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Authors: William Humphrey

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BOOK: September Song
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“Father, you are becoming more shameful by the moment. You're proposing a husband for your daughter on the grounds that he's not too bright. And he's supposed to be a friend of yours!”

“Listen. Marry Pete and I'll leave everything to you. Everything. Your sisters don't need it. Their husbands have got the most secure jobs in the world. People are going to go on dying and trying to get to heaven for the foreseeable future.”

“Father! I will not be a party to robbing my sisters of their inheritance.”

“You always were my favorite. You know that.”

A silence fell. Between father and daughter passed a perception. It was as though he were wooing her for himself.

“I know nothing of the sort. And I don't want to hear it. How can I face my sisters? If I'm your favorite now it's because I'm the one still unmarried. Do you realize what you are doing and what it makes you? You are tempting me with the apple.”

“Millions of them! Millions! Tell me, what have you got against Pete?”

“Nothing. I've got nothing against Pete. I like him. But I don't love him. He's supposed to be a friend of yours. Would you want your friend to marry a woman who didn't love him? I like Pete too much to wish that on him. What is more, I have no reason to think he loves me. Or anybody else, for that matter. Pete doesn't know what love is.”

“He respects you.”

“Once and for all, Father, I will never marry a man I do not love. Did you have me only so I could carry on this farm?”

“It's been in our family, yours and mine, for four generations.”

“That's long enough. Time for a change.”

“That does it! Now you listen to your father, young lady.”

“Listen to your daughter, old man. You are forgetting that you are my father.”

“Marry Pete, and everything will be yours. Marry this what's-his-name—”

“Rodney. Rodney Evans. And I will soon be Mrs. Rodney Evans.”

“—and I will leave everything to be divided between your sisters.”

“You're no father, you're … you're a breeder. A stockbreeder.”

He fell silent, struck by a truth in what she had said. A twist to it of which she herself was unaware, and the difference in their outlooks made him feel the difference in their ages, the gap between the generations, made him feel that indeed he was not the father of his children—or rather, that they were not the children of their father. Yes, he had “bred” them with a career for them in mind, as he had been bred. He had given them life, that was to say, he had passed on to them the life passed on to him. He had housed them, fed them, clothed them, educated them, nursed them. Yet it was not he alone who had done that. He had been a link in the chain. Fruit from trees set out by their grandparents had paid their bills. Did they owe nothing to those who had worked and worried and denied themselves and put aside for their unborn offspring? Were they now free to do just as they pleased, mate to their fancy, outside the strain, without consideration for their forebears? He had expected that their long-lineaged genes would shape and guide them. They thought the world began with themselves. For him the world was ending with himself.

“Father,” she said, in a different, a reflective tone, “you ought to have traveled. Seen something of the world. Then you wouldn't think that the sun rises and sets over this farm of yours.”

How he hated it when people, especially young whipper-snappers, told him what he should do or should have done!

“To have one spot of earth that is all the world to him—that is what I call a fortunate man. That it costs him work and worry now and then makes it all the dearer.”

“What reward has it brought you?”

“Independence! I have been my own man.”

“Independence! You've been a slave. Ten thousand masters you've got. You belong to those trees. They don't even let you sleep.”

It was always hard work; chainsaws and tractors made it dangerous work. Throughout the growing season you were often out on the sprayer all night long, and the chemicals were hazardous to your health: to your lungs, your eyes, your skin. When it came to spraying you were damned if you did and damned if you didn't. The insects and the fungi could blight and canker your fruit, but the chemicals that poisoned them also poisoned the birds that ate them. Worse by far, the chemicals killed the bees upon which your whole operation depended, without which your blossoms went unpollinated. It was not like that in the original Garden of Eden. Those gates at which the flaming sword would be set kept out the bugs. The Hudson Valley lay east of Eden—though in the spring you would have thought it was Paradise regained.

There was no season of rest. Harvest-time did not bring months by the fireside in your carpet slippers. Pruning—a never-ending job—was done in the depth of winter, mowing at the height of summer; you shivered and you sweltered. The trees of each variety ripened separately; you were at it sixteen hours a day. The apples must be sorted, graded, packed, shipped. The “drops” must be gathered from the ground and sent to the cider mill. You might find that before you had time to wrap the trunks to protect them, the deer had eaten the bark of your saplings and killed them. Five minutes of hail or six months of drought—hard to say which was the longer to live through—and your crop was gone.

But with the pickers in the trees singing like birds—if birds could warble words—and shouting jokes to one another, and with that red river of ripe fruit flowing along the conveyor belt—was it
who grew all that? Construction workers on skyscraper girders, tugboat crews, road-menders, assembly-line workers, schoolchildren from here to California would polish off lunch with one of your apples.

Meanwhile, sure, like farmers everywhere, he pore-mouthed. Once when he was inveighing against his hardships one of those sons-in-law of his commiserated with him by saying he couldn't understand why anybody in his right mind would go in for it.

“You're not in your right mind!” he said proudly. “You don't ‘go in for' it. You're born to it. It's in your blood.”

His worst year was to have been his best. The weather was balmy. With the warming of the days, like popcorn in a pan, first a few blossoms, then more, then in a burst the trees whitened. The air was drowsy with the buzz of bees. Though the days were warm, the nights were cool: the prescription for growing. The rain was regulated as though by the Department of Agriculture. He was encouraged by these conditions to work harder than he had ever worked before. The trees sagged with fruit. Incandescent as Christmas trees they were in the glow of the setting sun when he went out to inspect his ripening crop. Money didn't grow on trees? Who said? When they were apple trees it did! It almost restored his long-lost faith, at least for a season. God was in His heaven and all was right with the world, quoted Ellen, the Vassar College English major who would in time marry the mealy-mouthed minister. He suspected that God was out of His heaven, leaving some sleepy subordinate to mind the store. Only then would orchardmen have such luck.

The days when school was let out and whole families came to pick apples, bringing a picnic lunch with them (he supplied the iced tubs of beer and soda) were a thing of the past. Now labor contractors went to Florida, Jamaica, the Bahamas and signed up migrant gangs. The farmer housed them in trailer camps or in area motels. They chattered incessantly as they worked. Listening to them was like getting hard of hearing: it was English they were speaking, you knew it was, yet you could not make out the words. But it was musical. They were as noisy in the trees as nesting wrens and just as merry. Last year his pickers had been Jamaicans and so they would be again this year.

The fruit was almost ripe for picking when the state legislature, under pressure from labor unions, passed a measure requiring aliens to obtain work permits, and making it impossible for them to do so.

He watched his finest crop go unpicked, fall to the ground and rot.

“What do you think—life is a picnic?” he said. “Think I would sooner have had it soft? Sit in a bank making loans to people? Sell their houses out from under them? Brokers in heartbreak! I've fed people. And more than that. Not just staple food. Joyful food. What children love to steal. There's satisfaction in that. No, it hasn't always been easy. But man must eat his bread in the sweat of his face.”

“Father, remember how that curse came upon us?”

Going once

Going twice

He was like an auctioneer egging on two competing bidders.

Except that one, Janet, was not competing.




It was the commission he would earn on the sale of the Bennett farm that put Rodney Evans in a position to propose marriage. So, with a sense of the fitness of it which he expected him to share, he informed his future father-in-law. This commission was staying in the family.

The terms of the sale left them with a lifehold on the house and five acres right around it. At once, even before the clearing of it began, his former land, the land of his family, was like a lake surrounding his little island. Just so he felt himself cut off from his neighbors, his former friends. The very trees, now awaiting execution, the trees whose pruning he had overseen as watchfully as a mother the barbering of her brood, reproached him for his treachery—or would have if he had ventured among them.

On the morning a week after the closing they were awakened by noises as if war had broken out all around them: bursts of machine-gun fire, the rumble of tanks. Although expected, it still came as a shock, and they clung to each other, frightened by this upheaval in their lives. The temptation was to pull the covers over their heads and stay in bed, but drawn by a contrary curiosity he dressed and went outdoors.

Men with chainsaws were in the trees as pruners had once been, only these were not just trimming out the unwanted suckers, they were lopping off all the limbs. Above one pile hovered a pair of songbirds protesting the destruction of their nest with its eggs. Already half a dozen trees had been topped, leaving a row of stumps three feet tall.

Now the bulldozer was brought on. It lumbered up to a stump, lowering its blade like a buck his antlers to engage a rival. For a minute the contest was a stand-off. The tree resisted, clung to its hold. Then as though in mounting rage the engine growled deeper and deeper as the operator summoned up its lowermost gears. Its treads dug into the ground. The tree yielded, toppled, its roots tore loose and surfaced. One after another the stumps were attacked. Then they and their limbs were pushed into a pile. The holes left looked like bomb craters. The pile was doused with kerosene and set afire. Being green, the wood smoked thickly. Soon the scene was like one of those days when fog from off the River blanketed the Valley.

It was not that he had never before seen an apple tree uprooted, even whole sections of the orchard. Space was valuable, spray and fertilizer expensive, and when trees became old and unproductive they had to be culled out. But they were replaced with young stock.

And so, although their working days were over and they might have slept late now, they were up as early as before, awakened by the roar of the bulldozers and the snarl of the chainsaws on all sides of them. It was as though they were surrounded by packs of lions and tigers prowling from dawn to dusk.

Up and down the roads all around he went on his motorcycle, calling on his neighbors. His message to them was, “I tried to sell it as a going farm, keep it together like it's always been. It was advertised that way in the paper for months, and that paper is read the length and breadth of the Valley. The real estate agent shared the listing with other agents in six counties. My family has farmed it for four generations and I was ready to sell it for a lot less if only it could be kept intact. Not an offer did I get. Not a prospect. I don't know what the world is coming to when nobody wants to farm anymore.

“I never expected it would come to this. I expected my daughters to marry farmers and carry on as always before. Out of three, one at least one would. But those girls of mine all fell far from the tree. How it hurts me to have to say that!

“Put yourself in my place. I planted those trees. I fertilized them. I protected them against their enemies. Whenever the radio warned of an invasion of insects or mold, I was up with them all night like a father with a sick child. Only I had ten thousand children to nurse. To see them being uprooted breaks my old heart.”

You can cry all the way to the bank
: those who did not say that to his face looked it.

“Believe me, it's not the money,” he said. “The money means nothing to me. What's money at my time of life?” This was the point on which he was most anxious to be believed.

Then their looks said:
What kind of a fool do you take me for?

He was ruining life for everybody. A housing development next door, hundreds more cars on the roads, snowmobiles, the whine of lawnmowers, barking dogs, the summer-evening air smelling like Burger King was not what Eugene Crockett had in mind in retiring to the country from the city, restoring his antique farmhouse, trimming his woodlots, landscaping his grounds, planting lawns and keeping them like billiard tables. Bob Johnson was saddened by the loss of his old hunting grounds. “What trophies came out of those orchards of yours! Well, that's the way the world is going. It's progress, I suppose. Can't stand in the way of it.” Progress: the dirtiest word in his vocabulary! Howard Simms said, “Well, Seth, you won't have to be out on that tractor at all hours of the night anymore.” But out on that tractor was where he wanted to be. It was what he was. Or had been.

Ed Smith asked how much it had cost him.

“How much did what cost me?”

“Seth, you and me have lived here all our lives. We both know how things get done. How much did that zoning variance cost you? Under the table.”

BOOK: September Song
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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