WITHERED ORANGE TREE

Stealing_Innocence____by_Villenueve

by Benjamin Alvarado

He was in bed staring at the ceiling when I opened the door. He crossed his arms over his chest as I sat on the edge of the bed. I ran my fingers along his brown hair. He would not look at me.

His summer school teacher notified all parents that a stomach virus was making many of Juanito’s classmates ill. I called the school to tell them that Juanito would not be attending due to the virus and then I called my employer to report my tardiness.

            “What is the matter, Juanito? Sofia came to look for you. When I saw that you were staying in bed I called the school. Does your stomach hurt?”

            His face was pale and his eyes glassy. He grimaced. “I am fine, Papi.”

            “Did you not have a good time last night? Was it a boring film?”

             He lay on his side to give me his back. “I don’t remember, Papi.”

            “Would you like for me to rent it again for you? We can watch it together this time.”

            “No.”

            “Would you like the television on?”

            He shook his head.

            I stood by the door and watched him. Even during sickness it was uncommon for him to stay late in bed, especially on those summer days when he and Sofia, the seven-year-old neighbor, had become close friends. He was a brave boy who sheltered Sofia from the boys who made fun of her thick glasses and her weight and she loved him like a brother. He turned his face briefly to see me and his eyes glistened in a union of shame and fear. I had never seen fear in his eyes nor had I seen him cry since he was three; even when a boy twice his size postured to fight him or when he was stung by a swarm of bees.

He raised his knees all the way up to his chest and embraced himself tightly. The windows were open to the view of a junked pickup truck rammed into a withered orange tree that partially shaded the hood and a big pile of wood in the neighbor’s backyard. The wind was warm and gentle.

            I went to the kitchen to prepare a Manzanilla tea. As I poured a teaspoon of sugar into the tea I heard a knock on the door. Through the peephole I saw Arnulfo, my neighbor, sweating under his work cap. He was a loud pudgy, dark man with two small, black spots right above his upper lip for a mustache.

            “Are you busy, Juan?”

            “No.”

            “I’d like for you to see something.” He started away. “Come, come, you have to see this. Plus I need your help.”

            I followed him to his backyard. His father-in-law, who lived in a shed against the south wall of the house, sat inside Arnulfo’s junked truck and ate an orange, slowly spitting out the seeds into the plastic trash can next to the truck. The old man held on to the steering wheel and made roaring sounds.

            “How is the old man?” I asked. “He should be in a home.”

            “Dirtier and crazier than ever. Erminia says it’s not Mexican tradition to put him in a nursing home, but I don’t care, he sleeps outside. Crazy, old fuck.”

 “I can’t be away too long. Juanito is sick.”

            “I think Sofia has the virus too. They are in the same classroom, but she looks better. I won’t take much of your time, Juan. Have you had breakfast yet?”

            “Not yet. I was going to have some of Juanito’s tea.”

            “Good.”

            Underneath the tree and next to the hood of the truck were the pile of old wood and a pallet of concrete blocks that were to fabricate the old man’s bedroom in the future.

            “Do you need help carrying that wood out?” I asked.

            “What? No. Look over the wood.” He pointed.

            I took a step forward and saw the back of a white cat. I took another step and stretched my neck out until I saw what the cat was up to. The kitten’s paws with their claws were all that was left in the bloodstained dirt.

            “I’ve never seen anything like this. Why?” I said.

            “Erminia says that this happens when the mother cat does not like their smell. Do you want to know what I think? I think the little bitch is evil.”

            “What are you going to do?”

            “Kill the bitch. She gave birth to them in the cardboard box in the porch. She transferred them over here last night for this. Fucked up, isn’t it? What do you think?”

            “This is messed up. What is Sofia going to say? Isn’t it her cat?”

            He stared at me, displeased. “Do you think that I’m going to run upstairs and tell my little girl that I killed her cat? C’mon, Juan. Here.” He gave me a plastic bag and he put on a pair of gloves. “Hold it open. If I do tell her I’ll tell her that you were involved.” He laughed.

            “Anulfo,” the old man yelled, “get me another orange and get me the damn keys! I have to get this truck away from my tree, Arnulfo! I need my tree! Get me the god dam keys!”

            Arnulfo gave him an orange.

            “Are those oranges safe for him to eat? That tree is withered.”

            “They have never made him sick. Besides, it is the last orange and it was he who planted it. He is a dirty, old fuck anyway. Now open the bag and don’t feel bad. Worse shit is happening in the world.”

            He lifted the cat from it’s spine. It twisted and swung its claws at Arnulfo’s face.

            “Wider, Juan, wider!” he said. “This bitch is going to get me!” He put the cat inside the bag in a hurry. “Hold the bag to the ground, Juan, don’t let the bitch out! She might tear the bag but I’m going to get her before she can escape!”

            He lifted a concrete block and thumped it over the bag. The cat screamed once. It curled inside the bag like a snake. It died.

            “Now what?” I said.

            “Go home, Juan,” he said, narrowing his head, “Sofia is looking down at us from her window.”

            I went up the stairs and into Juanito’s restroom to wash my hands. The clothes he wore the night before were on the floor. I picked them up and saw his underpants; they were soiled. I sat at the foot of the bed. I could see the withered tree and Arnulfo covering the last of the cat’s grave.

            I touched his forehead to feel for fever.

            “Did she eat them all, Papi?”

            “Yes, she did,” I said. “How do you feel?”

            “Fine.” He leaned back against the headboard. “What was left?”

            “Paws and claws. Why do you want to know?”

            “She was at my window last night before taking them to that pile of wood under the tree. Tio Fabian tossed a cup of water at her when she saw us. Tio Fabian hates cats.”

            “And?”

            “I saw what she did at sunrise.”

            “I’m so sorry, Juanito.”

            “It’s okay, Papi, I’m sure that there are worse things happening in the world.”

            “Yes they are.”

            “Do you think they suffered, Papi?”

            “I’m sure they did.”

            “What’s it like to die?”

            “I’ve never had that experience, Juanito, but don’t think about that.”

 I pulled the blanked over him.

“I feel dead.”

“Don’t say that. It’s just a virus. It will go away.”

            “What about the orange tree? Do you think it suffered?”

            “I’m sure it did.”

            “I suffered.”

            “It’s just a virus.”

            “I saw Arnulfo crash the truck into it a long time ago.”

            “Yes, I remember you and I were standing in our backyard when it happened.”

            “Sofia says that her father killed the tree because he hates her grandfather. She says that her grandfather is an evil, evil man. He used to undress her under the tree and do bad things to her. What does she mean, Papi?”

            I swallowed hard. “If I lived with them, Juanito, I could tell you, but I don’t know their personal problems.”

            “Last night I looked out at the tree and remembered how it once was. It was beautiful. It was full of big oranges and green, green leafs.” After a while he asked me, “What about mom?” He stared at her picture. “Did I make her suffer?”

            “No, you made her very happy.”

            “I did not cause the cancer?”

            “Of course not.”

            He looked out the window. “I’ve been thinking about the kittens and the tree all morning,” he said, and then he gazed at Sofia’s bedroom window, where she stood staring down at her cat’s grave next to the withered orange tree. “Sofia showed me the kittens a few days ago when they were born and the mother cat loved them. She licked them as they struggled for her milk. We ate from the orange tree as we watched and pet the kittens. A few oranges were still sweet. Not everything in it had died until Arnulfo picked the last orange for the old man. Why do these things happen, Papi?”

            “We live in a world full of evil,” I said.

            “I don’t like evil, but I am learning about it. There is evil everywhere.”

             “Don’t worry; there is no evil in our family, Juanito. Tio Fabian will come again this afternoon to watch over you when I leave for work. I have missed half of the shift and you know that from all of your uncles he loves you the most.”

            I touched his knee and he cringed.

            He quickly knelt on the bed and pressed his face against my chest. I felt his tears wet the front of my shirt. “Papi, I don’t want Tio Fabian,” he started to sob. “He is evil.”

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