Plump plums in white bowl. Nestled. Like lovers spooning. Black coffee steaming.
(In Four Acts)
Act I: The Farmer
Seventy degrees at seven a.m. In May. Bill Farmer sweated even with a breeze blowing Mary’s lilac window curtains into the kitchen. The hem brushed across the tin mug where his coffee steamed. Poured fresh from the pan, hobo style, which Mary never stood for when she was home.
Bill leaned against the icebox frame, fingers gripping the edge. Stiff-armed, like Nagurski shoving past a Giant’s tackle. He wiped his forehead with his shirt cuff. Hotter this morning thanks to early rain. Outside his window, chickens clucked and cackled. Chasing round the puddles next to his Model T truck and red wheelbarrow.
The New Jersey summer dropped by early. He guessed he’d be driving into Rutherford with both windows down and sleeves rolled.
Bill looked for the eggs he gathered last night. He hoped he didn’t finish the milk. His eyes fixed on the bowl of plums on the center shelf. The morning she left to help their daughter with the newborn, Mary had slapped his hand when he reached for one.
“They’re not ripe. And I’m saving them for pie.”
They looked ripe. Their color shifting from mulberry to Black Corinth grape.
Mary said she’d be back the day after tomorrow, but she was just as likely to wire him with the news she planned to stay in Chicago through the weekend. Like last time. When she had returned with a bag of cosmetics and her hair dolled. Just what she needed to wear about the farm.
She wouldn’t want those plums to spoil.
Fresh plums and black coffee. Bill couldn’t imagine a finer breakfast.
When he finished, he left his breakfast on the table. He could clean after chores, and the ants deserved a fine breakfast, too.
Bill took a sheet of stationery from the entry table drawer to jot a note. He reached for the lamp, but the daylight painted a white canvas on Mary’s blotter. Why waste the electric? He could see fine.
His stomach growled when he dipped the pen in the inkwell.
Maybe those plums weren’t as fresh as he thought.
He jotted the note anyway. He knew he’d forget when he came home tonight.
“I’ve eaten the plums you left in the icebox. The ones you were saving for pie. Forgive me, but they were so delicious. Sweet and cold.”
He left it on her blotter and reached for his Stetson, which was hanging on the hat rack by the front door. His fingers brushed past the felt when he collapsed on the floor. A thin river of blood and plum trickled past his lip.
Act II: The Salesman
After midnight, when every window on the street finally darkened, the kitchen door opened. A man Bill had never met reached under the dining table and found the envelope. Twenty tens, plus three more for expenses. Like promised.
He cleaned the kitchen, returned Bill’s cup to the cupboard, and placed the bowl on the counter. He found the arsenic and set the box next to the bowl. He screened the scene at the front of his mind. Like a talkie. The bereaved wife to the coroner: “I knew he was in the dumps ‘cause the farm was losing money, but I thought he was eager to see his grandchild.”
No doubt she made sure the suicide clause had expired sohis insurance would pay.
He switched on his torch, just briefly, to survey the hall. Good thing, because he found the note, which he folded into his shirt pocket.
He left the key on the hook inside the front door. Just where Mary told him. He crept in the shadows to the Packard he left at the end of the street. So common, no one would think twice if they saw it.
It was due at the rental by ten in the morning.
He drove from Rutherford to Passaic to make sure no one would see him hanging about. He drew up at a stoplight in front of a hospital and remembered the note. Wouldn’t want that found by accident. He wadded it into a tight ball. When the light turned, he let it fly from his fingers.
Act III: The Widow
The salesman marked Mary the moment he saw her. When she came to visit her daughter in the spring. Farmer’s wife, tired of that gingham dress and her painted glass pearls, jealous of her daughter’s life in the city. Red hair dolled up like she planned for dinner and a date.
Looking for any excuse to escape the drudge. Even if it meant an overnight bus ride to “help with the pregnancy.”
Charmed by the line, “Can a drifter ask a tomato for a light?”
She fumbled for a match in her purse. “You work in the building?”
“Home office. I sell farm equipment. My route’s in New Jersey.”
Her fingers stopped at the purse clasp. A ghost crossed her face. The matchbook shook with her wrist. Then she struck and held the flame to his snipe. No jitters now.
“Want to earn extra?”
“How much extra?”
“Got two hundred. In savings. The husband don’t know.”
He figured her for more, but two hundred would do fine.
Act IV: The Poet
Dr. Williams, chief of pediatrics, crossed the parking lot to begin his morning shift. He loved medicine, but poetry more. This morning, he wrestled with a particularly pernicious line.
He spotted the wadded note peeking out from under the running board of a ’32 Chrysler. He snatched it up and read it as he climbed the steps. “I’ve eaten the plums you left in the icebox. The ones you were saving for pie. Forgive me, but they were so delicious. Sweet and cold.”
He mulled the lines for the rest of the day. They were almost perfectly metrical. Just a little tweaking would set them into verse.