My brother and I had inherited the ninety acre pistachio farm in the high desert near Barstow three months before. After my father took early retirement, he and my mother used up all their savings to buy this farm. My father had only lived there for two years before dying from a massive stroke. He was only fifty three when he died.
Rob, my brother, was a year and a half older than me. I had just turned twenty when my mother passed away from a blood infection. She had lived alone for the two years since my father had died. If she had gotten herself to a hospital in time, they could have saved her.
After mom died, I dropped out of college and moved to the farm, planning to try to keep things going until Rob and I could decide what we wanted to do with it. There were two houses on the property, one for the family that helped with the harvest to stay at, during the harvest, and the bigger one, where my parents had lived. The smaller house was really a single wide fifty foot mobile home.
Rob had two years left on his Army enlistment when mom died, and still wasn't sure yet whether he wanted to stay in, or else get out and start doing something else. He was planning on coming home that summer, on thirty days leave, so that the two of us could discuss all our options.
There is pretty decent money to be made in growing pistachios. The problem is that you need to stay on top of everything, and either know what you're doing, or else find someone who does to take care of things for you. Rob and I had no knowledge of how to manage a pistachio farm.
The farm had a five acre man made lake, and the water was pumped up from an underground aquifer. The desert heat evaporated standing water, but my parents had invested a considerable sum in irrigation equipment and machinery. All this equipment needed to be moved around and maintained. I had spent enough time on the farm to know how to keep things irrigated, but wasn't capable of performing any maintenance when equipment broke down.
There were other pistachio farms in the area, usually smaller, and less well equipped, than the one my parents had left us. I had been back for less than a month when someone in an old black Ford step side pickup came driving up to the front of my house. Two dark haired young women exited from the truck and came toward my front door. They looked like they might be related, maybe sisters or cousins I thought at the time. They were young, neither much more than seventeen or eighteen. They looked Hispanic.
I went to open the front screen door when they stepped onto my front porch.
"Hello, can I help you?"
"Maybe. This your farm?"
"Mine and my brother's. Used to belong to our parents, but they died."
"Mrs. Torres told us you might be looking for someone to help you take care of everything. She said we should drive out here and ask you about it."
Mrs. Torres was the woman who used to come out to the farm to arrange migrant workers for the nut harvest. My mother had needed help for about six weeks of the year, during the harvest and packaging cycle. Usually, the deal was for one family to come move into the trailer and stay until everything was harvested and bagged up. The job paid room, board, and ten cents a pound for every pound of harvested product. Mrs. Torres took her cut from whoever she sent out to the farm to do the work.
According to the records my parents had kept, our net harvests were increasing every year as the trees matured and the yield grew. The year before, the harvest had come in at around fifty thousand pounds of nuts in the shell. That yield should continue to grow at about ten to fifteen per cent a year for the next few years, then it would remain fairly constant for another six to ten years. After that, it would slowly decrease each year, unless new trees were planted to replace the old.
I knew that both my parents had been pleased with the help Mrs. Torres had sent out for each harvest. It was usually a new family each year. I also knew it was far too early for anyone to be coming out for the harvest that was a good six months away.
"A little early for her to be sending anyone out here, isn't it? Besides, she usually sends out a family with at least six or seven people. This includes the children who can all do some of the easy work, like bagging."
"We aren't looking for harvesting work. We're looking for something permanent. The two of us could run this farm by ourselves. At harvest time, we could bring in people from our family, everything you'd need to get the crop brought in."
"What would something like this cost us?"
The two girls spoke quietly together. The taller one, she'd introduced herself to me as Anita, seemed to be the main spokesperson of the two. The shorter, prettier one, seemed mostly to go along with whatever Anita said. It only took a couple minutes for them to agree on something.
"We can do all the work for our room and board, and one thousand dollars a month. We also get a quarter a pound for the total harvest."
I knew, from looking at the records my parents had kept, that they were lucky to net out eighty cents a pound from the gross harvest, after all expenses were paid. That didn't even take into consideration the amortized value of the farm itself, or the annual depreciation of the irrigation equipment. These young girls were more or less asking me to make them partners in the farm.
"That wouldn't work for us, I'm afraid. The two of you would wind up making more than my brother and me."
As soon as I said this, Anita took the other girl by the arm and drew her back away from my front door. They spent five minutes or so, talking things over amongst themselves. When they were finished talking, Anita again stepped forward to speak to me.
"Let us live in the trailer until right before the harvest starts. We'll take care of all the things that need taking care of. You pay us five hundred a month, and we'll move out when the harvest workers get here. If you like what we do, we'll move back here after they leave, with the same deal as before."
"Are you sure you even know how to do all the things that need to get done? It might be worth it to me to hire you on until we get to harvest, if you could show me how to do everything around here. I know how to irrigate, but I'm not too familiar with maintaining the pipe, pumps, pulleys and hoses."
"We know how to do everything. We lived over at the Gates place for four years. Their set up was mostly the same as yours is. The people they sold out to didn't want our help. That's why we're both available for you to hire us now."
I had no idea who the Gates family were, or where their farm was located. What I did know was that I didn't yet have sufficient knowledge to care for the farm, and I didn't want to ruin anything expensive because of this ignorance. I wasn't even sure of all the care the pistachio trees might need during the growing season.
"How old are you two?"
"I'm eighteen. Tina is almost seventeen. We're old enough."
"What about school?"
"Tina has one more year. I graduated last January. We can still do all the work, even when Tina's in school. We'll schedule things to make sure it all gets done."
"I'll need to check on some things with Mrs. Torres. If your story checks out okay, I guess it wouldn't hurt to give this a try. If you live on this property though, I'll expect you to obey my rules. No parties, no drinking or drugs. No boyfriends staying over either."
I saw a momentary frown on the younger one's face, but Anita nodded her head in agreement with everything I'd told them.
After they drove away, I got in my own car and drove over to Mrs. Torres's place. She was sitting out on her porch, fixing some vegetables, getting things ready for her family's dinner.
"Hi, Mrs. Torres. Did you send some girls out to my mom's place today?"
"Si, Kyle. I tell them go see you for the job. Good girls. You give them job?"
"Not yet, but I'm considering it. They claim they know everything about growing pistachios, and how to maintain the equipment too. You think they really do?"
"They know some. It no hard to figure out what not know. I have people help them if trouble. You no worry, okay?"
I knew my mother had set a lot of store by Mrs. Torres after my father had passed. She told me often enough about how problems that came up got solved right away when she let Mrs. Torres know she had some. In the back of my head I'd been counting on being able to go to her if I had problems at the farm too. In many ways I could see how me cooperating with what she wanted by hiring those two girls could work out in my favor. I knew for certain that I wanted to stay on her good side.
"I guess I'll give them a try then if you say it will be okay. Thank you for sending them out to see me."
"You no take advantage of those girls, Kyle. They good girls. Their Mama good friend to me when she alive. See me first if problem, okay?"
The next morning my two new farmhands moved all their things into the trailer. Anita came over as soon as they were all moved in to ask me if she could get a hundred dollar advance on their wages to pick up a few things they still needed. I let her have the money without asking her questions about what those needed things were.
Two hours later the two of them came back with seven or eight bags of groceries from Food 4 Less. I watched them hauling everything inside the trailer. It was already after two in the afternoon and I still hadn't seen them doing a single thing around the farm.
Maybe they were planning on getting a fresh start in the morning. I went out and started moving some of the irrigation equipment around. I was done by five o'clock. My boots were muddy and my back was tensed up from the hauling and the tension of worrying about whether or not I was being taken for a fool by those girls. They better be hard at it by the next day. That's what I was thinking.
I woke up at around eight the following morning. I heard the noise of an engine spluttering. It sounded like it was coming from somewhere off towards where the farm equipment was kept. It took me a short time to figure out it had to be the tractor running.
In the month I'd been on the farm, I'd tried eight or nine times to get the small tractor running. I never had any success getting it started. I pulled on my jeans, a shirt, and my boots and went out to the equipment shed to see what those girls were doing. When I got there, Anita was by herself, poking around under the engine compartment on the tractor. Whatever she was doing seemed to be working, because the sound of that engine was already smoothed out considerably.
I stood there watching until Anita must have noticed me standing there by the open doorways.
"How come you dragged all that pipe yesterday? Lots easier if you pull it like you're supposed to."
She closed the engine cover and climbed up on the tractor. I saw her shifting gears and the vehicle started backing out of the shed, slowly. Five minutes later, she had ten or twelve sections of irrigation hose joined up and attached to the rear of the tractor. Quick as you please, she jumped back on the tractor and headed off towards the back of the farm. I watched her leave, then went over to set up a second run of hose, just like she'd done with the first. I had everything coupled together when she came back and attached this one to the tractor too. In an hour, we had five different irrigation runs hooked up and watering the back twenty acres of the farm. Doing that would have taken me two full days the way I'd been doing it. I hadn't seen that tractor running since right before my dad died. After what I'd just seen, watering the trees was going to be a lot easier, and a lot less time consuming too.
"You didn't need to help, you know? I could have managed all right by myself." Anita had just come out of the equipment shed towing out the machine they used to shake the nuts off the trees during harvest. I knew, from what my mom had written, that the machine needed to be replaced. I'd been meaning to look into trying to get some information together about what a new one would cost us. "What's the story on this nut harvester?" she asked me.
"I'm not sure. I think my mother said something about it not working. As for you managing by yourself, I thought our deal was you were going to teach me whatever I still needed to know about running this farm?"
"I'll go move the pipe and then I'll take a look at the harvester. It might be better for now if you just left me alone to get to know the equipment, and to see how things need to be done to cover everything. After Tina gets home, I'll show you anything you see me doing out here you aren't sure about. There are things I need to figure out by myself now though."
With that, Anita uncoupled the nut harvester and drove out to where she'd left the irrigation hoses. I watched her leave, a little unsettled by her attitude towards me. It seemed that she was getting a lot less accommodating, now that I'd hired her and her sister and let them move out to the farm. I didn't much care for it either, but I'd wait and see how things were working out otherwise. I still needed to write to Rob to let him know about me hiring someone to help me out with the farm operations. I knew he'd leave everything about the farm up to me until after he decided whether or not to stay in the Army. I was fairly sure that he was probably going to opt to continue on in the Army unless something happened to change things. Rob liked having things as simple as he could get them. That was one of the reasons he'd joined the Army after high school.
I kept myself busy by going over the account books for the farm until around four o'clock. That was the time that a green Honda Civic came barrelling up our driveway. The driver slammed on the brakes, skidding his tires the last fifty feet towards the trailer. There was dust and pieces of loose dirt and gravel thrown all over the place from that stupid maneuver. I got up and walked quickly out to my front porch.
Inside the Honda, Tina and some high school boy were in the midst of a passionate clinch. I could see one of his hands pulling at her chest, squeezing her breast while they kissed. This went on for another two or three minutes before the two of them finally came up for a breath of air. By then, Anita had come out from the equipment shed and was hurrying over to the boy's car.
"Tina, get your dumb ass out of that car! As for you, Tommy, I thought I told you to stop sniffing around her? Am I going to have to go have another talk with that father of yours?" Anita really sounded angry as she spoke to them. Her anger went a long way towards lessening my own. Tina hurried out of the boy's car, and he backed it up quickly, spinning his way around as he went, before peeling out of there, just as quickly as he'd come in.
I heard Tina saying something to her sister as she walked past her towards the trailer. I couldn't make out the words, but her tone sounded angry to me. Whatever it was she had said, Anita didn't like hearing it a bit. She reached out, grabbing her sister's arm as she went by her, spinning the younger girl right around to where they were facing each other. She started yelling at her in Spanish, much too fast for me to try to keep up with what was being said. To punctuate the impact of her words, her hand reached out and delivered a sharp smack on her younger sister's left cheek. Seeing her hitting her sister like that really surprised me.
Tina let out her own screech of pain and surprise, pulling her arm out of Anita's grasp and turning away to run towards the trailer without saying another word. I saw Anita looking over in my direction, but I didn't have any comment I wanted to make about what had just happened. I turned back and went inside. As far as I could see, Anita had handled everything to my complete satisfaction.
It was after seven that evening when I heard someone knocking on my outside screen door. When I opened the inner door, I saw Anita standing on my front porch, alone.
"Can I come in?" She sounded upset, and I also got the impression she was apprehensive and sad as well. I opened the screen door for her and motioned her inside. I moved back to give her plenty of room to pass by me.
"Is there a problem?"
"I'm not sure. There might be. How would you feel if it were just me that was working out here? I'm planning to send Tina into town, to stay with an Aunt of ours. It will just be until school lets out. She's decided she doesn't need to do what I tell her to do."
"This whole deal we agreed to, it was a little bit iffy, even with both of you working here. You'd have to tell me how her not being here would change the amount of work you'd be able to do around here. I'm sure we'd need to adjust pay to reflect that difference."
"There are a few things I'd need someone to help me with. Things one person can't do alone. Most of it is work I can do better by myself. I wasn't really counting on getting that much help from Tina. If you could help me about an hour a day, I could do the rest of it by myself. As for the pay we were getting, I'll accept whatever you think would be fair, as long as I have at least three hundred dollars in cash a month. We have things we have to pay."
"Why don't we just leave things the way they were before? We can talk about adjustments after we both find out how this thing will work out. I appreciated the fact that you didn't just let what happened this afternoon slip by the boards without doing something. That kid in the Honda would have ended up breaking something the way he seems to like to drive."
"Tommy is a spoiled rich kid. I've had to go speak with his father a few times now. He got his last warning from me today though. The next time, I'll have a few of my cousins go pay him a little visit. He isn't what Tina needs, but she's too stupid to realize what he really thinks of her. I don't want her ending up ruining her future just to be one of his play toys. She thinks he really cares about her."
"Will your people be okay with you living out here alone? I don't want your cousins deciding to come pay me a little visit."
"Tina's the pretty sister, not me. I doubt if anyone would even think you'd be after me."
"I never said I was after you."
"My point exactly. See?"
That was the last I saw of Tina for the next few months. I saw plenty of Anita though. She was really a very good worker, and she taught me a lot about the easy way of doing things on the farm. I found out that the trees didn't require much in the way of tending, other than regular irrigating. Anita sprayed them with a chemical mixture once, but other than those two things, the trees and nuts were left alone to do their natural thing.
In June, Rob took his Army leave and flew home from Georgia where he was stationed. The first thing he told me when I picked him up at Ontario airport was that he could only stay for ten days, not the thirty we'd been planning on. His unit had received orders to deploy overseas. It looked like Rob was going to see some action in Iraq. For some reason, the prospect of this seemed to please him. My reaction was quite a bit different. With both my parents already dead, I didn't relish the prospect of having Rob, my last close relative, going in harm's way.
The whole ten days that Rob was at the farm, Anita stayed out of easy sight. It was as though she was doing all she could to avoid being seen by my brother. Over the past few months, she and I had forged a real good working relationship. She had taught me a lot, and I now felt comfortable with working all areas of the farm operations.
After Rob went back to the Army, Anita started spending a lot more time in my company. I asked her about her hiding herself away while Rob was visiting, but all she did to respond was to give me a shrug of her shoulders. Every Saturday Anita would drive into Barstow to go visit members of her family. She always spent the bulk of her visit over at the Aunt's house, the aunt whose house Tina was then staying at.
"Kyle, I brought Tina home with me last night. She'll be staying here for a couple of weeks, while my aunt is visiting down South. I should have called you first to ask, but I didn't want to bother you about it. That's okay, isn't it?"
"Sure. No problem. How has she been doing? That Honda guy still after her?"
"Tommy? No, he has bigger fish to fry now. Tina said he got some fifteen year old neighbor girl pregnant. It could have just as easily been her as that other girl. She thinks she's too smart to get pregnant. I told her it isn't her brain that gets squirted in. Anyway, it looks like he's out of the picture at the moment. I just hope she can hold it together long enough to get her diploma. She already made it to seventeen without getting pregnant. Beat me by more than a year and a half."
"You have a child?"
"No. I had a miscarriage when I was four months gone. Just as well, I was only fifteen years old when it happened. That's why I'm so hard on Tina. I don't want her making my same mistakes. Why are you looking at me like that? You didn't think anybody would be willing to do what it took to knock me up?"
While it was undeniably true that Tina was much better looking than Anita, there was nothing wrong with Anita's looks either. She only suffered with that particular comparison. Somehow, she had gotten it into her head that she was physically unattractive. Over the past months, I'd heard her disparage her looks on numerous occasions.
"There is nothing wrong with the way you look."
"Not much right with it either. A woman doesn't have to look too good to get some guy to try to knock her up though."
Her topic of conversation was making me fairly uncomfortable. I'd had a fair amount of experience with sex when I was younger, but none at all since leaving school five months before. I often thought about getting out more, hopefully to meet someone to spend some time with, but I'd been too engrossed in trying to learn all I possibly could about how to operate the farm. The full extent of my sexual contact had been with my own hand, inside the shower. Despite this, I'd never once considered Anita as a possible sex partner for me. The same couldn't be said about her sister. Tina really was a striking young woman. Anita had apparently been expecting me to reply to her last statement about there not being much right with her appearance. Maybe to deny what she'd said about not needing to be attractive to get some male attention too.
"Can't think of anything else good to say, Kyle?" Her tone of voice seemed dismissive to me.
"You wouldn't listen, no matter what I told you."
"You never know, not until you actually say it."
"I'm not very comfortable talking about personal things like this with you. You told me, earlier, that you'd be able to give me a good ballpark estimate of this year's yield?"
"Thirty five tons if we harvest early, thirty eight if we wait to start. Been a good growing season."
"That seems pretty high, based on the yields from prior years. I was thinking quite a bit less. Are you sure?"
"Not sure, but I've been checking very carefully for the past few weeks. We're going to get a bumper yield, that's a cinch. Your mother made a lot of mistakes last year. Half the irrigating was hit or miss with those people Mrs. Torres had to send her. All the good people were already working the crops around here. Better watering would have given her a lot higher yields. The first thing I did when I started here was to make sure the trees got all the water they needed. Look at the trees. You can see how much better off they are now than they used to be. Healthy plants, higher yields. Your power bills will be higher too, from running your pumps so hard this year. Nothing good comes without some price being attached to it."
She was right about that. I'd already noticed the upsurge in my electric bill. An unexpected extra twenty thousand pounds of yield would offset that quite easily though. I'd hold off celebrating until her predictions were confirmed by the harvest. I'd found a used nut harvester in good condition, but it was going to cost us over ten thousand if we needed to buy it. Anita was ordering parts for the old one, and seemed quite confident she'd have it ready for the upcoming harvest season. For now, I was willing to wait to see if she could fix our old one.
I didn't see Tina until another two days had gone by. Even though she was staying out on the farm with her sister, it didn't appear that Tina felt any necessity to pitch in and help Anita with any of the farm work. The reason I saw her was because she came over to my house that morning to try to find out if I was heading into Barstow. She wanted me to give her a ride in and back if I was.
"I might be driving in after lunch, but I'll only be there long enough to pick up some machinery parts that might come in over at the bus station. I need to call there after eleven thirty to see if they came in or not. At the most, you'd have about half an hour. Would that give you enough time to take care of what you need to?"
"I'd need at least a couple hours. Don't you have something you could do in town for that long?"
"Sorry. I have a lot of work out here I need to get after. Did you ask Anita if she could run you in after work today?"
"She says no. She's too busy with her stuff. If you did this for me, I'd be really grateful. C'mon, you can spare an extra two hours. Do this for me, and I'll do something even nicer for you." The way she said this to me, I had very little doubt that she was offering some kind of bribe for her favors. I almost came out and asked her to be more specific about what she was offering me. Only my knowing how little Anita would appreciate me doing so kept me from going ahead with my question.
"Today two hours extra is out of the question for me. As much as I wish I could help you, all I can do is what I said before, a half an hour at most."
"You're no fun, Kyle. I thought you might be more adventurous."
"No. Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm probably the most boring guy you'll ever meet."
As it later turned out, the parts for the nut harvester hadn't come in yet anyway. I spent the whole day out working with Anita pulling down some of the irrigation channels so that the catch screen on the nut harvester would be able to encircle each individual tree. We didn't want to have to pick up too many nuts falling to the ground after the tree was shaken by the harvester mechanism to dislodge them.
Anita came over to my house later that same evening. I noticed that she'd taken some pains to get cleaned up, and that she'd run a comb or a brush through her hair and even put on some lipstick.
"Tina told me that you refused to take her to town and wait for her. She wanted to go in to see her new boyfriend. At least my aunt has got her on the pill now, so I don't have to worry about her getting pregnant. She asked me whether I would mind if she tried to get you to scratch her itch for her. I told her I would mind. Our situation here is precarious enough without her doing anything that would cause us to get kicked off this farm."
"Thanks. I appreciate it." Anita laughed long and loudly when I told her that.
"I'll bet. I'd be willing to wager my ten dollars against one of your pistachio nuts that you sprung some serious wood when I told you what she was asking me to let her do with you."
"You'd lose if you did bet. I'm not saying she isn't a walking wet dream to look at, but she isn't the type of girl I'd want to get myself involved with. She only cares about one person, and that person is herself. She uses her looks to get whatever she wants. She barters herself, and has a too high opinion of what she's worth."
"Easy for you to claim that. I bet it would be a lot different if I wasn't around here to complicate things for you with her."
"You overestimate her appeal too. A lot of girls have the great looks. Sometimes, that's all they do have. In my book, looks are never enough."
"So, you're telling me you would kick her out of bed if she snuck into your house and went into your bedroom?"
"Eventually. Maybe not right away, but soon."
"What about me? If I did that?"
"That's why I always keep my doors locked at night. No sense tempting you beyond your ability to resist."
"Which one of us would you kick out of bed the fastest?"
"You, but not for the reason you think." Anita looked hurt, then disappointment and a little anger showed through.
"I knew how you'd answer. I don't know why I let myself ask you the question."
I didn't try to stop her as she turned and walked out of my house. I knew her feelings were hurt, because of the way she interpreted what I'd just said to her. I'd let her go because I was reluctant to tell her the real reason why she scared me more than Tina did. Tina had nothing I wanted enough that she could threaten me in any meaningful way. I knew I was already just a little bit in love with Anita. I didn't want to be in love with her, and would willingly do this and more to discourage her from taking any romantic interest in me.