Picking the First Fruitbysr71plt©
I think I just might be the best peach picker in Virginia. Well, in Rockingham County at least. And that isn't just me boasting. That's what Brother Jeb said all the time I was picking peaches for him. And Mr. Howell said that to me too. More than once he said that. I've heard both men say that, in the peach business, it's getting the first fruit of the season to market before anyone else does that can mean the difference between a good season and a break-even or bad season.
I've been picking peaches—the last couple of years for the Mennonite, Brother Jebodiah, down near Singers Glen—for a good seven years now. Brother Jeb's good people. Some Baptists here won't work for the Mennonites, thinking they are too peculiar and dress all old fashioned and stuff and just might not even be Christian, but I found them to be honest, fair, and themselves hard workers. Brother Jeb doesn't just send men out into his orchards in the heat of July to pick the first fruit to race to market with. He's right out there with them, working his butt off too. Of course in those dark clothes and that hat he has to wear, he has to take more breaks than most.
He goes over and leans on the fence next to the road, under the oak trees he's got his orchards bordered in. Standing there, he'll jaw with anyone who wants to stop and talk. This summer it's been mostly that Mr. Howell stopping in his big, new red Ford F-450 double cab. He's got his own orchards over near Timberville. I've heard tell about him being competitive and all, and some say he's a little underhanded. Not to his face, of course. He's one big, muscled-up sonofabitch.
My uncle, Rick, worked in his orchards for awhile, and he told me more than once, "It's good you want to work the orchards to save up for school, Johnny. But there's some orchards you'll want to give a pass on even if they offer good money. There's the Mennonites. They're strange folks and just don't mix well with good Baptists. It's never good to get in with the heathens. And then there's that Clarence Howell over in Timberville. He pays top dollar, but I'd stay out of the way of working under him, if I was you. He has more demands than a soul wants to talk about."
He'd give me a meaningful look, just itching to talk about it and daring me to ask why. But I never did. And I did want to earn up money for my electricians school as soon as I got out of high school, so after working for good Baptists for a couple of summers, and finding my paychecks shorted more times than I could count, I went against what Uncle Rick said and hired up with a Mennonite. And I haven't had any complaints with Brother Jeb for two picking seasons.
The first week of the picking after finishing high school, I was out there, working just as fast as I could on Brother Jeb's peach trees. Brother Jeb had bragged on me at the end of the last season, saying I was his best and fastest picker. That meant something in Rockingham, and I'd gotten some good offers from other growers here and about, but Brother Jeb had been fair with me, so I was fair with him and came back to him.
Speed meant something this year if we were going to be early to market. For some reason not that many Mexicans were coming up for the picking as usually did. I don't know if they were having trouble getting here or if conditions were better in Mexico than they were here this season. But, whatever, there were fewer of us picking. It was hitting everyone, and for the first time, I felt the pressure to be working for someone else who could put more pickers into the field.
It was hot as hell out in the orchard on a Tuesday afternoon. I was down to my soggy and sagging gym shorts and working just as fast as I could, trying to help get enough bushels down off the trees from Brother Jeb to take a truck load down to the stores in Harrisonburg. Brother Jeb had already had to take two breaks, but I didn't resent that. The heat was really just too much for those black clothes he couldn't take off. The few others there, a couple of local boys, and a few Hispanics who either already managed to live here or who were so loyal to Brother Jeb that they managed to some back to him, were all as tongue hanging out as I was in the heat. Summer here in Shenandoah valley was always a scorcher, and we were hitting heat records day after day this season. The white boys had been slogging along like zombies for some time, and now even the Hispanics and blacks, who could take heat better than most, were slowing down. Heeding the reputation I'd gotten and Brother Jeb's need to get a truckload of peaches to Harrisonburg before others did—and thus be able to pay me that time and a half he'd promised—I was working all the faster.
When I had to stop for a breath and a swig of water from my water bottle, the flashy red color of that big, new F-450 truck made me look over toward the fence under the shade of the oak tree. Brother Jeb was there, standing and leaning on the fence. And on the other side, one foot up on the fence's lower rail and looking pretty intently out at the orchard—at me specifically, so it seemed—was that Mr. Howell from over Timberville way. They talked for a while and then Brother Jeb came back to the orchard to take another crack at the picking. Mr. Howell went back over to his truck, but he turned and watched us for a couple of more minutes before he got in his truck and drove off.
I was exhausted at the end of the day. All the rest, including Brother Jeb, had gone after we loaded up the truck. Brother Jeb was pleased because we'd managed to get a truck filled. He said he'd go ahead and drive those peaches down to Harrisonburg this evening to get a steal on anyone else racing for first fruit honors.
The Hispanics had all gone off in their ancient trucks, loading them to the gills with pickers, all laughing and having a jolly time.
I'd overworked myself, keeping to my goal of being the best and fastest. I hadn't paced myself like they had. So, I just plopped down on my back under that oak tree Brother Jeb usually stood under and moaned and luxuriated in the shade. My bicycle was propped up against the tree beside me, waiting for me to get up the energy to ride the five miles east over toward Eddom, where I lived with my mother in a little country house. In the fall I'd be going down to Harrisonburg for technical school—if I had saved enough money—but I'd still be driving back to Eddom in Mom's old Cavalier every night. I'd have to work a couple of years as an electrician before I could afford a place or even a car of my own. And even then, I'm not sure my mom would want me to leave her all alone in Eddom.
I was dozing off when I heard the rumble of a truck. I expected it to pass on down the road, but it didn't. It stopped. I opened my eyes, and all I saw was a big blotch of cherry red on the other side of the fence.
"You look all spent out."
It was the Mr. Howell, and he was standing by his truck and looking down at me over the fence. I groaned and sat up. I pulled up my T-shirt from under my back and folded it over my belly, suddenly feeling naked.
"It's been a rough day," I said. "But we managed to get a truckload picked."
"So soon?" Mr. Howell asked. "Taking it to market tomorrow, is he, is Jebodiah?"
"He's already driving to market with it," I answered.
I instinctively knew I had to speak polite and straight with Mr. Howell. He was one of the biggest growers around here. And a bull of a man in his own right. He was tall and thick necked and across the chest too. Maybe in his forties. He was one of those men who looked like he didn't dirty his hands but somehow had managed to work his body to high muscle tone. He was bald as a billiard cue, but he had a thick beard and mustache and a big patch of black hair pushing out the top of his buttoned shirt, which wasn't fastened down the top three buttons. It was like his chest was just aching to burst out of that shirt. He probably was fighting the heat as much as anyone, but he looked cool as a cumber now.
"Harrisonburg," I answered. Not much that any of the other peach growers could do about that now, I knew, so there was no reason I could think of not just saying it. I was pretty proud of what we had accomplished for Brother Jeb today—not the least because Brother Jeb was right in there working with us as best he could and because he then knew which of his workers was giving him their best. It made me feel as much ownership of getting that first fruit to market as Brother Jeb did.
"Thanks for the tip. I'll send mine to New Market tomorrow then. A good tip is worth a ride home, if you're interested. You probably don't want to have to bike all the way to Eddom after a work day like you've had. I've had my eye on you. Everyone says you're the best and fastest picker in the county."
"Thanks. I like to give good work when I can. You know where I live?" I asked.
"Yep. Been checking up on you. Like what I see. So, do you want a ride home?"
"In that new truck?" I asked. "I'm not clean enough to be riding in that truck."
"If it doesn't bother me, I don't know why it should bother you. Here hoist that bicycle over the fence, and I'll put it in the back. If it makes you feel better, I've got towels I can lay down in the passenger seat."
It was not long after he started the truck up that he came out with the proposition. "I hear you're saving up to go to electricians school down in Harrisonburg now that you graduated from high school."
"Yep, that's right," I answered.
"Pretty pricey school that is. Almost as much as going to a community college. Your grades not good enough for college?"
"I made good grades. The wages of an electrician are good and it's honest work that there's always a need for," I answered. "It's the fastest way of making money. College would be even more expensive and I don't have the time to put off making money."
"But a big part of going to college is to then have a college team to root for. You have a favorite college team?"
"Tech, of course. Doesn't everyone in the valley follow Virginia Tech?"
"I went to UVa. myself, but I'll have to admit I follow the Tech teams too. They're a lot better. I even get tapes of their summer football team practices. I don't bother doing that for UVa."
"Yeah, Tech's good," I answered. I didn't know what else to say. I was intimated sitting in the cab of that fancy truck of his. I'd slipped my T on, which wasn't too wet from sweat. But, even with the towels on the seat and back, I still did what I could not to touch any more surface of the truck seat than I had to.
Mr. Howell just looked over at me from time to time with an amused look on his face.
"You know you could be making a whole lot more money that you are at Jebodiah's. Maybe even enough for college and a car too. You wouldn't have to go around the county on that old bike. You've got a real good reputation now. In fact, I'd be willing to pay you twice what he is no matter what that is. It's a picker's market this summer. You could make enough to go to a junior college, not just to electrician's school. Or maybe both at once if you want to have a good skill to fall back on. That's a pretty smart idea, I've got to admit. And you hit me as a pretty smart young guy."
"Brother Jeb's good to me," I said. "I'm happy with him."
"Well, think about it. I'd be really happy to have you."
"I like working for Brother Jeb just fine," I said. I was trying to keep my voice polite, but it wasn't something I needed to think about or answer to more than once.
We were pulling up in front of my mother's house. She was out on the porch watering the hanging basket flowers with that old plastic watering can of hers. She did a double take at seeing the big red truck and dropped the can as well as her jaw.
"That your mama?"
"Yes, sir," I answered. "She's not used to seeing anything this new drive up and stop in front of her house. I'd best get out fast so she knows it's me."
"Looks like she broke that watering can when she dropped it."
I looked through the windshield and saw her holding the can up, with water cascading out of a rip in the plastic side. She had a forlorn look on her face. Mom didn't have the wherewithal to be buying a lot of new stuff like watering cans.
"Thanks for the ride," I said, as I climbed out of the cab. "Mom, it's just me. Mr. Howell gave me a ride home." I was already trying to work my way back into my mom's and my world. Mr. Howell's world was a lot more expensive than I could dream about.
"Give it a thought," he said as I stepped down on the ground. "I can give you a lot that Jebodiah can't."
"Sure, Mr. Howell. Thanks again for the ride."
"I'll be seeing you around, Johnny."
The next day when I biked home from the orchard, remembering with every huff and puff how easy the air-conditioned truck ride was in comparison with biking at the end of a picking day, Mom was out on the porch again, watering her hanging baskets. She was using a new, shiny-red watering can and she had a smile on her face that went from ear to ear.
"Went to the market and bought yourself a new can?" I asked.
"Nope. That nice Mr. Howell who brought you home yesterday stopped and gave it to me. He said he was sorry that he had scared me and made me drop the other one. He wanted me to pass on his regards to you. And he told me he'd offered you a job with double the pay. He seems a right nice man, Johnny."
"I'm sure he is, Mom," I answered, "But Brother Jeb is a right nice man too."
* * * *
"Hope your mom liked the watering can."
My eyes popped open. Brother Jeb had called it a day early, because the swelter of summer in the valley was continuing and it was just too damn hot to be working outside. We were ahead on the peach picking, though. He was real pleased with that. Said it was mostly my doing. And it might have been; I couldn't remember much past noon today. It was so sweltering that I had just put myself on autopilot and tried to forget the temperature as I worked. Both Brother and Jeb and all those milling Hispanics and the other young white guys had piled in their rides and ridden off more than a half hour ago. I was laying under the tree working up the energy to bike back home.
I looked up and Mr. Howell was leaning there on the fence. He must have been really hot too, because he was shirtless. I almost swallowed my breath on how well-developed his torso was, especially for a man his age. He was really ripped. And he was hairy too—and deep tanned. Not hairy like a bear, really. I could see the skin through the dark, curly hair. But it pretty much covered his pecs and forearms and it trailed down his sternum and across his flat belly and then disappeared below his low-rise gym shorts. They were pretty baggy.
"Yeah, she liked it a lot. My mom doesn't get much new stuff, so that was a real treat. But you didn't have to do that."
"I caused her to drop and split the other one, so it was only fair I got her a new one."
"But you must have made a special trip to take it to her."
"Least I could do for that tip you gave me—that Jebodiah had taken his first fruit to Harrisonburg. I got to New Market first with mine the next day. Sold out in not much more than an hour. Getting the first fruit like that to the right market is real lucky. It sets off the rest of the season real good. Of course, if I had more help picking my peaches, I could really rake up the profit."
"It wasn't that great a tip. But I'm glad it worked out for you. It worked out for Brother Jeb too, so it's a win, win situation all around."
"Not that much of a win for you, Johnny. All you got was a watering can for your mother and a ride home. And you had to be back picking peaches the next morning."
"It was good enough. I got the time and a half Brother Jeb promised for making a first-fruit goal. He's real honest that way. I've had Baptist bosses that promised something but then didn't give it." I stopped, thinking I maybe went too far. Chances were good Mr. Howell was Baptist. I tried to smooth that over a bit. "But that ride home was real nice, thanks."
"You want another ride today? I'd be happy to give you a ride."
I thought about that—maybe for three seconds. "Yeah, sure, thanks." I looked up and saw that he was grinning down at me.
"I can't help thinking I should do more to show my gratitude," Mr. Howell said not long after we started off in his rumbling Ford F-450. "Of course, if you came and worked for me, I could make it up in wages."
"Thanks. I like working for Brother Jeb, though. Thanks all the same."
"Well, maybe some other way. Say, I'll bet you're hot as a fire cracker."
"Yeah, close to that I think."
"Bet a dip in a pool and a couple of really cold brewskies would help with that."
"Yeah, that's certainly something to dream about," I agreed.
"Hell, no need to dream. I've got a pool at my house, and a refrigerator full of beer."
"You've got a swimming pool?"
"Yeah, sure. Not just a pond either. Concrete sides and bottom and everything."
"Neat. But . . ."
"And I know something else. We talked about films of the Tech squad's summer football practices the other day. I've got those on the machine. We could hit the pool and then watch the films while knocking a couple back. Waddya say to that? God it's a hot day. This air-conditioning is great, but once out of that. Probably OK if you have air-conditioning at your mom's place."
We barely had walls at my mom's place.
"Well, I don't know . . ."
"And I could have Lynn put some steaks on for us. Make it an evening. I'd take you back after dinner."
"My mom will be expecting me home."
"I don't think she will. I was over at your house before coming here. She said she was going to a show with her neighbor . . . Mrs. . . ."
"Steele. Mrs. Steele. She said that? That they were going to a show? That's strange."
"So it looks like you need to fend for yourself for supper. As I said, I can get Lynn to broil us up a couple T-bones. I'm betting you could put that away after the hard day's work you've done. I made a killing off that first fruit to the New Market market. I'd really like to express my gratitude to you for the tip."
Well, if his wife was happy enough cooking up a meal for us . . .
Standing looking at the pool on the terrace behind his house made me want to jump right in. The pool was big. The house was big. Everything about his spread was big—and expensive looking.
"Too bad I don't have a suit with me," I said.
"No worry about that. It's just the two of us. Lynn's in the kitchen. Won't see a thing." With that, he stripped off his gym shorts, stood long enough for me to tout up his horse-hung cock and low-slung balls in the extra big category—a particular shock being as it was centered in that small V of whitish skin that wasn't deep tanned—dove neatly into the pool, and did a vigorous Australian crawl to the far side. Reaching that, he did a neat turn and stood up in the pool. "Your turn. Come on, strip and dive."
Embarrassed, I dropped my shorts and did an awkward dive into the pool as quick as I could.
We swam about. I couldn't swim very well. He was a regular sea otter, disappearing under the water in one place and surfacing someplace unexpected. A couple of times he came right up in front of me, his body bumping mine.
I was getting self-conscious, and worse, feeling myself getting aroused and going hard. So I swam over to the ladder and pulled myself up quickly. Turning away from him, I quickly toweled off and pulled my shorts back on. Only then did I turn back to him, seeing him dog paddling in the pool and looking at me with an amused look on his face.
"More hungry than in the mood to swim?" he asked.
"Yeah, pretty hungry," I answered. "As you said, I put in a long day. Quite a few hours since lunch now."