by Melissa Goodrich
Your parents go on a trip overseas and your mother comes back as an orange and your father doesn’t come back at all. The orange drops its small suitcase at the doorway and rolls towards the bedroom, and doesn’t get up, just rolls and rolls in bedsheets.
Inside the suitcase is a long silk scarf and an earring. A teardrop shape, gem-blue. After several weeks of not knowing what to do with it, you stab the earring into the orange, your mother, to spruce her up a bit.
You put your mother in the refrigerator to refresh her. To cool her off. You fuss with your hair in your reflection in the toaster and give your mother a day, two days, until she feels firm and younger and healthy. It is so terribly hard to lose a husband, the orange seems to say, spinning in the sunlight, rolling with difficulty up the stairs. At night, you and your orange watch TV together, and you rub the orange at its nub to comfort it, and you carry it in your hands to bed, and you spritz it with water, and lay it in a cooler, arranging an ice chip beneath its head, and your mother, in this way, sleeps.
“Mom,” you say collegially. She rattles the ice in her cooler. You lean in and kiss her, and seal it tight with a lid.
This is your life for weeks: you go to school, come back, the orange has something waiting on the counter for you: an egg or some cheese or a pear.
You wonder what oranges eat, but it doesn’t seem to matter to your orange, who has worked all day to roll open the photo album. She has rolled across an image of the three of you—the old you—at the beach. You’re crawling resolutely toward the sand, your butt to the camera, a wave about to crash into your face. Your mother stands in a two-piece, her back arched, watching you. The orange nestles securely on the neck of her old body and you crook your head, recognizing you.
If your name were a flower, Anna George, you’d be the stab of mint growing so hardy you’d crack the pot you’d grown in.
Months pass by and a silence is lodged in you like a log. You roll your own cigarettes like your father rolled, and the sounds of wax paper is your new alphabet, phonetic. You drag the living room rocker out to the back porch and smoke and watch the cattails swing. You’re quiet. There isn’t any pressure building. You eat hardboiled eggs so slowly, taking your time unpacking the shell, dropping it on the gravel on your way out the house, cracking it with your shoe. They say to know what a girl looks like when she grows up, check out her mother.
Your mother’s in a basket now, arranged among apples and bananas and pears. Your mother spends her fridge hours in the egg carton or on top a block of hard white cheese. Your mother spends her nights rolling from one side of the house to the other, then thumping on your door so quietly. Like a socked foot.
If you were a type of hazard you’d be water and deep.
You’re sixteen now, you know. Wrap your arm around that.
You wake up in April, Anna George, and it’s the kind of pre-dawn that’s smothered in fog, low slung, unholstered, so the trees in the yard look like handprints on glass. You could walk down the driveway all mapless. You could be Girl Like Disappeared Ink. In the bathroom you weightyourself (120) and then your mother (1). You shower and French braid your hair. You pull on a jean jacket and tuck the orange into your pocket. The front door slams behind you when you leave the house the screen door bangs half-open behind you.
You might use fourteen words this day, maybe less. If you could get through with grunts and looks you would, just sizzling down a person with your eyeballs, telling them you loved them with your hands. The gravel under your shoes turns, and your skin is almost blue in the sunlight, and you’re past the mailbox now and lost knee-deep in groundclouds and so pale the sun can almost pass through you. Crouching down to tie your shoe, your head dips into the mists, and all you can see coming out of the fog are your long arms reaching down into another cloud where your shoelaces are. It’s watching the fog drift that’s the greatest, how slow like a river, how it seems to sigh, how it fill your nostrils, and tucks your hair behind your ear.
A ghost tails you like forests follow rain and you walk forward toward the bus without turning backwards, and life is a treadmill, and school is a treadmill, and the books you read walk catpaws all day across your mind.
You part your hair with your hands so you can better access: there’s tracks on your brain from the Iditarod and junkyard rubble and the rush of coonhounds through woods. You’ve been reading about penknives and an earth with two suns and a school built sideways, you’ve been reading about teachers turning children into apples and eating them. You can see that, teachers picking you up and biting that way. You can sense it in their neat capital letters at the top of the chalkboard: the crisp way they write notes in the margins, the red velvet tooth with which they speak, how you can feel the curl of each comma around the words they’re tapping in you like hammers, Listen up, Listen up; they’re trying to get you to hear:
I’m not asking you to, Anna George.
I said sit up, and sit still.
Meanwhile the ghost gnaws like an ache in your back, pinching up and down at the heels of your shoes.
You’re saving a word for it, and the word you’re saving up is: “Persistent.”
The ghost has been there for a while now, since an orange came home from vacation instead of your mother: you can guess what it represents. You picked up a penknife one day and held it to your throat in the mirror and there he was behind you, looming over a bowl of apples. “Looking for Mom?” you asked, saving eleven words for later. This ghost doesn’t know many tricks yet: only following and ducking, asking questions and crouching, looming and waiting and listening in like a jerk.
He spins in the mist this morning. He floats on its top like steam clings to tea.
You call him Charlie.
Charlie clings to you by your braid and fans himself out like a flag and you go drifting this way and that way lostly in the white fog toward the bus-stop. Here, you’re alone: you and Charlie and a stop-sign sticking out of a cloud.
The ghost can do anything an old man tells him to do.
The ghost can only do what an old man says to do.
Because there’s an old man in a bar in New Orleans whose brain scratches at his neck and whatever scratches at his neck, trickles down to his armbone to his hand crimped around a long and sharpened pencil. He writes down everything for the ghost to do and then the ghost does it in real life, following you around like a hibiscus follows the sun.
The man in the bar drinks whiskey. The man in the bar has a red lower lip and a pink upper one that flare apart like lapels. His long earlobes hang loosely by his cheeks, and a series of firm grooves run from one side of his forehead to the other. He lays his glasses on his napkin and coughs inside his mouth. The paper he writes on is yellow and his handwriting is all loop, is L’s and I’s from a distance, is bound in a book iridescent as mermaid skin. He runs his hands over it while he’s thinking. He flattens his pages out and nods back his glass. His mind is relaxing finally. At home in the morning he grows basil and oregano in a Spices Starter Kit. At home in the morning he pushes the planter around the kitchen table so it’s always in the sun and the stems are growing slantwise.
It’s lonely in that kitchen. He stares in the toaster-reflection of himself and plucks at the start of beard prickling out of his chin. At night it’s him and his whiskey and a pencil that whispers as it writes. He sits at a bar, and his arms are covered with dust, and he doesn’t move like the jukebox doesn’t move, except he’s scribbling and what he is scribbling is
Enter BUS, stage left.
GIRL adjusts backpack. Climbs on.
GHOST makes to-do of nothing. GHOST appears bored, unimpressed.
And the bus in the fog is a daydream of yellow. Anna George climbs onto the bus and sits in the back, behind a girl with ears like satellites. Anna George juts a letter-opener into the back of the seat in front of her until she finds a spine and scrapes.
“I hate you, Anna George,” says Anna George.
GHOST now hungry. Hasn’t eaten in centuries.
“Can I have your orange?” asks the ghost, from down in her shoe.
She squeezes her hand around it, and the ghost lays his hands on top of Anna George’s hands, and Anna George can’t feel them.
The old man writes, GHOST squeezes but Anna George is already digging through her purse and pulls a single cigarette out like a trick flower.
The old man writes, GHOST hasn’t smoked in centuries. DESIRE doesn’t lax with time. Grows exponentially. Is almost its own body.
Then he crosses out desire and changes it to desire for nicotine.
Anna George pulls out a lighter, and teases the (thing), and the ghost who is seemingly all ears feels what used to be a stomach churn.
The bus lurches forward and her shoes tie themselves as the clouds turn to roads.
Then the school appears: redbrick and flagpole. A woman with white hair and bowed legs stands hard in the center of the yard, where the trees are reappearing because the sun is to fog as choke is to necks. There’s a whistle in her mouth she’s playing with, and a sweater she looks so beige and bony inside.
Anna George notices. Anna George knows the rumors her hair—white-poofed—is a wig, knows the rumor her lips don’t work, knows the rumors she can see with her ears.
They say there are rooms in the school just for her and her whistles and cot, and a manikin head on which she fixes her hair in the morning before securing it to her head. They saw the manikin has eyes, that she talks to it. Anna George can picture it working that way. That your one friend is the fake head you talk to. She squeezes her orange in her pocket.
“I love you, you know,” she mutters toward her pants.
The ghost asks Anna George, “Bum me a cigarette?”
Anna slides it into her braid and reaches to earth to touch her toes.
“Well may I have your orange please, Anna George?”
Anna George pulls her mother from her pocket and holds her nubside up. The orange rolls into her thumb.
“Well?” asks Anna George. “What do you want?”
The orange turns away from the ghost. The nub at the top starts unscrewing, and then pops completely from the head of the fruit.
So Anna George unpeels her very slowly with her fingernail, going for one unbroken scab of removed skin.
GHOST can’t taste anything, the old man writes. Isn’t point of exercise. Point is will she/won’t she. Point is GHOST can keep following GIRL around for rest of her life if GHOST wants to.
Anna George pulls a wedge out with her teeth and chews it. The orange is nonreactive, sweet. Says nothing. Then Anna George spits out two seeds.
One is her parent and one is just a seed.
“There,” says Anna George.
The seed—her mother—seems still, though it is a free agent now, though now it can go off and do exactly what it wants. The schoolyard is mostly barren: a yard of long, un-mowed grass, a hill patched with dandelion, an oak with its lowest arms cut off. Anna George finds the friendliest-looking dirt in the school yard and plants her mother there. “Now you can finally do what you like,” says Anna George.
The seed in the earth breathes, “A life for ourselves.” When the fog drifts down it turns to dew and waters her.
Anna George tosses the peel behind her and Charlie catches it, and fills his ghost-nose with smells. A bell rings, and the girl must go inside.
The ghost waits in the yard while the girl goes to school, because the old man holds his pencil so the tip is poking him in the mouth because he doesn’t know what to write next. Writing is hard. What is coming next is hard. Follow a girl into a school? Follow the clouds into dew? No; stand in the yard like a horse. Bucking, or tied with rope? The ghost can’t decide. He stands in the yard over the seed of her parent, lets the sun beat through him, gives her a decent chance to grow.
Anna George Anna George Anna George grows in the classroom like seeds in cups: verily, briefly, roots pressed to the walls.
There’s a ceramic cup in her locker she’s using as an ashtray, and she’s trying not to cry into her history book but if she has to, bam, she’s aiming right for George Washington’s neck.
She presses her legs in her locker and squeezes in and isn’t surprised there’s a way to unscrew the back wall, and isn’t surprised to see she’s made a tunnel, and isn’t surprised it takes her underground, which is one step closer to out because it’s under. And she knows when you’re under it’s only because there’s a top somewhere close enough to kick.
Anna George isn’t surprised it’s all in your mind. They say grief takes seven forms, some foggy or antleered, some idle as stovetops on low heat, some like a letter you can’t read because your eyes have turned to stars, and everything you look at imprints with a tooth of light. But this form of grief—Anna’s form—feels rubber, and tugged on, buoyant and dragged. Anna George feels floated up from wherever she was and finds herself with a cigarette in her mouth and her hair caught on a hook in her locker, being pulled out by the elbow.
Anna George gets her cigarette confiscated, and watches the principal twist it over a trashcan so the insides dislodge. Her English teacher is there, arms folded, the shoulder of his sweater worn where he chews it after lectures, at home, while he grades.
“Anna,” the principal says over her beautifully folded hands.
“Anna,” the principal says, spreading a blanket out with her lips that Anna sinks into, Indian-style. How can a person have the kind of voice that feels cotton yet scrappy, that feels laid over grass and at the same time unrippable, a voice that says, “We’re safe here,” and “Watch it, girl.”
Her English teacher leans on the principal’s desk by one elbow, so his body is titled sideways, half a triangle. His side hurts posing this way, but he feels committed to it. He keeps his eyes and mouth still, his brain is a truckful of shovels. He studies Anna. The joints in her body are sharp at the elbows, neck, knees. She stares dead-ahead at the file cabinet. He can picture how folded up she would fit into the right-sized box.
“Let’s give this one more try,” he says to her, edging in.
He knows she likes to read, has seen her reading, has seen her tap out when he picks up a piece of chalk. No matter how beautiful the word was: lacuna, loquacious (they’d been in L’s all April)—Anna George was knee-deep in something else.
He takes her back to class where she scrapes her pen-knife into a boxy O on her desk and he has to march up to her and confiscate it. She pulls out a pen and colors into the other scratching on her desk: dickface with triple cross-throughs. He returns to the board and writes in handsome cursive lugubrious.
“What is it you want to be?” Charlie asks in the yard later. The school bus roars in the parking lot, one wheel jammed in a pothole, spinning, wearing down.
But sixteen is a glassless window: the world is too tall to reach through, could be anything.
“You could unrub the hurt out of someone,” Charlie offers. “Or become a horticulturist.”
“Or a red note,” says Anna George. “Or a red aimless bird.”
Anna George grows from sixteen to eighteen and her hands don’t change sizes. She smokes in the bathroom at school, staring down at her pants pooled around her shoes. Big inhales, blowing smoke at the door. She smokes one third of a cigarette at a time, and keeps the extra behind her ear, or nubbed in her pocket, or on the toilet’s top. Who cares? And she passes things into any hand that reaches under her door, even if it’s hard, small, mean things, like an almond, or a capsule, or a tack.
Charlie doesn’t follow her anymore. He looms, a little. He’s unmooring. Drifts. Charlie leaves a trail of oranges when he goes off on his own, and Anna George doesn’t like that the ghost gets to have secrets while she never can. If a girl is entitled to anything, it is secrets.
Charlie’s secrets are he isn’t her father at all, just some ghost. He’s been spelling his name out in orange peels and trying to ask Anna questions. He drifts towards cornfields and follows tractor tires to a barn and follows barn-cat tracts towards a house, unlocked, and he enters. He rummages through his son’s true things. He lays on the true warm pillow of his wife.
The man writing this ghost story knows nothing about how it works.
He knows it is loose ends and loose beginnings.
If this story were a flower it would be stems.
If this story were a posture it would be shoulder bones like sparrows’ wings.
If this story were a street or highway it would be clouds, it would be city light, the obnoxious moon each month disappearing.
It would be the color of Anna George in the costume of high school, Anna George picking her parent from the fruit tree she’d become, Anna coming home after a fight and talking to the tree, with the tree, about the ghost who stopped following her, who sleeps in the boughs of the oranges it can’t pick up, who waits for the old man to write something else, to write something that makes sense, to put down in simple small capitals an idea like maybe
ANNA hands CHARLIE a cigarette. Stands on tiptoes. Reaches high into TREE. CHARLIE resting. Accepts cigarette and ANNA goes home.
CHARLIE holds cigarette in his mouth a long time before lighting it. The flame is somehow too heavy. CHARLIE drops it. CHARLIE drops it. ORANGE TREE starts to burn.
ANNA smells it, miles off.
PARENT unpeels itself, unpins from orange blossoms. A single ORANGE detatches, rolls away. Embers, or a trail of embers
The old man rises to stretch.
A waitress behind him startles and spills three ice-waters all over the notebook.
The pencil marks murk and the ghost in reality feels his hands disappearing, watches the tree, soaked, sum itself up, sees a light like heaven has found its switch, and Charlie can feel himself breathe, now, because he’s choking—not like he’s going to die, but like he’s come up from a long something, hasn’t any hands but a throat now,
And here comes Anna George, hurling towards that howl.
Melissa Goodrich grew up in a dome on a hill and received her MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in PANK, American Short Fiction, Artifice, Hot Metal Bridge, and The Kenyon Review Online, and she has the tiniest of chapbooks out with 4th and Verse, If You What.