Study of an Orange

The dark girl with the short brown hair decides to draw an orange. There are colored chalks and colored paper and Sister Hornick says everyone may draw what they wish. The dark girl thinks that the teacher is tired of teaching as she often is by this time in the afternoon and today was an especially hard day. She was forced to assign several pages of dictionary copying to Brian Dillenburger and Brian Prescott, the two Brians in the class, who spent their math time pretending that Jennifer Hart was a snapping turtle, and teased her, dangling pencils or bits of broken crayon in front of the fat girl’s mouth, until she buried her head in her hands and sobbed.

The dark girl observed all of this from her desk in a back corner of the classroom. She thinks the two Brians are horrible and forgives the teacher for being tired. She feels sorry for Jennifer Hart who actually sat with her today at lunch and offered her half a Braunschweiger sandwich and an orange in exchange for her peanut butter and jelly. The dark girl didn’t care much for the Braunschweiger. She didn't like the smell of the meat or the way it melted on her tongue. She threw most of the sandwich away, but kept the orange, which she now pulls from the pocket of her winter coat.  

Around the room she sees the other girls designing clothing–bell bottom blue jeans, striped turtleneck sweaters, crinkle vinyl miniskirts and multicolored suede shoes. The boys are drawing cars they hope to own someday, Corvettes and Camaros. Some secretly sketch characters memorized from Mad magazines, hiding their drawings beneath crooked arms, as Mad magazines are not allowed in the fifth grade.

One of the Brians has very badly drawn a torso of a woman, bikini clad, pencil-point nipples showing through above the curvy “W’ he’s made to indicate a breast line. He’s holding it behind the back of his chair with his left hand while continuing to draw with his right. A muffled giggle spreads among the Corvette and Camaro drawers sitting behind him. The dark girl looks up, but does not giggle. She glances over at the teacher to see if another dictionary page will be assigned, but sees her attending only to the stack of papers on her desk, busy clinging to the end of her red pencil as it flies over essays on the Spirit Lake massacre and its importance to Iowa state history.

The girl sets the orange on her desk. It is a simple thing, just a circle really, so she thinks she can manage it. The torso embarrasses her and she tries to shut out the snickering. She doesn’t draw attention to herself as there is nothing magnificent about attempting to draw an orange, nor is it risky enough to attract ridicule.

The first curve of orange chalk shimmers over the gray paper in a way that it doesn’t on white and she is surprised. She takes a breath and looks up briefly to make sure no one is looking back at her corner. She finishes the circle, but before filling it in, she notices the orange color changes over the surface of the fruit and wonders how to recreate the effect in her drawing. She tries adding gray on the side that should be darker, but blended with orange it becomes slightly green and she’s unhappy. She adds a little blue to the grey and this makes it worse. She bites her bottom lip in frustration and turns the paper over, deciding this time to work on the brighter part of the orange first. To a swatch of orange chalk she adds splashes of yellow and white, and then with a tissue from her desk she blends the colors making curving strokes as she’s seen done on educational television’s Picture Perfect with Clarisse. Clarisse says this is the key to making things look three-dimensional. Just follow the form as if you were actually drawing on the surface of the object itself. The girl can see that it’s better and is excited to start another drawing, but the class has started to squirm, pointing out to the teacher that it is five to three and time for cleanup, so she sighs knowing that she must wait to try again.

She looks around hesitantly at the other drawings in the room–the halter tops and hip-huggers, the Camaros and Corvettes. They are flat and bound to their papers while her orange is round like a ball. This difference makes the girl feel just a little bit older and after signing her name, “Espie” to the bottom of her drawing, she slips a few chalks along with the orange into her pocket.

The bus lets Espie off only two blocks from her home, but she takes a longer route so she can pass by the vacant lot on the top of the hill. There is a buckeye tree there. The girls in her class collect buckeyes and trade them at recess. When Ann Marie Sherwood got three from Lindell Schwarz in exchange for her mood ring, she let Espie hold one. It was cold and smooth, the color of Espie’s hair. Espie ran her thumb several times over the eye that held the good luck inside. It was a perfect buckeye, but there are none like it here. Only a few broken shells embedded in icy footprints.  

She pulls her orange out of her pocket and wonders about the tree it came from. Orange trees don't lose their leaves. Espie knows this. Her mother told her. There is a picture of an orange tree in Espie's book of fairytales from around the world. Espie loves to look at the picture of the orange tree and wonder about the exotic places where such trees grow, Spain, Florida, California. Espie was born in California but doesn’t remember it much. She certainly doesn’t remember orange trees. Her mother who lived all her life there until Espie was four, tells Espie it’s not exotic as all that, but Espie thinks she would like one day to live where orange trees grow.

When she gets home she pushes her way through the gate with some difficulty as it is partially blocked by snow. She squeezes through and walks around to the back where she can open the door with the key from around her neck. She enters cautiously, checking first the kitchen broom closet, the coat closet in the hall, the bathroom, the two bedrooms with their closets. It is a ritual she always performs saying Hail Marys all the while. When it is clear to her there is no one in the house, she takes a deep breath and begins to relax. She doesn’t check the basement. It’s too scary. She sets a chair in front of the basement door, believing that the noise it would make if anyone tried to break through would give her sufficient time to escape.

This has been Espie’s routine for the past month. Now that she’s turned eleven and her mother has switched to a day job, a decision has been made that she can be home alone after school instead of spending the afternoons with Mrs. Harnagel next door, who has always preferred cats to children. 

Espie’s mother will be home after five and they will cook dinner together. She doesn’t have much homework, so she thinks she has some time to give to her orange. She pulls it out of her coat pocket along with the chalks and sets them all on the vinyl lace tablecloth, then removes her coat and drapes it over the back of a chair. She turns on the overhead light and sees many shadows and then turns it off again and sees just one, stretched out, opposite the sun, now low in the kitchen window. She rips a paper grocery bag in half and recreates the orange there with its shadow long and stretched. Then she turns the overhead light back on and draws a second orange below the first. This orange sits in the center of a group of mismatched flower petals formed by its own shadows pulled this way and that.  

Espie does several more drawings before the wooden clock on the wall chimes and interrupts her. Her mother will be home soon and she decides to surprise her. She sticks the drawings up on the refrigerator with magnets and then sweeps the floor and sets the table for two. Her mother will be happy to come home and see what a help her daughter has become.  

Espie’s mother works at the grocery store lunch counter making up milkshakes and pots of soup. On the days that Espie’s father will be home for dinner, her mother brings home special things– sticky sweet rolls, barbecue pork ribs, beer, ham for sandwiches, shoe string potatoes. But tonight he’s still in his truck, maybe crossing Utah, maybe Nevada, Espie doesn’t know for certain. She just knows that crossing the country takes a very long time.

He’s not her real father, but when Espie asks about her real father, her mother says it doesn’t matter anymore and it doesn’t. Not really. She calls this father “Daddy” and sometimes he brings her things from truck stops and gas stations–foot long bubble gums, a rabbit-foot key chain, a flip book that, when she flips the pages fast enough, makes a little cat dance with a balloon until the balloon explodes knocking him over backward. Then she can watch the bump grow out of his head through the center of a circle of dancing stars. 

And it is he, not her real father, who saves her at night when she has the dream about the runaway car. In the dream Espie is always at the steering wheel, but her foot can’t reach the brake pedal. She is speeding down the steep blacktop road away from her house, over potholes, past the Barnhart’s’ yard with its Dutch windmill and pink flamingos, past the Horsemen’s’ with the old wagon wheel that she likes to climb. There’s nothing she can do but scream and cry at this car gone out of control. But then she sees him running in the rearview mirror, the sleeves of his blue trucker’s shirt rolled up with Ben stitched over the pocket in red. Those massive arms that wrap themselves around her mother after he’s been gone too long, pumping back and forth at his sides. He whips past the car and pushes his arms forward in front of it. Espie sees the lily tattooed with her mother’s name below it pulsing on his forearm, and with no more effort than it takes him to push a lawn mower or sweep Espie up off the ground; he’s stopped the car and saved her from toppling off the edge of the world, which is where the dream always ends.

“Esperanza, come help me please,” her mother calls from the back door. Espie sweeps the chalks quickly back into her coat pocket, leaving the table clean, and then rushes to the back door to help her mother, who is struggling with two bags of groceries.

“Look mamá! I’ve been drawing.” She points to the refrigerator after setting one of the bags down on the counter.

“Yes mija. It’s beautiful.” Her mother smiles.

Now her mother is speaking to her in English as they unpack the groceries together, asking how her day was, who she played with. Espie is answering but she’s not listening. She’s trying to remember the words or phrases in Spanish. She sees her grandmother as she was when she was still alive, patting out tortillas and stirring sugar into the coffee. She sees her scold the cat when he reaches with his front paws to dig in the big tub of masa on the floor at her side. She can smell the coffee and the cinnamon, feel the warmth of the fresh tortilla in her hand, but she can’t hear the words.  

“Yes, mamá. We had the spelling test today” and “No, mamá. It wasn’t hard.” 

She answers her mother’s questions, but her mind is stretching back in time, looking for the translation. But then the scene changes and her grandmother is gone.  

Espie sees herself much smaller, alone in her bed and scared. She hears a man’s voice, loud noises, fighting, the sound of her mother crying. There is a crash against the wall and then there is silence. Espie stops trying to remember. 

This is how it always is when Espie tries to remember Spanish. She stops trying to remember the words just as she is about to remember something much worse. She hands the grocery bag she has folded to her mother and smiles, pretending that she has never drifted off. Her mother takes the bag and smiles back.

Her mother fills a pot with water and puts it on the stove to boil while Espie unwraps a loaf of bread and puts it on the cutting board. “Do you have homework, Esperanza,” her mother asks?

“Just a little.”

“Why don’t you do it now while I finish the spaghetti.”

Espie hands her mother the bread knife and goes down the hall to her room. She pulls the social studies book out of her book bag and curls up on her bed, opens up to a section she knows already. An entire village of Iowa Indians, shot to death while watching a horse race, leaving behind few survivors, their name, and this cold white place where oranges don’t grow.  

She lets her book drop closed. She wonders why she and her mother are here; why they left California and sunshine behind; why they stopped speaking Spanish. She’s afraid to ask her mother. If she does, Espie thinks her mother will tell her that it’s because her abuelita died and no one needs them to speak Spanish anymore, but Espie knows that’s not the whole story. Ben is part of the story. Her mother does not even use the word mija when he is around. 

Espie remembers record albums, when they first moved in here with Ben. While she ironed or did the dishes, her mother would play them, singing along with Pedro Infante and Javier Solis.  

But one day Ben came home while the music was playing. He walked over to the record player, shut it off, picked the record up and calmly snapped it in half, letting the pieces drop to the floor.  

Without speaking he turned to the half dozen albums lying on the kitchen table, pulled the first one from its cover and smashed it on the table's edge. He did the same with the second, and the third. He moved slowly, silently, shattering each one - and after the last record had fallen - he shook his head just slightly and with the shadow of a smile on his face, bent to the floor.

He gathered up the pieces, the broken Sombras, the shattered Payaso, and walked them to the garbage outside. When he returned, he walked over to Espie’s mother, still frozen in place with a dishtowel in her hand. “I didn’t want the neighbors to hear,” he said as he approached her. He put his hands on her shoulders and looked at her warmly, intently. “You're as good as any white woman, Lily. Don’t give anyone around here reason to think otherwise.”  

Then he took the towel out of her hand and set it on the counter, closed his arms around her, and Espie, who had tucked herself and her doll away under the kitchen table, watched her mother float there, like a seed from a milkweed pod caught in a child’s gentle fist.

After dinner Espie finishes her homework at the kitchen table while her mother irons and watches Medical Center on the TV. Dr. Joe Gannon is in love with a patient who has horrible headaches and can’t even remember if she’s married or not. Espie would rather read her fairytale book with her mother, but she knows this is her mother's favorite program, so she works quietly and doesn't interrupt.

“To bed now, mija.” Her mother shuts off the TV and scoots her down the hall to her room where she tucks her in with a kiss on the forehead. “Dream with the angels.”  

But Espie can’t sleep. After lying quietly for what seems like hours, she gets out paper and her chalks, finds the orange and sets it on the dresser, then sits staring at it from her bed. The curtain is open slightly, but there is no moon and the orange remains a colorless shadow. Espie thinks about night; how it steals color from everything. She looks around her room– her shoes where she left them on the floor, her transistor radio on the night stand, the long stuffed snake Ben bought for her, coiled around the bedpost. Of course she knows the color of all these things, but night has made them all the same. Espie finds some comfort in that but also knows it won’t make a very interesting drawing. She sets her chalks on the end table and curls up under the sheet.

On the bus the next morning, Espie is one of the first ones on. Louie the bus driver holds out a wax paper bundle to her as she climbs the steps. “Here take it.”

“What is it Louie?” she asks as his gnarled honey-colored fist opens and drops the gift into her cupped palm. Louie is the only person she knows besides her mother and herself who came here from somewhere else. 

She takes a seat behind Louie’s and unwraps the paper carefully. “It’s dried mango from the Philippines,” he says. “It will make you toasty again after you gulp down your frozen milk.” Louie has complained to Espie repeatedly about the winter’s bitter cold and the ache it creates in his knuckles and she in turn has complained about the milk truck delivering cartons of frozen milk at lunch time.

Espie tries to look out her window but can’t see anything. She takes her glove off and presses the side of her hand into the thick frost still covering the glass leaving a blurred crescent shape. Then she uses her fingernail to complete the circle, sketching out the shape of her orange. It’s difficult because the she can’t decide whether to leave the white as shadow, or use the white as the bright. She decides to leave the white as the shadow which makes a strange sort of reverse orange. The world outside the bus squeezes into it. It reminds Espie of a snow globe. Flakes drift past scotch pines and blue spruce as the bus brushes past. At one point she sees a small bird in the center. She pulls the piece of mango out of the wax paper and chews on the end of it, contemplating her entire world framed by one small orange.

Espie gets off the bus near the convent garden and walks toward the school playground. Yesterday’s brief thaw has given way to March’s fickle moods, leaving the playground covered with sheets of ice. Children run and slide across the ice full of Friday enthusiasm. Espie can’t help but feel some of it too. Ben will be home tonight in time to watch Ghost Story and Circle of Fear. She will curl up next to him in her flannel pajamas covered with pink roses and it will feel good to be just a little bit scared.  

The orange is still in her plastic book bag where she left it this morning and she takes it out, studies it for a minute, then gives it a push down the icy pavement. It hits a bump and wobbles off to the right coming to a standstill in front of a blue fence post. Its color shines there brilliant and pure against the harsh white of the snow and the quiet blue of the paint. The orange color glows in a way she knows she could never capture on paper. Espie raises her fingertips slowly to her forehead . . . “Anaranjado,” she whispers. The word creeps gently into the forefront of her memory along with a sadness that no one else will notice the beauty and the brilliance of this perfect solitary orange.  

But Espie has seen it and Espie will remember. She closes her eyes taking a snapshot of it in her head and there, it magically reverses itself; a blue disk floating on a glowing patch of orange. She holds the image against tightly pressed eyelids, letting go of it only when the school bell rings and she runs to find her place in line. 

THERESA DUVE MORALES teaches middle school art and lives in Woodland California with her family. This is the second story she's had published. Her first was in American Fiction.
The Adirondack Review
winner of the Fulton Prize