Better Than Starbucks Fiction
Each workday ended with Tommy in the packing shed smoking a cigarette after filling the truck with the day’s berries. Carmen took the whole load into town, and Mrs. D’Angelo went up to the house for lunch. Tommy liked to stand there with the smoke curling around his fingers and look out over the fields as if they were his own. The meadowlarks had disappeared by then, probably to the deep shade along the creek.
That’s when Tommy saw a man step out of the berries beside the house and walk in through the back door without knocking or even pausing. At first, he thought he must be using the toilet, but there was a Port-a-Potty out by the barn and everybody knew to pee in the creek.
This happened at least once a week, sometimes more. Then, one day, deep into summer, Tommy was standing beside Imogene when the same man came out of the rows and walked inside the house. He could see her watching, and he asked her who he was. Tommy said it nonchalantly, but Imogene understood.
“That's Mr. Morris,” she said. “He owns the farm on the other side of the creek.”
“The guy with the horses?” he asked.
Imogene shook a cigarette out of her pack, lighting it as she waited for the next question. When it didn’t come, she inhaled and squinted. “Carmen knows all about it. He's a good man,” she said.
It was hard for Tommy to look at Carmen after that. He seemed like a fool. Tommy did his best to avoid him and his odd jobs, but he couldn’t put his heart into berry picking either. He started filling fewer buckets, and he didn’t care if some green berries got mixed in. Mrs. D’Angelo noted everything and lectured him about his lateness.
“The berries wait for no man,” she said as she punched the card of a Mexican about Tommy’s age, who hustled back into his row. “I need people who can empty this field before the birds do.”
Tommy was sure she hadn’t fired him because of Carmen, but part of Tommy wished she would just get it over with. He couldn’t stop thinking about the wine of their first kiss — from before they'd had a chance to contemplate mortgages and cancer. Now that Tommy knew about Mr. Morris, the whole thing seemed depressing. The taste of that wine was supposed to say something like harvest — endless and abundant — at least to Tommy. It was meant to recall that happy time when they felt disoriented and didn’t know where to look in the world because every part of it seemed beautiful.
It was the way, Tommy thought, that he and Evelyn were feeling — a careless kind of love. They had another year of high school left. They hadn’t yet thought about college or careers. Evelyn was on the pill, and Tommy couldn’t get over the way she held onto his back as they made love — like she was afraid she’d fly away, like she needed Tommy to anchor her. He saw the years stretch out before him and tried to imagine a circumstance in which he would encourage her to screw the horse farmer next door.
One day, Tommy found himself alone with Mrs. D’Angelo. She was busy with some oily part that had to be adjusted or replaced. “Someday they'll invent a machine that will pick these berries for me,” she said. “Then I won't have to rely on high school kids and immigrants to get the job done right.” She said this without heat as she tried to fit one part inside another. It was just a fact.
“You remember that story about the walnuts?” he asked. “The one with your father's pond?”
She put down the part and began searching the work table for a rag to wipe her hands.
“Why did you do it? Why did you want to kill your father’s fish?” The question surprised them both. It had the quality of a doorbell being rung in a house where there was no doorbell.
“I was angry,” she said. “He told me I couldn't go to the dance with a boy I liked — because he was older, because he rode a motorcycle.” She gazed up at the slats of light coming through the barn ceiling as she said this.
“It was a stupid thing to do,” she said. “My father loved that little pond. He’d go out there and cast a bit after dinner when he was in a mood, and when he came back in, he'd always sound better.”
“What happened after?” Tommy asked.
“Oh, I went to the dance with the boy anyway. It wasn't hard for me to fool my old father,” she said.
Tommy was silent. He looked at the parts spread out on the table in front of Mrs. D’Angelo and couldn't figure out what kind of machine it was.
“Just you wait,” she said. “Someday you'll meet a girl and you'll be surprised how dumb you can be.” Then she went back to fussing with the disassembled machine.
By August, Tommy was up in the packing shed with a letter for Mrs. D’Angelo. He’d been carrying it all week in his shirt pocket, and he was starting to think he’d have to retype it, out of respect for Carmen. Tommy had just put the last of the crates into the truck bed, and he slapped the side to let Carmen know the job was done. Carmen pulled out and Tommy saw his nod in the rearview.
Tommy lit a cigarette and thought about how farm life wasn't for him after all. For one thing, the day ended too early. When Tommy got home at one, Evelyn was still at the office, and he’d putter and doze, unable to concentrate. He had started watching soap operas to fill the time. Then, when he finally saw her, she was full of stories from the office — the gossip that Lori, another intern, brought to her each morning like a pastry, the funny thing that Luke, her boss, had said to her as they chatted over lunch.
“This place is just full of shit,” he said aloud, and flicked his cigarette out on the crushed stone that covered the ground around the shed. He thought about how the stone used to be a mountainside, how people had invented machines that could turn it into driveways all over Arkansas.
“Ain't it though,” said Imogene.
Tommy jumped. He hadn’t known she was sitting behind him among the empty packing crates. She squinted and laughed, and he turned back around more quickly than he wanted to.
Carmen’s truck was getting smaller as he passed the grapes he was turning into wine, the dust following as he headed into town. He was almost invisible from where Tommy stood, and he saw Mrs. D’Angelo climbing the steps of her porch. He stayed there for a moment, listening for meadowlarks but hearing only wind as it crawled along the creek — beside a field still pushing out berries, among the walnuts full of poison.
The Recipe Called for Vinegar
by Charles Rafferty
In June, as Tommy toured the farm on his first day of work, Mrs. D’Angelo pointed out the black walnuts rising beside the creek. She told him she had the same kind of trees in her yard growing up, and when she was fifteen, she’d collected the nuts all morning and threw them into her father’s trout pond, to see if the fish would really die. By dinnertime, the trout were swimming sideways, rolling their bellies into the pastel air. When she returned the next morning with a pool skimmer, Mrs. D’Angelo found the St. Croix rod where her father had dropped it. "That was the first time he used a belt," she said.
The creek divided the D’Angelo's blueberry fields from a horse farm on the other side, and the horses would gather beneath the walnut trees as the wind got hot and the berries fell apart if you kept on picking. Mrs. D’Angelo tasted one from the last bush in the row, and a horse walked down to get a drink.
“Do those horses ever cross?” Tommy asked.
Mrs. D’Angelo didn't answer. She was prone to silences, and often seemed to be concentrating on something far away. She was a good-looking woman though, and Tommy didn’t mind walking behind her, waiting for whatever she would tell him next. Her husband, Carmen, was different. He talked steadily about the task at hand, and he had a way of clapping Tommy on the shoulder, at the end of a conversation, that made him think of his own father. Sometimes, Carmen would come over to the blueberry field and tell his wife he needed Tommy, and that would be the end of Tommy’s picking.
One day, Carmen and Tommy stood opposite each other with the grape vines in between them. They looked funny like that. They each had the same head of wild black hair. Together they harvested the purple clusters, pulling them off in clumps and dropping them into the large bucket each wore on a sling across his shoulder.
That's when Carmen told Tommy about his testicular cancer. “It was a couple of years ago. They took everything,” he said. Tommy imagined the terrible smoothness of Carmen's naked body. “I'd probably blow my brains out if I was your age,” he said, passing over a fistful of grapes with too much green.
Carmen kept picking as if he’d just said something about the weather. That was Carmen. He was always direct, but it was harder for Tommy. The whole farm was washed in light that day, and the plowed dirt of the fallow field behind Carmen was starting to get covered by a fine patina of weeds. Tommy wished he had said something back.
If Tommy wasn’t helping Carmen, he’d be over by Imogene. She was one of the pickers who spoke English and had worked on the farm for many years. “My dumbass husband had quite a time last night,” she said to the air. Tommy looked up and she caught it. “He was driving home from the bar, coming down Route 71. Probably speeding.” Imogene sucked on her cigarette then, and squinted one eye as she did it — like she was looking at the world through a gunsight.
“All of a sudden he sees this white swoop shoot down in front of the truck and there's a thud, so he pulls over to see what it was. Stuck in the grill is an owl — a barn owl, white as a bride and bloody.” Imogene lifted a branch and peered in to assess the berries. “He figured it was dead, but when he tried to pull it out, the owl went crazy. Tore him up good. That beak is like pliers made of razor blades.”
“What happened?” Tommy asked. Imogene looked at him hard and flicked her cigarette still smoking into a blueberry row where some of the Mexicans were picking. “To the owl, I mean.”
“He got the jack handle and beat the shit out of it. Then he drove to the hospital to get his stitches.” The two of them watched a meadowlark float by on the wind. “That's what he said anyway.”
Back at Tommy’s mother's house, Tommy and his girlfriend, Evelyn, got high and stuffed themselves on berries. Tommy brought home a pint of them every day, and they decided to bake a pie. He was surprised when Imogene’s handwritten recipe called for vinegar. He thought it might be a mistake, but when they broke into the finished pie for a taste, Evelyn said, “I told you it'd be alright.”
Tommy and Evelyn had been dating for a few months. Tommy had fallen hard for her, and when Tommy would leave for the blueberry farm at 5:30 a.m., he would drive by Evelyn’s house, even though it wasn’t on the way. Her window would be black, and he’d think of her burrowed into the blankets as the cool air tumbled in through her half-opened window and the sound of his bad power steering drifted over her. That summer, she worked as an intern in some office park and could afford the extra sleep, but it was still a little dark as Tommy took the long dirt driveway up to the farm. There wasn’t any dust in the rearview because of the dew, but when he drove back home at noon, the dust rose up and followed like a little storm.
Tommy got out of the car, and as often as not, he’d see a meadowlark standing on a fence post, singing to the blueberries. He figured it must be the same one each morning. Its belly was bright yellow and it had a black collar. He thought it looked fake — like someone had cinched a loop around its neck to keep it on that fence. All the spiderwebs were visible at that hour, strung between the rows and heavy with dew, or forming unlikely tunnels into the grass almost everywhere he looked. It made him worry about what he couldn’t see in broad daylight when the dew had burned away.
When July rolled around, Tommy and Carmen were connecting irrigation pipe in anticipation of a dry patch. They were in the field that butted up against Grove Avenue when a pickup pulled over to them. It had a piano strapped into the bed. The driver leaned out and asked Carmen if he could point him to Castle Hill Road. Carmen wiped his forehead and explained that the driver needed to get on the other side of town. It was complicated. All the while, Tommy kept dragging the pipe into place and snapping it together. When the driver had what he needed, he raised his voice a little so Tommy could overhear and said, “Tell your son to keep up the good work.” As he pulled away, Carmen laughed, “He's the son I'll never have.” Tommy laughed too, but he felt bad about it later, as he recounted the story to Evelyn.
One afternoon, Carmen was pushing a wheelbarrow full of horseshit over to a new row of grapes. He looked substantial. The sweat poured out of him like everything was working. His vines had all come from Sicily, from the vineyard where the Rovittello was made that he and Mrs. D'’ngelo drank just before kissing for the first time. Carmen told Tommy all about it, but nobody else knew. He wanted to make one barrel of perfect wine. Then he could die. That’s what he said.
“We're at the same latitude as where these grapes are grown on the slopes of Mt. Etna,” Carmen said. “The sunlight, the angle of the sun, that's the hard part.” He flattened a clod of dirt with the heel of his boot. “With the soil, it’s just a matter of mixing in enough ash and manure.”
Tommy looked a few years into the future, and saw Carmen and Mrs. D’Angelo sitting down to that first good bottle — how she would look across the candlelight and say that it tasted familiar. What a move, he thought. A long-range plan, a guaranteed lay. Then Tommy remembered about Carmen.
Charles Rafferty’s twelfth collection of poems is The Smoke of Horses (BOA Editions, 2017). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares, and his stories have appeared in The Southern Review and Per Contra. His story collection is Saturday Night at Magellan’s.
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