Jonas is on his first school field trip. He loves the words field and trip together; they make him feel like he is an explorer and they are going somewhere foreign and far. They are only at Golden Orchard, which is just down the street from Jonas’s home, but they’ve gotten to meet Mr. and Mrs. Hull, who own the orchard. Mr. Hull takes Jonas’s class on a hayride on a wagon attached to the back of his trailer, the large wheels rolling through dirt and muck in the fields, the kids in Jonas’s class bouncing, their shoulders in puffy jackets squishing into each other. They are sitting on cubes of hay in the wagon, and Jonas likes the way small pieces of hay stick to his blue corduroy pants.
After the hayride, they go into the store and Mrs. Hull gives each student a small slice of pie on a paper plate and a white plastic fork. Jonas balances his plate on his stretched-out palm, and he can feel the warmth of the pie through the thin paper. The pie is sweet and tastes like cinnamon and it might be the best thing Jonas has ever eaten, except for the chocolate cake his mother baked for his sixth birthday. The cake was decorated with astronauts that his mother made out of icing because one day Jonas will be an astronaut, will be blasted into outer space, will walk on the moon.
After they have finished their slices of pie and wiped their hands with wet paper towels, they are each given a brown paper lunch bag, and Mr. Hull says they can fill their bags with apples from the orchard and bring them home to share with their families. They are told not to run or climb the trees, to only pick the apples they can reach without shaking branches. Jonas will follow these rules because he always follows rules. Jonas is a good boy. Already, as Jonas puts his hand into the empty bag to open it up, three boys from his class run past a row of trees, and his teacher yells at them, tells them that if they do not immediately stop they will have to sit at the picnic table at the edge of the orchard and wait until everyone else is finished. The boys lurch, stop, then walk slowly and stiffly, as if they are robots.
Jonas works alone. He decides to pick one apple per tree. He will get different kinds of apples, yellows and greens and reds. At the end of a row, he finds an enormous apple, the size of a grapefruit. It hangs low and is easy for Jonas to pluck. He intends to give his father this apple to take to work the next day. He pictures him sitting down on a half-upholstered couch, sighing like he always does when he lowers himself because of his creaky bones. He’ll eat the apple in big, crunchy bites. He will be alone in the shop, music faintly playing from a small radio on the desk in the corner. His unfinished cigarette will smolder in an ashtray. He will eat the apple and think of Jonas at school and wonder what he is learning. Each night, Jonas’s father asks him to tell him one interesting thing he learned at school that day. Some days Jonas has much more than one thing to share. His mother says he has a brain like a sponge, that he absorbs everything. “My smart boy,” his father says every night after Jonas tells him everything he’s learned that day.
Jonas loops around the last tree in the row that he’d been picking and sees Cody Turner throw an apple at Sarah Lowell’s cheek. She drops her bag of apples, and they roll on the grass. Their teacher runs to Sarah, kneels down, and the teacher’s aide pulls Cody aside then drags him down the aisle to the red wooden picnic table at the edge of the orchard. Cody is not allowed to pick any more apples. The teacher waves Jonas over. She asks him to be Sarah’s buddy for the day, to stay close to her, to make sure she is okay.
Jonas feels a tenderness toward Sarah and wants to take her hand and hold it tightly, but he knows the other boys will laugh at him. Instead, he plucks the grapefruit-sized apple from his sack and hands it to her. Jonas looks at Sarah’s cheek, which is pinkish gray now, a bruise blooming. She takes the apple and puts it in her empty bag. She opens her mouth and wiggles a front tooth with a finger. It’s almost ready to go. “My mom has to cut my apples for me until this tooth falls out,” she says. Jonas bends down and helps Sarah pick up her spilled apples.
Jonas is glad he still has all of his baby teeth. He knows they will fall out, that things will change, that he won’t always be a little boy. But for now he has all of his teeth, none of them wobbly, and he can eat an apple without needing someone to cut it up for him. He reaches into his own bag and takes out another apple, this one much smaller, halfway green, half red. He takes a bite and it is juicy and crisp. He wonders what the name of this apple is. He has only been reading for a few months, but there is something magical in the way that letters push together to form words. He sees a sign at the end of one row of trees and reads “Granny Smith” and then “Golden Delicious.” Delicious takes him a few seconds to figure out, but once he does, he knows he will always be able to read this word, that next time he sees it, he won’t have to sound it out. A few months ago, in the heat of the summer, he couldn’t read and now he can and this newly acquired knowledge does not fail to stun him each day. It is something new he has, something precious, like the pair of white leather sneakers his mother bought him in September before the start of school. He asked her to put the sneakers on his nightstand so they would be the first thing he saw in the morning when he woke up. And when he opened his eyes, he saw the shoes and the delight was new. He’d forgotten as he’d slept that he owned the shoes, and now he forgets sometimes that he’s able to read. Before, he could only pick out letters; now he can put the letters together to make words, to make sense. He is at a strange age, when sometimes he wants to still be a baby and sometimes he is glad that he is beginning to know more.
It is late October of his sixth year, he has a sack of apples, his teachers know he is kind and capable of being a good friend, the air smells like grass and leaves and apples, and he can read, oh, yes, he can read the names of all the apples. He looks at the rows of trees, feels the cool breeze flutter his hair, and he thinks there is nowhere he’d rather be than in the orchard.