Old Yeller and The Repo Man: Thanksgiving 1986

The movie is Old Yeller and it plays out on the television in the corner of the hospital room. My son, then eleven, watches from the bed through eyes compressed nearly shut by a sinus infection. An IV beeps. Antibiotic seeps into his arm as it has for nearly four days without appreciable effect.

The father and the neighbor are arguing on the television, one of those maddening exchanges in which each person stops just short of the crucial bit of information which would make them each understand each other. I want it to stop. I say this out loud.

“Mom,” my kid says without lifting his head from the propped up pillows. He says it with the bored impatience of the newly adolescent. “There has to be conflict. No conflict. No story.”

I turn to him, stunned. “Where did you learn that?”

His eye flicked from the screen to me. Where did he learn the withering glance?

“School,” he says. “Where else?”

“What else are you learning?”

“Can we just watch the movie?”

So far, the story of Thanksgiving 1986 is playing out with lots of conflict. The whole hospital episode started the Friday before Thanksgiving and his desire to attend a party that he knew he would miss if I knew he was sick. So, he hid this piece of crucial information until he woke up that morning with half his face the size and color of a Beefsteak tomato. I want to keep my job so I give him some Tylenol, make him stay home, and call him every hour from work until lunchtime when I arrive to find nothing changed. Both of us want to spend Thanksgiving at my mother’s table, ten hours away from our one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey where I sleep on a futon in the living room, he sleeps in a bed we found somewhere cheap, and we dine at a borrowed vinyl and aluminum table seated on two borrowed chairs.

By the time we switch on Old Yeller in the hospital room five days later, we know that the crowd around Mom’s table will not include us. Now all I want is for the antibiotic to start working. The infection, the doctor has said, is stubborn and is “dangerously close to his brain.” The doctor is with his family where I imagine he is watching football in a den off the kitchen which is infused with the aroma of various side dishes being prepared for the next day’s feast. He is not watching a movie that will end with the death of an innocent, sick dog.

By the time my son’s father drives from New Hampshire to spell me, my son wants me to go. He wants to leave too, but failing that, wants to watch television with a guy who won’t talk during the next movie he finds. I am tired of conflict, so around 11:30 p.m., I kiss him good bye and try not to tell his father everything he already knows about what to do if our son takes a turn.

The November night slaps me out of the hospital haze I’ve been in for days. My legs freeze under my jeans. The engine is so cold I have to run it for ten minutes before I can drive the eight minutes to our apartment. The route takes me down a broad leafy boulevard lined with houses of people who can afford four bedrooms, two baths, a couple of cars and sloping lawns. The houses of people who can assume certain comforts.

Ahead, two headlights flare. These lights are attached to a tow truck that is pulling away from the curb. A car is hitched to the tow bar. A man appears in the short driveway leading to the curb. He is naked except for the towel he clutches around his waist. The towel is white as is the skin on his back, his belly, and his feet. He runs after the tow truck, one arm clutching his towel, the other raised in a fist. His mouth opens in a shout I can’t hear through my closed windows. In my rearview mirror, I watch the soles of his feet flash in the streetlight as he pursues the truck. He runs a good fifty feet before he stops, drops his fist, and stands as the red taillights of the tow truck disappear around the corner.

I want to stop and go back to him but what would I say? Happy Thanksgiving? It’s only a car? Maybe you should get back inside your nice house before whatever is under that towel freezes off? Then, I think, this is his story. Not mine.

All these years later it still looks like a good one: a great hook, lots of action, pregnant with unanswered questions. Loaded with conflict.

I plan to do something with it someday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Love a Loquat

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It’s spring here in San Diego. The sky is blue, the temperatures are nudging eighty degrees, and I am working hard to come up with all the ways we can eat our loquats before they shrivel into black hairy clumps.

I realize that there may be those reading these words who are dealing with highs of forty degrees, mud, losing the bulbs they just planted to woodchucks. There are those too who haven’t seen the sun or blue skies for more than a minute since last fall. And there are those who will have absolutely no idea what a loquat is or why anyone would want to eat one.

I occupied all of those groups at one point. These days, I not only know what a loquat is but I love the fruit from our particular loquat tree. How could I not? It came to us nearly twelve years ago, a bare stick poking out of a little black pot half-full of dirt. It was a time of beginnings for us. I was a transplant and my husband was rediscovering all the things he’d loved and missed about California. He still speaks of his time in New Jersey (where we met) as “doing time.” That first spring, he was striding around a local home and garden show with a smile of a man who knows he will never feel snow sliding down his neck again.

We almost passed the tree on our way to our car after seeing all we’d come to see. The folks of the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers Association were packing their truck to head home. We bought a fig tree (another stick in a pot) and then my husband told them he loved loquats. Apparently not many people tell them that. They threw in the loquat for free.

“What’s a loquat?” I asked my husband as we carried our foundlings home.

“I used to pick them with my grandfather. I ate them right off the tree.”

That was all he needed to tell me. The loquat was like the wild rapini he and his grandfather would pick every Sunday back in the California of the forties and fifties, or the prickly pears that reminded his grandfather of Italy. The loquat was wrapped up in all the memories of being with a grandfather he loved and knew, for a time, better than his father who was away at war when my husband was born.

We waited nine years to pick a loquat off our tree and now they arrive every February or so. When someone asks me to describe a loquat, I struggle.

It looks like it started out to be an apricot and then changed its mind. It’s a little fuzzy like a peach. There is a sweet, spicy, sometimes a tiny-bit lemony taste when it’s at its peak. Loquats start to shrink within an hour or two of being picked which is one reason they aren’t grown for commercial use here. Another reason is that four or five pits form the core of each one, competing with the fleshy, juicy fruit for space inside the skin. The upside of this is that you can eat a lot of loquats before you’ve filled up.

There is no dignified way to eat them. Juice runs down your chin, between your fingers. The pits, smooth and glossy as stones in a brook, fill your cheeks. You must spit them out and there is no polite way to do this. If you are outside, of course, this is no big deal. My neighbor, for example, loves to practice her aim. Her husband, who is usually her target, does not appreciate this.

If you are inside, though, here is a look at how to enjoy a loquat fresh off the tree, along with some wonderful links to resources, recipes, and all kinds of factoids that will allow you to vicariously enjoy the loquat. I encourage you to check them out although the closest I will probably come to doing anything with a loquat other than eating it fresh off the tree is freezing it, skins and all. You can take them out one at a time. It’s like eating a bit of spring all year long.

How To Eat A Loquat

Step 1: pick and wash (although when I’m outside, I just brush it against my shirt and stick the whole thing in my mouth, spitting out pits and skin later. It isn’t pretty but it tastes great.)

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Step 2: Peel back the skin so the globe of fruit is revealed.

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Step 3: Toss skin and admire the perfection of the naked loquat.

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Step 4: Take a bite from one side and then work around in a circle until all the fruit is in your mouth and the pits are tumbling from your checks like quarters from a one-armed bandit.

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Step 5: Repeat.

If you’d like to try it out on a frozen loquat, go ahead. When you are ready to enjoy them, take a couple out of the bag you’ve stashed in the freezer. Let sit for five minutes or less. Peel as instructed above and enjoy. The great thing about the frozen loquat is that the flavor bursts through in an icy explosion that immediately makes you want more.

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A few fun links:

For the uninitiated, loquats have nothing to do with kumquats which is a citrus.

According to UC Davis, the loquat in SoCal is usually just there to look good but they haven’t eaten the fruit from ours!  http://fruitsandnuts.ucdavis.edu/dsadditions/Loquat_Fact_Sheet/

There is actually a site called Loquat World! And in addition to all things loquat, it provides some interesting recipes.

A wonderful post in the blog Full and Content: What to do with Loquats 

Finally, an anonymous Full and Content reader provided this handy little recipe for loquat liqueur:

1.75 liters of vodka or rum

Loquats

Pour all of the vodka or rum in a gallon jar and then fill it up with peeled loquats. I cut out the bloom end to expose the seeds. Let the mixture sit for 2 to 3 months and then strain off the loquats. Mix equal parts of the Liquor with simple syrup, e.g. 1 cup alcohol and 1 cup simple syrup.

 

 

Naked on a Plane

I woke this morning to the rumble of jets overhead, one of the sounds that marks the start of a new day here. It’s one of the perks of living a few miles from the airport but I didn’t think about the noise. I thought about some friends I got naked with for a few hours and never saw again.

And by naked, I mean as revealing as one person can be to another without removing a stitch of clothing.

There was the woman beside me who showed me her post-mastectomy, reconstructed breast and asked, “Would you like to feel it?”

There was the man behind me who told the story of how he walked away from his wife and daughter and never saw them again.

There was the man in first class who loved his wife and still desired her so much after twenty two years and three children he would sit on the floor outside their bathroom so he could see her emerge naked from the shower.

They were strangers on planes. I encountered them only once and in the time we shared, we were as intimate as only strangers could be.

If you are lucky, these moments can and do happen anywhere but I am struck by the number of times I’ve stumbled into these brief intimacies on airplanes. Perhaps when you pack people tightly enough together, the friction rubs some of that protective veneer away whether you want it to or not. There you are, shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-midback, sharing an armrest, breathing the scent of each other’s breath until you know what your rowmate ate for breakfast and how her stomach feels about it. For an hour or twelve or more, you occupy a village enclosed in metal, surrounded by nothing but clouds and sky. I can’t help thinking that I may die with these people. I check the hand of the person next to me and wonder whether it would be the kind of hand I’d want to hold on the way down or if the owner would want to hold mine.

Once I’m airborne, I understand in a visceral way that I control nothing. No one in my plane village does either. We are all in the hands of the pilot, upheld by the laws of physics and engineering and the grace of whatever diety controls the weather. All we can control is what we give and receive.

Like most of my fellow passengers, I work hard to avoid the burden of connection. I burrow into the book I’ve brought, the game on my phone, or the movie in front of me. Sometimes I try to sleep away the hours so that the time folds like a napkin and it feels as though I’ve stepped directly from departure to arrival.

Other times, though, I’ve been ambushed and then seduced by a stranger with something to share. Maybe they are picking up a signal I don’t even know I’m emitting. They may need to talk but more than I realize, I need something too.

When Mary invited me to feel her new breast, right there on the plane somewhere between Greensville, South Carolina and Newark, New Jersey, she taught me something about resilience, fearlessness and joy. (I did and you can read about that moment here).

John, the man who loved and desired his wife was unselfconsciously in love. The cynic in me initially thought that he was reminding himself of his obligations before he got swept up in a mid-flight flirtation. As we chatted, though, it became apparent that he was simply and unselfconsciously sharing, as though he wanted the last words that filled his mouth to be ones of love. As we talked, my own feelings of love and desire for my mate stirred and stretched like children let out to play.

I never knew the name of the man who left his family years before but his dead, matter-of-fact tone echoes now. He had no intention of returning. Ever. In fact, he  was about to leave his current girlfriend; by telling me his story he seemed to be saying, “This is who I am.” I had always wondered what it would be like to just walk out a door and never return. He showed me one reason I am glad I never tried to find out.

With each encounter I fell in love with life a little bit more deeply. Something in me that was closed had opened. I loved these people for giving that to me.

What are your most memorable encounters on a plane or anywhere else? Do you think you made them happen or were they pure serendipity?