Picking Strawberries
by Billy Gee

Joseph sat on the open bed of a red pick-up truck, kicking his feet and drinking water from a Styrofoam cup. His two older brothers and his sister sat on their knees, bent forward over the bushes, picking berries and dropping them into the green cartons that trailed away behind them in long spindly rows.

Tom looked up at Joseph and smirked.

“When I was thirteen, I wasn’t allowed to sit on the truck all day,” he said. He pushed his hair back from his eyes and looked out over the vast field.

Joseph pretended not to hear. He did his job. He was told to pour the water, collect the cartons, load the crates. His father gave him the work he was meant to do, so why should he care what his brothers said? He looked down at Tom, buried in a sea of berries. It felt as if Tom had been born in a sea of berries. A red sea. He took to berry picking like a fish to water. He dove in and picked with a fury. Every reach into the bush scratched his arms, leaving long red and white trails from his elbow to his wrist. He scuttled down the straw path like a crab with fat stubby limbs, quick and nimble on all fours. Just a disgusting little strawberry animal, thought Joseph.

The darkness waned in gray fog and sun spiked warm through the mist. It would be a hot day.

Every time Tom looked up, Joseph caught a glimpse of his eyes. Those blue simpleton eyes stared at him with such hatred, and those thick hands kept picking.

“Dad put us out in these fields from the day we could crawl, but that kid gets to sit up on the truck all day?” Tom said loudly.

Joseph looked away.

“Daddy’s favorite doesn’t have to work,” laughed their brother Ryan, “He’s saving himself for God, don’t you know?”

Joseph was angry but he swallowed his pride like the pastor said to do. His brothers would always be in the fields. Or out in a quarry somewhere doing the work nobody else wanted to do.

It’s true, he told himself. I won’t be like them. I am different.

Joseph couldn’t stop thinking about tall buildings in the big cities on television. What would it mean to go up an elevator to get to work, to spend the day in a glass box in the sky? He thought about this all the time but knew he would never make it. He would die before he saw a city or kissed a girl. Jesus would come back first. He could tell because his brothers were so evil. All they did was talk about sex and fighting. They heard the pastor too but they didn’t care. The pastor said you know not the time nor the place but the signs — they are everywhere. The sin is rampant. The earthquakes surround us. Horses in threes are coming down a road of fire. This is the end, right here, right now – it doesn’t take a prophet to see that…

“That kid’s gonna get his ass kicked one of these days,” fumed Tom.

“Pop would kick your ass just as hard,” Ryan said.

“Well fuck Pop.”

“Yeah, fuck him and that fucking little nose picker too.”

“I hear you two,” Betty scolded.

Joseph smiled at his sister. She held her own. She looked like a harried bird, tousled and disheveled, nervous. But at least she spoke up.

Ryan’s face and eyes lit up, catching Joseph’s attention.

“Little boy Dick,”  he quipped, “sat on a prick. Eating his strawberry pie. ‘Oh no,’ said Dick. ‘What’s in my bum? What kind of boy am I?’”

Betty looked like she might cry. Joseph got down off the back of the truck and poured himself another cup of water. He stepped carefully up the rows to avoid the leaves rubbing against his bare legs. Betty pushed her hair with both hands and leaned back in the row to take a rest.

“Quiet. Here he comes,” Tom said.

Joseph walked down the straw path between the rows to where his brothers were inching forward toward the trees at the far end of the field. He wanted to show them he could work just as hard as them. He may be younger but he was just as good as them. They were brothers after all.

“I want to pick too,” Joseph said with a jitter.

“Maybe you should stay in the shade. Wouldn’t want you to get burned,” said Ryan.

“Why can’t I pick too?” Joseph demanded.

“Are you going to pick? Or are you going to sit here daydreaming? We don’t have time for daydreamers. Daydreamers just get in the way,” said Tom.

“Let him pick if he wants to,” said Ryan.

“Yeah, it’s good for him to try,” said Betty.

“Fine,” said Tom, “pass him a box.”

Ryan tossed Joseph a green carton and said, “Don’t pick the hard green ones.”

“And throw out the mushy ones,” said Tom.

Joseph bent down and started pulling at the berries. Ryan showed him a berry with smelt on it and others with worms. Ryan taught him how not to crush the good soft ones, how to pull them from the vine with two fingers, not the whole hand. Betty listened and smiled.

“Thanks,” Joseph said.

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Ryan. “I hate berries and this whole stupid thing. All I’m doing is giving you a chance to hate it too.”

The sun moved slow in the sky. The heat grew stronger. Joseph got up and brought water down to the field. They all took a break and drank from the Styrofoam, feeling the icy cooler water trickle down their throats.

“Fucking berries,” said Tom. “Especially after a whole spring of weeding the fuckers. Then you have to pick them one at a fucking time. Why couldn’t Dad just grow some fucking corn?”

“Watch your language,” shouted Betty.

“Watch your skirt,” said Tom, “I saw Brazil a minute ago.”

“Are all girls that sleazy when they pick strawberries?” said Ryan.

“No, only sisters,” said Tom.

“I hate you guys,” shouted Betty.

“I didn’t say anything,” Joseph said.

“Not you, Joseph. You’re pure and holy, a little gift from God,” said Tom.

“Speaking of sisters, are we still seeing the Guarantee Girls tonight?” asked Ryan.

“Is that what they’re really called? I thought they were making a joke last time,” said Tom.

“Oh, yeah. It’s a name passed down from their mother and aunts is what I hear.”

“Do you think they’ll wear underwear this time?”

“Hell no,” said Ryan. “That would be a break of contract.”

“The real question is, do you think they’ll be as slutty as Betty?” Tom laughed.

“Probably not, but you never know,”

“Isn’t their dad around?” demanded Betty.

“Nah,” said Tom. “He’s out driving cross-country this week.”

“Where are you taking them?” asked Joseph.

Quiet fell over the field. The slight trembling of the strawberry leaves could be heard in the dead heat of the day.

Tom and Ryan looked at Joseph across a naked bush and smiled.

“Out to Henry’s place,” said Ryan. “His parents are out at a church retreat, and he’s got the whole farm to himself. We’re gonna take a hayride.”

Betty cast the older boys a severe look. “You know God can hear you.”

“You know God sees you in the shower,” said Ryan.

Tom fell over in the field laughing, “God sees Betty in the shower! For the love of God…”

“Quit it, Tom. Don’t get so excited,” said Ryan.

Tom bit down on a berry. “You’re right. I’ll try to control myself like God wants. But He should know. These things really do taste like shit.”

Tom spat the stem from his teeth and swallowed the pink flesh and his tongue toyed with the seeds left swimming in his mouth. He slapped another one into the ground and watched it burst.

“I agree,” said Ryan. “I hate the fuckers.”

 

After dinner was family Bible study. The prodigal son again. The boy who broke all the rules and got all the father’s love in return. Tom and Ryan were pissed. Betty didn’t understand. Joseph felt a yearning. He wanted a chance, just any chance to live. He felt like he was in a box his whole life, protected, kept back from everything. His father held him back. His brothers abused him. His sister sheltered him. The world was out there with things he would never see. Everyone knew the world was at its end. Would it explode before he had even a taste of what all the excitement was about?

Joseph felt bad. He shouldn’t be thinking this way. He prayed for his soul. He asked for help, to take away these evil thoughts, to keep him pure. He did want to be pure. He didn’t want these desires, these distractions from being the good son. He knew it was better to be the son that was steadfast, who stayed behind and lived the good path. He thought of his mother up in heaven listening to his prayer, and he was ashamed.

After the prayer, the kids were left to do what they wanted.

Joseph was out petting the old black rabbit in the garage when he heard his brothers coming through the yard. He peered out the garage window at the two boys approaching. Older and tall with long swaggers and carrying those small bottles. It wasn’t something he planned. Seeing them coming toward the garage, he had an idea. They would never bring him along, but he could go along if he wanted. Joseph dropped the rabbit and jumped in the back seat of the pickup truck.

On the floor beneath some blankets, as the truck started up and rumbled away, Joseph looked up at the moon. He closed his eyes and started to pray but he shut it off. It was too late.

He stayed quiet as his brothers bantered on about girls, underwire, condoms, cigarettes, booze, teachers with long legs, pastors with short dicks, a horse with a long dick, shapes of vaginas in order from largest to smallest, and so on. The truck eventually came to a stop.

Joseph slid deeper into the pile of blankets and rags on the floor.

The passenger side door swung open and a hot summer breeze blew across his face. Three sets of long bare legs slid in above him. A mix of perfume and smoke and alcohol filled the air. It was the smell of a woman on Sunday combined with what always floated around when the carpenters that helped build the tool shed would lean down to pat his head. The combination was raw and unsettling. Joseph tried to hold his breath. With each breath he found himself searching in spite of himself for a strange new scent, something he had never smelled before that had slipped into the truck alongside the girls.

One of them kicked off a pointy shoe and tried to warm her feet in the blankets. There was a giggle. Joseph braced himself, ready to be discovered. There was a gasp and the girl whispered something to the others.

Joseph stuck his head just out of the blankets and looked up. Three sets of eyes, black with makeup, stared down at him. Their big red lips were smiling. He was terrified. He knew what would happen if his brothers found him. He had guesses about what would happen if they didn’t. He held up a finger to his lips, begging the girls not to tell his brothers. They smiled and looked at each other exchanging silent nods. The middle one mouthed, “Don’t worry.” The one on the right giggled and blew a kiss. The one on the left took a sip from a flask keeping her eyes locked with Joseph the whole time.

The truck started to drive. In complicit silence, all three girls kicked off their shoes and began exploring with their toes. The youngest girl began to giggle uncontrollably. Joseph could see they thought this was a game. They were prodding him and tickling him, trying to get him to reveal himself. He kept his hand over his mouth, trying hard not to cry out.

“What’s going on back there?” said Tom turning around.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” the oldest shouted back.

She pushed Joseph’s head safely beneath the blankets.

“You two just drive,” said the youngest.

“Yeah, we have some sister things to discuss before we get there,” said the one in the middle.

The girls continued to whisper and giggle. Joseph still wasn’t allowed to move. Feet pushed him down. Hands reached in. The tickling subsided and he began to feel a slow gentle massage from all angles. His ears rang with the pastor’s voice…Only by grace, no one perfect, not even one. In the darkness, it was disorientating. The toes continued to make paths and inroads in his flesh. Hot trails crossed his body. A hand came down and took his hand, dragging it up a long skinny leg, little more than a bone. Joseph tried to pull it back. He felt something pulling on his soul, on that thing that kept him whole and safe, but something also inside him was pushing out to the girls and he didn’t want to stop it.

All over his body, his skin felt like a garden rising to meet the morning sun. He had never felt like this before. Whirlpools of sensation filled him from head to toes, from the surface of his skin to deep inside his bones. Someone took his fingers and began to rub them in circles against a firm patch of hairy skin. It felt like an unripe strawberry that even in the dark of early morning you knew not to pick. When you reach far into the bushes, you can tell the unripe ones just by their unyielding prickly skin. It was just like this, but after a few moments, the berry softened. It ripened at his touch.

Another girl said, “I think I’ve lost my shoe in the blankets,” and caused another eruption of giggles from her sisters.

“I’ll get it for you,” said Tom.

“You stay where you belong. You’ll get yours soon,” said the sister.

She leaned over and pawed through the blankets until she uncovered the zipper to Joseph’s pants. Joseph reached out and latched onto the girl’s arm. He tried to pull it away. His hand wrapped around the wrist and squeezed until a soft squeal burst out above him. He felt lost in the hands and his own hands unhelpful. He told them to do one thing but they did another. He gasped. It was as if the whole mass of bodies were now one extended being. A bright light filled the truck and filled him with awe. The light became overwhelming. He felt explosions throughout his body.

Was this it? Like a thief in the night as the pastor warned? You see the end coming, hear all the words and warnings, but when it is finally upon you, the horsemen closing in, the darkness thickening, does it feel like this? Like heaven opening up?

His body moved without him. If time passed, he was not aware. The ride became a single sensation. Finally, the truck stopped moving. The middle sister reached down and used his shirt like a towel. The door cracked open and the cool night air flooded in.

His brothers pulled the girls out, yanking their arms and throwing them up onto their backs. A torrent of squeals and giggles drifted away and the door slammed shut with a metallic shudder.

Joseph crawled out of the truck. He watched the lights flicker in the house on the hill. The silhouettes of his brothers and the girls moved in the windows. He was like them now. That was it.

He broke into a run. He was running for a long time. He refused to think about what had happened in the truck. He would not. He was not like his brothers. The arms of the trees stretched out over him. He heard his father’s voice. He walked into a grove of apple trees. He was a boy picking apples with his mother.

“Harriet, I see you,” “shouted his father looking up into the tree.

His mother blushed and tried to pull closed her dress.

Frank, the boy! You’re unbelievable!”

He heard dogs barking. He felt a rustling in the woods, but it was only his own body pushing the limbs that pushed other limbs and then bushes. He was a ripple in the sea of trees, and he wondered what fear he was causing to the small creatures around him in the night, for them to see such a beast as him streaking through the trees, stinking of his own semen. He crept out of the woods, crossed the empty streets, and fell down a hill into a field where his lonely house stood on the edge of nothing and blackness.

 

At breakfast the next morning, Joseph stared at the slices of strawberries riding on the thick brown rafts of pancake that his father had crafted into small clowns. It felt like a hand was squeezing his stomach. His brothers laughed and talked and drank their coffee in big gulps. He tried to sip his milk.

“What’s wrong?” asked Betty.

“Nothing.”

“You look like you’re gonna get sick,” she said.

“Is something wrong?” asked his father.

Joseph didn’t feel like anything was wrong. That was the problem. The pastor warned about going too far, so far that God loses his touch. Joseph looked around. The kitchen was still the kitchen. His brothers and sister looked like themselves, and father was that same totem he always was. Joseph imagined life elsewhere, in one of those television scenes from a city tower overlooking the lights of the busy streets, and maybe a girl was down on the streets waiting for him. He saw a new life with a wife and maybe even a child and nobody ever having to drive a truck or pick a berry again. His brothers were putting their dishes in the sink and getting ready for another day.

“Come on, Joseph,” said Ryan.

“Another day of sitting on the truck,” said Tom.

Joseph followed along, dropping his plate in the sink, and going out into the morning air. On the way, he took a cup of coffee and drank it black. It hurt and moved inside him like fire. It felt good. It felt different.

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