The Blueberry Factory
Three years before he was sent to prison, he spent his Saturdays at my kitchen counter.
Back then, the summers were long and lazy, and one day spilled over into the next. You’d blink and it would be two in the morning and you’d decide you needed to take a walk. Your relaxed, even thuds wouldn’t bother a soul because the hot air they cut through stayed safely within the suburbs, the fields and forests. It was more than security, it was an impermeable idleness. The things we thought and the paths we took were all self-contained. It was on one such summer night that he called me up and told me that his boredom was leeching out of his mind and poisoning his body, that if he stayed complacent a minute longer his stomach and toes and the muscles in his arms would shrivel up and squirrel away. The problem, we decided, was that the days were sliding out from under us before we could so much as dig our toes in. Time meant nothing to us and nearly everything all at once. With effectively no money and very limited resources, the solution was to stretch each of our days until something meaningful could be contained within them. I preferred late nights and he early mornings so we compromised, keeping each other company through both, and in the hours in between I would read and he would teach himself to play the guitar. When together we mostly listened to Bob Dylan.
On Saturday mornings his mother worked and his father was grouchy and hungover, and so he’d escape at a ripe 7am to our tiny home in the woods. I’d scramble out of bed and make the strongest coffee I could get away with, slap some color on my cheeks and around my eyes and smile at myself in the mirror for a few stupid seconds, then stumble to the front door that always swelled shut during the damp night and that could only be opened by slamming the heel of your hand beneath the knob with just enough force. He'd watch me do this through the window panes and snicker and I’d have to focus on the door and pretend I didn’t see him snickering. Most Saturdays, we sat at the kitchen table as my father’s cats with names like Hershey and Cumin stirred around our feet. After maybe fifteen minutes of this, my father himself would come and join us, listening in as we gossiped and occasionally interrupting to name every bird that landed on the feeder outside. Chickadee, goldfinch, chipping sparrow, tufted titmouse—more snickering. Sometimes no one would speak, and once I learned to swallow my desire to fill the silence, we’d listen instead to the disharmonious wind chimes strung up outside, relics of my father’s last marriage and a dwindling reminder of the peaceful little grotto my stepmother had wanted to transform our moldy, worn-out cabin into. It wasn’t so much the chimes themselves we heard, really, but the sound of them clattering against the window, drowning out the birds.
I am grateful that I didn’t fall in love during that summer. It would’ve been a shame to use that time for anything other than climbing trees and painting my nails twice a week and reading about tragic, distant wars. I am grateful that he did all the hard work of developing feelings and loving and ruminating and that I mostly thought about moss. Maybe if I’d been brave enough to catch his eye one morning when he smiled in at me through those muddy, wedged windows, I would’ve understood sooner, but really it was much cleaner that he told me how he felt—and why he felt, how often he felt—days before buying a van and driving to Maine for the winter.
He wanted me, yes, but mostly he wanted to write. He longed to write; he loathed his father’s drinking. He wanted to help his mother and his sisters but also he wanted to be alone. He would call me up for months after the move and tell me about the things that he wanted. In Maine he was sure the climate and the scenery and the neighbors would combine to help him think, and that they were all colluding to feed him the perfect storyline. He would call every Saturday. He would tell me he loved me each week before hanging up the phone, and I’d tell him I loved him too. Although I didn’t force it, I didn’t feel proud to say it either. When I was around other people I would instead say, “me too.” And though I tried not to talk about him after these conversations around others, I was told continually that he was very selfish. I tried not to think about it but still I had trouble reconciling the idea of selfishness with the boy who drank my bitter coffee and chuckled at “tufted titmouse.” My father would look at me more cautiously for a time after he left, like he was afraid of some part of me that I was unaware of myself. But what, was I supposed to be mourning? What had I lost but a little time that I didn’t know how to fill in the first place?
When he called, we talked about the same things we had in high school. We complained about the ways our friends had readjusted to new atmospheres and celebrated the changes we saw in ourselves. We divulged new secrets to one another every couple of weeks, to keep the friendship fresh. I’d tell him that I’d tried to kill myself in the tenth grade and that I’d never seen a good piece of performance art and he’d tell me that sometimes he thought he was a sociopath. I tried so hard to be understanding that I told him I could empathize with him. We both laughed at that one, agitated, your average Thursday night. At the beginning of every conversation he would ask me how I’d slept and what I’d eaten for breakfast and he’d let me finish every sentence before he began to talk about himself. Would a sociopathic person do that? He talked about his writing, too, of course. He said he owed it to himself to make the move but that he felt less inspired so far away from me. I didn’t know what to say to that the first time he brought it up and I told him so. He said he hadn’t expected me to say anything. “I love you,” he said. “I love you too,” I whispered back. I could hear him flicking the upholstery of his car through the receiver, waiting for me to think of something clever to say. Self-involved doesn’t necessarily mean selfish, I thought.
After a few months of many phone calls and not so many publications, he took a job at a blueberry distribution factory. From what I could tell, he didn’t seem to have any connections prior to walking through the door, but he’d always had twice my charisma and had known how to use it, too. He put his best, least confrontational foot forward and within six weeks was managing two floors worth of label-making and packaging. He was immediately, unabashedly good at it. He was competent with his hands and with chit chat, likable but not intimidating. He didn’t seem to work at making friends there so much as slip seamlessly into place, in the way that no actual production went on in the blueberry factory, it was all about presentation. He made twice as much and had twice as much fun as he had before, joking to me that maybe he’d moved for the sake of the blueberries all along, that if he wasn’t going to thrive in Maine at least he could help the blueberry industry do so.
Once he could afford to take time off and was convinced he could ease some pressure off himself to try to create constantly, he would indulge in southbound road trips twice or three times a year to visit. With each reunion we stayed up later into the night, trading caffeine for gin or for pills as life bore on, rushing past us on warm nights and through us on the mornings of those inevitable goodbyes. Drive safe. Have fun at school. Don’t tell me what to do. There was always an embrace, usually tearful, and after each visit it dawned on me with increasing certainty that we were only making one another miserable. Though all signs pointed to me being on my way to bigger and better things, I’d feel a weight in my chest like a sloppy schoolgirl for weeks after he left. I’d call him up late at night and tell him another secret rather than risk emotional intimacy with another soul. My new friends, my close friends, smiled in at me through layers of rose-colored glass and told me to move on. I responded that I was trying, unsure of how to articulate my fear that in resigning this tired old relationship I’d sacrifice some singularly intimate and delicate part of myself. I agreed with them, though, that boys from high school aren’t meant to be the people who teach you the most about life, and that I must have gone wrong somewhere along the way.
It might sound strange, but my faith in his sincerity wasn’t shaken by the gambling conviction. I even think I understand now why he didn’t feel he could tell me. He cared not only about me, but about what I thought of him in a way I never gave him credit for. Drunkenly whispering into a sandy iPhone speaker that sometimes you feel like a sociopath and are afraid of the way you can manipulate people is worlds away from admitting that you make the majority of your money at the expense of others. There wasn’t much to do there in the wooded neighborhoods of southern Maine, though, and all those friends he made already played a lot of cards. He had always been up front about that. I pictured him often smiling softly up at me from the front seat of his car, telling me those half-truths, and wondered what he thought about in those moments. But my trust was neither built entirely over that summer nor destroyed on the afternoon I got the call from his mother, telling me he’d be locked up for the next two years, the final two years of my college education. He called me the next week, and we managed to stay in contact. He said once, several months after the arrest, that if I saw the world as he did I’d appreciate the art of my not knowing about his deepest secret until it suddenly became common knowledge. He said this, I’m sure, as a joke, after I begged him to stop saying that he didn’t tell me because he wanted to protect me.
You sometimes hear of inmates going stir-crazy behind bars, from the banality of enforced routine trickling in through their ears and drowning out their thoughts the way those endless summer nights had nearly swallowed ours, but my blueberry boy made friends and kept alert as he always did. It’s been said, too, that some prisoners will accomplish years’ worth of reading in their downtime, but he instead seemed to consume the empty space around him with conversations and connections. Why sit alone with a quiet book, he asked me, when you can listen to others? He, after all, was surrounded by new friends. It was through this listening that he finally found the inspiration to write, though strikingly we were only speaking on the phone every couple weeks now. But what was left to say? He had put pen to paper at last, and so I was happy for him. So for a time I became a forgotten muse, at a loss for a better part to play, and in the interim he taught himself to make wind chimes out of coins and plastic dental floss.