The Lemon Handlers
by Beth Wodzinski
Charlie’s 11:30 appointment was wearing a musky perfume. The scent, intoxicating, mingled with the clean scent of the lemons she carried.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Gwen.” She extended her hand. Charlie gaped at it for a moment, and then rushed to shake it.
“Pleased to meet you.” She smiled at him, and he blushed. Her eyes were the color of lemon leaves.
“Thank you,” she said, and sat, more gracefully than he thought possible.
“What can I do for you?”
“Well,” she said, “I’ve recently come into some money, and I’m considering investing it in a lemon orchard.”
Now he knew she was perfect. “Where were you considering purchasing?”
“Magnificent!” Charlie had spent years in Italy, learning his craft. “That’s the best place for lemons. And how much were you considering investing, if I may ask?”
She told him, and he whistled. “You’ll be able to buy a very nice orchard for that.”
Gwen smiled at him. “Yes, my late husband left me very well-provided for.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said, but his heart leapt. Perhaps after enough time had passed...
“My lawyers have found three properties for me to consider,” she told Charlie. “I’ve brought samples of their fruit. I need you to evaluate them for me, and tell me which orchard I should purchase.” She put the bag of lemons on his desk.
“Yes, of course” he said. She opened the bag and held it toward him.
Charlie picked up the first lemon. “A Bearss,” he said, instantly recognizing it. But who could ever mistake a Bearss? He hefted it in his hand; it had a papery feel to it. He was in a sorting shed, packing lemons in a crate to ship to the United States, carefully arranging lemon after lemon, nestling them just so in the box, and out of the corner of his eye he could see the new girl they’d hired to pick the fruit, she was laughing with the foreman, ducking her head and looking up at the foreman in that way she had, she’d never look at him that way, he’d tried to talk to her yesterday but she just laughed and walked away and even now he felt the shame of it, and she said something to the foreman and threw her head back and laughed, and the foreman looked over at him, and laughed with her.
Charlie set the lemon down. “It’s a good lemon,” he said. He was used to having more time to evaluate lemons, time to sort through all the impressions, time to watch them rise up and fade away. “But the tree is a little past its prime.”
“How can you tell that?” Her lips parted slightly.
“It’s a gift,” he told her. “And years of training.”
“How lucky for me,” she said. “My husband was an expert in his field, too.”
“How did he die?” He blushed and tried to take back his words. “I’m sorry, that’s too personal. Please forgive me.”
She shook her head. “No, no, it’s all right. I’m sure you read about it in the papers. He was killed by his mistress, and then she killed herself. In the Chandler Hotel, seven months ago.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said. He did remember reading about it. Respected diamond dealer, found dead with his secretary. “So sorry.” He wanted to put his arms around her and comfort her.
“Thank you,” she said, and her eyes glittered with withheld tears. “But please. Let’s just continue.”
He pulled the second lemon out of the bag. “Ah, interesting. It’s a rare variant of a Femminello Ovalle.” He smelled it. “Excellent quality, too. This orchard has been tended carefully.” Now he was in a warehouse in the United States, unpacking lemons and sorting them. He hadn’t had a drink for four days, four days straight, didn’t he deserve a drink? Just one, really, as a reward, didn’t he deserve it? Maybe a martini, yes, a martini, that’s what he wanted, a dry martini, he deserved it, he hadn’t even had a drink yesterday when his boss told him that the other workers had been complaining about them, hadn’t even had one lousy drink, and he wanted it, wanted it...
Charlie set the lemon down on the table, and looked away from it.
“After we’re done here,” he said, terrified, “Could I buy you lunch?”
Gwen smiled. “I’d be delighted. I feel like we have so much in common.”
“Let me see the last lemon, and then we can leave.” In his mind he was already at the restaurant with her, telling her the secrets of lemons.
“Here,” Gwen said, and picked up the third lemon. She held it out to him. He extended his hand, and for a moment, they both held the lemon. His eyes locked on to hers.
“It’s a Villafranca,” he began, and then his hand was on the door of the hotel room, unlocking it, how clever she’d been to figure out what was going on, how clever she’d been to flutter her eyelashes at the clerk downstairs and get a key to the room, then the door was open and they were there, her husband and that slut, his secretary, that cheap little slut, what did he see in her? Then the gun was in her hand and she was firing, screaming and firing, and then she couldn’t hear herself screaming because the sound of the gunshot deafened her. Her husband was bleeding, collapsed against the headboard, not moving, and his slut girlfriend was staring at her and her mouth was moving, saying something, but she didn’t care what the little slut was saying, and she shot her, too, and put the gun in the slut’s hand just so, and then she smiled and walked out of the hotel room.
Charlie stared at Gwen, her perfume suddenly sour and acrid. The lemon dropped from his hand, wobbled on the desk, and thudded to the floor.
Copyright © 2005 by Beth Wodzinski