Here is a sweet short story I wrote in honor of my mother, the real artist in the family.
Mr. Manescalco’s Cactus Ranch
Now, the world she seemed to live in was a white Rambler station wagon with odd assortment of children in the back. Though these were her children, this current reality bore no resemblance to the world she envisioned when Frank begged her to run away with him. She didn’t elope of course and her Sicilian family, second-generation, thanked The Virgin Mary for that small social reprieve.
The traditional ceremony was held and blessed in the local church–perfectly respectable–but it was a slap-dash wedding so most guests assumed she must be pregnant. If not, why would Collette rush into marriage with that bad boy from the wrong end of Azusa six weeks after meeting him? Because he was Frank with the coal black hair, slicked high like Elvis and she was madly in love, that’s why. He was all she could think about during life drawing class, and the family had no money to send a girl to college. She was determined to stay a virgin until her wedding night, but that simple goal increased in difficulty as they grappled in the back seat of his windowless deuce coupe. Marrying him fast was the only option acceptable to her traditional Italian mother so she grabbed it–so much for art school.
Collette ignored her mother’s whispered warnings as she stitched and stitched the hem of her wedding dress long into that last single night, the eve of her wedding. She barely finished the last stitch before her head dropped, exhausted, into the pile of creamy silk. One week before her first year anniversary, Sandra was born. Jeanette arrived a week before Sandra’s first birthday, living proof that it is absolutely possible to get pregnant while nursing a baby. Collette and Frank had three more children in five more years–another girl next, then two boys. Frank heard the news of his first son’s birth from a phone in a bar down the street from the hospital, a beer in his hand. To say he was surprised was an understatement–he was expecting another girl. During the birth of his second son Frank was nowhere to be found.
She felt her car seat jolt as her two boys wrestled and yelled in the back seat behind her. She’d learned the hard way separating the was the only way to get them to stop. She pulled the Rambler to a stop and yanked three-year-old Sam to the far back of the station wagon and station wagon resumed it’s search down another hidden country road. Collette was looking for that elusive but infinitely necessary treasure, a heavily laden and neglected fruit tree. She was convinced she would find it today, she had a feeling about it, and her feelings were seldom wrong. About fruit, anyway. Feeding these five was her art project now, the most creative thing she did day in and day out, and she was good at it–not that anyone really noticed. So many things conspired to keep her handsome husband out of steady work and out of their bed. To add a little extra money to the household, Collette cleaned sime small offices a couple of evenings a week. She never considered working full time; Frank and the children were her full time job. She was still Italian, after all.
An apple tree sat forlorn at the end of the road, so full of ripe, golden fruit the branches bent and almost touched the brown grass. Here and there she spotted rotting apples, half eaten by birds and scattered under the massive tree. Perfect, she thought and smiled to herself. A two-story brick house squatted at the end of a dirt lane and as the kids bounced and jostled in the back of the Rambler, Collette held hard to the red steering wheel navigating the driveway ruts until she could park her car directly in front of a broad porch. From the corner of her eye Collette noticed the new Chevy truck resting by a freestanding garage to the left of the house. Good. Someone was home.
She glanced in the rear view mirror and gave a quick pat to the waves in her hair then climbed out. She held her shoulders straight and took a deep breath. Steady. It was important she not appear needy. She did a slow exhale and and rang the bell. Almost immediately a stout seventy-ish woman with smiling grey eyes opened the door. She wiped her hands on a blue-striped dishtowel as she looked at Colette.
“Excuse me; I don’t want to bother you,” Collette said. “I happened to be driving by and noticed your apple tree is slightly overburdened with fruit. I was wondering if you would want to sell any of it. My children and I will gladly pick it ourselves.”
It usually happened this way: The kindly woman looked over at the old station wagon, noticed the windows rolled down, five neat children poking their heads in and out, curious. Then sbe offered her fruit to Collette free, as much as she and her children could pick. Collette thanked her and promised to bring her a jar of apple jelly when she was finished with the canning. She kept this promise every time, religiously.
She backed the station wagon down to the tree and she and her three girls grabbed the brown paper grocery sacks they kept stashed in the back of their car. With often-practiced machine-like efficiency they made a game of racing to help the litte ones pile the fruit in the sacks and soon the old white Rambler was filled with the sweet scent of apples.
Collette was a food revolutionary of sorts, and she attacked her family’s lack of money with the fervor of a crusader defending a just and righteous cause. She had a knack for hunting down and procuring an almost chaotic collection of fruit and the process became a powerful personal exercise. A canning project was considered successful only if she got the fruit free or if the fruit was unusual in some way, and especially both. She rediscovered antique family recipes, forgotten tricks and techniques, and incongruous ingredients. She added and removed, stirred and timed. She was a master of formulation. It was like alchemy. She could turn almost any kind of fruit into preserved gold. She took special, solitary pride in her gift for making jams and jellies out of things most people would consider unusable or inedible. She created quince jellies, guava jellies, loquat preserves, apricot/pineapple jam, spiced apple sauce. She even found a way to make pyracantha berries non-poisonous (something to do with grapefruit juice).
No fruit was impossible and each recipe she mastered was a secret source of delight. Mason jars of citrine, topaz, garnet, blood red, and coral fruit shimmered symmetrically in crystal rows. They cooled as they rested on clean white cotton towels folded carefully across the window ledge in her tiny kitchen, waiting for the perfect symphony of ‘popping’ sounds to indicate a successful seal. When she heard it, she smiled–all was right in her world. At night, if Collette woke alone in her double bed wondering again where her husband was, she cheerfully got the kids off to school the next morning and canned, abandoning herself to the juice and the steam and the math. Somehow, canning made her feel better.
Then early one Saturday morning as she retrieved Sandra from a sleepover, Collette took a wrong turn and found herself and the Rambler at the bottom of a valley hiding between the base of two large hills. There, obviously, purposely and precisely planted, were rows and rows and of cactus. The sight was startling enough, in Southern California in 1963, but covering each huge green cactus plant were hundreds, no thousands of red, pear-shaped fruit. Collette felt the breath catch in her throat. Cactus apples. Someone was cultivating cactus apples.
She had to find out who planted these things, and she had to have some. A woman on a mission and in the throws of an excitement she could never explain, she followed the winding road between the monster cactus plants until the valley unveiled a white plantation style house complete with columns, front porch, and a brick walk. On a wooden sign was painted, in a bold hand of flourished script, “Manesalco’s Cactus Ranch’. Manescalco. Italian. She felt a lurch in her stomach, so she pressed her slender hands together to calm her nerves then straightened her dress. Bricks led her up to broad stone steps and the front entrance. She knocked hard. Sounds shuffled behind the big paneled door then stopped, but it remained solidly closed. Again she knocked and then stood back to look up, searching the second-story windows for signs of life. Suddenly the door opened and out popped a small, round and balding man with the largest mustache Collette had ever seen on a real person. It seemed to have a life of it’s own, separate from the face it lived on and the mouth it surrounded, with the ends curling on both sides like side-ways question marks. It bounced up and down as the round man spoke.
“Hello, I am Aldo Manescalco,” he said with some formality. ‘What brings such a pretty lady to my ranch?”
Collette almost forgot why she was standing on this man’s front porch, she was so enraptured by the bouncing moustache. “Oh, excuse me, Mr. Manescalco. I hate to bother you, but exactly what do you do with these cactus apples? How long have you been here? I’ve never seen anything like this ranch. Oh, I’m sorry, my name is Collette.”
Collette. A French name for an Italian girl. You are Italian, are you not?”
Collette gave her head a vigorous nod.
“Oh so…, you like my cactus apples?” As he spoke, he placed a large, calloused hand on her elbow and guided her as they walked down the brick path out to his farm. She felt as though, at that moment, he had taken control of her destiny as certainly as he had taken control of her arm.
“Oh, I sell them here, I sell them there. My father began this farm after just arriving to this country from Sicily.”
Collette looked at him, surprised. “My family is from Sicily!”
“Which part?” he asked her as they meandered between the cactus rows.
“Sicily.” She answered and he smiled. “My father, too. I grew up here, though. Inherited the place and the love of cactus apples from him. That was so long ago when there was nothing in this valley but our ranch. The demand for my fruit is less and less these days and I see silly little houses built so close together, crawling over the hills in my direction. One day I fear I will be forced to sell. Poof! No more cactus ranch. As far as your eye can see, all will be silly little houses very close together. “
He stopped between two neat rows and turned to face her. “But why are you here?” She took a deep breath.
“Mr. Manescalco, I make jelly, all kinds from all kinds of fruit, but I have never made cactus apple jelly before. I would love to try my hand at making this jelly. But I have no money to pay you for your fruit. I don’t know what I’m asking for, exactly. I just know I had to stop here.”
The little man looked at her, then shook his head and smiled. “The idiots who work for me have never come up with a decent recipe,” he told her. “If you bring me a good recipe for cactus apple jelly and a few jars for myself, I will give you the fruit. In fact, I will give you fruit as long as you bring me jelly. Do we have a deal, Collette?” Of course they had a deal. She didn’t try to hide her elation. She felt as if she were floating.
She backed her station wagon up to a shed behind the house as Mr. Manascalco pointed and called directions, then loaded six wooden boxes of ripe cactus apples into the back of the Rambler. Sandra couldn’t stop herself from poking at them, getting as close to the stickers with her bare fingers as she dared, laughing. Mr. Manasalco and Marie shook hands face-to-face, eye-to-eye, like co-conspirators making a blood pact, and Marie sped off down the winding road.
The next week after school her children took turns standing on boxes at the kitchen sink with cooking mitts on both hands, peeling prickly skin away from soft, magenta fruit under cold running water. Collette set two huge stainless steel pots on the burners of her gas stove and played mad chemist, experimenting with more sugar, less sugar, lemon juice, no lemon juice, two packages of pectin or one. By Friday four perfect rows of gleaming ruby jars popped in satisfying sequential harmony on the window ledge in her tiny kitchen.
She sat down at her table Saturday morning, opened a jar of cooled jelly, spread some on a piece of white toast and took a bite. Then she grabbed an index card and a pencil and filled it with her final recipe. One by one the sparkling jars were reverently packed into one of the wooden crates. Collette waited until all the kids were safely on the bus to school on Monday morning, set the crate of jelly in the back of her old Rambler and headed off to Mr. Manescalco’s Cactus Ranch, feeling as proud as she had on the day of her wedding.
The station wagon coasted between the orderly rows of cactus to the front porch of the big house, where Marie found the little man and his moustache waiting for her. She raised an eyebrow as she climbed out of the front seat.
“I heard your car,” he said in answer to her silent question. She unhitched the Rambler’s tailgate, carefully pulled the wooden crate from the back, placed it on a low table in front of two ancient rocking chairs and they both sat down. Mr. Manescalco picked a jar from the crate and held it up to the sky, watching the jelly catch the sunlight like a prism and throw it onto the wide, stone steps. He turned the jar in his hand, nodding twice, then set it down on the table and went inside his house. Five long minutes passed. Collette rocked back and forth, trying to stay calm. Soon Mr. Manescalco came out holding an ornate silver spoon in one hand and a box of saltines in the other.
He unscrewed the lid to one of the jars as carefully as if he were opening a casket filled with precious jewels. He lifted the spoon and with great ceremony spread shimmering jelly on two crackers, handing one to her. They toasted each other with the crackers. He inhaled as if he were savoring the aroma of a fine wine, then took a careful bite and held it in his mouth. He chewed slowly, then paused. Finally, “Molto buono! Bellisima! This is the finest cactus apple jelly I have ever eaten!” Collette looked down, embarrassed by the praise, but smiling. “You are truly an artist, Miss Collette, a master of your craft.” Said Mr. Manescalco, patting her hand and reaching for another cracker. “Your husband and children are lucky to have you. I feel honored, also, to be your friend.”
Collette was so pleased she almost flew out of the rocking chair to hug him, but he raised his hand to stop her.
“But I have sad news to share. This morning I signed papers with the people who build the silly houses. They will take my cactus ranch, and in six months there will be no more cactus, no more apples.”
Collette drew in a sharp breath. He continued.
“Would you be willing to make jelly for me from the cactus apples I have left, until the last apple is gone? I will pay you to do this thing for me. Your jelly will be all that I have left from my fathers ranch.”
Collette and the old man sat in silence and rocked, and considered how quickly things, life, can change. Then as Collette drove back to her tiny house, she thought about making cactus apple jelly for a little Italian man with a crazy moustache. And, each time she brought him jelly, there would be less and less of his farm and she would bear silent witness to it’s slow dismantling. And as she noticed another piece of it gone, another row of green cactus disappearing as if it had never been, and to less and less of her husband in their double bed, to the slow dismantling of her marriage. It was as if the only evidence of Mr. Manescalco and his cactus ranch, and Collette’s marriage, was stored in crystal mason jars in small wooden crates in the back of an old Rambler station wagon.