— Grandpa’s just gonna grab a few apricots for your lunch with your Happy Meal. Can you hold the ladder?
As I climb the ladder and look down on his towhead, memories spark yet again.
— Huuuh? — Said from up the ladder among the passion-tinged golden apricots.
— Da-aaa-dy! — Louder now with youthful immediacy.
— Wha’s the matter, Genna?
— A fly flew up my nose!
— Da-aaa-dy, it flew up my nose! What can I do?
I had looked down from atop the ladder glimpsing her through the thick fog of leaves, scattered patches of light across her face, and a pudgy finger jammed into her left nostril. I had looked back at that one high, luscious apricot eluding my reach still higher up, as if it had been the focal point of an entire life.
— Is it still there? — Disinterestedly.
— YEEES! Da-aaa-dy! — Even more insistently, vying for my undivided attention while I had continued twisting split fruit from the burdened branches above my head, spilling them into a plastic Target bag tied to my belt.
— Da-aaa-dy, I think I swallowed the fly!
— Well, that’s better’n having it walk into yer brain! — Said with only slight sarcasm as I had plucked and released a couple of bird-pecked apricots, dropping them to the ground, thinking of mulch and not much else.
— Da-aaa-dy, I’m serious! What’ll I do?
— Noth’n. It’ll pass! — I had responded with the half-baked, half-wit of an adult.
— D’ya still get ‘cots off’n that tree out back? — Asked by a casual neighbor.
— No! I don’t bother picking ‘em no more. — Answered pointedly while I’m thinking that much has passed since that long ago summer, including, perhaps, the fly. I keep hidden to myself that much else had passed up Genna’s nose and down life’s drain since then, too, and I keep hidden that my dry wit has long since become soggy and sodden with tears.
— Ya don’t pick ‘em? — Incredulously.
— Nope! I don’t pick the ‘cots, like I said! — Querulously. But I pay much closer attention now to everything, even a family. Hell, I’ve paid so much I might as well pay that too.
— Mind if I get some? — Interestedly.
— My apricots? — Clarifying.
— Yeah! — Hopeful.
— No! No one eats ‘em any more; they’re too sweet and it takes too much effort to get ‘em! — Remembering all the while that birds and squirrels and such seem to get their half of all now. That’s what’s left now, half of everything. But sarcasm doesn’t work with only half a conversation.
I pluck the largest apricot from off the tree, covered with five or six ants. I disturb them and they start to exit the small hole on the seam of the fruit. I blow them off with Buddhist sensitivity, trying not to hurt them, trying also not to spit on the apricot. More ants appear and then still more; three and four at a time, and I kept huffing and puffing to blow them all away. Fairy tale memories flood for an instant.
I take the apricot indoors to the sink and wash off the one or two remaining ants from the fruit. With a paring knife I open the apricot along the seam, down to the pit, then round over and slice again, splitting it in two, letting the halves and seed fall apart in my off hand.
The ants have burrowed to the core, surrounding the seed, and are eating the apricot from inside out. I sort of half-laugh at the parallels I sense. There are perhaps forty or fifty ants still adhered to the fruit, now scrambling to escape the water or to attack my hand or to defend their prize.
I turn on the water again, abandoning my position as nature’s defender, and flush them down the sink in my haste to preserve the fruit for my grandchild. But it is as if the ants are never ending, almost Wellsian in their march from out of the bowels of the apricot. I keep cleansing and sluicing until their numbers diminish, purged down to four or five, then two, one, and done. Just one more! Then one last one: a final digit swirling downward.
I then place the perfection of the apricot halves, my offering, before my grandson, the fruit-orphaned fast-food connoisseur.
— Have some fruit, fresh from your mom’s favorite tree. — I offer hopefully, while remembering.
— No! — With his nose turned up and away, he devours the remnants of a Happy Meal that he doesn’t realize isn’t.
— Perhaps tomorrow you and grandpa can go to Lowe’s and pick out a tree just for you. You like apples or pears, right? Okay? — With intensity and focus on the boy.
— Okay? The apricot halves have begun to shrivel.
Rick Hartwell is a retired middle school English teacher living in Southern California with his wife of thirty-six years (poor soul; her, not him), their disabled daughter, one of their sons and his ex-wife and their two children, and twelve cats. Yes, twelve! He believes in the succinct; that less can be more; the least can be the best. He was nominated by Red Poppy Review for Sundress’ Best of the Net 2011. When not writing Rick wishes he were still pushing plywood in Coquille, Oregon.