Cherry Picking

Cherry picking seemed like a pretty good vacation from real life. Pick some berries. Eat some berries. Make a dessert. Even the kid couldn’t screw this one up with all his neediness and hunger and destructive tendencies. She had prepared for the day as if going off to war: Lauren had packed a snack, a meal, a change of clothes, wipes, toys, a book, her phone charger and two Xanax just in case everything went sideways. She piled Blake into his car seat and called to the nanny to join them. Wasn’t this going to be fun? Wouldn’t they just love taking pictures in the cherry trees? The nanny shuffled out of the house in slippers, pantomiming for Lauren to wait. Blake tipped his cup of Cheerios onto the floor of the car and Lauren waited for him to begin crying. When he didn’t, she smiled back at him in the rear view mirror. This was going to be a great day.

They had to drive quite a ways to get to the farm, setting off first through the twin pillars that marked the entrance to their subdivision, Crystal Forest, and then crawling slowly through the rush hour traffic headed toward the highway, toward the workday, toward stress. As the line of cars neared the highway, Lauren detoured into a Starbucks drive through, making the universal hand sign for drinking at the nanny, who barely looked up from her phone before shaking her head so that her blonde curls shook once, as an aspen in autumn touched momentarily by a lazy breeze. Can I have a Venti breve half-caff flat white at 200 degrees? Yeah, just the one shot and then a shot of decaf. Yeah, I know. But just don’t want to get too jittery this early in the day!

The highway was a monstrosity: fourteen lanes if you counted the access road, with four lanes blocked off in the center for toll users and high occupancy vehicles. Lauren zipped across several before inserting herself into the HOV lane. She unclenched her fingers from the wheel, flicking on the radio. Who wants music? Blake looked at her from the back seat, not even raising his shoulders in a shrug. Fine. She’d pick the music. It would be Carole King. It had to be Carole King. “Really Rosie” was the only thing Lauren and Blake could agree on, and she wasn’t stupid enough to fall for his mock disinterest in what was playing. If she put on Joni Mitchell, he’d scream. She’d tried three or four times, explaining that “Amelia” was really about an airplane pilot, as if he really cared. She thought about Hejira. She thought about escape. The buildings were cut now with great space, thinning to pastureland punctuated by great gnarled oaks, hanging low with time and moss.

Lauren turned onto the dirt road and felt a jolt of excitement.  Someone had lined the drive with cypress trees. Even the nanny looked up from her phone as the sun vanished behind the green wall and left them together in the semidark. Blake craned his neck to look out the window. It’s night? No honey, not night, the trees are just tall and block out the sun. It’s night. No, not night. It’s night. Yes. It’s night.

The farm was a haphazard arrangement of buildings, hastily constructed to serve the expanding operation. An old farmhouse had been converted into the welcome center, a jolly, rustic decoupage of country living. This was the agrarian past, trapped in amber, waiting for well-heeled visitors to come gawk at it. Long raw wooden tables, lacquered with years of food and drink, lent order to an otherwise overwhelming mess. Y’all here to pick? Yes, please. Grab a bucket. Follow me. There’s some rules.

They were led along a path between the farmhouse and what might have been an abandoned industrial chicken coop. All the way, the farmhand gave them instructions. There’s no eating in the orchard. You pay for what you pick. We see you eating, we weigh you instead and you pay for that. Don’t climb the trees. Don’t take branches off the trees. If you see birds, scare them off. Have fun. Stick around long enough and the clown will be doing face painting.

When they reached the orchard, it was as eerily silent as the coop. Shouldn’t there be more people? Not on weekdays, everyone works. Weekends are a shitshow. Oops, I should watch my language with little ears around. Sorry. Anyway, it’ll just be you out here for most of the morning I reckon. Holler if you need anything. Bathrooms are back in the center next to the cafe. Don’t leave anything in the orchard, otherwise our folks’ll have to come collect them. Enjoy!

Without soliciting or waiting for questions, he sloped back down the dirt road toward the welcome center. Lauren handed the nanny and Blake their own buckets, then turned to examine the task ahead. The first thing she noticed was that the trees were short, not tall and graceful but somehow stunted, and each cut into a careful V. They were clones, an army of indistinguishable trees marching nowhere. She turned to the nanny and started to try to comment on the strangeness of the trees all being identical, when she noticed Blake.

Down. Now. He held on tightly, a foot off the ground, daring her to remove him. You said we could take pictures in the trees. I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed. Now get down before I count to three. One. Two. Two-and-a-half. Two-and-three… He lowered himself to the ground, slowly. How can I pick cherries? The cherries are so high. I’m not big. I understand, honey, but… Pick me up. We’ll find a short tree with some berries on it so that you can pick them. Pick me up. No. Follow me.

He slunk along behind her, brooding. They found a tree with low branches, low enough that Blake could reach a few fistfuls of cherries without problem. There would be others. The cherries were a deep red, not the glowing fluorescent scarlet of supermarket cherries, but a cool purple that promised to be sweet and juicy and refreshing. Lauren grabbed her first fistful and tossed them into her bucket, wondering why more people didn’t pick their own fruit. It was an easy drive. The prices were good. The location is, well, if not beautiful then at least better than the supermarket. She was plucked from her meditation by a spitting noise.

Blake looked up at her, claret juice bleeding down his chin onto his shirt. Blake, didn’t you hear the man? I’m hungry. I brought you a snack. He popped another one into his mouth, swirling it around a bit before spitting the seed out at Lauren’s feet. No more. Now spit it out. We’re not supposed to be eating them now. His eyes narrowed and his lips tightened into a scowl. He let the half-chewed cherry drop from his mouth along with whatever saliva and juice remained in his mouth. They tumbled down his front, a river of red spreading outward as it was absorbed into the fabric of his shirt and pants. He looked like a murder victim. He might be one, she thought.

Sensing that something was wrong, the nanny put her bucket down and picked up Blake’s diaper bag. She began undressing him and replacing his damp, stained clothes with the extra pair, a grey t-shirt with a black dinosaur on it, dark grey sweatpants.   Lauren returned to picking, looked away across the orchard. On a low branch, a mockingbird sat, with his gaze fixed directly on her. She shrieked. Shoo! Go! Blake was startled by her shouts and began crying, the nanny cooing something softly to him in a language Lauren couldn’t speak. Stop it, Blake. You’ll get these clothes wet too with your drool and I didn’t bring another change for you. She thrust a wad of wet wipes into his face, shaking them at the nanny. Lauren stole a glance back up to the spot where the mockingbird sat, but it was gone.

Her bucket was almost full when she felt a tug on her pullover. I need to go to the bathroom. Okay, let’s go back to the farmhouse. Nanny will watch our cherries for us. She held his little hand in hers as they walk through the tall grass, through the parade formation of trees. Blake had never been affectionate, so it always startled Lauren when he did something simple like slip his hand into hers when they weren’t crossing the street or walking through a parking lot. He could be a good kid. Once they got the farmhouse, he unhooked himself from her hand and walked forward, pushing through the long tables toward the bathrooms and then stopped, stock still.

What’s wrong? The door to the bathroom had just swung open, the sound of the hand dryer now easy for her to to hear, as Blake turned to look at her and shook his head vigorously. It’s too loud in there. I don’t have to go. I was just kidding. I can’t. You have to, honey. I want to go home to go. We can’t. We’re more than an hour from home. You’ll go in your pants before we get there. I can’t. I have to go home. He danced and wiggled and pleaded.

She walked up to him and took his hand again. She crouched low to the ground to look him directly in the eye. I promise I won’t let anyone use the hand dryer. I promise. Tears filled his eyes. I was just kidding. I don’t have to go. You do. We have to go in there. And we have to learn how to go in there, or else we’re not going to be able to keep going places like this. We’ll have to stay home every day, all day. Just then, a woman walked toward the bathroom door, and Lauren launched herself at the woman. Um, excuse me, could we use that first. He really needs to go and he’s worried about it being too loud in there. The other woman looked at Blake, who was writhing like an inflatable dancer outside a car dealership.

Lauren turned back to Blake to ask him once more to go to the bathroom. Suddenly, he was planted on the spot, his legs a perfect inverted imitation of the v-shaped trees, his sweatpants darkening, first in the middle then progressively lower. And then he was crying, silently, his mouth held open, a silent wound on his tortured face. For a moment, Lauren thought that he’d stopped breathing, but then the sound started, and she knew he’d just been getting ramped up. Let’s go. Nanny’s waiting for us.

They drove from under the shadow of the cypress trees back into the shadow of the afternoon. Blake slept in the back seat, half naked, a giant crimson blot staining his chest. Lauren picked a few cherries up from her lap and popped them into her mouth along with one of the Xanax.

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