Until I lived in a homeless shelter, I did not know how bad things could getonions and grapes and bananas. That bananas could mold I never considered. An old banana went black and shrunk into itself, like a mummy; it could be frozen and revived later, slid from the peel into a bowl like a slick yellow slug, and made into banana bread. I hadn’t faced the possibility of bananas furred with mold, of a peel leaking liquefied banana onto a cement floor. I had never tried to pick up a cucumber only to find thumb and finger sinking through the flesh and meeting in the middle.
It’s a Monday afternoon. I am purging the pantry shelves of rotten fruit and vegetables. I empty each crate into a new one and toss the spoiled things into a cardboard box. Into the box go white limes and oranges soft as sponges. The bell rings.
I go and see. It’s Elsa. She is standing not at the front door but in the sala, the front room, right next to the button and the sign that says, "Please ring only in an emergency." Elsa has been a guest at our house for a little over a week now. She is fat in odd places and wiry in others, like a chicken. She has long bushy hair. It was dyed red, badly, several months ago by the looks of things. Maybe her hair is the emergency. She asks for an aspirin.
"Does your head hurt?" I say.
"Oh, no. It’s for Oscar."
Oscar is Elsa’s man. Not boyfriend really, and not husband. They have been together for two months at least. I know, because that is how pregnant Elsa is. I had given Oscar an aspirin 20 minutes ago.
"Yeah, but he wants another one. For later."
"So I guess this wasn’t really an emergency, was it, Elsa?"
"Oh, Mary. You’re funny!"
I don’t give her the aspirin, partly because I’m anxious about drug dosages, and partly because she has, in my opinion, abused the privilege of the bell. I go back to the rotten vegetables.
We get a carload of produce every few days from this terrific family-owned stand up on the west side of El Paso. It is a long drive, but I don’t mind it. Eric, the owner’s son or maybe grandson, helps me load the boxes into the car and then ladles me a big Styrofoam cup of fresh pineapple juice.
We get all the bruised peaches and the papayas that have split open to reveal their glistening caches of seeds, everything a little old, gone a little soft, the banged-up, the imperfect. The produce stand cannot sell it anymore so my house gets itthe house of hospitality where I now live and work, a shelter for migrants and refugees. Last stop for the banged-up of all sorts.
We will get a new load of produce tomorrow, so I am trying to make space. I ponder a bag of carrots. I don’t think the cooks will use these gnarled orange witch fingers even if I insist, so I toss the carrots into the cardboard box. A cloud of tiny black flies explodes from inside it.
Elsa irritates the devil out of me. I wash apples, cut off the mushy bits and bruises and set them out in a metal baking pan in the sala for people to snack on. Elsa comes and rings the bell and asks if we can have grapes.
"I’m right here, Elsa, you don’t have to ring the bell."
"So can I have grapes?"
"No, I tell her, we are eating apples."
"So there aren’t any grapes?"
I press my thumbnail into the tip of my index finger, hard, which is my way of concentrating annoyance in a place other than my voice. I have to admit that yes, there are grapes. But we are eating apples.
Twenty minutes later I have not been able to think of a good reason to deny Elsa grapes, so I fish some out of the drafty caverns of the refrigerator. Half of them spill mold from splits in the skin, so they look like little bullets of solid mold with purple jackets. I pick off the intact grapes, run them under the faucet and set them out next to the apples. "Grapes, Elsa," I announce.
"Maybe later," she says.
When I walk through the house to announce dinner, she is smoking in the laundry room. I have already warned her about this "No! Oscar was the one smoking last time," she points out indignantly. But you were there! I sputterand so I write her an advisory on a small white slip of paper, sign my name and make her sign alongside. I say, trying to keep the shrillness out of my voice, that the house we live in is 100 years old. If it catches fire our families will be lucky to sift our bodies out from the charcoal.
Again, Elsa thinks I am being funny. I bore a crescent through my index finger.
After dinner, while the guests wash dishes and sweep out the sala, I pull a milk crate of mangos out of the bodega. I love mangos probably as much as I love peace and justice for all. These are Manilas, the small, champagne-taste, yellow mangos that curve and fit in the palm like gun handles. The season peaked two weeks ago; we eat a bit behind the harvest here.
These mangos are in rough shape. When I take the crate off the shelf I uncover a pool of juice in which several cockroaches have died blissful, sticky deaths. I set the crate on the wooden table in the office. Immediately a new puddle starts to collect. It’s as if the mangos are weeping.
I pull a cutting board and knife from the dish rack. The first mango I cut into is mined through with hard white clumps, like teeth. Yuck. I roll it to one side. The next mango practically falls open. Its bruised flesh is the color of a thundercloud. I put four mangos on the cutting board and sink the knife by turns into each. Bad, bad, bad, bad. Feeling as though I have just found coal in my stocking, I tip them back into the crate. I am going to throw them all away. I pick up the crate. The bell rings. I don’t even look.
"What, Elsa?" I yell toward the office door. She pokes her head in. "Are you busy, Mary?"
"Cutting mangos," I say, and I set the crate of mangos down and pull one out.
"Well, can I talk to you? While you cut."
There is a long silence while I open the mango and carve the pit out. I find a little good fruit left around the white stonenot much, but a few bites’ worth. I slice it off.
"Yeah, of course, I say at last."
Elsa sits down on the bench next to me. The wood creaks. She says in a voice much too slender for her: "I need to get an abortion."
My knife strikes through to the pit and stops there, jarred out of its course.
There is a silence like a long cement hallway.
I am thinking of two things Elsa has asked me for tonight, an aspirin and an abortion. Sort-of cures. A quick fix for Oscar and a quick fix for Elsa. Or maybe both of them are for Oscar. I ask quietly, "Elsa, why do you need an abortion?"
"Oscar’s leaving me. We fought. He won’t let me talk to anyone. He says he’s going to hop a train tomorrow - Denver, Kansas City, won’t even say for sure where." She rests her elbows on the sticky table and rests her forehead on her fists. "What am I going to do with a baby?"
Through all this I keep pulling mangos out of the throwaway crate. I cut into them, more carefully this time, scavenging for yellow pieces. I cut away peel and stone. The good bits go into a bowl. They slide around, tiny and inconsequential, like flecks of gold in a pan.
When I lived by the ocean I used to sit for hours and watch the tide swirl into a hole in the rocks. The hole was shrouded with seaweed. Blue-black mussels clung to the walls and there were dozens of squat, squishy lumps of sea anemones. You could hardly recognize them, shriveled as they were out of water. As the tide rose through invisible crevices, the water wrought a transformation. The mat of seaweed floated up and spread out like a green fan, suddenly delicate - weightless. The anemones unpuckered and put pale green and pink tentacles out to sift the current. At the touch of salt water everything that had been closed bloomed.
That is how the grief wells up in Elsa - inexorably, seeping through the cracks. She’s crying now. Her face is what it always was, of course. She is still the woman who has driven me crazy all week, but as I watch her cry she opens up into something unexpected, inexplicablenot beautiful, but something near it. I glimpse a little bit of what she carries. And now I think, "go ahead and annoy the hell out of me, Elsa, you go right ahead and ask for grapes when I set out apples. You’ve got enough on your plate."
After a long time her flood of words and tears spends itself. Then she says, "What should I do?"
I hold my breath before answering. What do I know? I know how to cut mangos. My bowl is filling up with gold. Finally, though everything I can think to say seems terribly inadequate, I tell her: "Elsa, an abortion - that’s a really serious thing."
"It’s not a decision you should make in one night, or when you’re this upset."
"But what choice do I have? What would I do with a baby?"
"You do have choices. Please don’t think abortion is your only one. There are people who would help you with your pregnancy, you could think about adoption...." I feel the salt water rising in me now. "And look, Elsa, whatever you choose to do...." This next bit is hard for me to say, but not as hard as it would have been an hour ago. "Whatever you choose to do, you know you have a home here with us. You can stay as long as you need to - to work this out." Even thinking of Elsa staying forever, I don’t have to dig my thumbnail into my finger this time.
"Can you get me a T-shirt?" she asks.
"You have to ask your volunteer for a T-shirt."
"Can I have those mangos?"
"No! They’re for everyone and besides, it’s already bedtime." She gets a sulky look on her face so I say quickly, "We’ll have them at breakfast tomorrow." The mango pits and peel and rotten parts almost overflow the trash can; the parts I’ve salvaged fill the bowl. Not too bad. Later, after I close the house, I put the good mangos in the freezer.
The next morning at breakfast Elsa tells me she thinks she won’t abort her baby. She doesn’t know what she will do, but she’s not so upset today. Maybe she and Oscar made up. I don’t know.
I put out the bowl of mangos as I promised. They go like hotcakes. I manage to snag just one piece for myself. It is so good: sweet as honey and colda mango-sicle. The freeze goes straight to my head. And to think I almost threw out the whole crate.
As I see it, there are two lessons to learn from the overlooked, the banged-up, the bruised. One is just how bad things can get. The other is how much can be saved.