By Loretta Carpio Carr — Summers in the San Joaquin Valley are a perfect example of adaptation in mankind’s struggle for survival. During the day, the 110-degree temperatures force everyone except construction workers and field laborers to stay inside their houses, inside their cars, inside anywhere that has an air conditioner or at least a swamp cooler. My family’s modest wooden house didn’t have central air conditioning, so we relied on the blast of moist wind from the swamp cooler’s noisy metal box to provide us with one spot of relief. My mother opened the windows very early in the morning to capture the coolest air of the day then closed them up by 9:00 a.m. The yellowed venetian blinds were kept shut to make the inside of the house seem cooler, but by the time the afternoon novelas came on TV at 3:00 p.m., we were slouching quietly on the sofa, drained of energy, sweating in the dark.
But the nights: the nights were when all manner of life came out from under rocks. The temperature would cool to a tolerable 85 degrees, and los muchachos could be comfortable in shorts and flip-flops at 10 p.m. None of the small towns along Highway 99, including Selma, offered much in the way of entertainment or cultural life, but nature provided. Together with my friends, I spent many warm evenings cruising crooked country roads in search of a picturesque parking spot. Sometimes we ended up at Rockwell Pond, an irrigation reservoir on the west side of the highway. It wasn’t the Riviera, but at least it was quiet and far removed from town. We could sit and talk, listen to “Innagadadavida” as loud as we wanted, and platicar about all the places we dreamed of going. Among our group, the Jimenez twins were making plans for Hawaii while my girlfriends and I talked excitedly about London and Paris. Even though none of us had ever gone farther than Los Angeles, we seemed to think we could traverse the fashion capitals of the world with nothing more than our Kmart backpacks and thick-soled hiking boots.
It was one of those balmy evenings when I got a lesson in fruit crops from Michael. He was a new addition to our group, a tall, husky blond with heavy eyelids who had recently returned from military service in Vietnam. Unlike some discharged soldiers who talked incessantly about jungles and napalm, Michael never mentioned his time in Vietnam. He was quiet and drank a lot of beer. I sensed that he harbored something unspeakable inside, but I figured he would reveal it if and when he wanted to.
The first couple of times he came around, he was just tagging along with Buzzard, a friend from Fresno City College. His real name was Jack, and I don’t even remember how he got the name Buzzard…probably had something to do with eating off everyone’s plate all the time. He was this skinny kid with a rubber face, not boyfriend material, but fun to have around, so when he showed up with Michael, we were cautiously curious. Who was this guerro Americano? Was he cool? At first Michael kept to himself, sipping his beer and watching, but once he got comfortable with the gang from Selma, he made a move that catapulted him to the top of the social ladder.
One Saturday night as we were waiting around for some type of excitement to break the sweltering listlessness, we weren’t disappointed. Michael drove up to the Foster’s Freeze parking lot in a 1959 pink stretch Cadillac convertible with ridiculously tall chrome fins. In the glare of the blinking neon OPEN sign, it quickly drew an admiring crowd and was so outrageous that my attitude towards Michael changed from “extra guy” to potentially, “my guy.” That night he did ask me if I wanted to ride around with him, and of course, I couldn’t wait to be chauffeured in the finest set of wheels in Fresno County.
Maybe his tank of a car gave him the courage to open up a bit because he started telling me about his childhood on a farm outside of Madera. As we cruised from Selma’s McCall Avenue to Floral, he offered me a plum from a brown paper sack, a squishy, purple globe that dribbled sticky juice when I took a bite. He said it was from his family’s ranch. Between slurps, I posed what I thought was an intelligent question.
“Do you dry these to make prunes?” He grinned, “No, prunes come from prune trees.” I thought he was putting me on.
“What do you mean? There’s a difference?”
“Yes,” he answered patiently. “There are plum trees, and there are prune trees.” Finding it hard to picture a tree ripe with brown shriveled up prunes, I protested.
“I don’t believe you.”
“OK. I’ll show you.” With that, he stepped on the gas, and bracing against the El Dorado’s g-force, we were on our way to Madera.
Though the breeze was warm, it felt invigorating to be zooming along in a convertible open to the night sky with only an occasional bug hitting me in the face. The console seat of the Cadillac was so wide, we felt like aviators hurtling forward through space in two separate lanes. I scooted a little closer to Michael, and as he smiled at me, a twinkling feeling rushed from my stomach to my ears. I never knew prunes could be so romantic. We made several turns down narrow country lanes surrounded by acres and acres of orchards.
In the spring, pink and white blossoms transformed the Valley’s disked dirt plots into a frothy canopy of delicate flowers. Their sweet fragrance saturated the air. Nowadays, the visitors’ bureaus and AAA magazine call a particular route “The Blossom Trail” in an effort to attract tourists. In 1970, the endless maze of roads hadn’t been labeled, mapped, and marketed yet, but we knew the abundant floral branches were a seasonal phenomenon free for all to enjoy. On this August night, however, the blossoms were long gone, replaced by a full umbrella of leaves.
“There,” he pointed, “are prune trees.” We came to a rolling stop, stirring up a powdery cloud of dust. “And over there are plum trees.” I looked back and forth across the road several times, scanning for any significant difference between the brown trunks, the greenish red leaves, the fruit, the size, anything. I finally admitted, “They look the same to me.” My suspicions rose again as I thought that this sneaky, quiet gabacho has seduced me with his fancy car and brought me out here to the middle of nowhere on the pretense of discussing agricultural varieties. He better not try anything.
In the distance, a freight train sounded its haunting whistle. We sat silently, neither anticipating a next move nor wondering how we got there. I needn’t have been afraid. Michael was satisfied just to sit in the stillness that exists uniquely in the country, far from honking horns and blaring televisions. Only a serenade of chirping crickets interrupted the vast peace and beauty of the orchard. The endless, even rows of trees stood like mute guardians of the land and its bounty. I envied him for having grown up with this place in his life, and I was grateful he had brought me here to see it.
Feeling safe and secure with Michael for what he didn’t do–no lunging, no pawing, no cajoling-I closed my eyes and laid my head back on the tufted leather seat, content to share this moment with him. I didn’t know if hours had passed or only minutes before he said, “Guess I should get you home.”
We drove the dark labyrinth of back roads until we entered the terrain of streetlights again and pulled up in front of my parents’ house. The porch light was on, and I knew my father would soon be flicking it off and on as a signal for me to come in. The moment had come. Should I merely say, “Thank you for a pleasant evening,” or should I kiss Michael goodnight, and thereby cross the line separating friends from novios? The eternity of the moment was interrupted by my dad’s flashing Morse code. I gulped and lifted my face to Michael’s, intending to plant just a quick peck on his lips, but he lingered, so I lingered. When I thought it had gone on long enough, I awkwardly pulled away, muttering, “OK, OK. I gotta go.” It wasn’t exactly smooth, but our first kiss was a promise of more drives on warm summer nights.
By September, the Jimenez twins had gone to Hawaii and come back, disillusioned with their insect-ridden paradise. My girlfriends and I were on a two-month jaunt through Europe, enjoying the museums and pubs, but we did spend considerable time talking about our romantic prospects back home. Meanwhile, Michael had decided to join the wanderlust and took the Cadillac on a road trip north to British Columbia with a buddy from Madera, so before we left, we promised to get in touch when we returned to Central Cal. There would be so much to talk about and so much to ponder. Would our time apart on different continents have intensified our flirtation or cooled it?
Knock, knock, knock. It was Buzzard peering in through my parents’ screen door. “Hey, how was your trip? You guys were gone a long time.” I spilled out a list of places we’d been: Amsterdam, Brussels, Edinburgh, London, Paris, Madrid, all the while thinking that it was November, and I hadn’t heard from Michael. So I asked about him, hoping to hear, “He says hi and wants to see you.”
Buzzard, the clown who always conjured up grotesque faces and funny noises to make us laugh, somehow stood there serious and strong to tell me. “Michael was killed in a car accident in Oregon. He and his friend were on their way to Canada. He lost control.” Weakness spread through my limbs like a sudden infection, and my breathing grew shallow. My mother, listening in disbelief, started to tear up, but I could not cry. The news was too much to absorb, too tragic to accept as truth. How could this resilient young man who had survived the horrors of Vietnam come back only to die in a stupid crash? My girlish fantasies of more car rides, more crickets, more kisses, perished in that crumpled Cadillac. Grief caught in my throat, but my chest ached, “Wait! Wait! I want another chance!”
A week of anxiety and dread passed before I worked up the nerve to call his family. His father had the same deep, deliberate voice as Michael’s. I apologized for calling so late after the accident but explained that I had just learned of Michael’s death. He asked, “How did you know my son?” Searching for the appropriate words, I replied that we had shared an interest in fruit trees. Hoping to say something comforting to him, I added, “Michael took me to see your beautiful ranch one time.” After a prolonged silence, he only said, “It was quick. He didn’t suffer.” I thanked him for his time and ended our sad conversation with, “I liked Michael very much.”
Forty-six years have passed. I’ve been to his grave only once to place a bouquet of yellow mums on his military headstone. The formal bronze plaque is an honorable tribute for his service, but I don’t like to think of him there. He is frozen in a time and place of my mutable youth, in the quickening emotion of that summer night. So many people have come and gone from my life since then, and I no longer live in the Valley that shaped my awakening sensibilities. But even in my darkest winter, my memory finds solace in the blossoming orchards east of Madera.
Drawing from her bicultural upbringing, Loretta Carpio Carr uses the people, themes, and language of central California to tell her stories. Her work has been published by Tradeoffs Press and appears in the Sonoma Valley Sun’s column “Voices of the New Majority.” She is currently working on a collection of short stories about growing up in the San Joaquin Valley. — Deb Carlen, Creative Arts editor