My writing life has taken a hit recently, as the result of my plunge into another school year. I feel like I've bellyflopped off a high dive into a shark-infested bucket of ice water. I'm in shock, gasping for breath, but I can't stop moving long enough to recover my equilibrium. I'll be on top of the tide soon, but, for now, here's another bit of "On Blueberry Hill."
I glanced at my watch: ten minutes left of the lunch break. The jar of coffee went back into my lunch cooler before I slid the top closed. I piled my flannel shirt along the handle and used the whole thing as a pillow as I stretched out on the grass. I wasn't worried about over sleeping. I couldn't have done it I'd tried; Arnie would blow his god damned air horn until he had everyone back on their feet. I'd get up then and try to get another 300 pounds in before the end-of day call.
Arnie had gotten a little rounder, but mostly looked like he hadn't changed more than his shirt in the six years since I'd first laid eyes on him. His mop of white hair all seemed to be there, along with the unlit cigar he chomped on all day as he walked the rows and offered compliments and curses to the rakers. Turns out, I was a better raker at 13 than was at 19. It was either because I was closer to the ground in the old days, or just more willing to bust ass on shit work. By the time I started my second season I was a trustee, good enough to make 15 cents a pound cleaning up the other rakers' rows or sometimes getting paid hourly, $3, to ride the truck in early to divide a new field into rows with kite string.I lay on my patch of grass and tried to dream of college girls. They were so much easier to interact with than the ones I remembered from high school. Higher education seemed like it had been created with late-night conversations and later-night sex in mind. I settled my shoulders deeper into the trampled grass. The sun felt good and I was just finding my doze when Arnie fired up his air horn and started walking back and forth with it. He shouted, too, letting the canned air in the horn punctuate his sentences. “Get off your asses!” BLAAAT! “I don't pay you to sit on them!” BLAAAT! “I don't want to see nothing but assholes and elbows for the rest of the day! BLAAAT!
I sat up and squinted toward the winnower to see if I could spot Bret, and figure out what row she'd be raking. If I timed it right, I could start a new one right next to her. My back twinged a little as I stood up and then bent to grab my rake, a battle-ship gray, masochist's combination of dust pan and hair comb. I always tried to get one of the double-wides; they were heavier but it took fewer passes to fill the five-gallon bucket you staggered down the row with. Once you filled a bucket you could take it to the scale and get your punches. I hefted my bucket. About 14 pounds, I guessed. A full one would weigh about 23 pounds. There were already two full ones at the end of my row, and I figured I could fill this one and one more before I moved to the next row. Another 100 pounds for Arnie, another $10 for me.
As I bent over to comb berries out of the short bushes to either side of me, I heard Arnie berating a raker in another row. “I told you to rake clean! Look at this!” Without turning my head I could see him gesturing with one sun-burned arm. “It's blue!” The kid he was yelling at said something I couldn't hear but Arnie didn't like. “You're done!” Arnie said. “Turn in your rake and get your ass over to the bus!” The kid said something else. Arnie didn't like that much more. “No! You're done! Get out of my god-damned sight before I kick your lazy ass!”
The rest of the day passed in a blur of buckets and blue. Brett already had a seat mate near the back by the time I lurched on board the bus with my lunch cooler. I waved to her and she waved back. My friend, Abe, caught my eye and motioned for me to sit with him. Abe and I had given up on the hope that our single year of college would help us find a job at about the same time. It had surprised the hell out of me but Abe, who had an Amsterdam tea-house tattoo on his arm that read “Smoking Hash Will Make You Fuck Like a Turkey,” expected it.
“How'd you do today?” he said. He slid toward the window to make room for my lunch pail.
“About 500 pounds. You?”
He shrugged. “350.” Abe was going to Bennington, one of the most expensive colleges in New England. My school was ten grand cheaper, a bargain, but the day’s take home wasn’t going to do much against the balance. “The guy next to me got 1,000.”
He nodded. Bath Iron Works was on strike again, which meant the guy was trying to make up his union salary in berry buckets.
“You help him out?”
“A little. I traded a few buckets for some beers he had with him.”
Abe was alright. It was easy to get pissed at him, the super-smart dope fiend who seemed not to realize what it meant to get a full-ride at Bennington, but then he went and did something nice and you forgot all about it.
“I met a girl,” I said.
I nodded. “Her name's Brett. I don't know much about her.”
He raised his eyebrows. “The one sitting a few rows back?”
“Dude, she's, like, 15 years old.”
“How do you know?”
“She bummed a cigarette off me.”
“Did she say?”
“That she was 15.”
His face went blank for a second. “It’s pretty fucking obvious.” He half rose in his seat and started to turn to get a look at her. I grabbed his arm to stop him and pulled him back into the seat.
“Don’t,” I said.
“Whatever, man. Looks like jailbait to me.”
“I wasn’t thinking about sleeping with her!”
Abe raised an eyebrow at me.
“No, really!” I struggled to come up with another reason for my interest. “She just seems like she might be cool.”
Abe nodded. “Sure. You guys can have meaningful conversations about the Spice Girls.”
“Whatever.” I turned to look out the window. “I should’ve known you’d jump to conclusions.”
“Jailbait, man. Jailbait.”
The bus, long ago deemed unsafe for use by any school district and then painted bright blue to hide the rust, lurched homeward over miles of back road. The driver, one of Arnie’s gaptoothed flunkies, made four stops, disgorging a handful of rakers each time. The last stop, the Superette, was the biggest. The bus emptied wearily and the driver put it back in gear as soon as the last set of heels hit the dirt parking lot.
I thumped Abe in the chest. “You need a ride?”
He shook his head. “Charlie’s picking me up. We’re going fishing tonight. You want in?”
“Nah. I’m set.” Fishing with Abe and Charlie usually meant watching them get high and then worrying all night about getting them home alive. “You raking tomorrow?”
“If I wake up. If not —.” He shrugged. “No big loss at $30 a day.”
I nodded. “Maybe I’ll see you then.”