Bargainers by Ralph Culver

Bargainers
—for Louise Glück

In the market, Saturday, the world’s commerce on the simplest terms,
terms anyone can understand. Hanks of dried chilies
like garlands of tongues, baskets of Roma tomatoes in the noon sun,
warm and firm to the touch.

A young man leans against the stone facade of the pastry shop
under the shade of a window awning.
He is trying to catch the eye of the girl selling the tomatoes
while an old couple haggles with her about the price
and when the tomatoes were picked.
The young man lights a thin cigar; it’s black and slightly bent,
as though he were setting fire to an oak twig in his mouth.

He shakes out the match and snaps it into the street in one movement,
a gesture he had seen in a film as a child and never forgotten:
some actor in a narrow tie and lapels and steel-framed sunglasses.
A doomed hero, not too bright really, although this hadn’t mattered
in the least—sheer determination and purpose, that was what counted.
The details of the story, the movie’s title—a movie as old
as the young man’s parents, maybe older—
all that’s forgotten.

As every Saturday, the girl sees the boy clearly—a blossom of flame,
the spent matchstick spinning out of the shadows and into the sunlight—
even now, as she tries to reassure the couple the tomatoes are fresh.
On the vine this morning, on the vine this morning,
she repeats. Two thick ropes of smoke begin idly paying out the boy’s nostrils,
braiding upward in the midday stillness. And then in one movement
she snaps a paper bag open and begins to fill it with tomatoes
as the old couple points: this one, this one. This one.

by Ralph Culver

Editor’s Note: This poem documents a moment in time, but it is not a static image. Instead, the narrator, the young man, the girl, the old couple buying tomatoes—they are all moving, and the poem follows them so that the reader can see into the soul of the market.