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By Bonnie Jean Foreshaw
It's Thursday morning at 6:00 A.M., and we two have just arrived at the open-air flea market, the largest in south Florida. I'm an apprentice shopper and my teacher is my Aunt Mandy. Later this morning, the market will be hot and crowded—alive with music, laughter, gossip, and bartering about the price of everything from necklaces to nectarines. But at the moment, it's cool and quiet. Our focus is fish.
"Pay close attention to the eyes of the fish," Aunt Mandy instructs as we walk from stall to stall. "If the eyes are clear, not cloudy, and the color of the skin's not fading, then the fish is fresh." Auntie's dressed for shopping in a pink sleeveless blouse, burgundy pedal pushers, Italian sandals, and a white sun visor. I'm wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and rubber flip-flops. I am tall for my age, and starting to get the kind of shape men take a second look at. My glasses take up half my face. "But you have to shop with your finger and your nose, too, not just your eyes," Auntie instructs. "Poke the fish gently near its fin. If it leaves a dent, then you don't want it. If it doesn't, it's probably part of the morning's catch. And listen to me, Jeannie. Fresh fish never smells foul."
We stop at one of the stalls where the fish are lined up, one against the other, on a bed of ice. The fish man approaches us. He's handsome—black hair, hazel eyes, tank top and cut-off jeans. "May I help you, ma'am?" I watch him take in Aunt Mandy's curves, her green eyes and honey-colored complexion. I might as well be invisible.
"Well, maybe you can," Auntie says. "Oh, by the way, I'm Mandy and this is my niece, Jeannie. Now what's your name?"
"I'm Ricardo," the fish man says. He's sucking in his stomach, and his feet are moving up and down like he's trying to stretch his height. "It's nice to meet you, Mandy."
"Nice to meet you, too. Now tell me, Ricardo, how much you want for these five yellowtails?"
"Well, let's see. They're seventy-five cents apiece, so that's a total of . . ."
He stops to watch Auntie pass her fingers through her shoulder-length hair. It's salt-and-pepper-colored, but Mandy's still got it. "Uh, three seventy-five." "Oh," Auntie says, half-shocked and half-disappointed. "That fellow three stalls down says he's selling his yellowtails for fifty cents each. So unless we can work out a deal . . ."
The smile drops off of Mr. Ricardo's face, but Auntie's smile returns. Her gold tooth is glimmering. She shifts her weight, puts her hand on her hip.
"Mandy, it's a deal," Ricardo says. "Five yellowtails for two-fifty. That's a dollar twenty-five cut I'm giving you."
"Which I appreciate," Auntie says. "And look at it this way: you've just gained yourself a faithful customer. Now, tell me. How much you selling those red snappers for? If I can get them for the same price as the yellowtails, I'll buy some of them, too. And conch."
I stand there looking from one to the other. Auntie touches the small gold cross at her throat. She fingers her earring. I can tell Mr. Ricardo is only pretending to do the math in his head. "Okay," he finally says. "Sold."
Auntie pays for the fish and conch, thanks him, and we walk away. A few stalls down from Mr. Ricardo's, she turns to me. "Okay, now," she says. "Show me a fresh fish."
I go up and down the row, looking each fish in the eye, then pick one up by its tail. I turn it, look at its other eye, study its coloration. When I press my finger against its head, near the fin, there's no indentation. "This one."
Her look is serious. "You think this fish is fresh?"
I hesitate. "Yes."
Aunt Mandy flashes me her gold-toothed smile. "Well, Jeannie, now you know how to pick fresh fish."
I'm excited to have passed the test, but I've been wondering something. "Auntie?" I say. "I don't remember going to any other fish stalls before we went to Mr. Ricardo's."
She laughs. "You and I knew that, but Ricardo didn't. It's one of the tricks of the trade when you shop at the flea market. But bear in mind, Ricardo would rather make a sale than not sell. If he has fish left at the end of the day, that's a loss and a waste for him. So we were doing him a favor. Now, come on. Let's cross the street and I'll teach you how to pick out vegetables and fruit."
We meander among the tomatoes and squashes, the potatoes and mangoes and plums. Shopping for fresh produce is a matter of looking and smelling, but mostly of feeling, Auntie says. "Fruits and vegetables can get damaged by cold weather, the way they're packed, or how far they've traveled to get to the market. If the skin is firm, that means it's fresh. If it's loose, then it isn't. And always check for bruises."
Although I'm listening to my aunt, it's the peaches in the stall to my right that have my attention. They're big and beautiful, golden yellow with blushes of pink, and their aroma makes my mouth juice up. I'm thinking about how I might get myself one of those peaches.
"Pick us out some bananas," Auntie says. It's test number two.
My eyes pass over several bunches before I pick one up. I check each banana, one by one, then walk over to Auntie, who is examining pears. "These are nice, firm, and yellow," I say, handing her the bunch I've chosen. "Tight skin, no bruises."
She twists the bunch back and forth, then nods her approval. "Good job," she says. Smiling all over myself, I decide to seize the moment. "Auntie, may I get a few peaches?"I'll Fly Away
Excerpted from I'll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison by Wally Lamb, I'll Fly Away Contributors
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