August 15, 2015
Cathy, of Cathy and Mike’s Produce Stand, woke up last Saturday night and felt her heart trying to escape her chest. Mike drove her to the hospital. Her heart rate was 180. She thought this was her last moment on earth.
I found this out on Sunday when I saw an old, bald man standing behind the produce stand counter, and he told me he was Cathy’s brother; she was sick. He was so matter-of-fact: one side of the family gets heart disease, the other gets cancer. He is from the cancer faction.
Fortunately, for hundreds of friends and loyal customers, Cathy got her pacemaker readjusted, went on new medications, and went home on Tuesday. I stepped in to help Mike load in watermelons, cantaloupes, corn, tomatoes and a whole lot more, for business on Wednesday. He ran the stand for the next two days, and I helped him shut it down at closing.
On Friday, a very pale Cathy came back. I volunteered to be her assistant. Mike was off to the Mennonite farms to get produce for the weekend. Mostly, Cath sat in a lawn chair, and I ran the cash register and carried melons to cars for old ladies.
The advantage of being at a produce stand at closing is you go home with a lot of food. In my refrigerator are several Calhoun peaches, a half watermelon, a giant cantaloupe, cucumbers, apple butter, salsa, and some Ozark gold apples.
In my memory are the customers: Roger the ancient, cigarette- dangling-from-his-lips man, who drives sitting in a wheelchair mounted in his van and parks and holds out a ten dollar bill, for tomatoes every single day; eighty-year-old Stevie, owner of Stevie’s Fish Stand on the river, who holds court with her customers and serves vodka and tonic in the evenings; the lovely woman from Kenya, obsidian colored, a very bright Principia College student who can’t get enough of local fruits; Peach Girl who delivers our peaches, who is tall and rangy and raggedly dressed and exudes strength and yes, sensuality; the boy wonder chef at a local restaurant who orders whole crates of banana peppers; the old lady opera singer who appeared with the St. Louis Symphony; the beautiful, pale, auburn haired woman who wears thin, sleeveless summer dresses, and when she turns at certain angles the sun reveals her bare, not-burdened-by-underwear body, and I swoon.
Women customers hugged and kissed Cathy and welcomed her back, and when the talk turned to men—how useless we are as a sex—Cathy joked, “Not my pool boy, Gene.” I’m her pool boy, Gene. A woman looked at me and said, “I could use a pool boy.” And oh, how they laughed.
Produce stand talk is mostly about juice and pulp and tenderness of fruit skin and how to cook corn, and remember when we survived without air conditioning, and how to make rhubarb pie and jam and canning and recipes. I gave out my recipe for Squash Eugene (with or without jalapeno peppers).
The most consumed food of the moment was chocolate donuts. The five most used words were “bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches.”
To which I gratefully add: My friend Cathy is alive.
Friends, we are alive then we’re not. If you’re lucky enough to live unslaved, unhungry unterrorized, and you live to say, seventy, you get seventy whiffs of lilac, seventy watermelon feasts, seventy leaf falls, seventy snows.
Close your eyes and take a deep breath now. Count to seventy: yards, inches, miles, light years, birthdays, lawns mowed, tomato and peach and watermelon seasons. Ready?