Lessons Learned/The Apple Blossom Queen

A few words –

I had a difficult time writing this. I started and stopped many times, second-guessed, cried in frustration, and almost abandoned it about 3/4 of the way through. Thus far, I’d had an easy time finding a rhythm and developing a story. This was different. In the end, I was encouraged to publish it, even if it felt clumsy and “not my best work.” Because every story, every word put to paper, is a learning experience and helps you grow. Plenty of writers abandon ideas, but I refused to let this one go. I’m proud that I held on.

I’m moving onto a piece of non-fiction that I’ve been planning for a while now, and I think it will be refreshing after this experience. Anyway, here it is – take it or leave it!

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The Apple Blossom Queen

The map looked like it belonged in a B-grade horror film. A red felt marker had drawn the trek across California’s lower abdomen, from ocean to desert on the I-10 East. Then it veered off down a rural road that looped into itself. It was one of those places where you got disoriented in the rain, found a warm and inviting home, and walked into a nightmare. They were surely just hours away from being cut to pieces by some deranged, machete-wielding hick. Or, Meg could dismiss this gruesome outcome and enjoy the morning drive.

“Don’t be a creep,” said Charlie.

There were always jitters on the morning of a road trip, as toothbrushes were remembered, lights turned off, the garage door shut. The rumble of suitcases being wheeled down the driveway was akin to the sound of a plane taking off.

Road trips meant McDonald’s. Greasy Egg McMuffin wrappers and hash brown sleeves littered the center console of their sedan, and cold coffee and warm orange juice occupied the cupholders. Diffused morning sun was an affront to their puffy eyes, but neither bothered to put on sunglasses.

Charlie liked to use paper maps on these trips for their novelty. For each excursion they purchased a crisp map to their destination that was subsequently marked up, folded, unfolded, crumpled in frustration, read while on the toilet, dropped in mud, splattered with soda, smeared with something presumed to be ketchup, and stuffed in a road stop trash bin when they could no longer resist the seductive charms of GPS navigation.

She continued to frame the trip as a get-away prompted by nothing other than the words “let’s go.” They were the spontaneous type who threw cash to the wind in search of adventure. That may have been them five years ago. Now there was  a new purpose, more serious.  Between selecting music and  consulting the map with needless intensity, she struggled to get to the heart of exactly why they were traveling to Yucaipa, California.

***

“Wine.”

Nina had a way of saying a single word that conveyed her utmost confidence in it.

“Uh, right now?”

“Yep. Open the bottle and have a glass with me on the patio.”

Meg pulled a bottle of Chardonnay from the refrigerator and pondered the wine key. Charlie had always opened their wine  due to her reputation for breaking off half the cork. Here was a goofy lesson in self-sufficiency.

A month before the trip, Meg had spent a final night in Nina’s home. Always uncomfortable imposing, Meg pretended that she had worn out her welcome, though Nina insisted she stay longer. It had been almost two weeks of vagabond living since she’d left Charlie, and it was time for Little Sheba to come back.

“How do you feel about leaving?”

“I’m OK…I don’t really think I’m ready, but it’s unfair to him. I can’t keep him in limbo forever while I figure it out.”

“I just want to make sure you’re going to be OK. Because at the end of the day this is your life, and you can make any decision you need to make.”

They talked into the night, at times detouring from the issue at hand, taking windy roads towards career, children, travel. Nina was hardnosed, and could put it all in black and white when all Meg saw were stretches of grey. Long after Nina had gone to bed, Meg stayed on the balcony and stared at the full moon. She felt like it was the last time she would be truly alone. That she must be saying goodbye to some fleeting, spectacular future where there was eternal solitude despite the frenzied world around her. For a few precious weeks she’d been able to cup her hands to her mouth and drink in its sweetness.

Fuzzy from wine, Meg put on her coat,  zipped up her suitcase, and walked out the door without a sound.

She revisited that night often.

***

“Where’d you go babe? Where are you? Meg?”

She had a habit of disappearing down rabbit holes. He could always tell. It was different than before. Before, she’d been able to obscure her moods, or maybe he just hadn’t picked up on their cues. Now she wore it all on her face, like clown-white make-up that accentuated every wrinkled frown or lip quiver.

Day by day he was getting used her new, mercurial nature. They could be enjoying a movie or evening walk when she’d suddenly grow quiet and her eyes would become distant. The therapist said the best way to expedite the mood was to address it head-on, and Charlie often did.

“I’m sorry, I was out of it for a second.”

“Is everything OK?”

“Yeah. What are we, maybe half an hour away?”

“Check the map.”

Yucaipa was Apple Country, the same way Buellton was Split Pea Soup Country or Gilroy was Garlic Country. It’s “Apple Loop” was a collection of small farms with names like “Careaway Ranch” and “Olsen Brothers Orchards.” Every autumn, an army of parents would descend with their broods in tow and ransack the town. Apples were plucked and discarded due to signs of sickness, and farm pigs happily gobbled up this misfit fruit. Sticky toddlers chewed honey-covered apple slices while parents twisted cider presses so they could bring home gallons of rural elbow grease. The local café was overwhelmed by patrons seeking warmed apple pie with a slice of cheddar and a cup of coffee. It put an immense emotional strain on the town’s residents that went unnoticed. Charlie thought  Yucaipa would be the perfect place to forget.  He had chosen the coziest of all cozy B&B’s, arranged  gravy-drenched meals, and packed  the warmest wool shirts.

They turned off the I-10 and began climbing the loop that sat a few thousand feet above. Cars were parked along the road at all possible angles – SUVs snug between oak trees, minivans sitting squarely in the mud. Like a thousand Eves, families hiked up the road, bewitched by a tart bite of fruit.

With a few hours to kill before check-in, they managed to wedge their car in an open space (God bless the lowly sedan) and wandered the retail village. Deer gratefully took 25-cent handfuls of grain from Meg’s flat palm at the petting zoo, and she took an almost sexual pleasure in dipping sugar-coated cider donuts into strong tea. These were times when happiness was a mist that hung in the air and could be drawn in the lungs.

They found a gift store that sold yet more wool, and chose postcards to send distant friends. As she was paying at the register, a bright pink flyer caught Meg’s eye. It had a hand-stamped apple on top and the following offer:

Become Yucaipa’s Apple Blossom Queen!!

Open entry October 7th, winner crowned October 9th

Registration at Goode’s General Store

All ages welcome

Pie-eating, pig racing, interview

Ideas never entered quietly. They were intruders that beat Meg with a baseball bat until she cried “uncle.” Meg’s mother always reminded her that she had been bullheaded since childhood. She used to make Meg create lists of reasons why something wasn’t a good idea, but she’d rarely heed them. Even her decision to marry had been inevitable, organic, a flower that was always promised the soil and water it needed to bloom.

“I think I want to do this.”

“When you say you ‘think’ you want to do something, it usually means you definitely want to do it, but you think I’ll disapprove.”

They drove to Goode’s General Store, a brand-new structure made to look old. Inside, a woman with a 60-year-old face and the chestnut brown bob of a 30-year-old sat behind a folding table. Glasses hung on a jeweled chain around her neck, and she raised them to see the young couple approaching.

“Hi, are you here to sign up for the pageant?”

“Yes ma’am, I am.”

“Then go ahead and fill out this form for me, honey. Pie eating is tomorrow at 10a.m. I’ve got a packet of instructions for ya too.”

Meg turned to Charlie as she put pen to paper, flashed a sly smile, and wrote her name in clear print.

***

As committed as she had been to order and wholesome living her entire life, Meg had slept soundly on Nina’s  narrow vinyl sofa. She reveled in the wrinkled clothes hanging out of her suitcase. She found delight in the folding and unfolding of her travel toothbrush every morning. She had grown accustomed to a steady diet of toast and tea, with the occasional fast food foray.

Here was a piece of the heart of the matter: Charlie was a good man, and didn’t deserve this.

She had heard the phrase “It’s not you, it’s me” so many times on TV and in movies that she deemed it the ultimate placeholder. The excuse for bad behavior. Yet she found herself saying it, thinking it, every moment. How do you tell someone that one morning you woke up and wanted to buck the life you’re living? What had possessed her to stray? Why did people use the word  ‘stray’ anyway? It made her feel like a lost puppy.

Meg read up on the subject and was eager to self-diagnose. She generated a questionnaire:

  1.        Was Charlie a bad husband? No.
  2.        Were you unhappy? Yes and no
  3.        Were you happy? Yes and no
  4.        Were you bored? Yes and no
  5.        Do you believe in love? I believe in my definitions of love
  6.        Did you marry too young? Yes
  7.        How did you get here? I have no idea
  8.        What were you thinking? For the first time in my life, I wasn’t
  9.        Where are you going? I don’t know

She’d always believed that a truly depressed person was one who refused to leave bed in the morning, and chose instead to sip tepid coffee and stare at a laptop screen. Anxious yet rooted to the sheets. For her, depression was an undulating monster, a writhing creature inside her that napped and woke at odd intervals. A Grendel for the nerves.

***

She and the pie were in the midst of a staring contest, but she could have sworn she saw it blink. It’s Granny Smith filling glistened in the morning light, taunting her. The buttery crust radiated warmth even after overnight cooling. Having denied herself coffee and breakfast, she was ravenous and ready.

Ten pies each. Ten minutes. A successfully eaten pie had to be cleared of all filling and outer crust. One could not eat half a pie, then return to it later. One had to have someone who could provide glasses of water upon demand. One had to throw up in a designated bag. Meg now understood why this competition was not called a “beauty pageant.”

“OK, so I think the best strategy would be to eat the crust first, then the guts. That way you’re not struggling to find the broken bits of crust.” Charlie was making sense. Yes, that sounded right.

Meg surveyed her competition – ten local beauties with names ending in -lyn or -ber who had hair in various blonde gradations, pug noses, tanned legs up to ‘here,’  and eyes that showed the fear of consuming calories. One middle-aged mother of five whose husband had entered her so she could “feel like a queen.” She looked furious. Finally, a woman named Opal, who was 75 years young and whose family had owned an orchard in Yucaipa for 90 years, long before interlopers with dollar signs in their eyes had made the place a rural Disneyland. Meg liked her best, if only because she was the lone contestant to introduce herself in any meaningful way. Opal even smiled and wished her good luck before affixing a tiny pair of swim goggles to her eyes to avoid errant crumbs. She was a smart cookie.

“On your marks, get set, eat!!!”

Cinnamon-spiked ooze went up Meg’s nose, then slid down her throat as she avoided choking. This was easy as, well, pie. She’d had a similar experience – not long before she decided to make broken eggshells of her life, she’d taken home half of a large chocolate cake from a birthday party. Alone one afternoon, she lifted the plastic lid and dived face-first into the confection, grabbed fistfuls and shoved them in her mouth, and then sat on the kitchen floor and licked her fingers. This contest was child’s play in comparison. A piece of cake.

She bulldozed her way through pie after pie, on a form of autopilot that she assumed the morbidly obese called “dinnertime.”

“Stop!!!”

The judges – three of the eldest orchard owners, assessed the damage. She cursed under her breath when she saw an uneaten piece of crust on her fourth pie. Despite this, she was awarded second place, beaten only by one of the blondes. The thickness of her thighs made it obvious to all that she had committed herself to practice.

“Fuck yeah, babe! Come here!”

Charlie spun her around and kissed her.

“Cut it out! If I puke, I’ll get disqualified.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

***

“I just don’t know how many different ways I can say I’m sorry.”

“You’ve said it, but each time doesn’t make it any easier to forgive you.”

Most marriages, even strong ones, would have buckled under the weight of her betrayal. But after so many happy years together, Meg and Charlie chose instead to put on gloves, stack the bricks, and mix the mortar. They talked but did not raise their voices. They paced and cried and held each other. It was something Meg had wrought, but it was treated as an uninvited guest. A foreign cousin who ate with her mouth open and put her feet on the table.

“I shouldn’t love you as much as I do, but I can’t help it.”

“I’m trying, babe. I’m really trying hard.”

“Yeah well, I just think that if it’s something worth saving, you never need to try.”

These were moments when Meg would put her hand to her chest and search for a heartbeat. She always felt it, but it was never the velvet rhythm of blood pumping – it was gears grinding, metal upon metal. Old hardware picked from flea markets and assembled. It all felt rusty and inhuman. She could never cry in the moments that felt appropriate. Instead the shame froze her, and most nights she turned away from him and curled into a ball.

***

The piglets slept in a pile of soft snorts. Their cloven feet  kicked and twitched as each searched for the best spot to snooze the day away. Multi-colored ears tags were used to select a champion.  Number 10 looked lean and mean. Number 5 was a wild card – refusing to sleep with the others, and greeting each contestant with a wet nose.  Meg ended up with number 12, who she named Clara. She was a dainty runt who seemed speedy if given the proper motivation.

Charlie had suggested tempting Clara towards the finish line with a piece of bacon.

“Don’t be a creep,” said Meg.

Where the pie-eating contest that morning had depended on digestive will, this afternoon’s challenge was absurd in its arbitrariness. Yes, one could improve their chances by choosing a slim piglet, but really it was the mind of the beast that would determine the outcome. She rather liked that idea – an animal armed with little more than its instincts making the decisions for them.

Charlie stood in the crowd, his wool shirt plastered with sweat. She meant to warn him that October would be hot. Or maybe he was just nervous for her. Funny the things you learned to tolerate after years of cohabitating, like perpetual perspiration. Mild annoyance was written on his face – there were apples to pick and memories to make. She had again disrupted his plans.

She carried Clara as one would carry a baby with a dirty diaper, and the piglet squirmed to escape.

“Look at this tough little one, ready for a race.”

“Yeah, you better watch out, she’s out for blood!”

Meg smiled at Opal, who had whispered to each piglet before settling on number three. She reminded Meg of a psychic she’d seen when she was sixteen, on a trip to Berkeley for a college tour. Every word she said was kind and genuine and true, even though all she wanted were the contents of your wallet.

The contestants lined up with their swine. The crack of a starting gun startled most of the piglets, and they began to scatter. A few wandered among the crowd while sniffing the air. Meg watched, helpless as Clara wandered the grass track. After a few minutes of panic, the piglets gathered themselves and began seeking respite from the heat at the small white canopy that also served as the finish line.

In the end, Opal’s piglet had won. It wasn’t a clean victory by any means – it had bumped into another piglet on its way, and sent it on its back, legs trotting in the air. Meg had placed fifth. Her competitive nature was beginning to take over, and for the first time she truly wanted to win. It wasn’t about spending less time with Charlie and the uninvited cousin. It wasn’t about the guilt she was running away from. She wanted the blue ribbon, the trophy, the crown, the sash. She felt like getting on her knees and begging the judges for something, anything to call her own. Something that was good, and hard won. Something that wasn’t tainted by her own pity.

She waved at Charlie and he waved back, smiling.

***

“I want to have a baby.”

“You say that every time you drink.”

“But I mean it this time! How cute would a little you or me be?”

“You always say that newborn babies look disgusting, and that kittens and puppies are the way to go.”

“Piglets are cute too.”

***

Meg looked the dress up and down, skeptical.

“Two words. Blue gingham.”

“I’ll look like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.”

“No, you’ll look like you’re trying .”

They had a break from competition that afternoon, as preparations were being made for the interview, crowning, and the Apple Blossom Ball that immediately followed.  Meg had packed sweaters of varying thickness, but had neglected to pack the wardrobe of a country queen. Melinda’s Thrift was her best bet in a pinch, and Melinda herself kept a vigilant eye as Meg and Charlie danced through the aisles, trying on floppy hats and bola ties.

They hadn’t fought or talked about anything serious in two days. The talking was what got to her. Just as time was forming a thin scab over the wound, the talk would slice it open again. She was tired of explaining why she couldn’t explain herself. She knew this joy would last only another day or so before they’d drive back, hung over and facing reality at 75 miles per hour.

She eventually settled on a rose pink cotton dress that cinched at the waist. She felt like a 1950s sophomore about to go steady. They crossed the town to an outdoor pavilion next to Goode’s. A crowd had begun to gather – locals mostly, since it was Sunday afternoon and most tourists had driven into the sunset with their squalling, over-tired children. At dusk, the crowd settled in and Meg joined the other contestants, each sitting straight as arrows and tense as bowstrings.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 59th annual Apple Blossom Queen closing ceremony!” said the brown-bobbed woman who had handed Meg her contestant application.

“This year has been one of the tightest races we’ve ever seen, so tonight is especially important. Each contestant will answer one question in 60 seconds or less. The scores will be compiled and the interview will count double. Then the contestant with the highest score will be our queen. Ok, let’s bring contestant #1 to the stage, Bridget Combs. Bridget, your question is – which apple variety grown here on the Loop is the best for making cider?”

Meg sighed with relief. All softball questions about apples. Of course! How could she have thought it would be anything more?

“I would have to say Golden Delicious.”

“Braeburns are best picked in October, at least that’s what my dad says.”

“I’m not sure I understand the question, can you please repeat it?”

“Yucaipa is the name of the Native American tribe who lived here many, many years ago.”

“Definitely Fuji.”

 

At last.

“Contestant #10, Meg Little, your question is ‘What is your favorite apple recipe and why?’”

Meg froze. She couldn’t bake frozen cookie dough, much less core and peel apples. Then, a single memory appeared as a flash, and she had her answer.

“My favorite apple dish is old-fashioned apple pie, and I’ll tell you why. When my husband and I were in college, we chose to live together when we were very young, and didn’t have much money. Every week we would go to the dollar store to buy our food and other groceries. I came home one night after having a really bad day, and I smelled something in the kitchen. He knew about my day, and had bought flour, butter, sugar, and apple pie filling from the dollar store. We didn’t have a pie pan so he used a brownie pan to bake something that we still call ‘the five dollar apple pie.’ He even taught himself how to make a lattice crust. It wasn’t the most delicious pie, but it sure is the most special to me”

***

A Zydeco band played on a stage made of wood pallets, a cart of apples as their backdrop. Guests piled plates high with mustard potato salad, barbeque and beans. The local Lions Club sold beer and soda from red coolers on wheels. Children ran circles around an impromptu dirt dance floor, laughing with cornbread in their teeth. And in the middle of it all was the Apple Blossom Queen, radiant and wearing a shimmering sash and tiara. Opal waved with her left hand and held in her right a silver scepter with a shiny red apple on top.

Meg had seen this movie before – the old lady always won, and everyone else was always very happy for her and learned valuable lessons about themselves. Her screenwriter friend called this a ‘trope.’ Opal had been asked about the future of Yucaipa, and had delivered an answer with just the right measurements of eloquence and humor. It was a win well-earned.

“Wanna dance?”

Charlie held out his hand. He knew and she knew. This wouldn’t be their last dance or even their last happy night, but the future would always be uncertain.  Regardless, there were memories – of dollar store pie and of pageants. Of a thousand other struggles and triumphs. Maybe love wasn’t a single thing but the sum of experiences. Memories were love made eternal.

The crowd swirled around her, and Charlie dipped her low. A classmate had once told her that spinning in circles made you feel the earth’s rotation. She broke from Charlie’s embrace and spun herself again and again, inviting looks of concern. As she stumbled  dizzy across the dance floor, the dirt under her feet had a pulse. She was kin to the roots, branches, leaves of every apple tree. She took an apple from a basket and bit into it, letting the juice drip down her chin. It was mealy and brown, but that didn’t matter. It was her apple to bite.

 

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