Bitter Fruit

BY TYRONE JAEGER

 

Morning sickness is a siren warning of natural disaster, but she tells no one. She imagines a seed, like those she spits from the oranges growing in the backyard, where her stepfather yanks his lawnmower to life. He’s recently laid off and practices passive aggression by morning light. From the kitchen, her mother shouts that she’ll be late for school. In the hallway, she pauses at a framed photo: her mother at sixteen in a two-piece at Daytona, proudly displaying a beachball-sized baby bump. She palms the flat surround of her navel and imagines her belly stretched taut. The thought of the weight makes her head swim.

In the car, her mother says, “Eat,” and holds out an orange. The fruit sits cradled between her hands, round with short fingers and square nails bitten to the quick. Her mother’s touch is a golden offering. Sometimes they are the best of friends. She readies herself to confess—easy peasy. She imagines saying, I’m pregnant or I’m in trouble, and the stinging slap to her cheek that she knows would come stops her mouth. Your future, her mother will fume, you’re throwing away your future.  Look at me now and Do you want to spend your life pulling double shifts in a diner? She’s heard it all before, and always she thinks, I was that bump. The bump in the road. The road to ruin.   

Her parents say that she’s always getting herself in situations. She doesn’t want to tell the boy, who would propose in his mud-splattered boots. He would never give her the money to get rid of it. Fuck him and his F150 Crew Cab that he so imaginatively calls the screw cab. She could talk to her ex-boyfriend, the one who works in a chop shop and buys handguns, like the pink thing stashed in her mother’s glove compartment. While her mother makes dinner tonight, she could swipe the keys and steal the gun. Sell it. End the thing on her own. The theft becoming the gift of a future not thrown away.

In front of the school, she gets out of the car, slings her backpack to her shoulder, and waves goodbye to her mother. When the car disappears, she walks away from the brick school buildings. She wanders aimlessly until she sees a shaded bench. Sitting, she grips the orange between her hands. She pushes her thumbs inside, tearing the skin, and squeezes until the juice runs down her fingers. She imagines the orange seeds bursting through the membrane and falling to the dirt. Her fingers sticky and wet, she tries to reassemble the split orange between her palms, as if it were a ball of clay. The weight in her hands makes her head swim. The shade recedes, and the heat and her hunger return. Still, she sits and sits. Birds trill. Police cars wail. Ambulances cry out. Sirens sound from everywhere.


Tyrone Jaeger is the author of the story collection So Many True Believers and the cross-genre novella The Runaway Note. His debut novel, Radio Eldorado, will be published by Braddock Avenue Books in 2020. His writing has appeared in the Oxford American, Southern Humanities Review, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the Porter Fund Literary Prize, and he has been a member of the faculty at Hendrix College since 2008. Born and raised in the Catskill Mountains, Tyrone lives on Beaverfork Lake, Arkansas, with his wife and daughter. Visit his website here.

Image Credit: “Circuitous Blomme,” Malgas Mashego
Read by Julee Jaeger

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