Author Archives: sammozart

Fry ‘Em and They Get Tighter

I hadn’t been working at the farm market long when this guy came in, real friendly and nearly toothless. We got a lot of them coming into the stand off-season; they rose up out of the woods. Truthfully—that’s where they lived. We grew the best onion I’ve ever tasted, the Florida Sweet onion. The farm hands pull them out of the ground, wash them, peel off the outer, brown layers, trim the tips of the green tops to resemble a fan and that’s how we sell them. So, this guy comes in, picks out a couple of onions and brings them to the counter to purchase, raving to the other cashier, a Miami native, and me about how good they are. “They’re really good when you fry ‘em and get tighter,” I heard him say. We all laughed and agreed and he left.

“What did he mean, fry them and get tighter?” I asked my co-cashier. “What was he saying?” Being a Florida native, she would understand the accent.

“He said they’re really good when you get some potatoes and fry them together,” she translated.

“Oh, fry ’em with some ‘taters,” I said.

During February the weather was pretty much like that in Southern California, dry, low humidity and moderate temperatures. I liked this. Then March came. The bright sun glared so off the sand and pebble parking lot in front of the stand that I could barely keep my eyes open even when wearing sunglasses. The temperature shot up into the high eighties and so did the humidity.

“Does it get any hotter than this?” I asked my Miami coworker.

“Oh, yes,” she said, “a lot hotter.” Naturally, I could not imagine.

I thought she was kidding—until June. The heat and humidity swarmed around me, encased me, while the sun relentlessly poured molten yellow rays everywhere.

Yet, in the peak of July, at noon, I’d see senior citizens out taking their daily walk. “How do they do it?” I wondered.

–Samantha Mozart
for Carolina Gringo

Strawberry Table

Even though we offered a choice of selecting berries individually by the pound from the berry bar in the center of the store or already packaged, priced by the pint or quart, customers would sort through the berries in the baskets, rearranging them within a basket and among the baskets, women especially, looking like they were at a rummage sale for socks. Then they’d bring this quart towering with berries to the register. It reminded me of when I was a little girl and read this fairy tale about “The Village of Cream Puffs,” the place where Wing Tip the Spick lived a little girl with eyes “so blue, such a clear light shining blue, they are the same as cornflowers with blue raindrops shining and dancing on the silver leaves after a sun shower.” (From Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandburg.)

The story was illustrated with a picture of a little girl wearing two pronounced beauty marks, freckles, on her creamy white face with the strawberry red lips, and holding onto a tether of floating mountains of cream puffs capped with strawberries and whipped cream, stretching from here to the horizon. The Village of Cream Puffs is so light it must be tethered to a spool so when the wind is done blowing the people of the village come together and wind up the spool to bring the village back where it was before. Wing Tip the Spick’s freckles that her mother has placed on her chin look like two little burnt cream puffs kept in the oven too long, so that when she peers into the looking glass to brush her hair, she will be reminded of where she came from and won’t stay away too long.

Sometimes if the customer’s berry mountain was too tall for a plastic bag to scale and he or she had gotten the berries from the basket display on my checkout counter when I’d stepped away for a moment, I’d say, “Oh, look at this. Somebody sure filled these baskets unequally. Let me just take a few of these and put them in this half-full basket here,” and I’d grab a small handful out of the customer’s basket and replace them in the other basket. The customer never said anything.

–Carolina Gringo
as told to Samantha Mozart

Strawberry Planting

After taking a season off to republish some of my earlier works, I am returning to post a series of excerpts from my upcoming book, Funny Farm Stories. Here’s the next:

STRAWBERRY PLANTING

A customer walked up to my counter one day. “Tell me,” she said, resting her elbow in a quart of strawberries…

I pointed out that she was going to get stains. She removed her elbow and continued her question. I pictured the next customer arriving and saying to her companion, “Oh, these berries on the top are all flat. If they’re flat on top, imagine what they’re like on the bottom.” So when the lady with the elbow left, I examined the berries and picked out the flat ones.

We grew the berries on the farm, in the field right next to the produce stand where I worked. Because in Florida you can’t leave the berry plants in the ground year round, each spring we’d plow them under and in the fall replant. Each October Brad bought 33,000 strawberry plants and it took 12 Mexican guys a day and a half to plant them.

All the produce on the farm was grown in raised beds. So, before the strawberry plants were put into the ground, the Mexican foreman had to come along with the tractor trailing a big fork/tong-like attachment that looked like two long, cupped, many-fingered opposing hands which scooped the earth into mounds. Then he and a co-worker or two would put a roll of plastic on a spindle on the back of the tractor and lay the plastic over the mound. Afterwards, one of the co-workers would roll this huge iron spoked wheel, three or four feet in diameter, having spikes protruding regularly at right angles from its circumference over the plastic, punching holes in it. It looked like a Catherine wheel,

As soon as the holes were punched, the plants were set into the ground. After that, my two Mexican co-workers assembled and laid the sprinkler pipes. The foreman then hooked up the tractor to the well pump, started the engine to power the pump to bring the water from the well and sprinkle the strawberry plants from early morning till sunset for two to three weeks until the roots had grown and taken hold. By mid-December, we’d have strawberries. The berry production cycled in and out throughout the winter season, until April. My two, sometimes three, Mexican co-workers picked the berries for the farm stand or the customers themselves picked them from the field.

Although the farm was much larger, my boss farmed only 13 acres. He is a citrus expert, as I’ve said, and he owns and maintains a grove. He squeezed more work out of fewer workers than anyone for whom I’ve ever been employed. I suppose it’s like marching gladly to the gallows, for the workers produced willingly because he was funny and kind and rewarded us in other ways. We had one cashier, me, and in the busy season, two, to handle hundreds of customers a day. We worked nine to ten hours a day, and when working alone, without even a lunch break. We could eat lunch, but had to eat it in between or while waiting on customers. Two guys, and in the busy season, three, prepared the field, planted and cared for the crops, harvested the fruits and vegetables, washed them and stocked and displayed them in the stand.

In the evenings, just after I closed the stand, I’d see the foreman at the end of his twelve hour day out on the tractor spraying the strawberries and tomatoes and bell peppers and he’d look so tired, gray; I was afraid he’d fall off the tractor. I told Brad. He never fell off the tractor, though, and he sprayed the field from dusk into darkness without using the tractor lights.

For months we lived the farm. We had time for little else. Often we were exhausted. But we were outdoors: we had fresh air, lots of exercise, and fresh fruits and vegetables to pick from the field, free, including baskets and baskets of fresh, round, firm, succulent strawberries. As my real name is Carol, sometimes my two Mexican co-workers called me Carolina. I made up the Gringo part, being not so far from the truth. I also made up recipes from the fresh produce I picked from the field. Since I had neither time nor energy to spend at the stove when I got home from the farm, I kept my recipes simple and quick. I have included some for you at the end of my little book.

Carolina Gringo
as told to Samantha Mozart

CXXXVI. Snow Comes Softly

Monday, February 11, 2019 —Yesterday came cold and blustery. Flurries of  shoppers arrived at the store where I work, and I felt good to be out among the people and greet them. Children, their animation electrified, anticipated the coming storm. It … Read more »

The Gift of the Magi

By
O. Henry

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”

The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pierglass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: “Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”

“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

Down rippled the brown cascade.

“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

“Give it to me quick,” said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?”

At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice– what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”

“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”

Jim looked about the room curiously.

“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

O. Henry, 1905
pen name for William Sidney Porter
(1862-1910)

The rights to this story are in the public domain in the United States. For other countries, check the relevant copyright laws.