The e-mail said “Come if you want. Mama’s dying. Dave.” Though Tanya had no talent for parting ways, she checked the internet for cheap flights. Three clicks told her she’d find nothing under six hundred dollars on short notice at Easter. Her brother, Dave, knew she was broke, that the university had let her go. He’d hatch a credible lie. She’d be stranded or “Tanya’s on crutches and can’t fly. And besides, Mama,” he’d say with his plangent laugh, “you’re gonna bug us for a long time yet.”
Tanya took the phone off the hook and her tea into the “orangery,” her ironic dig at the rusting, tacked-on sunroom. She sat cross-legged on the wobbly, rattan couch and knocked off an e-mail — “Sorry, Dave. Just can’t.” — and stabbed SEND.
“Off the hook,” she said and curled into a ball, trying to unthink the Mama in her head. But her mother’s hiss was nothing if not perennial.
“Perversion,” Tanya whispered in her mother’s voice, referring to the string of women who’d shared Tanya’s twenties. Sharon and Ingrid had been the sweetest — if not the most complicated — relationship she’d had. “But Claire.” Tanya smiled. “She was a perv.”
“Reprobate,” Tanya whispered, narrowing her eyes into Mama’s scowl — a well-trained mien — and lifting them to the orange tree, the weirdest of all her mother’s inappropriate presents. She had to know an orange tree from Miami wouldn’t thrive in Seattle.
“For your new sunroom. That tree’ll have the loveliest fragrance in spring.” Mama’s voice lingered in the air from ten years ago — and three thousand miles away. “Lovely. You’ll see.”
“If it lives that long,” Tanya had said. “I’m a relationship killer, you know.”
“I know.” Then silence.
“Well, thank you for the tree, dead in the offing.” Tanya had laughed, but Mama had never shared Tanya’s irreverent sense of humor — or her snotty PhD vocabulary.
After a year, when the tree showed no intention of dying, Tanya made a pact with it: “I water you once a week, and you don’t betray me by dying.” For ten years, both kept their bargains. And, yes, the otherwise companionless apartment smelled like love for a few weeks each spring.
“Friday.” Tanya uncurled. “Watering day.”
The dirt drank, thirstier than usual. Tanya wrapped her thumb and pointer around the little trunk — a growth test, a ritual. A hug? As she released, the tree trembled the tiniest bit, and a miniature orange fell to the floor. It rolled under the junk-shop wardrobe in the corner before Tanya, on all fours, could stop it.
Reaching into the three-inch space of dust under the wardrobe, Tanya’s hand wooled up like a fat, gray mitten. The orange peeked out of a crevice in the floor: a tiny sun setting in the dust of a solitary life she’d dragged as far away from her mother as possible without a passport. Tanya stretched toward it, but it was no use. She tried to push the wardrobe out of the way, but she’d never manage it alone.
She gave up, raising her dust-swaddled hand to her face to wipe tears away. She shuddered and sneezed. The room filled with dust.
“Filth,” she rasped in the voice that refused to be unthought as she lunged at the tree. She kicked it and was shocked to see three oranges fall. She grabbed its lank trunk and shook it until rage numbed her arms. When she was done, all its oranges lay on the floor, and her mother was dead. She knew it; she didn’t even have to call.
She bought the damn ticket: seven hundred and fifty dollars — a fortune to pay for a funeral blur. The burial came back in bits on the return flight: piped-in “Amazing Grace,” a woman calling her Tamra, a box of useless tissues. Dave had managed everything, expecting nothing of her except a black dress and silence. She was back home in four days as if nothing had happened. Finally, she thought, her mother’s voice was silenced.
When she opened her apartment door, the fragrance of orange blossoms hit her like her mama’s bitching. The grim tree had kept its bargain after all, so she would keep hers. “Friday,” she said and grabbed the watering can. Then she gathered the oranges — she even managed to raise the setting sun — and taped all ten of them back on.
Christopher Allen, a native Tennessean, lives in Germany and writes creative non-fiction, humor and Southern literature. His work has appeared in Barack H. Obama: Vision to Victory, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People and Gathering: Writers of Williamson County, as well as in the ezines Ruthless Peoples Magazine,Flash Fire 500, Metazen, The Short Humour Site, and Flashshot.