I wanted to make fresh-squeezed orange juice for my former neighbor from Austin, who now lived in Milwaukee and was visiting with her two kids after her husband had died from pancreatic cancer. A kind man and father who’d played accordion in beer gardens on weekends was dead. Fresh-squeezed, backyard orange juice was going to be my expression of sympathy for his widow and her preteen son and daughter. Then something went wrong. I got out the ladder, but I didn’t pick any oranges. Did I get a cramp and become unable to climb? I don’t remember. I do know I was pretty depressed when my old neighbor and her kids came to visit. My own dad had just died. My daughters had left for college. My high-school students did not love me. Making fresh orange juice was going to be that thing where you do a good deed for someone who’s feeling even worse than you, partly to help that person feel better, but just as much or even more to make yourself feel better.
Instead of making orange juice, I took my former neighbors to Dockweiler Beach. It’s underrated due to planes from LAX taking off directly overhead and the sewage-treatment facility nearby. Still, it’s a beach with little traffic, easy parking, ocean, sand, birds, lifeguard stands, and people all pursuing beach bliss in their own ways. We sat in our street clothes on a blanket, which brought us closer than if we’d been sitting on individual beach towels. I should describe the family, but they’re real people with real feelings. Let me just say that they had sadness on the outside, their regular selves in the middle, and more sadness inside, so that looking at them was like trying to adjust a camera that zooms in and out of focus.
It was about sixty-one degrees, the minimum possible beach temperature, but these guys were on spring vacation from still-frozen Wisconsin, so sixty-one degrees was a blessing. They enjoyed being at the beach. You could tell by their relaxed smiles and how they leaned toward the sun.
Even I, who hate the beach — there’s nothing to do, and sand gets in your books — set aside my grievances and enjoyed their enjoyment. The day didn’t go according to my plan, with all of us sipping orange juice and saying, “Ahh,” and feeling assuaged. It went even better, according to no plan at all: just me saying, “Hey, do you want to go to the beach?” and them saying, “Sure.”
I keep a few backyard oranges mixed in with the baseballs in the bucket I take to practice. Every time one of my teammates peeks in, he’s like, “Oranges?” question mark, when it really ought to be “Oranges!” EXCLAMATION POINT!
My teammates are regular guys. One is studying Swedish, Polish, and German, but mainly Swedish. Another precedes everything he says with “I don’t mean to be an asshole, but . . .” If they are confounded by the presence of oranges in a ball bucket, then I truly do not know what this world is coming to, except of course we all do know: a reckoning. Which is why we had better work on our appreciation of oranges.
First of all, they are a bright and sunshiny orange, that eternal happy marriage of red and yellow. Second of all, you can make a funny smile by putting a section of orange peel in your mouth. You can’t fake an orange-peel smile. Then there’s the juice. A wise man who lives in Round Rock, Texas, once told me, “Any day gets better when you drink orange juice.” This is one of the smartest things anyone has ever said to me, up there with “Happy wife, happy life,” which I gleaned from marriage counseling, and “I care too much,” which a wise woman from Kansas City once told me is the correct answer to the job-interview question “What are your flaws?”
I do care too much — about oranges. My dad liked orange juice. After drinking it, he would say, “Ahh,” then smile his secret smile. I can’t describe this smile — it’s a secret — but I can tell you that sunlight travels through outer space until it hits an orange tree, which turns that light into an orange, so when you drink orange juice, what’s hitting you is energy from the sun.
All energy is like that, but people don’t like to talk about it. People prefer being miserable.
Another wise man, this one from St. Louis, once told me the problem with people is we lack the vocabulary to say what we like about things; it’s easier to complain and be negative.
Take my teammates. They think oranges and baseballs are so unalike that they don’t belong together in a bucket. C’mon. They’re both round and fun to hit with a bat. (You have to suck the juice out of the orange first, though. Otherwise you’re wasting food, which my mom taught me is wrong.) But even if oranges and baseballs had nothing whatsoever in common, why can’t they be in a bucket together? We have got to get over our differences, people.
The orange tree in my backyard is like the desert sky on a clear night: all you see are stars, except the stars are oranges, more than I can count without getting lost, more than I can eat. Which brings me to the question: Will a food bank take my extra backyard oranges? I ask my period-three students, and Leda, the first person in my fashion experience to herald the return of the leopard print, immediately replies, “SOVA.” That’s the Jewish food pantry on the west side of LA, where you’d go to get a mezuzah or to attend Orthodox services. I head over to SOVA with a box and a shopping bag full of oranges I’ve picked.
The guy at SOVA says he will have to weigh the fruit, which is pretty exciting, to put a number on that infinity of oranges. He has long, straight white hair and a narrow, unemotional face, as if he has seen things and also read books. While he’s in the back, I look around and see that the pantry is very neat: not a crumb in sight, all the cans and boxes lined up nicely.
The guy returns and announces, “Thirty-seven pounds.” I think, Wow. A woman, also with long, straight white hair, emerges from the back and says, “It’s a good thing you came, because we’re out of fruit.” I think, Double-wow. Here I am, donating oranges, doing some good. Grateful for the opportunity.
Two things happened at school yesterday that give me faith. First, Aisha came in during my conference period and asked if she could make orange juice. I keep a big bag of oranges and a cast-iron juicer in the classroom for this very purpose.
“Absolutely, go right ahead, please do,” I told her, all three invitations at once, so eager was I for good-natured Aisha to fulfill my dream of students dropping by to squeeze oranges. She might have been motivated by the fact that my wife and I had gone to the soul-food restaurant in Inglewood that Aisha had recommended, on the very day she’d recommended it. If that’s the case, then I say, Hooray for positive feedback loops, and double hooray for Aisha.
Her visit would have been enough to validate my faith in orange appreciation right there, but wait; there’s more. Right after Aisha’s visit, I brought my ball bucket and bat and tee out to the schoolyard to get in some quick batting practice at lunch. We have a gigantic lawn here at our high school, with room for students to play soccer and to lie with their heads in one another’s laps and to give piggyback rides — and for me to swat green plastic practice balls off the tee.
Dune sees me lugging my gear and calls out from across the yard, “Can I play?” This is another dream come true. Dune is a young man of many talents. For example, he can recognize what key a song is in just by hearing it. And he can talk to adults. I don’t let him go first, though. This is my time. I hit a couple of feeble grounders to start, but those are just warm-ups; here come the solid line drives: soaring, splendid, yes.
Now it’s Dune’s turn. After he gets warmed up, he starts thwacking them to the opposite field: more soaring, more splendor. Dune and I, student and teacher, are playing ball together. What was I just saying about getting over our differences? It’s happening, here and now.
Then Mona comes over. She’s getting her batting practice in when all of a sudden Dune notices a couple of oranges in the bucket. I am standing in the outfield, poised to catch Mona’s fly balls, too far away for conversation. Dune gestures to the oranges: question mark? I gesture back: exclamation point! He picks up an orange like he’s won a prize, which he has: the orange appreciation award, on behalf of us all.