Issue 67, Fall 1976
They were touring New England, escaped lovers in mid-June, when the signs sprang up, hand-lettered in red and green on shiny white boards. 5 Miles to Skyvue Strawberry Farm! the first one proclaimed, followed in due course by Skyvue Strawberry Farm, 1 Mile on Left and Pick Your Own at Skyvue Strawberry Farm 10 to 4.
“Let’s,” she said, squeezing the brown corduroy of his knee.
“But what will we do with them?” he said, thinking of tonight’s motel somewhere in the Champlain Valley and tomorrow’s drive down the Hudson to their separate suburbs. He would leave her at the train station just as he had last year, and the year before, and the year before that. As if she had ridden the local out from Grand Central, she would take a taxi home.
“Eat them. Take them home. Oh never mind!” she despaired. She had caught sight of herself at the taxi stand. Strawberries spilling out of her shopping bags.
But he had down shifted from fourth to third and then at the last declarative sign. Strawberries Are Rich in Vitamin C, to second. They turned in at the driveway, rose up a winding dirt road, and were there.
They had come from the translation seminar held each summer at a small college in the Adirondacks. He specialized in Hungarian, which was not, however, his native tongue. Always from the bottom of his suitcase he took out the two volumes of his German-Hungariari dictionary. These stood on the bureau, on a succession of bureaus on stolen weekends throughout the year, grave necessary friends of their liaison. She spoke no foreign language, but served the conference as administrative assistant, cutting stencils each morning, collating pages of prose and poetry in bilingual arrangements. She saw to it that the original always appeared on the left- hand page so that the work under discussion might lie as fiat as an open-face sandwich.
That first summer she had come to the conference unexpectedly, filling in for an ill colleague. She was a shyly attractive woman in her thirties, tallish and slender with long brown hair that she wore tucked discreetly into a knot at the nape of the her neck. It was rainy and raw; she had not brought warm clothing and the man who was not yet her lover had loaned her a comforting maroon ski sweater in which, he assured her, she looked properly waif-like. It smelled of his brown tobacco cigarettes tinged with camphor. When he smiled, she was dazzled by one off centre gold tooth. She began wearing her hair loose about her shoulders and in town she bought a pair of dangling imitation-gold earrings. He came to her room the fourth night, whistling nonchalantly up the stairs of the old brown building, a sheaf of papers in his hand. Raindrops had peppered his beret and she propped it on the radiator to dry. But the papers were in Spanish, five versions of a Neruda poem left over from that morning's workshop and out of his mackintosh pocket there came a bottle of cognac. At dawn, holding his shoes, he went lightly down the fire escape onto which, luckily, one of her windows opened.
A highway bisected the campus. Porches of the college buildings overlooked it and words were often lost in the drift of traffic. Snatches came through: “Do you see this as an exercise?” “Do you set yourself models?” “The basic concept is very good, really very good. ... ” Logging trucks passed in both directions, confusing her. Those great prehistoric-looking tree trunks, stacked like her sons' Playschool toys, rattled past in their chains. Perhaps there were sawmills at either end of this mountain gap? The process of overlap struck her as an apt image for translation.
Skyvue Farm provided its own boxes; wax-lined cardboard trays, really, for picking. What he was to do with the damn things was another story. They could be given away, he supposed. Bartered against the motel bill, a hundred miles down the road? The view, or if you will, was truly incredible. To the west, spruce- and pine-covered hills the color of bleached denim. East, looking into the determined sun of Vermont, three small, connected ponds with ducks on them. And stretching its plateau in a commodious rectangle of what he took to be easily ten acres, this expanse of strawberry field still swallowing up its odd assortment of human forms as people entered, were assigned their rows, and sank to their knees or buttocks. Some few mote or less leaned down, tumps high, and dug the it hands into the plants, or rested one palm on the earth for equilibrium as they picked.
He was forty-five this year, his life was flawed and sedentary, he groaned, folding himself down. The berries adorned the plants tritely. He resented the dew that added diamonds to their rubies. How monstrous the fruit were, the pest ones leaving behind a little white cone on the plant as they pulled away from the calyx. In Austria the strawberries grew elusively in the meadows and he was forced out into the fields each morning with the other young ones to crawl through prickly grasses and fill his pail. Mosquitoes sang in his eat. His mother would fly into a age if he scan on the picking. Once, invoking his father at the Front, she beat him with a shoe. Those wild strawberries, he remembered, were long He was forty-five this year, his life was flawed and sedentary, he groaned, folding himself down. The berries adorned the plants tritely. He resented the dew that added diamonds to their rubies. How monstrous the fruit were, the pest ones leaving behind a little white cone on the plant as they pulled away from the calyx. In Austria the strawberries grew elusively in the meadows and he was forced out into the fields each morning with the other young ones to crawl through prickly grasses and fill his pail. Mosquitoes sang in his eat. His mother would fly into a age if he scan on the picking. Once, invoking his father at the Front, she beat him with a shoe. Those wild strawberries, he remembered, were long
Often there had been no bread in the bakery and no flour in the house to bake with. Now, whipped cream rose up in mountains on his strawberry shortcake. Now he had a wife and half-grown children, the oldest to enter college that fall. And in the mountains, a mistress—dreadful old-fashioned word! What was he but an old-fashioned, fastidious middle- aged linguist?—a mistress only slightly younger than his wife and a history, going on four years now, of stolen weekends. It came to him that he had pretended more translations than he had effected. Each one sweetened the months of fidelity that followed.
It was a hot morning and promised to be a hotter day. She had picked well past him, turned, and had started greedily back still another row so that now she was coming toward him in a series of little frog-hops. He saw her thighs flash white, those strong stems he had lain athwart only a few hours ago. And her fingers pinching here, there, so decisively nipping the best berries; yes, he would nip and pinch and comfort and take hold. Now she was closer, now clearly he could see the Gray streaks she lamented were overtaking her hair. How luminous, that chestnut mane, against the sun! Their quarrels were sharper each year, their reconciliations almost unbearably poignant. His wife was paler, larger, a milder version. Against his will he remembered the rented summer cottage at the shore when the children were small, how his wife served him berries with cream for a late night snack, moving furtively about the unfamiliar kitchen, whispering over his bowl. He could hear the click of his spoon on the crockery and knew afterwards exactly how they had bedded, he stroking the back of her neck first. Oh, he was a detestable person, he deserved neither woman, he told himself, even knowing the thought was an act of self-congratulation.
Meanwhile in the strawberry patch he was sentenced to overhear just behind him a tale of loyalty, of a man standing by his wife struck down by multiple sclerosis or cancer, he could not tell from the medical details. In any case, incapacitated, her condition unchanging. Two women, local, he guessed from their accents, harvesting berries for their freezers, jellies, pies, were exchanging the details of this story. She had fainted on the commode, she spat blood, he still took her on fine days for drives, tucking her wasted body about with pillows. Only in Purgatory was one doomed to hear such tales of domestic heroism.
Now the woman who was not his wife had drawn abreast of him and saw from the passivity of his shoulders that she was making him unhappy. In that Buddha pose she would have kissed the worry lines from the corners of his mouth. Instead, displaying the half-filled box, she begged, “Just five minutes more.” He smiled evasively, a cocktail party smile of dis- missal and moved forward in his row. They squatted there, back to back, her fingers travelling expertly over the plants while she reflected on their stolen weekends.
She could name them all sequentially, passing quickly over the rainy one in Indiana where they had fished in the St. Jo River full of disgusting carp and then drunk themselves into a sodden state in the one down town hotel. He had pushed her beyond her limits, dark anger had flowed out of her like blood clots, and passion, equally ungoverned, rushed in. Never in her other life had she been an extremist. Now she recorded impressions with her stomach, her skin. The mind came last of all in this procession. It had begun with the glint of gold in the mouth of an elegant foreign man, but where would it end? She could recall especially the grit and detritus of New York City, where they met often, the enforced gaiety of its bars gleaming metal and dark at noon. Once there had been dinner at the Russian Tea Room where an old man at the next table, knowing them for conspirators, palpably, lovingly fondled them with glances. He and the translator had conversed in German.
Out of town she remembered there were chains of look- alike motels where air conditioners exhaled noisy droplets and overhead fans started up in windowless bathrooms at the flick of a light switch. The toilets wore Good Housekeeping seals of paper bands. She swore and paced the corridors while he was gone or else sat for hours in a hot tub as if hoping her skin, that pimple, would burst.
She bit into a deformed strawberry swollen almost to plum size. It was mealy but wet as the earth was wet to her fingers, as the plants were furry with their cultivated bristles. Spiders clambered up the wisps of straw that had been spread as mulch between rows and spun and fell and labored again to renew their torn webs.
Bits of conversation drifted down her row. Even here, the talk was of ungrateful teen-age children, of dying parents, sick animals. She felt a dull astonishment. In this whole Breughel scene of people bending, kneeling, plucking, in this landscape of bobbing colors and anatomies, a terrible banal sameness prevailed. It was the sameness of the human condition. She had come to put her hands into the dirt, to taste her fruit in the full sun. For even in these carefully tended furrows to which the pickers were directed by the farmer'rsquo;s sharp-faced wife dressed in her strawberry-dotted pinafore, even though the hybrid berries had been force-fed to this size and drenched, midway in their span, with insecticides, they were more real than their counterparts in super- market boxes, plastic over and fastened shut with rubber bands.
Her legs and back ached. She had come impulsively, she now saw, licking the strawberry juice from her fingers, to put the wildness back in this dear red fruit. At the expense of the man she adored, who was fluent in five languages and whose starved childhood had been stained with this sort of foraging.
What was this affair but another form of marriage? Instead of being faithful to one man, she was faithful to two. Her husband was industrious and kindly and a bit unkempt. She remembered she had loved his ragged beard, his abandon with clothing, the way he wore his pipe, still smoldering, in his back pocket. When his shoestrings broke, he knotted them. When she closed her eyes she saw him, young and laughing, his arms full of their two boys, a tangle of hair and beard and arms and legs. The red dots of strawberries behind her eyes brought back that time, ten years gone, her standing stirring at the stove, him slicing bread, the little ones leaning on their elbows at the table waiting to taste the hot jam. “Will it jell?” they had asked, using their new word. “Will it ever jell?”
Everything jelled, its spaces or found new spaces to flow into. Thus she had come, willy-nilly, to adore a tidy professor whose suitcase was meticulously packed, his shaving lotion in a plastic bottle, his shirts in see-through bags fresh from the laundry, a man who carried his dictionaries about with him like religious statuary.
She rose, dusted herself off, and together the lovers, each encumbered with his tray, stood in line to have the fruit weighed. “Boxes or bags?” the pinafore woman asked impatiently. It came to ten pounds worth, two brown bags full, which they set on the floor of the back seat and covered with the New York Times as the coolest place in the car.
All that day and the next the berries ripened and ran together in their twin bags, giving off a smell of humus and fermented sugar. All that day and the next, winding their way down state from Mecca, the guilty pilgrims breathed in that richness and did not speak of it. In the twilight of the last twenty miles along the State Parkway they sat very close, she with her left hand sorrowfully on his knee, he with his right hand nuzzling hers in her lap. At the last rest area before the turn-off to her suburb he swerved wordlessly, pulled up to a green trash barrel and stopped the car. “Yes,” she said. “I know,” she said. And he divested them both of the bloody evidence. Then he took her to her train station and kissing her goodbye, drove his tongue between her teeth like a harsh strawberry and she clung to him, this other man, this vine which had taken root and on which she ripened.