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By Carolyn Howard-Johnson
In the USA we relish stupid crook stories. We always are reading about them in the newspapers. You know, stories about cat burglars who rob jewels from their own grandmother's house and leave behind a thank you note that says, "You always told me these diamonds belonged to my mom." That makes it easy for even stupid cops to find them.
I know I should guffaw at these stories like my husband does before he tears them from the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times and hands them across the room to me. I know I should—according to Freud or even my favorite pop psychologist Abigail VanBuren—be grateful, you know, that I am not quite that thick. My problem is that I haven’t any competitive marrow in my bones, and if I did I wouldn't pick “dense and less dense” as a worthwhile category.
What stupid crook stories do for me, instead, is make me think of frosted strawberries. In the United States, people often borrow something from a neighbor. Sometimes it's something like a pick axe, but usually it's just a stick of butter or a cup of sugar. When I was a child, it was my brother's and my job to return whatever mother borrowed. Mother was more creative. She would borrow anything from a teaspoon full of alum for gram's mustard pickle recipe to a pint of heavy cream for mother's pumpkin pie filling. We were often sent to visit Mrs. Trainor who lived alone behind a promising door the color of lime sherbet. The trouble is that, when she opened it, the smell of bandages met us on the front porch. So naturally, when she tried to coax my brother Bobby and me into staying longer, we never did.
On the day of the frosted strawberries, Mrs. Trainor did not answer her door. We, of course, had a delivery to make—a cup of granulated sugar in the same teacup she had sent it to us in. That we were duty-bound made it perfectly OK to turn the knob. If Mrs. Trainor wasn't there we could leave the sugar and avoid coming back, avoid her pleas for us to stay and not have to smell the stench of gauze and mercurochrome. I can’t remember our rationalization for heading to the refrigerator. I mean, what could have possessed us to stay longer than we had to on that day—without Mrs. Trainor anywhere around and with the house no better smelling than it ever had been before, is not only beyond memory but beyond understanding.
We called her several times, each time moving closer to the fridge and when we got there we opened it with impunity. We didn't have a plan, we simply stood and looked. The day was hot. The cool wafted out at us. A bowl covered with a shower cap was so intriguing it practically called our names. Taking the lead, I flicked off the plastic and it bunched itself into a little ball on the shelf. The bowl was full of strawberries. Shimmery, delicious strawberries. Strawberries like none we had ever seen before; they were covered with the kind of dust Jack Frost smears on windows in December. It sparkled even in the dim wattage of a refrigerator bulb. I was elated at my own daring, emboldened as if I had suddenly won the All-School-Middlebury-Hopscotch Tournament. Bobby was already licking the sugar-glitter from one of the largest.
“We don't eat food with our fingers.” I slapped the top of his hand to make him lose it back into the bowl. “We don't break the rules.”
“Then why we come in when no one's home?”
I ignored him and found two spoons in the drawer next to the refrigerator. I scooped up a strawberry and bit it in half, leaving the other half on the spoon, just in case the frosty stuff wasn't edible, sort of like those beaded fruits that mother kept in a bowl on our dining room table. Then I ate the other half, then another. Bobby, amazingly obedient for a change, switched from fingers to spoon and did the same. Soon all that was left was some strawberry juice in the bottom of the bowl, sugar-sweet. I was tempted to lick it, lap it up like a puppy, but that would have been very poor manners.
Once the bowl was empty, I noticed little tiny cracks on its inside, dark against its aqua glaze, and worried that we might have caused them. I stretched the little plastic bonnet, imprinted with pale blue daisies, back over the bowl. We left our spoons, beaded with sticky strawberry juice, on the shelf beside it, and closed the refrigerator door.
I knew then that leaving the cup of returned sugar on the kitchen table was certain evidence that visitors had been there and that Mrs. Trainor would know from the pretty porcelain cup filled with returned sugar just who had left it there. But that empty bowl and two well-used spoons sitting in her refrigerator? I swear it never occurred to me that somehow the old woman would notice. Maybe she didn't. Our phone never rang. Mother never called us into the kitchen to talk about rules like opening people's doors—front doors, back doors or refrigerator ones.
The next time we ran an errand, Mrs. Trainor didn't mention the strange disappearance of the glitzy strawberries from a bowl in her refrigerator or the sticky spoons that had materialized on the shelf next to it. After she accepted the quart of milk we were returning, she said, “Thank you for returning the cup of sugar last week,” and invited us in.
“We’d be happy to.” I nudged Bobby, in case he had other ideas. She offered us cookies and milk which we gratefully accepted.
“Come back again soon,” she said when we were done.
“We will,” I said. We, perhaps, were stupid crooks but not so stupid we would turn down the possibility of a return engagement with Mrs. Trainor's cookies and milk, and maybe even strawberries sprinkled with wintertime frost in the summertime.
Carolyn Howard-Johnson's first novel, This is the Place, has won eight awards. Her
second book, Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered, is creative nonfiction;
it has won three. Her fiction, nonfiction and poems have appeared in national magazines,
anthologies and review journals. She speaks on Utah's culture, tolerance and other subjects
and has appeared on TV and hundreds of radio stations nationwide. She is an instructor for
UCLA's Writer's Program. She loves to travel and has studied in the United Kingdom; St.
Petersburg, Russia; and Prague. Her website is:
http://carolynhoward-johnson.com. She blogs
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