The Barter System

The morning our neighbor Mike Polkovich stuck a shotgun into his mouth, I was twelve and picking red raspberries from the three rows of bushes that ran a boundary between our yards. My father was an hour into sleep after his night shift at the bakery where he wouldn’t use fresh berries because fruit pies, he explained, would be too expensive for families who shopped there, nearly all of the fathers working shifts of their own.

Mrs. Cellendar, who lived behind us, paid two dollars for two quarts, good money to make in less than an hour in 1958, but she expected the level of each box to be mounded, so I was adding extra berries when Mike Polkovich, months unemployed, picked five minutes past nine, the third of July, for his last job, that gun firing so close I mistook the sound for early celebration.

Fifty years later, Mrs. Cellendar long dead as well, I lifted leaves to find berries where, my father still insisted on reminding me, “The best ones hang thick and sweet.” My fingers turned dark red as I filled two of his ancient quart cartons, beginning another while he repeated, “Under there” from where he leaned hard upon a walker.

In Mike Polkovich’s old yard, two small children splashed in a plastic wading pool. A few steps away from them, a dog barked from the end of a stump-tied knotted chain. Within a month, my father was moving to a nursing home. When the screaming children were called inside, the freed dog following, there was room for the silence of the dead who had eaten berried from those bushes to return.

When I mentioned Mike Polkovich, my father said he always helped himself from his side of the bushes that last summer he had been out of work for nearly a year and home all day. My father didn’t include the words cheap or thief. Instead, he said, “Mike helped me out some his last few months. While you were at school and I was sleeping, he worked on our station wagon. Little things, but they added up.”

When he paused, my father seemed so out of breath that I stopped picking and examined his face for a sign of serious distress. “You remember the walnuts?” he finally said, and I knew at once what he meant to tell me. How we would drive each fall to load a bushel basket, sometimes more, with black walnuts fresh fallen from trees that must have belonged to somebody. How he shelled for days, staining his hands. What was left after the tedious, messy work, not only delicious, but sufficient to last for months, useful in any number of ways.

What he said was, “The bakery was just getting its feet on the ground. For a few years, it was touch and go enough that every little bit helped. I’d set aside a pair of sweet rolls on Saturday for the farmer whose trees those were. He liked the ones with walnuts that were slathered with a maple glaze.”

“Complimentary?” I said, prompting him.

“Yes,” my father said, “but then, he always bought something else. He had a sweet tooth, that farmer. So did his wife. Before you knew it, though, he’d sold that farm to a developer and all those trees were gone.”

Gary Fincke’s collection of essays, The Darkness Call, won the Robert C. Jones Prize (Pleaides Press, 2018). A new collection, The Mayan Syndrome, will be published in May by Madhat Press. Its lead essay, “After the Three-Moon Era,” originally published at Kenyon Review Online, was selected to be reprinted in Best American Essays, 2020.