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The orchardist, p.22
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       The Orchardist, p.22

           Amanda Coplin

  He found stables nearby, and a boardinghouse. Inside his room on the second floor he washed, using a porcelain basin of water the landlady brought him, and combed his hair. He unrolled the suit he had wrapped in paper and twine, and dressed. Looked at his image in the dented mirrorglass above the basin, but could not quite make out his likeness. Downstairs he inquired of the landlady about a place to eat, and she directed him to a nearby café. He walked outside, taking in the air, which was different; full of the great cold expanse of the lake, which he could not see, and another, sharper odor of pine. And behind it all: dust. On the street the women who passed him were dressed in fine dresses; one who passed him now going the opposite direction wore a straw hat on her head, tied beneath her chin with a blue ribbon. She glanced at him openly with pale green eyes and then looked away.

  After a meal of steak and eggs and coffee at the café, where he sat at a booth and looked out at the passersby, he walked down the street in the direction of the courthouse, to where he had seen a barber’s. He went in for a haircut and a shave. When the barber was finished, when he was dusting off the back of Talmadge’s neck with a large brush, Talmadge looked at himself in the mirror.

  Don’t you like it? said the barber.

  I like it fine, said Talmadge. In fact he was moved by his own image. He did not know the last time his face had been so naked. He was not handsome—he had never been that—but the sharp razor had revealed to him his flesh sagging in folds—around his eyes, mouth, under his chin—and there were the smallpox scars, the pitting, from when he was a child. He was, frankly, uncovered. The only thing he recognized in that face were his eyes, which were the old cornflower blue—that had not changed—and looked out at him like some startled animal.

  It occurred to him that he was acting like a boy going to call on his sweetheart, going to the barber’s like that. He, who was far too old for such things. He had wondered if he was going too far. But now he saw his reflection and told himself that things were as they should be. He was old, but taking pains. He had been traveling, and she hadn’t seen him in a long time. It was only normal that he should take pains.

  She had suffered to be in this position, he reminded himself—but did he ever have to remind himself of this?—walking up the courthouse steps.

  The inside of the courthouse smelled faintly of gasoline. The sound of his boots echoed down the long corridor. In an office on one side of a wide staircase, he inquired after the jail warden.

  A young man with spectacles who worked behind the counter told him the warden was not there, but was expected in the afternoon. Talmadge could either come back later or wait for him. Talmadge asked how long the warden was going to be. The young man shrugged. An hour, maybe two hours, he said. Talmadge was more than welcome to wait outside on the bench, if he would like.

  Talmadge settled on the bench outside the door, took off his hat, and put it on his knee. He waited like that for about an hour and then rose and walked the length of the courthouse, looking at the large portraits of the important men—judges?—on the walls. And then he returned to the bench, sat down again. After another half hour had passed, he stepped again into the office. The young man looked up at him, surprised. Talmadge asked if he thought the warden was still coming. The young man hesitated, said he was most likely coming, because he had business there that afternoon. But then the young man faltered, looked away; and Talmadge knew he had forgotten about him waiting outside.

  Talmadge returned to the bench. Not long afterward the young man came out and asked him what it was he was there for exactly. Maybe I can help you, he said.

  I’m here to see Della Michaelson.

  The man’s expression changed only slightly, but Talmadge understood that he knew who he was talking about. The young man excused himself, telling Talmadge he would be right back. He was gone for maybe ten minutes, and when he returned, Talmadge stood. The young man said that Della could not receive visitors today. He was not at liberty to discuss the details, but she had been involved in an altercation earlier that week and been put in solitary confinement.

  The young man, after he said this, stood silently before Talmadge, trying not to let his embarrassment or awkwardness overcome him.

  Talmadge stood still and did not say anything. That word—“altercation”—alarmed him. He wanted to step forward and place his hands on the young man’s shoulders—how old was he? Twenty? Twenty-five?—and make him explain. What do you mean, “altercation”? But he did no such thing. Instead he said:

  An altercation, you say? In jail?

  Yes, sir.

  Can they have altercations in jail?

  Oh, yes, sir. The young man, in fact, looked as if he were sorry about it; winced.

  Talmadge hesitated. She’s all right, isn’t she?

  Yes, said the young man, and paused. I believe she’s all right—

  Talmadge waited for him to continue, to elaborate, for it seemed he might go on. But the young man blushed, shook his head once to indicate he was done speaking.

  Talmadge said: She’s a good girl, I don’t know why—

  But he didn’t continue. His voice even to his ears was unconvincing. He stared at the wall behind the young man, which was covered with gray wallpaper.

  She’s a good girl? said Talmadge. This is the first time something like this has happened, here?

  The young man hesitated.

  I can’t rightly say, sir. You’ll have to speak to the warden about that. It’s all in her file. I’m not at liberty—

  Talmadge was nodding, absently.

  The young man, though momentarily defensive, was sorry for Talmadge, Talmadge could see that. It was no use pressing him for information, or trying to persuade him to let Talmadge in to see Della. This boy didn’t have it in him to break the rules—Talmadge could see that clearly—and he, Talmadge, wasn’t going to make him feel bad about it.

  You can keep waiting, said the young man, or you can come back tomorrow. I’m sorry I can’t be any more help.

  I can’t come tomorrow, said Talmadge. I have to be getting back.

  The young man looked pained. I’m sorry, he said.

  Talmadge wondered, walking down the street to the boardinghouse, blind now to the novelty of the place, the details that had captured his attention just hours before, what it was, exactly, that Della’s file contained. Was it everything that they knew about her since the beginning of her incarceration, or did it contain other information as well? Did they know, for instance, anything about her past? Had she told them anything about herself? Talmadge wondered if, alongside all of the information about her, there was a list of names of the people who would be willing to help her in the case that she was released. A list of people who would vouch for her. Surely, he thought, such a list—himself, Caroline Middey, the Judge, Clee, Angelene—would make a difference. He made a note to talk to the warden, and the Judge, about it.

  He slept through supper that evening at the boardinghouse, and when he woke, around ten o’clock at night, he dressed and went downstairs. The house was quiet. Several lamps were lit in the sitting room, and under one of them, in a chair in the corner, the landlady sat, knitting. She looked up at him as he paused in the doorway.

  There’s a plate for you in the oven, she said. I didn’t want to disturb you. She looked down at her knitting, which she had not interrupted. When he continued to stand there, she stopped all at once, put the knitting aside, and stood.
  That’s all right, said Talmadge. I can help myself to something to eat, if—

  It’s not a problem—

  He followed her down the dark hallway. In the kitchen she lit a lantern and told him to sit. He sat at a table near the window from where he could see the lake. She took a plate from the warming oven and set it before him. It was mashed potatoes and gravy, roast chicken, green beans.

  Can I get you something to drink?

  Thank you, I can help myself to some water, if you—

  Water? It’s water you want? Wouldn’t you rather have some milk?

  Well, I—

  She brought him a glass of milk and then left him alone. He ate the food, looked out at the lake and the trees, listened to the stove ticking.

  When he finished eating, he found the landlady again, sitting in her orb of light, knitting. She looked up at him.

  Did you get enough to eat?

  Yes, thank you.

  Is there something else? You have enough blankets up there to suit you?

  When he didn’t answer, she stopped knitting and put the yarn aside and asked him if he would like to sit.

  Again he hesitated.

  I have to ask a favor—

  She regarded him.

  Do you think—would you mind taking dictation for a letter?

  There was only the slightest of hesitations, from surprise, before she answered.

  Of course—

  And she got up to get a piece of paper.

  The worst thing about solitary confinement was that she lost the sense of the order of things. What was she doing? Where was she? Was she making a mistake? It had all seemed a bright formula to her, before. But now in the darkness doubt reared its head, rose up before her.

  It was very still and Della might sleep and then she woke and there were no men and no horses, there was no orchard and orchardist and child, there was no fruit and no sky, no wet-smelling air; only emptiness. There was no time. There was no wilderness to lose oneself inside. She touched her face in the dark; she had her self. But then, she thought, her self was nothing. She was nothing.

  Why are we born? she thought. What does it mean to be born? To die?

  Talmadge was halfway back to the orchard—he had woken before dawn in the back of the wagon, in the biting cold, and had prepared a fire and eaten, and taken up the reins in the blue-gray air, before he realized, the sun breaking in the east: he should not have left her there. He should not have been so lenient with the young man. He should have demanded to see the warden, demanded to see Della. It was not impossible, after all, to see her. She was not dead. It was up to the warden whether Della could receive visitors or not. And Talmadge was capable, he knew, somehow—didn’t he have the power of speech? Wasn’t he, in the least bit, sympathetic?—of changing the man’s mind.

  But what had he, Talmadge, done? He had written a letter to the girl: I will come back to see you. And would it be worse for her to know that he was there, but had not pressed anybody for her sake, had not insisted on seeing her?

  He slowed the mule in the road, stopped. Silence of another landscape surrounded him. He considered going back. But there was Angelene, alone, ignorant of all these developments, in the orchard. He did not want to frighten her by his extended absence. After minutes of indecision, he finally urged the mule forward, toward the orchard. Away from Chelan.

  A man came to see you, said the warden.

  Della, who had been in a cell with no windows or light for three days, sat before his desk. She tried to remain indifferent and calm but was unable to hide her discomfort. The light in the office, though weak—the warden had drawn the blinds, sensitive to her condition—seemed to abrade her. The shadows on the wall, the small movement of the warden’s face as he spoke now, touched a deep part of her. She was alarmed by the feeling that she was going to cry. But there was no reason to cry, not now.

  She eventually came around to recognizing what the warden had just said: that a man had come to see her.

  What man?

  He left this for you. The warden reached into his front shirt pocket and removed an envelope, handed it across the desk to her. The letter had been opened.

  Protocol, he said.

  When he had walked with her down the hall after her stint in solitary confinement—gripping her elbow, for she had trouble standing; the darkness had weakened her more than she could have imagined—he had also been gently jovial: Now, I know that was unpleasant, but I’m sure you understand now why we use that as a deterrent—

  She took the letter from him. As an object it was completely foreign to her, as if he had handed her a piece of the moon, or a diamond necklace. He was waiting for her to say something.

  Hesitating briefly, she handed the letter back to him without opening it.

  I can’t read it. And by “can’t,” it was obvious that she meant she was literally unable to read the letter.

  The warden let a minute pass in silence. The letter lay before him on the desk, but he did not consult it.

  He wants to come see you. I told you before. His name is William Talmadge. Then, watching her face: How do you know him?

  And Della remembered: the day before she attacked Michaelson, the warden had come out to join her in the yard. He said he had received a letter from a man, a lawyer, down near Wenatchee, who was asking permission on the part of a client to come and see her.

  Do you want to see him? the warden had asked that day in the yard.

  He wants to come here? said Della. Thinking, after the initial surprise: Of course he couldn’t come there. But upon hearing his name she had felt a brightness in her abdomen.

  No, she said. I don’t want to see him.

  That was what she had said that day in the yard. But the man—Talmadge—had come anyway. Della said now, mustering her strength at reason and argument—she was tired and confused, they should have let her rest longer before this meeting—Why did he come, if you said he couldn’t see me?

  The warden touched a sheaf of papers on his desk. He did not answer right away.

  I told him to come, he said.

  Della, who had already begun to understand, was silent.

  I don’t think you realize—I don’t think you understand—how much trouble you might be in. With the assault you already admitted to, but now, especially, with this most recent action—the warden shook his head. I don’t think you’re in a position to be denying help. Forgive me. I only have your best interests at heart—

  Della said nothing. She was not moved by the warden’s words of concern. She had thought he was intelligent, though not beyond manipulation; but after that solitary confinement business, she was not sure he was not like other men she had known: like Michaelson. After that, she did not know what to think of him. These words—I only have your best interests at heart—she excused at once without believing them. They were just words, used to further control her.

  She let herself think, briefly, of Talmadge. Imagined him coming to Chelan—did he take the mule? Or would he have taken the steamboat? The train?—and drawing to the courthouse, searching for her. She knew what had happened: he had come at the appointed time, and when he was denied, when he was told what had happened to her—but what would they have told him, exactly?—he had perhaps thought of arguing, but had not. He had accepted the circumstances. He had written her a note. She suddenly knew what the letter said, she did not have to read it: He had
come to see her, but had been unable to do so. He hoped she was all right. He would come to see her again.

  And when the warden read her the letter—at his insistence, not hers—this is what it said.

  Will you see him? asked the warden, folding the letter and inserting it into the envelope.

  Do I have a choice? she said: without animosity, without sarcasm. It was simply a statement, reflecting that she understood her powerlessness in the matter.

  The warden smiled faintly. It is for the best, he said. Let him—and this lawyer—help you.

  I don’t need help, she thought, as she was led back to her cell. I need time, and quiet, to think: to figure out how I am going to get through this all, how I am going to complete this task—

  The mule, which had grown sluggish during the last day and a half, picked up speed in the forest mountainside from Cashmere, feeling the familiar terrain beneath its hooves. Talmadge too felt the closeness to home. His heart beat through him hollow and light; he was dazzled by the sun in the trees. The mule traversed the final hill, wheezing, and Talmadge called to it, and the mule broke out of the trees into the bright pasture and coughed, ambled down the slope, its mouth agape, bridle clinking.

  The orchards were blue- and silver-leaved. The regular cries of birds, which the silence of the road had made him forget, rose and crossed in the sky. And there were the mingling odors: of water, of fruit and blossom and dust.

  Always dust.

  By a trick of light—it was the way the canyon was shaped, the distant canyon rock and upper forest rearing against the sky—some parts of the valley were cast in shadow, and other parts, like the part holding the cabin now, were lit up as if it were morning.

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