Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2019  Vol. 18 No. 2
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The Olive

Fredrick Schmidt thought of nothing but food. He thought of running his hands through piles of almonds and imagined how they might softly resist the angular jaws of a food processor before they surrendered their shape into fragments and paste. He thought of savory mushroom pastries and of the flaky filo that sat, all edges and serrations, above mounds of sautéed mushrooms and pools of bordelaise sauce. He thought of the angry, vinyl integrity of tomato skins, of the mouse-tail shoots that slithered at the ends of ripe radishes, and of the pointy domes on the bottom of lemons that poked out like erect, yellow nipples.

Fredrick Schmidt also dreamed of food. He dreamed of white clouds of creamy foam bleeding tones of brown cappuccino and cinnamon. He dreamed of tea leaves falling into misty water and slowly tightening their leathered, creased skins, expanding back into a renewed, moist youth, and releasing watery flashes of yellow, red, or green. He dreamed of the violent redness of saffron, of the screaming white interiors of coconuts, and of the smooth, purple shine of eggplants.

Fredrick’s obsession with food did not derive from gluttony. That was easy to see. Fredrick’s tall, lanky skinniness gave the impression that he didn’t eat enough. His trousers and dress shirts, which he wore with vests or blazers, hung straight from his bony frame as if perched on a hanger.

The food that Fredrick thought and dreamed about was food that he would never eat. It was the food that lined the shelves of his specialty food store—the beloved store that he had worked for years to cultivate and grow. That store had sprouted from a small grocery outlet in a corner of the city, where his obsession compelled him to reject any regard for ordered space. More was never enough. He filled that small outlet with towers and turrets of merchandise, amassing all he could, extending shelves into and around tight corners, collecting fresh food as well as packaged goods, bulk foods as well as individually wrapped items. He loved the natural glow of a fresh piece of fruit sitting naked on a shelf as much as the plastic shine of bags or boxes. And he loved watching customers snatch the food off his shelves. So the food would come in and out it would go, a constantly churning wheel. The spin of the wheel kept everything in balance for Fredrick.

Over the years, as the wheel churned and the food came and went, the store grew into a sprawling warehouse of merchandise, now occupying nearly an entire city block. That store had become Fredrick’s whole world, his universe of action and thought.

Fredrick lived in an apartment directly above the store. It made him feel safe to know that he was close to his merchandise, that he could hurry down whenever he needed to. He was often walking the aisles of his store long before the city had woken, and long before shipments arrived. He paced as he waited for the pastas and breads, the jars of honey and spaghetti sauce, or the cheeses and wines that came in greasy trucks groaning purple smog and screeching, fat and weary, under the effort of fitting into the loading docks.

Fredrick’s anxiety spiked when the shipments arrived. Much of the food came in brown cardboard boxes, making it difficult to tell which held the bottles of balsamic vinegar, which the jasmine rice, or which the apricot jams. Fredrick’s stock boys arrived at the store before it opened to save his shipments from remaining anonymous for too long.

As the stock boys went to work, Fredrick forced himself to say, “Don’t cut yourselves,” or, “Careful with those cutters,” or some other paternalism that would hide the fact that his anxiety was rooted in worry for his merchandise rather than for his employees. He didn’t hide it well. His stance loosened and he spoke with less chill only when the stock boys had carried the cardboard away, only when it was too late to show the guilt he felt for his heartlessness.

When it was time to open, a set of automatic timers released the lock on the front doors with a metal click, and the store lights, until then running only at half strength, sprang fully to life. After the lights came on, Fredrick made his daily stroll through the bakery, greeting some of his earliest risers—the bakers—who were now carting pastries from the ovens to the shelves. They filled shelf after shelf with colorful pastries, which were made to stand at attention, line after line, like a battalion of plump women decorated in the garish makeup of storefront window displays, desperate to cover their rolling bellies and their full, round thighs, but powerless to hide themselves from the drooling hunger of the public eye. Each pastry was topped with a scarlet cherry that glistened with perfection, shimmering in the accomplishment of pure roundness, and calling all the more attention to the bodies that held them up into the maddening heat of bidding customers.

Fredrick leaned into the shelves and probed the crowded pastries with his nose. He inhaled deeply, holding his lungs full of the sweet, heavy air. Eventually, he released the breath and convulsed gently with a sense of power, as if his nose was the only member allowed insight into the fleshy secrets of that sugary world.

It was there, among his merchandise, running among crowds of customers, that Fredrick had always felt most comfortable. He weaved in and out of customers’ paths, alighting on each one with focused curiosity. He hovered over shoulders unseen, dipped behind carts, and zigzagged through crowds. Sometimes, he would point this or that item out to customers who lingered, and then he was off again. Customers barely registered Fredrick’s presence. He was gone before he became a conscious memory. He lived on the customers’ periphery, like some devilish apparition that whispered in customers’ ears and commanded them to consume.


That morning, like every other morning, the doors of Fredrick’s store clicked open and customers rushed in. Some drifted in lazily, leading circular, errant routes through the merchandise as they were pulled this way or that by whatever smells or sights captured them. Others followed predetermined, aggressive paths, barreling down and around aisles as if they were obstacles. Fredrick moved through the aisles as he always did, making sure to keep close watch on the influx.

In the throng, he noticed the movement of one particular woman coming through the door. Her pace slowed as she made the transition from the city pavement to the tiled store floor. As she came in, her skin cascaded through quick transformations of color, from reflections of the warm vibrancy of the morning sun, through a shadowy deepening as she crossed the doorway, to a bright, electric glow as she settled into the crystalline whiteness of the store’s interior lighting. The strange fluctuations washed over Fredrick and he imagined, just for a moment, that the woman was supernatural.

An uncharacteristic stillness took hold of Fredrick. He stood and stared, his mouth slightly open. Before he was able to move again, the woman was before him.

“Hi. Do you carry olives? I was looking for olives that I had last year in Italy, and I was hoping that I could find them here.”

Customers rarely cornered him like this. Fredrick was not used to interrogations, and he would normally not give in to them. But the woman had knocked Fredrick from his flight through the store, like a stray bullet colliding with the heavenly path of a sparrow and bringing it crashing to the ground. Now halted, fallen, face-to-face with the supernatural woman, he surrendered, listened, and responded.

“Olives? Yes, of course! Please, come and see for yourself.”

The woman’s smile widened. She had long dark hair. Smiling dark eyes. Fredrick turned and walked, and she followed. He led the woman through the tightly stacked rows of purple and green bottles that lined the wine section. Fredrick snatched a Brunello, and then turned down the ice-cream aisle, with its humming refrigerators encased in glass, finely misted from customers opening and closing the doors. Then, he took a sharp left, and there, along a narrow shelf on the wall, stood vat after squat wooden vat of olives, with long wooden ladles in each one, their handles pointing up and away in different directions. The olives were an array of greens, purples, reds, and browns, buoyantly pushing against each other to the crowded surfaces through vinegar, oil, and spices.

Fredrick reached behind the shelf and pulled out a small, round wooden table that had been folded away behind the vats. In two quick motions he opened and locked it. He set it down between himself and the supernatural woman, right there in front of the olives and amid the crawl of customers, and placed the wine on top. The table was tall so both he and the woman could comfortably stand at its edge.

The woman blinked. In a quick turn of events, she had gone from following this merchant through the store, to a very different scene. The table and wine seemed to appear almost out of thin air. Standing there, the two gave the impression of an intimate meeting at a sidewalk café, even nestled where they were between the hungry, wandering customers, busy running their rude fingers through shelves, jars, and boxes.

Fredrick grabbed two glasses from a rack above the olives, brought them to the table, and began uncorking the wine with a corkscrew that he produced from the inside pocket of his vest. “It’s a pleasure to show you these olives. I’m Fredrick, by the way.”

The wine popped open. Fredrick set the corkscrew down with the cork still in it and extended his hand. The woman shook it.

The corkscrew sat clumsily sideways on the table. The cork stuck out oddly from it, like a dry tongue hanging from the mouth of a dead dog.

“I’m Maria,” she responded with a little stammer. Fredrick didn’t seem to notice how surprised she seemed, or how she struggled to find a way of refusing the spectacle that had unexpectedly unfolded before her: the table, the wine, the entire pageant. But Fredrick served the scene up so fast, so effortlessly, that it appeared almost natural, as if it was beyond questioning.

“As you can see, Maria, I have many olives to choose from. But let me help you choose. Before I show you the very best, let’s start with something simple.”

Fredrick grabbed a ceramic bowl from a stack he kept on the shelf next to the vats. He lifted a ladle from one of the vats and poured some olives into it.

“These olives are French. They are not subtle, but not overpowering either. Please, give them a try.”

Maria looked into the bowl and dipped her long fingers into the vinegar and oil. She pressed an olive until her fingers overcame the oily lubrication and lifted it to her mouth. Her white, even teeth ripped into the olive and thudded against the sure column of bony seed at the center.

Fredrick took the opportunity to pour two glasses of wine.

“Mmmmm . . .”

“So it is good?” Fredrick asked.

“It is delicious,” she affirmed his expectations.

“Yes. Delicious.” Fredrick spoke with his back to Maria. He was already preparing a new bowl.

Maria looked down at the table and saw the wine. The table, the bowl of olives, the wine—everything now looked like perfect execution, perfect planning. She picked up the wine and drank. It was the right thing to do.

Fredrick turned around with a new bowl. “These are Arabic. Look how round they are, and mostly pine green. These olives, they are a difficult accomplishment. There is a great history in these olives. They have been made the same way for thousands of years.”

This time Fredrick did not let go of the bowl. He held it up to Maria’s hand. Her fingers were now more measured. She grasped the first round figure and held it up between herself and Fredrick as he continued his explanation.

“Remember, Maria, that the skin is a symbol of care. It isn’t soft and delicate because olives themselves are soft and delicate. No. They have become soft and delicate through a great deal of persuasion. They weren’t bred from a ruffian’s fingers. They were cultivated by the greatest artisans in the craft. An olive is a hard, wild animal. Its interior admits as much. Olives don’t admit entrance into their heart, but the fact that they can be cultivated to render a vision of their heart, that we can gain a semblance of their inner world, is a great feat indeed. You see, the seed is a resistance, but the soft alluring skin, made alluring only by the gentle craft of the olive cultivator, is a sign that the olive, much against its nature, wants to communicate its essence despite the instinct to hide. The olive wants to resist your lures, but it has been cultivated so that it will allow a certain vision. And you must be very careful when you bite down. If you do it without care, the full meaning of the olive might escape you.”

Fredrick poured more wine. The wine flowed from the bottle and licked the sides of the glass. The act offered clarity.

Maria bit hard into the olive and found a bony response through the soft flesh. The olive responded with sensations of smoky, nutty flavors and ripe herbs. She turned the olive in circles until just the seed remained, and then she pressed it through her pursed lips and into her hand. She picked up the glass Fredrick had just filled, tilted her head back, and drank.

Delighted, Fredrick turned again to the vats, this time taking just a moment longer to make a choice. The olives he picked were a deep green.

“Maria, these are some of the best, most intoxicating olives I have. Look carefully.” He placed the bowl on the table.

Maria reached in and lifted a single olive to her eyes to inspect it. The sounds of customers walking by dulled into silence as she looked into the greenness. She parted her lips and brought the olive to her mouth.

Catastrophe followed.

As Maria lifted the olive to her lips, her fingers failed. Fredrick watched the calamity unfold as if in slow motion: the olive slipped from Maria’s fingers and fell to the floor below. It bounced once, or at least imitated a bounce, before it met head-on with a customer’s shoe. The inadvertent kick launched the olive down the aisle as Fredrick and Maria’s heads turned in tennis-style reaction. Immediately, it made connection with a second shoe, a third, and a fourth, before the olive shot away from them, beneath the ice-cream freezers, and out of sight.

Maria was first to react. “It’s gone.”

Fredrick clumsily fidgeted around the table for the three bowls of olives.

“Please, Maria, try again, please . . .”

“No, Fredrick,” she responded, “I don’t think I can make up my mind. All of this was incredible, but I’m tired. I’m leaving.”

Maria headed to the front of the store through mazes of merchandise. She walked down the ice-cream aisle, around a small rotunda of wicker baskets filled with wildly colorful fruits, through shelves of canned seafood, decorative jars of peppers, and plastic tubs of coffee. She dodged customers left and right, picking up pace as she went.

Fredrick, emulating her movements, stayed close behind. The table, meanwhile, was left empty of interest. Customers stared at it on their way by, wondering in passing what had inspired such an event.

Maria was approaching the front doors. She turned to face Fredrick. “Fredrick, thank you very much. Let me think about the olives,” she said.

“But Maria, when will you return?”

“I’ll make up my mind, and I’ll be back. I promise.” Maria turned and left.

Only after she had walked beyond the doors of his store did Fredrick manage to say what was appropriate: “Goodbye, Maria.”


Before the last customers left the store that evening, Fredrick had already opened another bottle of wine. After the last customers were gone, Fredrick opened another.

He replayed the image of the olive falling from Maria’s fingers as he paced back and forth in front of the olive vats. He kept trying to stop the disaster from happening in his head so he could remember at least one version of the events where Maria took the olive to her mouth and bit down. But he couldn’t. Each repetition was doomed to failure.

Finally, he stopped pacing and lifted his head. He stood perfectly still and listened to the humming of the ice-cream freezers that were just around the corner. He walked toward the humming, turned, and began to shuffle down the aisle. As he walked, he reached out sideways to touch each pane of glass. They were clear and cold. For a brief second, after he lifted his hand from each pane, a moist palm print appeared, flickered, and slowly disappeared again as the cold air regained its hold on the surface.

Fredrick came to a stop where he thought that the olive had rolled out of sight. As he stared at the floor, he let go of Maria from his thoughts. He suddenly realized that he didn’t want Maria to come back, that he didn’t need to forge a memory of her biting into the olive. It was just the olive he wanted.

He got down on one knee, and from there, slowly crumbled to the floor. He pressed his face against the cold tiles and faced the freezers. Their soft drone soothed his spinning head.

From the flat position on the floor, Fredrick looked into the dark, sooty mystery beneath the luminous, freezing machines. Nothing, only darkness, looked back.

Fredrick dragged his body closer to the freezers, his face now only inches away from them. He reached beneath and felt walls of grime and dirt give way. The brooms and mops that his employees handled never made it beneath these freezers, and now Fredrick was feeling the years of filth that had accumulated beneath those machines.

Mildew, muck, and wet soot crawled over his skin. As he felt the vile darkness creep completely over his hand, into his nails, and between his fingers, Fredrick felt a wave of nausea erupt in his stomach. He shut his mouth heavily, but a stream of bitter, acidic wetness crashed through his nostrils onto his upper lip. Fredrick tensed his jaw and pressed his lips to keep the vomit from spilling onto his floors. He gagged demonically, forcing his mouth to close against the heaves of his rebelling gut. His cheeks exploded to their fullness with thick, wine vomit, but Fredrick forced himself to swallow. He held still, mouth shut, and struggled against his convulsing stomach. Little by little, he eased the searing wine stench back down his throat. Little by little, he completed his winey rumination.

When he could breathe again, Fredrick’s hand continued its journey, often bringing back the sensation of nausea to his disrupted stomach. With a bit of patience, however, he managed to clear a space in the darkness beneath the freezers.

Eventually, Fredrick became accustomed to the filth and grime. Slowly, he began to seek it out, to clear it with more persistence, with eagerness even. His arm started to move with more vigor, he pressed harder against the freezer, reached further, deeper, into the putrefaction for that lost olive. Eventually, he lingered almost joyfully in his disgust, in the stench of vomit and decay, until his fingers—now saturated with rotting peanuts, mildewed pieces of glass, dead crunchy bodies of cockroaches, hard grimy pebbles, shrunken atrophied peas, moist and forgotten bottle caps of stolen beers, rancid pieces of rat feces, sharp splinters of wood, and moldy seeds of once overripe fruits—finally felt the touch of a fresh, oily, firm body.


The night he found the olive beneath the ice-cream freezers, Fredrick barely slept. When he managed to sleep, it was fitful and restless.

Before lying down that night, he brought the olive to his apartment and placed it in the middle of his desk. It was dark, so he lit his desk lamp to illuminate the olive. He examined it. It was dotted with specks of wet dust and moldy residue from the underworld of waste and decay he had rescued it from. But it was unmistakably the olive from that afternoon, the olive he had served Maria. It was still full and round, fresh and ripe. He had saved it from rot.

He gently washed away the dirt. Then, he put the olive in a small glass of brine to preserve it, and placed it on his desk.

Fredrick rose the next morning like he usually did and forced himself into his routine as if everything was normal.

But something was different. He felt as though customers sensed he was walking among them. He felt that he stood out. Before, he walked among his customers undetected, like one of them. Now, he felt uncomfortable walking shoulder to shoulder with them down the aisles.

Some customers stared as he approached. Had they always stared at him like that?

Others, who had their backs to him, instinctively turned as he came close. Could they really sense his approach?

At one point during the afternoon, Fredrick left the store. His suspicions were driving him mad. He went into his apartment, locked himself in the bathroom, and took off his clothes. Paranoid, he thought that customers could sense him as he walked the aisles because he stunk of the mold and decay that he had dug through the night before. He turned the shower handle all the way to hot. When the water was steaming, he got in and scrubbed himself clean.

But when he went back to the store, the customers still seemed to notice him. He didn’t feel like a silent observer anymore. He was an outsider in his own store, someone that didn’t belong.

That night, he sat at his desk and looked into the glass at the olive. It was a beautiful green that shimmered and sparkled through the briny water. He gently tilted the glass to admire the olive from different angles. Sitting in his apartment with the olive, he felt like everything was right.

But then he noticed it—a slight ripple in the otherwise seamless green. He moved the olive around in the glass. Was he sure of what he saw? He rolled the olive back and forth, took it from his desk to the kitchen for better lighting, then into his bedroom, then back to his desk. After exhausting all angles and all lighting, no doubt remained: there was a thin wrinkle along the side. Maybe the fall had damaged the olive, but that was OK, Fredrick convinced himself. The olive was in brine now. It would survive. Maybe the brine would even bolster the olive, cure it, and unfold the wrinkle.

The days passed and Fredrick forgot about Maria. He became fixated on how customers perceived him and whether something had changed. He felt increasingly uncomfortable among them, as if the disgust he began seeing more frequently in their faces was starting to develop in Fredrick as well.

Little by little, he felt more space in his aisles. They felt less crowded. Had customers lost interest in his store?

One day, a stock boy quit. Fredrick couldn’t be sure why. The boy gave him no reason.

In his apartment, in the evenings, Fredrick noticed the wrinkle in the olive getting bigger. He thought he was imagining it. The olive should have kept well in the brine he had prepared. When he began noticing other small folds, other wrinkles, he knew it wasn’t just his eyes playing tricks on him. The olive was going bad.

The crowds in his store continued to thin out. One day, a supplier refused to fill an order. Fredrick was furious, and showed it on the phone.

“What is the meaning of this? I pay you like clockwork!”

“We don’t think that’s going to happen anymore. We’re sorry, Mr. Schmidt. We just think we need to stop deliveries now, amicably, before you default on a payment.”

“That’s ridiculous! Absolutely ridiculous! My store is one of the most successful businesses in the area! How dare you?”

“We’re sorry, Mr. Schmidt.”

Fredrick’s other suppliers instinctively sensed something was wrong. In the weeks and months that followed, a few suppliers had the same difficult conversation with Fredrick. Others simply stopped shipments without notice.

Fredrick, now with almost no stock boys in his employ, rearranged what merchandise was left on the shelves to make them seem fuller than they actually were. It didn’t fool the few customers that remained. Those customers swept in like carrion to take apart the last few morsels in Fredrick’s store. Those customers didn’t care that the store was now darker because a few fluorescent light bulbs had gone out, that the bakery had ceased operation weeks earlier, or that the shelves were dustier, the floors grimier. They even ignored the rats that, now numerous enough, had gotten up the nerve to show themselves in the aisles.

And, at last, the day came when Fredrick did default on payments: the electric bill, gas, and his rent. By that time, all shipments to the store had stopped. The store had become dark and cold. The shelves empty. Rats walked the aisles with impunity. Cockroaches poked in and out of the woodwork.

Fredrick received notice that the leasing company was taking back his apartment and his store. The store was now nearly empty. There was nothing left for him there.

His apartment still held his things. He walked around, wondering how to pack, what to take, and where he would take it. He sorted through his closet, pushing through hanger after hanger of pants, vests, blazers, and shirts. He closed the door. He wouldn’t need those things anymore.

He pulled up the covers on his bed. He didn’t bother to make it, but he wanted it to look a little tidy for the stranger that would inspect the place after he was gone.

He walked into the kitchen and opened the cabinets. He didn’t have the energy to imagine how he would move all of his plates, bowls, glasses, pots, pans, and cooking utensils. So he left them.

There was just one last thing that interested him. The olive.

He walked into his office and lifted the glass on his desk where the olive sat in brine. He carried it to a window so he could have enough light to inspect it. The olive was no longer green or round. It was now mostly brown, sunken and distorted, emblazoned from tip to tip with dry cracks. There were spots of mold and mildew growing over the darkened skin. The only brightness that remained was the accent of a few yellow and white pustules that had formed on the ends.

Fredrick swirled the glass under the light of the window. He noticed some stringy, yellowish-green particles come up from the bottom and then settle down again.

Fredrick walked back to his desk and set the glass down. Slowly, he dipped his index finger and thumb into the brine, pinched the olive gently, and lifted it out of the glass. He carefully wrapped it in a tissue, put it in his pocket, and walked out of his apartment.

He walked through the store one last time until he made it to the front doors. He pushed them open and walked onto the city street. Fredrick had not been outside in months, and the warmth of the sun and the feel of the city sidewalk startled him.

He closed his eyes and breathed. When he felt strong enough, he turned and started walking down the street. He heard car horns blaring and people yelling and walking. He was walking shoulder to shoulder with a crowd again. This time, he ignored their judging looks. He looked straight ahead and walked.

When he made it to the next block, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the tissue with the olive. He unfolded it. Without looking at the olive, he put it in his mouth and began to chew. The olive had become tough and leathery. It struggled against Fredrick’s teeth with the ferocity of a feral animal. Fredrick worked his jaw hard to get to the seed. As he bit down, the olive stubbornly gave up the last bits of juice from its flesh, now stale and rotten.

Fredrick turned the olive over and over again in his mouth. He held the seed on his tongue until he made it to the next corner. There, he turned his head, spit the seed into the street, and walked on.  

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