A Grain of Sand

Nothing more than a grain of sand

one among a cast of millions

arose and accepted the burdensome

yoke of humanity, the drudgery of life,

the pains, torments, tears, and fears

until love entered his heart.

 

Nothing but a tiny grain of sand

now filled with a woman’s love

beaming broader than the sun,

wider than the Milky Way

standing tall, strong, proud, and fearless

with her vision in his mind.

 

Nothing but a proud grain of sand

knelt by her side, making his

wishes known, the dreams of his soul,

the secrets of his heart,

the projects, plans, ideas, and thoughts

searing his vision.

 

Nothing but an exultant grain of sand

stood with his love at the altar

pledging faithful love, devotion,

a lifetime of togetherness,

trials, tribulation, joys, tears

traveling the path of marriage.

 

Nothing but two grains of sand

forged through the world

casting aside the millions to

focus on the other, the others that

they create, the little ones, children,

loins of our loins and loves of our love,

for now and forever. Amen.

The Travel Bug

I love to travel! It’s fun to visit relatives. Spend time talking and doing things together.

We have been lucky over the years to be able to see many places. Yosemite. Yellowstone. Lessen. Sequoia Kings Canyon. Crater Lake. Grand Canyon. Mt. Rushmore.

Several Year’s ago we went on a whirlwind tour around Europe. Then a few years later to the British Isles.

We cruised to Alaska with family (two times!). We also cruised from NYC to Nova Scotia and around the Hawaiian Islands.

One thing I realize as we are embarking on a trip to Amsterdam and Scandinavia is that I am getting older and the intrigue is wearing thin.

While I loved visiting family, I also love being home. When I am gone I miss my cat and birds. I worry about them. I wonder if they are lonely and if they are getting enough to eat.

Traveling is fun, but there is nothing that compares to home.

The Best Day

Sometimes writing prompts speak to me, giving me ideas of what to write about, but recently I read one which really has me in a quandary.

Of all the days in my life, which one is the best?

I’ve been thinking about this for over a week and I have to admit that I am stuck.

Could it have been the day I received my acceptance letter to USC? That was an awesome day. After all, it meant that I was going to go to college and learn something that forever would change my life. The problem is that I don’t recall exactly how I felt. After all, I was only 17 at the time and so much has happened since then.

After college graduation a series of years went by in which I accomplished a lot of firsts: my first car, my first real job, my first apartment. These all moved me along the path toward independence and all of them made me smile, but were any of them the best? No.

There was the day that I met Mike at the IRS office. I was intrigued by his blue eyes, ready smile and kind demeanor, but it took quite a while for us to jell, to become a unit. The day he proposed was an awesome one. The problem is that I don’t recall the details. I do remember that he asked my dad for permission to marry me, but that’s it.

The wedding day was a spectacular one. Talk about life-changing! Wow! I went from being daughter to wife in less than an hour. And I was so scared that I almost passed out at the altar. I remember smiling through the reception and being so excited about the honeymoon that I could hardly wait for it to begin. On that day my life changed forever, so I would rank it up there among the best days of my life.

The thing is, though, that from then on I achieved so much, changed so much, and reveled in so much, that there are many defining moments in my life.

I remember when I found out I was pregnant with each of our kids. Now those were special days! Each time I glowed with happiness and pride. And when they were born, I could hardly contain myself even though I was terrified of holding such tiny, frail little beings.

Each time a child accomplished something, even something as tiny as lifting a head, I could hardly wait to show Mike. Jump forward to swimming on a team, playing soccer or baseball or softball or learning gymnastics or working with clay or learning to play an instrument and the “best” days suddenly multiply into hundreds.

There were graduations from eighth grade, high school and college. There were the births of my many grandkids, each unique in their own way.

The purchasing of homes, beginning with ours. I beamed with happiness on the day we took possession! Our house! Which became a home for our kids. And then the joy I felt when each of our kids bought their homes! Wow!

Getting my first teaching job filled me with joy. Granted it was a tiny, part time job teaching preschool at minimum wage, but I was in a classroom. My classroom. Fulfilling a dream I’d had since first grade.

When I jumped to third grade, my heart skipped a beat. This was it! My goal had been reached. But I didn’t stop there. I kept exploring and reaching and trying out new things and learning new things and going from job to job, each time looking for the place where I truly belonged and then I found it at the high school. I became a Special Education teacher working with learning disabled students. A hard job, but rewarding.

My supervisor noticed my hard work and I got promoted to the equivalent of Department Chair. Wow! Think of the jump, from part time preschool to Dept. Chair! I walked around campus with a smile on my face. I had reached my pinnacle, the highest I could possibly go, and I was proud. That was another good day.

Time passed. I aged. I got tired and all I could think about was retiring. When that time arrived four years ago, that was another personal best. I counted off the days until the one when I turned in my keys and walked away. I left knowing that I had done the best job that I could have. That at no time had I failed to fulfill my job requirements, and that, in fact, I usually exceeded them.

As a retiree I continue to have “best” days. Each day spent with my husband is a great one. Each time we go for a walk around the neighborhood, I rejoice that we are capable of doing so. That we enjoy the simple act of being together.

We have traveled quite a bit since retirement. Those are all good days as well. I especially love visiting with my grown children and my grandchildren. Each of those trips is unique and filled with joy. Each is the “best” because of the time I get to spend with family.

What it boils down to is that I cannot single out one day that stands above all others. I have been blessed with so many awesome days, so many unique experiences that I cannot definitively state that this one, this day, is the best.

Instead I revel in the fact that each morning that I open my eyes, each breath that I breathe, each step that I take, counts as my best.

 

Defying the Odds

Neither of my parents went to college. In fact, my mother never attended one day of high school. None of my aunts or uncles or even not one cousin enrolled in college. It just wasn’t something that was done in my family.

I was fourteen when I began dreaming of going to college. Because of a lack of family history, I really had no idea what college was about. For me, it was a means of escape. If I could go to college, I could legally move out of the house without first being married. And I had no intentions of marrying as a teen.

My academic career was less than glorious. Kindergarten was not mandatory back then, but my parents sent me to a private school because of fears that I was backwards. They were right. Unlike my classmates, I did not know my colors or shapes, knew nothing about the alphabet and was weak in numbers.

I worked hard, though, because I wanted to please my teachers. I graduated and went to first grade, still a bit behind, but with enough skill to get into the Catholic elementary school.

I struggled, to say the least. By fourth grade I was still not a good reader. I was embarrassed to be the weakest student in my class, and so, when my reading group was called to the front, I hid at my desk. Stupid, yes. Logical, though, when considering the embarrassment factor.

At home, determined to improve my skills, I erased all the answers on my worksheets, lined up my dolls and made them do the work. I repeated this process over and over until I could get the correct answers every time.

I truly believed that working with my dolls is what turned me into a scholar. It was not the help of a teacher, for I cannot remember a single time when someone helped me. I also know that it was not due to anything my parents did as the only time they checked my work was to see if I was earning As. If not, then a spanking ensued.

I stayed in one Catholic school or another until seventh grade. I continued to be one of the weakest students, but thankfully, others were in worse shape than me. The one thing that I was really good at was penmanship. I loved the whorls of cursive. The flow of one letter blending into the next was a thing of beauty.

Once math started making sense, I excelled there as well. Numbers could be trusted to always mean what they represented.

Unlike letters, which changed sound on a whim. I did not know the difference between a long vowel and a short, could not explain why some words rhymed with cow and others, spelled similarly, did not. How would and wood sounded the same and that there were many versions of there, you’re and too.

I transferred to a public school for eighth grade and promptly fell in love with my teacher. He was the first male teacher I’d ever had. I would have done anything to please him. In fact, when he assigned a research report on a college, when I found a Bennington College (his last name), I chose it as the subject of my paper.

Once in high school, everything fell into place. My hard work paid off. I was no longer the bottom of the barrel, but sat comfortably at the top. I was repeatedly on the honor roll and earned certificates right and left. I excelled in Latin and math and got by in English and Science, even though in both of those subjects, I often felt I was reading in a different language than all the other students.

Toward the end of my freshman year, my parents made plans to move to California. I researched colleges there and was pleased to discover the existence of community colleges which were practically free. It meant that I would be able to go to college!

This was a dream come true. No more worries about being married off to a Neanderthal neighbor. I could focus on a dream that meant more to me than any other dream I’d held before.

In California, I found high school work incredibly easy. My grades were the highest I’d ever had and I excelled in Spanish, Math and PE. English was still a struggle, but with hard work Science and History were subjects I mastered.

I told myself that I had the skills to go to college, and believed it.

In my senior year I applied to a variety of colleges, including one in Ohio near where my grandmother lived. I was accepted in every one. All I needed was financial assistance, which came in the way of a full scholarship to any college in the state of California.

When the news of my scholarship reached my high school, my counselor called me to her office. She pulled up my records, then proceeded to tell me that I’d never succeed in college, that I should consider getting a job and getting married.

When I left her office I was seething. I swore that I would prove her wrong. I told myself that at the end of my first semester of college, I would bring her my grades and show her that I had the skills to succeed.

And I did.

Her response was one of surprised shock. She apologized for assuming that I would fail, and then praised me for my hard work.

To me, earning her praise was the first of many highlights in my academic career. No one had believed in me, but I did. I told myself I could do it, and I did.

 

Resurrecting Memories

 

I was afraid of you from the very beginning.

As far back as I can remember, I cannot recall

A single incident in which you held me in your arms,

Consoled me when I was sad,

Comforted me when I was ill,

Or sheltered me when I was distressed.

I cannot remember any words of encouragement,

But rather the tone of disappointment

When once again I failed to be the girly girl

That you expected. Demanded.

You did complete forms when I wanted to go to college

And when I bought my first car,

But beyond that I only sensed frustration

And anger and rage

Expressed with almost demonic glee

Whenever I slighted your sensibilities,

Causing you to discipline me with hand or belt

Or word, the most painful of all for those hurts never ceased.

I feared your homecoming after a day of work,

For I never knew what your mood might be and

How it would affect me.

If you were angry, I’d be the recipient of your anger.

If you were frustrated, I’d be the outlet.

It got so that I hid away in my room

Whenever you were around

For I never knew when you’d explode

And I’d be the nearest target for your hands.

I’d dream of living in a different family.

One filled with love. Soft voices.

Encouragement. Joy. Laughter.

Kind arms.

I convinced myself that I was adopted,

Like the kids in stories who were abused

By their adoptive families,

As an explanation as to why you treated me

The way you did.

That helped me move past my deep-felt hurt.

I never forgot the things you did.

The way you spoke to me in derision.

The lack of your love.

But more than anything,

I never moved past my fear.

 

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.

 

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.