Palo Alto Weekly 23rd Annual Short Story
They said it was the kind of heat that melted things. Mother called this foolishness and the weather seemed not to affect her. I was sure there was something about the heat though. I could feel it seeping through my skin and inside of me. The sun’s rays were so intense that the heat became more than palpable. Mother tried to shelter us from the sun but her efforts proved futile. This was the kind of weather that could make people’s minds boil.
Mother was making a pie because it was Sunday. She was cracking eggs and I was halving pecans. I stopped chopping a minute and splashed some water on my face. It dried almost instantly. I looked at my mother’s face, observing the marble like surface of her pale skin. She looked calm and only a small furrow of concentration wrinkled her smooth complexion.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded of me.
She was now boiling the sugar, precisely measuring the vanilla. She knew the best way to go about things was methodically and efficiently. Idleness and play were for children; she had informed me I was no longer a child. I grasped my chopping knife firmly, my palm wet and salty. I thought my mother was like the knife – cold, powerful and smooth. I examined my reflection in the knife’s face as I continued to chop. My sweaty hand loosened my grip on the knife and it slipped sending pecans flying and the knife into my other hand. I stumbled back and knocked the boiling sugar. I soon became aware of the throbbing pain in my hand and turned to see my mother’s forearm, splashed by the burning molten sugar. When melted, sugar’s heat is extreme. She did not however, make any exclamation as the sugar burned her. She washed it off in a tranquil state and walked out the back door. She did not look at me, just walked out with her eyes squinted and lips pursed. I wiped up the mess, careful not to let the sugar touch my skin, and went out front. I sat down with my legs hanging off the porch, swinging them slowly back and forth.
I looked up and saw there were people in the cabin next door. This green barn-like house had been empty for a long time and I was surprised to see two small children running around and their parents carrying suitcases up the stairs. I felt an ant making its way across my thigh, its black, beady body determined to overcome this obstacle that was my leg. I sat staring, focused on its’ simple struggle. When the ant had accomplished its mission I looked up and saw a boy, probably sixteen, standing in front of me.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi,” I said, standing up and fixing my shirt.
I turned around and went back inside. I knew Mother would not like my talking to this boy and I realized I should probably go finish the pie.
It was Sunday again and without mentioning last week’s mishaps, I chopped the rhubarb and she halved the strawberries. Before long, Mother was fluting the crust and she nodded that I was finished. I walked outside; sat down with my legs hanging off the porch, swinging them slowly back and forth. The similarity to last week’s monotonous Sunday routine was almost humorous. The similarity continued, but instantly the monotony melted.
It was the boy from the green house next door.
“I wanna get to know you.”
“I wanna get to know you.”
Taken aback by his confidence, I said nothing.
Not at all discouraged, he sat down beside me and put his hand right above my knee. His fingers lay where the ant had crawled and I thought of the ant’s simple goal.
His hand was hot but I liked the heat. When I said nothing, he stood up to go.
“See you around”
“Wait,” I said faintly.
My leg still prickled where his hand had been.
“I’ll come with you,”
His eyes held mine in an embrace and a hot wind pushed back my hair.
We walked down the road and he led the way, a small sack bounced on his shoulder. He looked back every few steps, grinning, and I found myself smiling too. After trekking off a ways we reached his destination. We sat on a huge rock, big enough for us both to spread out. We lay side by side, looking up at the sky; each of us in our own thoughts, acutely aware of the heat that enveloped us.
"Want a tangerine?” He pulled two small orange balls out of his bag.
“Sure, I’d like a tangerine,” I sat up and stuck out my hand.
“You really want a tangerine?”
He tossed me the little ball and watched as I began to peel it. I slowly unraveled its skin, careful not to get the juice under my fingernails. I’d peeled half the citrus keeping the rind all in one piece.
“Here” he said, laying his palm flat.
I placed it in his hand, “Why do you peel it like that?” he asked.
“The way you peeled it…all in one piece, so slow and methodically.”
I tried to think of why I peeled it like I did, never having given it much thought. I then recalled the first time I had peeled a tangerine. My mother had given it to me.
“Here, have a tangerine, but peel it carefully, and don’t spill the juice,” she had said.
I thought about this for a while.
Then suddenly, Emery pushed back on my shoulder and I laid back. His arms held him above me. He said he’d show me how to eat a tangerine. He ripped off the remaining peel in pieces with his teeth, laughing. He dug his fingers into the orange, puncturing its’ skin. He took a bite out of its side, ignoring the wedges it was customarily broken into. He held this tangerine in front of my mouth and gestured that I bite. I smiled and sunk my teeth into the sweet, orange. The warm juice dripped from his mouth, and mine. It fell from his lips, sliding down my skin; I felt it reach my belly button and squirmed. I bit again and my toes curled. I looked up at him, his face above mine, juice sliding down his chin. This was it, tangerines, and hot sticky juice. The sour taste of tangerine slipped from his tangy mouth to mine.
It was Sunday again and my mother was making cream pie with tangerines. She peeled ball after ball with a knife and no juice was spilled.
I liked the surprise of this story and the unique taste it leaves me with. Also, how accurately the writer captures an important time in the protagonist's life; the longing, the mystery and the ultimate clarity.
- Tom Parker