The Picker Boy
by Jeffrey Greene
Part 1 appears in this issue.
“A moment later, when he did see me, I just froze. He smiled, more gently this time and, holding my gaze, reached around and turned off the water. He picked his straw hat off the ground but didn’t put it on and, dripping wet, came slowly toward me. I was trying on a polite smile that apparently didn’t come off, because there was something about his cautious approach suggesting a rider coaxing his skittish horse.
“As he drew nearer, I expected the wafting stink of sweat and unwashed clothes, but my own heated perspiration was all I smelled. In spite of the vitality emanating from him, which quite overwhelmed me, there was a vague, elusive quality about his features, which makes describing it difficult. Not a gram of wasted flesh in that dark, narrow-chinned face, just harmonically arranged bones, smooth skin, shadowed hollows and the soft beginnings of a beard. His slightly squinting, aquarium-green eyes seemed to stare both into me and past me, as if he couldn’t quite see me or was peering through a translucent medium. In spite of his dirt, his worn clothes, and his callused, workman’s hands, there was the oddest sense of distance, of removal about him, not just from what he’d been doing all day, but from everything.
“I’m well aware, doctor, of how improbable, even ludicrous, all this sounds when applied to a migrant worker. Most of these impressions occurred to me much later, when I knew myself better. At the time, I felt these things mostly as the confused perceptions of a naïve teenager who’d never kissed anyone besides her own relatives, rooted to the spot with terror and desire and overcome with shame at my abject failure to live up to my own fantasies of how a girl should behave in front of a boy who has inspired these feelings.
“Then he spoke. His voice was low, almost whispery, and though gentle, even kind, he seemed hesitant, tentative, as if he wasn’t sure if he should be speaking to me at all.
“‘Very sorry, ma’am,’ he said. ‘Hope I didn’t scare you. Just washin’ off the sooty mold and spider webs.’
“I shook my head too vehemently and managed a quavery, ‘No, it’s fine.’ Then I made things worse by blurting: ‘I saw you earlier.’
“‘Yes, you did,’ he replied with a quick nod. ‘It surprised me. Most people don’t. You never know who’s gonna have eyes that really see.’
“As confused as I was flattered by his words, I could only say, ‘I think your family’s leaving now.’
“‘Then I’ll be on my way. Goodbye’.” He paused, seeming to weigh something in his mind, then he extended his wet hand.
“What I did next was closer to a reflex of my upbringing than bravely meeting a boy’s modest challenge: I reached out and grasped his hand. It was much bigger than mine, a hard, bony hand, the fingers stiff and curled from a full day of picking, and his skin had a strangely neutral feel, like a piece of wood, neither warm nor cold. But it was a friendly contact; of that much at least, I’m certain. He meant me no harm.
“He held my hand perhaps a second longer than he should have, then he let go, donned his hat and, favoring me with a weary — and I now think, compassionate — smile, he glided effortlessly past me. I turned to look at him as he rounded the corner of the house at the same moment that I realized with a shock that seemed to start up from the ground, as if I’d been hit by lightning, that there hadn’t been a trace of moisture on his hand. It was dripping wet — I’d seen it — yet it had felt as dry as desert sand.
“Hardly knowing why, I turned and ran after him, expecting to see him walking down the front drive to where his family’s truck was parked. But although I had the entire front yard in view, he wasn’t there. Not down the street or in someone else’s yard. He wasn’t anywhere. The truck was just pulling away, the whole family somehow crowded into the front seat, and I could clearly see that he wasn’t among them.”
Ms. Newbridge all but vaulted out of her chair and disappeared into the bathroom. She took longer this time, her hands quite red and scoured-looking when she sat back down.
“And how long after this encounter with the picker boy did you begin frequent hand-washing?” Dr. Reisz asked. He had the feeling that she already regretted confiding in him.
“That same evening,” she replied. “When I came upstairs I found everyone at the table, waiting for me, so I quickly washed my hands — as I normally did — and joined them. My mother wasn’t pleased at my lateness, and I was about to explain that I’d met the picker boy in the back yard, but something warned me not to, and what came out was an apology for having ‘gotten distracted.’ She merely asked me to be more considerate next time, and dropped it.
“After dinner I washed my hands again. And then again a few minutes later. All through dinner I’d been thinking about what happened, about that handshake, and the more I thought about it the odder and more... indelible the contact with his hand had begun to feel, and the more determined I became to wash off whatever I believed he’d imparted to my living flesh. And that I soon found couldn’t — can’t — ever be washed off.”
“I assume you don’t mean the dirt on his hands,” Dr. Reisz said, looking up from his furious note-taking.
She shook her head. “I wish it were that simple. You must understand: I more than liked that boy. I wanted him with an intensity I’ve never felt for anyone before or since.” She held up her right hand, and he realized that, all the time she’d been talking, she hadn’t once touched it with her left hand. “It’s something I feel on my skin every minute of every day, something without odor or texture, but pervading like an invisible stain every square inch of where his skin came in contact with mine. I don’t mean germs, or any irrational notion of uncleanliness. I can barely express, much less explain it. It’s like a cold burn, but without any sensation of cold or heat. I feel as if the condition of his existence is slowly becoming my own.”
“Are you saying that the feeling you’re describing, that sense of some aspect of him having been left on your skin, is spreading to other parts of your body?”
She shuddered slightly. “Thankfully, no. The feeling is constant, but confined to where he touched me. It doesn’t need to spread to be a fait accompli. As soon as our hands met, I was touched for life. My body knew way before my intellect did that he shouldn’t have done it. I think he knew it, too. We both made a mistake, but it was done impulsively, without malice. “Maybe he wanted me as much as I wanted him, though I doubt it. I was such a drab little duckling. I remind myself that he wasn’t much older than I was. Did he understand the consequences of his action? Who knows? We were both kids. At least, he seemed to be a kid.”
“Why didn’t you tell your mother the truth?” he asked.
“Because I didn’t know what the truth was. I still don’t. At one point during dinner, just to test the water, I asked my mother how old she thought the oldest child in the picker family was. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she answered, looking at me with instinctive suspicion. ‘Eleven or twelve. Why do you ask?’ ‘Just curious’,” I lied. That was all I needed to know.
“Apparently, the boy wasn’t with the family who picked our trees. He wasn’t even there, as far as everyone else was concerned. He might have been part of the family at one time, their oldest son, perhaps. But what had happened to him? We never saw those people again, and I never found out.
“I keep asking myself why I was the only one who saw him. But what exactly did I see? The family moved into the front yard to pick the two trees that he’d supposedly already stripped. I distinctly saw the boy putting grapefruit into his shoulder bag, saw how full it was, and yet when the family started working on the trees, it was obvious that they hadn’t been picked yet.”
“Since you didn’t tell your family about him, how do you know you were the only who saw him?” Dr. Reisz asked.
“I just know. Do you think I haven’t gone over this a million times in my head? Taken into account the fact that I’d smoked pot three hours before? Counted every second between the few words we exchanged, our handshake, and the time it would have taken him to cross the front yard and get in the truck? From the time he walked out of my line of sight to me running after him might have been six seconds. At least that long to get to the truck from the side yard. There wasn’t time for him to reach the street, much less climb in the truck. And he didn’t do that, because I would have seen him in the cab with the others, or in the truck bed. He simply couldn’t have left the area that quickly, even if he’d been running. The truth — my truth, at least — is that he wasn’t with the picker family in the first place. He wasn’t with anybody. Except me.”
“Why do you think he did that?” Reisz asked, going cautiously now. “What I mean is: why do you think he allowed you to see him?”
“I don’t believe he did. But when he realized that I had seen him, maybe he also saw how lonely I was. Maybe he was, too. I’ll never know whether the handshake was simply a courteous farewell or his way of tying me to him forever.”
Reisz could see that she was utterly convinced of her OCD origin story. And after all, he thought, who am I to throw cold water on it? Didn’t it mitigate the daily humiliation of her condition, to know that her disease came as the price of an encounter that in a sense confirmed her adolescent belief in her own specialness? She had seen and been seen by a boy who was, well, whatever she believed he was. And she had never married.
“Are you angry at him for what he did to you?”
She seemed surprised by the question, and he had the sense that he wouldn’t be seeing Ms. Newbridge after today.
“Angry? No. After all, I didn’t have to take his hand, did I?”
“Would you care to hear my unfiltered reaction to your story?” he asked.
“Of course. That’s why I came. I already knew you couldn’t help me.”
“You’ve described what is clearly a significant event in your adolescence, perhaps the most significant. But it could also be interpreted as a baroquely elaborate way of explaining to yourself why you can’t forget this boy that you knew for a couple of minutes almost fifty years ago. You had developed one of those instant adolescent crushes at a time of your life when the sexual instinct is at its peak. And after he shook your hand — his merest touch sealing the deal, as it were, on your feelings — he ‘disappeared’ out of your life forever.
“The unconsummated passion tends to be the most tenacious in our memories. And because he vanished immediately, none of the ordinary burn-out or disillusionment occurred, which only strengthened your feelings for him over the years, even to the point of acquiring a kind of supernatural aura.” He paused, noting her amused smile.
“Please go on,” she urged.
“Well, this almost mythic idealization of your brief encounter was commingled with equal parts resentment and feelings of abandonment. Hence the obsessive hand-washing, an attempt to rid yourself of the memory of his touch, because he ‘touched’ you in a way that no one ever has, before or since. Mature, adult relationships can never quite match our fantasies of the one that got away. Half a century later, you’re still struggling with that loss.”
“Are you saying that I don’t really have OCD, that in fact I’m just trying to ‘wash that man right off of my hands?’”
“No, your condition is quite real. The motivation for your hand-washing, while unique in my experience of treating OCD, has yielded the same result: a persistent obsession, relative isolation, and the inability to form meaningful relationships with the opposite sex. I’m sorry if what I’ve said sounds glib or unkind. I’m trying to be honest with you.”
“Don’t be sorry, doctor. You haven’t disappointed me,” she said. “In fact, you’ve lived up to all my expectations.”
“In any case, Ms. Newbridge, I think the prognosis for treatment, while hopeful, lies ultimately in your hands.”
A repressed snicker escaped from her, adding to his embarrassment.
“Forgive me,” he said. “A poor choice of words.”
“Think nothing of it, Dr. Reisz. And thank you for listening.” She picked up her purse and stood up. At the door, she turned. “You know, the worst part of all this is the constant feeling that he’s still holding my hand. And will never let go. Not even when I’m...” She shook her head, smiled her hopeless smile, then opened the door with her left hand and walked out.
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene