We’d seen Michael Sherwood come in to interview at the end of June. He’d been wearing a tie. He looked nervous and waved at me like we were friends as he waited for an application at the Customer Service Desk. He got placed in Fruits and Vegetables, his official title being Junior Assistant to Produce Day Manager, which meant that he stacked oranges, repacked fruit in those little green trays and sealed them with cling wrap, and watered the vegetables with a big hose twice a day. Mostly he laughed and had a good time, quickly making friends with everyone from Meat to Health and Beauty Aids. But it was me and Scarlett he was drawn to. Well, it was Scarlett, really. As usual, I was just along for the ride.
It started with kiwis. During his first week, Michael Sherwood ate four kiwi fruit for lunch each day. Just kiwis. Nothing else. He’d stick them on Scarlett’s little scale in their plastic bag, smiling, then take them outside to the one little patch of grass in the parking lot and cut and eat them, one by one, by himself. We wondered about this. We never ate kiwis.
“He likes fruit,” Scarlett said simply one day after he was gone, having smiled his big smile at her and made her blush. He came to my register once, but by the third day he was standing in line at Scarlett’s, even when my overhead light was flashing OPEN NO WAITING.
I looked out at Michael, in his green produce apron, sitting in the sun with those tiny fuzzy fruits, and shook my head. It would always take at least fifteen minutes for Scarlett to stop blushing.
The next day, when he got to the front of the line with his kiwis and Scarlett was ringing him up, she said, “You must really like these things.”
“They’re awesome,” he said, leaning over her little check and credit-card station. “Haven’t you ever tried one?”
“Only in fruit salad,” Scarlett said, and I was so distracted listening I rang up some rigatoni at two hundred dollars, screwing up my register altogether and scaring the hell out of the poor woman in my line, who was only buying that, some pineapple spears, and a box of tampons. Between voiding and ringing everything back out, I missed half of their conversation, and when I turned back Michael was walking outside with his lunch and Scarlett was holding one fuzzy kiwi in her hand, examining it from every angle.
“He gave it to me,” she whispered. Her face was blazing red. “Can you believe it?”
“Excuse me, miss,” someone in my line shouted, “are you open?”
“Yes,” I shouted back. To Scarlett I said, “What else did he say?”
“I have these,” said a tall, hairy man in a polka-dot shirt as he pushed his cart up, thrusting a pile of sticky coupons in my hand. He was buying four cans of potted meat, some air freshener, and two cans of lighter fluid. Sometimes you don’t even want to think about what people are doing with their groceries.
“I think I’m going to take my break,” Scarlett called to me, pulling the drawer from her register. “Since I’m slow and all.”
“Wait, I’ll be done here in a sec.” But of course my line was long now, full of people with fifteen items, or eighteen items, or even twenty with a little creative counting, all staring blankly at me.
“Do you mind?” Scarlett said, already heading to the offices to drop off her drawer, that one kiwi in her free hand. “I mean ...”
She glanced outside quickly, and I could see Michael on the curb with his lunch.
“It’s okay,” I said, turning back to Scarlett as I ran Hairy Man’s check through the confirming slot. “I’ll just take my break later, or something....”
But she didn’t hear me, was already gone, outside to the curb and the sunshine, sitting next to Michael Sherwood. My best friend Scarlett had traded a kiwi fruit for her heart.
I didn’t get many breaks with her after that. Michael Sherwood wooed her with strange, foreign fruits and vegetables, dropping slivers of green melon and dark red blood oranges off at her register when she was busy. Later, when she looked up, there’d be something poised above her on her NO CANDY REGISTER sign; a single pear, perfectly balanced, three little radishes all in a row. I never saw him do it, and I watched her station like a hawk. But there was something magical about Michael Sherwood, and of course Scarlett loved it. I would have too, if it had ever happened to me.
That was the first summer when it wasn’t just me and Scarlett. Michael was always there making us laugh, doing belly flops into the pool or sliding his arms around Scarlett’s waist as she stood at the kitchen counter, stirring brownie mix. It was the first summer we didn’t spend practically every night together, either; sometimes, I’d look across the street in early evening and see her shades drawn, Michael’s car in the driveway, and know I had to stay away. Late at night I’d hear them outside saying good-bye, and I’d pull my curtain aside and watch as he kissed her in the dim yellow of the streetlight. I’d never had to fight for her attention before. Now, all it took was a look from Michael and she was off and running, with me left behind again to eat lunch alone or watch TV with my father, who always fell asleep on the couch by eight-thirty and snored to boot. I missed her.
But Scarlett was so happy, there was no way I could hold anything against her. She practically glowed twenty-four hours a day, always laughing, sitting out on the curb in front of Milton’s with Michael, catching the grapes he tossed in her mouth. They hid out in her house for entire weekends, cooking spaghetti for Marion and renting movies. Scarlett said that after his breakup with Elizabeth at the end of the school year, Michael just didn’t want to deal with the gossip. The day we went to the lake was the first time they’d risked exposure to our classmates, but it had been empty on the beaches, quiet, as we tossed the Frisbee and ate the picnic Scarlett packed. I sat with my Mademoiselle magazine, watching them swim together, dunking each other and laughing. It was later, just as we were leaving and the sun was setting in oranges and reds behind them, that I snapped the picture, the only one Scarlett had of them together. She’d grabbed it out of my hand the day I got them, taking my double copy, too, and giving it to Michael, who stuck it over the speedometer in his car, where it stayed until he traded the car a few weeks later for the motorcycle.
By the beginning of August, he’d told her he loved her. She said they’d been sitting at the side of her pool, legs dangling, when he just leaned over, kissed her ear, and said it. She’d whispered it as she told me, as if it was some kind of spell that could easily be broken by loud voices or common knowledge. I love you.