First Chapter: Bittersweet
A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.
My mother sat down across from me at the big farmhouse table as I chewed the last bite of her home-smoked applewood bacon. My farmhand and I had already finished Vermont-cheddar omelets and homemade bread with butter from our own cows.
Breakfast had been great, but what Mom said next was even better. “I found you some more seasonal help.”
My coffee mug paused on its way to my mouth. “Seriously?”
“I did. And he starts today.”
“You’d better not be teasing.” We were always short-staffed at this time of year, when the grass grew so fast you could practically watch it lengthen, and the bugs waged a full-scale war against my apple trees.
It wasn’t even nine o’clock in the morning, and my farmhand and I had already worked for hours. At dawn we’d milked several dozen cows in two different barns. We always came in for a nice breakfast after the milking, but then it was back to work. For the next eight hours we’d tackle a to-do list of projects and repairs as long as a country mile.
Mom’s promise of a new employee was music to my ears. I lowered the mug to our dining table and met her gaze. But when I spotted her uncharacteristically tentative expression, I felt the first prickle of worry. Maybe I wasn’t going to like the sound of her new hire.
“Angelo called last night,” she said.
Oh, hell. Now I knew where this was going. Angelo was a lovely man who attended our Catholic church a couple towns away in Colebury. He was also a parole officer.
“He’s dropping off a young man today. Just released. He spent three years in jail for manslaughter. It was a car accident, Griff. He crashed his car into a tree.”
The familiar flash of stress that came from running a struggling business bolted through my chest. That second cup of coffee might have been a mistake. “Crashing into a tree isn’t illegal, Ma. There must be more to it.”
“Well.” Her face went soft. “He killed the sheriff’s son, who was a passenger in his car. And he was high on opiates at the time.”
“Ah.” The truth comes out. “So you hired a drug addict?”
She frowned at me. “A recovering addict. He got out of jail a month ago, and he’s been in rehab since then. Angelo said this kid can make it, but he just really needs a job. He’ll stay in the bunkhouse. Unless there’s something you’re not telling me, our property is a drug-free zone.”
Zachariah, our farmhand, gave a snort of laughter. “Coffee is our drug, Mrs. Shipley. But we’re in pretty deep.”
She reached over and gave Zach’s wrist an affectionate squeeze. My mother was good at taking in strays, and Zachariah was her most successful acquisition. But they couldn’t all be Zachariahs. I felt my blood pressure notch higher at the idea of adding a drug addiction to our long list of difficulties. Like I needed one more complication.
Since my father passed away three years ago, my mother and I ran the farm together. I made all the farming decisions—what to produce and where to sell it. But make no mistake—Mom kept the place running. She did the books. She fed me and our farmhand Zach, my three younger siblings, my grandfather and whichever seasonal employees were around. And when apple-picking season began five weeks from now, she’d run our busy pick-your-own business while somehow feeding an army as our workforce quadrupled.
So my very capable mother had every right to make a quick hiring decision, and we both knew it. Still, her choice of hires made me nervous.
“He’s twenty-two, Griff.” She crossed her arms, waiting me out. “The young man is clean, as they say. He’s off drugs. But nobody else is going to take a chance on him. And we’d only take him on for the growing season and through the harvest. Sixteen weeks, tops.”
Right. The sixteen most crucial weeks of my year.
A smart man knows when to back down to his mother. She’d obviously made up her mind already, and the day was getting on. “Okay,” I capitulated. “We’ll set him up in the bunkhouse when he shows up. Call me and I’ll give him a tour. Let’s go, Zach.” I stood, grabbing my baseball cap, and Zach did the same.
Carrying our dirty plates, we exited through the kitchen where my sister May was tidying up. She was on summer break from law school. “Did the twins move the chickens?” I asked by way of a greeting.
“Yes, captain,” my sister snarked. “They’re outside already.”
“Thanks.” I gave her elbow a squeeze as I passed by to make up for my lack of manners. At times I could be an overbearing grouch, especially during the growing season. And my sisters were quick to call me on it.
“Hey, Griff?” May called after me as I opened the door. “Do you still plan to send Tauntaun off to freezer camp today? I’ll need a heads up.”
I paused in the doorway. “Good question.” Butchering the pig would be a lot of work, and I didn’t really have the time. Then again, next week would be the same story, if not worse. “Yeah. We should get it done, unless the day gets crazy. I’ll give you some warning, so you can heat the water.” May gave me a salute, and Zach and I went outside.
Scanning the property, I spotted the twins in the back meadow, beyond the bunkhouse. They were moving the portable electric fence we used to keep our chickens safe from predators, and probably squabbling over something. At seventeen, they were a decade younger than I was.
A year from now I’d be paying both their college tuitions, and not a day went by when I didn’t worry about it. I gave my property the usual critical glance. The big, aging farmhouse where I’d grown up was in good shape for now. We’d redone the roof and the paint last year. But on a farm, there was always something going awry. If there wasn’t a problem with the farmhouse, it would be the stone bunkhouse or one of the dairy barns. Or the cider house or the tractor.
And even if nothing broke down today, there were business decisions in my near future. I needed to reinvest in the farm, yet we also needed cash. Somehow I needed to guide the farm toward greater profitability without borrowing a pile of money.
If only I knew how to do that.
With a sigh, I turned to Zach. “You want the fences or the mowing?” I asked him. There was plenty of work for both of us, so I was happy to let him choose.
“You pick,” he said immediately. Zach was a dream employee. He worked like an ox from sunup until supper, and he never complained—I didn’t know if he even knew how.
“I’ll mow,” I said. “But maybe we’ll swap after lunch. The new guy’ll be here…” Shit. “Walk with me a minute?”
I headed across the circular meadow toward the tractor shed.
“We’re going to have to keep an eye on this kid. I never asked you to spy on anyone before. But this is a little weird.”
He grinned. “It is…colorful. But Angelo’s no fool.”
This was true. “Now, is there anything I need to know about the Kubota?” Not only was Zach a model employee, he was a skilled mechanic.
“She’s running fine. I’m more worried about the milking rig in the big barn.”
I swore under my breath. Most of our dairy cattle lived across the street on a neighbor’s property. The bulk of our milk went to an ordinary dairy. On our own property, we raised a dozen organic cows, and that milk was sold to friends down the street who made fancy cheese from it.
“Did the pump give you trouble again?” Every farm had aging equipment, because no farmer could afford to upgrade his tools like the rest of the world upgraded their cell phones every year. I was a chemist by training, not a mechanic. So Zachariah was the one who coaxed all our most difficult equipment into performing. And the milking rig was about the most important machine on the whole property.
“It’s not going to last much longer. Some of the gears are stripped, and I can’t find those parts anymore. Odds are we’ll have to taker ’er out back and shoot ’er before New Years.”
I groaned. “Never tell me the odds.”
“Thank you, Chewie.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Chuckling, I walked off through the July morning toward the tractor barn, my head full of worry. I tried to imagine walking a hundred cows across the road to be milked in the smaller of the two dairy barns twice a day. Investing in new equipment on land I didn’t own sounded like a bad idea.
I’d figure it out somehow. I’d have to.