Fallen fruit stained the earth, the patio, overripe apricots thudded onto the cabana roof like hail stones, startling Vivkie when her mind wandered, even as she watched them fall. High in the tree, sweet rot cloyed and ants overran, thousands of them, tens of thousands, carrying off chunks of fruit so large they looked like construction workers staggering under 4x8 sheets of hoisted plywood. Even the apricots still on the branches were filled with stinging red ants, slipped into fissures formed at the stem when the fruit was ready to separate.
Vivkie shaded her eyes to see past the terraced fields of South Dakota, to watch carpenters at work in town building those clapboard-sided apartments so unlike the sterile Soviet-era blocks of her childhood. Sap-like juices, sticky syrupy trails, ran down her arms. Ants followed the nectar as she plucked those fruits whose rosy blush told her they were sweetest. Stanley’s mother wasn’t about to harvest the apricots growing by her house herself, but was surely willing to order Vivkie to climb the tree. Mother Kay—she insisted on being called Mother Kay by one and all although it was hard to imagine anyone less maternal—Mother Kay wanted only the sweetest for her turnovers and tarts, the handmade ones that would make it into the display case.
Born to a place barren of trees, barren of hope, Vivkie could not have imagined this life. Her mother made sure her fate would not be that of other girls like Vivkie, girls prized, the dark-skinned man said, for their pale hair and ice-blue eyes, snow angels, he said, glowing among the Chukchi Inuits, girls he scooped up and displayed in online catalogues for men to choose. Prized, her mother repeated and spat to show her contempt, wives bought by husbands who made whores and maids of them?
Mama could not have imagined how like servitude Vivkie’s life in the baked-goods factory would be. How similar her prairie existence to the windowless confines of below-decks fish processing on churning seas, though the diesel fumes and rotting flesh that was Mama’s life were exchanged for the heat of ovens, the whirl of heavenly scents, of spices and baking bread.
Vivkie stopped her basket-filling every few minutes to catch her breath. The baby hadn’t dropped yet, as everyone said he would when it was time, and she struggled to force oxygen through her compressed lungs.
Only three years since she’d been smuggled off the trawler in a canvas bin of fishheads at fourteen and of all the so-called cousins, all from Chukotka, who worked the vast factory kitchen, she alone had managed to move upstairs in the house on the hill, despite Stanley’s continued protest that he wasn’t ready to be tied down. Vivkie breathed the clear air, an above-ground existence was now hers. Mama, if she ever saw her again, Mama would not have to know the price. Others had been indebted to Mother Kay much longer, others might never be free.
She was, for perhaps an hour, free of the sweltering kitchen. The humiliation of Mother Kay dismissing her as useless, sending her to climb the tree, dissipated with the cooling breeze. Bracing her back against a limb, she flicked the ants climbing her legs. Those slogging through the sappy trails along her arms seemed to take that confinement as a threat, stinging her. As she brushed them off, they would sometimes be so mired in sticky fluid, so adhered to her skin, that the dragging through tore their bodies apart.
She saw Mother Kay making her way heavily up the hill, it must be noon. She took another deep breath, feeling a twinge as she reached, twisting from where she was anchored on the sturdiest branch. The ferment filling her nostrils had her longing for a stolen taste of the sweet Odjaleshi wine Mother Kay sipped in the afternoon, something to take the edge off. But she dared not with the baby, besides, Stanley took enough edge off for the both of them, staggering home most nights like the ants full of fruit that had turned. Now that the baby was coming, they’d be moving out of Stanley’s room in the big house and into the apartment over the bakery—a crying baby was not to disrupt Mother Kay’s household—so maybe he wouldn’t so much feel the need.
She lowered the basket, hand over hand on the rope she’d flung around a branch like a pulley, then lowered herself down the ladder propped against the slender trunk. A lone gull called, on furlough from the garbage dump over the hill and she looked up, nearly losing her footing on the aluminum rungs. Vivkie admonished herself to be more careful, not for herself, but for him. She laid a hand, the one that should have a wedding ring, on her swollen belly and asked her son, “How is it possible that gulls live here, so far from the sea?” He kicked the exact spot where her hand lay, as if to say hello! Joy rose in her like the sun over the ice floe, pink jetting through the blackness of the Gulf of Anadyr—like a carpet of tundra blossoming in spring. Or was it more get off me—? already struggling against her embrace, against her need for him, as dark as the days of winter when no boat could break the ice.
This need, for something of her own, for the life she could feel fluttering inside her, even months ago when Mother Kay had found out, fueled her bravery when Mother Kay tried to get her to have it “taken care of.” It wasn’t to be defiant as Mother Kay had said; it wasn’t to trap Stanley as he had said. How could it be Vivkie trapping him, when he was the one who had trapped her, one hand over her mouth, the other fumbling for his zipper?
All those months ago, retrieving more salt from the storeroom, suddenly she was unable to breathe against his crushing weight, fourteen again, calling for her mama, fish thrust in her throat, fish taking away her air. Fishheads with mouths sewn shut so they would not cry out, no bodies, no tails, they tried so hard to swim they had to swim inside her, butting their heads between her legs, pushing pushing. She could hear Mama, “Press your face against the canvas, breathe through the canvas, wait quiet until it stops, wait.” Then she’d emerge, then she’d breathe. When it stopped she’d breathe. She came out of the fish, but this fish would not come out of her. Fish slime inside her, slime down her legs. Standing in the sink where the cleaning crew filled the mop buckets she scrubbed her mouth, her thighs, scrubbed until her flesh was the color of raw fish, and still she couldn’t clean away the shame.
But once she knew what it meant, that sensation of butterfly wings kissing her inside, once Roz, who stood alongside as she faced Mother Kay, once Roz explained why Vivkie’s periods had stopped, Vivkie felt something growing inside her besides the fluttering baby. The seed Stanley planted transformed her; she grew straight and strong, a tree of protective branches sheltering her child. Strong enough that she too could let the men pry her hands from a canvas bin the last time she would see her child, she could let them roll it away to give her child the chance for a better life.
Stanley looked at her differently now, curled into her at night, taking comfort from her new strength. She’d grown to like the feel of him in her, the power she felt when she now chose to give what he had at first taken.
Back in the kitchen cleaning the apricots, Roz pushed open the swinging door, calling Vivkie to leave the clang of processors and mixers. “Go out front in case there are late customers.” Water had splashed onto the protruding shelf of her, globbing into paste on her floury apron. Allowed only one fresh apron per day, she was torn whether to risk being caught our front unaproned, but Roz was impatient, snapping her head, go now. Pulling the mess over her head, Vivkie noticed welts along her pale forearms from the stings. The dusting of flour she nearly always wore, except right after she showered at night—and then Stanley’d crawl in to bed covered in so much flour she’d be wearing it again since he didn’t shower until morning if at all—the flour shroud gave her a ghostlike appearance. The red welts stood out like lava domes erupting in a snowfield, or like Roz’s red bra she had on special since she was wearing her white floral sundress. The edges of the straps and the rim of the cups peeked out when she moved. Men, Vivkie noticed, could hardly tear their eyes away from the teasing red. Except when the eyes traveled down, pausing on Roz’s—nobody but Mother Kay still called Rosalyn, Rose, and even she was coming around since Roz wouldn’t answer when she did—pausing to linger on her firm, round behind, before resuming their journey along her tanned stockingless legs. Her dress wasn’t what you’d call too low-cut, but that red showed from certain angles, and it wasn’t what you’d call too short, but Roz’s thigh muscles undulating as she walked between the display case and the cash register, visible just below her hem, helped fill in the picture of what was beneath her dress. Roz never had a dusting of flour.
Even the women couldn’t not stare at Roz, their tongues clucking. Vivkie looked up from her rolling pin every time the door from the kitchen swung open, hoping to get a glimpse of Roz dangling the promise of sex, at arms length, to every man who came through the door. Ever out of reach; they’d reach anyway, with their eyes and their smiles and the extra loaves or pie or dozen cookies they’d buy to take home to their wives and kids.
Stanley looked up too from where he was sweating streaks in the flour by the ovens. Vivkie was glad Roz was Stanley’s sister or she figured this would be Roz’s baby instead of hers. She didn’t mind though, you couldn’t help looking at Roz, couldn’t help wanting to touch her. Vivkie watched until Mother Kay hollered at her to go pick apricots, hollered that she wasn’t paying Vivkecheska—she’d never call her Viv, even if Vivkie never answered—wasn’t paying her to stand around. Which was pretty funny when you thought about it since she’d stopped paying her when Vivkie turned out to be pregnant. She moved her into Stanley’s room, the price for his transgression, and stopped charging her board for one of the basement rooms and for meals, so it was the same as getting paid Mother Kay said; she was family now. And soon they’d be moving into Roz’s apartment over the bakery with the baby and Roz would be moving into Stanley’s room. She’d sent Vivkie to climb the tree hoping, Vivkie knew, for a fall to solve the problem, to stop the bedroom exchange.
Roz was looking for the one to take her away from here, but she had better hurry since soon she wouldn’t have the bed upstairs. Mother Kay had gone up the hill to the house for her afternoon nap and Vivkie hurried down the tree knowing Roz would need her. When Mother Kay napped, Roz went upstairs to rest after the noon rush and Mr Thompson from the bank or Ted Hansen who had the Chevy dealership or sometimes one of the drivers who’d been at the loading dock earlier, could be seen out back near the stairs if a person was to use the stepstool to see out the little window. A glimpse of gold Lexus or sleek red Corvette or a benign sketched-and-sweet-faced Mother Kay in an oval on the side of a truck’s trailer pulled to the shady side of the building long after the others had loaded and left and Vivkie knew Roz was going to push open the swinging door.
When the last customer had been rung up, Vivkie turned off the radio so she could hear the sound of Roz finding a way out. From up on the hill, high in the tree, Vivkie had seen the apartments going up in town and she knew what it would cost to live there. She wondered what it would be like. A different man, a strange man, his weight pressed against her. Roz was wrong about it being the one; it was the how. Vivkie knew how. She wrapped the unsold pastries in plastic and practiced hearing the sound of it, “Viv.” She patted to get her son’s attention and again said, “Viv.”