by Claire Gillett
You never know why your mom buys it. It lays in your fridge until it either goes bad or you run out of red ones. It’s ninety-nine cents a pound, and you can tell. It’s chalky and forgettable and always seems to be warm. It’s the middle child, nestled between the fujis and flashy honey crisps. The most boring apple. Golden Delicious.
If you’re one of the lucky few who is naturally unassuming, you pass him at Smith’s without a second glance. If you’re like the rest of us, you see him by the spinach and the grip on your child’s hand becomes tighter, your stare more suspicious. He wears blue sport shorts with an orange stripe up the side. His legs are covered in liver spots and extend past the seams of his blue shorts, bend at a pair of underweight knees, and end in white sneakers he bought for a dollar at a garage sale. Over the top of his dirty long sleeve t-shirt, he wears a down vest. It’s rusty orange and it used to be expensive, so he wears it even in May. His deep-set eyes peer from behind a pair of sunglasses which rest on his prominent cheek bones. His wiry ponytail, strawberry blonde in earlier years, peeks from under a Budweiser baseball cap. He’s bent and womanish, but not quite frail. You wouldn’t guess he’s ninety.
He meandered into our world in June of 2005. We had clutter to sell and an empty garage to sell it in. He walked down the driveway, wallet in hand, and gravitated toward the old books. He flipped through the pages, not really interested in anything other than a distraction. But then the bar stools caught his eye. He didn’t have a bar, or anywhere to store them, but he could use them as gifts sometime down the road. Mom offered to deliver them to his house because the cheap Ikea legs wouldn’t fit in his Subaru. We had a much bigger car and she has always been friendly. From their conversation later that evening, she gathered the essential information. His name was Donald Packard, and he lived alone on Wren Road.
“But don’t call me Don,” he said in his thick Brooklyn accent, “I go by my radio name. Golden Delicious.”
Mom was always adopting friendless wanderers, and Golden was the perfect candidate—lonely and ripe for reform. Over the next few months, we got in the habit of bringing him dinner. He eventually came to expect it. Every Sunday night, around six or seven, he would warm up the stove in his dank basement apartment and wait for a delivery. Each of my siblings took a turn going to the door. I was eleven when my time came. Mom was in a rush so she waited in the car. She must have trusted him from the start, but all I knew was that I weighed sixty-five pounds and he looked like the child molesters I had seen on Dateline.
“Go on,” she said, “I’m right out here, and he is probably hungry.”
I rounded the steps with the heavy paper plate. I think it was curry. He didn’t let us use the doorbell, so I rang the gong stationed on his front step. I guess he liked hearing the sound of it. It took him a long time to answer the door, but no time at all to invite me in. My wary and judgmental core screamed: “No, Claire. No! This is how you get raped.” I wanted nothing less than to cross that threshold, but Mom was outside and I trusted her. She was right. Apart from the pornographic calendars hanging on his wall and the gentle waft of cigarette smoke, his home was cozy. He let me sit on his new bean bag chair and then he gave me a stuffed tiger. He bought it the Saturday before during one of his rummages, and he was proud of it. One of the eyes was missing, but the tail was in great condition. I was too old for the toy, and I didn’t really care about tigers. I liked it anyway. I kept it as a reminder that I had been wrong about him.
At some point, he took his place at our dinner table. He always sat on the west side, one seat next to the head. No one sent an invitation. He just seemed to be there every Sunday afternoon. I didn’t mind. You could call it charity on Mom’s part, but for me it was something more selfish. I was a budding chef, and he was never one to mince words when it came to food. If something needed to be criticized, he was there to deliver criticism. But, oh the gratification I got when he sat hunched over his plate, fork in his left hand, swooning at the meal I had placed in front of him. “Oh wow,” he rasped, “This is great. No, I mean it. This is really great.” I’ll never know how he got the reputation of having good taste. Maybe he gave it to himself. Maybe he never really had it. It probably doesn’t matter.
No one else spoke when he was around. He demanded attention. Over the years, his stories began to repeat themselves. Sometimes I got annoyed, but mostly I just listened. He used to be a tap dancer and a radio host and a movie star. His parents taught him to lie, cheat, and steal before they taught him to read. One time, his mom threw a fork at his older brother for chewing with his mouth open and it got stuck in his left shoulder. He didn’t learn a nursery rhyme until he went to middle school. He stayed in college for twelve years. When he was forty, he had a sixteen-year-old girlfriend. He took her to Europe after she graduated high school, but other than that he treated her terribly. He smoked marijuana up until his seventy-eighth birthday. It calmed him down when he was feeling anxious. He talked to his tomato plants. He had a cat with no name. He hung stuffed animals in his trees. He was a writer, but he never seemed to know how to work his computer. He never wanted ice in his water. He told me I was beautiful, but I needed to wear my hair straight. He said my friend Payton had a boy’s name, and when I told her, it made her cry. He told me I would make a good slave.
I avoided him in public and called him crazy when my friends had to meet him. Especially in my teenage years, I always seemed to be embarrassed by him. But I remember that his birthday was March seventh and I remember that he gave me a stuffed tiger, so I cried when my mom checked him into the mental hospital. He cried too. He had dipped into one of his bipolar, manic, depressive lows, and didn’t want to live anymore. Braced by two attendants in white coats, he watched us leave him behind the sliding glass doors.
I never knew why Mom befriended him. He came to the house uninvited, and always stayed for dinner. He wasn’t raised right, and you could tell. He was blunt and mean and laughed at his own jokes. He was a hardboiled New Yorker, dying among the young wealthy Mormons of suburban Salt Lake City. The least boring friend. My Golden Delicious.