A Sweet & Salty Summer (A Short Story)
This was my first attempt at writing any sort of romance from back in 2017. As a writing prompt, it was just a fun exercise to try something different. Since romance isn't a genre I'm comfortable with, I borrowed elements from one of the most delightful courtship stories I've ever heard -- a couple I admire whose romance has spanned decades and served as a foundation for generations. As is often the case, the truth is better than fiction.
“How’s your love life?”
“What? I can't hear you. You’re breaking up.”
“You’re a riot. Tell me. Have you met anyone?”
“Sure. Lots of people. Dad’s secretary is single. Too bad she’s pushing sixty. And the mailman — woman — person — what do they call them?”
“The female mail carrier says I look like a young Tom Cruise.”
“Was she hitting on you?”
“I’m not sure. She’s cross-eyed, it's hard to tell. Mostly she was talking to the sidewalk.”
Curt was rewarded with a snort on the other end of the line.
“Any girls your age?”
“This is Rawlins, Wyoming, Mom. The smart, attractive twenty-somethings don't exactly flock here.”
“I’m glad you at least led with ‘smart’.”
“That's the problem. No one with half a brain would spend their summer here. But it's fine. I don't mind a little quiet time. A chance for reflection and soul-searching is good for a man.”
“Sounds like wallowing to me.”
“Come on, it's not — ”
“I’m just worried about you. Everything with Katie was just so sudden, and then you up and decided to spend the summer with your father totally out of the blue — ”
“It's a job, that's all. I’m not running away from anything. I just wanted a change of pace and can't say no to a good job.”
“Work is good. But I just want to make sure you’re taking time for some fun. Meeting people, that sort of thing.”
“You’ve seen Napolean Dynamite, right?”
“I’ve been to Rawlins. It’s not that bad.”
“Okay, maybe not. But if I come home with a pair of flag pants, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“And your dad? Things okay with him?”
“Fine. But he won't be happy with me if I spend all my time talking on the phone when I’m supposed to be making deliveries.”
“All right, but call me tonight. I want to hear more about this job.”
“Uh, no you don't. I deliver bread to grocery stores. Not much more to say.”
“Wanda calls me the Bun Boy, and I tell her she needs to leave my buns out of it. Do I need to say the same to you?”
“I’m your mother. I gave you those buns.”
“And now it's officially time for me to hang up.”
“Call me later?”
“Tell you what, I promise that I WILL call if there's anything you need to know.”
“I’ll take it.”
Don't hold your breath, Curt thought as he pulled into the parking lot at Ray’s Market. The bread van shuddered to a stop as he threw it into park and squinted at the digital marquee in the parking lot. 106 degrees. The dry wind that blasted him as soon as he opened the door felt like a gust of hell, and by the time he unloaded the cart off the back of the truck, sweat ran down his back.
Curt welcomed the blast of arctic air as he wheeled his delivery rack through the swinging black doors into the brightly lit grocery store. Colorful piles of fruit and vegetables brightened the produce section on his left. A woman in a loud zig-zag print shirt examined the bananas nearby, and Curt shifted slightly to the right to give her a wide berth.
The bread cart jolted to a stop and Curt stumbled forward.
“I’m sorry, ma’am!” he burst out, horrified. He quickly stepped around the cart to see whom he’d hit, his face flaming with embarrassment.
It was no ma’am. Not even a customer. (Whew!) Instead, a slim young woman — well-tanned with dark eyes — stood up, a lemon in each hand. She wore the customary green apron of the Ray’s Market employees.
“Don’t worry, I have strong shoes,” she said cheerily, indicating the Saucony wedged against his cart’s wheel.
“Are you a runner?” Curt asked, excited. It seemed everyone he’d met this summer had one foot solidly on the track to Type 2 Diabetes.
“I am!” she answered, placing the lemons back on the display.
“Do you race?”
“Uh, no. I just do my four miles a day so I can eat whatever junk food I want.” She laughed apologetically and her smile made Curt’s stomach flip in a pleasant sort of way.
“I was hoping to do a half marathon by the end of the summer, just to stay in shape before I go back to school,” Curt said, suddenly aware of how unshapely his delivery uniform looked on him. “Do you know of any races around here?”
She shook her head. “Sorry. I could ask around though.”
“That’d be great. And if you wanted to join me, I’d sweeten the deal with a Hostess fruit pie.”
She groaned. “Even a junk food junkie like me has standards.”
“What are you talking about? Hostess fruit pies are the best! So many preservatives, I think they’d survive a nuclear holocaust. But something about cracking open the crust and licking the gooey filling gets me every time.”
She laughed and it was such a warm sound that Curt wanted her to do it again.
“I’m more a chocolate girl myself. And salt. Anything salty and crunchy…mmmm.”
“Good to know,” Curt said, as he pulled his cart in the direction of the bread shelves. “Less Twinkies and more chocolate-covered chips?”
“Yes!” Her eyes sparkled warmly as she watched him go.
While Curt loaded the bread shelves, he could almost feel her watching him. Or, at least, he hoped she was. He certainly shot his own covert glances often enough. Their eyes met only once, and she grinned. But she was nowhere to be seen when he finished. He scanned the aisles hopefully as he wheeled his cart back to the back of the store, but to no avail.
No matter. There was a lot of summer left, and it had just gotten a bit more interesting.
When Curt parked at Ray’s Market the following Tuesday, he paused for a moment to check his teeth in the rear view mirror — no bits of chicken sandwich left behind from lunch — and pop a piece of mint gum into his mouth. He told himself he wasn't hoping to see Produce Girl, but if he happened to run into her, it didn't hurt to be prepared.
She wasn't in the produce section, or in the meat section. Not that he was looking for her. Maybe she’s at lunch, he thought as he wheeled his empty cart back out to the truck. He wasn't disappointed. Why should he be?
But when he heard a pleasant, familiar laugh, and turned to see her standing in the shade of the building, he couldn't help but feel a tingle of excitement.
Produce Girl didn't see him at first. Her back was turned as she chatted with a couple of coworkers — a teenage boy with acne and a middle-aged woman with the stump of a cigarette in her hand. Smoke break then. Curt was glad to see Produce Girl wasn't smoking. That would have shattered his image of the health-conscious runner whose greatest vice was a weakness for chips. Not that he had an image of her in his head, but if he did…
Should he say hi? He checked his watch. He’d lingered too long stocking the bread shelves. Not because he’d been waiting for Produce Girl, of course. It had just been one of those days. He didn't really have time to chat, but maybe just a quick hello. Something clever that would make her laugh and toss her wavy brown hair.
Yeah, just say hi.
But you can't approach someone just to say hi. You say hi in passing. If you cross the loading dock to talk to a person, you need a reason. Think of a reason…
Gone were the Sauconys from last week. Produce Girl was wearing a pair of thin sandals with beaded straps that crossed at her ankles. Shapely ankles. Runner’s ankles.
Curt timed his witty remark just right. He was almost there. Acne Boy and Smoker Lady had seen him and stopped talking. Produce Girl sensed his approach and turned.
“You won't make it very far in a half marathon in those,” Curt said.
Surprise. Confusion. Produce Girl glanced at her feet and laughed. Awkwardly.
“No, I guess not,” she said. But the tone of her voice was flat. More like, Get away from me, creep.
Acne Boy and Smoker Lady chuckled politely. Produce Girl smiled, but the smile didn't reach her eyes. She turned her back to Curt again.
By the time Curt reached the truck, he was red-faced and sweating, but not from the heat. Smoker Lady’s words echoed in his head.
“Do you know him?”
“I guess. He’s the Bread Guy, you know?”
“Weird, if you ask me.”
On second thought, she wasn't that pretty.
Dark storm clouds blanketed the sky over Ray’s Market, bringing a heavy wetness to the air that felt like breathing through a hot towel. Summer thunderstorms were great when they finally broke the back of the sweltering heat. But the prelude was torture.
Curt scanned the loading dock covertly as he unloaded his cart. Produce Girl was nowhere to be seen. If he was lucky, he could make his delivery without seeing her today. He was still smarting from her snub the previous week. It's not like he was asking her on a date. He was just being friendly. And come on, were there really so many eligible guys in this town that she couldn't spare a few minutes for a decent guy who wasn't bad-looking and almost had a college degree to his name? Judging by the look of Acne Boy, he didn't think so.
As he wheeled the cart past the meat section, Curt spied Produce Girl chatting with a customer. He shifted his body to the opposite side of the cart. Not incognito, exactly, what with a squeaking seven-feet-tall bread cart announcing his presence to the whole store. But if he just happened to do his delivery without making eye contact with her, what of it?
It almost worked. Curt piled the last of the old inventory onto the cart and headed back the way he’d come. He was almost to the loading dock when he hit something and the cart stopped hard.
Produce Girl stood there, grinning, one foot jammed against his cart.
“Apple or blackberry?” she asked. In her hands she held two Hostess fruit pies.
Okay, maybe she was pretty.
Curt smiled. “Definitely apple. The little chunks of fruit almost make it seem healthy.”
“Ha! Can you eat Hostess on your shift? Or is that part of your noncompetitive agreement with Bella’s?”
“Fortunately my dad is Bella — or owns it, at least — so he won't care.”
“Good. And fortunately my dad owns this store, so he won't mind if I join you.”
Produce Girl followed him out to the loading dock. The wind had picked up and lightning flashed in the distance, but the black clouds were still holding back. They sat on the edge of the loading dock, eating their pies and comparing the relative viscosity of the blackberry goop to the apple.
Curt flirted shamelessly, reveling in the feeling like stretching a tight muscle. He hadn’t met a girl who’d piqued his interest since he and Katie split up. Produce Girl had a comfortable ease about her that made him feel like stepping outside in his running shoes after a long cold winter to discover it was spring. Her eyes were bright and intelligent, and he found himself wondering if her sun-bronzed skin was as soft as it looked.
The pies didn’t last nearly long enough. Before he knew it, Produce Girl wiped the crumbs off her apron and jumped up.
“Now I know why you want to run a half marathon this summer. I feel like I need to go run laps around the parking lot just for that!”
“Wasn’t it great?” Curt grinned.
“Yeah.” She cocked her head at him and said meaningfully. “Yeah, it was.”
He knew she wasn’t talking about Hostess fruit pies.
“See you next week, Curt!”
And that’s when he realized that he was an idiot.
What was Produce Girl’s name? She didn't wear a tag on her apron and he hadn't thought to ask. But she knew his name, which meant that there was no way he could ask for hers now without looking unbelievably lame.
Time for some research.
Facebook was useless. He didn’t have any connections with anyone in Rawlins. He could ask his dad if he knew the owner’s family, but that would provoke a lot of questions. And Dad tended to have far too many opinions about...well, everything. He really didn’t want to hear about how Produce Girl had once broken her nose during the 8th grade school play and that’s why it had that small bump on the ridge — a detail he might have noticed because he was memorizing her features while she talked. Maybe.
He tried to imagine what it was.
Whitney? Nah,that sounded too snobbish.
Kelly? Nope, she wasn’t blonde.
Her name would be something special. Like Juniper. Only not Juniper because that would be dumb.
It was time for reinforcements.
The next week, Curt sought out Acne Boy and found him in frozen foods.
“Hey, dude. What’s the girl’s name who works in produce?”
Acne Boy looked at him blankly. “Which one?”
“The cute one. Brown hair, eyes, runner…”
Acne Boy blinked. “Yeah, okay. I get it, but — ”
“Never mind,” Curt said, ducking out of the aisle as Produce Girl entered at the other end.
Plan two. Maybe today she’d be wearing a name tag.
But if she was, Curt never saw it. Produce Girl stayed at the other end of the produce section, never venturing near the bread section. Curt kept watching to see if he could make eye contact, but she seemed to be almost studiously avoiding him.
Finally she turned and caught him watching her. He smiled and waved. She lifted her fingers half-heartedly, then quickly turned away again.
Curt felt that familiar sinking feeling of having made a fool of himself. Again. What was her deal? Was her dad mad about the Hostess pie break the week before? Had Curt gotten her in trouble? Maybe he should just play it cool and leave without trying to see her today.
Disappointed, Curt wheeled the cart out into the bone dry heat. He’d try again next week. But next week seemed a lifetime away.
He turned in delight as Produce Girl darted out the back of the store into the sunlight, shading her eyes against the light.
She looked at the open van and stopped. “Sorry, I don’t mean to hold you up. I just wanted to say hi.” She paused.
“No, it’s fine,” Curt said. “Hi.”
There was a moment of awkward silence as he searched for something to say.
“Oh! I have something for you.”
“Yeah. Thought you might want a snack break today.” Curt grabbed the two bags of Lays chocolate-dipped potato chips he’d stashed earlier on the cart.
Her eyes brightened and then dimmed. “I wish I could! But we’re pretty slammed today. Lots of people on vacation. Maybe another time?”
“Sure.” Curt handed over the bag. “For your next break.”
“Thanks!” she sang out as she headed back to the store.
It wasn’t exactly what Curt had in mind, but she seemed genuinely disappointed to turn him down.
Clearly there was potential.
Clearly nothing would happen if he just relied on weekly run-ins at Ray’s.
He was going to have to ask her out.
But he still didn't know her name.
For better or for worse, the next time he drove to Ray’s Market he wasn't alone.
“Wanda’s auction is just next week.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You want me to get Carol’s number for you?”
“Huh?” Curt looked at his dad, wondering what he’d missed while he’d been watching the brown fields pass and thinking about Produce Girl.
“You gonna ask her out?”
“Carol’s daughter. I thought you wanted to take her to the auction.”
“Uh…no, I didn't plan on it.” Curt vaguely remembered his dad and Wanda making some suggestions about a sweet girl they wanted him to meet.
“You’ve gotta have a date for this thing,” Dad said, but his tone suggested, And you’d better make it a good one.
“Come on, Dad. It’s a bunch of old hicks getting dolled up to eat chicken fried steak and drink cheap wine. No one is going to care if I have a date.”
“I care. This is the most prestigious charity event in the county, and Wanda really wants you to make a good impression.”
“So you want Carol’s number?”
“No. I’ve got somebody else in mind.”
“Who?” Dad demanded.
Curt bristled. He didn't want to tell him, but he’d find out anyway. Might as well see if he could help.
“Do you know Ray’s daughter? She’s working there this summer.”
“Can't remember a daughter. Seems like he had a bunch of boys, maybe even a set of twins? Really athletic, all of them. Maybe the youngest was a girl, I don't know.”
“Well, he’s definitely got a daughter. I’ll ask her today.”
His dad grunted, but it didn’t sound like approval. He adjusted the a/c vents to blow more directly on him, and they rode the rest of the way in silence.
Curt could think of a dozen other ways he’d rather spend time with Produce Girl than hanging out with a roomful of Uncle Ricos. Had she seen Napolean Dynamite? If she liked it, the evening could be ripe for some pretty good mocking. If the event was too awful, they could skip out early and do something else. He’d have to have something really good as a back-up.
By the time he’d unloaded the bread cart, Curt had already moved on past the chicken fried steak to a romantic sunset over the bluffs.
“I’ll take in the cart,” his dad offered.
“I thought you had a meeting with Ray.”
“Sure, but you’ve got a girl to ask out. I don't want you to screw it up and make my customer mad. I’ll handle this.” He winked as he said it, and Curt sensed he was offering an olive branch.
Fine. He’d take it. But walking into the store without the comfort of the bread cart felt a little…exposed.
Focusing on that romantic sunset, Curt scanned the aisles as he headed toward produce, hoping she was alone.
In a way, he realized, the auction made this so much easier. If she wasn't that interested in him, he could just pitch it as, “Hey, I’ve got this thing…and I don't know anyone else…and it's not because I like you…”
Curt heard the squeaking bread cart behind him and quickened his pace. He didn't really want an audience for this. He rounded the corner into produce eagerly…
And stopped dead. Produce Girl was there all right.
Both of them.
Both with the same face. The same bronze skin. The same eyes. They turned to him and the mixture of amusement and surprise in their eyes was exactly the same.
“Hi Curt,” one of them said.
“Hey.” He tried to affect a casual air to hide his panic.
“Did you forget something?”
“Where’s your bread?”
“Oh. No, my dad has the cart.”
They both looked expectantly at him. One wore a summery polka-dot blouse, the other a red t-shirt. He could see the barely suppressed mirth behind their identical dark eyes.
To his relief, his dad rounded the corner on his way to the bread aisle. “I’d better go help…” Curt said, and hurried after him.
“All right.” “See you.” Identical voices called after him.
His face reddening, Curt could barely see straight as he unloaded the cart.
“So?” his dad asked. “That was quick.”
“I…I didn't ask her.”
“Twins, Dad. Not boys. Girls. I don't know which one I’ve been — oh…” The pieces clicked into place.
“What? What is it?” His dad’s bushy gray eyebrows drew together in a frown.
“I’m such a moron. I couldn't figure out why sometimes she was friendly and flirty and other times she wanted nothing to do with me.”
To his credit, his dad didn't laugh. He peeked over his shoulder at the two sisters working together.
“So which one likes you?”
“I don't know! They look exactly the same. Exactly. And I don't even know her name! I can't very well say, ‘which one of you is the nice one?’”
“Well, you’d better get back over there and ask one of them. The auction is next week. Or should I call Carol tonight?”
Curt almost considered it. But no. He and Produce Girl — his Produce Girl — had a connection, he was sure of it. He should be able to sense it. He should be able to pick the right one. Right?
While his dad rolled the bread cart away, Curt lingered. The sisters were working separately now, and he only had a few seconds before he had to commit. He picked the closest one loading romaine lettuce; the one in the red t-shirt.
“Hi,” he greeted.
She turned, and again, her eyes sparkled with hidden laughter. “Yeah?”
“My stepmom’s got this thing next week. It's a charity auction and I’m supposed to bring someone and I wondered if you’d want to come?”
The sparkle died and he realized immediately he’d chosen wrong. She glanced at her sister, watching them from the potatoes. “Sure, I guess.”
“Okay, thanks.” His heart sank. “Uh, can I get your number?”
Carol’s daughter was looking better and better all the time.
Kicking himself as he passed out into the loading dock, he heard his name.
The Produce Girl in polka-dots ran up to him. She was flushed a little and smiled awkwardly.
“My sister…she just remembered she has something going on that night. But I’d like to come if you still need a date.”
Curt grinned with relief. He could have kissed her right then and there. But he would wait for the romantic sunset.
“Sounds great. It might be a little dull, but maybe we could get ice cream afterward.”
“It’s a deal. The first time I hear ‘If coach had put me in, we would’ve won state,’ that's our signal. We’re out of there!”
“Agreed. Oh, and I feel a little dumb asking, but what's your name?”
She grinned. “Rachel.”
Rachel. A name for elegance and comfort and sweaty runs and easy laughs.