The old man squatted on the faded plastic chair outside his fruit shop. His feet were poised shoulder-length apart but seemed awkwardly disjointed, much like a chicken’s, and one hand was held firmly above his knee, elbow thrust out at a deliberate angle. It was odd, perhaps, but the pose placed him at a ready position, should the Herculean effort be needed to raise himself.
It was also a very unconscious position, something that had simply emerged after years of evolution proved it to be the pose that took the least amount of effort to rise from should the need come. With his other hand, he battered a meager breeze into his face with a sun-worn paper fan. For it was August, and it was hot.
“Hello, Mr. Li!” A tall woman commanded his attention without really looking at him. He smiled at her and waved a hybrid greeting-fanning motion so as to avoid interrupting his meager breeze too much. His head bobbed in synch. He made sure to twinkle his eyes in her direction. This was his speciality, and it guaranteed good luck and generous customers.
The woman traveled among the various pyramids of fruits and vegetables. “Did you get a new bunch of carrots? You know how much my kids go through those carrots.” Her body was already decorated with a heavy- laden bag of groceries, an oversized purse, a knapsack slung over one shoulder, and her keys and cellphone at the ready. “Are they in season now? Is that why you keep getting new bunches so quickly? Or do carrots even have seasons? They’re an underground thing, right?”
“Yes, carrots!” Mr. Li agreed, projecting his voice to rise up and meet her rather than his body.
The woman turned her whole body to look at the various wares, rather than to just twist her neck, as she moved through the narrow aisles. It added to her circus performance as she juggled her belongings. Somehow, the amount of things she was burdened with seemed effortless to manage– as long as she continued to shift them from hand to hand, or from arm to arm, or from hand and arm to hand arm, in some complicated but natural process. Somehow the bunch of carrots got swept up into the motion, as if they belonged there in the natural order of things.
Her voice kept the same pace, full of talk of sport practices, healthy snacks, opinionated soccer moms and dinner parties, of infused olive oil and bok choy or was it Romaine. Mr. Li’s eyes sparkled with magic, so the woman would feel understood.
“Oh, new oranges!” she discovered.
“Hm. No, old. Too old.” Mr. Li offered from his seat. This time he did move his body. His head tilted back and to the left, one degree each movement. “You try tomorrow. Better tomorrow.”
“Oh, really?” the woman may have been disappointed but her voice lilted upward. “Of course, then they’ll be just great for juicing. Blame Victoria for getting me started on juicing. And a discount, then, of course? Juicing is totally the new thing. I bet your stand is going to really clean up around here because of the juicing.”
The momentum of the conversation began to slow, however, trailing behind her as she stopped in front of the oranges, a steam powered engine that couldn’t travel further down the tracks. Her juggling performance slowly segued into a balancing act.
The oranges had actually stymied her. There wasn’t room anywhere in her bearing for even one orange, but for some reason that even that one orange was really necessary. It would have been different if the impulse buy was something like a Snickers bar or even a cantaloupe, but this was oranges. Why couldn’t she also have an orange?
She began to slowly start the process of juggling one more time, as if adding a bit more mass was simply a question of speed and timing. Likewise, too, the conversation began to ramp up, but Mr. Li couldn’t listen.
He closed his eyes, even though he could see what was coming. Sure enough, in the darkness outside his shut eyelids he heard a soft yelp, and the dull patter of thuds of a cascade of oranges against the pavement.
Instead of a sigh, he pursed a smile. It was for the benefit of steeling himself for the effort to rise. He could already hear the woman’s torrent of apologies, the kind that were just as much admonishing herself as offering her condolences. Mr. Li had tried to stop her, but some people always want too many oranges.
He hobbled through the humidity, his eyes soft. The light in them assured her that this wasn’t a problem and it made sense that it happened this way. It wasn’t her fault of course. It was the oranges.