Synopsis of The Fruit Vendor, from The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Constance Eakins.

“The Fruit Vendor” was Eakins’ first published work, accepted by the editor of the New Orleans Halfpenny-Post in 1929, when the author was eleven years old. It tells the story of a young fruit-hawker and the infirm dowager who patronizes him.

The story begins with a description of the widow, rolling herself downtown in her stainless-steel wheelchair at dawn. She does this every morning, we realize, navigating her way through the bustling street-market and settling finally, with an atavistic resurgence of regality, at the pimply boy’s fruit cart. (Being the newest vendor in the market, the boy must set up his cart in the back of the lot.) Neither he, nor any of the older, gloom-eyed vendors can understand the dowager’s predilection toward him, which creates some difficulties for the boy. Bashful and cautious in disposition, the novice fruit vendor has been struggling to assume a modest footing in the busy—and treacherous—marketplace. The wealthy dowager’s sudden attention to the boy turns his competitors vicious, especially once he begins to attract other buyers, who believe that the dowager must have some good reason for singling out this boy’s fruit.

The older vendors’ contempt is mitigated only by the fact that the dowager, despite her patronage, does nothing but malign the boy. She chastises him for dropping out of school and demands that he display his jaundiced nails and oily hair for her inspection. He has better clean up his act, she says, for she refuses to buy fruit from anyone of such slovenly sanitary practices (she ignores the sordid state of his competitors’ hygienic practices, where pests shuttle freely between oranges and mangy hands, apples and vermiculated aprons). The boy bears her routine patiently. He dutifully bags her browned bananas and ripe cantaloupes with an exaggerated show of care and ties it to the handle of her wheelchair, and she rolls home with a prissy, delighted look upon her face.
One morning in early autumn the boy comes down with a terrible sore throat and cannot bring his fruit cart to the market. When the crippled widow, loyal to a fault, sees his post vacant, she suspects the other merchant-thugs of foul play. Loudly refusing their crude solicitations, she forfeits her daily ration of fruit. The boy is sick again the next day, and she again refuses fruit, though less vigorously than before: she has begun to grow wan. The boy remains in bed for a week, methodically consuming his entire stock of fruit, fearing that it might rot and go to waste; the widow dies.

In the story’s final scene, the boy, having realized the tragic consequences of his greed and insolence (and having no more fruit to sell), renounces his profession. Emboldened by a consuming sense of guilt, he delivers a bitter tirade against the fruit-vendors. “You lizards, you maggots, you worms!” is the boy’s refrain, screamed in the middle of the stunned street market, over and over again, until the grimy, overgrown vendors exact on him the punishment he craves.