Produce by Lori Howe

I was standing in the produce section of Safeway last week, mentally checking off ingredients on the shopping list I’d forgotten, and when the phone in my pocket buzzed, I answered it without thinking. The brief, electric delay that followed my mumbled “this is Lori,” was a telemarketing red flag.

I eyed the glossy blue-black eggplants, and sighed. I am congenitally polite. I am genetically incapable of hanging up on anyone. So, when a young man came on the line, I returned his greeting, wondering what was on offer today.

“Good afternoon, Ma’am, my name is Jacob and I’m calling on behalf of Paraguard Home Security Services, and we have an excellent offer going on right now in your town only.”

Jacob sounded very serious, and extremely concerned about the safety of all the poor, insecure souls in Laramie, Wyoming. If this company was hoping for a big score in Laramie, I felt sorry for them.

I smiled into the receiver and politely declined Jacob’s offer to outfit my little house with a state-of-the-art security system that would cause any potential thieves to quake in their cat-burglar suits and drive quickly on by. Jacob was alarmed. “Whatever system you have in place now, I assure you, is child’s play compared to the Paraguard system,” he told me, his voice deepening with concern.

I placed two eggplants and two zucchini in my mini-cart. “Jacob, the security system in place at my house is a house key, but place is really the question. I have no idea where it even IS. I almost never lock my house, unless I’m inside it, sleeping.” Jacob sucked in air, and then there was silence over the line. Clearly, I was joking, or mad.

“Ma’am, what if someone were to just walk right into your house while you were out? Have you ever thought of that?” Jacob was sounding older and patronizing now, though I guessed his age at around 22—the age of my students.

I smiled again; this was starting to be fun. “Jacob, that actually happened to me a few months ago,” I told him, matching his serious tone.

He had me now, and he knew it; he’d make a big commission on this one.

“And what did you find when you walked in your door?”

“A large bag of Hanukah presents,” I told him, pushing my cart up to the pyramid of tomatoes, enjoying the silence on the line while Jacob collected himself on the other end. I waved to Phyllis, as she stocked bottles of wine.

After a moment, he changed tactics, and smiled at me through the phone. “Happy belated Hanukah,” he said, “I’m Jewish, too.”

I returned his holiday greeting, and smiled back. “Happy belated Hanukah, but I’m not Jewish.”

Another moment passed, and Jacob produced a slightly different tone; now he was my friend, looking out for my safety. “I’m sorry you lost your key…you should change your locks as soon as possible. Our technicians can do that for you, Lori. May I call you Lori?”

“Of course you can, Jacob,” I told him, tossing a head of fresh garlic into my cart. “But the key isn’t lost. I just remembered; it’s on the same ring with my car key, so I can’t lose it. I always keep my car key in the same place—perfectly safe.”

Again, a strained silence as Jacob shifted gears. “Did you know that Paraguard will send a locksmith to your location for free, if you lock your keys in your car? It’s just one of our many extras for valued customers.”

I told him that sounded like a great bonus, but that it was physically impossible for me to lock my keys in the car, as my keys never, in fact, leave the car—I keep them in it. Shocked disbelief has a sound. I heard it humming over the line.

Poor Jacob. He was probably wishing he’d let me say no and hang up; now, he was committed.

“Lori, don’t you worry about your personal security?” he asked, a twinge of desperation around the edges of his words. “Aren’t you afraid? I would be, if I were you.”

I thought about that for a moment. I tried to come up with a moment in the fifteen years I’d lived in Laramie when I’d needed to fear for my personal security, and came up dry. My wallet had once been stolen when I’d left it lying unattended on the bar at the Buckhorn. Other than that, the worst thing that had ever happened, security-wise, was the theft of a leather jacket with a faux-fur collar from the passenger seat of my truck while I was in the movie theatre. Since I’d paid five dollars for the coat at the Salvation Army, I couldn’t work up the steam to get bent out of shape over that one.

“Nope,” I told him simply, “I don’t. I’m not. And you wouldn’t either, if you lived here, Jacob.”

At that moment, my old friend, Jack, pushed a mini-cart up and bumped lightly into mine, grinning. He wore his usual uniform of plaid flannel shirt, suspenders, ancient Levi’s, cowboy boots, and his WWII Tenth Mountain Division hat. “Girlie, you know where they hid the sour cream this time?” he asked me.

I turned Jacob’s voice toward my chest, and walked with Jack. “They moved it to the end of the cheese aisle…I’ll show you where it is,” I told him, hearing the rise and fall of the voice coming through my phone, and I found myself actually wondering what Jacob was saying now. I put the phone back to my ear.

“…at work? I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was calling you at work,” he was saying, apologetically.

“Oh, I’m not at work,” I told him, “I’m at the grocery store.”

Jacob burst out laughing, and I asked what was so funny about grocery shopping. “Oh, nothing, nothing,” he said, still chuckling, “people don’t talk to each other at the grocery store where I live. Just crazy people.”

I thought about that, and remembered exactly how that was, when I’d lived in a big city back East—probably a city like the one where Jacob lived. No one talked to strangers on the street, on the bus, in the mall, or in the grocery store. No one made eye contact either—it was safer that way. And I remembered how gladly I had shucked off that cold, fearful behavior, like an ugly coat, when I’d landed in Laramie, Wyoming.  Here, you had to dial an extra twenty minutes into your shopping trip, to allow for all the greetings and conversations you’d have, even if you’d only dropped in for milk. I considered telling him about the time I’d gotten my old car stuck in deep snow, and six men on snowmobiles had shown up minutes later, and amongst them, hauled me to safety. Or the time my boyfriend and I had spent an hour driving all over town, giving a ride home to a strange guy who was so drunk he couldn’t remember where he was staying. Or how I still go to the post office every time I need a stamp, because I enjoy visiting with Frank, who has been selling me stamps for fifteen years.

“We all talk to each other, Jacob,” I told him, “and we like it that way. If you lived here, and you were out walking on a cold day, someone would probably stop and offer you a ride. And you’d be safe to take it.”

Jacob seemed to have forgotten his sales pitch. He was more interested in reconciling the madness I was spewing over the phone with his concept of the world as a dangerous place requiring alarmed windows and slavering guard dogs.

“I get it,” he said, and I could picture him nodding slowly, having a moment of clarity. “You’re Amish, right?”

This made me smile, as I exchanged a pleasant nod and greeting with Dave, who’s been my favorite produce guy for over a decade. I thought of all the different denominational options spread out before me like a buffet: Pastafarians, Lutherans, Wikkens, Buddhists, Quakers, Amish…the list tempted me. “Amish,” I said, “No, we’re not Amish, Jacob. We’re just Laramie,” I told him. “We’re Wyoming.

“Like in the old westerns,” Jacob said, “all that open space. Isn’t it boring, all that prairie, nothing to do?”

I got a laugh out of that one. “Jacob, after 15 years, I still feel like I’m on vacation every day, because I get to live here.”

There was silence on the line as I assumed Jacob was trying to tailor a sales formula just for crazy people like me. “I live in Detroit,” he told me, and I understood the gulf of experience that separated us, and for a moment, I appreciated his sincere concern. “You be careful, okay?” he said, and there was a wistfulness in his voice, as though I had disinterred a longing that had long been buried under concrete and tall buildings and subway graffiti—a yen for horses and mountains and open spaces.

As I tucked my phone back into my pocket, I contemplated the security in place at my home, while I was at Safeway, shopping for dinner. It had been such a lovely morning—the first really warm day of spring—that I’d left my front door not only unlocked, but propped open, to let the breezes in in my absence. There were two cats in the house—one asleep on the sofa, the other asleep on my bed. I smiled, wishing Jacob and his family and everyone else in America could live this way.

I stood there, enjoying the hiss and moisture of the misting machines as they glossed the produce, keeping everything fresh. I realized how much I was looking forward to the first real rain of Spring, the scent of it bringing the prairie to life. At that moment, an empty cart docked beside mine, its driver also contemplating the falling mist as it drenched the small mountain of purple-green asparagus. He hefted a bunch in his hand. “I like to roast them in the oven, with olive oil, salt and pepper,” he told me, “better than French fries.” I smiled at him—I didn’t know him, but I’d seen him somewhere, of course—and he eyed the contents of my cart. “You making spaghetti tonight?” he asked. I thought of Jacob, in his cubicle in Detroit, surrounded by people who don’t talk to strangers. If this is crazy, I thought, sign me up.

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Categories: Essay, Issue 2 - Spring 2012, Periodicals | Tags: | Leave a comment

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