It feels like a tragedy, oddly enriched by the flavors of summer: The man who picks out my cantaloupes is leaving me.
Oh, no, it’s nothing like that. Were I in a life partnership with that most appealing of all men—he who cooks—such abandonment would spark a different kind of grief. Ours is a relationship of a different sort. He’s been more like a culinary life consultant, an openly friendly expert available to anyone who chooses to ramble through the doors. He has been a steadier presence than men who have come and gone from my personal sphere, playing roles of a different sort, in the decades I have known him. His name is Eric, and I can’t honestly recall if he ever knew mine; the standard, familiar, “Hey, Girl,” was always fine with me.
For as long as I have lived in the area, Eric has cheerfully helped select the fresh need of the day, as years’, then decades, worth of meals, large and small, were offered at my table. On any given Saturday, he might select a melon that will be perfect tomorrow (or whatever day it is needed), or dispense news on anticipated arrival of the local strawberry crop. He might even advise against grapefruit from certain locations that might not meet the personal high bar.
In his role as a manager of our beloved neighborhood produce market, The Produce Place, Eric advised on the good, the unusual, and the possibly acceptable with candor that became a bedrock of my culinary life. How devotedly do we love the purveyor who doesn’t just advise what to select, but what to avoid? With a slight cock of the head, a slight, twinkle-eyed grimace, the kindly warning wave of the hand, he might guide me away. So many years of listening to my questions patiently, knowing what I was after, yielded honesty of the most treasured sort. “Ummmm, nah, those might be better with shipments in the next couple of weeks,” he might observe. “I’m not sure these we have today are as sweet yet as you might like.”
Suddenly, today, his 25 years as a valued partner of the edible, an entire quarter century of Saturdays when he smiled that, “Hey, girl,” came to an end. Perusing the red-gold hues of the miniature heirloom tomatoes, my hand extended to snare a carton, I heard him tell another customer that today was his last day at the market. He carried his small grandson through the aisles, dispensing goodbye hugs to regulars like me. But, but…where are you going, I stammered, unable to conceive that some cardboard-peach-purveying-grocery-behemoth had stolen him out from under us. I should have known better.
“My wife and I are going to be house parents at a home for disadvantaged boys in Alabama,” he explained, probably for the hundredth time of the morning, before 10 a.m. “We are so excited. But leaving is hard. We both loved our jobs, but we’ve been married 25 years, and everyday we’d get up in the morning and go separate directions for nine or 10 hours. As much as anything, we are excited about working together.” Even in my instantly sharp sting of loss, this answer does not surprise me. Lucky boys, lucky woman, I think. And lucky us customers, to have received the gift of this man’s generous kindness, served up alongside bins of local sweet corn, homegrown snap beans, crowder peas, and rosy clingstone peaches.
Thank you for all your help all these years, I mumbled inadequately, as he encircled my shoulders with his strong left arm. “No, thank you for supporting us all this time,” he answered, hugging firmly.
Unlike another woman in the fruit aisle, I held back tears until I got to the car. There they leaked insistently and ran unabated down my cheeks and neck as I rolled to the next stop on the routine weekend errands. I kept my sunglasses on as I went inside, mopping my cheeks with the heel of a hand.
The store will go on without me, he had consoled, before I left. You know the other guys here, they’ll be around. He is right, almost certainly. The owner has expertly evolved in his niche as the years have passed, capitalizing on rising demand for locally grown and organic fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and dairy, and superior prepared foods. Eric will be gone, but I will be back, relying not just on the one person, but the neighborhood institution and what it represents.
Maybe I’ve reached the age where so many long-time relationships fall away for one reason or the other, and the tally adds up. But tomorrow when I slice into the ruby-red watermelon for my visiting nephew and his family, I know I will think of Eric, surprised still by the pain of loss. The dripping fruit, loved like the relentless sun and steamy breezes of summer, will remind me again of the surprisingly rich importance of the relationships of everyday life. Even those that may seem narrow in scope may demonstrate a trust and connection more valued than we realize, leaving us to wish we appreciated them more before they were gone.