Mrs. Cash's Oranges
“Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.”
—Sandra Cisneros, in her short story "Eleven"
I grew up in a three-bedroom, cinderblock ranch style house with a two-car garage and a mess of tiger lilies and saw palmettos in the front yard. There was a lake at the end of the street — one of the few in Central Florida left unspoiled, because its proximity to the railroad on one side curtailed the development that replaced habitats with Bermuda grass lawns and trucked-in beach sand.
When I was nine years old, my cousin Lawrence, then eleven, and his mama—my aunt—moved down from D.C. and rented a bungalow behind the Stewarts’ place, five or six houses from us.
We kids explored every single inch of that neighborhood. There was no culvert or cut-through or patch of woods unknown to us, and since nobody had their front yards fenced, every one of those eighty-eight properties was employed for giant, rambling games of hide-and-seek and capture the flag.
None of the adults seemed to mind. As long as we stayed clear of the snappy dog deceptively named “Happy,” we played in the good graces of the neighbors.
But one day, Mrs. Cash called Mr. Stewart and said that Lawrence had stolen oranges off her tree. Mrs. Cash was a shut-in whom we saw only at Halloween, when she’d hand out plastic bags full of pennies tied up with black ribbons. The oranges on her tree ripened to a glow, then sank in around the tops, rotted, and fell to the ground. She paid one of the teenagers to rake them up along with the pine needles. We never once saw her or anybody else pick them.
Lawrence was the only Black boy among us. He didn’t steal those oranges. He and my aunt moved a little while later.
Sometimes, you think you’re just a big, easy-going gang of kids, tripping through your shared terrain, and you forget that the world sees you differently. You have to remember over and over again that liking somebody, even loving somebody, is not enough to protect them from shade that you cannot even see, much less understand.
You in whose exquisite, prismatic image we are said to be fashioned, help us to hear each other’s stories, see each other’s pain, and honor each other’s truths about what it is like to move through the world as us. And even though our love may fail to save each other, let us remember that your love—the Big Love—will never fail.