Grit – Gillian French

I SWORE I wouldn’t come back here this summer, not to Mrs. Wardwell’s foghorn voice and blisters the size of nickels. But when I went down to Gaudreau’s Take-Out on the last day of school and asked for an application, you know what Mr. Gaudreau said? “Sorry, honey pie, this is a family business.” Honey pie? Hell, I could sling Rocky Road faster than his girls, and I’d always offer jimmies. They’re wicked tight with jimmies at Gaudreau’s. Anyway, it’s Friday, July 28, opening day of wild blueberry season all across eastern Maine, and my sister Mags and I are back in the barrens for the harvest. The sun looks swollen and hazy, but I’ll be all right as long as I’ve got my straw cowgirl hat and my SPF 50. I’m raking circles around Mags. I’ve filled thirty-two boxes of berries and we’ve only been at it since seven a.m. I meet her eyes and grin. She scratches her cheek with her middle finger, slow. Pretending I want a drink of water from our gallon jug, I walk by and goose her, making her gasp, “Darcy Prentiss! God!” Our cousin Nell is raking way over by the stone wall, but she knows what happened and her giggles echo across the fields. Soon Nell will start singing, which she does day in, day out, all season long, driving most of us crazy by quitting time.

Still, Nell’s special, so when she bursts into “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” nobody tells her to shut up. Raking goes like this: you bend at the knees and sweep a two-handled rake across the low bushes, filling the tines with berries. When your rake’s full, you dump it into a big plastic box stamped E. F. Danforth & Son. When the box is full, you open another one. I don’t notice Nell racing across the rocky field toward me until she’s by my side, breathless. “He’s here. That Jesse Bouchard.” As we watch the pickup rumbling up the dirt road, she adds, “He’s late.

” Even though she’s eighteen, in a lot of ways, Nell’s like a kid; I guess you could call her a little slow. As my aunt Libby likes to say to Mom, “At least I don’t got to worry about what my girl’s been up to.” Then she looks straight at me. Jesse Bouchard parks his truck, and he and his buddies take their sweet time climbing out. Mr. Bob Wardwell, who’s field boss, goes over to bawl Jesse out, but before you know it, they’re laughing and shooting the shit like old buddies. Jesse’s gaze finds me and I look away, putting a hand to my hat even though there’s no wind today. “Let’s move before he tries talking to us.” Nell tugs my arm. I shake her off.

“Get back in your row or I’ll tell your mom you were slacking.” Jesse makes his way over, wearing worn-out jeans and a white T-shirt, putting me in mind of that old picture of Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Mom’s vintage vinyl album. You know, with those dark curls and that sexy stare? All he says to me now is, “Nice to see ya,” while giving me the slow once-over, reminding me of all the places where my tank top is clinging with sweat. His buddy Mason Howe follows—a big, blond, slow-moving guy who always seems to have his hands in his pockets—and behind him is the one person I was hoping to dodge for the rest of the summer. Shea Gaines flicks the brim of his ball cap, one corner of his mouth quirking up like somebody just told a dirty joke and the punch line was me. “Look who’s here,” is all he says. His anger shifts under that sure-footed cocky act of his, and I breathe out, holding his gaze as he passes on by. Mags and Nell move in on my left and right until we form a wall. Mags wipes her sweaty brow and says, “What’s up his butt?” I shrug. “Tell you later.

” I fill ten more boxes before Mr. Wardwell blasts his truck horn three times, signaling all one hundred and fifty or so of us rakers to come up to headquarters (where the Porta-Johns are) for an earful. Mags and Nell and I sit in the grass together, scarfing down our lunches, chugging water, and baking in the noonday heat as we get ready for Mrs. Evelyn Wardwell’s Jackassing-Around speech. She squats in her camping chair, a two-liter of diet soda at her feet, eyeballing us. She’s huge, 275 easy, and the sleeveless flowered shirt she wears looks like it could cover a love seat and leave a few yards to spare. Her husband kind of fades into the background as she heaves herself up and stands with her head thrust forward, fists on hips. “Listen up. We got a lotta berries out there this year.” It’s true; it was a rainy spring and now the barrens are green and fit to burst.

“Next two weeks, I wanna see asses and elbows, everybody showing up on time”—her gaze finds Jesse, Shea, and Mason—“nobody cutting out early. No jackassing around. We don’t pay you to jackass around. I catch you at it, you’re outta here. I know plenty of folks who want to make some money. And don’t come to me saying so-and-so is paying more in their fields than we do. You get two-fifty a box here and that’s it.” I sneak a look at Jesse. He sits with his forearms resting on his bent knees, and my gaze follows the line of his muscles all the way down to his wrists. You get ripped like that from tossing bales into a hay truck and thrashing down weeds to clear pasture, which he’s been doing over at his uncle’s place since he graduated in May, so I heard.

Shea catches me looking. He leans over and whispers something to Jesse, then smiles at me, hard and scalding. He’s not just mad at me; he’s ready to draw blood, and I turn away, a flush rising in my face as Mrs. Wardwell keeps going. “This ain’t gonna be like last year. None of that foolishness is gonna happen again. Understand me?” We all stop fidgeting. “Nobody’s allowed on this property after quitting time except me, Bob, and the migrants staying in the cabins. I’ll be here to see that the rest of you clear out. Get a ride or hoof it into town, I don’t care which.

I can’t be responsible for what goes on after hours, got it?” Everybody nods, us locals giving the migrant workers the once-over and the migrants looking right back to show they’ve got nothing to hide. Got to give the Wardwells credit: one of the posters, tattered and faded, is still taped to their camper door. Even twelve months later, the word Missing stands out. “Awright. Finish up eating and get back to work.” She drops into her chair, which is right outside the camper doorway so she can sit in the shade of the awning and prop an electric fan on the steps. We get back to raking, but Mags and I don’t joke around like before, and Nell’s soft, flat crooning blends with the droning bugs and the sound of distant traffic from Route 15. Clouds move in. Rain’s coming. After I load my last box of berries onto Mr.

Wardwell’s flatbed, he walks around the tailgate, smacking his gloves together. He’s about half the size of his wife, with a thick head of white hair and skin so weathered it looks like old saddle leather. “You’re Sarah Prentiss’s girls, ain’t ya?” We all nod; Nell’s close enough to a sister. He grunts, scratching his stubble. “You heard what Evelyn said about being careful?” I don’t remember her saying that, exactly, but Mags nods. “It’s okay. We stick together.” “Good deal.” He heads for the truck. People are worried these days.

Worried the ground’s going to open up and swallow another Sasanoa girl. Exhausted and aching, the three of us walk down the road to Mags’s beat-to-hell Mazda. A group of guys hang around Jesse’s truck, talking trash. As we pass, Shea calls, “See ya at the quarry tonight, Darcy?” to big laughs. I don’t stop or turn around, but once we’re in the car, I kick the dash so hard it sends the little hula girl into fits. Mags wears her know-it-all look, and the only reason she bites her tongue is because Nell’s in the backseat. But this time, Mags doesn’t know it all. She doesn’t know a damn thing. Mags shifts hard into drive and we raise a rooster tail of dust behind us. Overhead, the sky looks ready to open up any second.

TWO AFTER MY DAD, smoking is Mom’s second true love. Dad died eleven years ago, so Kools are all she has left. She practices her skills every night, blowing rings or letting smoke trickle out her nostrils so slowly it hurts to watch. Sometimes I think she smokes so she won’t have to talk to us. Can’t really blame her when Aunt Libby is around, which is always, because her trailer sits on the edge of our property. “You’re out of milk here, Sarah.” Libby sticks her head into our Frigidaire so that her rear end blocks my way, like she didn’t know I needed to get by. I have to climb over a chair to get back out to the porch. “This orange juice is expired. You know that?” She holds up the carton and sloshes it around to get Mom’s attention.

“You’re gonna need bread. I’ll make French bread, how about that?” She searches the cupboard and sighs, flopping her arms down. “You’re out of flour.” Mags and I trade looks and go back to our game of Hearts with Nell. We play cards on the porch all the time, betting change while Mom sits in a wicker chair with her feet propped on the railing, puffing and staring down to where Old County Road connects with 15. Tonight, us girls all have wet hair from showering, and moan and groan about our aching muscles whenever we shift around on the big faded area rug. Still, it’s worth it: by the end of harvest, I should have enough money saved for new school clothes and one of those clunkers down to Gary’s Salvage, which is where Mags bought her car last fall. You won’t catch me tossing coins for shotgun again. Nell is eating pretzels. She considers each one before she puts it in her mouth, like she’s expecting to come across one shaped like Abe Lincoln or the Blessed Virgin.

“I liked the movie on Saturday, but it wasn’t my favorite.” She’s been saying that since we got back from the Sasanoa Drive-In last weekend. The first movie of the double feature is always a Hollywood classic, and Nell lives for it. Mags rolls her eyes behind her dark-framed glasses. “Go on, tell us what you thought of the kiss.” She picks up the first trick and leads with spades. “Wellll”—Nell flops back on her elbows and walks her toes up the railing—“the boy was attractive. ” That’s her new thing: guys aren’t hot, they’re attractive. Marlon Brando’s all I remember from the movie, too, because I was half-gone on rum and Cherry Coke that my friend Kat brought in a thermos. “And he kissed like he meant it”—she makes a big smooching sound, and Mags and I crack up—“but he was too rough with that girl.

Kisses are supposed to be soft. That’s how every kiss should be.” Mom speaks in her low smoker’s voice, holding her cigarette out to smolder in the muggy air. “And who’re you planning on kissing?” When you look at Mom, you can see what Mags and I will look like in twenty years or so: sandy blond hair, wide-spaced blue eyes that tilt up at the corners like a cat’s, short nose, pointed chin. My gaze slides to Nell, but she doesn’t miss a beat. “None of those blueberry rakers, that’s for sure. They’re not gentlemanly.” We crack up again. “Well, they’re not.” “What’re you talking about, Nellie Rose?” Libby leans in the doorway.

She thinks Nell gets this stuff from The Young and the Restless. “You better watch yourself.” “How can I watch myself? I don’t have eyes in the back of my head.” Nell laughs and laughs like it’s the best joke ever, which gets Mags and me going again. Libby puts her hands in the pockets of her denim jumper. That’s how she dresses, like a Pentecostal, even though we’re all lapsed Catholics: long hems and long braids and granny specs perched on the end of her nose. “Somebody mind telling me how I’m supposed to fix a celebration supper if I got nothing to work with?” She gives us a sly look as we turn to stare at her. Mom grinds out her cigarette in a coffee cup. “You finally going to tell them?” “What? Who?” Nell sits up. “Me?” “You made it, baby.

” Libby smiles. “Got the call today. You’re gonna be a Princess.” Nell shoots up off the floor, shrieking and hugging her mom, jumping around to bring the porch down, which wouldn’t take much. I scoop up the cards and shuffle, since you can’t play Hearts with two people and Nell’s going to be over the moon for the rest of the night. She’s only wanted to be a Bay Festival Princess since forever, and here’s one thing I haven’t told you yet about Nell: she’s beautiful. Not beautiful like a Victoria’s Secret model, but pure, untouched gorgeous, the kind that scares most guys away. Skin like china, wavy Black Irish hair she got from her dad (wherever he is), dark blue eyes all starry and full of little-kid innocence. Mom clears her throat. “That ain’t all the news, Lib.

” Libby hugs Nell to her and lifts her chin stubbornly, saying nothing. Mom looks at me, and I stop in mid-cut. “Lady from the Festival Committee left you a message, too, Darce. You were nominated.” Mags’s mouth drops open, and then she falls over laughing. I stare at Mom, waiting for her to crack up, but when I see how sour Libby looks, I know it’s no joke. I burst out, “By who?” Mom shrugs. “You know that’s kept secret. Guess you got a fan.” And that’s all I’ll get out of her tonight.

Nell screams again and pulls me into a hug that makes my spine pop, jerking me up and down. Meanwhile, my darling sister gasps and takes her glasses off to wipe her eyes. “Oh my God . wow . ” For supper, we eat spaghetti and a pound cake Mom’s been hiding in the freezer behind last summer’s zucchini. I stab my fork into my plate harder than I need to, refusing to look at anyone, waiting for the world to come back into focus. Every time Nell shakes my arm and says, “Isn’t it awesome? We get to do it together!” Libby adds something like, “Lots of girls make the first round, you know,” or “Winning Queen is about more than just looks,” until I spill my iced tea accidentallyon-purpose to give her something else to bitch about. I look at Mom as Libby fusses with paper towels. “Can I go?” Mom waves her hand. I go upstairs, touching the framed picture of Dad hanging on the wall above the newel post; there could be bombs dropping on the house and I’d still remember to do that every night.

In the picture, I’m two years old and Mags is three and a half. He’s holding us in each arm like we weigh nothing, a grin on his face, leaning back against whatever hot rod he was tinkering with at the time. The night air is thick, still waiting for the rain that’s been promised since this afternoon. Mags, Nell, and I sit where the roof flattens outside Mags’s bedroom window. We have to be careful because the shingles are crumbling, like the rest of the house. If we knock chunks down onto the porch, we could wake up Mom. Nobody knows we come out here at night, and we like it that way. “You know what got you the vote.” Mags grins at me. “Those Daisy Dukes of yours.

They scream Sasanoa’s Finest.” She leans back against her window. “I can see you up onstage now. Tiara, sash, and a bottle of Colt 45.” I tug at my cutoffs. “They’re not Daisy Dukes. If the hem’s longer than the pockets, they’re not Daisy Dukes.” “That’s the rule, huh?” I want to whomp the hell out of her, but ever since we were kids, we’ve tried to go easy on each other when Nell’s around; she hates fighting. Nell holds her second piece of pound cake in a napkin and picks at it, watching me close. “Are you mad about the pageant?” The way she sounds, you’d think I wanted to cancel Christmas.

How can I explain to her that this is somebody’s screwed-up idea of a joke? Darcy Prentiss, White Trash Princess. Whoever they are, they must be laughing their asses off. I just don’t know who’d go to all this trouble. I’ve heard Libby say plenty of times that to make it onto the ballot, it takes one nomination from somebody in the community and then a Festival Committee member to second it. She nominated Nell herself. Doesn’t matter; no way am I making a fool of myself up on that stage come August 19. “She’s just trying to decide what color corsage to wear, that’s all,” Mags says, patting Nell’s knee. “Oh, Darcy, you can’t know that until you find your dress.” I start to say something I’ll regret, but then the rain comes down, taking our breath away. Nell scrambles for the edge of the roof, feeling for the living room window casing with her toes before using it as a step to drop into the flower bed.

If Libby ever did any weeding—she grows the flowers, Mom grows the veggies—she’d find bare footprints sunk deep into the soil. Waving to us, Nell runs for the trailer, taking bites of cake as she goes. “One of these days she’s going to Pollyanna herself right off this roof,” Mags says, once we’ve crawled back inside her dim bedroom. “And land on her feet.” I wipe rain off my face. “Nell’s got luck like most people got zits.” I catch Mags studying me and stop. “What?” “I didn’t forget about Shea.” She sits on her bed. “What happened between you two?” I turn away, touching the ballerina jewelry box that she’s had as long as I can remember.

The porcelain dancer’s arm is so thin I could snap it between my fingers. “Nothing special.” “Was it him, on the Fourth? Was that why you were acting so weird that night?” She waits. “Really, Darcy? Shea Gaines?” At once I’m so tired I can barely stand it. I point to the open window. “Rain’s getting in,” and leave her sitting there in the dark.

.

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