Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Apple Runner

This story first appeared in the LAST WORD section of the Inlander on OCT 29, 2009

Every autumn the Evergreen State cultivates a crop that has all the characteristics of an illicit drug trade. I stumbled upon this unlikely connection during a recent job I scored at Green Bluff, north of Spokane.

I started as a lackey stocking shelves. I rapidly moved up the ranks, from pushing a dolly to running pallets on a forklift. By week's end I was behind the wheel of the boss' brand-new pickup truck. With this series of promotions I was unwittingly transformed into a "runner" for Washington's most treasured commodity: apples.

"Hey kid, you got any experience pullin' a fifth wheel?"
"Sure," I said with stone-cold confidence. In reality I had none.
"Good. I'm gonna have you pick up some apples tomorrow morning."

I arrived at work the following morning in a torrential downpour just as my boss was backing up the truck to an empty 30-foot-long trailer. 

"OK, kid, the GPS is set. I got Jack's programmed into the system, just follow the directions and it should put you there pretty close to 10:30. Now here's a blank check. Fill it in ONLY when Jack tells you how much you owe, got it?"

I looked my boss in the eye as beads of rainwater ran down my face.
"Got it."

The intense rain clouds over Spokane faded as Highway 395 opened up towards the west. The clouds had retreated to little more than looming globs of gray scattered across the sky. I rolled my window down, cranked up the radio and reflected on this "job."

A similar "assignment" must be taking place in many other corners of the world. Somewhere, some young clueless kid is driving a flashy new vehicle, following GPS coordinates to an undisclosed location, picking up a load of Premium Grade-A.... Guns? Marijuana? Who knows, maybe diamonds or rare parrots. My job was apples.

Or maybe, I thought, I'm a fleeting blend of legendary identities. Pablo Escobar plus Johnny Appleseed. These wildly exotic daydreams sustained my imagination through the bland backdrop between Ritzville and Moses Lake.

It wasn't long before the uniquely non-human human voice of the GPS pulled me back to reality, informing me that I was approaching my turn. I obeyed the robotic woman. I took Exit 164. Now headed due south, I left Central Washington behind and entered a seemingly barren, inhospitable climate - one that is ironically perfect for fruit.

Another turn onto an even more obscure road led me to what the GPS lady referred to as my "destination." I slowly passed a wall of stacked apple bins and recognized the "open gravel area" where "Jack" would be expecting me. I checked the time. It was 10:34. Right on schedule. Keeping to my boss' instructions, I turned the truck and trailer around for an easy exit. Or did he mean getaway?

The day had turned hot as I stepped out of the truck. I walked around the trailer, when I heard the gentle groan of a tractor. The deal was about to go down.

Like clockwork, a man and machine crawled out from the dirt road that flanked the final row of apple trees. Was it "Jack"? I couldn't see him. He was lost behind a mountain of fruit. The tractor, equipped with a front fork, carried two bins of apples, stacked one atop the other. The only confirmation of a human at the helm was the barely visible top of a straw hat poking above the oncoming apples.

"I got some apples here for ya," said the old man. His eyebrows were permanently slanted towards the bridge of his nose, making me wonder if his expression wasn't formed from a lifetime of tasting unexpectedly tart apples.

"Great, that's what I'm here for," I blurted out. I feared that if I said anymore Jack would start to pick up how little I really knew about these "apple deals."

In short order, the old man loaded 16 wooden bins and then the tractor's motor clunked and sputtered its way to a peaceful silence.

"OK, that makes eight bins of Jonagold for juice, six for eating, and two bins of Ambrosias," he said. I was momentarily confused when he used the term "juice," until I realized that must be slang for cider, kind of like calling cocaine "blow."

"Now let me show you these Ambrosias," he said and I followed him to the trailer.
"See this white film on the apple? Tell your boss that's not a pesticide or chemical, it's calcium carbonate... It works like a sunscreen. Customers see this stuff and think it's gonna kill'em or something, like it's some kind of bad chemical. Tell him it won't be on the next batch."

Out of curiosity, I asked how many pounds of apples I was carrying. 
"You're looking at 16,000 pounds there," he said, after running some calculations in his head.

I wrote out the amount owed on the check, shook the coarse hand of this McIntosh Man of Mystery and thanked him for the goods. I secured the bins with tie-downs, pulling them tight so none of my precious cargo would be lost on the ride back. I put the key in the ignition, dropped the truck into drive and started for Spokane. My cell rang.

"Where are you?!" The boss sounded impatient.
"I just finished with the tie-downs and now I'm headed back."
"OK, that should put you back here at 3:15."
"Yeah, that's what the GPS says as well."
"See you then."

Now heavily weighed down, the truck was pulling a full shipment of Washington state's version of white powder, and I was the quintessential naive middleman with everything to lose and little to gain. Merging onto the highway, checking my driver's side mirror, I caught a glimpse of the tender white flesh of an Ambrosia scattering across the left lane.

Make that 15,999 pounds of apples. I knew I was going to have some explaining to do.

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