The view from the back porch was spectacular. White blossoms covered every single tree, looking like giant marshmallows clustered on strong, brown arms. Morning spring rains had freshened the air, releasing the sweet flowery scent and dampening the ground, feeding thirsty roots.
Marta smiled as she imagined how proud her husband would be, if only he was still alive. Burt would have stood there and counted the crop, taking careful note of how many individual apples creating how many bushels, which then generated how much income compared to cost. He had been good at this, thanks to time spent as a young child following his father around the fields.
After his parents’ deaths, as sole heir, the orchard became Burt’s, which although it was not the career he wanted, he carried on, understanding the importance of tradition. When they married several years after Burt took over, Marta understood that they would live the rest of their lives on the farm and that she would work by her husband’s side, caring for the trees.
And children. All the children they would have that would dash up and down the rows chasing butterflies and giggling until their sides hurt. But they were never blessed with children. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Their doctor offered no logical explanation, so eventually they quit dreaming of little ones pulling off ripe apples and devouring them on the spot.
Normally this was a busy time of year. Burt would walk up and down the rows, cutting off suckers that sprung up along the bases of the trees. He’d plow furrows down the middle, creating natural basins for the spring rains.
The problem is that Burt had fallen off a ladder in the fall when he reached too far to trim a wildly growing branch, the ladder had tipped, and his back had been broken. Mercifully for Marta, he didn’t die immediately. When he didn’t show for dinner, she went looking for him and found him in the dirt, the ladder on top, unable to move or speak.
She held his hand and kissed his sweaty forehead, crooning words she thought Burt needed to hear: “I love you” and “It will be fine” and “Don’t worry.” After all that, as she bent to kiss his cheek, he closed his eyes and quietly passed away.
The farm was hers now. The neighbors had offered to buy the land, but she said no. Townsfolk told her she’d never be able to keep up, all by herself, and encouraged her to sell, but she refused. Her brother in Minnesota called her a fool for not taking the money and moving into a nice, new condo in town, but she hung up on him. And her last living aunt laughed when Marta insisted she could manage on her own.
And now, standing under the porch roof, looking out at all the blooming trees, Marta wondered, for the first time, if she had made a huge mistake by not selling and taking the easy way out.
How, when the fruit ripened, would she get it all picked?
Burt had relied on the migrant workers that came through every season. During his grandparents’ time, the workers had camped out along the river, building shelters with fallen branches and leftover pieces of wood. Burt’s parents had wanted to provide better accommodations for the workers, so in the off season hired a local men to build a row of little houses. They weren’t fancy, but they had windows and doors, heat and electricity, tiny kitchens with working stoves and refrigerators, and private bathrooms with showers and sinks. Clean, sturdy, and safe.
Rumor had it that the migrant workers were not coming. That increased deportations had frightened them off, and so they had bypassed America and gone to Canada.
Marta believed the rumors, for the clusters of men that always hung out down on Main Street were gone. Completely gone.
Marta advertised on the Internet, offering a good wage and a free place to stay, but only one man had replied, and when he found out how much work was required, he quit responding. No one wanted the job. No one saw working on the farm as worthwhile. No one saw the beauty of the apples and the rewards of picking. Good, honest work, with a bag of apples a week as a bonus.
That left Marta in a quandary. Soon there’d be fruit to pick, but no one to pick it.
She put on a sweater, picked up her purse and drove out past town, beyond the suburbs and schools, factories and plants until nothing was left but a long, winding road. She parked in front of the county jail. Stood and sighed and then strode to the sentry’s gate.
“I’m here to speak to the warden.”
“Do you have an appointment, ma’am?” the blue-uniformed man said.
“Yes. I called yesterday and set one up.”
The sentry ducked inside the shack, picked up a phone and then, after speaking to someone, returned with a smile on his face. “Ma’am,” he said. “Go straight through the double doors. Someone will be waiting to escort you to the warden’s office.” He tipped his hat with one hand while the other pushed a button that opened the gate.
When Marta arrived in the warden’s office, she was shaking. What she was going to ask for was reckless. Downright dangerous. Maybe even a little insane. But she had no other options.
“Please have a seat.” The warden smiled reassuringly and nodded to an armchair facing his desk. When she was seated, he asked, “Would you like something to eat or drink?”
“No, thanks,” she said.
“The coffee here is quite good and the pastries are delicious.”
Marta smiled demurely, trying to look both intelligent and winsome.
“I understand that you own an apple orchard and that you need help with the trees.”
“Yes, that’s correct. There are 100 trees. They’re currently in bloom. I cannot keep up with the trimming of suckers and the plowing between the rows. I cannot operate the machinery that brings water to the roots. And when the apples are ripe, I will not be able to harvest the crop. I need help. Lots of help.”
He tapped his chin with his pen. “How have you managed in the past?”
“Migrant workers. For generations my husband’s family employed migrants, but they aren’t coming. My husband passed away in the fall and I’ve got no family to help. This is why I’m here. To see if you can provide assistance.”
He looked out the wire-covered window and into a dusty yard. Prisoners milled about, some walking briskly while others stood talking in groups. A few played basketball while others kicked a soccer ball back and forth.
“Let’s get this straight.” He leaned forward, his brow furrowed. “You’re proposing that prisoners work on your farm.”
Marta nodded. “Yes. With supervision, of course. Work begins early in the morning and goes late into the night.”
“Wouldn’t you be afraid? After all, these men have committed crimes.”
“I’m assuming you wouldn’t send rapists or murderers. Or those at high risk of running off. Maybe only choose those that are close to being released. And I’d pay a decent wage. Enough that they’d have money to send home or to save.”
The warden nodded. He intertwined his fingers and placed them under his chin. He stared out the window, as if evaluating the men. “I think I might be able to help you,” he said. “I know about a dozen men that fit that profile. Most of them are here for drug–related offenses. Some for shoplifting, but none for burglary or home invasion.”
Marta looked down and nodded slightly. She had expected the warden to offer these types of criminals. “Okay,” she said. “How will this work?”
“First I’ll need to contact the correct people in the state office. Get permission. Then I’ll meet with my officers and ask them to suggest men for the program. We’ll conduct interviews to see who’s interested and if any have experience working in an orchard. We’ll narrow it down to only those men that we feel are trustworthy, hardworking and reliable.”
“How long will this take? My trees need help right now.”
“If things go well, which I assume they will, I can give you a few workers as early as next week. As we complete the interviews, I’ll give you more.”
“Wonderful,” Marta said with a smile and then she drove home with warmth in her heart.
Three days later a van pulled up. Out got an officer and three prisoners. Marta greeted them with a tray of chocolate chip cookies still warm from the oven. The men were introduced and then she walked them out back. She showed them the suckers and how to remove them. She demonstrated how to make furrows and how to lay the hoses that would bring water.
The men understood, so she left them to do the job and returned to the house.
At the end of the day the men got back in the van and drove away. Marta checked their work and found that they had done a fine job. They had earned a days’ wage.
Inside three envelopes Marta put eighty dollars, the going rate for labor.
The next day, the same men returned. Marta gave them their wages, then explained that they would receive the same for each day they worked. As time passed, more and more men showed up. The orchard slowly changed from an unruly mess to a trim, producing business. The apples grew and ripened.
One afternoon Marta went into town to withdraw more money from the bank in order to pay the men. Her friend, Susan Goodstone greeted her with a hug.
“Is it true?” Susan asked. “Do you really have prisoners working your land?’
Marta nodded. “I had no choice. I advertised, but no one wanted the job.”
“Aren’t you scared? I’d be terrified.”
“There’s nothing to be scared of. The men are supervised. They’re kept busy. They come in the morning and leave just before dinner. It’s perfectly safe.”
Susan shivered and wrapped her arms protectively around herself. “But what if one of them slips away and comes into your house? You could get raped. Or killed.”
“None of them are rapists or murderers. The warden promised me.”
“That’s not what I heard. One of them, I think his name’s Karl, murdered a man outside a bar. Claimed it was self-defense, but was sent to prison anyway.”
This was disconcerting news. Marta had trusted the warden completely, but maybe she should keep her doors locked just the same.
The next day while she was hanging out laundry to dry, one of the guards approached and asked for water for the men. “Sure,” she said, “if I can ask you a question.”
“Yes, ma’am. What would you like to know?”
“Is one of the men called Karl?”
The guard nodded as she handed him a pitcher of water. He slipped a stack of cups under his arm. “Karl’s a hard worker. He puts in a good day’s work.”
“Is it true that he killed someone?”
“Who told you that?” He leaned forward, a stern look on his face.
“It doesn’t matter,” Marta said. “Is he or is he not a murderer?”
“Ma’am, I don’t know what crimes these men committed. All I know is that they are all up for parole in the next few months. Most have families waiting for them at home. Two finished their GEDs and got high school diplomas. Karl’s been taking college classes and is almost finished with his Bachelor’s in Math.”
Marta felt the tension leave her shoulders. “I’d like to meet them. Is that okay?”
“Sure,” the officer said and led to where the men sat in the shade. “Men,” he said, “I’d like you to meet Mrs. Whitson, the property owner.”
All ten men stood, bowed their heads and looked at her with respect in their eyes.
Marta thanked them for working so hard. Then she asked them to tell their names. When Karl introduced himself, Marta smiled. He resembled her Burt! He had broad shoulders, thin hips, but well-formed thighs. His strawberry blonde hair was neatly trimmed. A hint of a beard outlined a strong jaw.
“Karl, could I borrow you for an hour? I have a fence that needs fixing.”
Karl looked at the officer, and when he had approval, he followed Marta to the east end of the property. Boards had fallen down, leaving a large hole, large enough that the neighbor’s cattle could easily sneak through.
“Do you think you can fix that?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
She watched for a while as he worked, but she had things in the house that needed her attention, so she left him alone. Marta knew that being unsupervised meant he could escape, but she felt that he would not.
An hour later there was a knock at the back door. Karl stood there, hat in his hand. “I’m finished, ma’am. Is there anything else you need me to do?”
Marts shook her head. “Not today, but maybe tomorrow.”
Karl stood there for a moment and then asked, “Ma’am, why did you choose me?”
Marta sighed. “I heard that you finished your college degree and would soon be out of prison. I knew that you wouldn’t run away when you’re so close to being done. Plus I knew you were smart enough to know right from wrong.”
Karl nodded. “Thank you. I appreciate that you gave me a chance.”
The next day Karl installed a new screen in her back door. After that he trimmed the bushes in the front yard. He edged the front and back lawns, oiled the lawn mower and removed weeds from her flower beds. Day after day he worked, always thanking Marta for trusting him.
The apples got picked, a bigger crop than she’d had in years. Burt would have been so proud that Marta had found a way to get the harvest done. Marta had sold bushels and bushels of apples, so many that she would be financially sound for another year.
One morning after breakfast she walked out to the front porch and looked down the road. No van from the prison would come. Not today or tomorrow or the day after that. Marta’s eyes filled with tears. She had loved hearing the men’s voices, but especially that of Karl. She would miss him.
One day she drove to the prison to see the warden.
“Hello, Mrs. Whitson,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I wanted to thank you,” she said. “The men worked hard and earned every penny they got. There were no problems and all the work got done. I thought you should know.”
“I appreciate it. My officers felt that the program worked so well that we should do it again. Would you be interested?”
“Oh, yes! That would be lovely.”
“Great,” he said as he rubbed his hands together. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes, actually,” she said as a blush covered her neck and cheeks. “There was a prisoner named Karl. He helped me so much! Not just with the apples, but with other jobs that had needed doing for some time.” She took an envelope out of her purse and held it to the warden. “He deserves a bonus for the work he did. Can you give this to him?”
“I’d love to, but Karl was released on Monday. I think he’s going to return to Fresno where he has some family, but I don’t have an address for him.”
Marta’s spirits deflated as fast as a punctured balloon. She slowly put the envelope back in her purse. “Well, then I guess that’s it until the trees need to be pruned.”
She drove home, feeling down in the dumps and lonelier than she’d felt since Burt died.
When she put her car in park, movement at the front of the house caught her eye. It was Karl, now dressed in a button-up-the-front blue shirt and clean jeans. He looked so handsome that Marta could hardly breathe.
“Ma’am,” he said. “I was on the bus heading away from here and then I got off and took the next one back. I had to see you before I left. I thank you for trusting me and for giving me a chance. Your kindness touched me.”
Marta smiled. “Would you like something cold to drink?”
“Tea, if you have it.”
They went inside, and over glasses of ice-cold tea they talked about everything and anything. Hours later, as darkness fell, Marta led Karl to one of the laborer’s houses at the back of the property. She unlocked the door and showed him inside. “You can stay here, if you like.”
Karl swept her into his arms and gave her a hug. Just as quickly he let her go. “Sorry, ma’am. I shouldn’t have done that. Yes, I’d love to stay here. And I’ll work hard. I’ll keep this place up as if it was my own.”
Marta stepped back into his arms and felt safe and loved for the first time in a long time.