Thoreau said that it was a vulgar error to suppose that anyone had ever really tasted a berry who had never plucked one. But before Chloë got to feeling too self-righteous, she had to admit to herself that picking blueberries at this well-managed modern farm was probably just one step above picking them off a supermarket shelf and many, many steps removed from the idyllic berry-picking excursions that Henry David described in the Concord woods. First of all, Chloë had to drive for over thirty minutes to get to the berries, with the last ten spent worrying about the suspension on her car as she bounced over a dirt road that led to Forked Pine Farm. Then, she picked into a plastic bucket from hybrid berry bushes that seemed to have been crossbred with plum trees – not only were the bushes twice as tall as Chloë, but the berries themselves weighed ten times as much as any blueberry that old Henry David ever laid eyes on. Chloë had picked those tiny wild berries and was pretty sure that the time and effort needed to get enough to make a pie could not possibly be worth it – even if she could find the berries before the birds got to them. Here at Forked Pine Farm, they kept the birds away, the picking was easy, and the plastic bucket would be full before she was sun-burned. She hoped. Where was that tube of sun screen? Something else that they didn’t have on Walden Pond.
It was surely far more pleasant out here on the farm than it was in the supermarket. The parking lot, which was almost full, was a grassy field, and there was a picnic atmosphere as couples and families came and went swinging buckets and thermoses. The Finnish family who owned the farm employed their extended family throughout the picking season, and the women at the check-in/check-out station had been full of advice about which rows held the best picking. Blueberry recipes on little slips of paper were lined up on the counter under stones so they wouldn’t blow away. Things had started off well – which was a good thing, as nothing else seemed to be going well for Chloë. It was not that any major thing was wrong – her husband loved her, her adult children were doing well, and the bills were all paid at the end of the month – but all of the small things seemed to be falling apart, and lately it seemed that the forces of the world had conspired to make sure that her prescriptions were never ready when promised, the people she wanted to see were scarce while those she didn’t want to see were omnipresent, and leak in the wall behind the toilet coincided with her plumber’s family vacation to Cape Cod. Just aggravating, but the cumulative effect had seemed to turn the world into a hostile place. Time to pick berries.
Chloë took her plastic bucket, pulled her hat firmly down over the center part of her brown and grey hair, and headed down a vacant row into the middle of the field, watching the bushes on either side until it seemed she was in virgin territory. The berries were luscious, and – delicately handled – came off in handfuls without stems or leaves. It took a few handfuls before any made it to the bucket, but Chloë saw the taste-test as a form of quality control – an ongoing form of quality control. She settled into the task, picking for the mouth and for the bucket and moving from the upper to the lower branches so that her back did not get tired. She listened for the sound of neighbors as the field started to fill up.
Chloë was glad to have people around, but happy not to have any direct encounters. This was partly because of the irritations of the last few weeks, but largely due to her nature – and at fifty-five, she doubted whether she was ever going to change. She was an observer and not a participant; she was interested but not interactive. She even enjoyed her children more now that they were adults and she could hear about their lives without feeling any sense of responsibility. The stories of others were fascinating; stories in which she had a role had a way of getting frustrating. Chloë knew from past experience that the blueberry farm was a perfect place for her. The bushes were high enough so that you could not see from one row to another – but you could hear everything.
To her right, Chloë began to notice the voices of a woman and two children, and it soon became apparent that it was a mother with two boys that differed in age in temperament. Chloë knew that the primary lesson of parenthood was the opposite of Aristotle’s golden mean – kids either wanted all of your attention or wished you would drop off the face of the earth. This mother had one of each kind. First-born son wanted nothing to do with Mom and little brother could not get enough of her. The older boy’s relationship with his mother consisted of being yelled at occasionally to stay within sight until prompted to make the minimal response, “OK, OK.” The much younger brother stuck close and talked a (literally) blue streak as his mouth sounded like it was constantly full of berries, and there were no sounds of berries dropping into his bucket for the general welfare of the expedition. He had much to learn about the joys of delayed gratification.
“In the bucket, Josh,” coached the mother. “Put the berries in your little can, and when it’s full you can empty it into my big pail and start again.”
Josh did not answer, but made some noises that convinced Chloë that his mouth was still full.
“You can eat some,” Mom continued, “but if you eat them all, you will be sick – and we won’t have any for pies or pancakes. So let’s put some in the can now. OK?”
Since Chloë’s mouth was full too, she empathized with Josh. But when she started to hear berries hit the bottom of a tin can, Chloë started to fill up her pail too. Mom was still not happy, however.
“Don’t pick the pink ones, Josh!” Chloë thought Mom’s tone was rather emphatic and loud for the transgression cited unless the family belonged to a religious sect with taboos against touching the color pink. Josh was also not pleased.
“They’re not ready. They’re not ripe.”
“I like them.”
“They’ll make you sick.”
“I like them.”
Mom tried a new tack. “If you eat the pink ones, they’ll never get a chance to grow up and be big blueberries. They aren’t all grown up yet. It’s not fair.”
Good going Mom, thought Chloë. That “not fair” thing is stuff kids understand – although not necessarily kids as young as Josh. Older brother had apparently also been listening, because he immediately took up a chance to pick on his younger brother.
“You’re going to throw up all the way home like you did when we went to Aunt Minnie’s. First you’ll puke and then you’ll cry. What a baby.” Chloë recognized big brother bullying, gratuitous bullying, and she listened to see how the mother would handle it.
“Nick, you leave your brother alone. What is the matter with you?” She hadn’t handled it any better than Chloë had handled it with her boys. What Chloë could see from the distance of time and non-relationship was the problem with Nick was that he was the adolescent and the oldest child who had gotten displaced by a new baby brother. Nick sidestepped any further discussion of what was the matter with him by moving further away and calling back to his brother that he had found a dead bird “covered with maggots.” Chloë heard Josh drop his picking can and thunder down the row to see the spectacle. She had never actually seen the family, so she still wasn’t sure how old Josh was, but she was certain from the fading “wait…wa….wa…….” sound that was swallowed up by the rustling bushes that he was old enough to stay one step ahead of his mother.
Chloë picked quietly for a few minutes before she started to hear men’s voices on the other side of her. Unlike the exclamations of Josh and his mother, these voices were muttered rather than spoken – exhaled rather than uttered. Chloë had to stand quietly to hear what was said, but the first words she deciphered riveted her attention. She squatted beside a bush and pretended to be concentrating on the berries hanging from the lower branches.
“Remember the pies? Remember the pies? I sure can’t make a frigging pie, but maybe you’d eat if someone made you pies like she used to. Maybe I could get one of those pre-fab pie crusts and make a pie. Certainly got enough goddamn berries. And big enough. These berries look like they’re on steroids or something. Or maybe like they got dropsy. Remember how Ida used to swell up. . . . ”
The words sounded funny and kindly, but the voice was a deadly monotone. The voice that responded was higher and lighter.
“Nothing like the berries on the mountain. It took us all day to fill that pail that Sue used to give us. Exact amount for a pie she said. Eat any on the way home and no pie. You’d eat’em though, and I’d have to jostle’em up so it still looked like they filled the bucket. Always got pie though. You ate most of that too.”
“Well, you can eat all you want to of these ones – Sue is long gone and I guess there ain’t going to be no pie. Eat some. You’re fading away to nothing. Nothing. . . .” The muttering faded away and Chloë could not make out the rest over the constant rustle of bushes being moved about in the search for berries. In a few moments, it quieted down again, and she could hear the deeper voice again.
“We can’t pay the taxes anyway, you know. Whether you eat or not, we can’t pay the taxes. But they don’t throw you out for that. They wait until you die and then they sell the house – what do we care? They can have it. Just hope the roof lasts that long – chimney too. Buckets and the tarps work for the roof, but if the chimney goes we’re in trouble.”
“Was pretty bad when the well went.”
“What are ya talking about? S’not so bad. We have the pond for water and the outhouse. Pond’s spring-fed. We haven’t gotten sick yet have we? But I kinda wish Doug hadn’t moved away. He woulda helped. I know he woulda. Don’t know what happened to the rest of Sue’s kids, and they sure as hell don’t care what happened to us. You were too nice to them – I told you that you were too nice to them. They were only after the farm, and when those grubbers realized that it was mortgaged to the hilt – well, them was the last donuts you got on Sunday morning.”
“You threw them out. You shot at their dog. Luther. You shot at Luther. You had no business. Can’t expect any visits after that.” The voice was high and soft, but not whining.
“They had no business bringing their dog to our place – scared the chickens
. And they had no business naming a dog Luther. We come from a long line of Lutherans – did someone forget to tell them? Hell, they were baptized in the Emmanuel Lutheran Church – not that I was there, but I came to the party. Good pie.”
“You never went to church. You never caught the chickens or picked up the eggs. What did you care about the dog? I liked the dog. Probably dead now.”
“Good. Kids might as well be dead now too. You’ll be dead soon if you don’t eat something. And I don’t want to hear anymore about the dog or Sue or the kids. Look at you, you’re sitting in those berries – don’t think I’m going to wash those pants – you’ve got blueberry juice all over them. Gonna turn them into blue jeans. Why don’t you just rub some more in?”
“You don’t wash nothing. Leave me alone. That’s the problem. You don’t want me around, but you don’t know how to leave me alone. I think you liked that dog too – but you didn’t know how to leave it alone. Leave me alone.”
“Leave you alone and you won’t eat nothing and you’ll walk around with blueberry stains all over your pants. And worse, too. Don’t know why you think I don’t want you around. Haven’t we always been together? Always. Except when I went to the war – they wouldn’t take you. Just as well you stayed home. You wrote lousy letters though – never told me anything really interesting. Just what Ma made for dinner or that Uncle Ernie got new teeth. Nothing to really think about.”
“You never wrote any letters at all. We never knew if you was dead or alive. Ma worried.”
“They woulda told you if I were dead. Dead don’t keep to itself.”
“Then you came home and didn’t talk to nobody Just moved back in. Didn’t even much help on the farm. When my back went, that’s when things started to get worse. Ain’t going to get any better now.” The high voice was eerily flat and factual, and answered by an emotional bellow.
“You blaming me? Think it would have been any better if you had gone ahead and married that bozo that Chuck knocked up – hear she died over in the home a few years back after about a dozen kids from about a dozen Chucks and not a Chuck or a cent to her name.”
“Not a cent to our name either. And leave her out of it. Wish she hadn’t had to go to the home and I ain’t gonna follow her there. No sir. Not going nowhere. Too late to go anywhere now – for you or me. Not thinking about what mighta happened. Just accepting what is. Just accepting. Just doing what I always did – figuring out what to do about it.”
“That’s the problem with you. You are too goddamn accepting. No spine. Never yell back. Never fight. Never stand up for yourself. It’s like having nobody at all around to see you moping around and fading away to nothing.”
There was a long silence and Chloë could hear very slow picking and shuffling movements on the other side.
As often happened in these situations – listening to conversations picking berries, or from the seat behind her on a plane or from the next cubicle in the emergency room – Chloë had generated a healthy curiosity to see the characters she had been eavesdropping on. As she heard the shuffling footsteps receding from her and heading toward the check-out station, she picked up her half-full bucket and followed, keeping an eye on the end of the row, which they would have to pass to reach the exit and the porta-potties. She soon realized that she was outpacing the shambling steps and stopped to do some more picking beside a kerchiefed older woman who looked up with confusion at her rapid approach and abruptly purposeful stop. Once Chloë could no longer hear the footfalls, she started out again more slowly, and the older women looked after her with no relief to her confusion.
Just as Chloë reached the end of the row, a large old man in filthy denim overalls crossed in front of her lugging, a tin pail that looked like it might have been used for oil changes when it wasn’t holding blueberries. He had on thick glasses, but squinted behind them as if the lenses were not doing him any good. Chloë got to the top of her row and pretended to be checking something on her cell phone while she waited for the other person, for the one she had been calling the “little brother” in her head. Several minutes passed and no one came. Meanwhile, the overalled figure had checked out with his berries and was headed for an old van that someone had tried to convert to a truck by prying off the back sides – at least a decade ago, judging by the resultant rust. Chloë gave up her undercover act and brazenly looked down the adjacent row. There was no one there. She picked up her own berries and hurried to the check-out in time to hear the van/truck start up with a roar.
While Chloë stood and gazed past her to the parking lot and then back to the fields, the large blond woman behind the counter finally reached for Chloë’s bucket with a look of concern that this agitated woman did not seem to know enough to put her berries on the scale on the counter. It took Chloë a moment to wake up and realize how silly she must be appearing.
“Oh, no. I’m not ready to go yet,” she protested, taking her pail back, but not moving from her spot.
“Are you looking for the johns? They’re over there.” The women used the English nickname for the toilets but softened it with her slight Finnish accent. She remained concerned when Chloë was slow to respond. Chloë finally looked into her round face.
“That guy who was just here – the one with the overalls. Do you know him?”
“Ray? Oh, yes. Everybody up here knows who Ray is. He picks berries every year. Don’t know what he does with’em. Ain’t got any electricity no more out at the farm so he can’t freeze them. Doubt he cooks much with that old wood stove – doubt he cooks much at all. Probably just eats them. He’s a sad case, but won’t let anybody help him. Won’t talk to nobody. He didn’t talk to you, did he? He especially don’t like women.”
“Not really. Well, sort of. He was really talking to the guy he was with. Did the guy he came here with leave with him?”
“Honey, there is no one around here that would get into that rattletrap with Ray and there is no one that he would talk to anyway. Ain’t talked to anyone since they fished poor Dell out of the pond. Dell was his younger brother. And he didn’t so much talk to Dell as yell at him. Anyway, once Dell died, Ray ain’t talked to no one. And he came here by himself, the same way he goes anywhere – and he mostly don’t go anywhere.”
The woman at the counter had been joined by an older version of herself who had been packing berries in the back, but been seduced by the gossip out front. She joined the conversation now.
“Ray never says no word to anybody else, but you can see him amuttering to himself all day long. Never talks to anyone but himself – course, sometimes I think that none of us really talks to anybody but ourselves.”
They all stopped to think about that for a minute. The two Finnish women seemed to think that the conversation had come around to a fitting end, but Chloë could not let her mystery go unsolved.
“How did Dell end up in the pond? Did he drown himself?”
“Nobody knows. He was nothing but skin and bones. Starving and nothing else wrong with him from what the doc said. They have precious little up at the farm, but it is a farm and where there’s a farm there’s food, and old Ray sure isn’t fading away. And no one really thought that Dell had the energy or the gumption to drown himself. They said it was an accident. Who knows. Maybe he just didn’t want to live no more. Ray’s old too. And you’d think he’d miss Dell. He was all he had. Not even a dog up there – it’s a sorry place. Welfare people and the pastor and all have tried, but Ray just ignores them. They’ll find him dead someday – some day a long time after he dies. Dell was missing for weeks, and they only started looking for him when Mrs. Hooper raised a noise after he didn’t show up to help her with the chicken coop two weeks in a row.” Dead don’t keep to itself, thought Chloë. “Look at lost souls like Ray and you know why you put up with family.” As the older woman finished, she smiled and squeezed the arm of her younger partner.
“Except for Dell, even family gave up on Ray, I guess,” said the younger woman.
Chloë walked back out to the field, careful to avoid other people and other conversations. As usual. She slowly began to pick berries and drop them into the bucket. How had Dell gotten into the pond? Would Ray have put him in there if he needed him so badly that he had to recreate him when he was gone? Had Dell really escaped into the pond or was he still living in Ray’s mind? Had Ray ever let Dell grow up to be person of his own at all? Did Ray realize that Dell was gone? And who was worse – Ray for talking to himself or Chloë for listening to conversations that weren’t intended for her? This was certainly a good story, but she didn’t feel good about hearing it for some reason. Thoreau didn’t much like visitors, but he didn’t go looking for hedges to hide behind while he eavesdropped.
Or – maybe she did know the reason she didn’t feel good about it. If Dell had been alive on the other side of the bush and Chloë had heard the same story, would she have done anything to help him, to stop him from ending up in the pond? Probably not. It would not have been in character for her. It was her nature to stand aloof. And it was Ray’s nature to be a bully. And nature was no excuse for either one of them. Chloë popped a berry into her mouth without looking. It was not ripe. Too pink, too sour, and too salty as it mixed with the tears that were trickling down the back of her throat.