The Orchardby Ed Meek
The light those cool fall mornings would slip surreptitiously into our damp tent. Caroline and I had our sleeping bags zipped together to form a rectangle. I would wake up tangled in her hair, my lips pressed against her neck. I loved the taste of her skin--salt and sweat, and the feel of her skin--down and silk over smooth stone of bone. I'd turn and squint at the shaft of light, motes suspended, drops of dew, and yank myself up to get dressed. She'd take her sweet time so I'd leave first and head over to the common fire Burton would have raging, the smell of coffee percolating in the tin pot.
There were four of us camped out for the harvest on the orchard that fall. Lizzie and Burton were in a teepee. It was 1976. The teepee was made of canvas. Lizzie had bought it at L.L. Bean. She said she always wanted to live in a teepee and this was her chance. The orchard was owned by a guy that Burton knew. Burton was Lizzie's boyfriend. He had gotten the owner to hire Lizzie, Caroline and me. Lizzie was Caroline's sister. Lizzie and Caroline, along with a handful of migrant women, graded and packed apples. A dozen male migrant workers picked the apples.
Burton and I did everything else--picking up the apple crates and loading them onto a flatbed behind a tractor, unloading and stacking the crates in the barn, loading the graded, packed boxes of apples onto trucks, repairing any of the variety of jeeps, pick-ups, tractors, and farm equipment necessary to keep the operation moving, and making apples into cider using an old manual press in the barn, loading the gallons and half-gallons of cider onto the bed of the pick-up and delivering the jugs to local markets. We worked six days a week. And on Sundays Caroline, Lizzie, Burton and I sold apples and cider at the farm stand. In the afternoon, one of us would go food shopping for the week's supplies.
Every morning the four of us would rise at dawn, have coffee and bread or muffins for breakfast, and we'd work till noon when we'd break for lunches of tomato and cheese sandwiches and cider; then we'd work until dusk when we'd gather at the farmhouse for dinners—homemade hearty soups, brown rice and fresh vegetables. We'd take turns making dinner. On Sundays, roast turkey and potatoes and beans cooked by the owner's wife at the house in town were ferried out to the farmhouse for us.
There was always a rush of one kind or another--to pick the apples before the frost, to pack the apples and ship them to make room for what hadn't been picked, to press the apples into cider before they went bad, to stock for the weekend, to fix whatever had broken down--hard work--twelve, thirteen hours a day, nearly all of it against nature's backdrop--undeniably beautiful in its array of color, marking each day the changes in birch, maple, oak and elm--from pine-needle-green, to sun-splashed yellow to cranberry to maroon to tangerine to sunset orange to sandstone, all of it repeating in waves of color that rolled into hills and mountains that stretched one behind the other backing up the story of nature the trees had to tell, a cacophony of color, a kaleidoscope of time.
That September afternoon I was sitting on the back of the flatbed. The flatbed was attached to a tractor. Burton was driving the tractor between the rows of apple trees. I would hop off and load the boxes, filled with apples by the pickers, onto the flatbed. It was hot and sunny. I was sweating right onto the apples. I liked using my body, working hard in the heat. I had always liked it hot and sunny. Most summers I'd spent on the beach on Cape Cod. There, I'd work at night as a bartender and go to the beach during the day, but I had been going out with Caroline at school since winter and when she asked me if I wanted to work on an orchard in July and August I figured, why not?
Caroline and I had both graduated from Emerson College in June. We were supposed to be looking for jobs. The plan was to work on the orchard for two months, but I had convinced Caroline to stay on and now it was almost October. We both had degrees in Art. September was a good time to look for jobs down in Boston. By the end of the harvest, most of the good jobs would be gone. But we were a long ways from Boston. Much farther than the three hours it took to get there from New Hampshire by car. We were in another world.
Burton pulled the tractor up to the barn and shut the engine down. I started unloading the boxes and stacking them inside the barn.
"Hey," Burton said, "what's the rush?" He smiled. Burton was never in a hurry. He was a lanky dude with long hair he kept in a ponytail that came out the hole in the back of his green John Deere hat. He was laid back, cultured in the wisdom of his years. He was much older than us. He was almost thirty.
"What are you gonna do after the harvest?" I asked.
Burton leaned against the boxes. "Lizzie and me will go back to Novie. I have a place on the ocean up there. Thinking of getting a boat and starting lobster fishing in the spring. Already got some pots. Usually in the winter though, I do carpentry. Done some work as a mechanic too. I can always find something."
I grabbed an apple from a box and bit into it. The sweet citrus juice and the tart aftertaste twisted my tongue. Burton picked up an apple, took a bite then threw it at a tree and missed. Burton and Lizzie had met in a pub in Nova Scotia. Lizzie and Caroline were from Wellesley, a tony suburb of Boston, but they had grandparents up in Nova Scotia, and Lizzie had worked as a waitress and lived up there for the last two years--since she graduated from high school. She and Burton had met in the spring, and Burton had told Lizzie about this orchard he had worked on for the last couple of summers. Lizzie told Caroline and Caroline told me.
"You missed," I said to Burton. "You never miss." Burton was a capable guy. He could fix all of the equipment. He seemed to just know how to do things, how machines worked. A tractor would stall and he'd fiddle with the engine and the engine would turn over. There were a lot of people like that when you got out in the country. People who knew how things worked and how to fix them when they broke. People who knew how to build houses. What did I know? How to make drinks. How to catch a ball. How to seduce women. How to create paintings even I didn't understand. Could I spend the winter in New Hampshire or Nova Scotia with Caroline? I'd bartend and she'd waitress. Maybe I could work as a laborer or train as a mechanic. I had already learned a lot from Burton about fixing jeeps and tractors. I didn't want to go back down to Boston and bartend and paint on the side. That was Caroline's plan—work in restaurants and do art on the side. Like Burton said, what was the rush?
Caroline and Lizzie were grading the apples in the basement of the barn. They'd pluck the apples from the crates and place them in boxes according to how they looked. If they were perfect and shaped just right, they would go in one box; if they had slight imperfections, bug bites or sunspots, they would go in another. If they were seriously flawed or misshapen, they would go into a bin for cider. When the boxes were filled, they'd be closed and stacked. What Caroline complained about first was the chafing of the cardboard box against her wrist when she placed the apples in the squares formed by cardboard dividers. By September she had developed a rash on her wrist and red scrapes lined her arms. Caroline said she could never get comfortable—the migrant women kept the windows open because they would all sweat, where Caroline was cold from drafts of air. She said it was always damp in the barn basement. Her back would be cold but the sleeves of her shirt would cling to the sweat on her arms. She and Lizzie worked alongside migrants who had come from other harvests out west. The migrants, their husbands and their children, all stayed in the bunkhouse. They spoke Spanish to one another, ignoring Caroline and Lizzie. Their kids played just outside the barn during the day.
One September afternoon, Lizzie came strolling out of the barn. Maybe she had heard Burton and me or maybe she just wanted to take a break. "It's a hundred degrees in there," she said. She pulled her jersey off. She wasn't wearing anything underneath. She patted her face, her breasts and under her arms. I noticed the hair under her arms was blond. Her skin was the color of peaches. I couldn't help but stare. I looked at Burton to see how he was reacting.
"Hey," he said to Lizzie, "keep your shirt on!" He laughed.
"Who cares?" Lizzie said. "You don't care, do you David?" She pulled her jersey back on and walked back into the barn.
"No," I said, "not me."
That night I found myself restlessly tossing. Caroline had already told me she hated living in the tent. It didn't really bother me. I was pretty happy working hard all day, and, by nightfall, I was so tired I could have slept anywhere. But it bothered her that we would only get to shower on weekends in the bunkhouse where the migrants slept. Caroline said sleeping in the tent made her feel ugly and dirty. I rolled over and put my hand on Caroline's arm despite the fact that she had let me know that the last thing she wanted to was to be touched. She claimed that season she was learning to just say no. If things had been different I might have been angry, but I was so wiped out by the end of each day that I would usually just conk at night. I figured we'd get back to normal after the harvest.
Anyway, Caroline was asleep with her back to me. I moved closer to snuggle. I kissed and nuzzled her neck. I had one hand on her leg. I pressed up against her from behind. It felt good. I thought I heard her murmur with pleasure. I was picturing Lizzie without her shirt on. She had beautiful breasts. Her skin was pale and smooth. She was thinner than Caroline, but her breasts were bigger.
All of a sudden Caroline jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow. "David, I was asleep. You were humping me while I was asleep. What are you, a dog?"
"I'm sorry," I said. I couldn't really make her out in the darkness. "I didn't know what I was doing. I was half-asleep myself; I thought you were sort of awake."
"Sort of awake?" She rubbed her elbow and began crying.
I didn't know what to make of Caroline's tears. "I just wanted to make love," I said. "I wasn't forcing myself on you."
"That's exactly what you were doing." She wiped the tears away with her jersey.
"Ugh," she said, "you are disgusting. I hate this place and this awful tent. I want to take a hot bath."
I reached around for the flashlight. I kept it right next to the sleeping bag, but it must have gotten knocked away.
"I want to quit," she said. "I want to leave here, tomorrow, or the day after, or this weekend, before I completely lose it."
"You were the one who wanted to come here," I said.
"I know, but now I want to leave and go back to Boston and find a good job. God, it doesn't even have to be a good job. Anything, as long as I can go home at night and take a hot shower, sleep in a bed and wear clean clothes in the morning. And I want to get back to painting. Don't you miss it?"
"It's so beautiful up here, I don't. I'm not even sure I want to paint anymore." I felt suddenly exhausted. I lay back and covered my eyes with my arm. "Let's talk about this tomorrow," I said. I rolled over and drifted to sleep dreaming of Lizzie.
When I woke up in the morning, Caroline was already up and out of the tent. I tried to get my thoughts together. I could just let her go on down to Boston and join her in a few weeks, after the harvest. Or I could quit too and leave with her. Part of me knew that if I let her go, that would be it between us. On the other hand, if I left with her and we cleaned up and went out in Boston (there was a restaurant I could take her to in the North End—a place she loved), I thought I could turn her around and we could get back on track again. The weird thing was that as I was arguing this with myself the image of Lizzie kept insinuating itself into my thoughts. I was really kind of angry at Lizzie for doing what she did. Taking her shirt off like that in front of me. What was she doing anyway? Was she being competitive with her sister? Was she flirting with me? Because if she was, it had worked. She had hooked me. She had one-upped her sister there and then. I suddenly wondered if I really loved Caroline. I couldn't really love her if just the sight of Lizzie without her shirt on could distract me so much.
When I got to the campfire, Caroline was drinking coffee, talking with Burton and Lizzie. "I told them I'm leaving," she said to me.
I could see that she was giving me an ultimatum. It was leave with her or see you later. I poured myself some coffee. "I'll stay until the end of the season," I said. I was saying it in part just to gauge her reaction but when it came out, it sounded right to me
"Well, I'm out of here today," Caroline said. She wouldn't even look at me. "I'm going to pack, and then I'll find out if I can catch a bus in town.
"David and I can drop you off when we do the cider run," Burton said.
I watched Caroline walk back to the tent. She had definitely gained some weight. I was trying to figure out how I had ever found her attractive.
"By the way," Burton said to me, "you're welcome to come with Lizzie and me to Nova Scotia when we're done here. I can hook you up with some work, and you can stay with us."
I smiled and looked at Lizzie. I wondered what the rest of her body was like. I was trying to play it out in my head—how it might go up there in Nova Scotia. Would Burton kill me if I stole Lizzie from him? He just might. He could peg me with a knife in my back from fifty feet. They'd find me face down in the snow. One thing was certain, it would get ugly, but maybe it would be worth it. I sighed and looked at the trees. "Let me think about," I said.
The leaves had turned burnt orange and blood red. There'd be a frost soon.