Original Online Fiction
Two things happened that day, the first being Mrs. Cranson’s call shortly after six in the morning to say she’d picked raspberries already and set aside their order. They’d better come soon, because twelve pints was a lot at fifty-cents each and sin to spoil. The second was that Apollo 11 sat on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center, aiming for the moon where two astronauts would set foot on the “lunar surface”—a phrase that only needed to be said once for nine-year-old Jennifer Donelli to commit it to memory.
At T-minus three hours, as the launch counted down, Jen sat on the floor, right in front of the black-and-white screen in the scratched wooden cabinet. She wasn’t budging until blast-off.
“You need some breakfast—they’re not going anywhere without you.”
Jen looked over at her mother standing in the archway to the tiny living room. Honey Donelli’s hair stood out like blond birdwings, mussed from sleep; yesterday’s mascara smudged faint racoon eyes.
“What if they leave early?” Jen swiveled back to the screen where two TV announcers in plaid sport coats talked about last-minute engineering checks.
Honey sat down on quilted platform rocker bought second-hand after their old La-Z-Boy chair broke. She pulled her robe closed over her slim bare legs and covered the edge of the short nightie she wore.
Leaning back on the maroon linoleum with gray swirls, Jen noticed her mother’s pink polished toes. She liked that her mother was young and pretty—only thirty-one years old. Her mother’s real name was Honoria, but everybody called her Honey—even her teachers back in Maine. Jen liked to hear her mother’s stories of growing up in the big old house just outside Portland, watching the fishing boats come in at sunset. Her mother had been sixteen, working that summer at The Fish Shack where she served a fried cod sandwich and French fries to a dark-haired young man who’d come north with two friends looking for construction work. That’s how her parents met.
Her mother was only seventeen and her father was twenty when her brother, Jeremy, was born. People got married young back then, her mother told her, but Jen was going to go to college
Grandma Iva still lived in that big house, even though Grandpa Pete had died when Jen was a baby. Grandma wanted them to move in with her, but Dad wouldn’t go. He always said he wanted them to have their own house, even though this place was so small they kept bumping into each other. Jen heard her parents talking about it late one night when she was supposed to be sleeping. Their voices were raised, and her mother might have been crying—though she really couldn’t be sure.
“Can I eat here?” Jen asked, turning back to the television.
“Okay, Moon Bug.” Her mother got up. “Let me know when they’re ready to take off.”
“Lift off,” Jen corrected. She read the counter in the corner of the TV screen: “Two hours and forty-three minutes.”
“Don’t sit too close to that thing. TV’s got radiation.” Her father stood at the intersection between the short hallway down to three small bedrooms, the living room, and the kitchen. A band of pale skin showed where his short-sleeved shirt rode up a little on his bicep. The rest of his arm was tanned from fishing. He had three shirts like that; all of them said “Texaco” on the front because he worked at a gas station as the assistant manager. Most of the time he pumped gas and cleaned windshields, and maybe did an oil change or two.
“You outta be helping your mother,” her father said, tucking in his shirt. Jen dragged herself up from the floor without and looked back once at the TV screen.
Her mother was at the stove, poking strips of bacon in a frying pan. “Is Jeremy up? He’ll be late—probably should be there already.”
Thay-ah. Jen smiled at the way her mother said certain words with her Maine accent.
“I ain’t picking—I’m a hauler today.” Jeremy rubbed his right eye with his knuckle. “Don’t have to be there till quarter to eight.”
Ryverson’s Farm grew strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries, plus had an apple orchard. It was Jeremy’s second summer working on the crew.
“Packed you a lunch—it’s on your chay-ah.”
Jen stifled a giggle at the way her mother said the word.
“Why’re you so happy?” Her father took his place at the head of the oval table in the corner of the kitchen. “That moon business? Government don’t take enough out of a man’s pocket without wasting money on that stuff.”
“It’s educational, Frank. Good for a girl to be interested in science.” Honey put a plate of bacon and toast in front of him.
Jeremy snorted a laugh. “Maybe Jen’ll go to the moon. I could send her.”
“I’ll remind you, young man, that your grandmother taught high school biology. She could have been a scientist.”
“Give the boy something to eat, Honey. He’s got to go to work.” Frank pointed to the empty place in front of Jeremy.
Honey set down another plate of toast and bacon. “Scrambled or fried?”
“No time for that if they ain’t cooked yet,” Frank grumbled.
“Only takes a minute—this grease is hot. I’ll scramble enough for the two of you. You want some, Jen?”
She shook her head. “Just cereal.”
“Pour yourself a bowl and you can go back in to watch the TV.”
Jen didn’t have to be told twice.
The astronauts had slept well and eaten a good breakfast, the TV announcers assured the world. They were ready to go.
The back door slammed, and Jeremy sped by the window on his bike.
“You gonna say good-bye to your old man?” Frank stood in the archway between the kitchen and the living room.
Jen got up, knocking her cereal bowl with her foot, and gave him a quick hug.
“Don’t sit there all day,” her father said. “You got chores.”
Jen fished out the last of the soggy Rice Krispies, and figured how long it would take her to wash her face, brush her teeth, get dressed, and make her bed. Seventeen minutes later, she was back with a plan: She’d dust the living room for her chores today and keep an eye on the television.
At eight, the phone rang again. Jen heard her mother say “Mrs. Cranson,” and knew it was about those stupid raspberries. All summer Jen helped her mother can fruits and vegetables and make jam and pickles, using Grandma Iva’s recipes written down in a little brown notebook. Jeremy brought home berries from Ryverson’s and sometimes Jen and her mother went to the U-pick for a few extra quarts. But raspberries always came from Cranson’s, already picked.
“We have to go,” Honey announced. “We’ll be back before the launch.”
Jen read the TV countdown. “But it’s fifty-eight minutes, twenty-six seconds!”
Her mother sighed. “All right.”
Jen ran a dust cloth over the top of the end table jammed next to the brown plaid sofa that Grandma and Grandpa Donelli had given them when they moved to Florida a couple of years ago. She emptied the bookshelf in the corner, sprayed Pledge all over it, and wiped the wood. The books had hard covers, and a couple still had their paper jackets: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, Great Expectations, The House of Seven Gables. Classics, her mother called them; she’d brought them with her from Maine. Jen opened one and scanned the pages, assessing if this was the summer she could start reading them. She was going into fifth grade in the fall, but last year her teacher said she read almost at a seventh-grade level.
Honey appeared in one of the summer shift dresses she made herself—green with a paisley print, and an inch above her knees; her hair was brushed into a flip and tied with a scarf. Her arms were full of sheets to be washed. “Thank you for doing those shelves.”
Jen ran for the dust mop and cleaned under all the furniture, even lying on the floor to get at the baseboards behind the sofa. Then it was T-minus twenty-nine minutes.
“They go and then we’ll go,” Honey said.
Jen knew the U.S. had to get to the Moon first, before the Russians did and turned it all communist—who knows, they might even try to blow it up, just to spite everybody else. The Moon’s best hope was having an American flag planted on it—that’s what Mrs. Franklin had said last year in fourth grade. Then the Moon would be free forever.
Mrs. Cranson called a third time. Jen heard her mother’s voice, soft and apologetic: “We got tied up this morning. My husband and son needed breakfast before they went to work. I promise, we’ll be there.”
Thay-ah. Jennifer whispered the word aloud, trying to imitate her mother. Last summer, when they visited Grandma Iva, they walked the beach barefoot and dug for clams—even her dad had finally taken off his shoes and rolled up his pantlegs. Jeremy didn’t like the taste of clams, but Jen couldn’t get enough of them. She went to bed at night smelling of salt and pine. When they left Grandma Iva’s for the long drive back, Jen saw her mother wipe her eyes.
“Those astronauts bet-tah get a move on.” Her mother sat on the arm of the sofa. Jen sank into the thin cushions beside her.
The newsmen talked about the historic moment, one you’ll tell your grandchildren about. Then it was time.
We have ignition. We have lift off.
The rocket roared and flames shot out from the bottom. Big as a skyscraper, it rose straight up from the launch pad, snapping gravity like a rubber band. Jen reached for her mother’s hand, holding on as if their grip kept that rocket steady. When the boosters disconnected Honey gasped, but Jen told her mother that was supposed to happen. Then the rocket was a bright white light, Moon-bound.
“Can you imagine what it’s like to be thay-ah?”
For a second, Jen thought her mother meant the Kennedy Space Center. But with one look at her eyes and parted lips, Jen knew what she really meant.
Jen sat in the front seat, looking out the window at the blur of tall grass, blue bachelor button flowers, and Queen Anne’s lace growing in the ditches. The way the colors mixed together, it felt like they were going a hundred miles an hour, but when Jen fixed her eyes on a more distant point—a perfectly shaped maple in an open field—it felt like they were crawling.
“Not so hot today. We can make jam.” Her mother glanced over as she drove.
The Cransons lived out where the roads narrowed and trees formed leafy arches. Cows grazed in scrubby pastures. Houses were mostly gray boards with patches of white. One house had a bright blue wall, but either the people who lived there had changed their mind or forgot to do the rest.
Cransons’ place was neat and well-kept—even Jen could see that. No paint peeled on the siding or the dark green shutters. Red geraniums bloomed by the front steps, and pink petunias spilled over the edges of the window boxes.
Honey steered down the gravel driveway toward the barn in the back. A few chickens scattered at the approach of their car.
Mrs. Cranson opened the screen door of the back porch and stood there, arms folded against her sagging bosom. She had on a blue dress and those orangey-tan cotton stockings that old ladies wore. Her gray hair was pulled back in a bun as severe as her brown tie shoes.
“You kept me waiting,” Mrs. Cranson said. “If those berries are moldy, I won’t take them back.”
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Honey said. “We’re making them into jam this morning.”
Then Jen saw it, the look down that bumpy old nose, the lipless mouth curling into a sneer. “Not dressed like that, I hope—like some kind of hippie girl and not a married woman.”
A pause followed and Jen swallowed hard, twice.
“How many pints did you pick this morning?” Honey asked.
“Twenty-six. Kept five myself. All the rest are gone—’cept yours.”
Honey held out a roasting pan. “Brought this for the berries. That way so you can keep your baskets.”
Mrs. Cranson didn’t have anything to say to that one.
Firm and red, not a bad one in the bunch, the berries tumbled into the pan. Mrs. Cranson emptied each pint carefully, so as not to bruise the fruit. Honey handed over six dollars.
A red-wing blackbird cawed. Jen turned to find it against the blue sky and wondered how far the astronauts had gone. “D’you see the launch this morning? Apollo 11—you know, going to the Moon.”
Mrs. Cranson stared. “Is that why you made me wait—for that nonsense?”
Jen felt her mother’s light touch on her shoulder. “History in the making, Mrs. Cranson,” Honey said. “Just think, in a few days, the astronauts will land on the Moon.”
Mrs. Cranson huffed a laugh. “I never knew the Moon was made for walking on!”
Jen giggled, thinking it was a joke, but Mrs. Cranson glared.
The fingers on her shoulder tightened; it was time to leave.
“People ought to be content with their lot in life—stay where they came from. You keep filling her head with nonsense like this, and God knows what will happen to her.”
Jen stared down the barrel of a crooked finger aimed in her direction.
Mrs. Cranson showed a picket fence of yellowed teeth. “Then again, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Jen waited, but her mother said nothing. Tears bit at her eyes. Her mother was going to let that old meanie get away with saying those things. Honey picked up the roasting pan full of berries, and Jen followed her out the back door. They got as far as the bottom of the porch steps, where yellow daises nodded their heads. Jen was ready to run ahead to open the car door when her mother stopped and dumped the pan. The raspberries pelted the ground; some smashed on impact, others bounced and rolled.
Jen heard the old lady wheeze. “Land’s sake!”
“Let’s go, Jen,” her mother said. “We don’t want those berries.”
They rode in silence, Jen not sure what she should say, or whether her mother was angry or proud of herself. After about a mile, her mother turned toward her. “Don’t tell your father about this, okay?”
“Cross my heart.” Jen smiled out the window.
When they got home, Honey changed into an old pair of shorts and a stained blouse to work in the garden. Jen rode her bicycle a little, then helped her mother pull weeds, although she avoided the tomato vines on account of being deadly afraid of hornworms with their fat green bodies.
“Raspberries are stupid,” Jen said at last. “I hate them.”
Her mother dug at the long tap root of a dandelion that had sprung up in the row between the peppers. “They’re my favorite. Taste like summer to me.”
Sum-mah. Jen wanted to make a list of all the Maine words, like a dictionary. Then the next time they visited Grandma Iva, she’d sound just like her mother.
Supper was meatloaf and salad made with leaf lettuce and radishes from the garden.
“You get them berries from Cranson’s?” Frank asked, looking up from his plate.
“Full of little bugs,” Honey said. “Aphids, I think.”
“Ryverson’s sprays,” Jeremy said, his mouth full of of bread ripped off in an enormous bite. “Don’t even have grasshoppers there.”
Jen took a forkful of meatloaf, never her favorite, and busied her mouth. Her mother hadn’t lied—those berries were crawling with Mrs. Cranson’s meanness.
After supper, Jen waited a long time until the first stars came out. Darkness swallowed the backyard by the time she went out and sat atop the picnic table in the backyard, swatting mosquitos that landed on her legs. The moon showed a three-quarter face, as if looking around a corner. She heard the back door open but couldn’t see who it was until her mother climbed up beside her. In her hand was a jar of last year’s raspberry jam, with two spoons sticking out of the open top.
“Where do you think they are?” Her mother handed her a spoonful of jam.
“Halfway, I think—maybe less. It’s 240,000 miles.”
“My smart girl.” Her mother leaned against her a little.
Jen tasted the tart sweetness. Raspberries really were her favorite.
Patricia Crisafulli, M.F.A., is an award-winning writer, published author, and founder of FaithHopeandFiction.com. She received her Master’s in Fine Arts (MFA) from Northwestern University, which also honored her with the Distinguished Thesis Award in Creative Writing. She is the recipient of three Write Well Awards for best-of-the-web literary fiction for stories that have appeared on FaithHopeandFiction. She is the author of several nonfiction books and a collection of short stories and essays, Inspired Every Day, published by Hallmark.
Image Credit: Tricia