Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Magic Moorpark Apricot

NOTE: The following is an original short story written a few years ago.  Though based on real people this is a work of fiction and by no means represents any person portrayed in the story. 

The Magic Moorpark Apricot

By Rich Burlingham
It had been years since the hamlet known as Moorpark was the epicenter for the apricot trade in Southern California. A bad freeze in the 1920s wiped out most of the trees and either a decline in demand or a lack of desire to wait for young sprouts to grow into fruitful trees ended the rein of the Moorpark Apricot and only a few trees remained in the now bustling city.  The largest groves of the fruit were part of the Little Simi Ranch bought from the Pico Brothers by town founder Robert Poindexter in the 1880s.  Poindexter was proud of his town and his apricots but the untimely death of his young wife Adele left him not only a widower but also a single father to a six year-old daughter named Helen.  After the great freeze put Poindexter out of business he transferred his remaining estate and other land holdings to his daughter and died shortly after.  Helen was only ten years old.
     Many years later on a sunny but breezy fall day a 13 year old girl named Olivia was escorting her six year-old brother, Avery, from school down a residential street in their hometown of Moorpark.  Avery was wearing his brand-new backpack as they walked to meet their mother at the Neighborhood for Learning Center where she volunteered.  They were passing under a tree when a strong gust of wind almost knocked them over. 
      They saw the tree sway and its branches flutter as though someone had shaken it.  The tree grew out of a yard separated from the sidewalk by a white picket fence and stood next to an old gingerbread-style house painted robin egg blue.  It was the home of an old woman kids called Old Mother Hubbard, but whose real name was Helen Poindexter, daughter of the city’s founding father.  Helen was over 90 years old and rarely left her house.  Care givers would be seen entering and exiting, sometimes the occasional doctor would visit, but that was the extent of it.  No one knew much about Helen except that she was sent away when her father died to live with an Aunt in England and then returned to Moorpark many years later when she was in her 60’s to live in the last remaining Poindexter holding – the little house on Charles Street that once was the home to the ranch foreman.

     Olivia and Avery stopped after the gust because they discovered in front of them on the sidewalk a bright yellow-orange round object that glistened in the sunlight.

     “What’s that,” Avery asked his older sister.  “I don’t know,” she replied.  “It must have fallen from this tree.”  Avery, always the curious one, quickly bent over and picked up the object.

     “Orange?” he questioned.  Olivia, looking at it more closely, answered, “I don’t think so…it looks more like some kind of peach, but it’s smooth. 

     They both looked up at the tree but were astonished to find that there were no other yellow-orange round objects in the branches, just green leaves, limbs and a trunk – like most regular trees.

“That’s odd,” Olivia said, softly to herself.  “Can we eat it?” asked Avery, who was placing it near his mouth.   “No!” exclaimed Olivia, grabbing the fruit away from her little brother, “We don’t know what it is…it could be poisonous.”

     Olivia was about to throw it into Mother Hubbard’s yard when an old woman’s voice rang out.  “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” she said in a raspy, breathy voice. The children looked over and saw this very old, thin woman hunched over with a cane in one hand and a wheeled oxygen tank standing next to her with a tube running to her nostrils.  “That’s a special piece of fruit you have there,” she said, struggling to breath after every third word spoken.  

     Olivia and Avery stood frozen.  They had never really seen Old Mother Hubbard before – all they knew was the playground chatter kids passed down from one generation to the next.  These stories were usually old ghost or monster stories simply revamped to include Old Mother Hubbard.  “It is not poisonous, my child,” the old woman directed at Olivia, with pointed eyes.  “It is a special apricot.  Whoever takes a bite will have their most desired dream come true,” she said from her doorway, the push of air from the tank punctuating her words. "But only one."

     Avery was fascinated by the old woman, yet his shyness kept him quiet. Olivia, her maternal instincts kicking in, held her brother tightly by his shoulders before addressing the senior citizen.

     “You’re just a crazy old woman who’s trying to scare little kids,” Olivia yelled at the woman before looking at her brother, “C’mon Avery, we better go.”  Olivia quickly walked off, dropping the apricot to the sidewalk.  Avery remained standing looking directly at Helen, her eyes dull and her face wrinkled.  He bent down and picked up the apricot and put it in his backpack. He then smiled at the old woman and nodded, as though he knew something that only he and Helen understood. He then ran to catch up to his sister.

     Avery tried to keep up with Olivia but she walked unusually fast.  “Do you think what she said is true?” he asked.  “Are you nuts, Avery?” she responded with irritability.  “Old Mother Hubbard is a crazy old woman.  There are no magic apricots that make dreams come true, you got it?” she said sternly, stopping to make sure her point got across to her brother before returning to her fast gait.

     Avery wouldn’t leave the notion alone.  “But what if it was true and you could bite into the apricot and get your wish…what wish would you want?” he asked his sister.

     Olivia kept walking but did ponder the thought of a wish.  “I don’t know…perhaps I’d have all my math homework done and would get A’s on all the tests,” she said.  Avery was about to speak when she added to her wish list.  “Oh, and I’d have Luke Taylor ask me to get ice cream after school…he’s so cute,” she said looking up towards the hills, forgetting for a moment why she was so flustered.  Avery looked up in that direction but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary.  He wondered if all girls were as strange as his sister.

     Olivia finally looked down at her brother and asked, “What about you, what dream would you want to come true?”       
     With all the talk of dreams and magic apricots he hadn’t thought about his own wish.  He hummed to himself but didn’t say a word.  Olivia pressed. “C’mon, I know there’s stuff you want…what about that…” Olivia was interrupted by the screams of her mother from a block away.  “Hurry you two.  We need to get to the hospital. Your Poppa is sick again.”

     The kids put it in high gear and ran all the way to the car, which was running and ready to speed away.  “What’s wrong, Mom?” Olivia asked nervously.  Her mother, Johanna, was short, “We’ll find out when we get there,” she snapped while helping Avery get buckled up.  They all remained silent on the way to the hospital. 

     Somber silence filled the air during the twenty-minute drive to Thousand Oaks. At the hospital they met their Dad, Rich, who told his kids that their grandfather had been rushed into surgery due to complications with the cancer that had ravaged his body.  Moments after arriving the surgeon came out to tell the family their loved one had just gotten out of surgery and was stable in the ICU. The doctor took Johanna and Rich aside, telling them they weren’t optimistic and perhaps it was best to be prepared to say their goodbyes.  After a short discussion the couple thought it would be best for the kids to say goodbye to their Poppa while he was still coherent.  They each took a kid and prepared them for what they may see.  Avery just nodded to his Dad without any questions. Olivia asked her mother about twenty questions, all in a staccato, rapid style that left Johanna spent.

     Johanna and the kids entered the ICU – the cold, dark and noisy room was full of beds with extremely sick people.  Avery and Olivia followed their mother to the bed that held their
grandfather.  He looked very pale with all sorts of wires connecting him to a slew of noisy machines with flickering lights and LEDs monitoring every life function imaginable.  Avery was most interested in the breathing machine and though all the noise was enough to scare an adult, he was calm and collected, never wincing at the disturbing environment.

     The kids approached their Poppa’s side – the opposite side from all the machines.  The nurse on duty took off the breathing tube and looked at the kids.  “Be quick, now.  He can only speak in short single words.  Don’t excite him, okay?”  She waited for an affirmative nod from both kids before leaving them alone.

     Olivia began to cry as her grandfather moved his head to look at her.  “Oh, Poppa,” she muttered quietly before bursting into silent tears.  She backpedaled to her mother who stood near the end of the bed.  But Avery wasn’t scared nor did he move from his grandfather’s side when he looked at him.  Actually, he moved in closer, and put his face right up to his grandfather’s, almost touching it and said, “I have something for you, Poppa.”
     “Is that so,” his Poppa eked out, gulping for air afterwards.  He gathered enough strength to focus on who was talking.  Avery continued, “Yes, it will help you. It’s magic.”

     The old man forced a smile as Avery took off his backpack and proceeded to take something out.  Johanna became alarmed, “Avery, what are you doing?”  Before she could react Avery had taken out the apricot and was placing it by his Poppa’s mouth.  “Take a bite, Poppa.  Old Mother Hubbard said it’ll make your dreams come true,” he said with confidence. The gaunt ash-faced man with sunken eyes and gravelly voice, barely able to keep his eyes open, looked directly into his grandson’s bright blue eyes and said, “Thank you”, before opening his mouth.

     “No!” yelled Olivia.  “That’s that fruit…from the old woman…Old Mother Hubb…it’s POISONOUS!” she screamed.  Both Johanna and Olivia tried to intercept the bite but they weren’t in time.  Their grandfather gathered all the strength he had to take a small bite of the magic fruit and to chew and swallow.  Avery smiled. 

     Then all hell broke loose.

     Poppa began gasping.  The machines went haywire.  Alarms sounded and a horde of nurses and doctors rushed into the room, pushing Avery against the wall.  An excited nurse
asked for Johanna to take leave with the kids while they worked on the patient.  Johanna complied as she tried to comfort her hysterical daughter.  Avery calmly followed.

     Upon exiting the ICU Johanna was a mix of fright and ire.  She knew she couldn’t scold her son in the middle of the hospital so she quickly rushed them down the crowded hallway to the waiting room.  Once there they found Rich pacing the tiny room while Anderson Cooper of CNN reported from the middle of a hurricane on a TV perched above.  “That was quick,” he told the trio as they entered. Olivia rushed to her father for a reassuring hug.  “What’s wrong…what happened?” he asked.  Johanna simply looked at her son.  “I don’t understand what happened in there.  Avery, talk.”

     Avery sat in a chair opposite the TV, the apricot with his Poppa’s bite mark still in his hand.  He was about to explain when the squeaky waiting room door opened.  The same doctor from earlier slowly entered, now frazzled with sweat stains all over his greens.  Everyone in the room looked up, except for Avery.

     “I’m sorry….”, the doctor began.  Johanna wailed, knowing what was about to be said.  “We tried everything but I guess the surgery was too much after all.  We did everything we could, but Mr. Brooks has died.”  The doctor gave a sympathetic look to the family and was about to turn and leave without a further word when a small boy’s voice rang out.  “Thank you, doctor,” Avery told the surgeon.  “For trying to help my Poppa.”  The doc looked at the six year-old that sounded forty. They exchanged a half smile and the doctor turned quickly around towards the door in order to hide his tears. He left the room, closing the squeaky door behind him.

     After comforting his wife and daughter Rich sat down next to his son, who simply stared at the TV, not shedding one tear.

     “You know it’s okay to cry when someone you love dies,” he said, as he placed his arm around his son’s shoulder.  “I know, Dad, but I don’t have to because Poppa is better now,” he said with wisdom beyond his years.  Rich was aptly confused.  Avery showed him the apricot.  “This is magic. I let Poppa take a bite so his dream would come true…and it did.”  Rich was at first extremely perplexed, but looking at his son and then at the piece of fruit, for some reason it all clicked in his head, but he needed confirmation.

Olivia and Johanna looked over as they overheard the conversation.  Avery put on a confident face and looked at his family, speaking assuredly.  He said, “Poppa wanted to be with Nana more than anything.  He missed her so much and now he is with her. That was his only dream.”

     Avery then put the apricot back in his backpack, sat back and looked up at the TV. They all stared at Avery while he stared at the screen.  For the first time in a long time a quiet comfort enveloped the entire family.  Avery then looked to his parents.  “I’m hungry. Can we go get some McDonald’s,” he said as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

     Johanna looked at her husband and then back to her son, “Sure, sweetie.”  She rose, walked over to Avery and kissed him on the top of his head.  “We can surely do that.”

     Avery held his backpack tightly and looked up towards the TV screen.  “Say hi to Nana for me,” he said to himself.  A single drop of a tear finally rolled down his cheek.

© 2014 Rich Burlingham

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