Our First Market Day

[fiction]

Dad and I move wicker baskets from our van to the tent. Dad’s jerking baskets too hard. Apples fall out and roll across pavement.

“Strawberries go on the short table,” I say. He’d placed them on the higher table, where we put the jam display.

“Move them then,” he grunts. He pulls out another basket. He isn’t talking much. He had to drink a pot of coffee just to drive here.

I switch the strawberry flats and jam, making sure the jam labels face toward customers. Puddles spot the brick path that circles the farmers’ tents, but the sky has some blue spots. Maybe customers will stick their necks out from under their logs. Mom used to say that, last summer, and every summer I can remember, when she led market day. She died in March from breast cancer.

“We need the tent flaps,” I tell Dad. The green flaps, which attach to the tent sides, hang down so rain won’t get on the produce or us.

“Left them at home,” Dad says. He heaves out the final basket. “We’ll be fine.”

You’ll be fine. I’ll get wet.”

Dad drops the basket, hard. He probably bruised the apples. He stretches out a hand. “It’s not raining. And it’s not forecasted to rain.”

“And forecasts are always right.” I want him to tell me to stop being sarcastic. He hasn’t corrected me in months.

A black-haired girl and her lip-pierced boyfriend squat to smell strawberries. My dad turns, yanks his jacket off the back door of the van, and puts it on. Like me, he hates talking to customers. We both like farm work—tilling, weeding, picking apples, pruning. But he told me this year I was in charge at the market. “This is all I’m asking you to do,” he said.

“I’m going to rest,” he says. “Don’t leave the stand.”

“Where else would I go?” I ask.

Last week, I heard Dad tell Grandpa over the phone that he’d put nonorganic fertilizer on the orchard next year. He said organic produce hadn’t done Mom any good. Mom had argued that cancer was complicated. I wasn’t sure who was right.

The driver’s side door slams. Inside the car, Tug, our small black mutt, whines. We got him a year ago, when Mom said she needed some happy thing around when Dad and I weren’t home. I wish Tug could hang out outside with me, but he can’t be near the food.

Across the way, at the McCulla stand, Cody, a kid my age, unloads baskets of lettuce. He doesn’t have to stay. Soon he’ll be skateboarding, eating at a food cart, or hanging out by the river. Last year, I went with him. I learned to skate a bit. We poked around a bookstore. This morning he hasn’t looked at me.

Some older lady approaches. Her beady eyes seem familiar. She looks me over like she’s here to buy me.

“How are you, Hayley?” she asks. “It’s Cecilia, remember? Our daughter had a baby, so we’re visiting.” She purses her lips. “You look so much older, dear.”

“Hi.” Is it a compliment that I look older? I don’t think she meant it as one.

“How are your parents?”

I throw a thumb over my shoulder. “My dad’s in the van. Can I help you?”

“And you’re manning the stand. You’ll be just like your mom soon.”

She’s wrong. I’ll never be like my mom. And this lady only knows my name because my mom had never met a stranger.

“I’ll take this bag of apples and this,” Cecilia says. Her vein-ridden hands cover a quart of strawberries.

I charge her three dollars for the strawberries and weigh the apples. “First of the season,” I say, meaning the strawberries, not the apples. The apples are from last fall.

“You sound like your mother,” she says.

That is something my mom would have said. I don’t want to repeat her. I already hear her sayings every day, like song lyrics I can’t get out of my head.

Cecilia takes the paper bag full of produce. “Tell your mom I said hello. Next time, we’ll bring our grandson with us.”

If I give her encouragement, she’ll pull out the kid’s picture. I step under the tent and check Dad’s cell phone. “Sure. Have a good day.”

It’s only 9:30. Still over two hours. And I’m already hungry. I chew hard on my gum.

Cody’s gone from the McCulla stand. He’s probably getting food.

Some tall lady with manicured nails steps under our tent. “Is your produce organic?” she asks.

A USDA organic sign hangs on our tent pole. “Yeah,” I say, pointing.

She punctures an apple with a nail. “You sure? These apples seem small.”

I cross my arms. Organic doesn’t mean large and without blemishes. My mom explained this so many times, always patient, but on the way home, she’d laugh. “When will they understand that natural doesn’t mean perfect?”

“If you want your produce to look good get it at the grocery store. Organic produce tastes better and is better for you, but it goes bad faster and is smaller and weirdly shaped and has more bruises.” I use my rudest tone of voice, hoping she’ll go away

“Is one of your parents here?” she asks. “I have questions about organic farming.”

I sigh. Last week, I heard Dad tell Grandpa over the phone that he’d put nonorganic fertilizer on the orchard next year. He said organic produce hadn’t done Mom any good. Mom had argued that cancer was complicated. I wasn’t sure who was right.

“Excuse me? Can I speak with one of your parents?”

“I’ll get my dad.” I don’t care if I wake him.

I open the driver’s side door. The seat’s tilted back. His shirt, hiked up, reveals black, matted stomach hair.

“Dad,” I shake his shoulder. “Dad. Some lady has questions.”

He opens his eyes but wakes slowly. I’m used to this. On Friday nights he sits in his recliner and drinks himself silly. “Only on Fridays,” he tells me when he brings home a case of beer. “They can’t worry if it’s only on Fridays.”

“A lady has questions,” I say again.

“Can’t you answer them?” He’s bothered, but not mad. I wonder if punching him would do it.

“Come on.”

He shakes his head, hard. As Dad steps outside, Tug jumps into Dad’s warm seat and rolls over. Before I shut the door, I give him a scratch on the belly.

The lady yells Dad a question before he reaches the stand. He answers it, and she shoots him another. I bet she’s one of those customers who want to know organic farming so she can brag at some book club. For me, the conversation’s an opportunity to escape. I slip away, hoping to find Cody.

I pick up an apple and push my thumb into its bruises. I throw it at the back of our van. It bangs against the tinted window. I throw three more before Dad comes out.

I walk downhill, jump over puddles, zigzag in and out of one-way streets. It’s started misting. I pull my beanie lower, over my eyebrows. Soon, I’m among a block of food carts. I circle them, looking for Cody. I finally find him skulking around some bike racks. I cross my arms and stand on a nearby greenway, pushing raindrops off blades of grass with my tennis shoe.

Bikes pack the racks. A few dogs are tied on it, too. Rubber bands hang off Cody’s wrist. A beagle paws at his mouth, trying to get something off. Cody kneels next to a miniature poodle and begins to cinch its mouth shut with a rubber band. I can’t believe it.

“What’re you doing?” I ask.

His shoulders jerk around, his face calm. “Leave me alone.”

“They can’t breathe very well. And they can’t bark.” I start to walk around Cody to the beagle, but he blocks me with his body.

“How many dogs have you done this to?” I ask. Cody doesn’t answer. I pull off my beanie and smack him in the eyes. I’ve heard people have gone blind this way. I hope I can blind him.

“Jesus,” Cody says. He doubles over, hands over face. I pull the rubber band off the beagle’s month and scratch behind its ears. Cody stands and turns. I flick the rubber band toward his head. He blocks it with his hand.

“Stop hurting the dogs.”

“They’re not your dogs.”

“They’re someone’s dogs.”

“I’m not hurting you.” He smirks. “Didn’t your dad tell you not to leave the stand?”

“Shut up.” I reach for the rubber bands on his wrist. He smacks my arm away.

A man, unleashing his dog, looks over. Cody and I both glance his way. “This kid—” I say.

“Shut up,” Cody says.

He takes off running in one direction, I in another. I jog through the market, passing tents selling jewelry and incense and jackets. Once I hit the streets, I head uphill, jaywalking back and forth. I want to hold Tug and bury my face in his fur. He’s the only thing that’s comforted me since Mom died.

Back at our stand four people are waiting. Dad’s nowhere to be seen.

I weigh produce and say what people owe. If I talk too much I’ll cry. Before too long customers are wandering away. Vendors punch out water from their sagging canvas tent tops. One quart of our strawberries, jam, and a dozen apples remain. Cody hasn’t returned.

I take a few strawberries and squash them until it looks like my hands are covered in blood. “Look Mom I’m bleeding,” I used to say, holding out strawberry-covered hands. She knew me too well; I could never trick her. I grab more strawberries, throw them on the pavement, and smash them with my shoe. I drag my foot underneath the tent. Red streaks start strong and fade, like wet bike tire tracks. I toss down another handful and make more lines across the pavement.

A white-haired vendor, packaging up goat cheese, stares.

“Leftovers,” I tell her.

“They were perfectly fine,” she says. “I hope you’ll clean up.”

I squat and squeeze a few bruised apples. These weren’t perfectly fine; Dad had ruined them by not being gentle. I remember when I helped pick apples for the first time. I dropped them on top of one another into the barrels. “Set them down gently,” Dad had said.

I pick up an apple and push my thumb into its bruises. I throw it at the back of our van. It bangs against the tinted window. I throw three more before Dad comes out. His black hair sticks up. He glances at the red streaks on the pavement and the chunks of apples. I aim another apple at the window. It bounces against it, then off Dad’s head.

“What the hell?”

“Oh, hi. I thought you were asleep.”

“You’re ruining good produce.”

“You ruined it first. Throwing the baskets around.”

Dad steps toward me and grabs a shoulder. I shrug away.

“You’re making a scene,” he says. “There’s no need to make a scene here.”

“You don’t want me to make a scene anywhere.” I cross my arms and glance at the goat-cheese lady, then at my strawberry-stained tennis shoes. Dad’s staring at me.

I look up. “We’re gonna lose money this summer because Mom’s not here.”

Dad looks down and touches his shoe against the red.

We toss the smashed fruit in a garbage bag for our compost pile. We put away the cash box, the leftover produce, the signs, the tent. Every item has its own spot in the van. We’ve done this with Mom so many times.

I walk to the van, open the passenger’s side, and climb in. Tug’s curled on the driver’s seat, and I pet him. I close my eyes and don’t open them when the driver’s side door opens and shuts or when Tug jumps onto the floor. Dad’s breath is labored, like he just picked barrels of apples. I’m also breathing hard. I take my beanie from my back pocket, put it on, and pull it low over my eyes.

His breath slows. I peek at him. He’s clenching the bottom of the steering wheel and staring at rain streaks on the windshield. I pet Tug with my shoe.

Three years ago I had an outburst like this. Dad spanked me with a spatula. I was a bratty kid sick of chores who had uprooted unripe carrots. He must know I’m older now, that this is such a different thing.

“It’s been a hard year,” he says. “It’s amazing that we have a crop.” He runs his hands up and down the steering wheel.

I move into the center seat, where I used to sit between him and Mom. Tug jumps into the passenger’s seat. Dad’s hands drop off the wheel. I want to lean against him, and for him to put his arm around me. Instead, I place a hand on Tug’s head.

We’re all sitting like this when some market monitor knocks on the driver’s side window. My dad cracks his door. “We’ll pick it up and be gone by one, like every week,” he says. The market monitor leaves.

My dad says he’ll pick up the strawberry pieces if I get the apples. I tell him I can handle that. We toss the smashed fruit in a garbage bag for our compost pile. We put away the cash box, the leftover produce, the signs, the tent. Every item has its own spot in the van. We’ve done this with mom so many times.

After everything is stowed, we get in the car. Dad drives a few yards, and stops. We both look back, like we do every week, to make sure we didn’t leave anything.

“Strawberry juice,” I say.

“Don’t worry. The rain will wash it off.”

I don’t know if I believe him. Mom could never get strawberry stains off my shirts. But maybe pavement is different. I hope so.

On our hour drive home Tug sits in my lap. I stare out my window. Dad keeps glancing over. Maybe he’s thinking about me. That would make me happy. I pull down the visor and open its mirror to see if there’s any happiness in my eyes.

 

Rachel King is a writer and editor who lives in her hometown, Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared in One Story, Flyway, the Concho River Review, Farallon Review, Ashland Creek Press’s Among Animals 2 anthology, and the Museum of Americana. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her poetry chapbook Between Work and Light is available from Dancing Girl Press. Find out more at booksrachelking.com.