The Dark Side of Fruit
When I look back on this year, I admit that some of my grumpiest thoughts concerned fruit. I only concede this to defend myself in advance, aware of how unnatural it will appear to wage war on something as universally beloved, as presumably innocent, as a plum. But there you have it. As of this year, I am fed up with this particular fruit—-thoroughly disenchanted with our own, homegrown variety, meaning those that arrive with rounded, dark purple exteriors and bright pink interiors . . . fat and lumpish, as though they were pregnant. Don’t care if I ever again see another plum.
My vexation began early in the season. Instead of a rush of gratitude over what would soon be a bountiful gift from nature, I was secretly annoyed that out of view along the side of our house, the bees and the plum trees were carrying on scandalously and in secret. Never mind that the products of their mating were dark, succulent, and juicy. Before summer was fully launched, the plum trees had driven me to guilt and not a little resentment; how dare those sneaky, self-righteous trees go at this reproduction thing with so much pride, so much gusto!
Had they no self-control, no sense of proportion?
And why had our trees never figured out that fruit would be under-appreciated, even disdained, when a whole year’s worth of effort ripened within the same ten minutes?
One second there was no fruit and the next the plums were dropping like hail stones.
It was late June when the first of them began thumping the ground. Big, ripe, purple, and (begrudgingly I admit this), delicious. Except most of those that fell spontaneously suffered a split down the middle of their fat, ripe bellies, and within the split was sand and/or fruit flies. As the days dropped, so did more plums. Each morning Rob would peer through the only aperture that opens on our tiny orchard-—the bathroom window--and proclaim gravely, “Babe, we’ve got fifty plums lying under the trees. Something has to be done! Immediately!”
We groped for solutions. I called our four middle-school grandkids to come pick plums, but it seems that youngsters who play baseball have no time to harvest fruit. We made frequent plum patrols ourselves, picking up what was salvageable and bumping others down from their limbs with a clever little “nudger” created by Rob. A small mesh basket on the end of a long pole, the nudger enabled us to jiggle a single plum until it dropped into the mesh . . . while shaking loose a half dozen others, which cascaded down to split-bellied destruction.
I began noticing that “salvageable” had a broader meaning for Rob than for me. I looked into his collection basket. “Why are you saving that one?”
“It’s full of sand.”
“I can cut away the sandy part.”
“Why? The trees have a hundred more with no sand.”
He looked at me with disgust, a thrifty Scot arguing with a stubborn German. “I see no reason for wasting perfectly good fruit.”
“I have only one stomach, Rob. How many have you got?”
My protests were bouncing off the wrong person. This was the guy whose garage was crammed to the rafters with Salvation Army coffee tables, sliding closet doors made into picnic tables, thirteen military surplus file cabinets--all full--empty coffee tins, 40 woven baskets that once held floral arrangements, cans of thickly-crusted paint, empty jelly jars, chunks of shipping Styrofoam, and tools that were impossible to reach, all defended vigorously against sorting and discarding by that classic Depression-era mantra, “We might need it some day.” Meanwhile, there was talk of bringing home a portable storage shed.
Sometimes Rob sent me out to pick fruit alone. For the first half hour--when he wasn’t looking--I tossed damaged plums into the bushes (an aerial burial), gathered masses of almost-okay plums on a large tray, beat cobwebs out of my hair, tried to keep mashed plums out of the treads in my tennis shoes, and came into the house looking purplish and webby.
The second half hour I washed and sorted while Rob polished and dried, and together we arranged plums in lovely presentation baskets, then left messages on the answering machines of our grown children and anyone else we knew to come get our lovely fruit.
Nobody ever came.
It’s not that anybody ever said, “I’m not coming to get your blasted plums,” it’s more that they put off doing non-essential errands, and leaving the house simply to fetch ripe fruit became one of those jobs you could put off indefinitely. I’m sure if I said, “Come get the plums or your dad will die,” they’d have been there.
When our kids didn’t come, I delivered the best of what we’d harvested (and washed and dried and polished), leaving the rest for Rob and me---who aren’t so fussy---to eat.
On each occasion the plum project consumed more than a couple of hours. I simply couldn’t do it every day. Let’s be reasonable---who has fourteen hours a week to devote to FRUIT?
But the problem was compounded, right before my eyes, on our kitchen drain board. I quickly discovered what happens to a split plum that you don’t eat immediately. It turns into plum soup. You can almost see it happening. The plum leaks a tiny bit at first but the process accelerates, and within two days you’re looking at a purple swamp. Nobody would eat it. Nobody would suggest you keep it around hoping for a better outcome.
But STILL Rob issued daily bulletins. He was so much better at bulletins than picking. “Babe, do you know how much fruit we’ve got out there—-just rotting on the ground?”
Oh, I knew, all right. And so did every fruit fly in Orange County. Who could miss the shiny purple lumps, glowing and oozing? Who could ignore the guilt--that all over the world people are starving, yet there’s no way to reach Darfur with something that rots within an hour.
By now, a few practical souls, none of whom I know personally, are surely thinking, Why doesn’t she boil them? Turn them into jam? The idea crossed my mind, and so did the further thought that I might simply be cooking up a batch of botulism.
Eventually I found a remedy—-someone to trade with—-a woman who swapped a large bowl of my perfect plums for two great sacks of her dwarf peaches. At first I protested that she’d given me too many, and she said, “You can freeze the peaches,” but still I drove home feeling guilty. I vowed to bring her more plums soon. Maybe one of my signed books.
And then I learned that not all home grown fruit is created equal. Our plums were scrumptious. Her peaches were not. Like much of the fruit from our supermarket (those peaches, for instance, that are picked too green), her little nubbins went straight from Rock-hard to Rotten without stopping at Edible. Clearly she’d been solving her fruit problem. So now I had moldy peaches littering my drain board, and I’d even delivered some to our kids. I no longer felt guilty about the peach lady. In fact, she owes me a book.
The defining moment came toward the end of the month. I happened to be at daughter Tracy’s house when she glanced at an array of my hand-washed, hand-delivered plums, just starting their downward drift, just beginning to leak bright, staining juice into her grout. She gave me a quick, dubious look—-not meant to be hurtful. She said, “You know, Mom, this fruit’s becoming a real nuisance.” The way she said it, the word FRUIT had pejorative overtones. A sinister subtext. Definitely not something you’d want foisted off on you.
Unfortunately, I understood perfectly. Spring would be around again in no time, and I didn’t feel ready for another guilt trip brought on by plums. I couldn’t face them again in eleven short months. It occurred to me there was only one reasonable solution: chop down the trees.
Of course that was no solution, because Rob would be out there saving every limb and twig, making piles, hoarding, stacking, laying in plum-tree firewood against California’s arctic winters. Deep in the woodpile, black widow spiders would start making baby spiders, scandalously and in secret.
The only solution is never plant fruit trees in the first place. But for us it’s too late. If you’re going to have something propagating around by the side of the house, I suppose plums are better than black widow spiders.
There may be a respite. Erv, the resident expert in my writers’ critique group, reports that one year out of four, plum trees take sabbaticals. “I trust it’s now,” I said to Rob. “Erv just gave me hope. We deserve a year off.”
“That’s okay by me,” he said. “And by the way--you’ll be pleased to know that this fall the apple tree produced only one apple. And I ate it.”