by Alli Kirkham
It was a cloudy day in winter when the vendor went door-to-door, wheezing out the prices of his goods and trudging, getting more refusals than buyers the farther he went.
He carried his boxes of berries up each front path, displaying them at each front door. They got uglier as the day went on, bruised from the vendor's jouncing walk and leaking sticky juice through skin broken by their weight on the green plastic ribs of the pint bins they were carried in. Each door closed faster, each face seemed colder, and the berries seemed heavier the longer he scraped along.
He sat down on a bench in a park, pulling a mangled sandwich out of his pocket for lunch and enjoying an unexpected patch of sunshine. He looked around, chewing. There was a girl standing near him. Looking at him. He swallowed the lump of bread in is mouth and tried to smile; feeling crumbs stuck to his teeth he decided to nod instead.
The girl nodded back. She was youngish, tallish, and girlish but wasn't really a girl. Probably in her thirties, she only looked little and young because of her painfully obvious nervousness. Her hands shook. Her chin jutted at an odd angle. She held her weight on one leg and looked ready to scamper away like a startled squirrel if he moved too quickly.
"How much?" she croaked at him.
"Um. Cuánto. Por las fresas?"
"Cuarenta para todas. Forty."
"Solemente tengo cinco," she replied, holding up one hand with straight fingers pointed in all directions like a starfish.
"Is three for a little box. But I give you two for five."
"Okay. They smell good."
"Yes. Very fresh."
She sat in the plastic jungle gym with her legs crossed around the baskets. She could almost hear the static electricity surrounding her, and could feel its pressure on her face when she leaned closer to the slide. It made her hair stand up in an absurd halo as she picked through the strawberries.
Anything that was too squishy or had dark, slimy bruises or was lacerated by its box was put onto a white square of tissue by her left knee. Healthier-looking berries had their leaves removed and added the pile of softly rotting fruit before getting popped into her mouth. Her teeth caught seeds and started to take on a red tinge. The warming plastic capsule around her was packed with the juicy, tangy scent from the bitten-off stems.
She finished one bin and transferred the detritus back into the empty basket, bleeding berries and all, and started picking through the second box. She discarded two squashed berries and one with spots of mold . It was getting hot in the jungle gym. It was too hot for winter. The clouds had evaporated away and left bleak, blinding sunlight behind turning the hollow walls around her into a blinding primary blaze. The static electricity hummed only in her right ear. Very fresh. The strawberries tasted too sweet. Rotten. She uncrossed her legs and bounced her knees as circulation was pricklingly restored. She couldn't remember why she chose to eat her lunch in the park. She wondered where the children who should have been playing were. She found a strawberry that was white at the end and curled like a fist, a washed-out mutant. And ate it. And pulled another one out of the basket.
It was enormous. The size of an apple, red and perfect and disturbingly huge. She looked at it, then squinted at the sky through the monkey bars. The clouds were coming back and the sky didn't hurt to look at any more. She couldn't eat a berry that size. Someone needed to see it. She worried that it was a freak and it would make her sick. Strawberries in January - they were all freaks anyway. She fished a seed out from between her teeth with the end of her tongue then wrapped the absurd berry in two clean new tissues and a brown paper bag. She climbed out of the warm plastic box. She carried the bag in one hand and her trash in another.
She hadn't found anyone to look at her strawberry, so it sat on the quiet counter of her kitchen and stared at her. She didn't want to put it in the refrigerator but thought that baking a pie for a single berry was too much work. She folded a napkin in front of it and placed a knife and fork on either side. She put the knife and fork away and folded the napkin into a crane which she placed on top of the berry. She took a shower and before stepping into the water saw in the mirror that her mouth was rimmed with red and her teeth were filled with seeds that looked like spider eggs. When she got out of the shower her crane was gone.
She showed it to her roommate when he came home.
"I have to eat it before it eats me. Or you could have it," she said.
He laughed. "That is the biggest, reddest strawberry I have ever seen. You know, in stories fruit like that will either kill you or grant wishes."
"Good," she said, "because I wish I was dead. Works either way."
He laughed again, and fixed a flat stare on her. He decided that she was joking. "Then I guess you got lucky when you found it."
The next morning she knew the strawberry was going bad. When she picked it up she could feel the skin shifting slightly over the liquefying insides. It left a faint stain on the counter. She thought about freezing it in a bowl of hot water - it would be so clear and pretty and she could take it out and look at it forever. She didn't want to put her strawberry in the freezer, where the cold would harden and crystallize it and the flavor would dissolve into a tart memory. She looked for a sharp knife and prepared to cut into it, wanting to carve it into infinitely thin slices that would disintegrate on her tongue one by one so that she could eat the spoiling berry for hours, but lost interest in the fantasy before she could raise the knife out of the drawer. She considered twisting it in half like she had seen some people twist apples, but figured it would just turn into a messy pulp in her hands. She stuck out her tongue and licked the very end of the fruit. It tasted like summer, but it was always summer here so that didn't matter.
In the end she let it rot. When it was more liquid than solid she buried it in the loose soil next to her front step and hoped that more would come. It gave her something to look forward to, at least.