We wander into the musty, dimly lit store in search of fruit and a brief escape from the intense July sun. There are no windows, and the entrance is closed by a worn bed sheet, which keeps the heat at bay. Baskets and old beaten crates of fruits and vegetables are strewn about the room, and pictures of the Virgin Mary are taped to the walls. A single portable fan set on the counter provides the only ventilation.
The elderly couple running the store must have been working here, in this little angle of Lecce, for decades. Their timeworn faces are fatigued from a morning’s work, and their movements are slow and feeble. They can’t see us, but sense us in the store even before we greet them.
We choose an assortment of peaches, bananas and cherries and bring them to the counter. The old man takes the fruits out of the basket and separates them according to type, passing them to his wife who carefully weighs them. With her back completely stooped over and her cane in one hand, she places each group of fruits on the scale and, one by one, puts them in a bag. She recognizes which fruit is which by their shape, just the way her husband is able to decipher which bill he has in his hands.
Without asking for change, we leave them more than enough, but the old man notices immediately.
“Please keep it,” we say.
“No, no,” he argues, “this is too much.”
“That’s okay, we don’t have exact change, please keep it,” we push.
“Then take more bananas,” he insists, signaling to his wife, who kindly places three more bananas in our bag.
Our refusal is futile, and when she hands the bag to us, I feel a lump in my throat and my eyes getting misty.
I thought I was impressed by this thousand-year-old Baroque building that’s still standing, until I look at them: two twin pillars both as hardworking and stoic as they must have been, years ago, living together in the world when honesty was still a virtue. It must have been different back then, when walking tall didn’t depend on your height, and losing your vision didn’t stop you from seeing.
My husband squeezes my hand as we thank them and leave.