Snakes and Ladders
One of my favorite things about September was the sweet smell of fallen apples. We did our best to harvest the fruit on time, but inevitably the wind knocked a few apples out of every tree, leaving the orchard fragrant with decaying fruit and buzzing with bees.
Avi probably should have been working on lectures or lesson plans or whatever it is that history professors did on Friday afternoons a few weeks into the fall term, but instead he had volunteered to help me pick apples to sell at the Saturday farmers’ market. It was one of those perfect September days that make going back to school a cruel and unusual punishment. Avi’s last class ended at three and by the time he got home, I was already ten feet off the ground with a bushel basket half full of gorgeous orange-red Pricilla apples. A few not so perfect specimens rattled around my shoulder bag, destined for our own cellars.
From my perch in the tree I watched him approach. Two years together and it still rocked my world to see him cross the field toward me. If anything, Avi was even better looking than when I first met him. He’d bulked out from working on the farm and the sun had deepened his olive skin to a rich golden brown. He’d lost that slump shouldered scholar look and walked across the field like a man who knew where he belonged. Right here. With me.
At the bottom of my ladder he smiled up at me. “Hey gorgeous, where do you want me to start?”
Where did I want him to start? Fuck the harvest, I wanted to roll around getting sweaty in the apple-scented grass. His smile widened like he knew exactly what I was thinking.
I glanced at the horizon, then up at the ridge top. It could wait. We had a little more than an hour of daylight left. With a sigh, I pointed the old MacIntosh tree. “The Ginger golds and Jonafrees won’t be mature for another week, but the Mac needs picking.”
“Got it.” He collected a step ladder from under the Paula red tree we’d finished picking the week before and walked it over to the Mac.
Along with a few Honeycrisps and Cortlands, the MacIntosh had been one of a handful of trees my grandfather planted years ago. In his day, the apples fed the family and livestock. My father mainly ignored the trees. When my sister and I inherited the farm, one of the first things we did was to expand the orchard and add heirloom varieties that matured at different rates. It had taken a few years, but now we had a steady supply of apples to sell at the market from early August until the first deep freeze. Most of the orchard was now made up of spindly young trees like the one I was picking from and only a few gnarled grand dames like Avi’s.
“Let me know if you find any storm damage.” I called once he had settled the ladder under the most heavily laden branch. We’d had strong winds the night before. We didn’t lose too many apples and the force wasn’t bad enough to hurt the young trees, but the no matter how much we pruned the old guys, sometimes they couldn’t take a punch. I watched Avi climb the ladder, wondering if I ought to switch with him. The last thing I wanted was for him to get hurt. Again. He wasn’t exactly accident prone, but back when we were first together… As they say, shit happens.
“Don’t look so worried, Pete.” Avi called to me from his perch on the ladder. “I’m not the type to go out on a limb. Couldn’t be safer.” He plucked an apple and studied it with that mock serious look of his. “Of course, that’s what Adam thought, isn’t it?” He grinned at me and took a huge bite.
“Does that make me Eve?” I lobbed an ugly worm eaten apple at him.
He ducked. “Not Eve, Petey, you’re my temptation.”
Oh yeah. “Better get to picking them apples, Yeshiva boy. We need to fill a lot more bushels before I’ll let you play with my snake.”
I love to watch Avi laugh, love the way he throws back his head, abandoning his usual urbane countenance and committing to a moment of pure joy.
It took us almost an hour to fill the wooden crate boxes I had stacked on the ATV trailer, drive them back to the barn and load them into the truck. One more thing I wouldn’t need to do before the sun came up. Avi slid the last of the crates to the front of the truck bed, leaving room for the fresh vegetables we’d pick and load at dawn. He climbed down and dusted off his jeans.
“I’ve got a surprise for you.” At his raised eyebrows, I gestured toward the ATV, from which I’d unhitched the trailer. “Hop on.”
I climbed on and he slid behind me.
He wrapped his arms around my waist and slid his hands lower. “Is this where I get to play with that snake?”
I leaned back into him, savoring his warmth and the excitement of his touch through my jeans. Reluctantly, I straightened. “Almost.”
I started the ATV’s engine. His hands moved from my crotch back to my waist but he stayed pressed close against my back. His breath tickled my neck, sending shivers down my spine. I gunned the engine, ready to get where we were going—fast.
We got to the top of the ridge in time to see the sun dip toward the horizon. The blanket was where I’d left it, spread out on the only high point of land we owned. From there we could see the entire farm, the orchard, vegetable fields, grazing cows, the barn and the old farmhouse.
“Wow.” Avi whispered in my ear. “I feel like I just stepped into a Victorian novel—a buggy ride to a picnic in the early evening.”
“Let’s hope the squirrels didn’t get into our cooler.” I let him climb off first, then followed. No squirrel damage—the cooler still held bread, cheese and champagne. I popped open the champagne and poured us each a glass.
Avi was looking at me with an indulgent smile. “Will there be strolling minstrels passing by?”
Such a romantic. I sat on the blanket and smiled up at him. “Indulge me. We’ll sit here and drink our champagne, watch the sunset, cuddle. It won’t hurt, I promise.”
He took the glass, sat and looked out at the sunset. “It’s beautiful. Thanks.”
I took a sip—cheap champagne, but it was the thought that counted. I leaned my head on Avi’s shoulder. He put his arm around me. We watched silently as the sky lit with a blaze of color and the sun slid below the horizon.
“Dinner at your mom’s house got me thinking.” I drained the last of my glass, sat up and retrieved the bottle.
Avi sighed. “I know it’s awkward. It was nice of you to come.”
“It’s getting easier. Give us all time to get used to each other.” I refilled his glass and my own before going on. “It got me thinking about traditions—don’t burst out into song, Tevya, that’s not what I meant. I like the idea of family rituals and you know I love dipping apples in honey for a sweet new year. What I realized was that we’ve got you doing Christmas and Easter here at the farm with us, but ship the Jewish celebrations off to your mom’s house. And while I’m happy to go there with you, I think we should develop some traditions of our own. How about an annual Rosh Hashanah picnic?”
“Sounds more like Succoth to me.” Avi traced my jaw with his fingers.
Yet another holiday? “Succoth?”
He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. A Rosh Hashanah picnic with you sounds perfect to me.”
His lips on mine were cool from the champagne but the kiss got hot quickly. When he pulled away it was dark, but even so I could see the shine of his eyes. He whispered, “God, I love you.”
I set my glass down and wrapped my arms around him. “Wanna play with my snake?”
“Loose that mighty serpent. I promise not to bite.”
An owl hooted in the woods nearby but I didn’t care. He could watch if he wanted. I pulled Avi down beside me. It was going to be a very sweet new year.
Fields of Gold from Love is a Light Press