A Coming-of-Age Novel

            Franklin sat at the breakfast table in his orange baseball T-shirt, Crown Appliance stenciled in black lettering across his chest. To see Franklin up so early was a big surprise. Usually, after late summer evenings of work and late nights of play, he wouldn't be up before ten. But there he was reading the sports page of The Grand River Sentinel, which wasn't a surprise.
            "How'd the Yanks do, Franklin?"
            "Three-nothin' over the Orioles."
            Mrs. Henderson stood at the stove. Bacon popped and sputtered at her from the skillet and she poked back with a fork.
            "Mornin', Petey. How you feelin'?"
            "After all the commotion yesterday, I thought you two scamps'd still be out like a couple of light bulbs. And here it is not even eight o'clock."
            I stood behind Franklin and squinted over his shoulder at the sports' page. "Where's the standings?"
            "Here. The Yanks are still three up on the Angels and Twins and the way Richardson is playing, they got it in the bag."
            "I could've told you that. They always got it in the bag. The only question is who they going to beat in the World Series."
            "Let's see, the Dodgers are only up two and a half on the Giants and Willie Mays is clobberin' it, again. Cincy's still in it, too."
            "Sister Irene says the New York Giants are going to win it all."
            "New York Giants? Who said that?"
            "Sister Irene, that nun."
            "Oh, yeah, and Y.A. Tittle is going to hit a homer in the seventh game with two out in the ninth and the score tied. Right?"
            Franklin had a milk mustache and was dunking cinnamon toast into his glass, leaving a dark ring around the inside. Mrs. Henderson had the bacon draining now and was scrambling eggs and buttering toast.
            "You two oughta read something 'cept that sports page and start improvin' your minds. There's a lot to know in this here world."
            "We do. We read the comics."
            Franklin and I grinned at each other but Mrs. Henderson pretended not to hear.
            "Take that there rocket ship they blasted off yesterday. That dang thing's goin' to go clear to Venus or some dang place. You know how far that is?"
            "How far, Mrs. Henderson?"
            "Don't you get smart, Franklin Caviness. It's a dang sight farther than Willie Mays can hit a baseball."
            Franklin rolled his eyes at me and continued studying the pennant races.
            "The first thing my Milton would do after supper every night was read The Grand River Sentinel from cover to cover. Every word, mind you. He could tell you just about anything you wanted to know about this place or any other, for that matter. Weddings, temperatures, wars, births, accidents, anniversaries, TV schedules. You name it, he could tell you. Shoot, I didn't even have to read it myself. If I needed to know somethin', I could just ask Milton. Course, now that he's passed on I read it, but I just can't remember things as good as I use to when Milton was alive."
            Mrs. Henderson carried the black skillet to the table and scraped yellow clumps of egg onto our plates. She set a plate of bacon and toast between us and sat down. "What are you fixing to do so early in the mornin', Pete? You going to go play baseball with Franklin?"
            "He can't. I'm substituting on a team and you have to be at least thirteen to play on it."
            "Naw, I think I'll just go climb trees or something."
            "Well, if you ain't got nothing to do, just tell me 'cause that garden out there needs weedin'."
            Franklin smirked at me from behind his glass but I didn't say anything, just concentrated on my bacon and eggs. After finishing, I put on my Yankees baseball cap and hurried outside, imagining I were Roger Maris hitting my sixty-first home run. The sun burned low over Spruce Mesa and beads of dew glinted in the grass, wetting the tops of my sneakers as I ran across lawns toward Hill Avenue.
            Helen Lucero answered the door. She was a short plump woman but attractive in a freshly scrubbed sort of way, with orange hair pulled neatly back into a bun and a white nurses uniform pressed to a shine. She always gave the impression that she had just stepped from a long hot shower. She smiled.
            "Hi, there, Pete."
            "Are you feeling okay today?"
            "Yeah, I'm okay."
            "I sure hope we didn't scare you off yesterday."
            "No, it's okay. Is Fudgie here?"
            "No, Fudgie and Carmalita left about a half hour ago. They said they wanted to go over to the orchards and watch the peach harvest. Manny won't let them pick without him so they were just going to take a look. Have you eaten breakfast?"
            "Yeah, I just did, thanks. Do you know what orchard they went to?"
            "No, they didn't say. But they usually go to the Morrison's. It's just on this side of the canal below the water tank."
            "Yeah, I know where it's at."
            "Are you sure you don't want anything to eat?"
            "No, thanks. I got to go now."
            "Take care and come over anytime."
            I was already around the house, running toward Morrison Orchards north of town. The clay hills washed white in the morning sunlight and the glare made me squint as I reached the dirt road that ran along the canal bank. The irrigation water was light brown and it moved in a steady flow, eddying back into small whirlpools along the edges near the bank. After a good rain, the water would turn red as an Irish setter because of the runoff from higher up where there was more iron in the soil. Debris often floated by-tree limbs, cardboard boxes, metal containers, and sometimes even the carcass of an animal-and there were undercurrents, too. But despite these it was still a favorite place for cooling off in the hot Grand River summers. No summer day could equal one of floating endlessly down the canal in the middle of a shiny black innertube, arms and legs dangling in the current.
            The peach harvest was in full swing in the valley, and I could hear the clatter of tractors pulling flatbeds of bushel baskets and crates across furrowed rows of trees and the distant voices of fruit pickers talking to each other from their ladders or singing while they harvested the crop. Dogs with cockleburrs in their fur and tongues lolling out of their mouths lay under trees, already too hot to bark or sleep or do anything other than pant. Up ahead were cars, mostly old, parked along the dusty road, and down below was a one-story ranch-style house with a lawn and two pruned apricot trees in the yard.
            At the end of a gravel driveway, a wooden post was stuck in the ground with a piece of plywood nailed to it. On it, in dripping red paint, was written: PEACHES FOR SALE. A neater, professional-looking sign stood beyond: MORRISON ORCHARDS.
            A short stocky man in bib overalls with the pant legs turned up and a toothpick working in his mouth was standing with one foot on a flat-bed trailer. The trailer hitch was nosed into the dirt, rusted orange. The man held a pencil and a clipboard and was writing down the names of a small group of pickers gathered around him. A stack of wooden ladders with numbers spray painted on them were behind him and a pile of canvas picking bags sat on the edge of the lawn nearby. The pickers were quiet as they were issued the tools of their trade, and the man gave them a kind of pep talk after which they would, one by one, walk off into the orchards to begin work.
            "You can work five minutes or five days, it don't much matter to me as long as you bring back your ladders and pickin' bags. No hourly wage here. It's how much you pick, just remember that. Get that fruit in and leave here rich, that's what I say. It's up to you. I'll pay twelve cents a bushel. Can't beat that, can ya? No, sir, ten cents is tops around here, but I treat my people right. Give me a day's work an' I'll pay you for it. You can count on that. Yes-sirree, that's money hanging from those trees, people. Think of it that way and you'll do just fine, by golly. I'll guaran-damn-tee it. Just keep after it and we'll all do just fine, believe me."
            A woman in a long light-blue skirt smudged with dirt and a sleeveless blouse sat in the crook of one of the apricot trees and cradled an infant in her arms. Her blouse was discreetly unbuttoned and strands of blond lank hair hung loosely around her face as she gazed down at the baby greedily suckling her white breast. Her husband went to her then and still holding the ladder and bag, kissed her on the head before turning and walking into the orchards with the rest. She looked after him for a moment before dropping her eyes down onto the feeding infant.
            Finally, the man issued a ladder and bag to the last picker and began to stride across the lawn toward the house.
            "Hey, boy, you here to pick or just take in the sights?"
            I quickly looked away from the woman and shrugged my shoulders.
            "Excuse me, missus. Can I get you some lemonade or something? It's going to be a hot one today."
            The woman looked up and smiled at the man. "Thank ya. That would be nice."
            "How 'bout you, boy? You want to work or drink lemonade?"
            The man winked at the woman.
            "No, thanks. I'm just looking for my friend."
            "Who's your friend?"
            "His name's Fudgie Manzanares. He's about this tall and he's got black hair and brown skin. Have you seen him?"
            "Yeah, I've seen him. And about a thousand of his relatives."
            The man got a big charge out of himself, laughing heartily as he went on into the house. The woman held her baby over one shoulder now and she lightly bounced it up and down patting it on the back.
            "What'd ya say his name was?"
            "Fudgie Manzanares."
            "How old?"
            "Does he have a sister?"
            "Yeah, did you see him?"
            "Well, a little while ago somebody like that asked Sonny, my husband, if we could give him and his sister a ride down to the highway but we just spent all night drivin' up here from Cortez."
            "That's him. Did you see where he went?"
            "I think him and his sister went off in that direction."
            I waded off through the orchard grass to find Fudgie and Carmalita. The peach tree branches grew together overhead, sunlight only breaking through in muted blotches. But the pickers higher up on the ladders bore the full intensity of the heat on their necks and faces even though most of them wore some kind of hat. They wore long-sleeved shirts to protect themselves from mosquitoes and gnats and the clinging itch of peach fuzz which, when mixed with sweat, could rub skin raw. Down below in the shadows, the air was cooler but smothering in the trapped humidity coming off the weeds. The mosquitoes were thicker there and as the workers congregated around big aluminum water jugs to drink and talk and compare the number of bushels they had picked, I could smell snatches of insect repellant about them.
            Up and down the rows I went but could find no sign of Fudgie and Carmalita. On the outer edges of the orchard lay a field gone to seed, yellow butterflies flitting over it. At the far end, near the road, stood a fruit stand with peeling white paint. An old green truck with wooden slats on the sides was parked in front so I walked across the field to it. The front of the stand was boarded up and the man in the bib overalls whom I had spoken to earlier was on his knees, taking tools from a toolbox.
            "Find your friend?"
            "Well, I don't doubt it. This is a big orchard."
            The man picked up a crowbar and a hammer and began to pry boards from the stand. Nails, rusty with age, squeaked as he loosed the lumber from the frame.
            "Want a job, son?"
            "I don't know."
            "How old are you?"
            "Ten an' a half goin' on eleven."
            "I'll tell you what, I'll give you five bucks to help me tear down this fruit stand. Is it a deal?"
            It took Franklin a month of watering and mowing one lawn to make five dollars. Five dollars was the most money I had ever been offered for anything.
            "I want to but I kind of need to find my friend."
            "Well, if you change your mind, get on back here after lunch. You know where I'll be. But I want to get it done this afternoon."
            I turned and started down the trace of road beaten in the weeds toward the house, thinking of what I could buy with five dollars. And then I thought of Fudgie and how, maybe, if he helped me, we could earn enough money to help him and Carmalita get to Mexico. By the time I reached the yard, it was noon and people were sitting in the shade eating sandwiches from paper bags and lunch boxes. A few lay out under the apricot trees on the lawn and napped, hats over their faces and outstretched arms as pillows for their slumbering heads.
            I walked up to the canal road where people were milling around watching a man change the oil on his truck. A few others were sitting in cars, the doors flung wide, listening to the radio. In the water, a group of wet glistening heads bobbed down the canal like buoys and then emerged farther down current attached to young brown bodies.
            One of these bodies coming back up the canal road belonged to Fudgie Manzanares.
            "I've been looking all over for you. Where'd you go? I thought maybe you already left."
            He didn't answer and the other boys smiled and nudged each other and lifted their chins in my direction.
            "Fudgie, what's wrong?"
            "Fudgie, what's wrong?"
            All the boys but Fudgie laughed at the boy who mimicked my question. He glanced back at them and they went quiet.
            "What you wan', gringo?"
            He stopped walking and looked at me for the first time.
            "Fudgie, I thought we . . . nothin'."
            I stepped to the side and looked after them as Fudgie and his friends pushed by me down the road. They laughed, elbowing and poking each other. With hoots and shouts and Fudgie leading the way, they all sprang back into the water.
            I walked to the house and back down the road toward the old fruit stand. In the shade of a packing shed set off in a grove of globe willows sat a group of women and children. A hand shot up and I could see it was Carmalita's but I didn't wave back and I didn't stop.
            When I arrived at the fruit stand, the man's truck was gone so I lifted myself up onto the dusty counter under the eaves. The sun was straight up and there was little shade. For a time I sat staring at the dirt before I noticed the man had left the crowbar leaning against a short stack of old lumber. I hopped off the counter and picked it up, feeling the weight and heat of the metal in my bare hand. And then, taking the end of the crowbar in both hands, I raised it over my shoulder and with a short quick step and long even swing, smashed the side of the fruit stand-as though I were Willie Mays hitting a baseball all the way to Venus.