THE PEAR CORE • by Benjamin A. Friedman

Jolly was the word for four-year-old Joyce.

Chubby-yet-energetic were three more.

A bright, playful male child — despite the androgyny of his name — Joyce’s fascination with the sensory perceptions of life made it all the more appropriate a reference by his literary-minded parents, Lester and Mackenzie Sullivan. Each of them had wrestled with that Modernist Irish author’s sensual, quixotic prose as students (a necessary ordeal for many an aspiring writer) – in ultimate befuddlement.  This was a commonality they discovered and lamented on their third date — the one where they both knew. After a light flirtation in the improv classes where they met (Mackenzie’s response to Lester asking her out a simple, “yes, and– ”), each detected something more serious and abiding that night; not only were they both going to write the Great American Novel, they were both going to assuage deep, aching senses of aloneness in their prose.

Instead they got married.

***

Joyce sniffed the air as he tottered across the pinewood kitchen floor, too absorbed in his senses to notice his mother standing by the counter-top slowly flipping through yellowed pages of old family recipes, teeth sinking into a ripe pear. Nor did he notice his father, seated slightly slumped, sipping cocoa, perusing the most recent issue of Smithsonian Museum Magazine, scribbling lines of verse onto a clean blue napkin. Neither Mackenzie nor Lester — each in his/her own world — noticed Joyce’s entrance either.

He had a way of sneaking up on them, presence unannounced until he was good and ready.

For now, a comforting mélange of scents demanded the child’s attention, smells already stamped indelibly in his heart as “kitchen smells” — allspice and nutmeg, wood polish, dish soap bubbles and the faint waxy fragrance of fresh fruit. Joyce could not name the sources, but he had it in his mind to learn names. To know what each and every scent meant. To understand.

***

Of course, there was a time when Lester and Mackenzie sought to understand it all too.

To read every classic, visit every gallery, apprehend every bon mot in flight. Instead, they discovered the herculean task of just understanding one another. Similar reading lists and overlapping Facebook networks served them little when the academic market dried up and they found themselves in a strange city, teaching at different community colleges. Unfamiliar streets and unfamiliar slang teased out atavistic, adolescent habits. Strangeness wedged itself cozily into bed between them, into every silence. Dropped literary references fell with heavy thuds.  Each other’s sentences, they could no longer—

And when they tried to write, the words would not—

Each one silently blamed himself/herself.

***

Joyce stopped before the refrigerator.

He looked up, running his stubby pink digits across the white surface, thinking back to the beluga whale he had seen just inches away — through glass — at the marine park. That was one month ago. He had cried bitterly when Mackenzie explained to him that he couldn’t go swimming with the beast staring back into him with a single limpid black eye.  But Joyce had dreamed of the captive whale every night since, swimming by its side, caressing its stark white back — rubbery and smooth to the touch.

For a moment, rubbing the side of the refrigerator brought Joyce great sadness, though he was not yet able to identify the emotion as such. Instead, he turned to his mother, and — distracted by a new sensory perception — asked, “Mamma! Whassat in your hand?”

Mackenzie started, startled. “Oh, Joyce baby, you scared Mommy! I thought you were still watching your cartoon…” She swallowed the sweet lump of fruit in her mouth.

“Nu-uh, it’s over now… so whassat in your hand?!”

“Oh this?” said Mackenzie, as she dangled the stringy mass of pulp by its stem. “Well… this is… just a pear core, dear.” She marveled that something so mundane could elicit such curiosity.

“Oh!” said Joyce, eyes wide and luminous. “What’s a pear core?”

Suddenly, Lester looked up from his magazine, and his eyes met his wife’s. Mackenzie stared back, a dim recollection of…something… bubbling up in concert with the shy, mischievous grin on Lester’s face.

“Well you see, Joyce,” said Lester, “a pear core… that’s… that’s a special magic… thing… that brings mommies and daddies together…”

Mackenzie, a small grin creeping across her own face now — like a caterpillar — picked up the thread, “–yes, you see, when two people come together, and decide they want to share their lives… they become a pair… like a pair of shoes, or a pair of eyes– ”

“–And there is always one thing,” continued Lester, “one special thing that forms the core of their relationship… that holds the two together… like those Charlie Brown magnets on the refrigerator there…”

“And that–” said Mackenzie.

“Yes, that…” said Lester.

“–is a pear-core.”

Joyce broke into giggles, entertained by this unexpected back-and-forth by his so-often-serious parents. Then he peered closer at the eaten-up fruit in his mother’s hands, which she had lowered to eye-level. Inside of it, there was something small — hard, black, and shiny — that reminded him of something else.

Something he couldn’t quite place…

“Are there… seeds… in your pear core?” he finally asked, in a softer, more steadied voice — the inchoate voice of five-through-seven, rather than two-through-four.

Mackenzie and Lester looked at one another again, meaningfully. “Oh, this is not our pear core Joyce… this… is just a piece of fruit… but yes… I think our pear core has many seeds.”

They said this, between themselves.

“So,” said Joyce, “what’s your pear core then?”

And Lester and Mackenzie looked at this strange creature they had created together, marveling at his strange questions, questions they never could have imagined a four year old asking. And they looked at each other. And their eyes shone brightly, transmitting back and forth the same ineffable message they shared on that third date, the one where they realized they had both read Joyce, but neither of them could understand him.

And they smiled.


Benjamin A. Friedman is from Northern New Jersey, the child of a Tai Chi-loving biophysicist and a Conservative Rabbi’s daughter, his personal religion as a child was dinosaurs and space aliens. He received his BA in English and Cinema Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, and his major interests include philosophy, social justice, the history of civilization…and of course paleontology and astrobiology.


Regular reader? We need your Patreon support.

Rate this story:
 average 3.3 stars • 4 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • MPmcgurty

    I’m torn. I liked the playful voice of narrator, but Joyce didn’t seem real to me. He’s four, but he still “totter(s)”? I kept picturing the baby on Family Guy when he spoke. On the other hand, I liked the passages where he’s thinking about scents and whales (although if he didn’t touch the whale how is dreaming about its “rubbery” surface?).

    I also appreciated the ending; personally, I like happy endings where people realize that the life and decisions they made and sometimes doubted turned out to be fine. But I thought getting there was a bit contrived.

    While I was reading this, it felt so familiar that I did something I rarely do. I interrupted it to click on the author’s name and saw that he had written First World Solutions. Both stories are written in a very gentle storytelling style. He sits us down and tells us a story in a soft, calming tone, even when he’s speaking of unpleasant things.

    Interesting. I’m looking forward to others’ comments.

    • S Conroy

      Pretty much says it for me. I loved the part with the whale, but didn’t think Joyce’s age felt fully consistent throughout.

  • MPmcgurty

    I’m torn. I liked the playful voice of narrator, but Joyce didn’t seem real to me. He’s four, but he still “totter(s)”? I kept picturing the baby on Family Guy when he spoke. On the other hand, I liked the passages where he’s thinking about scents and whales (although if he didn’t touch the whale how is dreaming about its “rubbery” surface?).

    I also appreciated the ending; personally, I like happy endings where people realize that the life and decisions they made and sometimes doubted turned out to be fine. But I thought getting there was a bit contrived.

    While I was reading this, it felt so familiar that I did something I rarely do. I interrupted it to click on the author’s name and saw that he had written First World Solutions. Both stories are written in a very gentle storytelling style. He sits us down and tells us a story in a soft, calming tone, even when he’s speaking of unpleasant things.

    Interesting. I’m looking forward to others’ comments.

    • S Conroy

      Pretty much says it for me. I didn’t think Joyce’s age felt fully consistent throughout and the pear-core story didn’t quite work for me. But some really nice writing and I specially loved the part with the whale.

  • My critique won’t be adequate for this piece, but I’ve got to say something at least.

    I found this to be extremely well-written and moving. It touched me in many ways; as a parent who has gone through something similar, and as someone who has loved and seen love fade. A lot of ground was covered here, and it was done so well I really could find nothing critical to say.

    5 stars and thanks so much for sharing. I really loved this.

    • Friedmab

      Thanks Scott, it really means a lot to hear that!

      • You’re quite welcome. It was very much deserved.

        Don’t let Vicki’s comment below get to you. That was absurd and plain rude.

  • My critique won’t be adequate for this piece, but I’ve got to say something at least.

    I found this to be extremely well-written and moving. It touched me in many ways; as a parent who has gone through something similar, and as someone who has loved and seen love fade. A lot of ground was covered here, and it was done so well I really could find nothing critical to say.

    5 stars and thanks so much for sharing. I really loved this.

    • Friedmab

      Thanks Scott, it really means a lot to hear that!

      • You’re quite welcome. It was very much deserved.

        Don’t let Vicki’s comment below get to you. That was absurd and plain rude.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Nicely told. Everything I wanted to say has been said.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Nicely told. Everything I wanted to say has been said.

  • Vicki Doronina

    I am sorry for being harsh, but the style is utterly pretentious (Joyce’s fascination with the sensory perceptions of life made it all the more appropriate a reference) while the best prose is simple.

    Two academics who don’t understand Joyce? Even The Dubliners?

    A mother explaining an abstract concept to a four years old instead of saying that this is how an inside of a pear looks (and shouldn’t he know by then unless they keep all the fruits for themselves)? The four years old doesn’t know what are seeds but they remind him of something else? What can it be?

    “Joyce could not name the sources, but he had it in his mind to learn names” – again, a very sophisticated concept for a 4 y.o., who “totters”.

    The filmmakers say “never work with animals and small children”. Maybe the advice should be extended to writers: never write about parenting of small children if you don’t have a first hand experience.

    • Friedmab

      So…I guess the possibility that they read Finnegan’s Wake and/or Ulysses rather than Dubliners or Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man seems implausible to you? And the idea of a playful four year old who is being somewhat ignored by his parents at the time still tottering is unthinkable? I don’t ever defend my writing like this, but I can’t help feel like you enjoyed your non-constructive tear-down far too much…and that your accusations of pretentiousness smack of the pot calling the kettle black.

      (and by the way, the child clearly knows what seeds are)

      • I agree. That was unnecessarily harsh, and more of a critique on the author than the work. And Vicki, how on earth would you know anything about Benjamin’s parenting experience? He may have ten kids for all I know.

        I think the only thing pretentious here is your commentary.

      • Vicki Doronina

        I didn’t enjoy my “non-constructive tear-down”, in fact, I almost deleted my post but decided against it as I think that this forum is a unique opportunity of genuine author-reader exchange and it should not be limited to a mutual love-in. I find that as a bee sting, a genuine critique may be painful in the beginning but beneficial in the long run.

        My main worry was that you did have a four-year-old to observe and this is an unlikely genuine story, rather than a literary construct akin to a talking dog. I am not only a mother but have a pedagogical background and I expect that a slightly neglected child, especially a boy, would have a normal physical development but not far advanced to his age reasoning and vocabulary, e.g. exactly the opposite of what you have in your story.

        And lastly, I don’t think that Ulysses is beyond anybody with a college education while Finnegan’s Wake is like quantum mechanics – if somebody says that she understood it, she probably didn’t.

        I wish you luck in your work.

        • Friedmab

          I must say, I think your belief that people categorically “get” or “don’t get” a particular work of literature based on their academic standing, or “totter” or “walk” based on a universal metric of development is precisely why you don’t get the point of my story. I was writing about a particular child and a particular family tottering between two stages of their own (particular) development. Regression, reflection, and grace…and the differences/connections between them. Call me pretentious all you want (and yes, of course they are literary constructs, and no, I definitely don’t claim to have gotten Finnegan’s Wake), but if you look closely, you’ll see in the parents’ “atavistic adolescent habits” and the “voice of five-through-seven rather than two-through-four” a consistent statement about human development that I sincerely believe in – that it is not a straight line to be measured on an XY axis, but a zig-zag spectrum that breaks into other axes (like sense and memory) as well. I’m proud of the nuance in my story, and though you didn’t ask, I’m glad to be able to share where I was coming from. But I do hope — if you ever read one of my works again — that you will take a second to ponder if my choices were intentional or not before assuming incompetence and worldly ignorance, and perhaps ask yourself (or me): “why?”, rather than insisting, immediately — why not.

  • Vicki Doronina

    I am sorry for being harsh, but the style is utterly pretentious (Joyce’s fascination with the sensory perceptions of life made it all the more appropriate a reference) while the best prose is simple.

    Two academics who don’t understand Joyce? Even The Dubliners?

    A mother explaining an abstract concept to a four years old instead of saying that this is how an inside of a pear looks (and shouldn’t he know by then unless they keep all the fruits for themselves)? The four years old doesn’t know what are seeds but they remind him of something else? What can it be?

    “Joyce could not name the sources, but he had it in his mind to learn names” – again, a very sophisticated concept for a 4 y.o., who “totters”.

    The filmmakers say “never work with animals and small children”. Maybe the advice should be extended to writers: never write about parenting of small children if you don’t have a first hand experience.

    • Friedmab

      So…I guess the possibility that they read Finnegan’s Wake and/or Ulysses rather than Dubliners or Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man seems implausible to you? And the idea of a playful four year old who is being somewhat ignored by his parents at the time still tottering is unthinkable? I don’t ever defend my writing like this, but I can’t help feel like you enjoyed your non-constructive tear-down far too much…and that your accusations of pretentiousness smack of the pot calling the kettle black.

      (and by the way, the child clearly knows what seeds are)

      • I agree. That was unnecessarily harsh, and more of a critique on the author than the work. And Vicki, how on earth would you know anything about Benjamin’s parenting experience? He may have ten kids for all I know.

        I think the only thing pretentious here is your commentary.

      • Vicki Doronina

        I didn’t enjoy my “non-constructive tear-down”, in fact, I almost deleted my post but decided against it as I think that this forum is a unique opportunity of genuine author-reader exchange and it should not be limited to a mutual love-in. I find that as a bee sting, a genuine critique may be painful in the beginning but beneficial in the long run.

        My main worry was that you did have a four-year-old to observe and this is an unlikely genuine story, rather than a literary construct akin to a talking dog. I am not only a mother but have a pedagogical background and I expect that a slightly neglected child, especially a boy, would have a normal physical development but not far advanced to his age reasoning and vocabulary, e.g. exactly the opposite of what you have in your story.

        And lastly, I don’t think that Ulysses is beyond anybody with a college education while Finnegan’s Wake is like quantum mechanics – if somebody says that she understood it, she probably didn’t.

        I wish you luck in your work.

        • Friedmab

          I must say, I think your belief that people categorically “get” or “don’t get” a particular work of literature based on their academic standing, or “totter” or “walk” based on a universal metric of development is precisely why you don’t get the point of my story. I was writing about a particular child and a particular family tottering between two stages of their own (particular) development. Regression, reflection, and grace…and the differences/connections between them. Call me pretentious all you want (and yes, of course they are literary constructs, and no, I definitely don’t claim to have gotten Finnegan’s Wake), but if you look closely, you’ll see in the parents’ “atavistic adolescent habits” and the “voice of five-through-seven rather than two-through-four” a consistent statement about human development that I sincerely believe in – that it is not a straight line to be measured on an XY axis, but a zig-zag spectrum that breaks into other axes (like sense and memory) as well. I’m proud of the nuance in my story, and though you didn’t ask, I’m glad to be able to share where I was coming from. But I do hope — if you ever read one of my works again — that you will take a second to ponder if my choices were intentional or not before assuming incompetence and worldly ignorance, and perhaps ask yourself (or me): “why?”, rather than insisting, immediately — why not.

  • Marie

    I think this story would have worked had the child just been older -like 8 and did not totter. That would have allowed for his somewhat sophisticated question and his reaching to make a relationship to something else. You would be able to keep almost everything else with a wee bit of tweaking. Of course the totter would have to go, but you could still have spilled milk or something like that. Thanks for sharing.

    • Friedmab

      thanks for the constructive feedback.

  • Marie

    I think this story would have worked had the child just been older -like 8 and did not totter. That would have allowed for his somewhat sophisticated question and his reaching to make a relationship to something else. You would be able to keep almost everything else with a wee bit of tweaking. Of course the totter would have to go, but you could still have spilled milk or something like that. Thanks for sharing.

    • Friedmab

      thanks for the constructive feedback.