excerpted from SIX YEARS OF A FLOATING LIFE, Copyright 2014, Megan Rich. All rights reserved.
Patrick's been known to get on certain culinary kicks, eating an excessive amount of this or that with uncanny obsession, exclaiming its special qualities. In China, it was the mooncakes eaten in celebration of the autumn moon festival. We'd go through the line at the supermarket with stacks of densely-packed, decorative cakes (filled with everything from coconut to aged eggs to lotus root) and every time, without fail, the cashier would ask how many we eat each day, laughing at our claiming two per breakfast, a truly decadent exploitation (equivalent to eating, say, half a bag of Halloween candy every October morning). In Germany, it was the homemade yogurt and bread we made, Patrick not only happy with the outcome but proud of his industriousness.
“Sweden is so abundant!” Patrick yelled in amazement, snatching several unripe apples from a tree we happened to be passing on our way to a party. “Do you have an extra bag in your purse?” He asked, his pockets filling up. I pulled one out, rolling my eyes, remembering the grocery bags of apples we hadn't yet made into applesauce lining our kitchen wall. Several Swedes walked by, their freshly-gelled hair shining under the street lamp, and stared at Patrick, a lanky stranger collecting tart, tiny apples from an unattended tree. I shook my head, accepting that this was the man I married, finding at least some amusement in their befuddlement.
Patrick was right; Sweden was abundant. It seemed as though the birds, squirrels, and other foraging creatures couldn't keep up with the many unclaimed trees that fruited all autumn. Patrick believed it was his personal duty to get as much of this bounty as possible, as not to let it go to waste, and he was pained by seeing any piece of fruit fallen to the ground in sad, decomposing piles.
“Why not?” I'd thought at first. But as the bags began lining our small kitchen, unused, I wondered what more could be done with all this fruit? We flash-froze it, dried it, made cakes and muffins and stews. We gave as much as we could to our lovely landlady downstairs, the Bulgarian ceramic artist who'd lived in that small house for twenty years, and when she’d entertain guests with hard liquor and delicious vegetarian food down in her screened porch, we'd hoped she'd have some use for the fruit. She smiled and accepted our jams and cakes, but soon we'd see them furtively thrown in the trash can or on the compost heap.
It got so bad that when Patrick went to the dentist for a check-up, happily staring into the overhead light – going to the dentist being another of his strange loves – she asked him whether he had a condition that might weaken his enamel. Not remembering any such thing from childhood, he shook his head. However, several minutes later, in the midst her scraping his bicuspid, he asked a seemingly innocuous question: “I do eat a lot of apples; do you think that might have something to do with my enamel?”
The dentist waved her hand in the air, “Oh no, that wouldn't do it,” gently wiping away excess saliva from his lip with her gloved finger.
A minute later, putting down her hooked tool and squirting a stream of lukewarm water around his mouth, she pulled back, asking, “Well, how many apples?”
Patrick considered this while gargling, trying to give a rough, conservative estimate. He spit and said, “I don't know, maybe... fifteen a day?” He knew it was perhaps twenty or more, but was curious what she might say.
“Fifteen?” She smiled, obviously thinking he was joking.
“Yeah... about that,” he replied.
She looked again at the surface of his teeth, slightly dull, and said, “Well, that's a lot of apples. Maybe you should cut back a bit, huh?”
He thought of the tree he'd found on the way to her office that morning, nearly stripped of all its apples already, and decided to give it up, realizing his perfect dental record was the only thing more sacred at that moment than apples. “Okay, I'll cut back.”
A few weeks later, on a sunny, Indian-summer day, he was riding his bike to Peter’s house to play basketball. As he passed under a train viaduct, heading downhill, his basketball shoes, haphazardly strung over his handlebars, got caught in the front wheel, sending him flying into the air and landing on his chin, chipping two of his front teeth. With blood gushing down his neck from a chin wound, several kind Swedes stopping to ask if he needed help, he made his way to the nearby hospital, saying, “Thank you. I'll be okay.” Since he could see the huge, humming building in the distance, he’d just walk, he thought, having locked his beat-up bike by the viaduct.
As he approached the hospital, however, feeling as though he weren't that hurt, he saw it, what he'd been waiting for. Ever since he'd struck up a conversation about the later-ripening apple varieties with a woman who worked at the botanical garden, he'd been searching for this tree. The tree in front of him – “Elysium” he’d dubbed it in his mind – stood bright and heavy, ripe, blushing fujis hanging from each branch. Opening his backpack and throwing it on the ground nearby, he wildly plucked them with his one, free hand, the other still putting pressure on his bleeding wound. Annoyed that he couldn't do more, he dropped his soiled shirt back onto his chest, figuring the bleeding had probably stopped by now, and filled his backpack to the brim.
As he bit down into the first, fresh fuji, he reveled in its flavor, but noticed, only then, that something was off. Looking at the apple, he saw, alarmed, that his teeth-marks had a strange shape. Running his tongue along his incisors, he felt the sharp, jagged edges that were formed from the accident. Did this stop him from eating another apple? No! They’re so perfect, he thought, and free! And did the blood now gushing again down his neck, several people asking, “Do you need help?” stop him from getting every last apple he could? Heck no! When he finally arrived at the ER, I can only wonder what the doctor must've thought of all his apples as he stitched up his chin. That night, as he lay in agony, his ribs and chest tight with the blow his body'd taken, I couldn't believe it when he asked, somewhat pathetically, “Meggie? Could you grab me an apple? I'm hungry.” He laughed lightly, wincing at the pain in his shaking chest. “They're so good!” He responded to my grimace.
A week later, we read about a famous apple festival taking place on the other side of the province, the proclaimed “Highest concentration of orchards” – and hippie artists, Patrick added – “in Scandinavia.” It promised apple novelties, autumn-inspired art, and other traditional flavors of the season all backdropped by the Baltic. We happily took a yellow regional bus over to Kivik, cars lining the road in the center of town, people streaming out toward the sea. We passed several small orchards, each with a stand manned by beautiful, blonde women selling their harvest from bright bushel baskets. Patrick stopped for every sample, shmoozing with every woman about the flavors, possible pairings and bakability of each variety, and buying one or two of each to take home. When we finally entered the gate of the festival, left hands stamped with red, blotchy apples, his bag was already near bursting. Walking through the stalls, ever-newer varieties to try, hard ciders to sip, pastries to nibble, Patrick was in heaven. Having found a stand offering hot, sweet cider and fresh fritters, so was I. We strolled through the several makeshift galleries of paintings, photography, fiber arts (all loosely apple-related) and took our chance at winning a grand-prize case of hard cider by spinning a giant apple wheel.
After rounding our final corner, a microphone clicked on and a man started in on apple-themed jokes, rousing polite laughter and applause from the crowd. Behind him, there was a huge wall draped with fabric, and he gesticulated wildly toward it and the several funky-dressed artists standing in front, giving their bows. “I wonder what's behind the curtain,” I whispered to Patrick, who was happily munching on a johannas. Just then, a drumroll came, and with a quick, exalted pull, there it was, that year's Apple Mural. Every year, this little artist /apple enclave creates a mural made entirely of apples, Serat style. Towering above the seaside, a deep blue sky behind it, that year's mural was a voluptuous, naked Eve, grabbing an apple from the snake's mouth. The many colors of the varietals blended distinctly together, dot-by-dot, each one lovingly shined on some artist's overalls that morning. The audience roared their approval, and Patrick stood in awe, unable to even clap, absentmindedly chewing the last, crisp bite of his johannas. I put my arm around him, rubbing his scarred chin and kissing his apple-filled cheek as he looked up. “Wow,” he said, laughing, “Eden indeed!”
Walking down the road, hoping to pass a few more stalls in this new direction, we came upon a wide, white beach, pale sunbathers soaking up the last of the year's rays. Patrick, not minding if others thought it strange if he swam in his boxers, took his first “invigorating” dip in the Baltic, an apple in mouth, of course. As a certain body part hit the water, however, he dropped his apple, and delighted by this new challenge, jumped full-in and bobbed it from the water, as if he were competing with himself for first prize. I sat watching the sailboats bob their own race on the horizon and the sunbathers flip pages in their books. Patrick made deliberate strokes through a tangle of children, parents, and far-off teens in the water, and as he came out, refreshed and smiling, he shook his boxers at me, laughing. I kissed his cheek as he sat down, offering him, what else? An apple. “Thanks Eve,” he said, taking a bite and winking.
After getting home, bags weighing down our tired arms, we made several batches of applesauce to store for the winter and a big pie to eat the next morning for breakfast. Listening to Patrick's impressions of each apple as he sliced them, eating one of every two slices to jog his memory, I rolled out the chilled dough, squeezed in the lemon, and sprinkled in the cinnamon. When he handed over slice-by-slice, asking my opinion, I praised them all, knowing how much he loved them, and loving them, too, because of it. Eating big, thick slices under freshly-whipped cream the next morning, I was happy to have the apples for the coming winter, their tart-sweet flavor to spice up an old pork loin, their chunky freshness to add to a tired bran muffin. It was delightful to see them make their way off the pantry shelf, each and every jar emptied by the next fall.