Vitis Californica


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Berkeley writer, Simone Martel, is the author of a novel, A Cat Came Back, a memoir, The Expectant Gardener, and a story collection, Exile’s Garden  [+]

Image of Short Circuit #02

Emma pads through the living room, over the thick, ivory carpet, and settles on the chaise longue with her wineglass. As she tastes the cold white wine, her gaze falls to the fields on the valley floor. Those huge squares of land, edged by irrigation ditches, bisected with roads and sliced into furrows, are the sheets of graph paper on which she daily works and reworks the inevitable mathematical problems. At these times, the magnificent view from Hillcrest feels more like a burden than a blessing. It’s always there, distracting and troubling her.

In the morning, the pickers arrive at the fields in trucks and troop over the land. Later, the duster plane swoops low over the fields, then rises and races the cars on the freeway. Now, in late afternoon, the produce trucks leave the farms, each truck pulling a pair of ton-sized bins loaded with tomatoes that, according to her husband, bring fifty dollars a ton at the cannery down south. Each truck equals a hundred dollars, and she counts in her head—one hundred dollars, two hundred dollars—as the trucks crawl away.

Her husband is in real estate, hence this lovely house on the hill. Still, she can’t forget her origins, because the view never lets her stop seeing it. When she was girl, she lived down by the fields. Close up, the seedlings looked like things, not plants—small green-gray objects, evenly spaced in rows. Her dad worked as a mechanic, tinkering with the field equipment, not very successfully, so that he often neglected to pay the rent for two, three months, or until the sheriff gave them notice. Then she and her brother and their parents moved someplace else.

One summer—she hasn’t thought of this in years—they couldn’t find a landlord to accept them, so they spent the autumn sleeping in their station wagon at the campground by the river, using the fire pit and cold showers. Eventually they moved back into another house and lived there, pulling the curtains when the rent man visited, managing to hide for a time, until the sheriff again drove out to padlock the front door.

Emma closes her eyes and drains her glass. She’s been ill, but is doing better now, will return to work soon. She should’ve returned to the shop weeks ago. She’s letting the other women down. Sitting at home brooding about the past won’t help.

She opens her eyes, glances sideways at the fields below, then away again. Why even look? Year after year the crops are the same, onions in winter, tomatoes in summer. The crops grow, men harvest them, but there’s no change. Hard, then, to escape the past.

A car door slams in the driveway below the window. She hurries into the kitchen to set down her wineglass, then slips into the powder room to check her eye makeup for smudges. In the mirror, a woozy face gazes back with the eyes of someone roused from a nap, though she hasn’t been sleeping, just daydreaming. Her short, dark hair bristles in different directions. She smooths it with wet hands. Still her appearance appalls her. Odd, for a woman who works in a fashionable boutique. The cobalt blue hostess gown has betrayed her since she pulled it on after her bath. No longer expensive-looking, it’s a bathrobe flung on to hide a dumpy body.

Her husband’s footsteps tramp around to the front, trudge up the steps, his key scrapes in the lock. She bolts out of the powder room to the stairs as he enters the hall.

“I’m going down to change,” she calls back to him and pads downstairs humming to drown out an imaginary reply to her own words: “You’ll never change.”

Downstairs in the bedroom, she turns on a light to chase away the darkness. Her husband thinks her vain because she likes nice clothes. He’s wrong, though. She uses nice clothes. At parties, at work, running errands, her clothes protect her.

She unzips the blue hostess gown and lets it fall into a heap at her feet. In the closet, she pulls a severe black dress off a hanger and puts that on instead, then crams her feet into pointy shoes and hangs an amethyst bead necklace around her neck. Why this particular piece of jewelry now? She hasn’t worn it in years. She hears her mother’s weary voice. “You kids are running wild.” Her mother, cooking chili over the campfire, shakes her head.

Emma stands with one hand on the light switch, the other fingering her necklace with its beads like tiny grapes. Of course, she remembers, now. Wild grapes grew all around the campground by the river, the tall, thick vines weaving together overhead. She and her brother played in the shadows, reaching up to touch heart-shaped leaves larger than their hands and to pick the pendulous clusters of tiny, seedy grapes. They nibbled hundreds of them, spitting out the seeds.

Emma switches out the light and climbs upstairs, humming again.

“There you are,” her husband says.

“I’m going back to work in a day or two,” she says, walking past him to the living room window. The sun sets off to the west, by the delta. The low light hits the top of the furrows, drops shadows into the hollows. She looks away from the harsh stripes, to the treetops growing near the levee. If the wild grapevines are gone, and they probably are, she doesn’t want to know about it, not now, so she won’t ask her husband, or tell him about swinging on the ropy vines and leaping, free, into the cold water, then running up the bank in her bathing suit to warm herself at the campfire.   

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