The salesman behind the counter glowered. It was a gale-force scowl that started at his hairline and rolled downward till it ran out of face.

“Are you back, AGAIN?”

It was a Saturday morning at the seed and feed store. The hometown seed store is the last honest bulwark against the encroachment of big-box mega-stores.  It is a bastion of individuality where a gardener can find eccentric products of yesteryear alongside new horticultural advances, a place where salespeople know your dog’s name or ask things like, “So how’d that collard seed do, the organic we special-ordered for ya last fall?”

However, unlike the Wal-Marts and Home Depots which are cut with the same cookie-cutter, your hometown seed store also may be subject to salespeople with — how to put this? — strong personalities.

The salesperson in question on that recent morning was scowling across a linoleum-topped counter. His balled fists (each about the size of a Hormel canned ham) rested on a yellowed pattern of happy dairy cows.

“NEXT, please!” He turned to another customer who was buying onion sets and early peas.  Behind her in line was a couple who were wrestling forward a sack of chicken feed the size of a sofa.

“Mizzz Smith,” he said slowly, like he was reminding a demented child of her name, “we’re real busy now filling orders. No one’s got the time for more of your questions.”  He said the word like it was a spinal tap.

“We have customers with serious problems like plum curculio worms on their fruit trees.” With that, he chugged away down an aisle.

A Phorid fly moves in for the kill

“What seems to be the problem, darlin’?” came a kind voice. The owner of the voice was Purvis Gaines. He is a prolific grower of blueberries.

“It’s the fire ants, Purvis. They’re back, and nothing I do seems to slow them down.”

Purvis nodded in that comforting, flannel-shirt way of Southern men who let a woman spill her problems and then make the world all better with a monosyllable. “Yep.”

“All the products promise they’ll kill the queen,” I blubbered, “but they never do. They only kill the mound.”

I hitched the cuff of my jeans an inch above my ankle socks to show the latest batch of fire ant bites. Five pink welts with yellow centers ringed my leg.

“I came here today to see if there was anything new against fire ants for 2010, that I maybe hadn’t tried,” I said. “Do you know of anything?”

“Well,” Purvis offered, “There’s this new fly I heard of that bites the heads off ants. Don’t know whether they got that yet in Alabama. Maybe someone at the university could tell us.”

Us. I liked the sound of that. Me and Purvis Gaines in this together. Two humans against the fire ant queens. Out to make the pastures safer for blueberries and gardeners.

One dead, headless fire ant

“Can’t hurt to make some phone calls, can it?” Purvis said, moving me out the door and into the parking lot. “We could call over to Auburn University on Monday morning and see who knows about the fire-ant eatin’ flies.”

I felt all grateful and confident again. See? That’s the thing about a seed and feed store. You go there with a problem, and you leave with a solution.

I glanced back toward the store and thought for a moment I saw a face in the window.

It looked like it was saying “THANK YEWWWW.”

But I can’t be sure.

Gita M. Smith

Gita M. Smith

Gita M. Smith is a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer who covered Alabama -- yes, the whole state -- for the paper's national desk where she fell under  the dangerous influence of Keith Graham and Ron Taylor.  She writes flash fiction at 6S, Thinking 10 and fictionaut.