By Sylvie Epstein
I remember the smooth skin of each cherry—some red, some yellow, some red-yellow, some almost black—and how they felt cool against my sticky, sweaty skin each June. I see us each holding a bucket, teal and plastic, and can hear the sound of the fruit dropping to the bottom of the pail. It changes as the pile stacks higher and higher.
We chose cherries as our Father’s Day pickings for the heights of the trees. In the East, when I was young, we picked apples in the fall. In pictures of those days I sit on Dad’s shoulders, arms extended high into the branches, feeling around for a grasp. I needed to pull hard at those orchards, even atop Dad’s back, for leverage and for plenty.
We chose cherries because although the tips of the tallest limbs meet the sky twelve to fifteen feet in the air, the leafy, fruit bearing branches begin to sprawl just 10 inches above the soft ground. Eve was three the first year. And so was Graham. Juice dripped down their small chins and stained them. Pink and splotchy.I can feel the juice dripping down my own face and can remember how each cherry I sunk my teeth into tasted slightly different.
I wore navy blue saltwater sandals and as I ran up and down the rows of trees handfuls of dirt would get stuck between the soles and my toes. I can feel the dry friction of the filth. Like leftover sand in your socks after a day in the waves.
Mom would come up from behind me and tuck my hair behind my ears, lifting it off my neck and quickly tying a half-done twist. She allowed my small body to cool in the California sun. And then off I’d run again.
Even though we weren’t supposed to, we all ate the cherries as we picked, enough to make our stomachs hurt. When I’d bite into a sickly sweet one, I’d run to Dad for a drink of water—the liquid would be warm and taste vaguely of the heated plastic it came in. When we needed to pee there were only Porta-Potties. They stunk, especially in the hotter years. Dad told me to go before we left the house, but I always needed these bathrooms. Squatting above the seat, I’d balance, carefully. We’d use pumped sanitizer and later, water from our bottles, to clean our hands.
Some years, when our bellies ached from all the rich, red, juice we climb into our cars (cars that have sat for hours in the Southern California heat smell different to me than any other) and drive to other nearby farm stands to buy quiche and pastries made of fresh eggs plucked from coops those very mornings. Our stomachs would settle as we drove the hour or so home with grocery bags of cherries in the trunk, and more at our feet.
Other years we’d be too stuffed to eat anything else and so we’d sip on lemonade and chew on ice cubes while listening to Norah, or to Paul, or to Stevie—windows down and wind tangling our hair.
Julia and Nate and Graham and Clive continued this tradition once we were gone. They’d pile into cars and pick and eat and pluck and be full. They did this year after year, Father’s day after Father’s day, until the drought dried up the trees and the cherries no longer grew.
No more was fruit to pick and or water from bottles to pour on sticky, sweaty hands. Dad wondered why the city didn’t harvest its rain—why so much went to waste. When we would visit: lawns were brown and showers were to be kept short. It’s like this for years.
This April we go back to the West and finally the lawns are green. The hike in the hills up the street from our home may be brighter than it ever was.
The drought is lifted after a season of wetness and when we see Julia and Nate and Graham and Clive they tell us of the poppies in Antelope Valley and we ask them about the cherries.
The years of picking feel so long ago—the explosion of juice spraying onto our strappy tank tops.
Father’s Day approaches now. We’ll spend the weekend outside of Springfield, like we have since leaving the West. When we eat cherries this summer I’ll look at the boxes and read, in small lettering, GROWN IN CALIFORNIA.