The Word: PEPPER
It was the last peppertree summer. The fronds on the shaggy old peppers hung down like a mermaid’s long hair, their green laden boughs studded with pink berries, flowing over her as Page rode underneath. She’d set her fine, pale hair and sprayed on half a can of AquaNet, but it never stayed put. It just wasn’t hair made for setting. She rode over to the new development going up on Vanowen, dawdling along the unpaved streets, the horse’s hooves beating out their lazy cadence. She tried to imagine all the families living in these new houses. Hard to picture what Van Nuys would be like without this big mustard field, only houses.
Her last summer in California. Riding Daisy bareback with only a hackamore tied across her black nose, her pedal-pusher clad legs hanging long on either side of the mare’s round ribs. Eighteen years old. She felt the force of time, ejecting her from everything she’d known, squeezing her out of her life like a winged sycamore seed. She was restless, she didn’t want to be around her friends, googly-eyed over Dion and Eddie Fisher. She only wanted to sling a blanket over Daisy’s straw-gold back and wander the sleepy dirt backroads of Van Nuys, their passage noted only by the audience of ponies hanging their heads over the fences hard by shacks and orchards, surrounded by all the green and golden smells of late summer, corn growing high at Leary’s, apples fattening at Gommer McQuade’s. She lay down onto Daisy’s neck and pressed her face into that sleek summer coat, drinking in the smell, drawing her fingers through the black mane, arranging its pattern against the creamy gold. The last summer.
In a few weeks, she would be going east to college. Her mother had already bought the camel’s hair coat and wool plaid skirts and Shetland sweater sets. She would see her first red autumn, her first snowfall. Her roommate had already written to her, a girl named Hillary, from New York. Page had never been out of California except for a trip to the Grand Canyon when she was nine. She should be looking forward to it, she told herself, but she was scared, and more than that. She was sad. It was stupid, nobody she knew was going to college back east. It was ridiculous to be sad.
The cicadas buzzed in the dusty afternoon, and she rode Daisy in and out through the stout pepper trees, letting their leaves brush her face like they were hands, caressing her, memorizing her. Would she like it in Boston? Would she understand it? People were so different there. So sophisticated and all. Hillary had paper with her name engraved on it. Did they have pepper trees in Boston? Hot dirt road summer days and horse sweat and barn smells, western saddles, hawks that circled lazily over the canyons? And what would happen to Daisy? She would be so fat by Christmas…
The mare grew bored and inattentive, she stopped and leaned down to bury her black nose in the dry grass growing at the base of one of the shaggy peppers, and Page let her, why not. What did she care about Daisy’s bad habits now. By the time she got back at Christmas, Daisy wouldn’t even remember her.
These pepper trees. So ancient. Peppers came up from Mexico with Father Serra and the missions. Page was sure they didn’t have pepper trees in Boston, or buckskin horses. She would wear nylons, and heels, and set her hair and go sledding, throw snowballs… She should have gone to Stanford. At least it was in California. Why had she been so quick to leave everything she knew and loved?
But the Valley would always be here, she told herself. Just like this. These dirt back roads, the produce stands, the little farms and orchards, clutches of quail breaking from the brush and running across the road, roadrunners chasing lizards, standing with them proudly dangling from their yellow beaks. Whenever she came home, it would all still be here. Just like this.
Part of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”
Next week’s word is: FLUTE