‘There’s room for expansion,’ Otto said over breakfast, reading the thin-paged free newspaper the organic people sent out to all the farms. He tapped an article with his thick finger, and Peter noticed that Otto’s nail was colored black with nail polish, or a marker. Or maybe it was only a blood blister.
‘We draw a leaf or some shit on our label,’ Otto said, squinting at the page. ‘Even if it just kind of looks like this. People wouldn’t know the difference.’
Heddy simmered slices of lemon at the stove, poking at the pan with a chopstick. She’d changed into a sweater dress and her legs were rashy. Every morning since she found out she was pregnant, she’d been drinking hot lemon water. ‘It corrects your pH levels,’ she’d explained to Peter. She used the hot water to wash down all her prenatal vitamins, big dun-colored pills that smelled like fish food, pills that promised to soak the baby in minerals and proteins. It was strange for Peter to imagine their baby’s fingernails hardening inside her, its muscles uncoiling. The unbelievable lozenge of its heart.
Heddy pursed her lips sideways at her brother. ‘That’s kind of stupid, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘I mean, why don’t we just get certified, the real way?’
Otto fluttered his hand. ‘Got a few thousand lying around? You’re certainly not contributing.’
‘I’m broadening my mind.’ She was starting her first semester at the junior college in town.
‘You know what broadens after that?’ Otto said. ‘Your ass.’
‘Yeah, yeah. I had to hire more people and that costs.’
Peter had seen these new workers: a bearded man and a woman, who’d moved into one of the trailers a few weeks ago. They had a young boy with them.
‘It all costs,’ Otto said.
Heddy narrowed her eyes but turned back to the pan, intent on fishing out the lemon.
‘Anyway,’ Otto continued, ‘we can still say “natural” and all the rest.’
‘Sounds good,’ Peter said, trying to be enthusiastic. Otto was already shuffling the pages, on to something new. He seemed to like Peter as much as he liked anyone. When he found out that Peter had gotten Heddy pregnant, it was his idea that Peter move in and work for him. ‘I guess she’s eighteen,’ Otto had said. ‘No longer my worry. But if I see so much as a bruise, I’ll end you.’
Heddy put her hand on Peter’s shoulder: ‘He’s teasing,’ she said.
Peter had moved into Heddy’s childhood bedroom, still cluttered with her porcelain dolls and crumbling prom corsages, and tried to ignore the fact of Otto’s room just down the hall. Otto managed the hundred and fifty acres of orchard surrounding the house. The land was near enough to the North Coast that great schooners of fog soaked the mornings with silent snow. When it rained, the creek outran its banks, a muddy, frigid surge that swamped the rows of apple trees. Peter preferred it up here, the thousand shades of gray and green instead of Fresno with the sameness of heat and dust.
By the time he and Otto had finished breakfast – eggs from the chickens, fried in oil and too salty – Heddy had gone up to their bedroom and come down with all her things, her raincoat already zipped, a canvas backpack over her shoulder. He knew she’d already packed it with notebooks, a separate one for each class, and her chunky cubes of Post-its. No doubt she’d devised a color-coded system for her pens.
Otto kissed her goodbye, making a lazy swat at her ass as he headed out to turn the heater on in the truck, leaving Heddy and Peter alone in the kitchen.
‘Heddy’s off to Yale,’ she announced. She tightened her raincoat hood and grinned at him from the circle within. With her face isolated by the hood, she looked about twelve, the blooms of color on her cheeks tilting even more cartoonish. She slept through most everything – the dogs, the rooster, thunderstorms – and it seemed like proof of her greater moral center, something Peter could imagine existing as whole and real in her as a red apple. An innocence coupled with a strange knowingness: when they had sex, she kept looking down to watch him go inside her.
‘You look pretty,’ Peter said. ‘Done at four, right?’
Heddy nodded. ‘Home around five,’ she said. She loosened her hood, pulling it back to expose her hair, the tracks from her comb still visible.
Peter and Otto spent the day in near silence, the seats of Otto’s truck giving off vapors of leather. Otto drove the orchard roads, stopping only so Peter could dash out in the rain to open a gate, or chase down the ripple of an empty candy wrapper. No matter how much time they spent together, Peter couldn’t shake a nervousness around Otto, a wary formality. People liked Otto, thought he was fun. And he was fun, the brittle kind of fun that could easily sour. Peter hadn’t ever seen Otto do anything, but he’d seen the ghosts of his anger. The first week Peter had moved in, he’d come across a hole punched in the kitchen wall. Heddy only rolled her eyes and said, ‘He sometimes drinks too much.’ She said the same thing when they saw the crumpled tail light on the truck. Peter tried to get serious and even brought up his own father, dredging up one of the tamer stories, but Heddy stopped him. ‘Otto pretty much raised me,’ she said. Peter knew their mother moved to the East Coast with her second husband, and their father had died when Heddy was fourteen. ‘He’s just having his shithead fun.’
And they did love each other, Otto and Heddy, living in easy parallel habitation, as if the other person was a given, beyond like or dislike. They surprised Peter sometimes with their sentimentality. Some nights, they watched the movies they’d loved as children, colorized films from the fifties and sixties: orphans who could talk to animals, a family of musicians that lived in a submarine. The movies were oddly innocent – they bored Peter, but Otto and Heddy loved them without irony. Otto’s face went strangely soft during these movies, Heddy on the couch between Otto and Peter, her socked feet escaping from under the blanket. Peter heard them talking, sometimes: they carried on long, sober conversations, their voices sounding strangely adult, conversations that trailed off whenever Peter came into the room. He’d been surprised that neither Heddy nor Otto cared that much about nudity, Otto striding naked down the hall to the shower, his chest latticed with dark hair.
When Peter talked to Otto, it was only about yield. How many tons of almonds per acre, what kind of applications they’d make to the soil in a few weeks, after harvest was over. When they drove past any of the workers in their blue rain ponchos, up in the trees on ladders, or gathered around chubby orange water coolers, Otto would honk the horn so they jumped. One man held up his hand in silent greeting. Others shielded their eyes to watch the truck pass.
They were mostly seasonal pickers, moving from farm to farm, and a few students on leave from fancy colleges. The students accepted produce and a place to live as trade, an arrangement that Otto found endlessly amusing. ‘They got college degrees!’ Otto crowed. ‘They email these fucking essays to me. Like I’m going to turn them down.’
The new guy Otto had hired was different. Otto didn’t even ask him if he’d work for trade. He had already asked for advances on his salary, accompanied by careful lists of his hours written on the backs of envelopes. Peter knew Otto had let the guy’s wife work, too. Nobody seemed to care who watched their boy, except for Peter, who kept his mouth shut.