Falling Oranges

15/03/2013

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“Daniel. Edward. Fanoe.”

When dad entered my bedroom, his voice cadenced between each name like the MC at high school graduation. The ceremony was two weeks before, held under the harsh lights of the Orlando Arena. I graduated, just barely.  Dad wore his cowboy shirt with horses on it, the first three buttons undone, a cross swaying among the chest hair. It was a gift from Aunt Jolene. She’d made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem years ago. One of those all-inclusive deals, church sponsored, featuring all the important spots. Dad wasn’t religious. He didn’t wear it to show appreciation for Aunt Jolene’s thoughtfulness while wailing down the Via de Rosa; the old man just wore it to give the impression that he was world traveled. The Jerusalem cross was quarter-size with four smaller crosses in each corner. “A Jerusalem cross,” he’d explain to anyone who’d listen, careful to mention that it was bought in Israel, withholding that he wasn’t the one who bought it, of course. Most of the time no one pressed further. Most people didn’t give a shit. Every now and then dad over played his hand, usually to some soccer Mom wearing Spandex. She’d ask when he visited the Holy Land. He’d pause; search the sky for something with which to stall her. Then he’d remark on the weather or compliment her figure. This usually ended the conversation.  That day he stood there in the doorway holding a bottle of Coke, I knew something wasn’t right.  He took a swig, covered a belch with his hand.

“It’s time you moved out,” he began. “Darla and Daphne are getting older, and well, they could use the space.”

Darla and Daphne were my two half-sisters. Darla was twelve, Daphne, ten. They’d shared a room since they were toddlers. Darla, approaching puberty like a runaway train, was already whining about space. Dad rarely visited my bedroom. And he only used my full name when there was bad news. No, I thought, this wasn’t good at all. My mother, crippled in a car accident years before, spent her days drinking beer from a keg Dad bought her as a birthday present. She said it was the best birthday gift anyone ever gave her. That day forward she rarely left the kitchen table. She sat there day after day, chain-smoking Camel menthols, maudlin dreaming of teenaged memories. Mom liked jazz music. Her favorite album was Anne Phillips’s “Born To Be Blue.” She’d sing sometimes. When she’d had too much her voice would crescendo with every successive drink. No one said anything. How could you scold a woman who lost so much? You can’t, just can’t.

“Easy Street. I’d love to live on Easy Street,” she’d sing, gargling through the night until the end and there wasn’t anyone left awake to flip the record on the hi-fi.

Days before Darla and Daphne’s summer break, we were alone in the house, Mom and I. She asked me to join her for a beer at the table, the blinds drawn over the windows filtered small sunbeams into the otherwise dark kitchen. Mom was sensitive to light; it hurt her eyes, she said. Mom’s accident happened when I was four. Afterward she was a different person—a sad person. I don’t remember her before the accident, just shades of warmth. I remember when it was replaced by a cool bitterness; I didn’t blame her. The accident destroyed her vision as well making her stumble, bump into things when she tried to walk. It also caused partial brain damage, too. I sat down next to her, her hands felt their way around the table, finally resting on her favorite mug painted with butterflies and hearts and #1 MOM in bubble letters. I took it in my hands and poured beer into it. I handed it to her and her hands touched mine. Her eyes normally rolled about like pinballs, but just then, they stopped and looked me square in the face.

“You a good boy, Danny. You a good boy, son,” she smiled, releasing my hands with a tap-tap, and placed the mug to her lips. I filled my glass with beer, which tasted awful, and downed it in one gulp. I drank it because I didn’t want to lie to her, say I had drank the beer when I hadn’t; mostly I drank it because dad didn’t drink and I wished he did. It would explain his shitty personality. Unfortunately, he was just mediocre Joe, the loser. Mom and I sat there in silence. It was the best conversation we’d had in years.

Meanwhile, dad stood in the doorway like a low-budget Superman; hands on hips, bird-chest out. He liked to think he could bench-press three hundred pounds, but his muscle mass betrayed his imagination. His face was scruffy. I guessed the job search wasn’t going well. He stared at the opposite wall, his belly protruding through his shirt like a pregnant lizard.

“You need to get yourself a job, son. Maybe learn some responsibility. By summer’s end, we’re gonna need this room,” he patted the threshold, looking it up and down like he was considering a renovation. I couldn’t believe it. My dad, in the midst of his own job hunt, was telling me this. He stood there a moment longer, surveying the room’s four corners. Then sighed and, turning down the hallway, farted. He paused for a moment, mumbling an apology as his hand swatted at his backside, and continued out of my view. I sat there for a moment, speechless. Collecting myself, I headed across the street to Tommy’s house.

Tommy Flanagan and I had been friends since fourth grade when my family moved down from Idaho. Florida was young then, fresh and green. Daydreamers flocked to the sunshine in the later part of the twentieth century the way prospectors did during the gold rush and with similar results: a lot of broken dreams. The Flanagan’s was a far cry from our house, though. Tommy’s parents were successful suburbanites. His dad was a partner at an accounting firm downtown; Tommy’s mother worked in interior design. Some of her decorating ideas were absurd like five stock art paintings of the same stupid French cat hung in the living room, but there were plenty of women in our neighbor just like her and they kept her small business thriving. They bought gold frames, marble columns for mosaic vases. It wasn’t gaudy if it was expensive seemed to be the rule of thumb. Mrs. Flanagan was kind hearted, though, and what I found really appealing about her was her knack for keeping the place clean, which was more than could be said for our house. The Flanagan’s could have hosted a barbecue at any moment. It might have been a hotel as far as I was concerned. The place was decorated in country-kitchen motif; everything soft pastel and wicker painted white. On the porch, a couple of ceramic bunny rabbits sat around a terracotta pot exploding with lantana while butterflies pillaged the blooms. It was like a never-ending Easter egg hunt. When I rang the doorbell, synthesizer music bellowed out, complimenting the wind chime like a New Age bookstore.  Mrs. Flanagan greeted me, smiled, and led me to Tommy’s room. She had big hair and shoulder pads, the gal who has it all-look.

Mrs. Flanagan designed each room with precise ambience. Southern expressions of magnolia filtered throughout the common areas, but each room held a unique scent. The bathrooms smelled of after-shave and Seabreeze face-wash; the living room smelled of popcorn and leather; the kitchen, bacon and freshly brewed coffee. In Tommy’s bedroom, surfboard wax coconut and aloe hung heavy. In contrast, our house smelled like old garbage and stale beer. If our house had a motif, to use one of Mrs. Flanagan’s words, it would have been called ABC Lounge. She lead me to Tommy’s room and gave a couple soft knocks to the half-opened door and left with a final smile. Tommy was sitting on the bed strumming a guitar. I re-played my father’s words in my head and then repeated them to Tommy. Where was I supposed to go? I thought.

“What?” Tommy asked, “Where are you supposed to go?”

“Beats me,” I said.

Tommy hadn’t mastered the guitar and his sour notes fit my feeling of despair.

“This is kind of sudden,” he said.

“Guess I’ll get a job,” I said. “I’ve got till the end of summer.”

Mr. Flanagan appeared at the door wearing an Izod shirt and staunch khakis.

“Hey, Danny! How’s life after high school?”

Mr. Flanagan smiled, rubbing Tommy’s head after entering the room and it made me feel sick. When he asked me about ‘life after high school’ I just wanted to die. He didn’t mean to make me feel bad. He was a great father; it’s just that him being a great father made my dad look even worse. Sometimes I secretly hoped he’d get caught on Orange Blossom Trail in one of those John-prostitution-stings—face forlorn, hands cuffed at the wrists, huddled into a police cruiser—only because then I’d know he was at least a little fucked up to balance-off my dad. Not really. Those fantasies never lasted more than a moment and then I’d be right back where I was: grateful to have Tommy and his family in my life. Tommy told his dad about my plight. Mr. Flanagan was diplomatic, never offering his own opinion of my dad, my home life and all, although he was too smart not to know my mom was disabled, my dad a ne’er-do-well.  He kept stressing that this was an opportunity and that if I would get a job, any job, later a better one, but to leave on good terms, not burn any bridges, that I’d never know when a connection might later help me get somewhere else. He said this was called networking and it was never too early to start. I have to admit the man was a great motivational speaker. He could have sold CDs on the TV at midnight, honestly. I went home and started looking through the classifieds in the paper.

Dad could never hold a job himself. After completing a course in real estate, he held employment for a time, but for reasons too varied to name, he was laid off or fired, and it was never his fault. He kept some scheme in his back pocket at all times along with the business cards of attorneys who advertised on TV—ambulance chasers. His face would light up when one of their commercials would barge into our living room.

“Have you been in an accident?” the commercials would start with immediacy like the accident just happened, the car on fire in the driveway, right at that very moment. 

 Dad always had a backdoor, a short cut, as opposed to a steady plan. This was my paternal example. I would find a different road, I told myself. Living dad’s way wasn’t practical, let alone sustainable. Our family was always short on cash. When Beta max went south we were the first family on the block to own a VHS, but that was the problem. There was always something else to buy.  Soon Sony released compact disc players and other devices we didn’t need and dad bought them up like he owned stock in several electronics companies. He seemed more delighted when he boasted of his latest purchase to Tommy’s dad—or anyone else that happened by our yard when we got back from Circuit City. The memory of the laser disc, its expensive price, and subsequent rapid downturn in popularity, is one I long to erase permanently.  Keeping up with the Jones’s was the unspoken rule. And when the money was gone, it was gone until dad devised another scheme. Dad’s desire for the next big thing was like heroin. I used to wonder when Panasonic was going to come out with groceries.

I wasn’t angry after my dad gave me the news, perhaps a little sad and maybe a little resentful, too. I wasn’t there for my dad’s childhood, of course, but his photo albums, these massive, leather-bound volumes covered in imitation gold lettering, painted quite the different picture of childhood compared to mine. There were magical Christmases like Rockwell paintings and birthday parties with multi-colored balloons and pointy hats, and family vacations to the Grand Canyon. I could see my grandpa’s love through the great-big honest smile on the old man’s face in those old Matt photos. Grandpa survived the Battle of the Bulge. I guess war helps put things into perspective. Dad on the other hand, never served, dodging a tour in Vietnam with a college deferment. He was kicked out of Northwestern, finally, after US forces pulled out of Saigon. Some kind of military service might have helped give him a better perspective on life. Pictures of me after age five—when I’d gone from cute baby boy to snot nosed nuisance—were absent in our house.  It seemed like he’d counted down the days till I was an adult and legally eligible to vacant the premises, so to speak.

But I was optimistic overall. I honed optimism like a butcher hones his clever. Living under dad’s roof made it necessary to sustain some kind of sanity. This eviction was merely an opportunity to branch out and see the world on my own terms, I heard Tommy’s dad say in my head. Up to this time in my life dad forbid employment so I could focus on school. This was his attempt at parental guidance. I was a below average student. I had sworn off children early, convinced parenting was genetic—or worse, shitty dispositions skipped generations. I might spawn another one of my dad, I figured.

And so, I was determined to find a job. I canvassed the mall, applying at a surf shop, a yogurt joint, even Hooter’s as a waiter. I was denied the position at Hooter’s outright. Initially, I thought the rejection was because of my inexperience, but the interviewer, a sleazy fellow named Nick Tomeo, who could have passed for Uncle Edwin—dad’s brother—assured me this wasn’t the case. No one came to Hooters for the food, he said. We sat at a lonely two-seater by the window. A waitress brought me a glass of water, smiling as her tits almost fell out of her shirt. Suddenly, Hooter’s business model became clear. I finished the water and hit up a 7-11.

Dad checked on my job hunt periodically. Standing at my bedroom doorway with that stupid grin. I told him about Hooter’s. I was the victim of discrimination and it was time to cash in, he said. I should be on the phone with a lawyer, he said, might be looking at a nice settlement, maybe even some TV time, he said. He was obsessed with celebrity, as if being on the television was the great life-qualifier. Years later some guy did sue Hooter’s under the same precedent. I don’t know if justice was served, but I don’t regret my decision not to seek legal retribution for my rejection. I am confident I saved myself from years of tedious explanation. My search continued. 

Tommy came to my door a couple days later and said he was working at this place called Elite Telemarketing. I’d never heard of telemarketing, but Tommy said all I had to do was come down, fill out an application, and I would figure it out. This was on a Friday; by Monday I stood before the Maitland Exchange, where Elite was headquartered, two stories of unremarkable office space with an open-air walkway on the second floor. Subtropical landscaping captured the hyper-bland style of the 1980’s exceptionally well. The Elite offices were located in the back of the Exchange. Floor to ceiling windows overlooked a parking lot, just beyond an underdeveloped wetland. In the evening, toads cried over the parking lot defiantly.

I entered through the glass double doors. The office was clean—disinfected—save the cigarette smoke billowing plumes above the operators; three rows of pew-shaped desks, each with a different operator, each with similar defeated expressions, made-up the main floor.  There were ten computers to a row and the operator’s voices and the soft pressing of fingers to keyboards fused themselves into a clerical white noise. It was like a factory, a replacement for old mills, a new factory for the fourth quarter of the last century. Low wages, scant dignity, sunshine slavery. The dress code was a shirt and tie, although the employees wore whatever fit their budgets, so everyone ended up looking like carnival workers dressed for church. Imitation plants guarded the corners while florescent bulbs exposed every embarrassing blemish, buzzing this gentle drudgery soundtrack aloft the mundane scene. Tommy stood at the back of the room pacing to and fro tethered by the cord of his headset. His lit cigarette became a monologue prop, continuously walking back and forth the ash flicked onto the floor deliberately. Tommy spoke with authority—more like a street brawler than some punk begging for a donation.

Elite provided telephone solicitation for The Florida Association of State Troopers and the Police Athletic League. For five dollars, the minimum pledge, a customer bought a bumper sticker in what cost Elite one dollar and fifty cents to print and ship. If donors offered more, a limited edition license plate frame was thrown in. Ninety percent of net profit went to Elite; ten percent went to the organizations. Of course, no one ever revealed this voluntarily (the law forced honesty, but only if you were caught); the truth was obscured for as long as possible. We used our real names, under federal law we had to admit we weren’t police officers—but only if we were asked. The trick was, I learned, to play like you’re a cop for as long as possible. There were several tips for doing this: use a Southern accent, a demanding tone was recommended, and specifically, I wasn’t to use the name Danny, but Dan. Tommy said to say it forcefully, “Dan Fanoe!” he said. If inquiries were made about funding, the operators had a standard jury-rigged reply. The numbers were flipped. Ten percent went to Elite for administrative fees. The rest went to the cops. No one had illusions about the operation. “We sell stickers over the phone,” was a common joke among the operators. I waited there for a moment.

“You Tommy’s guy?” Buck Tanner sat back in his chair lackadaisically gouging his gums with a toothpick. Buck was in his early thirties, Elite’s floor manager. His hair bowl-cut, jagged ends made it obvious he’d cut it at home alone without a mirror. I thought his faded Hawaiian shirt with neon palm trees looked silly with the clip-on tie. Buck was dating Amy, the fat girl who worked in the backroom enveloping stickers for shipping. Amy could have passed for a fat drag queen if she were more feminine. She was the first female I ever met who would spit and fart in general public like it was nothing—like she was in a locker room or something. She was the only female working at Elite. She wore a leather jacket, smiling only after breaking wind. She made me ill.

“Danny Fanoe,” I raised my right hand, half-waving, and then forced it into a handshake. Buck sized me up, contemptuously. Last time some one sized me up like Buck did I got my ass kicked. Reluctantly, he returned the handshake.

“Fill that out and we’ll try you out. You can have a seat right there between Big Joe and Sven,” he tossed me a clipboard, returning his feet to the desk and continued excavating his teeth with the toothpick, spitting his finds on the desk and floor, randomly.

I sat between two men who had both seen better days. To my right sat a large Scandinavian named Sven. At six foot six he was a tall glass of water; I soon discovered he had a knack for crushing the stereotype of the Scandinavian intellectual. Sven was a loser. He smoked D grade menthol cigarettes. He owned three polo shirts which he wore one per week. Each of the shirts bore sweat stains on the under arms. This lack of hygiene matched his body odor, feebly disguised behind Brut cologne liberally applied. I had heard of a dirty blond; never had I come across a greasy blond until Sven.

Sven’s mother would retire at eight in the evening and Elite shut down at ten. This meant Sven had a ride to work, but was on his own for the trip home. Every Friday Sven asked me for a ride to Cricket’s, a single’s lounge up the road with thrice divorced barflies and an obnoxious disc jockey. The highlight of a Friday at Cricket’s was a wheel of fortune broke out around eleven-thirty. Patrons matched their raffle tickets after a spin. Prizes included either a Singapore Sling or a hotdog. Grand prize was a five-dollar bill. Sven offered me a six-pack of beer for the ride. Before we left he went into the restroom, performed a birdbath shower, and slipped into these wicker loafers. He called them his party shoes. Sven lived for two things: playing Lotto and going to Cricket’s on Friday night. I obliged him the lift. I didn’t want to come between a man and his dreams.

On the other side, at the end of the row, sat Big Joe Turino, from New York, New York, a former an insurance broker, laid off after a corporate reconfiguration. Afterward, his wife and thirteen year old daughter moved out. Joe did landscaping on the weekend with the help of a tiny Mexican kid named Puppet. Joe spoke fondly of Puppet when he wasn’t complaining about his marijuana use. When Joe closed a sale, no matter the amount, he’d slap his gorilla mitt on the desktop and shout:

“Another one for Big Joe! Rack it, Buck!”

Management kept a sales tally on a digital marquee in the front of the office. When Joe lost one he’d curse all of Florida as a simple grandma-infested backwater. Big Joe’d recently quit smoking. Although this was a source of pride, it was apparent he had second thoughts. He’d comment on how he missed the release he’d get, and then pausing in contemplation, he’d erupt boisterously on his personal triumph over nicotine, saying his next move was to curtail his diet. Cholesterol, fiber, and high blood pressure: these were merely obstacles to be overcome and he repeated them like a mantra, all the while eating fried potato balls doused in Heinz ketchup. It’d smear on his face like a child. He was rebuilding himself, he said. Soon his body would return to its original prowess, as it was when he played high school football. Big Joe never realized his dreams of playing for the New York Giants. He could have authored a book on NFL statistics, though. Big Joe was a hundred and fifty pounds over weight.

The rest of the crew consisted of the residents of El Rancho, an old motel within walking distance. Previously, when state road 17-92 was the primary trucking route through central Florida, it served truckers alone. Since the fifties, when interstate four was built, motels such as El Rancho quickly became obsolete for the described purposes and the owners looked for another source of revenue. El Rancho accomplished this with a deal with the Florida Department of Corrections; overnight it became a halfway house for newly paroled ex-cons. Telemarketing was easy money for guys with nothing but the shirts on their backs.  A new operator was either an effective huckster or they were out, gone, unemployed. El Rancho’s tenants were naturally so inclined. They had names like Dennis “Dragonfly” Williams and Little Fritto and tattoos of snakes and pot leaves and sayings like “Only God Can Judge Me” and “Shaquanna, my heart”. They were good guys. Most had been locked up for selling marijuana in Volusia County. I used to imagine dad living at El Rancho one day or perhaps rooming with Big Joe after the money ran out. I figured out the system quickly with the help of Big Joe. Soon I was slapping the desktop myself.

 A month passed and Elite went from a smoking room to non-smoking. After implementing the new policy some guys sneaked cigarettes in the restroom. Sneaked isn’t the right word. There was no sneaking, per se. The smoke followed them out of the bathroom like jet stream off the space shuttle. The most notable offender was Sven. Management turned a blind-eye. One night Sven busied himself during calls by flicking a Zippo at his station. Before this, Sven used a cheap Bic lighter with a naked lady cartoon to light up his menthols. This new lighter was fancy, albeit odd with the heart-shaped pink rhinestones. I was just happy he splurged on something besides the usual Lotto ticket and the two for ones at Cricket’s. As he opened and closed it, the sliding metal and the constant flick-flick furrowed Big Joe’s brow. He was too kind hearted to tell him just to knock it off, “What are you doing with a pink lighter, Sven?”

Sven held it up to the light like a fine diamond.

“I got it off a girl at Cricket’s last Friday,” he continued flicking and flipping. Big Joe began somewhat labored breathing.

“Was she wearing a turtle neck?” Big Joe asked.

“Yeah. You know Danielle too?” Sven said.

“More like Daniel. You need to get checked out, Sven. Does that thing even work?”

“Yeah. I need to put some of this in it,” Sven held a can of lighter fluid and began filling the Zippo. He smiled at Big Joe as the fluid began spilling over the side.

“Watch it, Sven!” Big Joe hollered.

Sven tipped up the fluid and capped the Zippo. Still smiling, he flicked the lighter. With the excess fluid painted over Sven’s hand and the lighter’s exterior it suddenly burst into a tiny fireball. Sven dropped it on the desk, shaking his fingers in pain. Big Joe was in the middle of a call with a Mrs. June Horney when he noticed Sven’s flambé.

“Well, Mrs. Horney, I can assure you this is a tax deductible-HOLY SHIT, MAN!“

The lighter landed on the desk, snapping shut just as the excess fluid burned off. Big Joe pressed F1 on the keyboard, disengaging the call, and looked at Sven grievously. Sven picked up the lighter fluid and placed it in his back pocket. He smiled at the two of us; his eyes skyward like a big dope.

“Damnit, Sven,” Big Joe popped open a bag of potato chips. “That old hag was about to hand over her husband’s entire pension! You’re never gonna win that lotto of yours if you’re all burned up.”

Sven put his headset back on and pressed F2, engaging a call. He glanced at the computer screen. “Hello. Is Mr. Richard Head there, please?”

Big Joe crunched down on a potato chip, his face brighten at the sound of Sven’s voice as he recited the name off the green screen main frame. Joe’s face reminded me of one of those flowers you see in science class movies filmed blooming in fast-forward.

Jesus,” Big Joe said, bits of potato chip flying onto his screen. “I get Horney and now the Viking is talking to the original Dick Head,” he chuckled, artificially.

Mr. Head abruptly hung up. Sven stood up.

“Looks like I gotta make another deposit, guys,” he sighed.

Everyone rolled their eyes. Ten minutes passed. Sven returned and began flicking the lighter again, much to Big Joe’s irritation. It hadn’t made a flame around flick twenty-four.

“You probably shouldn’t use all the fluid just flickering it, Sven,” I said.

“You think I need more?” he asked.

Big Joe almost fell out of his chair.

“What happened to that Molotov cocktail you made earlier?” Big Joe asked.

“It fell out of my pocket in the bathroom and spilled on the floor. Don’t worry, Joe. I cleaned it up.”

“Sure you did, Sven,” Big Joe threw his hands in the air.

The smell of lighter fluid radiated off Sven. We continued making calls into the evening.

At shift’s end, it was my turn to collect the trash bags and throw them in the dumpster. It was Little Fritto’s night to do it. Amy was hosting a birthday party for Buck and Little Fritto made him this sad birthday card with pages from a notepad, glitter, and glue. I’m not sure why I didn’t quit out of spite, but I heard Tommy’s dad telling me in my head not to burn bridges and something about cutting off your nose to spite your face, which I didn’t understand, but sounded painful. I began gathering the small bags first.

Sven decided to give me a hand. At first I was appreciative, but then Sven asked me for the usual favor and I remembered the ride.

“You got me for a ride back to Fern Park, Danny?”

“Sure, Sven,” I said, begrudgingly.

Sven collected the trash at a snail’s pace. Then he snuck off to the bathroom, menthol cigarette swinging from his lips, shamelessly. There were twenty small garbage bags in the room and two larger ones in the adjacent office. A quick job undoubtedly; with Sven as my accomplice, there might as well have been twenty hundred. The operators collected their personals and turned off the computers. Tommy headed outside with Big Joe. I entered the backroom where Amy worked; she was just leaving. She bumped into me on her way out, giving me enough of her personal scent to convince me that she was really a man. Nauseated, I collected the trash bag. Suddenly, I heard the screaming.

It sounded like an elephant being slaughtered. Muffled at first, coming from behind the dry wall, like an approaching locomotive it grew louder and more defined, reaching into the main office. I stepped out and saw Sven running, hair ablaze. Motivated by this flaming coif, Sven became a yet unnamed superhero—perhaps the Scandinavian Torch or the Diabolical Norseman—he looked glorious! The flames flickered like a sainted halo at the ecstatic moment of divine revelation, his blue polyester pants, torn at the crotch, made the vision almost translucent as he sprinted across the carpet, crashing through the glass double doors with the force of a battering ram. Outside, into the parking lot, Sven ran like a lunatic escaped from the asylum, screaming into the swampland beyond. He found a puddle quickly; the steam released off his head like a smoke signal. He exhaled, then began coughing—hacking, really—like he might die right there on the asphalt. Amy, who stopped just short of the main entrance, began screaming herself. She sounded like a biker I once heard at Daytona after some mall fashion dickwad knocked over his bike while drinking a Zima. It was not exactly the voice I expected, but once I remembered the farting, and spitting, the smell, and it made sense. She pointed at the bathroom, flames shot out like a caged dragon. Everyone jumped over one another following Sven’s lead, minus the flaming coif as the flames licked the hideous wallpaper. In the parking lot, Little Fritto consoled Sven. Although muddied and burned, Sven had a peculiar ease about him. Little Fritto delivered backpats as well as an impromptu motivational sermon saying Jesus Christ and God Almighty and Fucking Jesus Christ a lot, but I couldn’t make out exactly what the message was. Sven seemed to take it well, nodding like he understood, his brow folded, thoughtfully. The whole office crew made it to safety. We regarded the flames for a moment, then the Maitland Fire Department, engines alight, pulled up, extinguishing the fire almost as soon as they arrived.

We had to use the bathroom in the adjoining office for the next two weeks while a remodeling crew worked off the smell of burned wallpaper and hair. It took four days for the office to stop smelling like an old lady salon. This did nothing to help Big Joe’s high blood pressure. Sven was asked to leave Elite after the fire.

A couple weeks later Tommy and I were walking down Park Avenue in downtown Winter Park, when we saw Sven, arms overflowing with shopping bags, covered in a fedora atop a bandaged head. His polos were gone, replaced by a cotton shirt beneath an Irish linen suit. He seemed to have moved up in the world. He waved to us and closed in on our location. We stood there in wonder.

“Hi, Sven,” Tommy said looking him over suspiciously.

“Hi, guys! How are you?” he said.

“Sorry how you were let go,” I said. I studied his feet, noticing a pair of brand new party shoes.

“You have definitely moved up in the world,” I said.

“Ain’t it the truth? Turns out all that garbage Big Joe used to say about the lottery being a tax on people who ain’t good at math was just garbage—all of it.”

“How much did you win?” Tommy asked.

“The jackpot! Twenty-six million!”

“Looks like getting the can at Elite wasn’t such a bad thing, eh?” I said.

“Hell no! I’m a free man now.”

“Not working anymore?” asked Tommy.

“Oh, I’m still working. I started my own business. I just meant to say I moved out of Mom’s place,” he looked at his wristwatch, a shiny, impressive thing.

“Great seeing you guys, but I’ve gotta run. Still got the hemorrhoids.”

A blonde woman, dressed to kill with breast implants and big hair, stepped outside and hung off Sven like a Christmas tree ornament. We looked at each other stupefied. Sven turned, began walking away.

“I’m on easy street now, boys,” he rounded the corner and was gone.

  Tommy and I worked at Elite from midsummer and into the fall. I made enough money to move out. When I told Mom I was leaving she was drunk as usual. I tried to catch her sober, but that only happened on Friday nights after a couple slices of pizza. Her eyes became glassy, her hands shook more than usual as they searched the tabletop for mine. Resting her hands on my own, she sighed.

“I didn’t know you was leaving, Danny.”

Dad never told her anything. Tightly, she squeezed my hand.

“You a good boy, Danny. You a good boy.”

The lights of a passing car made lines on her face through the blinds. She sniffled; I leaned over and kissed her head. Dad was in the garage stacking some boxes full of plastic dinnerware. He was trying his luck at honest employment, working for both AmWay and Tupperware. I described to him the operation at Elite; the ex-cons, bullying old people for a five-dollar donation, the money I was pulling in. He smiled like an asshole.

“Sounds like I taught you well,” he said.

I disregarded this as much as I could, but I knew exactly what he meant.

* * *

 

 

 

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One Response to “Falling Oranges”

  1. Great work, Wheeler. Takes me back.

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