A story inspired by Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion podcasts
It was a hot, sunny afternoon in Lake Wobegon, late in the month of July, and the blueberries were ripening, turning that glorious shade of purple royal blue that only a blueberry can have. Jesper Haeggström* knew this, because the blueberries were always ripe on July 25, which was his father’s birthday, and ever since his girlfriend Maria had encouraged him to do so, back when they were together and she could easily direct various pursuits and other aspects of his life, he had dropped off 10 pounds of freshly picked blueberries for his father on his birthday. Old Pappa Haeggström would freeze those berries, and every morning during the cold Minnesota winter he would pour a handful of them onto his Cheerios and let them float around in the milk, freezing a nice coating of whitish milk-ice onto them. He would dunk them under with his spoon, waiting until the bowl began to turn just the faintest pale bluish color, and then slowly eat them, trying never to have more than one berry in each spoonful. He loved doing this, and although he was too old and stiff to go blueberry picking himself, he knew perfectly well that his son Jesper, who had never married and was only 62 years old, after all, could easily make some good use of his idle time and fill up a pail with fresh blueberries. Jesper knew this too, so with a deep sigh of resignation he punched out a little early for lunch from his job down at the fertilizer plant, and drove off at 11:00 am on a glorious summer morning in the direction of Kublick’s U-Pick Blueberries.
In spite of the name, he was hoping that there might be a big stack of boxes of already picked blueberries for sale there, and for $20 or so he could just buy them, and then pour them into a brown paper grocery bag, and his father would be none the wiser. There were almost fifty cars parked around the shady trees where you would pick up your buckets and weigh your berries, and his spirits sank a little when he did not see any sign of blueberries already picked. There was just a small shed with a smooth wooden counter, several towering stacks of empty bright orange gallon buckets, and a cat asleep on a rocking chair in the corner. The pleasant, ridiculously healthy and friendly teenage girl looked just a little embarrassed when he asked if he could buy 10 pounds. “Just U-Pick” she said, with a frown indicating that she realized the moral bankruptcy of a person who would come to the U-Pick blueberry farm expecting that someone else was going to do the work of berry picking for them. Jesper realized this too, so with his head hanging a little lower he took an orange pail with a loop of bailing twine around it, glanced at his iPhone, and set off down the tall hedgerows of blueberries with a slight bit of irritation in his stride.
He proceeded to walk to the far end of the field, where he hoped the bushes would not already be picked so heavily, and he disappeared almost immediately into the thick leafy shrubbery. Being in a blueberry field is at once private and quite public, in that although one is hidden from sight, there are actually many other people around you and within earshot even in a low, conversational voice, which only some of the blueberry pickers use. Small children especially tend to be quite vocal there, and Jesper instantly found himself eavesdropping on at least a dozen conversations. He could tell by the voices that he was surrounded by people, which was not the most comfortable thing for Jesper. They were all in small family groups, and since he had been unable in his own life to form a small family group, he tried to walk to the furthest bushes and away from the aggregations of people so that he could pick in solitude. As he picked, he couldn’t help listening to the voices around him. They rose and fell in a cadence like the cackling of so many barnyard hens. Lauren sounded about 6 years old and was separated from her mother by some distance, but neither seemed concerned as they described the bounty in front of them. “Oooh Mommy, you never saw blue berries as big as down here!” A Ted Brunner and his family several rows over were posing for pictures, but Danny would not take his head out of the bucket and smile. An older man coughed intermittently, saying nothing, while his female companion offered help, saying “Move around the bush and let me put the chair there.” There were murmurs of encouragement, words of advice, occasional outbursts of teasing, and tidbits of gossip. Any novice not sure how to pick blueberries received endless free instruction. “The little ones up on top are twice as sweet as the big ones.” “Don’t take anything red – just purple” “If they are fat, it’s OK, but not wrinkled. Eat the wrinkled ones.”
Last year when he came here with Maria his bucket seemed to get full much faster. Maria would pick right by his shoulder, and her long, graceful fingers seemed to find the berries without effort. Every other hand full she would drop into his pail instead of hers, with a gently nudge that seemed to say, “Come on honey – keep up.” She had left him not long after his dad’s birthday. She came out of the supermarket with a bag of groceries in each hand and said, “Jesper, I’ve been with you 13 years and not once did you ever talk about getting married. That probably means it isn’t going to happen – am I right?” As had happened to him a number of times before in his life, the words he was thinking he should say could not seem to form themselves in his throat just then, so he simply blinked his eyes at her as she kissed him on the forehead and set the groceries in his lap. That was the last he ever saw of Maria.
Shelley, a woman in her 30s picking the next row over got a cell phone call from her angry ex-boyfriend, or husband, and he stopped picking for a minute to listen in. “Yes, this is Shelley. No, I am not agreeing to that and I’ve told you before, it’s all in the hands of my lawyer now.” Long pause. “You know Lee, I can’t really talk about that because…well…you know Lauren, those are about the biggest blueberries I ever…well, I got to go.” You could hear a few of Lee’s exasperated squeaky noises in the phone before it shut off.
The shadows grew longer, and as he added the last berries to a full bucket Jesper realized that he had picked through most of the afternoon. A recipe for jelly was being discussed off by the woods at the end of the field, and a full bucket had been accidently tipped over and several people were cooing in mild distress as they tried to recover the pile without getting sand in the berries.
Old Pappa Haeggström was sitting alone at the kitchen table when Jesper walked in saying “Dad? Are you home? I got you a little something for your birthday.” His dad leaned forward and lifted the heavy paper bag, saying gruffly, “How much did you pick?” “8 and a half pounds, but you know, I only had a half hour at lunch. Paid $1.15 a pound – can’t beat that when they want $2.75 down at Jenny’s Market.”
“Now, did Maria help you with those?”
“No Dad, I picked them myself this year.”
“She’s a nice girl. Now you take the ten dollars you saved out in the sun picking blueberries and buy her a nice dinner sometime – you hear?”
The thought of trying to explain his current situation to his father made all of the words tangle up in his throat again, so he simply said, “Happy birthday Dad” and walked back out to his car, and drove away into the dusk. Fireflies were out, dipping and rising over the corn and the road and the soybean fields as the last of the daylight faded. Every so often one would hit the windshield, and make a bright green fluorescent smear like a tiny comet on the side of the windshield there. Jesper wanted to see how many of these little streaks he could make on the windshield at one time, so he drove on aimlessly in the dark, swerving a little left and right at times to try to hit one of the glowing lights, and turning down unfamiliar roads that seemed to have more of the tiny creatures flashing in the gloom under the trees. On and on he drove, and at one point he counted fourteen little firefly comets all on his windshield at the same time, until hours later he came to a bright red flashing light at a busy four-lane highway that he had never seen before in his life, and he realized that he was utterly and completely lost. But he turned right on the four-lane anyway, and in about 20 minutes he saw a sign saying, “Fargo 42 miles”, so he turned around, knowing that Fargo was not even in the right state and he had to be going the wrong way, and it was almost 4 in the morning when he finally worked his way back to his house at the end of Plum Street just down the block from the fertilizer plant, and crawled into his bed and was instantly asleep. And even though it was only three hours later that his alarm clock rang and he shuffled through his normal routine, walking into work not one minute late at 8:00 sharp, everyone down at the fertilizer plant seemed to notice that Jesper was in an unusually good mood that day – sort of a quiet, peaceful, mood without a lot of the fidgeting and complaining about trivial things that they had come to expect from him. There was even some speculation that he might have had a big night out with some girl from out-of-town, as his car had been seen turning in at a very late hour off the big highway from Saint Cloud, but of course Jesper was not saying anything much about that…
And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average.
* Note added in proof. Jesper Haeggström is a real Swedish man with a wonderfully Swedish name, and I hope he’ll forgive me for borrowing it. Unlike my ancestors, his stayed in Sweden and did not move to the Minnesota prairie. Unlike the fictional Jesper picking blueberries, he did marry his sweetheart Maria and they have two beautiful daughters. Geography is never fate…it’s just background scenery.