Ms. Henderson loved apples. It was her favorite fruit. Gala, McIntosh, Honeycrisp, Fuji, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Jupiter, Golden Russet. From shiny red to pale yellow, she maintained a healthy supply for her craving, and her desire for the delectable was so insatiable, so unquenchable, that her singular voracity was the woman’s only vice. She loved the sheen of the firm skin, an idyllic portrayal of the sanctitude of flawless youth, as firm and tight and smooth as the greatest of artists envisioned beauty to be.
And the taste, sharp and unapologetic, with a fullness, a consistency that few water-logged fruits could offer. Apples, consumed in large measure, could be sated, glut, surfeit, pleasurable excess in the way one could describe an abundance of meat or chocolates. Apples were the hardy fruit. It was the only thing in the entire world that captured her attention, aside from money.
Dozens were purchased every Saturday morning, more than the average person could consume in a week, and each one chosen with the care of an artist, a scientist, a neurotic. Perfection chosen; flaws discarded. Ms. Henderson loved her apples, to consume, but also to admire, to hunt. She loved to find perfection, to seek it out and to find something that could, in her eyes, more closely resemble something that should be on display as art rather than chewed and dismembered and digested. Apples were nature’s most glorious of creations to be given to humanity.
Ms. Henderson was a very large woman. Her size was striking and drew curious stares from all in the store, especially the children. They gazed at her the way I did when I first saw her. Amazement. She was very tall, over six feet, and weighed over 300 pounds. Her orthopedic shoes protruded far in front of her body and her hands were as big as oven mitts.
She consumed apples in abundance. Her choppers were like a steel trap that could clean an apple to the core in three bites tops. The crunching between those choppers was loud enough to stop a charging bear in its tracks, and the wetness of the chewing was equally amplified. Precise, saliva-filled crushing of the anatomy of an apple.
I worked the morning shift in the produce section of Newman’s Market for the better part of a year, but had lived in town my whole seventeen years. I swept and mopped the speckled, linoleum floor. I sprayed down the vegetables and the more delicate fruits with a cool, heavy mist. I put away new shipments of produce in the large, walk-in cooler and rotated all of the customer displays to ensure the freshest specimens took a backseat to those waiting a bit longer to be purchased.
That is, except for the apples.
Ms. Henderson was the wealthiest person in town. She had benefited from family wealth, an heir to old money, the kind that is made, then made larger and larger, and passed on from generation to generation. She didn’t make any of it, rather was the fortunate one born into privilege and rose through the familial pecking order to accept her entitled position, her seat at the table, her time planted on the throne of rural royalty.
She had never married, did very little socializing, other than that which was meant to demean the other, and she was the number one customer of Newman’s Market. She was the Queen of the castle in a small town just outside of Atlanta. Southern royalty and its wealth and influence were still holding on with fleeting inevitability, because the world was changing all around.
The apples were given greater care and consideration, as instructed by the store’s owner, Mr. Newman. I made sure that a fresh shipment of apples was delivered every Friday afternoon and not before three o’clock, so that first thing in the morning on Saturday, I could sort through the boxes and pick only the apples that were as perfect as nature would allow. Then I would place them on a wheeled display that would remain in the back until Ms. Henderson arrived. The rest of the apples would be put out for the other customers to purchase.
Ms. Henderson was the boss’ favorite customer. She spent hundreds of dollars every week on our finest foods. The boss constantly reminded us to take care of Ms. Henderson. We, the employees, were expected to be at her beck and call. Her disposition mattered not to the boss as long as she spent lots of money.
Most would grow tired of a lack of variety, but not Ms. Henderson. She was never without her apples. She carried two or three in the left pocket of her wool cardigan. A regular customer for as long as anyone could remember, Ms. Henderson always kept the same schedule. She came in every Saturday morning, just after the opening hour, barking orders and complaints while passing through the narrow doorway. Her face was crinkled into a permanent scowl as if the entire world was a disappointment.
She was surprisingly limber and fast, maneuvering down the aisles and grabbing items from the shelves with her immense hands. People would stop to watch her weave through the obstacles of customers and displays with her grocery cart. Ms. Henderson had plenty of servants to do her every will. For some reason, the large old woman chose to do the grocery shopping herself.
She was a Henderson. The entire family, for generations, had been large people, tall and robust. They were nicknamed the Giants of Douglas County.
The reaction to the attention was always dreadful. She wouldn’t hesitate to insult a customer and was known to throw a well-chewed apple core at those who had the nerve to exchange words. But most didn’t. The people of the small town despised her and feared her in the same breath. The family owned nearly everything, an unsettling proposition. As unnerving as the circumstances were, as resentful as the citizens could be through the decades, for the way the family profited, the town ran and people had jobs and life was stable. That is, until Ms. Henderson was the last heir and decided to squeeze the juice until there was nothing left to squeeze. She increased rents, cashed in on debt, pushed the once proud town into destitution teetering on collapse.
She could make an inquisitive child cry with only a stare. A stern look could bring about a river of tears. Ms. Henderson’s face was mean. She did not smile. But a child’s tears brought a sparkle to her eyes as if she truly enjoyed the sight of a child crying.
“I am here for apples, young Heller.” She said.
She called me by my last name, well acquainted with the lineage. My family was one of many who knew Ms. Henderson as their landlord.
She belittled her tenants. They were second class citizens with menial positions in the community. They existed for the convenience of the privileged. My father, a mechanic, served only one purpose from Ms. Henderson’s viewpoint. He fixed her car. I supplied her with apples.
When Ms. Henderson was particularly annoyed, she took pleasure in explaining other’s place in the world. Like my father, I was born to do service work.
Ms. Henderson never missed a Saturday and she always ended her shopping at the apples. Every week, I watched her massage them with her massive fingers, checking for firmness, searching for the perfect specimen of delectable superiority. To her, the apple was the better fruit. It was shiny and strong. It was above all others.
She was a habitual complainer. Nothing was good enough for Ms. Henderson.
“You call this fresh?” she often shouted for all in the store to hear. “These apples must be weeks old.”
She accused me of placing the newest on the bottom of the piles and ordered entire stacks moved so she could get to those believed to be freshest. I know she took great pleasure in watching me labor, even though these were the finest apples given upon a special cart, demanded by the boss, to be wheeled out for the gratification of Ms. Henderson’s impulses.
I often wondered what she did with all of those apples. Maybe she baked pies to stuff in her mouth. Maybe she made candy apples. Glazed beauties in a row across the kitchen counter. Some dressed with fresh coconut. Sweet candy apples lined up to be devoured. And the extras found their temporary home in the pocket of her cardigan to be consumed later. Their cores thrown at anyone who displeased her.
Ms. Henderson doesn’t come in anymore. Not since the accident.
I last saw her on a Saturday morning, two weeks ago, in her usual place beside the apples, in her usual offensive mood. She was disgusted over the quality of the Red Delicious. They were not crisp enough and I could hear her clear into the stockroom where I was preparing fruit for display. Her words greeted me like a slap in the face and I began to feel sick. I wished she would just once fill her cart and be gone.
I waited as long as I could before her screeching reached a level that would drive the rest of the customers out of the store. That throaty, wrenching sound brought chills to my spine.
I hurried to her side and asked, as if I didn’t already know, “what’s the problem?”
“It’s your apples, Young Heller. How can you display such poor quality?”
She complained and yelled and caused a scene. She ordered me to move the highest pile of Red Delicious so she could get to the ones on the bottom. She tossed the unacceptable apples onto the floor for me to pick up. She spoke of my alleged incompetence and threatened to have me fired.
“Your work ethic is nothing like your father’s. He understands his place.”
I stood in silence as Ms. Henderson insulted me. The moment seemed to go on with no end. I wanted her to take her apples and go.
“I don’t know why this store keeps you on. Pathetic. You’re a disgrace. Why would you put these things out to be sold? Don’t you know a rotten apple when you see one?”
A rage began to stir inside me. It had been growing and was now begging to be set free. She was a horrible, awful old woman. She was the sort of person who inspired people to write about evil witches in fairy tales. She insulted me, my family. She insulted everyone around her. I wished I could reach out my hands and squeeze her throat, that awful, awful old bag.
Instead, I said nothing. I did nothing. What could I do? She had all the power. Her family practically owned the town, and most of the county. I just had to bite my lip.
“What would you do without this store? You’d be a charity case,” Ms. Henderson told me with the most encroaching of smirks that seemed to explore every one of my cavities.
My mouth was dry. I was unable to swallow and the juices in my stomach turned like an ocean. All other sounds around me faded. Even Ms. Henderson’s big voice became a throaty whisper. I clenched my fists. I could feel the blood rush to my face. I wanted to do something. Her abuse had finally become intolerable. I hated her. I felt rage and hate. It was how I felt. Everyone in town felt the same way, I knew it. Her big, ugly hands. Her giant mouth and her wet, crunchy chewing. Her loud and intrusive voice. Her abuse.
Ms. Henderson placed the bags of apples in her cart and started to the register. The next few minutes made no sense to me at the time. It was so irrational, yet I went through the motions with no hesitation. As she went by, I carefully slipped my hand into the cart and into the bag that held the apples. 12 Macintosh, 12 Red Delicious and 12 Grannies. I plucked an apple from the bag and slid it under my apron. Without her noticing, I took it from her cart. The apple was a Red Delicious, carefully selected with Ms. Henderson’s stamp of approval. I replaced it with an apple that would have never met her approval. There wasn’t much wrong with it. The color was as dark and deep as blood. The skin had a healthy sheen and it was firm. It was a great apple, except for a small, soft brown spot and a hole in the center. The brown was fleshy rotten, the hole a hardened tunnel.
I hurried back to the stock room, not understanding my actions, but not questioning them either. I opened the door that led to the refrigerated cellar where everything was kept fresh, and I went there to hide away until she was gone. My hands shook. It was such a simple act and yet I felt as though I had committed a crime, what would be in Ms. Henderson’s eyes an utter atrocity. I infiltrated her perfection.
When I was certain she had left the store, I ascended the cellar stairs, and before I left the coolness of that place, I turned to stare down at the rickety wooden steps. I took the more perfect apple I had stolen from Ms. Henderson’s selection and I released the apple with a fury and watched as it bounced off of two steps and onto the cement floor. Pieces of skin and pale, mushy insides splattered into the most beautiful design. The sight was captivating and I found myself trapped in its gory, circular pattern.
That night, I dreamt of Ms. Henderson. She was standing at the top of her stairs in her big, old house. I could see it as clear as if I had been there before. I could make out how grand and beautiful the staircase was, like something in a fairytale. I could even see her servants scurrying at the bottom of the staircase. And I saw the tall, old woman take the apple from her cardigan and bring it to her tooth-filled, wanting mouth. Those giant choppers.
Before she could crunch down, she noticed the soft, brown spot with the hole in the middle. From that hole crawled out a bright, green worm. Startled, Ms. Henderson lost her footing and fell down the steps, snapping her neck at the bottom when she landed in a heap.
The next day, we all heard about poor Ms. Henderson. An unfortunate accident, they said. She fell down the stairs. The servants did what they could but her neck was broken and she did not respond. An apple lay in pieces nearby on the ceramic floor.
Today is my first Saturday without Ms. Henderson and the calm is a bit unsettling. It will take some time to get accustomed to. The apples are very fresh today and I know she would be pleased. I bet they taste sweet.