The morning after his mom died, Rich Jacobs showed up to work early.
First, Rich removed the wet burlap sacks, which had been placed on top of the vegetables the night before. Then, he moved the watermelons, one by one, onto a display at the front of the produce department so that customers would see them as they walked by and know they were on sale. When this was done he began on the cantaloupe display—he always saved the cantaloupes for last because they were his favorite fruit. His mother always liked the way they tasted right after a good home-cooked dinner; a natural desert, she called them. When he had finished this and his other chores, his boss looked at him, speechless. Not usually at a loss for words, Mr. Duffy thought about his strange produce-man, alien that he was, and how any other man would have taken the day off–spent the day drinking or crying, or both.
“I just want to say that you’re doing a great job, Rich, and that I’m sorry about your mother.” Mr. Duffy, Rich’s supervisor, was generally not the type of person to be nice to his employees, but that day he made an exception in Jacobs’s case. He liked Rich, even though he was odd; and Rich liked Mr. Duffy, even though his face would turn beet-red when he yelled, and he looked as if he would explode angry ketchup all over his nicely arranged produce.
Rich Jacobs quietly stared at the produce he had just put in place, and to no one in particular muttered, “What an odd place we live in.”
Rich often said things like this out of the blue, things that Mr. Duffy had trouble finding context for, and responding too. The recent abundance of strange utterances produced by Rich on a daily basis, for no particular reason, sometimes directed to no particular person had recently begun to make Mr. Duffy lose some of the hearing in his left ear. “Pardon, Jacobs?” Mr. Duffy said.
“Nothing sir, just talking to myself.”
Mr. Duffy thought about giving Rich the drug tests, piss in a cup and off to the lab, as he usually did when the other coworkers began to talk to themselves or the produce or other products for that matter. But Mr. Duffy had more than an ounce of decency and respected Jacobs’s situation. “You should take the day off, Jacobs. Lord knows you deserve it. And I know you loved your mother very much.”
“That’s nice of you to offer, sir, but I wouldn’t know what to do with a day off. I really like my work.”
“I see,” Mr. Duffy said, trying to be sympathetic but at the same time reconsidering the piss test. “Well, keep up the good work.” He walked away looking for something else to busy himself with for the sure-to-be-slow afternoon. Rich was left to his work and the meandering music of Elevator echoing through the store.
Rich continued stocking the shelves of the produce section; many things raced through his mind on the issue of life in particular, so many thoughts that he wasn’t sure how to keep track of them all. All he knew was that he couldn’t stack them–he was sure that an organized form would make all the difference, but no matter what he did he couldn’t make his thoughts stackable like canned mushrooms or peaches.
He was contemplating a basic philosophical question, the depths of which lay somewhere between Plato’s idea of perfect forms and GI Joe’s often-articulated adage that knowing was half the battle, when an old lady interrupted his thoughts. She was small and withering, and when she talked her words dragged on invisible nails in the back of her throat. Rich smiled.
“Hello,” she said. “I was wondering if you could help me find something?”
“Yes ma’am, I would be happy to,” Rich said politely.
“Could you help me find the cantaloupes?”
The cantaloupes were no more than ten feet away from her. Rich pointed to them. “There,” he said.
The old lady removed her glasses from her purse slowly, put them on, and examined the cantaloupes. “Hmmm… okay, yes, I guess those are cantaloupes aren’t they?” It sounded like a question, but Rich couldn’t think of any way to respond to this. She could have been making some kind of obscure commentary on Plato and his idea of forms.
“Do you have any smaller ones?” she said. “You know, the ones like these only smaller.” She talked as if Rich were from another world, using hand motions, in an attempt to communicate. “You see, I’m very picky about the size of my cantaloupes and if they’re too big I have trouble carrying them to my apartment.”
Rich, trying not to be distracted by the excessive amount of gesturing and intonation, looked at her bony, barely existing arms and saw how this might be a problem. He thought back to earlier in the morning when he had first started stocking the cantaloupes. “I think we have some smaller ones near the bottom.”
“Tell me when you see one you might like, ma’am,” Rich said, quickly and efficiently unstacking the cantaloupes, putting them into a pile on the floor.
“Oh gracious, none of these look right at all,” the old lady said. Rich was making his way to the bottom efficiently. Her face was distraught as Rich continued mercilessly with his task.
Before Rich could get to the bottom, the old lady said, “That’s okay, I can do without my cantaloupe tonight.”
“Hold on, I see a very small one at the bottom,” Rich said.
The old lady looked at him. “Okay, make sure it’s small. I can’t carry the large ones.”
Rich completed his task, unaware that his manager was watching him silently from across the room.
“Here it is ma’am,” Rich said, pulling out the smallest of the cantaloupes.
The old lady looked at the cantaloupe for a moment, and was once again going to pronounce that it was too big; she looked at Rich and the stack of cantaloupes on the floor, and decided at the last minute that she would reward the brave produce man by buying the cantaloupe, despite its abnormal size and the strain it would put on her arms and lower back.
She smiled, revealing black nicotine-stained teeth and decaying gums. “My hero,” she said. The old lady walked off with her cantaloupe. It wasn’t too heavy, she thought to herself, walking towards the cash register, where a bewildered employee had witnessed the incident.
His name was Jimmy, and he liked working on slow days where he could just stare out into space, or look at the pictures in tabloid magazines that were sitting near his check stand, waiting to be read. Sometimes he thought they were talking to him; but that’s ridiculous, he would tell himself before quietly going into the bathroom to take his medication and/or get high.
Jimmy took the cantaloupe from the old lady’s hands. “Will that be all for you today?”
“Yes. Tell me, who is that nice man over there in the produce section?” the old lady said, waving a bony finger in Rich’s direction.
“Oh yeah, that’s Rich. Did he say anything strange to you? You see the store has this policy of giving opportunities to guys…”
“No, no, no, he’s a lovely boy. Do me a favor,” she said. “Give him this.” She gave the cashier fifty-cents.
“Whatever,” he said. The old lady paid for her cantaloupe and smiled at Jimmy. Later that night the cashier used the fifty-cents to help purchase a bottle of Vodka, which he consumed in large quantities before fighting with his girlfriend, and then crashing his rusty Buick into a telephone pole one block from where the old lady lived. The old lady would wake up suddenly, and then cry herself back to sleep. The tabloids, however, remained uninterested.
The old lady waved to Jimmy as she left.
Across the room, Mr. Duffy approached Rich. “Mr. Jacobs, did you unstack all those cantaloupes?” Mr. Duffy asked him.
“Stack them again.”
Mr. Duffy began to walk away.
“Mr. Duffy, what’s the meaning of life?” Rich asked.
Mr. Duffy’s hearing problems were now spreading to both ears. Nevertheless, he thought he had heard enough of what Rich had said to understand that he was looking for some kind of spiritual guidance. Answers flashed in front of him: wealth, women, happiness, the greater good of mankind. Then he realized he had squat, zero, nothing: he was married, yet still alone, unloved and miserable. “Kid, if I knew that do you think I’d be working here, having to drive my wife’s Geo to work every day, listening to the same customers whine day after day?”
“I don’t know,” Rich said. “Maybe.”
Mr. Duffy shook his head in disbelief. “Jacobs, my advice to you is this: follow my lead. Marry the first unsophisticated cow that shows interest in you. Then have as many kids as you can before you have any chance to travel or make money. Once you’ve done that, become a complete bastard, so that even if one of your kids does by chance make it rich he or she’s more likely to rub their wealth and success in your face than share it with you. Decide to stay with your wife because if you don’t she may dismember you in a way that will make you famous in the way you don’t really want to be. Lick the ass end of failure, smell it, make it your best friend and your card buddy, your true death-do-you-part soul mate. Find people smaller than you and shit on them so they know what the shit that is your life tastes like too. There are you happy.”
Suddenly, Rich was developing hearing problems. “I’m sorry, you want me to marry a cow?”
Mr. Duffy was too exasperated to speak. He felt this nice guy thing was wearing thin on him and that he needed to take a break. He walked off, out of sight, and Rich was left to mull over what cows and shit had to do with the meaning of life.
At that moment, Abba came on over the store’s loudspeakers, breaking the chain of monotonous Elevator music. For a little while, Rich was seventeen, a dancing queen–he could dance/ yes/ he could dance. And then Abba was once again replaced by the melodic stylings of Elevator. He returned to his tasks, undaunted.
Stocking the cantaloupes went easily enough, it being a task Rich had done many times before, but an odd thing happened while he was watering the vegetables.
“Hey over hear,” a voice said to Rich.
Rich turned his head. “Who said that?”
There was a moment of silence, then the voice said: “Over here, in the celery.”
Rich walked over to the celery. He looked at them for a moment. He thought maybe he had imagined things. But he decided he should ask just to be sure. “Okay, which one of you was it?”
“It wasn’t me,” one of them said.
Rich stared at the celery in amazement. “You can talk.”
“Yes and read minds,” another one of the celery said.
The celery looked at Rich for a moment, then said: “Okay we can’t really read minds, but a great many celery work for psychic hotlines.”
“How come I haven’t heard you guys talk before?”
“Do you know anyone who would want to eat talking celery?”
Rich thought about it. “I see your point. Can the rest of the produce talk?”
“Yeah, but they’re pretty lousy conversationalists,” the largest celery said to Rich. “Listen, the reason I wanted to talk to you is because me and the other celery heard about what happened to your mother. We just want to say we’re really sorry. She was a great lover of celery, and we will always remember the way she chewed on us, despite her bad teeth.”
Rich gave them a slight smile. “Thank you very much. She really was a great person, and I know she really liked eating you guys.” There was a long silence, and Rich just stared at the celery. “Would any of you, by any chance, know the meaning of life?”
“That’s a tough one,” the smallest celery said. “We’ll have to pull our stalks together for this one.” The celery huddled into a circle and, after much discussion, the largest celery presented itself to Rich. “After much thought and controversy, we have decided that the meaning of life is to be eaten.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Oh yes, quite sure,” the largest celery said. “Ask the cabbage, the watermelons, the carrots, any of them, and they’ll all tell you the same thing. Except maybe the peas, they’ve always been a rebellious bunch, trying to fall off of forks and spoons and whatnot.”
The celery suddenly went motionless. “Mr. Jacobs,” a voice called. “What are you doing?”
Rich turned and faced Mr. Duffy. “I was just talking to the celery, sir.”
Mr. Duffy looked at Rich for a moment. His hearing was getting worse and worse. “Did you just say you were talking to the celery?” Mr. Duffy asked.
“That’s right, sir.”
Mr. Duffy took a second to think. “What did you talk about?”
“The meaning of life, sir.”
“Well what, sir?”
“What did the celery have to say on the meaning of life?”
“According to the celery, the meaning of life is to be eaten.”
Mr. Duffy pondered this for a second and then nodded. “That makes perfectly good sense. Keep up the good work, Jacobs.”
“Yes sir,” Rich said, as Mr. Duffy walked off.
Work went by quickly for Rich. He took the celery’s advice and asked the other produce their opinion on the meaning of life. With the exception of the rebellious peas, Rich got the same answer (the peas rambled on about rolling off people’s plates and forks). Still, Rich wasn’t quite satisfied with the answer. Work ended and Rich realized that he would go home to an empty apartment.
On his way out of the store, Rich’s inquisitive nature forced him to ask one more person.
Alex worked in the movie rental section of the grocery store. He was a well-intentioned individual who liked Jacobs despite (or maybe it was because) of his unusual nature. Alex was busy sorting movies when Jacobs asked him the question.
“Rich I want you to look in section A3 under old comedies; look for this movie.” Alex wrote its name on a sheet of paper and gave it to Rich. “Find it, watch it, and you’ll have an answer. It may not be the best answer, but it’s as good as any.”
Rich did exactly as he was told. It was there, just like Alex said it would be. Rich picked up Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.
Over by the counter Alex and Mr. Duffy were talking. “What a strange man Mr. Jacobs is,” the supervisor said to Alex.
And Alex, who had had the exact same conversation with a pop-tart the day before, only answered: “Yeah, but aren’t we all.”