A bunch of folks from Carding are getting together at the Tennyson farm to squeeze some fruit together. Come and join us, won’t you?
“Aw, c’mon Dad. All you do is go to work and come home,” Brian Lambert said. “You never do anything else. Wendy and I want to help make cider, and Wil says that everyone can come.”
“Well…” Jamal glanced at his wife but Molly was giving him that “you’re-only-a-Dad-once” look so he knew he wasn’t going to find any refuge there.
He shrugged. “It’s just that I don’t know anybody,” he said. “Besides, what does a guy from the Bronx know about making cider.”
“But you’re always telling us to try new things,” Wendy protested as she stuffed her feet into an old pair of boots. “So why won’t you try something new?”
“Yeah, Dad,” Molly whispered into his ear. “Why don’t you?”
They stared at one another because Molly knew the truth. Vermont was changing ethnically but Jamal still felt too obvious anywhere outside of work.
“Cross the line,” she whispered. “Give people a chance to get to know you. They’ve been good to your kids.”
He narrowed his eyes at her but the only thing he got in return was one of her sweetest smiles. “Okay,” he grumbled at his fidgeting children. “I guess I can drive you two over there, and check it out.”
“Wear boots,” Wendy said, “and dress warm. The kids told me it’s always cold in the barn.”
“Whooofff.” Wil Bennett tucked his gloved hands under his arms as he jumped up and down. “Why is it always so cold in here?”
“Because apples and cider like cool temperatures better than warm,” his father said, bending forward to check the tightness of the screws in the cider press. “And because heating barns with cement floors is kinda expensive. Besides, you know as well as I do that things warm up as soon as we start working.” Stephen nodded at the open door toward the cars streaming into the gravel parking lot through the mist of an autumn morning. “Looks like we’re gonna have a good crowd.”
“Whoa, look. Brian and his sister Wendy made it after all. Cool,” Wil said.
“Is that their Dad?” Stephen nodded at a tall man getting out of the car with Wil’s friends. A cascade of dark micro braids brushed the man’s shoulders.
“Yeah, I guess. I’ve never met him.” Wil said as he headed out the door. “Hey Brian!”
Stephen had to wade through a field of chattering friends before he finally reached the man standing uncertainly by the silver Honda. “Hey, are you Brian’s dad?” he asked as he stuck out his hand.
“Yes. I’m Jamal, Jamal Lambert.” The tall man turned his head slowly, taking in the growing crowd spilling over the parking lot. “Looks like you’ve got quite an operation going on here.”
“Yeah, the orchard owner—that’s him over there with the horses, Lee Tennyson,” Stephen pointed, “let’s us take over the cider house once a season after the picking’s done. We glean the left-behind apples, and that helps clean the orchard for him. In return, we get enough cider to last the winter.”
Jamal leaned against his car, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m a city man myself. I’ve never seen cider being made.”
“You’re welcome to stay. Everyone who helps takes some home. Whoa, excuse me.” Stephen stepped away, making a sharp whistle that silenced the crowd. “Hey, there’s food and coffee coming down the road in that van.” He pointed. “We need hands to set it up.”
“You’re sure it’s all right,” Jamal asked.
Stephen looked down at the other man’s feet, and nodded approvingly at his boots. “Are you okay with getting those wet and dirty?”
Jamal laughed. “My kids prepped me so, yeah.”
“Then come on, I’ll introduce you to Lee,” Stephen said as he loped away. “Wil tells me you folks moved here from Martha’s Vineyard, am I right?”
“Yeah, I work for a solar energy company that’s doing a New England-wide grid project, and I’m heading up the Vermont piece,” Jamal said as he matched Stephen’s quick pace. Then he touched Stephen’s arm and nodded in the direction of his son. “Is that your daughter?” he asked.
Stephen swung his head around. “Yep, that’s my little spitfire, though she’s not that little any more.” Then he stopped. “Is it my imagination or are those two doing a courting dance?”
“Yeah, that’s what my grandmother always called it when two folks got interested in one another,” Stephen said, watching Brian and Faye carefully. “Huh, well I’ll be.”
“You don’t approve?” Jamal asked quickly.
Stephen laughed. “Oh, I think your son is a great kid. It’s just that my daughter swore just last week that she’d never have anything to do with boys, ever.” He looked up at Jamal. “Faye can be pretty fierce at times.”
Jamal laughed. “I’ve heard some of Wil’s stories. But I have to say that I do understand my son’s attraction. I married a woman like that.”
“Yeah, me too. Smartest thing I ever did.” Stephen slowed as he reached the man holding the reins of two Belgian horses hitched to a large wooden cart. “Okay, Lee Tennyson, this is Jamal Lambert, Brian and Wendy’s father. Jamal’s never made cider before.” Just then, three more car doors slammed, and Stephen whipped around. “Sorry. Gotta go direct traffic.”
Once they headed into the orchard to gather apples, Jamal and Lee quickly established a silent routine of Lee maneuvering the cart while Jamal emptied fruit-filled totes into it. They laughed watching the kids spurt among the trees like so many leaves in the wind while news and gossip flowed among the adults gathering the fruit.
Once back at the barn, the teenagers immediately took control of the large water barrel, emptying fruit into it at one end then scooping out clean apples at the other. Jamal and Stephen had the merest moment to share a knowing glance as they watched Brian and Faye maneuver themselves as close to one another as they could get.
Yeah, that’s a courting dance all right, Jamal thought.
The pace of work picked up speed as the afternoon flowed by. When Lee flipped the switch on the grinder, the thick, sweet scent of apples filled the air within seconds. Then juice started flowing out of the press, and everyone scurried to fill bottles.
“What do you do with the pulp that’s left over?” Jamal asked Lee as they emptied large, square pancakes of firmly squashed apples into a bin.
“Oh, my chickens love this stuff,” Lee said. “And there’s enough to share with a couple of other farms.”
It was right about then that Jamal realized they were all covered in a cidery haze that had chilled their fingers, smeared their jackets, and made their boots stick to the floor when they walked.
“Huh, now I see why the kids told me to wear boots,” he said as he squeaked across the floor.
Lee held up his dripping wet gloves. “Yeah, it goes everywhere. All I can say is that it’s a good thing it washes out easy.”
Later, as he sipped a glass of hot cider with his wife, Jamal smiled over the way he’d watched chaos and calm follow each other throughout the day. “No one’s really the boss though they all looked at Lee or Stephen if there were questions,” he told his wife.
“So, does that mean my city man could maybe like some things about living here in the country?” Molly asked.
Jamal smiled and sipped again. “Maybe. Yeah, I think that’s what it means.”
Thank you for journeying with me to Carding, Vermont. If you subscribe to my website, you’ll find a short story in your inbox every Thursday morning along with food photos and recipes from the Crow Town Bakery (on Fridays), and other green peak moments from Vermont (Mondays and Tuesdays).
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The Carding novels are (in order of appearance):