Blackberries by Raphaelle Peale, ca. 1813 (Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco)

The Blackberry Patch

After his lunch in the student lounge David Wallace read the front page of the morning newspaper, then turned to the second page and saw the story. He read it, at first appalled, then thinking that he had to go home and be with Marian. He had told the paper boy not to deliver the paper for a month and, as he had hoped, Marian apparently did not miss it; if she did, she said nothing. But still she could know: she could have seen it on the local news or heard it on the radio or even from some tactless neighbor.

So he taught his Survey of World Literature class at one o’clock, then went to his office and got his briefcase. He was turning to leave when he saw the girl standing at his open door. She was one of his World Literature students, a pretty girl who sat three times a week in his class, her eyes intently following his lips and eyes and gesticulations. But when he asked her a question she would invariably disappoint him with a blush and a stammered irrelevancy, as if his question had dispelled all her accumulated fragments of knowledge.

“What can I do for you?” he said.

“Nothing—I mean it’s not about school. I wanted to tell you I had a Mass said for your daughter.”

“Oh. Oh yes: that’s very thoughtful of you.”

“I just wanted you to know.”

He nodded, started to walk past her, then paused.

“I appreciate it,” he said.

Then he went down the corridor and across the campus, trying to forgive her, telling himself that to her a Mass was important or even essential and she had probably thought she was giving him some consolation, like assuring the father of a Greek soldier that his son’s body has been properly burned. Surely the Mass was as essential as the burning and just as much in vain.

When he reached his car he was sweating. He took off his coat and got into the car—its body hot and shining in the sun—and drove away from the campus.

This time he went to the blackberry patch. He had avoided it for three weeks, driving past the corner where he had always turned and going home by another route. But now he turned at that corner, drove three blocks, and parked at the field—in the entire block the only area where no house was built—and stood leaning against his car, looking at the blackberry bushes. There were perhaps twenty of them, some taller than he was. Then he looked at the entrance of a dozen labyrinthine paths worn through the weeds by blackberry pickers and he thought of Linda dragged over one of those paths, a hand over her mouth—he had a fleeting urge to follow the paths and try to find the spot: the flattened grass, perhaps blood. No: there had been rain—three times—since then. There would be no blood. He began to cry, silent and with his abdomen almost still, calm: no longer capable of the cathartic heavy crying that he had done at first.

He did not move from the car. Leaning against its fender he stared at the tall pale green weeds in the sunlight and the bushes where even now in September blackberries glistened, unpicked. And who could pick them now, pluck them from bushes which had hidden such horror? But he knew he was crediting people with too much: even these blackberries would end in someone’s kitchen. He remembered a hurricane and tidal wave six years ago surprising a town on the Gulf Coast; over a hundred bodies were never found and for months no one would eat crabs—not compassion but squeamishness.

He got into his car, twice smoothed back the thin hair that combed over the bald spot on the top of his head, and started the engine. He turned on the radio and filled a pipe, wondering if ever again he could remember Linda as a thin quiet eleven-year-old girl without seeing also the final violent images and the awful juxtaposition of that other face: the newspaper photograph with the caption SEX KlLLER -CONFESSES (they caught him the same night)—the slight chest clad in what appeared to be a blue denim shirt, the lean trapped but musing face, as if he had no fear, no remorse. He had studied the picture, thinking the man was frail, that with rage—rare for him—he could kill him without a weapon.

He drove home. When he opened the front door the house was quiet; he waited a moment, then called, and Marian answered from the bedroom.

She wore only a slip and she lay on her back with one arm over her eyes. An oscillating fan on the dressing table blew at the edge of the slip above her knees. She moved her arm from her face and looked at him: she was not wearing make-up and her face looked oily and tired. The blinds were drawn so he could not see in her dark hair the gray strands at her temples and forehead; but looking at her face he was deeply aware of them, and of his own aging hair.

“You’re early,” she said.

“A little. Were you sleeping?”

“Just resting.”

She watched him remove his coat and tie and shirt, putting on a short-sleeved shirt which he did not tuck into his trousers, so that hanging loosely it partially concealed his nascent paunch. While he sat on the bed and put on a pair of slippers, she rose and dressed. Standing at the mirror and combing her hair she said:

“The women in the neighborhood are going to cut down the blackberry patch.”

He looked at her; she was still looking in the mirror, combing.

“They’ve petitioned the city,” she said. “They’ll do the work; they just want permission.”

“Who told you?”

“I read it in the paper.”

She opened the blinds, then returned to the mirror and began powdering her face.

“I bought it at the corner.”

Now she turned and looked at him.

“Did you think I wouldn’t miss the paper?”

“I hoped you wouldn’t.”

She looked at the mirror again, starting with the lipstick now.

“Why don’t you have it delivered again?” she said.

“I suppose I will. I was only trying to spare you the details.”

“I know. But I want them. I’ve walked to the corner every day to buy a paper, then put them in the garbage so you wouldn’t know.”

“It was stupid of me, I guess.”

“No: not at all. But I want to know everything. I know all about him: paroled child molester—paroled by whom, I’d like to know but I don’t know that—and the trial’s in January. I don’t know if I can go to it but if—”

“Go to it?”

“Yes. But I don’t know if I could stand it. I’ll follow it in the paper, though: every bit of it.”

“Marian—”

“I want him electrocuted. ”

“Marian, he’s sick.”

She turned to him.

“Don’t you want him killed?” she said.

“I can’t.”

“Why can’t you?”

“Because it’s senseless.”

“But in here—” she jabbed a finger twice at her breast “—you want him killed, don’t you?”

“All right. In there I suppose I do. But I can’t submit to it.”

“David, he raped Linda and stabbed her twenty-seven times! I’d pull the switch myself.”

He went to her. She turned to the mirror and he stood behind her, his hands on her hips.

“I’m all right,” she said. “Don’t worry about me. I just want him killed; I want the trial to end quickly and him to be dead.”

“He probably will be.”

“And I want to help them cut down that blackberry patch.”

He stepped back from her and went to the chest of drawers for a pipe.

“Do you mean that?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Marian, it’s senseless. Clearing that field won’t accomplish a thing.”

“Maybe it will. They’re doing it so children can walk home safely at night. Who can say? Maybe it will save someone; it’s better than doing nothing, just sitting by while things happen.”

“I’m sure they don’t expect you to help.”

“Well, I’m going to.”

“All right.”

She faced him, prettier now but still looking tired, older.

“You understand, don’t you?” she said.

“Yes.”

“You go off and teach and go to meetings and you come home and read and grade papers. I don’t do anything.”

“I know.”

“I was hoping you’d come with me.”

“Where?”

“When we clear the field.”

“Marian—”

“You don’t have to.”

“It’s just so—so useless. Matrons arming themselves with brush hooks, trying to destroy evil.”

“I said you don’t have to.”

“I’ll think about it. Would you like a beer?”

“Yes. Don’t be shocked at the kitchen: I haven’t touched it.”

“I don’t blame you. It’s too hot.”

He had wanted to stop her: to tell her they must give the clothes to the poor, move his desk in and transform her bedroom to a den. But he could not. And now more: the blackberry patch.

That night she watched television while David read. At eleven o’clock he was sleepy but he did not go to bed; he wanted to be with her as long as she was awake, for that was the only comfort he could offer: his presence. For three weeks his mind and tongue had failed him. Like an obsequious subordinate he had watched silently while she cleaned Linda’s bedroom, lifting the comb and brush and mirror from the dressing table and dusting and setting them down again; pushing the vacuum cleaner over the floor of the closet while inches from her face Linda’s pastel dresses hung like grieving children.

He had wanted to stop her: to tell her they must give the clothes to the poor, move his desk in and transform her bedroom to a den. But he could not. And now more: the blackberry patch. Yet he felt powerless to stop her, as if all his talent for showing truth to others had been exhausted by his hundreds of students in the past twenty years. He looked at her sitting with her hands in her lap, oblivious of him and probably of the television too, and he thought: like Patroklos—stripped of armor and left helpless on the battlefield; we are all stripped and helpless.

At midnight she turned off the television and they went to bed. Lying quietly on his back and listening to her breathing, David knew that something more was coming; that even this late, after hours of mesmeric television, she was not ready to sleep. Then she said:

“I want to have a baby.”

He found her hand and held it.

“I want to try,” she said.

“Don’t do this to yourself. You know you can’t.”

“That’s not true. It’s not impossible—it’s just hard.”

“It took nine years.”

“No: it only took a second—just at the right time. Maybe this is the time again: tonight.”

“Don’t, Marian. Spare yourself; give yourself some peace.”

“I want to try.”

“Darling—”

“Won’t you even let me?”

“Of course I will, but don’t hope. Please don’t hope.”

Taking him, she whispered furiously:

“I will hope. I will.”

 

The next day—Tuesday—he telephoned the paper boy and told him to start delivery again. Friday morning at breakfast he read that the petition had been approved and the blackberry patch would be cut down Saturday. He assumed that Marian had read it, but he did not mention it nor did she.

He came home in the hot evening sun and they sat on the screened front porch and drank beer and still she said nothing about it, so finally he said:

“I thought we could take a drive tomorrow, if you’d like. To the Gulf maybe.”

“I’m working on the blackberry patch tomorrow.”

He paused, drank twice from his beer can before speaking:

“You’ve decided then?”

“There was nothing to decide.”

“Marian—”

But he stopped. He reached across the space between their chairs and laid his hand on her shoulder, ran it lightly over her sweat-moistened cheek; then he squeezed her shoulder once before returning his hand to his lap. He never finished what he was going to say—never even started it. He quietly drank his beer, thinking of himself standing before Marian here on the porch, looking down at her and speaking with masculine firmness, gesturing with his hand gripping the can of beer: Linda is dead. You will never see her again and you will never have another baby, not of your own flesh—our flesh; you must accept that. Throw away her things and give the dresses to the poor and change her room. Forget the trial. Forget the blackberry patch. Forget all these rituals of grief. They’re as useless as that girl’s innocuous Mass, as the burning of the warriors. You must start a new life. Then he reached over again and held her hand and quietly finished his beer.

After breakfast Saturday he sat in the living room with a cup of coffee and Marian went to their bedroom and came out wearing old slacks and sneakers and one of his khaki shirts, the tail hanging, the sleeves rolled to her elbows.

“You’re going?” he said.

“Yes. I’ll walk, in case you want the car.”

“I don’t.”

“I feel like walking anyway.”

She opened the door.

“Wait,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”

He put on old clothes and they went outside, blinking in the sun, and walked to the field. David counted eleven women and four men. He knew only two of the men; they came and shook his hand and spoke to him. He did not know the women but several waved at Marian.

One man was distributing tools; at the periphery of the blackberry patch, men and women were already chopping. David took two brush hooks, giving one to Marian, and walked toward the bushes, sorrowfully watching the jerking backs and swinging tools. Beside him Marian began to cut. He looked at the blackberry patch, listening to the sounds of chopping and breathing, thinking: we are all stripped, left helpless... Then he lifted the brush hook and swung. His strokes were awkward at first, but soon they were rhythmic and he stopped thinking and expended himself in the sweat and heat and the futile arc of the blade.

 

Published in the October 19, 2018 issue: 
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Andre Dubus (1936–1999) was a short-story writer and essayist, whose books include The Times Are Never So Bad (1983), The Last Worthless Evening (1986), and Meditations from a Moveable Chair (1999). “The Blackberry Patch,” along with several other previously uncollected stories, is included in a new edition of Dubus’s fiction titled The Cross Country Runner: Collected Short Stories and Novellas, Vol. 3, and published by David R. Godine, Publisher. Copyright Andre Dubus 1966.

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