She’s small, waif-like, this girl/woman who stands by the freeway onramp with her American flag vest and her bags of oranges. Black stockings below that vest. Legs like straws. No. Legs like those sticks they use to stir coffee.
Cars whiz past her outstretched hand to catch the yellow leaving me with a red light. I lean out the window of my car and offer her my uneaten scone. She doesn’t smile, a small hoop through her bottom lip, her words mumbled. “Oranges. Cheap. They’re good.”
“No thanks,” I say, and extend my arm, shaking the napkin-wrapped pastry. “For you. I haven’t taken a bite.”
She backs toward the black-and-white left-turn arrow planted in the cement and glares at me. An impatient horn bleats, the light now green, so I shrug and head down the onramp and into the stream of commuter traffic. Somewhere between Glendale and Burbank, the oranges girl steals into my head, her big eyes, huge charcoal smudges like those kids in the prints my grandmother used to have in her bedroom, no older than fourteen or fifteen.
Then I’m exiting the freeway at Olive and heading for my office where I write food copy: Tangy and Delicious. 100% Fat Free! Like oranges. I slip my key card into the slot for employee parking, the yellow and black arm lifts, thin like her body, and decide to buy some oranges from the girl on the onramp — no matter how much citric acid blisters my mouth.
Women who get divorced at forty and have no children usually adopt cats. I have goldfish instead, less maintenance that way, orange fantails named Flip and Flop, in a twenty-gallon tank. They’re glad when I get home from work and dust their water with flakes. Individuals both, better than cats. Tonight, while I eat my lamb chop, I watch them circle the tiny castle in their bowl and wonder how many oranges that girl on the onramp has to eat before her lips begin to pucker.
The bags are $3.00 per, so the next day I give the girl five bucks. She hands me the oranges and digs for change. I wave her off. She frowns. I toss the heavy bag onto the passenger seat. My car smells like Jamba Juice.
Beyond my little balcony, the sun deepens to coral. I sit at my table and eat a bagel with melted cheese for dinner. Sip some wine. Watch my fish. They’re chubby, yet graceful with bubble lips. I wonder how Flip would feel about a lip ring. If I’d had a daughter, would we have fought over piercings?
The following day, I buy more oranges. Six bucks for two netted bags, no discount. She takes my money and tromps off to peddle her wares to the people behind me, not even a thank-you. Well, I think, that’s it for me, but still I watch her in my rear view mirror and notice the hole in her stocking.
When I get home, I throw the sacks onto the kitchen counter. Now I have a couple of dozen oranges. I turn on Jeopardy. Alex’s voice follows me through the condo, quizzing me with answers. I ask, “Who is Britney Spears?” from the toilet. “What is Oliver?” from the kitchen. I grab an orange, rip off the peel. Eat. Juice runs down my chin. The taste is slightly bitter. Later in bed my tongue worries the sore spots.
Sunday afternoon I visit my mother at her three-stage living facility — independent, assisted, total care. She’s in assisted now that she’s fallen twice and broken her arm and wrist. I bring US magazine and oranges. She wants to talk Angelina Jolie and the selfishness of adopting foreign-born kids when so many American babies have no place to live. I’d rather talk about how Brad Pitt deserted Jennifer Aniston the same day Ian left me. I help my mother work out who at the home deserves her wealth of fruit. She orders me to bring more.
On Monday, the girl isn’t at her spot. The twenty-dollar bill I’ve brought to buy more oranges stays curled in my cup holder. I fret that she’s sick or thrown into juvie and later at work, I find myself pondering milk cartons and wondering why they don’t put pictures of lost kids on them any more. Who is out there to report her missing anyway? Me?
My condo’s 1400 square feet with a large alcove and closet off the entry. The alcove is stacked with boxes. If I get rid of them, there’d be room for a futon. My mother calls to tell me every one at the retirement home wants See’s candy instead of fruit. I feed the fish and turn on Jeopardy. Ask the TV, “What is a sin of omission?”
I dream Brad Pitt leaves Angelina for me and we adopt the onramp oranges girl or we try to adopt her, but then Brad goes and sleeps with her or Britney Spears, or maybe both. I can’t remember.
On Tuesday, the girl is back. I watch as she lifts a bag of oranges into the cab of the truck ahead of me. The signal changes from green to yellow, and the guy in the truck takes off without paying. Asshole. I could make the light too, but I stop instead. Horns blare. I lift the twenty-dollar bill out of its nest. Offer it to the girl. She snatches the money and starts to shove sacks of oranges at me, one after another.
“No. No,” I say. “I’m paying for the truck driver.”
Those dark eyes penetrate mine, her skinny arms relentless until the bags crash to the pavement, break open, oranges rolling and bouncing into the street. A horn shrieks behind me, the light goes green, and I hit the accelerator.
My car lunges forward, plump oranges grinding and smashing under the tires and then I’m yelling “Sorry. Sorry,” as I descend onto the freeway.
Gay Degani has published in journals and anthologies including three editions of The Best of Every Day Fiction. Her stories online can be read at Smokelong Quarterly, Corium, LITnImage, Night Train, and 10Flash, as well as other publications. Pomegranate Stories is a collection of eight stories by Gay. She is the editor of Flash Fiction Chronicles and staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly. She blogs at Words in Place.
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