The Date Farmer
By Bethany MarcelThe farmer arrived in an old gray car, a weather-beaten California license plate hanging crooked off the back. He parked and stepped out, slamming the driver’s door behind him. I jumped. I was skittish, cat-like, especially when I was alone. The farmer didn’t seem to notice. He walked toward me. A tall, pale redhead in his mid-fifties. He was a Conan O’Brien parody, freckles splattered across his face like stars. Those stars, he later told me, had always prevented him from getting laid, a surprising admission considering we’d known each other for just a few days by the time he said it. “A milk carton boy,” he’d said by way of explanation. “The girls just thought of me that way.” I didn’t know what he’d meant by that exactly but I nodded along anyway, giving silence for the weariness of milk carton boys everywhere.
Now I watched as he came toward me, walking slow and stiff, as though the aches of age and hard labor had settled in his body like cement. He shook my hand. A firm handshake.
“Yes,” I said.
I knew he was the man I’d been waiting for.
“Right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
He lifted my backpack—the weight of which I’d struggled to carry alone—in one fluid motion and stuffed it into his trunk.
Only then did these two facts occur. One: my backpack was big enough to fit a human body inside of it. And two: I was a twenty-three-year-old woman and I was about to get in the car of a man I didn’t know.
I often think I’m too large. Walking by a mirror, I raise my shirt and pinch my stomach. But traveling alone, I am large inside of myself yet small on the outside, the world too big for me while I’m too big for the world. Sitting in the passenger seat of the farmer’s car, my body was like a child’s body—the seatbelt loose around my torso, flopping around like a fish as he drove over bumps in the road.
The car smelled of plastic and dirt, and soon the farmer began talking. Of California—the heat, the crops, and taxes—before changing the subject to his health problems, which were unspecific and undiagnosed but related to his stomach. I nodded along, watching his face change as he spoke, the shadows crossing it as we drove on past palm trees and liquor stores.
“Health problems like that aren’t from nowhere,” he said. “Fucking know-nothing doctors.”
I watched as his anger formed like a glint of fire behind his eyes. I brought my hands to my lap, holding them there as though afraid I might find them reaching for the door handle.
“Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if I died soon,” he said. His hands gripped the steering wheel like a neck.
We’d known each other for all of twenty minutes and, in this time, I’d hardly said a word. Instead I stared out the front window, nodding along. My mouth was dry and bitter. It reminded me of sand, and I thought of the turquoise mine I’d explored in New Mexico just a few weeks before. A boy I liked had taken me there and I’d touched the crumbling walls, so tempted to put a piece of turquoise in my mouth. “Take a piece,” the boy had said, and so I had, putting it in my pocket. I tried to remember where it was now.
“I used to live up there,” the farmer said, pointing to a mountain in the distance. “I wanted the hell away.”
I looked up and saw a small black hole carved into the hillside.
The air was heavy. I wanted to roll down the car window but didn’t move. Did he say this to every woman he brought to his farm? Was the farm not a farm but a cave where corpses were stacked like brittle layers of kindling?
“A cave?” I asked. “How long…”
“Long enough,” he said. “Anyway.” But then he didn’t say anything else.
I’d chosen this, I reminded myself. I’d wanted adventure. But like most things, I hadn’t thought it through. I stared out the window. Waited for the drive to end.
A red gate guarded the date farm—the only barrier between us and whatever was inside it. This gate was not a cheerful and inviting red, like the plastic toy fences that are parts of children’s farm sets. The farmer’s gate was a stern and rusted red. A real gate. A clear post as to what was kept in and what was kept out. The truth was I hadn’t expected a gate at all. What had I expected? A yellow brick road? A lush carpet? No matter. The farmer got out to open the gate, and my stomach dropped like a stone in a deep pond.
I’d given my sister the farmer’s address, not telling anyone else where I’d be. “I’m volunteering on a date farm in Cali,” I’d written to her. I always did this. Put the burden on her. If I were dead or lost, she’d be the one to know, the one to lead them through the gate, to find my body, to rescue me. My sister was such a brave and steady love. I hardly thought a thing when asking this of her.
The farmer got back in the car. We drove through, and I looked around. The farm was nothing more than three date trees.
He gave a house tour, the way a docile suburban husband might as instructed to do so by his wife. He took me through the kitchen to the living room where I felt a cold and stale rush of air—a sweet respite from the California heat.
“The AC room,” he said. “Can’t afford to cool the whole house. Hot, you sit here.” He pointed to a tan wingback chair, its seams coming undone.
Musical instruments lined the walls of the AC room—multiple guitars, drums, saxophones, and one lonely clarinet. Multiple record players and hundreds of records filled the rest of the empty space.
He showed me to my room. If he’d been waiting and playing it cool, this would be his chance. The moment he would make his move: to grope, to rape, to murder, to dismember, to eat, to bury. I imagined the farmer coming up behind me. His sweaty hand over my open and wet mouth. His breath smelling of dates. The Date Killer, they’d call him.
But instead the farmer pointed to the dresser. I’d watched too many crime shows with my sister and mother back home.
“Extra sheets in there. An extra pillow if you need it. Nothing fancy, sorry.”
He left the room, and I went to work, opening the dresser drawers, searching—for what?—before pulling back the comforter on the twin bed.
It was then I discovered the sheets.
White sheets, clean and crisp, featuring a variety of different colored dinosaurs. Red pterodactyls. Blue triceratops. I paused at this. Did the farmer have children? Had he once and no longer? Was it a thrift store purchase? A whim? A financial decision? Or did the farmer just really love dinos?
For years after my travels, I’d track stories of women traveling alone, of women murdered, of women who’d made similar choices to the ones I’d made on the road. I followed the story of a young woman who’d been around my age when she’d gone backpacking and then missing in Nepal. I watched closely the story of a woman who went on a date with a man she’d met on the same website where I’d later meet my husband. I’d get married. She’d get murdered and dismembered, her head thrown in a trash bin. I couldn’t stop reading these stories, perhaps trying to suss out why that night on the date farm, when I’d made a choice many had thought ill-conceived, I’d slept well, uninterrupted, even happy, on sheets of red pterodactyls and blue triceratops.
I awoke early the next morning—refreshed, alive. Less nervous too, considering my aliveness. The farmer was already awake, waiting for me in the wingback chair, a mug of coffee for him and one for me.
“Let’s get to work,” he said.
He taught me how to water the trees—easy—and I watched as he showed me how to climb up the ladder to harvest the dates. He gave me a box with a handle made of duct tape, which I put around my neck and used to collect the dates as I went.
The farmer said he had fantasies of growing his farm but that for now three trees was “all he could manage.” He didn’t go into more detail than this, and I didn’t ask. On the website where I’d found his farm, there’d been no indication of its size, and so I’d pictured an enormous working farm, a landscape teeming with farmhands. Instead, the farmer and I worked side-by-side. We were a team. A duo.
“It gets kinda lonely here,” the farmer said at one point, a doleful look in his eye, and I’d looked back at him and nodded, understanding this loneliness. It sat between us like a friend.
I was sitting alone on the dinosaur bed when my cell phone rang.
“Grandpa,” my mother said when I answered.
My grandfather had had cancer for years—so long we’d started to believe he would never die. Only now my mother was saying it: he had one week to live.
“I’m coming home,” I said, hanging up.
I put down the phone and tried to think up ways I might have predicted and therefore prevented his death, but I came up empty. For years, I had tried to anticipate where pain would find me. The red gate. The nod of the farmer. The bag that could have fit a human body inside it. The ominous signs were all there, yet pointed in the wrong direction.
Once, I was walking down the street of my town when a woman punched me in the face. She said nothing. Just punched me. It was daytime, and the sun was hanging over us like a promise. Once, I closed my eyes and saw the edge of a dark pit, certain if I opened them I would fall in and die. When I opened them, I saw my mother’s face. Once, a man’s distant voice on the phone said car accident and my whole world changed. Once, I thought a strange man might kill me, but instead I harvested dates like pulling candy from the sky.
I walked into the kitchen, where the farmer was standing at the counter slicing a tomato, a tight grip on the knife.
“I’m sorry,” I said. It was the first thing I said to anyone other than my mother when I learned my grandfather was dying. What was it in me that made apologizing my first instinct? “I have to go. I can’t stay the whole time like I thought.”
I said this as though I believed the farmer had become so dependent on me as his farmhand that his thriving date farm couldn’t possibly go on without my staying an extra few days. The farmer set down the knife, leaving precisely one half of an unsliced tomato.
“My grandpa is dying,” I said.
I began to cry, and the farmer looked at me as I did, cocking his head as though inspecting a strange-looking date, unsure yet what to make of it.
“Real sorry,” he said at last.
And with that he raised his right hand high up in the air before bringing it down like a gavel upon my shoulder—the way a robot might have—so hard my skin was left stinging from his touch.
I fail to predict so much of life. The pain, and also the sweetness. Two hours later the farmer and I were in his car on the way to the airport. Before we’d left the farm, he’d handed me a box.
“You’ll want to share these with your family,” he’d said.
I’d taken the box and looked inside to find dozens upon dozens of sticky, sweet dates.
And so I did.
My mother said they were the best dates she’d ever had.
The most difficult part of harvesting was that each tree was swarming with bees. You had to reach your hand up into the bees in order to get at the dates, which pulled off the trees easily when they were ready. They were like candy. This meant most date farmers had wretchedly bad teeth. “Trying to save money,” the farmer said, shaking his head. “Just eating dates.” He said you could spot most date farmers a mile away due to their rotted out mouths. But not his mouth. His mouth was clean, a product of good hygiene. It was surprising the girls didn’t like him, what with his good teeth and fine manners. It was probably because he was a redhead, just a damn milk carton boy.
I tried not to look too closely at his mouth when he said this. I asked him how he did it—not making fun, just trying to be kind. How did he have such perfect teeth? He answered that he was careful to eat only a certain number of dates, a measured number, something like three a day. He ate enough to enjoy but not enough to rot his teeth. His life was calculated like this, he said. He didn’t take risks, and this worked. And he had to do what worked for his life, didn’t he?
I was standing atop the ladder when he said this. I was looking down at him.
And then he said it. “Just stick your hand up in there.”
“What?” I’d said.
“Just go for it,” he’d said. “Just stick your hand up in there.” He was smiling then, the first I’d seen of it.
He meant for me to stick my hand into the bees. To reach through the buzz in order to get at the perfectly ripe dates. I looked down at my body. My bare arms and my small, childlike torso. I was young, at a place in my life where anything might happen, a place you imagine lasts forever but doesn’t. I was a woman, a girl, standing precariously on a ladder, pretending to be a farmer. My grandfather was still alive, and my parents, and most of my friends, too, were alive and well and, of all the people in the world, only my kid sister knew where I was.
There was this, too: the night before I’d slept on dinosaur sheets so crisp, I couldn’t be certain anyone else had ever used them. And so, I knew what I had to do next. Without hesitation, I stood tall and raised my hand into the swarm.