Oregano. Green flakes that float atop an oily slice of boardwalk pizza. Yet they are wild vines in miniature; a sheath of plump green velvet: aromatic as a forest, strong like a drug. The smallest leaves, herbaceous explosions that numb the tongue.
You rub its velvety leaves and it stains your fingers with the smell of Sunday dinners at your grandmother’s, with the smell of pasta with marina, meatballs and love, with the smell of a nostalgia that never really was.
Just One Story for Why I Write.
Mule Creek Prison is a maximum security prison in Ione, California. Driving there is tranquil, blue highways roadtrip—windmill farms, burnt yellow hills, and old frontier towns selling tschotkes to tourists. As you draw closer, if your eyesight is not very good, you see a tower, and mistake it for a college campus.
Then you see the guns.
I was a new attorney, there to see Geronimo Pratt, an ex-Black Panther convicted of a crime he did not commit. This was to many, including me, a dream opportunity: working on a case to free the wrongfully convicted, working with legal issues that allowed me reach out and touch the words written by our founding fathers.
But the details numbed me into a stupor. I didn’t want to read pages of testimony and then conduct hours of research to craft a legal argument. I wanted to hear about Mr. Pratt’s youth in the south. I wanted to hear about the early days of the civil rights movement and the palpable sense of revolution that caused so many people to act against the government. I wanted to hear his story of the Panthers’ descent into drugs and criminality. I wanted the experience of prison visits and to observe, well, everything. More so, I wanted to write about it.
This posed a problem. An admitted perfectionist, I knew what it took to be the kind of lawyer I wanted to be—tirelessly curious about legal minutia. I didn’t want to be less than a crusader (idealistic, I know), but I was just so much more interested in story.
Sure, in law school, while on Law Review, while working for two professors on their research, while working at a firm, I took a fiction writing class and wrote the first draft of an adventure novel. But now, saddled with student loan debt, was I truly going to eschew the stability hammered into me by my professional parents and go for something I had only dreamed about? The answer was yes.
I began the long process of leaving practice. I wrote freelance—finding legal writing gigs and journalism gigs where I could. The social activist in me still strong, I continued to represent indigent defendants on appeal in my own practice. After all, there were parts of law I loved: helping people, writing, thinking and legal reasoning.
I took creative writing classes. I realized that while stories might come freely to me, writing was difficult. I had a lot to learn. More workhorse than prodigy, I changed my life so I could write in the mornings, the only time I could do so without the inner critic mocking me.
That was more than fifteen years ago. I no longer practice, but the rest? Still true today. I loved (and still do) the rewrite, of matching writers’ intent with reader experience, that struggle of language until the story drives itself. The decision meant less money, less stability and a different kind of life than the one my parents envisioned. I brazened forth and redefined my worldview. It was worth it.
Jennie and Robert are planning a robbery. In her garden apartment, Jennie sits cross-legged on the scraggly tweed couch with a composition notebook she bought just for the occasion. She’s proud that she can sit still like this. Nimble at 45. She listens to Robert’s plans and writes in the notebook; she still dots her i’s with hearts. Robert sits in the easy chair—he’s been out of prison two years. One more strike and he’s in for life. His leg is jimmying up and down. He’s smoking a cigarette. The ashtray is full but he doesn’t bother to empty it. The ashes fall onto the coffee table. Jennie pulls her knees up to her chest. “I don’t get it. Why Taco Bell and not McDonald’s?”
“I’m not comfortable doing McDonald’s,” Robert says. He flicks ashes into the tray.
“That makes no sense. I mean, do you see the doofus kids who work there? They won’t give us any trouble.”
“It’s McDonald’s. Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, pickles, onions, cheese on a sesame seed bun and all that. I love that place.”
“It’s two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun,” Jennie chants. “What does a Big Mac have to do with our plan?”
“You just don’t shit in certain places. It’s McDonald’s. The Arches and all that. It’s like the flag. My dad used to take me there. I remember him buying me my first Big Mac.” Robert sits back forgetting his cigarette. “He told me I was becoming a man.”
My husband prefers Bosc pears. Its shape is most pear-like of all the varietals, a skinny neck ever widening to a bulbous round bottom. He claims it has more crunch. He claims it stands up better for poaching. He claims it doesn’t rot on our kitchen counter within minutes of buying. This might all be true.
But leave me at the grocery store and I will buy the Bartlett, the Bosc pear’s frumpy cousin. Squat and fat, its light green skin so delicate, to touch it is to bruise it.
The fruit, when ripe, need not be chewed. Sweet as a peach, but the Bartlett doesn’t evoke memories of barbecues and beaches. Its silky flesh evaporates on my tongue and leaves images of snuggling into sweaters and listening to the crackling of fires: a pear essence of winter.
My grandfather would often eat a pear after dinner. He and my grandmother would visit every Sunday and my mother would set out fruit and nuts for dessert, a tradition in her family she continued mostly for them. I remember being disappointed in the lack of chocolate cake, the lack of anything sweet, the lack of anything for children. After all, I was six. And in my logic, if a six-year-old was at a dinner, there should be cake. With frosting. Sullen but still wanting dessert, I’d pick walnuts from the bowl. (The almonds were dull, their shells reminded me of band-aids; the hazelnuts were the sweetest, but they were too hard for me to crack and my Dad hoarded those; the Brazilian nuts tasted like dirt.) Usually, my mother would crack a walnut for me, and I would nibble it slowly so I would finish eating it just as she finished cracking another.
I remember the night I wanted to use the nutcracker myself. Silver and jutted, it was a contraption I could barely get my hands around. I have no idea what changed in me, what made me want to be more like the adults at the table than the children. I remember standing up to get enough leverage on the nutcracker. Even with all my pressure on the walnut, I only created a fissure in the shell—just large enough from which to pry the meat loose. That was success. I ate as much walnut skin as nut meat. This led to coughing, thirst, and complaints about the lack of cake.
My grandfather, who was dark and stooped, chose a pear from the bowl. He held the pear in one hand, deep in his palm. And with his other, he held a knife close to the blade. With the blade pressed to the pear, he turned the fruit. He kept the knife perfectly still. I thought it was magic. Streamers of light green spun onto his plate. He sliced a piece of pear and he offered it to me. The pear, still on the blade, skated in its juice. I was careful not to cut myself as I lifted the fruit from the knife. My little thumb touched his big one. I remember feeling the hard ridges of his thumb compared to the soft flesh of the pear. I placed the pear on my tongue and closed my mouth around it. I chewed but didn’t need to. It melted on my tongue into a serum of pleasure. Sweet, earthy, more like cream than pulp.
My grandfather died not long after that dinner.
I don’t remember that dinner for the moment I first felt the desire to be independent, the desire to do things on my own; I don’t remember it for the moment I discovered pears and how much I loved eating them—although both firsts are true. I remember that dinner as the moment my grandfather reached across the abyss of our years, fed me with love and gave me what was to be my only memory of him.
His jeans were cowboy style. Wranglers or the like. Each back pocket sported a gold-stitched vee, making them unadorned by today’s couture standards of denim. These same jeans could be found in the boys’ section of Sears that advertised, “for your rugged little tyke.” They sagged in the seat and pulled across his thighs. Ironed flat, these jeans looked new. His belt, thick and tan, was cheap to the touch. But from afar, its discoloration from age was often mistaken for the unevenness of real leather. The buckle was a classic loop rather than a solid brass statement. His saddle shoes matched the exact color of his belt. The brown tee shirt, which he wore tucked in and pressed, read Harrys’ Sports. No one ever noticed the typo or the faded stains under his armpits. What they noticed was the dancing pig wearing a football helmet and a catcher’s mitt, the dialogue bubble reading, “come play with me, babe.”