In this segment of the Cherry Street School story, Theo finds something new and concerning about his friend Dev. He hasn’t seen her in a couple of days, not since he saw that she had a bruised eye after a scrap with the school bully Bobby Danforth. Theo has been in his new town about two weeks. At times his loneliness for his old home surfaces, as it does here. At the same time he is gaining some confidence.
The story also has a possible title: Betting on Theo.
Neither Dev nor her father was at the school bus. Theo wandered through the small downtown looking for her, and taking the time to learn more about the village. He peered into the windows of the café, the hair salon, a barber shop, a hardware store. Cars lined the street as other prowled, seeking parking. Mothers clustered on corners their arms tugged by little kids, who sometimes broke free and with elbows crooked, swirled around a street sign pole until their mothers stepped from their circle of women, snatched their hands and pulled them away from the street. A man stepped from the barber shop and removed his cap before running a hand through his newly cut short hair; he replaced the cap and lit a cigarette. At a far corner, along a wall of a vacant lot, a few kids leaned and sat, waving at friends as they drove by.
That was me, Theo thought, suddenly empty again, me and my friends sitting on the wide front steps of the Lakeside grocery, drinking sodas, grabbing a handful of chips from the giant bag that Jeff had bought and refused to share, laughing at his protest until he passed the bag around, saying, “Hey, not too many.”
Drawn by a blatting, deep whistle, Theo stopped to watch a tugboat and barge enter the lock of the nearby canal. A chipped blue and gold painted sign said it was the New York State Barge Canal. Theo was fascinated by the process of lowering the water to allow the vessels to continue passage. The growling echo of the tug engine rose as it sank inside the lock’s walls, the air filled with black exhaust from the stack, which settled about street level at the lowest point. The engine groaned and the water boiled as the tug and its barge crept out of the lock.
Theo coughed and spit out the black air. Need to learn about this place. Maybe then I’ll know more about Dev.
Finally he went to the Red and White and asked the manager if he had seen Dev, not really expecting an answer, but the man said, “Not in a week, her old man longer than that. Try Thornton’s truck farm on County Road.”
“About a mile outside of the village,” the man said. “They supply us vegetables and fruit, in season. Plantings started. They’re probably out there with the rest of their kind living in one of the shacks on the farm. The bus is a trade off so the girl can attend school. I’d move it if I could. But I don’t want the trouble.”
“Trouble?” Theo asked.
The manager glanced around, leaned toward Theo and hissed, “Immigrants.”
Theo felt the sting of the word, but nodded a stiff thanks. Outside as he stared at the purple bus, sadness filled his eyes, then passed as he slapped the tan bricks of the grocery store with his palm, each slap harder than the last. “Jerk,” he said,” then kicked at some weeds growing out of a crack in the driveway.
County Road ran straight from the center of the village. Theo pounded out his frustration and concern for Dev in every step. Past Cherry Street where the road narrowed to two lanes the houses thinned to open land, stands of trees and fields that surrounded a red barn. An electric fence ran along the road. Cows.
The wind carried in the sounds of machinery and faint shouting. As Theo crested a small rise, he saw a vast farm spread on both sides of the road, fields, sheds, barns and greenhouses and a billboard announcing, “Thornton’s Farm Seasonal fruit and vegetables” over a faded background of greenish fields, a white barn and little blobs of color that were probably animals. Along the bottom was a white arrow outlined in black that said, “Truck entrance ¼ mile.”
Theo had played with his Lakeside friends on their farms and had come to recognize how time and the plantings intertwined.
It was early May. The hay was fresh and green, awaiting first cut. In Lakeside when the Franklins made their first cut the air was sweet and succulent. The last cut in fall was as dry and scratchy as dust. Before him Theo watched as tractors hauling harrows rolled up the black dirt casting a musk that made the air taste gritty, rich and dark, stinging of manure. The early greens were chopped at the root and tossed in boxes to a flatbed; buzzcut cornfields hid new fresh stalks among the hollow bones of last year’s crop, a fuzz of soybeans, onions, asparagus, cucumbers and eggplants ran for acres squared by rutted paths; the gate to last year’s corn maze leaned on a bent frame. Later, he knew, warm June, the berries would arrive, fat and ripe, then snap peas and green beans. Somewhere tomatoes, and maybe in the greenhouses to the rear, flowers. By August, hot and parched, squash and sweet corn, round pumpkins, apples roadside in half-bushel baskets; later still, fist-sized jack-o-lanterns, tied bundles of corn stalks needing witches’ hats. Then chill and darkness, fields vacant, resting and silent.
It felt good, he thought, to know all that.
At a driveway, Theo saw a “help wanted” sign.
Maybe. I could use the money.
He stepped off the road as a truck with slatted sides rumbled by and turned into the farm. A dozen workers jumped from the back, and with their broad cloth hats slapped dust from their clothes and stamped their feet to loosen the mud from their boots. The truck pulled away and the workers in pairs and threes chatting in accented English and another language walked toward the row of wooden shacks and trailers that lined the backside of the inner farm road. Theo stared at a pair of girls in black clothes and ball caps walking arm-in-arm; he heard them laughing, a sound then crushed under the growling engine of a passing tractor.
Theo in his head heard the harsh, spitting voice of the grocery store manager: Immigrants.
Heart sinking; he also he also heard this: Dev.