Life Under an Orange Tree

by Ron Van Sweringen


I was born under an orange tree. My father on his knees, hands between my mother’s legs, ready to support me as I arrived on the tide of life. My father had big hands, hard and calloused, a working man’s hands. I held them throughout my life, every chance I got, until in the end they were frail and soft like a woman’s.

My mother was half Seminole Indian, dark and mysterious like the great Everglades Swamp she came from. We lived Indian fashion: no doors or windows in our house. It wasn’t much of a house, two rooms and a small kitchen. Old Cypress wood siding covered the walls and a leaning brick chimney was propped up with wooden supports.

I was twelve years old and my younger brother, Bruin, named after the Florida black bear, was nine. I had been named Riley, in honor of Tim O’Riley, a stout, red-headed Irishman who ran the local farmers’ market. He was easygoing and kind to working folks like us, extending credit until an odd job could pay the debt. He kept a baseball bat behind the cash register, for the occasional passing black snake or any redneck crackers with sticky fingers.

It was a close August morning, I woke up on my pallet in the middle of the living room floor. Bru was still sleeping beside me, naked. He often pulled his underwear off in his sleep. The air was oppressively humid, even for Florida in the summer.

My mother, her black hair pinned up on her head, was already at work, sitting in an old canvas lawn chair under the orange tree out back. She was hand-weaving the intricate designs that Seminole Indians were known for. Once a week my father made the five-mile trip to Fort Pierce, where he left pieces of her hand weaving to be sold in a small shop. Between her handiwork and my father’s odd jobs and seasonal work picking oranges, we managed to get by.

It was 1943 and the war against the Germans and Japanese was still going strong. Bru and I sat on the floor at night listening to the radio, after my father settled in his chair and turned it on. No one in the house was allowed to touch the radio, except my father. Even my mother avoided it.

Bru woke up while I was folding my pallet and he quickly put his underwear on, embarrassed because he was beginning to stiffen up in the mornings. In the kitchen we each got a banana and a piece of toast my mother had fixed with strawberry jam. Enough coffee was left in the old pot for a half cup each with plenty of milk.

Before we left the yard, my mother warned, “Be home early, a bad one is coming.” She swore she could tell by the color of the sky in the morning. However it was she knew, she was never wrong about a storm.

As we opened the gate to the old chain link fence, Buster came charging out from under the porch. He was a black and white mongrel who wandered into the yard one day and never left. He had the run of the house, but preferred to sleep under the porch, on the lookout for rats and snakes.

About halfway down the two-mile dirt road to O’Riley’s Market, the sun began to burn our neck and shoulders. My brother and I wore short-legged overalls with no shirts and, of course, no shoes.

Old Mr. Willburn was coming out of his gate, well shaded under the biggest black umbrella I’d ever seen. My father worked for him on occasion, when he had odd jobs, including digging his wife’s grave in the front yard. Her tombstone stood by the flower garden she worked in every day.

“You boys come by tomorrow morning to weed Alma’s garden and I’ll give you each twenty-five cents.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Willburn, we’ll be here before nine,” I replied with a wide smile. Bru clapped his hands in excitement. “A whole quarter, just for me! Golly!”

My mother had told me to be sure and tell Mr. O’Riley that a bad storm was coming that night.

“Tell your mother I said thanks,” Mr. O’Riley replied, looking up at the sky. “You boys help me bring those crates of tomatoes inside and then unload those watermelons from Mr. Harley’s truck and I’ll take a dollar off your bill. Be sure and tell your mother.”

When we were finished, Mr. O’Riley gave us each an orange soda and a nickel bag of Fritos. Bru and I were happy to work for Mr. O’Riley. At night, when my father found out, he would shake our hands and tell us how proud he was of us. Bru would get tears in his eyes, but I was too old for that stuff.

It was a little after noon when we left the market, plenty early enough to go fishing. We headed for the Marshall canal. It was the widest and deepest canal in the county. One side of it, the Marshall Cattle Ranch, ran for miles. The other side was a large orange grove, the distance between the two, about fifty feet of water.

Fishing in the canal was good, usually plenty of catfish, bluegill perch and crappie. There were also some pretty big gators in that water; hard to see, but there just the same. Brew and I picked a shady spot under a large oak and set about finding our bait. A few worms and beetles came from under turned over logs, enough to last a while

We always carried our hand lines, wrapped on their wooden spools, just the way we bought them in the hardware store for ten cents. They were simple, twenty feet of line, a sinker and hook and a round red and white float.

I fastened a fat white grub on my hook, while Brew worked on a wiggling worm. My throw went out as far as my line would reach into the canal. I had taken the precaution of tying my line around my wrist. Bru, watching me, did the same with his line and then sat down beside me.

We watched the water birds wading in the marsh grass on the other side of the canal, sometimes spearing a frog or small fish. Suddenly Bru’s arm flew out in front of him, the fishing line taunt, biting into the skin on his wrist.

“Aaahhhhhhh,” he screamed in pain, “help me,” as he was pulled headfirst off the bank into the canal. I slid in directly behind him and we both came up standing nearly chest deep in the brown water.

The line tied to Bru’s wrist had suddenly gone slack. I wrapped it three or four times around my hand, while Brew worked frantically to untie it from his wrist, which was now bleeding.

Slowly the slack disappeared on the line and the pull began again. I had never had a fish pull that hard before. I dug my heels in the mud, barely able to hold my own, then the line slackened again and I pulled in a few feet at a time. I was winning.

Bru had scrambled up the muddy bank, screaming at me to hold on. I began a slow backward retreat, each time the line went slack, gaining a few more feet. Finally I made it onto the grassy bank and for the first time saw the brown water swirl at the end of the line. Whatever it was, it was big.

When we finally caught sight of the monster, I could hardly believe the size of the thing pulling and twisting against the line. It was the biggest, ugliest catfish in the world! Bru and I could easily get all four of our hands in its mouth at once.

It took us quite a while to work the fish out of the water and onto the grass. While Bru held the line taunt, I put a hand in each gill and slowly pulled it up the bank. Then we both fell in the grass, rolling and laughing at the capture of our ugly prize.

Getting home was something else. It was over three feet long and weighed near thirty pounds. I went looking for a tree limb to hang it from, while Bru sat in the grass pulling the whiskers and swatting off flies.

We were something to see. Two kids going down the road with a giant catfish hanging from a tree branch balanced on our shoulders. Cars and trucks honked their horns and waved at us as they drove by. We were halfway home, when an old red pick-up truck honked at us and pulled off the road. A tall man in overalls and a straw hat climbed out of the truck.

“Boys, that’s some fish you have there,” he laughed. “Where did you catch it?”

“Caught it in the Marshall Canal,” I boasted, proud of our treasure. Seeing the mud all over us, he chuckled. “Looks like you boys had to go in after it.”

“Yes, sir,” Bru volunteered, “I sure did.”

“Tell you what,” he replied, I’ll give you boys five dollars for that fish.”

“No,” Bru answered, looking at me. “It’s my fish.”

“It’s our fish, Bru,” I corrected him. “Without me, you would have lost it.”

He looked down at the ground and mumbled, “Well maybe.”

“Okay,” I said to the man, “I’ll sell you my share, we can cut it in half.”

“No!” Bru shouted, “don’t cut it in half!”

“Look, Bru,” I said calmly, “tonight we can give the five dollars to Dad. Think about how proud he will be.” Then I added for good measure, “We can’t eat all that fish anyway. It will spoil.”

“Okay,” Bru relented, after thinking about it, “just don’t cut it in half!”

We were sitting on the front porch in our underwear when Dad came down the dusty road. Mother had scrubbed our muddy overalls and they were drying on the line. He took one look at us and said, “What have you two been up to?”

Bru stretched his arm out and opened his palm, releasing five crumpled one dollar bills. “I sold my fish,” he boasted proudly, offering the money to our father.

“And what about you?” my father said looking at me.

“I helped him,” I replied, my face growing red at his attention.

“I thought so,” he smiled. “ This is a lot of money. Are you boys sure you want to give it away?”

“Yes sir,” I replied quickly.

“I guess so,” Bru mumbled.

“I’m proud of you,” my father said, putting a strong hand on each of our shoulders and squeezing until it almost hurt.

Dinner was really good that night, all my favorites, fried chicken legs, mashed potatoes and gravy, fried okra and corn on the cob. Mother said all of her men had worked hard that day and deserved a good meal. Bru and I smiled at each other. She called us men!

After dinner my brother and I settled on the living room floor near Dad’s rocker. We were sleepy from eating too much and as the Kraft Music Hall came on, Bru and I fell asleep. I don’t know how much later it was, when I felt my mother’s hand on my arm, shaking me hard.

“Wake up boys,” she said sharply, “go get into the crawl space under the back porch, hurry up!” Bru looked at me, finding it hard to move.

Grabbing his arm, I pulled him as fast as I could. I knew from my mother’s voice, we were in danger. The wind was racing through the house, lifting the kitchen table off of the floor and slamming it against the old iron cook stove. My father and mother were right behind us, carrying the only suitcase we owned and the radio.

Lightning flashes lit up the back yard as Bru and I went head first into the crawl space. My mother and father were right behind us. Sheets of pounding rain, driven sideways by the wind, began beating against the house.

“Move further back, boys,” my father ordered, “to the center of the house.” We were all huddled together, our heads down in the soft sand. Buster was between Bru and me, keeping up a steady whine. My mother stood a crucifix up in the sand to protect us. Suddenly there was a terrible roaring sound and my father yelled, “Hold on to each other, hold on tight!”

Wet sand stung our faces and it was hard to breath, the wind sucked all the air out of us. I felt Bru move away and I tried to hold on, but it was impossible. All I could do in the blackness was put my head down and hug the ground.

Then it grew strangely quiet. I heard my father calling our names, I answered and waited for Bru, but nothing came.

“Bru, answer me,” my mother called, fear in her voice. Still there was no answer as we scrambled out from under the house. The rain had pretty much stopped. There was just a kind of mist on our faces. The roof of our house was gone and the brick chimney was in scattered pieces on the ground. My mother ran through the house calling for Bru.

When it became clear that my brother was not there, my father turned to me. “Go toward Mr. Wilson’s house and look for your brother. Be strong.”

I had never seen anything like it before. Trees were down everywhere, many with all of their leaves stripped off. Only foundations were left where some houses had been. Houses that I had looked at all my life.

I called Bru’s name until my throat hurt. I could hear sirens in the distance and soon there were people everywhere. Mr. Wilson’s house and some others along the road were fine. Mr. Wilson was on the front porch and came down the steps to meet me.

“Have you seen Bru?” I blurted out to the old man.

“No Riley, I haven’t seen him,” he replied, his hands out in the air and a confused look on his face.

When I got back to our house, my mother was sitting on the porch steps crying. I had never seen her cry before. “No one has found him yet,” she said softly, tears running down her cheeks. I sank down on the wet grass, sick at my stomach. For the first time I realized that Bru might be dead.

My father came back into the yard sometime later that night, looking very tired. He sat down next to my mother and put his arm around her shoulder. “Don’t give up, mother” he said. “He’s a tough little boy.”

It was just past midnight when a black Model T drove up in front of our house and blew the horn. Mr. Baker got out, standing on the front walk. “Mr. Jones,” he said as my father appeared in the doorway, “how many times have I asked you to keep your boys away from my hogs?”

My father’s face looked blank. Then Mr. Barker opened the door of the Model T and there was Bru, slumped down in the front seat. He had a whopper of a black eye, a bandage around his forehead and when he smiled, a missing front tooth.

“Oh, thank God!” my mother cried, embracing Mr. Barker.

“That boy is smart,” Mr. Barker said, shaking my father’s hand. “When I found him, he was wedged in between Bertha and Beatrice, my prize sows.”

“I’m very grateful to you, sir,” my father replied, tears in his eyes.

An hour later, Bru and I were snuggled up on a roll-away cot on Mrs. Smith’s screened in front porch. We lay close together facing each other when Bru started giggling. “Guess what?” he said whispering. “I got to feel old Bertha’s tits.”


Copyright © 2010 by Ron Van Sweringen

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