of Carol Shields)
Dear Carol Shields,
You are my favorite writer. I loved "The Stone Diaries," but my
favorite thing you've written is a short story called "Mrs. Turner
Cutting the Grass." I read it out loud to my mother and we both
cried (although she may only have cried because I was crying. It's
hard to know how much she understands). That is the best story I've
ever read. I thought I would write to you because I've heard you're
a nice person. I knew only a nice person could write something like
"Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass."
My name is Meredith Frazier. I'm thirty-six years old. Weekdays
I work check-out at County Market and evenings and weekends I take
care of my mother. Working check-out isn't so bad. What I hate is
when customers don't bag their own broccoli and the heads deflower
all over the conveyor belt, sloughing off damp, green buds like
the eyestalks of tiny Martians. I hate the dry exfoliations of the
bulk onions and the bright post-coital slickness of overwaxed cucumbers.
I hate the cold whole chickens that leave wet streaks on the conveyor
belt, like dead babies with leaking disposable diapers. I especially
hate the tabloids.
PRINCESS DIANA ALIVE AND LIVING ON SECRET MEDITERRANEAN ISLAND.
I wanted to be a writer. In high school everyone said, oh, Meredith,
you will be a writer. I used to imagine the books I would write.
My name on the cover and my poems inside like unborn children. My
parents used to think there was something wrong with me, the way
I stared at fruit, snow falling, water coming to a boil, the empty
birdfeeder outside the window. As if my concentration would burn
away the thing itself and leave only the words, perfect and irreducible.
Kumquat, by Meredith Frazier. You would never have to eat an actual
kumquat, because you would have my poem. You would never have to
watch your mother lose her mind to Alzheimers, because you would
have my poem. You could live in a loss-proof world, because you
would always have the words.
You might find this interesting. A man comes down my aisle holding
a copy of the tabloid with Princess Di on the cover. The man is
dark-skinned and speaks with an accent. On the cover of the tabloid,
Princess Di is wearing a bathing suit and dark glasses. She's standing
on a beautiful beach. The water looks like a melted blueberry popsicle,
like it would stain your body blue.
The man says to me: "This is not Mediterranean sand. This is Caribbean
"How can you tell?" I ask him.
"Not all sand is alike. The sand in Saudi Arabia is different from
the sand in Israel. The sand in Israel is different from the sand
in Iraq. The sand itself is like a map. The nomads can read it and
tell where they are, under whose temporal authority and dominion.
This is what I object to in the film Lawrence of Arabia. The sand
"You don't object to Alec Guinness playing an Arab?" I watched that
video with my mother. She loves old movies, movies she remembers
from long ago. Actually, we both may have fallen asleep.
The man says, "A man can portray what he is not. Sand cannot act."
So, you see, some interesting things do happen at the County Market.
My least favorite thing about it, though, is breaking in the sixteen
year old girls who work afternoons and weekends. Some of them have
no aptitude for produce. Some girls can't tell a scallion from a
leek. On the other hand, I know the name and number of every fruit
and vegetable Count Market stocks. A kumquat, for example, is an
orange the size of a testicle. 4211.
It's my mother who can't remember the names of things. She cuts
pictures out of the weekly sales circulars and puts them into an
envelope. This is how she makes a shopping list. She cuts out a
picture of a gallon of milk. I bring her milk. She cuts out bread.
I bring her bread.
The man says: "It is the sand which makes this a lie. By all means,
tell me a story about a beautiful princess who cheated both death
and the paparazzi. You may console me for what I have lost. But
do not attempt to convince me that in the Mediterranean there is
Caribbean sand. I will believe in fictions, but not in impossibilities."
The same man, a few days later, steers his cart toward me when I'm
working the Express Check-Out. The man has thirteen items, including
a single red rose from Floral. 5880. I tell him, "It's no big deal,
sir, but you have thirteen items here. The Express Check-Out is
for twelve items or less." I point up at the sign.
The man takes the rose, the last item in his cart, and hands it
to me. "For you," he says. "I still have to charge you for it,"
He shrugs. I ring through just the twelve items. Then I reach up
to turn off the sign and the man notices the name pinned above my
"Meredith," he says. "My friends call me Dodi."
I help him bag his purchases: green seedless grapes, an avocado,
a red tin of Twining's English Breakfast tea, hummus, pita bread,
plain yogurt, a cucumber, two heads of garlic, fresh mint, a box
of kitchen matches.
I take the rose back to Floral during my break.
But I've gotten off the subject. I only wanted to tell you how much
your books have meant to me. You make me appreciate the ordinary
things. There are no tabloid miracles, there is only dailiness.
It's what we have. It's what we're made for. I think about this
when I come home in the evening and my mother asks me about my day.
As soon as I've finished telling her, she asks me again. I tell
her again, this time with more details-the man with the rose, the
high school girl who thought a leek was a scallion, the woman who
actually bought kumquats. To garnish a pork roast for company. I
tell her that when I put on my coat at the end of my shift, I reached
into the pocket and took out a picture of a six-pack of Charmin
bathroom tissue, cut from the weekly specials.
I guess all I wanted to do was to thank you for what you've written.
I'm just an ordinary person, like the people in your books. Like
Mrs. Turner, cutting the grass. So, thank you.
Here's the thing. If you put a single kumquat on the scale, it doesn't
even register. It's so light. So light. The word is almost heavier.