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The first time I ate an orange, I must have been just two years old. I don’t remember eating that orange, but I know that I must have liked it because since that day, I haven’t been able to stop eating them. Peeling the oranges used to be hard, but each time I ate an orange, I got more and more practice. Now, I can peel an orange faster than anyone I know. I like peeling them quickly, but I take my time eating them. I pull apart all of the sections and arrange them by how thick they are. The thickest sections are the best, the juiciest, so I always save them for last. Before I eat any of the orange, I have to smell it and let the sweet scent fill my whole body. Then I can eat it, keeping each piece in my mouth for as long as I can without chewing.
Paula, my older sister, says that she was the one who started calling me Orange, but everyone else says that it was Rhonda. Rhonda is my dad’s sister and I’m supposed to call her Aunt Rhonda, but she always winks at me and tells me that the first part is unnecessary. She only visits about twice a year, but I love when she does, ‘cause she always brings us presents. Paula used to get dolls, but now that she’s in junior high, she gets things like mini-skirts. And I always get oranges. Rhonda brings me the biggest oranges I’ve ever seen in my life and they taste the best too. Anyway, everyone except for Paula tells me she always said that she had an orange for her “favorite orange-lover” and that got shortened to Orange. Whenever someone tells this story, Paula gets real pouty. She likes taking credit for everything.
The cheapest oranges in town are at the Banks General Store, but Mum doesn’t let me go there alone. She doesn’t like Johnny Banks very much. He’s always behind the counter when we go and he’ll sneer at Mum and tease me about my name. His face isn’t very nice-looking and his mouth is kind of crooked, with sort of faded gray teeth that have an awful lot of gaps. “Orange you glad to see me?” he’ll say and then he’ll laugh a wheezy laugh, as though he’s the funniest guy in town. I just watch his eyes and they never leave the buttons on Mum’s dresses.
No one knows much about his wife, but I see her in the store sometimes, back in the little room behind the counter. I had to go into that room once ‘cause there weren’t any oranges in the produce section. She was sitting there and knitting something. “Where are the oranges?” I asked, forgetting to be polite and use my manners, since I was a little scared to be alone in that room with her. She pointed at the back corner and I was going to head over there, but I wanted to see what she was knitting. I took a look and it was a scarf that said “Jill” down one end. “That’s real pretty, miss. I’m sure Jill will love it.” I don’t know who Jill was, but whoever she was, she must not have liked scarves very much, ‘cause Mrs. Banks started crying. I grabbed an orange, not even checking to make sure it was a good one, and got out of that room real fast.
When Mum is busy, I try to get Paula to go there with me, but she only likes going on Saturdays. It’s ‘cause that’s the day when Gary Banks, the oldest Banks boy, restocks all of the shelves. Paula likes him a whole lot, since he has his own shiny car and he drives it faster than you’re supposed to. He ran it into a mailbox ‘bout a week ago and it was all Paula could talk about. Mum doesn’t like Gary Banks any more than she likes his dad. She tells us that he’s up to no good. That’s why Paula keeps quiet about liking him so much.
I’m not allowed to stand anywhere near Paula and Gary Banks when they talk. Paula’ll wave her hand and tell me to scoot off for a few minutes. She won’t look at me, though; when she sees Gary Banks, she can’t take her eyes off of him. I used to try to hang around in the next aisle over, but Paula would yell at me as soon as we left the store. I started hanging ‘round the produce and the oranges while she talked to him, but on the days that he was restocking the produce, I had to find somewhere else to stand.
He’s over by the produce today and Paula has already made me leave. I’m standing by the entrance to the store, right next to a sign advertising “World’s Most Effective Dandruff Shampoo: 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed!” There’s about five choices for where I can go from here. I don’t like going to the fresh meat aisle, since I don’t like seeing dead animals and it smells rotten. The candy display is too close to the counter and Johnny Banks and even Brach’s toffee can’t convince me to get that close to him and his dull gray teeth.
I make my way over to the toy aisle, which doesn’t have any really good toys. Paula told me that the Banks keep that aisle bare ‘cause they don’t like children too much. There isn’t anything to play with, since the slingshots are kept behind thick sheets of plastic and the stuffed animals are for girls.
“Why do they call you Orange?”
When I look up from the toys, there’s a boy standing there. “Because I like oranges,” I answer, wondering exactly who he is. “And plus, my skin’s the same shade as an orange.”
He examines me through dark eyes, jerking his head in a failed attempt to move his black hair out of his face. “Your skin doesn’t look like the same color as an orange to me.”
“No, it’s not.”
I crane my neck to see the produce section and scan it; Paula has disappeared, as has Gary Banks. “Come with me and I’ll prove it to you.” I march over to the crate of oranges and pick one up, holding it next to my skin. “There you go, the same color.” The gray of the orange nearly blends in with the identical shade of gray on my skin.
The boy shakes his head. “No.”
“Now listen here,” I say, growing slightly frustrated with the boy. “These are the exact same shade and I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but you better leave me alone.” Keeping the orange in my hand, I move away to look for Paula.
He follows me out of the produce section. “My name is Noah.” I don’t say anything in response to his introduction. There’s a moment of silence as I deliberately look anywhere but at the boy who calls himself Noah. I’m staring at the dandruff shampoo sign, the cash register, the candy display. After a few more seconds, he speaks again. “I’m a prince.”
I give up my game and look directly at him. “Then where’s your crown?” It is silent once more and I believe that I have caught him in his own lie. He surely isn’t a real prince.
“Not all princes wear crowns.” And with that, Noah walks away. As he leaves the store, the bells above the door lightly twinkling, I follow him with my eyes. It’s as if I expect his crown to be placed in his back pocket, just the jeweled tip poking out. But there’s not and he’s just another gray person helping to make up this gray world.
Someone grabs my hand and I can tell from the expensive-smelling perfume that it’s Paula. Mum received some sort of French perfume for the holidays last year and Paula steals a little bit of it every time that she goes to see Gary Banks. She always has to wash her hands for forever when we get home, so Mum doesn’t smell it on her and realize what she’s doing. I’ve never understood why she uses it anyway; the smell is too much and I don’t see how Gary Banks could possibly like her smelling exactly like saffron and rum. She explained to me once that it had the scent of orange peels in it too, so I should like it. But even mixed with orange peels, I still don’t like saffron and rum.
Johnny Banks doesn’t scare me so much when I’m with Paula. I think he knows that his son is soft for her, so he goes easy on us. “Hey Orange, you should get back to the rainbow!” he says a little too loudly as I hand him the pence I had saved up this week for the orange. This is one of his favorite jokes, but I’ve never really understood it much; the rainbow is just a bunch of gray, in varying shades. I don’t have the courage to explain that to him, though. But Paula isn’t too afraid of him; why doesn’t she tell him the truth about the rainbow? I wonder this every time he makes that joke.
He hands me my orange and I’m careful not to touch his wrinkled hands. He has dirt under all of his fingernails and the pinky finger is bent in an odd sort of way. “Thank you sir,” I say, careful to mind my manners. Paula always tells Mum when I’m impolite and then I get punished, even if it’s just to Johnny Banks.
His eyes glaze over me and he ignores my thanks. “Watch yourself, Paula. And Orange?” Now he’s looking at me again. “Enjoy your orange.” The wheezy laughter starts again and Paula pulls me out of the store, not even asking Johnny Banks ‘bout what he said to her. I think that Paula maybe knows what he meant, but I don’t ask her, since she doesn’t like when I’m too curious.
We walk along the cobblestone street without talking, me throwing my orange up and down in the air and Paula rubbing her fingers over her lips. “I met a prince today,” I offer to the silence.
She’s still touching her lips. “That’s nice.”
“He didn’t have a crown though, so I’m not sure if he was telling the truth.”
“And he tried to tell me that my skin isn’t the same color as an orange.” I don’t even receive a nod in response this time and I wonder if Paula is even aware that I’m standing beside her anymore or if she’s too fixated on her lips. As we come to Spinner’s End, I debate on whether or not I should turn with Paula. If I were to just keep walking and get to the river on the edge of town and then keep going until I was real far away, no one would miss me too much, I think. Mum might, a little bit. But not too much.
When Paula turns, I turn too. I don’t really want to leave, even if Paula would probably like it if I did. “Once you get to junior high,” she had explained to me, “you don’t want little kids tagging along behind you.” I agreed to leave her alone most of the time, as long as she came down to the river and played with me at least once a month. Since then, she just sits in her room with the door closed and talks to her friends on the telephone all the time. The lock on the door is broken, but we all pretend it works, just to make her happy.
I listened to her on the telephone once, when she was talking to her best friend Suzanne. They didn’t really talk about much and I was sort of disappointed. For all the hours she spends on the telephone, Paula doesn’t really talk ‘bout much important stuff.
“I went to the store today,” Paula had said and I knew she was talking about the Banks General Store, since it was a Saturday and she had gone with me to get my orange, which I was eating as she talked to Suzanne. “And I saw him.”
There was a pause as Suzanne said something and I was afraid that Paula would hear me sucking on my orange. But a few seconds passed and Paula started talking again. “Green shirt, tan shorts.” Pause. “Yes.” Pause. “The candy display.” Pause. “About fifteen minutes.” I worked out a pattern in which I sucked the orange as she spoke and paused in accordance with Paula’s pauses.
The next pause was slightly longer than the rest of the pauses had been and the orange flavor started stinging my tongue as I tried not to suck noisily. It was relief when Paula started talking again. “No, he didn’t kiss me today. Orange was hovering. I can’t stand him sometimes, you know? It’s times like today when I wish that I didn’t have a brother to worry about.” I started sucking the orange harder and faster. Paula was still saying something, but I couldn’t hear her anymore. All I could hear was the noises I made as I ate the orange. When I finished eating it, I got up from my place beside her bedroom door and walked away.
We reach our house and Paula pushes open the screen door. “We’re home!” she screams.
“Don’t yell; the neighbors aren’t interested in hearing everything that goes on in this house.” Mum appears in the sitting room, holding a stack of clothes from the clothesline in the backyard. The backyard is small, but she considered it rude to hang your underwear in the front of the house, as most of our neighbors do.
“But the house across the way is always screaming,” Paula pointed out.
“Yes, well, they’re an exception.”
“How come they can scream and I can’t?”
“Because they can.” Mum sits down on the single chair in the cramped sitting room, a large armchair. “Orange, come sit on my lap.” I willingly walk over and sit down. She always complains that she should lose a spot of weight, but I tell her not to, ‘cause then her lap wouldn’t be as comfortable. I love the way that she smells, without any sort of perfume. Paula thinks that the French stuff make her smell real good, but she can’t ever beat the way that Mum smells. The only smell I think I like more is the smell of oranges.
She doesn’t say any more about the house Paula was talking about. I know exactly what house it is, since I hear them screaming sometimes. The house looks kind of like the rest of the ones on Spinner’s End, but it’s dirtier and they don’t have any clothesline at all, in the back or the front of their house. “Do they wash their clothes?” I ask.
Mum laughs at my question. “Not all people have clotheslines.” I’m reminded of what the boy said to me in the general store today. Not all princes wear crowns.
“I met a prince today!” All thoughts of the dirty house across the street fly out of my head.
“You did, did you?” Her response is more satisfying than Paula’s had been.
I’m slightly falling off her lap, so I scoot myself back up a bit, creating more creases in her flowered dress. “At the general store,” I explain, enjoying the attention that she is giving me. Paula starts tapping her foot on the hardwood floor, but I ignore her. “But he wasn’t very nice for a prince. If I was a prince, I’d be nice.”
“You wouldn’t be any nicer than you are now.” Paula has ceased her tapping and is staring in my direction with a nasty look on her face.
“But I’m nice now!”
“If you were nice,” she pauses and I think it’s just ‘cause she wants to make sure she has our full attention, “you would get away from me and never talk to me again.”
It’s just like the time she was talking on the telephone, but it’s worse now, since she’s saying it right to my face. I have the orange in my hand and I’m trying to peel it, but my hands aren’t working together. They’re running all over the bumpy skin and grabbing at the air. I manage to yank off a sheet of the peel and I don’t bother measuring the thickness of each section. They go in my mouth and I may have eaten the thickest first or maybe second or third.
I think that Mum is saying something to Paula, but I’m concentrating on eating the orange, so I don’t hear her real well.
Part of me wants to sleep, ‘specially since Mum’s lap is so comfy. I curl my legs under my bum and my eyes start to close, but the part of me that doesn’t want to sleep opens them again and forces them to focus on the window directly across from me. I’m only tall enough on Mum’s lap to see the very top of the window, right underneath our checkerboard-patterned curtains. There’s a couple of clouds, but they’re fluffy and the sky itself is a bright shade of gray.
Mum is still talking as my eyes flicker menacingly. “Go do something outside, Paula,” she says. “Look how blue the sky is.”
“Gray,” I correct and with that, I fall asleep and it becomes Sunday.