I was walking down the Talmage road one afternoon in late summer/early fall, about an hour before dusk, if memory serves. As I recall, the light had begun to take on its characteristic pre-crepuscular weight.
I was headed east, a little ways past the highway, on a mission whose specifics are lost to time but, knowing me, had something to do with the procurement of drugs. In fact, we'll call that a given. There are very few valid reasons to be afoot on that section of road, the top five being:
5: Car broke down
4: Leaving/returning to hobo jungle
2: Short pilgrimage to the Buddhas
1: Dope mission.
I wasn’t driving at the time. I don't frequent homeless encampments. I have an unerring sense of direction, and if there were ever a person less suited to Buddhism than myself, he's probably somewhere arguing with a smart-alecky rabbit about what season it is. Dope mish it was.
Off to my right was a pear orchard, and from my distant vantage point the fruit appeared edible. I decided to stroll over and obtain some nourishment. Strictly speaking the pears were not mine to eat. And technically I’d be trespassing and stealing. But if you consider the act in comparison to the shenanigans I'd surely been up to that very day — after all, I was walking to Talmage, and as it is extremely unwise to stroll the byways of the GTA (Greater Talmage Area) with felonious intent, I probably already had money, and I damn sure hadn't received any stock dividends recently, or ever — it could be viewed as an exercise in moral and ethical advancement.
Feeling virtuous, I ambled over and saw that I had indeed happened upon the trees during the sweet spot just before harvest, and these pears were fat, dark green, and sporting the roseate belly indicative of ripeness. They'd still be crisp and in the zone between astringency and syrupy sweet, the way I like them.
I chose a likely-looking low-hanging victim. Delicious! I pulled down another and decided to stroll down the lanes for a bit.
There's something unnatural about an orchard, as if a forest had just up and decided to get its shit together and line up for inspection. It's like a tree army, loaded with pears.
Coming to the end of a row, I approached one of the bee-boxes — hives, I guess, though they don't look like hives to me, more like little bee-bureaus — carefully, but I guess they had the day off. Pretty sweet deal for the farmers, these bee employees — they do all the pollination, and provide honey, in return for which they get what, these drab, utilitarian sheds? Seems like we could do better for them. I can see little pagodas or maybe classical temples at the end of each row, really class up these orchards.
Anyway, I'm ambling down the lanes, munching on pears, slaloming through the trees, and by and by I notice a couple things: one, it's beginning to get dark, and two, that unerring directional sense referred to earlier seems to be on the fritz, because every tree looks the same and no direction seems any more likely than another to get me back to the road. I was — well, maybe lost is too strong a term — I could still hear the faint sussurance of traffic on the 101, and the rectilinear arrangement of the orchard meant I had basically only four directions in which it was possible to go, and one had to lead out — but the sameness of the surroundings and lack of recognizable markers was a little disorienting.
I picked a path by eenie-meenie, trusting to the gods of childhood to lead me to safety, and started walking. Then I heard a distinct scurrying sound behind me.
Let me here explain something to you about methamphetamine and its chronic usage. It does an admirable job of tamping down and rendering moot the finer secondary emotions, ridding one of those pesky feelings that might otherwise interfere with leading a thoroughly amoral life. This is actually one of its selling points, but the tradeoff is that the more primal, root emotions — anger, lust, and fear — gain in intensity to an absurdly powerful degree enabling a germ of unease to develop into paralyzing terror in about one point one nanosecond.
I spun around, skin tingling, heart thudding rapidly, in full fight-or-flight mode — probably leaning toward flight — and saw nothing. Animal, I thought, recalling the incident in the vineyard in Talmage when I bravely engaged the saber-tooth tiger. Or possibly housecat. Some type of angry feline. Fruit falls off trees, mammals are attracted to it. Nothing to fear. It would take some time for my autonomic system to catch up to my reasoning and I moved on again on high alert, bristling with tension.
Again the rapid scurrying, and a rustling, and then — most unsettling — a distinctly human and manifestly evil chuckle. I knew at that moment, beyond the faintest suggestion of a doubt, that I had reached the hour of my demise, and it was to be as grisly and ignominious a passing as my loved ones had ever predicted for me. I was to be dressed like a side of beef and crucified like a common messiah.
Some people report the record of their entire lives flashing briefly by in the moments before they cease respiring; I inevitably read quite clearly in my mind's eye the lurid headline and sensational lead attending the atrocity: “Random Tweaker Found Flayed, Hung From Tree — Police Seek Someone Recently In Possession Of Knife, Hammer, Nails — Faces Possible Ticket For Improper Disposal Of Biological Waste — This Year's Pear Harvest Expected To Yield Record Numbers,” would read the page 3 story in the following day's Ukiah Daily Journal.
Around again I turned, and, seeing nothing, 'round once again, calling out “who's there?” as if inquiring of a doorstep missionary bent on my salvation and not a homicidal butcher trying to harvest my pelt. I'd intended it to sound forceful and authoritative but it came out a querulous squeak. No response. I patted my pockets fruitlessly for weaponry, berating myself for this day of all days ignoring the tweaker's general policy of being prepared for anything up to and including a zombie apocalypse. Under normal circumstances I would have had several edged weapons and possibly an explosive device or so, but I was running slick that day.
I started walking again, laying my feet down gently and listening intently to try and get a fix on my tormentor, should he again make his presence known. Nothing for 20 yards or so and then, off to my left, the scurrying again, followed by the sort of hoarse, malevolent exhalation generally associated with zombies or vampires. That was it. I took off like my ass was on fire, and it's unfortunate that there was no timing apparatus set up in that orchard because if there were, I probably would've had a call the next morning from some company whose product or service is associated with speed, looking to sponsor the world's fastest middle-aged man and emblazon their logo all over his body. It's double so that no correspondents from the medical journals were present to witness the miracle of a human being decelerating from 50 to 0 in zero point one nanoseconds and keeping his organs inside his skin, because that's what happened when I hit the slat fence that ended my run.
As I lay there insensibly trying to figure out what happened, or who and where I was, I noticed a sound cutting through the usual bells and birds bonging and twittering around my beleaguered dome. It sounded like laughter, and I opened my eyes to see a figure standing over me, yukking it up like something hilarious had just happened. I didn 't get the joke. He took out a flashlight and illuminated his face from below, revealing the eerie grinning rictus of … Dave? Dave? Dave's just this … guy, somebody I sort of knew and saw maybe once a week around the various places I frequented in Ukiah. He seemed to pursue the same general goals as myself but we'd never really hung out or conversed much beyond pleasantries, and he was certainly presuming on our limited acquaintance with this bit of tomfoolery.
"Not cool, dude," I said. "Not even a little bit."
"Man, I'm sorry," Dave said, interspersed with residual chuckling, "but I was about a hundred yards behind you when you went into the orchard. I followed you in and when I saw how spooked you got when you first heard me, I thought I'd mess with your head a little. NO hard feelings, right?" He extended a hand to help me up.
"Well, I'm probably bleeding internally, and concussed, and it feels like my liver might be upside down, but I doubt it's anything a cold Newcastle and a bowlful of yippety-skippety couldn't set to rights," I said, getting painfully to my feet. "Fuckin' Dave. Seriously? You scared the crap out of me, maybe literally. I'll check later. C'mon, let's go to Talmage, you degenerate bastard."
On the plus side, Dave did smoke me up and get me around the outside of 20 ounces of that fine brown ale. The incident actually initiated and cemented an enduring friendship, though I have by no means forgotten it (clearly) and supposing Dave to be still among the living, a tossup at best, he's due for some payback.
Incidentally, while we're on the subject of fruit pilfering, the people who own the trees with the little plums on Cherry Street, and the persimmons on Joseph, sorry for totally denuding your crops. They were delicious.