California History, 1962
That summer I was 9 my mother tended our garden waiting for oranges. I watched her dig with hoe, with spade, with hands, no hat; her legs sun-browned red like the soil, her shoulders pointed like hinges on the old gate, her clavicle jutting out beneath taut brown skin. Turning soil, she had no use for potato bugs glistening in caramel coats or wispy aphids--creatures I captured and held in glass jars until legs wobbled, wings ceased to flutter. I tossed a carcass into the ivy, unfazed. I collected upholstered caterpillars and trapped spiders weaving webs.
“You’re interrupting nature,” my mother instructed. To her dismay I captured a gray, brown-nosed kingsnake she christened Nat. I wanted to leash him as I would a dog; he would be loyal and mine, but he slithered off in search of mice and rats and other snakes, disregarding my caresses.
My mother favored the fruit trees--inspected buds, watered carefully, sprinkled a compost recipe of crushed eggshells, carrot peels and coffee grounds. For a year she stood before three small orange trees waiting for fruit. Dry winds blew and crackled oak leaves; we had very little rain that year. Then a cold spell hit, and she forgot to irrigate. She waited in the sun and kept her vigil. By June she was angry. Not a blossom. And my father was away.
Sometimes Dr. Schiavone visited us. He sat in the metal chair, one we painted brick red the summer before, rocking on its wobbly legs. He brought us cold chocolate cake from a bakery and a sack of cherries. When my mother made dinner for him, he left French bread and red wine on the kitchen table. He had a thick forehead that reminded me of a shovel, sturdy and flat. He was a tall man, dark, with a deep, mournful voice, which told me I would feel a little scratch instead of the piercing stab of the occasional injections I received.
By July, monarchs and moths accompanied our summer of soil, of seeds for fall harvests, of watering and waiting for twilight--when my mother had time to read or talk. But usually she faded away and played music. Billie and Ella and Hazel.
While I stubbed toes and built lagoons for alligator lizards, she watched the fruit trees carefully. I sliced fingertips on tin-can lids and caught a new skirt in my bicycle chain, but hid that from her. The Prevak brothers showed me their new BB guns, but my mother warned me that if I played with boys I could get my eye shot out--like Victor who had one blue-green eye as swirling as a tiger’s-eye marble. While my mother and Dr. Schiavone sat in the backyard listening to music, I had target practice in the old cemetery behind our houses. Victor and I sneaked back then, ducking behind tombstones, rushing around shrubbery “playing ‘Combat’"--the boys called it. Victor was Vic Morrow; his little brother Eddie, the Rifleman. I had no role but to follow orders. One morning, I fell onto the exposed edges of the Prevaks’ chain-link fence and gouged the soft inside of my arm. Eddie lifted my limb from the metal fence; Victor vomited after he saw a real flesh-wound flap open. My mother looked up as I stood shaking before her.
“Tetanus shot,” she said quizzically, because she could not remember when the last was or, for that matter, if a next one should occur.
At Dr. Schiavone’s office, with a dish rag wrapped around my arm, I read our gardening book aloud, checking our progress. “We should have fruit by now,” I told her.
The room smelled of alcohol and cloves. The nurse held my legs while the doctor cleaned the wound. I wanted to kick him, but that wasn’t the answer. As he started to stitch, my mother looked away. Dr. Schiavone told my mother to sit down. She started to cry; I told her I was sorry. I was just playing Wondergirl when the wire got in the way.
That afternoon I climbed the fig tree in the backyard to see the channel full of dry docks and tugs escorting ships into the harbor. I heard the percolating shuffle of the car ferry and the foghorns wolf into the air. Buoy bells clanged into that darkened well.
And that night my mother sat in the living room wrapped in her robe, listening to records, smoking menthol cigarettes. My arm burned.
She only knew the first line of each song, sometimes the chorus. “Sentimental Journey” was an exception. Some days she sang to the gangly postman, who blushed. Inside she said, “Keep me away from him.”
That year at school the kids made fun of me when I told the class my father was an explorer. Their fathers were fishermen, longshoremen and truck drivers. Sister Agnes explained my father’s job so everyone understood that merchant seamen traveled farther than any of their fathers. “The exploring in this world is over,” she said quietly. “Your father merely sails.” Sister Agnes taught mathematics.
That summer, plums and apricots, figs and nectarines filled the trees, and my mother waved away wasps from the syrupy heaps of fallen fruit. Lemons hung in a tangle of bramble she pruned away.
My mother told me that Dr. Schiavone’s wife had a breakdown and that’s why she never came to visit, though when she had visited she had admired all my artwork--especially the ships I drew. She had worn a green taffeta dress, which swished from bodice to hem, as she danced from our kitchen to the dining room. When I told her the story about Junipero Serra tying his ass to a sycamore tree near the Los Angeles River, she laughed until she cried. That was a good sign, my mother told me. Mrs. Schiavone tried to drive her mint-green Buick with whitewalls like Life Savers over the cliff at Point Fermin. But a wall snagged her bumper and the car stopped. She couldn’t open the door, so she rolled down the window and grabbed at oleander--which she tried eating. I’ve been told the leaves are poisonous.
By August, my mother protested. “This is California and I want oranges,” she said. The trees blossomed in patches, bees arrived, buds appeared, but winds destroyed the lot and she pouted.
“Scales,” I read from the gardening book. “No hope for these.”
My mother leaned her tools against the red chair and sighed. She read my father’s old letters from Port-au-Prince, Miami, Biloxi. We ate sweet peas from the shells, blew dandelions into oblivion and made wild daisy bracelets. I peeled a store-bought orange with her knife, just to exert some authority, and squeezed half-petal-shaped peels until the moisture burst in droplets, spraying our faces; the aroma of orange lingered across the patio. I opened the mail--a postcard from Dr. Schiavone from Solvang. She tossed it into a bucket full of debris. We knew he was home already; we had seen him the night before with chocolate cake, a bag of cherries and a bottle of plum wine. “Enough sugar to make me sick,” she said.
I wanted to be like my father--to make her laugh, but I didn’t know how. At dinner he’d fold his napkin like a bikini top and leave it on my mother’s plate while she was in the kitchen. He’d place orange peels over his teeth and grin and say, “Kish me, you fool.” Before he left this time, my mother told him not to play with food, especially in front of the children--and I’d told her “you mean the child,” and they laughed and looked at each other with dark eyes and the three of us hugged.
“What on earth is he doing in Beirut?” I said, hoping to imitate exasperation, studying the postmark. She gazed glassy-eyed at the photos he sent of fountains and palm fronds and baldachins. She held the small envelope that was as delicate as moth wings and edged with faded red and blue epaulets that arrived with photographs from Lebanon, and I wanted the stamp for my collection. My father smiled beyond the camera, at us. With his right thumb, like a hitchhiker, he motioned to a cluster of orange trees in sandy bags behind him.
Suddenly, she heaved a terra-cotta pot I had painted. It smacked my bug collection, shattered glass jars and split the pot in perfect halves. The insects turned in muck and shards and gradually disappeared into a compost heap. From the docks, a Santa Fe whistle shrilled.
She gripped a piece of sharpened clay in her bleeding hand.
“Mama, do you want to go to the doctor?” I asked. I wrapped her hand in my hem. I was responsible and afraid. She shook her head no. I applied pressure to the cut. I remembered fourth-grade social studies and thought of my father and the risks taken in sailing and circumnavigation. I told her about scurvy, about the absence of citrus in diets, about how sailors died of bleeding gums and open sores and progressive madness. Everyone who knew California history knew that.
She looked at me--astonished--and then she smiled. A good sign.
“Mad--like me?” she said, gulping air between sobs, the citrus petals resting in silvered heaps upon the grass. Her fingers fiddled with the knife. Oleander bristled in the afternoon breeze, and a foghorn battered the air. Then I stuck an orange peel in my mouth--the way my father had done when he joked. I kissed her while she trembled in laughter.