Keeping it Tidy
by Alan Linton
Digging potatoes isn’t easy, but I stand a chance of making more than the $90 I get from unemployment. A good crew will dig a so-called “seven day field” in five days just for the $90 bonus.
Most of the potato farms in Maine are in counties that border Canada. There are lots of one-lane roads that meander back and forth from there to the U.S., all without gates or guards, just a foreman to discourage crossings. The foremen like to keep things tidy.
Our equipment consists of a four-pronged steel-handled tool about eight inches long and bent like arthritic fingers, with a hole in it large enough for a wooden handle that we don’t use. We’re paid a buck per every 55-gallon barrel we fill. Many workers are lost through being paid daily, others to the lure of those wandering Canadian dirt roads. The work is exhausting and dirty. Potato fields are a far cry from Chuck Berry’s “Blueberry Hill.”
This year I’ve been put in charge of off-duty crews to curb their wanderings. I’ve learned that extra money takes their minds off their wanderlust. All the salable firewood laying on the ground surrounding these fields was tidied up years ago. Last year the dead branches on the trees were cut, leaving the saplings enough sun to grow straight and tall, upping the property value for its owners.
Scanning the edges of the field, I see fruit and nut trees. Last year they held nothing but turning leaves. This year they’re weighted with ripe fruits. The day’s potato harvest over, I dangle those fruits in front of the crew to keep them from wandering.
“Fellas,” I say, finding them in the field, palming an apple. “Anyone care to make some extra quick cash?”
They grumble. They don’t get what I’m driving at.
“We’ve got us some fruit and nut bearing trees here,” I say, pointing. “And we’ve got all these empty drums and our own trucks with six-foot beds to carry them. Every truck holds six drums. That’s around one hundred and twenty-five dollars a truck for fruit, and two hundred for nuts.”
No more grumbles. Eleven volunteers. In no time we’ve loaded six trucks with apples, pears, cherries, walnuts, and chestnuts.
No one seems to pay much attention to the direction we’re heading until six very large men appear on horseback, side by side blocking the road. Canadian Law. Oops.
Since I started this venture, I’ll have to do the talking. My knowledge of French (none) won’t help.
Luckily, one of the Mounties speaks English.
“What’s in the drums?” he asks, nudging his horse forward as I approach on foot.
“Fruits and nuts,” I say with my hands in my jean pockets.
“American fruits and nuts?” Even from a distance with his horse still moving forward the surprise registers. Oops.
I shrug. “Yes, sir.”
As I stand in the center of the road he trots by. The drums aren’t covered so the other Mounty should have no trouble examining the illicit merchandize.
He returns and dismounts right next to me. He leans in close.
“How much you plan to sell that stuff for?” he whispers.
“All six trucks a thousand,” I answer, stammering a bit as I point to the trucks behind me with my thumb.
The Mounty says a few words in French loud enough for his team to hear. A second Mounty trots forward and dismounts to my left. The first Mounty speaks again in French. Then he withdraws a large manila envelope from his saddlebag. He hands it to the second Mounty, who hands it to me, saying, “There’s twelve hundred here in American cash. The extra two hundred is for loading them onto our truck.”
“Where is it?” I ask, looking around.
“Should be coming up the road any second.”
The second Mounty points up the road behind his compadres. I look over his shoulder just in time to see the headlights flash.
Our trucks pull over to the side of the road, unload, pull back out again facing the way they came.
As the last truck pulls out, one of the Mounties asks his superior:
“Who keeps it tidy, Sir?’
In unison they all smile and answer,
“Canadian Mounties do!”
* * *
The next day we arrive to work early at a new potato field with a keg. Before opening it we pick all the ripe apples from the trees around the field.
At the end of the day our six trucks are all as full of apples as of potatoes. Against my warning we’re headed for the border again. The extra cash I dangled over them has turned into a sword of Damocles over me.
The same Mounties, the same transfer, the same dumb inside “Who keeps it tidy?” joke told with smiling faces.
“Canadian Mounties do!” responds the superior officer mounting his saddle.
We have the cash; they have the nuts. In every sense.
* * *
There’s no turnover. Even those workers not in on the deal stick around out of curiosity, taking bets on whether or not we’ll make it back.
They’ve got their own inside joke:
“Who keeps it tidy?”
“Potato Pickers of Maine!”
* * *
Our Canadian forays flaunt the law of averages. By all rights by now we should have been fined, jailed, or both. It makes me wonder why others don’t try it more.
Corrupt Mounties like extra money, too.
The more trips we take, the more goodies my crew wants to smuggle. I have to remind them that cigarettes and booze are out. Fruit and nuts only.
Soon we’re running out of potato fields to dig up. At this rate, we’ll be done harvesting the second week of October, three weeks early. Now it’s mid-September. Green stuff hanging off the naked oak branches reminds me for some reason of Christmas. Then it comes to me: mistletoe!
Too much destroys the host tree; too little and the fragrant parasite won’t survive the winter.
Without picking it clean the mistletoe from just one of these trees can fill a pickup.
Soon we’re carrying twelve trucks of mistletoe across the border daily.
$1200 per truck.
“Who keeps it tidy?”
“Canadian Mounties do!”
* * *
Three weeks of this and my blood pressure is up. I wake up with morning headaches.
But my pockets are full.
Today, when we’ve finished with the last field, I’ll refuse to join my crew in their ride across the border.
The high at noon is 38 degrees. It will not go any higher. We’re told we can’t leave until all the potatoes are delivered, which will take another six hours.
Six of us including me volunteer to go to the general store two miles up the road for coffee and sandwiches.
Making 150 Italian sandwiches takes a while. My patience wears thin.
“We’ll be back in 45 minutes,” I tell the lady behind the counter.
Leaving George (one of our crew) behind, we hang a left and walk toward Canada.
Twenty minutes later Joe, who added a bit too much liquor to his coffee, walks smack-dab into the high-quarters of a big horse. The horse shies to the right. A mean looking giant in a Mountie uniform straddles her.
Oops, I say to myself.
The cop dismounts and approaches me. The others step back.
“What you people do here?” he asks, sounding irritated, crossing his arms.
“Killing time,” I answer, taking two steps back, not eager to see myself in his belt buckle. Not a very good answer, since we’re all carrying our potato rakes in our belts.
My right hand finds the tines and plays with them.
“What for?” he asks, moving his hands to his belted hips.
“We’re waiting for our sandwiches.” With my thumb I point back toward the store.
“How many?” he asks, pointing the same way with his chin.
“One-hundred and fifty.”
“Give me ten dollars for each and I’ll let you go,” he says, folding his arms over his chest again.
When the others start grumbling and moving forward he pulls a huge cannon of a pistol from his holster and fires a blast straight up. The blood stops running in my body. One of my crew members passes out.
I take a hundred dollar bill from my shirt pocket.
“This is all I have,” I say, holding it out.
The Mountie re-holsters his cannon and, smiling takes the bill.
“Now go back the way you came.”
He saunters back and remounts his nag. Before he has his hands on the stirrup Joe yells out, “Who keeps it tidy?”
The Mountie turns, faces us, smiles from ear to ear. “Canadian Mounties!” he yells back and trots off, giving us a little wave over his shoulder.
* * *
We return to the general store for our grub and hurry back to the fields in time for the company truck to take us back to the Turnpike Mall in Augusta. From there I’ll hitch home, thinking, “Next year I’ll be picking apples. Those fields aren’t anywhere near the damn border.”
Alan Linton's story “Wired” appeared in Alimnetum’s March 2014 issue.