I was about to start lunch when the call came. “32 to Produce.” 32, that’s me, security. Probably someone lifting an apple,
hardly worth the trouble to respond. But lunch didn’t seem much worth the trouble either, so I heaved myself out of the chair
and headed for the front, pushed open the swinging doors like an old-time sheriff busting into the bar.
Produce is near the back so I saw her right away, but for a minute I couldn’t figure out what I was seeing. She was
by the bananas. They put them at the end, one whole big table full of them - people buy a lot of bananas. She
wasn’t buying though. She was just standing there, peeling them.
She was the kind you don’t see a lot nowadays, an old-fashioned lady. She must have been old as my mother, but nothing
like my mother, who’s always had it rough, and looks it. She was all dressed up in a navy blue suit, pink blouse and a
little gold pin, a rose it looked like, on her lapel. High-heeled shoes, I don’t mean those spike heel fuck-me shoes,
but plain black leather. Fluffy white hair, and her skin soft and powdery. Something about her looked familiar.
But I couldn’t place her.
So there she was, peeling the bananas, not hurrying, but real efficient. She’d break off one banana, holding the
bunch down with her other hand. Then she’d pull off the strips of skin, and those strings inside. Her fingernails were
painted this dusty-looking pink color. She laid the skin on one side, banana on the other. She was working fast, so she
had three more done by the time I figured out what I was seeing and made it over to her.
There was a pile of peels and a pile of bananas; it must have been a while before somebody saw her and called me.
She was so good at it, like she’d been doing it all her life. But by the look of her, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had
some kind of maid to peel her fruit.
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
She looked at me, but went on peeling. I felt like I was talking to my fifth grade teacher.
“You shouldn’t be doing that.”
She smiled at me and went right on.
They don’t like us to touch the customers unless it’s really an emergency, and I never had to but once. A kid outside the store started running when I asked him to come back inside, but all I had to do was grab his elbow and he came right along. Also, they like us to do our business without anybody noticing. Usually you see somebody stuffing something in his jacket, you go up close to them, and talk real quiet, and they follow you like a lamb. But we already had people looking, and no wonder. The bananas were piling up there, all naked. There were two women and an old guy standing over by the apples, watching and whispering.
“Ma’am, would you come with me, please.”
“Certainly, in just a minute, as soon as I finish here.”
She was planning to do the whole table. Maybe I should have grabbed her, but I couldn’t do it. Instead I got on my phone.
“Mr. Leiper to Produce, please.” I was praying he hadn’t gone to lunch.
And here he came, walking fast as he could with that one twisted leg. Mr. Leiper is the best boss I ever had. That was the one thing when I retired from the police department, I told Marvine, I know I’m gonna go on working but I’m not working for assholes anymore. I’m retiring from assholes. Mr. Leiper is only thirty-five; you wouldn’t think someone so young would know how to handle people the way he does. Maybe being crippled made him smart. So I was curious to see what he was going to do here with the banana lady.
“How do you do, Ma’am, I’m Warren Leiper.”
She looked over at him. He had his right hand coming out for a shake, but she didn’t take it, just went on peeling.
“I’m the store manager. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Oh, thank you, no. I can manage. I’ve worked out a system, and in any case, I’ve almost finished.”
“The thing is, we can’t have you peeling our fruit. It ruins it for the other customers and we can’t sell it.”
“But of course I’ll pay for it.”
“We’d be happy to carry some crates out to your car, if you’ll tell me how many you need.”
“Surely you don’t think I could eat all these bananas.” She laughed real pretty and lady-like.
“But, Ma’am, you mean you’re just going to peel them and leave them?”
The table was about half done by now. The peels were all in a heap, but she was laying the bananas down in rows, and she was having some trouble finding room to keep them tidy. I had to stop myself; for a minute I was going to step in and help her arrange them.
“Could you tell me your name at least?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, how rude of me. I’m Adele Fairchild, how do you do?”
Mr. Leiper didn’t have his hand ready this time, but he got it out there and shook with her, and she turned right around
again and went on peeling.
Soon as I heard her name I knew who she was. Back about forty years ago she was mayor of Opakulla.
I was just getting out of high school, and I didn’t pay any attention to local politics, or any politics
for that matter, so I wouldn’t have known that but for all the fuss about her. She was always in the papers, because
she was first woman on the city council, and first woman mayor.
Forty years sure had changed her. Back then, I used to think she was old, but even so I knew she was a nice-looking woman. Looked a lot like Jackie Kennedy, only blonde, and more meat on her. Now she must be close to seventy-five.
“Miss Fairchild, I have to ask you to stop peeling our bananas. You’re creating a disturbance.”
I guess you could call it a disturbance. A bunch more people had come over to see what was going on. The only ones I was
worried about were two boys, looked about fourteen. They should have been in school. One of them was holding a skateboard,
and they were the kind you want to watch the whole time they’re in the store. They can get thirty dollars worth of
into those baggy shorts they wear. If I hadn’t been dealing with the banana lady, I mean Mrs. Fairchild - Mr.
Leiper called her Miss because he didn’t see her wedding ring, but I’m trained to observe - I would have been following
them around the store. They weren’t going to steal anything with me here watching, but they were laughing and cutting up.
One of them called out “Hey lady, want some whipped cream for those?” and then they about fell down laughing they thought
they were so funny.
If this had been happening out on the street, back when I was a cop, I would have known what to do. You always want to
disperse the crowd when you have an incident, so one of you moves them along while the other deals with whatever’s happening.
It’s different when you’re store security. You’re working alone, and you can’t tell people to break it up, move along; you
don’t want to treat customers that way. Anyway, I don’t think they would have listened to me. I mean it’s not like I wear
a uniform, just a yellow and orange Food King shirt with a little badge says “Security.” And no gun or stick, only a
Mrs. Fairchild didn’t even answer Mr. Leiper. She went on peeling; she had about fifteen bunches left. Mr. Leiper
jerked his head at me to say he wanted to talk private, and we went over by the onions.
“Jake, you have to stop her.”
“What do you want me to do? Grab her?”
“No, no. There must be something....”
“I could call the police if you want.”
“That’s a good idea. I guess you’d better.”
So I pulled out my phone and called. Felt really stupid when dispatch answered, especially because Suzanne was on dispatch
and we had a history. Nothing real big, it was only once after a party. Marvine never knew, or Suzanne’s husband either.
I told her we had an incident we needed help with, and she said she had to know what kind of incident so she’d know how
many to send. She wasn’t satisfied when I said one car was plenty. I had to tell her what was going on, and you can
imagine how I felt, telling her there’s a lady peeling our bananas. I always liked her laugh; it was one of the nicest
things about her. But I didn’t like it this time. She said she’d send a car right away;
of course she had to add, “Sounds like an emergency.” It was a relief to hang up the phone.
Steve, the produce manager, had clocked in from lunch, and now he was standing with Mrs. Fairchild and Mr. Leiper.
You could tell he was really pissed off.
“Lady, you stop that right now. The police are going to be here any minute.” She just looked at him with her eyes a
little bigger, and then turned back to the bananas and went on peeling.
She was so dignified, and her bony little fingers with the pink nails pulled every one of those strings off each banana.
“Steve, I’m handling this,” Mr. Leiper said.
“It doesn’t look to me like you are, Mr. Leiper. We don’t have another delivery until Friday morning, and I had those
bananas on special in the paper today. We only have eight boxes left and they won’t last till the end of the day. You’ve
let her ruin half our stock.”
Thing is, he couldn’t stand Mr. Leiper. Steve had been with Food King fourteen years, and he’d applied for general
manager. Everybody was sure he was going to get it because his brother was a vice president at the headquarters in Orange
Park, but they gave it to Mr. Leiper instead. I heard all this from Brenda in Bakery one day when we were on break at the
same time. She told me she would have quit if they gave Steve the job. Everybody in the store knew what he was like.
He was always hollering at people, and he’d been transferred from front-end supervisor to back in Produce where the
customers couldn’t hear him. Even his brother couldn’t get him the manager job.
“We can issue rainchecks. But we’ll discuss that later. You just leave Jake and I in charge of this.”
Steve was losing his hair, and when he was mad you could always tell because his scalp would get red. He stood there a minute with his mouth and fists all drawn up tight, but then he went on back.
And then the officers showed up, young ones, a guy and a girl, nobody I knew. The guy went and talked to the customers who were standing around, and the girl started talking to Mr. Leiper. Mrs. Fairchild was just finishing her last banana. She had them arranged real tidy, could have worked in Produce herself. She wiped off her fingers, one by one, on a white handkerchief that she took out of her purse. Looked like it had been ironed.
She interrupted Mr. Leiper and the girl cop.
“Excuse me. I wonder if you could tell me how much I owe you? I don’t like to leave my husband alone very long.”
I’d been thinking we should call her husband, but it seemed like that was out. The cop was writing on her clipboard.
“Ma’am, Mr. Leiper here says he doesn’t want to press charges if you’ll pay for the damage, and it sounds like you mean to
do that. I’ll need to get some information for the incident report, if you don’t mind. And I’m going to do a trespass warrant
on you. That means you can’t come in the store anymore.”
“Oh no, that won’t do at all. I’ve been shopping here for the last twelve years, ever since you opened. And it’s
so convenient to our house. Why, on a nice day I can simply walk over and get what I need for supper.”
“Well, Mrs. Fairchild, I can’t have you in here destroying our fruit,” Mr. Leiper said.
“What are we going to do with all these bananas?”
“That is a puzzle. Perhaps they could use them in the bakery; I know they sometimes make banana bread. I’ve bought it
myself; it’s very nice toasted, with a little butter.”
“No, we can’t use them, all our food handlers have to wear gloves. You understand, I’m not saying your hands aren’t clean.”
“Surely when the bread is baked it would destroy any germs.”
“That’s all right; I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
“I do hope you won’t throw them away. I hate to see food wasted, all those hungry people out there. Maybe the Gleaners’
Network could use them. They do such good work. They asked me to be on their board, but of course with Marlow so ill....”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
They were going on like old friends after church, the two officers standing there listening to them.
“Mr. Leiper, do you want to swear out that warrant or not? We need to be getting along.”
“I think we can do without the warrant. I’m happy to have you come in our store, Mrs. Fairchild, if you can promise me we
won’t have any more incidents like this one.”
“I’m so sorry; I can’t do that. My father used to say you should never promise anything unless you are completely certain you
can keep the promise.”
“Jake, what do you think?”
I’d just been standing there. I was embarrassed in front of the two young cops, them thinking I was part of this craziness.
It’s true I felt kind of worn out the last couple of years in the department, that’s why I retired young. But I used to be
respected. I had a reputation for taking charge and doing what needed to be done. They might even have heard of me; I won
the first officer award two years in a row. Now here I was security in a supermarket, which would be okay, lots of us do
security when we retire. It’s easy work and the city pensions aren’t all that great. But Food King was starting to seem
like a nuthouse, like they say, the inmates running the asylum.
“I think we need the warrant, Mr. Leiper.”
“Oh.” It was the saddest little sound, and her eyes got pink like her blouse and she looked at Mr. Leiper.
And he said,
“Well, I don’t think we’ll do anything this time. I’m sure this won’t happen again.”
If she’d looked at me that way I would have done the same. I’m glad she didn’t. You get used to people crying, begging even
sometimes, when you’re a cop, and still you do what you have to do, pretend you don’t feel it, and after a while you don’t.
But I guess I softened up again working at Food King. All I ever see is shoplifters, mostly kids, and it’s easy to be tough
with them because I figure they need a lesson. But Mrs. Fairchild, an old lady like that with a sick husband, and used to
be mayor. I really didn’t want to see her banned from the store.
Mr. Leiper turned to the cops. “Thanks for coming, hope we didn’t waste your time.” The two officers said no problem, glad
to help. They weren’t doing too good of a job not smiling. They went on their way, and I could imagine what they’d say back
at the station.
“If you’ll wait a minute please, Mrs. Fairchild, I’ll go back and ask our produce manager how much you owe. We’ll just
charge you what it cost us wholesale, plus something for the cleaning up, if that’s all right with you.”
“Well, that’s very kind of you. Do tell me your name again, so I can write to your central office.” And she took a little
leather notebook out of her purse, with a gold-colored pen stuck through a loop.
“No, you don’t need to do that. We’ll just keep this between us; all right, Mrs. Fairchild?”
She looked a little puzzled. “Of course, if that’s what you’d prefer. I always think it’s important to acknowledge a good
job. This store is so well-run. I think I’d keep coming even if it were out of my way.”
“We’re glad to have you as a customer. I’ll go find Steve and get you the bill. Jake, why don’t you wait here with Mrs.
Thanks a lot, I was thinking. What am I supposed to do if she goes for the tangerines? I kind of knew she wouldn’t though;
she was through with whatever it was she thought she was doing. She looked kind of tired. We stood there, both of us
looking at the pile of bananas, nothing to say.
Mr. Leiper came back in a few minutes and took Mrs. Fairchild up front with him. This job isn’t all that bad. Just like
in the department, you’re dealing with people; that’s never going to get boring. It’s all in how you look at it. I’d
sure have something to talk about with Marvine tonight. Steve crashed through the swinging doors with one of the stock
kids behind him. I figured I better get out of his way. I grabbed a banana and went back to eat my lunch.
©2012 by Elizabeth McCulloch