“Mom is going to have a litter of purple cows,” I muttered.
Used to the strange phrases that Lucia and I had coined as girls but still puzzled, Bennie asked, “Why?”
Grimacing at the blow up Mom was likely to have since she treated wasted food like a first degree felony I told him, “Look at the decayed fruit.”
Still puzzled and looking around he asked, “Where?”
I’d forgotten who I was talking to. Bennie was such a city boy he’d probably only seen some of this in pictures. Knowing it would be easier to show him rather than tell him I said, “Come on, give me a hand. We need to get some buckets and come back and try and save some of the fallen fruit before we start picking. Lucia can prepare it and put it on the dryer if she wants to stay in the house.”
Acting like I was sentencing to her hard labor at Sing Sing Lucia asked, “You want me to do what?! Why can’t we just put it in the frig?”
“There’s too much; it’ll spoil before it gets eaten. And I’m not listening to both of our mothers complain about all of the waste and how we could have done yada, yada, blah, blah, blah and how we weren’t thinking about the cost of groceries or whatever else they come up with. I swear you know how the two of them are, especially when they get going together. Do you really want to get double teamed by one of their infamous lectures on how modern girls just don’t seem to understand the value of a dollar and how we’ll never find husbands worth anything if we can’t even …”
“All right already,” she said huffing. “God, you are starting to sound just like them. I’m never going to get any peace unless we get this done and over with. So what is it you want me to do?”
“Get the Excalibur out and …”
Lucia wasn’t the only one with frayed nerves and on top of that my patience was wearing thin. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with her dragging her feet every step of the way just to tick me off and pay me back. “Don’t play dumb Lucia. You know I mean Mom’s big food dryer. It’ll pull power off the batteries but we can deal without the TV tonight since we aren’t getting anything but snow anyway. The radio is enough and there isn’t much worth hearing on it except the government line of BS to stay calm, stay home, help is on the way.”
“But Joey …”
No amount of whining on Lucia’s part would put me off. I refused to have my mother show up and think I was slacking and just messing around sitting comfortable while they risked their necks on the road to get here.
Unfortunately I hadn’t a clue what I was getting myself into. It felt like I worked harder the next few days than I ever had in my life. There were apples, apricots, pears, blackberries, blueberries, nectarines, raspberries and something I’d grown up calling a Saskatoon. There were also a few figs and a tree full of black mulberries that I knew I would have to fight the birds for like I did when I was a little kid still living in Dover, TN.
Thoughts of Dover flitting threw my head had me checking out the small grove of pawpaw trees and sure enough there was fruit on them, only none of it ripe yet. There was fruit on the persimmon trees too but I wouldn’t go near them for love or money before they finished ripening in October. Biting an unripe persimmon was like chewing powdered alum. The quince trees would give ripe fruit next month but they already smelled wonderful. The grape vines were also full for next month’s harvest but I wouldn’t track through them on a bet without boots and heavy gloves in hand. Mom had warned me about the snakes that sometimes masqueraded as vines when they were sunning themselves.
“You’re nuts Joey!” Lucia exclaimed, throwing up her hands in irritation while I threw the peelings and fruit pieces too bruised to save over the fence to the chickens. “I’m not doing this anymore, not even for your mother … or mine for that matter. This stuff will just spoil and all the work will have been for nothing. You act like the friggin’ world has come to an end. You heard what the radio said; the government has it under control. Everyone just needs to relax and calm down. It’s people freaking out like you are that is causing heartburn for everyone else. This is hoarding and people are getting thrown in jail for it. Is that where you want to end up? If you want to think of what your mother will worry about, why don’t you think about that.”
“Hoarding my foot!” I yelled back at her. “This is my parents’ land. These are my parents’ trees. This makes this my parents’ fruit. It in no way belongs to anyone else and I will not listen to some blow hole on the boob tube justify redistributing resources and rationalizing breaking into people’s homes to take what doesn’t belong to them!”
I was too tired to fight the same fight we’d fought for the last three days that always ended up being a cry fest because our families hadn’t shown up yet. Even Bennie, once my stalwart supporter, had started siding openly with Lucia and saying I was overreacting.
Cutting through all of it I said, “Look, I’m sorry I was wrong. It’s obviously taking them longer to get here than I thought it would. But if you two take the truck and leave like you want to how do you think you are going to find them? You have absolutely no idea what route they took. You two already took the truck back down the road once to just short of the town and you didn’t see anybody or even hear anything. The cell phones aren’t working either even though we’ve kept them charged. That phone you guys found at that little forestry substation didn’t work either. The internet is still down even though you found a place to get three bars on your smart phone. We even walked to the overlook last night and didn’t see any lights from the highway … or any place else for that matter … and at a minimum we should have seen a few houses lit up down in Dot. The one TV channel that has finally come up is either broadcasting re-runs or just more of the same happy-happy talk from the media on how good the president is doing and how Congress and local state governments are moving as fast as they can and for everyone to be patient. I still don’t get why a national cable news anchor is on a local station. And you have to have noticed there weren’t any pictures, film clips, sound bites, and no real news with any substance about what is going on outside the country. So tell me, does that sound like everything is OK and getting back to normal?!!” My voice finally cracked when I yelled and I threw the bucket in the general direction of the barn and stomped back to the orchard to keep working even if they refused to help.
Three hours later I was still at it. I was beyond tired, beyond feeling sorry for myself. I had a bad case of auto-pilot going on.
I thought at first a buck was running across the path but then I heard, “Joey! Joey!”
My head jerked up at the racket Bennie was making. He’d startled me bad enough I nearly dropped the bucket of blackberries I was picking. I did begin to run over to him when I caught a glimpse of his face.
“Lucia?! Did something …”
He grabbed my good arm to stop me. “No,” he gasped and I realized he was a pale green beneath his tan. “They’re … they’re here …”
Ready to hit him for scaring me I tried to yank my arm but he wouldn’t turn loose. He looked in my face like he was trying to prepared me for something. “Joey … Joey … aw man … I’m … I’m so sorry …”
“Dad? Is it my Dad?” I whimpered but I didn’t give him a chance to answer because I’d finally managed to get loose from his grip. I ran up the path that led back to the cabin knowing something was wrong … horribly wrong for Bennie to react as he had. I heard Lucia’s parents carrying on before I reached the yard, her Dad especially. He was spewing the nastiest stuff I’d ever heard from him.
I knew it was bad, felt it deep in my bones. But nothing, absolutely nothing on this side of hell could have prepared me for the truth of it all.