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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