Margaret and Charlie (a vignette)
(a reprise from another time)
We lived in an apple orchard for a time, in a funky old house used for the ranch hands, i.e., me and mr. wd. Dozens and dozens of apple trees surrounded the house, and in the spring upon every breeze rode the soft sweet perfume of their blossoms, a gentle, clean scent tinged with the tiniest bit of cinnamon that sometimes caused you to pause and close your eyes and breathe in; to sniff their fragrance into your quivering nose, perhaps hoping to commit it to memory; to listen to the ecstatic buzzing of the bees so hungrily diving into their centers to suck their sweet nectar and getting pollen on their little feet, which they’d spread to other blossoms on other trees and cause there to be apples…
You might well find yourself smiling at the beauty of the plan, as well as the loveliness of the blossoms. The softest pink imaginable, with wee stripes of fuscia radiating from the center; the rounded petals with light vertical creases folding under just slightly at their far edges; as you touch one, you find it’s far more substantial than you’d imagined; you can tickle their sturdy dark pink stamens and not injure them a bit, and come away with traces of pollen on your fingertips. The still pale leaves showcase them unobtrusively. And my stars; the big ones can be over two full inches across: they mean business, these beauties! Pay them respect, honor them, by creating a nook deep inside your mind that you can access again when you smell an apple, or hear some little bee cruising around your windows. O, let there be apple blossoms, and let not a late frost cause them to die and melt away before their tiny fruits have already become large enough to survive it!
In the fall the smell of apples can make you giddy; harvesting them is luscious work, sticking three-legged ladders into their middles, climbing up with a bag strapped around your neck, searching for the best ones that the birds hadn’t snacked on, then climbing down the ladder to unload the bag into crates and boxes; such bounty from these gnarly old trees, planted so long ago their varieties are no longer familiar. Baking apples, cider apples, those best for applesauce, for pies, or for just munching, maybe with a tad of salt sprinkled on; yum.
Later on, after the first hard freeze, they would turn alcoholic, and the birds would scarf down their pulp, and walk crazily on the ground. Drunken birds, especially the piggish magpies with the rainbows on their tails; who’d have thought? But…there they would be, staggering about and shrieking at the top of their lungs.
A five-minute walk south on the gravel Webber Canyon road would take you to Margaret and Charlie’s place, a two-story house surrounded by barns and sheds and pole stock pens and branding chutes of a working cattle ranch. The barns and sheds had weathered to the gorgeous shades of striped gold and rust, with amber sparkles of hardened pine pitch that the sun cooked out of the untreated wood. Fenced gardens announced Margaret’s love of gardening; Charlie helped, but he at least pretended to resent it; I never believed him, myself.
He was small and stocky, and bandy-legged from being horseback so often; his cowboy boots caused him to walk with a bit of a swagger that didn’t come from arrogance, but habit; as though his feet still behaved as they were in his stirrups; even his boots took on that shape, and caused him to walk on the outer edges of his feet as most cowboys did.
He was nice looking, with the crinkly good-humored eyes that smiled even when his mouth didn’t; he had a pencil-thin moustache, Clark Gable ears, and black hair which was almost always covered by a straw cowboy hat, even in winter; no warm felt hats for Charlie! I’d guess it was because they’d come from Mexico, by way of Ajo, Arizona, and heavier hats may have felt like punishment.
Margaret always said they were French, and that Charlie had a little Basque thrown in, though if she said it within Charlie’s hearing, he’d just look out the window or something, not confirming, not denying. I think it was bullshit, but she must have had her reasons for the fabrication, so I just nodded each time she mentioned it. No skin off my nose, but it made me kind of sad, really.
Margaret’s face first presented itself as stern. Her eyes were dark, her lips set in a straight line, and she had the sort of thick, durable skin made to stand up under hot climates. Deep creases at the inside her cheeks made her look a bit on the cranky side until she grinned at you; then her face lit up as if a dozen candles were inside, and her teeth would flash with disconcerting impudence. Her black hair was always curled, like she’d set it every night in rollers, and it turned under below her ears; she combed her bangs to the side, and they seemed to know they had damned well better stay there. No-nonsense would be a polite way to characterize her: iron-willed might be closer to the truth; formidable when roused. Thank God she played for the Good Team: she no doubt could have commanded armies!
“Now Charlie; you get out to the barn and check on those cows; two of them are ready to calve any minute now! Go on; we don’t want to lose them because you’re sitting here drinking coffee!” Charlie, of course, would take the hint, and head out. He’d report back later to her, and she’d call the next plays.
They’d never had kids, so they adopted us straight away. And when our friend, the blond, handsome, green-eyed Brian asked if he could remodel one of their bunkhouses to live in, Margaret was ecstatic: three kids to cook for and visit with; heaven had come early for her! No matter that we had jobs and chores and lives to live, she’d lure us over with her indomitable will; and yes, she frequently got her way. (Can I write ‘grin’ here?) She’d sometimes ask us to help her with small projects, but help wasn’t the point; company was.
Once Margaret enticed you into her kitchen, she would try every ploy in the book to keep you there: long stories, though they weren’t always such interesting stories, but you’d hate to walk out in the middle of one.
And she’d often bake something on the spot for visitors (they’d sort of be obliged to wait then). Then she’d talk about her mom.
“My mother knew how to stretch a dollar; she had four of kids us to cook for, and she’d get every last bit out of a can or bottle,” and as she’d break some eggs into her bowl, “and she’d take her finger like this,” she’d demonstrate, “and run it around inside the eggshell, and get every last bit out. She could stretch food like nobody’s business.” She’d shown me a dozen times, and it’s that little flourish that is Margaret in my memory, plus one other.
“Charlie always says I’m generous to a fault.” She might be in the middle of a story about someone she’d helped, or something she proposed to do for you, but she’d repeat the Charlie-ism with absolute confidence in the rightness of it, and utterly no shame in doing so. It was sort of grand, in a way, that she could be so proud of herself right out loud. Her face would get a little fierce-looking, as though she dared you to refute it. Who could? It was the truth, but it was hard not to laugh.
She loved arranging dinners and potlucks and parties; really the whole end of lower Webber Canyon loved them. Charlie must have, too; he always wanted to be in on the guest list, probably in large part because he had Alternate Funny Names for everyone.
“Are we going to invite the Orchids?” (Yep. The Evil Orgishes*) He’d make a face…
“How about the Giraffes?” (the Grafs) “The Poot-poots?” (the Potts) and so on. We never heard what he did with Davis; not much to go on there probably. Charlie wasn’t much of talker, so his little witticisms stood out, but you’d still wonder what other sentences took shape in his brain, but never made it out his mouth. Margaret talked pretty much non-stop, so it worked out well for them, I guess.
Margaret raised turkeys, and she had decreed that we cook one for Thanksgiving one year. I did manage to help her cut its head off (I held, she…uh…chopped), and may I say that it was not my favorite thing. (Ish.)
She hung it in a cool barn, and brought it to our house later that day: we were going to clean it, and de-feather it. Dipping it in a vat of boiling water, then plucking the feathers wasn’t great, but gutting it was the most disgusting thing I ever watched or smelled. I excused myself to go outside while she finished. I will do you the honor of skipping the rest. But it did prepare me a little for a later related activity.
We were living in a different place, and had brought our chickens with us from the orchard house. They had long since quit laying, and here we were feeding these useless birds, essentially running an Old Age Home for Poultry. It was altogether pretty stupid, and we talked of ‘dispatching’ the old things once in awhile, but didn’t. Neither of us had the heart for it. Then the roosters started getting mean: they would fly up and rake your legs with their damned spurs; it hurt; and it pissed me off.
My cousin Joan lived on the Florida Gold Coast, and she came for a week or two that summer. A gorgeous city girl, built like the proverbial brick (hen) house, fashionably dressed always, but this day in tight jeans, a white shirt with great pirate-sleeves, and high-heeled, knee-high leather boots, and just the right amount of gold jewelry. We were talking about the Chicken Conundrum: we really just didn’t want to kill them, and no foxes had conveniently stopped by to help us out. Now Mugs (that was her nickname) happened to be both practical and fearless.
“Now godammit, Wendy,” she said, “this is just stu-pid. I’ll help you kill the damned chickens. We’ll just do it, and that’s all there is to it. Now; what do we do?” Her hand was on her hip, and she blinked her big Italian eyes at me, once. (Yes, ma’am. Copy that.)
I loved Mugsy to pieces; she was funny and kind and caring, and the memory of her acting as the ramrod that day still has the power to bring me to my knees in laughter.
But we did it; thirteen old chickens died that day at the chopping block. She held them, her high-buffed leather boots and bling shining in the sun, her hands with their long, polished fingernails holding those old things by their legs, necks stretched out on the block, waiting for my guillotine. Oh god oh god oh god it was awful; her will made it possible, but I swore then I’d never have chickens again. And jeezus, did she have a story for her West Palm friends!
We spent time with her twice after that in Florida, and she came to us once more; she died of brain cancer not long after that last visit. I love you, Mugsy; you are and were the absolute best, and I miss you so much.
Just before Christmas Margaret told me that in Mexico, it’s traditional to make tamales (Mexico was just a slip of the tongue, yes?), and asked if I’d like to learn. I said, “Hot diggity,” and she gave me a list of ingredients to buy.
One day she, Brian and I spent most of the day cooking the meat and dried chiles and spices in a big pot, steaming corn husks, spreading masa on them, adding a dollop of filling and forming the little packages, then tying them with cornhusk strings. We steamed them in pots on the wood cookstove for an hour or two, and the steam from all the cooking fogged the windows as we sat in the kitchen cocoon listening to the radio with the warm smells of chiles and masa and friendship all around us.
In the spring Margaret discovered she had high blood pressure, and they moved back to Ajo; we missed them. Charlie died from a heart attack a year after that, and for all I know Margaret is still commanding other armies somewhere in Arizona.
I dream of that orchard a lot, in different seasons and different times of day. There are always birds there, birds I dream up, and they are always spectacular. Bright swatches of colors and patterns: one might have a white body with turquoise wings and a bright yellow breast, another might be purple with swathes of white, and a metallic green feather crown. And some are huge. I carry them around, or they go plunk themselves into the apple trees until they’re ready to fall like stars into my arms. Some are big as hassocks, but light to carry, and lots of them talk; though they don’t really say anything noteworthy; it’s not like they’re oracles or anything. Smaller ones can ride on my shoulders, or those of anyone who happens to be sharing my dream.
My favorite version has the trees all silver-white, with green leaves only at the tippy-tops, and the setting sun lights them in peach chiaroscuro, and as I move about, the colors change. Shadows and light and vibrant colors; that orchard gives Good Dream.