I’ll tell you how it happened…
I was working fruit that summer, moving from orchard to orchard, picking crops as they ripened: first apricots, then peaches, and I was picking pears when I fell in love.
Emily, a local girl just out of high school.
She was working at the weighing station of a small-town packing shed in Arkansas. Each time I came through the line with a load of pears I gave her a wink and a smile just to let her know I was there, waiting, watching.
I didn’t have a lot of time. Pear season was only three weeks long, and we were well into the third week before I got up courage to make my move.
“Hey, where’s the best pizza in town?” I said on my way through.
“Franklin Street. Right around the corner from the bank.”
“I don’t think I can find it alone.”
“Then maybe you’re not going to find it,” she said, but her smile gave me hope.
The next time through I said, casual-like, “Hey, how about you and me go to this Enrico’s place Friday night and I buy us some pizza?”
She laughed like she thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard, but she knew I was serious, and she didn’t say no.
I stood there, waiting for an answer until the guy behind me, someone who knew nothing about love, poked me in the back and said, “Goddamn it, you’re holding up the line…”
So, I had to move on.
But on Friday afternoon, on my last trip through, I said, casually, just like we had a date already, “See you at Enrico’s tonight at eight…”
I didn’t wait for an answer.
When I got my final pay, I drove out to the river where I’d been camped out with the other pickers. Tomorrow we were all heading north to pick apples, the last crop of the season.
After that, for me, it was Mexico for the winter. I stripped down, bathed in the river, then put on the wind-stiffened shirt and pants I’d washed the night before and set out on a tree limb to dry.
Fresh, clean, sweet-smelling and in love, I drove back into town, bought a pint of whiskey, shoved it down in my pants pocket and went to Enrico’s. It was ten past eight. The place was crowded. I looked around. Emily wasn’t there. I got a tall beer and sat alone at a table, cursing myself. I’d finally found what I’d been looking for, what I’d been dreaming about – found it, of all places, in a pear shed in some godforsaken town in the middle of nowhere – and I’d dallied until it was too late…
Or, had I?
Suddenly, there she was, standing just inside the doorway with some girl I’d never seen before.
I waved. Emily saw me. They came over.
“Nice to see ya!” I said, standing up like a guy’s supposed to when women arrive.
“This here’s Lena,” Emily said, introducing her not-so-good-looking friend. “I wanted her to meet you.”
“Nice to meet ya, Lena,” I said, trying not to look at the mole on her cheek.
I got the picture right away. It was going to be a threesome. Lena was there to run interference, to protect Emily from all those things I’d been thinking about.
You know the routine.
But what could I do? We got Hawaiian pizza, extra pineapple on the side. The girls were too young to drink, so I spiked their Cokes under the table with whiskey, and they liked that, I could tell.
A little alcohol and we all got a little loose.
I could see Emily was giving me the close up. Checking me out. So I put on my best self and talked on and on about where I’d been and what I’d seen and all the great and wonderful adventures I’d had, and how, after the apples were in, I was going to go spend another winter on the beach down in Mexico…
They were impressed, I could tell.
After a couple of whiskey-and-cokes, we went across the street to the park and sat on a bench, Lena in the middle, all of us sipping whiskey straight from the bottle while some old folks in funny costumes played umpah music up on the well-lit bandstand. When the time was right, I said, as if it had just occurred to me, “Hey, how about when I’m done with apple-picking, we all get in my rig and drive down to Mexico?”
They got ‘em laughing.
The very idea of it.
They liked that kind of talk, though – I could tell.
“I’m serious,” I said, bearing down. “You want to spend the winter here freezing to death? … Or, you want to spend the winter down on some Mexican beach, sipping margaritas and eating mangoes?”
Oh, they liked it all right, so I kept right on.
“Shoot,” I said, “I know some great beaches down in Baja. We can park the van, set up a tent right by the ocean and do whatever we want and no one’s ever going to bother us…”
I had them going now. Laughing, smiling, giggling – small-town girls who’d never been anywhere, and here I was talking about the stuff of their dreams. And all the while I kept thinking how much I wanted to smother Emily’s smile with some good old-fashioned lip-and-tongue action.
I could see that wasn’t going to happen, though – not with Lena around. And there didn’t seem to be any way to get rid of her.
So we sat there, the three of us, laughing and talking and nipping whiskey from the bottle until the bottle was empty and we were all pretty well lit.
It was quiet suddenly. No more music. The old folks in funny costumes were putting away their instruments. Then the bandstand lights went out.
There comes a moment in such evenings, a moment when the timing seems right, a -now-or-never moment, and that moment had arrived.
“How about this?” I said, as if the idea had just occurred to me. “Let’s get another bottle and drive out to the river for a quick swim?”
The girls looked quickly at each other.
Then Emily said, “We can’t. We have to get home.”
I could tell by the way she said it they’d talked it all over beforehand, like girls do.
They only lived a few blocks away, and they’d walked to Enrico’s.
But I was desperate, so I said, “Hey, let me drive you home,” figuring I’d drop Lena off first.
Emily said, “Okay,” and I thought maybe it was going to happen that way.
But it didn’t.
Emily directed me to her place first, leaving me to drive Lena home, and that’s where we were headed, Lena and I, towards her place, when I looked over at her, I forget what for, and saw something I hadn’t seen before.
I’m not sure exactly what it was, but when I saw it, I heard myself say, “Are we in a rush?”
And I heard her say, “No.”
So we drove out to the river and went for a swim.
And after I was done picking apples, I came back through that godforsaken down in the middle of nowhere and picked Lena, so to speak, and we went down to Mexico and spent the winter there together, eating mangoes and drinking margaritas…
You asked me and I told you.
Now you know.