“At the End of the Orchard” is a story of mine that originally appeared in a magazine called Hardboiled in May 2009. This story is a little under 10,000 words—not quite in the novella range but longer than most short stories. It is representative of one kind of fiction I have worked on in recent years. After its publication in Hardboiled, it went on to win the Western Writers of America Spur Award for best western short story in 2010.
The setting of this story is rural California of the 1960’s, a setting I knew at first hand when I worked in the fruit fields. Having written a collection of stories in that setting (Seasons in the Fields) and not having come close to using up my material, I wanted to write more stories about that world. While my first go-around with field work stories produced fiction that was, as I have styled it, realistic and bittersweet, the second time around I worked in a harder kind of realism. As in some of my traditional western fiction, I have felt at home in the hardboiled/noir area, and that tone seems to match up well with the field work experience. When I had finished “At the End of the Orchard” and was hoping to find a place for it, I could not wish for a better one than a magazine called Hardboiled.
This story is narrated by a fellow named Charlie Mullen, a fellow in his mid-twenties who is somewhat hard-bitten and cynical, as well he might be. While he is working on a peach-picking crew, he does what I have wanted a character of mine to do: he finds a body in the weeds at the end of the peach orchard. The body is that of a girl he has known in the labor camp, and because he has had a little to do with her, he becomes a suspect. The story goes from there, and although he has managed to clear himself by the end, the story does not have a rosy ending.
Since writing “At the End of the Orchard,” I worked on a few more stories in this same vein of rural hardboiled/noir. Each one is narrated in first person by a new narrator, and each story seemed to seek its own length. The shortest is about 6000 words, and the longest is over 20,000. They appeared in anthologies and e-zines, but I did not find what one could call a market for fiction of this length. But that is all right with me. I wanted to write these stories because I felt I had some original subject matter and a legitimate perspective. What I was looking for as I wrote these pieces is voice, and tone, and a certain kind of truth. In 2012, encouraged by my success, I brought out a group of seven of these stories in a collection entitled Field Work. It went on to be reprinted by Speaking Volumes, so I am glad to see it continue to have a public.
Back to the topic of “At the End of the Orchard,” it was a great honor to have the story recognized for a Spur Award. Short fiction is always a hard category to compete in. I would like to thank Gary Lovisi, the editor of Hardboiled magazine, who first published the short story, and Western Writers of America for sponsoring these competitions.