ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Peasant," a story by Michael Tilley


Often it seemed Antony had come to New York just to torture him: to glower and hiss; to mock and condemn; to daily rub his father's face in a lifetime of failures and wrongs.  Hatred seethed in what were once sweet baby eyes, a scorn so unnerving the Fruit Seller hesitated to turn his back, a gaze fixed till those moments it abruptly went dead—as though the man it took in were dead, too.  Everything was poisoned; nothing was good.  Even the closest their reunion had to a high point, that first week or two together in the city when, despite a distinct uneasiness between them, they'd at least managed to speak civilly and to actually sit in the same room—enough for the father to believe that there was something to build on after so much time apart—looked now, only a few months later, like just a cruel ruse devised by the son to make his true feelings all the more crushing when revealed. 

He could be clever, his boy, it was in there somewhere though you'd hardly know it.

And suddenly that drop of cleverness was all that mattered to the Fruit Seller.  

Last night he'd laid down with a malice-filled heart, exhausted, disgusted, eager to be rid of the source of his woe, the worthless little bastard who made his days miserable.  But strange things happen when sleep deserts a man; when he stares at a shadowy ceiling for hours on end, preyed on in the darkness by hope and by fear.  He might fall into a state akin to genuine madness, his galloping thoughts crazed and uncontrollable, or else, at the other extreme, become convinced in his insomnia of his supreme attunement to reality, of his grasp of profound truths that clarify his path forward.  There on the raggedy living room couch, where he'd slept ever since Antony's arrival, it was the latter that the Fruit Seller had experienced in the sweltering August night.  And what he now saw, the crucial perception spotlighted in his mind, was that his ambitions stood on the brink of obliteration, and all that could save them, all that could fulfill them, was persuading his son to devote himself—to devote that cleverness—to helping them make it in the fruit trade.    

Yes, he needed Antony, thought the Fruit Seller, as he lay stretched out sweating with the sun about to rise, the already clamorous Queens morning drifting in through the open window.  Without him he hadn't a prayer of ever getting ahead.

So then what the hell had he been thinking last Monday, when he'd booked the kid a flight back to Cyprus for the day after tomorrow?      

Naked save a pair of briefs with its waistband overhung by a forest of damp stomach hair, the Fruit Seller dropped his legs over the side of the couch and sat upright.  He trained his eyes across the way, on the little gap between the floor and the shut bedroom door, and searched for some sign of movement within.  Nothing.  He turned his head sideways, pushed an ear forward, and, trying to block out the racket of a truck delivery, a torrent of salsa from a passing car, listened carefully.  Not a sound. 

No surprise, of course: the boy had to be rousted every morning without fail.  That couldn't continue; success demanded discipline, enthusiasm for one's work.  For now, though, he'd let it go, none of the usual storming and raging, because that'd only sour Antony worse, harden his anger and drive him further away, when everything hung on doing the exact opposite—when he had just two days to turn him around.  

Two days, reflected the Fruit Seller, and a ripple of despair went through him.  He slumped back on the couch, ran a hand over his face, thought of how he had only himself to thank for his predicament.  It was the same old story, his damn impulsiveness: he'd never learned to control it.  So the other day Antony griped once too often, shot him a scowl when he had no more patience—and Boom!  Suddenly he was pounding on his phone like a lunatic, cursing insanely, buying the boy the plane ticket he'd whined about for a month.  And the truth was that it felt wonderful, like having a huge weight begin to lift off him.  Until this morning he hadn't regretted it a bit.          

All his life it had been this way: letting his emotions get the better of him, acting self-destructively, realizing his error after the damage was already done.  Now, sitting there, he could only hope there was enough time to set things right with his son.  Because once Antony was gone, knew the Fruit Seller, he'd never be back.  And that'd be the end.  His dreams for them would be finished.  They would have nothing.


The original rationale for splurging on the blender, an absolutely gorgeous, top-of-the-line machine he'd discovered online and not been able to resist, was twofold.  First, it would allow him to consume in novel form all the beautiful produce at his disposal, which, while of the very finest quality and delicious no matter what (as opposed to the cheap garbage other street vendors peddled, tasteless if you were lucky and rotten if not), he'd nonetheless grown tired of eating day after day in the same ways.  Second, he'd gotten into his head the fantastic health benefits to be derived from his envisioned blender concoctions, concentrated vitamin blasts which, aided by research, he would design to achieve maximum nutritional impact.  This concern with physical wellness, it must be said, was far from all-consuming; indeed the Fruit Seller saw smoothies as but a counterbalance to the cigarettes he refused to quit chain-smoking.  Still, there was a time when the notion of a counterbalance's desirability would never have entered his mind.  It was, he supposed, America's influence showing.

In any case, soon after Antony's coming to live there the blender had acquired a third purpose: its buzzy, machine gun fire ruckus, extra ear-splitting in the cramped apartment, was the Fruit Seller's means of stirring his son each morning.

Chin to chest, chewing a hardboiled egg, he pressed the power switch and, instantly, was swallowed by the din, a sonic assault that stunned him temporarily inert, transfixed by the assorted colors bleeding and splashing in the shuddering appliance.  When the fruit and vegetable medley was pulverized into a dark burgundy liquid flecked with black chia seeds, he flipped off the blender.  And sure enough, once the howling had cleared from his ears, he heard his son moaning and muttering in the bedroom.  Typically the sound of it incensed him; even today it made him simmer; but he forced himself to keep calm.    

Smoothie in hand, the Fruit Seller left the apartment and walked outside, spluttering his lips as the heat and humidity hit him.  He set off along the sunbaked avenue, noisy already with traffic, pungent even at that hour with a stew of spicy aromas, past lowered metal gates plastered with graffiti; past other metal gates being clatteringly raised; past a heap of pink puke glistening in front of Gaffney's; past a hydrant-tethered pit bull to which he gave a wide berth.  Coming up on his daily bodega stop, he paused for two men humping drywall across the sidewalk, their wincing brown faces running with sweat, then ducked inside for Tic Tacs and a couple packs of Marlboros, lighting one up as he stepped back out into the glare and continued on.

He was just about at the corner, ready to make his turn, when, on the far side of the avenue and a short ways ahead, he spotted Maria—or the back of her, to be precise.  She was hurrying forward with brisk strides that made her hair bounce, a knapsack over one shoulder and a shopping bag in the other hand, undoubtedly rushing to catch the subway to Brooklyn, where she worked as the nanny to two little boys she constantly bragged about.  The Fruit Seller halted and watched her go.  Suddenly he realized it'd been a week since they were together (his own doing, really, as he'd been dodging a talk about traveling to the Philippines to meet her family), and also that he missed her.  She was a good one, Maria—sensible and sympathetic, dependable and kind.  A man needed a woman like her as an ally, especially a man with the plans he had.  

As Maria dropped out of sight down the steps of the subway station, the Fruit Seller felt a twinge of sadness.  Flicking his butt into the sewer, he decided he'd call her the second he got a chance, make sure he saw her soon.  He shook his head a little, his eyes cast toward the ground.  Then he took a long, last gulp of smoothie, ending in a raspy slurp, and headed down a side street of modest two-story houses, one of which, owned by an old Chinese widow who wrinkled her nose whenever she saw Antony, had a garage rental he'd outfitted with three commercial-grade refrigerators scavenged from the pizzeria trash, then coaxed into working order by an electrician he knew from Gaffney's.

Twenty minutes later he walked back inside the apartment, drenched from being in the stifling garage, hauling his stock from the refrigerators into the even more stifling van.  The bedroom door was still shut; he didn't hear a thing.  The Fruit Seller sighed, wiped some sweat from his nose, and went into the bedroom to get his son up.


They drove along the L.I.E. in silence, hot air and foul odors blowing in through the windows, with the bumper-hitched fruit cart rattling away behind.  A cigarette smoked in the Fruit Seller's wheel hand, and a soaking wet towel swaddled his neck.  Beside him, Antony lay stretched on the reclining passenger seat, doughy gut heaving and arms crossed on his chest, snoring under a baseball cap obscuring his face.  Every so often he started, letting loose a series of snorts as a hand flashed to the falling cap, before quickly returning to his prior state.

The Fruit Seller found the boy's chronic daytime sleepiness infuriating—though not as infuriating as its cause.  Which was that every night after they got home from the city, when all he himself could even think of was putting his head down, Antony went directly to the bedroom, shut the door behind him, and proceeded to spend the next several hours gaming on his laptop.  Every night!  And then, every damn day, a zombie!  And for what?  Games!  Twenty years old and addicted to games! 

His son's behavior mystified him.  If he had no energy because he was up all night drinking, running wild and chasing girls, well, he'd be angry, he'd yell—but at least he'd understand.  That sort of thing was normal for young men; it was exactly how he'd been at Antony's age.  But the spirit it flowed from, the vitality—the Fruit Seller saw none of it in the boy.  The gaming obsession was just an outgrowth of his odd and gloomy disposition; a symptom of his alienation from life, from the world. 

He wondered how Antony had gotten this way.  Was it something in his upbringing?  The truth was that he really couldn't say; that he had no clue about his son's childhood and the things he'd been shaped by.  After all, they'd only had two years together: Antony was still in diapers when the divorce came, and afterward the Fruit Seller didn't give a thought to staying on Cyprus.  Which meant that their relationship, for nearly two decades, had consisted of a handful of visits a few hours long, plus a call to the boy every birthday from wherever he happened to be living.     

So no, he hadn't been much of a father.  And yes, maybe it'd done something to Antony.  But whenever this occurred to him, just as it did now while sitting at the wheel, and his frustration with his son became mingled with guilt, instantly he reminded himself that the blame wasn't his alone.  Because what about the mother, his damn ex-wife, the one who'd actually been there, with Antony right under her nose?  Nobody could tell him she wasn't at fault, too!  She must've failed the boy somehow, damaged him in some way.  Take that laptop he played on all night: never a day of work in his life, not one, and yet she'd just handed it to him.  Spoiled!

He caught himself.  The churn in his stomach, the grinding of teeth—he knew the signs of a darkening mood.  He must keep control, not give in to it.  Not if he wanted to convince his son to hang around.

And so, forcing his thinking in a different direction, he focused on pondering what he could talk about whenever Antony awakened. 

Five minutes later a rig on the right blared its horn as it barreled past.  The boy jerked, fell still a moment, then started squirming and grumbling beneath his cap.  Finally he ripped the cap off his face, slapped it on his chest, and pressed the heels of his palms to his eyes.  For a long while he lay rubbing them slowly in circles, with his mouth flopped wide open.  

The Fruit Seller still had no idea what to say, and doubted there was anything that wouldn't be met with contempt.  But something about the sight of Manhattan looming across the water, the brilliant morning sunlight glinting off the glassy skyscrapers, refused to let him stay silent, waste time.  He needed to at least try.

Keeping his eyes fixed on the road, the Fruit Seller nodded toward the back of the van.     

"Smell those bananas," he said, sincerely excited by the powerfully sweet scent.  "Perfect.  Delicious.  The customers will be crazy for them."

"Fuck bananas," snapped Antony, then rolled onto his side and showed his father his back.


Completely unsurprising as it was (he literally couldn't recall their last non-toxic conversation), Antony's biting response to his overture nonetheless shook the Fruit Seller.  Feeling low and pessimistic, like he had no hope of getting through to the boy, he drove the rest of the way into the city without uttering another word.     

Suddenly, though, a glimpse up ahead of his location, at the intersection of 54th and Lexington, set his heart racing—first with pure amazement; then, while he sat waiting for each car in front of him to clear the corner, with eye-bulging, knee-jiggling tension; and finally, as he pulled into the astoundingly large parking spot right smack next to where he placed his cart, with skyrocketing delight. 

It bordered on miraculous, the availability of this convenience: in nearly two full years of selling fruit at this site, he'd enjoyed it just twice before.  Which meant the usual routine was to park anywhere he could, load up the cart there, and then, out in the street, carefully push it all the way to his corner.  Six, seven blocks sometimes, in every kind of weather, honked and cursed at the whole time.  The cart had been sideswiped by cars; slammed into by bicycles; spit at by old ladies; and, on several occasions, had toppled over in transit and gone crashing to the ground, fruit and vegetables flying everywhere.   

But the worst part of all was that after he'd eventually made it, wheeled the cart into position and stood catching his breath, the Fruit Seller knew he'd be doing it again late that night—only in the other direction.       

Not today, though.  Today he could reach out from the van and tap the cart.  Today he wouldn't start selling already feeling half-beat.  And shade, the radio, a comfortable seat—whenever he happened to get a free moment, they'd be right there for him, too!  

In this line of work, the little things made a world of difference.


One thing the Fruit Seller learned from his father —they hadn't always gotten along but he admired him, fervently, for building a little open-air fabric stall into a profitable menswear store— was the importance of showing your wares in the most alluring manner possible; of making people want whatever you were selling.  That he'd successfully applied this precept to his own business was undeniable.  Anyone who looked at his magnificent cart could see as much, and, if further proof were necessary, there were the constant compliments from the mouths of passersby; the numerous photos people stopped to take of it (many later appearing on the Internet); and the profile of him from the block association newsletter, prominently displayed beside the electronic scale, in which his was crowned "the most eye-catching produce cart in all Manhattan." 

The Fruit Seller took immense pride in such recognition, not least because of all the effort he put into his creation.

No, it didn't come easy, getting a boxy hunk of metal to look like art, the care it required wore you down, and this daily grind (not to mention the various other hardships the job entailed), along with his itch to expand, had made him receptive when Antony's mother, worried about her son's idleness in Cyprus, wondered if the Fruit Seller might take him in in New York.  The way he saw it, he'd be throwing in with someone who was basically a stranger, true, but also casting his lot with blood—and blood counted most.  It meant he'd be able to depend on the boy, trust him; and that the boy would pay attention and do as he was told.  After all, he was the father and Antony the son—nothing in their history changed that fundamental fact.

And sure enough, in the beginning their alliance seemed a coup, a blessing, with Antony an earnest pupil those first couple of weeks, quick to absorb his father's assorted tricks for fashioning a spectacular cart.  (Samples: Always arrange the stock in visually arresting color schemes; use pre-bagged product—like bananas or clementines—to decorative effect by hanging it attractively along the edges of the roof; frequently mist the inventory so as to maintain freshness and let it glisten; and illuminate the cart at night with bolted-on mini-floodlights, bathing the merchandise in a dramatic, flattering glow.) 

But that individual had long since vanished, was just gone one morning without warning or explanation, replaced by a person worse than useless; a person not just totally indifferent to the job but blatantly disdainful of it; a person who even stooped to sabotaging the business, the Fruit Seller was convinced, by deliberately doing things the wrong way.

Today was typical, the boy sullen, phone-fixated, off yawning in the shade while the cart was wiped down, now burying a tray of centerpiece cherries deep on the shin-high shelving.  Normally it'd drive the Fruit Seller wild.  But sweat pouring, hands flying, still a little giddy at his parking luck, this time he told himself to ignore it, keep his mouth shut, don't forget the goal.  Swaying Antony was the only thing that mattered.  And doing it called for treating him with kid gloves, not sniping. 

Besides, there wasn't a spare moment to deal with his son right now, anyway.  Manhattan had no use for their problems, wouldn't just stop and wait while they squabbled.  Already the customers were out on the street, strolling or strutting or sprinting to work, some wanting their apple without breaking stride; others expecting a bit of conversation; many apt to roll past if he didn't catch their eye, or if a half-done cart seemed a sign he wasn't yet open.

And that was like a dagger, that kind of lost business, it ate at him all day, so he had to keep hustling, always clocking the swirl of the sidewalk, and finish the cart fast. 

Make some change, pat a guy's back, get out the peaches, sun beating down, call out to David, three bucks a pound, beautiful girls, deal on papayas, lock up the sale…

Let the boy stand there.  Let him take it all in.  For now, let the action do the talking.


After slouching sulkily against the completed cart for all of ten minutes, never lifting a finger and barely acknowledging the customers, Antony abruptly announced that it smelled like shit and he couldn't take it, then stalked into the van and slammed the door closed.  The pitying look on the face of the woman for whom he was bagging red grapes, a regular, caused the Fruit Seller to flush with shame.

Two hours later, the boy had yet to emerge.  As far as his father could tell, he was alternately dozing and playing on his phone, occasionally mixing in a call with God only knew.  The Fruit Seller had been so busy all morning that he'd never had a chance to try coaxing him out, but then again he was totally at a loss as to how he might even do that.  Oh well.  Antony's flight was getting closer by the second: he didn't have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike.

Stepping to the van, he knocked on the passenger door until the boy, wearing ear buds and a dazed expression, at last glanced up from his phone.  The Fruit Seller motioned for him to unplug his ears.  Shutting his eyes and shaking his head in irritation, Antony very slowly complied.

 The younger man tilted his chin wordlessly at his father.

"Why don't you go get us coffee?" said the Fruit Seller.

"I'm doing something."

"Yeah, what?"

"This," said the boy, brandishing his phone, and then glared.

The Fruit Seller stood staring at his bleary-eyed son, at his two oily nostrils throbbing ridiculously in anger.  Then he walked away.

Five minutes later, Antony got out of the van.

"I'll go to Starbucks," he declared, shoving forward an upturned palm.

"No Starbucks," said the Fruit Seller as he passed a bill.  "Just go to Rafiq's—his coffee is cheaper and better.  Bring me change."

Pocketing the money, the boy left without comment.  His father watched him shuffle off through the crowd, fiddling with his ear buds, scratching his ass, his dawdling driving a man in a pinstriped suit to fling his hands—until somebody walked up asking for the price of plums.  

It was more than an hour before Antony reappeared, handing his father a cup of tepid Starbucks coffee—but no change—on his way back into the van.


Already half the day was gone and still they hadn't talked.  Clearly the boy had no intention of voluntarily joining him at the cart, and each time the Fruit Seller considered asking him to do so, a furtive peek inside the van at his son's ever-present frown, making instantly plain the futility of such a request, and even suggesting its potential to provoke an embarrassing spectacle, convinced him not to bother.  So then what?  Stumped, he called Maria to ask her opinion (she was always very good with Antony), but she didn't pick up the phone.  As he cut short her voicemail greeting, a feeling of panic, until now burbling yet contained, erupted and consumed him. 

He saw New York ending like Athens and Sydney, like Paris and Chicago and all the rest.

He spent the next several minutes just going through the motions, his heart not in his work.  Then there was a lull, a break in the flow of customers that let him flop onto his wooden stool.  The Fruit Seller checked the time.  One-thirty.  Doomed or not, he needed to eat.  Since dispatching Antony to get food, the usual routine, was most certainly out of the question, he decided to make do with a lunch of his own tomatoes and avocadoes, the current stock of which was so perfectly ripe, so fantastically tasty, that people were returning two and three times to buy more.  His stomach, unleashing a growl, seemed to like the idea.  It made no difference that he didn't have any dressing, because none was necessary; in fact, only a fool would want some, as it'd just obscure the natural deliciousness of the prime ingredients.  Pure, clean—save maybe a pinch of salt and pepper, a few packets of which were sitting in the van console—that was the way to go. 

As the Fruit Seller reached out from his seat to pluck an avocado, he knew that putting food in his stomach would at least perk him up a bit, it always had that effect on him, and hoped it might also sharpen his mind, help him think of a way to handle the situation.

As for Antony's lunch, right at that moment he couldn't care less; the boy would have to figure it out on—   

Of course!  It was so simple, so obvious. 

Murmuring under his breath at his stupidity, the Fruit Seller dropped the avocado and pulled out his phone.  

Antony was lolling with his feet propped on the dashboard, swiping raptly through photos of motorcycles on his phone, when, fifteen minutes later, his father climbed into the van and set a pizza between them.  He paused, glanced sideways at the steaming pie, and then immediately flipped his eyes back to the motorcycles, sucking his teeth loudly.  Saying nothing, the Fruit Seller dug in.  It wasn't until he was down to the crust of his second slice that Antony, more surly-faced than ever, finally went for one of his own, which he quickly devoured before grabbing another.

The two sat chewing side by side, neither speaking nor looking at each other, and would go on this way, understood the Fruit Seller, for as long as he allowed it.      

"Hot," he sighed suddenly, sweeping the back of his wrist across his brow.

"So get the air conditioner fixed." 

The Fruit Seller grunted, took a third slice, and fell quiet.

After a minute, he tried again.

"Still," he said, keeping a watch on the cart through the windshield, "this is nice."

Now there was no response.

He turned to his son.  The boy had gone back to studying motorcycles, his phone six inches from his face, and was struggling to reel in with writhing lips and tongue a string of gooey cheese hanging almost to his nipples. 

Seeming to sense his father's gaze, Antony looked up.  A glossy scrap of tomato skin, curled upward at its edges, was perched on a bed of stubble in the center of his chin.     

"What's nice?"

"This parking spot.  Being next to the cart.  It's like a vacation, almost.  We need to find a way to get it all the time."

Aside from slurping the tail end of the cheese out of sight, Antony was silent.  He just stared.

"And think of winter, with the cold, the wind—my God, you will see what the wind is like, blasting up and down the avenue!  Yes, we must make this spot ours by winter."

The boy smirked, shook his head.            

"What is that face?" asked his father, even though he knew.

"I won't be here in winter.  I am done with this."

The Fruit Seller fired his half-eaten slice into the open pizza box.  Eyes flashing wide, thrusting his face toward Antony, he stabbed his finger in the direction of the cart.   

"Do you see?  Do you watch?  Have you seen the business today?  They don't stop, the customers!  And we will expand, get more carts, find other good locations—"

The boy exploded, lunging forward and slamming the dashboard.  "No, you are the one who doesn't see!" he yelled.  "This is peasant's work!  Standing out there, you are a peasant!"

He snatched a piece of pepperoni and dangled it, orangey grease dripping, in the air before his father.

"You think this means something, that today you have a little extra money to buy toppings?  It means nothing!"

Antony threw the pepperoni to the floor and thudded back in his seat.  Lips trembling, jaw working, he bore back into his phone with demonic intensity, tears pooling in his eyes.

For a second the Fruit Seller sat there watching him, racking his brain for something to say.  Then, without a word, he scooped up what remained of his slice and left to go eat it at the cart.


He didn't have it in him to think about Antony anymore, was drained of what it took to keep trying.  His son was welcome to stay right where he was, hidden away in the van like a goddamn hermit; in fact, he'd be doing him a favor.  All the Fruit Seller wanted was to forget him; to forget everything; to go numb and get lost in the cart for as long as possible…

Time dragged on the corner in the baking, breezeless heat. 

Antony, cooperative for once, didn't show his face all afternoon.

Now it was early evening, still steamy even with the cart slipped at last into a skyscraper's shade.  After the long afternoon doldrums, rush hour had returned the city to full, chaotic life.  A river of honking taxis surged along Lexington, a river of sweaty, swerving bodies along the sidewalk.  Everything, everywhere, was jammed close and jostling.  In a span of ten minutes the mesh metal garbage can beside the lamppost had gone from half-empty to overflowing, so that now people scurrying past were booting bottles tumbled from atop the heap, or were getting fallen dirty napkins and pieces of wax paper, drifting loose on the pavement, stuck to their shoes and ankles.     

A whistle shrieked; a bike knifed between cabs; all Manhattan typed or talked on a phone. 

Among the latter was a heavily pregnant woman with a beet-red face who presently dropped from the crush of foot traffic and sat-leaned against a fire hydrant.  As a knot of hooting young men in open-necked shirts strode by en route to one of the bars down the block, the Fruit Seller heard her tell the person on the other end of the line that the air, which smelled of exhaust and fried onions, was making her sick.  He grabbed an orange to give her; then a voice very close behind, bawling that the subway wasn't running, distracted him.  Wheeling around, he found standing before him a wild-eyed, wild-haired man with crooked glasses, a rumpled suit and an expression of pure anguish. 

"Fuck!" cried someone nearby, then someone else, and all at once there was a spasm of extra sidewalk mayhem, as people abruptly changed direction and a mini-pile-up ensued.

By the time the Fruit Seller turned back again, the pregnant woman was gone.

It was typical for a rush hour, business mediocre.  Usually this would irk him—it seemed diabolical that such a multiplication of pedestrians should not only fail to increase sales, but actually hurt them; and it made him feel insulted, even humiliated, to watch so many people blow past without properly acknowledging his cart—but today he didn't care one bit, he'd just sell what he could and leave it at that.  Whatever.  It hardly mattered anymore.

He was standing there smoking with one hand in his pocket, idly rearranging some nectarines with the other, as his son sat invisibly just a few steps away, when suddenly sirens started wailing all around.  This was followed, almost instantly, by a piercing outbreak of sustained, mass beeping.  Bouncing off buildings, reverberating up and down the streets and avenues, the combined cacophony drew closer and closer, getting louder by the second and drowning out everything.  People froze; hands went shooting over ears.  Even a man using one of the ATM's across the sidewalk, though shielded by a wall of glass, was grimacing and shaking his head.  

And then, just as the volume reached a head-ringing crescendo, became so intense in the air as to be felt on the skin, from every direction police cruisers sped into sight with lights flashing, and the furor rolled over the cart once and for all.    

The cruisers slammed to a stop half a block south, outside a gleaming office building with a big spouting fountain in front.  A perimeter was quickly established, no one beyond it permitted to cross.  Foot traffic past the fruit cart, which sat within the cordoned-off zone, virtually ceased.  The nearby spectacle, now joined by three screaming fire trucks and a pair of ambulances, commanded all attention.

The Fruit Seller, though, had no interest in whatever was happening.  Sitting on this corner day after day for two years, he'd seen plenty of such commotions, and they never ended up being worth the time to watch.  So with business gone totally dead for the moment, and the van not an option, he snagged a peach and wandered off a bit, turning his back on the excitement while leaning against a defunct pay phone.  He raised the fruit to his mouth, took a bite, and as beads of sweat snaked along his temples, squiggled down his back and his stomach, gazed high over the gawkers gathered just up the avenue, eyes glued to the scene behind him; gazed uptown, uptown through the long, tapering canyon of glass and steel; gazed all the way to the distant horizon, where the summer sky remained blue and clear.      


The Fruit Seller thought of his start in New York—a decent job, a sense of possibility.  Back then, the idea of selling fruit and vegetables on the street was inconceivable, a joke.  Leave such work to the Bangladeshis, to the Afghans with no English and filthy clothes.  They needed it, those people, had no other way to survive.  As for himself, his life in America was not like theirs.

It wasn't very long ago, all that—but getting laid off changed things.   

And now in the eyes of the world, knew the Fruit Seller, of each one of the thousands streaming by every day, he was exactly the same as those poor hawkers he'd once sniffed at: a peasant, yes—just as Antony had said.

Truth be told (though of course he'd never admit it to the little bastard), it was even how he'd come to see himself.

But not always, not only.  What saved him, made his unhappiness with his circumstances tolerable, was the other person he saw, right there beside the Zero, whenever he took stock of himself.  It was the natural-born businessman everybody used to say he was, an entrepreneur with a vision for making his mark in this country.  A vision of a city served by a whole fleet of his fruit carts; of potentially lucrative franchising opportunities and of eventual expansion into distribution and wholesaling; of father and son teamed as mentor and apprentice, together building something that'd last far into the future, a source of family pride and security passed down through the generations.

The Fruit Seller exhaled, tossed the peach pit in the gutter. 


Tilley's work has previously appeared in The Opiate, The Alembic, Speech Bubble Magazine, Milk Sugar and the New York Press. This is his first appearance in Offcourse.

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