Maggie headed straight to the produce department of the local grocery store and scanned the limited selection of strawberries on display. She snapped open the lid of one plastic container and inspected each berry. She removed one that bore the fuzzy beginnings of mold and placed it on top of an unopened container in the bin. She found another with a bruise on it, the firm, speckled skin giving way to pulpy, shiny flesh that betrayed its diminished flavor. A third was wrong in color — the deep red at its tip fading to white halfway to the stem. Others were too small, too soft, or too deformed.
She looked around her, then removed all the offending berries, replacing them with pristine ones she’d stolen from other packages.
“Excuse me, Ma’am, can I help you with something?” It was one of the produce stock boys. Only he wasn’t a boy; he was a man. A big, hairy man with bushy eyebrows and large arms which seemed too big for his body.
Maggie squeezed the lid shut on the container in her hand and dropped it into the plastic basket hanging from her forearm. “No, no, I’m fine. Thanks.”
The Neanderthal man took a step closer. “Well, I saw you sorting through the strawberry containers, and that’s not really allowed.”
Maggie wasn’t sure what to say. She knew hand-picking berries out of different containers wasn’t encouraged. But she didn’t want to get taken advantage of either. She needed perfect strawberries and didn’t want to pay for something that was sub-par. She had learned the lesson long ago that if you don’t stand up for yourself no one else will either.
She’d had to fight for the first raise she ever got at the dry cleaners, even though she’d worked there for three years. She’d had to fight the landlord when he refused to fix the faulty electricity. He agreed to it only after she got a lawyer involved. And she’d had to fight the public schools when they refused to mainstream her disabled son.
Maggie reached over and held up the moldy strawberry for the stocker to see. “Look,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to pay for a strawberry that no one can eat.”
He examined the berry and frowned. “That’s a bad one.” He studied the other loose berries stacked on top of the containers. He scooped them up and sifted them in his palm like loose coins. “But these look okay. I mean, it’s October. Not exactly prime strawberry season.”
“I know.” She had no way of justifying her behavior, other than the truth. “It’s just that I need these for a special occasion.” She turned up her palms in a submissive gesture. “I want everything to be perfect.”
The stocker leaned into her basket to look at the prime berries she’d already collected. He studied her for a moment and she returned his gaze, to show him she had nothing to hide. “Well, I guess it’ll be okay,” he said. “As long as you didn’t add extra ones. Cuz they’re priced by the container, ya know.”
Maggie reached out and touched his arm in a combination of relief and gratitude. “Yes, I know. I didn’t take extra berries. I promise. I replaced one for one.”
He stepped up to the strawberry display and rearranged the damage she’d done, discarding the moldy strawberry and putting the loose ones back into containers. “Well, don’t do it again.” Then he turned to face her. “And I hope the guy sees how much trouble you went to.”
Maggie smiled. “I think he will.”
Back at home, Maggie finished dusting the living room and rearranging the furniture, making sure it was exactly the way it had been when he’d left. She prepared the batter and made a practice waffle. Usually the first waffle was a throwaway, but this one was perfect: thick and golden brown with a crispness that gave way to a soft, airy texture. When she made one for Brodie, she’d add a spoonful of butter that would melt its way into the deep, square craters. She’d squirt a dollop of whipped cream on top of the butter, then scatter strawberry slices all over the top, so many that the predominant color on the plate would be red, not gold. In the middle of the whipped cream she would place a large, whole strawberry, leaning to the side as though it were reclining on a pillow. It would be perfect.
Several times she peeked out the living room window, willing the car to emerge from the corner and glide up to the curb in front of her house. Finally, she heard a car door shut and saw Brodie thank the driver who gave him the ride. As he made his way up the cement walkway she smoothed her hair and felt her pulse quicken. Before he even made it to the steps she threw open the door.
“Brodie!” she called out. “You’re here! You look great.”
He broke into a broad smile and stopped for a second to take it in. He smoothed a blond curl back from his forehead and adjusted one of the straps on his backpack.
Maggie put her hands to her cheeks. “You look so official. A real college student. I can’t believe it!”
“Of course you can, Mom. You made it all possible.”
He climbed the familiar steps into the house and Maggie embraced him. He navigated through the living room into the kitchen with no trouble. Maggie forced herself to not intervene. He was in college now. He slipped off his backpack, propped it on an empty chair, and sat down at the table. He folded up his long white cane and set it next to his backpack.
“I’m starving,” he said. “Do I smell waffles?” He didn’t wait for her to answer. “That’s beautiful.”
Kit Lamont enjoys writing fiction after spending most of her career in the decidedly non-fictional worlds of marketing, advertising, and motherhood. She is currently working on her first novel.