"Lemons" by Johanna Skibsrud
About the Brief Encounters series: We asked ten Canadian writers to imagine a vivid meeting or confrontation: A "Brief Encounter" in 600 words or less.
In today's story, Giller Prize-winning author Johanna Skibsrud brings us a conspicuous purchase, and the awkward exchange that results between cashier and customer.
by Johanna Skibsrud
From the start the “spirit” is afflicted with the curse of being “burdened” with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language.
—Karl Marx, from The German Ideology
I only had fifteen minutes to get fifty lemons and I’d already used up five. The un-organic kind would have been better, but Eden’s was just down the street, so I went there, and picked out fifty of the best-looking lemons I could find.
“Hello!” said the guy at the cash. “That’s a lot of lemons!”
He wore a ponytail and a big grin, like working in a Natural Food Store was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“Yep,” I said.
He hadn’t even started to ring me through; was still just standing there—smiling.
“What are you making with all those lemons?”
Later Lil said: “Oh, yeah. I forgot to tell you. You have to lie. Tell them you’ve got a sick grandmother or something next time. They don’t ask any questions if you say words like ‘sick.’ Or ‘grandmother.’ Seriously. You can explain almost anything with just those two words.”
But I didn’t know that then.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nope,” I said. And shrugged. “They’re for a photo shoot.”
“Oh yeah?” Still smiling. “You’re taking pictures of my lemons?”
“Well—not really,” I said. “We just need a slice—it’s for the top of the lemon meringue pie.”
The guy raised an eyebrow now. “You need fifty lemons for just one pie?”
“One slice,” I corrected him. Honestly. Though I was starting to worry about the time.
I could have guessed the next question.
“What do you do with the rest?” He asked.
Actually—I didn’t know. I’d just started the job, and we’d never done a food spread before. But it was obvious. I shrugged.
“Throw them out?”
The guy wasn’t grinning anymore. He dropped his eyebrow first, and then his hand (for all I knew permanently) from the cash—clicking his tongue behind his teeth as he did so: a low tsk.
At any other time, you can bet I would have walked right out of there. “Fine then! Keep your stupid lemons!” But I only had another six minutes. I was never going to find fifty more lemons in just six more minutes.
So it was a relief when, after only the briefest pause, the guy again raised his hand to the cash—his eyebrow along with it—and rang all fifty lemons through.
See, the tsk is just a trick. If I’d had more than six minutes I would have called him on it. I would have said: no—really. Tell me about it. In actual words. Then sat there and watched him turn blue in the face while he tried. Even when it’s over the simplest thing. Bumping into someone on the street, say. The tsk is always too big. Impossible to explain. I mean, if anyone ever had to try to spell it out; if they had to say, “Listen, I want you to know that your bumping into me just now has caused me a delay of two and a half seconds and diverted me from my originally intended course by several degrees.” If they had to admit it—that all of the contingency in the world, which you have come to briefly represent, is, frankly, terrifying—and that it may, in fact, have been they who—just a moment ago—very nearly ran into you, and not you into them...Well, you can see as well as I can how the tsk just disappears.
Still. At the precise moment in which the tongue makes contact with the teeth; in which, standing empty-handed at the cash you briefly believe you might remain that way—that you might be forced to return lemon-less, defeated—it’s power. Believe me: you both actually feel it. It’s real.
Johanna Skibsrud is the author of the 2010 Giller Prize-winning novel The Sentimentalists and two collections of poetry, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys, which was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, and I Do Not Think That I Could Love A Human Being. Originally from Meadowville, Nova Scotia, Johanna currently lives in Montreal, where she is working toward the completion of a PhD in English literature at the Université de Montréal.