Orchard Flower (Version Charlie)
Chapters : Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8-16 Available On
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In the western part of South Dakota people stop for folks in
trouble. It's as unlike Chicago as it's possible to
be. And it wasn't just because they had their dog with them,
which might have made them feel safer.
Lynne Simmons and her daughter Jill were something of a shock to my
system. Lynne was one of those women who looks a little older
than she really is, because she spends so much time outdoors.
She had a windblown kind of look to her. But at the same
time, her body just didn't match the impression of being
older. Her face made her look like she might be in her
forties, but her body said she was Jill's big sister. It was
the kind of body that draws a man's eyes like a magnet. She
was wearing tight jeans that were faded almost white in places, and a
checkered shirt that was packed full of femininity. Wisps of
sun bleached hair fell from under a cowboy hat that sat over pale blue
eyes that didn't look at me suspiciously at all. She later
told me that was because their dog, Buster, had given me his seal of
approval. She trusted that dog's judgment.
Jill, on the other hand, was thirteen and looked exactly like
thirteen-year-old girls do everywhere. She was kind of lanky
and gawky, with a pony tail. She was slim, but had fresh
young curves that were well on the way to becoming lush, like her
mother's, some day. Jill was one of those girls who promised
to be a looker in a few years. What made her a shock to me
was how willing she was to talk to me as Lynne drove me to Bud's Auto
Repair, in Hot Springs.
A lot of thirteen-year-old girls are uninterested in strangers, and in
strange men in particular. Not Jill. She
practically interrogated me, asking dozens of questions about where I
was from, and what Chicago was like, and why I left. Her
mother finally barked at her to stop being a "nosey ninny." I
swear that's that she said.
Jill was undeterred.
"I'm just trying to learn something, mom. Aren't
you always harping on that ... telling me to read books and all that?"
"There's a difference between learning things and snooping into other
people's business," said Lynne.
"I don't mind," I said. "Back in Chicago a girl like Jill
wouldn't even talk to me."
Lynne darted me a look as she steered the pickup down the
road. Jill was sandwiched between us. Buster was
happily letting the wind rush by in the bed of the truck. It
was fairly close quarters in the cab. But it was Jill who
"Why's that?" she asked. "Are you some kind of sex offender?"
I was impressed with Lynne's ability to recover her equilibrium and get
the truck back on the highway so quickly.
"What?" asked Jill, sounding injured. "I've heard about
registered sex offenders. There's even a place you can go on
the Internet to see where they live and stuff. We don't have
any in Hot Springs, though."
That was Jill. She was - and I say it fondly - a motor mouth
who saw no problem with saying exactly what was on her mind, whatever
that might be. She wasn't trying to push anybody's
buttons. She was just honest and curious.
Her curiosity (and probably my desire for somebody to feel sorry for
me) was how my situation came out. I told them I had set off
into the big wide world to find my fortune, just like some boy in a
fairy tale. Jill thought it sounded cool. Lynne
thought I was crazy.
"You were a CPA making good money and you threw all that away because a
woman broke your heart?" she asked, shaking her head. "There
are more women in the world, you know."
"I can't believe you said that!" said Jill.
And THAT is how I found out that Lynne's husband, who was Jill's
father, had died when he was struck by lightning when Jill was
six. Jill had been trying to get her mother to go on dates in
the last couple of years, probably because Jill was at the age to think
about boys, and dates, and all that sort of thing. Lynne was
"Let's not go into this again," she sighed, as her daughter ratted her
out to a complete stranger. "I told you, I still have
feelings for your father."
Jill turned her curious face towards me. "Do you still have
feelings for your girlfriend?"
I felt my heart wrench in my chest. I was really feeling
sorry for myself.
"I guess I do," I said. "I don't want to, but I
do." Lynne had helped me out, picking me up like that, so I
tried to help her out by passing along some of my wisdom to her
daughter. "So I guess I know how your mother feels."
It backfired on me. Maybe on Lynne too, because Jill slumped.
"I hope I never fall in love, then."
At Bud's Auto Repair there was actually nobody named Bud. I
found this out when I tried to be friendly and asked jovially if Bud
was around. I later found out there had been no Bud since
1953, when Bud retired and sold his business. There had been
four owners since then, none of whom felt the need to rename the
business. The current owner was named Randy, and he said he'd
have my car towed to his shop.
"It'll take me about a week to get a radiator and get it
installed. Cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of eight
hundred dollars," he said, wiping his hands on a rag.
I had about fifteen hundred in my bank account. More
Americans live paycheck to paycheck than you would believe.
Most Americans really ARE three paychecks from being
homeless. But that wasn't my primary problem. My
problem was that staying someplace at tourist rates for that week would
eat up the rest.
"Know anybody who's hiring?" I asked Randy hopefully.
"Nope." He was a man of few words. "So you want me
to fix your car or not?" He also got right to the point.
"Yeah," I sighed. "I guess so. Where's the cheapest
place to stay. And where do you recommend I start looking for
"Beats me," said Randy. "I got a place to stay, and I ain't
looked for a job since I bought this place."
I could tell I was going to like the people around here a lot.
I turned to find Lynne still standing there. Her hands were
on her hips and her head was tilted slightly, like she was looking at a
picture in an art gallery, trying to figure out what it
meant. Jill was peering into the open hood of a car that had
been left for Bud - who didn't exist - to repair. Buster was
sitting on the ground between Lynne and me.
When she spoke, Lynne's voice sounded distinctly wary. "I
could use some temporary help at my place," she said.
Randy's head whipped around and he stared at her. You'd have
thought I was a known serial killer or something. I later
found out that he was among the dozen or so men who had tried to get
her to go out on a date with him in the time that had passed since Paul
died. She had turned them all down, and had never had a hired
Jill thought that was a capital idea, and bounced around like a
basketball being played with by the Harlem Globetrotters.
All that to explain the string of coincidences by which I landed on
Lynne Simmons' horse ranch and apple orchard, forty miles east of Hot
Springs, South Dakota.
Lynne was in the unhappy situation where she had a ranch that could
produce a good living, except that she didn't have enough help to make
that happen. And hiring full time people would eat up the
added income, so there had never been a strong drive to do
that. Agriculture is one of those occupations that requires
you to borrow a hell of a lot of money on the faith that the crop will
come in, or the herd will sell later, and you can repay the
loan. If you can't repay that loan, you can lose the farm,
Instead of taking that chance, Lynne took what she knew about horses,
quarter horses in this instance, and what she knew about running an
orchard, and eked out a living for herself and her daughter.
The land had belonged to her father and grandfather before
him. When she married Paul, the plan was to have a son to
carry on the tradition. Jill had come along and they were
working on having that son when Paul got killed.
It was just a fluke - or coincidence - that Lynne's parents had planted
the apple orchard at all. If you talked to commercial
growers, they'd say South Dakota was all wrong for apples.
Lynne would have told them to tell it to the apples that rotted on the
ground each year because she couldn't harvest the entire thirty acres
and get them to market.
And while she knew a lot about horses and apples, there are things to
do on a ranch that take a man's hand. I'm not being
sexist. There are differences between women and men, and some
of those differences are physical.
I know what you're thinking, but that's not what I'm talking
about. Sure, a woman might be able to lift as much as a man -
a few times. But it's going to wear harder on her body than
on the man's. That's just a fact. And another fact
is that a woman who is five-eight and weighs a hundred and twenty, just
isn't likely to be able to perform the same physical feats as a man who
is almost six feet tall and weighs two hundred pounds. It's
not gender bias. It's simply physics. Give me a two
hundred pound six-foot female body builder and she'll probably be able
to work me into the ground.
But neither Lynne nor Jill were that woman.
As a result, there was about seven years of semi-neglect all around the
ranch. It wasn't all because they were women. A lot
of it was because there were only two of them, and they were both busy
putting out this fire or that one, trying to make a living.
And when the tractor stopped running, and it cost too much to have
somebody come out and fix it, and neither woman had time to learn how
to trouble shoot and repair a tractor ... well it just sat there and
Of course I didn't know how to repair a tractor. Not when I
first got there. But I could do many of the hundred other
things that needed doing, as long as I was supervised by somebody who
could tell me what the heck to do.
That turned out to be Jill, mostly.
Which is how coincidence led me to have, as one of my best friends, a
There was a bunkhouse on the ranch. It hadn't been USED as a
bunkhouse for sixty years, but it was there. It was full of
junk, having been turned into storage when America no longer needed
horses in quantity to pull freight, or act as primary transportation
So my first job was to clear me a place to stay. It was June
which, in Southwestern South Dakota, is like the fall weather I loved
so much back in Illinois. That night Lynne gave me some
blankets and a pillow, and I was as happy as a pig in shit.
Or whatever pigs love to be in. You know what I mean.
For two days I worked around the house and barns, cleaning stuff up,
and hauling trash off. The stables were clean, but the manure
pile was about ten feet tall. The tractor had a bucket on the
front, but the tractor didn't run. I wasn't a mechanic, but I
had two arms, which is all that's required to use a shovel. I
can't complain, because Jill was right there with me, shoveling it in
the back of the truck and then back out of the truck a mile away into a
draw that was the equivalent of their land fill. I thought I
might actually die.
It wasn't because it was back-breaking work.
OK, maybe it was.
But it wasn't because the manure pile was wet in the middle, and greasy
and smelly and soaked through my shoes within an hour while Jill's
boots repelled it like Rain-X on a windshield.
OK, maybe it was that too.
But it was honest work and I got to talk to Jill all day while I did
it, and she didn't mock me when I had to sit down and rest my
back. She did that too, but not every ten minutes, like me.
And I felt pretty proud when that fricking pile of fricking horse shit
was gone. I mean I'd helped make it be gone, and from now on
whenever I uttered the term "Horse shit!" it would have a hell of a lot
more emotion behind it than it ever had before.
Then I fixed fences for three days, and I was SURE I was going to
die. Again, it wasn't because it was back breaking work.
OK, maybe it was.
But it wasn't because it was dangerous, pulling wire with the pickup,
and then getting it even tighter with a come-along until the wire was
taut as a guitar string. And if it snapped, it could wrap you
up in barbed wire like a birthday present for a cannibal.
OK, maybe it was that too.
All I know is that each night, when I got back to the bunkhouse and
fell into bed, I felt like it would be easier to just expire and get it
over with than get up and take a (cold) shower in the bunkhouse
bathroom (and I use that term with tongue planted FIRMLY in cheek), so
I could get up at five the next morning and start all over again.
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