A SOLI Original Document.
You won't find it anywhere else.
(c) Copyright 1975 Robert J. Hustwit
Tom Bartlett was happy. He was so happy, that he wasn't
even going to have a drink. He knew that he had been
drinking heavily these past few years, but he couldn't help
it. His job as caretaker of the orange groves had been a
very trying one. Over the last five years it had become a
Tom remembered when he started here seven years ago; how
much he liked it, with the little white house nestled in the
middle of the groves. In the spring the smell of orange
blossoms was so thick, it was as if Mother Nature had
personally sprayed her cloak of perfume over the whole area.
From his little house he couldn't see anything but orange
trees; he liked that. Tom Bartlett never had been one to
make friends, most people instinctively disliked him, and he
reciprocated wholeheartedly. But here--he was alone, just
him and the groves.
In the beginning, life was peaceful and fairly productive
for Tom, mostly he had to see that the groves were properly
watered, and every once in a while chase off the kids (and
even adults) who would invariably begin pilfering from his
groves as soon as the first fruit began to take on anything
but a Kelly green tint.
Yes, his groves. He really felt like he owned them instead
of the co-op. After all, he did all the work. And when his
work day was over, he could sit in his little house, in the
middle of his little grove and drink beer, watch television
and relax. It was nice.
Then the Lucas boy began coming around. Tom would chase
him off, but he'd keep coming back. One day, exasperated,
Tom had tried talking to the boy. He had found him sitting
against one of the orange trees, eating an orange.
"All right, godammit, I've got you now," he had said,
grabbing the boy by the shoulder, "we're going to have a
When Tom had grabbed the boy's shoulder, a funny feeling,
kind of a cold chill, ran all through him. It didn't feel
good. He had dragged the surprised but unresisting ten-year-
old back to the porch of his house, and had tried to explain
about private property, the economics of raising oranges and
even the difficult job of caretaker. The Lucas boy had
quietly listened, and then spoken.
"Mr. Bartlett," somehow when he talked, Tom felt warm and
good all over, "I'm not hurting anything; the trees are my
friends. I talk to them--tell them stories and they tell me
stories. I never take oranges from the trees, I wait until
they give them to me.
Mr. Bartlett, please let me stay. Please don't make me go."
Tom had been moved out of all proportion to the boy's
words. He came so close to giving in, he scared himself. But
then he thought of the other kids, seeing young Lucas
sitting in the groves eating oranges--they wouldn't wait for
the oranges to fall, that's for sure.
"I'm sorry, boy, but I can't do it. Now, I don't want to
see you here agin, understand?"
"But Mr. Bartlett--"
"No buts, boy, now get out of here!"
Slowly the boy had left, touching the trees, almost
caressing them, as he walked by. That was the last happy day
Tom had had in the groves, until today.
Somehow, nothing had gone right after he had kicked the
boy out for good. Tools would be missing for days, and when
Tom finally found them, they would be up in the tops of the
orange trees. Irrigation pipes would break for no reason,
and even his little house, somehow or other, wasn't the
Tom started adding the hard stuff to his beer, drinking
every night, and he found himself waking up in the morning
sitting in the same chair he had passed out on the night
before more and more often. It was increasingly difficult
for him to relax in the groves, they seemed to have become
unfriendly; almost forbidding. So he began drinking during
the daytime as well.
Two or three times he thought he saw tho Lucas boy in the
groves, but when he ran after him, the boy just seemed to
disappear. That's when Tom decided to stop drinking--the
That first night he sat at home without even a beer, he
almost went crazy. He was terrified the whole night--he
didn't sleep a wink. It was dark, no moon; a slight wind
rustled ominously through the trees. The wind caused the
trees next to the house to scratch at the window. Tom knew
that it had to be the wind...still, they seemed to be trying
to get him.
For five days, Tom stayed away from the liquor. During
those days he got practically no sleep, and his nerves just
went to hell. Finally, looking at the prospect of another
terrifying night alone, he had opened the whiskey bottle and
drunk himself into a stupor.
After a few months, though, even the liquor wasn't enough
to keep the terror away, and Tom found a partial solution to
his problem at Speaker's Bar, in town. He could stay there
until closing, and then stumble home and into bed, and not
know anything until morning. The walk through trees at 1:30
in the morning wasn't pleasant, but it was better than
staying home all night.
Things went on like this for a while, Tom getting worse
and worse, the orange groves being more and more neglected,
until some people from the co-op had stopped in and told him
in no uncertain terms to either shape up or ship out.
That really shook him; he got busy again, trying to stay
away from the bottle and Speaker's Bar. This time he made it
for four days.
Two of the local townspeople were walking past Tom's
groves the morning of the fifth day, and they saw Tom
sprawled out on his back about twenty feet from the road.
They ran to help him--to see what was wrong--but when they
got there, it was obvious that the only thing wrong with Tom
was an overdose of Eighty Proof.
"Juiced again," the older one said; and, shaking their
heads, they went on their way, leaving him to a drunken
sleep in the groves.
Tom's first sensation was of wetness, then of something
covering his nose and mouth. He didn't know where he was,
but he couldn't move--couldn't breathe. And then with all
his strength, he was sitting up, feeling just a little
foolish. He must have been laying on his back asleep, and an
orange--a big one--had hit him right in the face and stayed
there. "Jesus, it was just an orange." He was relieved. Tom
turned at a sound coming from the direction of the road, and
saw what looked like the figure of the Lucas boy moving
through the groves. He was up in an instant, somewhat
unsteady and very much hung over, going after the fleeting
shape, but it disappeared, as usual. Tom was furious. He was
certain that it was the boy who had put the orange on his
face, but he was gone--too late.
Things had been going on this way for almost five years
when the Lucas boy died. He had been a sickly child to begin
with, and had slowly weakened over the last four-and-a-half
years. The doctors could do nothing for him, he just stopped
Tom felt as if he had killed the boy himself--maybe he
had. He knew, though, that now he had to leave. After seven
years of steady work, it shouldn't be too difficult to get
another job, and then he could get out of this place
forever. And a good thing, too. Ever since the boy died, the
grove had seemed even more threatening. He had been hit by
falling oranges several times in the past few days, and a
dead branch had hit him in the face just yesterday, as it
fell from a tree. It was as if the groves knew that he was
responsible for the boy's death, and were trying to get him.
That's why Tom was so happy today. This morning he was up
with the sun, feeling good all over--it was his day to
leave. He walked through the groves toward the road for the
last time and found himself talking out loud to the trees, as
if they could understand. The fear and frustrations of almost
five years came out as Tom stopped within sight of the road,
still in the grove.
"I win!" He grinned and laughed at the trees, "I know what
you're thinking. You're thinking I killed the boy--well, I
didn't; and even if I did, there's nothing you can do about
it now, I'm leaving! I'm never going to see you again!"
Tom didn't see the branch on the tree behind him, laden
with oranges, begin to move back, stretching--stretching,
putting on more and more tension. Nor did he see the tension
suddenly release. All he heard was the sound of a whip
slicing through the air and something hit him in the back of
the head, knocking him to the ground. Even as he fell, he
knew he had been hit by oranges.
"Damn kids! Wait'll I--"
Tom Bartlett never finished. Around him in the grove, the
heavily laden branches moved back, whipped forward-moved
back, whipped forward in a terrible cadence of death. The
oranges pelted him, knocked him unconscious, and, as he lay
on the ground, they suffocated the breath of life from him.
Two of the local townspeople were walking past Tom's
groves later that morning, and, as so many times before, they
saw Tom sprawled out on his back about twenty feet from the
road. They didn't run to help, didn't run to see what was
wrong; the older one just clucked his tongue,
"Juiced again," he said, and they kept on walking.
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