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Chapter 1: A Bad Choice and a Worse One
My dad always said that his feet were the only stupid parts of his body. They had walked him into every bad decision he had ever made, so he had to watch them carefully. He repeated that little pearl of wisdom so often that I began to take it literally and stare at my feet when they were moving. I had my eyes on them the afternoon they walked me into my career in agriculture. I blame my feet because I was only thirteen at the time and not exactly in the job market.
On that particular day, I was mostly thinking about what I could eat when I got home from school. I was trudging along the dirt lane from the bus stop while my sisters and cousins rushed past me, trying to escape the biting New Mexico wind. The lane’s rutted tracks had filled with water from a snowstorm and then frozen into narrow strips of dirty ice. It felt powerful and satisfying to crush the fragile surfaces and watch the underlying brown water ooze around my shoes. I was careful to find and eliminate each of the thin ice plates that had survived the weak February sun. I imagined it sounded a little like breaking glass. Crunch, crack, crunch, SLAM!
My head shot up at the familiar sound of a screen door banging against a door frame. I had made it far enough down the lane so that I was next to the house of my neighbor Mrs. Nelson. I looked up with a guilty face, expecting to be accused of some crime involving ice breaking. Instead of Mrs. Nelson coming toward me down her walk, however, it was her grown son, Tommy. I could tell right away he was mad. His face was puckered and red, and his fists were clenched, ready to hit something. As he got closer, I dropped my eyes and concentrated on my feet, even though they had stopped moving. I heard a car door opening and then slamming shut, followed by the gunning of an engine as Tommy turned his car onto the dirt road. I jumped toward Mrs. Nelson’s to avoid Tommy’s front grille, and little pieces of gravel flew up against my leg as the car roared by. Tommy didn’t even turn his head to acknowledge me.
As I stood watching the car disappear, Mrs. Nelson’s head popped out of the screen door. "Is he gone?" she yelled.
"Yeah!" I yelled back a little too loudly, given that we were only fifty feet apart.
"Did he say anything to you, Jackson?" she asked a little quieter as she stepped off her porch toward me.
"No. But he almost ran me over," I answered dramatically.
She stared at me, her eyes moving from my wet shoes to my ears, which were turning red from being stared at and because of the subfreezing temperature. "Why don’t you come in for a minute?" she finally said, motioning toward her door.
I’d talked with Mrs. Nelson hundreds of times on her porch and outside her house, but she’d never invited me in before. A small tingle of fear ran down my back for some reason.
"Okay. I probably can for a minute." On the way toward the porch, I remembered my muddy shoes. I tried to slide along the dead grass next to Mrs. Nelson’s walkway to scrape off some of the mud. I spent several moments dragging my shoes across the welcome, friends mat she had in front of her door. She finally said, "That’s enough. Now come in before we heat up the whole outdoors."
I hesitated inside the doorway, unsure whether to take off my shoes, but she motioned to a chair in her front room as if I was supposed to sit down. I slinked over, glad that the carpet was off-brown. The room itself was very neat, but with lots of little shelves and cabinets full of things my dad would call worthless clutter—snow globes from all fifty states, statues of fat little angels, and shiny bowls and glasses in pale pinks and greens.
Before I knew it, Mrs. Nelson was handing me a cup of cocoa. It was just cool enough that I could tell it had been made way before my arrival. "How’s your family doing? How’s your mother?" she asked, sitting across from me.
She had never asked about my family before, and I took my first good look at her. The way she was dressed reminded me a little bit of her house—neat but with too many fancy accessories for someone who lived down a dirt road. She had probably spent an hour arranging her graying hair but it had unraveled, and I could see by her eyes she had been crying. "My mom’s okay," I managed to squeak out.
"You need to always remember your mother and how much she does for you, even when you get older."
"Uh-huh," I mumbled, as I pretended to be interested in the cocoa.
"Because what really matters in this life is your family, and you always have to treat them right." Mrs. Nelson paused a few seconds and looked around the room. "You know, it’s all been so different since my husband died. You’d think being alone like I am, Tommy would be happy to spend time with me."
The way Mrs. Nelson was talking reminded me of something, and when she reached her last sentence, I knew what it was. She sounded just like my mom after she and my dad had been arguing. I knew right then that I was supposed to nod my head a lot and agree with her. Tell her things like "He just doesn’t appreciate you" and "You deserve better." I started the head nodding and was about to say something sympathetic when she continued.
"And now my doctor says I might have cancer, and my own son acts like he doesn’t even care. Tells me I’m being overdramatic." Mrs. Nelson reached for a tissue and dabbed at her eyes.
Awkwardness filled up the room and pushed my shoulders to the floor. I could tell Mrs. Nelson was waiting for some kind of response, but I had no idea what to say. I looked down at my cocoa and then managed, "I’m sorry."
"Wouldn’t you want to spend more time with your mother if she only had a year to live?" asked Mrs. Nelson in a voice dripping in self-pity.
I squirmed nervously in my chair. "Yeah, I would," I replied weakly, and nodded my head.
"I’ve even asked him to help with my will, but he doesn’t care about that either. Says I should just sell this house and all the land around it. Acts like he hates it out here."
There was a long pause that signaled my turn to say something. "Maybe he just likes living in town. My mom always wishes she did." It was the most profound thing I could think of.
"Tommy’s father would roll over in his grave if he heard that. He moved us out here to get away from the city. Planted that orchard in front because he wanted to act like a farmer. It almost kills me to look at it now in a shambles."
Between Mrs. Nelson’s house and the road was an apple orchard that had been abandoned since Mr. Nelson had died. Since as far back as I could remember, it had been a part of my landscape, but mostly off-limits according to my mom.
Mrs. Nelson sat up straighter in her chair, and her voice got a little higher. "Oh, he loved being in that orchard. He always said there was something about being close to the earth that was spiritual and primal. I always loved those blossoms breaking out in the spring. I’m always begging Tommy to get it going again, put some water on the trees at least."
I kept nodding my head and trying to seem interested.
"You know, when Tommy was about your age, his father tried to get him to help out with those trees, but he was always happier doing something else, anything else." She shook her head. "How old are you now, Jackson? Fourteen, fifteen?"
"I’ll be fourteen in a few weeks," I mumbled.
"In a lot of ways, you remind me more of my husband than Tommy does. The way you always like to be outside and working with your hands."
I gave her a halfhearted grin to acknowledge the compliment. Being outside all the time was mostly due to my mother’s policy on not overcrowding the house rather than a conscious personal choice. As for working with my hands, Mrs. Nelson was probably referring to all her yard work she had cornered me into doing. She looked above my head like she was trying to see something off in the distance. Then she began talking quietly to herself as if I weren’t in the room.
"I just hate to see it neglected like that. It breaks my heart to think that Tommy would just dig up those trees. Probably put a trailer park over it or something. Serve him right if I gave it to someone who’d keep it up." All of a sudden she lowered her eyes and stared me into blushing. "How about you? How’d you like that orchard?"
"Uh . . . m-me? What would I do with it?"
"Raise apples, of course. That’s the whole point. If you do it right, you can make plenty of money too."
That last part caught my attention, and I sat up a little straighter. "But why me? I don’t know anything about apples."
"I just need someone willing to learn. Someone who can prove they’ll take care of the place when I’m gone."
"How would I prove that?"
Mrs. Nelson leaned back like she was thinking. "You could work on it this year and give me a chance to examine the results. Then I’ll decide."
The idea of her giving me the orchard sounded pretty meaningless to thirteen-year-old ears. Why would I want the thing? The interesting part in what she was saying was the possibility of making some money. "What about the money, if, you know, there were some apples that were sold?"
Mrs. Nelson got a distasteful look on her face. "Money. Well, yes, I guess you could have some of the money, depending on what kind of job you did. The same kind of arrangement we make when you work in my yard."
My heart sunk. The "arrangement" we had with her yard was that she would promise me $5 for something that supposedly took only a couple of hours. After an entire Saturday of breaking my back for her, she’d hand me a dollar bill and say my work wasn’t up to $5 standards. Once she even sent me home without the usual dollar because I pulled up hydrangeas I thought were weeds. She’d screeched like I’d killed a bunch of puppies.
I’d never learned to say no, however, and gotten suckered into the same thing dozens of times. The orchard sounded like an even bigger con job. I’d probably work every day for a year, make her a bunch of money, and then she’d hand me a dollar bill. "Not up to $5 standards," she’d say. "And I’m giving the orchard to someone else now that it’s all cleaned up." I looked down at my feet and didn’t say anything.
"What do you think? You willing to take over for my husband? Make those trees come alive again?" Mrs. Nelson asked insistently.
"I’ll have to think about it," I replied slowly. That was the answer my dad gave to all salesmen. He said that was standard practice no matter how much you wanted something or how good the deal seemed. This deal didn’t seem that good, and I really would have to think about it.
"Think about it?" asked Mrs. Nelson, acting very put out. "Well, don’t think too long. Opportunities like this come along once in a lifetime. People don’t just go around giving away land and orchards."
I thanked her for the cocoa and got up to leave. I remembered to tell her I was sorry to hear about the cancer and hoped she felt better. After a few sighs and dramatic sniffles, she walked me to the door. "I expect to hear back from you right away about the orchard," she called as I hurried around the corner of her house.
When I walked in my front door, my mom didn’t seem to notice it had taken me an extra long time to return from the bus stop. I didn’t dare mention the orchard proposition to her or to my dad when he got home. They had always seemed to avoid and distrust Mrs. Nelson. Somehow she had singled me out as the one person in our family she would talk to, but only if she caught me walking along the dirt road past her house. Since I knew her better than anyone and I’d be doing all the work, I felt like I could make a decision about the orchard on my own. The idea made me feel anxious but grown-up. By the time dinner rolled around, I had convinced myself that the smartest thing to do was to ignore Mrs. Nelson and let her plan fade away. It seemed like just a crazy impulse she’d had, anyway.
My family sat down to eat with my mom and dad at either end of the table and my two little sisters sitting across from me. Dad had on the usual worn-down expression he wore after work, and he was still wearing his denim work shirt. My mom pointed out two of his favorite dishes—scalloped potatoes and pot roast—and then began cheerfully filling up plates. Dad grunted his appreciation.
"I stopped by the scrap yard on the way home," Dad announced after taking a few bites. "Talked with ol’ Slim Nickles. He says he gets really busy during the summer and needs extra help. Just manual labor kinds of things, no skills required. I told him I had a son who didn’t have any skills but could probably haul things around. Slim said we could stop by and he’d look you over." Dad finished by pointing his fork at me.
I let my fork drop on my plate and my mouth hang open. The scrap yard was on the side of the highway Dad took to work, and he loved stopping in and searching through the mounds of metallic junk. He’d stop in on Saturdays, too, and drag me along. I couldn’t stand the place. It was filthy and smelled like burning rubber. And Slim Nickles was the biggest jerk I’d ever met. He was usually covered in grease and had a wide red face and a huge gut. He yelled every word he said and loved to intimidate people. The one time he’d noticed me, he warned me to keep my hands in my pockets or he’d snap them off.
Before any sounds of protest could come from my mouth, Mom spoke up. "He’s only thirteen. Are you sure he’s old enough to have a job?"
"He’ll be fourteen this summer. When I was fourteen, I was working as much as a grown man, maybe more," replied Dad, his voice getting louder.
Mom rolled her eyes. "Are you sure that’s going to be a safe place for a boy to work?"
"It’ll be safe enough. As long as he’s not just sitting around the house like last summer. Any more of that and he’ll be a freeloader the rest of his life."
"Oh, Dan," Mom said. "Don’t sound so mean. You’re going to give your own son a complex."
"I’m just trying to do what’s best for him. My dad never let me just lay around."
"I’d be happy to have a job," I broke in, "but does it have to be at the scrap yard?"
"I don’t care where it is, but you’ll have to find someone who’ll hire a fourteen-year-old. Slim’s the only one I know."
The orchard popped into my head, but I didn’t want to say anything about it. My mind raced through other potential employers anywhere near my house. "What about that snow-cone stand by the school?"
"That guy’s got all his kids working there. Nah, this weekend we’ll go talk to Slim and get things lined up."
I stayed quiet the rest of dinner, stewing about the scrap yard. If I put up a big fight and refused to go, my dad would make life at home miserable. And if I went along with him, Slim would be more than happy to make my time away from home miserable. Either way, I was bound to be miserable. I had to find something else, almost anything else.