by Amanda Waters
Penelope Hertz is about to dssappoint five people.
She drives the big Hertz Family Farms van into the Cypress Farmers Market parking lot, waving at Mrs. Walling (Big Bottom Bakery) as she guides the van down to spot number 32. It's prime market real estate - halfway down the center aisle on a corner. Penelope's father pays a little extra for the spot, less than he might since Hertz Family Farms has been a vendor since the Cypress Farmers Market opened its doors.
Penny parks the van and and helps her two brothers set up the booth with a silent efficiency born out of countless hours of practice. If Farmers Market booth set-up was an art form, they would be lauded as grand masters.
Once Ryan pulls out the final crate, Penelope turns and heads away from the booth, out toward the sidewalk then down the street toward the smell of coffee, cinnamon, and sugar. The cherry trees that line the sidewalk block the early morning sun and Penny shivers slightly in the shade, although it doesn't take long for her to reach the bright green door that marks Cinnamon and Spice Cafe. She walks in through the door and trades the sounds of commuting cars for the hiss of an espresso machine, the low murmer of voices, and the sounds of classic country music.
As Penelope waits her turn in line, she looks around the small cafe trying to memorize her favorite details -- the built-in book case housing dozens of antique cookie jars, the mis-matched wooden tables and chairs, the worn leather armchairs in the far corner.
A huge smile appears on the freckled face across the counter as Penelope steps up to order.
"Hey Penny," Georgia says. "The usual?"
Georgia Farmer -- the 19 year old daughter of Cinnamon and Spice's owners -- pulls three large cups off the stack to her right, scribbles across the outsides with a sharpie, then begins keying in Penelope's twice-weekly order of three large coffees, two with a shot of espresso and one with two inches of steamed milk.
"So," Georgia says as she makes change from the $20 Penny hands her. "How's Hertz Family Farm this morning?"
"Still growing things," Penny says with a smile. "How are the Farmers?"
"Still brewing coffee and baking things."
Georgia hands over the change then glances over Penny's shoulder, checking to see if there's a line behind her.
"So, I...uhhh..I ran into... Ryan at the movies last night," Georgia says. "He said he was there by himself. Does he..uhh..do that a lot? Go to the movies by himself, I mean?" Her tone was almost too casual, and her cheeks flushed slightly pink.
It must be hard to have that classic red-headed complexion, Penny thought. I would never be able to handle having such visible emotions.
"He does, actually," Penny says. "He actually prefers going to the movies alone, even when he's dating someone. Which," Penny leans over the counter and lowered her voice, "I happen to know he's not at the moment. Dating anyone." She smiles. "And because I actually like you, Georgia, I'm going to give you a tip: Ryan doesn't like girls who throw themselves at him, but he does tend to wait for a sure thing. So access whatever inner confidence you have and let him know you're interested. You probably know that he loves almost any kind of outdoor activity, but what you might not know is that he's lately turned into a bit of a foodie. So maybe do some research and suggest going to try out some bougie restaraunt."
"Really?" Georgia sounds surprised. "A foodie?"
Penny straightens and rolls her eyes. "He's really annoying about it too, but probably only to us."
Georgia laughs and wedges the cups into a cardboard drink tray and slides it across the counter. "Thanks for the advice," she says. "Although I hate being so obvious."
Penny smiles. "Nothing to be ashamed about. And clearly it's not obvious to everyone, or the knuckle-head would have asked you out by now."
"Thanks for the coffees."
Penny picks up her cardboard drink tray and turns to leave. As she walks toward the door she glances over at a corner of the coffee shop, the corner with the worn leather chair, strategically placed floor lamp, and green painted three-legged stool that serves as miniature coffee table or extra seating. The chair is empty, and Penny's heart constricts. Nine times out of ten, this particular weekly errand -- like decades-deep rut in a well-traveled country lane -- includes a brief conversation with the first person who Penny is going to disappoint. Jake Harding's presence in that leather chair on Monday and Thursday mornings at 7:30 is as reliable as the sun rising and setting every day. He should be sitting there with a cappucino, the muffin of the day, his laptop, and Moleskin notebook. Why isn't he there?
Penny shakes her head and sighs. Why does it matter? What does she think she's going to do, say goodbye? Confess her undying love but lack of desire to stay in Cypress, Arkansas? Ask him to leave his tenure track position at the local university to come with her to rural Wisconsin? No. The time for pointless conversations has passed, and goodbye might hurt a little too much. She forces out a cheerful "Bye, Georgia!" and shoves open the door with her shoulder.
Ten minutes later she's walking back down the market aisle, waving at people she will genuinely miss seeing twice a week -- and a few she won't. Two stalls before she reaches Hertz Farms, she stops.
"Hi, Mary," she says. A woman with dark skin and a warm smile looks up from her display of pies and tarts.
"Hi, Penny! How are you?"
"Optimistic." And also sad, she thinks. Optimistic, sad, nervous.
Mary raises an eyebrow. "Soon, then?" she says.
Penny nods. "Tonight. Late."
"Still sneaking out?"
Penny shrugs, "What can I say. In this, I'm a coward."
Mary glances around before walking out from behind her table. Penny is surprised by the hug, and more surprised by the tears that pop into her eyes.
"I'm going to miss you," Mary whispers. "Call me when you're settled in."
Penny nods, blinking fast and clearing her throat. Mary steps back. "Now," she says in a normal voice. "I stayed up most of the night working on a new tart recipe. I need you to try it and give an honest review. Then I need you to give it to that food-snob brother of yours for an actual honest review."
"Hey! I give honest reviews!"
Mary just rolles her eyes. She walks back behind the table and hands Penny a celophane-wrapped tart labeled "pear-blueberry-fig."
Penny pulls cash out of her back pocket, but Mary waves her money away.
"Just tell Ryan to be gentle."
"Done," Penny says. "I better get back to the boys. They get grumpy if I let their coffee get cold. I'll text you my tart review later. And...I'll call you."
When she gets back to their tent, Ryan is snoring in the passenger seat and Dean is talking on the phone. She hands Dean his coffee and taps on the window of the van. Ryan jerks awake, looking around in confusion before running a hand through his hair and opening the door.
At 8:30 a.m. on the dot, the market manager opens the gate and the day falls into a predictable rhythm. A rhythm that weighs heavy on Pennelope as she helps shoppers find the perfect bunch of greens, the best peas and carrots, as she bags produce and calculates cost, smiles, makes change, and restocks the display after a partciularly long rush of customers. A weight that intensifies as they make quick work of Mary's ridiculously delicious tart, and heavily discount their remaining stock an hour before heading home. And as they pack up their tables and the small amount of produce left at the end of the day, Penelope's chest tightens and the weight threatens to suffocate her.
Ryan gives her a funny look as they slam shut the back doors of the van.
"What's wrong with you?" he asks.
"Nothing." she says, her voice sharp with defensiveness. "What's wrong with you?"
He rolls his eyes and walks around to the driver's door. Penny slips into the back seat, leaving shotgun to Dean who is -- as usual -- texting on his phone. Penny pulls earbuds out of her pocket, puts them in her ears, and finds the most soothing playlist she can. Only a few more hours to go. She rolls her shoulders trying to dislodge the tension camped out there, then leans her head back against the seat and closes her eyes.
Exactly eight songs later, Ryan is parking the van beside the big gray barn, and Penelope opens her eyes, bracing herself for the rest of the evening. As she climbs out of the van, her eyes stray to the little blue car sitting patiently behind the farmhouse. Three bags crammed as full as she can get them sit inside the trunk, smuggled out when no one was looking.
Ryan and Dean head toward the barn to take care of evening animal chores, and Penelope walks to the house to clean up and help with supper. She goes through the mudroom -- which is so clean, can it still be called a mudroom? -- slips off her shoes, and places them neatly on one of the three boot trays lined up along the wall. She washes her hands in the little sink against the wall, and inspects her clothes for visible dirt. The whole ritual eases some of the doubts that had been creeping into her mind all day about her plans. Heaven forbid anyone track dirt into the house of a working farm. She shakes her head and puts a smile on her face before opening the door into the kitchen.
"Hey, Chelsea, hi mom."
Chelsea turns from her place at the stove and smiles at Penelope. "Hi, Pen. How was it today?'
"Business as usual!" Chelsea walks over to the big wooden table and gives her mom a hug around the shoulders. The older woman smiles up at her.
"Hi sweetie," she says.
"What can I do to help?" Penelope asks, grabbing an apron from the hook on the wall.
"Do you mind checking the rice and setting the table?"
Penelope gives her mom's shoulder another squeeze as she walks by -- her heart constricts -- and her mom continues to slice peppers and carrots. Penelope walks behind Chelsea and peeks under the lid of the rice pot on one of the back burners, then turns off the heat. She glances at the skillet in front of Chelsae.
"Looks great," Penelope says. And it does. She may not miss Chelsea's obsession with a spotless house, but she will miss Chelsea's cooking, especially when she makes a curry like tonight.
"Thanks! Hey, did Dean talk to you about what we want to do with the north field?"
"Well, we've decided to turn that field into an organic field, see how it goes, and eventually we can transition to all organic produce."
Penelope glances at her mom and raises her eyebrows, but her mom just smiles, shrugs, and keeps chopping vegetables. When Dean married Chelsea three years ago, and then their Dad passed away just a year after that, Penelope's Mom took that as a sign that it was time for her to retire as farm wife. Now she spends most of her time either at the nearby yarn store, sitting on the front porch in her rocking chair with a mug of tea and a book, or taking walks long enough that Penelope teases her about being a Jane Austen heroine. Penelope doesn't blame her mom at all for her "retirement" -- Chelsea likes things a certain way, and has lots of dreams for Hertz Family Farms. Penelope sometimes wonders what her Dad would have thought about all the trends Chelsea seems to be chasing.
"He didn't mention it, but it sounds like a great idea!" Easy to say since it won't affect her at all.
"Ryan's not to on board yet, but I'm sure he'll come around."
Again, Penelope and her mom exchange a look.
"Oh, yeah, I'm sure he will." Penelope feels like she's mostly succesful in hiding her sarcasm.
After they've all eaten and cleaned up, Penelope feigns tiredness so she can hide out in her room. It's not entirely an act -- she is pretty tired. Mostly she feels anxious at the thought of trying to pretend it's a normal night.
Her emotions nearly betray her as she hugs her mom goodnight. This will be the hardest disappointment.
"You okay, honey?" her mom asks, pulling back and searching Penelope's face.
"Just tired," Penelope forces her emotions back down into her gut before her eyes can tear up. "I didn't sleep well last night, and you know how early market days are."
Her mom doesn't look satisfied, but doesn't push, just gives Penelope another hug and kiss on the cheek. "Good night then."
Penelope walks slowly up the stairs and into her room, grabbing the toiletry bag sitting on her bedside table and walking across the hall into the bathroom. She closes the door behind her and begins quietly loading her bag -- shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, razor. She rearranges what's left in the bathroom to try and hide the missing items before going back to her room. After putting the toiletry bag into her backpack, she sits down on the bed with a sigh, then lays back on the quilt -- one her grandmother made ages ago. Her brain is spinning. She pulls out her phone and pulls up the email she's read approximately a hundred thousand times since receiving it:
"Dear Ms. Hertz,
We are thrilled that you have accepted our offer to work with us! I think you'll find dairy farming and cheese making to be a welcome challenge while still in a somewhat familiar environment. Our current apprentice is leaving in two weeks, and we'd like a week to get the apartment ready for you. If possible, we'd love to have you arrive sometime between March 5 and March 12. Shoot us an email once you have a date nailed down so we can be expecting you. I know it's going to be a long trip, which makes exact arrival time difficult to determine, but I only ask that you don't come to the house after 8 p.m. Jim and I like to wind down early, as I'm sure you are familiar with! Those early morning chores do come quite early.
We can't wait to see you in a few weeks and welcome you to Sunflower Dairy!
Jim and Betty Nelson
p.s. March can still be quite cool up here in Wisconsin, especially compared to what you're used to, so make sure you pack a few warm clothes and a jacket for both work and play!
Penny sighs. She knows she's being a coward, sneaking out in the middle of the night leaving only goodbye letters and questions behind. It bothers her, but not enough to change course now. She pulls open the drawer of her bedside table, empty now except for five thin envelopes. She double checks that they're all there -- Mom, Dean, Ryan, Jake. She debated leaving one for Chelsea, but they're not close, and she had nothing special to say. She debated mailing Jakes to him, but knows her Mom will see he gets it, and somehow a hand-delivered goodbye seems slightly less awful than a letter in the mail. Despite the adreneline coursing through her she feels surprisingly sleepy, her eyelids like weights on her face. She sets the alarm on her phone for 1 a.m. -- it's a working farm after all -- everyone should be deep into REM sleep by that time -- and clutches her letters to her chest. Soon enough she's asleep.
When her alarm beeps at 1 a.m., Penelope sits up wide awake. She sits for a moment, listening to the sleeping house before standing up, putting her phone in her pocket, and shouldering her backpack. One last look around the room, it's walls steeped in childhood memories, young adult angst, and lately, her restlessness. She presses her fingers to her lips, then gently pats the door jam as she walks out.
She creeps down the stairs in sock feet, into the dark kitchen where she lays out her slightly crumpled envelopes in the center of the big kitchen table. She walks through to the mud room, slips on her sneakers waiting patiently in their designated resting place, and grabs her work boots. She wonders what the boys will notice first in their early morning haze -- the envelopes on the table, the missing boots, the fact that she's not in the fields or the barn, or her missing car. Penelope walks through the grass to where she's parked her car, opens the trunk and stashes the boots. She tosses the backpack in the front passenger seat and slides in behind the wheel. She smiles a little as she arranges her phone, her charger, and the printed map. Dean had made fun of her when she'd decided to buy a hybrid after her beat-up Ford truck had died, but turns out that not having to crank a loud gasoline engine made it a lot easier to sneak away in the middle of the night. No pushing a hunk of metal down the driveway like he and Ryan and done a bunch of times in high school.
Penelope starts her car, connects her phone to the car's blue tooth speakers, and rolls her windows down so she can say goodbye to the place she loves with all her senses -- the rustling sound of the woods at night, the smell of earth and green grass, the sight of moonlight playing in the treetops, and the feel of the cool night air. When she gets to the end of the lane, there are tears in her eyes and a huge smile on her face. Before she pulls out onto the highway, she scrolls to the playlist she's been curating for months and presses play.