Fiction by Beth Lisick
At one time, home was hundreds of apricot trees. On summer mornings me and my friend Josie would walk among them, the leaves forming canopies, branches hanging heavy with small golden bulbs. We worked in the orchard’s old barn at long splintered tables, pulling up armloads of fruit from the bushels the pickers left, cutting out the pits, and setting them on trays to dry in the sun. We made ten cents a tray, same as the Mexicans and the Vietnamese, and if we worked steadily, we could make up to fifty dollars a week. But we hardly ever worked steadily. We would talk, next to nonstop, about anything we just found out about. The Clash, Koyaanisqatsi, oral sex, Ella Fitzgerald, burning zits off your back, apartheid, Keith Haring, where your meat comes from, AIDS. We would stretch out on grain sacks in the sun, tanning our bony bodies dark as the tree bark, or ride bikes to the frozen yogurt shop to watch the older kids kiss and fight. At the end of the day, we’d wind up back in the barn, fingers sticky with juice, apricots split and laid out in even rows, the late afternoon heat on our skin, listening to the college radio station. Where would we be without the radio station at the juco to crack open our worlds like eggs, to show us what else was hidden inside the small smooth universe we currently knew.
All praise the patois of the college radio deejay! The sheer relaxation of delivery, the shuffling of papers on the mic, the stall for lost liner notes, the humble struggle to remember or pronounce a difficult band name, the laugh following the record skip, the dead air of an ill-timed bathroom break, the droll ramble of the public service announcement, and the promise that the next song up was going to blow our minds. Discovering college radio meant that I said goodbye to my mom’s AM radio of traffic and weather together “on the eights” or mellow gold songs about angels in the morning and piña coladas. The college deejays sounded like people I wanted to meet someday, laidback and in-the-know, hot with some fresh tip, ear to the ground, curious, nerdy, not ashamed.
I carried my pitting knife like I was a Latin Queen in Chicago instead of a suburban girl earning cash to buy jeans and records. It was a sharp switchblade with a handle carved from an olive tree that once belonged to my grandfather on my mom’s side, the Polish one. I’d wear it on my belt, the weight of it informing my swagger, as I walked back home on the pristine black asphalt of the streets in the new housing developments. Green lawns, ranch houses with three-car garages, shiny black mailboxes with little red flags, heavy Spanish-style doors with brass hardware, freshly-planted agapanthus in lavender and white, and obedient juniper stretching across the curbsides. All of this where acres of apricot and prune trees used to be.
I refused to take piano from the hollow-cheeked bunhead at the end of the cul de sac or play soccer in those balloony white shorts with my ponytail bobbing behind me like a punchline. Instead I practiced my scowl for the teenage boys jumping fences between yards, sharpened my knife blade on the fine grit of a ceramic stone, and watched TV show after TV show while drinking generic orange soda and eating frozen French bread pizzas. I felt like an animal lying in wait. Something was out there and if I paid attention I would hear a signal calling for me.
Josie and I hatched a lot of plans in that barn. The best one that didn’t come true was that we would move to the city and start our own line of apricot-based beauty products. Think of the low overhead with all those free apricots. We hoarded the pits and made our own makeshift lab, smashing the almond-shaped stones with hammers on the concrete pad, back where Josie’s parents parked their camping trailer, and then we mixed the coarse dust with coconut oil from the pantry and vanilla beans swiped from the grocery store. We put it in jelly jars and went door to door selling it to our neighbors. The part we kept a secret was that we knew the pits were supposedly full of arsenic until roasted. We schemed about doing a tidy business as poisoners for hire on the side.
By our last year in high school, the adults in our lives were kind of like those in a cartoon; nearly absent, shoes going up into ankles and shins and then disappearing. Words coming out in a mushmouth garble. Assembled from parts. Josie’s mom was a pair of high heels on linoleum, her stepdad was thick glasses behind a book and her real dad was a push broom mustache with wheels instead of feet. My mom was a cigarette in a hand on the steering wheel or a lump in the bed. The only one who loomed large was my invisible dad. A tombstone on a brown lawn near the garlic fields of Gilroy. He split before I was born, circling back around to get my mom pregnant with my brother Scott before leaving again. The marker on the grave said 1979.
My mom had always been more like a roommate, busy with a life that seemed to only include her job working at the locksmith. She handled all the appointments and billing, and who knows what else from her creep boss. I don’t know why she didn’t ever try to escape and come up with something better, but Scott said once that maybe she was in love with him. Held captive by a mediocre man with a family of his own.
The night of our graduation, Josie and I went to Santa Cruz with a pack of other kids. She was heading out soon on a monster solo backpacking trip and I was at loose ends, not having technically graduated due to a failed science class I was supposed to re-take that summer. When I heard a couple girls talking about driving up to San Francisco the next day to go shopping, I asked for a ride. Early that morning, I tiptoed into my house and packed a duffel bag. Then I lay in my bed, fully dressed, waiting for my mom to go to work. The car was backing down the drive as I scribbled the note: Moving to SF. I’ll call soon.
Those next hours passed so slowly, watching game shows and soap operas, eating an entire Sara Lee poundcake, looking out the window, waiting for those girls to arrive. They finally came to pick me up in one of their graduation presents, an aqua Suzuki Samurai, a Barbie car. We headed up the 280 and they went toward the shops on Haight and I disappeared into the fog bank of the Panhandle. Later that night, I met some cool people at a bonfire at Ocean Beach and crashed with them for a few days, leaving a message for my mom on the home machine when I knew she’d be at work. Within a few days, I’d found my own room off a flyer. I called back and left her my permanent phone number, the first in a long string of permanent phone numbers. She wrote them down on a piece of paper she had on the fridge for years, always scratching out the old one, but rarely calling the new one.