THE BLOG
08/19/2013 07:48 am ET | Updated Oct 19, 2013

Lemon Trees In California

Getty

Before the weather turned, the Santa Ana winds arrived, and after my husband left me, I started jogging in the early mornings. The gray light spread itself over the tract houses while the particulate matter from manufacturing plants settled to the ground--at that time each day the dog and I were on the road. At first I was self-conscious of my body image, jiggling a small belly roll over pudgy legs on a 5'4" frame. But I smothered my cleavage in three small spandex shirts from the Baldwin Park Goodwill over blue baggy men's sweat pants. I had never jogged before, just as I had never been set foot in the ocean, which was less than two hours away.
I lowered my head to avoid the potholes and raised chunks of sidewalk. With the Shepherd pulling on its leash, I dodged debris from the lemon trees dying on the shoulders. Someone had been hopeful in planting those trees--I thought, sneakers flapping against cement--but being hopeful didn't work out too well for them. Mrs. McGill was already seated on her rattan porch chair. "Is that dog in my hydrangeas?" came her hoarse voice from a distance. Panting and unable to respond, I shook my head at the old lady and jogged past her dead lawn--there were no hydrangeas. I wanted to yell back the kind of remark that would silence her for good, like maybe, you are the de-ranged-a, but instead I swallowed a gulp of air that tasted like morning dew mixed with yesterday's smog. Then the dog and I passed the Harkus property--Harkus was the local pharmacist--lined with the rubber tires his son had found on the shoulder of the interstate.

Before leaving that morning I peeked in on our two children, sleeping peacefully in the only two rooms besides the bathroom with closing doors. Last summer I engaged my husband in a series of arguments to move our daughter out of the second bedroom into her own room. I won that argument but I lost the war. The kids couldn't share a room anymore, I told him, as Marissa was in high school. So we moved our bedroom into the front room. It was soon after that he left us. I didn't know if it was sleeping on the couch that pushed him out, but I knew, after the fact, that it contributed. He left no forwarding address, but he remembered to take his box of condoms. That made me think that maybe there was another woman.

The dog and I had now reached the path that ran alongside a concrete dugout referred to as the wash or "el arroyo" by some. Those who called it "el arroyo" did so sarcastically since it was more of a gutter than a riverbed. There was a chain-linked fence that divided that the weed-strewn path from the wash and beyond that, a deserted field with a few abandoned oil pumps. The cement wash moved the rainwater out of town and toward the ocean. I knew this because of the painted signs on the concrete that showed waves in a circle of blue with the warning: Save our oceans: don't dump toxic waste. Although I often wondered about it, I didn't know if this particular wash actually dumped in the ocean, but someday I was going to follow the path all the way there.

I thought more than once of getting rid of the dog, who was really my husband's dog and had a disagreeable nature. I wished that he had taken him when he left, but once he was gone, I didn't have the heart to leave his animal at the pound. As we padded along in a line, I tried to imagine the surroundings before the arrival of the Spanish friars. At that time, the Serrano and Cahuilla tribes cohabited here. Then the people from Mexico, my ancestors on my father's side, settled northward and eked out a sustainable living until Polk's manifest destiny. Now the oil pumps were spattered in among the weeds of the otherwise barren fields on the far side of the wash. Most of them were unused and rusted in place. Where the wash made a turn and the oilfields changed into recreational parks, the dog and I turned around and headed back home for a shower and the workday. Pumping my arms to gain that last bit of energy, I identified some rabbit brush and service-berry in the dirt between the fence and the cement. A few songbirds chirruped in the scrub, but our presence kept them out of sight.

Just then a shadow passed overhead and spooked the dog. There was a scream like tearing silk. I looked up to see a red-tailed hawk flying due south. A small live thing fell from the grips of the hawk, hit the ground, and disappeared into the brush. I pulled the dog's leash and brought him to the fence where I hoped to catch a glimpse of the creature, but there was no sign. I figured it must have been a mouse. The hawk circled a few times overhead, shrieking, then disappeared.

Seeing the rodent reminded me of my afternoon obligations--to get a so-called feeder mouse for our son Benji's snake. My husband had caught that gopher snake at just about this same place a month ago. I thought about the snake ensconced in a glass cage in a Benji's room. It hadn't eaten anything in all that time. I was ready to let the snake free in the yard until I saw Benji's math homework spread out on the table one night. At the bottom of the sheet of multiplication problems, there were doodles, crudely done, of stick figures, one stick figure standing outside the door of a house, and two figures more inside the house embracing each other. A caption under the picture read: Dad is a cheat. Later that day I took Benji to Sam's Aquarium on Riverside Dr. to find get a mouse for the snake to eat. After scouting through the store for several minutes, Benji approached with a man carrying a two-foot gopher snake. "We don't sell feeder mice," he said. "All of our mice are pets." Then he handed me a dirty sheet of paper with a name and address on it. "Here's where you get your mice," he said.

"Do I get live ones or dead ones?" I asked. The man looked at me as if I were an ugly stain on his shirt. "Live ones," he said. The snake only had to eat every two weeks or so, he continued, as if that solved the problem.

Breathing steadily again, I turned around, and jogged all the way back to the first house on our block, the dog at my rear despite the fact that he was on a leash. He was a strange dog. Sitting on his cracked cement steps of his squalid hovel was Señor Hinojos, stroking his pet rooster.
I kept my head down as we passed Hinojos and his dingy place. Ever since the old man had lost his job--and won a rooster at the county fair--he spent most of the morning grooming the fowl. It followed him around the yard like a noontime shadow. I distrusted Señor Hinojos' motives, and concluded that he was deeply involved in illegal activities. I did not agree with cockfighting

Inside the front door again, I found the children arguing at the threshold of the bathroom. The dog took its place on the rug in front of the stuffed chair and observed us.

"Why does she use that stinky gel?" Benji wailed. He was bare-chested in his locomotive pajamas. "I can't even go in the bathroom. Everything smells!" "Benji's such a doof," Marissa shot back. She was wearing her pink chiffon nighty, with oversized slippers, her black hair partially braided and a toothbrush hanging out of her mouth.

Gathering my breath and expanding my chest, I yelled, "Everywhere else you can disagree, but let's have peace this house!"

They gave me an odd look as they finished dressing. I wasn't one to yell at them, generally. Marissa broke the silence at the breakfast table with, "Do you work late tonight, Mom?"

"There's play practice after school that I have to help with. There are leftovers in the fridge, and I expect you to catch up on the dishes. We're into the second day."

"What kind of play?" Marissa asked.

"Well, it's supposed to be a tragedy, but it has a very good chance of being a comedy," I replied.

"Really?" she asked. I was actually surprised she had listened to me.

"It's The Crucible by Arthur Miller, and it's way over these kids' heads."

"I'd like to see it," she said.

"Okay, let's go tomorrow night."

"Mom?" asked Benji, clearing his plate.

"What?"

"Sidewinder's hungry." His cupid lips formed a pout.

"I know. I have an appointment this afternoon." He mumbled a chastened 'thanks' and left the table.

Hearing the last of the door slams, I poured myself a final cup of coffee.

I took my mug to the sink and added it to the tower of dirty dishes. I left the house carrying an empty peanut butter jar with holes knocked into the lid, along with my classical guitar, the prop in my lesson plan called Boogaloos.

In skirt and flats, calves aching a bit from the jog, I stood at the whiteboard in front of twenty rowdy teenagers. Mrs. Sweeney was reviewing vocabulary words from The Crucible, while I wrote the words on the board that would later appear on the test. The room was stuffy and hot. I could feel sweat in the vamps of my shoes. The windows were stuck shut to keep out the air smelling of meat carcasses that were being processed at the nearby plant.

In the back of the room, Brad Roundtree took a big bite out of a barbeque-beef sandwich. The grease dripped down his chin onto the yellowed t-shirt that covered his lanky frame. Beside him, Elise Groves sniggered, obviously lovestruck. Mrs. Sweeney made a sharp comment about the sandwich, and Brad stuck the uneaten portion back into his paper bag.

From a row beside him Jimmy Chang stood up, squared off his huge body, and bellowed, "Where's our civil rights? I thought we had freedom in this country." Mrs. Sweeney calmly explained to the class that the rules of the school were for the good of all.

"But I don't care if Roundtree eats," said Chang, still standing. "How is it good for me if he can't eat? As far as I can tell, it would be better for me if we could all eat."

"It's not better for me," said Mrs. Sweeney, "and I make the rules here. When you eat, you're not paying attention."

"I concentrate better when my stomach's full," said Brad, having been buoyed up by his buddy Chang. He turned to the class. "I'm a reduced lunch-er--I'm always hungry."

Mrs. Sweeney ignored him and began lecturing again. This time it really was a lecture. They would be performing in two nights, she reminded them, and they were behind schedule. Brad looked around uncertainly for additional support from the class, but got none, so he didn't pull out his sandwich again.

As Mrs. Sweeney started to talk about the symbolism in the play, a drop of sweat trickled down from her gray hairdo. I felt sorry for Mrs. Sweeney. Even though the class was making substantial progress toward the production of Miller's play, I knew that most of the students thought of a crucible as the thing you held above a Bunsen burner to melt cocaine into free base.

All except Chang. He was the most outspoken, but he was also the most quick-witted. From the first day of class Jimmy Chang latched on to the idea of figurative language. Whenever Mrs. Sweeney would assign a new piece of writing, Chang would burst out of his seat and bellow, "When are we going to talk about the fig'ative language?" Chang was the only one in the class who could understand that the crucible could also refer to the mental trial all the characters were going through.

The two boys reminded me of my brother Junior, whose real name was Anthony. I had heard from other family members he got a job as a framer for an L.A.-based construction company. Like Chang, Anthony had a great sense of humor and sensitivity to language. As with Brad, I loved his loyalty and dark, brilliant eyes. I hadn't seen him since our father's funeral three years ago. We had already lost our mother to late onset diabetes, and the second funeral in two years tugged at the family unity. It was no secret that my brother hated my husband, and when the latter arrived late to our father's funeral, Anthony stared me down and wouldn't speak with me all day. Tired from having made dozens of cupcakes for the reception in the basement of the church, I barely noticed him, but I was aware of his absence after months went by and no visit and no word. As far as I knew, he didn't even know that my husband had left me.

The vocabulary lesson was over, and Mrs. Sweeney left to sneak an afternoon catnap in the teachers' lounge. I was prepared to step in with my lesson from a book called Boogaloos. The lesson went as follows: have the students to bring something that they feel represents them (a boogaloo). Some people get a family picture, a postcard, a schoolbook, etc. Seat the group in a circle. Give each member five minutes to get out their boogaloo and share.

I took out my guitar. To a class of heads, half with eyes glazed and half with jaws dropped in amazement, I plucked out the only Spanish song that I knew, De Colores. My voice cracked, but none of the students giggled or even fidgeted. Then Elise raised her hand. In a tiny voice she shared her postcard collection, a misshapen book filled with dog-eared postcards--all of beach scenes. "I like beach pictures because I've never been there."

"You live less than an hour away and you've never been?" declared Chang.

"When I learn to drive I'm gonna take myself. You gotta problem with that?"

"I'll take you there right now if you want," he answered. Elise shook her head vigorously.

"Not everyone's been to the beach," I said, "So let's move on." As they displayed their keepsakes, the students referred to the word "boogaloo" many times. There were pictures of intact families, an "A" paper, and a prized GI Joe given by an older brother who was now deceased.

"Shot by a gangmember," the student said. The circle inhaled and swayed like a field of wheat.

Then Chang approached and asked if he could play my guitar. "I won't break it," he said, his body looming over me. I smiled at him. "It's an old guitar," I said.

I handed it over and sat back in my chair. I marveled as Chang's sausage fingers flew up and down the neck of the guitar. It was an original piece, with only one line: "'M needin' you."

"Chang, that's the best that thing's ever sounded. Do you have one?"

"Sure thing, Miz Mock. Woulda brought it for my boogaloo, but I didn't think we could bring anything that big."

"What did you bring?"

"Brought a poem I wrote. A love poem." He handed me a sheet of paper that was torn and dog-eared, a paper that had been folded and unfolded many times. I took a quick glance at the text and was surprised to find only scant figurative language in it. Several students begged Chang to read, so I handed the sheet over to him.

"This is called 'Sweet Obsession,'" he said as a long piece of black hair fell over his face.

"I luv your contours, Baby,
They match mine.
I'm a big man who needs
Big woman-kind.
No hourglass figure for you,
No Barbie-doll clothes for you.
Bring it on, Baby
With your long hair
And your fine rack
And your sexy back
And your round belly
And your two thick legs
Wrap those juicy arms
Around me Baby
I luv the way they meet
At the other side, like a treat.
Ain't nobody to deny
Or belie or defy
your good name
'Cuz we got game."

Students cheered, and I fought back a smile. Then the bell rang announcing seventh hour, and I looked at my watch, thinking, I wonder if any of these kids know where Frackline St. is. I booted up Mrs. Sweeney's computer.

As I approached the house, my spirits rose. Though the voice on the phone had been gruff and unfriendly, but the house looked unthreatening, a doublewide set back on a large lot shaded by a tall white fir. The grass was dead, but the sidewalk leading to the front door was in good repair.

The man came out wearing overalls, and seeing the jar in my hand, he grunted and led me to a shed behind the house. The shed was large, made from scraps of metal siding. "The wife won't let me keep my project in the house. Too smelly." With an ominous smirk, he pushed open the aluminum door, hung tight on its casings. Immediately, a powerful stench overtook me.
"Better step inside. Don't wanna lose the suckers," the man said.

Reluctantly I followed him in the door, which snapped shut behind us. The air was extremely close, and the only open space was confined to a scant square in the center of the hut. On all sides were stacks of Tupperware containers with black tubes running out of them. The man pulled out a plastic box just as if he were pulling a drawer from a filing cabinet. He unhooked the tube and opened the box.

"A treat for you, Monster," he said as he flipped a baby mouse onto the ground. Immediately a tomcat pounced from out of nowhere and engorged the rodent within seconds. I shuddered. I was desperate to leave the outbuilding, nearly fainting from the stench of urine and dead animals.

The man held the canister up to my face.

"Which one do you want?"

The moving forms inside were barely identifiable, some kind of inbred mice, tiny and nearly hairless.

I coughed once and pointed feebly, but he had another idea.

"Start him on a smaller one. You don't wanna intimidate him on the first try. If he doesn't go for it, you may have trouble getting him to attack. Then he dies."

"Okay," I said.

"Ya want this mouse or not," he blared.

I turned my head away. "Yes, yes," I said, opening the jar. He dropped the animal along with some pellets in the bottom. Closing it tightly, I hurried outside and inhaled a deep breath of air.

"That's two bucks," he said, following me.

"This morning I saw a hawk drop a mouse from the air," I said chattily as I handed him the bills. "When it hit the ground, it ran into the bushes."

"Shoulda caught it and saved yerself two bucks," he said.

I thanked him and made my way back to the Vega where I placed the jar carefully on the floor of the back seat.

As I stepped into the school auditorium, I spotted Brad Roundtree enter the building. His tall form crouched, he was stowing something under his arm the size of a loaf of bread, but he didn't look like he was carrying bread. I followed him into the backstage of the auditorium, stepping into the shadows.

"Bro! What the hell are you doin' with that thing?" declared Chang, standing by himself under the lights.

"We need this for the play, huh?"

"What is it?"

"A bird."

"A bird? Lemme see. And whaddaya mean -- need it for the play? I have a feeling Miz Sweeney's not gonna be too happy about this."

I craned, but Chang's large body was blocking my view of Brad and the thing he was carrying. "Listen, Chang," I heard Brad say. "You know the part where that spazzed-out girl sees a bird in the courtroom? I thought we ought to have a real bird hanging up there. You oughta be all over this, Chang. You got that thing about fig'ative language. Well, here you go."

"You are wacko, Roundtree. First of all, the crazy girl doesn't really see the bird. She's pulling one over on the brothers, man. Second-lee, not having the thing is what fig'ative language is all about. You don't have to actually see it to believe in it. Like God."

"You think I'm an idiot?" the taller boy said, swinging the item like a sack of rocks. "I know the bird isn't really s'posed to be there. I just thought we oughta add another angle--like maybe Mary is right and these girls are witches." I could finally see Brad leaning against a music stand cradling a chicken complete with feathers.

"I can tell you Miz. Sweeney's not going to like this. Not Elise, neither. She's the one playin' the part, so she oughta decide."

I marched toward the two students, thinking I might have to break up a brawl, but I barely had the authority to keep them from cutting the lunch line. I took a deep breath.

"Miz Mock! How's it goin' Teach?" said Chang, holding up his hand. Walking by, I brushed his palm. "Are you people fighting here?" I asked.

"Whaddaya mean? We're just discussing the ins and outs of the play tonight. And this bird. It's Roundtree's dinner tonight."

"You need to get rid of it. Right now." I pointed at the door to the dumpsters.

"My family's gonna pluck it and eat it, ma'am," said Chad. He bared all his teeth as he smiled. He held up the limp fowl, whose coloring looked familiar to me, but I still had the stench of mice in my nostrils.

"You want Roundtree to throw him in the dumpster?" Chang asked.

"All right. Right now you can put it in a bag and stick it in the freezer in the Green Room. After practice, you can take it home, or dispose of it however you want."

Brad slithered away and then after a few minutes, he took his place backstage with the set crew.
Eventually Mrs. Sweeney showed up, but the rehearsal started out miserably. Even with the lines written on her hand, Elise couldn't deliver them, so Mrs. Sweeney cut a few more scenes. They took a ten-minute break before proceeding with the last scene--the moving interchange between Mr. and Mrs. Proctor.

As the cast and crew sat dismally in the darkened wings, they heard a gut-curdling scream coming from the hallway. Then came some heavy thumps and a flustered Brad Roundtree gasping and panting as he entered the room.

"Has anyone seen my chicken?" he asked. "It escaped!"

"Chicken?" Mrs. Sweeney asked feebly, looking towards the trashcans filled with fast-food wrappers.

"It's alive?" asked Chang, eyes wide open. Just then the bird appeared squawking and stumbling into the velvet curtains. I could now see that its head sported a comb. The girls on crew screamed and huddled together in a corner of the stage. Chang started running toward the fowl with an open cardboard box, flaps flying. The rooster reacted by going on the offensive. It hopped toward Chang and tried to scratch his bare legs. Bravely, Chang was able to box it. Then I remembered where I'd seen that rooster before.

"Brad, doesn't that rooster belong to..."

"I found it," he said. He rubbed his hands against his oil-stained jeans.

"Brad...."

"Okay I was deliverin' papers to Mr. Hinojos, and the chicken was there, all penned up. It didn't look happy, so I liberated it."

"You stole it."

"I grabbed it, but then it flopped over. I thought it was dead."

"Apparently not."

"It's a savior chicken. It rose from the grave," Chang yelled.

"It was never dead, Jimmy," I told him. Screams were heard again as the rooster flapped against the box.

"But I did as you said, Miz Mock," Brad said. "I put it in the freezer just like you said."

"It's been in there this whole time?"

"Yes ma'am."

"How did it get out of the freezer, open the door?"

"When Miz Sweeney come in, she said I could leave. So I went and retrieved it, and then it woke up."

I put my hand on the boy's shoulder. "You need to take it back to Mr. Hinojos tonight."

"Miz Mock, do you know what he's planning to use this chicken for?"

"Maybe I do, Brad."

"It ain't right, Miz Mock."

"I know that, but there's nothing we can do about it."

Mrs. Sweeney dismissed most of the cast, and the leads Georgia and Paul were left to finish out their scene. The shock must have affected them because they did their parts without an error. I assured my colleague that the next night's performance would be fine, that dress rehearsals always go bad. As I helped her into her car, she told me, "They are good kids, Laurie." The September evening was cold and clear.

When I entered the house, guitar, purse, and the redolent peanut butter jar in hand, I found Marissa slumped over the kitchen table, sobbing, her rounded shoulders shaking, The Who blaring on the stereo, and the dog spread out on the couch, his left leg entwined in the straps of Marissa's backpack. I noticed there were no dishes in the sink.

I set the jar carefully on the table near the door. "What's wrong?"

"I was chosen for cheerleader today," she said, choking on her words.

"And that's a bad thing?"

"It wouldn't be, except..."

"Except what?"

"Helen said the faculty had an override vote and they voted me in. Great, isn't it? She said everyone knew I couldn't have made it on my own. I'm too fat."

"You are not fat."

"Yes, Mom. We're all fat." Lifting her head, she peered between the locks of hair covering her face. "Sorry about that, mom."

"Nevermind." I went to the sink and washed my hands. Then I dug out a bag of carrots from the fridge along with a cellophane sandwich and threw them on the counter. "Wanna join me jogging in the morning?"

Marissa hesitated.

"Listen," I said. "You made cheerleader. It doesn't matter how you did it. No one can take that away from you."

My daughter dried her eyes with her palms and shook out her long locks. "Okay, mom. I'll run with you. At least for a little while. Cheerleading practice starts in a few weeks -- every morning at five-thirty."

"We'll see who can lose ten pounds first," I said, pulling her into a hug. "But I'd stay away from this Helen if I were you."

"She's just telling the truth, mom."

"Truth is for those who can handle it. We can't afford that much truth at one time." From the corner of my eye, I watched Benji sneak up and grab the peanut butter jar, and then disappear in his room. "Beauty sleep," I ordered while steering Marissa toward the only open door. "The play's tomorrow night."

Before disassembling the couch, I lugged my guitar over, tuned it and played a few chords. One of my mother's lullabies came to mind.

I gazed at my reflection in the dark window, I thought about planting a tree. Lime trees can grow well in this heat, my father had told me once. Just need a little water. "Limones,"--that was the word my grandfather because he said there was no word for "lemon" in Mexico--"limones are green, not yellow." While either tree--lime or lemon--might grow here, I decided I'd have more use for lemons. Maybe one of each. I would need lemonade for all those thirsty cheerleaders.

Then I thought about Benji's mouse--already in Sidewinder's abdomen, I supposed. Anthony would have been thrilled to see how that mouse met its end--the initial stun, the unlocking jaws and the snake's slow ingestion of the mouse's limp body. I could picture my brother's bemused expression at how I secured Sidewinder his feeder mouse. What was it about boys and men, I thought, that something needed to die to keep them happy? Hinojos' rooster was probably dead by now, too. But on the other hand... this weekend I decided I was going to take the kids to the beach. Maybe even invite Elise along, too.

Streetlights flickered; everything was quiet. I pulled down the shades on the front windows and felt the combined scents of citrus and salt water caressing some innate, forgotten memory.