The other day I remembered (and what a ghastly word, to re-member, to puzzle back together the dead flesh of memory) waking up one morning when I was seven or so to the sound of the old pecan tree outside my window being shaken violently, the sound of the pecans falling on the roof above my head and rolling down to the ground outside (there were no gutters on that rented house on Avondale).
San Antonio is full of pecan trees, you see, or at least the South Side is. Big trees even in my youth, with broadish, long green leaves shaped not unlike some Neolithic man's flint scraper. You could tell the season by the life cycle of the pecans. Spring, and yellow pollen was everywhere, utterly covering the windshields of those unwary enough to park beneath their generous shade. Summertime, and the webworms would attack, binding up groups of leaves in roughly head-sized bundles. The cicadas' sang from them then, a rising and falling note that went on and on, from dawn till dusk.
Late summer/early autumn, and you could see the nuts begin to take shape, covered in a tough green skin. By the beginning of winter, that thick skin would split, and pecans would begin to fall.
It's strange to me now to have the exotic all around—mangoes, papaya, rambutan, coconut, lychee, durian—and not have a single pecan available that wasn't packaged and shipped thousands of miles.
Anyway, they were illegal immigrants. Of that I have little doubt. They didn't speak a word of English that I heard that morning, and when they talked softly amongst themselves they used a Spanish that even to my young ears was differently paced and inflected from the everyday Spanish I heard in the neighborhood.
There were two men, a woman, and a girl a couple of years older than me. The younger man climbed the tall pecan tree and shook various limbs at the older man's direction, occasionally swiping down a stubborn bunch with his hand. The woman and the girl collected the nuts in a big mesh plastic bag and a black plastic bag, according to some system that wasn't apparent to me (then or now). Nowadays it's all mechanized, of course; there's a sort of modified cherry picker that comes along, grabs the tree by the throat so to speak, and shakes the shit out of it. Reminds me of some poor kid getting shaken down for his lunch money. They only use that in the pecan groves; the stately old neighborhood pecans are too big to be subjected to such indignities, I guess.
Anyway, I sat on the back steps in my pj's and gawked. They cast the occasional sidelong glance at me, but continued shaking and gathering. I don't remember exactly what I was thinking. It was unprecedented, strangers in our back yard, taking our pecans. I remember they seemed in good spirits, as if this wasn't work, or at least not onerous work.
My mom eventually came out and took a long, silent look.
"Can they do that?" I asked.
After a little while, Mom shrugged. "We aren't going to pick 'em," was all she finally said. The she shooed me in for breakfast.
Thinking back on it, I suspect that as a single mother with three kids, she was balancing their trespass with her understanding of how hard it could be to make ends meet.
This memory was brought up out of the depths the other day at work. I glanced out the big front windows and saw two men and a little girl picking mangoes from the trees that grow between the public car park and Upper East Coast Road. The younger guy was up in the tree with a knife. The older guy had a mop handle, but he rarely used it. Instead, he would catch the mangoes the other guy tossed down, and roll them into discrete piles, presumably by ripeness. The little girl would very seriously collect them one by one and put them in the appropriate basket of their bicycles.
The funny thing is, they also seemed in good spirits, though they were not oblivious to the stares given them by passers-by. And it seemed to me that, be it mangoes or pecans, there is something slightly illicit in taking what is free to be taken, something vaguely embarrassing—but not so much that it dampens your good mood at getting something as good as a mango or a pecan for nothing more than a little effort.
It makes me want to climb a tree, and shake, and see what drops.