By Diana Odasso
My favorite tree grows on the muddy lawn between the back wall of our house and the neighbor’s metal fence. I like climbing the smooth trunk and sitting on the second branch with its wide sticky leaves and bright fruit. Its oranges are nothing like the oranges Mommy squeezes every morning. The juice from my tree tastes like lemon and gives me diarrhea.
“The tree is too young for juice,” Mommy says. She tells me I shouldn’t climb there either because the yard is overgrown. Snakes shed their skins on the back brick wall, peels of gray that curl like ribbons.
Daddy used to catch snakes from the yard for show-and-tell—black racers, grass, and corn snakes. Sometimes he pretended he had caught a coral just to test us:
Red on yellow, kill a fellow.
Red on black, friend of Jack.
Nowadays he tells us about the snakes near his place on the west coast of Florida: rattlers coiled around the roots of banyans, coral snakes under the starry sky, moccasins like tree stumps floating in the swamps. In the back of his jeep, Daddy keeps a machete. He says it’s to kill poisonous snakes but he only ever uses it to chop sugar cane. When we drive out for the weekend right clear across the state, he pulls over by a cane field and cuts us a stalk. I suck on the sticky chunks, tucking my feet under me for fear of snakes.
Jim and Paul are braver than I. They get out of the jeep with Daddy, pee in the ditch, and tease me till I cry about the snakes and gators they’ve seen. Red on yellow, they say. Corals all curled up and hissing around the stalks of the cane fields.
These are my favorite times.
We drive out late Friday afternoon. My older brother Jim sits up front. He keeps asking Daddy if he can stay out West with him. He promises to do better in school. He promises to be a good boy.
I like the saw grass fields and citrus groves, the crooked old pines, and patches of burned tree stumps. I like the huge blue sky and the bright sun that makes everything look gold. By the time we have crossed the state, I’m half asleep watching the sky turn orange. I like the ride because we aren’t there yet and if the weekend hasn’t begun, then it can’t end. I like the ride because we are all quiet and excited. Daddy doesn’t talk much but he looks at me in the rearview and smiles.
Paul and I lay out sleeping bags on the gray carpet of the living room while Jim sleeps on the couch, his feet sticking out over the armrest. My boy’s almost grown up, Daddy says.
The apartment smells. It’s because of our old cat, Cabbage. When Jim was a week old, Daddy found a stray kitten in the yard and Mommy nicknamed her Cabbage. When Daddy was packing, Mommy told him to take Cabbage. “Damn cat’s too old and you found it anyway. Ought to stay with you.”
Cabbage pees on the carpet.
Daddy says, “It’s not her fault, she can’t help it.”
The apartment is small, but from the balcony I can see the canals. I imagine the alligators still as dead bodies, eyes poking above the mud, and the water moccasins tracing “S” shapes across the brown water. Egrets peck along the bank; their stick-thin legs like stalks of saw grass. By the canal, the neighbor sits in a folding beach chair and reads the newspaper with his shirt off. He’s old and wrinkled and his white poodle chases the birds. Jim says one day a gator’s gonna right chomp that dumb dog.
Saturday night I can’t fall asleep thinking it’s my last night. The crickets are loud and Daddy snores in the bedroom.
At dawn, we head to the dock where Daddy keeps his small boat. Daddy and my brothers fish for a few hours while I search the mangroves for alligators. We are a different kind of quiet now.
On the ride back, we don’t stop for sugar cane. The sun sets behind us, all the pretty colors falling behind.
When we get home, Jim tells everyone he’s gonna move west. Mommy shuts the door so Paul and I can’t hear, except we do. Jim cusses and we hear the smack. Mommy doesn’t slap us often but we recognize the sound. When the door opens, Mommy has tears in her eyes but Jim is dead silent.
Now we don’t talk about Daddy so much, we pretend he doesn’t exist until he shows up once a month to drive us west.
I wish I could go more often. I want to hitchhike cross the state past the swamps, past the lake, and the long golden shadows. I pack what I need: some crayons, an apple, and teddy bear. Before leaving, I walk to the back of our house to say goodbye to my orange tree. I scramble into its branches, laying my head against its smooth bark, smelling its greenish smell. The wind rustles as I touch a round and dimpled orange. Its smells like unripe things.
I can tell my tree anything. I tell it about my trip west and what I’m going to do when I get there. I tell it about the sleeping bags that Daddy keeps under his bed and the rickety boat we take fishing. I tell it this time Daddy will kill a poisonous snake with his machete and my brothers will be jealous. The tree knows I’ll be back in a few hours, that I’ll have only circled the block, that I never make it west.
But it never lets on.
My orange tree also doesn’t tell me that one day, I’ll race back after a weekend at Daddy’s to find an empty patch of ground. It doesn’t tell me it will be cut down because of citrus canker, like all the citrus trees in our neighborhood. It doesn’t say that one day I’ll even forget where it was planted. My orange tree doesn’t tell me these things because it knows I still need to smell its leaves and talk to its bark, wedge my body in its limbs and hug its branches tight, borrowing courage for the trip round the block, backpack swinging by my side, images jumbled in my mind of egrets chased by poodles, sugar cane, smelly old Cabbage, dried snake skins, and Daddy smiling at me in the rearview mirror, driving out on that Friday night ride, where expectation and hope meet reality for a few small hours under an orange setting sun.
Diana Odasso is currently an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles and translation editor and blogger for Lunch Ticket. She has translated texts from French to English (published in Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked), ghostwritten for an autobiography, and written for the Huffington Post. An interview with author Susan Straight was published in Lunch Ticket in the 2015 winter issue. She lives in South Florida with her two young boys and Boston Terrier.