The Prize Oranges
by William Michaelian

In a single stroke, the Swedish side of the family all were dying. In a brief three-month span, Martin went, and then Martin’s brother, John, who was shortly followed by his wife, Gertrude.

Then, on the eighteenth day of December, death called on Uncle Albert.

To the various kid-cousins and grandchildren, the eighty-two years allotted to Albert either posed no personal threat, or were altogether meaningless. But to the old-timers still remaining of his generation, eighty-two years were nothing more than a passing breeze. Aunt Mildred, for instance, who was quite a drinker in her day, was already eighty-six; Albert’s cousin, Karl, and his wife, Lottie, were both eighty-one. Aunt Alice, still despised and bitter after all these years, was nearing eighty-four. What with Albert’s passing, these four felt like their days were numbered, and that, if they weren’t careful, their entire generation would soon be wiped out and forgotten. The unkind nearness of Albert’s death to the Christmas season, meanwhile, only helped exaggerate their fears, and to make the situation more trying.

After Albert was laid to rest in the family plot in Kingsburg, it was Karl who drove the somber group back over the country roads to Albert’s house.

It was a typical December day. The San Joaquin Valley sky was a drab, uniform gray; the high fog reflected nothing, rendering the atmosphere motionless and depressing, and the afternoon air chilly.

Karl and Albert had been more than cousins; they had been friends. The boys had grown up together on their fathers’ neighboring farms. They had worked side by side in the vineyard, had hunted jackrabbits together, and had gone swimming in the ditch under Ike Engstrom’s eucalyptus tree on Road 36.

For Karl, saying goodbye to Albert had been a heart-wrenching experience. The two had grown old together, and had remained close until the end, when Albert died of cancer in the local hospital.

A dozen or more family members were already assembled in Albert’s living room when Karl’s group pulled into the yard.

A local caterer, enlisted to prepare a meal in Albert’s memory, was busy attending to last-minute details in the dining room when they came inside. When the caterer’s helper, a young Mexican woman, brushed politely past Aunt Alice on her way out to get something from the truck, she was startled by Alice’s sudden prejudiced remark: “Did Albert live his entire life just to have a Mexican in his kitchen?”

Aunt Alice, of course, had always considered herself superior to everyone, including her own husband, whom she had hurriedly married when the real father of the child she was expecting made a sudden exit.

Well, Alice was educated — that was what mattered, and that was what explained a great many things no one else could ever understand. She still belonged to a long list of cultural institutions, which were all located in places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and had busied herself with their catalogs ever since her husband died of a heart attack in the clubhouse of the Kings River Golf Club twenty years earlier.

But Aunt Mildred wasn’t about to let her sister’s rude remark go unchallenged. “She’s here because none of us could do it,” she said. “Because we’re either too old or too lazy — or both.”

“You’ve never been able to cook,” Alice said.

“Oh, I see Stella and Ray are here already,” Lottie said, in an effort to diffuse the tension.

Only Karl remained silent. He walked on ahead, alone in his grief.

In the living room, he was greeted by the first timid cadences of after-funeral conversation. Thankfully, there was a fire going; the hopeful crackling of last season’s supply of peach wood, salvaged from a neighbor’s grafted orchard, gave Karl the will, and even the desire, to get through the rest of the afternoon.

True to form, Stella was first to hug Karl, and she gushed her condolences in a babbling whisper everyone could hear.

A fleshy, enterprising woman pushing sixty, Stella was John’s youngest daughter and Karl’s niece. Her husband, Ray, was a retired dentist, and the two lived in Sonora. Stella and Ray were obnoxiously cheerful, and the family’s self-designated comedy team. They both chewed garlic pills like they were candy, told bad jokes, and laughed incessantly. Ray wore a gray flat-top and a string tie, and was skinny as a rail. He had the same herky-jerky movements as a ventriloquist’s dummy. Wherever Stella went, Ray was there by her side, grinning in a state of perpetual agreement.

Karl hated Stella, perhaps most because she was a blood relative and he couldn’t do anything about it. But he was also aware of Stella’s wicked side. Under the guise of family loyalty, she sniffed about like a bloodhound, ever on the alert for hidden money and ways to get her hands on it. At her own mother’s funeral, she tried to befriend Karl and Lottie, offering to come down periodically and help with the housework and yardwork, and said she’d even help them with their bookkeeping if they were having any trouble with it. “Not that you are, of course,” she said, in her usual meddling tone. “But sometimes it’s nice to have someone to rely on, someone who’s family.”

Karl thanked Stella as politely as he could. But, inside him, his anger boiled.

“The wrong people keep dying,” he told Lottie later, after everyone had gone home. “Either that, or the wrong people keep being born.”

Meanwhile, Karl tolerated Ray and considered him an idiot.

“It’s so terrible,” Stella said. “I don’t know what to say. You and Uncle Albert were so close. Is there anything Ray and I can do? How are you and Lottie taking it?”

“Everyone has to die,” Karl said simply.

“But Uncle Albert was only eighty-two. Imagine, getting cancer like that, right out of the blue. Of course he was living alone, and probably not taking good care of himself. I know quite a few of Ray’s older patients were like that. Once their husband or wife had died, the other just melted away. It must be awful.”

Ray smiled eagerly, waiting for Karl’s reply.

But Karl said nothing. He looked across the room and into the fire.

“We’ll miss him,” he managed finally. “Albert was a good friend.”

He turned and walked back into the kitchen.

“I just knew he’d take it hard,” Stella told Ray.

Ray nodded. “Yep,” he said, “it’s too bad.”

Karl found the caterer’s Mexican helper in the kitchen, contentedly cleaning Albert’s tile countertops and humming to herself. Her movements were efficient, yet graceful and unhurried.

“Thank you for your help,” he told her. “It means a lot.”

The Mexican woman looked up at Karl and smiled.

“You’re welcome,” she said. “I’m really sorry about your relative.”

“Thank you.”

Karl nodded to the Mexican woman. Then he decided to go back out to the car for his pipe.

Standing in his cousin Albert’s neatly graveled driveway, Karl privately acknowledged the winter landscape. Frost had arrived early, and the vineyards were mostly bare. On the way back from the cemetery, Karl had noticed the first vineyards already being pruned.

Karl loved to prune, but now age and arthritis kept him from the work. The winter solitude was what attracted him most, the chance to be alone with his thoughts. There were mornings, especially, when the fog settled to the ground and was so thick that one felt isolated, and far removed from the world’s troubles. Through the fog, the moisture amplified the sounds of other pruners at work; their metal shears, clicking on the brush, would carry an eighth of a mile.

A small Mexican crew was working in the vineyard across the road. Savoring the quiet, a lazy curl of smoke rising from his pipe, Karl walked over for a look at the job they were doing.

The crew member who spoke the best English addressed Karl. “Lots of people visiting today,” he said, looking back at the cars in Albert’s yard.

“My cousin died,” Karl said. “We had his funeral today.”

“Oh, he used to own that place?”

“Uh-huh. Forty acres, all raisins. Did you ever prune for Albert?”

“I think so,” the man said, politely stretching the truth. “Maybe four, five years ago. Maybe more. Nice man. He was pretty tall?”

“Albert was kind of tall,” Karl said, remembering. “He was a little over six feet. But that’s not too tall for a Swede.”

The man laughed, showing a row of weak, rotting teeth. He pulled at a long piece of brush caught up in the trellis wire, cut it free, and dragged it into the middle of the row with his shears.

For the next several minutes, no one spoke. Karl stood by, content to watch the men work.

Every now and then, Karl looked across the road at Albert’s house. But he hated the idea of going back inside, and each time let his mind drift back to the pruning. It was easier to be here, he decided, with strangers of another language and background, than to be trapped in a room with his own relatives.

The caterer pulled his truck out of the driveway and onto the road. He and his helper smiled and waved at Karl as they drove away.

Finally, Karl said goodbye to the workers and walked back into Albert’s yard. He paused momentarily next to his car, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe. Then, knowing he could delay no longer, he emptied the small amount of remaining tobacco onto the gravel. He brought out his handkerchief and wiped the pipe clean, then put it back in the car.

Karl sighed.

In the house, the lights now burned brightly in every room, as if to ward off evil spirits. But there were none to be afraid of, Karl knew, except among the living. And no lights could ever scare them away.

*     *     *

Everyone was eating. Lottie was sitting with Mildred and Alice on the green sofa facing the fireplace, and each was balancing a plate in her lap. Alice’s sour expression made her look as if she had just tasted something awful. As it turned out, she was dissatisfied with the caterer’s choice of cheese, and wondered aloud why no one had asked her advice.

When he came into the room, shaking hands as he went, Karl gratefully noticed Stella and Ray’s absence. But he knew from experience that it was only temporary. He glanced out the front window into the driveway; sure enough, their pickup and camper were still there.

“Can I fix you a plate?” Lottie inquired of her husband.

“I’m not really hungry,” he said.

“It’s good, Karl,” a man’s voice said from behind him.

Karl turned around. “Don, how are? Nice of you to come.”

The men shook hands.

“Who is Don?” Alice asked Lottie.

“Don is the fellow who’s been renting Albert’s place,” said Lottie, trying to keep her voice low.

“What’s he doing here?”

“What do you mean, what’s he doing here?”

“Does he want something?”

“Oh, shut up,” Mildred said.

“He probably wants us to know that he cared about your brother,” Karl said.

Don winked in Alice’s direction.

“Oh, there he is.” It was Stella. “Karl, I hope you think it’s all right.”

“Well, that will depend on what it is. Stella, you know Don Jacobs, don’t you? Takes care of Albert’s place?”

Don shook hands with Stella and Ray. “Sorry it can’t be under better circumstances,” he said.

“Oh, how right you are,” Stella said. “I was just telling Ray, if we lose any more family, I don’t know what I’ll do. Sometimes I wish it were me.”

“We all do,” Mildred whispered in Lottie’s ear.

Lottie smiled.

“You know, that macaroni salad does look good,” Karl said, admiring Don’s plate.

“It is good,” Don said.

“Is he coloring his hair?” Alice asked Lottie.

“Alice, hush.”

“I didn’t think farmers did that.”

“Why,” Mildred said. “Aren’t farmers people?”

“You know, Karl,” Don said, “if you’re going into the dining room, I think I’ll join you.”

Karl shrugged. But when he saw the understanding look on Don’s face, he realized he wouldn’t have to apologize.

The men walked into the dining room.

Don put his plate down and, without asking, began to fill one for Karl. “Hell of a cold day,” he said.

“I’ll say.”

“The weather report says we might get rain here in a couple of days.”

“We could sure use it. Hey, hold on — I can’t eat as much as I used to.”

Don laughed. “Why not,” he said. “You’re still a growing boy, aren’t you?” He poked Karl in the stomach.

“Oh, well, what the hell,” Karl said. Just being away from the women, especially Stella, was giving him an appetite.

Don finished filling Karl’s plate. “Anything to drink?” he said. “Coffee?”

“I guess I could use a little caffeine,” Karl said. “I do have the start of a headache.” He glanced back into the living room.

Don nodded. “Well, we’ll just leave them be for awhile. They’ll be fine without us. Why don’t we sit in the kitchen for a few minutes and catch up on old times.”

“Might as well,” Karl said. “It’ll give them something new to fret about, at least.”

The two made spots for themselves at the table.

Karl felt some of the day’s tension beginning to subside. Thirty years younger, a fellow farmer, Don was good, understanding company. And not being a family member gave him certain advantages.

As the men talked and ate, Karl eventually decided to loosen his tie, and then to take it off altogether. As he draped it over an unoccupied chair, his collar fell open, leaving a few snow-white chest hairs free to climb up his neck.

For Don Jacobs, the world was a good place, a happy place. He and his wife still enjoyed each other’s company, and their youngest of three children, a girl, was in her senior year at high school. For a good number of years, there had been plenty of food on the table. Best of all, though, a man still had his work to do — and, if he was lucky, that work was something he really enjoyed, like farming, like pruning, like the quiet, sustained thrill of bringing in another year’s crop. Fortunes were easily won and lost, but what really mattered was a man’s ability to work at something he felt counted.

Sitting at the table, Karl marveled at the quiet, easy truth so visible in the man across from him.

But he also felt it in himself. It was an old, familiar feeling, like friendship, or its vague, tender beginnings. And it was also something else: a precious secret, belonging to man and nature at the same time, a nameless, wordless celebration.

Not until Karl suddenly felt the gentle pressure of Don Jacobs’ hand touching his own, did he realize he was crying.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be,” Don said. “Albert was one of the best.”

“He was at that,” Karl said. “He was at that.”

Don pressed Karl’s hand again and smiled.

The men sat together a little while longer. Karl finished his coffee, and momentarily considered going back for another cup. Not wanting to be the first to stand up, though, he decided against it. He watched the thought float away, until it disappeared altogether.

Meanwhile, in the other room, Stella’s voice was gaining momentum. It rose above the other conversations, drowning out each new thought one by one, like a noisy gutter on a rainy night. But even she wasn’t listening.

*     *     *

“Where are they?” Karl asked Lottie a little while later.

“Stella and Ray? I don’t know. They were here a few minutes ago.”

“I heard them go outside,” Mildred said. “Something about oranges.”

“Oranges?” Karl said. “What oranges?”

“I don’t know. You know Stella’s babbling. What’s the difference?”

“Karl, is everything all right?” Lottie said.

She started to get up.

Without answering, Karl left the group. He walked down the hall and into Albert’s bedroom.

Lottie followed him.

“What is it?” she said, joining her husband at the window.

Karl pointed at the orange tree in Albert’s backyard.

“What in the world?”

“I guess that’s what they meant by oranges,” Karl said finally.

But inside he was weeping.

At Stella’s feet were three large wooden boxes, already full of the fine, ripe fruit Albert hadn’t lived to taste.

Even through the closed window, Karl and Lottie could hear Stella’s voice. She was urging Ray to go up higher on Albert’s wooden ladder, which Ray had leaned against the orange tree’s dense growth.

“Those big ones, up there,” they heard her call out.

“Okay,” Ray said cheerfully.

He climbed up another step, and then another, eagerly doing Stella’s bidding, until he could reach her prize oranges. Then, leaning directly into the damp, matted leaves, he began to pick them and toss them down to her.

Karl turned from the window. With moist eyes, he looked at his wife. “I wish I were dead,” he said to her. “Lottie, I wish I were dead.”

Lottie looked out again, hoping that what she had seen wasn’t real.

It was.

Sitting on the edge of Albert’s bed, Lottie held Karl’s head against her shoulder for a long time.

Over and over, she stroked his thin, silver hair.

“It’s all right, Karl,” she said. “It’s all right. It isn’t important.”

Outside, Stella and Ray finished stripping the tree. Then, like two petty conspirators, they quietly brought the boxes into the front yard. They opened the door to their camper, slid the boxes inside, and walked back toward the house. By the time they were inside, Stella and Ray both were laughing.

*     *     *

Three months later, in March, Karl died. Since the day of Albert’s funeral, he had adamantly refused to speak again to Stella and Ray. He told Lottie that, short of her death, he wished never to hear Stella’s name uttered in his house. To ward of her calls, Lottie always answered the phone. She even threw out Stella’s cards, which were few, without opening them.

Stella was never given a reason for her uncle’s sudden silence. Nor did she pursue the matter. She simply took it in stride, pausing only long enough to wonder of the new circumstance ruled out any chances at an inheritance.

She found out soon enough.

Eventually, she befriended Aunt Alice, who, it was known, had tucked away a tidy sum. Lonely, and showing visible signs of decline, Alice had passed her entire life without as much as a single friend. Now, she was putty in Stella’s hands. She clinged hopefully to her empty words of encouragement, until the day came when she finally had her will rewritten.

Mission accomplished, Stella and Ray immediately went back to Sonora and their garlic pills. A few days later, when Alice called Stella to inquire about their next visit, Stella’s answer was vague.

“It’s Ray,” she said. “He just isn’t feeling well. But don’t worry, as soon as he’s better, we’ll come and spend a few days.”

And, so, Alice waited. But it never occurred to her that Stella’s friendship might not be real.

Meanwhile, Stella went about her business in Sonora. She wrote letters, made telephone calls, and paid visits to the sick and dying. And Ray was always by her side, laughing and fidgeting.

Not long before Karl died, he and Lottie took a leisurely country drive in the area surrounding Kingsburg. Following the narrow country roads, his heart leapt at the sight of the new greenery glistening in the vineyards and orchards.

The world around him was more intense, more real than it had ever been, so alive it was laughing.

At the same time, much to his surprise, he suddenly realized that his own light was going out.

The odd, poignant argument that had been his life was drawing to a close.

A few days later, in bed, Karl felt himself letting go. Lottie was there beside him, asleep.

For the briefest moment, he hated the idea of her finding him, and thought he might try to resist. But then he decided against it. This, too, she would understand, as she had always understood.

It was very late.

The countryside was quiet.

It might have been a dream, but Karl felt his body being lifted up.

Someone, his mother, maybe, or Don Jacobs, or God, was taking him to the cemetery in Kingsburg.

William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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