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The orchardist, p.17
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       The Orchardist, p.17

           Amanda Coplin
 

  And then one day she traveled up the mountain farther than she ever had before, to the site of the felling. She had been rebuffed on earlier occasions—to hang around the base camp where they mended their tools and talked and ate their meals was one thing, but to enter the site where the actual work happened was strictly forbidden—but that day the men who saw her cast her rueful glances, or frowned, but did not order her back to base camp. All attention was given to an argument unfolding among a group of men. A man who was a topper had hurt his shoulder and, at the urging of his friends, refused to go up into the indicated tree. The topper had apparently reached this decision despite himself—he wanted to go up, but upon trying could not even get into his harness, never mind shoulder a saw—and there was the argument among the man’s friends and the others who thought the topper should go up regardless of his present condition. What had happened, the latter group argued, that had not happened to other toppers before him, who had ultimately mustered the strength to finish the job? The problem was not that of the body, they implied, but of the will. If he was hurt, he could at least finish the job for that night; tomorrow or the next day they could find another topper. Another topper this late in the season, this far inland? someone cried. It was finally decided that the man would not go up, which meant that one of the others must. But none of them had topped before, and no one wanted to go down to the camp and tell the boss that they weren’t going to finish the job because of a lack of a topper—and so they evaluated each other, at first covertly and then outright, impugning each other’s courage and character.

  In a long pause in the argument, when Della said, in a clear, childlike voice they would not have thought possible to come out of her mouth, that she would do it, some glanced at her, astonished, not realizing she had been standing there. Some looked at her and then pointedly ignored her. But she persisted; and when the argument rekindled, she sidled up to the man’s friend, the topper’s friend, who held the harness—he was arguing with somebody—and took it and fit it over her body. Hey! said the man, and made a move to reclaim the harness, but she was in the last stages of securing it onto herself. There was a fierce, solemn expression on her face, and some of the men appraised her. I’ll do it, she said. I said I’ll do it! She’s crazy, someone murmured. Damn right she’s crazy, said somebody else. It quieted for a moment as they watched to see what she’d do next. Where’s the tree? she said. I know what to do, I’ve done it before. Shit, somebody said. Is that right? said somebody else. Let her do it, said a man at the back of the crowd, and heads turned to see who had spoken. It was a rotund man with black hair and watery eyes. She does it and falls off, we won’t have to deal with her anymore. We’ll be rid of her. There was gentle guffawing. Della fingered the silver buckle on the strap, which was not unlike a bridle. You send me up there, she said, and I’ll get the job done. I just want to do it, is all. You let me be the topper, she said, and I’ll work so fast it’ll make your head spin. Now the guffawing turned to laughter. Lady, said a man, and then cleared his throat, because calling her that was somehow ridiculous—Lady, you get up there and you just get the job done, is all. You don’t have to be good at it. I’ll be the best, she said, and now another man said: Send her up! There was no more discussion; and, as it was getting late in the day, a bottle was passed around, and many of the men who had first declined it took a drink on the second round; and they led her to the topper site, and hoisted her aloft, for she was too short to even make the starting point, and as soon as she was set—she had her legs wrapped around the tree—they stepped back, and she began to climb.

  A quarter of the way up the tree she began to cry; her pants were not suited to the work, and the insides of her thighs were burned numb from chafing. The men down below passed the bottle around and watched her. When she was halfway up, the sun was setting, and they were shouting encouragement that she could barely hear. When she reached the top, she could no longer hear them. She feared she would be too weak to work the saw. She looked at it and knew at once that she could not do it.

  Darkness came. A breeze smelling of duff came from below. She wept, clinging to the trunk. It seemed the air coming up from the ground was warm. There was the sound of innumerable doors opening and closing, and when she stopped crying, she realized it was the other trees creaking in the wind. The first stars came out. She did not know what was real. It was quiet now, the wind had gone. She was in a tree, but it was not the tallest tree in the world; or there were millions of trees in the world, and she had climbed this one because it was the one that she was going to cut; she would cut into the wood with her blade. She had set the saw across the radius but had yet to apply any pressure to it. She looked down at her hands against the saw, very white, childlike but also manlike hands; and before she knew it she had begun to work.

  Talmadge was not interested in large-scale fruit distribution even when he saw the necessity of it in the changing, increasingly industrialized world. He had made a living since he was a boy tending his own acreage, and even though he accepted the help of the men when they traveled through, the work was never overwhelming to the point where it affected his health. This would soon not be the case—he was getting on in years, and the work the orchards demanded of him was making him tired. Was wearing him out. He did not speak of this, though he and the girl were both aware of it. Angelene becoming more capable with each year, working hard, while also being discreet, to compensate for his tiredness.

  He had never had difficulty selling his fruit in town, in front of the feed and supply store or at the weekly market on Saturdays, but with the increased production from the irrigation canals, and the influx of settlers into the area also selling goods, he found he had too much fruit at the end of the day, and did not know what to do with it. The three of them—Talmadge, Caroline Middey, and Angelene—canned and dried what they could, and stored the surplus. Talmadge soon contacted a distributor who agreed to take some of the fruit off his hands. Some of the orchardists sold all their fruit to distributors, but Talmadge did not want to do this if he did not have to. He enjoyed sitting alongside the wagon at market, greeting people, selling fruit, letting the day go by.

  He earned more than he anticipated when he began to sell part of the harvest to the distributor, which surprised him. He had never charged too much for his fruit, and now that somebody else had put a different price on it, he was dismayed. It felt, somehow, dishonest.

  It’s the way of the world, Talmadge, said Caroline Middey. The way the world is heading. You shouldn’t feel bad about it, she said, when she saw he was still bothered; you deserve the money, your fruit is by far the best. Why, I bet you could get even more money, if you wanted to! Then: There’s nothing wrong with collecting what is rightfully yours, after all these years of hard work—

  But Talmadge, disgusted and wearied by such a conversation, did not wish to speak of it anymore.

  One night Della discovered a group of men playing cards in the mess hall. She stayed in the shadows, and when one of the men noticed her, he said nothing to the others. But the next day, at the fell site, the same man caught her arm—when she looked at him hatefully, he unhanded her—and told her, without looking at her, that she ought to mind her own business and let them alone while they played. I wasn’t doing no harm, she said, and he said, It takes one snitch to ruin the one bit of fun we have left out here. It was then she understood that he was afraid she would tell on them. It was illegal to gamble at the camp, a rule that owed more to the owner’s wife, who was a devout Baptist, than to the sensibility of the owner himself, who, if the business did not suffer, was willing to overlook much. Della showed up the next night, and when the man saw her, he threw down his cards. The other men saw her too, but they were not bothered in the least. They dealt her in. And though it was not the feeling of the man who had first included her to hope that she was a bad card player, it was the hope of one or two of the others; and they were proved right. At least, that was what Del
la wanted them to believe. She had been playing these card games, and variations of these card games, from when she was a teenager roaming the country with Clee and his men. She knew when to play straight and when to play badly for a purpose. You paid attention to who you were playing with and took what they were worth from them slowly, if need be (this she taught herself); but you always bled them dry. Because that’s what playing cards—gambling—was all about.

  She did not care about money; it was not about the money; but she saw that the men brought in a certain amount each week, and she enjoyed the manipulation required to take that money from them, each week, night by night, slowly so they would not become angry and force her out. When one of them began to catch on that though she stumbled and made bad calls like the rest of them, she was overall successful—though she was careful not to brag or to let the money remain long on the table when she won it—when one of the men realized this, she would read it on his face, and the next night she would force herself not to do so well. But she never failed to show up, for fear they would talk about her and come to conclusions between them.

  And so she gambled, and began to make money; and she had paper money besides her checks that she had not cashed, and she did not know what to do with it all. In the end she rolled it tightly in bundles and stuck it in a coffee can and buried it in the woods near where she slept.

  She could have gone on with the men like that for a long time. It was like any sport, letting them go, pulling them back; letting them think they were in control but really you were in control the entire time, your coffee can bursting with cash and buried in darkness by the riverbank.

  For Angelene’s twelfth birthday, in the summer, Talmadge presented her with two train tickets to Dungeness Bay, on the Olympic Peninsula. There was a new rail line going west out of Olympia, and he had gotten a special price.

  They left after apricot harvest, and took one suitcase between them. Angelene was flush with excitement as they boarded the train. The air of the car was cold and smelled of new leather and wood polish. There was the sharp chuff of the heating cylinders, and weaving through this the tinkling laugh of a woman Angelene could not see. They took their seats. When the train began to move, Angelene gripped Talmadge’s arm—he sat beside her—and looked out the window. When a woman came by and asked if they would like anything to eat, they ordered coffee and sandwiches, and Talmadge paid her cash out of his billfold.

  Angelene would remember forever afterward the jostling train, and the passage through the mountains—the thick, dark forests, the occasional waterfall from impossible heights, a herd of deer, once, fading in and out of the treeline, the strange, gloomy shadows as the train was surrounded on all sides by high, steep forest, the utter blackness and cold—she could feel it, clammy, on her face—of the tunnels. On the train platform in Olympia, the multitude of people and noise, and the sudden damp cold that got inside her clothes, unsettled her. There was somebody coughing, somebody laughing, a child crying. Talmadge put his arm around her shoulders. They boarded the other train, which was smaller, more compact, and soon they were traveling again. She slept; and when she woke, there was a golden light inside the car where they were. Talmadge was asleep; the complexion of his flesh was red. Her own hand—she held it up in front of her face—was dark brown. For a moment everything seemed saturated with its own perfect color—deep—and she knew, one day, that both of them would die. (The train rocked gently along the track.) Not soon, perhaps, but one day. He was going to die, and she would never see him again. She was going to die too—

  She sat back and looked out the window, at the racing landscape. Hayfields and strange forests.

  She slept.

  One night at the lumber camp—it was the end of winter, Della had been there for almost a year—one of the men took out a bottle, and it was not the regular corn liquor they passed around, but Mexican whiskey. Della, though she did not like the taste—she never had—took a drink. She took one drink and did not like it much but appreciated that it was good whiskey and began to plan her next move. The bottle was passed around, and again she took a drink. And again. A wonderful warmth suffused her, and the markings on the cards took on added significance. One more drink was all it took for her to become confused, and she lost the hand and the pot of money that was as good as hers. The man who won laughed as he embraced his winnings.

  After that, the drinking became something she did to assuage a boredom that had taken root in her—boredom with the men, the topping, the gambling—and an unwillingness to do anything about it. It was the old restlessness come back. Drinking became what she did to add challenge to the card game; to become intoxicated but not outwardly impaired. It was, ultimately, another diversion.

  After nights of drinking, Della slept badly, and often in the mornings she was sick. Drinking ice water and hot black coffee seemed to remedy her at least until the first shift was over, and she would stumble to her tent in the woods and sleep through the afternoon.

  Angelene and Talmadge stayed in a little boardinghouse on the beach. In between their two beds was a mahogany night table and a small vase with a dusty artificial iris in it. At night mice scuttled in the walls and across the floorboards.

  During the day they walked on the beach and in the forest. The forest had the tallest trees Angelene had ever seen—red cedars—beside which a man looked like an insignificant mote. The cedars, she knew from her reading, lived for thousands of years.

  In the evenings they ate with the other guests and the landlady and her half-grown son at the boardinghouse, the landlady’s cats rubbing against their legs under the table. For supper one night the landlady prepared crab stew. It was served in wide bowls, with fresh, crackling French bread to go with it. You could tell by the way the stew was served, and the quantity of it, that it was a common meal there. But that did not mean it was not delicious. Angelene had eaten nothing like it her entire life. She remembered Talmadge eating a spoonful, carefully, his eyes wide and distant.

  There were many memories Angelene had of Talmadge—them working in the orchard, and otherwise deeply ensconced in their normal life; them at the market, selling fruit, buying supplies, eating dinner with Caroline Middey on her front porch; the days upon days of their shared solitude, the long silences and the jokes, the simple but also deep company they kept. But that trip to Dungeness Bay stood apart, it was of a different cloth. Everything about that trip was new, and while excited and stimulated, Angelene was also exhausted by what she realized later was her extreme vulnerability, and what she perceived was Talmadge’s too: they were away from home. She kept gazing at him, his visage different now when framed by other trees, other skies, when framed by the ocean, which, before she had seen it—the ocean—had been a myth. Staying the night in the room that was not theirs, she thought they had achieved the impossible: they had gone somewhere together and created an experience totally their own. It felt like trespassing. Where were they? They were outside the orchard. It was an experience not to be repeated. Later she would hear people describe honeymoons this way.

  Overall during this time Della made less money from work and gambling, but as the money did not matter so much, she did not care. She began to speak more openly during the card games. The men, at first amazed at her verbosity, became accustomed to it, and amused. Sometimes, when she had had a lot to drink, the men who were able to tell her state of intoxication would ask her a question; and because it was a silly question, she would ignore it; but then she would answer it, an hour later perhaps, and the others who did not ignore her became confused; and, laughing, the one who posed the question would repeat what he had asked an hour before, and everyone would chuckle. Della, when she understood that this was a source of entertainment for them—the first night she caught on—became angry and threw down her cards and stood up and spat on the table. It was a clumsy battery of movement—some men simply ignored her—but the others looked at her, dumbfounded. Hey now! said
one man, frowning. Sit down, Little Man—that was what some of them called her, Little Man—nothing to get worked up about! But her heart was beating raucously, and she understood that even in the depths, the intricacies of space and time, the liquor provided, she wanted something else at that moment to bring her a sense of clarity, of justice, of rest. The man beside her was drinking out of a bottle, and as he was lifting it to his mouth she took it and stared at it—the men stared at her staring at it—and then she gripped its neck and brought it crashing onto the table. The noise was incredible, not like she had imagined it at all. She laughed. The men were at once on their feet, some with a look of animal fear on their faces. She did not understand the overlapping insults and demands that were thrown over her like so many nets; just brandished the bottle in front of her, waving it back and forth. When one man lunged forward and tried to take the bottle from her, she turned quickly to him. He had his arms open as if to embrace her. Swiftly, almost without meaning to, she cut his face. She had seen his skin up close and it had frightened and disgusted her. In reality, she had cut his throat. He clapped his hands over the wound, took his hands away, laughed shortly. Sat down abruptly in his chair. Now there was more shouting, and the men who approached her held up their hands to show they were unarmed; but though she was drunk, she knew that they would kill her. She ran out of the mess hall, and it was not until she was halfway to her tent that she realized she no longer carried the broken bottle. She kept running, into the trees. It was difficult to see. She did not know if any of the men followed her—she could not hear them—but when she was almost to her tent she realized that there was no way she was going to stop and pack up her things; she must keep on, she must leave and gain as much distance as she could before the morning, when they would look for her. Would they look for her? It depended on how badly she had injured the man. She had not meant to injure him—had she?—she could not remember all that well. Was it his arm she had cut, or his cheek? Or was it, actually and truly, his throat? She ran pell-mell through the trees.

 
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