by John Riley
Jimmy was the name that had been tossed down after him, along with a blanket and a second-hand pair of baby shoes, when the woman dropped him out of the bus window into the arms of Otis, who had just sold her the juiciest Red Delicious apple she'd ever bitten into. While Otis certainly had a knack for matching the right type of apple with the right customer, he was more than an apple peddler. His roadside stand sold a variety of fruit and vegetables and after a few years Jimmy was big enough to help set-up the stand each morning and take it down at night. He enjoyed the challenge of placing the short-lived items in their proper places. Vegetables were complacent. Cucumbers, snap peas and butter beans were content to lie side by side, squash and corn longed to be together. Fruit needed deeper study. An apple is offended by a fig's soft insides, while grapes are happiest draping the peaches. Pears remained inscrutable.
The fruit and vegetable stand was beside a busy state road and late one September afternoon an interstate bus pulled onto the gravel byway. For several minutes Jimmy filled sturdy brown bags for the travelers. Peaches and, oddly, carrots moved the fastest. The rush was winding down before he noticed the girl, about his age, watching him through an open bus window. He wandered over, leaving Otis to finish serving the last customers.
The girl knelt on her seat and stuck her head out of the bus window. “There's always a future in food,” she said.
“You have to rotate the stock daily.”
“That's my mother over there, smoking the Chesterfield. She likes to blow smoke rings.”
Then she said, “Come inside so we can talk openly.”
The rubber treads on the three bus steps were worn gray. She directed him into the window seat. “I bet this bus has been plenty of places,” he said.
“Mostly back and forth from Mobile to Wheeling.”
“You look like a boy who has found himself a good place to be,” she said.
“I'm still figuring out the fruit.”
The girl was looking over his shoulder. Jimmy noticed her mother's cigarette was bright red on both ends.
“It's lipstick,” the girl said. “She wears too much of it.”
Jimmy began to think more deeply about the bus. It'd be like two worlds. The one outside speeding by, the one inside holding still.
“The bus can't leave until minds are made up,” the girl said, and pointed toward the passengers milling around the stand. A few of the men peeled peaches with pocketknives. “Mother has stopped making decisions. She wants me to make them for her.”
“Probably for the best.”
They sat silently. The bottom of Jimmy's feet began to itch. He watched the mother blow the smoke rings. When the circles broke the smoke hung in the air for a moment.
Finally, the girl stood up. “What's your favorite?”
“I'll remember that,” she said and headed up the aisle. When her little hand gripped the exit's silver pole she looked back and smiled for the first time. “You can call me Roxanne.”
Jimmy watched her skip over to Otis. She reached up and tugged his sleeve. The old man's face broke into a broad smile. He put his hand gently on her back and began pointing out the displayed items. Then he showed her the empty baskets stored beneath the tables. At the end of the day they'd load the unsold produce into his old pick-up and take it home for the night.
The strangers began to climb back on the bus. The mother was the last one to board. She sat down beside Jimmy, let out a deep breath, pulled a copy of Photoplay from a bag beneath her seat, and said “I don't think we'll ever get there.”
She had blond eyebrows and a bridge of fine hair across her upper lip. It's like a light fur, Jimmy thought, put there to gather sunlight.
The big engine started up and the driver, wearing his blue uniform and black-billed hat, released the air brakes. The bus slowly pulled away. Outside, Roxanne bit into a shiny yellow pear.