April 27, 2010

Left at the intersection

There's an intersection on the other side of that forest, one that you might miss if you kept the sedan in neutral and let it glide down the slope like water from a flume. It's a canal of tall pines until the sky opens up at the edge of a steep dip in the road, sagging into a four way crossroads of gray, gravely asphalt. No stop sign if you come through the woods on that side, the only side we did; the three millionth time passed was the first time I saw anything stopped there, to the left. It was an old red tractor with an old farmer on its back, squeaking the metal seat, big wad of tobacco in his lip. He waved as we passed at lightning speed. They all wave up there, the phantom residents of the eastern mountains.

The day my mother turned left at that intersection, we took our noses out of books and games, leaving the usual up and through for a slow descent along a cragged and broken road which eventually gave way to dirt. You couldn't see much more than in that corridor of pines before and through the crossroads, just the tops of tall corn stalks in late summer. Down about five miles the road wound up into a cul-de-sac I guess you could call it, a dead end in the corn field, choppy and overrun like the roadbuilders had given up or the field itself drew the line.

Mom pointed to a break in the rows of crops and stepped out of the car, waving us over to a little sign that had a bright arrow painted on it, staked into the gravel on the boundary of road and field. The break gave way to a path, which seemed to snake all the way up to the white farmhouse on the ridge sitting neatly between two dark patches of forest. It was quiet except for the irregular pace of my little sister and her constant giggling.

We walked for about ten minutes or so and came to a clearing left of the path with a brick red slatted shed, roof falling in. There were several bins and a long table in front of the old building, full of produce of all kinds, melons and corn and tomatoes and even some little green baskets of berries. I looked around for an attendant of some kind, looked back at the house on the hill. Nothing, no one.

"This is weird," I said, scratching my arm.

"Is not," said mom, frowning. "What's weird about it?"

"Dunno. Just weird. Where's the guy selling these?"

"Around, I'm sure," said mom. "They're more trusting up here, son. Some of that should rub off on some of the jerks we live with back home." She looked up, nodding to a wooden box nailed to the front of the shed. There was a thin slot coarsely carved into the hinged lid and a padlock hanging from a metal loop. "See? You put your money there."

While she hefted and turned the produce, I chased my sister away from the old shed, taking a turn to peer inside. There was nothing but rotting wood and some dirty shards of glass on the floor, fallen panes from the empty windows.

"Take this and put it in the box for your mother," mom called over. Sis was holding a full plastic bag of corn in front of her with both hands. Mom handed me a fold of bills between two fingers, extended as far as she could under the two big brown bags she cradled.

I took the money and hopped over to the box, standing on my toes to look in. It was dark, but the slot was poorly carved, wide enough for my hand to fit, maybe even pinch a couple of the scattered notes in the bottom. I checked behind me; mom was tying Sissy's shoes, admonishing her quietly while Sissy continued to giggle.

It was easy to reach in and touch the tops. I could feel the paper crinkle, just a little more leverage and I'd have a good grip. I kicked over a loose board, stepped up on it as close to the box as I could and happened to glance up the hill between the dark patches of trees to the little white farmhouse. There, on the dirt road in front of the house sat an old red tractor. An old man in dirty blue jeans was clambering down from it, placing his right foot first in the dirt, trying to stay steady. I yanked my hands from the box and tossed in the money that mom gave me, frozen, waiting for him to turn and yell down the hill.

The old man took his hands from the side of the tractor and brushed off his shirt casually. He nodded at me and waved slowly. All I could do was stare at him, standing stiff on front of the box, trying to breathe.

"See, I told you someone was around. Nice that he came around to say thanks like that, isn't it?" said mom. "What are you doing? Stop being weird and take one of these bags."

We took another left at the intersection heading back, putting us on the normal sweeping route along the gray asphalt through the pines. At the park by the river we ate strawberries and melon after our tuna sandwiches and potato chips and spent the wearing afternoon shoeless along the shore. We hauled our junk back to the car as the sun fell behind the trees. A man in waders stuffed his fishing equipment into the back of an old Ford, the only other car in the lot. I waved at him before hopping into the backseat, thwarted by Sis in the front.

"Beautiful night, isn't it?" I said.

"It is indeed," said the fisherman, tipping his hat. "You folks have a nice evening."

Mom had a wide smile on her face, craning her head to watch me in the rear view.

I buckled up. "What?"

"Just good to see it rubbing off," she said.

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