This is a sample of a story from "The Stones of Riverton," a collection of linked stories published by Down East Books. The stories are inspired by cemetery markers in a small Maine town.
October 12, 1956
I ain’t much for the bible, but even I know the story of the apple. It’s all about sin and temptation and how a snake talked Eve into eating one after God told her not to. It’s a good story, but I don’t need no fiction. I got my own story of the apple, and it’s a shameful one. It’s strange how one little thing can change a person. I used to eat an apple every day, just like that rhyme tells ya. But I haven’t in nearly thirty years. Now, all I gotta do is see one and I nearly break down crying, thinking of that poor man, that day, and how bad a person I was. So I won’t touch the things, ‘cept the one I place at his stone every year. Always the same kind. Always on the twelfth of October. Least I can do.
I can’t forget the day, even though I’ve drunk enough to wash it away ten-times over. All these years and it’s still there, wedged in with the good and the bad, which there’s lots more of than I’d like. It’s far clearer than the others. I wonder why that is, why the one memory you wish you could dig out and burn manages to stay put longer than any of the ones you’d like to hold tight to the end. I suppose it’s cause of the guilt I’ve harnessed to it. It’s there to remind me that I am not a good woman, not then or now.
October 12, 1956. Gorgeous day. Fall colors against deep blue. Indian Summer in Maine, that final gift of the kinder season before the hellish one is heaped upon us. There was a hefty breeze, real warm and summery, coming up off the river, and we mill girls—the four of us— were making a ridiculous show of trying to control our skirts against it. Jane joked that we were like Marilyn Monroes, and we truly thought we were, all giggly as if the wind was being naughty and we were mildly offended by it. Course we weren’t, strutting our young legs down Depot Street, clutching our groceries with one hand and barely keeping our undies covered with the other. It was always us four: Jane, plain as her name, with straight dark hair and lips so thin and hard they could split wood; Wilma, who mighta been a beauty if only her ma had cared enough to teach her something like how to style her hair instead of wearing it in a knot so tight it made her eyes slant; and Fattie Lattie, as we used to call her. Always grumpy, couldn’t muster a smile to save her life. She was my Johnny’s sister. A Thompson, so naturally snooty. Never liked me much. Always looked at me sideways like she didn’t trust me fully and was waiting for me to show my true colors. Lattie was smarter than she looked.
We’d just done our shopping at Johnson’s after a full day at the mill, so the clean warmth was nice against our bare legs. It swirled up and tickled at the dark and sweaty parts. In those days, the mill whistle blew at 3:30, and the women were let out a half-hour before the men so we’d be all cleaned-up and ready with dinner and such. It was all about the men and what they’d need after a long day—as if ours weren’t longer. So we were walking fast and talking over each other like we always did on Fridays, laughing about another stupid girl who’d found herself up a stump without a husband. We weren’t being mean or nothing, just doing what we do in small towns to pass the time, gloating at our own good fortune at getting hitched before the babies got in us.
We were half-way down Depot Street, nearly to Main, when we heard the horn blast and the sound of brakes. If I live to a hundred, I won’t forget the sudden loudness of it. Shot right through the afternoon, it did. You don’t hear sounds like that here. Not in Riverton. Quiet place. Even horns don’t get worked ‘cept to scare a cow or a deer outa the way. Everybody within a mile musta known something bad had happened.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” one of us yelled. And being the kinda girls we were—the kind to not miss nothing that might change the pace—we were off and running. We had to hug our bags tight so we wouldn’t lose nothing. Jane was in the lead with her big thighs that came from riding. Wilma and Lattie were next, so close to each other I thought Lattie’s swaying hips would send Wilma flying. I lagged behind, cursing the weight of a pork roast I’d bought for Johnny. I was in my early days of wifing then, still trying to please a husband through his belly. Fool’s errand.
When I finally got to the corner, I couldn’t see much. Must have been twenty mill girls in front of me. I had to stand on tiptoes to peer over shoulders and around heads. But I was pretty skinny back then, compared to most Riverton women, and I was able to squeeze between Natalie from the spool shop and her fleshy daughter, Grace. I pushed my way to the curb, and from that point, so close I could see everything, it was like a scene out of a newspaper. That’s how I remember that part: real detailed, and kinda black and white and still. Folks had come outa the restaurant, the post office, and even the Hogpenny where “lazy, useless men drink away their lives,” as Grammie used to say. All eyes on both sides, even the drunken ones, were on the center of the road, a few feet in front of Mr. Johnson’s van.
That’s where the man was, splayed across the asphalt like something that fell outa the sky, one arm stretched toward a bag of groceries. Traffic, much as we get in Riverton, was stopped in both directions, and everything was quiet as if the volume of the day had been turned way down. Even the wind had quit, like it was holding its breath, like we all was.
Then, in the middle of all that stillness, something moved. It was just an apple, but we all turned to it cause it was the only thing moving. It tumbled out of the man’s fallen grocery bag, rolled and rolled real slow, and finally stopped, just like that, inches from the man’s face. Strangest thing I’d ever seen. It was like it had purpose or something, like someone was calling it or pulling it with an invisible string.
From where I was standing, no more than a couple feet away, I could see that the man watched it too. His eye, the one that wasn’t pressed into the road, followed it as it rolled to him. And when it stopped in front of his face he looked right at it. Stared into it, it seemed. That’s when I noticed the kind of apple it was. It was the very same as the ones I’d just bought, the expensive kind I’d planned on baking with brown sugar and a little whiskey. Something special for Johnny.
I’d seen the recipe in Coronet Magazine. It was supposedly one of Grace Kelly’s, and everybody knows she’s got good taste. It called for these expensive varieties that I’d never heard of. Johnson’s had them, which surprised me, but I had to ask for them cause they kept them in a special place in the back, probably so folks wouldn’t steal them. They’d cost me twenty cents a pound. I remember cause it was a lot to spend on apples in those days. I’d looked them all over, smelled them, felt for bruises. I suppose I was trying to decide if Johnny and me was worth such pricey fruit. The girls were rushing me, telling me to “just buy the damn things.” So I finally did—bought four so we’d have em for Sunday, too. Turns out they never made it that far.
It occurred to me, as I stared at the expensive apple just lying there in the dirt of the road, that the man might have bought it for his supper too, maybe even a special supper for somebody. Or maybe it was something to snack on during a long drive to home. I could tell he wasn’t from around here. His suit and his shoes were nice, like something not out of a catalogue. And there was a hat that must have fallen off when the van hit him, and it was one of those straw ones—can’t remember what they’re called— and it had a pretty feather in it, not something a Riverton man would dare to wear. Nope, the man was a stranger in town. It was clear.
I felt bad for Mr. Johnson. He’d been sitting in his van this whole time, probably in shock, not knowing what to do, maybe praying even. I could see his lips moving, and then he finally got out, came around to the front, and just stood over the man, pleading with him to get up, asking if he was all right, which he obviously was not. I think Mr. Johnson was crying a little. He looked around at us, his face all red and squished up. We were all being stupid, just standing there, staring like we were watching a play or something. “What should I do? Tell me what to do.” He’d always seemed like a weak man, but now he looked damn pathetic. I felt bad for him but I didn’t know what to do neither. Never seen somebody hit by a car before.
“I’ll ring up the sheriff.” It was Mrs. Abbott from the hotel. “Better not touch him.”
Folks were leaning in, and I could feel Grace’s big sweaty boobs on my back, but I couldn’t move. I was already closer than I cared to be. And it was because of that closeness I think that I saw things nobody else could’ve, not the way his head was, all twisted to the side. I could clearly see his eye, and it was staring at the apple, right into it, it seemed. And then—and I swear it—the man grinned. Lying there, belly down and all bent around, he smiled at the apple. It wasn’t a big smile, but it was there.
Now, I’m not a thinking person. Never was. In fact, I prefer not to do much of that, ‘specially if it’s none of my damn business. But that day, that moment, I was thinking a lot. It was cause I was so close to him, closer than anybody else. I think that’s why I had such a knowing of what was going through his mind. His thoughts—like I was right in there with him—were all about apples. I could see it. He was remembering all the apples he’d ever had, some held to his mouth by somebody he loved, some picked with his ma and pa when he was a kid. He remembered a perfect one he’d given to a teacher once, a young and pretty thing he had a crush on when he was just a boy and hadn’t learned yet that apples won’t buy love or even better grades. But he thought, and I thought with him, about how the whole world can fit inside an apple, all the sweet and sour of this life. All the bright spots and darkness can be found right there in one juicy bite. I could see it in his eye, the one I could not look away from no matter how much I wanted. I could see it all, his ma and pa and the teacher and somebody he loved enough to share a piece of fruit with. I could even see the inside of the apple, that whole world of sweet and sour life. And it’s because of what I saw in his eye that I have so much guilt. I sorta knew him for a minute, saw into his soul. And then I did him wrong. I did him so wrong.
In the next minute, the eye lost focus like it was pulled away from the apple and from all the world. It got dark, the smile went away, and there was no doubt he was gone.
Finally, somebody came. Too late, of course. Mr. Corson, who used his van as an ambulance whenever we needed one, drove up with his horn blasting. His son was with him, and they gently loaded the man in. Then Sheriff Wilson was there telling us to stay back while he directed the van away, down Route 27 toward the hospital in Farmington. After it left, he held traffic back so folks could cross Main Street and be on our way. The whole event, from horn blast to the man’s death, couldn’t have been more than ten minutes, but it seemed longer. It had made me tired all of a sudden, all that thinking about the man and what I know I saw in his eye. Made my head hurt, too. I couldn’t get myself to move yet. I waved the girls on, and I sat down on the curb right near where the man had let out his final breath.
Not sure how long I was there, staring at the spot where he’d been, thinking about what I’d seen in his eye, or what I thought I’d seen. I was too shaky to stand, too full of his thoughts to have any of my own. I felt empty, but full at the same time, if that makes any sense. I didn’t like the feeling, and I didn’t wanna move until I felt steady and back to myself. So I just sat there on that dirty curb, all alone with that poor man’s memories flooding my brain. I didn’t snap out of it till the second mill-whistle blew, the one that tells the men to go home. It’d just be a few minutes before all them, including my Johnny, would be hustling down Depot Street, making a beeline for the Hogpenny, getting their beer and shot of whiskey before heading home to their women.
I stood, feeling a little shaky, grabbed up my groceries and slapped the dirt off my rear. The apple was still in the road. It didn’t look bruised or nothing, and I thought for a split second to pick it up, being such a pricey thing. I decided against that. It was in the road, after all. But truth be told, I didn’t wanna touch it after what I’d seen. It gave me the willies. So I gripped my bags real close to stop the shivers, and I started.
That’s when I saw the wallet, just a couple feet from the curb, partly hidden by the brim of the fancy hat. It was a deep red, nearly a match to the apple. I didn’t quite know what it was at first—so shiny and big, nothing like a wallet I’d seen before. More of a billfold, I guess you’d call it. I looked around, but the street was empty. The women were long gone at that point, and I could hear the sounds of men from way up on Depot, talking loud and coming my way. I didn’t pause. The apple was one thing, but a wallet was something different. I balanced my groceries in one arm, snatched it up, and dropped it into a bag.