In South Florida, where burglar bars are as common as alligators, nervous clerks store their trusty 12-gauges behind the counter. Terrible things have happened to Robert Moehling, no doubt about it, but that's not a Glock loaded and ready under the cash register.
It's a power drill.
"Here, let me help you,'' says Robert, attacking a coconut. Seconds later a tourist ambles through the store, sipping the milk through a straw.
At the Robert Is Here fruit stand, coconuts are inventory. So are sweet dragonfruit, lychee and sapodilla. Robert's specialty is edible flora you are unlikely to find growing anywhere else on the continent but in his neighborhood on the edge of Everglades National Park.
Go ahead. Name something. Monstera deliciosa? Nice try. Robert grows the delicious monster from southern Mexico at his farm. Cucumber-shaped, it tastes like the offspring of a pineapple and a banana.
Of course, Robert grows jackfruit. You can buy jackfruit in the summer. It requires a big, strong helper to carry it to your vehicle. A single jackfruit can provide 80 pounds of salad. "Don't drop it on your foot,'' says Robert, who does not walk with a limp.
Sometimes it seems that Robert has always been here. But no, he has only been here since 1959.
He was 6 at the time. His dad, a farmer, had a bumper crop of cucumbers and gave his little boy a box of extras to sell. All day long cars streamed by the boy's table without a single stop.
The next morning his father erected a sign that pointed to the child below.
"ROBERT IS HERE.''
That night, lots of people included Robert's fresh cucumbers in their salads.
Soon the kid was buying produce at wholesale and selling it retail. When he had to be at school he left an honor-system coffee can on the table. By the time he was 9 he was making enough money to hire a neighbor to help. When he was 14 he bought a few acres of land on which he planted mangoes. In 1978, when he was 24, he opened his first permanent fruit stand on a busy corner. He kept the slogan that had launched him: "Robert is Here.''
About a million motorists drove through the South Florida entrance of Everglades National Park every year. They had to pass Robert is Here to get there. Robert has no use for computers; he added up sales in pencil on paper bags. He needed many paper bags.
Robert, who will be 60 on his next big birthday, is a talkative, burly fellow -who holds court from behind the counter. He wears shorts, T-shirt, apron. Tools hang from his belt. Sometimes he needs a knife to slice open a mango and hand out samples.
In Florida, summer is mango season. Lots of us grow them in our back yards. We grow Haden, Carrie and Bombay. Jakarta and Julie. Robert grows Kent mangoes. "They are the Cadillac of mangoes,'' he declares, spoiling for an argument.
The year 1992 started out well. He kept adding things large and small to the fruit stand. There was a petting zoo out back and birdhouses out front. His sons were old enough to help. His dad had died young, but his feisty mother, Mary Moehling, was still a presence at 4 feet 11.
She took no guff. One time she grabbed a local ruffian by the hair and dragged him into the parking lot. It was the 8th of August. Robert expected his mom at the store, but she didn't show. He drove to her house. She was inside, tied up. It looked like she'd been tortured before the murder.
Nothing was stolen; there seemed to be no motive for what had happened. At 73 she had been a beloved grandmother famous for her jams and jellies.
Homestead was still mourning two weeks later when Hurricane Andrew barreled through South Florida. More than 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Four people died.
Robert's home was a casualty. So were 80 acres of fruit trees. The fruit stand was barely standing. He thought about moving somewhere far away and starting over. Like Oregon.
But he stayed and rebuilt. Snapped off trees produced new growth.
Nobody was ever arrested for his mother's death.
"The murderer,'' he says, "is still out there.''
Robert is here still, selling papayas and mangoes, mamey and sapote. Sometimes the line at his milk shake stand winds into the parking lot.
Life can be wonderful. Life can break your heart. More than most of us, Robert works hard to find a path between those emotions.
"Have a nice day,'' he tells a customer, handing her a bag of mangoes.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected]