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The orchardist, p.36
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       The Orchardist, p.36

           Amanda Coplin
 

  He had always enjoyed, Angelene thought, being acquainted with people; he liked the long hours of simply sitting over a cup of coffee with a person whose company he enjoyed. Clee. Caroline Middey. The man from Malaga. A stranger, perhaps, at the café in town. But after what happened in Chelan, he could no longer relax into effortless camaraderie. He was always somewhat restless and distracted. Angelene thought those times when he turned the mule to the Marsdens’ was an attempt to prove to himself that he could be happy in friendly company, he could relax, he could be like he had been before. But he couldn’t. Things had changed.

  She did not ask him about his time in prison. Could not bring herself to begin the conversation that she knew he would abhor.

  He would often walk by himself, in the evenings, after supper. Even in winter. He would walk up into the outer orchard and be gone for hours. Angelene did not know where he went. She knew that when she looked at her orchard, her garden, later (this was the following spring), it was untouched—he kept his word and did not fuss with that area that was portioned off as her own—but it had the feeling of having been looked at. He said one evening after supper that he had heard somewhere that if you shook lime over the strawberry bed a week before bud break, the fruit would be larger and heartier. Angelene thanked him; said she would consider it.

  She often sat on the porch and waited for him to come out of the canyon mouth. He walked incredibly slowly across the lower field toward the cabin, so slowly that he seemed at times to be losing distance. It seemed like he was perpetually reaching the middle of the field, perpetually walking, coming forward, yet never arriving. His pale shirt glowing in the dusk.

  Talmadge wanted, after apple harvest, to tear down some portions of the orchard. It was too difficult, he said, without the men coming through for assistance—they did not come regularly anymore—especially for harvest, to do all the work themselves. They would be able to manage, briefly, perhaps, but to maintain such a level of labor, especially when Talmadge’s health was declining—this he did not like to talk about, but it was increasingly apparent—was unrealistic. We could get outside help, said Angelene; we could hire workers, get people from town to come and help. He made a face when she said this, as if to ask for help was like a bad taste in his mouth. Surely it would be better, she pointed out, than destroying perfectly good trees. She thought about what they would have to do to tear out the trees, what specifically they would have to do, and her mind balked with sorrow. She could not imagine tearing out trees on the scale he was proposing.

  He began to tear down the apple trees in the outer field early one morning before she had risen, in November. A week before there had been snow, but there was only a light dusting on the ground. Perhaps he could not bear to wait until spring because he thought he would change his mind, or the sight of the newly blossoming trees would prevent him from carrying out the task.

  He did not ask for Angelene’s help, but that morning she went to the shed and found a pair of work gloves and went to help him. He was cutting the trees at their bases and then tying a rope to them and dragging them, with the help of the mule, to a large pile roughly in the middle of the field. He wanted to burn them. Angelene agreed, reluctantly, it was the best way, though he had not asked her opinion. She helped him, wordlessly. After about an hour she went into the cabin and made coffee and something to eat. She called him from the porch, but he kept working. Angelene sat inside and ate her breakfast. She could have gone out onto the porch, but she did not want to see what he was doing down in the field.

  Talmadge had an appointment the next week to go see the distributor in Wenatchee. Two days before, as he and Angelene sat after supper in the lamplight, trying to stave off sleep—they were both exhausted from working all day cutting down trees, dragging them to the field, throwing them onto the heap—Talmadge said that he was not going to be able to make the meeting. There was a pause before he said that he needed to stay in the orchard to finish the work. But Angelene knew that what he was really saying was that he was not physically able to travel as far as Wenatchee, that after this week of working as he had been, he was too worn out. She thought that he would ask her to compose a letter to the distributor and deliver it in town the next day, and she was prepared to do that, of course, but then he asked if she would travel to Wenatchee and speak to the distributor herself. They would not be doing business with him anymore, said Talmadge. It was something that needed to be communicated personally and not through a letter.

  Angelene rode to Wenatchee the next day on the spotted horse that was meant for Della. The distributor’s offices were in an enormous warehouse down by the river. She walked through the large open floor that in the height of harvest would be filled with workers packing apples into boxes. The foreman himself was younger than she was expecting. He was surprised to see her. Seated in his office, she stated her purpose, and he simply nodded. She felt that he wasn’t really listening. She stood up to go. He glanced at her, surprised. How old are you? he said. For some reason she lied, said: Seventeen. He nodded again. We need people for the late apples coming in next week. You know how to pack? Yes, said Angelene. And then: No. But I’m a quick learner. He nodded again, and told her to come Tuesday of the next week and be ready to work.

  She told Talmadge that the distributor had offered her a job and she had taken it. He didn’t say anything to this at first, but then he asked later that night, standing in the doorway of her bedroom, if she had everything she needed for the work. Did she have the right clothes, did she need money for anything? She couldn’t see his face because the lantern was lit in the other room, at his back. She said she would be fine. It’s hard work, he said, and Angelene said she expected it would be.

  Angelene was taught how to pack apples by a rotund woman named LaVerne. LaVerne had light blue eyes and wore her hair up in a blue kerchief she no doubt starched every night. She watched Angelene work and then told her in a straightforward manner what she was doing wrong, showed her again how to do it properly. The other workers, mostly women, watched LaVerne and Angelene while they worked, their eyes flitting over to the strange pair. Some of them snickered, smirked. LaVerne told Angelene not to pay attention to them and to concentrate on the task at hand. All these women started in the same place, said LaVerne. And then, later: It’s not that difficult, child! Buck up!

  The job lasted only two weeks. Angelene was not particularly astute at packing apples, it turned out, but she felt that with more practice she would not be quite as terrible. Despite the humiliation of stumbling through the job with all those eyes watching, she felt good having money in her pocket that she had earned herself.

  Somehow the job at the warehouse eased her transition back into high school. She had taken a year off to work in the orchard, and so was a year behind her former class. Angelene knew that if school was unbearable for whatever reason, she would be able to go back to the warehouse and work. She would be able to get by. Among the students there were whispers, stunned gazes cast in her direction. Laughter. And of course the old pity. Later she was certain there must have been people who were kind to her, but she did not remember them.

  Talmadge did not speak of Della that first year, and neither did Angelene. Angelene had learned, through Caroline Middey, that Talmadge was not allowed to visit either Della or Clee in prison. He could not even send them letters. It was part of his punishment—their collective punishment.

  One morning—this was almost a year since Talmadge returned to the orchard—Talmadge asked Angelene to bring him an apricot. He sat on the porch, an afghan covering his legs. Angelene had just taken away his breakfast dishes and brought him coffee.

  She had stepped off the porch, squinted in the sunlight. They’re not ready—

  Bring me one anyway.

  She went and picked an apricot from the nearest tree—hesitating, finding the best one—and then brought it to him. He brushed it against his upper lip, bit into it, che
wed.

  You pick a half peck of these first thing tomorrow morning, he said. Then you go and see her.

  Angelene was confused. Then, a moment later: Go see—

  Get on the train and go see her.

  She looked away from him, wiped her hands on her dress front.

  They’ll be ripe enough by then, he said. They’ll ripen in the bag.

  I probably can’t see her, she said, after a silence. I’m probably not allowed to—

  You are, he said. I checked into it. You’ll see her, he said.

  Let the girl bear it, he thought, as she turned and walked across the grass. His original plan—to get Della onto the boat—had failed, but Della was still Angelene’s family. Della’s loneliness—whether she admitted this or not—was still real. As was Angelene’s.

  Perhaps it was awkwardness, embarrassment, that kept Angelene from Walla Walla. She did not know what to say to Della; perhaps that was it. But how little that mattered. She would have to learn that awkwardness must be overcome if she wanted any kind of exchange. He would force her, now, for her own good. He had hoped, while he was in prison, that she would take the initiative and go see Della on her own. She had not; but that was all right. It was a disappointment, but it was all right. The girl was still young; she still had to be pushed.

  We all have to be pushed, he thought. It doesn’t end.

  When Angelene thought of the penitentiary in Walla Walla, she imagined a cement institution somewhat drab but also like a castle, with mountains not unlike the mountains around Peshastin towering on all sides. The prisoners all wearing navy uniforms, and when they came out into the bare yard they might raise their faces to the mountains and breathe the cold air.

  She did not know why she imagined the penitentiary that way, where this image came from. Walla Walla was surrounded not by mountains—she knew this—but by desert.

  In Walla Walla she rented a room from a gray-faced woman with a voice deep from smoking, and asked her if the penitentiary was within walking distance. Without batting an eyelid, the woman told Angelene how to get there.

  The building was made of yellow clay brick and surrounded by a twelve-foot-high chain-link fence with barbed wire along the top. Angelene told the guard at the entrance who she was there to see, and he waved her inside even before she was finished speaking, told her to go directly to the office. Do you have an appointment? he asked, and she said, No, although she was aware that Talmadge had probably made an appointment for her.

  But they let her in to see Della anyway. A guard led Angelene into a large room, the far wall lined with whitewashed booths. She sat down at one of them and waited before a mesh screen, her hands in her lap. When they led Della in, on the other side of the screen, at the far end of the room, she met Angelene’s eyes immediately and then looked away. She shuffled slowly, accompanied by the guard, to the chair. Sat down. When the guard left, Della brought her hands to her face. After a moment, Angelene realized she, Della, was crying.

  Eventually, Della put her hands down.

  I didn’t know you were coming, said Della, in a voice that Angelene still faintly recognized: husky, like a boy’s. But also thin. Perhaps she had recently been sick, Angelene thought. Now Della aimed her gaze over Angelene’s shoulder, awkwardly, but took darting looks into Angelene’s face, as if she could not help herself. Shy, thought Angelene, and remembered that about her: Della had always been shy.

  Angelene gripped her straw hat in her lap, suddenly nervous. Said: Talmadge wanted to come too—

  And then she regretted speaking at all, for it drew attention to the fact that Talmadge was unable to come see her.

  But Della did not seem upset; she looked over Angelene’s shoulder, nodded absently. They sat in silence for several minutes.

  And so he’s back, said Della. They let him out.

  Yes, said Angelene. They let him out early for good behavior. And then regretted speaking again: Was that an all right thing to say to her? To someone who was still incarcerated? Was that even an option for Della—getting released early for good behavior? Angelene felt stupid; looked down into her lap.

  But Della seemed to be only half listening.

  The silence grew, and with it Angelene’s awkwardness. She looked to the corner of the room, hoping she appeared calm. She felt Della’s eyes on her. Let her look, thought Angelene. And strangely, the woman’s eyes on her did not bother her; even relaxed her somewhat, though Angelene did not know why. When she looked back at Della, Della looked away.

  They brought your horse, said Angelene, and Della looked at her, raised her eyebrows.

  The horse they kept for you, in Stehekin—

  Again Angelene experienced a pang of stupidity. Why talk, why bring attention to what had not happened? She looked quickly away, felt herself blush.

  But Della didn’t seem to notice Angelene’s discomfort. What kind was it?

  It was gray—with a spotted rump.

  Appaloosa.

  Yes. Angelene added: It’s quite large. I have to use a stool to get up on it. I’m—riding it now.

  He let you do that.

  Yes.

  Della was nodding, but absently.

  What do you think? Della said. You think I should’ve gotten on that boat?

  Angelene was startled.

  What do you mean?

  You would have gotten down into that cupboard? On that boat? You would have done it?

  I can’t say, said Angelene, after several moments. I’m not you. Then, softly: I don’t know what I would have done.

  Della considered this briefly.

  But you would have done it, if he had asked you to.

  Angelene didn’t answer at first. I can’t say, she repeated. I didn’t have your—reasons—for doing what you did. If I wouldn’t have gotten on the boat, it would have been for my own reasons. Everyone has to decide for themselves, she said, and knew she was echoing some other saying, some other person.

  Della listened to this, was nodding. But, still—you think I made the wrong choice?

  Do you? The question was posed more out of despair than anything else. Angelene did not like to be the center of this interrogation.

  The question did not surprise Della. She looked into the corner of the room. It was a long time before she spoke.

  Yes. Even if I didn’t want to go along with it, I should have done it. She paused. Because he had gone to all that trouble. And, she said after a brief silence, it was the only way that I could have come back to see you, isn’t it. So I should have done it, for that.

  They sat for several minutes and did not speak. Angelene tried to recall her feelings after the botched escape. Some memories of that day were so clear: the mass of people on the beach, seen from above, moving as one body; the feel of the cold, spongy wood beneath her palm when she gripped the platform railing for support; the grin—the lurid grin, she would think later—of the woman in the group of three who had turned to her and said, What on earth was that?; Talmadge on his knees, murmuring unintelligible pledges; her hands, very white, reaching out to him; Della being wrenched away up the staircase— But for the most part it was a blur. The weeks between the event itself and when Talmadge was sent to Walla Walla, the trials and the sentencing, she could hardly remember. Was she angry at Della? All those months Talmadge visited Della in Chelan, Angelene experienced different levels of resentment. If she experienced anger, it was aimed toward Talmadge himself: frustration at his insistence at fighting what seemed to her—and this opinion too was informed by Caroline Middey’s feelings—a losing battle.

  But when Talmadge told her about Jane and Della as children, coming pregnant into the orchard, and Della’s own suffering, which was distinct from Jane’s, that portrait of Della alone in the world after Jane hanged herself rendered her singularly pitiable. At the time, those weeks after Talmadge had told h
er the truth about Della’s past, Angelene was so shocked that she felt nothing. She was numb. Was she angry at Della? No: but she was angry at the silence surrounding Della; she was angry at the deficit of information that always attached itself to her. Angry most of all at the reason why there was so much silence: because what had happened to her—and to Angelene’s mother—was too terrible to be uttered. They had suffered; and Angelene did not know how to help it.

  But then there was that day on the beach, when Angelene, despairing, had heard someone call her name, and turned and found it was Della. Angelene, seeing her, had not pitied her then, though Della was in a state to be pitied: shot in the arm, caught in a crime of which she wanted no part, and now being physically forced up the platform steps, fighting against a swarm of young men. But when Angelene saw her—that adult, piercing gaze that held real tenderness, real intelligence—Angelene was in awe of her. Was captivated, suddenly. This was the one who had lifted her to see the horses in the field; who had thrown her into the air with joy, and caught her. The most powerful person in the world.

  And here she sat.

  What happened to— said Angelene, but stopped herself.

  What?

  Nothing.

  Ask it.

  Angelene took a deep breath. I was going to ask, Whatever happened to Michaelson? Do you know?

  Della scratched her neck.

  He died.

  Oh, said Angelene.

  You didn’t know? It wasn’t in the papers?

  Angelene shook her head. Didn’t tell Della that she didn’t read the newspapers anymore.

  But Della seemed unmoved, unimpressed at the mention of his death. She crossed her hands in her lap.

  You hated him, said Angelene, softly. You should be glad about that, at least: he’s dead.

 
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