I’m standing in the living room eating a strawberry Pop-Tart, and I hear a motorcycle in the driveway. A man gets off and comes up the walk. He’s got brown hair and a brown leather jacket. His eyes are sober, and he carries a square package tied up with twine. The package is small, and his eyes are bluish white, like frost.
I open the door, and the man looks in behind me. He hands me the box. “Give this to Sharon.”
He turns back down the driveway, mounts his bike and drives away.
Dad comes out of the bedroom, dressed for work. “Who was that?”
“Answer me, Derek.”
Mom comes in, and I hand her the package. It isn’t labeled.
Dad says, “Who sent that?”
I mouth, John.
“Would somebody answer me?”
She says, “It’s a juicer, Howard. I ordered it from the television.”
It’s too small to be a juicer. He eyes her like he knows she’s lying. “We’ll talk about this when I get home.” And he leaves. Dad doesn’t argue in front of me. He just gets mad and leaves. He only argues when he thinks I’m sleeping, but I’m not, and I can hear them from my room.
I walk up to Mom and put my arm around her. We listen to Dad’s car pull into the street, and she places the package on the breakfast table. I say, “Open it.”
She pulls off the twine, rolls it into a ball, and sets it down beside the box. She pauses, and I’m impatient. I squeeze her tighter. She pulls open the flaps. Citrus is a warm smell.
We look inside. There is an orange, a single, enormous orange, so big it’s like a grapefruit, but it’s too beautiful to be sour. I wish there were one in there for me. Mom knows. She says, “I’ll share.” She picks up the orange and gently squeezes it. At the bottom, the skin puckers where it has already been pierced. She sticks her thumb in the hole and starts peeling. The skin spirals down onto the table in a single twisting strap, and we’re left with a fuzzy yellow ball.
Mom splits the orange in two. Inside the hollow between the two halves, there is a thinly rolled note. She opens it. I watch her fingers, particularly the nails, which are shiny with oil. The note is small, and the words are beautiful together:
She folds the note into her palm. I look at her, and I’m jealous. She understands. She takes the note out again and tears it down the center, hands me half of it and says, “I’m still going to share.”
I nod. I take my half of the orange and eat a piece. The juice runs down my chin like blood from a split lip. It’s warm. It tastes cooked, and it is too sweet. I set the rest of it down on the table. There will be better oranges in Florida.
* * *
We’re in Mom’s Buick. We stop at a dealership, and I wait in the office while Mom negotiates a trade outside. On the magazine rack, there is a book. I pick it up. Its cover is too old and crackled to make out the whole title, but the last word is big and bold enough to read: Orange. There are guys on motorcycles on the cover, which reminds me of John. Imagine that—my very own Orange book. It’s perfect.
I steal the book. I walk out with it right in my hands. No one at the dealership cares about it anyway. Somebody probably left it there by accident, someone like me, waiting on his family, then the dealer comes by and sticks it on the magazine rack, doesn’t even look at it. He’s not going to care if it goes missing. He never even knew it was there.
Mom gets a cherry red Jeep. She gets some money back, too, since the Buick is in good shape and the Jeep is pretty shitty. I’ve never seen her haggle before, not about anything. We’re on the road with a couple hundred dollars in our pocket.
The first rest area we come to, we stop to take the top off the Jeep. It’s made of canvas with sewn-in plastic windows, and it’s tatty. We stuff it in a trash can because it’s useless anyway, and we realize we left our bags of clothes in the Buick. We think for a minute. Mom holds her chin and looks to the sky. I sit down on the curb. It’s cool in Michigan, even in June, and as the sun slips in between the clouds, goose bumps raise on my arms. It’ll be hot as hell in Florida. We keep moving.
We stop for snacks and gas in Ohio. I get a Pepsi and a bag of Combos and start eating when we’re back in the car. Mom says, “What are those things, dog treats?”
I remember the time I met my cousin, Joe. I was six years old, and he got me to eat a Milk-Bone. It tasted like cardboard and fish oil. Grandma Barbra makes me take a spoonful of fish oil every time we go to her house. Gag me. The woman is a witch.
Without the top on the Jeep, the wind blasts hard, and the sun is bad. The back of my neck itches, so I scratch it. Then it stings. In Kentucky, the clouds go away for good. There’s no hiding from the sun in the Jeep. There will be even more sun in Florida. But it’s still better than listening to the canvas flap.
It’s hard to find good music on the radio because it’s summer and everything is for sunbathers or religious types. When I do find a station, I turn it up so we can hear it over the noise. My face goes numb from the wind, and a song comes on that is wonderful. I wish they played The Beatles all the time.
I go over my new life in my head. We’ll grow oranges and drive motorcycles. John will tell stories about crocodiles, and he won’t be boring. He won’t pretend I don’t exist when he’s mad, and he’ll never yell. Or if he does yell, he’ll let us yell back, not just storm out of the room like a wuss.
The song on the radio keeps playing in my head after it’s finished. I fall asleep. My dreams take me to orange groves. The smell is like blossoms and cut grass and cold fruit. I want to wake up in Florida with trees all around me. When I do wake, I don’t know what state I’m in, but it isn’t Florida. It’s still light outside. I remember my new book under my seat, and I pick it up. My Orange book, put there just for me to find—in fact, it’s all about me, I’m pretty sure.
I decide not to read it. I don’t even want to glance inside. It’s probably a really boring book. Books always look good like that, then they’re awful. I don’t want to know.
* * *
In Tennessee, we stop for the night. Behind our motel, down a slope, there’s a K-Mart that’s still open. Mom and I walk there in the dark to buy underwear and toothbrushes and more snacks for the room. I get some licorice and a bag of little cookies shaped like peanuts that are filled with chocolate frosting. Mom doesn’t care what I eat because she’s wrapped up in the moment. I hope she stays like this forever.
My ears are ringing from being in the Jeep all day. My face still feels tingly. I bet my eyes look like somebody poked them, like they’re all red and bloodshot. We should be sleeping, but we’re up talking in our beds. I rip a piece of licorice out of the bag in my lap and hand it to Mom. She says, “Have I told you about John?” She knows she has a million times, but I shake my head because I want to hear it again.
She met John when she was at college in Tampa, in a bar called the Crocked Crocodile. John was the bartender. She got ditched there by her friends, and he took her home. They fell in love right away, and she moved in with him.
John was fun. He was too much fun. She thought he’d never grow up, and she left him. Then she met Dad, who was ten years older and studied business and read newspapers. Dad moved her to Michigan, where his family was from, with cousins who make you eat dog bones and grandmas who make you drink fish oil. They got married, and they had me a few months later. Not nine months, just a few months. Mom leaves that part out.
I nod through the story.
I sleep through the night with my Orange book in my hand. I hold it under my pillow, and I’ve still got the song from the car ride stuck in my head, playing on a loop. I think it’s called “Yesterday,” and I guess it’s supposed to be a sad song, but I pretend that it isn’t because I like it.
* * *
The phone rings. Mom jumps out of bed like it’s going to be Dad or the cops saying they’ve tracked us down. It’s just a wakeup call. We eat breakfast at a Waffle House, and we’re driving again. Before I even realize we were in Georgia, we pass a Welcome to Florida sign, like Georgia was never even there. Georgia is like that, I guess. Not Florida. Florida is an eternal state. The wind in my face feels moist. It’s muggy, and my armpits soak through with sweat. I bet you never get hot on a Harley.
I imagine John tearing down dirt roads on his bike. He doesn’t wear a helmet because who needs one? John isn’t afraid of dying. If he crashes, he’ll just soar off and catch the limb of the first tree he flies by. I’ll be with him when it happens. I’ll fly up there on his back, and he’ll pick me an orange since it’s an orange tree. We’ll eat it together before we climb back down. That’s the kind of guy John is. He just does things without thinking, and things turn out all right.
When we pull off the highway at six o’clock, I think it’s for gas, but the next thing I know we’re parked outside some house, just some house in the middle of a subdivision.
Mom says, “We’re here.”
I’m thinking, This is John’s house? He lives a block from a McDonalds? He’s supposed to live in an orange grove.
Mom gets out of the Jeep. I do the same, but I’m woozy all of a sudden. Before I shut my door, I grab my Orange book and stick it down the back of my pants so I’ll have it with me. I get my first good look at the house while we’re walking up the driveway. It’s a small place. It is white, and there are other small houses beside it.
We’re on the porch, and Mom knocks. The door opens. John is there.
John says, “Hi.”
We go inside. Mom uses the bathroom, and John takes me out back to talk. A fence wraps around the backyard, and there is an orange tree. Just one. John points at the fruit on it. Some are ripe, and some are overripe, and some are small and green. “Oranges,” he says, “take more than one season to grow, so there can be ripe ones and green ones on the same tree.”
Sounds real interesting.
He mumbles some more about oranges, but I’m not listening. He thinks he needs to tiptoe around me, but I want him to be himself. I wish he’d take me to see his Harley.
Mom comes out. She starts talking to John. “I love what you’ve done with the place.” We go inside, and they sit down at the table. I end up in front of the TV in the other room so they can be alone. There’s nothing on but infomercials and baseball games. It occurs to me that we are in dire need of new steak knives and also that baseball is boring.
John makes dinner on the grill. We eat at a picnic table on his deck, and he asks me if I like his cooking. I nod. The grass in the yard is very green. John must water it a lot.
John asks me if I like school. I nod again, even though it’s a lie.
When I go in the house to rinse my plate, John says to Mom, “Is Derek upset?” I hear them through the window over the sink.
She says, “No. He’s just quiet.”
“No, he’s smart. He’s just quiet.”
“So… he knows?”
John whispers something I can’t hear.
“Oh, John,” she says. “He’s not.”
I stick my plate in the drying rack to mingle with the spoons.
* * *
John’s guest room is small, like my old room, only emptier. I just have one thing of my own to put in it, so I hide my Orange book under the bed. There are little dust-balls under there, too.
I sit down. The wall across from me is naked and white. I could put a Star Wars poster there. Then it would look just the same as my old room.
Mom comes in. She leans in through the doorway and says, “John is putting on a movie. Want to watch?” We watch it in the living room. It’s a Jim Henson movie called Labyrinth. David Bowie is in it. People were weird in the eighties. I wonder if John put on a puppet movie because of me? I guess not. It’s the sort of thing Mom likes. It isn’t bad. Maybe it came out when they were dating and they saw it together when it was new.
Suddenly, I remember John’s eyes. They’re strange, how white they are. I try to see them through the dark, but there are too many flickers on his face from the TV. I wish I had frost-colored eyes like that, instead of dull gray-blue ones.
I keep fidgeting. It feels awkward with me in the room. John sits next to me, but I’m sure he’d rather be next to my mom.
I get distracted from the movie. Fourteen years is a long time to stay stuck on a person who dumps you. John must have emotional problems. Mom, too.
I decide to leave the room. At first, I head toward the garage because I want to check out John’s motorcycle, but I stop. He probably doesn’t even have one. I bet he rode up to Michigan on a rental. I go to my room instead. There’s a little spider crawling across the floor under the doorway, and I kick it into the hall. I pluck my book out from under the bed and keep running my fingers over the cracked title. I decide to go ahead and read it because why the hell not? It’s stupid to puff things up so much in your head when they don’t deserve it.
I get about halfway down the first page before I have to stop. What the hell is a Milkbar, anyway?
Suddenly I’m wondering how close Dad has already come to figuring out where we went. Ditching the old Buick was a good idea, but they’ll still track us down. He’ll probably fight for custody, not because he actually wants it, but just out of spite. Maybe he’ll win. I don’t know.
Mom comes to check on me. She says, “Are you all right?”
I say, “Does John have a Motorcycle?”
She says, “Yes.”
“Does he ride it a lot?”
“I suppose so.”
“Do you like motorcycles?”
“Does John like me?”
“But he doesn’t yet?”
“Honey, he doesn’t know you yet.”
She isn’t smiling anymore. I realize my mom is beautiful but not the most beautiful person in the world. She should have gotten me away from my dad about a million years sooner if she really wanted it to work out. She puts her hand on my shoulder and squeezes. The fingernails pinch me a little by accident. “Come on, let’s finish the movie.”
I say, “No, I want to read.”
She shrugs. “We’ll be in the other room if you change your mind.”
She leaves. I look at my book again. It really is horrible. I rip off the cover. The cover is all wrong. Maybe I’ll like it better like this. Someday I’ll try reading it again—soon, I think, but I’m not ready yet. I stuff it back under my bed and try to go to sleep. When I sleep, I dream that I wake up and the orange tree in the back yard is fifty feet tall. It’s nice that way, and I sit down under it. The smell is like a million oranges, like a whole grove grown up in one tree, and I think, This is all right. I can stay here for a while. I dream like that until morning.
* * *
We aren’t in Tampa a day before Mom and John have a talk that leads to Mom and me moving to a hotel. I suspect it’s him who throws on the brakes, but Mom denies that like crazy. She insists the decision is mutual. “It’s best this way,” she says.
For the week that we stay in the hotel, we make a game of pretending we’re on the lam. Whenever we meet someone new, we throw together a set of aliases. Like, a waitress says, “Can I get your order?”
“I’ll take the sunrise omelet,” Mom says. “And my son, Oliver here, will have a small bowl of gruel.”
The waitress taps her pen against her bill-pad. “I’m not sure we have gruel.”
So I say, “All right, I’ll just have the chocolate chip pancakes.”
Making up names never stops being fun. In addition to Mr. Twist, I am now Archibald Pennyweather and Harry Butts. Mom is Minerva Cheevy, Michelle N. Mann, and her favorite, Lacy Godiva.
If Bonnie and Clyde were a mom-son combo, we’d fit the bill exactly—just with less gun slinging, I guess. During our week as runaways, we do a day at Busch Gardens and visit the science museum and the aquarium. (I get sick on a ride that goes upside-down, planetariums are too educational to be fun, and stingrays have nothing on seahorses.) After all the touristy stuff, we decide just to spend some time lounging at the beach, mostly because we’re running out of money. Neither of us has a swim suit, so we just walk around and talk. Mom says to me, “Derek, you’ve aged ten years in the past week.”
“You have, too,” I say. “You look terrible.”
I bust up laughing. She chases me down and tackles me. Then we lie on our backs until the sun sets over the bay, and we peel our eyes for the first star to appear. Mom spots one that I insist is Mars and not a star, but for the sake of getting back to the hotel and washing the grit out of my hair I concede, stand up, and begin knocking the sand off my butt.
* * *
When a cop and a concierge show up at our room in the morning, we know the gig is up.
“Sharon Baker?” the cop says.
“It’s Mrs. Sampson, actually.”
“Nice try, Mrs. Baker.”
Mom tries at first to explain it’s just a vacation we’re on—that if her no-good husband can’t listen well enough to have known that, it’s his own damned fault. But that doesn’t explain why the hotel bill is being footed by some guy in Tampa, or why us just-vacationers checked into the room as Midge and Bert Sampson.
The officer explains politely how he’s not going to use handcuffs on Mom but that we still have to go to the police station. They take us in separate cruisers. The shrimp I am, they mistake me for some kind of a snot-nose instead of a fourteen-year-old, and I’m handed over to a trauma counselor who’s quick to dole out teddy bears. Cops are morons. They really are.
Dad makes the first plane out of Lansing, and I’m back in Michigan in time for dinner. But we don’t have dinner. We just sit at the breakfast table where the box from the orange still sits. Dad takes turns glaring from me to the box. He asks no questions, and I give no answers, until finally the phone rings and I use the excuse to scurry away. I hear him talk through the kitchen wall.
“Yes, Mother. He’s fine… No… She’s still in Florida… I don’t know… I don’t know that either.”
Grandma Barbra will make us come to visit now. It’ll be hell. I’ll just hold my breath until I hear from Mom again.
End of Serial Number One. Chapter Two will be coming on July12.
Ryan K. Jory was raised in a suburb of Flint, Michigan, where he began
writing at the age of nine. The Orange Story, written while a master’s
student at Miami University of Ohio, is an adaptation of his Hopwood
Award-wining short story, “The Messenger Orange.”