Rob Hardy


Kumquat
(In Memory 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. EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS.

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 sand."

"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 is wrong."

"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," I say.

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 breast.

"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.

Sincerely yours,
Meredith Frazier

Rob Hardy has been a college professor, stay-at-home Dad, secondary school Latin teacher, middle school poet-in-residence, and writer for Garrison Keillor's "The Writer's Almanac." Hardy's writing has appeared recently in River City, English Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Lion and the Unicorn. He lives in Northfield, Minnesota.
 

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