Oranges

Elizabeth Cox Click to read more...

Elizabeth Cox has published five novels, including A Question of Mercy, The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love, and Night Talk.  She has won the Lillian Smith Award, the Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction and the North Carolina Fiction Award.  She taught at Duke University for seventeen years.  She also taught at Boston University, MIT, and Bennington Graduate Program. She is now retired and working on a book of essays.

                                                                    I.

Just before going on stage, Benny released the lock on his wheelchair and tucked an orange into his jacket pocket.  He could feel it there, its weight. He had brought it to eat at lunch, but now tried to think of a way to use it in the play, believing in some silent way that it might bring him luck. His luck had run out fifteen months ago – when the accident took away the use of his legs.  The thought of how everything was different now made him want to yell.

He was chosen for the school play solely (he suspected) because of the accident.  In fact, he believed that his teacher, Ms. Claiborne, chose this particular play because of the one character confined to a wheelchair – giving Benny,  a senior, something to do.  But Benny surprised them with his acting talent.  He knew he was good, and wanted the audience to focus on his performance and, maybe, forget to pity him.

He called to the back of the auditorium objecting, again, to the last line of the play.  Ms. Claiborne’s fiancé, an English professor at a nearby college, had written the play, but nobody especially liked it.  The main character, pretentious in his wheelchair, spoke words from a Tennyson poem:  “The life that almost dies in me, That dies not, but endures the pain, And slowly forms the firmer mind.” These lines made Benny cringe. He had complained and tried to change them several times.

“Benny, Benny.  You have got to say the lines as written.”  Ms. Claiborne was tall and skinny and she came forward to scold him.  Benny’s eyes, at the level of her waist, focused on her bony elbows and childlike breasts.

“But I feel stupid saying them,” Benny said. “I don’t even believe he would say that. It sounds fake.”

“Nevertheless,” Ms. Claiborne said. Benny had never heard anyone actually say, “Nevertheless.”

During the last few rehearsals he practiced the line that Ms. Claiborne demanded, using different inflections, trying for a comfort zone; but he knew that on the night of the play he would think of something different.

The play would be performed three times — once on Friday night, once Saturday night, and a matinee on Sunday.  Ms. Claiborne’s fiancé sometimes showed up for rehearsals, and when he was there, Benny said the lines as they were written; on other nights he experimented, and Ms. Claiborne fought him at every turn.

“No, no, no – your expressions are all wrong, Benny,” Ms. Claiborne waved her arms around expansively from the back of the auditorium.

“I’ll try it again,” Benny told her.  Everyone knew Ms. Claiborne’s shortcomings, but Benny liked her anyway.  He liked her as he liked any other teacher — not seeing them as real people – but just part of the school day.  With the next attempt, Benny’s expression became appropriately gracious, speaking the lines softly and with precise intonation.  Ms. Claiborne was pleased.  He looked noble, she said.

Benny turned his wheelchair so that it was facing the girl at the theater’s sink.  Her back was to him, so he looked toward the boy on the sofa.  Even though they were all teenagers, they played characters almost thirty years old.  One boy played an old man, a grandfather.  Benny played a man, twenty-seven, who had not walked in eighteen years.  The girl at the sink was the one Benny had dated last year.  For a while, they were in love.  The boy on the sofa was her steady now.  Neither looked at Benny.

Before the accident Benny could run six miles or so with ease. Only two years ago year he had been a star on the track team, winning two trophies his sophomore year.  He ran everywhere.  Nothing could slow him down.  The accident defined Benny now and he struggled not to live inside that definition. At night, sometimes, Benny heard his parents arguing about him.  His mother insisted that Benny could do almost anything, and his father charged her with being unrealistic.

“Why not, Jack?  Why can’t he become a lawyer, or anything else?” Carolyn asked.

“Hell, Carolyn.  We can’t let him get his hopes too high.”

“He still comes to watch you in court,” Carolyn said.  “He still wants to be a lawyer.”

“I just don’t want to pretend like nothing will be different.”

In a way Jack was right.  Carolyn did want to pretend that Benny could do anything he could do before.  But over the last year, as they waited to see if his legs might have a whisper of tingling, she had settled into a complacence:  Benny could no longer run, or drive a car, or even stand in line.

It was Carolyn who had been driving that day.

                                                                                                    

                                                                      II.

On the day of the accident Benny’s father had waited for them at a downtown restaurant.  He did not like to be kept waiting.  Benny and his mother had been arguing, even before they got into the car.  She kept saying they were going to be late.  They argued about whose fault that was and how she would explain their lateness to his father.

Carolyn sped through a yellow light, but slowed at the stop sign near the restaurant.  She came to a slow stop, but pulled out too quickly as a gray Pontiac came fast, hitting them on Benny’s side.  Benny had seen the gray car in his peripheral vision, and he even remembered seeing his mother glance at her round-faced Timex watch.  He remembered as if he had seen it in a movie. Then, the door metal slammed hard against him and Benny’s legs broke like two sticks.  He still believed he heard them break before he passed out.  He did not remember the jaws-of-life that extracted his body from the car; or how, when his body was lifted into the air, he looked like a streak of rags against the night sky, his legs already lifeless.  Nor did he remember the tenor of his mother’s screams — how no one could stop her until she was sedated at the hospital.

The man driving the Pontiac was going fast.  He was charged with speeding, and took the blame; but for the last year Carolyn’s face had carried a burden of guilt; her veins ran cold knowing that moment when she looked at her watch, her foot on the gas.  She hovered day and night around Benny’s hospital bed, and would not leave him alone.

Benny had just turned sixteen.

“We’ll wait to see if he begins to feel a small tingling, then we can have some hope,” the doctor had said.  In the beginning, doctors described Benny’s return to consciousness amazing.  He was lucky to be alive, they said. So they hoped and waited past Thanksgiving, past Christmas.  Then one day they pronounced Benny a paraplegic.  Wrote it on a chart.  A word that made the parents shiver, and Benny turned silent for months.  His friends came by, but Benny wouldn’t talk to them.  He closed himself off and  ate meals in his room, watching reruns.  His mother urged him to come out, and Benny yelled for her to “Leave me alone.”  His father helped him dress in the morning and at bedtime, helped him with his bath; but Benny resented the presence of his father and barely spoke as they went through these daily routines.  Benny did keep up with his studies though; so that when he went back to school he would graduate with his class.

After returning to school in February, his friends, most of them, continued to include him in clubs or after-school activities. Some felt uncomfortable and avoided him, but his best friend, Charlie, drove to his house with the radio blaring to take Benny to school and to parties, throwing the wheelchair into the trunk, as if this were no trouble at all.  He brought cans of cold beer, so they could drink the way they used to do.

For the last two weeks Benny had asked Charlie to drive him to the courthouse after school, because he wanted to watch a trial that had been in the news.  The courthouse was packed, and on some days an angry mob gathered outside; but each afternoon Benny rolled his chair into the back of the courtroom and watched his father, a prominent judge in town, try a case that involved a brutal murder.

The newspapers had been full of reports about the arrest of Gerald Early.  Mr. Early had strangled a five-year-old girl in her backyard.  He admitted everything:  he had climbed over a fence, talking to the girl while she played in the sandbox.  Just moments before he climbed over, Lily had been on her swing, singing a song she had learned in school.  She was friendly and unafraid, and when he asked her to sing it for him again, she performed her song swinging up in a small arc.  She had seen this man before in the grocery store and felt that he was someone she knew.  She recognized his face.

Lily was found behind a tree with her neck broken, lying at an odd angle, like a doll thrown out into the yard.  Even before the trial, the town talked about giving Gerald Early the death penalty; and, though the defense tried to get a change of venue, it was denied.

“I’m glad this case is almost over,” the Judge said one night at dinner.  “This town has been torn apart by what’s happened here.”

“We think it can never happen in our own community,” said his wife.  Carolyn, though lovely, had a hard-edged face.  She was from Arizona, a Senator’s daughter, and grew up under the attentive eye of the press and a father’s idealism.  “But, Jack, we won’t ever know what kind of life made him become that way.”

“I don’t care,” the Judge argued.  “Some things cannot be excused.”

Carolyn knew the things that could not be excused.  She wore a mask of cheerfulness, but lived in the guilt of what she might have prevented — if not for her distractedness, her hurrying.

Benny still closed himself in his room, but when he got the star role in the school play, he asked his mother to help him with his lines.  She recited the parts of others and watched Benny say the lines like a real actor.

“Where did you learn to act like that?” she asked him.  Today was his mother’s birthday.  She was forty-five, and Benny had given her a scarf.

“This wheelchair taught me,” Benny said.   He wondered what it would feel like to be forty-five, still in a wheelchair.

                                                                    III.

Gerald Early was forty-five.  At first, he denied killing the little girl, but when they put him on the stand, when the district attorney grilled him, he broke down and, in a quiet voice, confessed; but he said he couldn’t remember the actual moment of killing Lily.  Mr. Early had suffered from mental illness as a young man, and had a record of two mildly violent episodes.  He was hospitalized for four years then released into the care of his sister.  He took medication, which his sister monitored, and for eight years he had held a job shelving items at the local grocery store.  People liked him, and never expected such a horrific act.  He had never seriously hurt anyone, until now.

Mr. Early cried on the stand.  He admitted that he had done a terrible, terrible thing.  He said he was sorry, but no one wanted to believe he was sorry.  No one wanted to forgive him. Gerald Early did not seem to care what the jury did to him, and told the judge it didn’t matter if he lived or died.

Benny had been present for much of the trial.  He had heard the closing arguments and when the verdict was announced by the jury that Gerald Early was found guilty, Benny heard his father say the words.  The jury recommended the death sentence.

As Benny waited for his father to leave the courthouse, the Judge lifted his son from the chair into the front seat of his car.  He put the wheelchair into the trunk.  “You cold?” he asked.  Benny had his hands in his pockets.

“Do you believe he deserves the death penalty?” Benny asked.

“He’ll probably end up in a mental hospital,” his father said.  “Either way it’s a life sentence.” Rain fell in big drops and spattered across the windshield.  The drops came so fast that Benny jumped, as though he had heard a loud sound.

“Should I take you home or back to school?  Do you have rehearsal tonight?”

Benny looked at his watch.  “School,” Benny said.  “We have to be there by six o’clock.”

“What about supper?”

“The man who wrote the play is bringing pizza for everybody.”

The Judge leaned forward over the steering wheel and looked up at the sky.  “I hope it won’t rain like this on your opening night.”

“Well,” Benny said.  “All the parents will be there anyway.”

The Judge smiled at his son. “Your mother says you want to change the ending of the play.”

Benny nodded.  “Yeah,” he said. “The man who wrote the play used lines from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” but I’ve found some better lines from that same poem.   Much better.  And another thing,” he said.  “I’m going to do something to change the ending.”

“Change it? How?”

“So people don’t feel so sorry for me at the end.”  He blew breath through his nose to show disgust.  “I’m going to make that different.”

                                                  

                                                         IV.

Gerald Early had stood when the jury sentenced him to death, but he had faltered, sitting down, while the policemen approached to take him away.  His life was finished.  He turned to look at his sister, his eyes like stones.

But in that moment just before the two policemen approached the prisoner, Benny saw Gerald Early’s sister — a young woman, same hair and eyes as Gerald, same shape of face and placement of brows – lean in and hand something to her brother.  Benny, at first, thought she might be handing him a knife, or a gun, but he saw, immediately, that she had given Gerald an orange, a whole orange. At first, no one else seemed to notice, so Benny thought maybe he had imagined it.

The sister had come to the trial every day.  Anyone could see that she loved Gerald, never seeing him as a monster, but sitting, each day, as close as she could  to the defendant’s table.  On the day when her brother was found guilty, she offered him this gift as if it were something she could not bear for him not to have.  They could have been anywhere.  This simple offering seemed to resist the sharp truth of what had been handed down, of what Gerald had done.

As Gerald took the orange he seemed like a regular person, and Benny recognized something strong in this sister —  a woman who knew the meaning of a gift that offered, if not forgiveness, at least a love that went too far back to forget.

When one of the policemen saw the sister lean in, he knocked Early’s hand down hard and the orange rolled under a chair.  The sister began to cry.  As another policeman lifted the orange, he inspected it and handed  it to the young woman.  She reached forward to offer it again to Gerald.

The policeman had not yet cuffed Gerald, but turned to the Judge who was watching them.  The Judge nodded; so the policeman said, “Take it.  Hell, just take it.”

Gerald took the orange and held it like a cherished, hopeful thing.  He rolled it around with such gentleness that Benny imagined it shimmering, like light in the palm of his hand.                                                         

After that day in court, Benny dreamed of oranges — acres of them — some in bowls or barrels, boatloads of them on the river.  Once he dreamed of an orange stuck on the ends of his own fingers — even becoming his fingers and toes.  He, too, wanted to feel like a regular person.  He asked his mother to pack an orange every day in his lunch; but for the first few days he could not peel it, could not bring himself to break the bright skin.  He rolled the orange in his hand.  He wanted to see it glow again, to glisten with fresh life.

Finally he just put the oranges in his locker, until after a week they began to rot, turn black, sink in on themselves.  He kept thinking they might come back whole.  One morning he opened his locker and they were gone.  Someone had cleaned them out.                                                 

                                                                    V.

 On the play’s opening night, it rained.  His father drove him to the school auditorium.  Thunder and lightning split the heavens and rain poured down in sheets. When they reached the auditorium, the Judge grabbed his umbrella from the back seat.  He took the wheelchair out of the trunk and lifted his son into it.  Rain soaked their clothes, and water ran down the Judge’s face.  “Take the umbrella,” he said, as he pushed the chair into the school — his head above the umbrella’s fabric.

“You’ll need it,” Benny said.  He could not see his father’s face or his shoulders hunched under the downpour; he could see only the bottom of his raincoat flapping beside the wheel of the chair. But when his father turned to leave, when he got into the car, Benny saw him sit for a long moment before starting the ignition, saw him lean against the steering wheel, his head pushed forward, as though he were already speeding away.

Benny put the umbrella across his legs, as water dripped puddles onto the floor.  He was always aware, now, of his lack of height in the world.  He used to be tall and speak to others face to face; now he was always looking up or seeing others lean down toward him.  Now he was aware of belt buckles and shirt-tails, and in the school hallway he felt surrounded by trees walking.  He could never rise up.

Tonight, Benny had five oranges tucked into the side pouches of his wheelchair.

Ms. Claiborne scurried around backstage trying to put costumes in order. She urged people to get dressed, and issued last minute warnings, citing mistakes that she had noticed in dress rehearsal the night before.  When she saw Benny dripping wet in the wheelchair she yelled.  “Get a towel, someone. Quick.  Help me get Benny ready.  His jacket is wet.  Find another one for him.”

“This one’s fine,” Benny said.

Ms. Claiborne leaned down close to Benny’s face.  Too close.  Her breath smelled stale and garlicky, and he tried not to show distaste. “Are you okay?” she asked.  “Are you ready for this?”

“I will be, if you can take this umbrella.” He handed her his father’s umbrella, and in that moment thought of handing over everything: the night’s performance, the play, the accident, all five oranges stuffed into side pockets of his wheelchair – everything.

Ms. Claiborne took the umbrella, not recognizing that something was being offered.  She threw it to one side of the stage.  Benny pressed his hands around the oranges stuffed in the side pockets.  He found a small sack backstage and put the oranges into it.  He would offer them to someone on stage.

 

                                                                      VI.

 During the play the audience grew very quiet, a sign that they were listening, maybe enthralled.  No one even coughed. By the second act, the applause was loud, and most of the talk was about Benny’s performance.  He was marvelous.  People were amazed — especially the Judge.

At the end of the play Benny’s character entered the stage from the side, the wheelchair coming from a place that was, supposedly, the porch.  He held the sack on his lap.  Four people on stage were engaged in bantering conversation, saying their lines perfectly; but when Benny entered, a little before cue, they stopped.  Someone said the line that called his character’s name and Benny said:  “He is not here; but far away.”

Then he handed the sack out towards one girl who reached to take it. “I know that this is life,” he said.  Everyone looked puzzled, then the sack broke and oranges rolled onto the stage floor and under Benny’s wheelchair.  The audience laughed, nervously.

One person bent to pick up an orange — not knowing what might come next.  Then another one kneeled to reach under the wheelchair.  Soon they were all kneeling around the metal wheels of his chair, reaching beneath it for an orange.

And for a moment they appeared to be bowing to Benny, so that Benny’s head rose up higher than the others.  The actors, still on the floor, held up their oranges, mystified about what had happened. They were smiling, but didn’t know why.  And the unpredictable turn that had broken through came down on the audience — like a large floodlight shining down, or the whole moon appearing, suddenly, from behind a cloud.  Nobody knew what they were supposed to feel.

At that same moment, Benny raised his arms, becoming even taller, as if he were about to stand up.  He had a look of both surprise and great ceremony and he quoted randomly from lines of the Tennyson poem – making it present tense:  The noise of life begins. Each morning wakes the will and cries.  He spoke loudly, and the audience saw a shift in Benny’s face — a look that would not be eclipsed.  They smiled. “Don’t be the fool of loss.” he said. They clapped.  The applause grew louder, and Benny would have struggled to find words for feelings so unexpected.

And the audience, caught up in the moment, saw their own lives in a fresh light:  the way someone leaves a theatre and believes again, for a while, in the possibility of change.  By then, not even Ms. Claiborne wanted to quibble about the correctness of the ending.

Benny received three curtain calls, and the next two performances were sold out.  But the last moment of the play was never as good as it was on that first night.  The ending had not been part of the play, but the play had been made by that moment.  Afterwards, the Judge and his wife beamed, preening before their friends in the lobby of the school’s auditorium.

They took Benny home, saying they would come again on Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon.  They were full of praise as they lifted him into bed and helped him remove his clothes.  Benny didn’t want his mother to be in the room when he was undressing, so she told him goodnight and left while his father helped pull off his pants.

“Did you really think I was good?” Benny unbuttoned his shirt and reached for his pajamas.

“You were.  You were extremely good,” the Judge said.

“You know where I got the idea for the oranges, don’t you?”

“From Gerald Early.”  His father laughed — a real laugh, but he didn’t understand.  “I just want to say,” he said.  “I want to tell you how proud we were. The whole town saw you tonight and well, I mean, you were a star.”  He leaned over the bed to pull up the covers.

“You don’t have to help me,” Benny said.  “I can do it.” He pushed up and scooted to the middle of the bed, dragging his legs and pulling the covers up to his chest. He felt grateful for the strength in his arms. The Judge turned out the light.

Benny’s mother was already undressed and she called goodnight to him.  She swirled around and the hem of her gown made a circle at her feet. “He was good,” she said.  But, even in this moment, blame hung like a wrap on her shoulders. She laid her robe at the foot of the bed.

“Yes.  I thought people would never stop clapping.”  The Judge could not stop smiling.

 

                              VII.

 In his room Benny lay awake, his pride swelling, his whole heart an orange.  He touched his heart and imagined it sectioned, unbroken.  He imagined it beating, and he believed that what he had thought was gone was not gone completely.  He anticipated the next evening when he would be on stage again.

After two hours, Carolyn lifted herself from her bed and went to Benny’s room, her feet slippered in bedroom shoes.  She touched his head gently, pushing her fingers through his hair. Benny knew she was there and he knew why.  He could hear her sobbing; a shadow, shapeless, beside him.  She sat on the edge of his bed, and he could barely feel her weight on the mattress.  He smelled the moist, warm odor of her body. The window was open, and a slight wind blew the hem of her robe, moving like it was water.

He was not surprised that his mother was there.  She said nothing, but sat as Benny slept.  Each time he woke, she was still there in the dark room, like a small soul perched on the rim of the world. Finally, just as day began to break, Benny, without turning to face her, said, “Nobody blames you, you know.” His voice filled the room. “It wasn’t your fault.”

His mother shivered, as if an electric current had gone through her body. A small sound escaped her throat, not a sigh but a tiny cry, a mewing.  She touched his back, keeping her hand there and sitting a while longer until, just before the sun rose, he felt her weight leave the bed.

Benny sat up, propped himself against the headboard, and faced the window.  Though his life was the same, he felt different nowBeing in the play had brought girls back into his life.  They stopped to talk to him, feeling comfortable, laughing at something he said.  One night after play practice, the brunette who worked with scenery, kissed his cheek and whispered his name.

 He watched the sun ease itself up over the line of horizon and felt the delight of a long wide yawn. Most mornings he watched the day begin with a bruise of color; but today he felt warmth from the sweep of sunlight, flying over his desk like a bright bird.  Then, at the sound of the clock’s  ticking, Benny turned his body to push his feet onto the floor.  He reached for his pants and t-shirt, which he was able to put on after several tries.  He did not stop and rest, but persisted until his muscular arms pulled his body into the wheelchair.  There he sat, saturated with dreams that felt limitless, and a reality that felt final.  He lingered, a moment longer, in the pale juice of morning and tried to think of some new line to shout to the outside world.

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One Response to Oranges

  1. Nancy Fischer says:

    Wow! I am mesmerized! A lovely story.
    Thank you

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