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The Picker Boy

by Jeffrey Greene

part 1

The new patient, Leslie Newbridge, had not taken Dr. Reisz’s outstretched hand; she merely pantomimed a handshake and offered an apologetic shrug. They sat down, he behind his large desk and she, in one of the padded straight-back chairs facing him. The distance between them, he noted, seemed to reassure her.

Their conversation was interrupted several times in the next hour by her trips to his office bathroom. Each time, she would emerge by pushing the door open with her shoulder, holding her hands in the air as if air-drying them, although they didn’t appear to be wet.

“Sorry,” she said, after the first time, “it’s that old black magic.”

“Was it early or late-onset OCD?” he asked. “For some reason, your chart doesn’t specify.”

“Late. When I was sixteen. May 11, 1968. No other symptoms besides washing my hands fifty times a day. As you can see, it’s ruined them.”

“Your chart indicates no family history of abuse, neglect, or mental illness. In fact, you once described your girlhood as — let me see — ‘a glass of warm milk spiked with a teaspoon of gin’.”

Her smile excluded her gaze, which was both direct and abstracted. “My maternal grandfather housed with us for the thirteen years he had left to live,” she said. “Polite, sentimental old boy, who’d gambled away his nest egg, lost his house, and was taken in by his oldest daughter, my mother. He read only mysteries, smoked a pipe, and drank his ‘cocktail’ — a glass of straight gin — every afternoon in his smoke-filled bedroom. I liked him for minding his own business, and because he never insisted on hugging his grandchildren.”

“You’re sixty-four now,” Reisz said. “Forty-eight years is a long time to remember the precise date when you developed obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s usually a more gradual, insidious process. From a bothersome habit to complete fixation — in your case — on hand-washing. Can you explain that?”

“I’ve come here to try,” Ms. Newbridge replied, her mouth-only smile making a brief appearance. “But I should tell you that you’re the fifth in a series of medicine men I’ve seen over the years, all paid for by my now-ancient parents who, despite my best efforts to convince them otherwise, continue to blame themselves for my condition. My parents could no more have prevented it than you can cure it.”

She lowered her head, shook it in self-disgust. “Forgive me. I was determined not to sling insults this time around. The answer to your question is yes. I know the year, day and hour that I acquired my mental defect. The reason why I know and why I haven’t told anyone — and I mean no one, ever — is a quite normal aversion to being disbelieved. But as you pointed out, doctor, I’m getting on now, a cranky old maid, and care a great deal less than I used to whether you find me credible or delusional. So yes, I think I will tell you. My little secret has been battening on me like a parasite twin that, by now, almost outweighs me. But first...” She shrugged another apology, held up her hands once again and disappeared into the washroom.

“Would you object to my recording our conversation?” he asked, when she sat down.

“Yes, I would. Very much.”

He turned off the digital recorder.

“I grew up in Polk County, Florida,” she began, settling back in her chair and looking at the ceiling in a mocking parody of reminiscence. “The Lakeland Highlands was a new neighborhood when we moved the twelve miles north from Bartow in 1966. Half-acre lots had been carved out of older orange and grapefruit groves, all of them still productive. We had seven orange trees and four grapefruit trees, an embarrassment of citrus.

“Our four-bedroom, split-level home had been built to order by a contractor for what many people pay for a car nowadays and was a big step up for us. My father bought a long-poled grab basket to pick the high fruit, and Dean, my older brother, could fill a bucket with oranges in a few minutes, so we always had a gallon of freshly-squeezed juice in the refrigerator.

“But eleven trees produce many more bushels than even a huge family can use, and we were only five, counting my grandfather. Much fruit would end up on the ground, and Dean would be tasked with gathering the still-good ones and leaving the green moldy fruit where it lay. I have many fond memories of Florida, but one thing I’ve never missed is the smell of puréed rotten oranges and freshly cut grass during Dean’s weekly mowing chore.

“The solution to all that wasted fruit, we soon discovered, was the pickers. In late April or early May, they would come through the neighborhood soliciting work, large families of migrant workers with a flatbed truck and an offer to pay us about forty dollars to pick the trees clean, which they’d sell to the frozen citrus juice plant in Highland City. My father would ask them to pick everything but the Valencia tree and one Duncan grapefruit tree.

“This was many years before workers from Mexico and points south predominated in Florida agriculture, and the picker family that I remember best was probably of Scots-Irish extraction. The whole family worked, and they were fast and well-organized, and would be loaded up and ready to leave by the end of the day. I don’t think names were ever exchanged. They probably made better money picking unwanted fruit from neighborhoods like ours than filling huge wooden boxes for the big grove owners at ten bucks a box, and they did have their own truck, but then as now, migrants did the the hardest work for the lowest pay, always moving on to the next state, the next harvest.

“What I’m going to tell you happened on a Saturday. I wasn’t home when the pickers came. The father always just showed up at the front door one morning and was hired on the spot. I was supposed to be at the public library, doing research for a history paper. Instead, I was hanging out with my new friends and still finding my place in the group, smoking pot at Banana Lake while standing around Jay Duggans’s big Chevrolet in a sandy clearing dotted with fire ant beds, trying not to get stung, the car hidden by the high weeds and cattails bordering hyacinth-choked shallows.

“When they dropped me off at my house around three that afternoon, the pickers had already been working for several hours. I’d only recently begun smoking dope and was very stoned, wearing big wraparound sunglasses over those godawful tear-drop glasses we wore in the sixties. I was trying to hide my red eyes, though at least I’d had sense enough to stay away from the beers everyone else had been downing pretty freely. I paused in the driveway to gawk at the truck parked on the street. Its wooden bed was more than half-loaded with crates of oranges and grapefruit.

“The only citrus trees in the front yard were two white Duncan grapefruit trees, and there was a heavy wooden ladder leaning against the one nearest the mailbox. My bleary gaze wandered up its length to find a boy within three rungs of the top, a good twenty feet off the ground, leaning, it seemed to me, dangerously far into the crown of the tree to nab a yellow cluster with his work-gloved hands, then strip and drop them into his long shoulder bag.

“He was about my age, maybe a year older, very lean and tall, wearing dirty jeans, work boots, a heavy, long-sleeved work shirt, and a wide-brimmed straw hat. At first, I was too stoned to realize that I was staring, but he quickly noticed me. His thin, dirty, sun-browned face seemed rather surprised. Then he flashed a broad, if close-mouthed smile — probably to hide his bad teeth, was my first, ungenerous thought — offered a friendly nod, and without giving me time to acknowledge his greeting, turned back to his work. I was all but silenced by the weed, and too flustered even to return the nod, so I hurried up the front walk and hid myself in the house.

“You wouldn’t think, seeing me now, that by eighteen I had blossomed into a pretty girl. But at sixteen, I was a mousy, spectacled adolescent, eaten up with self-loathing. Under almost any boy’s even casual stare, I would duck my round little head into my shoulders and retreat behind the middle-parted curtains of my thick brown hair, futilely trying to hide my mildly pimpled face from view, judging the whole thing either as a misinterpretation on my part or some cruel joke in the making.

“Even the harmless flirting — which is what I initially and quite wrongly thought it was — of a migrant worker whom I would never see again was enough to unleash all the self-inflicted torment of which girls at that age are capable.

“From the refuge of my bedroom, a Beatles record blaring, I would sneak glances at the boy in the tree through the blinds, trying to find enough fault in his appearance and station in life to nullify my guilty interest. Torn between writing a paper due in three days and spying on the picker boy, I found that the music had become the soundtrack for my absurd fantasies.

“I dared another furtive peek, and was shocked to find that he’d moved the ladder around to the other side of the tree and was now facing me. In my altered state, it seemed that he was staring right through the blinds with a knowing smile. It was hard to get a good look at him, his face was so shaded by his big straw hat, but I could tell that he was handsome in a different way than the boys at school: his wiry, angular frame and hard-cheekboned face, however grimy and roughened by the outdoor life he led, so much more lived-in than my soft-skinned classmates.

“I knew later, if not then, that my almost instant crush on a fruit picker was sanctioned by its impossibility. I was safe from the humiliation of rejection and, because we would probably never see each other again, I was free to imagine myself haughtily rejecting his hat-in-hand advances. Up to that point in my life, imaginary romances, or anti-romances, were all I had.

“After two hours holed up in my room, I felt straight enough to make an appearance before my parents. My father, an amateur carpenter, was working in his shop in the garage, and my mother, a high-school English teacher, was grading papers. My grandfather was, as usual, in his room, reading and/or drinking, and my brother was practicing guitar in his room. It was around five by now, and my mother would soon begin cooking dinner.

“I went out on the back porch and, somewhat shielded by the screens, watched the picker family methodically strip the trees bare of fruit. I can’t seem to recall their faces in any detail, just their constantly moving bodies, all clothed in the same protective jeans or work pants, long-sleeved shirts, hats and gloves. The three children, probably ranging in age from around eight to maybe twelve, were stooping to pick up the fallen fruit, the mother, a stocky woman in her forties, using a long-handled grab hook to dislodge the higher stuff, and the father, a burly, grim-faced man with a several-day beard, was bruising his shins up on the ladder while he filled his shoulder bag.

“I returned to my room, reluctantly sat at my desk and stared at a blank yellow legal pad for awhile, waiting for a first sentence to suggest itself. I stayed that way, tied up in knots, for another hour or more, determined to keep away from the window. In that time, I crossed out half a dozen opening paragraphs, then gave it up for the day.

“When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I sneaked a peek through the blinds, and was surprised to find that the five other members of the family were all in the front yard now, busily stripping the two grapefruit trees. But there was no sign of my picker boy. I went downstairs and looked through the sliding door leading to the porch, but couldn’t see him among the trees, and assumed he was in one of the side yards. It didn’t matter, I told myself; he was here to pick citrus, not to smile at me. So I went back to my room and didn’t come out until my mother called me down to set the table for dinner.

“The pickers were loaded up and ready to go just before my mother asked me to gather the family for dinner. Looking out of the picture window in the living room, I watched them load up their equipment. The family was grouped in front of the truck, the father swigging water from a canteen, the three children sitting in the grass, and the mother leaning against the driver’s side door, smoking a cigarette, her shoulders slumped with exhaustion.

“But the older boy wasn’t there. A minute or so later the doorbell rang and I answered it, and the father, whose seamed, sweaty face held the day’s dirt in every line and fold, asked to speak to my father. I asked him to wait, then went to the garage and told my father. When he went upstairs to meet him, I went to the back porch and stepped outside. I walked around the north side of the house, where we kept the garbage cans, found no one, and came back.

“The porch had been a patio turned into a screened-in space by my father shortly after we moved in, and it jutted out about fifteen feet from the back of the house. On the south side — hidden from view if one were standing just outside the porch door, as I happened to be at that moment — there was a faucet with a hose attached. I heard it running, walked around to that side and saw the boy I’d seen earlier, facing me but leaning over and running water over his head, arms and hands. I experienced an unsettling feeling both of relief that he hadn’t left yet and the fear that I might not be able to back away and scurry into the house before he saw me.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene

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