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Harvesting Early Blush in a California Summer

Bryan Mulker

An Early Blush Apricot tree eked out its existence on the north east side of our property by bracing itself close against the fence.  For a fruit tree I expected it to have more leaves than it did, but having not seen many others by the time I reached eleven, I really had nothing to compare it to; ‘less of course you count the pictures in books, or the images on TV.  So in my relative ignorance, I determined my impression of the plant by its demeanor.  It wasn’t much in the way of foliage; the few leaves that did grow seemed too thin and too dark.  They attached to skinny branches that jutted out of a lumpy winding root-of-a-trunk with narrow strips of bark.  The trunk cleaved into hard desert earth splitting, rather than digging, as far as it could.  The roots would hit a rock and crawl around it, again, and again pinning for water.  They did as best they could, but the elements were not in their favor.  Thus afflicted, the plant struggled.

It bore fruit.  Lord only knows why that seemed a good idea.  Why a plant half-dying all the time would still blossom.  Don’t make sense when you’re half dead to go on making things that you ain’t gonna take care of anyhow, but it did.  It gave luscious apricots: thick skinned, round, plump fruits.  It would hit that short California spring and forget where it was.  It would blossom, and pretend to be in a valley.  Rain would come, and wet the dirt, packing it all together.  The days would pass and then the heat would come.  The heat would weigh down the clouds till they hit the dirt.  The heat would seep into the earth and melt the low-falling clouds.  The heat would take the dew that was left and tease the plants in the morning, making them think it would be a wet day, but, using that dew as a magnifying glass, it would burn holes in leaves.  The heat burned the grass, and made the trees turn brown.  The heat evaporated the small pools of water and left us all dry.

I would get chapped lips at this time of the year.  I must not have been too different from that tree.  We both eked out an existence in the hot days of failing spring.  I thought about that sometimes, but it was too hot to do nothin’ to change anything.  We was all sufferin’ in the heat.

Before the heat, in the still of winter, the bugs would disappear.  A bear could hibernate in a cave, a rabbit could hide in a hole, but where did the wasps hide in the dead of winter?  Did they cut off their wings and bury their nests like ants?  I often wondered where they went, but I never hunted them out: I knew they would be back.  Sure enough, spring would find them in the air, flying around as if they had never been gone.  It is a singular thing to watch a wasp work.  They don’t do nothing particularly useful, but they’re always coming and going like they got something to get doing.

About this time our Early Blush Apricot tree would make fruit.  They were miniature golf-ball sized apricots, but they were juicy.  They’d hit the ground like big fat raindrops in a thunderstorm.  Smack.  They were good.  Me and my brothers saw them growing on the tree, and when the heat came we knew it was time to reap ere summer slew.  We went out with straw wide-brimmed hats, and a montage of gloves: thick leather riding gloves, grease stained auto repair gloves, and one pair of clean thin gardening gloves.  We didn’t want to get the juices all over our hands if the apricots were too ripe.  I wore a ragged pair of jeans that mama had cut into shorts and a sky blue t-shirt with tattered sleeves.  My brothers were in like attire.  I waited for my brothers to lead the way, and out we went to pick from the Early Blush.

I have two brothers.  The tall gangly one in front that walks like a spider is named Tim.  He’s three years older than me.  He likes to talk slow, probably on account of his never having much to say.   He ain’t stupid, just takes his time with things.  My other brother that walks like a soldier is named Ian.  He has measured, determined steps and plows a straight line wherever he’s headed.  He ain’t so tall, but I can’t see over his head, so I think he’s alright.  He goes places like he’s going to take command.  Sometimes he argues with Tim about things he can do better, but today we’re picking apricots so he just walks in line.

We head out the back door walking east towards the sun.  It’s been up for a while but it ain’t noon yet.  We wanted to get out earlier, but the heat took away our ambition, and so we was glad to just be going at all.  The dew was gone and the air was drying up.  We passed the grape plant.  “How long’s this gonna take?” Ian asked.  I’d of said something only I didn’t know, so instead we listened to the grass crinkle underneath our worn sneakers.

Tim stretched his long arms up to the heavens, “I don’t know, but we gotta get it done, so we’ll find out.” Sure enough we did find out.

We made it to the apricot tree, and could see what seemed like hundreds of apricots clinging to the branches, weighing them down.  I was glad of that.  It meant I could reach them easier.  It might even make the work faster.  I dropped my empty washed out Sherwin Williams paint bucket on the ground.  Thud. That noise must have been what waked them up.  First we saw two, then five.  The Chinese beetles zipped out from behind the leaves moving about trying to figure what was going on.

We called them Chinese beetles.  I don’t think that’s the real name of them.  I saw a picture of one in an encyclopedia once, but don’t matter what they called them; to me, they were green-black-Chinese beetles. They were the size of chestnuts and looked like small pieces of jewelry when on the ground.   I’d almost call them pretty, but when they fly off the ground, things get ugly.  They pop open their shell and unsheathe long coal-black wings.  Then they begin to buzz, a loud threatening buzz like the roar of a miniature hoodless car engine revving to life.  They buzz around seeming twice as big as they really are.  They have spiked legs, and worst of all they eat apricots.

We hadn’t seen them out flying around the tree earlier in the season or we would’ve come sooner, but as it was, we were unprepared.  The five quickly became 20 or more little spiked engines flying at us.  I turned tail to run back to the house.  Ian flailed his bucket in the air, hoping to hit them.  Tim paused, picked up my bucket, and then lengthily strode back to the house. “Come on Ian,” he yelled over his shoulder.  Ian stayed a moment longer finally nailing one that buzzed like a Ferrari.  It smacked into the bucket with a sound like a baseball thrown against a bat.  “Yes!” But, by now he realized he was alone. More and more of the beetles came buzzing out of the tree.  He dropped his bucket and double-timed his way back to the house.

We made it inside in time to see the swarm in full, flying around the backyard in all directions.  There must have been more than a hundred of them.  My eyes were darting around, trying to follow them as they flew. “What are we gonna do?” I asked.

Ian looked at Tim, but he stood scratching his chin and said nothing.  “We gotta get rid of ‘em before they eat all the apricots,” said Ian.

Tim nodded steadily and said: “How we know they ain’t done that already?”  Ian looked at his gloves for a second.

“Well, I saw at least five that looked good right in front of me when we was out there,” I said.

“Yeah me too,” piped in Ian.

So, it was decided.  We would save the early blush apricots.

We stood there for a second.  “What are we gonna do to get rid of ‘em?” I asked.  Honestly, I didn’t know what would work.  Ian smiled and said, “I hit one of ‘em with the bucket.  Betting he’s dead now.”  Tim nodded and replied:  “But, that was only one.  We gotta work out a plan to get more than just one.”  They began to build a plan.  Ian started with an idea:

“We could get out the baseball bats?”

“They’re too small.  You had a bucket and only hit one, a bat ain’t gonna be no better.”

“What about a broom then?”

“That’s too long; it’d wear you out fast moving that around in the air all that time.”

“Well, what you got in mind?”

“How about using them tennis racquets in the garage?”

“But they got holes in ‘em.”

“Yeah, it makes ‘em lighter.  They’re only small holes and the racquets are really wide.  We won’t have to aim at nothing, just swing.”

I wasn’t much at baseball and the less I had to aim, the more I thought I could be useful.  “Plus them bugs are big anyway, probably get caught in the netting,” I said.  Ian nodded.  So, we prepared to bring war to the Chinese beetles.  They had come into our backyard and we were not going to give it up without a fight.  I got out a red and white bandana to cover my face; Tim got an old black hockey mask, and Ian went without cover.  We grabbed the Dunlop rackets from the garage and approached the back door.  The enemy had mostly returned to their base.

Tim was looking out the window when he deduced our approach of attack.  “Ian, why don’t you go first and head to the left side of the tree.  I’ll go to the middle and Bryan, you can head to the right.”  We cracked open the door and charged out fast as infantryman.  I slammed the door closed as soon as I was through so they couldn’t get in the house, and then rushed to my position.

The enemy heard us more than saw us as we moved towards them.  The few stragglers that remained as scouts met with an enemy whose supreme technological advantages meant annihilation. Tim was first to confront one of these scouts.  The beetle had turned its course and veered directly at him.  He gripped the handle with the kind of confidence Andre Agassi hopes he has when playing the U.S. Open.  Thrashing into the air in one forceful push, Tim connected with the beetle.  Strangely, or at least to my perspective, it seemed that Tim didn’t stop once he connected.  His swing followed through in a complete rotation and I almost thought he had missed after all: that was until the sliced sections of green-black innards smash with vigor into my shirt.

The sections cemented themselves to my shirt with green goo.  They bled green goo!  I made out fragments of the shell, and a leg here or there, but more than the fragments I saw the large green streaks that began to seep into my shirt, dying the fabric an ugly brown.  I wiped off the guts best I could and continued towards my post.

Ian had already reached his shelter-less bunker and braced his legs apart as he prepared to volley left to right smashing the Chinese beetle into fragments.  Tim also was standing in his post.

Unprepared, we had been no match for the fierce first strike of these invaders, but decked in our infantry garments and bearing our weapons of war, we were carriers of death.  The Beetle, even with its frightening open-engine-buzz was no match for our unprecedented display of technological sophistication.  They came in loud angry swarms, fleet, after fleet.  They vacated the apricot tree and sought to stake a superior claim to our apricots, but swing by swing, they were undone.  We brought to the Chinese Beetle what the atomic bomb brought to Hiroshima.  We waged war in earnest.  Green goo coated the rackets.  From time to time I was forced to stop and pull out large chunks of innards that stuck to my weapon.  Almost instantly, the beetles would dive upon me. They zipped by my head. Each time, I ducked and jogged in circles till at last my restored weapon brought ruin to my enemy. I swung at my persecutors with such vigor that the green goo rained down on my head.

How many Beetles were there?

Again and again they came, but it mattered little.  We would win the apricots.

A particularly large beetle headed towards me.  He bore down roaring like a diesel.  I swung at him, but he moved just in time to escape certain death.  He came round a second time.  I would not miss my chance again.  I watched as he drew close, closer than I would have liked, and then I jumped back, flailing my racket so quickly it made a high zipping noise of its own.  Swoosh.  I flew through the Chinese-Diesel-Beetle and heard a high pitched shriek from behind me.

I turned to look back and saw Heather, my eight year old sister, cringing in the back doorway.  A civilian!  Green goo and innards were all over her face.  She waved her hands in the air and ran inside the house.

She left the door open! Was she crazy! The beetles would get inside!

I rushed to the door and slammed it shut just as I passed into the house.  My sister was at the kitchen sink, washing her face and grumbling loudly.  I pulled down my bandana and leaned forward.

“What’d ya come outside for?”

She spit into the sink. “Well ya’ll are making so much noise I just wanted to come see what youwere breaking.  Why didn’t you tell me your makin’ a mess of things? I would have stayed inside!”

“Nobody told you to come out! We was doing just fine.  You OK?”

“Yeah I’ll be alright.  Why you out there killing them bugs anyway?”

“Oh, we’re not out there killing bugs, we’re picking apricots.”

She rolled her eyes at me and went back to cleaning up, this time picking out chunks of beetle shell from her hair.  I don’t reckon she believed me about the apricots till that night when the war was over and we brought in a bucket full of them.

The Chinese Beetles were strewn in pieces all over the backyard for many days.  When I would go out to look at the plants I would sometimes see the sun reflect on the ground and find that it was only shinning back from the shell of a disembodied beetle.  I had won the war. Sometimes, when I went out, I would even eat an apricot. I would bite through its supple skin, feeling its nectar ooze down my chin as I stood amid the desert and the memory of destruction.