|Illustration by Shelley Leopold|
In an unremarkable Midwestern back yard, a mighty apple tree grew. We knew it was an apple tree, because when we climbed it each September we picked apple-shaped fruit that tasted like apples. Our apple tree — a multi-grafted, sprawling, towering mutt whose blossoms bore equal parts Granny Smiths, Rome Beautys and Jonathans — had been out of control for 20 years or more, yielding more fruit than we could eat or bake or give away.
A neighborhood apple-picking coalition was organized; a half-dozen brave 8- to 15-year-olds to collect and distribute (and eat) these, the best-tasting apples in the neighborhood. But no matter how many apples the coalition picked, it couldn’t keep up with the tree. Inevitably, by October, half-rotten apples covered half the back lawn.
Most of these casualties ended up mulched back into the planet, courtesy of one bright-orange 3.5 horsepower petroleum-based Jacobsen lawnmower and its relatively loyal servant, Dave.
It wasn’t much past the 24th or 25th noon of August, 1974. The apples were still firmly fastened to the tree. Threatened with allowance cutbacks, noble young Dave mowed both front and back lawns, stashed the mower in the rickety tin shed at the end of the driveway and lay down at the base of a majestic, 30-foot ash tree of lollipop proportions and symmetry.
There I stretched and stared up into the thick green mop of leaves dancing in the noonday sun. Noticed a few leaves starting to turn. Just two months gone, sixth grade seemed years past. Nixon had just resigned, and already the world felt lighter. The war in Vietnam seemed to be ending, which meant I wouldn’t have to move to Canada after all. I could stay here and go to college. My brother and I had been making short films together. Maybe we could go to film school. Soon the apples will ripen in the back yard . . .
Must have fallen asleep. Must have slept a long time, because when I awoke, the sun was getting low and the grass had grown high and gone to seed. Heard strange music coming from the back yard. Kind of dizzy, I followed the ivy to the end of the driveway, turned the corner to find the grass cut low and the apple tree fully engorged with ripe fruit and neighbors. The apple-picking coalition had grown in number — so many kids in the tree I was amazed the limbs weren’t snapping.
Phil Brown (best friend): “I finished the lawn for you. Have a nice nap?”
Roy Townsley: “Yeah — how was your nap?”
Darrell Hines: “Sleep long enough, y’lazy-ass motherfucker?” (In fifth grade, Darrell had been the first kid in the neighborhood to test the waters of motherfucker, and he swam in them proudly.)
Several transistor radios scattered around the lawn’s periphery sang a familiar station-I.D. theme song — “Double-you ELL! ESS!” — then began pulsing some very strange, bad music that sounded like factory machinery synchronized with cash registers. Curtis McFarland just said “Heads up!” and tossed me a perfect apple from his pail, one unlike any I’d ever before seen.
I took a bite. It was crunchy, this apple. Severely crunchy. And it was not unripe. Refreshing, not bitter, fluids burst forth from its flesh. But where all other apples from the tree had tasted like apples, this one did not. It provided, in fact, no discernible taste sensation whatsoever, other than refreshing and not bitter.
But since it wasn’t really bad, I rotated it and moved in for
What the fuck?
A label. A little oval sticker, about half an inch across, dark blue with yellow insignia: “Royal Gala #4173 Crisp and Sweet.”
“Uh . . . you guys?”
“You guys?” I called out. “What’s going on? What is this stuff?”
Someone pitched me another apple, saying “Eat it! It’s good!”
This one looked more like an apple, but not one from our tree. Sure enough, there was another label, this one white with red ink: “RED DELICIOUS #4015.” This one tasted a bit more appley, in a watered-down kind of way. Good texture, though.
Everyone else seemed to be comfortable with this year’s crop of apples, seemed to be enjoying the picking and eating and strange, new music, so I figured maybe I was just confused. Low blood-sugar. Figured I should get a meal in me, and everything would make sense.
Went inside the house to find the place empty and the doors to our bedrooms locked shut. The living room’s green shag carpet had been replaced with thick beige cut pile. In the kitchen, glossy, ripe, delicious-looking fruit and vegetables hung in unfamiliar wire-mesh baskets.
My mom had recently shown me how to fry eggplant, so I found a bag of flour, a cutting board and a knife — right where they were supposed to be, which was reassuring — and snagged an eggplant from one of the baskets.
Ceramic. A ceramic eggplant hanging in our kitchen.
I checked the others — also ceramic. Or wooden. Eggplants, butternut and acorn squash, zucchini, beefsteak tomatoes, Bartlett pears and peaches — all sculptures made of clay or wood, glazed or painted to perfection.
The refrigerator was empty.
I wolfed down the rest of my #4015 and went back outside. A few kids had left; several more had arrived to take their place. More than a dozen were up in the tree, venturing out delicately to the finer branches, shaking loose the final offerings from the now almost fruitless tree.
Buckets and baskets of apples® lay all around, each one with its own brand of perfectly formed, numbered apple sculptures: Granny Smith #4139 FRESH AND TANGY; Golden delicious sweet and juicy #4017; BRAEBURN FRESH AND CRUNCHY #4101; PINK LADY #4128 . . .
Overwhelmed, I sat down with my back against the shed, where someone had placed a small basket of less-ceramic-looking fruit, LG. FUJI #94131 CERTIFIED ORGANICs. Curtis sat down beside me.
“You all right?” said Curtis. “You look like you’re getting the flu.”
“What’s this mean?” I replied, showing Curtis the #94131 label.
“‘Certified organic’? That just means when you wash it, you don’t have to use as much soap.”