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Impatient at the heavy slow moving rush hour traffic on the belt-line, Jack whipped off at the next exit and took a narrow country road, estimating that he'd save nearly an half hour on his trip home. Driving the curving road was so relaxing; he slowed to enjoy the rustic view of the countryside.
Suddenly he glanced in the rear-view mirror and jammed on the brakes. He backed up a hundred feet and stopped, seeing a neatly painted roadside produce stand. The new green and white-striped awning shaded carefully arranged fresh vegetables. The house a few yards away showed signs of renovation in progress, while the heavily weathered barn behind it had yet to be brought into good condition.
Jack walked the driveway across a deep ditch to the stand and looked at the assortment, his eyes immediately drawn to a basket of English peas. His mouth watered at the sight; he hadn't had any fresh ones in years. He picked up a pod and shelled the peas, popping them into his mouth. Oh, man! Nice and sweet, even raw.
He looked up to see an attractive shirtless man in his mid twenties sitting behind the stand.
"I'd like a couple of pounds of the peas."
"Sure thing." With a broad grin and still sitting, the man leaned forward and scooped several large handfuls into a bag and set it on the scales. He handed the bag to Jack. "How about some new potatoes to go with them?" He pointed another basket holding tiny red potatoes no larger around than a quarter.
"Great! I love 'em boiled with just some butter and parsley on top. Let me have two pounds."
"Got some nice fresh parsley, too." He picked up a bunch and handed it to Jack. "That'll be four dollars and a half altogether. The peas and potatoes are a dollar a pound each and the parsley's fifty cents."
"But you put nearly three pounds of peas in the bag."
The broad tanned shoulders shrugged. "It's about time to close down. If you don't take 'em I'll just throw 'em to the chickens."
"Why? Don't you have a cooler you can put them in overnight?"
The man pointed to the sign overheard. "Says fresh picked produce and that's what I want to give people. Things like tomatoes and the potatoes and so on are okay overnight, but sweet corn and green peas lose flavor if they're kept over. I put a lot of the stuff left over at the end of the day in my freezer, but I can't keep all of it."
"Thanks. I'm really going to enjoy these. You been here long?"
"Got this place back in the winter. Gave me time to do a little work on the house and get the garden in. The garden's been keeping me busy since spring came in."
"Not good enough, but like I said, I'm new. If you like what you got, I hope you'll come back, and tell your friends where I'm at, too. I'll have something fresh for sale, right through fall."
"I will. Thanks again."
Jack set the bag on the passenger seat and drove off, seeing the young farmer in his mind. His bare chest had rippled with muscles as he picked up the peas. His pleasantly squared face with its high cheekbones, short straight nose, and dark eyes appealed to Jack, as did the man's thick black hair, a heavy shock of which had fallen across his forehead when he leaned forward. He speaks well, too. I wouldn't mind getting to know him.
Haven't tasted anything this good in ages. That guy told me the truth about it being fresh. To hell with the supermarket, I'm going back for more, Jack decided as he ate his simple dinner of peas and potatoes. I've got enough for tomorrow, but I'm stopping there Friday and getting enough stuff for the weekend. Some good ham would finish this off right. Hope I can find some.
When he stopped at the stand Friday afternoon, he was disappointed not to see the young farmer. As he looked around he saw a small sign thumb-tacked above a brass bell: Ring for service. Jack pulled on the leather thong attached to the clapper. His jaw dropped as he saw the man come through the open barn door. He wore only raveling cut-off jeans, a sock and heavy work shoe on his left foot. His right leg had been replaced by a peg-leg.
He gave Jack a broad smile as he stumped over to the stand. "Glad you came back. You must have liked those peas."
"Best I've had in years. How about four pounds this time and the same of potatoes. More parsley, too. I want enough to last the weekend. Hope I can find some good ham to go with it."
"For certain that's a combination that'll make you a good dinner." He weighed out the peas and potatoes with a generous hand. "Looks like about eight dollars worth this time."
"I appreciate your generosity, fellow, but I feel like I'm taking advantage of you. There's almost a pound more of everything here than you're charging me for. I mean I expect that you're trying to make a living out of this."
Jack felt himself go weak at the smile he received. "'S okay, my friend. I treat you right, you're gonna come back. I need customers."
"Why don't you run an ad in the paper?"
"I did for a couple of days, but just a little one in the classifieds. Don't have the money to spare. You serious about wanting some good ham?"
"Damn right. You don't know where I might get some, do you?"
"You looking for real country ham?"
Jack's hand rubbed his forehead. "Does it still exist? I haven't seen any in years. That so called country ham in the supermarket isn't fit to eat."
"If you got a minute, wait here." The young farmer stumped off towards the barn. After a few minutes he returned and unwrapped the flat parcel he held.
"How you like the looks of this?"
Just looking at the thick ham steak made Jack's mouth water. "Oh, man, that's beautiful. You sell meat, too?"
"Nope. Got a ham in trade for some work I did for a farmer down the road. He puts up his own meat the old way and it's super good. I cut all the steaks I could from the ham and used the rest for seasoning the veggies I cooked. Used the bone to make bean soup. It was sure good in cold weather." He carefully re-wrapped the ham steak and held it out to Jack. Why don't you take this to go with those peas and potatoes?"
"I don't sell meat. Just take it."
Jack took a step back. "I can't do that. My god, you're generous enough as it is."
"Come on, man. I want you to have it. I like the look of you."
"Well…, I mean if you're sure."
He thrust the meat into Jack's hand. "Enjoy and come back," he said as he started back towards the barn.
Good god, Jack thought as he got back in his car, the poor guy can't even afford to run an ad in the paper and he gives me a ham steak he needs for himself.
Unaccustomed to such kindness, Jack felt a sense of obligation. What could he do to help this struggling young farmer without it being perceived as an insult. The guy obviously had an education. Then it came to him. Before he drove off, he looked at the mailbox on the side of the road and jotted down the name and box number.
After a supper he had dreamed for months of having, he thumbed through the telephone directory, but found no listing under Starnes, the name on the mailbox. Oh, well, I've got his last name and box number and I know the name of the road. That'll have to do.
The next morning he stopped at the advertising department of the local newspaper, pleased when the girl told him the quarter page ad he had carefully laid out would appear in the paper that evening and for the following two evenings.
Three days passed before he stopped at the stand again. It was empty, nothing on display.
The young peg-legged farmer came out from behind the stand and eyed him solemnly. "There's a big ad in the paper for my stand. What you know about it?"
"Nothing." Jack said with a straight face.
"Don't fool around with me, guy. I know it had to be you did it. Why?"
"Okay, it was me. Just my way of saying thanks to a great guy who's working hard to make a go of his business. Did it bring you any customers?"
"Customers! I'm been running my ass off trying to keep up. That's why there's nothing there." He waved his hand at the stand. "I don't have enough in the garden to meet the demand. I was gonna save the last of the peas for you, cause I know you like 'em, but I sold out before I knew it. I got a small picking a little while ago, but that's the last of 'em. I sold everything I had picked, so I was closing down. If you aren't in no hurry and you want, I'll be glad if you'll eat with me tonight." He suddenly grinned at Jack. "Fresh peas and parsley potatoes on the menu."
"You don't have to do that."
"I know, but I was right in thinking you're a good guy. I don't know anybody my age around here, so it'll be good to have somebody to talk to. I live alone.''
"If you really mean it, I'd enjoy it. My name's Jack." He felt his hand almost crushed by the farmer's.
"I'm called Ace. Come on in. I think there's a beer or two in the fridge if you want one while I'm taking a shower."
He led Jack into the house. Though the sparse furnishings were little better than cast-offs, everything was as immaculate as it was possible to make it. Ace took a beer from the old clattering fridge and handed it Jack. "Sit anywhere you like. I won't be long."
Jack wandered into the living room and sat in a chair covered with an old blanket to hide the tattered fabric and looked at the tin in his hand with a momentary shudder of revulsion. The cheapest beer on the market. Cool it, man. The guy's offering you the best he's got. Accept his generosity in the same way he's offered it.
Ace came back wearing a clean pair of cut-off jeans, a moccasin on his foot, his black hair brushed-back, shining from being washed.
"Hope you don't mind I didn't put on a shirt. It's warm in here. No breeze today to cool the place off."
"Not at all. Gives me more time to admire your build. You work out?"
The pleasure Ace took from the comment became evident. "Yeah. Running a truck garden's hard work when you've got one leg and don't have anything more than a roto-tiller."
Jack couldn't believe it. "You tend all of it with just that one machine? How much have you got?"
"The garden's about four acres more or less. Come on in the kitchen and I'll get supper started."
After Ace refused his offer of help, Jack sat at the table and watched him prepare their dinner with economy of movement. After he had put a pan of biscuits in the oven, Ace washed leaves of three different kinds of lettuce Jack had never seen, spun them dry in a salad spinner, and added tiny yellow tomatoes.
Ace saw him looking at them. "First ones of the year. I started the plants early in a cold frame I built out of some old window sashes I found. Hope you like the dressing. I make it myself with fresh herbs and rice-wine vinegar." He winked at Jack. "You'll have to like it, it's all I got."
By the time the biscuits were golden brown, Ace had set a baked chicken on the table with the peas and potatoes and salad. He passed Jack the biscuits. "Butter a couple while they're hot, then tuck in. I'm starved."
When his plate was empty of second helpings and he'd devoured the fourth biscuit, Jack leaned back in his chair and sighed heavily.
"What's wrong?" Ace asked.
"Nothing. Everything was just perfect. I can't remember eating this good since I left home. A whole meal of stuff fresh from the garden, I can't believe it, man. You should take up cooking for a living."
Ace's smile arced across the table. "My mom taught me. She was better than I'll ever be."
"I don't know how, Ace."
"Hope you got room for an apple jack. I made some this morning from apples I dried last fall, right after I bought this place."
"You're kidding? I haven't one of those since my grandmother died. I love 'em."
Ace set an apple jack in front of Jack and passed a bowl of golden cream so thick Jack had to use a spoon to spread it over the desert. At the first taste, he groaned in ecstasy. "I just ain't believing this. God, it's sooo good!"
Over Ace's protest, Jack washed the dishes while Ace put the few remains from the meal in the fridge and cleaned the counter where he'd mixed the biscuits. "All done," he said with a sense of satisfaction, as he poured two mugs of coffee. "Come on in the living room and relax. We can talk while we're drinking our coffee."
Ace tuned the small transistor radio to a classical station Jack frequently listened to himself. "Don't have a TV. Don't much care for it anyway. I'd rather listen to good music."
"I'm glad we like the same kind of music. I listen to that station a lot myself."
"No kidding! You're the kind of man I thought you'd be the first time I saw you."
"What kind was that?" Jack asked.
Ace blushed. "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that."
"It's okay. I'm just curious what you thought."
"If you want. You looked like you're a professional with some kind of good job, but you didn't put me down none because I'm just a gardener trying to get by with what I got." Ace's face turned pinker. "I liked the way you seemed to be admiring my build, and didn't get turned off by my peg-leg like most folks."
Jack held his breath. Did this mean …? He decided to take the chance. "Ace, I gotta tell you that even if your vegetables weren't so good and you hadn't been so nice to me, I'd of come back just as often to get a look at you. Seeing you standing there on your peg-leg almost knocked me out. You … don't take this wrong, my friend, but you're sexy as hell with that peg-leg. Ever since I first saw you, I've wanted to feel that beautiful body of yours against mine."
Ace jumped up so fast he almost fell. Jack grabbed at him to steady him, then pulled him into a tight hug. "I'm in love with you already, and I don't know a damn thing about you, except you're kind and beautiful."
"Oh, man, I was hoping you'd feel that way. I love you, too. Come on, let's get to bed. It sags in the middle, so there's no way you can roll away from me."
When they lay in bed, Jack put his hand on the short stump of Ace's leg and rubbed it gently. "What happened?"
Ace propped up his elbow and stared into Jack's eyes. "You know what a wannabe is?"
Jack shook his head.
"It's a guy like me who wishes he was an amputee. Some of 'em wish their arms were gone. Not me, having one leg was my dream. Anyway, after we finished up our exams, some of my frat brothers and me got drunk as skunks. I let one guy I was close to know about my wish, and he said, 'You want it to happen? Hell, this'll be unreal.' He wasn't so drunk he didn't know what to do. Being a med student, he got some stuff he thought he'd need and drove me down a back road to the railroad tracks. He asked me how high I wanted my leg off, then tied it across the track, and got me so drunk I passed out. When I came to, I was in the hospital and my leg was gone. The first time they stood me on crutches and I saw my stump in the mirror, I cried. The poor nurse thought I was crying because my leg was gone. I was, but they were tears of joy. I like the look of my stump. I had to fight to get it, but I like my peg-leg, too. No way I want a fake leg. If I get tired of looking at myself on the peg-leg, I can always look at myself on crutches. I've plenty of stump so I can use the peg, and you see the tip of it when I'm wearing cut-off jeans. I hope you think I look as good either way as I do."
"I'll take you any way I can get you, Ace. Damn you're beautiful, and you're mine. You want it that way?"
"As long as forever, Jack. I never thought I'd find a guy like you. Hey, if you want, I can show you how to pretend. Maybe you'll like it enough to carry through with it like I did. Damn, I love you like you are, but you'd be perfect if you were an amp like me."