--LOVE IS A MOTHERFUCKER
In Another Life: Cherries
Last night my brother slept with a girl. Her moaning woke me.
At first I thought Travis was strangling a goat. An unusual amount of heat radiated from his side of the mattress, commotion, too, and a bit of a struggle. I pinched my eyes shut even harder. My teacher, Ms. Nelson, told us that nightmares are dreams that may have happened to us before, in another life, so I waited for the wash of blood and when it didn’t come I held my breath and counted to one million.
A million is not as much as you think.
Travis says you could have a million dollars and it might not last until Christmas. He told me about the guy who won the Powerball, how he blew every cent and then some he didn’t win, and how he’d hung himself with a rope dangling from a crystal chandelier. I’m not sure who found him, if it was a disgruntled servant or relative, but it seemed to matter to me. I must have imagined that scene dozens of times, the poor man swaying over a polished mahogany table where past feasts had once been served up, laughter and drink, the epitome of merriment and good cheer. When I’d asked Travis how big the chandelier was, he slugged my chest and said the same thing he always said: “Idiot.”
I counted to two thousand and twelve but started losing my place, my brain stuttering as it’s known to do. I couldn’t sleep or dream or think or anything. The ruckus around me picked up volume and speed. It felt like bats were flying around my cavernous skull, knocking into walls. I wrapped the pillow over my head as if it was a tourniquet and I was that fraudulent hero in “The Red Badge of Courage.” The reality was I just didn’t want any bat getting their clutches caught in my hair. I found a motion and rocked along with it. I felt foolish and abandoned, but the sensation was so familiar that after a moment I did doze.
When I woke up mom was shaking me and telling me the car was warming up, we were late, get dressed quick, you’ll have to skip breakfast again.
Mornings or nights--I could never tell the difference at this hour. Both were black and frigid. By noon the summer sun would be up and we’d be sweating and the stink under my arms would start to ripen till I’d have to breathe from my mouth, but now it was nothing other than just damn cold out. The station wagon heater took a week to work, and by then we were already at the fields, jumping on a truck bed along with the winos the orchard owner bused in from skid row.
We weren’t to call them winos to their faces. We weren’t to say anything at all, or even make eye contact.
“Are we some kind of minority?” I asked my brother once.
It was an honest question, but honesty doesn’t always pay, nor does curiosity. Besides I had an inkling what his answer would be, yet even so it was a bucket of ice water thrown in the face when he said, as calmly as asking that the salt and pepper be passed, “We’re freaks.”
For a long time after that I’d sneak to the school library and look up books with the word freak in the title. What I saw was bearded women, three breasted women, enormous women the size of small cars, men with twenty-two inch long fingernails and two headed kittens, every manner of mutation. Eventually I learned the noun euphemism, and like a good student, I practiced using the word in every day speech whenever the moment seemed appropriate, which was never.
Now as the truck bounced and jostled down the path toward the rows of trees I did what I always did: I counted my chickens before they were hatched. I pictured myself having a banner day. If the rate was $1.25 per and I picked nine lugs I’d be rich. Some of those earnings would go to Mother for gas money and car maintenance, but otherwise it was my cash to spend how I wanted.
One of the winos lifted his head when he saw me counting with my fingers. His name was Virgil, a fellow sweet on Mother. As he grinned, a black tooth bobbed over his licorice-colored tongue.
Travis and I were the only juveniles. Mother had an in with Mr. Lemley. The other pickers were dark skinned men, Mexican or Indian, I never knew. It could have been their race, or it could have been all that time working in the sun, or the rivers of booze percolating in their system, or the sheen of sweaty grime that made them look homogenous: dark, lonely and untrustworthy.
My mother was Checker. When a lug was filled you yelled, “Checker!” as loud as you could and my mother would amble over, bowlegged and ornery, inspecting the rectangular wooden box. Smart guys liked to try filling the bottom portion with rocks or leaves, but Mother had a keen eye, and those jackasses were typically thrown out.
The cherries weren’t good eating. They were called pie cherries that tasted bitter from so much chemical spray. After they were picked, pitted and pruned, washed and smashed and stuffed into canisters with mountains of sugar, a person could stomach their flavor, but not until then.
Travis and I picked together, two to a tree. The winos were slower, arthritic and confused, babbling to themselves, still drunk or hung-over, and they usually attacked a tree four-to-one. We started before sun up and quit at noon because by then the fruit would split open in the preposterous eastern Washington heat.
I never earned more than five dollars at a time, but the fact of it in my pocket felt liberating and powerful, like a dangerous secret or uncast wish. On the drive home I liked to imagine my father in present tense, alive, a person I might know or observe from a short distance. I pictured him a lottery winner, or even a small time victor who hits triple cherries on slots at Vegas or Reno. In my mind he was always youthful, handsome and carefree. He never tossed his hands up when he won, just clasped them behind his back, executive-style, sort of saying, “I told you so,” without speaking. I heard bells clang in alarm, a siren whooping, strobe lights bouncing around the carpeting. I heard the tiny fake coins clatter into the metallic trough, spilling out around his ankles. Once in a while this man, my father, he just rose off his stool and walked away, letting the gawkers take what they could gather, him knowing there was more where that came from, easy pickings, indeed.
That summer a fight broke out between two drunks. Virgil was one. He wore his black hair braided and as I watched him stumble and swing I noticed that his eyes looked like strawberry milk. The match began sloppy and harmless until Virgil’s opponent muttered my mother’s name, saying he’d done something sexual with her for as little as the price of a frozen TV dinner. He said he wasn’t the only one. Virgil became electrified, his movements now sudden and sure. He unsheathed a Bowie and plunged it into the other guy’s gut, gave it yank. The sound was moist and soupy, both the ripping of flesh and the disemboweling of that man’s steaming innards. I puked into a shallow ditch, watched the ground spin and splinter, then fainted.
The next day mother woke me up as usual and when we got to the orchard we hopped on the truck bed, picked up our supplies--a ladder, bucket with a harness, a few lugs--and that was that.
The following day, though, it rained, rained so hard I wondered if God had just received reports about Virgil killing that poor loud mouth. When I looked west or east the skies were clear and Easter blue. Overhead, however, they were black as soot.
Picking got called off after an hour. Travis and I waited for Mother to show and when she didn’t, we slogged back into the field. I heard her first. It was a sound similar to the ones Jackie Schell made when Travis snuck her into our bed.
But I didn’t think it could really be her, mother. That seemed impossible.
Travis took a few steps in the direction of the moaning, turned and round-housed me so hard I still get an occasional migraine to this day.
One night weeks later I couldn’t take the ignorance anymore. Travis and I were awake on the bed, me staring into the ceiling. “Is our mother a whore?” I asked him.
I waited for it, and when he didn’t shoot out, “Idiot” I sensed we were maybe stepping up onto new ground. Perhaps he now thought of me as—not his equal—but at least his half.
I let the silence swing in the grainy darkness of our room. I held my breath. I started counting. I saw cherries, real ones and cartoons.
Travis stirred, turned on his side in a short, tender way, studying at me. There was a liquid shimmer in his eyes.
“Well,” I asked, “is she or isn’t she?”
I don’t know if he shook his head or nodded because he rolled away from me just then, drew the majority of the quilt around his bony shoulders. Travis mumbled something. Most of the time when I decode the message in my memory, he’s saying, “She’s a survivor.”
The picking season came to a final conclusion around the end of August. The next year they brought in modern machinery to do our jobs, these long hydraulic units with conveyor belts and tarps, a metal arm to grab a branch and shake the leaves bare. They looked like parade floats. In two weeks they cleaned over four thousand trees, doing the work it took a hundred half-good men a month to do.
Mother never left us for Virgil or Mr. Lemley or any other suitor. She did her business out of a hitch-up trailer in back. I know I shouldn’t hate her, but there’s what you know and there’s what you feel, and the thing I’ve learned is it’s usually what’s inside of you that wins.
The World’s Fair came to town the year after the cherry picking machines arrived. The city made quick work of it, bulldozing the river bank near the falls, abolishing skid row forever. I don’t know where all those people went, those fruit pickers and drunks, but every day that I get older, I look in the mirror and gasp, pretty sure I see one of them.