The Golden Fruit of Friendship

The first time I was on this block on the unfashionable west side, it was because the realtor had taken me into a neighborhood I could afford. It was a block of barking dogs, guys working on diesel trucks, and quiet stucco and adobe houses walled from the street.

When I first walked up to No. 626 I fell in love - despite its crumbling steps and paint the color of dried blood. The house was spacious, shady, peaceful; it reminded me for no discernible reason of my grandparents' house in New Jersey. I was home.

My husband and I assumed the mortgage and moved in. Our neighbors were essentially one sprawling family who owned four lots, two on either side of us. They were old-fashioned people, boasting the last name of a famous Spanish conquistador. Grace was the matriarch, a small woman who had been widowed years before. Her grown sons lived in the compound around her, along with her eldest daughter, who was herself a grandmother.

At first, we were on simple neighborly terms: smiling, waving, mentioning the weather. Then, when our daughter was born, it was as if a wall had come down between our houses. No sooner had I bundled up the baby on the way to the car in a February snow than Grace appeared - an apparition in my driveway - and announced that the baby's feet were cold and needed warmer socks. She was right.

DURING the summer, the ancient apricot tree on Grace's side of the wall began to bear its horde of golden fruit. Every day she'd urge me: take some, take some. The tree had never borne like that. Fruit fell and rotted, too much even for the birds to eat. With my toddling daughter, I filled brown-paper bags with the fruit, dried it on cookie sheets in the oven, and piled it up in bowls for guests.

The wall between us literally came down when I hired my brother to build a small studio for me in the backyard. The city at first refused us a building permit because of a disputed boundary line. The line of the wall - the assumed boundary - was at odds with the survey. I owned about 10 inches of what we'd thought was Grace's land, and the city insisted I claim it before we could build legally.

My brother knocked a hole in the wall to begin building. Everyone in Grace's family measured our yard - the son from faraway Arizona, the daughter who worked for the state. I offered iced tea; they admired my house. Grace gave permission to build on the disputed area. But it was only the day that my brother began to dig the foundation by hand that I realized what good neighbors I had. Grace's son-in-law, Roberto, appeared driving a backhoe. He gestured dramatically to my brother: Stand back. Then, in a quarter of an hour, he dug the foundation, $1,000 worth of labor, and backed away, smiling.

The apricot leaves turned yellow, snow fell on the mountain, and a freshly stuccoed wall stood between our properties. Time passed, but the summer rains didn't come. It was the first year of a drought, but I was distracted. My husband was ill. By the second year of the drought, in the cool, dry autumn when the hills were covered in yellow chamisa and purple asters, my husband passed away. Among the condolences were those of my neighbors.

Members of the extended family stopped me in the street as they always had, but not to chat about the weather or the growing worth of our real estate. Now they offered sympathy in their own way. At the end of my driveway, Roberto pronounced "life goes on." Then, to my surprise, he produced a business card for his machine shop and said: "If you hear a noise, anything worries you, call us. Any hour of the day or night." I knew that any hapless burglar in my backyard would be set upon by an armed contingent of neighbors, and I slept more easily.

It was Grace who left the angel, crocheted of white and silver yarn, tied to our doorknob for our daughter, along with some bubble bath. My neighbors understood without being told how difficult life could be for a young widow and child. I sometimes thought about what Roberto had said. He was old enough to be my grandfather, was a weathered guy without teeth. Yet somehow I believed him.

Life did go on. I stuccoed the house yellow. My daughter grew. Time passed, and snow fell again on the mountain. Water flowed into streams and reservoirs. An old friend reappeared in my life, and we fell in love and became engaged. One of my first acts when we decided to marry was to officially introduce him to my neighbors. When I told Roberto, he threw his arms around me and gave me an enormous hug - a man who had never before even shaken my hand - then vanished shyly.

But Grace's apricot tree was gone. I found the stump on her side of the wall. The tree had died in the drought, and her sons had cut it down, planting some fast-growing Russian olive trees in its place.

It wasn't until the next summer, just before the wedding, that I saw on my side of the wall a small apricot tree, a volunteer, springing up a few feet high. Its leaves had the characteristic apricot shape, and it was growing in the rains that fell each afternoon. One of Grace's apricots had fallen, maybe years before, on the hard mud of my yard and taken root. It had grown up without my noticing it.

Someday, it would bear golden fruit.

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