4.05 / May 2009

Strange Fruit

In the last summer before he would be a man, Norman bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Florida. He bought it with his last handful of dollars. He had bought the dollars at a two percent loss with hundreds of rolled quarters. The quarters went as far back as 1895, when it was still John Adams’ face on the top side and the edges were smooth. Grandma Anita had built and rolled the collection for him. Norman got them when she died.

The ticket was only good one way. If he was going to come back home, he would have to earn the money in Florida.

The orchard would be his first job. He meant to see if he was made for work. He held Joe Macafee’s last letter open in his fat hands. “I still have one spot open,” said Macafee. “I would’ve preferred a Mexican but after the wall they are in short supply. Bring warm clothing for the cool nights, a blanket, and any kitchenware you need — a bowl, a plate, a knife, and a spoon all come highly recommended. If your mother wants to call you there’s a pay phone at the gas station and you can mail her the number. I hope your legs are strong.”

If he couldn’t hack the orchard Norman planned to kill himself. He had packed a quilt, four changes of clothes, two condoms, one bowl, one knife, one spoon, one noose and three 1980 quarters for the pay phone. He held it all in a pack between his knees, the clothes tangled in the quilt, the noose tangled in the clothes, the condoms and quarters together at the bottom. He looked on the land and wondered how long since it had been a swamp.

Norman walked the twenty miles from the bus station to the orchard. It was four in the morning when he reached the outskirts where the trailers huddled and he suspected the dew was falling. Everything had the same slick sweet oily sheen as his palms, which he rubbed together for warmth. Summer was just getting started and the moon offered no heat, only silver light.

The trailer windows were dark. Norman had no way of knowing which was his. He spread his quilt under the west side of the nearest trailer. A shadow would bloom there when the sun rose, and he would be protected.

Joe Macafee opened the door to the sight of Norman on the porch. Norman was sitting in the banana-white rocking chair with tulips painted on its headboard. The rocking chair was a prop and Norman should have known it from the silence when he rocked it back and forth. He presented Joe Macafee with the letter as proof he was the boy who had written. Joe took the letter and folded it along the creases Norman had made in the paper. He put it in the pocket of his faded black jeans. “Let me show you around,” he said. “The hands will lie to newbies.”

Norman stood from the chair and stilled it by the application of his heel. Joe’s right cheek twitched. He said, “I should warn you right off there’s no such thing as a snipe.”

Joe showed Norman to his trailer. The paint like tooth enamel was peeling from its tin hull. “Rent is fifty a week, and it’s taken out of your wages,” he said. “You’ll have to get anything you need for yourself, probably at the gas station.” He pulled the door open. Inside it smelled of old beef but it was spotless like morning in a grocery store. Joe closed the door.

Next he showed the orchard proper, starting with the fence at the edges. It was a chain-link thing with rusted barbs at its top and a suggestive bare copper wire threaded through them. “This fence protects the fruit from thieves. That means hungry passers by but mostly it means workers.” He was leading Norman along the fence toward a cluster of workers waiting by a gate. He took a key ring from his pocket about four inches in diameter and twirled it on his dry white finger. “If I catch you eating fruit it’ll come out of your pay check and you will be fired and turned out from your trailer. In the morning you’ll come through this gate, and in the evening you’ll leave through this gate.” He parted the workers and took the gate’s padlock in his hand. He put the key inside but did not twist it.

“When you leave through the gate,” said Joe, “show yourself to me so I can see you aren’t carrying anything. Try not to flare your nostrils like that as you walk by me, either — I don’t like it.”

Norman had the strength of will to keep his hand from his face. He pushed a little air from his nose and tried to make the flaps of skin lay flat. Joe opened the lock and pushed the gate open. The workers filed past him. There were four Hispanic men, a black man and a black woman, but there was only one other white boy. He had a thin dusting of red hair and freckles like red wine. His neck was greasy like the Florida night. He went into the orchard last, his eyes lingering hatefully on Norman. On the other side was a shoulder-deep pile of woven baskets. They were stained with juice of every color and frayed at their edges.

“Is there anything I should know about the fruit?” asked Norman. He walked into the gate and failed to hide his surprise when Joe closed it behind him. They regarded each other through the fence.

“Put them in the basket,” said Joe. “No matter what. Don’t eat them, make sure and pull any worms, and no matter what, put them in the basket.”

Norman followed the white boy. He was conscious of his doughy body as he followed those chicken legs in their stained white jeans and the bony little hips in the white boy’s black undershirt. The white boy took no notice of Norman. He took a short wooden ladder from the nearest tree and carried it into the fruit trees. Norman did not follow the white boy into the fruit trees. He went looking for a ladder of his own.

While he searched for the ladder he took notice of the fruits that hung from the small gray trees of the Macafee orchard. His shoulder brushed a low-hanging fruit in a shape like a human hand cupping water. The skin was tough and faintly orange and ruddy like ginger root. After a moment of gawking it occurred to him to pluck the fruit. He put it in his basket.

He looked up into the tree for more fruit. He saw fruit shaped like soft, twisted funnels. He saw fruits like malformed baby heads. He saw fruits like compressed octopuses. He saw fruits like human eyes hanging from their optic nerves. They all hung from the same tree.

He plucked one like a broken yellow eye tooth and put it in his basket.

Norman saw the black man sitting against his ladder. He was pulling what looked like thick black yarn from a fruit in the shape of a collapsed egg. He began to approach. The yarn wriggled in the man’s thin hand, curling up toward his pinching fingers and then falling away. It coiled and went slack. Norman realized that it was some kind of hairy worm. His stomach did a graceless flip. The black man tossed the worm over his shoulder. It hit the fruit tree. It split in two on impact. Its bleeding halves fell to the ground.

“What’s that?” said Norman. The black man didn’t hear him. He was turning the fruit over in his hands, pressing his ear now and now to holes in its flesh.

“What was that?” said Norman. The orchard hand pushed his finger into the fruit with one practiced motion. When it was in past the second knuckle he twisted and worked his finger around inside the fruit. He extracted another worm and it began to wrap itself around his hand. He gave a nervous fearful laughing cry and shook the worm onto the ground where it twisted and crawled over itself and slithered away into the roots of the fruit tree.

“Worms,” said the black man. He wore blue denim shorts and his legs were scraped up good beneath them. Pink-brown ridges criss-crossed his calves, so that his skin looked like bloodied bark. “You have to pull them all out. If you don’t, Joe takes it out of your pay. That won’t leave much.”

“How can you tell where they are?”

“After a few years, you’ll get a feeling for the worms. There’s a little bit of a warm throbbing, or a pulse, wherever they eat. And they leave little holes when they first get into the fruit.”

“What kind of fruit are these?” said Norman. He held out his basket for the orchard hand to inspect, but the hand shook his head.

“That’s the only kind of fruit there is,” he said, “leastwise in this country.”

“I was expecting oranges,” said Norman. He lifted the fruit like a cow udder from the basket. “This is no orange.”

“Maybe not,” said the elder orchard hand. He dropped the fruit into his basket and took to the ladder. “I’ll tell you again, though, that it’s the only kind of fruit there is. I’ve been up and down both coasts. I’ve expected apples, I’ve expected lemons and limes, I’ve expected peanuts and pineapples, I’ve expected grapes and tomatoes.” He took a fruit in the shape or a ram’s horn. He took another like a horseshoe. “Wherever I go, it’s always the same strange fruit.”

“Are they good?”

The black man shrugged.

“What’s your name?” said Norman.

“Get to work.” The black man disappeared into the fruit tree.

Norman found a ladder. He climbed into the fruit tree. He picked three fruit before he saw the one filled up with hairy worms. He counted four ends protruding from the surface of the large fruit like a cow’s heart. A fifth broke through the skin and crawled across the surface. It pushed its head into the flesh anew. It disappeared into that hole even as it slipped out from the last.

He pinched a wriggling tail between his fingers. The coarse black hairs prickled his fingers and stung them. He began to pull. The worm broke in his hand and its pale green-yellow guts burst out over the fruit like a cow’s heart. He dropped the broken end and tried again. This time he pulled the worm like a loose thread. He tossed it to the ground and grabbed another.

“It’s not so bad,” he said to himself and the other worms. A gentle breeze brought the orchard briefly to life.

At two a shrill bell sounded at the edge of the orchard. Norman climbed down his ladder and hoisted his heavy basket up against his gut. He carefully lowered the corners of his mouth; he did not want the others to know how proud he was of his brimming fruit basket. He left the ladder behind him to mark his place and he marched toward the bell. It was shrilling again.

When he found the bell it was hanging golden from Joe’s white hand. Joe gave it a little shake and seeing Norman he dropped it into the grass where it made one more small sound. The other workers were there. They sat in the grass already at work on their sandwiches. They ate like it was any kind of dull wage labor. Each sat by his or her own cluster of baskets. Every basket was full. Norman realized that they had gathered all that fruit already. He’d only filled the one basket. He set it down several feet from the white boy and approached Joe from the side as if hoping to catch him off guard.

“This comes out of your pay too,” said Joe, and he indicated a purple lunch box at his feet wherein there remained one overflowing egg salad sandwich embalmed in saran wrap. Next to the lunch box there lay a plastic bottle of grape soda. Norman took the sandwich and he took the grape soda. He sat down beside the white boy. He used his shirt to polish the dirt and broken grass blades from the bottle.

“What’s your name?” said Norman. He began to peel the plastic from his sandwich. It came away in oily ribbons.

“Waylon. But don’t talk to me.” The white boy had a high, nasally East coast accent. He finished his sandwich in one monstrous bite. “I hate white people.”

Norman didn’t know what to say to that. He balled his saran wrap up and put it in his pocket. He wiped his hand in the grass and took a bite from his sandwich. Somewhere in the time it took to do this Waylon’s hateful eyes had settled on him. They came to rest on the sweat stain beneath Norman’s left armpit.

“Been working hard?” said the white boy.

“Shut up,” said Norman. He curled inward a little and took another bite from his sandwich.

Norman stood in the bow of a fruit tree. He dropped fruit into his basket. He felt a pressure below his gut but he didn’t know what to do about it. He dropped another fruit into his basket. It was soft and gray and changeable. When it hit the basket it took a shape like the moon’s face. He dropped another fruit into his basket. It was hard and white and its shape reminded him of a boy curled up in the womb. He remembered his mother lifting her shirt enough to show him her pink gut. “This is where you came from,” she told him. “But you can’t go back.”

He wanted to know why not.

The pressure in his bladder was stronger. It pulsed inside him like the worms in the fruit.

He heard a wet sound outside. He leaned out outward, hanging onto a solid branch with one hand and using the other to push aside leaves. Someone was pissing from a nearby tree. He couldn’t see the source, but a stream of urine fell from the leaves of a tree. There was motion behind them.

Norman followed the hidden orchard hand’s example. He opened his pants. He peed from the heart of the fruit tree.

Night fell across the orchard and draped it like mosquito netting. The trees changed. They had seemed small and manageable in the daylight, but now they blurred together and became one thing. The tree Norman worked in was still one tree. The rest, a network of shadows and faintly glistening leaves, were every tree and one. They obscured the sinking sun but for stray orange rays.

Norman crept to the edge of the trees. He meant to leave work but the gate was locked shut again. The sun had receded almost completely. The orchard behind him was black.

He went back to harvest that black orchard.

His stomach grumbled.

He sat against a tree and rifled through his basket. He found one that looked like a starfish reaching for the sun.

He turned it over in his hands and felt for the small warm trembling of the worms. When he was satisfied the fruit was safe he brought it to his mouth. He took a cautious bite.

It tasted of salt and wet paper.

It was past ten when the bell shrilled again. The lunch box and a pile of sodas were waiting by the empty gate. The workers laid their baskets down and took the food. They had turned their pockets out. Norman turned his out too. Joe inspected the orchard hands, prodding any unexpected bulges in their clothing as they passed through the gate. He prodded Norman’s gut.

“No fruit in there,” he said. “Right?” He gave Norman a wink.

Norman sped to catch up with the white boy.

“Waylon,” he said. He waited for the the other boy to look at him, but Waylon wouldn’t. “Waylon,” he said, “Why do you hate white people?”

“No work ethic,” said the white boy. “You’re all lazy thieves. Don’t talk to me.” He walked faster toward the trailers, hunching his bony shoulders up as if to protect his ears. “Forget I told you my name.”

Norman noticed that even though it was very dark out Waylon cast a clear shadow on the barren dirt outside the orchard.

Norman walked to the gas station. It was four miles. When he got there he was hungry and thirsty again. He had never lived a whole day on two sandwiches and two grape sodas. He went into the gas station and waited for the clerk to stop watching him. He stuffed a package of mini-donuts and a snowball into his pants. When he walked out the door he could feel the clerk eye his fat ass but he didn’t care. He let the door slam behind him.

He went to the pay phone. It was in a rusted white metal box atop a stout black pole. There was a blue telephone painted on the side. It was a rotary phone.

He put his quarters in the pay phone and dialed home. His mother picked up before the second ring.

“Norman?” she said. It had taken him years to get her to call him by his full name.

“It’s me.”

“Are you alright?”

“I’m here,” he said. “It’s a good night. I have a clean home here.”

“You can’t have a home,” she said. “You’re only a boy.” He could hear a pot boiling in the background but there was nothing odd about it; she often cooked at night.

“Did Dad ever tell you what it was like?”

“What what was like?” She blew a little on something while she waited for an answer. She made a small slurp.

“When he would pick fruit,” said Norman. “Did he ever tell you about that?”

“Sometimes,” said his mother. He could tell she was pacing the kitchen. When she knew the call was coming to an end she would stand up on her tip toes and then come to rest with most of her butt on the edge of the marble blue counter-top. She would cross one ankle over the other. “He hated the orchards,” she said.

“Did he ever talk about the fruit?”

“Not especially. What about them?”

“Never mind,” said Norman.

“You can still come back,” said his mother. “I won’t have time to clean out your room for several days more. Otherwise you’ll have to find everything in boxes all piled up in the garage.”

“I can’t,” said Norman. “I can’t work in an office underneath the office lights. I can’t breathe that air and go on lunch breaks.” He took the donuts and the snowball from his pants and placed them on top of the pay phone’s white box. “I’m too stupid and I’m too dumb.”

She started to argue. He wouldn’t hear it. “Mom I can’t do it, not for one year but definitely not for ten. I’ll write you if I find any good news.”

“I love you,” said his mother.

Norman said he loved her too and he put the phone back in its box. He opened the snowball and he ate it in three bites. He did not wipe the sugar from his cheeks or the tip of his nose. He tore the donuts open. He tried to make them last the walk home, taking each bite only after he had finished recounting to himself the plot of another movie.

When he got back to the trailers he was hungry again. The little fridge with wood paneling in a stripe around its sides was empty except for a brown spot on the bottom where something had spilled.

The next morning he resolved that he would steal from the orchard and eat until he was full or he would kill himself. If a man couldn’t eat he shouldn’t have to go on living. He unpacked his things and laid them out on the ground, taking care to leave the noose where anyone might see it. He wanted everyone to know how serious he was.

Joe Macafee had already opened the gate. Waylon said to no one in particular the boss would come to lock them in when they couldn’t see the fence anymore. Norman said to no one in particular that was a dirty thing to do to a man.

They took their baskets and went to find their ladders.

Norman made a rule. For every four fruits he put into the basket he fed himself one. He saved the worst ones for himself and after he had pulled the worms from their flesh he would eat them in the darkest and most hidden parts of the trees. He ate one that looked like a paperback. He ate another that looked like a fish. He ate another that looked like a collapsed rose. In the fourth fruit (almost a pickle) he missed a worm and then he found it with his mouth. It was soft and two hairs caught in his teeth and he didn’t know what else to do so he swallowed it. He threw the fruit to the ground and it burst there. The juice inside was yellow. It was on the grass now and so was the rest of the worm. It was trying to crawl away but it didn’t know how anymore.

He picked the hairs from his teeth.

At lunch Norman forced himself to eat the whole ham sandwich and to drink down all of his orange soda. He was full so it was hard but he didn’t want to raise suspicions. Nobody would believe a fat boy like him was going to miss a meal. Waylon was looking at him every time he checked.

Night fell again and this time he had filled seven baskets. It wasn’t very much by professional standards but he was proud of the work. It seemed to Norman that he was learning to live in the orchard. He was used to the fruit now. When he got home he would hide the noose if nobody had seen it and he would try to find some quarters to call his mother again.

Joe Macafee had him turn out his pockets as he passed through the open gate. Waylon was watching again. He was waiting on the other side of the fence. He had his hands in his pockets and he rooted in the dirt with the toe of his left boot.

“He isn’t carrying anything in his pockets because he ate it,” said Waylon. He turned up his nose with his thumb so that it looked like a pig’s snout.

Joe pulled Norman’s mouth open and pushed his nose between the boy’s teeth. He barely inhaled. It was enough.

“You’re fired,” said Joe. “I’ll need the key to your trailer.”

Norman pushed Joe away from him so he could get a good look at Joe’s eyes. He felt his face burning but he tried to keep a hard expression and a straight back.

He said, “Let me get my things.”

The next morning Waylon and the black orchard hand found Norman hanging from a small fruit tree. His toes were barely off the ground. The whites of his eyes were level with their own. A quilt was pooled around his ankles where it had fallen from his arms. The air was still but he twisted a little and when Waylon put his palm to Norman’s stomach he felt a little warmth and several subtle throbs.

Mike Meginnis has stories published or forthcoming in Hobart, The Collagist, The Lifted Brow, The Good Men Project, Booth, SmokeLong Quarterly, and others. He co-edits Uncanny Valley (uncannyvalleymag.com) with his wife, Tracy Bowling.
4.05 / May 2009