A Fall Tradition by Shelly Jones

“How many they got back there?” he asked me as he pulled a wooden pencil out of his shirt pocket. The pencil tip, dull and coarse, sharpened no doubt with a knife, hovered over a piece of brown paper torn from a rice hull bag as he waited for my answer. Fidgeting with my bike brake, I looked at him, his pale knee cap with its jagged blue-green scar peeking through ripped jeans. He had sent me out back to count how many bushels of apples the migrant workers had finished up that day. His jean pockets were full of wads of small bills, money taken at the farm stand and he needed to know how much to dole out this evening. It was the same every day from July through October when the apple trees swung low, heavy with their load like a woman’s swollen belly.

I thought about the empty picking bags, their straps saturated with the morning’s dew, strewn in the shade of the trees. I thought about the lean faces waiting behind him, talking low amongst themselves, not paying me any attention.

“Ten in the last of the Paula Reds, twenty beyond the creek in the Galas, and another twelve in the Crispins.” I had memorized it, repeated it to myself the whole ride back on my mud stained bike. No longer was the paint the bright purple and green it had been when he bought it for me. Like everything on the farm, there was a fine patina of grit covering the spokes. It caked his graying hair and lived in the creases of his sunburned skin too.

“And how much is that then?” he asked, prodding me to do the mental math as he sketched it out quickly on the brown paper bag. He was always trying to test my math using the farm as my geometric landscape. How many times would a small front tractor tire revolve in the time it took the massive back wheel to churn through the mud? How many gallons of water do we add to the spray rig if we first put in thirty pints of pesticides?

“Forty-two,” I huffed, annoyed with the simple test. Kid’s stuff, I thought, and crossed my arms over my chest. The bike shifted between my legs and I steadied myself on the handlebars.

“No, how much do I have to shell out to them?” he asked, waving his thumb back toward the men.

I stood over my bike, trying to figure out the calculation. I stared down at the mud clinging to my tire tread and found myself counting the grooves instead of multiplying the men’s wages by the number of bushels out back. He had never asked me to count that out before. The number flashed in my head and I realized it was less than my bike had cost, less than a month’s horseback riding lessons. My tongue felt sticky in my mouth like I had just eaten a peach.

“Too late,” he sighed and wedged his hand into his bulging pocket to fish out the bills. He counted out piles of twenty singles.

I watched him smooth out wrinkled bills and fuss with the piles to make them straight. I wasn’t sure if I should go or if I was supposed to stay there, a witness to the men being paid. I wondered why they came back each summer to work for him. They all went by something similar. There were lots of Jims and Bobbys over the years. Only for a few of them would he go down to the jail and bail them out after a police officer had followed them out of a liquor store and waited until they twisted the cap open to arrest them. The others he referred to as thieves and liars as soon as he pulled away on his tractor, the words run over by the oversized tires.

When he was finished sorting the bills, he called me over. I hopped off my bike and leaned it against a pallet box, unsure of what he wanted this time. I stuffed my hands in my overall pockets and walked over to him, trying not to seem nervous.

“Give this to that guy and this to the next.” He handed me two wads of bills and pointed to the pickers. Taking the oversized shovel he turned around and began to walk toward the barn. I stood there, looking at the money in my hand and looked back toward him. “Go on now,” he said shooing me away.

I took the bills and folded them, not daring to see the meager amount spread out in my palm. The money stunk of sweat and over-ripened apples, the vinegary smell of pressing cider. Then I thought back to the empty picking bags in the orchards and stared at the money, heavy in my hand.

“What the hell is the matter with you?” he asked, ripping the money from my hand with a huff. “Now’s not the time to get all skittish and shy.”

“I’m not,” I managed, swallowing my words, pushing back what I really wanted to say.

“Well you sure could fool me,” he grumbled and walked over to the men and handed them their money without saying anything to them. The men smiled and thanked him, counting out the bills aloud to each other. “Why don’t you go home and get started on your homework?” he asked me, returning to his shovel. The cider press had finished and he was scooping out the wrung out peels and cores from under the machine before washing it down. I picked up my bike and nodded.

Riding through the orchards, I stopped in the Crispins and recounted the few full baskets under the tree. As I strapped a picking bag across my chest and began collecting apples, I heard a tractor in the distance making its way slowly toward me and the empty bushels.

Shelly Jones is an Associate Professor of English at SUNY Delhi. Her short fiction has been published in _Luna Station Quarterly_ and _Podcastle_ and is forthcoming in _The Future Fire_. Outside of academia, she is an active nerd who enjoys board games, Dungeons and Dragons, being outdoorsy, and knitting.

Image: unsplash.com