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-pidI’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.

Share
up
15 users have voted.

Comments

Steven D's picture

A joy to read.

up
9 users have voted.

"You can't just leave those who created the problem in charge of the solution."---Tyree Scott

wendy davis's picture

@Steven D

my friend. ; )

up
5 users have voted.
Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@Steven D

Thank you for the refreshment of the spirit.

up
7 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

wendy davis's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

given all the overly-abundant sturm and drang in the background. thanks for reading, as well as feeling refreshed, amiga. it's 3-loaves-of-bread day for me, and it's time to go shape my little loaves and tuck them in their pans for their final proofing.

up
7 users have voted.
Alligator Ed's picture

Poetry in prose. Now to inject some baser ideas. My nose quivers with the scent of herons descending from the sky to land blissfully unaware near me as I float quietly in the swamp. Perhaps you didn't know that I had such a good way with words.

up
7 users have voted.
wendy davis's picture

@Alligator Ed

brilliant way with words, especially when it comes to available victuals. ; )

now your friend wd and mr. wd are likely the only tourists to have ever been chased down the florida turnpike by a very annoyed gator. we'd stopped at a rest stop, went out back of it to look at what may or may not have been a sewage lagoon. spying a gator on the far bank, we'd bot grabbed our binoculars to get a closer look, and so focused were we on the visible gator, we'd neglected to note another had jammed across toward us, climbed ashore, and luckily made some sort of growl to er...made his presence known.

his wife must have been on a nest, and boy, howdy, did he believe we were Dangers to his family! we took off, he took off, and luckily once he'd reckoned we were far enough away, he let us get into our car to blessed safety.

later that day, we'd stopped at a park ranger station with wall posters showing which boardwalk trails over the swamp one could take to See the Alligators. "are there fences?" wd squeaked in someone else's falsetto?" the assembled people, or course, cracked up. after being assured that we wouldn't become Gator Dinner, away we board-walked thru the swamp, but quite warily, after remembering ourselves having been required to jitter-bug our way down the turnpike yelling 'see ya later, alligator!'

up
8 users have voted.
Alligator Ed's picture

@wendy davis You see, my relatives aren't all bad, else you or mr wd would have been alligator feed.

up
5 users have voted.
wendy davis's picture

@Alligator Ed

come to that, eh? we even watch old dudes sitting on the boardwalks, with gator eyes three feet away from them. but seeing the bird life, including the herons ad egrets, was simply sublime. oddly enough, great blues come through here and nest on the river most years. i have one of their feathers hanging on the post right beside me. one flew into a catch pond below us and dropped it before landing.

up
7 users have voted.
Lookout's picture

We had an older couple down the valley that adopted us. They were like a Foxfire book that grew up in our area, and it was a delight...so I understand your sentiment. Generational and regional wisdom imparted.

Apples are a joy too...you can get a buzz off of them in several ways. I'm planting more of them next winter...more chestnuts too. Gonna experiment with Hazel nuts...never grown them.

Read recently of potential droughts and made me think of the ancient ones and their challenges....Challenges that will take our collective wisdom and strength.

up
7 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

wendy davis's picture

@Lookout

the foxfire books! exactly so, and i'm so glad you had your own adoptive couple, lookout! we had so many salt of the earth neighbors back in the day, and i've memorialized a lot of them over time.

on edit: i'd stuck up 'albert the blacksmith' in dec. of last year, and oh, my, were he and elsie salt of the earth de facto family for us.

yes, to apples, and when we homesteaded this place, we'd planted over 200 trees and bushes, and oh, what a green, oxygen-rich environment this hill is! mr. wd loves fruit, not i so much, but plums, pears, six kinds of apples, and so on. the deer love the apples, of course, and we usually save buckets-full of them to entice the big bucks to stay in the late fall so they might allow me to take their pictures.

getting mating photo turned out to be difficult, but i did get one shot of a pair who weren't quite as private about their coupling as most. oddly enough, just after i pasted in this post this morning, a small herd of 3-and4-point bucks in velvet came through to nibble on the apple leaves. sadly, the blossoms had all frozen in some weird snow and ice storms as had most of the perennial flowers (mr. wd calls them 'the tribulations') earlier.

now hazelnuts and other nuts, what a joy that would be to harvest. to go pluck some protein off a tree....mmmm, mmmmm. we're at 7000 feet elevation, usually a 90-day growing season, but we try to extend it with row covers, even though by now our garden is wee compared to the old one at the base of the hill on which our hogan's built.

ancient wisdom: i'll raise my cup to that!

up
9 users have voted.
Lookout's picture

@wendy davis

Eliot Wigginton was arrested and served time for child molestation.
https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/1994/01/01/4wig.h05.html
It was sad to see the destruction of such a great concept. Kids interviewing and learning from elders...and then writing about it.

He compared prison with schools in one article he wrote. Sad story really...

In some ways, life inside prison mimics that in the public schools. In both places, the way the institution responds to the individual's desire to seek meaning in life makes all the difference.

http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec93/vol51/num0...

Someone who gave so much taken down so far...

up
8 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

wendy davis's picture

@Lookout

but it reminds me a bit (yes, only a bit) of stewart brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, coming out pro-nuclear power. both that catalog, later Firefoxes, were hippie back-to-the-land bibles.

i will freely admit that mr. wd and i were both born far too late to pull it off, as the cost of land, machinery, taxes were prohibitive to actually making a financial go of it. fancy my silliness: having known celestial seasonings' mo seigel back in the day in boulder, i'd thought we might grow herbs for him.

up
7 users have voted.
Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@wendy davis

I'm betting it was post-1980. Am I right?

up
3 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

wendy davis's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

i'd have to spend time looking it up, as i really don't know. also, i now live in a permanent time dream post-brain damage. i even have to mark on the calendar which day i wash my hair, as i try only to wash it every two days. seriously. ; ) mr. wd even got me a dayclock we hung on the bedroom wall. but it only helps so much, lol.

but i was just musing about 'heroes with feet of clay', as there have been soooo many, including the global political class. hero turned comprador alexis tsipras, for one current example (sigh).

but of course james hansen has as well, and an org similar to (if not exactly) 'the union of concerned scientists', their motto is the old dictate: 'trust, but verify', as if that's possible.

up
4 users have voted.
Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@wendy davis

up
1 user has voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

wendy davis's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

but it's a most ignorant form of desperation, imo, i he reckons nuclear as an answer to climate chaos. to me, at such a late day as this, anything close to clean, drinkable water is of key importance. think what about uranium mines do to the water around them, slurrying the minerals, and above all: no close-to-adequate way to store the spent rods. hell, they're been trying and failing for decades to 'deal with' the waste at hansford nuclear reservation to the tune of almost a trillion dollars, iirc, and it's still leaking into watersheds, then into the sea, constantly.

i did do some inquiry into how that affects oceans, as well as the ocean as an ever-declining carbon sink, but of course...i've forgotten all of it by now. but srsly, some do believe nuclear power is pretty safe, and as with 'electric cars' (never mind where that electricity comes from), not seeing exhaust or coal smoke means it's 'clean energy', that term that still slays me. as does: 'renewable energy' rather than 'sustainable' energy.

up
2 users have voted.
Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal's picture

@wendy davis

And anyway, nuclear power has no answer for the unassailable power of the petrochemical barons and their military industrial friends. Even if it were a good energy solution (which it isn't, due to the reasons you list), that wouldn't matter. The problem of climate is not a policy problem; it's a political problem, one we currently have no answer for.

up
2 users have voted.

Actually, the issue at stake is patriotism. You must return to your world and put an end to the Commies. All it takes are a few good men.
--Q

Exit polls not involving George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton tend to be quite accurate.
--Doug Hatlem

wendy davis's picture

@Cant Stop the Macedonian Signal

solution, indeed. (i just deleted three longish paragraphs concerning your final sentence so as not to highjack this thread further.)
; )

best to you and kate, amiga; may she keep healing.

up
2 users have voted.
lotlizard's picture

Rather than being haunted by the past, we can be heartened by it. Mahalo!

up
4 users have voted.
wendy davis's picture

@lotlizard

many cases, isn't it? not all, even in this salt-of-the earth valley, but still...

and mahalo to you, lotlizard. hope life's good for you and yours in dresden.

up
3 users have voted.
Deja's picture

Very nice story, and writing; just super nice!

But I'm curious as to what you did with all the chickens after you and your friends killed them.

up
1 user has voted.
wendy davis's picture

@Deja

and it made me laugh. how very practical of you! but then, given your avatar... as they were far too old even to stew, we took them up the hill behind the house and into the forest to feed those magnificent clean-up crews: the turkey vultures. as a side note, about nine vultures were sitting one to a fence post east of house (most with wings outstretched) a few springs ago. i did go out to see if there might be a dead horse, deer, or whatever. nope. i snapped their pics, and yelled: "yeah, just wait a week or two; i know you've come for me, but today ain't the day! hoka hey! next wednesday's a good day to die!'

glad you enjoyed it deja, although it was just me and mugsy who'd dispatched them. and one...arrrggh, did escape her clutch, and did run around for awhile squawking in that morbid way... but as far as i can recall, her fine threads had nary a drop of blood on them. a miracle! ; )

but from that day forward, we could walk out back to the outhouse with no fear of attacks by those cursed roosters! catching them? aha! more ancient wisdom: untwist and straighten a wire clothes hanger, grab their legs with the hook near the ground.
dayum, i loved that woman witlessly.

up
3 users have voted.