As I stood in line at the pack-n-ship place in town, an elderly farmer came in. An instant character, raw-boned, scarecrow-thin, with a driftwood face and a jujube-size cyst on the edge of his left eyelid. Baggy, sun-faded denims with permanent dirt stains on the seat and a washed-out, long-sleeved gray shirt sagged on his clothesline frame. The wind had combed his pure white hair for him, and on his shoulder hung a homemade canvas fruit picking bag, as if he'd wandered in directly from a grove.
He seemed a bit antsy, and I had fifty pounds of books to ship, so I let him go ahead of me in line. He smelled of dirt and weedkiller, sunshine and old-guy sweat. He told the clerk he wanted to ship the grapefruit in his bag, which the clerk immediately informed him that he couldn't do. Florida currently prohibits private shipping fruit out of state to prevent the spread of citrus canker.
"It's goin'-a Washington D.C.," the farmer told the clerk. "They doan have no groves so they doan care 'bout the canker."
The clerk turned him down a second time and went to answer the phone. The farmer turned to me and asked if the post office would ship his fruit. I told him that, as far as I knew, no one would. While we were waiting for the clerk, the farmer took a grapefruit from his bag and held it out for me to admire.
I eyed what looked like a pale yellow cantelope, with faint rain-mold streaks on the rind (this is a sign of authentic homegrown; the streaks are always washed off commercially-sold fruit, which is sometimes also dyed and waxed.) I'm not exaggerating on the size, either -- it had to be the largest grapefruit I've ever seen. The farmer told me his trees often produced eight pounders. I imagined he spent a lot of time shoring up his trees with cotton ties and two by twos to keep the weight of the fruit from snapping the branches.
I love grapefruit, and miss it terribly (I haven't been able to eat it for six months because it reacts with my medications) but that farmer's goliath specimen made me uneasy. He mentioned his graefruit were very juicy and full of seeds, but what else was in them? What was he using as fertilizer? Had he planted his trees over some septic tanks? Why bring a bag of just-picked grapefruit directly from the grove to a shipper? Anyone even remotely involved with citrus knows the state law; I know it. And why so adamant to send it to Washington D.C.?
I never thought something as ordinary as a grapefruit could give me the creeps, but that one did.
The clerk finally got off the phone, and for the third time refused to ship the grapefruit for the farmer. The farmer asked if he brought in a box to the post office and didn't say there was grapefuit in it, would they ship it? I shrugged. The clerk said it was between him and his conscience. The farmer bought a big box from the clerk, paid for it in quarters and ambled out.
I may have acted non-committal, but I doubted the farmer would get his fruit past the folks at the post office. Grapefruit has a distinctive smell, very sharp-bitter, that is especially intense if the rind is bruised or scored. Unless he seals the shipment in plastic, the odor will give it away.
The encounter got to me, though. By the time I shipped my boxes and returned to my car, I had worked out in my head five different ways to explain the farmer and his strange fruit:
1. A love gift to the farmer's old flame, who is dying of cancer in some hospital in Washington. A nurse will open the box for her and try to whisk it away, her rich husband will veto that, peel one and listen to her talk about the farmer as he feeds her the sections one by one.
2. Shrapnel bombs disguised as grapefruit, being sent to a certain Congressional Committee that has pissed off that farmer for the last time.
3. The final volley in a life-long feud between two brothers: one who got rich selling out the citrus industry as a lobbyist while his brother stayed home to farm the family groves (lobbyist brother has just been convicted in the Abramoff scandal, has lost everything, and is going to jail.)
4. Alien pods carrying something much worse than canker to Washington.
5. Grandpa's annual late-January, post-harvest box, sent as a gift to his son, daughter-in-law and grandkids, who will have to give half away to the neighbors, who will look at the size of them and wonder what the hell we have in the water here in Florida. One of the grandkids will dig out the designer tulip bulbs in her mother's windowbox and plant some of the seeds.
Or the whole thing could serve as the topic of a writer's weblog post on the method she uses to sketch out story ideas to get them out of her thoughts, onto paper and into a file so she can work on the WIP without mutant citrus dancing in her head.
How do you writers out there deal with your strange fruit?