Bob Anderson, the boss, a handsome, blond man, seemed to like smiling but he had not recently smiled at me. He lived in the stone house on the bluff overlooking his fields. The house was a mile outside Peru on the Pewter Road. While he cleared his fields he had gathered stones to build the house. The roof was tiled, and the windows were gabled. Then when Earlin Emerson, the florist, retired, Bob Anderson bought both of Earlin’s beautiful glass greenhouses. Mr. Anderson directed Charlie Sturtivant, Vic Slade and Emil Kasmirek to disassemble the greenhouses and to transport them on Charlie’s flatbed truck into Mr. Anderson’s field. They erected them just as the winter of 1955 was setting in. They broke not one pane of glass, because Bob Anderson was not an ordinary man.
This greenhouse and the flowers and seedlings in it used to jump out at me. The plants’ beauty assaulted me, and their fresh perfume made me dizzy. They emptied my mind into a swirl of confusion. Sometimes I’d wander into that greenhouse and dream with big eyes about heaven and earth. Mr. Anderson turned toward me a granitic profile and studied me with eyes sidelong.
I wanted to know more about those plants, but a stone wall of misapprehensions blocked my way. I was preoccupied. By nature I was inclined to believe what I read in books. I read God was dead, and the word “nothingness” had on me a big influence. My inflamed mind gave many things a strange slant, which made impossible certain simple everyday understandings. I was “existential”, which meant to me that it was not necessary to get too put out over anything. The stick figures that represented workers in my Civics textbook at school did not get too put out. They were existential. When the production ceased, the workers went home. But the plants went on working, and they worked assiduously. In Mr. Anderson’s greenhouses they worked all day and all night. They were a load, a mystery. I sighed, I liked to hang out in the greenhouses. Plants didn’t look at all like I imagined was nothingness.
One day my father said, “Eddie, this is a good day to work. Today you must earn a dollar.”
I agreed. It was a good day to earn a dollar. I could wreck myself today. I went into Mr. Anderson’s strawberry field. Only a few people were picking, so I was alone with my vaguenesses.
Mr. Anderson was disinclined to waste words in introduction or explanation. He had given me my crate of quart containers and he sent me off to work. Obviously, he was not a man like the ordinary. Why should I ask questions?
But where were all the ripe strawberries? I looked back over my shoulder at the beautiful greenhouses. Pallets of potting soil and trees, whose roots were wrapped in burlap, and too many different gardening tools for me to learn all their names were clustered in families around the greenhouses. A plumb greenhouse of glass would capture my imagination and fascinate me the rest of my life. Maybe I could have been better employed?
On this day most of the strawberries were a sickly yellowish white color, but a few were red and lusciously ripe. Nevertheless, Mr. Anderson had sent me, and I must wreck myself to earn a dollar.
As I crawled along, searching for red strawberries, I considered the sickly berries. Might they also be tasty? Why do strawberries have to be red to be tasty? If you could pick a few sickly berries, you could earn a dollar more quickly. Besides, as the sun ascended higher and the field got brighter, the berries seemed to become brighter, too. In this brighter light red berries could dominate the future.
In fact, they could take over. So a battle was brewing, a war of reds and whites. The reds outflanked the whites and rushed to the attack through a thin filament of green. That must be General Ike, the ripe one in triumphal pose, humongous in the battle’s center!
Could the crop today be worth picking? Maybe it was a new crop just coming in, or an old crop languished past picking. What did that matter to me? It was not even lunch time yet, and I still had to get wrecked. But I could eat any time. My lunch box was full. Eat like a barbarian! Beat my chest! Work at least until lunch. Besides, dreaming in a sunny, green field was a happiness even if there was not much fruit to pick.
Toward high noon the sky towered to the dark blue that signified the edge of outer space. Shredded clouds took up positions here and there to guide the sun into prominence. Under this warm sun the berries that were actually red looked indescribably delicious. I believed that the juice must taste like ambrosia, though I was unclear on how ambrosia should taste. I should be picking, but how could I forswear eating? It was as if the berries spoke to me: so red, so ripe, so round. Under a distant, secluded leaf they hung lusciously. I ate some of the best fruit. Pleasures are so fleeting in this world. Put by a berry in a jar! Where has it gone? I came to the only logical conclusion: it looks good, so eat it.
Quite a few people came into the field that day. They tried picking, then they quickly left. They must have been weak, while I was strong. I persevered. I searched high and low. I didn’t care how hot the sun was or how tired I got. I endured.
Big forces began to collide in my head. My father was on one side and the rest of the world on the other side. Then next against my father was Mr. Anderson, who I already knew was not an ordinary man. My father had said that I must work to make a dollar, but Mr. Anderson might not find this battle of reds and whites amusing. He might throw my bounty in my face, and the crushed berries’ juices given to the parched earth. What should I do?
I had done work; I was still here. But there were not enough berries to make a dollar and go home to rest.
I began to fill out my crate with imperfect berries. The naturalness with which I fell amazed me. Failure and boredom, boredom and failure made resisting hard. Boredom and failure were existential; resisting was like church, which had never worked out for me. I absentmindedly adjusted the bad berries, slipping them with a damp forefinger under the good. It was the same absentmindedness that allows life’s hurtful facts to be softened and embellished.
Then the light over the strawberry field became gray. A gentle sea breeze had cooled the air, a sign of afternoon in my home town near the Atlantic coast in New Hampshire. A tender weariness came over me. I picked up the crate full of quart boxes of berries and lugged them down the path toward the big greenhouse. As I entered the greenhouse I tried not to look sick.
“Oh, God, you! I forgot about you,” Mr. Anderson said. “What have you got there?”
I laid the crate on a nearby work bench and took out the quart containers.
“No!” Mr. Anderson laughed. “I can’t sell half these.”
“Sir,” I said, knees trembling. “I want a dollar.”
Mr. Anderson was an extraordinary man, and he was a hardass besides, but I was more afraid of my father. I liked wrecking myself, and everything was good except whatever had for whatever reason fear attached to it.
“I won’t give you a dollar. I won’t give you anything. Look.” He spilled out a quart on the table. Some of the berries were good. He angrily tossed the bad ones into the trash.
“I want my dollar,” I repeated softly.
Before he could reply I was astonished that my father walked into the greenhouse, smiling. “Hi, Eddie. How was your day of work?”
Mr. Anderson had become agitated. “I can’t give him money for this,” he said.
Father examined the berries spread out on the bench. He laughed. “Mister, your crop has gone past. How should he know? Give the boy his money and we’ll go.”
“These are not worth anything,” Mr. Anderson said.
“You got greedy,” my father replied. “You are squeezing your crop past prime. And now you owe the boy a dollar.”
“Greedy? Fine!” The cash register crashed. He took out a crumpled dollar, and thrust it at me, and said, “Don’t bother to come back.”
Father and I hustled outside. With face red Mr. Anderson stood in the doorway. Father and I climbed into the old Studebaker. Father drove down Old Peru Road toward home.
“Sometimes it is hard to tell when a job is not worth doing,” Father said. “And nobody will be anxious to tell you. So you have to figure it out for yourself.”
A darkness came over me that made me breathless. Perhaps in my life the darkness never really did go away. Sometimes it still closes in if I am not careful. I worry that I am a person who has failed in life because I was not cut out for work.