Pears ripen best off the tree.
When I picked beefsteak tomatoes in Illinois, the farm stand owners wanted fat, red fruit. In the Arkansas field, it was easy enough to pop a strawberry into my mouth, my daughter’s mouth, when the foreman wasn’t watching. But pears you have to pick when they’re green and hard. When they’re not ready to yield to a thumb, a tongue. They may drive you wild with their scent, but they’ll resist your teeth, make your lips and gums burn.
Pears derailed us on our way to a blueberry farm in Washington, a family-run place that supposedly welcomed children and paid a decent wage. I had just left my job as a watermelon cutter in Niland, California, near the Mexican border; my task was to slice the fruit from its vine and hand it to the pitching crew that followed me around the dusty field. They hefted the melon from one man to the next, bucket-brigade-style, until it reached the pickup truck where it was stacked like wobbly cordwood. My daughter Quinn, meanwhile, sat under a nearby tarp with her third-grade math sheets, face flushed, water bottles surrounding her like a packaged moat.
We left before harvesting was finished; I didn’t have a contract like the rest of the crew, whose broker sent them from farm to farm. As a free agent, it was easy for me to take off, find another job. Most small farmers were willing to pay a woman under the table; I only had a problem if they expected something under the table in return. Or if they wouldn’t let my nine-year-old homeschooled daughter out on the field with me. I always hoped my dark hair, my skin tan from so much time outside, would help me fit in with each new set of fellow workers, but they inevitably pegged me for a gringa right off the bat. Quinn’s pale blue eyes probably contributed to this. The fact that I barely understood Spanish after all my time on the circuit didn’t help, either.
I hadn’t minded the melon picking—I felt kind of like a midwife as I eased the ripe fruit through the thatch of wood wool that protected it from sunburn, as I cut the stubborn umbilical cord, handed the bulky baby over to its line of waiting fathers—but the heat was another issue. A fellow cutter, a pregnant nineteen-year-old, had fallen ill from sunstroke, and I didn’t want to risk that with Quinn. Plus the pitching crew made me nervous; I didn’t like the way the first guy in line would hover over me as I knelt by the fruit so his crotch would be right in my face when I turned around, didn’t like the way the group joked about me in Spanish. I would have felt even more vulnerable if it hadn’t been for the knife in my hand.
It was good to be on the open road again, zipping up the belly of California. A car can get claustrophobic when you’re parked for the night, when you’re trying to sleep with the seat reclined as far as it can go, your whole body aching, your clothes sour, your daughter squirming in the back seat behind you, the air like an oven even with the windows open. But when you’re driving and she’s sitting beside you and the scenery is changing from desert to mountain to farmland, a mint green twenty-year-old Mercury Zephyr’s a fine place to be.
Quinn put her grimy flip-flops up on the dashboard. “How much longer, Eema?” she asked, turning the vents to blow more air on the backs of her knees. Her faded turquoise shorts rippled and snapped around her legs like sails. I had never told Quinn that Eema was Hebrew for “mother,” had never told her to call me that, but she had been doing it since she was a baby. She never said Mama, just Eema.
“If we drive straight through, twenty-four hours.”
She made a noncommittal sound, then went back to her book and her bag of Funyuns. Quinn and I had fallen into the habit of eating convenience store food on the road, negligibly healthy things we could get for cheap: squishy bread with peanut butter, string cheese, granola bars, jerky, the occasional rubbery hard-boiled egg, tomato juice in lieu of fresh vegetables. Plus a rotating string of treats. The Funyuns filled the car with their bouillon cube tang, and I couldn’t help but reach into the bag and crunch a few myself. I had a weakness for junk food, and didn’t mind the bit of extra heft it gave my belly, my thighs. My body was strong, if achy, from all the farmwork—my body was there for me; it did what I needed it to do. Might as well reward it with some salt and grease.
We entered a stretch of I-5 with orchards on both sides of the road; the fruit on the trees was too small to identify as we barreled past at eighty miles per hour, sun flashing between the neatly planted rows like a strobe light. Pistachio, I found out when we stopped at a gas station; a small produce stand in the lot was selling bags of the pale green nuts, along with peaches and corn and wedges of watermelon in tubs of ice.
“Need any pickers?” I asked the woman running the stand, her white hair buffeted by the hot wind. My mouth was dry from the chips, my skin and eyes dry from the summer air. I was tempted to buy some watermelon, even though Quinn and I had glutted ourselves on it for days—we would hijack melons that had busted open in a fall or developed sugar-crack on the vine; back at our campsite after work, we would plunge our hands straight into the sweet, mealy innards. We must have looked like lions feasting on gazelle, pink pulp hanging off our faces, juice pouring down our arms.
“Nah,” said the woman, “we use machines. Shake the nuts right off the tree.”
I gulped another bottle of water as we continued up the I-5. My whole body felt parched; I found myself wishing we had taken the longer route up the coast just so we could see the ocean shimmering beside us. When we crossed what looked like a river in Stockton, I was ready to rip off my clothes and dive in. Instead, I pulled over to check the air in my tires.
“Is this the Sacramento River?” I asked a guy who was refilling his wiper fluid.
“It’s the Deepwater Ship Channel,” he said, green liquid glugging sweet through his funnel. “You want to see the river? Go to the Delta.” He handed me a laminated map, one made for boaters. As soon as I saw the spiderweb of waterways, I knew I had to check it out.
Over a thousand miles of water twisted through the Sacramento River Delta, the river routed by levees and dikes, creating wetlands and estuaries and little islands that didn’t look like islands, a few palm trees parked amongst the willow and oak to remind you that you were still in California. The rich peat soil farmland was so dense with minerals, it was known to combust. Pears grown in the Delta made up more than half the state’s crop. Delta water made up more than two-thirds of California’s drinking supply.
I didn’t recognize the pear trees at first. Highway 160 was a tall levee road; it looked down at the Sacramento River on one side, vast orchards on the other. At first, I thought the farms were level with the asphalt, the treetops shrubs. They looked like giant tortoises hulked on the ground; I had a sudden image of Quinn getting out of the car and leaping from shell to leafy shell, as if they were stepping-stones. I couldn’t figure out what sort of fruit grew on such strange stubby plants. Then I turned a bend and could see the length of their trunks, all the empty space between them. I felt a little dizzy, thinking of how far Quinn could have fallen.
We drove past grand estates, crumbling canning houses, lots of little wooden markets, orchard after orchard after orchard as the road curved with the greenish river. At some point, we took a small ferry, free of charge, that was pulled across the water by cables; it was big enough for maybe six cars, although ours was the only one to make the three-minute crossing. Quinn was thrilled—she said it felt like we were being transported back in time as we floated to the other side. Time did seem to change in the Delta; I could feel my internal clock begin to slow, start to turn as languid as the Sacramento.
When I saw the sign for the town of Comice, population 472, my breath caught in my throat. The painted green letters were faded on the wooden placard, com barely readable, but ice sharp enough to reach inside my body and rattle around.
“I have to pee, Eema,” said Quinn. We had just crossed a metal bridge with yellow spires, like a miniature, more industrial Golden Gate.
I pulled into the first driveway I could find. A “Pickers Needed” posterboard was duct-taped on the bottom of a sign that read “Vieira Pears.”
“I’ll see if they’ll let you use the bathroom,” I said. Quinn bit her lip and jiggled in her seat. We parked the car in front of a weathered two-story clapboard. To our left, surrounded by old machinery, a large vegetable garden grew kale, carrots, onions, lots of tomatoes in cages, the leaves reaching out through the metal, red fruit drooping down like boxing gloves after a match.
An olive-skinned man who appeared to be in his sixties came onto the porch, wiping his hands on his jeans. His dark hair was slicked back on his head. His eyebrows were bushy, the mustache under his prominent nose thick but neatly trimmed.
“Mr. Vieira?” I asked.
“You got him,” he said. His voice had an accent I couldn’t quite place. When he walked closer, I could see his face was studded with moles, like a chocolate chip cookie.
“I was wondering,” I said, “if my daughter could use your bathroom and you could use me.” His eyebrows went up.
“To pick,” I added quickly. “If you could use me to pick.”
I hadn’t thought about asking until I said it out loud. The orchard seemed as good a place as any to stop. We’d save on gas money. We’d be near water.
“How’s your back?” he asked after he gave Quinn directions to the bathroom.
“Strong,” I assured him, even though it griped constantly.
“Don’t normally hire lady pickers,” he said, “but we’ll take anyone we can get this year.”
Rows of pears stretched out as far as I could see, the trees shaggy vases, flaring open to the sky. The air was just on the edge of humid, the river lending a mossy tang. A few barn swallows dipped and swerved overhead, trilling.
He nodded to Quinn as she disappeared into the house. “I can’t pay her or nothing.” His mustache twitched. “Just make sure she don’t get hurt.”
I had never picked fruit from trees before, except to swipe an orange or two—all of my picking experience had been close to the ground. I hoped reaching up instead of down would help balance my back muscles, give them a chance to flex.
Mr. Vieira led me to the edge of the orchard, set up a ladder, and handed me a canvas bag that looped around my shoulders and tied behind my waist, a cross between an apron and one of those fake pregnancy bellies teachers strap onto teenage girls to try to scare them away from sex. He told me the basics of picking—lift the fruit from the tree, don’t pull it. Avoid pears with bruises, sunburn, limb rub. Be on the lookout for thrips, blister mites, red-humped caterpillars, flat-headed borers, pernicious scales. The way he rattled off the pests made them sound like Dr. Seuss creatures, too whimsical to cause any harm, but I knew they were anything but.
If you leave a pear on the tree too long, he told me, it starts to rot from the inside out. It develops stone cells, little places of hardness that feel like grit in the mouth. It starts to get eaten by birds, by bugs. Better to pluck it when it’s green, store it someplace cold, let it forget where it came from.
I cupped a Bartlett and lifted it until the stem separated from the branch. I hadn’t believed Mr. Vieira, but he was right. Pulling left a broken stem, a tired wrist; lifting popped the stem right off. I started to relish the feel of the pears, cool and smooth as I gently raised them and they surrendered their weight into my palm. The branches scratched my arms and the straps of the picking bag bit into my shoulders, made my lower back sway and ache in a whole new way, but my hands enjoyed the work.
Quinn played in the dirt beneath the ladder, arranging dropped fruit into circles. Mr. Vieira had left us to our own devices after he watched me pick the first few pears. “Keep practicing,” he said before he disappeared into the orchard. “Work on speed.”
“You should pick up your book,” I told Quinn. Lucky kid, having a pear orchard for a classroom. There was more shade here than there had been at any of my previous jobs.
Quinn sighed and cracked open the collection of Norse mythology we had bought for a quarter at a library sale in Oklahoma. A wasp flew off the blue cloth cover and circled Quinn’s dark wispy hair before it reeled away. I touched the pocket of my jeans to make sure her EpiPen was safe inside.
“Tell me a story,” I said, and Quinn started in her halting way, stopping to sound out the longer words.
“‘In the beginning was Mus-pel-heim, the world of fire and Nif-l-heim, the world of ice,’” she read. “‘When the warm air hit the cold air, a giant named Ymir—Ymir?—was created and so was an icy cow named Aud-hum-bla.’”
Quinn paused, her blue eyes uncertain. “I don’t know if I’m saying the names right, Eema.”
“You’re doing fine.” My bag was almost full. The heft of it threatened to pull me off the ladder. “It’s the story that matters, not the names.”
“‘In the world of fire, a man was born from Ymir’s foot and a woman was born from his armpit.’ Gross!” She stuck out her tongue. “‘In the world of ice, the cow licked a stone made of salt; the next day, the stone grew hair, then a head, then a body. An entire man emerged from the ice and stone.’ What kind of weirdo story is this, anyway?” Quinn wrinkled her nose, flaky with sunburn. “Men coming out of the ice?”
An angular face started to form in my mind; I shook my head like an Etch-a-Sketch, breaking his features into a flurry of metal shavings. No need to think about him now. Just focus on Quinn, on this work, this new world of pears. Lift, then bag, lift, then bag, sunlight dappling my hands.
Excerpted from Delta Girls by Gayle Brandeis. Copyright © 2010 by Gayle Brandeis. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.