The next morning, we drove out to the farmers market the way we did nearly every Saturday in the summer. Even though the weather had been unseasonably chilly in April and May, the zucchini and summer squash were available in abundance. I was planning on creating two summer squash casseroles and dropping one off at Hank's cottage…I didn’t like the fact that he looked so much thinner. He was losing that swimmer’s body that I had lusted over as a seventeen year-old.
At the market, I noticed Dallas Welch sitting in a lawn chair next to his pick-up truck. The bed was loaded with large green watermelons. Pete and I wandered over to the truck, looking for a smaller watermelon to use in sorbet. “How are you doing today, Dallas?” Pete asked.
Dallas eyed Pete suspiciously. “I’m as good as I’m gonna get, young man.”
Pete smiled. “I hear that,” he said, as he stuck out his hand for Dallas to shake. Dallas ignored Pete’s hand and looked at me. I smiled.
“Well, missy,” Dallas began, “I heard you put something in that newspaper of yours that has got some people real upset.”
“Not really, Mr. Welch. I just printed the comments that our school superintendent made. No big deal.” I shrugged my shoulders.
“It is a big deal to some folks. That factory employs a lot of people in this area. But there isn’t any land left that Joe Fleer hasn’t gobbled up to expand his orchard. Now that he’s got that big contract with the frozen pie people, he needs all the trees he can get. I think he’s worried that he’s made some promises he might not be able to keep. He’s called me about my farm a couple of times. I’ve told him I’m not interested and to just leave me alone. Haven’t spoken to that man since his dad died and he’s called me twice in three weeks. He’s crazy.” Mr. Welch's comments were accompanied by a shake of his head.
Pete and I exchanged glances. Pete lifted a watermelon from the back of the pick-up and handed to me. “How much for the melon, Dallas?” He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket.
Dallas stood. “That’ll be five dollars.” He held out his hand.
Pete put a five-dollar bill into Dallas’ outstretched hand. “Thanks, Dallas. Take it easy.” We walked back to the car.
The discussion on the way back to my apartment was about the canning factory and Dallas’ remarks about Joe Fleer. It was fairly common knowledge that the canning factory was relocating because it needed to expand, and there wasn’t any land available at its present location. The company that owned the factory, one of several stretching from New York State down through Virginia, had scouted nearby tracts, but none were available. Now we knew why. “Sounds like Joe Fleer may be panicking,” Pete remarked.
“I knew he’d been supplying some of the apples to Mrs. Montgomery’s,” I said, naming the company that sold gourmet frozen desserts, “but I didn’t realize he had a contract to be the sole supplier.”
“I’d actually heard something about that,” Pete said. “Carl was in on some of the contractual details. He didn’t write the contract, of course. Joe had his lawyer from the county seat write it up. But he did have Carl look into a few things. At a reduced hourly rate, of course.”
I laughed. Joe Fleer, despite his multi-million dollar apple business, was as frugal as any dirt farmer. He pinched every penny so hard that Abraham Lincoln was black and blue. At that point, I changed the topic of conversation. “I wonder how Dallas is doing out at the end of that road, all by himself. It’s been a long time since his wife died.”
“Oh, I imagine anyone who’s as difficult to get along with as Dallas is will be just fine,” Pete replied.
“It’s just that I know that he quit growing feed corn about five years ago, right after Arlene died. And I noticed he only brings watermelon to the market…not the berries and sweet corn that he was bringing just a few years ago.”
“He’s getting old, Shelby. He probably doesn’t have the stamina or strength to grow multiple crops any more. And since Al’s death, well…” Pete left his sentence hanging.
Allan Welch had been Dallas and Arlene’s son. He had graduated from high school two years after I did, and he and Dallas had built a small house on the edge of the farm for Allan to live in. He looked exactly as a farmer would look—if the farmer were an actor chosen to portray a farmer. Tall, broad-shouldered, sun-bleached hair, perfect white teeth…the hunk of beefcake who was his mother’s pride and joy. He had his choice of the young ladies in town, including yours truly one crazy August when I was twenty, and he loved to have a good time. Unfortunately, common sense wasn’t his strong suit. One night (not for the first time, as I knew from personal experience) he got behind the wheel of his pick-up after having a few too many beers. The pick-up ended up wrapped around a tree. Allan was thrown from the truck and killed instantly.
After Allan’s death, Dallas went through a series of hired men, but none of them ever stayed any longer than a few months. Dallas had always been hard to get along with, but the longer he lived alone, the more difficult he became. I made a mental note to ask my mom about him when we spoke again.
That night I found myself back at the lake again, delivering the squash casserole and some homemade blueberry pie to Hank. I followed the music (did I recognize vintage Aerosmith?) and found him at work in the small studio lean-to. I knocked, but with the music blaring, I knew Hank couldn’t hear me. Pushing the door open, I walked in.
Hank was at his pottery wheel, working with a large lump of brownish-gray clay. His head was bent over his work, spatters covering the front of his light blue t-shirt. I cleared my throat, and he looked up, dropping his hands to his clay-encrusted thighs. He smiled.
“Shelby! This is a nice surprise,” he said.
“I hate to interrupt,” I replied.
He stopped the wheel. “You’re not interrupting. I have an order for eight matching coffee mugs, but I can’t get it together. Luckily, it’s a Christmas order and I have a few months. I was looking for an excuse to quit, so your timing is perfect.”
I stepped forward, a little braver now that the wheel was turned off. “I brought you some food. I know you said your mom had your fridge stocked, but this is a casserole that you can put in your freezer and eat it next month. Oh, and I brought blueberry pie. That’ll freeze, too.”
“No way,” Hank said. “It’s not going to last the weekend. I love blueberry pie.” He paused. “It’s really nice that you want to feed me, but it’s not like Stacey died. She just…you know…left.”
“I know. But you look thin,” I explained.
Hank laughed. “Yeah, I know. To tell you the truth, I’m not unhappy about that. In fact, I may send Stacey a thank you note. I needed to lose a few pounds. My pants were getting tight.”
I could feel my face redden. Sheesh, I thought. Just because he said the word ‘pants’ and ‘tight’ in the same sentence.
A little uncomfortable with the way the conversation was headed, I changed the topic. “The food’s in the car. I’ll just go get it.” I turned to go out. Hank stood up and followed me out, wiping his hands on an old dish towel as he walked.
“Wait a second and I’ll open the door for you.” He walked down the slate path and up the steps to the cottage.