December
20

First Day of School

by

Peeling away the cobwebs, this is a memory from one of my first days of grammar school.

First Day of School

Cal and I were having a tough time letting go of summer.  The first day of school did little to help.  He was waiting on me when I stepped off the bus.  

He pushed his glasses up on his nose.  “How was it?”

A shrug. “‘I like summer better.”  Cal nodded.  His attitude wasn’t much better.

We glanced at Old Woman Wicker’s tangerine tree.  Bulging with color, the branches were sagging.  Some touching the ground.  We’d been waiting for weeks.  

Old Woman Wicker lived alone, seldom emerged, drove a block-long Cadillac and had a back yard full of citrus trees.  Most were bitter, unkempt, full of seeds and wrapped in a thin peeling.  Good for little more than pegging passing cars.  But one tree, the Tangelo, spilled over the fence into Cal’s yard.  And we didn’t waste those on cars.  

Sweet.  Juicy.  Seedless.  A thick peeling you could peel in one piece.  Old folks called them, ‘Honeybells.’  We called them cItrus perfection.  

And forbidden fruit.

She had been specific.  Squinted her eyes and stuck that crooked arthritic finger in our faces as we crept along the fence.  “You two boys...Stay off my fence, get out of my yard, and don’t touch my fruit.”

“Yes ma’am.”

We glanced at the tree, remembered her finger, then eyed her front door.  Cal spat.  I said, “We could always ask her.” I shrugged.  “You never know.”

We marched up her steps and knocked on the screen door.  The conquest of a Huck-Finn-summer hanging on us and the knowledge that we were now eleven.  

Nothing.  The smell of dinner wafted through the screen.  As did the sound of her walking.  Old Woman Wicker was as wide as she was tall.  Given all that downward pressure, her knees bowed inward and knocked when she walked. To make matters worse, she wore panty hose which made an odd nylon-on-nylon, “swish-swoosh” sound whenever she walked.  We could hear her coming a mile away.  

No answer.  We knocked again.

“Swish-swoosh.  Swish-swoosh.”  She spied down on us through the screen.  

Cal took one step behind me and then jabbed me in the rib.  I managed, “Umm...yes ma’am.  Miss Wicker, we was...were...wondering if...” I pointed toward her backyard.  “If we could have some, or one, of your Tangelos.  They look about ripe.”

She pursed her lips.  Slanted one eye.  A long pause.  She held one finger in the air and disappeared to the kitchen.  When she returned, she handed us each a piece of citrus.  “You boys stay out of my yard.”  And she shut the door.

We stood there.  Holding that fruit -- hard as a walnut, and about the same size.  We backed up to the sidewalk and sunk our fingers in the peel.  It was thin, brittle, the sections inside were small, hard, and each had thirty seeds a piece.  

We pitched them in the bushes and eyed the tree.  

Out of sight, we circled Cal’s house, crept along the fence, in the shadows of the tree and toward the river.  Placing the limbs of the tree between us and her kitchen window, we scaled the brick fence and belly-crawled under the canopy of the tree.  HIdden from view, we reached up, and twisted -- careful not to shake the tree.

Perfect.  One peeling.  Seedless.  Sweet.  Exploding with juice.  In less than ten minutes, we’d eaten a dozen each and the ground was littered with peeling.  My chin dripped.  A half hour later, bladders full, we knelt on the fence and pee’d as far out as we could.  

Cal bragged.  “I spelled my name and then got all the way back to ‘M.’

I’d gotten to ‘F’ but my cursive was better than his.

We zipped up and sat down.  He twisted off two more.  Number thirteen.  Another single peeling.  Proud of myself, I let the peeling drop, placed a section on my tongue and bit down.  Then I looked up.  

Funny, we’d never heard her coming.

Seldom do I peel an orange or tangelo that I don’t see that old woman’s face and that crooked finger.  And every now and then, I’ll look back and wonder how I never heard the panty hose.

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