I meet people in citified and crowded places. My hair is svelte and my muck boots slouch at home. When new friends learn I live on the western side of Bridgeville, settled in 1680, founded in the late 1780s—with a population less than 2,000—eyebrows furrow in bewilderment. I know the question will come.
What do you do over there? I
ponder what we do in rural Sussex County: where chicken houses and apple trees outnumber the residents; where we chuck punkins and carve scrapple. I believe I have an answer.
We do dirt.
The farmers lap it and crow pack it. Disk it and dust it. Feed it and lime it. Hoe, mow and grow it. From May to November the fields are rife with corn, sorghum, orchard grasses, watermelon and ’lopes. Farmers grow broad beans, butter beans, green beans, lima beans, pole beans, soy beans, wax beans.
Yes, we do dirt. But not all of us do dirt directly. Some, like me, shop the back roads, where abundance from private gardens is set out at roadsides. Each presentation draws the customer as much as the allure of the honey, the jams and jellies, and the double-yolk brown eggs. On a narrow road, near Marshy Creek, not too far from Potato Lane, I buy banana peppers from the block-tiered stand. I shove my coins in the tin can to pay. I stop under six gaudy pink umbrellas, each torn and wind-bent, offering shadowed relief from August’s dry dust. Rows of heritage tomatoes sit on a picnic table. I fold my dollar four times to fit it into the farmer’s chipped Mason jar with a slit in the taped lid.
I slice the tomatoes thick and drizzle first-press olive oil. I leave them outside on the deck in the sun, on wire racks covered with cheese cloth. I pack them with red garlic grown on farms near the Maryland state line, where cloves hang in festive ropes under the eaves of pushcart stands. I leave money in a Tueros pico green Candela cigar box with the lid opening in the front. A rock sits inside to hold the bills from blowing away.
My favorite stand is like a gypsy cart, with curtains to close against the afternoon heat and evening damp. I buy sweet potatoes still moist with dirt. That honor box is mitered and dadoed, a true work of art. Finally, I stop at the flat-bottomed wooden cart stand. I want to make zucchini relish. I sift through. I dump eight zucchini, a fistful of patty-pan squash and three softball-sized melons—most likely runts from the end acreage—into my bag.
The squash man’s honor box is crisscrossed with duct tape which melts in the sun. The slit for the money is wide enough for a child’s fist. The field is empty except for the expectant eye of a turkey vulture. I tuck in my $4.75.
Honor boxes. I say to these new faces, “After we do dirt, we do honor boxes. You know, take what you want, leave the money.”
They raise their eyebrows again. They sigh. Tell me stories of paper routes, lemonade stands and nickel-priced candy bars.
I smile when I remember the sound of my change dropping into the dirty box at the edge of the field. I like that we trust ourselves when no one is looking.
I smile again later, when I replay the sound of envy in my new friends’ voices.