I SWORE I wouldn’t come back here this summer, not to Mrs. Wardwell’s foghorn voice and blisters the size of nickels. But when I went down to Gaudreau’s Take-Out on the last day of school and asked for an application, you know what Mr. Gaudreau said? “Sorry, honey pie, this is a family business.” Honey pie? Hell, I could sling Rocky Road faster than his girls, and I’d always offer jimmies. They’re wicked tight with jimmies at Gaudreau’s.
Anyway, it’s Friday, July 28, opening day of wild blueberry season all across eastern Maine, and my sister Mags and I are back in the barrens for the harvest. The sun looks swollen and hazy, but I’ll be all right as long as I’ve got my straw cowgirl hat and my SPF 50.
I’m raking circles around Mags. I’ve filled thirty-two boxes of berries and we’ve only been at it since seven a.m. I meet her eyes and grin. She scratches her cheek with her middle finger, slow. Pretending I want a drink of water from our gallon jug, I walk by and goose her, making her gasp, “Darcy Prentiss! God!”
Our cousin Nell is raking way over by the stone wall, but she knows what happened and her giggles echo across the fields. Soon Nell will start singing, which she does day in, day out, all season long, driving most of us crazy by quitting time. Still, Nell’s special, so when she bursts into “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” nobody tells her to shut up.
Raking goes like this: you bend at the knees and sweep a two-handled rake across the low bushes, filling the tines with berries. When your rake’s full, you dump it into a big plastic box stamped E. F. Danforth & Son. When the box is full, you open another one.
I don’t notice Nell racing across the rocky field toward me until she’s by my side, breathless. “He’s here. That Jesse Bouchard.” As we watch the pickup rumbling up the dirt road, she adds, “He’s late.” Even though she’s eighteen, in a lot of ways, Nell’s like a kid; I guess you could call her a little slow. As my aunt Libby likes to say to Mom, “At least I don’t got to worry about what my girl’s been up to.” Then she looks straight at me.
Jesse Bouchard parks his truck, and he and his buddies take their sweet time climbing out. Mr. Bob Wardwell, who’s field boss, goes over to bawl Jesse out, but before you know it, they’re laughing and shooting the shit like old buddies. Jesse’s gaze finds me and I look away, putting a hand to my hat even though there’s no wind today.
“Let’s move before he tries talking to us.” Nell tugs my arm.
I shake her off. “Get back in your row or I’ll tell your mom you were slacking.”
Jesse makes his way over, wearing worn-out jeans and a white T-shirt, putting me in mind of that old picture of Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Mom’s vintage vinyl album. You know, with those dark curls and that sexy stare? All he says to me now is, “Nice to see ya,” while giving me the slow once-over, reminding me of all the places where my tank top is clinging with sweat.
His buddy Mason Howe follows—a big, blond, slow-moving guy who always seems to have his hands in his pockets—and behind him is the one person I was hoping to dodge for the rest of the summer. Shea Gaines flicks the brim of his ball cap, one corner of his mouth quirking up like somebody just told a dirty joke and the punch line was me. “Look who’s here,” is all he says.
His anger shifts under that sure-footed cocky act of his, and I breathe out, holding his gaze as he passes on by. Mags and Nell move in on my left and right until we form a wall. Mags wipes her sweaty brow and says, “What’s up his butt?”
I shrug. “Tell you later.”
I fill ten more boxes before Mr. Wardwell blasts his truck horn three times, signaling all one hundred and fifty or so of us rakers to come up to headquarters (where the Porta-Johns are) for an earful. Mags and Nell and I sit in the grass together, scarfing down our lunches, chugging water, and baking in the noonday heat as we get ready for Mrs. Evelyn Wardwell’s Jackassing-Around speech.
She squats in her camping chair, a two-liter of diet soda at her feet, eyeballing us. She’s huge, 275 easy, and the sleeveless flowered shirt she wears looks like it could cover a love seat and leave a few yards to spare. Her husband kind of fades into the background as she heaves herself up and stands with her head thrust forward, fists on hips.
“Listen up. We got a lotta berries out there this year.” It’s true; it was a rainy spring and now the barrens are green and fit to burst. “Next two weeks, I wanna see asses and elbows, everybody showing up on time”—her gaze finds Jesse, Shea, and Mason—“nobody cutting out early. No jackassing around. We don’t pay you to jackass around. I catch you at it, you’re outta here. I know plenty of folks who want to make some money. And don’t come to me saying so-and-so is paying more in their fields than we do. You get two-fifty a box here and that’s it.”
I sneak a look at Jesse. He sits with his forearms resting on his bent knees, and my gaze follows the line of his muscles all the way down to his wrists. You get ripped like that from tossing bales into a hay truck and thrashing down weeds to clear pasture, which he’s been doing over at his uncle’s place since he graduated in May, so I heard.
Shea catches me looking. He leans over and whispers something to Jesse, then smiles at me, hard and scalding. He’s not just mad at me; he’s ready to draw blood, and I turn away, a flush rising in my face as Mrs. Wardwell keeps going.
“This ain’t gonna be like last year. None of that foolishness is gonna happen again. Understand me?” We all stop fidgeting. “Nobody’s allowed on this property after quitting time except me, Bob, and the migrants staying in the cabins. I’ll be here to see that the rest of you clear out. Get a ride or hoof it into town, I don’t care which. I can’t be responsible for what goes on after hours, got it?”
Everybody nods, us locals giving the migrant workers the once-over and the migrants looking right back to show they’ve got nothing to hide. Got to give the Wardwells credit: one of the posters, tattered and faded, is still taped to their camper door. Even twelve months later, the word Missing stands out.
“Awright. Finish up eating and get back to work.” She drops into her chair, which is right outside the camper doorway so she can sit in the shade of the awning and prop an electric fan on the steps.
We get back to raking, but Mags and I don’t joke around like before, and Nell’s soft, flat crooning blends with the droning bugs and the sound of distant traffic from Route 15. Clouds move in. Rain’s coming.
After I load my last box of berries onto Mr. Wardwell’s flatbed, he walks around the tailgate, smacking his gloves together. He’s about half the size of his wife, with a thick head of white hair and skin so weathered it looks like old saddle leather. “You’re Sarah Prentiss’s girls, ain’t ya?” We all nod; Nell’s close enough to a sister. He grunts, scratching his stubble. “You heard what Evelyn said about being careful?”
I don’t remember her saying that, exactly, but Mags nods. “It’s okay. We stick together.”
“Good deal.” He heads for the truck. People are worried these days. Worried the ground’s going to open up and swallow another Sasanoa girl.
Exhausted and aching, the three of us walk down the road to Mags’s beat-to-hell Mazda. A group of guys hang around Jesse’s truck, talking trash. As we pass, Shea calls, “See ya at the quarry tonight, Darcy?” to big laughs.
I don’t stop or turn around, but once we’re in the car, I kick the dash so hard it sends the little hula girl into fits. Mags wears her know-it-all look, and the only reason she bites her tongue is because Nell’s in the backseat. But this time, Mags doesn’t know it all. She doesn’t know a damn thing.
Mags shifts hard into drive and we raise a rooster tail of dust behind us. Overhead, the sky looks ready to open up any second.