Fruit Tramp

Alice Lowe

The expression “low-hanging fruit” is used to mean easy picking, but there was nothing easy about this. I considered myself fit, but I wasn’t used to manual labor. My back and shoulders would start aching after a couple of hours. The work was exhausting, and even the seasoned veterans were wiped out by the end of the day. We started early, as soon as it was light, and knocked off by mid-afternoon when the heat and humidity made work intolerable. The air was oppressive, thick and heavy—I felt as if weights were tied to my limbs—and made worse by the volcanic ash that had carried across the plains and chucked its residue on the trees. Pulling on the branches disturbed the settled deposits, and ash permeated our hair and clothes, got into our eyes and mouths and lungs, even with surgical masks and glasses.

It didn’t stop me from eating the fresh, juicy cherries, a bonus of the job. I couldn’t just pick and eat them with their coating of sooty scum, not to mention the hidden taint of pesticides, so I would wash them off at faucets in the fields for immediate gratification and take more back to camp. A few of the workers thought I was crazy. “Aren’t you sick of these damned cherries by the end of the day?” After cleaning up in the sparse facilities provided, we spent our afternoons resting, but the heat in the truck was unbearable. We would drive around the countryside with the windows open, stirring up the stagnant air, or drink iced tea at an air-conditioned café in town.

Men and women harvested cherries side by side, up and down the trees, equally tired at the end of the day, but the women were expected to cook and serve and clean up back at camp. Domestic servants, just as they were at home, I supposed. I watched with a mix of annoyance and amusement as Kevin slipped into their macho mindset.

“We have to go along with it,” he said; “we have to fit in.” Kevin didn’t want his research agenda known; we needed to be like everyone else. We had created a back-story in case it was needed, but no one questioned us.

“How convenient for you,” I said. “What are they going to do, take you out to the woodpile and beat you up if you make a salad?”

He would join the guys drinking beer and shooting the shit as I took my place with the women at coolers and cookers. I bought groceries in town every few days—produce and bread, canned and packaged foods (tuna, peanut butter, beans, rice), milk and cheese that we could fit into our cooler, meat to cook up on the nights that we shopped. Somewhat of a gourmet cook at home, I fell easily into the routine of fixing simple fare from my limited pantry. I liked the homey impersonal chatter among the women—a quick chili recipe, the price of bacon, aches and pains, grumbling about the guys:

“You’d think they’d have heart attacks if they lifted a finger to help.”

“What if we just sat around and drank beer, who’d get our supper?”

I couldn’t resist being a rabble-rouser. “They love to barbecue.” I said. “Maybe if we beg for more of their fantastic steaks and burgers, they’ll get off their butts.”

It worked, and we would grin knowingly at each other when the coals were lit or the propane started. Kev accused me of inciting the troops.

“What are you doing, spouting your middle-class feminist views? What next, a protest march?”

“I’m thinking about it,” I said. “Are you afraid I’m going to disturb the status quo?”

“Just keep a lid on it, will you? We’re not here to organize the masses. We’re fruit tramps,” he said, “not lefty intellectuals.”

We went into town late one afternoon with another couple, and on the way back, splat! A quail hit the windshield, dead on impact.

“Dinner,” the driver said as he stopped to retrieve it, “but one ain’t gonna be enough.”

When we got to camp he went back out with his shotgun and brought back a few more, which he cleaned, split and grilled, inviting us to the feast. I was shocked at the brutality and squeamish about eating freshly killed game. I averted my eyes while he was prepping them, and I wasn’t going to eat any. Until I smelled it cooking. He basted them with a mix of butter, beer, lemon and Tabasco. I was seduced by the succulent aroma as they sizzled on the coals, salivating by the time he took them off. I swallowed my qualms about road kill and gunslingers as I greedily gobbled up every morsel on my plate.

The work didn’t get easier; if anything it was worse. Tedious. Relentless. I wisecracked about “cherries of wrath.” Our living conditions had started closing in on us. A weekend camping trip is one thing, but sleeping in the cramped pick-up night after steamy sweltering night became claustrophobic. We both needed privacy and space; we became snappish with each other. I slept fitfully, helped only by physical exhaustion. I tried pep talks: “What’s a little discomfort? Appreciate the experience,” but they didn’t help. I was worn down physically and mentally. I felt like Goldie Hawn in “Private Benjamin,” whining about her boot-camp regimen: “I want to wear my sandals; I want to go to lunch.”

We had allotted four or five weeks in the fields before we would need to get home to our jobs and lives. But I balked, I buckled, I caved in the middle of the third week. I’d had enough. Kevin protested at first, but feebly. He was wearying of it all too. He hadn’t been able to further his research, and he wasn’t any better suited to the work than I was. I suppose he would have gutted through it if he’d been on his own, but now he was able to use my feminine frailty and capriciousness as the pretext to pack it in. We made our excuses, said our goodbyes and hit the road.

Kevin and I went our separate ways a few months later, the demise of our relationship hastened by the ordeal of total immersion. And over the years my memories of that summer have faded like a pair of Levis after repeated washings. I dig down but can’t dredge up the names and faces of our companions. I mine for insightful impressions, amusing anecdotes, but come up with debris. The rough edges of discomfort and resentment have worn smooth too—it was, after all, an adventure. But now it’s shrouded as if under a cloak of ash. What I remember is flushed with red—the hot summer sun, the truck’s chipping paint, the evening sky at dusk, and the sea of cherries—in trees and buckets and flats and truck beds—from brilliant crimson to dark claret, their juice staining my hands and mouth. I think about the term "cherry-picking" as a metaphor for choosing just those ideas or incidents that we like while ignoring the rest. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing, reclaiming my memories selectively, cherry-picking what resonates for me, leaving the detritus buried. And I still get flashbacks—glimpses of red—when I pick a scoop full of cherries, sweet burgundy Bings, from the bin at my neighborhood farmers market.

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