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The orchardist, p.25
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       The Orchardist, p.25

           Amanda Coplin
 

  All of these things she kept inside herself, constantly rearranged them, to create her happiness. Being alone, she was able to see each thing more clearly. Although there was fear in solitude, somehow this only made things sharper. It could not be sustained, this solitude, this level of sensitivity, but for the short time that Talmadge was away it was glorious, it was a great gift to herself.

  Let him visit her, she thought, going down to the creek for water. What was it to her, Angelene, anyhow?

  It was not the presents laid out on the bed, or the airing of, the constant fussing over, his suit. Not the slow, deliberate polishing of his good shoes, and wrapping them, for safety, in a paper bag. She was only a little wary of these things. Suspicious. But what she feared most were his silences. The times when she felt him prepare to speak, but ultimately falter. Turn away. The leagues, which his eyes revealed at times, of what he did not say.

  At the boardinghouse in Chelan, Talmadge unpacked his canvas sack: his suit, his shoes, his shaving kit, Della’s gifts. There, at the bottom of his pack, he spied something foreign: a small flat box the size of his palm, tied multiple times with twine. A note stuck within the twine—he carefully disengaged it—read “For Della.” The deliberate script, the hand, he knew immediately. He replaced the card and held the box for a moment, considering it, and then put it on the bed beside the others. He shaved, and then combed his hair, put on the suit, looked at himself in the dented mirror. But as before, he could not adequately see himself.

  A young woman stood behind the desk at the courthouse. She had red hair piled on top of her head, and a small nose, eyes the color of ice. When he told her he was there to see the warden, he had an appointment for three o’clock, she slit her eyes and then opened them very wide and said in a quiet voice: Oh! You must be Mr. Talmadge! and then she turned and went immediately to the back of the room, exited through a doorway.

  Talmadge remained standing there.

  When the woman returned a minute later, she was followed by a slight, bespectacled man of middle age. The warden introduced himself. He was soft-voiced, hoarse. He and Talmadge shook hands.

  The warden’s office was small. There was just enough room for a desk, two chairs, and a drab green filing cabinet. At the warden’s back were two large panes of beveled window glass. In the corner was a small potted ivy that the warden fussed with momentarily—he bent over it, gently pinched its leaves—before motioning for Talmadge to sit in one of the chairs before the desk.

  Talmadge sat, and removed his hat. Cleared his throat. Said, surprising the warden, who was preparing to speak: I wanted to talk to you about—Della. About her situation here.

  He cleared his throat again, touched his hat on his knee. He had practiced saying those words, was relieved to have executed the sentiment without blunder. He wanted, as he and the Judge had discussed, to show the warden that he, Talmadge, was a serious, dependable sort: he wanted to make a good impression.

  The warden nodded. He aimed his frown over Talmadge’s shoulder and said, as if just remembering: I was called away on important business that day, or else I would have been here to meet with you personally. And I recognize you came quite a ways. Down near Wenatchee, isn’t it? If I remember correctly, when we determined you would be unable to see her, we sent you a telegram—

  Talmadge nodded, vaguely. He had never received a telegram. Where would it have gone to? The post office?

  —but I fear it reached you too late. You came—cross country, I suppose? By horse?

  Wagon, said Talmadge. Mule. But—the train, this time.

  The warden nodded again. His eyes traveled to the sack leaning against Talmadge’s knee.

  Gifts, said Talmadge. For her.

  The warden nodded absently and then briefly met Talmadge’s eyes. There followed an uncomfortable silence.

  Forgive me, said the warden. It is perhaps—none of my business. But who are you? What relation do you have to Miss Michaelson, if you don’t mind me asking?

  Talmadge stirred. He had anticipated this question, of course, but was still unsettled by it.

  I looked after her for a while, when she was younger, he said. Before she—set out on her own. I took care of her. Her and her sister. And I’m here to help her now, if she needs it.

  The warden was watching him closely. I see, he said. Then, after several moments passed: I assume Mr. Marsden has updated you on all that’s happened? About—

  The man at the lumber camp, yes, said Talmadge, and cleared his throat again. I heard about that. And, he said—his voice rising, as if he were trying to convince the warden of something—she turned herself in . . . and, well, that’s a good thing, I’d say.

  Yes, of course, said the warden. He was thinking about something else, testing something, Talmadge thought. He was looking over Talmadge’s shoulder, scrutinizing different sections of the wall.

  They are investigating her claims, said the warden. It might be a while until we hear anything. We haven’t heard anything yet, and it’s been a month and a half—

  I want to know why—Talmadge interrupted—why she was locked up the last time I was here. Why I couldn’t see her.

  The warden raised his eyebrows at Talmadge’s interjection but otherwise did not move. I apologize for not being here the last time to explain it, he said, and then fell silent. Again he considered the wall over Talmadge’s shoulder. He doesn’t know whether he should trust me, thought Talmadge suddenly, and was both impressed by the man’s discrimination, and bothered.

  She misbehaved, said the warden, frowning. She—acted out.

  Talmadge waited for him to continue. He imagined Della throwing a temper tantrum, like a child. Throwing her food tray against the bars, throwing her boot at a guard. But surely that would not warrant locking her away.

  How?

  The warden pursed his lips. Hesitated. Said, finally: She—attacked somebody.

  Attacked somebody? Talmadge’s voice reflected that he did not believe it, that it was an impossibility. Almost scoffing.

  Yes, Mr. Talmadge.

  But—how? Who did she attack?

  The warden clenched his jaw. It seems, he said, she procured—or, more likely made—a weapon, and when she was passing one of the male prisoners, she attempted to stab him with it.

  Stabbing again, thought Talmadge, and tried to imagine it; but despite what he knew of the girl, he could not imagine it.

  And what happened? asked Talmadge impatiently. Was he hurt?

  The warden shrugged. The injuries sustained were negligible, he said. What was not negligible were her intentions. To stab another prisoner? In my jail? The warden laughed shortly. That is why I insisted she be put in solitary confinement—

  Talmadge could not bring himself to nod, to agree with the other man, and so kept still.

  What did he do, this man? said Talmadge, after a silence, after he had again tried to imagine it. Obviously she would not attack him, he implicitly argued, had he not done something first to provoke her.

  The warden shrugged. What could the other man have possibly ever done to her? As far as the warden knew, the two had never even exchanged words. She hadn’t spoken to any of the other prisoners; they were kept away from each other, except, he admitted, lately, when this—embarrassment—happened. The guards were lazy, he said, and had been bringing in the men from the yard while Della was being led into it; their paths had crossed.

  We have
recognized our fault in the situation, said the warden. A man has been let go. But as far as this being a personal attack— The warden paused, and shook his head, and then his words came slowly, as if he had thought carefully about them, and wanted to deliver them with the same care: I think it is more that she wanted to act out, show her superiority somehow. He paused, thinking. Maybe it is a message to me. I don’t know.

  Talmadge did not know what to make of this speculation. They were both silent for a minute.

  What does she say about it? said Talmadge.

  The warden shrugged again, and sighed. She doesn’t. She was a fount of information when she wanted to get in here, and now she’s shut up. I don’t know what she’s got up her sleeve. Or if she’s just crazy. I can’t decide. He appraised Talmadge. Maybe you can tell me.

  Talmadge did not respond for a moment. He had not liked the warden calling Della crazy. He did not like the other man’s tone at all now. He said, looking away: I haven’t seen her for a while. I don’t know—I would have to talk to her first.

  The warden nodded. Said, after some thought: Has she always been this—violent?

  Talmadge didn’t answer at first.

  No, he said, but his answer was too late. He could feel the warden’s skepticism.

  Talmadge followed the warden out of the outer office and down the tall-ceilinged, boot-echoing hallway to the eastern end of the building. Down a flight of whitewashed stairs. A very grave and portly guard stood on duty outside the jail. The warden spoke to the guard, and the latter unlocked the door; and the warden turned to Talmadge and said he would return shortly.

  The guard patted down Talmadge.

  Do you have any gun on you? Any knife?

  No, said Talmadge, and then remembered his pocketknife, took it from his pocket, and handed it to the guard, who placed it on a shelf beneath the counter.

  Pick it up on your way out.

  The guard asked Talmadge to disassemble the canvas sack and laid the contents on the counter. Talmadge pulled out the magazines, the packages from Caroline Middey—I’ll have to unwrap these, sir—and then the loose apples, the sleeve of lemon drops tied with twine. Candy, said Talmadge, and the guard eyed him warily, and then turned to weigh the apples on a scale at his back. As he did so, Talmadge felt within the bag at the last item in there, Angelene’s gift. He did not want to hand it over to the man, did not want him to cut into the carefully tied twine. Did not want that small tag “For Della” in the impressive script to be damaged or, for that case, seen by another person. He wanted to give Della one gift untouched by the guard, and unseen even by him, Talmadge. And so before the man turned around again, Talmadge slipped the box into his jacket pocket without even so much as a tremor of his hand or of his voice when he answered the guard when asked if that was all.

  You have to leave some of these apples, said the guard. You’re over limit here.

  Can you save them for her? Talmadge said, just as the warden came out of the open door and beckoned to him. Talmadge repacked the sack, only taking two apples—I’ll get the others when I come out—and the guard placed the apples on the shelf under the counter without comment.

  Talmadge followed the warden into the jail. His ears felt immediately stuffed with cotton wool. It was dim, quiet. The air smelled of cigarette smoke and humidity.

  He coughed.

  We usually have you go to another room—we have a room for when visitors come—but unfortunately it was flooded last week. . . . Did you get rains down there? No? And we have men still in there working on it. Damaged some of the floor, which is a shame. It’s the original floor, pine boards— The warden paused. But she’s the only one here right now, and it doesn’t hurt, I suppose, to leave you here. Twenty minutes, no more. And I’m keeping the door open. You call the guard if you need anything—

  But Talmadge did not hear these last words, or witness the warden leave, because he had seen Della.

  She sat on the edge of the bed. Only after a minute did she turn her head to him. It was a brief glance, not scared so much as alert and disbelieving—as one looks at a ghost—and then she looked ahead of her again. All this while hardly moving her body.

  Several minutes passed in silence.

  Hello, he said. Then, in a voice that belied its message: You look well.

  Again she turned her face to him, briefly.

  He removed his hat.

  Was she scared? Was that it? He did not anticipate this, that she would not speak to him.

  He stood there awkwardly.

  We found out where you were. I came the last time. You got my letter? I was here before—

  Down the hallway, outside the door, the guard cleared his throat. Somewhere in the jail a faucet dripped.

  Then Della wiped her nose with her forearm. When she cleared her throat, he strained to listen, to hear what her voice might sound like now. But she did not speak.

  They told me what happened—

  But he should not speak of that. Her features tightened. It was a very slight change, and he could sense it more than see it. She put her hands on the mattress, moved slightly.

  I’ve been talking to the Judge about when you get out. When you get out, we’ll—

  It was not the time to speak of it. Why was he speaking of it?

  He lifted the canvas sack after a moment.

  These are for you. From—all of us. From me, and Caroline Middey, and Angelene.

  She glanced at him.

  He reached inside the bag.

  Come over here, I’ll hand these things to you. I have to take the sack back with me.

  It seemed she would not move, but then she got up and came over to the bars. He had the impression when she rose from the bed that she was larger—she had grown—but as she came closer he thought she had shrunken. It wasn’t a normal shrunkenness. What was left of her body was her eyes, and her torso—muscular but also tough-poor in the mean way of those without a home, who live in the weather. Her face—her expression—was faraway and strange. It lied that she knew nobody on the earth. There was the hardness to her mouth: he wanted to touch it, suddenly, wanted to change it, to when she was a child and was characterized by dumb passion. He had not liked that expression then, but it was preferable to this distance, this resignation. He wanted to bring back her former pain. But this mouth was beyond pain. If he were to slap it, it would not change. Her eyes were both beautiful—black-dark as always—and empty. He wanted to touch her through the bars, he wanted to reach inside and grab hold of her arms, not so much as to shake her but to squeeze her. As she reached toward him—he was offering her a magazine now—he glimpsed a tattoo on the inside of her small, hard wrist.

  One by one he handed her the gifts, her arms becoming uncomfortably full. At his prompting, she deposited the magazines and candy, the fruit, on the bed and stood in the center of the room and unwrapped the packages from Caroline Middey—he had rewrapped and tied them messily after the guard inspected them; held up, awkwardly, the leather pants and the lilac-colored shirt. On her face utter blankness. The pants might be all right, she might wear those, he thought; but the shirt was something else. It was ridiculous, he thought—she would never wear it—but it was something she would have worn when she was younger, it was something she would have worn to supper, once in a great while, after washing her face in the creek and brushing her hair and letting it fall thick over her shoulders. That was the other thing; her hair was cut short, curved clos
e to her skull. It made her eyes look large, owlish.

  This is from Angelene, he said, and reached inside his pocket and withdrew the box. After a moment she came forward and took it from him through the bars. She did not open it, but stood holding it.

  He looked into the corner of the cell.

  If there’s anything you need, you should tell the warden. Tell the warden and—

  I don’t need anything from you.

  He looked at her.

  She went to the bed and sat down in the position he had first observed her, and stared ahead. The gifts were scattered around her, some of the butcher paper on the floor.

  He would remember how she had looked at him then—once, slowly, with blankness—before he moved down the hallway, toward the opening of the jail. And also he would remember those words, that phrase—I don’t need anything from you—the only phrase she had said to him that day, in her measured voice that was without emotion, without animosity even. It played in his mind, and he checked for emotion but constantly found none—I don’t need anything from you—and it was not her, he thought, but it was her, he had gone to see her and this is what she had said to him, and he thought about this as he made his way down the hallway and then out past the guard, on the way to the boardinghouse, and then as he was sleeping and failed to sleep—she turned her face to him, slowly, with hatred now—and the next day, on the train. I don’t need anything from you. But you do, he wanted to tell her—you do need something from me. But he did not know what it was. Like her, he did not know what it was.

 
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