Over the Grapevine down into the Central Valley, you travel through the dried-up hills of the Tejon Pass with the blond grass and parched landscape. You pass the water museum and Pyramid Lake and Smokey Bear Road and you pass through a little town called Gorman split by the highway with two fast- food restaurants and two gas stations and one vintage furniture store. There are signs advising drivers to turn off their air-conditioning to avoid overheating. An hour and a half north of Hollywood, you crest and descend toward a 23,000-square-mile quilted valley floor in varying shades of brown and green. More than twenty thousand acres of the best land in that valley belonged to Dad. He had assembled his ranch entirely on his own, beginning with one hundred acres his parents had bequeathed.
On the road from Bakersfield to Fresno, the farms on either side have small blue signs identifying what’s grown there: table grapes, wine grapes, pomegranates. English walnuts, peaches, nectarines, almonds. Apricots, pistachios, plums. For years there were oranges, but the oranges were replaced by clementines and soon after the clementines were replaced by pistachios. Everyone grows pistachios these days, or almonds. Even the packing house that used to bundle small wooden boxes of tangerines now sorts and distributes nuts. I can tell the difference between the peaches and the nectarines before I see the sign: the leaves of the nectarine tree start to go brown earlier in the summer.
Anne can’t even tell the almonds from apricots.
Before Gorman there was a sign advertising Guns and wine: This Exit. Farther on, a billboard with a rejoicing grandmother said Bingo! Where shouting is fun! Other signs reminded us that Jesus Is Lord, Abortion Stops a Beating Heart, and No Water = No Jobs.
White grapes were getting picked: Thompsons, chardonnay, sauvignon. The chenin blanc and some of the early viognier. Picking started in the south and followed the weather north. From the Grapevine to Bakersfield, pickups and water tents and harvesting trucks lined up against the fences of the highway. When Bakersfield was done, Tulare would get started, and Visalia, and Selma, and then Fresno and the north.
Past the dairies in Hanford, you could smell the cows for twenty miles.
Fresno smelled like dust and the start of rotting fruit. It was afternoon when we arrived and the sun was high and hot. Once we got out of the center of town, off the 99 down Avenue 7 halfway to Firebaugh, through the vineyards on the one-lane road to the house, you could begin to smell the briny river and the algae that grows up the sides of canals. It had been the third bad year in a row for water; the canals were nearly empty. The smell of the river and the dust in the vineyards always made me homesick, homesick while I was standing right there at home.
“I think I’m developing a limp,” I said.
“Okay,” Anne said. She pulled my small suitcase out of the back. “Don’t angle for attention when I’m already giving it to you.”
“I can’t move.” I sat in the car with the door open. The heat hit you hard enough to make your ears ring, an open-handed smack. The air was sharp with dust.
“You’re being pathetic.” She dragged the suitcase through the carport to the kitchen. “You need to get something in you.” Through the screen door I saw our mother playing solitaire at the table in her nightgown, the back of her hair pushed up flat into a pile from sleeping, her free hotel slippers worn through to the soles. Mother had a whole closet full of free hotel slippers still in their canvas bags, but she would keep washing the old ones until they entirely disintegrated. Free hotel slippers last longer than you think. Mother had been collecting them for thirty years.
“Let me finish this game,” Mom said to Anne as she came through the door. “This does not look good!” she said to the cards, shaking her head. “This is not good,” as if she blamed our arrival.
“It’s sweltering in here,” Anne said.
“We’re conserving electricity,” Mother said.
“It’s a hundred degrees out there,” Anne said. “Turn on the air, will you?”
“Have some ice water,” Mother told her. “There she is!” Mother called out to the car. “Don’t sit there, Inky. Come inside.”
“It’s cooler in the car,” Anne said.
“If you would like to pay the electric bill, Anne, that’s fine,” Mother said.
“What’s wrong with the screen door?” It didn’t slam behind me the way it usually did. The spring was broken.
“I don’t know,” Mom said. “You step into this house and you start complaining. When I ask for your opinion, you don’t give it. When I don’t want it, you’re yakkin’ all over the place.” One eyelash extension wobbled independently of the rest.
“This house is falling apart,” Anne said. “Don’t you fall apart, Mother.”
“Me,” Mother said, “I am entirely put together.” She smoothed down the front of her wild hair. “I just got up.” Tiny pieces of down were stuck in the dark curls around her face. “How was the drive?” She hugged me. She was damp with sweat and she smelled like sleep.
Anne said, “The rumors are true. There’s not a tree full of fruit between here and Ventura.”
“Now the nut guys are worried,” Mother said. “Walter’s almonds have started dropping their leaves, the hulls have begun to split too early. A thousand acres or so. Every farmer in town is thrilled.”
“And scared,” I said.
No matter how much love you feel for another farmer, no matter if he’s your brother or your best friend, no farmer ever wants another to do well. Walter grew a strain of large, beautiful almonds and, during good years, got a premium from the specialty food people. While all the other nut guys might be delighted at Walter’s misfortune (it would mean, after all, higher prices for their own crop), every one of them could be terrorized by the very possibility of early hull split on his own trees.
“Everyone’s afraid,” Mother said, and scraped a spot of breakfast from the front of her dressing gown. There was not supposed to be a lot of money this year, or demand, even for the large and lovely almonds. “No one knows if what killed the stone fruit is going to kill the nuts, too.”
“Or all the drupe,” I said.
“Yes,” said Mother.
“We hear this every year,” Anne said.
That June, the peaches didn’t grow. The leaves of the peach trees wilted and curled and sprung pits with no flesh. There were no fruit flies, no infestations of worms. That year, the peaches had been stunted by water-stressed trees and a fungus nothing seemed to kill. “But we’re fine, you don’t want to hear about us,” Mother said. “Or do you want to hear?”
“Yes, we do,” I said.
“You know, those peaches they get from South America are grown in human shit,” Mother said.
“We know about the South American peaches,” I said. When I first moved to Los Angeles, the sewer in Howard’s backyard had exploded. Months later, in that patch of grass to the side of the house where the toilet paper and feces and old tampons had come up, tomatoes appeared so plentiful, the vines so tall and abundant, I thought for a week the tomatoes were bougainvillea. Seeds must have made their way through the disposal. The vines grew up the side of the house and over the fence shared with the cranky neighbor. Those tomatoes were more delicious even than the ones my grandmother had grown. They were more delicious than any fruit I had eaten in years.
“Don’t get me started on the peaches from Georgia.”
Anne said, “We know the peaches from Georgia, Mom.” The peaches grown in Georgia, like most of the peaches grown in California the years we could grow peaches, were grown for color and for cold-storage endurance. They tasted like nothing, like wood pulp. Dad’s peaches were yellowy orange and didn’t store very well, but they tasted the way a peach ought to taste, like sun and sugar, and Dad’s peaches were so juicy you had to eat them over a sink.
“The Georgia peaches are just not fruit. They’re barely drupe. You should see the commercials they’re running on television. Have you seen the commercials?”
“Are there commercials?” I didn’t mention that this year, and for three years running, the California peaches were barely drupe. I really hadn’t seen the commercials.
“They’re running commercials with worms coming out of our peaches. We don’t even have worms this year.”
Anne said, “You don’t even have peaches.”
“You can imagine your father. All those years with that bank, and now what they’ve done to him. You can imagine.”
“Yes,” Anne said.
“But you don’t want to hear about us. What can I make you to eat?” Mother said.
Anne said, “She won’t eat.”
“Can’t,” I said.
“She might have to see the doctor,” Anne said.
“No one sees a doctor over a breakup,” my mother said. “Do you mean a shrink? Do you have a fever?”
“Ingrid, if you don’t start eating, I’m going to take you to the hospital, but a bad hospital. With rats,” Anne said.
“I want to go to the hospital.”
“We can find you a shrink, Ingrid,” Mother said. “I’m sure there must be some decent shrinks here in Fresno.”
“I am not going to see some Fresno shrink,” I said. “I’m going to stay here for a few days and sleep.”
“Do you want to talk about what happened?”
The kitchen window looked out to the yard, terraced down to the river. Each of the terraces indicated a year that peaches and grapes had done well. The tennis court for the year I was in fourth grade and peaches were forty dollars a box. The swimming pool the year I was in seventh and Dad put in the packing plant. The landscaping and floodlights along the river one of the years no one else could grow cabernet. This year, the grass on the terraces had gone brown from neglect and the untended swimming pool was green like the river and canals.
“How about a fried egg?” my mother said. “A fried egg will make you feel better.”
“I told you, she won’t do it,” Anne said. “But you should have a slice of nectarine or something, Ingrid.”
“There are no nectarines,” Mother said.
“No nectarines either?”
“You could have grapes,” Mother said. “We have plenty of grapes.”
Vines would save us. That’s what the tree fruit people always say — when the tree fruit doesn’t work, the vines save you. Years you can’t sell your grapes or the rain comes before the raisins are dry, the peaches and nectarines and almonds keep you going.
“Give her a drink,” Anne said to our mother.
“It’s not even three.”
“Give her a drink, it’s got grain in it.” Anne took a tumbler from the cabinet and piled it with frozen Thompson seedless, one of the earliest grapes to be harvested in the valley, grapes that Mother had probably picked herself from the vines near the house, individually washed and plucked from the rachis and placed in freezer bags to be used instead of ice. “And loads of nutritious fruit,” Anne said, pouring five counts of vodka to the rim. “Eat,” she said, handing me the glass.
Mother said, “I don’t like that, Anne. I don’t like it.” She went back to her cards.
I drank the vodka and I ate the slushy, vodka-soaked grapes, and then I ate a piece of bread from a loaf open on the counter.
“One piece of bread at a time,” Anne said.
It was easier to eat after I’d had a drink.
“If we have to drink vodka, we drink it with grapes,” Mother said.
“She has to drink vodka,” Anne said.
I ate the bread and went upstairs. The house continued to vibrate with the sound of voices from the kitchen.
Mom and Dad built the house on the river when Anne and I were tiny. It had long 1970s ranch- type lines, open Frank Lloyd Wright spaces finished with red Mexican tiles and dark wood. There was an enormous fireplace in the living room — twelve feet wide and six feet high — large enough so that the huge trunks of felled walnut trees could be brought in to burn. Mr. Ellison next door grew almonds and walnuts, and kept Mom and Dad in giant-sized firewood. Sometimes, in December or January, with the flue left open, the wind would come down that chimney like thunder, like an earthquake, and the white walls of the living room would turn black with ash.
Mother considered building the house on the river the great achievement of her life. On the coffee table in the living room, she kept a thirty-year-old copy of Sunset magazine, the cover faded into beige, featuring a six- page spread of the house just after it was finished. Inside, Mother and Dad were thin and glamorous, glossy and coifed in their riverside vineyard.
My old bedroom had framed pictures of me as Helen Keller in the fifth grade and packs of girls at Friday-night football games. (Stella was dead now, killed on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle; Eileen had developed a cocaine habit to accompany her eating disorders and married the son of a developer in town; I’d heard that Bootsie had returned to Fresno well after our falling out in New York — Bootsie, I missed her the most.) My slouchy high school silhouette, carved by George Sweet from the side of a Kleenex box, still wedged into the windowpane, exactly where he had put it fifteen years ago. Sweet George Sweet.
I liked the heat. You could feel it in your chest, like an emotion. The heat was something you could count on. I took off my clothes and fell asleep, the kind of sleep so heavy you don’t know how long you’ve been under by the time you get up.