Greg Burton kicked an empty beer can up and down a freezing subway platform. His sister Carol complained about the noise he was making, but the noise didn’t bother her. She was too embarrassed to join him and that’s what really upset her. Greg looked like he was having so much fun. He didn’t even seem to care what the other people on the platform thought about the noise he was making.
“Stop banging that can around, Greg,” said his mother. “The train’s coming. You can’t be late for school again.”
Carol ran in front of her brother and gave the beer can a final kick. They both smiled as it scraped across the yellow line and dropped on to the train tracks.
“Is Daddy going to die in the war,” asked Carol.
Mother shook her head. “Your father’s an airplane mechanic, not a soldier. I doubt he’ll see much action.”
As the subway doors were closing behind them, a dirty man in sunglasses, carrying a handmade cardboard sign, threw himself at the door. The sliding doors crushed his body like a pair of hungry teeth, but he managed to squeeze his way inside the crowded subway car.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the man shouted as the train pulled out. “I’m not a thief or a mugger. Could you please spare some change for a Vietnam Vet who’s hungry? Show your support for the boys over in the Persian Gulf by helping one of their brothers at home.”
When the man held out his cup to Greg the boy grabbed Carol by her arm and mumbled something.
“What’s that you say, son?” asked the beggar.
“I said you smell,” answered Greg.
Greg and Carol arrived at school on time and both endured an uneventful day. But at the exact moment the bell rang to end the school day at P.S. 92 in the Bronx, a Scud missile was launched from Iraq into Saudi Arabia. The New York afternoon was bitterly cold as Greg met his fourth grade sister at the school entrance. The Saudi Arabian evening was warm as Greg’s father slept peacefully inside his barracks.
By the time Greg and Carol climbed the three flights of stairs to their Belmont Avenue apartment, the Scud missile from Iraq had exploded inside their father’s barracks. And by the time Mother returned from work and prepared supper, Greg’s father was gone. Forever.
Days later, after the military man bringing bad news had left the apartment, what was left of the Burton family sat in the kitchen, stunned. Carol began to cry. Mother lowered her head into her arms. Greg became angry.
“You said he wouldn’t die!” shouted Greg at his mother. Carol cried even louder.
Mother raised her head. She tried to speak. But when she choked on her first words, she decided to give up. Once again she lowered her head into her arms.
Greg grabbed his coat and ran out of the apartment. He could still hear his sister’s sobs echoing in the hallway as he bolted out of the building.
“Hey Greg, wait up!” called out Pascal.
Greg ignored his best friend. When Pascal ran over to him, Greg took off. Pascal tried to catch up to Greg, but that was impossible. Everyone knew that Greg Burton was the fastest runner in the sixth grade, and probably the entire school. And that included eighth graders.
When Greg finally stopped running, he was at entrance of Fine Foods Supermarket. Taped to the store’s front window was a huge photograph of his father in his dress blue Air Force Reserve uniform. Sergeant Burton’s frozen smile was framed with yellow ribbon.
Greg stared at the glossy picture. Everyone always commented on his father’s beautiful smile. When Greg was younger he asked his father why his smile got so much attention. Brad Burton pulled his son aside and told him the secret.
“You know how much I love fruits and honey, right?” whispered his father.
“Well, it seems my sweet tooth is very impressive. It’s right here, Greg.” He pointed to his front tooth. “And when I smile everybody sees it. I think it reminds people of all the wonderful things there are to eat.”
When Greg asked his mother why everyone made such a big fuss over his father’s smile, she said it was because he was so handsome. Greg disliked her answer. He was glad there was another guy around the house to set things straight.
Greg Burton quietly made his way through the Fine Foods supermarket. A couple of cashiers and a deli clerk called out to him, but Greg wasn’t listening. Their voices blended in with the shouts for price checks, the beeping of cash registers, the clang of shopping carts, and the cries of cranky children.
The produce aisle was as exciting as ever. It was like an island in the middle of the store. All that color and all those shapes. And the smells. It smelled like Greg’s father.
Greg paused next to a handsome sign stuck in between the avocado and spinach bins. In bold magic marker strokes it proclaimed – THE PRODUCE DEPARTMENT IS PROUD OF THEIR MANAGER, BRAD BURTON, WHO IS CURRENTLY SERVING HIS COUNTRY IN OPERATION DESERT STORM.
The sign was lettered in red and blue on white cardboard, but its artificial colors were swallowed up by the natural colors of the surrounding fruits and vegetables. No one seemed to notice the sign.
A hand dropped onto Greg’s shoulder. Greg turned and slipped from under the grip. It was Corey, the assistant produce manager.
“How’s my boss doing?” asked Corey. “Have you gotten any new letters from him yet? He’s really missed around here.”
Greg shrugged and looked past Corey to the rows of strange and vibrant produce his father had once ordered and organized. He scuffed his way over to the kiwi fruit.
Greg lifted two pieces of kiwi out of the rack. His thumb and index fingers pressed into them. He bruised the tiny green fruit protected by brown fuzz, and then he crushed them. Juice dripped on to the floor. Greg tossed the damaged fruit back into the rack and left.
Had Greg’s father seen someone destroy his produce like that he would have grabbed the person by the collar and marched him into the security office. But Corey just stood there with his mouth open.
After ordering a clerk to clean up the mess he swung open the metal doors to the back produce room and turned on the radio.
Mark Blickley is the author of Sacred Misfits (Red Hen Press) and his most recent play, The Milkman’s Sister, was produced last Fall at NYC’s 13th Street Repertory Theater. This past March his text based art book, Weathered Reports: Trump Surrogate Quotes From the Underground was published by Chicago’s Moria Books. The publisher sent copies to the White House and Congress. Blickley is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center.