A story about the heart of things, March 2002
She shops early, choosing her produce while it is still cool and damp from the morning hose, while the store is uncrowded. Under layers of shapeless dark clothes, she is small, sturdy, not much taller than the counter where she stands selecting celery. A yellow plastic basket lies at her feet, empty except for one cantaloupe and a section of ginger root. Slowly, meticulously, her brown fingers unwind the twisties from one bunch of celery after another. Pinpoints of light glint under her heavy eyelids as she pulls back the outer stalks from each bunch, and peers inside, to its heart.
Farther back, a thin man is collecting potatoes, onions and sprouts, racing towards the celery. His arms, encased in the ragged sleeves of a sweater, swing between the vegetable bins and his overflowing shopping cart. He throws in a bag of apples, then chooses a green pepper by feel, his restless eyes already moving ahead to the celery. Hardly looking, he grabs for the bunch that the shorter woman has just retied and discarded.
'No,' she says, shaking her head at him. 'No, no.' She adds a few words in Vietnamese and shakes her hand over the celery, like a warning rattle.
'No?' echoes the man, pulling himself to a stop. She looks down with wary interest as the slow thin hands reopen the celery and spread the outer stalks. Where the heart should be there is a misshapen, thick, fibrous core.
'It's bad.' His face sags, forming tired pouches around his mouth. 'I'm always getting deformed celery, but I never think to check it out.'
Together, they tackle the celery. It is piled high, stacked like logs, ready to topple if the structure should be disturbed. The woman continues to work through the lower rows, examining each bunch with care before she reties it and lays it back in place. The man rustles through a dozen bunches on top, his narrow fingers loosening the ties, digging inside for a cursory peek. Before long he has singled out a special bunch.
'I found a good one!' he says. 'Look!' he thrusts the celery in front of her and pulls away the outer stalks, exposing a pale, tapered heart. 'Look!' he insists.
Sceptically, she looks, and an excited smile breaks up the hard planes of her face. She erupts into animated Vietnamese. Gently, she pats the sleeved arm. The man stiffens, looks down at the hand on his arm and pulls back, rewrapping the celery.
'Thanks,' he says, keeping his attention on the twisty. 'I appreciate your help. Like I said, I hate to get bad celery.'
He tries a smile, but it slips off his mouth like a milk moustache. Holding up his celery, he strides back to his cart and props it next to onions. He moves across the aisle to the melons, After heaving a pair of cantaloupes in his cart, he slows, and more carefully, stuffs green grapes into a plastic bag. Thoughfully, he looks them over, picks off a withered grape, and slides a ripe solid one into his mouth. He stands and chews. Two more grapes follow before he drops the bag next to the celery and walks back to the woman.
'Maybe all the good ones are on top,' he says. His hands fly upward, pulling at the green bunches, twisting away the ties and inspecting the centers.
'Found another good one!' he calls out before long. He puts his find down in front of the woman beside her. They both look it over, fingering the stalks, admiring the perfect white heart with its fluffy yellow-green foliage.
'For you,' He says, pointing from the celery to the woman. 'It's a real good bunch,' he insists, and gives her the celery.
Understanding, the Vietnamese woman breaks into new smiles as she accepts the offering. Her fingers tap rhythmically on the green ridges while she repeats a short phrase in Vietnamese. The man wags one hand, modestly, then lets it fall like a dropcloth over the dark hands holding the celery. Wordless, they smile hard at one another and nod, furiously. In a moment he backs off, pausing to watch as the celery is retied and laid in the yellow basket. Rising, the woman smiles and beckons to him as she moves to the left, to the well-stocked lettuce bin. From the front, she picks up a large head of lettuce and turns it over, poiting out a streak of rust. Her lip curls contemptuously.
The man's eyes are wide as he stares at the rows and rows of lettuce. He pulls up his sleeve and dives an arm into the pile. Beside him, the small woman carefully lifts a second head of lettuce, delicately raises the outer leaves, and looks into its heart.