Monthly Archives: October 2013

Coco’s Will Never Be The Same

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The Coco’s Incident

The halo of sweet golden curls surrounded the small, soft, alabaster face, but the wide blue eyes glinted with mischief and the toothy mouth had a maniacal grin. As he jumped up and down, laughing raucously, on the green vinyl booth seat in the local Coco’s Restaurant, Sarah wondered for the thousandth time from which side of the family these particularly vigorous genes had come. He was way more extroverted and confident than she, her engineer husband, and their other child were put together. But this was the boy she had been assured was hers at the hospital nearly two years before.

“Sit down, Dougie,” she said, for the tenth time that morning. When would the food come? This was excruciating.

He sat, and she passed him another cracker, pushing wispy bangs off her forehead. The calm lasted for five seconds. Then he stood up on the booth seat again and clambered expertly up onto the back of it and sat down, short red corduroy legs dangling, face lit up and squealing with glee. His four-year-old brother, Stevie, quietly stirred his water with his straw and made a mess with his cracker crumbs. Then he giggled too.

Sarah was about to say something to Dougie when a waitress crossed the nearly-empty dining room, apron strings flying. “Excuse me, ma’am, but you need to keep him in his seat. He might fall.”

“Sure.” Sarah grimaced, and got up fuming to pull the toddler off the booth back and plop him on the booster seat.

She was doing her best. She had always been the good child, had never challenged a rule in her life, yet this baby made her look irresponsible and lax. Dougie no longer fit into Coco’s wooden highchair, and nothing short of an elephant sitting on his chest would slow him down today. But wasn’t this supposed to be a family restaurant? Couldn’t she bring her older son here for a promised lunch out without being chastised by the crew fourteen times? And Whirlwind Dougie just had to come along. Most of the mothers she knew refused to trade babysitting with her because he was such a hellion. Her stomach hurt like it always did when she had been caught out by someone else’s rules, especially those unposted ones. If they didn’t want children on the booth tops, why wasn’t there a sign? He really wasn’t hurting anything.  Besides, her little Sherpa Boy could scale almost anything without falling, and often did, to her amazement.

Dougie popped up from the booster seat and, hands held high, hopped down off the booth to the carpet, proclaiming, “Gup down!”

“Get back in your seat, Dougie!”

He did, but he “gupped down” again twice more.

“Dougie, stop!”

Ignoring her pleas, Dougie raced around the room on his chubby little toddler legs, then ran off into the next dining room, which was currently dark and unoccupied. Able to see him through the window between the rooms and exhausted by his presence, Sarah let him stay in there a few minutes. She turned to Stevie and asked, “How was pre-school today?”

“Fine. Where’s Dougie?” He craned his neck and looked up over the seat back through the windows. “What’s he doing?”

Sarah wished she didn’t need to answer that. Little breaks from Dougie were like roses in a field of ragweed. The food was finally delivered to the table. Stevie started on his burger with zeal, and Sarah thanked the waitress, then got up to get the wild child. She found him sitting under a corner booth table in the dark, playing with napkins and silverware that he had grabbed off of the already-set tables in the silent room. Kneeling, she took these away.

“Don’t you want to come and eat?”

“No!”

“It looks good. Grilled cheese just like you like it.”

“No!”

She stood up and started walking back to the table. “Okay. Then you won’t get any fries.”

He zoomed back to the table, climbed up, and vacuumed up fries.

Sarah relaxed now, and started to eat, hoping for a respite long enough to finish their meal. Ten minutes. That was all she really needed. Just ten.

But after a few bites, Dougie said, “Gimme some lettuce.”

“You don’t like it,” said Stevie.

“Mom, I want lettuce.” Dougie looked earnest.

“He’s right,” Sarah said. “You hate it.”

Dougie pestered her over and over until she gave him some to keep the peace. He still had it in his mouth when he flew out of the seat again and rocketed around the restaurant one more time. More people had recently been seated.

Sarah raced after him as fast as it was polite for a 38-year-old woman in a denim mom-dress and sensible shoes to go. She caught up with him in front of a lone older woman in a booth. He took this moment to spit out the wet green wad of lettuce with a gagging motion of the tongue in full view of the woman.

Both women stared down. Yes, just what Coco’s needed to welcome its guests. A wad of slimy green stuff, like a little frog, on the carpet by each table.

Sarah grabbed a napkin and picked it up, not daring to meet the woman’s eyes, while Dougie ran off chortling and scampered up into another empty booth, climbing up its back to stand there on the conquered summit, all glee and good humor. This time, a manager came over and told Sarah to keep him from climbing the booths because their insurance did not cover falls in the dining room.

Her stomach tightened and her face reddened. It was time to go.

Waiting for their ticket and some take-home boxes back at their table, Sarah had great trouble keeping hold of little Houdini. Too bad spanking was so out of fashion, she thought. Screaming at him wouldn’t have kept him from misbehaving, but would have made her feel a lot better. Too bad it would make her look even worse.

The cash register was directly across from a long, empty bench for people waiting to be seated. Sarah pointed at the bench. “You guys sit here for just a minute. I’ll be back.” And she went to pay the bill.

But while she waited a minute for the cherry pie to go that Stevie wanted, giggling started behind her. She turned to see her little angels were now both standing on the bench, laughing loudly. Facing the cashier and looking for her Visa card, she tried not to notice the rising noise level, tuning it out like she did so often at home.

“Uh, Ma’am, they’re not allowed to stand up there on the bench like that,” said the man behind the register. As if this were news. Could anyone stand on anything in this damned place?

“Sorry.” She cringed and ushered the boys back to her side. “Stay here for one minute,” she ordered them.

Dougie didn’t miss a beat. As soon as her pen was on the credit card slip, he was giggling off toward the restroom, little legs flying and curls bobbing angelically.

Sarah had had enough. Purse and pen clutched in one hand, she launched herself away from the cashier’s desk. In a couple of long strides, she caught up with Dougie and grabbed his hand and swung him in a neat arc about a foot off the ground back to where she had been standing. She stuck him between her knees, put a vise grip on a little hand, and growled, “Stay!” then proceeded to finish her signature.

From a nearby table, an older male, witness to the one-armed maneuver, stood up and said loud enough for all to hear, “Hey, lady. Never, EVER treat a child like that!!”

Sarah wanted to drop through the floor and let it close unceremoniously over her head.

Another man standing on her other side, waiting in line to pay his bill, said, “Hey. Can’t you see she’s only trying to control him?”

A very deep, dark cave, alone, she thought, as many customer and staff eyes settled on her and judged her mothering skills.

She grabbed the boxes and tried to make a quick escape before Dougie could cause any more embarrassment, but he now melted onto the floor in Coco’s entryway, refusing to leave the scene of his crimes. Sarah pulled at his arm again, but didn’t dare pull him off the floor by it with this tough audience. So in the end, she had to pick up the 28-pound blob and carry him out to the car, her back aching all the way. She’d need ibuprofen and heat for a two days to undo the physical damage. The emotional scars could take years.

She lectured the boys all the way home, but the lecture just bounced off the golden curls and made Stevie get quiet.

Later, on the phone, her mother said, “Your brother was just like that. I couldn’t take him anywhere until he was six.”

“Oh, no. The genetic connection.” Sarah sighed. “Wait. Now I remember Dad yelling and swearing at John for something. I was about three. But that would have made him eight.”

“Well you were never like John.”

“But eight? He’ll be like this until he’s eight?” Sarah’s head swam. She had always been the good one, to avoid her father’s wrath. And now she had to raise her brother’s double.

“Well, maybe he’ll come out of it sooner. By seven or so. But I wouldn’t go back to Coco’s any time soon, dear.”

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From the Offices of Silk and Weaver, Inc.

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Look, I could easily have hidden in a wall somewhere until this thing blew over, but I came here today to tell my side. Now I know what they say, that I was taking advantage of a minor, exploiting him for my own financial gains. Well, I guess I was showing off a little, but not that much, not the first time, anyway. I might have enjoyed it, too, the poetry of it, the sheer audacity and elegance of it, if it had gone as planned. Like Frieca, I’d be saying, “Na-na-na-na-na,” now, and actually mean it. But things didn’t actually go like clockwork, not like you think, anyway. And contrary to popular opinion, I wasn’t just trying to make a buck off the poor orphan by using his situation and my writing skills to make the whole world see his poor, pitiful case in bright, shiny letters. Well, to be truthful, my writing and weaving skills. Weaving is big in my family. Our warp and woof, so to speak. It’s how we normally make ends meet. Oh lord, a pun! I’m so sorry.

But anyway, believe me. I honestly do have some compunctions about using others’ pain to make a buck at their expense, and it wouldn’t cross my mind. I mean I simply would not do that. I’m way too genteel. So today, I hope to make you see that although I really was aiming for a very public reaction to occur and though all that attention we garnered was indeed quite welcome, even necessary, as it turned out, for the good of all concerned, the subsequent offers of exalted advertising positions were just that. Subsequent. Not schemed for. Not even expected or hoped for. I mean even though I am now working with a highly reputable advertising firm in New York at an even higher yearly remuneration, that wasn’t the initial goal of my carefully crafted work. Far from it.

Nor, to tell the truth, was the goal to save the idiot pig. I mean, come on. Pigs live to get made into bacon and sausage daily, hourly. It does seem to be their pitiful lot in life to provide us with high fat and sodium content offerings of this type. Let’s face it. It’s really all they’re good for, unless they’re good breeders, and this little piggy definitely wasn’t one.

Who did he think he was, anyway, wanting to live forever?

Like if he lived to old age, he could provide wool or milk or transport for the family like the other animals who stayed on for years? Right. But the truth was that all he ever really produced in that sty was manure and bad jokes. “Knock-knock” this and “the rabbi and the priest” that. Polacks and Russkis coming out our ears. We all took turns being bored to tears or raging on the warpath to stomp on him. Even Fern was disgusted and raged off a few times. But Lurvy’d fixed the fence so the rest of them couldn’t escape. And I, well, my balloon broke.

I guess I could have hit the road on my own, but my sisters wouldn’t budge, and I needed them. But more on that later. The day the blond arachnid jokes started, my migraines kicked up and so did horrid nightmares where I took a knife and completed the abattoir job myself. One little thrust up the windpipe with a hay claw and… you get the idea. As far as I could tell, the whole reason for Little Porky’s whiny, “walk-into-a-bar” existence was as a rudimentary garbage disposal, and he couldn’t even finish that task. Templeton had to help him.

So you see, the real reason for my actions was fairly simple. From the moment Fern stood up to her father on that farm, the moment she asked what he was going to do with that ax, all my arachnid relatives on the Arable farm spoke of her in hushed tones and she became our little mini-goddess. Our fervent worship of her actions led to a great spiritual energy that consumed us until it was unthinkable that we do anything other than to speak out, in the only way we knew, with our voices on the web.

Oh, you don’t think I did all that website work myself, do you? Good grief, no. I’m sure that my work was considered miraculous at the time partly due to its speed, but let me tell you, between us and the wallboards, that three of my sisters helped me that night. Of course, we’d had to rethink our original idea some. A lot, actually. A huge rewrite, a giant revision. See, if I’d had my way, our first message would have been shining on the front door of the Arable house in about April. But Leucania’s stupid idea to meet in the new crate for secrecy about that time changed all that. It just happened that we were having a very serious meeting of our secret female society when we got caught up in the crate with the stinky little ham when he got moved to the Zuckerman’s farm. You don’t think we would have suffered that little pork rind otherwise, do you? We were just so excited and intent on our anarchistic meeting goals in our upper left corner of the box that day that we thought it was the spirit moving us when really we were getting loaded into the truck.

Then it was too late. When we got to the other farm, we found out that big fat Zuckerman woman was a housekeeping terror. She never let a web stand for even ten hours. So we had to rearrange everything and create our masterpiece in the damned barn doorway. A miserable place from which to start a movement, let me tell you. But I wasn’t to be deterred, and I pressed on, though my sisters were all for letting the idea slide in the dim light of the place. I had to work for months to find just the right place to stage our gigs, and we had to look up words and spellings and alphabet nonsense. It was really tough. You get the picture.

And here’s where I get to my main point. As it turned out, what ended up on the barn doorway that wondrous shining morning for Lurvy to read wasn’t even my message. As to the spelling, I’m sorry to have to admit that Leucania was the good speller. And the handiwork was mostly that of Frieca and Clavia, who helped me execute the thing while Leucania crawled over and edited our work from a distance, watching for messy workmanship and stray strands. I’d been so busy all day guarding that corner of the doorway against incursions from that retarded Avery child. So when I went off exhausted for a little nap in the middle of the night, my “Women Unite” slogan somehow (I’m still investigating this) got transmuted, losing letters on the ends of words with some substitutions in really bad penmanship to become “Some Pig“.

Can you believe that? “Some Fricking Pig?” The sun had risen and the alarm sounded by the family before I saw those words. Then all I remember is a hollow, resounding feeling in my gut where the spinning thread usually resides. I was bone dry. Couldn’t muster a wisp of silk. I was so utterly furious that my brave feminist message to the world had been permutated and reinterpreted, I mean rudely boiled down to a marketing ploy to save an irritating, presumptuous, chubby male oinker. Not even a female. I could have just spat. I probably did. But Frieca was laughing her head off and wouldn’t help me, and Leucania and Clavia had disappeared. And me without a thread to write with.

My theory now is that Clavia, who was soft on the damned pig, just couldn’t resist his big, lazy sighs and his begging for mercy and she took pity on the dope. This theory is reinforced by the fact that she took off for parts unknown that night and the others wouldn’t talk, but I have no proof. All I know is that I’d worked so hard for so long on this derailed thing, and the crowds arrived before I found the energy or ammunition to go back and fix the damned message.

And then it was too late.

Then the “Save the Pig” thing took off, though I tried, I really tried, to change subsequent messages to something more in line with our cause. But “Terrific Fern, Leader of Women” got shortened to “Terrific.” I was so mad that the girls got started late and then got sloppy and made the letters too big. And “Radiant Ladies of the Farm,” well, you get the picture.

And that’s how our strong, multi-species women’s movement got pipped by a fricking pig.

Fired by the Peanut Gallery

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I sit in the garden, sweaty from a late morning walk, feet up on the chaise, ice pack on the bum knee. The hummingbirds come to the bright red feeder and buzz around and flit, then finally push their needle beaks through the yellow holes and sip. They wouldn’t drink any of our inferior red feeder liquid a few months ago when the flowers were thicker around. Now they arrive in twos, showing off red throats and adding the flitter of their wings to that of the fake butterfly hanging from the patio cover and the real butterflies over by the orange tree.

And I admit that I’m sad about the boy. He’s moving across town to go to college. Four miles away, but it seems like light years. He won’t be here in the morning making coffee or the afternoon baking a pizza. He won’t come in and pet the dogs just because. He won’t help water the garden two days late or slam his door when we ask him for help with laundry. His resistance to all things helpful will no longer have to be surmounted to get a thing done here. His shy smile will not be the rare thing sometimes earned. But maybe like the hummingbirds, he’ll realize after a while that our red feeder liquid, while not the most intoxicating, is not that bad, and he’ll come home and be recalcitrant again. Just for us.

The Rain Hat

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My niece says, “Let me get your picture in your rain hat.” Standing on the pier, bundled all in black, a classy warm look worn by aspiring New York production assistants, she’s holding out a tiny camera. 

I look down at the waves, huge and green, powered by massive gray depths of frigid water and blunt sky, pushed through by cutting winds until they meet the long expanse of Huntington Beach. Churning up long walls of sand, then falling around huge, phantom cylinders, these roaring waves slide home in vast bands, then falling hard and foamy on the sand.

These mighty shifting swells jiggle the heavy piles of the pier under us, creating little earthquakes, and we suddenly feel a bit wobbly, grab the rail, you know? Like hang on and get our fricking sea legs, maybe wait a bit to eat dinner until our stomachs recover. I mean, we’re practically rolling around the pier, you know? Trying to get a photo or two of the dramatic greenish gray day as we imagine some smirking water demon shaking the whole wooden construction below our feet.

Good grief. It’s not like we’re big ocean aficionados. We come down here now and then, take the ferry, see the beach and pier with guests, you know, to make them happy, see the waves and snap some wind-blown group shots with hats flying off. But we’ll never be navies, you get my drift? Cruises and whale watches just aren’t for us. Too much water all around. Gets our laptops and magazines wet.

Another big shudder of the pier. Rain splats on glasses, coats, fat planks, city boots. A pack of wild pelicans swoops down and buzzes us. The meaty ones with tattoos, wheeling by on pelican motorbikes, cackling like crows and spitting streams of tobaccoey juice on our hats. Jeez. Rumbles from the underworld, criticism from overhead. The wind catches my hat brim in its waterproof magenta glory. I mash it on my head and banish the camera with my hand.

“No way,” I say to my photographer niece. “This hat is from my pink period.”

“But it’s cute,” she says.

Then something grabs my foot from between the chunky boards and shoves as the pier veers violently sideways. I scream, but too late. Quick as a sandwich, I’m toppled over the side rail of the pier to the roiling nose wart below. I hit the water with a cold clunk and am sucked into the beating cowboy boots. Over and over, I horseshoe into the churning, burning crush, whirling around like carrots and peas in the blender, ashtrays and sea shells and fish bones and wooden crosses and solid shoes all combining to make some kind of soup—and I’m the protein.

Pedestrian goulash, magenta hat, captain’s orders, fractured cheese in a bottle.

Shredded, split, battered, squashed, mashed, chipped, slathered and scoured, I’m still actually only mostly dead like that guy in The Princess Bride. Haven’t had time to get anywhere heavenly yet. Maybe.

Somewhere in my ground up, swished around, flushed down state, a part of me calls to the horrified onlookers on the pier, “Wait! I’m here!”

Somewhere from my clammiest recesses, I yell, “Don’t go.”

Somewhere from my left pinkie toenail, my life, stretched, distilled and waiting, hovers, ready for surgery and stitching and a complete re-roll of the dice.

A Coast Guard boat heads my way, the skipper lean and grim under his wide-brimmed hat and slicker in the pouring rain. But as he approaches, there’s this like buzzing all around me, or, you know, the pieces that used to be me. A nasty buzzing like from a thousand angry bees, except this buzzing’s getting like way loud, you know? Like not buzzing at all, but something totally deeper and growlier. Scratchy, crunchy, eerie, vibrating machine sounds bubble up from another world, which I realize with a sinking stomach that I’ve sort of, kind of, well, entered.

The Briny Deep. My life-long nemesis.

Most of me is descending slowly, down to where the eels and crabs will fight over my crumbs. After all the time I’ve spent worrying about it, never taking that cruise, never trusting those snorkel fins, never parasailing, kayaking, kite-boarding, or even swimming much in the uncertain California surf. Never giving Neptune an inch of my time. And now I’m getting sucked under, pulled away from shore and any hopes of rescue. “Help?”

But the boat is right there now. My head surfaces once more and I try to wink or wave, catch the Coast Guard guy’s eye, but my fingers are over there, my right eye has just been snatched by a grouper, and my hand is drifting down below. All my pieces are getting washed and churned further away from each other, further out, further down toward the deep, deep salty cold of the dark, dark sea. And I slide below the surface at last. It’s gruesome. I close my eyes, well, the one I have left, but it’s still gruesome, all those sharp teeth and big gullets, a fleet of them, a regular army of sharp-toothed big-finned clammy fish chomping down on my head, my arms, my legs, my stomach, my soul. Talk about frigid.

But they don’t finish me off. Instead, they ferry my gristly bits out past the shimmying wooden pier and the continental shelf. Out through the salty, heavy, roiling surf, buffeted by rocks and seaweed. Out to a giant, black tentacled maw, tucked down, down, down out of sight and scientists’ range, its mouth undulating, its claws trolling for cheap shock flung chunk prayer flotsam like me.

I’m a goner. I’m food for the fishes. I’m spread too thin. I’m toast. No, I’m jam on someone else’s toast. After all that worry, I’m finally paying my dues to the dread beast of Neptune, to the dark, bleak, hungry deep.

And up on the surface, floats only my unshredded, pristine, pink rain hat.

Mom Diaries — November 2008

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“Honey, my eye won’t open again. I think there may be blood behind it. I’m pretty sure I should go see the doctor about it before the office closes.”

Sitting in the parking lot at Laguna Beach, I check my watch and sigh into the cell phone. I have to pick up a Boy Scout from a merit badge meeting in forty minutes. This is my only tiny chance at a much-needed walk on the boardwalk this week.

“Mom, is there blood leaking out of your eye when you look in the mirror?”

“No, of course not. But there’s probably blood in my eyeball. You know how people can get problems there and go blind, like what was his name? Vernon?” Her aged brain is a popcorn popper randomly popping out burnt kernels, each one bopping her on the head to say the sky is falling—right now.

“Blood? Are you having trouble seeing?”

“No. But I have floaters.”

“Mom, I told you yesterday and the day before that it’s very dry during Santa Ana winds. Your eye is just dry. It’s sticking because it’s dry.”

“Yes, it’s sticking.”

I look at the beige dashboard of the minivan. Will I ever get out of this car and see the ocean? “And you have eye drops. Remember? The doctor prescribed them for you. I think you’re supposed to use them four times a day. Right? Are you using your eye drops?”

“Well, no. But there’s this other thing. You know how I rub my eyebrow all the time?”

“Uh, no.”

“Well, I do, and it’s nearly bald there.”

“Funny, I never noticed.”

“Well, the girls here and I have been reading Reader’s Digest, and we agree that when my eye is doing this and you know how much I rub this place, you can tell there’s something bad wrong in there. I think it’s brain cancer.”

“Mom. How many Vicodin did you take this afternoon?”

“I’m serious. I need to tell my doctor about this today. I’m really sick.”

“Mom, since you moved here three months ago, you’ve seen two doctors a week for every ailment under the sun. You’ve never mentioned this before. And I hate to tell you this, but you’re not dying. You do have serious back pain. And you’re on drugs for it.”

“Me?”

“Yes. All those years you labeled everyone who acted the least bit funny as on drugs. Well, now it’s you that’s doped up.” I hope. Either that or she’s gone around the bend and we’ll be back in the doctor’s office for Alzheimer’s testing. Again.

“I don’t agree with you on this. And I have to say I’m just not feeling very loved right now.”

Of course. Feeling loved requires that I take her to at least two doctors a week, and they must be old doctors with perfect bedside manner and lots of framed diplomas on the walls and scrupulously clean offices. They also must agree with her need for a change in her meds or give her a new protocol, which she will then stop using without consulting anyone at any moment for any reason. As soon as she hears old lady gossip or reads an article about how terribly dangerous the rarest side effects can be for a drug or an ointment, she drops it, even if it’s critical, like her heart medicine.

“Just use your eye drops, then go to dinner and meet a few of the other residents there.”

“Well, I do not agree with you on this. And when I die, I want an autopsy because I want to find out what’s really wrong with me.”

 

2013 note: Mom is still alive and well at age 93. No eye bleeds, no cancer. The odd thing is that a year after this, I did have a bleed behind my eye, a cavernous carotid fistula, that could have made me blind or killed me. Turns out, Mom was being weirdly psychic, not about herself, but about me.

Fruit of the Valley

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Dry, hot hills all around. Unrelieved straw-brown lumps of earth with scattered rocks and gray-green scrub to keep it in place. An unfortunate landscape, really, though not as unfortunate as my body, whose contours, minus any moisture at all on this dry day, aren’t sweaty, but gritty.

I drive north.

The green grass on these hills disappeared months ago when the bully of a sun pushed the temperature up over ninety degrees in a big show of muscle and rank, then left the whole middle of California frying on high, never turning down the burner a notch, then forgot the area completely to run off to make a big show of setting beautifully and scarletly and all tranquilly on the coast. I drive the asphalt ribbon labeled 99 down from the mountains, and it’s all fields and irrigation, fields and irrigation, fields and irrigation, like the landscape artist got tired and went to bed. Nothing but flat fields and scrub for miles. With some occasional almond trees. It goes from boring to boringer to boringest.  For entertainment, there are a few squat, faded buildings and some peeling billboards circa 1970. The road’s so straight and flat that my eyes cross.

For miles.

Until I hit the part of the road with oleanders in the median. Big lazy bushes waving many arms covered with poisonous white blossoms in the breeze. Sometimes there’s a pink one, and sometimes a red. Those are the bold ones, trying to color the faded landscape just a little, and they succeed a bit, outshining everything beige and brown here.

Then more beige for a while.

But on my right, there are suddenly row upon row of green vines, thumbing their nose at the sun. I wonder why they don’t also shrivel in this heat. If I use my imagination, I can almost see them pushing forth plumping grapes under their wide, shady leaves.

I lick my lips.

Then follows a giant dairy, boasting a thousand fertile Daisy Bells, hefty black and white girls, not quite gamboling with full udders around the field. They seem so calm and alive, giving off their come-hither baleful looks and earthy smells which are certainly not for the faint of heart.

Breathe it in. The valley. Home.

Then the road actually curves for a bit and eucalyptus trees rise up and tower over the whole road with power and grace, their sheer height nearly making me shiver in their gift of shade. They command the valley and take control, pulling me along farther into it with promises of more cool encounters and relief from our common nemesis, the sun.

But soon, they’re history and it’s just more beige valley interspersed with more Valentine-colored oleanders and more neat rows of vines with their plump cargo. And then… peach groves. Big, fat fruit trees as far as the eye can see. Small rosy, cloven orbs peep out from their depths like millions of tiny, soft baby butts and beckon with the aroma of fresh pie.

I stop at a fruit stand, squinting at the sun, but salivating. I gaze lovingly at the fruit displays for a long while, like this was the Louvre and they were those incredible Reubens paintings that just take your breath away, Then I buy baskets of garnet-colored berries, melons pregnant with tangy juice, and peaches and plums so perfectly ripe and tart that one bite is sure to start the rapture.

I drive the 99 with one hand on the wheel and plunge the other into the bag on the seat, grabbing juicy globs of grapes and berries and shoving them into my mouth. The juice dribbles everywhere, even onto my white shirt, and I don’t care. I revel in this exotic, yet commonplace respite from a boring summer afternoon schlep. Something generations before me have indulged in, rich or poor. Fresh-picked bliss.

No longer focusing on the freeway with its shimmering heat waves dancing up to burn me alive, I graduate to the main fruit course and bite into the bare, moist flesh of a fresh peach. It has a flavor like no other, which doesn’t survive cooking or canning or freezing, because it depends largely on the perfect texture of the ripe fruit. A day late or a day early, and it’s just not the same. Over and over I attack this juicy, fleshy orb, until there’s nothing left but the pit, which I suck on down to its last smidgen of taste.

I go for the bag again, unable to get enough, even when my hand and arm are covered in scarlet rivulets and my tongue is saturated with rare summer flavors. In my fruit-fueled frenzy, I roll down the windows to the stifling breeze, start singing the Hallelujah chorus, and pound the steering wheel with a sticky fist.

Red and blue lights flash behind me. A cop stops me on the gravelly shoulder. “Ma’am? You’re weaving. Are you using a cell phone?”

Caught red-handed in my fructose orgy, my eyes glazed over, my hair stuck to my smeared face, I grin up at him, hold up my peach pit with rosy fingers, offer him the bag full of jewel-toned delicacies, and say, “Got nectarines?”

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