The history of the row determined where to start picking

I PASSED the hand-lettered sign several July mornings in a row before my curiosity was aroused. After all, it seemed an unlikely location for a raspberry patch: a dusty strip of the old highway south of town, where prosperity had vanished along with most of the traffic over to the nearby Interstate. And it had been nearly 20 years since I'd picked raspberries. Nevertheless, the sign beckoned, and one morning on impulse I decided to stop. I told myself that merely inquiring wouldn't commit me to anything, but doubt intensified as I pulled off the highway. The scene looked even less promising on closer inspection, nothing but a deserted parking lot and a seedy auto repair shop, no raspberry patch in sight.

I was strongly tempted to forget the whole thing. But by now I was beginning to remember what it had been like to pick raspberries as a girl: the shady green thicket with its elusive red fruit thwarting the casual picker but rewarding the determined (and since my mother paid me 10 cents a basket, I was determined) with the wherewithal for succulent jams and pies. And best of all, the berries eaten fresh from the bush when, as my mother said, ``They tasted just like sunshine.''

The auto repair shop looked like the only place to gain any information. Its interior was dim after the glare of the sun, and the shadowy figures milling about in grease-stained coveralls were oblivious to my presence. The man in the adjoining office cubicle was more accessible, though not much more accommo-dating.

``I'm looking for the raspberries,'' I ventured.

Long pause. He looked up reluctantly from his desk, although there was nothing on it to claim his attention.

``All I have t'do with 'em's the sign out front.''

Another long pause, both of us mulling over the fact that the sign out front was of no use once the raspberry seeker had pulled off the highway.

``Try the trailer 'round back. If nobody's there, try up at the house.''

The harsh sunlight was almost welcoming after the half-light of the shop, but my uncertainty intensified as I picked my way through weeds and trash to the trailer. Through its screen door a television set blared and I glimpsed a cat curled up on a pile of rumpled clothes, but no one responded to my knock and I left with a sense of relief.

Once more I was tempted to forget the whole thing. If the trailer was this bad, what would the house be like? More important, what would the raspberries be like? Coated with layers of highway dust and exhaust? But having gone this far, I trudged up a muddy, rutted lane to a pink house standing in seclusion upon the hill.

It was like stepping into another world. There was a stillness to the place, the traffic noise only a distant hiss far below. The old farmhouse with its tumble-down chimney, crumbling stucco, and sagging front door looked barely habitable, and indeed I saw no one.

``Hello-o over there!''

I looked in the direction of the sound and spotted an elderly gentleman sitting deep in the shade of the side yard. The white hair, the face ruddy from years of outdoor work, even the straw hat stirred childhood memories of my own grandfather.

``I'm here about the raspberries,'' I called out.

``Oh, you want to pick? Well!''

He limped spryly across the yard and looked me over skeptically. ``Got a hat? Or a long-sleeved shirt?''

``No,'' I replied, remembering too late that shirt and hat were the raspberry picker's standard protection against scratches and sunburn.

``Got any containers?'' he asked next.

``A bucket.'' I showed him the large plastic one I'd snatched from my kitchen closet in last-minute haste.

He frowned. ``You can't take the berries home in that. The top layers'll crush down the bottom ones. Here, take a bunch of these little baskets. That bucket'll be good for picking, though. You can sling it over your belt.''

A bucket over my belt? Oh, yes, so I'd have both hands free, one to hold the branch while the other picked. At least I wasn't going to be barred from the patch for lack of proper equipment!

The old man and I began a circuitous trek through the orchard behind the house. I gave an inward sigh of relief when the long-sought raspberry patch came into view. However, there was yet another delay while we walked up and down the rows, taking stock of the crop and discussing which bushes had been picked and how recently; the ``history of the row'' determined whether a picker's yield would be ample or scanty. Finally I chose a spot at random and said with determination, ``I'm going to start here.''

That was all it took. We both settled down to pick. And the raspberry patch was just like the one I remembered from my girlhood: shady and pleasant even in the July heat, the berries plump and flavorful, particularly those from the mysterious depths of the bushes where sunlight and marauding birds seldom penetrated. The only difference was that on this day I had a running commentary to help pass the time. The buckets filled rapidly as my companion chatted away.

The sun was high in the sky now and the heat was intense, even in the shade, but he entertained me with accounts of Indian artifacts he'd turned up while farming and tales of the early settlers in the area.... His voice was pleasant and soothing, and by the time I emptied the last bucketful into my baskets, I felt as if I'd slipped back into a dream world of simpler times and people. But as I paid for my pickings and walked back down the hill to my car, reality overcame me. The next time I drove past this spot, it would probably seem perfectly ordinary, not a magic place at all.

Then I smiled. What did it matter? After all, I had the raspberries.

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