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CHAPTER FOUR: THE APPLE TREE

That's how I remember my first day of classes, senior year. It was a real loser. The humiliation of fencing, a new collection of up-tight professors and the after-effects of the previous night's party combined to kick my ass plenty. I couldn't wait for the day to end. As I turned the corner at Depeyster, I remembered the mess inside the house. I decided not to even deal with it. I'd walk right through it with blinders on and head straight for my bed. What I needed was a long nap.

But there was good old Harold sleeping in the sun on the front lawn and when he jumped up to greet me I began to feel a little better. Then I noticed an older gentleman standing on the girl's front porch talking to Michelle. About what I could not imagine. As he started down the steps I tried to catch her eye but she shut the door as if I did not exist. I could only shrug. It was going to be a long year.

The house.

The silver-haired gentleman, dressed in a threadbare herringbone jacket, looked like a down and out ex-college professor. At least he was happy to see me. He came trotting up to me in a hurry, as if I might disappear on him. Harold gave a little growl that should have made me suspicious but I hushed him up. I was curious to see what the old guy was talking to Michelle about.

Then I noticed the peck basket full of apples.

"Hello, young fellow," he greeted me with a bit of a fake English accent. He wasn't afraid to smile even though most of his teeth were missing and the ones still intact were the color of broccoli soup.

"How'd you like to help out an old man and buy a few apples?"

I wasn't really crazy about apples but at least the old dude was trying to earn his liquor money, not just beg for it like the hobos downtown. Kent seemed to have more than its share of down and outers, maybe because of the train tracks that ran through the middle of town.

"How much?" I asked him.

"Two bucks for the whole basket," he grinned again.

That was kind of steep for my modest means. I was thinking more along the lines of three for a quarter. But then he nailed me with the hook, the kicker, the bottom line.

"I pick them myself, you know. It's not easy when you're my age. I'm a dying breed."

There it was, the old "dying breed" routine. Like he was some sort of bald eagle or something. Hey, I've got a heart, I was even environmentally correct early on. How could I not help save an endangered species?

"Here you go buddy," I reached deep into my jean's pockets and discovered I was down to four singles. It doesn't sound like much today but back in the sixties you could live for a week on that kind of stash. And he was asking for half of it. "I might have to join you in the apple business," I tried to joke with him, but once he saw the bills come out of the safe he was a changed man.

"Bless you, my boy," he cradled the two greenbacks in his gnarly hands. I swore I saw a bottle of MD 20-20 reflecting in his deep brown eyes. "Do you mind if I keep the basket?"

"Sure, go ahead," I was feeling generous after doing my part for the homeless population. I stretched out my gray KSU t-shirt and he filled it with the contents of his basket. And he even held the front door open for me so I could ease into the house. "What a nice fellow," I thought. Maybe I was wrong about the dude. Maybe he needed the money to visit his sick mother in Dubuque.

Entering the front door with a t-shirt full of apples, my notebook under my armpit, I was unprepared for the sight before me. The house was spotless. If you had told a complete stranger that the night before a horde of college students held a party in the same household he would have laughed in your face. Only Artie's makeshift couch-bed was left untouched as a testimony to our extra roommate.

"Early," I smiled to myself as I looked around in awe. Early's nickname was "mom." Every college student should have a friend like him. He was everybody's old-fashioned grandmother. He was the "Odd Couple's" Felix Unger. He cleaned the house, cooked our meals and got on our case if we started showing too many Oscar Madison tendencies.

"I hope he likes the apples," I thought, dumping them into the sink to wash off any pesticides. There was no telling where they came from. I wiped them off and placed them in a large bowl in the middle of the dining room table. "Nice touch," I congratulated myself on my little addition to the general sense of homeliness.

I walked into our stereo command center, looking for the perfect album to put me asleep. I munched on an apple as I searched through our community record collection.

I had just dropped the Moody Blues' "Days of Future Passed" on the spindle when I heard Harold barking out back. That damn dog. I needed my nap and I was in no mood for a barking mongrel. I was about to let Harold inside when I heard a crashing sound like a plane landing in the backyard. I looked out the window and there was my old buddy, "The King of the Road," trying to hush up Harold as he bounced a wooden ladder against the tree in the far corner of Depeyster's back forty.

Then he climbed up our ladder to fill his basket with the apples from our tree. I had just paid two bucks for my own apples. I wanted to kill the guy but I was too embarrassed to admit my foolishness. I'd forgotten that we even had an apple tree.

My anger quickly faded. Maybe it was my overall tired condition but I watched helplessly as Harold barked at the old guy's heels. "What a dope," I thought to myself. At least no one else knew what an idiot I'd been.

Suddenly I remembered Michelle. Had she also been duped? I had to find out. I ran out the front door, jumped on her porch and knocked loudly.

"What do you want?" she answered stiffly. Her stereo headphones were drooped over her shoulders.

"Did you by any chance happen to buy any apples off our friendly neighborhood peddler?" I asked.

She looked at me as if she had no idea what I was talking about.

"The dying breed?"

Ah, those magic words. The phrase struck a chord. She couldn't help but smile. "The 'dying breed' bit was a bit much," she laughed.

"Would you mind coming out back for a second?"

"What for?" she was suspicious of my intentions.

"Trust me," I tried to guide her elbow but she pulled her arm away. She did, however, take off her headphones.

"The last time I 'trusted' you, you disappeared for two weeks."

"I'll explain that some other time," I tried to change a touchy subject. "Just take a look out back."

We circled the house and discovered the apple entrepreneur on his way back down the ladder, kicking at Harold and trying not to spill any of his basket full of apples.

"Do you know him?" I asked.

Michelle stopped in her tracks, stared, then laughed. I whistled and Harold came running over. The old man heard us and bid a hasty retreat over the neighbor’s fence, clutching his basket like a fullback trying not to fumble the football.

"At least he could have taken the ladder down," I said, as we walked toward the tree.

"Must be the landlord's," Michelle said, instinctively butting the base of the ladder so I could lower it. "How much did he sucker you for?"

"A couple bucks," I admitted, sheepishly.

"I only gave him fifty cents."

"I always said you were smarter than me."

"You said it but you didn't believe it."

We sat on the back porch steps and listened to strains of the Moody Blues filter through the screen door. The back porch, unlike the front, stretched from her back door to ours. The wooden steps were much more comfortable than the concrete ones in front.

We gazed at the large gravel parking lot bordered with railroad ties and the lawn stretching out behind it. There was a dilapidated brick barbecue grill that we planned to put into service in the near future. The back yard was one of Depeyster's fringe benefits, a major improvement over apartment life.

"So, are we buddies again?" I had to try and break the ice or it was going to be a very long year.

The house.

"Depends on what you mean by 'buddies,'" she shot back, still a bit tiffed but I could tell she was softening.

"Not enemies," was the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment.

She looked me right in the eye and I could swear I saw a little of the old spark re-ignite. "Friends," I offered, holding out my hand for a traditional handshake.

She left it hanging out there for what seemed like forever before she took it firmly. "Neighbors," she said and smiled.

What a smile. It felt like the sun just broke through a winter's storm. I was greatly relieved.

"So what do you think about Chris and Paul?" I made small talk and she made small talk and once again I enjoyed the warmth of her company.

Sitting with Michelle under the hot sun, fanned by a cool breeze, it reminded me of old times. For one marvelous moment all was right in the world. I felt invincible, ready to tackle whatever challenges senior year would throw my way, oblivious to the tragedy lurking in the autumn shadows.

 

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