Short story from Bill Tope


Fruit Salad

"I remember what it was like," recalled Beth softly, speaking to her daughter, "when I had someone."

Deb peered at her mom with concern. It wasn't often that the older woman assumed a mantle of self-pity or showed signs of melancholy. "You've got me, Mom," she said hopefully.

"You know what I mean," protested Beth. "I think kids nowadays call it a 'significant other.'" Deb nodded. "Or maybe you don't know," suggested Beth. "You're only nineteen. Maybe you haven't experienced..."

"I know what you mean, Mom," said Deb, cutting her off. "I've had boyfriends - and lovers." Beth looked at her, as though for the first time.

"Yes," she murmured thoughtfully. "Yes, of course you have." Deb was indeed a beautiful girl, as well as a lovely person. The bright spot in Beth's life.

Deb suddenly felt a pang of guilt, just for having a normal life and regular relationships, while her mom was distraught. And lonely. Beth's husband - Deb's father - had died three years before in an automobile accident, which had left Beth bound to a walker. She leaned over the aluminum frame now, placed her coffee cup into the dishwasher.

"You need to get out, Mom," Deb said yet again, "and meet people. Maybe find a boyfriend," she added with a gentle smile.

Beth snorted softly. "Lots of men looking for a chick that they can take out, maybe go dancing, cycling, roller blading in the park," said Beth wryly. "It would work out beautifully."

Deb's face fell. "Mom! Not everyone wants a dance partner or a jogger or a bike rider for a companion. You've got a lot to offer. You're gorgeous, and you're just 39. Not everyone is an ableist, not everyone is hypercritical or wants to fix you!"

Beth merely nodded, unconvinced. They'd had this conversation umpteen times before.

Deb glanced at her phone. "I've got to get to class," she said, gathering up her school books.

"And I have to shop for groceries," remembered her mother, walking to the parson's table in the hallway to retrieve her keys. "Will you be home for supper, or do you have a date with a significant other?" she asked, smiling with love at her daughter.

At the market, Beth piloted an electric cart through the aisles of the store, pausing to snatch items from low-lying shelves. sometimes using her reacher-grabber to seize items higher up. Moving rapidly through the grocery, she came to the produce section and grabbed navel oranges from a bin. Misjudging the distance to her cart, she dropped the fruit and it rolled merrily away. "Shit!" she said crossly, tracking the path of the oranges with her eyes.

"I got it!" said a man huskily, stooping to pick up the orange globes. "Here you are," he said, handing the fruit to Beth. She smiled her gratitude. Pausing for a moment, he asked her, "Are you new?"

She blinked. "No, not really," she said, "I'm nearly forty."

It was his turn to blink, then he grinned. "Good one!" he said. "I mean, I haven't seen you here before, have I?" She looked at him for the first time. He was tall - six feet - and slender, had graying dark hair. And he seemed perfectly pleasant. What did he want? she wondered.

"I usually just shop on weekends," she explained briefly.

He nodded. "My name is John," he said.

"Beth," she introduced herself. They shook. His hand felt warm.

"Well, listen, when you get your shopping done, if you like, I can help you put your groceries in your car - if you like."

She stiffened just a bit. "Thanks, John, but I always get one of the boys to do it; it's their job, you know?"

He immediately nodded. "I understand. I didn't mean to overstep, Beth." He seemed embarrassed. "I'll be seeing you," he said, and in a flash, he was gone.

Beth frowned. He was only being helpful, she told herself. He didn't mean any harm. "Shit!" she said again.


Beth stood in her kitchen, putting away the items she'd just purchased, when her landline rang; unlike her daughter, she eschewed cell phones. It had been a careless motorist's use of such an instrument which had resulted in the tragedy which cost the life of her husband - and had put her in shackles. Walking to the counter, she picked up the receiver and said hello.

"Hi, Mom," said Deb, speaking very rapidly. "I'll be home for supper, like I said, but I want to know, is it alright if I bring two people with?"

"Of course. Of course," said Beth. "Are they friends of yours?"

"Well, sorta. They're students in my writing class and we're working on a project together and we wanted to meet tonight. I thought we could just meet for supper, if that's okay?"

"Not a problem, baby," Beth assured her. "Do they like fried chicken?"

"Who doesn't?" replied Deb. "We'll be over about four, work, then have supper, and then go back to work."

"See you later, baby," said Beth, secretly pleased to interact with other people for a change.


The "children," as Beth thought of them, worked steadily from 4pm until supper time, at which point Beth summoned them to dinner. As they filed around the dining room table, Beth was taken aback. In addition to the 20-year-old blond girl that Deb introduced as Stephani, was a man who turned out to be none other than John, the helpful stranger from Kroger's. Beth took a moment to absorb the coincidence, but John was not at all discomfited.

"Beth!" he exclaimed happily. Beth smiled.

"You two know each other?" asked Deb, pointing at them both.

"I met your mom at the grocery store," explained John loquaciously. "She was tossing around navel oranges," he added with a smile. After explanations were tendered, they sat down to eat. Stephani and John were uncommonly gracious, entertaining guests and Beth found herself immersed in a warm camaraderie. John, as it turned out, despite his prematurely graying brows, was but 33 years old, an older student due to six years spent in the Air Force, and he was majoring in engineering. He and Beth were almost palpably struck by a connection to one another. Moreover, he seemed to consider her disability not at all. A good time was had by all. Over the next several weeks, John ventured several times to Beth's home to work on the project with Deb and Stephani. He stayed for dinner twice more and one time took "the girls" out to dinner at a nice restaurant, his treat. He was solicitous of Beth, but not hovering, and even liked the same foods that she did. At evening's end, she found her face fatigued from the endless smiling.

"What is this project you all are working on?" asked Beth curiously one night.

"It's the Magnum," replied Stephani at once. "We're editing the college literary journal this semester; you know, Deb and I are creative writing majors, and..."

"But," interrupted Beth, "I thought you were studying engineering," she said, turning to John.

"I've got a minor in creative writing," offered John, taking up the thread. "They say people with technical skills often don't know how to effectively communicate with others," he explained. "I've found it a very useful experience."

Beth smiled warmly, a gesture which Deb caught. She, in turn, smiled with pleasure.


Two nights later, John called Beth and asked if he could come over. At odds with herself, she said yes. When he arrived, he carried with him two bottles of sangria, Beth's favorite; how had he known that? she wondered. Sitting in the living room before the muted television, they toasted everyone they ever knew. They discussed everything: school, relationships, work, you name it. Finally, the evening began to wind down, much to Beth's dismay.

"I've got to get going," murmured John. Beth glanced at the clock on the wall: 1:15.

"Are you okay to drive?" she asked. He assured her that he was. "Oh, well, I'm sorry to see you go, John," she said in an inebriated voice. "I've really enjoyed your company," she added, wondering if John would think her a lush.

Without warning, John leaned in and kissed Beth on the lips. It fairly took her breath away. Then he did so again and she opened her mouth and savored the kiss. It had been so long since she had been kissed like this. As she struggled to catch her breath, he leaned in and kissed her once more, rubbing his fingers lightly over her breasts. Beth lost all control, clutched John fiercely and kissed him back, passionately.


The next morning, John had arisen, dressed and departed even before Beth had regained awareness. She was dimly aware of being kissed as she slept. She wondered briefly if it had all been a dream. But then she saw the note. John had written a letter in what Beth thought was beautiful penmanship, and attached it, in a gesture of whimsy, to her walker. In the missive. he thanked her for "a remarkable evening" and hoped that she had a wonderful day.

All day long, Beth wondered at the nature of Deb's relationship with her new love interest, John. Love interest? she asked herself. Was she kidding? No, she decided, she was not. As they stood about the table, setting places for dinner, Beth snuck a look at her daughter.

"Could I ask you something, honey?" she asked. "Something... personal?"

Deb glanced up. "Sure, Mom."

"Have you ever... been intimate with John?" inquired her mother with growing trepidation.

Deb said nothing at first, then she replied, "Yes."

Beth felt everything she had built up in her mind come crashing down on her.

"Mom," said Deb, "I'm sorry...."

"Don't be ridiculous," said her mother hastily. "You're a young and beautiful and desirable woman, in your prime. What man wouldn't want you?" Damn it, she felt tears welling up in her eyes. "If he hadn't wanted you, I would worry about John," she added.

"It was only the one time, though," said Deb. "Last year. It was nothing; I mean, we're friends, but we're not... intimate... anymore." Staring down at the table, Beth only nodded. "Okay?" asked her daughter.

Beth glanced up now, nodded again. "Okay, baby. Thank you for your honesty."


Beth reconnoitered with John several more times in the ensuing weeks, though they were not again intimate. Beth wondered at that, considered procuring birth control, which she hadn't accessed for years. Sometimes, the "children" worked in the living room and Beth and John met afterward for wine; Deb seemed fine with it and Beth, so desperate for company, put to the back of her mind the idea that her paramour was perhaps a player, and had already achieved what he had sought. They still enjoyed one another's company, however. Things proceeded apace, until they didn't. One day, Beth's mind swooned as she did a home pregnancy test.


"Abortions are still legal in this state - for now," added John, looking solicitously at Beth. They were seated at the kitchen table one morning; Beth had asked him to drop by after class.

"I know all about women's reproductive rights," muttered Beth unhappily. "And I'm not interested." It had been nearly six weeks since her one night of intimacy with John; now she was torn.

"How would you possibly carry a baby to term, then care for it, for - the next eighteen years?" he asked, endeavoring to be 'reasonable.' "I mean, you're..."

"Disabled?" she completed his sentence.

"That's not what I was going to say," he protested unconvincingly.

"It was all impromptu, if you'll recall," she said ruefully. "But in retrospect, had I thought of it, I suppose I had some notion that the baby's father would in some way be involved," ventured Beth. What he observed on John's face did not make her happy. She saw goodbye.

"I can't do this, Beth," said John, raising his hands to shoulder level, palms out, and rising to his feet. "I'm going to graduate in a year and then, who knows what happens? Job opportunities in engineering exist world-wide. I can't commit to staying in Chicago, or anywhere else. You understand, don't you?"

"Maybe you should have suited up prior to going into battle," suggested Beth wryly. "It's like you didn't consider the consequences of your actions."

"Well," he came back at her, "if you'd been on the pill..."

"I hadn't had sex in three years," she said a little shrilly. "I thought I'd never make love again. Then you rode in on your white charger and showed me how everything could be different!" Tears were seeping from her eyes now. This was just too much, she thought, drawing her fingers to her lips. The lips that John had kissed.

John turned and made for the door to the kitchen. Deb, standing outside, had heard everything. He met her on his way out.

"I'll call you about the project," he told her gruffly.

She stared at him. "Go. Fuck. Yourself." she said in reply. He left without another word.

After John had departed, Deb and Beth sat at the kitchen table, Deb with a glass of wine, Beth with a decaffeinated cola. They sat in companionable silence for some time, until at length, Deb spoke.

"You're still a young woman, Mom," she said. Beth stared at her. "We're in this together," Deb added. "Next time, though," she said.

Beth looked at her daughter. "Yes?" she asked.

"Pick up your own damn oranges." Together, they laughed.