Verdad Magazine Volume 11
Fall 2011, Volume 11
Nonfiction by James Roth
The Pineapple Girl
She sold me the first of many pineapples the day after I arrived on the island. I was lying in a hammock on the porch of a rented bungalow when she shouted up to me, “You buy pineapple!”
In the distance a green sea was breaking on a crescent of sparkling white sand. I'd had the idea that island life would focus my thoughts on the story I was trying to write. I was often trying to write stories then, all through the nineties.
“You buy pineapple!” she shouted again, this time more forcefully.
I feigned sleep, hoping she would go away and that the story would come to me as clearly as a road map, but my mind wandered and soon I found myself thinking about the bungalow. It had been put together with gnarled logs, bamboo, and lots of palm fronds, seemingly the only materials there were on the island. The one modern convenience was a Western style toilet. I bathed from a barrel of rain water.
“You buy pineapple!” This sounded more like an order which was meant to wake me. I turned my head to one side, thinking I would tell her that I didn't want a pineapple, but, seeing her standing in the sand barefoot, a tinge of guilt prevented me from doing so. She was dressed in a dirty sarong and T-shirt. Her hair was boyishly short, which accented her very prominent cheekbones. Balanced on her head was a basket of pineapples. I was intrigued.
I rolled over and sat on the edge of the hammock. “How much?” I asked.
“Ten thousand,” she said. Her eyes had the look of a woman who has known the wrong men all her life.
Ten thousand for a pineapple was an outrageous price. I was paying only a little more than that for a day's stay in the bungalow, which had a view of the Sulu Sea. This was in the year following the Asian Financial Crisis, which had started in Thailand and spread throughout the region. The rupiah had gone from around two thousand to the dollar to more than twelve thousand in a matter of weeks. When cooking oil more than doubled in price, riots broke out in Jakarta.
“Two thousand,” I said.
We continued to barter, eventually settling on a price of three thousand, which I knew was far more than the price for locals. It didn't matter, though. Because of the exchange rate, I felt I had some extra cash, the first time in my life I'd felt that way.
I got down off the hammock and sat on the steps and paid her, and she took the basket from her head and set it in the sand and squatted down beside it. She pointed out a pineapple, asked if that one was okay, and I said it was. She picked up the pineapple and, holding it in one hand, took a knife from the basket with the other and cut off the leathery skin, which fell away into the basket. Then she turned the pineapple around in her hand, making V-cuts across the eyes in a diagonal pattern. Next she dug the tip of the knife into the eyes, popping them out into the basket. By this time a goat had shown up, hoping to eat the discarded peel. She butted it on the head with the handle of the knife. It scampered off.
She handed the pineapple to me. It looked like an ice-cream cone.
“How long you stay?” she asked
“I don't know.”
“Tomorrow you buy?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“You buy!” she said.
“Maybe,” I said.
She stood up, placed the basket of pineapples onto her head, and walked off, her dirty sarong swaying to and fro around her brown legs.
Sitting on the steps of the bungalow, I ate the pineapple. They weren't grown on the island. I knew that. It was all sand, scrub, and palms, but with the occasional thicket of lovely tropical flowers. The island was strictly a place for tourists to come to snorkel or to go on dive trips. A lot of them were from Europe. The pineapples came from the main island, which I could see from the porch of my bungalow. It was a land of dense jungle and mountains. There was also a volcano whose summit was always buried in a layer of gray rain clouds. On some evenings lightning strikes flashed in the clouds, lighting up the jungle below. It didn't rain much on this tourist island. There were no mountains to hold back the clouds. They just passed by overhead.
The next morning, as was my custom, I went for a swim before breakfast, washed from the barrel of water and then went down the beach to a restaurant built of bleached out wooden planks and bamboo. The tables were out front in the sand under a palm frond roof. My breakfast consisted of coffee, mango juice, and a banana pancake.
I lingered over it for a half an hour or more, looking out over the green sea, before returning to my bungalow, where I wrote for a couple of hours before resting in the hammock. When I became hungry I went for another swim and washed off and had lunch, a fried egg sandwich, some oily potatoes, and a glass of tea. Then I went back to my bungalow again and wrote some more. Later in the afternoon, as I lay in the hammock, the Pineapple Girl came by, as I had expected, and I bought another pineapple from her. This was how my days went by—swimming, eating, writing, lying in the hammock, and bartering for pineapples. It was all I'd needed to help me write.
After my fourth or fifth pineapple (that was how I marked off the days), I asked the Pineapple Girl her name.
“Sopiti,” she said.
“You have brothers and sisters?” I asked.
“I have,” she said.
She counted them out on her fingers. “Five,” she said.
“Do they sell pineapples?”
“No!” she said flatly.
She lifted the basket of pineapples to her head and walked off. I ate the pineapple, wondering how I could have upset her. Children were like that, I told myself, becoming upset over things an adult couldn't quite understand.
The next day she came to sell me a pineapple, and she seemed back to her normal self. Sitting on the steps, watching her cut away the skin, I said, “So we're over our little spat?”
She ignored me. In the distance I heard the clanging of a bell hanging from a goat's neck.
She handed me the pineapple.
“I won't ask you any more questions about your family. I can see that's a sensitive topic with you.”
She watched me eat the pineapple.
“How old you?” she asked.
At that time I was in my forties. I told her.
“Where your wife?” she asked.
I swallowed some pineapple. “Isn't it about time you ran along?” I said. “You might be missing a sale.”
She sat there in the sand watching me eat the pineapple. When I had finished I threw the pulpy stem into her basket. “For your family's goats,” I said. I climbed back up the steps of the porch and lay back down in the hammock, thinking about women I'd known, which only filled me with regrets. All I had left were some stories to try to write.
The next day, just to break up my routine, I went on a snorkeling trip to the site of a U.S. Navy submarine that the Japanese had sunk. Though I was a little excited at the prospect of snorkeling above the wreck, this quickly turned to disappointment the moment I entered the water and saw that all that remained of the submarine were some rusting ribs protruding from a bed of glistening white sand. The brilliance of the sand was more interesting than the wreck. Amongst some nearby coral heads, however, schools of reef fish—vibrant blues, yellows, and reds—swam through shafts of sunlight. The beauty of the fish and the sand and the pink coral thrilled me. The snorkeling trip had been worthwhile, just for the sight of this.
For lunch the man who had taken me on the trip grilled a couple of fish he'd brought along on the beach in the shade of a palm and talked about how poor many Indonesians were now that the economy had collapsed. When we returned to the island, I gave him the agreed price plus a tip.
He'd beached his boat in front of his home, a bright green and yellow bungalow more solidly built than those the tourists rented. It had a metal roof and was made of planks of wood. Behind it there was a well. His wife, standing out front, was balancing a baby on a hip. Two other children were playing in the sand at her feet. Here and there chickens clucked and goats tugged at the roots of palms.
Walking back to my bungalow, a girl about Sopiti's age dressed in a blue and white school uniform came my way. She was carrying a satchel of books. Nearing me, she looked up and smiled, as if in the presence of a mythical giant, something from a fairy tale, before running off in the direction of her father, the man who'd taken me on the snorkeling trip. I thought that Sopiti would be coming home from school at around this time, too, and changing into her sarong.
About thirty minutes later I was stretched out in the hammock, waiting for her to arrive. After a while I heard her approach. She called out, “You buy pineapple.”
I hopped down out of the hammock and sat on the steps, watching her peel away the skin. She handed me the pineapple. Holding it in one hand, I had the idea of finding out what kind of a student she was and took a stick and wrote her name in the sand. She looked at the letters, then at me. She seemed both fascinated and confused by them.
“Sopiti,” I said. “S-O-P-I-T-I.”
She looked at the letters again and tried to say something but I couldn't make out what it was. I realized that she could not read. Suddenly, I felt responsible for her illiteracy, because I, and other tourists, saw her only as a cute Indonesian girl to buy pineapples from.
A look of frustration turning to humiliation came across her face, and she swiped a hand through the sand, covering her name. She jumped to her feet and ran off, holding the basket of pineapples against a hip, which she had never done before.
I'd heard about children like Sopiti who are used by their parents to bring in money for the family, but, until buying a pineapple from Sopiti, had only been aware of them from a distance, as if passing over their heads in a passenger jet.
Sopiti didn't come by the next day. I couldn't stop myself from becoming curious about her family and one evening at dinner asked an old woman who ran a restaurant on the beach what she knew about them.
“Many children,” she said. “You want fried rice? I make for you fried rice.”
She was as brown and thin as a stick which had withered away in the scorching sun. A bun of gray hair, like a knothole on the stick, pressed against the back of her small head.
“That's fine,” I said.
“Yes,” I said. “I'll have the fried rice.” Along with the rice I ordered a tuna steak and beer.
She returned to the kitchen, which was really nothing more than a couple of sheets of corrugated green plastic nailed to some palms to protect the kerosene cooking stove she was standing over from the wind. She kicked at something. A rat had come out from a shadow, creeping toward a Styrofoam ice-box in which she kept fish, shrimp, and squid.
A few minutes later she brought me my dinner and the beer, which was warm. It was still satisfying. The old woman sat down with me; I assumed because I was alone and she thought I needed some company. Indonesians often did that, whether invited or not.
I ate some of the fish and rice. “Very good,” I said.
“Sopiti can't read,” I said.
She shrugged her shoulders, and I wondered if she could read. “You have cigarette?” she asked.
“I don't smoke.”
She frowned. Now I understood why she'd sat down with me.
“Do her brothers and sisters go to school?” I asked.
“I think yes.”
“Why not Sopiti?”
She looked at me with an expression of disbelief. “She very cute! Make more money than me! You know?”
“I do now.”
“You really no have cigarette?”
“No. I'm American. You know how they feel about smoking, most of them.”
“Nothing. I don't have a cigarette.”
“Where you're wife?”
“Strange man,” she said.
“Not in the way you're thinking,” I said.
She got up and went over to a table of Danes who had been on a diving trip and bummed a cigarette off one and lit it and went out onto the beach to smoke it. All I could see of her was the red glow of the cigarette.
The next day, after Sopiti had again failed to come by, I went for a walk along the beach, contemplating the story I had been writing, which I had come to realize wasn't very good. It was just a bunch of words that led nowhere. I began to wonder if I could ever write a story. All I could do was keep trying. That's what people did. Hope against hope they pushed on.
I found a palm that had fallen over and sat on the trunk and watched the breakers coming in. They crested beautifully in a long tube. I wondered why the waves on this part of the island were so perfectly shaped, and then I began to feel rather confused and stupid.
Some local children and tourists were diving into the waves. Others were body surfing. Amongst the crashing sound of the waves came the shrill laughter of happy children.
Studying the children more closely, I saw that one of them was Sopiti. She was dressed in a one-piece chartreuse suit cut high on her hips. With her were some friends, or maybe brothers and sisters. They were all laughing. I felt, suddenly, like a spurned lover who is witnessing his former girlfriend getting along just fine without him.
I couldn't stop myself from standing and walking down to the water's edge to be nearer to her. A foamy tide line slid up to my feet, which sank deeper and deeper into the wet sand.
Sopiti had continued to play with her friends. And then she saw me and stopped, just as a former lover might. At least for a second or two, that is. I had had the ridiculous idea that she might at least wave to me, offer a smile. Instead, she turned and jumped headlong into the next wave. Through the blue of the wave I saw a streak of chartreuse, like an exotic reef fish swimming away.
I stood there for a while longer, with the water swirling up around my ankles, feeling quite lonely and helpless. And then it came to me, as bold as a wave crashing on a beach, what I would do. I'd write a story about her. That's what I'd do.
BIO: James Roth teaches at Shenzhen University in Shenzhen, China, though he spends most of his free time hiking in nearby Hong Kong. Before coming to China, he lived for many years in Japan, first in Akita, then Sendai. He was the Japanese correspondent for the online magazine http://www.flakmag.com/. He has also contributed to http://blacktable.com/ and the University of Oregon's online magazine of creative nonfiction, http://etude.uoregon.edu/summer2011/.