All things risked seemed all things better.
* * *
By Lad Moore
I pictured my grandmother’s house on George Gregg Street as the center of the orchard universe. In my growing-up years I had explored and discovered all the fruit tree treasures that neighbors had put in place, well, to be neighborly I suppose. I am unsure of the exact reason because some of the neighbors did not welcome me to their horn of plenty. I had to deal with those in a covert manner we might call ‘night crawling.’
Mrs Crain owned the house next door. She was one of the first subjects of my night crawling because in a word, she was stingy. My grandmother said “No, just frugal,” because my grandmother had no ill to say of anyone. That is, except for “Archibald the Noser,” the man who regularly came to our home to conduct lifestyle reviews which would decide her continued eligibility for Old Age Assistance. That small dole was her only income.
When she saw him approaching the house, her language tested her very Presbyterian fiber: “Oh my stars and little fishes! It’s that blamed Archibald! Run and put on your jeans with the ripped out knees and those old Roebuck tennis shoes,” she said. “And just stare at the floor if he asks you anything.” I understood that I must not look prosperous, so I always chose the yellow shirt with the frayed collar tips—the tips I had chewed on until bleached and disfigured by elongation. It worked. The check kept coming. Archibald must have been quite thrilled with our poverty.
Mrs Crain had a fig tree beside her bedroom window that in season, boasted many pails of the fruit. It was so prolific that legend said she had dismembered and buried her husband beneath it. It was his rotting self that provided the special fertilizer.
It was the darkest night of no moon. On all fours, I crept around the back of the double garage we shared with Mrs Crain. Her rosebushes, placed there as a kind of perfumed razor wire, pulled and tugged at my progress. Not to be deterred, I crawled on, suffering the wounds that were dues for the reward to come.
The fig tree was loaded. I removed a pillowcase from under my shirt and began stuffing it with all the fallen figs first, then the ones I could reach while on my knees. I dared not stand, because that would place me squarely in front of her bedroom window. The sack was feeling generously heavy and it was time to abandon greed and settle for what was a respectful haul.
I twisted the neck of the sack closed and raced to my secret treasure box. The summer before, I dug a rectangular hole in the graveled garage floor large enough to contain a small metal locker my Uncle SB had used in the Army. Brushing away the loose pebbles that concealed it from view, I raised the lid and placed the figs inside. I would ration them over the next week or so. I could easily eat a dozen or more of them per sitting, so none were wasted. They were delightful; their pepper-sized seeds a tiny bit crunchy to the palate. A fig is best raw, and even better stolen. It is beyond me why Newton wanted to ruin it with that gummy cake of his.
The Liston family on East Avenue had a trellis of black grapes in their backyard. They didn’t seem to want them, because most seasons the fruit just fell to the ground and became scrap for crows. The crows would digest the grapes and later excrete them like so much purple rain. I figured that in taking them, I was performing a valuable service to the many people who had to polish the horrid crow stains off their automobile rooftops and hoods.
A rule of stealing fruit is that it is not stealing if no one wanted it in the first place. Tell that to “Sluggo,” the boxer dog who guarded the trellis against poaching. From my thievery kit emerged an effective weapon: A raw weenie for a guard dog is good trade for his silence and a posterior free of gnashing teeth. After repeated weenies, I think Sluggo actually began to like me. His wagging tail and light whimpering defied the “Bad Dog” sign that hung on the Liston fence.
Economics soon crept in. I began to evaluate the cost of a weenie against the grape’s worth. The grapes were tiny—not much bigger than a nice English pea. They were a bit tart, and the stain from their juice was like neon. It was impossible to deny that they had passed my lips.
“Did you ask permission to take Mrs Liston’s grapes? My grandmother asked.
“Yes, I got permission,” I replied. I was thinking of Sluggo’s approval, not Mrs Liston’s, so it was not a lie. It didn’t matter anyway. The puny grapes eventually failed the barter rule. A plump hot dog weenie was simply too much to invest in a substandard grape.
Two blocks away was the Smitherman home. There, proudly lining the sidewalk gate were two stately black plum trees. When ripe, the plums had a blue-gray haze on them that when rubbed away, revealed a skin as shiny as coal. The plums were fat—close to the diameter of a Yo-Yo. I reasoned that plums were perhaps the perfection of God’s engineering. The ratio of meat to seed-size left all other fruit in envy. Peaches and apples were not even close.
Both Mr and Mrs Smitherman worked for the railroad shops, so their coming and going was as predictable as morning light. I often made my way to their gate in full daylight, filling a water pail with hand-selected ripe plums. The trees were majestic; remindful of the date-palm adornments to the gates of old Rome that I remembered from the movies.
One early Monday morning, I walked down to the Smitherman’s yard with my ready pail. I was shocked to find their iron gate chained and locked. Apparently my raids had been discovered. On Sunday I saw Mr Smiterman at church. With my best innocence, I approached him at the end of the service.
“Mr Smitherman, I noticed you have a really nice plum crop and wondered if I might have some of them for my school lunch sack.”
“You mean you want more of my plums?” I could have taken his remark lightly, not personally, but I knew I had been admonished. Guilt has a way of weeding out ambiguity, tying the tongue, and quivering the hands.
“All you have to do is ask, and I can make sure the gate is open,” he said, with what looked like the apparition of a smile trying to break through. “My plums are there for the asking, not the taking.” Oddly remindful of an encounter with Archibald the Noser, my eyes fell to the hardwood floor of the church foyer and I nodded my understanding without looking up. I never stole from him again.
Mr Pedison was the owner of a stately hotel called the Ginocchio. It sat by the train station, and was famous for its rail-heyday history and its trappings, especially its sweeping staircase of rare curly pine. Among its legends and tales, there was common talk that a tunnel extended from beneath Mr Pedison’s house over to the hotel. The story told how the tunnel was used to secretly move traded slaves to waiting boxcars in the dead of night. Most people said it was a far fetched rumor. In any case, the alleged activity pre-dated Mr. Pedison by two-thirds of a century. Even though fully absolved by the passage of time, he was always quick to debunk the slavery tale.
“Ginocchio and Pedison ancestors kept no slaves,” he said. Slave trading aside, I noticed that he never denied the existence of the tunnel nor explained its purpose.
In the back yard of his home, Mr Pedison cultivated pears, Elberta peaches, and green baking apples. Mr Pedison knew me well since I delivered his newspaper, and invited me to share his fruit to the extent my cravings led me. I figured his free fruit substituted for a newsboy tip. Since I did not have to steal, I took only sparing amounts. It’s odd how having permission diminishes one’s greed. I never knew why, but it was true that in a three-way match, the pears always fell to last place in gathering. I could easily skip pears altogether. They simply are bland and unappealing. Maybe it’s because the red wasps competed with me so hard for them, or that almost everyone’s yard had a pear tree.
By contrast, there is nothing more summery than a chilled peach, its crimson and yellow insides surrounded with juice so bountiful that it would run down one’s arms and drip at the elbows. The reward of such a delicacy outweighed the one inconvenience: Peaches have an ornery fuzz that somehow is magnetized to adhere to the wrinkles underneath a young man’s neck. There it digs in to sting and irritate until scrubbed away with a wet washcloth generously slathered with that fearsome Lava Soap.
Legitimate fruit such as Pedison’s bypassed the treasure chest and made its way directly into my grandmother’s kitchen, where it served as filling for her delicious fried pies. The fruit was cooked into a mush and then nested in a fold-over crust similar in shape to today’s taco. My job was to then pinch the edges of the crust dough at index-finger intervals—a sort of zipper to keep it closed for frying.
“Little fingers make the ideal pinch,” she always said. It was my special contribution to the task, and I felt honored when our pie won a blue ribbon at the East Texas Fair.
“I did the zippers,” I boasted to those that came by our table.
Life’s mysteries surely must include the pomegranate. Larry Allen’s grandmother had two of the curious bushes. They seemed to have little appeal, for I was invited to take all I wanted. A pomegranate is a fruit that was designed to have no predators. Like the dreaded cockroach, pomegranates survived the great asteroid destruction of the Earth. Its classification as a fruit defies understanding. The skin and pulp are not edible, and are shunned even by coon, deer, and squirrels. The shoe-peg corn-sized seeds clustered inside are surrounded with nothing more than a halo of meat—a filmy suggestion of fruit. There is no such thing as a pomegranate fried pie, or even pomegranate preserves. They have no worth as a sack lunch snack; it would take an entire recess to dissect one.
Considering the fruit’s nutritional lapse, I’m not sure it was an asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. In any case, I must treat such time wasters as pomegranates like orphans, because the growing season is too short for diversions.
I’m heading back for more of Mr Pedison’s peaches, fuzzy neck et al.
* * *
The author’s three collections of short stories, Tailwind, Odie Dodie, and Riders of the Seven Hills are available at all traditional booksellers. Copies signed by the author may be obtained by contacting him directly via firstname.lastname@example.org or by accessing his web page at: http://laddiemoore.blogspot.com/
The story featured here holds © Copyright 2010 by the author, Lad Moore. All rights reserved. Image © by Dreamtime Hypermania under compensated license.
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