Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Ralph Stool, A Green Grocer and Supplier of 'Special Needs'.
I found Ralph Stool behind Mrs. Winston’s Green Grocery on Clappen Commons in Cloverdale. He was putting out a cigarette before returning to the shop. He glanced at me from the corner of his eye - very distrustfully. It made me uncomfortable. He put his hands in his pockets and waited for me to speak. I stopped before getting too close. I didn’t know what he had in those pockets.
“What can I do you for?” he asked, never taking his one good eye off me. His other eye tended to wander, an old war wound from Bosnia he told everyone. The Confederacy didn’t send troops to Bosnia so his story was suspect. Because of his temperament no one challenged his claim and I wasn’t going to be the first.
“I understand you're the owner of this establishment?” My question was polite but not the one I really wanted to ask. I wanted to ask if he was Mrs. Winston for whom the green grocer was named. It was a cheeky question. I wanted to test his sense of humor but changed my mind, taking the coward's way out just as the words formed in my mouth.
“Yes. This is my place. Why?” he turned to face me head on. I was unnerved. One eye penetrated my comfort zone while the other glanced back and forth searching for others that might be watching - or listening. My eyes were momentarily distracted by a sprout of hair protruding from his left nostril. Red hair I think tipped in gray. I lost my train of thought. “What is it man?” his voice was gruff and to the point. “I ain’t got all day.”
I found my thoughts, cleared my throat and spoke.” The Harvest Festival and Fair is coming up and I was wondering if........” I searched his face hoping he would finish the sentence for me. I knew he knew why I was there. Would he put me out of my misery and take the point?
“Yea, what about it?” He said as he took a step closer, hands still in his pockets.
“Well, last year I entered the best from my garden. I didn’t win a thing. I don't want that to happen again. I want a blue ribbon. You know better than most that winning a blue ribbon at the Harvest Fair opens doors in this village. You're given, well, kind of celebrate status.”
“Again, what’s this got to do with me?” he asked.
“I’ve heard that you are the man to go to if you have a problem that requires special handling. You know, done discreetly.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a nice collection of bank notes rolled tightly and held together with a rubber band. His good eye found the target. The other continued to patrol the surroundings.
“What are we talking about here?” His curiosity was aroused. “Carrots, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins...... what?”
“Tomatoes. That’s the most coveted blue ribbon at the fair and I want to win it. A lot of produce passes through your shop every day. I’m sure you hold back the best for special customers willing to pay top dollar for the good stuff. Right?”
“Perhaps we can find a solution to your problem that will benefit us both. Follow me?” he opened the back door and stepped in. I followed. We walked down a flight of stairs into the basement. There was a large walk in cooler. He opened it. A cold wind carrying the smell of beautifully ripe fruit rushed out. He stepped in. I followed. Three meters in and he stopped. Crates of tomatoes filled the shelves on his left. I visually examined them, not daring to touch. In my opinion these were the finest tomatoes in the Shire.
“Perhaps you’d be interested in something like this?” he said while snapping a rubber glove onto his left hand. He reached into the box and pulled out what only can be described as perfection on Earth. A tomato, nearly perfectly round with a glistening red surface dripping with goodness, flavor and texture. The size was impressive. That is what I needed to be a blue ribbon contender.
“The Festival is still two weeks off so this beauty will be spoiled. There are more coming just like it. Shall I set something aside for you closer to the Fair?” he asked while holding out his ungloved hand. I answered by handing him the rolled cash.
“We have a deal then.” he said to seal the transaction.
"We have a deal." I replied, blushing with a mixture of confidence and embarrassment at having to commit such a deed to achieve my victory.
I left the shop with confidence knowing there was at least one blue ribbon the Shire Agricultural Office destine to hang from my front window.
I noticed someone standing to the side of the store as I walked across the street. It appeared to be an older woman wearing a trench coat, scarf and sun glasses. She watched me until I got into my car, then turned and walked around to the back of the shop. She walked slowly, using a silver cane to help keep steady. I started the engine and signaled to enter the flow of traffic. I drove off thinking there was something familiar about her. A mile or two down the lane the clues came together - it had to be the Widow Palmer, last year's blue ribbon winner in tomatoes. She was the only old lady I knew with a limp and silver cane. Now I understood my competition. It wasn't a matter of growing the best tomato, it was a matter of who could afford the best from Ralph Stool!
If money was going to be the deciding factor then I planned on returning to Mrs.Winston's Green Grocer the following day with a bit of a bonus to sweeten the deal. Was the Widow Palmer willing to risk everything to win again this year?
We will find out at the Harvest Festival.