The Aurora Borealis dances above North America during a strong solar storm. Photo by Nace Hagemann. Visit the photographer’s website at Nace Hagemann Photography.

Whistle on Whiteface Mountain ♦

Excerpt from the Novel by Melissa F. Kaelin
For a Public Reading on June 22, 2019

Excerpt: ‘A Cherry in the Crate’

This is an excerpt from my novel, Whistle on Whiteface Mountain, which is under consideration by a NYC talent agency. For a little background: After the loss of her 15-year-old brother, Allison finds herself listening to classic rock n’ roll on a road trip through the Great Lakes region. She’s traveling with her dog and her friend, Danny, who is a chef and restaurant owner. Allison is a budding photographer who is vying for a job in the marketing office at Children’s Hospital in Albany, New York.

SATURDAY, JULY 27, 2013

The sun rose over the rolling hills, radiating warm light in the form of a red rubber ball. With the Gremlin parked snugly in a gravel driveway, the road stretched out before us until it reached the tree-lined horizon. Touristy signs dotted the roadway, boasting of local art and Michigan’s crop of tart cherries. The nearest sign was only a few yards away.

I leaned against the front bumper, crossing my legs at the ankles and stopping to take it all in. My Australian Shepherd sat by my side, and Danny stood casually in front of me.

“I don’t know how we got here.”

“That’s easy,” Danny said, looking up from under his fraying blue ball cap. “We took 41 up through Escanaba, found our way east on Route 2 after Munising, and caught 31 South when we reached the mainland.”

I sighed, staring off into the distance.

“That’s not what you meant.”

A look passed between us.

“I thought we could use a break.” He stepped toward me. He placed his hand briefly on my shoulder. “Let’s check this place out. Stretch our legs.”

“Isn’t it a little early?” I asked, peeling my body away from the car.

When Danny had seen a sign for locally grown cherries, he’d pulled off the road without hesitation. Just beyond the sign was a white trailer with a red and green logo, and it overflowed with cherries in wooden crates. The trailer, shaped more like a garden wagon, created a stark contrast to the lush green landscape. It stood just off the side of the road, on land that looked to be part of someone’s home or small farm.

“Really? A cherry stand? We could just get donuts or something.”

“Why not?” Danny asked. “We haven’t had anything to eat in a while. We might be able to find the owners. And I thought you would like the light.” He gestured to the east.

I lifted my gaze to see a gorgeous gradient of color. The glow of dawn gave the grassy knolls a red tint, and the sky was soaked in the early orange that beckons a bright blue day. It was the most sunlight I’d seen since we left Albany, so much my eyes needed time to adjust.

“Want me to grab your camera?”

“No. The lens is broken.”

His eyes widened. “How did that happen?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Danny knew how important photography was to me, but he must’ve sensed my resignation. It wasn’t every day a prized possession broke, especially one that doubled as a passion and a source of income. Camera lenses weren’t cheap, and I didn’t know how I was going to afford a new one.

Maybe it was a sign – a hint from the universe I should leave it all behind. There were many other ways to make a living in marketing. Besides, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of working for that haughty boss in the first place. Especially after seeing the way he treated the children in the hospital.

“How long have you had your camera?”

“Actually, the camera is fine.” In the last few days, I’d developed a habit of avoiding eye contact. This clearly made him uneasy. “Only the lens is broken.”

He studied my expression, waiting for me to go on.

“Since high school,” I said finally. “Senior year.”

He turned slightly and walked toward the cherry stand, and I followed behind him. There was no one in sight, but a wheel barrel sat on the sidewalk by a modest brick house with gardening gloves strewn over the top.

Danny glanced back at me. “Was the camera a gift?”

“It was the first thing I really spent a lot of money on, when I worked part-time in high school. No one in my family is creative. Well, maybe Eric.” A lump formed in my throat. “Guess I’ll never know what he would grow up to be like.”

“Not even your mom?”

“Least of all, her.” I gazed at the red rubber ball on the horizon. “I don’t really have anything in common with my parents.”

“You don’t like to talk about them, do you?”

I shrugged. “We’re not very close. We never spend time together, so why spend too much time worrying about it?”

“How long has it been since you moved away?”

“Seven years,” I said. “Our lives are our own. What good can come from looking back?”

The scent of cherries greeted us when we reached the wagon, and I was struck by a vision.

In my parents’ kitchen, while they were still asleep, the same scent filled the cluttered room. One corner of the oak kitchen table was cleared. There, my wrists and Eric’s wrists reached into a metal mixing bowl, our hands stirring a batch of cherry coffee cake with a wooden spoon. It was a Saturday on a long weekend, and the old recipe was a family favorite.

At 3 years old, Eric was such a ball of energy he wanted to be part of everything. That day, he was my little helper. He would make a mess of the batter and scoop some up to his face to taste it, before we transferred the pale goo to a glass pan. Our parents would wake up in time for the coffee cake to come out of the oven. They would never say it out loud, but they looked forward to it too – the breakfast treat we saved for long weekends.

Damn cherries.

This whole trip had thrust me into the past – the flashbacks and dreams following me like an unshakable shadow. I wanted to push forward, to get Danny back to his restaurant. To move on. Part of me even wanted to get back in time to start my new job.

Danny wasn’t one to reveal his emotions. He turned to me then and said something matter-of-factly. “You’re so independent.

“Me?”

I didn’t know whether it was a compliment, a slight, or merely an observation.

Below a mandarin orange sky, I clutched a handful of ruby red cherries. It was one of those times when everything feels so strange, it settles into your memory like a surreal dream. The words we said were framed in this light. Every phrase arrived in my mind like an echo. There was too much truth to it, or not nearly enough.

“Look who’s talking,” I said. His comment was so ironic that I first formed my reply as a jab. After the words took shape, a smile formed and a laugh escaped my lips. Danny was the most independent person I knew, but I admired him for it. I wanted to create my own legacy the way he had, without relying on a single soul.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re a self-made man,” I paused. “Just think about what you’ve created. With your restaurant.”

“I didn’t do it on my own.”

“Might as well have. You put everything into Meraki Blue, and look how successful it’s become.”

“It took a long time for it to get that kind of traction.”

“But it was your dream,” I said, my voice full of admiration. His modesty tempted me to run away with the conversation. If I had achieved something like that, it’d be hard to resist telling the story at every turn.

He eyed the cherries in my hand. “Are you going to do something with those?”

I glanced down, and looked back at him. “It was your dream, and you turned your dream into a reality! Danny, give yourself a little credit.”

A man and a woman moved about in the back lawn, working between the house and a large pole barn. They hadn’t seen us yet, but they must’ve owned the produce stand. From the looks of it, they were starting the day’s work in the garden.

“Do you think they know we’re here?” I asked.

“They’re bound to come this way eventually.”

I looked out across the land, wondering how many acres they had in the backyard. It was way more than the lot back in Wisconsin.

“It’s true,” Danny said. “I always dreamed of starting a restaurant. But a lot went into the decision. Even before our college years.”

“I know. You worked really hard on that place.”

“Dad did too,” he said.

“Anthony? Are we talking about the same person?” I had a hard time imagining Danny working alongside his father to start his business. This was the same guy who lingered around the restaurant, giving unsolicited advice.

“Yeah.” Danny took the fraying ball cap off his head and rustled his thick, curly hair. His hard eyes softened, the way they did when he opened up or got caught flirting over dinner. “He taught me a lot about running a business, and he used to let me bounce ideas off him when I was a teenager. Dad was my mentor.”

“But you guys disagree on everything.”

“Right. Well, that’s just family for you.” Danny raised the corner of his lips in a smile. “I mean, Dad taught me what he could, but he wanted me to go a different direction. He tried to get me to take over his store. I wasn’t sure a restaurant gig was the right fit, and I almost did go into management. Then, when I didn’t and went to culinary school instead, Dad had to take a back seat.”

“That couldn’t have been easy for him.” It surprised me Danny had ever doubted becoming a chef. The tone of his voice gave him away, though, and it was clear he still had doubts about the decision.

“It took some getting used to,” Danny said. “For both of us.”

“I’m sure.”

Still, Danny was his own person. He was nothing like his father. Being raised in a father’s image and groomed to fill his shoes ought to be enough to stamp out a person’s ambition. Or at least push them away. But there was pride in Danny’s eyes.

“Do you ever wish you had done it on your own?”

“Not really,” Danny said. “Dad was great. He’s smarter than he lets on. When the restaurant first got up and running, he really helped me hold it together. You know, there were times when it might’ve been easier to go it alone. But it all comes down to one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Trust.”

Danny looked into my eyes, and I fought to push down a range of emotions. I glanced down at the cherries in my hand, and I started to put them back in the wooden crate, lifting each one and setting it on the pile. I couldn’t look at Danny.

The man and woman turned in our direction, noticing us for the first time. They began to walk toward the garden wagon, and they waved and smiled from the back lawn.

“What about your parents?” he asked. “Did they do anything to help you get your feet on the ground?”

I couldn’t think of anything to say. A cherry slid between my thumb and index finger, and I let the ruby red fruit fall into the wooden crate.

“Come on. There must be something?”

“They were pretty absent from my life,” I said. “Especially in my teenage years.”

“Nothing? Not even a small gesture?”

I set another cherry in the crate, and wondered if it was truly worth sifting through painful memories just to find something to share with Danny. My upbringing in Wisconsin had been marked by long silences, arguments and parents who were completely checked out.

We had been perusing the cherry stand leisurely, but the owners didn’t seem too concerned about us being on the farm. The couple finally reached the white wagon. Then the woman took off her gardening gloves and set them on a table nearby.

“Would you folks like to buy some fresh cherries?” she asked. “We don’t usually open this early, but if you’re buying, I’m selling. We have some spreads and jams inside too, if I can interest you in that sort of thing.”

“Sure,” I said, realizing there were still three cherries in my hand. “Do you have a bag or something I can put these in?”

“You bet.” She set a few farmers market baskets in front of us. “Those work great.”

“How much for two?” I asked.

She gave the price, and I started counting out some cash.

“I’ll get this one,” Danny said.

Before I knew it, he was handing her the cash, and I was standing there with an extra wad of dollar bills. “Danny, I was going to –”

“You know, it’s okay to depend on other people sometimes.”

“I know.” It wouldn’t hurt him to take his own advice.

He moved right next to me, so his shoulder touched mine, and he scooped up some of the cherries from my pile. He slid them into the basket, letting the fruit that had slipped through my fingers tumble together into our stash.

I looked up at Danny.

“Not everyone expects you to go it alone.”

.        .        .

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♦ The title above may change, as it is only a working title.
© Copyright 2016 by Melissa F. Kaelin
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