When the Corn Died: Chapter Fifteen
The Harpers Have Arrived
My fictional family is now in Wenatchee, Washington, in the year 1933. They lost their farm back in Iowa and now want to make a new life growing apples.
But there is a long road to travel before that becomes a reality.
Shall we join them?
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New Town, New Problems
We camped that night on a hill overlooking our new home town. The sun’s final rays sparkled upon the Columbia River, cloaking it in a golden robe and warming our hearts. As a group we smiled when we saw it. Surely it must be a sign that this is where we should be.
Despite the comforting final vision of daylight, and despite the relief that we had finally made it to Wenatchee, my mind would not rest as we lay under the stars. We needed to find work in a land stripped of all hope. We were farmers, experts in a dying way of life. We were one family against powerful economic forces, those forces unseen and yet omnipresent.
I listened as my family, Evelyn, Peter Junior, and our adopted family, Emma and Timothy, breathed gently and rhythmically, exhausted from the travel and worry, finding comfort for a few hours, but that comfort would not come to me.
What would we ever do if we failed?
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A New Day
After breakfast the next morning we made our way to the town itself. The sun and temperature rose in unison as I parked the old truck and we took our first tentative steps on the dirt road of downtown Wenatchee. Somber, dust-caked people nodded in greeting as they passed us, people wearing the clothes of back-breaking work, their faces lacking expression, their eyes lacking the sparkle of hope. It reminded me so much of our former home, Charles City, and the choking atmosphere that surrounded it, the air heavy with a mantel of resignation.
Evelyn squeezed my hand.
“It’s going to be all right, Peter. Hold your head up and smile to them all. If they see a glimmer of hope in your eyes perhaps that will help them get through the day.”
I’m a lucky man!
We made our way to the banks of the mighty river where all the apple warehouses were located. I was encouraged by the activity there, a constant flow of humanity involved in commerce, ships and rail cars waiting anxiously, trucks coming, going, exhaust filling the air, loud sounds, whispering sounds, all speaking of a higher purpose and grander scheme of things we were not privy to.
Peter Junior and I left the rest of the family by the riverbank and entered one such warehouse. There must have been twenty, twenty-five men moving around inside and one man, a bulky man atop a spindly crate, shouting out orders to the rest, a clipboard in his hand. He was a busy man and he let us know it by ignoring us for a good minute. Finally he looked down and asked us what the hell we wanted.
I stuck out my hand.
“I’m Peter Harper and this here is my son, Peter Junior, and I guess we can start this conversation by saying we’d really like to be treated with respect when you speak to us.”
Fifteen seconds, thirty seconds went by, my hand extended, the man standing on the crate staring at it. Finally he shook his head, took off his hat and stepped down off the crate.
“I apologize, gentleman. Tough day already and only nine in the morning; people say they want to work and then they don’t show up, leaving me short-handed and deadlines to meet. But that’s not your concern now is it? My name is Otis Armstrong and I’m the foreman here at B &B Produce. What can I do for you?”
“Apology accepted, Mr. Armstrong, and it appears we can do something for each other,” I told him. “We are newly arrived from Charles City, Iowa, farmers we were up until a few weeks ago when the bank took our acreage, and so here we are, looking for work, my son and I, and willing to do anything you need us to do.”
His laugh was of foghorn quality, booming throughout the warehouse as he extended his hand once again.
“Well then, Harpers, from Charles City, Iowa, roll up your sleeves and let’s get to work.”
And just like that we had our new beginning.
Sharing the Good News
While Peter Junior filled out some employment paperwork, I ran outside and told the family of the good news. Evelyn, of course, was beaming at the news. She kissed me hard on the lips and then did a little jig.
“What did I tell you, husband? Just what did I tell you? Well get in there, you big oaf, and get to work. Don’t you worry about the three of us; we’ll be fine. We’ll meet you back here later in the afternoon and we’ll decide then on our next step forward.”
Did I mention I’m a lucky man?
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Meanwhile, the Women…..
Evelyn, Emma and little Timothy left the warehouse district and walked south along North Miller Street, then South Miller Street, taking their time and enjoying the first hours of their new adventure. Storefronts were much the same as back home, advertising all sorts of wonders at slashed prices, out-of-business signs, foreclosed signs, once shiny new paint jobs now flaking and chipped, faded like the old photographs of another era.
And yet despite the worn and torn appearances there was a feeling of movement forward in this city, a feeling like a smidgeon of hope could be found in every apple, and each day that passed was one day closer to a solution.
They finally came to a general store, Appleby’s by name, a sprawling one-story building with a welcoming porch, and they found a clerk behind a product-heavy counter, staring at them as they entered. He was a little man in vest, starched white shirt and well-worn trousers. He was losing the battle against baldness and his constitution kept him rail-thin. His smile took him some effort but he tried his best.
“Welcome to Appleby’s!” he said. “How can I help you this fine morning?”
“Mr. Appleby, I assume,” Evelyn said. “We are new to your fine town, from Charles City, Iowa, and I was wondering if you had any suggestions where a new family might find a safe place to spend some nights before they found suitable housing?”
“Well, you might try the park west of here. The city allows…..”
In the back of the store a bell rang.
“Excuse me, folks. That’s my wife. I’ll be right back.” And with that the rail-thin man who called himself Appleby left through a door to the back room.
Evelyn and Emma touched the fabrics and looked at jewelry behind a glass case while little Timothy busied himself watching parakeets in a large wire aviary. Finally Mr. Appleby returned wiping his eyes.
“I’m sorry for the interruption,” he said. “Now where were we? You had a question but I’m afraid I don’t remember it.”
Timothy walked over and put his small hand on the man’s arm.
“You look sad, Mr. Appleby. What’s the matter with you?”
And the store owner cried, at first a single tear, followed by a strangled whimper and then a full-fledged gulping for breath between sobs. The women waited it out, patting his arm, wiping his forehead with a damp cloth Emma had produced, and finally the sobs became sighs and the torrent of tears ended.
“I’m so sorry. That’s never happened before,” he said. “It’s my wife. She’s sick something terrible with a weakness of the heart. The doctor says there’s nothing we can do. She was always so lively, always singing, dancing, loving life, and slowly her breath was short and the long walks become shorter, the dancing stopped and now she’s in bed most of the day, in the back room, and damn it all to hell, she’s such a good, loving woman. I’m afraid it’s all just been too much, me running the store and trying to take care of her.”
Evelyn instinctively reached out and hugged the man.
“Mr. Appleby, why don’t you take yourself a break? Emma, would you go to the back room and see if you can help Mrs. Appleby? I’ll watch the store while you, Mr. Appleby, go for a much-needed walk outside. Go on now, get!”
“But I can’t pay you for this kindness,” he told her.
“Shush now. Enough of your silliness. People help people. That’s what we do, so please allow us to help you. Go on now. Take all the time you need. We have everything under control here.”
And That’s Where We’ll Stop Today
But never fear, we will return next week with another installment of the Harper story.
Thanks for stopping by and following this fine family. They wanted me to tell you that they appreciate you all greatly.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
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