Out of the Fire

Times had been hard since Julia’s father remarried. His new wife, Angelica, had no time and little to no interest in taking care of Julia, and so left her alone and feeling unloved. As an eight-year-old, this was painfully hard. More than anything, Julia yearned to be held in someone’s arms and hear the words, “I love you”. But day after day passed without a single encouraging sound.

Her father traveled a lot for work, so he was seldom home. Recently he flew off to Switzerland, a land that Julia longed to see, leaving instructions for Angelica to take his daughter shopping for new school clothes.

Like all kids, Julia loved new clothes. The first week of school everyone wore new stuff, showing off all the big-name brands that their parents had purchased. Before her father remarried, Julia was just like those kids, standing proud with her Nike shoes and Addidas yoga pants.

Angelica, however, did not take Julia to Macy’s or Nordstrom’s so that Julia could get the best clothes. No. She took her to WalMart and Target and hastily picked out the cheapest clothes she could find. Julia was given no say in what was purchased. In fact, when she complained about a neon orange t-shirt with a dinosaur covered in sparkles, she was told to shut up and be grateful for what she got. So she wore unpopular clothes and for the last two years had been the laughingstock of her class.

While her father was gone this time, without giving prior notice, Angelica moved in her three nieces, bulky teenagers with puffy faces and lumberjack thighs. The girls were haughty, rude and disrespectful to Angelica, openly ridiculing her and making fun of the way their aunt walked and talked, but it didn’t seem to matter as they were never disciplined. Because of this, the teens saw an opportunity to pick on Julia mercilessly, teasing her about her hair, her nibbled-on finger nails, and her dishwater-blue eyes.

One day a flyer appeared in their mailbox advertising a contest in which one singer would earn a full scholarship to Johnson School for the Arts in Denver, a residential school housed in a refurbished mansion.

Because Julia loved music, she dreamt of winning and of the escape it would bring. Every evening after she finished her seemingly endless list of chores, she retreated to her bedroom and sang every song that came to mind. She pictured herself on stage, standing before a panel of judges, hitting every note perfectly, so perfectly that she would be declared the winner right on the spot.

Her stepmother’s nieces also practiced. Not a one of them could sing on tune for more than a few notes and they had no sense of rhythm or timing, and even though they used a karaoke machine, they messed up the words.

Julia loved hearing them fail time after time. She knew that they would embarrass themselves on stage, probably earning a chorus of mocking chants similar to what they dished out to Julia. Julia pictured them turning beat red as the judges critiqued their performances, finding so many faults that there was much more negative than positive.

Finally after weeks of anticipation, the third Saturday in August arrived, the day of the contest. Angelica told her nieces to wear their best clothes and to do up their hair so as to look their best. Julia put on her only dress, even though it was practically see–through, combed out her shoulder-length hair and rubbed lotion on her arms and face.

When it was time to leave, Julia headed for the car. Angelica stood in her way, arms crossed over her chest, glowering. “You can’t go looking like that,” she said. “Go put on one of your new outfits.”

Julia went upstairs and changed as quickly as she could. Because she had no other dress, she wore her new pants, shoes and shirt. But she must have taken too long, for by the time she stepped out the front door, the car was gone.

Tears formed in her eyes. Julia thought about giving up and going inside, but then she remembered her dream. There was a chance that she might make it in time, if she was lucky and her friend Nat was at home. She walked as quickly as she could and when she arrived, Nat’s mom answered the door. Her mom invited Julia inside and offered her a glass of cold water.

After hearing Julia’s sad tale, the mom said, “Take Julia upstairs and have her try on a few of your dresses. When you find one that looks good, get dressed and come downstairs. Please hurry, though, as we have little time to spare.”

In the room Nat pulled out four dresses, and one by one, Julia tried them on. By consensus, they agreed that the pale green dress with a gauzy skirt was the best choice. Nat also loaned Julia a pair of black flats, which fit a little loose, but looked good enough that no one would notice.

“You look wonderful,” Nat’s mom said. “We’d better hurry as it will take us a good twenty minutes to get there.”

When they arrived, Nat’s mom filled out the required paperwork, claiming herself to be Julia’s guardian. It was a little bit of a lie, but not a huge one, because Nat’s mom happened to be a cousin on her mom’s side of the family. Since her mother died, Julia hadn’t seen much of her aunt, but whenever Julia needed something, she always came through for her.

Julia waited backstage for her turn to sing. From where she was seated, she could not see the stage or hear the music, but she could see Angelica’s nieces. They took turns preening before a floor-length mirror and smoothed out each other’s hair, sticking pins in here and there to keep unruly areas flat.

One by one they left. One by one they returned with sour looks on their faces. Angelica hugged each, wiping away tears of humiliation, and then shuffled them out of the mansion.

Because Julia had registered so late, she was the last performer. As she waited, she sang quietly, going over how she would stand, move her arms, and allow her eyes to look out over the audience with a confidence that she felt down to her toes.

After a long, long wait, when no one else was left, Julia’s turn came. She was escorted to the side of the stage and told to wait. She peeked around the curtain and saw that only about fifty people remained. That gave her hope. The other kids must have done so poorly that their parents knew they’d never get accepted to the school and so left in despair.

When told to do so, Julia walked proudly to the center of the stage. She bowed and then stepped to the microphone. “Hi. My name is Julia Smythe. I’m eight years old and I love to sing.”

“Welcome, Julia,” one of the judges said with a smile. “Are you a good student?”

“Yes,” Julia said. “I never get in trouble, do all my work, and get good grades.”

“Excellent. You’re the kind of student that we’re looking for.” The judge picked up a pen and wrote something on a paper in front of him. “What are you going to sing?”

“Beauty and the Beast.”

“Please call up the soundtrack,” the judge said to some unseen person. “Julia, when you’re ready, nod and the music will begin.”

Julia took a deep breath to steady herself, raised her eyes and looked at the back wall of the auditorium. She nodded and when the music began, she gave the best performance she had ever done. She hit every note and followed the beat. When the music ended, she smiled a satisfied smile.

The audience clapped and clapped and then people stood until even the judges were on their feet. Julia blushed and bowed her head. It felt good to have so many people standing just for her. She loved it when they shouted her name over and over.

When the audience quieted, Julia turned to leave. While she was pleased that so many liked her performance, she believed that was because she was only eight. She thought she didn’t stand a chance at getting that cherished spot in the school.

Before she had taken the second step, the judge said, “Where are you going?’

“I thought I’d go home.”

He smiled at her. “Don’t you want to hear our comments? Aren’t you interested in knowing how well you did?”

Julia looked down at the stage floor. “Yes, but I’m just a little girl.”

“You’re a little girl with a powerful voice,” the judge said. “In fact, you have the best voice that we’ve heard all day. How does that make you feel?”

“Fantastic!”

“Well, then, we have some great news for you. Are you interested in knowing what we have to say?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Julia Smythe, we are prepared to offer you a complete scholarship to the academy. It will cover your tuition and your room and board for as long as you succeed and wish to stay.”

Julia clasped her hands and bowed. “Thank you. Thank you so much!”

“All we need is for your parent to complete the paperwork and the deal is sealed. Is one of them here with you?”

“My mother id dead and my dad is away, but my aunt brought me here today.”

The judges took Julia, her aunt and Nat into an office. When they gave her aunt the paperwork, they said it had to be signed and returned within two weeks, and then Julia would begin school August 24.

Julia and Nat skipped all the way to the car. They sang “Beauty and the Beast” over and over until Nat’s mom couldn’t take it anymore. When they got to Nat’s house, her aunt sent Julia upstairs to change.

“I contacted your dad,” her aunt said when the girls came down for lunch. “He said to say that he was proud of you. He won’t be back in time to sign the papers, so he asked me to fax them to him. I can do that on my computer, so I’ve already sent him the paperwork. We should get it back later today.”

Julia smiled. In her borrowed clothes she had beaten out her stepmother’s nieces and all the other kids. Within a month she would be out of her miserable home and into a cherished academy. Life was turning out to be good after all.

 

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If I Saw a Werewolf

I saw a werewolf dancing a jig

He jumped, he spun, he shifted his wig

With twinkling toes and red-sparkling nails

His laughter echoed through hills and vales

 

His grin, his teeth, incredibly big

A handsome werewolf dancing a jig

His partner, a fairy in sparkling array

Acted as if she were dancing for pay

 

Amid  bold sneers and snickers guffawed

He heard only admirers applaud

That handsome werewolf dancing a jig

Was outdone by a talented pig

 

Judges awarded ribbon of red

“I thank you,” the winning dancer said

“I beat you fair and square,” said the pig.

Then that werewolf quit dancing a jig

 

 

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Love Is:

Love is everlasting.

It does not flit about,

Landing here and there,

Staying just long enough

To make someone believe,

And then disappear, crushing hearts.

 

Love speaks volumes.

There are not sufficient words

In the world to express how

Wonderful love feels,

How comforting and refreshing

It is to be cherished.

 

Love is not ego-driven.

One doesn’t love in order to

Be loved in return.

Love stands on its own,

Not needing props or

Constant adulation in order

To grow or to exist.

 

Love defies logic.

Scientists can’t find a love gene

Or a verifiable cause,

But they can find symptoms,

The obsessions, the desires

That compel individuals toward

Each other.

 

Love is strong.

It stands alone among the harshest

Of winters, the heat of summers.

It outlasts earthquakes, tornadoes

And hurricanes.

Yet musclemen cannot grasp it

Tightly enough to lift it.

 

Love is a gift.

It does not come in pretty packages

Tied up with ribbons and bows,

Yet it is wonderful to open

Over and over and over again,

Each time with the same sense of

Pure, unadulterated joy.

 

Love is special.

For some, it only happens

Once in a lifetime, yet it is

Desired by every living being,

Especially by those who have been hurt.

 

Love speaks her name

In soft voices.

In kind gestures.

In caring touches.

In the way eyes look

And lips gather

Expressing the joy of simply being.

 

Love is all that and more.

 

 

 

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My Never-ending Battle

I’d like to be able to tell you

That I’ve won the battle with my body.

That I’m down to a respectable weight

And that nothing will distract me

From that goal.

But weight loss is a continuous battle.

It is never won.

It defies logic.

People look at a fat person

And think that something’s mentally wrong.

Why else look like that?

Why not just stop stuffing food into your mouth?

But it’s not that easy.

There was never a time in my life when I was thin.

Even going back into my toddler years,

I was a fat child.

In elementary school I was the source

Of many laughs.

The interesting thing is that I’ve never

Been a big eater.

You would never have caught me with

My plate mounded high and

Shoveling food down faster than a dog.

But here I am, years later and still fighting

The same old battle.

I don’t like the way I look.

I’m embarrassed when I put on my

Swim suit and walk out on the deck.

When I picture my floppy arms

Coming out of the water.

I’m humiliated when I sit next to skinny people

And see that one of my thighs equals two of theirs.

And I’m tired of the fight.

It exhausts me, the simple act of eating.

Or not eating.

Filling myself with fluid so that my stomach

Will be full and I won’t take that extra bite.

And so I would love to tell you

That I’ve won the battle so that you would smile

And nod

And be proud of my accomplishment.

But I can’t.

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Destiny

After her husband’s death, when she lost her condo because she couldn’t keep up with the mortgage payments, Alice thought things couldn’t get any worse. With tears in her eyes, she sold everything and anything that people would buy. The rest of the stuff she gave away to charity organizations or paid to have it removed to the dump.

All she had left was three suitcases of clothes, which Alice stuffed in her car. She moved in with a friend who was going to rent her a room for a tidy sum of $1000 a month. This gave Alice the rights to a shelf in the refrigerator and two shelves in the kitchen cabinets, but no laundry privileges despite a functioning laundry room.

For that amount of money some people could rent an entire house, but in San Francisco it was a bargain, for which Alice was grateful. At least she had a place to sleep in a safe neighborhood.

But when her friend had a heart attack and died, the house was sold, leaving Alice without a place to live. Her pastor suggested the homeless shelter a few blocks away, so Alice applied and was accepted, but only for three months. She would be connected to social services organizations who would help her find a job and a permanent place to stay.

Alice snickered at that idea. She’d turned seventy last month.  No one would hire a woman her age with a lack of computer skills. But Alice went on every job interview that she was sent on, eventually getting hired to clean offices after hours. It paid minimum wage. Enough to buy food, but not enough to pay rent.

When her three months were up in the shelter, Alice had nowhere to go. She packed her stuff up in the car once again and drove to the beach where she parked along a sidewalk, under a shady tree. During the day, the car was cool. At night, the tree provided a bit of shelter from the dripping fog.

Alice slept in her car every night for two weeks. She knew she was dirty despite her best efforts to keep clean. There was a McDonald’s a block away with a bathroom she could use. The sinks were tiny, but with effort she’d stick in one foot at a time and wash the rest of her with paper towels. Even with her daily sponge baths, a layer of grime slowly formed.

And her clothes! The hand soap was too watered down to remove stains and body odor. To remove excess water she had to wring them out, and since there was no place to hang them to dry, they ended up wrinkly and old.

Her hair never got truly clean. She did the best she could to stick her head under the spigot and scoop water on the top of her head, but it wasn’t good enough. Her normally white hair slowly turned a shiny gray and stuck to her head like a helmet.

Because she wasn’t clean enough to be a cleaning lady, she lost her job. How ironic, Alice thought. Who’d ever think that one had to be a model of cleanliness to scrub filthy sinks and toilets!

Alice returned to the shelter, hoping they would allow her to move back in, but they refused. The director told her it was a one shot deal. Others needed a chance. Alice had had hers. She was referred to another shelter ten blocks away, but when she got there, there were no open spaces, so back to her car she went.

One day while she was out looking for work, her car was towed away. Now Alice had nothing but the clothes on her back, whatever was in her purse and a small pension that was on direct deposit.

After withdrawing a bit of money, Alice went to a nearby thrift store and bought clothes. The clerk stuffed them in paper bags which Alice had to pay for because nothing is free in San Francisco. She left with her arms full and stumbled to the serenity of the beach.

She piled her stuff up on a picnic table and considered her options. Alice had none. She had no family that would take her in. She had no job. No place to live. All that was left was a bit of hope that a stranger would come along who felt sorry for an old woman and would offer her a place to stay, but even though she sat there into the night, no such luck.

She wished for a cold bottle of water and a warm meal, which ironically she had enough money to pay for, but McDonald’s would not let her in with her bags of clothes. She would have to leave them outside and hope that no one would steal them. Alice knew that, with the way her luck was going, that nothing would be left if she stepped inside. So she walked back to the beach, hungry and thirsty.

Alice wandered up and down, paralleling the shore, admiring the crashing waves, just to have something to do. Ahead she saw an outcropping of rocks that ran perpendicular to the shore, massive boulders with a base that sported an array of colors. As Alice neared, she discovered that tarps and tents provided the color, and that a village of people made the spot their home.

Alice approached a man who was tending a fire. “Hello,” she said. “What is this place?”

“This is our home,” the man said. “We consider ourselves family.”

Alice’s eyes teared up. She missed her husband so much. Since she had no family of her own, the idea of belonging to this family appealed to her. “What do I have to do to join?” she asked.

The man’s eyes scanned her from head to toe. “Do you use drugs or drink?”

Alice shook her head.

“Are you a prostitute?”

“Of course not,” she huffed.

“Will you contribute to the food pot? Can you buy materials to build a shelter?”

“Yes, yes,” she said. “I can do both.”

“Then welcome,” he said. “My name is George. My tent is the gray one. Put your bags inside. Later on I’ll introduce you to the others and find you a place to sleep for the night.”

Alice placed her bags just inside the door of the tent. She took a quick look around and was surprised to see how neat and clean everything was. In her mind, homeless people were filthy, stinking individuals, with mental issues or addicted to drugs. But here was a camp for people like her. People who couldn’t pay the high rents and had nowhere else to go.

When Alice returned, George offered her a chair and a cup of coffee. He gave her a piece of bread with peanut butter. “Thanks,” she said. “I’m starving. I had run out of options, you know, and was pretty desperate.”

“That’s why we’re all here,” he said. “We’re a bunch of old farts with no place to go. No family to turn to. No friends who’ll take us in.”

Alice watched the waves crashing on the shore. “Is it safe here for an old lady like me?”

George smiled. “We’ll take care of you. Make sure no harm comes your way. That’s what I meant about us being family. It’s like it was our destiny to come together.”

Alice smiled. George seemed like a really nice man. She was sure he’d take care of her. “I’d like to live here,” she said, “if you’ll let me.”

“Sure. No problem. First thing we’ll need to do is build you a shelter of your own. After breakfast we’ll go to the hardware store and buy the things you’ll need. The most expensive will be a sleeping bag. It gets cold out here at night, so you need a good one. Sound okay?”

“It sounds lovely,” Alice said. Then she remembered what George had said about it being destiny that brings these folks together, and she understood what he meant. She already felt like she belonged.

 

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God Gave Me You

God gave me you

When I needed you the most.

You came to me like a miracle

Stepping out of the haze into

A light of your own

Hewn from love, from a family

That embraces strangers

And accepts them immediately into

Strong arms and hearts.

 

God gave me you

To cheer me up, to bolster my spirits,

To make my heart sing.

To encourage me to try new things

To appreciate the things I did well

And to support me when I struggled.

All along you have been there,

My knight, standing tall with your blue eyes

And wide-open arms, easy smile,

Warm heart.

We’ve traveled miles together,

Sometimes as a couple,

Sometimes alone, going our separate ways,

But always returning to be one

 

God gave me you

To walk with me through good times

And hard times, struggles and fears.

Now we are walking through our later years,

Still strong.

Still believing in the love that drew

Us together in the first place.

Still pulling us forward into each new day

Wondering what God has in mind for us.

What new joys God will give us.

And trying desperately not to think

Of the end times. Of the days when one of us

Will move along into God’s embrace.

 

God gave me you

To propel me forward, with a happy heart.

And I still eagerly yearn for your embrace.

That’s why God gave me you.

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The Orchard

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.

 

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