Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW (05/02/19)
- TITLE: Fresh Produce
By Betty Castleberry
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This night she picked fat, orange-red tomatoes and long string beans and reminisced while she worked. There was a time when she’d been less than honest. Some would even have called her a thief. She wasn’t proud of her past, but she was doing her best to fix what she’d done, although she knew nothing could ever erase it.
She’d been a waitress at Hal’s Diner. The owner, Hal West, had been more than generous with her. Being a single mom had been hard and he knew she needed the job. He’d given her extra hours and allowed her to take home any left-over food she wanted. What he didn’t know is during the lunch rush, amid the clang of dishes and customers’ chatter, she snuck cigarettes and candy bars from the display case and deftly tucked them into her purse.
Hal never caught on, but when her daughter Lily got older, she did. Lily came to the diner each day after school and did her homework at a back table until her mother got off work. One day, Toni asked her to help fill salt and pepper shakers. While Lily poured salt, Toni took a candy bar and stuck it in her purse. Lily eyed her suspiciously. “Mom, you didn’t pay for that.”
She shushed her daughter and whispered, “When you don’t have much, you do what you can.” Still whispering, she stuffed another candy bar in her bag. “That one’s for you.”
When Lily got old enough to help wait tables, Hal hired her, too. Toni occasionally stuffed a pack of gum from the case in Lily’s pocket, winking at her as if it was the coolest thing in the world to do.
One night when they got home, Lily emptied her pockets, producing two candy bars. Toni looked at her and wrinkled her brow. “I didn’t give you those.”
“I know. I took them myself.”
There was little she could say to her daughter, so she simply nodded.
It wasn’t long after that Lily was arrested for shoplifting, but because she was a minor, she was released into her mother’s custody with six months’ probation. Three years later, she was no longer a minor and the charges were much more serious. Lily had shoplifted over a thousand dollars-worth of clothing from a boutique. At her sentencing, she turned to her mother and said coldly, “When you don’t have much, you do what you can.” The words spilled over her like spoiled milk and Toni knew she had to change.
That had been twenty years ago. Lily had been released from jail, but she hadn’t contacted her mother in years. I suppose it’s what I deserve, Toni thought while she picked the last of the string beans. She’d cook them with a ham hock, make cornbread and slice the tomatoes, then take it all to Hal. Shortly after his retirement, his wife had passed away. Toni often took him meals, knowing he’d always loved fresh produce. He’d been her inspiration when she learned to garden.
She’d never told him she’d stolen from him, but she hoped visiting with him and taking him food might in some small way help make up for it. Perhaps it just made her feel better, but she told herself he didn’t need to know what she’d done so long ago. There was no point in mentioning her past sins as far as she could see. Having her only child follow her terrible example was punishment enough.
Her thoughts came back to the present when she took her bounty inside. She spent the morning cooking and when everything was done, she packed it up and delivered it to Hal.
“Knock, knock,” she called, letting herself into the small, tidy living room.
“What have you got there?” he asked, smiling.
“Something you like.”
He peeked into the basket. “I do like that.”
When she turned to go, he asked, “You’re not staying to eat with me?”
“God bless you, Toni.”
Swallowing hard, she willed the tears not to fall. “God bless you, Hal.”
He’d been so good to her. Maybe it wasn’t too late to repay his kindness.
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