When friends asked me to join them at a Christmas party, I didn’t want to go empty handed, and I had no idea what their friend, the host, liked or was like. So I played it safe.
I brought a big basket of fruit.
The store had done it up like a work of art. Plenty of apples–ruby, crimson, scarlet–and fat oranges and pears speckled with blueberries and green grapes, draped in bananas, punctuated with cherries, clementines, peaches, and apricots.
A riot of color, it looked like the centerpiece of a children’s banquet catered by Julia Child. And did I say ‘big’? It sat on my Nissan’s passenger seat, a pyramid bent a couple inches under the roof. The seat-belt failed to reach around it.
For all its size and shape, I balanced it up the walkway to the door which I had to bang with my elbow. My friends had an ear out for me and let me in. I had to walk in backwards as they said hello, but when I turned toward them with the basket, they fell silent.
From the middle of the room, I heard an indignant “What????”
“Hi, I’m Evan and Helen’s friend from Plum Island. I thought you and your friends might like fruit.”
“No fruit! Apples! In this house we have apples!”
“Good! Look, look, there are plenty of apples! See all the red?”
“But you called it ‘fruit’!”
“”Yes, apples are fruit. You can look it up.”
“No! Apples are apples! Call them apples!”
“Um, well, I don’t much like grapefruit, and pineapples are a pain in the ass, so I can understand if you don’t like grapes or peaches or blue–“
“No! In this house, it’s apples!”
“You can have as many as you like! Honey crisp! Maybe your guests would like the other fruit? Healthy fruit?”
“No ‘healthy fruit’! Don’t say that! It’s apples! Happy apples! We say ‘Happy Apples’!”
I turned to Helen: “Is this some kind of joke?”
“Joke!” the inhospitable host exploded. “This is no joke! It’s a war on apples!”
I turned to Evan, but he grabbed my elbow and turned me around while Helen took my other arm. They told me to take the basket to their new home, giving me a key, where they would join me after they “calmed things down.”
Back at the Nissan, I resisted the temptation to send the apples back in. One at a time. Through the front windows. But they were honey crisp, and as we used to say when someone failed to show at a drinking party: “More for us!”
Evan and Helen also gave me directions to the new pad they moved into just weeks ago.
I guess they’re planning to have kids, because it is one of those standard four-bedroom, two-floor, cookie-cutter, middle-class homes in a sub-division with nine other identical structures–though of various colors–lined on both sides of a semi-circular lane, generously spaced from each other and away from the highway. Behind it all gurgled the lovely Fox Run River. Since the trees were all saplings, I could see it all it once.
When I arrived, one of the other homes was ablaze. Three fire trucks were there and several hoses were aimed at it. I found my friend’s street number, left the Nissan in the driveway, and walked over with the basket of fruit, thinking the firefighters should have it when they got the fire under control.
As I arrived, a resident from one of the other eight houses came over and started yelling at the firefighters:
“Hey, what about my house?”
The firefighters were too consumed to pay any attention, but I was too curious not to: “What are you talking about?”
“My house deserves just as much water as this house! Why aren’t the hoses on my house, too?”
“Um, because this house is on fire?”
“That’s not a good reason! A fire in this house has nothing to do with my house! That’s this house’s problem!”
“But fire-fighters exist to solve problems, and you don’t have one, at least not now.”
“I pay just as much taxes as anyone who lives here!”
“Would you like an apple? Here, have one. Honey crisp. In appreciation for your support of your local fire de–“
Before I could finish and before my friends’ new neighbor could speak, two more residents approached. Both of them were carrying signs:
“All Houses Matter!”
“Is this a joke?” I blurted out, vaguely shaken by the echo of my surprise at the party I just left.
“No! Our houses matter just as much as this one!”
“But this house needs attention that yours do not!”
“That’s housism in reverse!”
A few more residents approached, all with the same signs. They started chanting: “Stop the Hose Job! Stop the Hose Job!”
Over the noise, I heard a car horn and looked up to see Evan and Helen waving me to return to them. I took the basket and put it on a side of one of the trucks facing the blaze and the fire-fighters. I caught the eye of one and motioned toward it, and he or she nodded in thanks. I then motioned to the gathering crowd and turned my hands up in question. The fire-fighter gave a shake of the head and went back to work.
I went back to Evan and Helen who told me that I had made a wrong turn, and to follow them home.
When we arrived at the cozy two-bedroom cape, all by itself along a little-travelled back road with a wide view over a long, glacial lake, they apologized for my reception at the party. Turns out that the host had been living at his girlfriend’s in a neighborhood where, as rumor had it, the drinking water had been poisoned by toxic waste from a chemical plant two miles upstream.
They knew he was having problems, but they did not know, as the police charged, that he had set a timer that morning in his girlfriend’s home that would start a fire when he could use the party as an alibi.
He was easy for the police to find. All they had to do was put out an all-points bulletin while they patrolled the town for a car with bumper-stickers saying “Happy Apples” and “All Houses Matter!”