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After Apple Picking
by Robert Earle

They started taking things from her. First, the marriage, then the job. She should have been chosen as deputy county attorney. She knew it was because she was a domestic abuse victim who divorced her husband and made sure he went to jail. Watching the rising sun bless the day above the Sandia Mountains, she decided to appeal not being picked. She had more years on the job, more convictions, and more awards than Ted Billings. How could he be chosen over her?

The county attorney, Rafael Moon,  said, “There’s no appeals process on this, Angela.”

“I don’t mean a process. I want you to reverse your decision, or whoever made the decision.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Maybe someone spoke against me.”

Rafael’s office was spare, a New Mexico state flag in the corner, the statutes in the bookcases, on his desk pictures of his grandchildren, their hair raven black in contrast to grandpa’s high-combed silver mane.

“I make my own decisions, and I chose Ted.”

“Why?”

“Because I did.”

“That’s no answer.”

“Then let me put it this way:  You’re great in court. That’s where you belong, not helping me evaluate cases, write reports and keep the other assistant attorneys happy, which you wouldn’t. You second guess everyone, never ends.”

“You didn’t even interview.”

Rafael possessed unshakeable dignidad. For him 2007 might have been 1777, when his family received its land grant from the king of Spain. Yo, el Rey.   “I think we’re finished.”

Angela didn’t recall raising her voice, but Rafael’s secretary, Mary Ortiz, stepped in and stared at her. No one could speak to Mr. Moon that way. Or threaten him with a sex-discrimination suit.

He suspended her without pay for a month to cool off. Her cases were distributed by Ted Billings to other attorneys. Three times she was told to leave the county building when she returned to plead for reinstatement.

One morning she awakened in a kind of paralysis. She had a frame and stucco two-story, not an adobe, that had creaked in the wind all night like a ship crossing the high desert, and the journey left her exhausted. What if they extended the suspension? What if they made it a firing?

The light in the bedroom was blazing white, but she was a dark bundle on the bed, clutching her quilt as if she had fallen there.  She had nothing to do and almost no money. Tearing her ex-husband to pieces had cost her a fortune even acting as her own attorney. Now she had the mortgage, utilities, and upkeep. She put on overalls and walked down the staircase into the barren kitchen with its terra cotta tiles. No coffee? Through the patio doors, she looked at the apple trees, sagging with fruit. She went out and picked an apple and polished it on her overalls and ate it. Then she walked around the house to the garage and got a stack of baskets and began harvesting the apples.

No one who has never harvested apples knows what heaven is like. Even those who have can get it wrong. She read the Robert Frost poem in 11th grade and understood he was looking for death wherever he could find it, even where its opposite, eternity, held sway. Apple-picking is ambrosia.  Apple-picking is no way that God would ever expel you. It’s more like God in your hands. Reaching deep among the fragrant branches you really know that life is good.  She wrote this and received an A+. Her teacher, Mr. Moore, read the essay out loud. “Listen to how Angela captures the intoxicating scent, the beautiful striated shades of the skin, the effortless way you twist a ripe apple’s stem to free it.”

She picked for an hour and thought, What will I do with all these apples?  She carried two baskets into her kitchen. She’d pare and bake them, she’d slice and dry them, she’d make and freeze pies, breads, tarts… but first, maybe she could sell some. So she drove to the Grange market and sat in the cool shade of the front porch with her apples, ten cents apiece, fifteen for a dollar. Out on the glittering gravel parking lot, they were beginning to roast peppers that day, some on charcoal grills; others in barrels that had holes poked in them and could be filled with peppers you rotated over a mesquite-wood fire by slowly turning a handle, the tumbling peppers giving off the acrid scent of capsaicin that bit your nostrils. Up here beyond Albuquerque you didn’t get the hottest of the hot. Down south in the Jornada del Muerto the peppers were more fiery. But people still were drawn to the Grange market by the smell that drifted from the whispering cottonwoods along the shallow river across the green gray sage flats toward the mesa lands, and they would buy fresh roasted peppers and come over and pay Angela more than she asked for her apples. She made seven dollars. With that she bought a gallon of orange juice, a loaf of bread, and a half pound of coffee and went home to pick more apples and return to make more money, $9 in the afternoon.

In a few days she had sold so many apples that other apple sellers showed up, so it wasn’t worth it anymore. Another thing taken.  Now she had to decide, no heating oil or no electricity. She paid the electric bill, letting one more thing go: warmth. She asked herself what else she could sell. She decided half her wardrobe and her computer and printer because she still had an electric typewriter. She packed the car tight because she didn’t want to waste gas on two trips to Albuquerque. It was a Squarebacked VW, taxi green, a project car. She’d bought it used twelve years ago, but it still ran, and she’d learned how to work on it herself. Her ex-husband had wanted her to get rid of it as part of buying the house, take out a little extra mortgage and get something new.  He said her junker humiliated him. She told him it didn’t humiliate her. When he was being nice, he said it chugged the way she chugged. When he wasn’t, he said they would have a nice, white stucco house set against a pasture with twenty apple trees on the property yet people would think he had a woman spending time with him who drove the county, making rounds. Doing what, cleaning? she asked. No, not cleaning, he said. She told him he was disgusting.

She consigned the clothes and found a trade/buy computer store off Central Avenue. A dismal place.

The owner was a pimply neat geek in a vest who said, “That piece of shit is worth $400, printer included. I get $200, you get $200.”

She asked, “Who do you sell to?”

He said, “University kids mostly.”

“$300 for me, $100 for you.”

“Okay, sell it yourself.”

This was an Apple machine that had cost $1500 four years ago. Angela took it outside on the sidewalk. When people approached the shop, she said she was selling it.

The owner came out, “No way, lady. You’re raiding my customers.  It’s illegal. Where’s your permit?”

She said if he wanted to go to court, she wouldn’t need a lawyer, he would, because she was a lawyer. He called the cops. They came into two cars and walked at her from either side because the owner had said she was “a kicker.”  At the moment she was involved in a sale. A guy said if they went to his place, and it worked, he’d buy it. She said she would go with him if he gave her $200 up front. The cops asked if she was soliciting for prostitution.

“I’m selling a computer!”

The shop owner lurked in his doorway.  “That’s her cover.  She’s got these horny undergrads all over her.”

The cops didn’t believe him or her. She was in her overalls and wearing an engineer’s cap. If she was a woman in there, you couldn’t see it.

It came to the buyer to speak up. “I came to buy a computer, not a whore.”

She lost it. “Who are you calling a whore? I’ll sue you for slander.”

Things got nasty. There was some kicking. After the cops separated everyone, they checked her I.D and called Rafael Moon to confirm her identity and let him know there’d been a question about the sale of used computer equipment or possibly prostitution. Ended up citing her for conducting business without a license and impounding her computer and printer. She’d receive her notice for a court appearance within ten days. She also spoke to Rafael who said he was extending her suspension another month.

She sat a long time in her VW Squareback looking through her windshield at the lifeless streets of Albuquerque. Something else had been taken from her, more of her good name, more of her time, more of her hopes of paying the mortgage on a house that no longer had heat.

That night, wrapped in her bathrobe as well as her quilt, she felt the long intake of breath that quieted the house before the thunder and lightning storm hit, shaking and crackling the skies and making the house not only creak but sway. She lived near the end of what the hot air balloonists call the Albuquerque Box. The winds could cut either way, out to her from the south or down upon her from the north. These were north winds that had crashed across vast stretches of barren high desert before channeling into the Rio Grande valley.  As the night wore on, it got colder. She went downstairs and used her flashlight to check the apple trees. Frost already? If they didn’t take her back, could she practice on her own or become a public defender? If she did, she knew she would have to rent the house at least for a while or she’d never catch up.

The next morning she walked to Gail’s place bordering the acequia. Gail’s wolf dog Howlie spooked away, presenting no problem—he knew Angela— but Gail’s door was so thick it took time to raise her. A woman in her fifties with thick braids and huge breasts, Gail saw that Angela wasn’t eating or thinking right. She fixed her eggs, juice, coffee and sopapillas. Her  cinderblock place was a dump, the ragged carpets worn thin as dollar bills, the wood-framed windows warped, half broken and half shut, but the furnace was on, and that felt good. All the warm things felt good, including in Angela’s stomach.

She asked if Gail would rent the outbuilding where Howlie slept and Gail kept her picks and shovels and such.

“For what?” Gail asked.

“I might have to rent my own house. I’d need somewhere else.”

“There’s no bathroom, no kitchen. It’s not insulated.”

“You’ve got a wood stove in there.”

“Are things that bad, Angie?”

People in the village stood their ground, Gail too. She collected the overdue acequia fees and did odd job trash removal with her surplus deuce and a half dump truck.  She was saying no, but Angela wasn’t accepting it.

“I just need some breathing room. The divorce and things.”

“Move into my spare bedroom.”

“I couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I need to be alone; it’s just my way.”

Gail wondered how she could make things easy, though as assistant county attorney Angela hadn’t made it easy for a lot of people she knew.

“I feel like they’re taking things away from me,” Angela said. “I need to be where that won’t happen anymore.”

“What would you do with your stuff?”

“Sell it,” Angela said.

“Why not sell the whole house?”

A bolt of anger descended Angela’s spinal cord. “No, whatever happens,  I’ll get it back. I need to save money, live cheap.”

“You’d want to use my kitchen and bathroom.”

These were foul places. The slime of food and human waste lay upon them. Angela did not want to become like Gail. All she wanted was for Gail to be a mountain range that stopped her from blowing away.

“I’ll clean them for rent and anything else you want done.”

“What about Howlie? He sleeps in there. Never comes in here.”

Howlie really was part wolf. See him slithering through the trees, trotting away from you, and you would know it—not just his long legs and mangy coat. Gail’s sign on the fence said: Do Not Ever Look Wolf Dog Straight in the Eyes.

“He can still sleep there.”

“He won’t come if you’re there.”

Angela thought perhaps he would. She thought something about her now would appeal to him. He was a lanky, shifty beast Gail never petted. If she sprawled in the hammock, he might lie down ten feet away, but if she shifted or farted, Howlie disappeared. He had his trails and byways among Gail’s never-tended apple trees, weeds, brambles and vines.

“It just won’t work, Angie,” Gail said.

Angela said, “If you’ll stop calling me Angie, which I don’t like, I’ll make it work.”

Gail laughed and gave in.

Angela posted a sale notice on Craig’s List. People from the South Valley came in pickups and bought everything but her books, which Albuquerque and Rio Rancho people bought. Things moved quickly and pointlessly and uselessly. Who couldn’t live without a curling iron, a spade, a tool set, a Walkman?  A first year law student bought her text books for $30. She sold her backpack for $7, her spinning rod for $5. All she held back were her remaining clothes, the typewriter, the receipt for her impounded computer, her bike, and her Squareback.  Altogether she cleared less than $1,000. Then a man offered her $500 for the Squareback.  She had to hold onto herself, not attack him. He was talking about taking something from her, but he meant to pay for it. This was different, but it felt the same.

“I don’t think I want to sell it living out here,” she said.

“I thought you were renting the house.”

“Yes, but I’m going to live up the road, still in the country.”

“$600,” the man said, silver-bearded, bald, and intent. “I like to fix those old things up. We were all young once. Had one myself.”

Some equation struggled to take shape in her mind.  “Seven,” she said.

“Deal,” he said.

He drove it off, following his wife in a brand new Escalade. What she had left fit easily in the outbuilding where Gail had put a cot as far away as possible from Howlie’s sleeping mat.

For three days Howlie stayed clear. During those days Angela scrubbed Gail’s kitchen and bathroom. During the nights she rolled herself twice in her quilt and wore a wool beanie pulled over her ears and stared at the dying embers in the stove.  She sometimes imagined Howlie slipping in and lunging at her. If he did, she’d pull herself deeper into the quilt, turtle-like and pray for the dog in him to quiet the wolf.

The fourth night Howlie crept in and lay there apparently sleeping, but Angela didn’t think he was sleeping anymore than she was. They were looking at one another in the blood flamed darkness, wide awake.

Gail had an arrangement with the village council. She tramped the dusty paths along the acequia and hammered on deadbeats’ doors, demanding their overdue irrigation tax, keeping half for herself. She said if Angela kept her company, she’d share her half. So the two women spent many glorious blue sky New Mexico days on the dusty trails lacing through the village. The fear of Angela, ostensibly an assistant county attorney, worked wonders. Gail said things like, “Pay or we’ll cement your watergate and your property will dry up and blow away in a year.”  Or, “It’s way overdue, sweetheart, so watch out you don’t end up in jail, right, Angela?”  Angela would say yes, right. Then trash and rubble jobs came up. Angela rode with Gail all over the village and up in Rio Rancho. Gail had piles of questionable scavenge items in the passenger-side footwell of the deuce and a half, but no problem, Angela was short. She just rested her feet on things.

Working in the kitchen, she typed a letter to Rafael Moon, requesting reinstatement. The next day a sheriff’s deputy hand delivered a letter saying not until the court date was set for her citation in Albuquerque. Angela rode her bike to the village library and read the classifieds, looking for work. To do that she had to pass her house. A couple and two boys lived there now. She studied everything for damage and once stopped to clear away a cobweb between the gutter and the garage door. The husband asked what she was doing. She explained. He said he wished she would leave that to him.

“You wrote the contract tight enough I know the house has to be perfect when we leave.”

“You might want to wash the dust off the exterior window sills then,” Angela said.

He turned on the hose and did that, and she knew she should back off. No more citations. In court she was given six months probation, a $200 fine and a restraining order--the street on which the computer store was located was off limits to her. Rafael Moon then wrote her that once her probation was complete, she could return to work. So six more months of this? She didn’t think she could make it.   Howlie came in every night and lay there watching her.

One Saturday morning at breakfast they looked out the kitchen windows, which Angela had repaired and cleaned, and saw a spectacular armada of hot air balloons drifting up the Albuquerque Box. Howlie began howling. The sound was fearsome, yet laced with fear. Every year those resplendent monsters floated up the Rio Grande and their yellows and reds and blues and periodic whooshes of flame sent him all over the property, trying to make sure they didn’t get in.

The pasture lands that backed Angela’s house also backed Gail’s.

“My God, one’s heading right for us,” Gail said.

“That’s never happened before,” Angela said.

“Howlie’s going crazy.”

They walked over to the fence that was only there to keep Howlie in. He was near, but invisible. The balloon was purple and white with black fleurs-de-lis decorating its rippling silk envelope. The basket came down and the balloonists expertly ensured that the envelope settled gracefully on the grasses beside it, light as a smell.

Angela stared at the balloon a long time, enchanted, feeling like a little girl. Gail was happy, too, but Howlie was in a frenzy.  For him the invasion was complete. The skies of New Mexico had been conquered. Now the land was at risk. He didn’t know what to do about it, but clearly he felt that something had been stolen away from him, this fence wasn’t enough, he had to get out, and he did, leaping it and taking off.

Gail and Angela didn’t wait to watch the trailing pickup come get the balloon and its basket. Gail grabbed the deuce and a half and Angela got on her bike. They went all over the low-lying, twisting, sprawling village. No sign of Howlie.  Was he hiding somewhere, under something, in something, quivering and unable to think of his next move?

They didn’t find him. Gail said he would come back. He didn’t come back. Angela thought maybe he would do so at night, but he didn’t, and she took it as a sign. No sleep came her way, either. The final apple had fallen, frightening her, too, with its soft silent descent to earth. Somehow she had to lift herself up and float away.  The next day she took her typewriter up to the kitchen and wrote Rafael Moon a letter, asking if he would give her a good recommendation if she did not return to the country attorney’s office. The reply came hand-delivered fast. Yes, she could count on good references forever. Obviously he never wanted to see her again, and when her ex-husband had served his own six months, things would get worse.  He’d find her. She’d defend herself. Trouble was no one-way street.

She made arrangements to sell her house and cleared $21,000. With that she went to the man who had bought her Squareback and found that he had reupholstered and repainted it.  He didn’t want to sell, but his wife saw a chance to influence things in the garage where the old man kept her banned. She did this from the doorway to the kitchen, helping Angela turn him around.

As a last protest, he asked, “I mean, if you’re not a collector-restorer like me, what do you want it for?”

Angela gave him what would pass for a yellowish look if she were a wolf dog and said it  was time for her to move on and start over somewhere else. Maybe Colorado. $3900 was the price.

That afternoon she packed the car and then spent her last night with Gail in the kitchen. They drank too much wine.

Gail said she would probably go back to living like a bum. “And you’ll get a job and live in a nice place and have the sterile, boring life you’ve always wanted. No one fucking it up. Throwing six guys in jail every week.”

This was said with both humor and anger, which Angela noted.

“No, I think I’ll drift,” she said. “I’ll be just like a balloon but never come down.”

Gail snickered. “Wonder if Howlie will come back when you’re gone. You plus the balloon were just too much for him.”

Angela stumbled to the outbuilding and wrapped herself up. She could smell the wine on her breath because she was tucked so deep in her quilt, and then she began smelling another foul, stinking breath on the other side of the shack. He was there. She knew he was there, over in the darkest corner.  Take me, she thought he was telling her. I know you’re going, and that’s what I need, too.

As the sun crested the Sandias, its light penetrating the shack’s cracked and shrunken boards, the woman and the wolf dog stared at one another, seeing each other clearly now.  She moved very carefully, not approaching him, putting her few things in the Squareback but leaving room for him if he wanted to jump in.  Then she peed in the weeds and he came out and peed in the weeds and the two of them remained stock still a long time until he ambled over and sniffed the Squareback’s bumper and leaped in and lay down and she closed the rear hatch.  That’s where he stayed as she drove past what once had been her house, her apple trees, her life.bluestar

 

This work first appeared in The Literary Review.


Author Robert Earle's last three post in government were Senior Advisor to the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Counselor to the Director of National Intelligence, and Counselor to the Deputy Secretary of State. He is the author of Nights in the Pink Motel (Naval Institute Press), a reflection on his year in Iraq, and The Man Clothed in Linen: Messiah or Son of Herod? (Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and other e-book vendors), a novel about Jesus, the Jews, and the Romans. He has published many short stories in literary magazines across the U.S.

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