Clarence Adderly looked over the top of his camera.”A little to the left,” he called out to his wife, motioning with his hand.”I’m going to lose you to that dark sky if you don’t step lively.”
That dark sky, a growing band of clouds steadily filling up the distant valleys but not yet interfering with the sun, was the reason for this trip to the hilly orchard country north of Prairie du Chein. The weather man the night before hadn’t pulled any punches. If you want to catch the leaves, he advised them, don’t wait. Do it now.
Leaf watching was like that. Even with the advantages of constantly updated forecasts, his own sixty seven years of experience and a network of veteran leaf watchers, all of whom were happy to dispense their advice, you could still blow it. One ill-timed wind and the party was over, the nova of a year littered across the ground like so much confetti.
But they hadn’t missed it. Not this year, thank God. This year they’d timed it right. At peak was the term the leaf watchers used. They’d made it up there at the absolute peak of the fall color.
Ellen Adderly shuffled to her left as directed and placed herself out of the far-off valley and directly in front of a closer burst of orange maples. “There!” Clarence shouted, double-checking though his viewfinder. “Right there. That’s perfect.”
There had been a lot of perfect shots that day. Clarence made sure of that. At each orchard, at every overlook, he was there, camera in hand, composing the album for winter’s bittersweet reflection.
After snapping the picture, the two of them crossed the road from the gravel parking area and headed toward the massive orchard building. They’d saved the biggest for last, and while some of the orchards had been small and delightfully rundown, this one was practically an amusement park, a bustling monument to everything fall.
Crates of windfalls and Indian corn formed a breastwork in front of the building, behind which a pile of pumpkins spilled decoratively from a ramshackle wagon hooked to the back of an old Farmall tractor. Two pink-faced young girls sold taffy apples from a card table by the main door, the proceeds going to the victims of a local housefire, and someone somewhere was burning just the right amount of leaves. And the people! A grinning, sweatshirted army had overrun the place, bringing with them gleefully open wallets and lots and lots of laughter.
Clarence was awed. All around him the rugged hills were aflame with color, and this oasis, with all its festive decoration, beat at its heart. He wanted to capture it all, to record each and every thing he saw, but when he tried to get a shot of Ellen beside the American Gothic scarecrows guarding the entrance, she gently demurred.
“Let’s just go inside and enjoy ourselves,” she said, taking his arm. “You must have enough pictures by now.”
How, he wondered, could you ever have enough pictures when soon pictures would be all you had? That was the thing about fall. It left you. Its beauty, which endured by grace and by grit, was no match for a cold front moving fast across the plains. And there was always a cold front. Always.
That was why he wanted today to be perfect and why he had to let her go once inside the building. If this was to be the last good day he didn’t want to get in the way. He wanted her to savor every still and golden moment on her own, the way she wanted; to sample the apples, to taste the cider, to bask in the warmth before it was all blown to hell. This was her day, her outing. But was it so wrong to want pictures?
From a distance he watched her pick up a small bag of Delicious apples, her favorite, and after considerable sampling and a brisk conversation with one of the employees, she picked up a bag of Macintosh, too. Seeing her burdened with the two bags, a nice young man wheeled over a shopping cart for her, and for the longest time she just stood there, looking. Then she was off to the bakery goods, where she bought a coffeecake and some cookies for the ride home, followed by a trip to the gifty stuff in the far corner, picking up some handmade notecards penned by a local artist.
It was a meager sum considering the way most people were loading their carts, but that was Ellen, practical to the end. Why should she pretend she was going to be baking pies when she knew she wasn’t? Clarence had to look away. He wanted her to buy so much more.
He met up with her a short time later and stood beside her while she waited to check out, struggling to listen as she pointed out the sights and told him which things she had particularly enjoyed. As hard as he tried to follow along, however, he just couldn’t stop himself from trying to memorize, from trying to brand the day into his mind so that the memories, at least, would never leave him. Finally she stopped talking and once again squeezed his arm.
“Well, I think I’m starting to get kind of tired now,” she sighed as they headed back toward the car. “Besides, it’s just about time to take my pill.”
Clarence panicked. He knew as well as she did that it was time to go, but he couldn’t help it. His head spun around, desperately looking for a backdrop worthy of the moment, but there were so many, too many, and his hands were filled with Ellen’s apples.
“It’s okay,” she assured him. “It’s been a lovely day. That’s enough.”
And so they crossed the road, leaving that last picture behind, and drove off toward the darkening sky, which had gotten so much closer it nearly stole the sun.