As it got closer to mid-October, the leaves turned from green to yellow, orange, red, and pink, as if the trees were on fire. I couldn't remember another Autumn as beautiful as this one was. All too soon the leaves would all turn to brown, but until then I was going to try to enjoy every moment.
My daughter heard me whistling in my bedroom as I got dressed. My tie was being difficult as I tried to tie it. But even that didn't bother me much.
She came in, smiled, and said, “I haven't seen or heard you be this happy in a very long time, Pa.”
“I'm going apple-picking today,” I said.
“With Sunny?” Cat asked.
I nodded. “Do you think you could babysit her kids for us? If it isn't too much trouble.”
She finished tying my tie. “It isn't. I'm just glad you can be together again.”
“Want me to bring you back anything from the orchard?” I asked.
Cat looked thoughtful, then nodded. “Apples. See if they have any Fujis, Granny Smiths, Jonathans, or Staymans.”
“What about a mixture of them?” I asked.
She nodded again. “Hope you have fun, Pa.”
The orchard was at a farm in a hilly area a few miles south of Dandridge. This was the Ingrams Farm. Well-known to locals. We watched as couples as well as families carried baskets out of the building and crossed the road.
“When was the last time that we did this?” Sunny asked. “It feels like far too long.”
“I'm not sure,” I said. “Maybe back when we were in 8th or 9th grade?”
“Definitely too long,” she said. “You wouldn't believe how envious my kids were when I told them where we were going. They wanted to come along. Especially Ruth. She loves coming here every October to pick her very own pumpkin.”
“Maybe next time we can bring her along, or all three of them,” I said.
“Sounds like a plan,” she said.
We got out of the car and saw a sign on the outside of the farm stand's building that said: Annual Ingrams Farm Corn Maze. Have fun and get lost in our amazing maze. $1 admission. Free maze maps.
“I hope they don't mean 'get lost' in a literal sense,” I said.
“Probably more like getting lost in a good book, Quentin,” Sunny said. “You want to try it?”
“What about after we pick our apples?” I suggested.
She nodded. “We can drop our baskets back at the car and head off to the maze. I wonder if they still do the wagon rides.”
They did. As we learned when we asked about the maze and the rides inside the farm stand's building. They were very helpful, showing us where the baskets and corn maze were, as well as how often the wagon rides were. They added that this year's bumper crop of apples was the biggest they'd had in over twenty years.
We thanked them, and, baskets in hand, crossed the road and entered the orchard. The nearby trees were mostly picked empty. We walked further into the orchard where the apples were still plentiful. Some were still on branches. Others had fallen on the ground.
I found three of the four types of apples that Cat had mentioned. But no Jonathans. Probably already picked clean.
We walked over a low ridge and then down the other side. Ahead, off to one side of the orchard, was a pond. There were about a dozen ducks in the water. Above us, we could see one V of migrating birds after another, heading south for the Winter.
“I guess some of them get started early because they have further to go,” I said.
Sunny nodded. “Some fly for thousands of miles. I couldn't imagine traveling so far until the year when I met up with Leonard in Greece. He had two weeks of vacation before he had to be back on duty in Afghanistan. It was definitely worth the time it took both of us to get there.”
“Like the birds, you did it because you needed to,” I said.
Sunny nodded again and looked thoughtful. “I've often wondered what would've happened if he hadn't signed up for another tour of duty in Afghanistan. Would he have been sent somewhere else or would they have let him come back home for a while?”
“Depends on how much they needed him, I guess,” I said.
She nodded a third time. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't dredge up the past like that.”
“Nothing to apologize for,” I said. “It's part of your life. That would be like me wondering about Yvonne.”
“Your wife?” she asked.
I nodded. “We were married just ten years. Ten of the happiest years of my adult life. Especially after Cat was born. We celebrated all the holidays together. Including making cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.”
Sunny smiled. “I hope you didn't eat too many of them.”
“I probably did,” I said. “Yvonne was an amazing cook. Especially when it came to desserts. Her cinnamon shortbread cookies were out of this world.”
She looked at me, and then said, “Let's find a bench to sit on.”
Around the pond there was a wooden bench every fifty or so feet. We sat down on one, put our baskets of apples on the ground at our feet, and looked at the ducks.
“I'm sorry for making you uncomfortable,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Sunny asked.
“When I mentioned Yvonne,” I said.
“She was part of your life,” she said. “It's like when I mentioned Leonard. Just because he isn't around anymore doesn't mean I'm not thinking about him. But, as time has gone by, I find I don't think of him quite as much as I used to. It almost feels like I'm being disrespectful of his memory.”
“I think he'd understand,” I said. “Yvonne would.”
“Do you dream about her?” she asked.
I nodded. “Especially in the middle of the night, when my deeper thoughts rise to the surface, and there's Yvonne, floating in mid-air, looking at me. That familiar smile on her face. Those deep dark eyes.”
“Does she ever say anything to you?” Sunny asked.
I nodded. “She asks how things are. How Cat is. How I am. And I tell her. Like Cat, she kept hoping I would find someone new. Someone to bring new thoughts, feelings, and experiences into my life. That way I wouldn't be tempted to dwell on Yvonne so much.”
“Do you ever tell her about me?” she asked.
I shook her head. “But from the sounds of it, she seemed to know about you anyway. Maybe that's how it works wherever she and Leonard are.”
“Maybe,” she said. “I've had nights like that. Dreaming about Leonard, talking with him. He would be dressed in his Air Force uniform. Crew-cut hair. So tall and handsome. But, like Yvonne, he wanted me to be happy again. Happy like he and I had been. Not alone anymore.”
“Did he know about me?” I asked. “When he was alive, I mean.”
Sunny nodded. “He asked if I'd dated before I first met him. I said, well, not really. I had a male best friend. Someone I'd known since at least 1st grade. But we lost contact with each other after graduating from high school. I talked about you. And then he'd tell me about the girls he'd known. I guess it had taken him longer to find the person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with than it had taken me.”
“I didn't date much, either,” I said, “until I met Yvonne. I was busy in college. Making sure I took all the prerequisites and then finding out that medical school wasn't for me. I switched majors and prepared to go to law school. There wasn't much time for socializing amid all that.”
“I can understand,” she said. “I was planning to major in something more typical, like History or English. But then I began to spend more and more time in one of the computer rooms on campus. At first, I thought maybe I was subconsciously looking for possible date material. And then it hit me that not only could I use computers, but I liked using them. Learning computer programs, how to write them, how to debug them. The computer room's network engineer took me on, and started teaching me what he did.”
“No science, then?” I asked.
Sunny shook her head. “You remember me talking about that?”
I nodded. “That and engineering. The day we went to the park. Which was also the day you started tutoring me.”
“I remember,” she said, laughing softly. “What a student you were. At first, I had to struggle to get you through the basic material. But once you got the hang of that, it just kept getting easier for you. I always knew that you were smart. What you just needed was some confidence in yourself. The belief that you could excel in just about any subject you were interested in.”
“Kind of like what happened with Cat,” I said. “Like me and my father and grandfather, she wasn't even a good student. Mostly a poor one, if you went by her grades. But I knew she could do better. She just needed the right kind of support and encouragement. Or, as you put it, confidence in herself. The proof came when I helped her with an essay on the history and consequences of Slavery. I helped her write it, and then went to school with her on the day she had to read it aloud to her classmates and their teacher.”
“How did she do?” she asked.
“She got an A+,” I said.
“Wonderful!” she said. “Be honest with me. Did you help her write it?”
I shook my head. “I did discuss the subject with her. But she wrote the entire essay herself.”
Sunny didn't look convinced.
“She did,” I insisted. “Really. I didn't write any of it down.”
“And she wrote what you said, I'd imagine,” she said.
“I checked it after she wrote it,” I said. “It was definitely in her words, not in mine. I wouldn't dream of helping her cheat, Sunny. After all, if I did all the work for her, she wouldn't have learned anything. I've always insisted that she has to do her best. Her best. Not anyone else's.”
“I believe you now, Quentin,” she said. “And I'm glad you cared enough to help her.”
“Not only that, but she's going to be the next lawyer in the family,” I said.
“Oh?” she said, surprised.
I nodded. “She's quite determined and wants to help people and be their voice in a court of law.”
“No scuffles in court, I hope,” she said with a grin.
“I told her that if she's punches anyone, she'll find out that a court of law isn't the same as the schoolyard during recess,” I said. “She seems to understand. I think she's going to do just fine.”
“Definitely,” Sunny said and stood up. “Come on. Let's do the corn maze and take a wagon ride before it gets too late.”
The corn maze wasn't difficult. Of course, using the free map helped. Sunny didn't get lost once. I was the one who kept worrying about getting lost. After we finished it, she said she almost wondered why I bothered to go through the corn maze if I wasn't willing to risk getting lost even once.
The wagon ride was more fun than the corn maze was. The farmer gave everyone a mug of hot cider and then we climbed up into the wagon and found a spot to sit down in. Then he started up the tractor and it pulled the wagon behind it around most of the farm. It was a little bumpy at times, but that was okay.
When we got back to the farm stand's building, we were among the last visitors. The sun was already down below the treetops in the orchard and the sky was getting dark.
I wanted to get something for Sunny's children, though, before we left. I walked from counter to counter and up one aisle and down the other, trying to decide what to get.
“You don't have to, really,” she said. “I mean, it's not like we're married or even just dating.” She paused and looked at me. “Or are we? Dating, I mean.”
“Not yet,” I said, then changed the subject. “What do you think they'd like? A pie? Maybe some homemade root beer? A bag of kettle corn?”
With Sunny's help, I bought a selection of things. We put them and the baskets of apples in the trunk of the car, and drove back to her house.
When we arrived, Cat and Sunny's kids were downstairs in the den. Ruth ran up the stairs first and gave her mom a hug. Next came Esther, then Solomon, and finally Cat.
“Have fun today?” I asked them.
“How about you two?” Solomon asked.
“I think we had fun,” I said and looked at Sunny.
“Definitely,” she said. “And we've brought some stuff back for all of you. Come on up to the kitchen.”
In the kitchen, we emptied the two full bags of food and the two baskets of apples.
“Does this mean you're staying for dinner again?” Ruth asked.
Sunny glanced at her, as if about to shush her and then decided not to.
“If we're invited,” I said.
“Are they, Mom?” Ruth asked. “Please?”
“It's okay with me, Mom,” Esther said and Solomon nodded agreement.
“Likewise,” Cat said.
Sunny looked at each of them, and then at me. “If you really want to, Quentin.”
I couldn't tell whether she was really in favor of it or not. But she was leaving the decision up to me.
“Yes, please,” I said.
Cat looked at the two baskets of apples. “You picked more than enough for a pie. That is, if anyone wants pie for dessert?”
Sunny's children's hands shot up. I added my hand to theirs.
“I have a cookbook with some really good dessert recipes,” Sunny told Cat. “If you can make the pie, my kids and I can handle the rest.”
“What about Pa?” Cat asked her.
“I could set the table,” I offered.
“I'll show you where everything is,” Ruth said, taking me by the hand and leading me to the dining room. Together we set the table, and then she went back to the kitchen.
I wandered over to the living room and sat on the couch, on the end near the fireplace. In between the couch and the fireplace was a photo album. I picked it up, laid it in my lap, and opened it. The dates for the index of photos ranged from high school to college. I glanced in the direction of the talking and noises in the kitchen. Maybe Sunny wouldn't mind if I just skimmed through it.
Like someone browsing the books on a bookshelf, I just glanced at most of the photos. A few looked familiar and I recognized them as part of the photos on Sunny's Facebook page. The rest were new to me. Her parents, who I'd met while in grade school, were in some of them. Especially the high school graduation photos and the college graduation photos.
But among the high school photos were some I didn't remember being taken. I was in some of them.
Sunny leaned out of the kitchen doorway, saw me, and what was in my lap. She had something in one hand. I couldn't tell what it was.
I closed the photo album. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been nosy.”
“That's all right.” She came over, hiding what she was holding behind her back. “I have a few minutes free. How were the photos?”
“Really nice,” I said. “You were even prettier in college than you were in grade school. Or, dare I say, beautiful.”
She smiled. “You old charmer, you.” She pulled the chair across from me over and sat in it. “I don't mind that you saw the photos.”
“You wrote some stuff next to some of them,” I said. “Kind of like what you'd see in a grade school yearbook. You even wrote stuff next to the photos of me.”
Her smile faded. “I wanted to remember who you were. Even after I went off to college, and especially after I got married. But I needn't have worried. I never forgot you.”
“I wish I could say the same,” I said. “I did quite forget you, I'm sorry to say. A consequence of a busy time in college and my legal jobs afterward. Until Cat and I found a photo of you when you were ten years old. The same photo that you gave me as a reward for all my hard work in your tutoring sessions. And then my old memories of you woke up again. I remembered the day we went to the park together and the start of my first tutoring session like it was yesterday.”
She showed me what she'd hidden behind her back: a Granny Smith apple, shiny and green.
“Students used to give apples to their teachers,” Sunny said. “Perhaps, this time, the reverse can take place and the teacher can give an apple to the student.” She handed me the apple and smiled. “For the apple of my eye.”