Orchard Conversations

Submitted into Contest #63 in response to: Write about two characters going apple picking.... view prompt

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Friendship Fiction Inspirational

I watched his eyes twinkle like gems in the sunlight while staring at something as mediocre as apples and how he handled them like they were fragile newborns. I'd come to notice that it was his thing - touching things like they'd crumble into dust at the slightest amount of pressure, feeling everything as if he'd just acquired the sense. He gently plucked one from a low hanging tree branch and set it down in his basket where several other cherished apples were settled.


Never once had I seen him stop smiling. He grinned, a wide happy thing, not caring that his teeth were cracked and yellow or that the people that had let us into the orchard looked at him like there were pointy red horns sticking out of his head. And when he wasn't beaming, a small smile still played on his lips from the moment I picked him up.


The cold October breeze swept over us like a wave and ruffled our hair, his messy curls dancing around his head. It was another thing that caught my eye. Though he’d been smiling, he'd had his head down and his jacket hoodie wrapped so tight around his head that it hid the beautiful ringlets that adorned his face. At first, I thought that he was freezing so the second he was inside my car, I turned on the heater. The whole ride he'd still kept his hoodie on until he set foot inside the orchard.


He wrapped his arms around the basket and held it close to him. "I've never done this before."


A warm bittersweet feeling made way into my body and I thought back to twenty minutes ago when I found him. He was seated on a dirty peeling gym mat, surrounded by a half drunk bottle of water and clothes with tanbark stuck to them like glue. Even with all that it wasn't what had stopped me. It was the down turned eyes that swam with sadness as he watched the happy families drive past him and go into the orchard. It was the kind of sadness where it made me positive that if I'd had an incredibly important meeting that I had to attend, I still would've stopped for him.


"Yeah. Apple picking is a fun tradition that happens right around this time of year."


He stared ahead of me, eyes both thinking and not focused. "I had a feeling. Always saw people coming empty handed and leaving with bags full of apples every Autumn."


I smiled at him. "I go to a different orchard. I only recently moved here but if I'd seen you, we could've made it a Fall tradition." It would've given him something to look forward to all year and I'd have been the reason.


I didn't go apple picking much. The last time I was in high school, in a turtleneck and overalls, eating lunch behind the science building with friends whose names I couldn't even remember today. Life wasn't full of worries and waking up was pleasant even though I had seven hours of tedious classes and more hours worth of studying and piles of homework.


The skin around his eyes creased when he gave me that familiar heartwarming smile and he looked at me. "Your heart's too pure. You don't even know me."


Interestingly enough, he was right. Seeing him, the only thought circulating in my brain was to ask if he wanted to join me in apple picking. It was what people would call careless, that my heart was in the right place but my mind wasn't. I didn't mind. I didn't mind inviting him into my car or paying for his admission along with my own. I was only making a man's day.


"I'm Madeleine," I told him.


"And I'm Finn." He paused. "What made you bring me, Madeleine?"


Wrapping my coat tighter around my body, I remembered the way his mouth hung open the entire time he was in the passenger seat on the short drive to the orchard. I remembered the way he sat in silence, wide eyes noticing every detail of my car from the dashboard to the backseat.


Then I remembered my own life. "A few years ago, I would have left you sitting there. Maybe even laughed as I drove past you." I wasn't sure what had made me tell him that. It was such a dark place in my life, so dark every thought about it felt like my heart was getting stepped on. I never revisited it, never for anything, and I don't know what it was about an old homeless man that made me feel like it was okay to think about it again.


"Why is that?"


We were in front of one of the large apple trees. I sighed and sat down on the soft grass under the droopy branches and Finn lowering himself into a seating position next to me, laying his basket on his lap.


"My life had been a mess. I just-." I stopped, scared to venture back. But looking at Finn's kind eyes and gentle smile, I took a deep breath and willed myself to muster enough strength to say what was on my mind. "I'd given myself these crazy high expectations and set unreasonable goals. At the time, I thought that I could do them but then...I couldn't." I paused. Finn was looking at me patiently. "I watched myself lose motivation and spiral deeper into this dark pit."


I tugged at the hem of my jeans. I didn't know why I was doing this seeing as I felt the familiar ache in the depths of my throat that threatened to send down a waterfall of tears. "I was depressed, Finn. But then I gave birth to Lola." A tingle appeared from the crown of my head down to the soles of my feet and like somebody lowered the sun an inch, a warmth spread over my body.


"Is she your happy place?"


I nodded my head, the feeling of tears retreating just as fast as it had come. Looking at those two lines and that day in the hospital when she came out crying and I held her in my arms was what got me out of the bottomless hole that I'd fallen into.


"It's amazing what family can do, isn't it?" he asked.


"Absolutely. I don't where I'd be if Lola wasn't here."


He sighed and placed a tender hand on top of his apples. "I'm glad you have that, Madeleine. You keep each other close you hear? You'll breeze through life knowing you always have someone there beside you."


I couldn't help noticing the way the happiness that radiated off of him transformed into a haunting gloom. I placed a hand on his leg. "Finn? Is everything okay?"


He looked at the overcast sky, a darkness engulfing us and the few people that had also come apple picking.


The glint that was in his eyes had vanished, leaving a miserable stare that gave me such a painful sadness that was indescribable. He inhaled and lowered his head, hand still gently resting on the apples.


"I didn't want to make this about myself," he said, shaking his head.


My stomach clenched. I knew those words all too well - the way I used to say them whenever a conversation became zeroed in on me as a means of avoiding thinking about my unbalanced and depressing life. Knowing the way I used to feel saying them, hearing Finn using the same excuse felt extremely disappointing.


"Please do share. You let me talk about something I didn't even know I could think about."


I watched as he scratched his arm and sighed, a jumble of emotions flashing across his eyes. He sighed.


"I had a wife. Vera. The most beautiful person you'd ever met - inside and out." A small smile lingered on his lips when he mentioned her. What they said about smiles being contagious proved true; mine followed the second his lips began to spread.


"We met when I discovered that she was the one who set off the fire alarm in college and the friendship began when she begged me not to come clean to the chancellor. We exchanged landline numbers and..." he trailed off, staring at the grass but his eyes distant.


I waited patiently and he started again. "I later asked for her hand in marriage and she said yes. It was the second happiest day of my life. The first was when Mark, Porter, and Belle were born. My kids."


I watched his face light up at the thought of his family. Happiness in life was important and it was the things like watching him go from downhearted to untroubled that made me not regret bringing him here without even knowing anything about him.


"I think I can relate to that a little bit," I said, thinking of Lola before I focused my attention back to Finn. "What happened?"


His lips quivered and he took in a shaky breath. "Our kids were grown and Vera and I lived alone. Six years ago, I had to run errands and I left her alone." He stopped and raked an unsteady hand through his hair, tears beginning to fall. "When I came back, she was..." He lowered his head. "I'm sorry."


Tears brimmed my eyes and silently flowed down. I scooted next to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. "Don't apologize." In the forty-five minutes I'd been with him, I figured that the worst things happened to the best people. It made one think the universe was out to get them.


He gently picked up and apple and cradled it, the tear droplets streaming from his eyes. "It was a piece of bread. Home cameras showed that she tried water and the Heimlich on herself but when she needed me the most, I wasn't there."


I squeezed his shoulder,


"Finn. There are a lot of things I don't know but what I am sure of is that you're not to blame." I turned my head towards him. "Life will throw obstacles at you and you'll stumble. What you can't do is stay down. You've got to stand back up." I didn't know what losing a spouse felt like, didn't know if I could even survive in his shoes. I had only a sliver of hope and advice I could give to him and hope that it helped.


The apples sitting peacefully in his bucket were now wet and tear-streaked. He picked another one up and cradled it. "Thank you."


We sat in silence, watching people pluck red apples from the trees and take bites from them. Children ran and pointed to the highest branches and their parents picked them up and placed them on their shoulders. I remembered something. "Finn, what of your kids?"


"After Vera, they want nothing to do with me."


He'd lost his wife and his kids blamed him for it, making him live outside and feel unloved. I didn't know how to respond so I squeezed his shoulder even tighter. "You have a heart of gold, Finn, and you're a absolutely wonderful person."


He looked at me, his smile wide and hopeful. "Lola has a wonderful mother." He paused and glanced at the sky before turning back to me. "Want to know something?"


"Sure."


"This is the third happiest day of my life."

October 15, 2020 04:31

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4 comments

Kerri Shanley
22:56 Oct 22, 2020

Intriguing story. I read the story as if it was a thriller/suspense story, instead of a sweet story about 2 people becoming friends. I thought Finn was going to do harm to Madeleine. First person is a good narrative choice (maybe that's why I thought there was something a little fishy about Finn). The first and last lines are great openers and closers, leaving the reader with a warm hopeful feeling, perfect for a fall story!

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Aveena Bordeaux
01:49 Oct 23, 2020

Thanks for the feedback, Kerri!

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C. Jay Loren
05:08 Oct 20, 2020

Oh wow. This story was so sad yet beautiful. This is proof that small acts of kindness can really go a long way in life. Good job. :)

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Aveena Bordeaux
15:58 Oct 20, 2020

Thank you!

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