Cains apples, p.1
Bryan L. Lee
Copyright 2009 Bryan L. Lee
Buzz! All eyes in the office looked up at the red light on the intercom speaker. "Johnson! Get in here!" a gruff voice boomed out. Six workers breathed a sigh of relief while the seventh felt a tight knot forming in his stomach. Buzz! "I meant now!" the voice boomed out again.
"You better go Joe, you know he just gets worse the longer he has to wait," Betty the secretary whispered across her desk.
"How can he get any worse?" Joe said over his shoulder as he headed towards the door. Buzz!
Joe pounded on the heavy door. "It's about time!" a voice yelled out from behind the door. "Get in here!" Joe rushed into the room. Before he could do anything, his boss shouted again. "Close that door!" Joe shut the door like it was made of very thin glass and prepared for what had become an almost weekly ritual. "I've got your sales figures in front of me Johnson," the boss pointed to a short stack of papers on his large, executive-style desk. "And I've got to tell you that they are pathetic with a capital 'P'!" Joe reacted to each of the spat out syllables as if they were gunshots.
"Yes sir, Mr. Miller, but," Joe began.
Miller cut him off. "Don't 'but' me. I've had about enough of your loafing around here. I hire salesmen to sell," he raised a finger and pointed it at the quarterly sales chart on the wall for emphasis. "And if you can't handle the job, I'm going to have to find someone who can!" He stuffed his unlit cigar into his mouth and chomped down on it.
Joe stood for a moment looking at the carpet in front of Miller's desk, trying to gather his thoughts. "But, Mr. Miller, I've got a family to support," Joe said in a quavering voice.
"So do I Johnson," the boss interjected. "So do I. And if I don't see an improvement out of you by next week's report, you're fired, or my name isn't Larry Miller!"
"But," Joe stammered.
"No buts! Now get out!" The boss pointed at the door behind Joe.
Joe knew a good opportunity when he saw one, and he didn't waste any time getting out of Mr. Miller's office. Outside, his fellow workers tried, unsuccessfully, to pretend that they hadn't heard what had transpired. One seemed intently interested in stapling an invoice to a letter, another rooted through the pencils in her drawer. All shot furtive glances at each other, and were desperate for Joe to say something.
Betty couldn't take it anymore and was the first to break the artificial silence. "Don't take it so hard Joe," she said softly. "We all know how he can be."
"Thanks Betty," Joe said and sighed.
Six pairs of eyes followed him back to his desk and watched as he plonked down in his chair and started to shuffle through the papers on his desk. They were polite enough not to say anything else.
On the way home that evening, Joe's mind was racing. "What am I going to tell Karen?" he asked himself over and over. "What am I going to say?" As he was imagining how he would break the news to her, he suddenly remembered the shopping list in his pocket. Karen had asked him to pick up a few things on the way home. "Oh great," Joe thought. "I've screwed that one up too."
He was too far along to turn back to the store now. He pulled the list out of his pocket and read it between brief glances at the road. "Hmmmm. Eggs, butter, apples, flowers," Joe read silently.
Joe resented that Karen had written "flowers" on the list. It was a reminder that he had been neglectful of her and the kids lately. He rationalized the guilty thought away quickly. Between his job and his boss, he didn't see how he could do things any other way. "Besides," he added to his mental explanation, "it's my paycheck that's buying the stuff on this list."
With that thought, Joe looked up in time to see a hand-painted sign on the side of the road. "Cain's Apples- Farm Fresh Produce- 2 mi. ahead," Joe read as he sped by. "Well, at least I can get one thing on this list," he decided, and put it back into his shirt pocket.
As he crested the top of a hill, Joe could see the apple stand in the distance. It was a little larger than he expected, which surprised him because he didn't remember ever seeing it there before. He pulled onto the shoulder, turned off the engine, and looked at the stand for a moment. It had two signs in front, a large one that said "Cain's Apples," and a smaller one that said "Open" in large red letters.
It looked as if the farmer had just thrown three scruffy white sheds off of a truck in the middle of the night. A small, loud generator was off to one side, and there was a cord running from it into the back of the first shed. Each shed had baskets of apples neatly arranged on shelves, with small signs indicating the variety. Joe hadn't seen anything like it around the area since he was a teenager, and the sight of it brought back fond memories.
Joe checked his pocket for his list, got out of the car, and walked up to the stand. He was in luck. The loud little generator was powering a small refrigerator. A sign on top said that they sold eggs and butter. There were also several bunches of flowers in a big water can on a shelf. They were daisies, Karen's favorite.
"Can I help you?"
Joe was startled by a voice behind him. He turned and looked at a man he assumed to be Mr. Cain. Joe thought his bright blue eyes didn't match his tanned and weather-beaten face.
"Oh, hi, do you have any eggs or butter left?" Joe asked the farmer's shoes.
"Don't know," the farmer said with a grin, "let's take a look." He stepped past Joe and peered into the refrigerator. "You're in luck," Cain said from the back of the refrigerator. He pulled his head out and looked at Joe. "How many do you want?"
"Just a dozen of the eggs, and I'll take a pound of butter if you've got it," Joe said.
"Sure, sure," the farmer answered in his calm and slow voice. "Anything else?"
Joe looked over at the water can. "Yeah, um, how much for the flowers?"
Cain smiled knowingly. "Two dollars a bunch."
"Great," Joe said, imagining the pleased look on Karen's face. "I'll take two bunches."
Cain wrapped the purchases in brown paper before placing them on the small table where he had a metal cash box. He looked at Joe. "Something else?" The way he phrased the question made it sound as if he knew that there was.
Joe pulled out his list and read it again. "Oh yeah, I need some apples."
"What for?" Cain said with smiling eyes.
The question threw Joe. "What do you mean?" he managed to ask through his confusion.
"No, I mean what will you use them for, cooking or eating?"
Joe seemed relieved. "Oh, cooking. My wife wants to bake an apple pie."
Cain looked pleased. "I've got just the thing, let me show you." He led Joe a few feet over to shed number three and pointed at a tub filled with small green apples. Joe eyed them like suspects in a line up.
"What kind are they?"
Cain hooked a thumb under a suspender and rocked back slightly on his heels. "Well, these here are hard and sour," he began. Joe started to shake his head. Cain raised his hand. "Now hold on, you're probably thinking about eating apples. These here are for cooking." Joe perked up and listened carefully.
Cain continued with some enthusiasm. "For pie, you want a firm apple, one that's not too sweet. Otherwise, you'll end up with applesauce instead of apple pie once you add the sugar and put it in the oven."
The logic appealed to Joe, and he told Cain he'd take two pounds. Cain packed everything in a cardboard box and handed it to Joe. Joe watched the farmer's lips move as he carefully added figures on a little notepad then announced the result with a large smile. Joe paid and thanked the farmer, then carried the box back to his car.
He was about to drive off when he remembered his original question. He pulled closer to the stand and rolled down his window. The generator was whining loudly. "Hey, Mr. Cain!" Joe yelled. Cain turned arou
Cain leaned forward and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Larry Millers," he said.
Joe paused for a second with a puzzled look on his face. He started to say something, but then thought better of it. The generator was too loud. With a wave and a nod, he drove off for home.
Joe almost missed his turn. He was distracted thinking about the events of the day, and didn't even see the gilded sign that announced "Welcome to Shady Brooke." He turned right, past the manicured flower beds and the ornate fountain, then made a left into his cul-de-sac.
Joe remembered the look on Karen's face when they first moved into the neighborhood. He shook his head when he thought about what to say to Karen about the events of the day. It wasn't going to be easy.
"I'm home," Joe announced, closing the door behind him with his foot. He set his box of groceries on the table and looked out the window into the back yard. Karen was engaged in a heated discussion over the fence with Fred Kimball, grouchy neighbor extraordinaire. The argument ended abruptly, and Karen walked inside, looking a little worse for wear.
"Oh, hi," she said, slightly startled to see Joe standing there. "When did you get home?"
"I just walked in," Joe answered. "What did he want this time?"
"Fred's complaining about the fence and the property line again," Karen answered in a tired voice. She looked behind him at the table. "You remembered the groceries, thanks."
"Yeah," Joe replied, "I found a fruit stand on the way home. The guy there told me that those apples were good for baking."
Karen was examining one closely. It passed her muster, and she transferred the whole batch to the counter. "These are fine," she said. She didn't mention the flowers. "How about an apple pie for dessert?"
Joe smiled wanly. "Yeah, that would be great."
He spent the rest of the evening watching television and chatting with Karen about her day. At dinner, he avoided telling her about his problems at work. "Why tell her now?" he thought. "It will only make her worry." Karen could sense something was wrong, but chose to ignore it. She didn't like to discuss important things in front of the children.
After dinner, she brought her fresh baked pie to the table and carefully cut a slice for each of them. The family agreed that it was delicious.
Joe slept fitfully that night, and left for work 15 minutes earlier than usual. He arrived a few minutes early, and had already made his first call of the day when Betty came in looking agitated. "What's the matter?" Joe asked with some concern. Betty was one of his few allies in the office.
"Joe, haven't you heard? Mr. Miller's had a stroke."
Joe looked at her with wide eyes. "Really? When?"
"Last night around 7:30. He's in the hospital now." She started to choke up. "They don't think he's going to make it."
Joe's grave look hid the sense of relief he felt inside. "A stroke? Miller? Ha ha, this is almost too good to be true," he thought, before catching himself. Aloud he said in his most sympathetic voice, "I am so sorry to hear that." Betty didn't hear him. She sat at her desk and stared vacantly at the telephone. Joe returned to his and waited for some word.
It came a little after two. Larry Miller died at 11:15 am from complications following a severe stroke. Betty took the phone call.
The office closed early because of the news, and Joe was on the road by three. On the way home he contemplated the new turn of events. "I still can't believe this," he thought with excitement. "I'm off the hook." With Larry Miller dead, Joe figured his job was safe, at least for a while.
He was thinking about how glad he was that he didn't tell Karen when he saw the sign out of the corner of his eye. "Cain's Apples- Farm Fresh Produce 2 mi. ahead."
With a chill, Joe remembered what the old man at the stand had sold him. Larry Miller apples. "He knew," Joe said half-aloud. "He knew." Stepping hard on the gas peddle, Joe raced to the fruit stand and brought his car to a halt in a cloud of dust and gravel.
The sign in front said "Open," but Cain wasn't there. Joe called out. "Hello! Anybody there?" No answer. He looked behind the sheds and was about to leave when he heard a familiar voice behind him.
"Can I help you?"
Joe wheeled about and saw the same bright blue eyes and the same weathered face. "You startled me," Joe said.
"Sorry about that," Cain replied with a warm smile. "What can I get you today?"
Joe pondered his reply for a few moments. The generator was banging away in the background, and his thought about the apples began to seem silly to him. "I'd like some apples," he finally said, happy that Cain didn't know why he had really stopped.
"Well, we've got apples," Cain said with good humor. "What do you need them for?"
Joe hadn't thought that far. "Just for eating," he said after a slight pause. "You know, regular apples."
Cain smiled and nodded his head. "Let's see what we have today," he said and walked Joe around to the front of the stand. Joe eyed the signs on the tubs like a card player who suspects a cheat.
"You like tart apples, or sweet ones?" Cain asked as he rummaged through a large tub. Joe watched the old man's hands carefully as he grabbed several apples and held them up for Joe to see.
"Well mister, tart or sweet?"
Joe weighed the choices. "Tart," he said all of a sudden, without quite knowing exactly why.
"You'll like these then," Cain said and started filling a bag with scruffy green apples. "They're sometimes a little bitter, but for the most part they're very good."
Mr. Cain finished filling the bag and handed it to Joe. "That'll be $1.50," he said, and opened up his little metal cash box. Joe paid him.
"One more thing," Joe said hesitatingly. "What are they called?"
Cain's blue eyes lit up, and he smiled slightly. "Pahchay," he said.
"Pahchay?" Joe asked again. "Never heard of it."
"It's an old variety," Cain explained, "first developed 73 years ago in Delaware."
Joe wanted to ask more, but had already started to feel slightly embarrassed about his suspicions. This was an apple stand, that's all. It was time to go home.
"Thanks," Joe said and turned to leave. The generator was blaring in his ear.
Mr. Cain yelled out behind him after he got into the car. "Pahchay's the Latin name you know. The locals call them Fred Kimballs."
Stunned, Joe turned to look at Cain. The stand was empty.
Joe sped off from the stand, the bag of apples beside him on the seat. He rolled down his window and tossed the bag out. The car behind him swerved to avoid it, but ran over it anyway. When the driver honked loudly, Joe gave him the finger.
On the way home, Joe's mind was revving faster than his car's engine. "I can't believe this," he said to himself. "There has got to be a rational explanation." He was still thinking that when he turned out the lights for bed that evening. He had gotten home at 4:30. The ambulance arrived for Fred Kimball a little before six.
That week, Joe looked for the apple stand every day on his way home from work. He was having trouble sleeping and, according to Karen, was also short-tempered and irritable.
"Joe, I don't know what's wrong with you these past few days," she said on Friday after dinner. Joe hated Fridays. The kids were usually out of the house, and Karen used the time to address family concerns.
"Nothing's wrong," Joe said curtly.
"Don't give me that," Karen said. "You've been like a stranger this whole week, yelling at me, snapping at the kids."
"Look, I said nothing's wrong, alright?" Joe said.
Karen threw her napkin on the table and stood up. "I don't know why I even try," she said and walked out to the kitchen.
"I don't either," Joe called after her. "Why don't you save it for your handyman?"
Karen came back into the room. Her eyes were angry. "Is that what this is about?" she said in her argument voice. "I've told you before, Mark and I are just friends. He fixes the things around the house that y
"Yeah, I know," Joe said. "That's all." He was talking to his plate.
Karen stared at him for an entire minute, but Joe would not look at her. Finally, Karen spoke up. Her voice was calm and cold. "I've had it Joe. I've really had it." He looked up at her from his seat at the table. He knew she meant it. "Either you get some help, or I'm leaving."
Joe screamed at her. "Where are you going Karen, to him? Just go ahead!"
With that he pushed his chair back and stood up. Karen stepped to one side.
He grabbed his car keys off of the counter and headed for the door. "I'm going out," he said and slammed the door behind him.
Cain's Apples by Bryan Lee / Horror have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes