Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Love Orange

When I was in 7th grade, I read a short story called The Love Orange. I found it in the large literature book loaned to each student at the beginning of the year for our English class. This particular story wasn't an assigned reading; I just happened to be (and still am) an avid reader, so I happened upon this story one night at home and ended up reading it. There were two stories I remember reading that year -- Where the Red Fern Grows (one of the best) and The Love Orange. The latter was a story that stuck with me to this day, and I have never been able to find it until now. It's not necessarily the most uplifting work of literature I've ever read, but it's certainly one of the best. In an effort to keep track of this story so that I can go back and read it as often as I'd like, I figured I would post it here for all of you to read as well. In my opinion, it's something everyone should read at least once.

The Love Orange by Oliver Senior

"Somewhere between the repetition of Sunday school lessons and the broken doll which the lady sent me one Christmas, I lost what it was to be happy. I didn't know it then even though in dreams I would lie with my face broken like the doll's in the pink tissue of a shoebox coffin. For I was at the age where no one asked me for commitment and I had a phrase which I used like a talisman. When strangers came or lightening flashed, I would lie in the dust under my grandfather's vast bed and hug the dog, whispering "our worlds wait outside" and be happy.

Once I set out to find the worlds outside, the horizon was wide and the rim of the far mountains beckoned. I was happy when they found me in time for bed and a warm supper, for the skies, I discovered, were the same shade of china blue as the one intact eye of the doll. "Experience can wait," I whispered to the dog, "death too".

I knew all about death then because in dreams I had been there. I also knew a great deal about love. Love, I thought, was like an orange, a fixed and sharply defined amount, limited, finite. Each person had this amount of love to distribute as they may. If one had many people to love, then the segments for each person would be smaller and eventually love, like patience, would be exhausted. That is why I preferred to live with my grandparents. Since they had fewer people to love than my parents, my portion of their love-orange would be larger.

My own love-orange I jealously guarded. Whenever I thought of love, I could feel it in my hand, large and round and brightly colored, intact and spotless. I had moments of indecision when I wanted to distribute the orange, but each time I would grow afraid of the audacity of such commitment. Sometimes, in a moment of rare passion, I would extend the orange to the dog or to my grandmother but would quickly withdraw my hand each time. For without looking, I would feel in its place the broken doll crawling into my hand and nestling there and I would run into the garden and be sick. I would see its face as it lay in the pink tissue of a shoe box tied with ribbons beside the stocking handing on the bedpost and I would clutch my orange tighter, thinking that I had better save it for the day when occasions like this would arise again and I would need the entire orange to overcome the feelings which arose each time I thought of the doll.

I could not let my grandmother know about my being sick because she never understood about the doll. For years I had dreamed of exchanging homemade dolls with button eyes and ink faces for a plaster doll with blue eyes and limbs that moved. All that December I haunted my grandmother's clothes closet until beneath the dresses I discovered the box smelling faintly of camphor and without looking I knew that it came from Miss Evangeline's toy shop and that it would therefore be a marvel. But the doll beside the Christmas stocking, huge in a billowing dress and petticoats, had half a face and a finger missing. "It can be mended," my grandmother said, "I can make it as good as new. Why throw away a good thing?"

But I could no longer hear. I could no longer see for the one china blue eye and the missing finger that obscured my vision. And after that I never opened a box again and I never waited up for Christmas. And although I buried the bow beneath the allamanda tree, the doll rose up again and again, in my throat, like a sickness to be got rid of from the body, and I felt as if I too were half a person who could lay down in the shoebox and sleep forever. But on awakening for these moments, I would find safely clutched in my hands the orange, conjured up from some deep part of myself, and I would hug the dog saying, "our worlds wait outside."

That summer I saw more clearly the world that awaited. It was filled with many deaths that seemed to ties all the strands of my life together and which bore some oblique relationship to both the orange and the doll.

The first to die was a friend of my grandparents who lived nearby. I sometimes played with her grandchildren at her house when I was allowed to, but each time she had appeared only as a phantom, come on the scene silently, her feet shod in cotton stockings rolled down to her ankles, thrust into a pair of her son's broken down slippers. In all the years I had known her, I had never heard her say anything but whisper softly; her whole presence was a whisper. She seemed to appear from the cracks of the house, the ceiling, anywhere. She made so little noise in her coming, this tiny, delicate, slightly absurd old woman who lived for us only in the secret and mysterious prison of the aged.

When she died it meant nothing to me. I could think then only of my death which I saw nightly in dreams but I could not conceive of her in the flesh, to miss her or to weep tears.

The funeral that afternoon was at 5:00 p.m. on a hot summer's day. My grandmother dressed me all in white and I trailed down the road behind her, my corseted and whaleboned grandmother lumbering from side to side in a black romaine dress so shiny in the sunlight, bobbing over her head a huge black umbrella. My grandfathers stepped high in shiny black shoes and a shiny black suit ahead of her. Bringing up the rear, I skipped lightly on the gravel, clutching in my hand a new, shiny, bright and bouncy red rubber ball. For me, the funeral, any occasion to bet out of the house was a holiday, like breaking suddenly from a dark tunnel into the sunlight where gardens of butterflies waited.
They had dug a grave in the red clay by the side of the road. The house was filled with people. I followed my grandparents and the dead woman's children into the room where they had laid her out, unsmiling, her nostrils stuffed with cotton. I stood in the shadows where no one saw me, filled with the smell of something I had never felt before, like a smell rising from the earth itself which no sunlight, no butterflies, no sweetness could combat.

"Miss Aggie, Miss Aggie," I said silently to the dead old woman and suddenly I knew that if I gave her my orange to take into the unknown with her it would be safe, a secret between me and one who could return no more. I gripped the red ball tightly in my hands and it became transformed into the rough texture of an orange; I tasted it on my tongue, smelled the fragrance. As my grandmother knelt to pray I crept forward and gently placed between Miss Aggie's closed hands the love-orange, smiled because we knew each other and nothing would be able to touch either of us. But as I crept away my grandmother lifted her head from her hands and gasped when she saw the ball. She swiftly retrieved it while the others still prayed and hid it in her voluminous skirt. But when she sent me home, in anger, on the way the love-orange appeared comforting in my hand, and I went into the empty house and crept under my grandfather's bed and dreamt of worlds outside.

The next time I saw with greater clarity the vastness of this world outside, I was asked to visit some new neighbors and read to their son. He was very old, I thought, and he sat in the sunshine all day, his head covered with a calico skull cap. He couldn't see very clearly and my grandmother said he had a brain tumor and would perhaps die. Nevertheless I read to him and worried about all the knowledge that would be lost if he did not live. For every morning he would take down from a shelf a huge atlas and together we would travel the cities of the world to which he had been. I was very happy and the names of these cities secretly rolled off my tongue all day. I wanted very much to give him my orange but held back. I was not yet sure if he were a whole person, if he would not recover and need me less and so the whole orange would be wasted. So I did not tell him about it. And then he went off with his parents to England, for an operation, my grandmother said, and he came back only in ashes held on the plane by his mother. When I went to the church this time there was no coffin, only his mother holding this tiny box which was so like the shoe box of the doll that I was sure there was some connection which I could not grasp but I thought, if they bury this box then the broken doll cannot rise again.

But the doll rose up one more time because soon my grandmother lay dying. My mother had taken me away when she fell too ill and brought me back to my grandmother's house, even darker and more silent now, this one last time. I went into the room where she lay and she held out a weak hand to me, she couldn't speak so she followed me with her eyes and I couldn't bear it.

"Grandma," I said quickly, searching for something to say, something that would save her, "Grandma, you can have my whole orange," and I placed it in the bed beside her hand. But she kept on dying and I knew then that the orange had no potency, that love could not create miracles.

"Orange," my grandmother spoke for the last time trying to make connections that she did not see, "Orange . . . ?" and my mother took me out of the room as my grandmother died.

"At least," my mother said, "at least you could have told hear that you loved her, she waited for it."

"But . . ." I started to say and bit my tongue, for nobody, not then or ever could understand about the orange. And in leaving my grandmother's house, the dark tunnel of my childhood, I slammed the car door hard on my fingers and as my hand closed over the breaking bones, I felt nothing."

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