The Best Short Story

Bill Trub's Figs

Annabella sliced the tentacles into one-inch chunks and dropped them into a pot of boiling water. The severed octopus should feel at home, she thought. Looking at the watch strapped to her meaty wrist, she saw it was almost one and decided to call her husband in for lunch.

She swatted aside the drapery that hung from the kitchen doorway and walked outside. Sweat beaded across her forehead as the unforgiving sun baked her body. She made her way around the side of the farmhouse and grunted at the discolored paint, chipped from years of sunrays and thick humidity. A thirsty hose lay coiled in the overgrown grass as she turned the corner of the house. Resting in front of her was a sprawling plantation, a graveyard of crops. Rows of olive trees stood feebly and their branches drooped like limp limbs. Dust blew across the rolling field.

"Giovanni!" she yelled. He was perched atop a fig tree about twenty feet in the distance. "Mangiamo!"

He climbed out of the tree with reserved confidence, like a gymnast in his twilight. He unraveled the rope he had used to secure himself to the tree from his waist and walked towards Annabella, kicking up dried grapevines along his path.

"Anna, no mangiamo," he said. "Speak English like we did in America. Say, "Let's eat."

"Gio, we are back in Barletta now. Why must I speak English?" she said as she tucked her stringy black hair behind her ears. Her strong brown eyes hid concern.

"Because we won't be here long. I've already started working the land and once we gather enough figs from the summer harvest, we can move back to New Jersey and reopen the pastry shop."

"Mama mia, Gio! We are not going back to America. We barely lasted two years before we had to close down and we lost too much money. Besides, Italia is our home."

"Anna, dream. Just dream for once. The recipe for fig cookies has been passed down mia famiglia for generations. Nona del Cuore made the best cookies in Italy and I've got her blood in me. We will be an American sensation. It's worth another try."

Anna wiped her brow with her forearm and sighed. "Gio, the polipo is ready by now. Let's eat."

"Octopus, Anna. No polipo."

After a silent lunch, Annabella washed the pot and two dishes in the basin and hung her apron on the back of a chair. "Do you want to lay down for a while?" she asked.

"No, no time to lay down. I'm going out in the field to pull up some grapevines to make space for new fig trees."

"Gio, you always sleep after a big lunch. We aren't in America anymore. Things go fast there. Here we are slower. You forget that we are Italianos, not Americans."

"But we want to be Americans. We want that success, Anna," said Giovanni as he ducked around the drapery and headed out back.

Annabella stood alone in the kitchen. Her eyes welled up as she wringed the dishtowel over the basin. Her tears dropped softly and mixed with the dishwater. "No, you want that success," she said and headed to her bedroom for a nap.

Giovanni spent five hours on his hands and knees in the dirt uprooting dead grapevines. Satisfied with his effort, he walked over to the largest fig tree in the field. He drew back his foot and kicked the trunk, sending all the rotted and unripe figs raining from the branches and cluttering the ground below. Giovanni took off his shoes and walked over to where a cluster of four figs had fallen. He pushed down on them with his bare heel and crushed their thick green skins. The glutinous insides flowed out, slow-moving like lava from Mount Etna, and Giovanni stepped on each one, mushing the sticky fig gel between his toes. He then picked up the rope that was already lassoed around the tree and tied it around his waist. He gripped it firmly, not allowing any slack, and anchored his callused heel onto the base of the tree. He swung his other leg up and over a strong branch and began to climb like he did as a boy.

Giovanni always played in the fig trees growing up, plucking the ripest fruits and chucking them down into a bucket for Nona to wash and prepare later. She would carve out all the gel and preserve it in old pickle jars for months before using it to fill the flaky cookie crusts. But Giovanni couldn't always wait that long. Sometimes when he found a sturdy enough branch, he would straddle it, reach into his side pocket and pull out a perfect fig, one that he had saved from an afternoon of searching. It was a vibrant and proud shade of green and shaped like a teardrop. He would peel back the thick green membrane, carefully, as to not blemish the integrity of the fruit. His mouth would salivate and his tongue would dart out to moisten his plump lips. Then he would raise the fruit to his eager mouth and scrape his bottom teeth across the velvety inside, filling his mouth with sweet fig innards. He swallowed it all down; he never wasted the goodness.

Giovanni lowered himself from the tree long after the sun had sunk into the nearby Adriatic. He went inside the farmhouse where Annabella had awoken from her nap, left him linguini on the stove, and gone back to bed for the night. Giovanni hadn't realized how long he had been resting in the fig tree, reaching and reflecting. He ate his supper standing, looking out the window onto the farm. He imagined the olive trees standing with more vigor and the grapevines healthily entangled along the earth. He looked out to the back of the field where the fig trees were and pictured them multiplied -- dozens of them shooting up from the ground like miniature skyscrapers. Hundreds of figs hanging from the branches like fistfuls of cash protruding from windows - it was his own little Manhattan.

As a year passed, Giovanni's vision became real. Each morning he woke up before the sun did to water and fertilize the crops. He cultivated the soil and planted fig seedlings along the perimeter of the plantation. The grapevines budded and the olive trees flowered; the farm was alive and anew.

"Annabella," he said during supper as he twirled the spaghetti around his fork. "I can taste it."

"I'm glad you finally noticed!" she said. "I made the sauce from tomatoes I picked today and oregano leaves…"

"No, not your sauce," he interrupted. "Success."

"Oh," Anna said, her gaze sliding down to her plate.

"I've been talking to a food distribution company in Newark that wants to send my fig cookies all over America. They say Americans will love them."

"That's too bad," said Annabella as she turned away.

"What do you mean that's too bad?"

"America loves you, Gio, but not me. I see greed in your eyes now, when I married you I saw love. Love for me, love for Italia."

"Anna, I'm doing this for us."

"You're doing this for you! All I want is to have a family in Italia -- you know that. And all you give me is a business in America!"

"What about what I want? What about my dream of finding success in America like mio fratello?"

"Go succeed in America, but fail in my heart, Giovanni. Since we've been back in Barletta, you spend every day out back. Planting figs. Watering figs. Picking figs. Cleaning figs. You care more about those stupid figs than you do about me."

"Anna, if this deal goes through, we are going to make hundreds of thousands of dollars!"

"Lire!" she screamed. "Not dollars! I don't care about the money, Gio! You forget about Italy and you forget about me! That is what I care about! You forget our anniversary, you forget I'm your wife not your maid! You won't even talk to me unless I talk English."

Giovanni looked at Annabella. The blood pulsing beneath her skin reddened her face. Tears slipped down her cheeks and a vein bulged from her forehead. He opened his mouth slowly and said, "I'm going out back to get the figs."

"Vaffanculo!" she cried. "Now I'll say it in English how you like. Fuck you!" She ripped the tablecloth off the table, sending the dishes crashing to the floor. She tore the rotary phone off the wall, hurled it at Giovanni, and rushed into the bedroom sobbing.

He walked out back to the tallest fig tree, barefoot and calm. He stayed in the field until night fell over del Cuore Farm. At midnight, knowing that Annabella would be worn out and asleep in bed, Giovanni went back to the farmhouse carrying a bucket full of freshly picked figs. He placed them beneath the doorway and walked inside. Annabella had swept up the shattered porcelain from the kitchen floor and repositioned the tablecloth back on the table. She hadn't left him macaroni like she usually did; rather she left a note that read: Man from Newark called. Found better recipe. Deal is off.

No, Giovanni thought. He reread it and hoped Anna's English was wrong. No! The months of single-handed labor in the field, the hopeful seedlings, the proud green figs and the proud green dollars, all lost.

The note from Annabella crinkled in Giovanni's fist as he backed out under the drapery and outside. Still barefoot, he walked around the house and up to the farm, blanketed by the black night. He headed towards the tall fig tree, his money tree. He stomped on the fallen figs in his path; his toes became lathered in the jellylike fig insides. When he was within a couple feet of the tree, he bent down to pick up the rope and leaned his head back to see the top of the tree where it was secured.

Rather than tying it around his waist, Giovanni looped it over his head like a necklace. He tightened the slipknot and began to climb up the fig tree, branch by beautiful branch. As he ascended to the highest point, he replayed his last conversation with Annabella over in his head. He had never seen her react so harshly in their fifteen years together, ripping the tablecloth off and tearing the phone out of the wall.

Giovanni's eyes grew wide and a bolt of energy raced down his spine. The man from Newark couldn't have called. The phone was smashed apart and the wires were frayed. Success was not lost! Anna was just trying to sabotage his dream, he thought as he lowered his foot onto a branch to get down. His toes, however, slicked by fig gel, slipped off the smooth branch and he began to plummet from his perch. The freefall was almost acrobatic; his arms spread out to each side resembling a swan dive, until the rope's slack stopped and snapped his neck from his spine.

Annabella woke up in the morning and realized Giovanni hadn't been to bed at all during the night. She walked into the kitchen, swatted aside the drapery and saw the bucket of figs where Giovanni had left them. She reached down, gripped one in her palm, and walked around the house towards the field.

She scanned the farm for Giovanni, panning from left to right. Her head stopped abruptly when she spotted him hanging from the fig tree, swaying in the Adriatic breeze like an unripe fruit waiting to be shaken down.

"Gio!" she screamed. "No, no Gio!" Her knees gave way beneath her nightgown and she collapsed. Her heavy frame slapped down hard and the fig bounced out of her palm. She burrowed her face in the soil, her tears turning it from dirt to mud. She dug her fingers deep into the earth as she wailed; the dirt blackened her clear nails. "Giovanni…" she whimpered.

Annabella lay in the dirt, filthy, seemingly defeated. Her face was soggy and brown grass was matted in her hair. She soon crawled over to where the fig had stopped rolling and clasped her weak fingers around it. She rose up, steadying herself one leg at a time.

Raising the fig above her head as if making an offering to God, she said, "I love you still, Gio." Then she thrust her arm forward and launched the fig towards the tree it came from. It spiraled through the air and images flashed through her mind - a broken olive branch, a fractured grapevine, the hard work, sweat, the dishwater, long years, fig paste, success, love, the thick green membrane, the seeds.

The fig accelerated as it whizzed through the air. It struck Giovanni in his left breast pocket and sent his dead, dangling body into a playful spin.

 

Prizes:

George S. Diamond Prizes
Beck Shakespeare Prize

English Prize
The Erskine Prize
Zinzendorf Prize
Beck Oratorial Prizes