Big Damn Pears
by David P. Langlinais
Luke LaCroix first told Old Green about the pear tree one day at lunch. They were outside off the boiler room, sitting in the shade of the overhang. The day was hot — it was early August in south Louisiana — but it was hotter in the rice mill where the air was thick, stagnant and reeking of diesel fumes. When Luke had pulled the large pineapple pear from his paper sack, he noticed the old man’s expression suddenly change.
“Ever see a pear this big, Green?” Luke said as he unfolded his pocket knife. He began carving away a large bite-sized chunk from the heavy fruit, the juice dripping onto the legs of his jeans.
“Mais, that’s a big damn pear, yeah,” the old black man said, pausing over his pot of rice and gravy. Every morning when he got to work, Green would place the old, pocked and dented cast iron pot on top of the boiler where the pot’s contents, usually rice and gravy and some cut of meat, would keep warm until lunch hour. Green appeared to contemplate the fruit with covetous eyes. “Boy, where you get that at?” he said.
“There’s a tree full of them in my back yard,” Luke said. Green was typically an emotionless, taciturn man. Luke had been working with him that whole summer and had never seen him intrigued by anything before. “Want me to bring you some tomorrow?”
Green cracked a thin smile at that, showing the few worn-down, yellowed teeth he still had remaining in his mouth. “It’s true?” he said. “You can bring me a couple?”
“Tell you what,” Luke said. “Follow me home after work and you can pick all you want. Like I said, we have a whole tree of ‘em that we’ll never get around to picking.”
However slight it was, Green’s smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “I don’t know,” he said, returning his attention to the rice and gravy. He pulled a small lamb shank from the pot and inserted the meaty end into his mouth. After working the shank around his mouth for a moment, the bone came away clean and greasy.
“C’mon, Green,” Luke said. “You can pick as much as you want.”
“Mais, no boy, I can’t do that,” Green said. “It ain’t my place.”
“What are you talking about?” Luke said. “You’d be doing us a favor.”
Green didn’t say anything and Luke knew from his experience with the old man that he’d dropped the subject. There was no use talking about it anymore.
Luke had finished his junior year in high school in May. His father was good friends with the big boss over at the rice mill in town. As a favor to Luke’s father, the big boss had agreed to give Luke a summer job. On his first morning at the mill, Luke met the big boss in his air conditioned office. After filling out a lot of paperwork, Luke followed him into the mill where they met up with a shift foreman. Luke stood there as the two men mumbled something to one another that Luke couldn’t hear. Then, without saying anything to Luke, the big boss turned and walked away. The shift foreman then began moving toward the back of the mill, and Luke followed him. They passed through several cavernous rooms, each rumbling with machinery the size of automobiles that shook the old, worn plank flooring beneath Luke’s feet. Deep into the mill and beyond the noise, they entered a dimmly lit room, the only sound coming from a motor high in the rafters that labored to crank a chain that turned the workings of a grain elevator.
Toward the rear of the room, Luke could just make out the back of a short black man as he worked alone, shoveling a pile of rice back into the conveyor from which the rice had spilled. In the half-light the man appeared as if a shadow. He had his shirt off and his back muscles could be seen rolling thickly beneath his taut, purple-black skin, glistening wet. As they approached him, Luke realized the man was old, but had the physique of a much younger man. Luke figured he must have shoveled a lot of rice in his life to look like that. The foreman introduced Luke to the man, saying his name was Green, but that everyone in the mill called him Old Green. The foreman told the old man that Luke would be working with him that summer. He said little else before turning and walking back toward the front of the mill. Luke was nervous being left alone with the old black man. As nervous as the old man looked to be left alone with Luke.
As Luke pulled into the long driveway leading up to his house, he checked his rearview mirror. He no longer saw Green following him and he wondered if the old man had changed his mind again. Then, as Luke pulled into the carport, he could see Green’s pickup slowly turning the corner. It seemed to approach the house tentatively.
“You get lost?” Luke joked when Green had finally made it down the driveway. The old truck sat in the carport, its engine running loudly, a strange ticking sound coming from under the hood.
The old man didn’t say anything. He slowly scanned the acre of property, the manacured lawn, the several moss-draped century oaks. He studied the large two-story house and then the kennel in the sideyard where the two yellow labs were going crazy. Luke shouted at the dogs to shut up, but they only continued barking, jumping hysterically on the wire enclosure. Luke shouted at them again and they settled down, but reluctantly.
Green looked terrified, as if certain the dogs would break through the kennel gate, padlock and all.
“Sorry about that,” Luke said. “I don’t know what’s gotten into them. I guess they’re not used to strangers.”
Green didn’t look like he wanted get out of the pickup, he didn’t look like he would. He said, “Boy, you sure you momma and you poppa say they don’t mind?”
“Nah, they’re not even home yet,” Luke said. “C’mon, the tree’s right around in back.”
Green killed the motor, and the old truck went quiet. The door screeched open on its rusty hinges as he got out of the pickup. He appeared deliberate in his movement, as if walking on ice. As if trying to walk as silently as he could in his big, filthy work boots. The old man followed Luke toward the pear tree that sat amid a citrus orchard in the back yard, just up the hill from the bayou.
“You catch you some fish in there?” Green said, gesturing toward the bayou.
“Yeah. But I’ve sat there and caught plenty of nothing before, too, I can tell you that.”
“Mais, me, if I lived on a bayou, I’d be fishin’ all the time, yeah.”
“Hell, Green, I didn’t know you liked to fish,” Luke said.
“I like catchin’ fish,” Green said, showing his few teeth for an instant, “but I like eatin’ ‘em more.”
“Well, if you like catfish, this is the place to catch ‘em,” Luke said. “At least when the garfish and choupique aren’t fouling up your line. They got a lot of that, too.”
“I like catfish,” Green said. “I like garfish and choupique, too.” The old man was still studying the bayou, where the lush, just-mown lawn met the bank. He appeared to be looking at a shady spot beneath a willow tree where Luke usually sat when he fished in the bayou. On hot days, it was the coolest spot down there.
“I’ll tell you what, Green,” Luke said, “you can fish here anytime you want. How ‘bout that?”
“Mais, I don’t know.”
“Seriously,” Luke said. “I can tell you want to. Besides, you wouldn’t be hurting anything.”
Green looked away from the bayou. He turned his attention to the pear tree, as if changing the subject.
“Go ahead and start picking what you want,” Luke said. “I’ll go inside and grab something to put ‘em in.”
Luke moved quickly toward the back door. Before entering the house, he added, “I mean it, Green. Pick all you want.”
Old Green didn’t say much to Luke the first week they worked together. Luke would show up in the morning, clock in, and then grab the grain shovel out of his locker. Then he’d begin searching for the old man, the whole time feeling the cold, menacing stares of the other men as he moved deeper into the mill. Once Luke found Green, he would join the old man, blending into the labor of shoveling rice. They would go hours without saying a word. Luke marveled at the old man’s steady, dogged pace.
Each day that had passed that first week, Luke felt more alone in the mill than he did the day before. The other men didn’t want him there. They resented him as much as they seemed to resent Old Green. They would leer at the both of them as they took their breaks at the coffee pot with the rest of the men. Luke knew why they disliked him: he was a rich, white school boy that didn’t belong in the mill. But he wondered what they had against Old Green.
One morning, Luke and Green were on the roof shoveling rice at a fast pace, trying to get the job done before the day’s heat set in. Luke could tell the old man had begun to warm up to him a little. They’d been working together almost two weeks. Green still wasn’t talking to Luke, but Luke felt he could now talk to the old man if he wanted.
Without stopping in his work, Luke said, “Why don’t the other men like you, anyway?”
The old man continued shoveling, not breaking stride, and Luke didn’t think he was going to answer. Then he said, “Boy, it ain’t me they don’t like. It’s you. And now you with me.”
“What do you mean,” Luke said.
“What do I mean, uh? Boy, you know the big boss. And he put you in here with us. Now nobody is gonna have nuttin to do with you.”
“Or you,” Luke said, now understanding.
“That’s some kind a shit, uh?”
Luke didn’t say anything.
“Summer will be gone soon,” the old man said. “And then you’ll be gone too.”
Luke felt awful for putting Old Green in that position. Still, he was all Luke had in the mill and he continued to follow the old man to the coffee pot for breaks and to the boiler room for lunch. Luke could tell the old man didn’t like it, but he never said anything either. He’d accepted Luke as if having to. Like a blister on his toe that he could do little about but wait for it to go away.
Luke wasn’t in the house long. He went to the kitchen and grabbed a grocery sack from the pantry. Before going back outside to the orchard, he took a look in the fridge to see what there was to eat. He was always hungry after a day at the rice mill, like he couldn’t get something into his stomach fast enough. He ate a chicken leg as quickly as he could and then moved toward the back door. Through the window, he could see that his father was now home; his pickup was parked in the carport. When Luke looked toward the orchard, he saw his father talking to Green. The old man appeared small in the presence of Luke’s father, standing there staring at the ground, his shoulders slumped, the small pile of pears that he’d picked on the ground at his feet. He had the demeanor of someone being chewed-out by a shift foreman.
Luke went outside. His father now home, the dogs in the kennel were barking again. They were jumping on the wire and going at it as savagely as before. Luke shouted at them to shut up, but this time they didn’t listen to him and continued with the racket. Luke moved quickly to the orchard. He could tell his father wasn’t happy about something. He was talking in a tone that Luke recognized. Luke had heard it before when in trouble, usually the times before his father let him have it with a belt.
Luke’s father turned and saw Luke approaching. “This man says you told him he could pick pears,” he said. “Is that true?”
“Yeah, this is Old Green,” Luke said. “He’s the man I work with at the mill. I told him to follow me home.”
Luke’s father seemed to unstiffen. He was still mad, but now for a different reason. Maybe because he was put on the spot and made to feel embarrassed, Luke wasn’t sure. Luke’s father turned back to Green. “I hope you’ll accept my apology,” he said. “I didn’t know.”
Green kept his eyes on the ground, not saying anything.
Luke’s father turned to Luke. “You can give him what he’s already picked,” he said. “Then he’ll have to leave.”
“I told him he can have all he wants,” Luke said, showing his father the sack he’d retrieved from the house. “We were gonna fill this up.”
“You heard me,” Luke’s father said. “It isn’t open for discussion. We can talk about it later.”
“I just don’t see how we’re doing anything wrong,” Luke said.
“I said drop it,” Luke’s father said. “I mean it.”
“But why?” Luke said.
“Okay, you want to talk about it?” Luke’s father said. “Then let’s talk about it. You brought him here to my house, that’s what you did wrong.” Then Luke’s father turned to Old Green. He said, “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? I bet you understand.”
Green’s eyes remained on the ground. He appeared paralyzed and it was quiet as Luke’s father waited for the old man to acknowledge the question. Luke could hear the dogs in the kennel still going at it, still barking. He could tell Green wanted to leave, that he didn’t want to be there.
Luke looked toward the bayou, trying to understand. He looked at the shady spot beneath the willow tree and understood that the old man wouldn’t be fishing in the bayou behind the house after all.
Without saying anything more, Luke’s father turned and walked toward the house. He opened the back door and went inside.
“I’m sorry, Green,” Luke said. “I don’t know what got into him. I swear, he’s not like that.”
Green didn’t say anything. He began moving toward his truck, as if finally able to move again. He left behind the pears he’d picked, still in a small pile on the ground.
Luke gathered the pears and put them in the bag as quickly as he could. He wanted to pick more, he wanted to fill the bag. Instead, he ran after Green who was already getting into the old pickup.
“Here, Green,” Luke said. “At least take these.” Luke reached through the passenger side window and put the bag of pears on the seat.
Green started the truck. He didn’t look at Luke.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Green,” Luke said. “First thing in the morning, I’ll come find you, okay?”
The old man still wasn’t looking at Luke. He still wasn’t saying anything. The dogs in the kennel were going at it and Luke shouted at them to shut up. But they wouldn’t stop.
David P. Langlinais is a freelance copywriter from southwest Louisiana who currently lives in Dallas, Texas. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in South Dakota Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Los Angeles Review, Prick of the Spindle, Lost in Thought, Big Muddy, The MacGuffin and others. This story first appeared in Dos Passos Review and is included in Duck Thief and Other Stories, his new book recently published by UL Press.