A. T. Greenblatt
There was no helping it. The apple in my pocket bulged like a badly kept secret as I entered the hotel lobby. The receptionist at the desk arched an eyebrow as I passed.
“The tennis courts are one floor up right?” I asked. She nodded, but didn’t lower the eyebrow. “Thanks.”
I made my way to the elevators, pretending I was innocent and was just on my way to meet a friend for a match. I think my performance was plausible. The curvature of the apple could be mistaken for a tennis ball and players stuck those in their pockets all the time. But, it would have been more convincing, I realized later, if I had not been wearing a collared shirt and work slacks.
Naturally, I lost my composure when the elevator doors closed. I fidgeted and paced as the floors fell away, the lift beeping at each level. It reminded me of a ticking time bomb. The elevator never felt so slow.
When the doors opened, I sprinted down the hallway to my room, the apple bobbing in my pocket with each step. I knew it would have been wiser, less suspicious, if I’d kept my composure, but panic had me in its grip and being reasonable was no longer an option.
It was only when the hotel room door was bolted behind me and all the curtains were drawn shut that I began to think clearly again. It was only then that I dared to examine what I had stolen.
“Ben, Rob here. Just calling to check in. How did the first day treat you? Any problems?
“No, no problems. Everyone was more or less polite.”
“Well at least they were polite to you.”
Shit. That was the first thought I had when I could be reasonable again. Why’d I do that? What was I thinking? It was the most reckless thing I had ever done. Shit. Why did I take it anyway?
I pulled the apple out of my pocket and once again its fragrant odor rose up to meet me. That’s why. I had never smelled anything so delicious. Before today, I didn’t even know smells like that could exist.
The apple was remarkable. I had never seen a real one before. The peel transitioned seamlessly from red to green and back to red again, like an artist had designed it. I wondered if someone had painted it, but there were no brush strokes and from what I read, farming was a time consuming business. The locals wouldn’t have time to paint an entire tree full of apples. Would they?
Of course, I’d seen pictures of apples before. Not even us city dwellers were that naïve. But those apples were always red or green, never both. And photographs don’t capture the smells. If it wasn’t for the aroma, I would have kept walking and remained apple-less and a crime-free citizen.
But it was too late for that now. I was in possession of food and that was enough for me to lose my new job and the two-bedroom flat that did not quite feel like home yet. What will my friends say? I thought. What will my mother? Part of me felt sick, but another part was charged by my daring, and in the dark, solitary hotel room, my excitement only grew.
I decided there was only one thing that I could do now. Destroy the evidence.
“Find everything all right? The hotel? The car?”
“Yeah, but didn’t use the car much. Decided to walk.”
“Yeah it was a beautiful day. The roads here are in pretty bad shape anyway.”
“Seems like a lot of effort to me.”
“Grew up doing lots of hiking. It’s nice way to get to know the area. Actually, I noticed there were a lot of fruit trees along the road. Any idea of why they plant them there? I mean, they just seemed … unprotected.”
“No idea. The whole lifestyle is just wasteful if you ask me.”
Meals for those of us living in the city consisted of supplements, which had all the caloric value you needed, and filling, which took care of the hunger pangs. It was a simple, concise system on which the society thrived, reducing waste, labor, and time, making it possible to channel more energy into education, art, and technology. Politicians swore it was the reason that we excelled. I believed them, too.
Meals were always the same, and I decided, that apple or not, tonight should be no different. Initially, at least.
I pulled out my calorie rich supplements and the calorie-free filling and cursed my curiosity. Twenty-three years of these meals and I was doing fine. Why did I suddenly have the urge to change now? I wondered as I mixed the two components and swallowed it in two gulps.
I picked up the apple again and waited for the filing to expand in my stomach. Within a minute I went from ravenous to sated. Tossing the apple from hand to hand, I considered my next move. I didn’t really need the food anymore. The reasonable thing would have been to abandon my plans and just get rid of the fruit. But, I had promised myself the treat.
This is what gluttony is, I realized.
“Did you explain all the benefits of the foodless diets? Both the health and social perks?”
“Yeah, and I even told them how it solved the global food crisis in a matter of years.”
“Still didn’t budge?”
“Not a millimeter.”
“Stubborn ass fringe dwellers.”
I wasn’t sure how to go about eating an apple. Was the peel edible? Were the seeds? Did you just bite in or did it have to be prepared by some set of guidelines? I knew eating could be dangerous. A friend once told me that his ex-girlfriend knew a guy that ate a handful of berries he found on a bush and was sick for a week. That was before he was arrested, of course. Eating was obviously a tricky thing, and I would have to be careful.
I remembered a drawing I had seen once of an apple sliced into sections and decided to that this was a safe enough method to try.
It took a little searching, but eventually I found where I packed my pocketknife. My dad said it was the most important thing to have on you when out in the wild and I took it for granted at the time, but now it occurred to me that my old man might have a point.
I worked with surgical precision to make that first cut. The aroma was stronger now that the peel was ruptured. I lifted the carved slice from the body. It was not a greedy amount; the slice was still thin enough to see the outline of the knife behind it. The flesh of the fruit was surprisingly pale in comparison to its colorful skin. I was disappointed that beneath the skin, the apple was a dull and uniform tone.
Throw the whole thing out, I told myself. But the smell. Damn.
I took a bite.
“Can I ask you something, Mr. Wythe?
“Please, call me Rob. Sure thing.”
“Have you actually, you know, eaten anything before?”
“Hell no! The thought makes my stomach turn. Why do you ask?”
“No reason. One elderly couple I saw offered me food, that’s all.
“I told them thanks, but no thanks.”
“They’re just giving you a hard time because you’re a newbie. But seriously, I doubt we’re missing much.”
When the government first rolled out the new eating program, they sent out representatives in full force, convincing people of the merits of a foodless diet. And they were successful. Most people were more than happy to sign up. By then, food prices had risen so high that the average person spent half of their income on basic groceries. The economy was in a permanent slump and many people were out of work. We were killing ourselves in the effort to eat enough to stay alive.
There were outliers, of course, people who preferred food over fillers. They were still citizens, but they became second-class citizens and existed in exile outside of cities, with limited rights and benefits. Nowadays, there were only a small number of them, but the government persisted in sending out representatives, as proof of how they cared for all citizens.
Consequently, being a government representative was not the most popular of professions and those that did it, typically didn’t stick around for long. Many people were uncomfortable leaving the trim and trained boundaries of the city for the wild and weedy landscape beyond. Maybe I was just odd, but the outdoors never bothered me and I never wanted a desk job.
This morning I was thrilled to be on the edge of civilization, to be making a difference and improving people’s lives. But it was harder than I thought. People were obligated to let me in and listen to what I had to say, by law, but they didn’t have to do anything more than smile politely and thank me for my time. I drifted from homestead to homestead, being as charming and persuasive as I could, but with no success. It was disheartening and it was a infuriating. It was a lot of walking.
I’d given up for the day around six pm, deciding it was better to head back while it was still light out. I walked at a slow pace, tired, picking my way around the broken pavement. Closing in on a small, but heavily gardened house, an aroma had caught my attention.
It smelled like a flower, but sweeter, more mature and ripe. There was a complexity to it and an alluring appeal, almost as if it was trying to seduce and draw travelers closer. It worked
The property was enclosed by a white and peeling picket fence and lining the inside of the fence were apple trees filled with fruit. There was a small weathered sign saying Fringe Garden, half hidden by the foliage that grew around it. The place was beautiful and as I stood there I realized I was quite hungry.
The decision to pick the apple was not a fully conscience one. When I’d reached out for it, I wasn’t particularly concerned about right and wrong. It was as if some basic, ingrained need moved my hand forward and plucked it.
It was only when I felt the weight of the fruit in my palm, that I felt guilty. Looking around me, there was no one in sight. I threw a quick glance at the house sitting in the middle of the trees and garden and saw the curtains ruffle, but the windows remained shut and no one came out from the door. Quickly, before I was seen or lost my nerve, I stuck the apple in my pocket and hurried back to the hotel.
I was doomed. In a single bite, ignorance was lost. Flavors swirled together like the colors on the peel; sweet and tart, clean and crisp, mouth-watering moist. The sense that had been stagnant and comatose had been called into action. My taste buds awoke with excitement and wanted more.
I realized I’d been deceived. The plain uniform texture of the apple was neither simple nor mild. It tasted like it smelled, and was like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. I knew that I would never be satisfied with supplements and fillings again, especially now that I knew what it was like to taste something that was not meant to subdue the need to eat, but rather, exploited it.
I cut myself another slice and devoured that too, savoring the melody of textures and tastes. If an apple was this remarkable, what was the fruit salad that the elderly couple offered me like? I wanted to find out, I wanted to eat more. But I made another discovery, I was uncomfortably full. The filling had done its job too well.
My phone began to ring. The caller ID told me that it was Rob Wythe, my new boss. I took a deep breath, told myself I was not guilty even if I was, and picked up the phone.
“Well, Jameson, keep at it. These people are bound to see the fault in their ways. Maybe now that the local rep is a charming and charismatic young man, they’ll be more inclined to join us.”
“I hope so.”
“They will. I think people realize that they are a burden on society. If nothing else, they must know that our lifestyles are more fulfilling.”
I spent the rest of the week trying to convince the farmers to give up their laborious lifestyles, become active members of society, and so on. But these people were as home-grown and determined as the food they raised. That and this inexperienced but enthusiastic government representative had lost some of his conviction.
I’d been relishing the apple, one thin slice at each meal, but after a few days of sitting on my desk, it had begun to smell sickeningly sweet and sunken brown spots began to appear. I had to throw it out and in the middle of the night, in an unused field, I tossed it as far as I could, while pangs of guilt racked through me. The apple was only half finished.
I tried to forget about it and listed the arguments for sticking with the simple and economic diet I had been content with until only a few days before. I told myself all the things I told the farmers and found that while I agreed, I was not fully convinced. I didn’t know what to do. I was miserable.
For the first time in my life, I found I had a hunger for something that filling could not satiate.
Once again, I stood on the broken pavement in front of Fringe Garden. I had been avoiding this place until I could no longer. It was the last house in the area that I had to visit. The trees still had some fruit, though not as much as before. Someone had picked them, but there were still a few left. I was frozen in indecision, breathing in the rich smell, wondering if I should risk another theft.
“They’re called McIntoshes.” A woman of middle age and middle height appeared in the road besides me. “You’re the new government man, aren’t you? I’ve heard about you.”
“Funny name, the apples.”
The woman shrugged. “They came with it.”
We stood there, for an awkward moment. She, appraising me, and me, finding I couldn’t quite look her in the eye. “So are you going to tell me about the fantastic food-free life you live and how it would be so much easier on everyone if I gave up my greedy ways?” she asked.
“No. Unless you want me to.”
“No, that’s all right. I think I got the gist.” She smiled and there was another uncomfortable moment. “They smell magnificent, don’t they? It’s tempting just to reach out and take a bite out of one,” she said, “or you could just stick one in your pocket for later.”
My attention snapped to focus and I stared at the woman, caught like the criminal I was. But the lines around her mouth suggested she was holding back a smile.
“You do it on purpose, don’t you? I said, “Have the trees on the side of the road like that.”
The women grinned. “Apples have got a reputation for being damning things, you know.”
“Yeah, well, it ruined my life.”
“No,” she said, her expression becoming serious, “It didn’t. You weren’t living before. What you did young man, was the most natural thing in the world.”
I wanted to argue with her, tell her that we could rise above our primal instincts, but something about eating, eating real food, felt right.
“Oh man, what am I going tell my family? What will I tell my boss?”
“Wythe? Oh, he’s use to the quick turnaround in his reps,” she said. She produced an apple from one of her many pockets and handed it to me. “Just say you’ve decided to change your lifestyle after meeting one of our very convincing representatives.”