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Blueberry Orchard at the End of the World

Old guy has a face with long folds and creases like a glacier. His eyes are even a bright Arctic blue. Short-sleeve, button-down shirt, a comb, a pencil and protector-case for his thick horned-rim glasses. He has that drawl you hear in movies. Syrupy, soft and still quite authoritative.

“You fellas come to pick blueberries today?” he asks me and my buddy. We are already covered in sweat and bugs even though it is just after 10 a.m. It is the middle of August, overcast, a humidity blanket hangs in the sulfuric air.

“Yessir.”

“Yeah, man.”

You can pick all day for this farmer and he pays you by the pound. We’ve never picked blueberries before – not professionally. We may’ve done it when we were kids. We’re not sure. But we figure, even with these haunting hangovers, we can pick our asses off and make enough cash to eat and drink on for a few days. Buy smokes. Have some money left over.

Our slender, graceful, ironed-creases-in-his-pants-and-sleeves farmer takes his hand to his Pioneer ballcap and moves it around. His eyes turn to the orderly shambles of his orchard.

“Start anywhere you want,” he says. “But my best spots is right out in the middle.”

Out in the middle is also where the deerflies congregate. And the mosquitos. As soon as the sun gets high overhead the wasps and yellow jackets come nosing around. You don’t get lonely among mature crops. There’s always a crowd of insects to keep you company.

…..

My buddy had all these tattoos up his arms and back, scrawled in points and Japanese script down his muscular legs. He had a thick beard, shaved head and menacing brow. I think he had a black eye at the time and there were cuts on his knuckles. (We’d been fishing the weekend before and he’d fallen down a short cliff, though it looked like he’d been out brawling.)

I had hair like a disease. It crawled in electric red tongues all over my head and I wore these punk sunglasses from the ‘80s and a T-shirt that said “Shit” on the front and “More Shit” on the back.

Farmer acted like he’d seen our types before. Like he’d seen us around town or something.

…..

“I can’t stop eating them,” my buddy says. “I ain’t going to make shit if I can’t stop eating them.”

Farmer gives us each a “bottle of pop” after we’ve been picking for an hour and says it is his gift. That we are right smart pickers. The condensation on the bottles turns our palms to mud and my buddy grumbles about the hordes of stinging flies that hide behind the otherwise perfect little fruits.

“They don’t bite me,” the farmer, who was once written about in a Southern agriculture magazine, shrugs. He tells us to watch out for the snakes and then ducks back inside his shed/office where a fat niece is angrily poring over receipts like they are hieroglyphs.

By middle of the day we call it quits, tote our last buckets to the table and clunk them on the scales while the farmer scribbles figures down in a little notebook. He tells us to hold still while he fetches our wages from his troubled ugly little niece.

“Beeeer,” my buddy grins. “I’m ready for a goddamned beer. How about you?”

“I’m always ready.”

He hands us each a couple of bills and a palmful of coins. It is right at five bucks apiece. My buddy staggers around for a minute, speechless. I go to mopping at my brow like the farmer. Between us we have enough for half the beer we usually drink, and maybe the cigarettes needed to get through the night. This is robbery. Steinbeck type of robbery.

“Hold on,” my buddy says and the farmer turns at the door to his shed/office and stares blankly. “Can we at least take some blueberries with us?”

“Sure,” grins the farmer. “And grab a peach yonder, one for each of you.”

…..

Four nights later somebody goes and torches the orchard. Like it was strafed or napalmed. Turned into an apocalyptic landscape. Even the shed/office went up. It makes the front page of the town paper, below the fold at the bottom. Story notes that the orchard is historic enough that the USDA is sending people from as far away as Washington, D.C. to come and look at it. They call it a waste of all that is good and wholesome in this world. An abomination.

My buddy laughs and says he had the shits for two days from eating all those blueberries. And one of his wasp stings is infected.

 

“Look,” he tells me as we walk to the laundromat to check the machines for loose quarters, “can you keep a secret?”