Time and Oranges

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Seven o’clock, after dinner. In the house near the Everglades a child entertains herself. In the house the child often has whole afternoons alone, which might not be unusual except for the child’s age, which is five. Five and one-half, she tells people. Two halves is the same as a year. The child, Nina, has peeled herself an orange; its husk lies discarded at her bare feet, a long orange ribbon.

Her father is home. Her father made hot dogs for dinner and only burned them a little. Her father has been reading in his bedroom.

Nina pries loose a segment of the orange to eat. Her father rounds the corner and spots the orange; crying out, he knocks it from her hand.

The naked orange rolls away. And it keeps rolling. It takes a long time to slow, too long for a dropped piece of fruit, especially for fruit that is soft and not perfectly round. This is the first indication to Nina that something may have been wrong with the orange.

Billie Holiday’s voice comes swinging through the kitchen. Her father listens to this music when he’s reading, so this is Nina’s indication not to disturb him. She always thinks how Billie seems a boy’s name, and yet the voice is low and soft and strong.

Her father bends to tuck a strand of hair back behind Nina’s ear, and it comes loose again as soon as he lets go. Her hair is always doing this.

He says: Where did you find an orange?

She says: In the fruit bowl, beneath the lemons.

He says: Of course. Fruit bowls make perfect hiding spots for oranges.

The house is on stilts, just in case. It has a patio on which sit large pots for gardening, which have been unoccupied—by plants, at least—for all of Nina’s memory. Wild sunflowers, though, do congregate at the stilts. Nina has counted seventeen stairs to the driveway. The patio, the stairs, the far end of the driveway, all these are visible from the window of the kitchen. In the middle distance is the road, an outcropping of little town buildings, the proprietary grove of orange trees owned by the famous orange juice company. But Nina is still not tall enough to see over the peninsula to the window; were she to look in that direction instead of at her father, she would see only kitchen drawers, most with blue ceramic knobs.

Her father’s name is Diego.

He says: Nina, pay attention. You have to know that all oranges are one big cosmic trick. Eating them will cause you sadness.

She can think of much that causes sadness. In the height of the summer the beaches are too full to visit; plans are canceled left and right due to thunderstorms. Twice in five years she and Diego have hunkered with a cousin in Memphis to hide from hurricanes.

When she asks him why, Diego answers like this. Sometimes the instant you peel off the skin, the orange explodes in a thousand snakes, like a peanut-tin gag but nefarious. Sometimes the fruit inside is blue, and if you eat it, your throat will constrict and never open. Sure, sometimes the orange lies dormant all the way through digestion, but that’s the most sinister of all. Below the tree of you, your roots will twist into an unrecognizable mess, a horror-tragic-comedy. In other words it will grow more real. All the while the Multiverse will laugh at you behind its wide, orange palms because you fell for the oldest trick in the book, the oldest trick in the book being oranges.

Nina asks how he knows all this, and why he hasn’t told her before. To her this sounds a little like the way Diego told her she would learn to read: that as she slept, letters would slip off her bookshelf and into her ear canals. Reading happened at the will of the letters, he told her. It is not to be worried over, or rushed.

Diego runs a hand through his hair, wires of silver at his temples. She’s heard him say these last years have been a hard go. He’s thinking of applying as a trigonometry tutor at the college. One day, trigonometry will be a useful skill for Nina, to help her find patterns in the stars. He has Nina study astrology, astronomy, all things astral, in part to keep her from panicking in the lonely dark each night. The stars are moving. Now a thirteenth zodiac zone has elbowed in. Celestial cartography is primed for an upgrade, and Nina will be its herald.

He says: I’ve been a little dishonest, and now is as good a time to come clean as any.

He says: I was once a victim of those oranges. We both were.

By now they’re sitting cross-legged on the blue tile, and the skinned orange on the floor turns soft circles beneath one of the cabinets. Nina’s hands nest in his. Both of them are freckly from the hard Florida sun.

He says: Before I knew better, I ate an orange so vile it ripped a hole in time.

She asks how he could tell.

He says: I didn’t know at first. But then, all that business with your mother. I realized later I must have ripped a hole in time. Took years of reflection to trace it back to the oranges. I’ve only just begun to accept it, really.

Nina hasn’t the foggiest where this story is heading. She shivers with anticipation and not a little fear; for a year or more, now, she has imagined Diego’s explanation of her mother’s absence. Perhaps she turned into an alligator and swam out to the Keys or to Mexico. Maybe she is completing a very important task like holding up the moon, which is why she cannot be here. Maybe she is fighting off more hurricanes. Most terrifying of all, maybe her mother walked out the door simply because she wanted to. Some of these options mean her mother can choose to come back to them. Some of them mean Nina isn’t headed toward the same precarious future. Nina has been too afraid of the answer. She knows she isn’t ready. She has never broached the subject. But here it is, coming with gale force.

She says: I see.

He says: No, you don’t.

They watch the skinned orange swimming around the tile. The top of Nina’s hair is huge, airy, wild as her mother’s. They have learned there is no easy way to detangle it. And the problem’s only getting worse—last week, when they tried to ignore it, Nina grew a rat’s nest so vicious they had to cut it out. Nina thrashes in her sleep, and until she learns to properly brush her hair, Diego asks her to sleep in a nightcap. He once joked she’d have to cut it all off, and she was inconsolable for hours. Ever since then she’s feared scissors.

He says: No one warned me.

She says: I see.

He says: I was in the convenience store across the street from the boat rentals, buying stamps. I walked into town by myself. I turned around, and there on a stand was the handsomest orange I’d ever seen. I wasn’t sure I had ever eaten an orange before—surely I had, I thought, but it must have been so long ago. Normally the smell made me sick. This is a common phenomenon; it happens when you work in one place for as long as I worked in that grove. But this one—oh, I wanted it. So I bought the orange and the stamps. Your mother was back by the time I came home, and she had you down for a nap. I shared the orange.

He says: We weren’t surprised you cried through the night because you did it all the time. But that night you screeched like the end of the world was coming. And that was the first night we started having trouble. I was tired. I worked long, odd shifts back then, in several jobs. My body wouldn’t shut off, and the clock felt slower. I wrestled the sheets like gators; your mother slept on the edge of the bed to keep from all my thrashing.

He says: And the next night was just like the first one. Your mother and I slept head to foot just to get a little rest.

In Nina’s closet are the remainders of her nursery, what Diego couldn’t bring himself to sell. On the middle shelf is a folded mobile with plastic glow-stars, a crib bumper with blue polka dots, a box of orange pacifiers. More than once they’ve found a pacifier sucked into a hole in one of the stilts under the house. Nina swears she has never put a pacifier in the stilt. What’s more, she asserts she’s not tall enough to reach the knot in the wood.

He says: Nina, stop playing with the orange peel.

She has been running it through her fingers like a rosary.

She drops the skin and it slithers away. From their position on the floor, the kitchen peninsula blocks the window from both of them. The only measure of time is the horizontal beam of sunlight bumping against the far wall. Since they’ve been watching, the stripe has slid from the bottom of the oven to the top; soon daylight will exit the house entirely.

Nina feels Diego fiddling with a knot in her hair. She howls and he leaves it be.

He says: As I was saying, nights were awful. Your mother checked me over to ensure it wasn’t a tick. On the fourth night she and I settled in so far away from each other that we used separate quilts. We talked about you, how the night was persistent and oppressive, how I wished the basil would rebound. She looked sorry.

He says: I wanted nothing but to sleep next to your mother—and child, the Multiverse wouldn’t let it happen. Have I shown you how to see the Milky Way in cross-section?

Yes, he has. Nina could be a prodigy astronomer if they owned a telescope. She feels a thudding behind her ribs at all this mention of her mother, as if she drank a coke too fast and the bubbles are trapped back there. She has a memory, a vague one, of a woman curled around her as she drifts off. Nina is no longer sure if the memory is of her mother, or even real. Every day Nina’s recollection grows murkier.

He says: Your mother read online that after so many nights of bad sleep, a body collapses in on itself, like a black hole. By the fifth night we were desperate to try anything. Sometimes drinking made us sleepy, so we found you a sitter and went to a bar down the street. We didn’t want to drive. We doused ourselves in bug spray and walked a body’s length apart, on opposite sides of the road. A heap of gopher frogs croaked at us. Hundreds of them, thousands, maybe. They stretched from the road all the way to the orange grove. You know we used to pick up extra work there, back then, your mother and I both. That’s not where we met, but it’s one of the places we grew fonder of each other. Anyway, the frogs stretched all the way out there, or that’s how it sounded, if that gives you a picture of the volume. And the sky that night! It was too bright, disturbing, practically eerie. Even under the streetlamps we could pick out stars. Your mother kept saying how nice it all was, how glad she was we had a night like this one.

He says: I was loopy from fatigue, could hardly follow anything she said. But I don’t know why she liked that walk; I was on edge, unsettled. She had wine, and I ordered a martini. It was awful. I have no idea why I thought I’d like the martini.

He says: The room was done in dark colors, brasses and browns and blues, like a bruise, or a galaxy.

Nina cuts him off with the flat of her hand to his chest, a stop-right-there-Buster gesture, one she’s picked up from television.

She says: that’s impossible, since bruises are dark and galaxies are bundles of lights. Did you mean to say it like that?

He says: Well, anyway. Your mother had another glass of wine, her third. We were practically drinking in opposite corners. I was looking at the ink printed on a bar napkin when the bartender slid me a drink I hadn’t asked for and spoke under his breath: Diego, I hope you never recoup that distance.

He says: No way could he have known my name or troubles. I realized, then, that something awful was happening, and the world wasn’t as it had been. I was terrified that this stranger knew my story. And you couldn’t name a price high enough to make me take that drink. I might struggle in math, but I’m not a stupid man. I just wanted to get your mother and hightail it out. But do you think that’s what I did?

Diego has told Nina stories of the way the town used to act. They were an invisible family, Diego has told her. No one smiled at them when they walked down the street. No one visited with food when Nina’s grandfather died. Diego sometimes tells her stories of giant lizards that turn to men in daylight, and more than once Nina has wondered if people in the old town were mostly alligators in different skin. That would neatly explain why they never interacted with her family.

She thinks in those terms, old town and new town, but she doesn’t remember much of when it was so uncooperative. In the old town, she is told, they were a family of three barred up against everyone else. All she knows is the way they act now. All she knows is that people interact with her, and sometimes come to visit. The neighbor, Ms. Fine, is now too old to climb into her house—also on stilts crowded with sunflowers, also with seventeen stairs—and so Ed at the college brings her meals. Sometimes he stops in with a handful of moonflowers for Nina. Though she knows the town as an affable place, yes, she can imagine a time when a bartender could not reasonably have known her father’s name.

Nina shakes her head.

He says: That’s right. I politely refused the drink. But the bartender insisted; he was a little aggressive. In the end I pretended to take it. I dumped it in the soil of a corner plant. I listened to your mother’s favorite song on the piano.

She asks: Billie Holiday?

He says: No, Eartha Kitt. I’m surprised you didn’t know that. We walked home, and the gopher frogs kept croaking. We had a glass wall between us; I knew I wouldn’t have made it across the road were I to have approached her. Your mother’s blouse was sticking to her skin. The sky looked ripped open, as if the stars were pouring in.

He says: By the morning, that rip still hadn’t closed. In the sunlight, the sky looked like a giant wound. I took the day off, which I never did, and we watched it on blankets spread on the patio. Your mother didn’t work Mondays. She sat grim-faced by the stairs, and I sat by the planters. I was the only one to notice the smell of the basil; your mother’s love of gardening had dried up. You kept grabbing dead sprigs in the planters. I was terrified you’d fall and get a splinter.

Nina cranes her neck around the peninsula to get a look at the balcony. Maybe she remembers her mother on the patio; she vaguely feels the scratch of blankets under her baby palms. She doesn’t remember the pots with anything in them. As long as her memory stretches, the pots have been flat, the soil packed harder and harder every thunderstorm. And there have been so many thunderstorms. Once she found a pacifier jammed in the soil, but she rinsed it off and hid it in her closet before anyone saw.

He says: That morning, your mother was the first to notice the flashes. Then we saw it again; it was a giant orange hand, peeling at the edges.

He says: I stood and called to the hole in the sky, hands cupped around my mouth: You there, rip in the sky, why aren’t you letting me sleep?

And if rocks could laugh, they’d make the sound we heard. In a gravelly voice it called back: I am not a rip in the sky, I am Time itself and you would do well to address me accordingly!

He says: I apologized to Time. I said, Great Time, what do you want?

He says: As if a cord was wrapped around her middle, your mother jerked in the air and floated over us. I don’t know how else to describe it. She floated as though a rope was tied at her hips. I’m sorry if this is shocking, Nina.

Diego takes a minute to steady his breathing; his voice has caught in his throat.

He says: She said our names, mine then yours. The cord wrenched her through the rip, and she was gone. You started crying. All of me tipped out and sideways. And then the rip mended itself, stuffing stars back into the night side of its skin, stitching itself up. I couldn’t even see a seam, as if nothing had happened, as if the sun had finished its day and was just waiting for the end of its shift, business as usual.

This news is shocking, but if Nina thinks very hard, she can place it among other things she knows to be true. Strange things happen all the time in the house. Rats come at night to tangle her hair. The house seems to like her old pacifiers. Nina sometimes dreams her mother isn’t gone, but in the dreams her mother is a bird with a long, curved beak and a giant throat. Or her mother is a cloud the shape of an alligator. Or her mother is the house, and the noise the house makes at night is just her mother snoring.

He says: I didn’t have anyone to call. It was the loneliest feeling in the world.

He says: I took you to your nursery. I laid you on my chest, and I closed my eyes in your rocking chair.

She asks why so much of the orange prank has to do with proximity.

He says: I don’t know. I figure that’s how the Multiverse could affect me most.

Nina burrows further into Diego. Her elbow needles his stomach, and he doesn’t tell her to move. She notices the songs in Diego’s bedroom have stopped; Nina can hear the low scraping of the needle. She mumbles goodbye to Billie Holiday.

The orange rolls along below the cabinet, trailing its skin behind it like a tail. Diego and Nina drop it in the blender to the sound of citric laughter. Diego hefts Nina to the peninsula so she can see the sink, which glows blue as they pour the mess down the disposal. The kitchen quiets. The kitchen has been quiet for years, without another adult to bang pots around or to hum while dinner’s cooking. Nina has never known an alternative, has never known a wooden spoon as a microphone or maraca or conductor’s baton. Or how paprika and cayenne, airborne, improve a singer’s voice better than honey in tea. But still she has a sense of what she’s missing—just the outline of it, none of the particulars. In the refrigerator are the leftover hot dogs Diego almost didn’t burn.

She says: But how do you know all this has to do with oranges?

He says: Well. A week after your mother disappeared, a letter of condolence came from the orange juice company. How had they known she was missing? How did they know she wouldn’t come back before I realized it myself? In the envelope was a generous coupon to shop online at their parent company, which is where I got—well, a lot of baby supplies, mostly. Your pacifiers for one. The mobile that hung above your crib; we didn’t have one, so I installed it as a means of distraction. And I mulled on that letter for years. Oranges were the only thing that made sense—it all comes back to oranges.

Nina notes that oranges seem an unlikely pick.

She is trying not to ask the other question that squirms around in her chest like so many gopher frogs: her father just said that her mother won’t come back, and that he knows it, and that the orange juice company knows it, too. This isn’t even a question, she guesses. It’s a heavy, itchy feeling, a suffocation, an unwelcome intruder. She’s not ready to know this yet. She needs to believe her mother could come back—in the form of a cloud, the form of an alligator, the form of the house, a pacifier, her actual mother’s actual body—

He says: I don’t know. Do you have a better answer?

She says: No, no, no.

And now, right here, to her father, Nina vows never to eat an orange. She feels this is what he wants her to say, and she’s happy to please him. She wonders if keeping away from oranges might bring her mother back when nothing else will. She wonders if keeping away from oranges will save her from the same; who knows if this could one day happen to Nina, too? She whispers this vow into the lining of his jacket, and waits to gauge his reaction.

He holds her at arm’s length.

He says: Look. I can’t decide that for you. Oranges mean awful things, but it’s probably unavoidable any which way.

The record finally stops in the player; the needle quits searching for grooves. The house doesn’t make a whole lot of noise, but Nina knows it will.

Diego places her chin in his hand. He tells her she is still so little, and smart. He laments that he can never surprise her, that she seems so unsurprisable—no tears as he talks, he’s all out of those—and the attention makes her insides swell and pinch. It invites responsibility, which is a word she knows and doesn’t think she’ll care for.

He says: You have to know; we’ll keep each other safe with the intensity of a hurricane. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, she does.

He tells her that’s good. And they kneel there, celestial bodies hugging each other on a night sky of blue kitchen tile.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020