Sandra was stuck at the traffic lights where route forty hit the turnpike. She was thinking about strawberries. The ones she had bought were not good enough. They were fat and red, beautifully ripe, but they were hothouse berries and most likely tasteless. Del wouldn’t complain, and neither would the girls, but she would know she could have done better. And this knowledge would spoil Sandra’s dessert — perhaps even the entire meal. Unlike Del, she could lie awake all night worrying about things: McCain or Iran or maybe just the groundhogs in the backyard — they were tearing up her flowerbeds, she was going to have to trap them. She supposed that her husband’s learned calm, his unruffled mind, was the thing that made him a good leader. When they had arrived in western Maryland ten years ago, his first act as school superintendent had been to fire fifty-three untenured teachers — the middling ones, as he put it. He hadn’t cared who was related to whom, or which tie-clipped County Commissioner had an ear with the School Board President. There was an uproar. For his sake, Sandra had kept herself pinned to the local gossip, tuning into the AM radio shows that stoked the local chatter. This was before the Internet was much of anything, thank God. They think you’re aloof, she would warn him, you have to show them that you’re not an elitist. Instead her husband had begun a ‘Campaign Against Mediocrity’. There was a slogan, borrowed from one of his management books: ‘Good Enough is the Enemy of Excellence’. Her daughters found it hilarious, they would use the phrase when their father flubbed the household chores, holding up stained wine glasses and pointing to dust bunnies in the corners of the living room. They were smart, pretty girls, though Sandra was careful not to let them know just how smart and pretty. She didn’t want anyone calling them stuck-up.
The light changed and the car behind Sandra beeped as if she hadn’t noticed. It was her grey hair – she shouldn’t wear it in a bun – they thought there was an old lady behind the wheel. She was heading home after a long morning of grocery shopping. Today was Del’s fifty-eighth birthday and her daughters were coming home for the occasion. She was going to cook a nice dinner: grilled vegetables and sausage, warm potato salad, green beans, homemade bread. For dessert they would have strawberry shortcake, which was Del’s favourite.
The more she thought about it, the more she knew the strawberries were going to be a problem. They were the centrepiece of the dessert — no, the very reason for the dessert’s existence — and so their quality couldn’t be overlooked. But there was nowhere local to buy good strawberries. While the organics movement had swept the rest of the country, Sandra’s corner of Maryland had somehow been neglected. She was lucky there were still so many farms; it was easy for her to buy fresh produce that way. But strawberry season was over and none of the roadside stands were selling them anymore. Sandra yearned for co-ops and boutique groceries that more cosmopolitan regions boasted; they would sell the strawberries she wanted. The closest equivalent was a Whole Foods in Frederick, but that was a ninety-minute drive away, and that couldn’t really be justified. Not with gas prices being what they were. Not with global warming being what it was.
She knew of one place where she might find the strawberries she wanted — a new ‘gourmet market’ called Horizons. But the store was located in a strip mall that Sandra had vowed to boycott. This was a private vow, but a heartfelt one, and she had kept it for almost four years. It had always been an easy promise to keep: Every time she passed that vulgar building she thought of the beautiful farmhouse that had once stood in its place. The property developers had razed it in the middle of the night. That was the detail that always got to her — that they had wanted the cover of darkness. What had they been afraid of? Had they thought she would chain herself to a tree? Lie down in front of bulldozers? She and the other protestors had actually planned to do nothing. By then they were worn out. They had only wanted to watch, to say goodbye. She could still recall her despair she felt when she found the site empty — a loved one buried before she could identify the body. And in the weeks that followed she would continue to mourn, feeling a sharp pinch of grief each time she noticed that a new phase of construction had begun. They built it quickly and then there was an exultant grand opening with hundreds of red, white and blue balloons bouncing in the air. Each of the stores had stretched a plastic banner across its windows; Sandra had counted four misplaced apostrophes. This was before Horizons had taken up residence in the building — the first comers were all tacky franchises. It was painful to remember what had been there before — the simple stone farmhouse with its melancholy eaves, the row of abiding, shade-giving beeches. One look at those trees and you couldn’t help thinking of Willa Cather, who had written so beautifully about the native beeches. At one phase of their negotiations, when they had given up on saving the farmhouse, Sandra had argued for the preservation of those beeches. Surely the parking lot could be designed to accommodate them? Had she actually quoted Cather’s words? It was so hard to know what would be deemed pretentious. This was the hardest part about being an outsider: no one believed your tears. It didn’t matter how much she loved that farmhouse; she was from somewhere else, therefore she was a fetishist.
And yet, this farmhouse had warranted special attention. For one thing, it had a name: Fox Deceived. According to local legend, the property had once been a chicken farm. When a greedy fox began to terrorize the area, the farmer gave up on poultry and started to keep cows instead. The fox disappeared and the switch was deemed a victory. To mark the occasion, the farmer had named the house Fox Deceived — a reference to the Uncle Remus stories popular at the time. Like many of the farmhouses in the region, Fox Deceived had often had a public as well as private use. During the Civil War it had been a church and later, a hospital. It was rumoured that President Lincoln had once visited and had delivered a consoling speech to the soldier-invalids there, but this had never been proved.
Sandra had fallen in love with the property on her first trip to the region, when she travelled with her husband for his final interview. That last meeting had been a formality; the real test was to see if Sandra would be willing to move to such a rural area. After seeing Fox Deceived and a half-dozen farmhouses like it, Sandra decided that she could. The romance of all those old buildings seduced her; they were so magnificent and unusual, and she couldn’t help thinking that if they’d been located in more prosperous regions, they would have fetched three times the price. They had actually put a bid on Fox Deceived but when the counter-offer came they didn’t match it because by then they had honed in on another farmhouse — the one they lived in now.
Sandra was approaching the mall now and still worrying over her strawberry problem. She looked for excuses to go to Horizons. If Del were celebrating his sixtieth birthday she could say, ‘You only turn sixty once!’ Fifty-eight got her nowhere. It was true that Horizons was the kind of store she should be patronizing. That is, she wanted it to be successful. She wanted it to expand, to open new outlets in less offensive locations. Of course Horizons wouldn’t franchise itself, because it wasn’t the kind of store that did that kind of thing. But perhaps other stores like Horizons — other stores from more affluent counties, other stores that carried different ‘other’ things such as, say, organic strawberries shipped down from New York or New Hampshire or wherever it was that strawberries were in season right now — perhaps these other stores would see the success of Horizons and say, There is untapped potential in western Maryland! ‘Untapped potential’ was one of Del’s phrases. Sandra realized that she was imagining the proprietors of these progressive groceries to be social reformers like Del. In reality they were all confirmed capitalists with gunmetal hearts.
Now she was getting very close to Horizons; she could see its tongue-red roof, its souped-up sign, the font some faux-naif Helvetica. She had always wondered what the place looked like inside. She’d heard there was a cheese counter, an aisle just for olive oil, and special shelves for foreign imports — biscuits from the UK, sardines from the coast of Spain. Once, she and Del had gone to stay with a friend in the south of France. There had been other guests, one of them a man who was dying of cancer. The man had eaten strawberries every day, big bowls of them, crème fraiche getting in his moustache — they had teased him about that. As it turned out, he survived. Sandra had always thought it was the strawberries. But it was sentimental to remember this story now — it meant she was grasping. She must not go to Horizons. It had been razed it in the middle of the night. She had not been allowed to say goodbye.
Sometimes she wondered what it would have taken to save Fox Deceived. A cynical part of her believed that if just one local person had been part of the protest, there would have been at least a compromise. But all the protesters had been outsiders. Some had been as green as Sandra, but most were people who had moved here in early adulthood, lured in for the usual reasons: marriage, jobs, real estate. They had found their place in the community and were respected. And yet they were always from somewhere else. They carried this fact with them, like a talisman — its meaning changing depending on the situation. Sometimes it was a point of pride, sometimes a chip on the shoulder. Sometimes it was nothing at all — or rather, it was overshadowed by other, more important facts. Del, for instance, never really felt it. He was the boss of so many people; he was used to being set apart. And the girls; they didn’t feel it, either. They had moved on now and, when they had lived at home, there had been school, where the rules were different.
She had passed Horizons. Temptation was behind her. But now she was thinking of Del. Her husband loved dessert and he deserved something special on his birthday. He’d been the sole provider for over twenty years now; had never complained, never searched for his soul. Was he not owed a decent pint of strawberries? It made no sense for her stuck-up ethics to get in the way of his strawberry shortcake; he shouldn’t suffer because of her foolish pride. Before she could change her mind, Sandra pulled over to the side of the road and turned her car around. She would go to Horizons just this one time. It would be a kind of sacrifice.
Sandra cautiously pulled into the parking lot; there was the danger that she would run into an acquaintance, with someone who knew of her protests on behalf of Fox Deceived. Sandra scanned the other cars. Nothing to worry about but she should be quick. She parked near a row of scrawny bushes — of course they were suffering here, any living thing would. For a moment she hesitated, thinking back to those Cather-like beeches, but it was too late; she had already caught sight of the produce displayed out front, piled high on to tiered wooden racks. The variety was overwhelming: Apples, blueberries, apricots, limes. Corn in its sheaves and tomatoes on the vine. Scarlet peppers and deeply purple plums. Above them, hidden in voluptuous awnings, were misting sprinklers, keeping everything fresh. The strawberries were in a corner, nesting in green cardboard containers. Their sunny, spicy fragrance brought to mind innocent summer pleasures: mint tea, picnics, badminton. She took the first pint that caught her eye and went inside to purchase them.
It was past six. Sandra was in the kitchen, fussing with the potato salad and waiting for Del to come back from the train station with their youngest daughter. The older one was in the living room, sipping at a glass of wine and reading one of her tawdry magazines. Sandra glanced at the clock on the stove — a quarter after. They should have been home twenty minutes ago; she couldn’t understand what was taking them so long.
Her strawberries were in a white bowl on the counter, washed but uncut. She would wait until after dinner to prepare dessert – she liked to have the biscuits warm from the oven. Sandra had so far resisted tasting the berries but now, out of nervousness, she popped one into her mouth. Delicious. She quickly covered the bowl with a checked tea cloth to avoid further temptation. Everything about the strawberries seemed sinful. Thinking about serving them to her family she felt almost guilty — as if she were making them complicit in her betrayal. But at the same time, she felt she was protecting them: they would never have to know what had gone into the dessert they were about to enjoy.
She decided she would wait outside; it was starting to cool off now, and there was a nice breeze. She settled on to one of the wing chairs on the side porch, breathing in sweet honeysuckle air. She’d planted the vine herself, when she first moved in, and now it grew up and around the porch’s thick, white columns. Above this porch was another one, identical but screened in, with sliding glass doors. Her daughters called it a ‘double-decker’, but it was known officially as a ‘Maryland porch’. Sandra thought it was the house’s best feature. It might even have been what convinced her to buy the place. But it was hard to say what made you pick one house over another. It was like choosing a husband. You had to go with your gut instinct.
She heard them in the driveway, pebbles crunching, two car doors slamming shut, and went to the front walk to greet them. They were both overburdened, not wanting to make two trips from the car, her daughter carrying a conspicuously large paper bag — a present for her father, Sandra guessed.
‘Sorry we’re late,’ he said. ‘We had to stop to get some ice cream.’
‘Ice cream?’ Sandra repeated. This made no sense. He knew they were having shortcake, had already complimented her on the gleaming strawberries.
‘It’s for the cake,’ her youngest daughter said, holding up the brown paper bag. It was then that Sandra noticed the emblem on its side: Benny’s Bakery.
‘Apparently it’s the best cake in Baltimore,’ Del said. His smile alluded to their daughter’s promiscuous use of the phrase ‘the best’. But Sandra couldn’t find it funny, not at that moment. She was thinking of her shortcake; how that sturdy brown bag had usurped its throne. Her dessert was now irrelevant; its ingredients would languish in her refrigerator.
Her daughter was oblivious. She was hugging Sandra now, and describing this party-crashing cake of hers. It was three layers, chocolate, and infused with something new and flamboyant. There was mint involved.
‘We should chill it,’ her daughter said, going into the kitchen. ‘The frosting is already starting to melt.’ She opened the refrigerator and then began to rearrange its contents to make room for her gift. Soon the countertop was crowded with miscellaneous condiment jars and other awkwardly sized containers. Among them was the pint of heavy cream. What on earth would she do with that now? And what of the strawberries? They would have them at breakfast, with plain yogurt; they would be thought of as healthy and wholesome. No one would notice their pedigree, their luxury.
‘Don’t forget the ice cream,’ Del said.
‘We should put that downstairs,’ Sandra said. They had a freezer in the basement, which was an indulgence — especially now that it was just the two of them.
‘I’ll take it.’ Del began to head toward the back stairs.
‘No, it’s your birthday,’ Sandra said, happy for a reason to excuse herself.
The basement stairs creaked as Sandra walked down and she remembered that she’d been thinking of having them replaced. Once she had thought she would redo the entire basement, but over the years she had become attached to its soft dirt floor and the strange, cobwebby smell of the woodpile in the corner. There was an old hearth down here, notable because it was original to the house. It didn’t work anymore, the flue had been stopped up for decades, but there was a kettle inside — a cauldron, the girls once called it — and a heavy iron poker. At the other end of the basement was a door that led straight to the backyard. Sandra liked to imagine the women who must have used that back entrance, going from sunny yard to basement shade and back again, carrying with them baskets of potatoes and squash, carrots and pumpkins. She felt a mysterious connection to these women, as if they were distant relatives. Perhaps this was what people meant when they said they believed in ghosts. Her thoughts naturally returned to Fox Deceived and it occurred to her that the demolished farmhouse must have had a basement like this one, and with it, a host of ghostly women. Then she imagined these women, wandering through Horizons, searching for their ancestral home. They were blue-lit and transparent, like movie ghosts. They would have seen her buying her strawberries, they would have bit their blue ghost lips in agitation; it was them she had truly betrayed. She was filled with new strains of remorse, and as she put the ice cream away, she reflected guiltily on her weak nature. Of course she had gone to Horizons — she couldn’t even give up her extra freezer. She wanted to stay down there in the cool, damp darkness and atone in some way, but she knew her daughters would soon call to her. And what would she say when they asked, What took you so long? That she was thinking about strawberries?
Photograph © mako