— By Audrey Leasure
October in Southern California is unlike October anywhere else. The sun shines through clear blue air, and breezes blur the line between changing seasons. Inside the Santa Monica courthouse, though, dull and flickering fluorescent lights create an atmosphere indistinguishable from the dreariest of Pacific Northwest days.
“Would the prosecution please call its next witness to the stand?”
Jean Milford, aisle 7 cashier at Bristol Farms Market, steps forward. The clack of her kitten heels echoes as she rises to the stand. She takes slow, deliberate steps to hide the run in her hose.
“Ms. Milford, would you please explain your encounter with the defendant?”
“Yes, of course, Your Honor.” The corners of her lips curl into a polite grin, revealing a streak of drugstore lipstick on her front tooth.
“He came to my lane at 2:45 last Saturday afternoon, right before my shift was over. Didn’t say a word, just rolled his cart up to the belt and started unloading his groceries. I rang him up, but I didn’t see them anywhere. I thought he must have had them tucked on the bottom rung of the cart, so I kept going.”
“Did anything else seem unusual to you about the situation, Ms. Milford?”
“No, not at first, Your Honor. But the pile at the end of the belt kept growing. His poor tomatoes were bruising! Even after he swiped his card, no sign of ‘em. I was worried, so I asked, ‘Sir, did you bring them?’ He looked confused, so I asked more clearly. I said, ‘Sir, do you have your bags?’ I thought he understood, but then he said ‘Plastic.’”
The jurors gasp in unison.
“Plastic! Can you believe it?”
All eyes turn to the defendant, Joe Heaston.
Joe glances down at his hands to avoid making eye contact with the jury and fidgets with his wedding band. The pants of his Italian wool suit hover above his shoes, exposing a mismatched pair of socks.
“At this point I told him, ‘Sir, we don’t carry those, you have to bring your own.’ But he wouldn’t listen. Nope, he wouldn’t. And he asked again for me to get them out. He said he didn’t have his own, but he was fine with paper or plastic. Fine with paper or plastic! So I warned him. I told him if he asked again I would have to call my manager, but he didn’t stop. He just kept asking, ‘What am I supposed to do with all these tomatoes?’”
Until last month, Joe’s usual Saturday meant watching Formula One racing in his pajamas while the sea breezes carried the salt of the Pacific into his den. His wife, Margaret Heaston would do the shopping and make his favorite tomato soup, a dish almost as comforting as her embrace. Maggie was an excellent chef, and Joe always joked that they should start a restaurant when they retired, The Couch Tomato. In the mean time, he would sit on the sofa while she cooked her famous tomato dishes.
“I had no choice, so I called my manager. The commotion was attracting the attention of the other customers; I saw eyes peeking over the sugarless gum display. I had heard rumors of this happening, but I never imagined I would see it myself.”
“What did the manager do, Ms. Milford?”
“The manager told him he would have to leave or the police would arrive. But he wasn’t having it. He just started yelling, ‘What kind of grocery store doesn’t have bags? What am I supposed to do with these tomatoes?’ The manager tried to calm him down by explaining that no store in the state of California carries them anymore, and that shopping without reusable bags is against the law. He just wouldn’t listen.”
When Joe married Maggie at age 19, she spoiled him, in ways only a woman of Italian ancestry could. He never had to discern between wool and polyester, let alone iron his own clothes. He was satisfied with his ignorance, and she viewed his dependence with pride. But now she was gone, taken by a heart attack at just sixty-two, and he was lost without her. In the past month he left the house only once to check the mail. When he ate, it was grief casserole brought by neighbors, and it was out of necessity. He couldn’t bear to open the fridge, knowing that he would be faced with the only remaining trace of Maggie, the leftovers from the last dinner she made, slowly going to waste.
But there came a day when Joe no longer woke up feeling hopeless. He just wanted to make tomato soup.
“We called the police, and we told him that he should leave unless he wanted trouble. He started gathering his tomatoes, and it looked like he was going to leave, but then we heard the sirens. And then he did the craziest thing; he stuffed his tomatoes in his pockets and bolted out the back door!”
The jurors gasp again, and a buzz of chatter erupts. Joe lets out a sigh and rubs his eyes. Even though he is on trial, he believes he is the only sane person in the room.
“Thank you Ms. Milford, I think we’ve heard enough. Would the defendant like to give a closing argument?”
“Look, your Honor,” says Joe, “I’m not crazy. I just needed something to carry my groceries. My wife died last month. This was my first trip to the store in over 20 years. I’m not a criminal; I carry a reusable, BPA-free water bottle! The tomatoes were organic!”
“Thank you, Mr. Heaston. That is all. Has the jury reached a verdict?”
“Yes, your Honor. The jury has come to a unanimous decision: the defendant is found guilty on all counts of “intention to shop without possession of reusable bags in the first degree,” and of “request for plastic bags in a public venue.” On behalf of the State of California, we sentence Joe Heaston to ten years in federal prison. Without parole. ”
The California sun shines down on Joe as he is escorted out of the courtroom in handcuffs and shoved into a Prius police car. Although Joe won’t be making tomato soup tonight, somewhere, a tomato plant ripens in Maggie’s honor under a sprinkler watering at the wrong time.
— Fall 2014 IFN Writer, Audrey Leasure