He had only the one job: cart crates of fruit from their harvest to their convoy. One job, one rule: the best fruit must be picked. He got a break for lunch and a break near dinner. No one knew where he went when he wasn’t around. No one knew much about him at all.
Everyone in the area lived in houses of similar shades of white. The same lines, the same roofs, the same grass. People had found their true love and their true family and their happily ever after. There was life where the lines got wilder, the grass, the roofs. That’s where the orchards and fields sprang back to reclaim nature’s form, battened down into planks and fireplaces past the demarcated line. At a certain point, the crickets knew where it was safe to go, and announced the fact loudly most nights.
When he arrived, the boy was little more than malnourished. His chest was sunken down to the navel, dipping inwards as if in protest of its prickly mistreatment. But he had been promised a square meal and decent pay, and there were no better offers. The field was split—coffee or fruit—and he made his choice simply because he couldn’t stand the smell of the thing, because he hated being reminded of coffee cherries.
He napped under the varied trees, resting beneath the ripening fruits. When he dreamed—if he did dream—it concerned drops of memory, like handfuls of banked pebbles. His mother yelling, barefoot in the kitchen as the cheap fan droned on. The plastic chairs in the lawn that sunk down into wet grass. The flight of birds, and whether or not they could reach the bottom of the lake when they dove down. Rarely, he dreamed of summertime, of creamsicle dripping down his sticky palm. The lips of the girl ahead of him. The sound of the bulwark rushes when the sun set.
On the makeshift porch at the head of the fields, he sat with his co-workers as they dealt hands through the night. He drank brandy with a splash of bruised orange, plucked from a by-promised crate. One by one, he fed himself bits of chocolate. He wanted a singular and secure love. But you don’t find that in the trees. You don’t find that much of anywhere until it finds you.
They worked together in the field as they filled out into their final body, both muscular and lean. That night among the cards and the music, she took the glass of oranges and brandy away, handed him some bunched tinfoil full of food, sat next to him. She had pierced ears and wore a necklace with the wrong name. She tapped her foot along to the rhythm of the slower dancers.
He was tired of dreaming, so he stopped napping on breaks; together they would take turns tossing a crushed soda can back and forth under the fronds. He told her how he could always see cars passing by his window when he was a child. She said she took the best of the imperfect fruit and sold it on the side of the road on weekends. They both had large dark eyes. Her jeans were slightly out of date.
What can you call love? Neither knew for sure, so it took on the meaning of missing the other when they weren’t around. Simple as that.
She was the only one to see where he lived, a lone mattress among a carpeted, vacuous nothing. But it had a roof, and a lock on the door. The light shone on her bare stomach in slants and he counted her ribs, poking her in the soft spaces between, called her cherry. They shared most things, and they were happy, and if that’s not love then little else qualifies.
The owner of the fruit pickers was a fly. Not really a fly, you understand, but a buzzing little entity, everywhere at once and out of reach to swat at. He would stand at the head of the fields in sunglasses, and everyone called him the Fascist, despite not truly grasping the meaning of word. He always carried a can of soda with a colorful straw.
The Fascist had little sway on the fields that weren’t his own, love being one of them. He hated the sight of the lover and his girl, stomach burning away with the feeling akin to remoulade and antacids. He knew the name around her neck was wrong.
Whenever the lover found a spare flower in his work, he would take it to her. On the bed, in the slants, she rested the red petals in her belly button and despite everything it continued to bloom there, without root. At her brother’s christening he wore his cleanest shirt and she leaned over and took his hand. While her family danced, she sat on his lap in a white plastic chair and told him that they would die on this planet. He traced the inside of her earring and said so does everything else.
She pasted pictures from magazines onto his walls to introduce some color. He began saving the better fruit for her, substituting perfection for something slightly less. They filled his windowsill with plants, for color, for the clearer air. They held hands at the grocery store, among the chilled milk and the fruit they had picked and the plastic bags. She never let him buy cans of soda, even when it was hot; even when he was thirsty.
He was handing her an immaculate orange when they were discovered, and the perfectly good fruit was left to rot on the earth as they were taken to the Fascist to be fired in an air-conditioned trailer. The soda can beaded in the cool air; all he could see were the droplets of sweat, all he could hear was the sound of the fizz as the Fascist chastised him for ruining his life for a woman. His girl remained silent, thumbing at the gold name around her neck; he wanted to hold her hand, call her cherry.
That night, they went past the fields, past the orchards and the neat lines, and into the woods. She had a handful of dirt, told him she could get their jobs back. Beneath the moon, one by one, she fed him bits of earth from her palm until it was empty; she pressed it to his head, held him as she scratched at his chest until he bled. She took out an earring and buried it beneath the ground.
She sat on his lap. You never knew my name, she said, twirling a lock of his hair. “You never asked.”
She had a bruised orange in her other hand and a flower in her navel. He blinked, trying to get the juice from his eyes. He wasn’t going to fight her, but he didn’t want to die.
He woke face down on his mattress, alone with magazine clippings and the carpet. A red flower sat in his navel. When he showered, crusts of dried blood flaked off his back. He could barely keep himself standing, swaying under the spray. Wet and undressed, he fell back into bed.
He woke face down on his mattress, alone with magazine clippings and the carpet. He turned the shower on, but the mat was already wet. It was past time to go to work; starting so late, his good shirt was creased but it would have to do.
When he arrived, he was taken but the arm and ushered into the air-conditioned trailer. He waited alone, listening to the fizz of the open can as it sweat onto the desk. As the sun crested the sky, slid through the slants of the blinds on the windows, he thought that perhaps it was an overcast day since it didn’t seem to be shining so brightly. He was waiting, waiting, until the hum of the conditioning unit and the soda and the heat waves all joined together in raucous spirit. The door opened, men coming in.
What are you doing, They asked him.
Waiting, he said. Waiting for the boss, he said, because he knew the Fascist didn’t know they all called him that.
You’re on the wrong side of the desk, They said. We need our schedules for the week.
He hadn’t realized the straw was in his mouth, the soda sucking up through his throat. Hadn’t realized there was reason the room was dark; hadn’t realized he had sunglasses on.
He shoved through the throng of men, deeper than they seemed, and pushed them aside while they asked for the day’s work. He ran, pulling at the sunglasses, throwing away the can, but they always came back right where they were.
When he reached the wood, there was no one waiting for him. He dug into the disturbed earth with a rabid hand, pulled out a lone earring.
I told you, her voice said behind him, I told you, and you never asked.
He turned around, earring in his palm. She was holding a glass, a glass of brandy with bits of floating cherries—coffee cherries.
You know I hate those things, he told her.
Have you ever even had one, she replied.
Will it hurt?
It won’t hurt.
How do you know?
He let her feed him bits of cherry, one by one, until it was gone and he drank the liquid down.
You don’t have to go back.
Will you tell me your name if I do? The right one this time.
She took the earring from his palm, pierced his ear with the sharp point.
It doesn’t matter, she said. It’s yours now, anyways.
He looked down at the gold necklace around his neck.
I suppose it is. What does that mean, he asked, but he already knew the answer.
She touches his new name. I’ll be with you.
How will I know?
When they break for dinner and there’s music. You’ll know.
She took his hand and he knew. Only one job, one rule: the best fruit must be picked.