Who would think the quest for cheap strawberries would send me into a strange place…

Typically, I buy strawberries at a local produce stand up the street from me. They’re not always the best quality, but with strawberries, no matter the price or source, the race is on from the moment the purchase is made. They go bad quickly.

But yesterday, the local produce stand let me down. The prices are usually $2 or even $1 per pound. Yesterday, they wanted $4. This is still cheaper than any grocery store, which will charge $7 or more for the exact same product. But I needed the exercise, so I walked around Astoria where I knew I’d find other sellers of this stuff.

The dude on Steinway Street at Broadway disappointed, as he often does, having no strawberries at all. I often mistake his fat red tomates with strawberries, and we sometimes share a laugh over this.

Another vendor nearby slipped my mind, and I went to yet another vendor at 34th Avenue and Steinway, right at the subway entrance. The stand was there with stacks of strawberries under the respected Driscoll brand. But they were packaged differently than any such product I’d seen, with only 14oz of product and a flatter, more rectangular-shaped container than I’m accustomed to seeing with Driscoll.

The strawberries themselves also looked unusual. They were quite dark, quite large, and quite giving off a strong but approving scent. When I say “dark” I don’t mean that they were black or weirdly dark. Just a little darker than usual, though it could even have been the rain and overcast clouds contributing to this assessment.

I pulled a single-use disposable bag off a rack of such bags, which were supposed to have been eliminated from our lives, and stuck two of these unusual containers therein. I further added a cucumber. The strawberries were agreeably priced at $2 each. The cucumbers were three for $2.

The moment of truth arrived. Payment. The customary transaction of currency for goods and/or services. I had a fiver in my clutches as I sought out someone to give it to. I had never purchased from this stand before, so I would not recognize the vendor even if s/he was there.

I found no one present to accept my cash payment. I would see people running toward the stand, making me think they were the vendor hustling back to their stand. But no. For about 2 or 3 minutes, I waited, wadding up that fiver like I was going to stuff it in my mouth and eat it.

This did not seem like something one should spend more than a few moments contemplating. I found the scale hanging from the roof of the stand. On that scale I placed the $5 bill, and on top of the $5 bill, I placed a green pepper, pulled from a display shelf, so the bill would not blow away. With the cost of the cucumber at less than $1, you could even say I left this phantom vendor a decidedly undeserved tip.

Feeling uncertain about the whole transaction, I nevertheless felt I had the best I could. Leaving the $5 like that reminded me of some old wholesome television show, possibly Andy Griffith, in which a young kid finds piles of money being left at a local newsstand.

Too young or perhaps too genetically criminal to be aware of a little custom known as the honor system, the kid just thinks people dropped money there and that it was free for the taking. So he scooped it up and went home to tell his dad about his find.

Dad gently informs the kid that the money is left at the newsstand by people who bought newspapers at a time when the newsstand owner was not present. He did not “find” the money. He stole it. Dad ordered the kid to go back to the newsstand and inform the owner what happened. There was probably a wholesome aw shucks lesson-learned ending to the incident.

I walked away from this stand thinking I had created an opportunity for a kid or growed-ass adult like that to come along and “find” this money placed on the hanging scale. I expected the vendor to find the cash and be done with it, whether or not s/he even knew which products had been purchased and how much change would have been due.

Not my problem. I did what was right. But now, the morning after, I face these strawberries and find that I cannot and will not consume them. They are larger than usual but extremely light in weight. The leafy area around the stems is extremely leafy. Each of these things feels like a pillow, they are so soft and filled with air. They look passable at a glance but they just do not feel right, and I’m asking myself if buying freaky-looking products from an abandoned produce stand on 34th Avenue was the best use of that $5 bill.

The cucumber is fine. I sup on cucumber for breakfast this day. Earlier I had egg salad and doctor-recommended cottage cheese, so I am not feeling the stinging yawn of hunger.

But those berries. They will haunt me. I think they were alien creations, eggs, even, which, now that I have disposed of them, will blossom into earthless-looking creatures that will foul up the sewers and the rivers with never-ending excrement. Those were not strawberries. They were alien eggs. I am certain of it.