A Thousand Oranges
by Maria Black
I was waiting for the 5:37 to Wassaic. A woman in a hot pink raincoat was standing in line at the Irving Farm coffee kiosk in Grand Central where I sat, and I was doing my usual. Her coat was too bright, her hair too blonde, the stones in her earrings too large. I was picking her apart, I mean, trying to tell myself there was something wrong with her so I might not feel so drab. I was aware of the young man at the table next to mine who sat in the same dejected posture he’d been in for the past twenty minutes, his head in his arms. Exhaustion or hopelessness, I couldn’t tell which. He dressed as my son Aaron dressed, in those awful jeans that make everyone look undernourished. And a T-shirt, that’s all. No jacket, no bags. I wondered if I should ask if he was all right, if he needed help, but then I didn’t.
I finished my coffee, edging out from behind the bistro table so as not to disturb him, and went upstairs to track twenty-eight. The train was waiting, doors open. I chose a car and, for more space, settled in a seat facing another open seat. I lay my head against the window. Despite the coffee I was very tired. I closed my eyes. Behind my lids rose the image of myself as I had been only minutes before, sitting with my coffee and my book, a woman in late middle age, in grays and duns, alone, watching people. Watching other women mostly, how they spoke to one another, how they smiled and laughed, what they wore and carried, their hairstyles, how they rushed about and talked on phones. They seemed a different species from me altogether. It’s not that I was sad. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t anything. I just had very little hope along those lines. I was having a feeling as I sat there, eyes closed, which I knew quite well—that Life watched me from a great remove, that this bored, impassive Presence saw me, one among many, but put no value, positive or negative, on any choice I made. It had no opinion about my life, or the course I was taking in New York, or what I did with myself, or my son Aaron, or my grandchild, if he even existed. The tossing of my little ship on the waves of the world was my affair alone and would always be.
Though I am usually vigilant on the train, I fell asleep. I woke when we pulled out of Grand Central but then fell asleep again. When I opened my eyes I was shocked to see we were leaving the Pleasantville station and even more shocked to see the young man from the coffee kiosk sitting in the seat facing mine. I hadn’t seen his face, but the pants and shirt and build were the same. It was the same person. And he had been staring at me, I was sure. I had the sensation of something having moved between us, something of great energy, yet my pocketbook was still under my arm and everything else seemed in place. I put the thought out of my mind and turned to gaze out the window.
I had been dreaming of a racetrack, one that as a child I used to go to with my father. In the dream a large orange grove grew up in the center, and I had been picking the oranges like mad, as if everything depended on it. This had been one of those involved, vivid, urgent sort of dreams. I often have them when I’m sick with a fever. Then there was the question of the boy. Had he followed me? It seemed unlikely—he had not lifted his head once at the kiosk. But what were the odds of him ending up here, across from me?
I shouldn’t call him a boy. He was a young man, perhaps twenty-five. Slender, with shadows about his eyes. He crossed his legs at the knee. There was something tawny and ravaged about him, I remember thinking that, like a bird of prey that’s survived a storm. A receding hairline. Longish hair that fell in strings and needed washing, and several days’ growth of beard. An outdoor sort of person, that was my first thought, but not a vagrant, nothing like that. He had glasses, which sat on his nose crookedly and which he pushed up with a forefinger. My son Aaron has glasses too, but that is only because he cannot deal with anything so complicated as contacts. But Aaron is heavy and this boy was slender.
He lives in a halfway house in Albany, Aaron, I mean, or I suppose he does. That’s what he tells me. I have not actually seen it. I go to the open AA meeting in Millerton, which is where I live. I prefer AA to Alanon. They meet every Sunday morning in the conference room of a little insurance outfit that belongs to one of the members. It’s nice. They’re open. Anyone can go. They tell their horror stories and laugh. Fondly, it seems to me.
The young man leaned forward. He had that grace young people have without trying. His eyes were lovely golds and greens and browns, and they seemed pained. He asked for a couple of ibuprofen. People in trains don’t generally talk to one another, or at least they don’t talk to me. I began to search my bag. I had Advil, I was sure, or something, somewhere. I was still wondering if he’d followed me.
“Headache,” he said as I went through my bag.
“Gosh, I’m so sorry,” I said. I began laying the contents of my pocketbook on the seat in a pile: my wallet, my to-do list, the list of area restaurants which had been handed out at noon, my little notebook and pen, my phone charger, my sunglasses, keys, receipts. I knew I had the Advil.
“My periods of freedom, however long, always feel provisional.”
I remember his words exactly. They were so striking and odd, as if he was reading to me from a book. In fact, I learned later, because I put them into Google, that they are from a book. The Hours by Michael Cunningham. When I looked into his eyes again, a weight seemed to be in them, something he had to hold up. I realized then that he was older than I’d thought, perhaps over thirty, that he had suffered too.
“Do you always get headaches?” I asked.
“They’re migraines, then?”
“I have been told no,” he said. “There is not all the bright light of migraines, and they are not so terrible.”
“You get them all the time?”
“I’m sorry,” I said again. And I was.
I remembered then that the Advil was in my roller bag. So I packed everything back into my pocketbook and went for my bag in the overhead rack. I don’t know why, but I felt I absolutely had to find something to help him. I pulled my bag down and set it on the seat across the aisle and began to go through it. I untied my quilted toiletries case. The young man was watching me. He seemed both curious and disinterested, as if he was musing about something else the whole time.
“Two or three?”
“I think three,” he said, and I braced myself against the seat, for I was still standing, and I shook the tablets into his hand.
He stood abruptly and walked down the aisle as if to carry the three pills off to someone else. That was my thought, but surely he’d only gone for water. He did not have a cell phone, and that too made him seem strange. Some time later the Metro North man came through, took my ticket, punched it. I said nothing about the young man. He had no luggage either. There was no evidence at all that he’d been there. I wondered if he had gotten off the train, or if he was without a ticket and hiding in a bathroom to avoid paying. In other words, I found myself waiting for him to come back. I even had the funny thought that I had conjured him, that if I went back to sleep he might reappear when I awoke.
He finally did reappear. I had been gazing out the window, and I felt more than saw him slide back into the seat opposite. I smiled and he smiled back. He had a little white sack with him. Perhaps he’d had it when he left, but no, I am sure he did not. It was not folded as a mother would do with a sack lunch, but rather the top was gathered in a tight column as if clutched all day by a child.
“My name is Wendy,” I ventured and set my hand into the space between us. He took it in his own, which was warm and dry. I told him where I was going, the usual thing you say. He introduced himself as Andrew Carnegie.
He was off his rocker, of course. Mental. That’s what I thought. He shrugged, looked abashed.
“I’m afraid so,” he said and added that he had no other name to pick from.
“Andy?” He made a face. “No.”
“How is your headache?”
“Vanished,” he said, smiling broadly. “Thank you so much.”
These words and phrases—“vanished,” “I think three,” “they are not so terrible”—were not the words of your typical American millennial.
“I will repay you,” he said and reached for the paper sack.
“For three Advil?” I laughed. “Don’t be silly.”
“I want to.”
“Not necessary,” I said and waved him off.
For a while we sat quietly. Questions I could not ask crowded my brain. Something in me wanted to ask these questions, and something else did not. The something that did not was the part that needed the magic, or mystery, or whatever it was about him to play itself out.
“Are you hungry, Wendy?” he asked after a few minutes. His use of my name sent a mild shock through me. “I don’t have much,” he said and pulled an orange from the sack. “I’ll peel it for you.”
It was one too many coincidences. I thought then that I should get up and move to another car. Yet I didn’t. I studied his face, his hands. I suppose I was memorizing him in case something happened. I felt something might. He was peeling the orange slowly, collecting the small bits of rind in his lap, and the tang of orange was misting about us like a cloud. I breathed in the scent, which was delicious.
“While I was waiting for you, I dreamt of oranges,” I found that I had said, and then, realizing how my words must sound, rushed to add, “I mean for the train. When I was asleep earlier. Waiting for it to move.”
The boy continued to peel the orange. Some time later he looked up at me, out from under his brow, over his glasses, and asked if I’d had a good time in New York.
“It was all right,” I said. “I was there for a course. I thought again of a raptor, for that is how he studied me. “Really? What kind of course?”
I hesitated, afraid of seeming silly. “It’s on the Spiritual Law of Prosperity. I go once a month for four months.” I felt he might somehow already know.
“And what month are you on?”
“Just the first.”
“So you’re not rich yet,” he said. “But soon.”
I could hardly breathe for all the orange in the air, for my heart beating. Why it was beating like that I have no idea. I could have escaped, could have opened my book or pulled out my knitting, which I take everywhere and depend on, but I didn’t. He was only a fellow who’d taken an orange out of a sack. I remember turning to look out the window, though, in order to collect myself. I had crossed some kind of boundary. I knew that.
“Tell me about your course,” he said.
“You won’t make fun.”
“Of course not.”
“I have always believed that the more I save the more I will have,” I said. “Everyone I know believes that. It’s the ant and the grasshopper, a fable as old as the hills.”
He was very carefully peeling the pith off the orange now, turning it in his beautiful hands like a sun.
I went on. I explained that the Spiritual Law of Prosperity says that the more one saves—our teacher had used the word “hoard”—the less one attracts. Not just money, but all things. It says that one must believe completely, prepare for what one believes, and ask the Universe for it out loud.
He handed me a section of orange. The flavor exploded in my mouth, a thousand oranges. Never before or since have I tasted anything so glorious. He sat, one leg crossed over the other at the knee, wrists crossed on his lap, palms upturned. In one, the orange.
“So what do you believe in perfect faith will come to you?” he asked.
I had to answer. Something about the situation: I had to tell him the truth, which was nothing. I believed with perfect faith that nothing I truly wanted would ever come to me. It was a belief I had perfected. I had not known this until that moment. My pockets were full of the tissues I had used all day. Now I pulled them out.
He said nothing about my tears, only handed me another section of orange. As I ate I found myself telling him about Aaron, my only child. How he has burned every bridge, except his one to me. I told him about Aaron’s troubles with drugs, and alcohol, and women, his arrests and broken bones. About the high-school kid he put in critical care the night he passed out behind the wheel of the car I had bought him. I told the young man in the train everything about my life with Aaron, more than I have said to any single person, and this boy Andrew, or whatever his name was, fed me sections of the orange. The more I ate, the more I told of my secret shame. The money I’ve spent in rehab after rehab, the entirety of my savings squandered. How I have blamed myself.
“What else?” he asked.
“What else?” I laughed and blew my nose. “Don’t you want any?” He had not eaten any of the orange at all.
“It’s for you,” he said.
At the time this made perfect sense. The orange was for me. He had fetched it from somewhere, from a magic orange tree growing in the first car, or from my dream, knowing that I needed it.
“Here is how it started,” I said to him, “this business with the Spiritual Law of Prosperity.” I told him how I had driven to Albany to see Aaron after he’d gotten out of rehab the last time. The two of us had sat in this bakery called Zoro’s around the corner from the halfway house on Dallius Street where he had just moved. Or where he said he’d moved. Who knows where he was really sleeping. The bakery was a big place—bad coffee, lousy muffins, the wood floor scuffed and dirty. He pulled out his wallet. For a moment I thought he was going to repay some of the money he owed me. That would have been a sign of change, but no. He pulled out a photograph of a baby.
Oh Aaron, I said. No. Please no.
I told the young man on the train how Aaron’s face fell, how I was so used to that, so used to disappointing him. “We disappoint each other,” I said. “We are locked in the dance of falling short of each other’s hopes, and it has worn our love to nothing.” I said things like this, things I’d never put into words, and the boy nodded and handed me the last section of orange.
Don’t tell me this is your child, I said to Aaron at Zoro’s.
He told me the poor thing had spent its first months in the hospital. The mother is a heroin addict in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The baby’s name is Patrick, after the mother’s grandfather, and is being cared for by the great-grandmother.
How old is she? I asked Aaron. That’s got to be more than the poor woman can handle.
He shrugged and stuffed a hunk of muffin in his mouth.
Where’s the child’s mother? I asked.
It doesn’t matter where she is, Aaron said. She’s crazy. I don’t know.
I just wanted you to know you’re a grandmother, he said. That’s all. That’s why I called.
Great, I said, I’m a grandmother. Wonderful.
“I got up and went to the ladies room,” I said to the young man across from me. “I couldn’t stomach another minute, but still that old fear was in me. Would he get up and walk out, disappear into the streets of Albany, be gone for months? Or maybe forever? I am always worried that what I say will cause him to use, or overdose.”
“When did this happen?” he asked me quietly.
“Maybe there’s no baby,” I said. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s just his latest scheme to squeeze more money out of me.”
As I said this, a woman walked past us, Aaron’s age, and I thought of the daughter-in-law I might have had, the grandchildren. The life I might have had. I got up, excused myself, hurried into the next car and slid the heavy door of the bathroom open. It was surprisingly large. I slammed the door shut and locked it, stood swaying a moment, unsure why I’d come. I didn’t need to use the bathroom. I should have been holding on to something because at that moment the train came to a jerking stop and I flew against the wall and fell onto the floor. I banged a knee but wasn’t really hurt. I was glad to be on the floor. I know, I know, Aaron said when I got back to the table at that horrible Zoro’s, when he saw that I’d been crying. I want to deserve him, he said of the baby. I want to live a normal life. And tears came to his eyes. But with Aaron, the prettier the words and the tears, the likelier they’re lies. I’ve learned this.
Why would he tell me he’d fathered a child? He doesn’t care that I’m a grandmother. I laughed out loud. When had Aaron ever shown care for my feelings? He’s an addict. He has only ever had himself in mind. He either made up the baby as a ploy, or he thinks I’m going to go down to Louisiana and bring the child back, raise it myself, take care of his business the way I’ve always taken care of it.
A great rage swept through me then, sulfurous in my mouth. I felt as though I might burst through my own skin, grow tumors or talons or great scales, bake like clay inside my clothes. I sat there, my back against the bathroom wall, the train rattling and rumbling around me, for it had begun to move again, and I pulled my coat into my mouth and I screamed into it. I screamed and cried, my head buried in my arms, and while I did, some distant part of me thought I had gone mad, knew that someone had heard and alerted the conductor, who was on his way to drag me off to a psychiatric hospital. Yet, that part of me didn’t care very much anymore. My life had shrunk to the outline of my son. He was my only life, and his pain and misfortune were mine. I had given everything up to redeem him, and for nothing. How can I explain it? I have been on the receiving end of bad news from Aaron for over twenty years. Hurt and hurt and hurt and disappointed and disappointed and disappointed.
I finally crawled off the floor, put the toilet seat down, and sat there, my face wet with tears and snot, the violence and bizarreness of what I’d just done reverberating through me. At last I stood, buttoned my coat, washed my hands and face, and put my hair back into its combs.
The Law of Prosperity says that the good in life is like water in a streambed that can go wherever the channel is dug. The channel is dug by one’s beliefs. If you demonstrate lack, lack is what you get. I had for so long expected only the worst from Aaron. I had signed up for this course thinking that if I changed my attitude about him, if I had more faith, maybe it would finally allow good to flow to him. If the universe, in its blind way, truly gave us what we prepared for, then might it be true that I could change what I was preparing for, and thereby change Aaron’s life? Well, I signed up. I would have tried anything.
When I returned to my seat, the boy was lying on his side. His eyes were closed. On the seat next to my bag was the little sack of orange peels. I sat for a long time, staring out the window. I was shocked by my behavior in the bathroom and, I must admit, a little proud, for in a way it was the boldest thing I’d ever done.
“I’ve been guarding your things,” the boy said when he woke.
“Yes, I see. Great watchman you are.”
He laughed and for a moment I felt extraordinarily happy.
I remember thinking he couldn’t possibly be ignorant about what had happened to me in the bathroom, for it seemed to me he had made it possible. Why and how, I’d no idea and still don’t, but it was as if he had seen a boulder in my path and shifted it the quarter inch necessary to make way for something long desiring passage.
“Where are we?” he said.
“We’re coming up to Tenmile River.”
“Tenmile? Shit. I missed my stop.”
“Oh well,” I said. “I’ll drive you home. My car’s at the station.” I had thought of him as not quite having a home, as not quite being entirely human. But of course he had a home, and probably parents. Well, of course he had parents.
“It’s too far,” he said.
I shrugged. “You could stay in Aaron’s room. I could take you in the morning.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Of course not.”
I didn’t for a moment think of him as dangerous.
When we stepped onto the platform at Wassaic, I half-expected him to dissolve into the night air, but he didn’t. He climbed into my Honda Civic and when we got to the house, I showed him to Aaron’s room and gave him a toothbrush, a pair of Aaron’s old flannel pajama bottoms, and a fresh towel. I went to sleep to the sound of him moving about in the bathroom down the hall. I thought I would call in sick the next day, take Andrew home, and then do something special, just for me. Lunch at an expensive restaurant, perhaps. The world seemed sweet to me, full of possibility.
The next morning, I thought I might find him gone, the whole thing a figment of my imagination. But when I walked into my kitchen, there he was, flesh and blood, hair on end, barefoot, wet leaves all over the floor. Ramps and watercress covered the counter, and the fragrance in the air was now not of oranges, but of dirt and onions.
He lifted a handful of the ramps to show me, letting them spill from his fingers like coins, and he nodded toward the woods behind my house.
“Treasure, Wendy,” he said and smiled a great, brimming smile.
Published on April 6, 2018