Father’s Day card?” Sharone asked. “Or is that too sentimental for you?”
Den ignored her for a long minute. He had grabbed an armful of zucchini, more than he could hold, and had to retrieve some that dropped to the floor.
“I never knew my dad,” he said to Sharone at last. “He abandoned Betty and me when I was three.”
“Oh,” Sharone said quietly.
“I have no memory of him,” Den said.
Carl sighed as he watched Den pick stray zucchini off the floor. His thoughts lingered on the green beans in front of him, and on the man working next to him. Den was a cipher to him. Carl’s mind drifted back to his childhood. He and his dad had spent countless summer evenings in their backyard, his dad throwing endless pitches so Carl could practice batting. Although he never excelled at Little League, he loved thinking about those times with his dad. They were some of his best memories. He figured that Den must have missed out on a whole big chunk of boyhood.
“Den. Sharone. Let’s finish up here and go take our break,” Carl said.
“When it came to my dad, Betty’s policy was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,'” Den said. He, Carl, and Sharone were settled in the break room where Den was being uncharacteristically talkative between bites of a sugar doughnut.
“My whole life, Betty hardly told me anything about my dad,” Den said. “If she did refer to him, she called him R. ‘R for rat,’ she always said. I don’t even know the old man’s last name. I have Betty’s last name.”
“It’s kinda funny,” Carl said. “My mom’s name is Betty, too. A coincidence, huh?”
“About all I know is that R and Betty fought constantly,” Den continued. “That’s what she always told me. She said R worked at a bowling alley called Lois Lanes.”
“Oh, that’s cute!” Sharone said. She was amazed to hear Den opening up about his past. She asked him a question to keep him going.
“So, when you were growing up did you and Betty go bowling a lot?”
“No, but the place is still there on the outside of town,” Den said. “On Lois Street.”
Sharone took a sip of her sparkling juice drink and fired another question at Den.
“So, Betty told you nothing about your dad?”
“Betty told me that R cheated on her all the time and often went to the hothouse.”
“What’s a hothouse?” Carl asked. He had finished eating his apple pastry and joined in the conversation.
“I found out when I was older that it’s a whorehouse,” Den said. “According to Betty, one morning she and R had a furious argument before R left for work. Betty told me she had long suspected that R had been carrying on with one of the waitresses at the bowling alley. The way Betty told it, R threatened to smack her and I tried to defend her. Betty said I yelled in my little three-year-old voice at R to ‘shut up!’ Betty said R threatened me, yelling ‘Don’t ever, EVER tell me to shut up again!’
Carl and Sharone stared at Den. He sounded relieved to be unloading his story.
“I don’t have a specific memory of The Big Fight,” Den continued. “That’s what Betty called it. I think maybe the cops came. According to Betty, R went to work that morning wearing one of his red Lois Lanes polo shirts and never came home again.”
“So, he just vanished off the face of the earth?” Sharone asked.
“Betty always said that R died a long time ago,” Den said. “Although one time she said ‘probably.’ Eventually, I quit asking about him.”
The break room fell silent.
“We have to go back to work, guys,” Carl said finally.
On the Monday following Father’s Day, Den’s blunt-spoken, disagreeable personality returned in force. He seemed sullen, as if shielding some unspoken grievance. Maybe having revealed the story of his childhood to his co-workers, he felt vulnerable and didn’t like it. His wisecracks got more acidic than ever.
Sharone was assigned to the cherry display first thing in the morning, as the cherries were going on sale as a loss leader. When she summoned Carl to the cherries with a smile and come-hither curl of her index finger, Carl didn’t budge. Den, unloading the lettuce cart, saw Carl’s cheeks turn bright red.
Sharone summoned Carl again.
“Come here, Carl. Why are you acting funny today?”
“Come here, Ca-r-l. You’re acting funny today,” Den said, mimicking Sharone. “I have a cherry for you.” He lingered on the word cherry.
“Shut up, Den!” Sharone cried. “By the way, when are you going to wear a clean shirt? That one is getting ripe. Just sayin’.”
Den glared at Sharone and then spoke at the case of iceberg lettuce in front of him. “I bet you really turn heads, Sharone. But not in a good way.”
Privately, Sharone had been complaining to Carl about Den’s odors. Den wore the same stale shirt and pants for days on end. Sharone said that when Den arrived at work he brought the smell of pungent cheese.
“You have to say something about his b.o. And his gas,” Sharone told Carl. “Don’t you notice it? Who knows, maybe he carries around a wedge of Stinking Bishop in his pocket. I can’t work near him and I’m sure the customers don’t like it either.”
Carl kept saying he needed to think about what to do.
Den didn’t shrink from sending jabs in Carl’s direction, either. Lately, when Carl talked about his peach story, Den’s reply was a sarcastic “That … is … just … peachy, Carl.”
It was later in the day when Den got wind that Sharone was complaining about him. He walked over to where she was unpacking avocados, put his face inches from her thick glasses and said, “You do know that you’re not eye candy, right?”
“Frankly, Den, your snark is wearing very, very thin,” Sharone shot back.
“Whatever you say, Miss pissy vinegar,” Den muttered.
When Carl returned from the restroom, he noticed Den scowling at the remaining cases of lettuce he was supposed to be displaying. Carl wondered what he would do if Den suddenly, impulsively, picked up a head of lettuce and dashed it to the floor. What if he stomped on it? As Den’s supervisor, Carl would need to act. Carl had heard a few war stories from Double-B, including one about a stock clerk who went berserk after some imagined provocation from a customer. The crazy stock clerk started throwing cantaloupes down the produce aisle like bowling balls and had to be escorted from the store. “Please don’t flip out on me, Den,” Carl thought to himself.
After their afternoon break, Carl tried out some new story lines with Den and Sharone.
“So, after my peach gets bruised by the pricing gun, some rough hands toss it onto a display counter”—here Carl glanced at Den—”where it lives with others that seem more perfect. The peach, feeling mistreated and defective, wants to escape. It longs to be rescued by someone whose hands are gentle and smell nice. The peach wants to feel loved.”
“Your peach is lonely and alone. It’s so touching,” Sharone said.
“Yes. It’s … just … so … peachy,” Den said.
The three of them were in the produce cooler stacking cases of oranges and grapefruit onto carts to wheel out to the floor. Den decided he would purposely mispronounce Sharone’s name.
“And how is Miss Sharon doing today?” he said unsmiling, looking directly at her.
“It’s not Sharon,” she said. “It’s Sharone.”
Den let loose with a loud guffaw.
“That is so pretentious. You were born plain old Sharon, am I right?”
“Are you sure your first name is really Den?” Sharone fired back. “Because you seem more like a Dick.”
Den turned his back to Carl and raised his middle finger so that only Sharone could see.
“My name’s Den. Short for Dennis,” he muttered.
“Never mind, you two,” Carl said. “We have fruit to unpack.”
“As if you’re the big boss,” Den said. “You still live at home with mommy and daddy. And, by the way, you’re not going to make it as a writer. You might as well forget that.”
Carl decided then and there that he could no longer tolerate Den’s belligerent attitude. He would have to get advice from higher up the food chain. He went in search of Double-B, who was not in his office. Carl started walking toward aisle five where he had seen his boss earlier instructing a maintenance guy about fixing a wobbly shelf, when his phone started to buzz.
“Hi mom,” Carl said.
“Carl!” His mom spoke his name with urgency. “Come right away. Newport Hospital. The ER. Your dad has taken a fall. I’m in the ambulance with him now.”
“I’m on my way,” Carl said. He quickly sent two text messages—the first to Double-B; the second to Sharone back in the produce cooler—before running out the door to his car and speeding out of the parking lot.
In the space of Carl’s two-day absence on personal leave, all hell broke loose in the produce department. Sharone, recognizing a temporary power vacuum, took matters into her own hands and formally lodged a complaint about Den to management. Hopefully, to get him fired.
Sensing that trouble was brewing with Sharone, Den had mostly kept to himself since Carl’s abrupt departure. Den and Sharone had barely spoken to each other in the past two days.
For her meeting with Double-B, Sharone compiled a list of specific grievances. She had requested a full hour of the store manager’s time to discuss the situation with Den. Seated in Double-B’s office, Sharone wasted no time in making a case for Den’s dismissal.
“I know I’m going over Carl’s head, but this is an emergency situation that needs to be resolved asap,” Sharone told him.
Double-B pulled his chair closer to his desk and placed a notepad in front of him.
“Well, let’s hear what’s on your mind then,” he said.
Sharone held the list in front of her with both hands, and started to read.
“Number one, he dumps fruit out on the counters instead of placing it. You should know that a lot of bruised fruit is getting thrown out. Carl has told him more than once to stop throwing the tomatoes around like softballs. Number two, the guy is surly. Practically all the time. He has a bad attitude and snarls at Carl and me. Not only that, when customers try to ask him questions he blows them off. He’s rude. Number three, his personal hygiene is terrible. He has bad b.o. and is a real gas master. I can’t stand to be near him.”
“Gas master?” Double-B looked up from his note-taking.
“His farting,” Sharone said. “He’s rude, mean, and disgusting. He wears the same clothes for days on end. Why isn’t he wearing Fruit Mart shirts like the rest of us have to wear?”
“Well, because the recent order of shirts came in defective and had to be sent back,” Double-B said. “The shirts are on back order. I guess you didn’t hear about that.”
“No,” Sharone said.
“There was a typo in the embroidered slogan on the front of the shirts. It said, ‘Don’t mind us, I’m always fresh!’ That’s clearly inappropriate—especially for Den, from what you’ve been telling me.” Double-B chuckled softly.
“Oh,” Sharone said. “Still, he should have enough sense to wear a clean shirt every day.”
“I’ll talk to him about it,” Double-B said. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes; as a matter of fact there is,” Sharone said. “This morning, I discovered four—four!—cases of over-ripe bananas tucked away and forgotten underneath one of the display counters. All of them had to be tossed out. I’m sure this was Den’s handiwork. He just doesn’t care.”
Double-B finished his note-taking and looked up at Sharone with concern.
“Thank you for reporting this, Sharone,” he said. “I take your complaints seriously. First, though, I need to touch base with Carl after he returns to work. After all, he is Den’s supervisor. Then I’ll decide on an appropriate course of action.”
“Thank you,” Sharone said. “I was pretty sure that Carl hadn’t said anything about the fact that our jobs have gotten harder because of that loser!”
Sharone left Double-B’s office and immediately fired a text to Carl. If Carl had been at work, he would no doubt have noticed a change in Sharone’s demeanor at that moment, denoted by her confident stride with chest and chin purposefully jutting forward. Carl was not at work, however; he was at the hospital, at his dad’s bedside.
Carl read Sharone’s text message: “Guess what!!! Den is about to get fired!! I told Double-B all about his bad attitude, his b.o. and the 4 cases of rotten bananas that he forgot under the counter.”
Carl stared at the text. Especially the last part about four cases of expired bananas. He felt a slap of realization: the bananas were his fault! He remembered that on the morning in question he had made a mental note about needing to pull out and display the ripening four cases from under the counter. But after receiving the urgent call from his mother, he had entirely forgotten about the abandoned fruit. He hadn’t given it a thought—until now.
Carl knew he must speak with Double-B, right away.
When Sharone marched back to the produce department after her meeting with Double-B, she couldn’t resist telling Den that he was in deep trouble. She wouldn’t say more than that.
“You’re going to be having a chat with Double-B,” she told Den.
“What about?” Den asked the question while continuing to put out punnets of strawberries on the display counter. He refused to look at Sharone.
“You’ll see,” she said.
Den needed no further evidence to be convinced that a good time to pick up and leave his job was now. He had been mulling over the idea for a while. And Sharone’s interference meant trouble. What future was there in fruit, anyway?
Instead of going on his break, Den casually strode out the front door of the Fruit Mart, settled himself behind the wheel of his orange Challenger and headed south on I-95.
After reading Sharone’s text message, Carl retreated to the hospital parking lot in order to speak freely with his boss. Answering the call, Double-B and Carl exchanged brief pleasantries. Double-B inquired about his father.
“It looks like my dad will be able to come home in a day or two,” Carl said. “His injury wasn’t as severe as they thought at first. … So, … I got a text from Sharone. She said something about Den being in trouble and about some cases of rotten bananas. First of all, the bad bananas are my fault.”
“Oh? And how is that?” Double-B asked.
Carl described his lapse of responsibility on the day of his dad’s admittance to the hospital.
“Don’t get me wrong; Den has his faults. That’s for sure,” Carl said. “I’ve been meaning to bring some things to your attention. But to accuse him of carelessness with some bananas is wrong.”
Double-B and Carl agreed to speak about the situation with Den upon Carl’s return to work. In the meantime, Double-B told Carl he would delay any decision regarding Den’s continued employment.
Den had pulled into a gas station in Mystic when he noticed the three texts from Carl. Then, his phone rang. It was Carl.
“Hey, brother. It’s Carl. I gather there was some kind of misunderstanding today between you and Sharone?”
“I have no idea what her deal is,” Den said. “But guess what. It doesn’t matter because I walked off the job.”
“You what? Oh, no! No, no, no!” Carl said. “You have to come back!”
“Too late. I’m on my way to South Carolina as we speak,” Den said.
“You gotta come back, brother! It was a mistake. It was my fault!” Carl sounded desperate.
“No! I quit! And stop calling me brother!”
“I call everyone, brother,” Carl said.
“Well, I find it very annoying!” Den said.
Den yelled to be heard above the din at the gas pumps, and also because he was angry. He and Carl yelled at each other for a good long minute, each one assigning asshole-ness to the other. When the air finally cleared and their high-decibel exchange was finished, Carl was the first to speak.
“Den, please give the Fruit Mart another chance. I am giving you my word that things will get better. I’m still learning a lot about the job of supervisor. But, you have to do your part, too. Can we agree that we’ll both try to improve our working relationship?”
“I don’t know, man. I guess so. What have I got to lose …”
Den reluctantly agreed to turn his car around and head back north.
It had been three days since Carl, Den, and Sharone were back working together in the produce department. Sharone was unusually subdued after her chat with Double-B did not have the immediate outcome that she expected. Den did not get fired, and in fact was now wearing a new Fruit Mart shirt. The back-ordered shirts embroidered with the correct slogan, Don’t Mind Us, We’re Always Fresh!, had finally come in.
Without speaking about it, Carl and Den had arrived at a sort of truce—at least for the time being. Den was keeping his mean impulses in check.
That morning, Carl’s mom Betty came to the Fruit Mart. Betty liked to look her best, even when she was just out grocery shopping. Her jeans with sharp creases down the front of the legs looked new, as did her crisp white blouse. Not a hair on her head was out of place.
At home, Carl had been telling Betty quite a lot about Den—that Den had recently lost his mom, that Den’s mom’s name was also Betty, and that he was socially awkward. Carl told his mom that he was trying to be a better supervisor to Den, but it was hard.
“I’m not sure if I’m making any progress,” Carl said.
“Well, why don’t you invite Den over for dinner?” Betty said. “From what you’ve told me, I’m kind of feeling a bit sorry for him—warts and all.”
That morning at the Fruit Mart, Carl introduced his mom to Den. Carl was showing his mom some of the produce on sale. Den happened to be nearby, unloading a cart with radishes and rhubarb.
“Den, this is my mom Betty,” Carl said.
“Hello, Betty,” Den said. His eyes pulled away to look down at the shopping basket on her arm.
“Den.” Betty said his name softly as if addressing a shy child. “Carl has told me so much about you. How would you like to come over for dinner tonight? I’m making homemade spaghetti and meatballs—one of Carl’s favorites.”
“Thanks,” Den said. “Yes … I will … I would like to.”
“Great. Carl can give you our address. Come by around 6:00,” Betty said.
Den hadn’t had a home-cooked meal for as long as he could remember. His own mother had not been interested in spending much time in the kitchen. Over the years, her main interest had become the search for exotic remedies for her various ailments, real and imagined.
That evening at dinner, Carl’s mom couldn’t resist probing Den for information about his past. It was just the three of them—Betty, Carl, and Den—seated at the round oak table in the kitchen. Carl’s dad, still recuperating from his recent fall, stayed in his bedroom upstairs.
“Although his vision is poor, he spends his days watching bowling tournaments on tv,” Betty said. “When he fell, I thought ‘this is it,’ but somehow he hangs on.
“I understand your mom recently passed away,” Betty continued. “I’m so sorry. Do you mind my asking what were the circumstances?”
“Betty died from a Salmonella infection after taking rattlesnake pills that she bought on the internet,” Den said.
“Oh, how tragic,” Betty said. “Do you have any pictures of your mom?”
“Yes. I have an envelope of family pictures that my sister sent me when she cleaned out Betty’s apartment. Betty was my mom’s name, too.”
“Betty’s a good name! I would love to see your pictures, Den, if you wouldn’t mind,” Betty said. “I find old family photographs so interesting. Family ancestries are kind of my hobby.”
“Sure. After dinner, I’ll go get them,” Den said. “I don’t know what to do with them, so I just keep them in my car.”
“Den, please forgive my nosiness. I take it your father was never part of your life?” Betty continued.
Den was enjoying the spaghetti dinner, which seemed to induce in him long-windedness.
“I never knew my dad,” Den said. “R left us when I was three. Betty my mom was bitter about it her whole life. Being around Betty was like biting into a peach kernel … Oh, there’s a peach reference for your story, Carl.”
Carl smiled, but said nothing. He hadn’t heard Den ever speak this freely—and calmly—at the Fruit Mart.
“My mother passed away when I was only nine,” Betty said. “I’ve missed her my whole life. Did your mom ever find another partner?”
“Betty wouldn’t let another man get close after R left,” Den said. “My mom eventually adopted a girl who was older than me. We didn’t pay much attention to each other. Basically, I grew up alone.”
When the three of them had finished eating and the plates were cleared from the table, Den went out to his car to retrieve the envelope of photos.
Waiting until Den stepped outside, Carl said to his mom, “Wow. He never told me about the rattlesnake pills.”
Den returned to the kitchen with the envelope and emptied the contents onto the table. Carl and his mother looked at the photos one at a time, examining each one carefully. Betty asked Den to identify some of the people and locations. One picture in particular caught Betty’s attention. She turned it over to read the caption written on the back: Summer 1996. South Carolina.
“Who are these people, Den? Is that you as a little boy?” Betty asked.
“Yeah,” Den said. “I maybe sort of remember when that picture was taken. I’m standing between Betty and my dad. Betty once told me that R disappeared not too long after that picture was taken.”
Betty stared at the photo. The woman looked stern, unsmiling. She wore her clothes casually and was barefoot. Her makeup, however, looked carefully applied—her black eyeliner drawn hard like the creases across her forehead. The man, also unsmiling, wore a red polo shirt. The logo on the pocket clearly read Lois Lanes.
Betty looked at Den. “Did your father work at a bowling alley named Lois Lanes?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Den said. “I guess he loved everything about bowling. Including a few of the female staff, according to my mom.”
Betty stared at the photo some more. She excused herself, rose from the table and went upstairs. In a few minutes, she called Carl and Den to come up to the second floor. In the dimly-lit bedroom where Carl’s father lay, Betty had pulled from the closet a large plastic bag containing clothing to be donated. She was rummaging through the bag, looking for something in particular.
“All these old clothes were supposed to be donated this week,” Betty said, “but I never got around to it with everything else that was going on.”
Den studied the face of the old man who was lying under the blanket, his rheumy eyes fixated on the television mounted on the wall over the dresser near the foot of the bed. A muted bowling match was showing.
Betty found the item she had been searching for. She draped the worn and faded red polo shirt over the foot of the bed. The shirt-pocket logo was still legible: Lois Lanes. Betty looked at Den and gestured toward the old man.
“Den, meet Ronald Dennis Shedd. Your father.”
~by Janine Gleason