Our grapes, nearly ripe, were mostly ruined last night by a raccoon. At least two-thirds of the crop was on the ground, along with several leaves, the berries shattered from the bunches and scattered around. We had checked on the vine late yesterday evening and all was well. Then, early this morning, I noticed several places around the house where the animal had dug, the telltale holes being unmistakable. We had tasted two or three grapes during the past week; with the weather as warm as it is, around one hundred degrees, they would have been ready in just a few more days. Of course, what remains will still be ready; but the balance and loveliness are gone; maybe the vine doesn’t mind; or maybe it feels violated. Fortunately, having grown up on a farm, having worked at that timeless occupation, we know best how to respond: with the words, next year.
August 15, 2020
The Grapes Are Early This Year
An older man wearing a gold wrist watch that looked like the Hamilton my dad used to have walked in. He gave me a nod, said hello, and, since the shop was empty, climbed up into my chair. While I was getting him ready, I noticed the smell of cigars about him. My dad used to smell just like that. Since my customer looked like the type who wouldn’t mind, I told him so. He tilted his head. “I’ll be darned,” he said, and I could see he took it as a compliment, which was nice, because that’s exactly how I’d meant it.
It was almost three. The door by the sidewalk was standing open, but the screen door was closed to keep out the flies. It was too hot to move, let alone be choked by a sheet in a barber’s chair. The only relief came from a little fan on an eye-high shelf in the far corner of the shop. There was a faded red ribbon tied to it that tried its best to flutter in the breeze. But it had been there so long, and it had so much dust on it, that it never stayed up for longer than three or four seconds at a time.
He was in his early eighties, and had a farmer’s permanent tan. The color in the creases on the back of his neck was the same as it was on his arms. He had quite a bit of hair up top, all white, and a wide upper lip that supported a brushy white mustache yellowed in the middle from smoking. He still had his own teeth. A slip of gold separated the two in front.
I went to work, and soon learned my customer’s name. It was Walt. Walt said he owned eighty acres of Thompsons outside Kingsburg on Road 16. “Not far from where the old cotton gin used to be,” he said.
“That’s good raisin ground,” I said.
“Some of the best,” Walt said.
“I hear the grapes are early this year,” I said. “There’s been so darn much heat.”
“We’ll have ours down by the twentieth,” Walt said.
We regarded each other briefly in the mirror on the opposite wall.
“I grew up on a place just west of town,” I said. “I remember one year, when I was a kid, it never did warm up. My dad waited to pick until the middle of September. Even then the grapes weren’t ripe.”
“I remember that,” Walt said. “It rained that year, too. It was in ’54.” As he spoke, I felt his scalp move. “We saved about half the crop,” he said. “But it wasn’t worth saving.”
“I’d forgotten about the rain,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” Walt said, and he let out a little cigar-smelling chuckle.
“How about your folks,” he went on, without thinking. “Are they still living?”
“My mom is,” I said. “Dad passed away a couple of years ago.”
“Oh. Right. You know, I keep saying they need to find a cure for that. The world needs us old farts.”
I agreed with him and continued to work, taking a slow, easy pace. Outside, in front of the shop, a car door slammed and a nice-looking young woman got out with her little boy. They both looked at us as they walked by. The woman was in jeans and a T-shirt, and the boy had on a blue baseball cap and his thumb was planted firmly in his mouth.
“Well,” Walt said, “there they go. Mother and child.”
“Yep,” I said.
“Kind of makes you wonder.”
“It sure does.”
“I was born in 1913,” Walt said. “My mother got the flu in ’18 and died. The old man raised us. He had no idea what he was doing. Lucy, his sister, moved in to help. But she was nuts in the religion department, so he kicked her out. She was tall and skinny. Never married, was her main problem.”
“My grandfather caught the flu,” I said.
“Oh? Did he live?”
“Barely. He couldn’t work for a long time. He lost all his strength.”
“It was a tough time,” Walt said. “Either you lived or you died. There was no in between, like there is now. And it was a hell of a lot better that way, if you ask me.”
“I know what you mean.”
“What did your dad die of?” Walt said. “A heart attack, or old age?”
I stopped what I was doing. “He shot himself,” I said.
Walt turned his head abruptly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m nothing but a god-damned blabbermouth.”
I rested my comb-hand lightly on his shoulder. “It’s something that happened,” I said.
He sighed. “I don’t condemn him for it,” he said.
“Me, either. He was in a lot of pain.”
It took about ten more minutes to finish Walt’s haircut.
As with all of my customers, I turned the chair around so he could see himself in the mirror over the sink.
It was odd, talking about my dad like that with a man I’d never met. But it was comforting, too. At the same time, I wish it was Dad who had walked in that day. We could have talked about the grapes like we used to, whenever he’d stop by for me to cut his hair.
Early Short Stories, 1996, 1997, 1998
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Tags: Aging, Barbers, Barbershops, Cigars, Early Short Stories, Family History, Fiction, Grapes, Kingsburg, Pain, Pandemics, Raccoons, Raisins, Road 16, Short Fiction, Short Stories, Suicide, The San Joaquin Valley