Mauro’s very empty stomach rolled a couple of times. He was outside of Frank-enmuth—maybe thirty-five miles—when he felt true hunger grip him. Whatever poison had invaded his system was finally gone, and he was thankful for that. He was tempted to eat, thinking he might have a chance to keep something down, but the idea of having to exit again wasn’t appealing. Then he thought of the bushel of apples. An apple actually sounded good to him, if for nothing else than to get something in his gut. He’d order a pizza when he got home.
He pulled over to the side of the highway and got out, keeping a wide berth from the drivers speeding by, rushing home to the insane pace of their hurried lives downstate. They pulled trailers with jet skis, winterized boats of every length and kind, and off-road vehicles; all the things the people “up north” rued about those who lived “downstate.”
He opened the hatch and pulled down the lift gate. He saw the red and white quilt draped over the bushel basket. It seemed strange to him that Esther would use such a lovely wrap for so modest a gift. He lifted it and was hit with the rush of a strong, sour scent the blanket had sealed in. A black swarm of fruit flies lifted with the blanket like a burst of pepper, and he swatted at them aggressively, a horrified look taking over his features. The odor of cider was overpowering.
What he saw made his face turn pale, as if God had decided at that very moment that Mauro should now live his life as an albino.
The apples weren’t in a bushel basket.
“Oh no. Oh my God. Oh no, no … ”
The green Detroit Edison crate was tucked next to his duffel bags, brimming with rotten fruit. Fright gripped him hard, like he’d just discovered a tumor while showering. The apples were mushy, mealy, covered with black spots and worm-filled. White gall wasp larvae crawled over them.
He grabbed the sides of the crate, pulled it toward him and rested it on the folded-down lift gate. There was a note on top of the mess. Mauro reached for it, and though made only of paper, it required every ounce of his quickly fading strength to lift it to his face. Humming sounds of traffic—mere white noise—sizzled in his head like a swarm. The note shook as he read it.
Aldo loves you boys, but I guess I don’t. You and that chicken yellow cousin of yours better never step anywhere near my farm again. This is one lie Esther and I can live with. Next year, if he asks you why you don’t want to hunt my land, I’m sure you’ll come up with an excuse that’s believable. Now, how do you like them apples?
Edward and Esther Troyer”
A little paw print, pressed in blue ink, was set next to the couple’s properly cursive signatures.
Mauro dropped the note and sat on the lift gate of his Cherokee.
He looked at the green crate. He slumped to the ground—the back of his head hitting the lift gate on the way down hard enough to make him dizzy, and his head rested against the rear bumper underneath it. Shadowed under the ceiling of the lift gate, he finally gave in to heaving sobs, all the guilt he’d held back since the moment he lied to Uncle Aldo bursting forth. Mauro ignored the pain in the back of his head. He sat on the road gravel, crying harder, his body racking convulsively as he let it all go.