March 2011

The fruit police

By David Feela

To escape the holiday snow that usually makes gigantic sugar plums out of the Colorado mountain peaks, we had to drive a long diagonal across Arizona, steer clear of that enormous rut known as the Grand Canyon, and ease ourselves into two reserved lounge chairs beside a resort pool under the twinkling starlight of Palm Springs, Calif.

Several weeks before we left, packages from friends and relatives containing Christmas gifts started arriving. Among the gifts was a beautifully wrapped fruit box from Harry & David. It showed up the day before we locked up the house. I dutifully tucked it away with our suitcases in the trunk of our car, inhaling its sparkling scent of fresh fruit right through the cardboard.

The temperature was nearly 50 degrees and hardly a snowflake was visible. I can faithfully recall we had forgotten all our responsibilities by the time we gazed at the Superstition Mountains, but that fantasy came to an abrupt end as a warning sign loomed near the California border: Inspection Station— All Vehicles Must Stop!

We straightened our seats, as if preparing to land on an airplane. We didn’t carry firearms, or drugs, or deal in the transport of illegal aliens, but we glanced at each other, not saying the word “fruit” out loud; still, both of us thinking it so tangibly the image of those plump pears and honey-crisp apples hung from our lips.

We’d forgotten that officials in khaki uniforms protect farmers who live in California. They stop any vehicle crossing their sovereign border to question the occupants until they can determine if they are the kind of eco-terrorists who might carry some form of highfiber contraband into an otherwise tan and healthy environment. Believe it or not, we were the kind of people they were looking for.

The pickup truck in front of us idled for a long moment while I watched its driver duck from view, then reappear, handing one officer a clear plastic bag containing three plump grapefruit. The officer’s hand remained extended and a single bright red apple got positioned very prettily in the center of his upturned palm. Then the officer’s partner motioned the driver through the gate and the truck accelerated away into the California sun.

I pulled up to the interrogation position and rolled down the window.

“Where are you coming from?” the officer inquired.

“Colorado,” I replied, with an even voice, smiling a big smile, as if I had just stepped off a ski slope, my teeth glistening like ice. Then he asked the question I knew he would ask, the one he had been trained to ask, the question he probably mumbled in his sleep for over 20 years.

“Do you have any fruit?”

Now, I confess I hadn’t forgotten our fruit: four tender, sweet, potentially delicious pieces of perfect California fruit that had been shipped to us FROM California no more than a week before this awkward moment. The fruit had been left by a deliveryman who also wore a khaki uniform. I knew instinctively that I couldn’t explain the harmless business of fruit transportation to this officer who was in charge of detaining fruit at the California border check station. His job was simple: confiscate the fruit, destroy it, and don’t listen to excuses. He looked serious. He looked bored. He looked pale, as if he hadn’t been eating enough fruit.

“I’ve got an unopened bottle of wine in the trunk,” I offered. He motioned with his wrist—a kind of get-out-of-here gesture— just as his Nazi-fruit partner mouthed the question, “Should we trunk them?”

I stepped on the gas, not even checking my rear-view mirror, afraid I would instantly hear sirens and gunfire. I drove like a Californian, my mouth dry as tissue paper, my fingers white against the steering wheel. I drove. When I finally regained my composure, my wife was rapidly tapping my shoulder, motioning for me to pull off at a gas station. I parked the car and turned off the motor. I sat quietly, listening to my heart ticking.

“You look like you could use a snack,” my wife offered.

She got out of the car and walked around to the back. “Pop the trunk lid,” she shouted. I hesitantly reached down and pulled the latch. After slamming the trunk, she climbed back into her seat, holding all four pieces of fruit. She handed me a pear and an apple, then we sat like Adam and Eve, saying nothing, savoring that forbidden moment.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.